Bella's control slipped slightly, the magic she'd been pulling into herself for the past three days escaping her hold, just for a moment, but long enough for a noticeable amount of it to be absorbed by the enchanted panel that fucking archivist had hung on the wall beside her. Shite. It didn't actually do anything, just existed to waste power, her own personal ward-sapper. Well, that and it lit up, alerting whichever fucking Unspeakable was currently babysitting her that she was up to something.

Smith — the youngest of the Mind researchers involved with her 'interrogation' — was currently on duty, charged with the task of preventing her from sleeping for the fifth day in a row and occasionally asking her questions from a list they'd been through at least six times already. The first two times, she'd answered all of them exactly the same, to the word and intonation, but since they were apparently determined not to believe her no matter what she'd said, she'd started varying her answers after that, simply to amuse herself. They'd tried for a bit to mess with her perception of time, spacing out meals and changing the length of their observational shifts, but that failed rather immediately since she could check the actual time with Lyra whenever she liked. She'd also gotten her alter ego to look up random facts about the researchers whose names she'd caught (and their families) so that she could retaliate by taunting them with that information.

He started to ask what she was doing, but was cut off by a knock at the door. She had already told them, anyway, since there was nothing they could do to stop her short of knocking her out (and they couldn't keep trying to wear her down if she was unconscious). Instead of pulling magic from Eris's plane and channelling it into the space around her, she was storing it in her own body, protected from that fucking sapper by her own magical field, the one all living things generated. Which was rather painful and certainly not healthy — rather like holding herself on the very cusp of magical backlash, or under a very weak Cruciatus for hours and days on end, stimulating the nervous system in a similar way as she pushed her body's limits in a way human biology (even that of a Black modified by the Powers to withstand their presence) simply wasn't designed to accommodate. But sleep deprivation was one of the things that tended to make it easier to push herself into the Madness, so it didn't seem particularly onerous at the moment. (They'd kind of cursed themselves in the foot with that particular strategy.)

As she'd told Eris when the goddess had expressed concerns about Bella potentially melting her own brain, there would be plenty of time to consider exactly how stupid this particular plan was after she managed to escape. Lyra, at least, seemed to have more confidence in her ability to recognize the point at which she really needed to just let the magic go. (Her only comment had been — as relayed by Eris, after apparently trying it herself — Oh, that does sting, doesn't it?)

Marcus Carmichael, the one apparently in charge of this whole operation, entered, accompanied by a rather confused-looking Walden Macnair. Well, Wally — one of the less talented Death Eaters she'd trained over the years — always looked rather confused, but she was quite certain he was surprised to see her there. Though, to be fair, she was rather surprised as well. She'd expected that the Unspeakables would eventually resort to more physical methods of coercion — that was part of the plan — but she really hadn't expected them to take Severus's advice and bring in Walden Macnair, of all people.

"Wally, darling! It's been ages! How have you been?" she asked, pitching her voice annoyingly high and employing the most vapid tone she could muster.

"Er — Lady Bla– Bellatrix Lestrange?" he turned to the Unspeakable, visibly disconcerted. "Carmichael, what exactly is going on, here?"

"Ooh, ohh, I know this one!"

"Is it someone else's turn yet?" Smith asked.

"Yes, Smith, you can go."

"Say hi to Marianne for me!" Marianne was, according to the intelligence Lyra had gathered, Jonathan Smith's muggleborn fiancée.

"See if you can figure out how she's doing that," he muttered to Wally on his way out, shooting a last terrified glance back at her, lying harmlessly in bed, half-paralyzed and giggling uncontrollably at his discomfort. (It was rather difficult to maintain a cool, intimidating facade in this state of mind, but fortunately, most people seemed to find inappropriate amusement equally intimidating.)

"What's going on here," Carmichael explained, "is an...interrogation. We've been tasked with finding a way to determine whether Lestrange is telling the truth, in order to allow Archives to gather information she may hold on the nature of magic."

"You...could just ask her, she doesn't usually bother to lie. She's kind of bad at it, actually..."

Bella pouted at him. "I can lie when I want to."

"The Archivist insists on legilimency confirmation of her truthfulness. Which means we've been tasked with breaking her occlumency shields."

Bella did have to wonder whether they just...thought she was completely incompetent at more complex occlumency techniques? Because it wasn't that hard to trick a legilimens into believing that you believed a lie was the truth. Not that she would — that would be counterproductive, since they would probably kill her once they thought they had all the (true) information she could give them. Well, she would. It wouldn't be that hard to make it look like an escape attempt gone wrong to avoid shattering Zee's truce.

This was taking far too long. "They're worse at torture than I am at lying. Especially without magic. They want you to do it. Well, try, anyway."

"Er..."

Carmichael shrugged, nodded. "Whatever happens in this room, stays in this room. You will be authorized to use any and all techniques at your disposal. Are you interested?"

He definitely was. She could see it in his eyes, that familiar longing to see a sentient being helpless and suffering at his hand. She wondered how long it had been since he'd given in to it, taken a victim. Surely he would be kept under observation, even if he had somehow managed to convince the Ministry he had joined the Cause unwillingly. Years? Good. He'd want to take it slow, savor it. That'd give the paralytic potion time to wear off. He licked his lower lip and cleared his throat nervously. "What about...after?"

"Oh, don't even pretend you're not going to do it, we all know you want to."

The men ignored her. Arseholes. "After?"

"After you've gotten whatever you want from her. Because if you don't kill her, or let me kill her, she will kill me."

"And them," she added. Probably not helping her case, but she was fairly bad at not just saying whatever smartarse remark came to mind at the best of times. And it was really annoying, being talked about as though she wasn't lying right here.

Carmichael glared down at her, though it was clearly Walden he was addressing when he spoke. "What I want is for you to break her. Do it, and she won't remember anything after she passed out on the First."

Planning to obliviate her? Yeah, that wasn't going to happen. One of Zee's favorite literary quotes came to mind. "'I generally find that when a man sounds so very confident in his own ability to satisfy, he's often over confident.' Not that you're much of a Sebastian, but."

He definitely got the implication, and was apparently offended enough to offer a retort, but before he could say anything, Wally decided to make a bad life choice. "All right, I'll do it."

As though he was ever not going to do it. (Bella was fairly certain that she hadn't trained a single Death Eater who wouldn't appreciate the chance to torture her for a few hours, especially if they didn't expect her to be able to retaliate.) "Fabulous! Now that's settled..."

Carmichael gave her a rather unnerved look, but again spoke to Walden rather than her, gesturing awkwardly toward a small table in the corner. "We've acquired some...instruments..."

"Knives, Carmichael. If you can't say you've got a bunch of knives for Wally to use on me, I really don't think you should try to watch. You're just going to make everything really, really awkward — just think how hard it's going to be for him to come with you standing there being all judgmental."

Walden went very red — as far as she knew, torture wasn't actually sexual for him, but he was very well aware that it could be for her. She and Tom hadn't exactly been subtle about it, back in the Seventies. Carmichael started to say something along the lines that no one would be getting off on this, but cut off when he noticed, going equally red himself.

"Ha, first point to me!" Really, she could keep doing this all day.

"Just— Whenever you're ready," Carmichael said, retreating to a corner, obviously embarrassed.

"Oh, we're starting now?" Right, she should probably stop that potion drip, then.

"Do you need her to be able to talk?" Walden asked, sounding rather annoyed.

"Eventually."

"But not now?"

"No."

Walden was tearing a strip off the thin hospital robe she'd been dressed in and shoving it into her mouth almost before the word was out of Carmichael's. Which was probably just as well, she could only focus on so many things at once, and it was kind of important that she keep that fucking potion out of her bloodstream long enough for the dose she'd already gotten to wear off. An hour or two, she suspected, though it was difficult to calculate when it was being administered continuously, rather than periodically. Between that, maintaining the reserve of magic she was holding onto — maybe enough for one or two good offensive spells, or enough to heal a serious wound or two, if Walden decided to incapacitate her — and the very distracting pain that was about to ensue, she had quite enough to concentrate on without keeping up a constant stream of antagonization. Besides, she was quite certain dear Wally was sufficiently invested, now, she hardly needed to continue to bait him.

No, she thought, as he sliced the front of her robe and yanked it out from under her, now all she had to do was wait.

§

One hour and thirty-seven minutes later, Bella's left foot twitched, an involuntary reaction to a deep stab wound in her thigh. Fucking finally. There were very few things in life Bella hated more than waiting. She'd never really had cause to consider it before, but she thought she might hate the waiting more than the torture itself.

Being tortured was, at least, a challenge — blocking out the pain or stripping meaning and consequence from stimulation, twisting it to pleasure, reacting or not, in such a way as to influence the interrogator's progress. She'd always thought of it as a game. The strategy depended on the questioner's goal — answers or access to one's mind, information unknown or confirmation of suspicions, sometimes simply their own gratification (and the victim's), or escape, in her case, though the best most of her own playmates could hope to achieve was a quick death, or to deceive her through one more drawn out, protecting their secrets to the end.

Like hunting, almost, or being hunted — speaking of which, she should look up Mikael when she got to Europe. Torture, regardless of which side one was on, though more mental than hunting, though — one's physical strength was hardly a consideration when bound to a bed and paralyzed on top. And any torturer worth his salt should be able to keep a prisoner alive until he thought he'd won the game, no matter how fragile their health might be. She knew she'd trained Walden well enough that he wouldn't get carried away and kill her accidentally, even if she was rather wasted and weak from years spent idle in a cell and the past month unconscious.

That would be a factor in the recovery period, however, and any escape attempt the prisoner might make, she supposed. In this case, the recovery would likely be a long one — Walden wasn't so stupid that he hadn't seen the value in immediately ensuring her incapacitation. He'd cut her Achilles tendons before reverting to more superficial damage. (They both knew this would be a long project — breaking a professional always was — and starting with extreme measures left no room to escalate.) He'd have been better off waiting until she was ready to make her move, but of course, he couldn't predict that.

See, starting with incapacitating wounds meant she'd had time to at least provisionally repair them. She'd never gone as far as Tom in making herself impervious to physical harm — Eris's presence tended to inhibit rituals involving Powers other than Chaos, Destruction, and Mystery — but she'd gotten a lot of practice using raw magic to patch herself together until she could be properly healed. Hopefully her efforts would be enough to get her out of the fucking vortex, fleeing on hands and knees would be...much more difficult. Her options were already severely limited without any ambient magic to affect. Her plan at the moment was to use the power she'd channelled through Eris to activate the runes Tom had carved into her limbs half a lifetime ago (at least those which hadn't been too severely damaged in the intervening years), strengthening herself with magic to win free and carry herself away despite her physical weakness.

Of course, the potion wearing off meant that she had to concentrate more closely on suppressing her reflexes — it simply wouldn't do to alert them to the danger before she was ready to go. A few more minutes, she thought. She'd still be sluggish, of course, but Walden had clearly gone to seed over the past decade, and there was no conceit in her estimation that sluggish for her was still quicker than a desk jockey like Carmichael. Besides, Walden had no experience with muggle fighting, and Carmichael would be...otherwise incapacitated.

Ready, Eris?

No. I still don't like this plan. There's a seventy-five percent chance you're going to die tonight.

I've beaten worse odds. And now they've moved on to physical methods, it's only a matter of time until that statistic gets far too close to certainty for comfort. Unless you think I'd be better off waiting until they take my eyes and a few fingers. Because they will get there. Unless I let them in and answer their questions, and if I do, the best possible outcome is that they'll just try to obliviate me — of who knows how much information — and drop me back in my cell. And I'm good, but I can't fake being obliviated when they're in my head. So how likely do you think that outcome is?

We can always save your memories again, and—

No. I just got everything straightened out in here. There will be no more fucking with my memories, full stop. Obliviation aside, if I let them in, they'll almost certainly decide to keep me as a research subject for the Mind Division.

Lyra could—

Lyra is fourteen, and even if she uses an age potion to negate the physical disadvantages that presents, she is entirely untrained when it comes to offensive operations, infiltration, assassination... I might have managed to break someone out of the Department of Mysteries at that age, yes, but I was trained by Tom. Has Lyra ever even killed anyone? She has no experience fighting without magic — if she tries to stage a rescue mission, they're just going to end up with two of us to play with. If she doesn't die in the attempt. And assuming they don't panic and slit my throat when they realise they can't obliviate me.

They'd been through this already. Repeatedly. She wasn't going to change her mind now.

Fine. She could feel Eris pouting at her, still dissatisfied with the plan. Yes, I'm ready. I'll be very annoyed with you if you die, though. Keep that in mind.

Giddy amusement and anticipation rose up within her — what would be fear, if she weren't herself. Why would I care? I'll be dead.

With that, she turned her attention away from Eris, toward the shape of her own mind.

She'd gotten the impression, at some point in the memory-reviewing process she and Lyra had meandered through on Walpurgis, that Eris pretty much handled everything to do with mind magic for Lyra. Bella (privately) thought that Lyra was a little too dependent on Eris. Yes, it was very impressive to become an Avatar of your Patron, and Lyra was well on her way to managing it, but Bella had never been comfortable with the idea of Chaos entirely subsuming her own identity.

In any case, Lyra had seemed surprised to realise that she could relax the barrier between herself and the world, reach across that border or let things in, if she wanted to. Eris's gift to her wasn't actually being possessed all the time — that was the source of Lyra's 'immunity' to most magics that affected the mind, even if she didn't realise it, which Bella didn't think she did. It was what mind mages — those who believed such a thing existed, at least — called 'natural perfect occlumency' (an apparent misnomer, since there were no recorded cases of anyone actually being born a perfect occlumens).

Tom had found this fascinating — probably, in hindsight, because he'd managed to create a sort of accidental back door for himself by shaping her mind with his compulsions before Eris had isolated it — returning to the subject several times over the years. She'd never had much interest in it herself, but his theory was that most humans' minds were diffuse energy fields. It wasn't always entirely clear where they began or ended, and any 'borders' they attempted to enforce between self and other were, to a degree, arbitrary. The mind of a perfect occlumens (or, hers, at least), in contrast, was more of a (metaphorical) circuit, energy doubling back on itself rather than interacting freely with everything around it, creating a very obvious divide between self and other.

The obvious effect of this was that it was ridiculously easy to shield herself against external intrusions, including legilimency and the Imperius and all manner of illusions. The most useful effect, at least at the moment, was that she had far more awareness and therefore more control over her own perception of experiences and memories, and the shape of her mind in general, than the average legilimens. Which made it very, very difficult to influence her with truth potions or intoxicants if she didn't want to be influenced, even without Eris's direct assistance in managing the effects.

She was barely passable when it came to unstructured offensive mind magic, of course. Reciprocal legilimency was doable, but she had to use the charm if she wanted to initiate a connection. She doubted she'd be able to do it at all if she hadn't spent so much of her life with Tom as an example. Not only did he do that shite approximately as easily as breathing (and as often), but he'd also actively pushed her to practice it with him. But more advanced occlumency tricks like splitting her focus to think about two (or more) tasks simultaneously or experiencing one sort of physical sensation as a different one were relatively easy, and she was acutely aware of Eris's presence, enough to isolate instantaneous thoughts from her casual observation.

If she had realized Tom's compulsions were there (and had somehow been motivated to do something about it), she suspected she would have been able to root them out without Eris destroying everything they were attached to — she'd never had much respect for what other people considered to be possible.

(That line of thought, however, would invariably lead her back to the War again, and she'd already spent far too much of the past several weeks analyzing that period of her life.)

The point was that it was highly counterintuitive to weaken the border between her mind and the outside world, make it look like it was an artificial structure that was flawed and cracking under the pressure of the interrogation, rather than...just the shape of her mind. But it wasn't by any means impossible.

She noticed Carmichael noticing the simulated cracks, the deliberate weak spots. He redoubled his efforts, focusing on a single 'point' (though such a physical term didn't really make much sense in the context), and threw himself at it with a very solid burst of magic — one which she was certain would have left him near-exhausted if he hadn't brought a magic-charged crystal to tap, which he obviously had. (Quartz was much better at holding magic than human flesh.) Simulating a break-through was hard, since she'd never actually experienced one herself. It had probably been off in some of the particulars, but it must have been good enough, because Carmichael didn't immediately recoil in suspicion.

Quite the opposite, in fact. She felt his sense of triumph surge just before she sprung her trap, digging into the extension of his mind which he had so kindly offered to her and pulling, dragging his consciousness deeper into her own.

Fear shot through him immediately. What the fuck?!

Here, Eris, catch, she thought, audiating the sentiment deliberately, surrounding Carmichael with mocking laughter and cold amusement as she funnelled him straight through the metaphysical space occupied by her own mind and shoved him at her connection to Eris.

What? Wha— NO! What are you doing to me?! No! Stop! Let me go— Let me— His mental screaming cut off as Eris took hold of him. Poor little legilimens, human minds really couldn't function in that many dimensions. And by the time he managed to find his way back to his body — she hadn't cut him off entirely, she needed that connection he still held to form a reciprocal link — it would be dead.

And then he would be dead.

In the physical world, his body slumped in its chair, momentarily unconscious. Walden didn't notice, preoccupied by the pained whimpering that escaped her as soon as her focus shifted to more important elements of the plan than controlling her reactions.

Like dividing her consciousness sufficiently to maintain a hold over the magic burning in her veins and also perform reciprocal legilimency, both of which were far more mentally demanding tasks than casting a spell or maintaining a constant stream of distracting chatter in a duel.

This was probably the trickiest part of the whole plan, none of which was truly simple. It really wasn't exactly made easier by the way Carmichael's consciousness was lost, at the moment. Reciprocal legilimency was much easier than initiating a connection, but it always drew her to the target's point of focus, which had made fucking Tom very interesting, but would be counterproductive at the moment — she hardly had more experience than Carmichael when it came to functioning in the mind of a god, and she didn't want him to be able to follow her back to their own minds. Which meant that she had to pay quite a lot more attention to the legilimency than she otherwise might, to make sure she stopped in his mind.

Which meant it wasn't entirely surprising when she momentarily lost control over the magic, that fucking sapper lighting up before she clamped back down on it.

Walden, startled, looked up at it before grinning and redoubling his efforts. He slipped the blade into a cut he'd made ages ago — one that had long since stopped bleeding, though the nerves were still raw, the flesh inflamed — and began to work his way laterally, slicing the skin off her left forearm, very slowly, clearly trying not to cut too deeply and risk her passing out from blood loss. One half of her consciousness — the part of herself lying on the table, acutely aware of this process — screamed.

"Not so tough after all, are you, Trixie?" he muttered over her. "You were always quick enough to dish it out — can't take a little payback? Where's that smart mouth of yours now?"

The other part of her consciousness, well... It wasn't really that difficult to possess someone, at least when they were cooperating (or when their own consciousness wasn't fighting for control because it was lost somewhere beyond the mundane plane). She wrenched her focus around to Carmichael's senses and body, rather than his mind.

She performed a few quick tests — flexing his hands, arms and legs, bending and twisting to gauge his general degree of mobility — before rising to his feet, careful not only to not overbalance (Carmichael was taller than her, and his center of gravity felt off), but also to keep her movements as quiet as possible. She wasn't quite silent, but that was hardly a concern as she was still screaming on the bed, making her own distraction.

"Funny, I never realised, back then, how small you are, really. I could just..." He wrapped a hand around her right wrist, began to bend it, pulling against the natural orientation of the joint, but the restraint stopped him short of breaking it, or even properly dislocating the ulna.

A breathy laugh escaped her. "You could what, again?" Her voice was rough from the screaming, but her tone was as mocking as ever, and now that she more or less had Carmichael's body under control, she could focus on suppressing the pain again. He growled under his breath, releasing the strap so that he could demonstrate his superior strength.

Still keeping as quiet as possible, she moved Carmichael's body toward the table of "...instruments" he'd provided for Walden, taking the sturdiest of them in hand.

"I could snap your arm like a fucking twig," he muttered, foiling her attempt to avoid his grasp by starting at her shoulder and working his way back down to her wrist.

"You could," she admitted, calmly enough that he ought to have been immediately suspicious. "But you won't."

"Ha! The fuck I—" His voice cut off abruptly as Carmichael's hand slammed the sturdiest of the knives into his corotid artery, the other coming up to grab his hair — leverage to tear it out, opening his throat. The gaping wound poured blood over her own body, but there was nothing to be done about that.

The plan had been to use the knife to cut her body free, but since dear Wally had so kindly freed her dominant hand, she simply let him drop and began disentangling herself from Carmichael's mind, her consciousness fully settling back into her own body just as she managed to loose the last buckle. It was weak — weaker than she had anticipated, even — and the magic she still held was searing every nerve, but it was still more comfortable than driving Carmichael. She pulled herself from the bed and tore the engraved rune-plate off the wall, scoring a series of lines through the symbols with the scalpel Wally had dropped.

Letting the magic go was, she thought, the sweetest sensation she'd ever felt, though that might have owed something to the relief that emanated from Eris's presence when she did it. (Apparently she had been more concerned about Bella hurting herself than she'd let on.) It flooded out of her into the air, but not for long. Carmichael had a rather sizeable chunk of crystal on himself, somewhere — attuned specifically to his magic, probably, but she could fix that, it was the same principle as attuning a dueling knife. She could force the magic into that instead, tap it, and everything Carmichael hadn't used trying to break into her mind, to power the charms and augmentation runes she'd need to get herself out of this fucking hellhole.

As she knelt to search his pockets, she noticed Wally wasn't quite dead yet — he'd managed to raise a hand to his throat, his eyes following her even as they dimmed. She grinned at him. "Sev always was smarter than you. Should've listened to him."

It was a matter of minutes to find the stone and use blood runes to attune it, funnel the magic into it, and retrieve the wand and keys she'd neglected to pocket the first time she'd fleeced the mind mage, followed by his outer robe itself, as she realised she had no pockets, or indeed clothing. It would probably be easier to escape if she wasn't completely starkers. (If that was the biggest mistake she narrowly avoided in executing this plan, she'd be very impressed with herself.) She bound her forearm and a couple of the deeper puncture wounds, the ones that were still bleeding, and selected a blade that bore a reasonable resemblance to her own preferred weapon before approaching the door.

The Unspeakables always knocked twice to announce that they were leaving, presumably because the guard(s) on the other side were under orders to cut down anyone who opened it without giving them the signal. But if there was anything command had taught her, it was that subordinates never maintained proper vigilance. Guard duty was boring as fuck. Especially when you were alone at your post, and she could only feel the magic of a single life on the other side of the wall, at the moment.

She used Carmichael's stolen wand and the magic from the crystal to cast a very precise silencing charm on the mechanism — weakly, to preserve magic, but it only needed to last long enough to turn the key and the handle — and yanked the door open without warning.

The guard, predictably, startled. It took him an extra half-second to realise that she was crouching, her face about two feet lower than the spot he'd instinctively turned toward. That confusion cost him. He had a muggle weapon, but before he could get it pointed at her, she activated a particular series of runes, propelling herself forward (tendons creaking, but holding, by the grace of the Dark) and closing the distance between them, her off-hand shoving his gun up and away from herself, even as her blade pierced his femoral artery — it wasn't like she wouldn't be leaving tracks, anyway, she was already covered with Wally's blood.

And her own. She should do something about that, before she left. Blood really shouldn't just be left around for anyone to find and use, especially Unspeakables.

But whatever she did had to be quick, because the gun had gone off like a canon, deafening in the stone corridor. The only damage had been to the ceiling, but she had no doubt that reinforcements would be coming for her in a matter of minutes — if not less.

She ducked back into the room to ransack the cupboards, looking for anything that would corrupt the evidence, or even better, anything that would burn. An industrial sized bottle of the alcohol used to clean wounds would do nicely. She splashed it liberally over her hands and feet to ruin any traces she might leave behind her before dragging the guard into the room and pouring the rest of it over the three bodies and the ruined sheets, followed by everything that shared the same fire-warning symbol. Convenient, labeling them like that.

She should be more thorough, she'd flay anyone who was this sloppy cleaning up a raid, but she could hear boots approaching at speed down the corridor — at least two people, shouting for more as they saw the guard's blood on the floor — so it would have to do.

"Incendio!" As with the silencing on the lock, the spell didn't need nearly as much power as was generally used to cast it. A single lick of flame was enough to set the alcohol alight.

The flames climbed behind her, smoke beginning to billow as she crawled to the doorway, muggle weapon in hand. She knew these things had a limited number of projectiles in them, and had no idea how to reload one, nor any of the little bits of metal that they sent off like overpowered piercing hexes, but from what she'd seen — mostly from the receiving end, admittedly, during a particularly nasty run-in with muggle aurors — they were dead easy to use.

Not so easy to aim, though, she thought, pointing it at one of the swiftly approaching enemies and pulling the little firing lever. She'd been aiming for his center of mass, and missed completely. She did hit the one behind him, though, so that was something. He screamed, falling to the ground. It took a moment for the others to realise what had happened, by which time she'd pulled the lever again, another small explosion propelling a deadly bit of metal in their direction. They ducked into a room three doors down from her own and across the hall, taking their downed comrade with them. The fire was growing uncomfortably hot behind her, she had to move soon. And this seemed like as good an opportunity she was likely to get.

She could feel Carmichael struggling with Eris at the back of her mind, the burning of his body recalling him to it, strongly enough, apparently, to give him some direction, even lost in the infinite. A quick glance back assured her that his body was already well beyond saving, even if not quite dead yet. You can let him go, she told the goddess. He fled the darkness in her mind, withdrawing entirely. For a brief moment, she envied Tom his ability to feel the emotions of everyone around him — she was sure Carmichael's agony was exquisite, and the sense of defeat, escaping from one hell only to fall directly into another...

I've been spending too much time with dementors, she decided, readying herself to run.

As she maneuvered herself to her feet — careful, careful, it wouldn't do to tear one of her own severely weakened muscles in her haste, and her ankles were still dangerously fragile — one of them stuck his head out of the doorway. She sent another projectile at him. It missed, of course, but it was closer, hitting the doorframe behind him (albeit several feet above her target).

He swore loudly enough for her to hear him over the crackle of the flames, withdrawing, presumably to consult with his companions about their course of action. As soon as he was gone, she flitted across the corridor, flattening herself against the wall, right beside the opening. There were four of them, she realised as she drew near enough to feel the magic in them, including the one she'd already hit.

Smoke was beginning to cloud the corridor with a noticeable haze. If she didn't clear the area soon, breathing was going to become a problem. She had been here before, but she had no idea where in the complex she was — she suspected they were underground — there were no windows, and she had seen a staircase at the end of the corridor from which the men had approached. She assumed that was the nearest way out. Which meant she had to get past them, and she wasn't about to leave them to follow and attack her from behind. She was in no shape to fight surrounded.

When the unfortunate lookout peeked out the doorway again, she finally managed to hit something she was aiming at. She wasn't certain whether distance was a factor in the effectiveness of this weapon, but at less than a meter it made a spectacular mess of his head — blood, bone, and brain spattering across the floor at her feet.

It took perhaps half a second for his death and its source to register with the survivors. She was already moving, hopping over the corpse into the room as they fired through the wall, at the spot she'd just vacated. She'd anticipated that: muggle piercing hexes were not so easily foiled as magical ones They were far too fast to dodge and went through solid objects as easily as they did shield charms. The only way to avoid one was to move before the projectile left the weapon.

Her knife slipped between the ribs of the nearest gunman before he realised the danger. The corridor was only dimly lit, and the room had no lights at all. The smoke and dark, oversized robes had obviously obscured her form, at least enough that — focused on the spot he was firing upon, with the noise of the weapons covering the sound of her movements — he hadn't noticed her in his peripheral until she was directly upon him. She twisted the knife in his heart and tore it out, shoving what would soon be nothing more than a cooling corpse into the witch beside him. She, to her credit, noticed when he stopped shooting, turned in time to see his body falling, but not quickly enough to prevent it knocking her off balance. Bellatrix followed immediately, slitting her throat with a vicious backhanded swipe.

Crack!

A piece of metal stabbed through her right shoulder blade, hit from behind, by the one she had wounded. She fell on top of the witch screaming — more in rage than pain, though FUCK! Gods and Powers that hurt, especially rolling off the witch's corpse to flatten herself on the floor behind it, for whatever meagre cover it might provide.

The one who'd hit her, however, wasn't much better at aiming the muggle weapon than she was, or else he was firing blindly in her general direction, hoping to keep her pinned down long enough for help to arrive.

Well, fine. Two could play at that game. It took every piece of shot left in the first firearm she had commandeered, and four more from the one belonging to the witch whose body she was still using as cover, but she finally managed to tag the bastard again, the echoes from the weapons fading away. She crawled over to him to make sure he was dead this time, but it seemed after eight tries, she'd managed to get him in the head through sheer dumb luck.

Apparently distance didn't make much difference at all in the destructive power of these things, she noted absently. And when you actually managed to hit something with them, they were very effective. She'd have to acquire one and practice with it a bit when she got out of here, just in case she was ever caught in a situation like this again. Not that that seemed very likely, but.

At the moment, however, she could see light from the fire flickering in the corridor as it crept along the walls, and she didn't even know how to check how many attempts each weapon still held. At least one was spent, and the others had to be close. Better leave them, she decided. She could use her knife perfectly well with her left hand — far more effectively than a firearm, if not at such a range — and they were too heavy and awkward to just shove three or four of them in her pockets.

Right then, time to move. Hey, Eris, are my odds getting better yet?

Slightly. She actually sounded rather put out about that.

I thought you wanted me free.

Just...don't get overconfident. Save the I told you so for when you get to the veela in Gascony.

(Fourteen bodies, a transfigured boat, and two days later, Bella thought I told you so, before promptly passing out on a beach approximately two-hundred kilometers south of the French border.)


"So, I think you should break the ward, and just leave. From here, today. I can take all the tracking spells off of you, and you can stay at Ancient House until we're ready to go. Cherri's got the residential wing pretty well fixed up by now. And then, we're travelling as muggles, because...reasons. I didn't ask, really. But if no one has any way to track you or trace your travel plans, they can't possibly sell you out to Riddle, and, as I think we've established, there's no way he could possibly search all of California for you. I'm not even sure he could get there — depending on the exact reason he's a wraith and not dead dead, the best protection for you might actually be an entire bloody ocean between the two of you."

Harry simply stared at Lyra for a moment. He really had no idea how she'd managed to talk for a solid five minutes without letting him get a word in edgewise. She had to have breathed at some point. Probably. Assuming she was actually human. He'd tried to interrupt, she just...kept going.

"Did you say you actually visited the Dursleys?" He was pretty sure she had, about three-and-a-half minutes ago — he hadn't really been able to pay attention to anything after that.

"Well, yes. How else was I supposed to properly investigate the blood ward? I'd already looked at your end of it..."

"But you— I thought you were just going to, I don't know, poke around the back garden a bit and see if you could do something so I can do magic there!" That was certainly what she'd implied, when he'd finally given her their address. "I didn't think you'd actually go in and— You didn't kill them, did you?"

Honestly, he wasn't sure whether he'd actually be upset if she had. Or, well, he thought he would be, but more because she might get caught than because they were dead. (It was possible that Blaise was rubbing off on him — he probably wouldn't have admitted that, even to himself, before they'd started doing legilimency together.)

Lyra gave him one of those flat, unimpressed looks of hers. "No, of course not. If I'd killed them, there would be no ward to break. Well, I guess I could theoretically have killed your aunt but not your cousin, he wasn't there, anyway. But no, I didn't. You did read the book, didn't you?"

He'd read parts of the book. It was stupidly dense — some of the terms he'd asked Hermione about and she'd had to look them up — and he was sure it hadn't originally been written in English. "I skimmed it, but— Not the point! You actually talked to my aunt. She just let you in? You?" Because Harry had never met anyone who was worse at pretending to not be magical than Lyra, and he really couldn't imagine Aunt Petunia just letting a teenage witch in to discuss the bloody wards over tea, or something, it was just surreal.

"Well, no... I didn't look like myself, for one, and she actually told me I couldn't come in, but I'm not a vampire, so."

So she'd just barged into his house and bullied Aunt Petunia into answering her questions. God, he wished he could have seen the look on her face... "But you didn't hurt them, or anything?" Because if she had done something...particularly Lyra-ish, he'd like to have a heads-up before going home. Aunt Petunia would definitely still be furious about their house being invaded either way, but Uncle Vernon probably would have calmed down after a few days as long as no one got hurt.

"No. Well, I might have broken Petunia's arm—" "You what?!" "—but in my defense, she tried to knock me out with a frying pan."

"A frying pan? You used a bone breaking curse on her over a frying pan?"

"Uh, no, I hit her with the gun your uncle pulled on me." Vernon had pulled a gun on her?! "One of those long ones. She tried to hit me in the head from behind while I was distracted, but frying pans aren't very aerodynamic." She grinned, as though being threatened with firearms and frying pans was fucking hilarious.

"Oh fuck, I'm going to be in so much trouble— I... Well, now I can't go home! Was this your fucking plan all along?"

She just rolled her eyes — because of course Lyra wouldn't take this seriously, she never took bloody anything seriously. "Pft, it's not like they'll remember it. The aurors obliviated them after they were done questioning them. Snape went to ask a few questions himself after they questioned him and he questioned me, and your aunt had no idea what he was talking about."

The fact that he could actually go back without fear of being murdered — assuming they weren't still mad about his blowing up Marge — was completely overshadowed by, "Snape visited the Dursleys?!"

"I'm sure he obliviated them, too."

"Why?"

"Well, I might have mentioned dear Sev and I shared certain political views implying that we were both Death Eaters and prompting the aurors to question him about who might have been fucking with your aunt. And I told him I was there to have a look at the wards, and I guess he wanted to make sure I didn't leave any traces of my actual identity or fuck them up or something? He thinks they're stupid, too, by the way. They didn't keep him out, and he has a bloody dark mark on his arm."

Somehow, it was not surprising that Snape heard someone had been fucking with the Dursleys and calling him dear Sev and his first thought was Lyra. It was surprising that he'd go visit them, whether it was to make sure Lyra hadn't fucked up the wards or to make sure that she wasn't going to get caught, but probably not as surprising as it would have been a year ago. One of the most unexpected things he'd learned about Slytherin hanging out with Blaise was that Snape was...a lot more complicated than he'd thought.

If Snape had found out one of the Slytherins was living in a cupboard or locked into a bedroom all summer — or living under wards that were possibly not as good as they could be when they had an undead Dark Lord trying to kill them — he'd actually do something to fix the situation. Not just hypothetically, either: Tracey was convinced he'd threatened to kill her grandfather if he didn't rein in the abuse the rest of her House dumped on her for being a halfblood and their heir.

Plus, he apparently had reasons for being a dick in potions. After one particularly bad lesson, he and Ron had been complaining about Snape taking so many points for such stupid shite before they'd even gotten out of the classroom, and he'd overheard. He hadn't given them the reasons himself, he'd just suggested that Lyra enumerate the myriad methods by which the incomparable dunderheads I am forced to call students might have prematurely terminated or permanently damaged themselves over the course of today's lesson. Which, there had been a lot. Snape had held them all over for ten minutes while she listed them off.

"Or did you mean why did he obliviate them? Because I'm pretty sure it's some sort of Secrecy violation to tell muggles they've been obliviated, even if they're allowed to know about magic, so he would have had to obliviate them again to cover it up after establishing that they had no idea what he was talking about. Anyway, it's fine, if the aurors had anything they could trace back to me, Dora would have heard about it by now. And I didn't do anything to the wards, but you really, really should."

Harry groaned, tugging at his hair in frustration, her last comment bringing him fully back to the issue at hand. "I can't just...run off to California for the summer!"

"Why not?"

"Well, because..."

"No, seriously, why should you go back to that muggle hellhole? Even if you don't break the blood ward, you don't actually have to. As long as you still think of your aunt's house as your home, the stupid ward will be fine."

"I can't just disappear, though—"

"Why not? It's not a security risk as long as you don't tell anyone where you're going, and we both know the Dursleys won't care, and... Do you just not want to go? Is it because you're being all awkward about Blaise?"

Harry felt his face go very red. "No, of course not— I mean, yes, I want to go, it has nothing to do with Blaise — er, or, I mean— If you could stop smirking at me like that, that would be great."

"Who's smirking? I'm not smirking," she said, smirking. "Just like you don't fancy Blaise."

"No, I– er. I, um..." This is a private thing, I haven't talked about it with anyone, and I don't want to talk about it with you, please let's change the subject.

And there she stood still smirking at him. Bitch. "Don't even bother denying it, everyone knows. Or, well, I assume everyone knows. I mean, I noticed, and I'm terrible at that sort of thing. Blaise definitely knows. Neither one of us know why you haven't done anything about it, though."

She'd talked about it with Blaise? Wait, what was he thinking, of course she had, she talked to Blaise about everything that confused her about everyone else. "Er, well... I don't know, I just...didn't know if he wanted me to, I guess. And I didn't want to...mess things up, you know, if he didn't, and I did, and..." Was that even a sentence?

"If by things, you mean your mindfucking arrangement and the way you spend all your free time together, I'm pretty sure it's impossible to mess things up with a Zabini by snogging them. If by things, you mean your hair, yes, things may get messed up."

"I'm not going to just– just snog him out of nowhere!"

"I don't suppose I'll get an answer if I ask why."

"No." Not one she would accept, anyway, and he was not getting dragged into another stupid argument about something every sane person thought was so perfectly obvious and reasonable they didn't even have to think about it.

She sighed, very dramatically. "Fine. Tell you what, you and Maïa can go off somewhere and be awkward together, and I'll spend the summer snogging Blaise in California."

Harry somehow managed to choke on air at that. "What?"

She giggled. Giggled. "Gods and Powers, the look on your face..."

Bitch. Sometimes he wondered why he was even friends with her in the first place. For a second there he'd actually believed she was interested in Blaise, which just— No, he wasn't going there.

"So, we've established you want to go. So you're coming, then?"

There should be a law against changing the subject that quickly. "I, um..." He'd completely forgotten where they'd been in their argument... Not to mention, he did actually want to go, he hadn't quite put his finger on why it seemed like a bad idea to just do it. "What about Dumbledore, though?"

"He's only your guardian in Magical Britain. As soon as you leave the country, whether you go back to Surrey or the Americas, the Dursleys are officially responsible for you. And I know you know they don't want you in Surrey any more than you want to be there."

"Yes, but he's trying to protect me, I should—"

"California will be perfectly safe. You can ask Snape if you don't believe me."

"I thought you didn't want me to tell anyone." She'd been very clear about that, back at the beginning of the conversation.

"Snape is fine. He knows what the Death Eaters would be capable of as far as tracking you goes—"

"Yeah, because he was a bloody Death Eater!" Which was one of those things that made him complicated. He was very obviously and completely unapologetically a dark wizard, even now, but he'd also been a spy, and the Slytherins were quick to point out that he consulted for St Mungo's and the aurors when they needed it, too. So, he was an awful arse, but...on their side? maybe? It was confusing.

"Yes, exactly. And he's not going to tell anyone because he swore to protect you after your mum died—" Harry grimaced. He had no idea where Lyra had come up with that, but he actually believed it. Sirius had been very clear about Snape's relationship with his mum. The phrase bloody worshipped had featured. "—and I guarantee he'll agree with me that it's safer for you to just disappear for the summer than sit at home with the Dursleys. There's an anti-scrying spell on you, so people can't just search for you, but the Ministry knows where they live, so anyone could find out if they wanted to. And there's nothing stopping someone blowing up the house or setting fiendfyre to the neighborhood or just walking in and apparating you away or—"

"Just– just stop, okay? I get it, you can think of a hundred bloody ways to murder me at the Dursleys, but—"

She let out a frustrated groan. "It's not just me! You have enemies, okay? Not just Riddle, not just marked Death Eaters — Riddle blowing himself up ruined a lot of families, politically, and Dumbledore did a great job setting you up as the ideal person to blame for that. I'm sure there are people in Slytherin right now who would love the chance to set your hair on fire."

"Wait — what is that supposed to mean, Dumbledore set me up?!" Harry was quickly becoming annoyed with this conversation.

For a whole second, she said nothing, just staring at him as though he'd said something so stupid it was completely incomprehensible, which didn't make him any less annoyed. How was it even possible to be that condescending without saying anything?

"Where else did you thing that fucking Boy Who Lived nonsense came from? I mean, it might have been a Ministry leak that got out to the Prophet to start with, but he definitely could have stopped it if he wanted to, he is your guardian. But he didn't. He leveraged it to build up Light Unity — completely whitewashed your mum and made you out to be some sort of mythical creature so light you couldn't be killed by a fucking Killing Curse. The Dark was already associated with the Dark Lord because, well, it's in the name, even if the extremism of the Death Eaters didn't actually reflect the mainstream Dark agenda. So Dumbles basically put out a lot of propaganda associating you and the downfall of the Dark Lord and the Light." She pouted, glaring off into the middle distance. "It worked really well, too. I know why Cissy instigated the political shift she did, but I still think she conceded too much..."

Harry ignored that last bit. Lyra's political views had come up before, he knew she thought the Allied Dark — which was the party Narcissa Malfoy headed — was too "light" in their politics and that the Statute of Secrecy was the worst idea in international politics since...forever. (Her words.) But he still didn't really care about politics. And he definitely wasn't familiar enough with Magical British politics over the past few decades to even know what Mrs. Malfoy had been conceding, or why that might be bad. Or 'bad' — he wasn't really certain he agreed with Lyra on everything. And the fact that she was insane had to be taken into account.

Besides, "That can't possibly be right," he said, shaking his head firmly. "He might have taken advantage of the situation, but he wouldn't have engineered propaganda, or whatever."

"Of course he would, he's a politician — everyone in positions of power engineer propaganda, it's just what they do. I can find sources, if you want. Things he said that were quoted in the Prophet, and the Wizengamot session transcripts. Actually, the Quibbler did an article on it in...Eighty-Five?"

Harry let out an unamused laugh at that. He'd read the Quibbler. It was funny sometimes, but it was a bloody tabloid. "You're taking the word of a Quibbler article on this? Seriously?"

"No, I just said I'd find primary sources, didn't I? I'm just saying, they already did the legwork, makes it easier. Look, that doesn't even matter. What matters is there's no reason for you to stay in Surrey. You don't owe it to Dumbledore to be miserable all summer."

"It's not because I think I owe it to him, or– or anyone, really—" Even if Dumbledore had nothing to do with it, Harry was very aware that before this year, everyone in Magical Britain (outside of Hermione and Ron) really had just looked at him as the Boy Who Lived. Last year had been particularly bad, all that dragonshite about him being the Heir of Slytherin... If he just up and ran away for the summer... "I guess... I guess I just don't like the idea of going without telling anyone. I mean, what about Hermione? And Justin?" He'd said something the last time they were dueling about trying to get together over the summer, just to hang out, even if they couldn't really practice.

"I'll explain it to them. Well, Maïa already knows I've been trying to get you to come with us, but she doesn't know the specifics. And I can tell Justin that we're going on holiday with Sirius. I just won't say where, or I'll tell him we're going to France or something. I'm sure he'll write."

Yes, that was it, Harry thought, his uncomfortableness with the idea of leaving the country for the summer was already dissipating slightly. Not entirely, he'd still rather tell them himself, and probably Daphne and Tracey, too, but enough that he was sure that was the main reason he'd been resisting the idea. "And Dumbledore?"

She put on a rather pained expression. "I don't trust him. I don't think he'd intentionally compromise your safety, but I don't think he'd keep it to himself if he knew you were abroad."

"Fine," Harry said. The idea had just occurred to him that he could think about it a bit more and then send Dumbledore a letter or something if he decided he really wanted to.

Because much as he'd been trying to deny it for the better part of half an hour, he knew he really wanted to do this, have a proper holiday, see somewhere other than Hogwarts, Diagon Alley, and Little Whinging for once in his life. And why shouldn't he, really?

"God, I can't even believe I'm saying this, but yes, I'll go."

Lyra grinned, bouncing slightly on her toes and clapping like a little kid, which was kind of adorable, if you didn't consider the fact that she was so happy because she'd just convinced him to do something bloody mad. "Okay, then, I'll take care of getting your trunk and things together, bring them to Ancient House, and—"

"Wait — you want me to go now?"

"Why not? Exams are done, the train is tomorrow, there's no real reason to wait, and this way no one will be able to track you from King's Cross. I really do need to take all those tracking spells off you first, though, there's no point in hiding your travel plans if someone has you on a leash. Or like, six someones."

"Wait — tracking spells?" This was, he was fairly certain, the first he was hearing of any tracking spells on himself.

"Uh, yeah. I could have sworn I mentioned that earlier..."

Well, she might have done, he'd been distracted by the thing with the Dursleys. "But people put spells on me so they know where I am all the time?" That was just...seriously creepy, really. And absolutely infuriating. Seriously?!

"Yes. Half a dozen of them, though I'm sure some of them were cast by the same person, just for redundancy."

You know what, fuck it. The idea of a bunch of people, or even just one really paranoid person, using magic so they knew where he was all the time was just the last fucking straw. He didn't know who had done it — well, Dumbledore had probably done at least one, and he suddenly realised it couldn't possibly have been coincidence, how fast the Minister had found him last summer, when he'd blown up Marge — but he hated the idea that people were just watching him, constantly looking over his shoulder. It was slightly less patronising for actual adults like Dumbledore to look out for him than it was for, say, Lyra, but that still didn't mean he liked it. Especially since they didn't even tell him they were doing it. He didn't even know who they were.

It was almost as bad as the idea of unknown numbers of legilimens wandering around and stealing secrets out of his head. Maybe worse, now that he knew how rare natural legilimency actually was. And that had gotten him to take up occlumency, which had made him far more uncomfortable, at first, than the idea of running off and forgetting about Magical Britain all summer ever had.

Just up and vanishing on them all might not be the most mature thing for him to do, but he didn't need or want anyone tracking his every footstep. Maybe if he gave them all the slip, went off and did something he wanted for a change and came back perfectly fine, they'd even get that message.

"You know what? Fuck it. Just— Fuck it. Go ahead, take off the tracking charms, and tell Hermione and Justin and Tracey and Daphne that I've left early for hols to avoid the crowds at the station — they always stare—" Actually, if not taking the train was an option, he'd probably do it every year, just for that reason. "—and bring my trunk to Ancient House, and whatever else, I'm sure you already worked out all the logistics."

Lyra was grinning even more broadly than before. "Yeah, I've got it covered. Ooh, this is going to be great! I'll meet you at Ancient House tomorrow evening. Zee and Blaise are coming over for dinner so they can see the renovations, she can fill us in on the details of the itinerary then. Here, just stand still for a minute..." She trailed off in favor of muttering spells under her breath, the magic prickling and tickling across his skin.

After considerably more than a minute, she stopped casting. "Right, I think that should do it. Now for the hard part—"

"That wasn't the hard part?"

She shrugged. "No, none of the tracking spells were very complicated, just kind of obscure, and I spent all of first term looking up obscure tracking spells trying to find Sirius. The hard part is getting you from here to Ancient House without leaving any traces. Generally, I'd say you should apparate somewhere with a public floo, floo somewhere else, then apparate from there to Ancient House. But since you can't apparate, we're going to use a portal spell."

"A...portal spell."

"Yeah, or, sometimes people call them gate spells. They're not really popular anymore because they take a while to set up, and they take a lot of ambient magic to power, so they tend to bugger up any other enchantments or enduring charms in the area until the patterns stabilize again, and you have to have access to your destination to put a matching circle there, too. There's one at Ancient House already, though, so I made a portable one that we can activate from here." She pulled a folded bit of cloth from her pocket, unfurling it to reveal a very complicated rune-scheme stitched into the cloth with what appeared to be...

"Is this gold?"

"Technically, no, it's just cotton thread alchemized to have certain magical properties of gold. Same for the silver and lead and iron ones," she said, pointing at a few different runes.

"This had to have taken forever — how long have you been planning this?"

She shrugged. "I found the one at Ancient House ages ago, but I didn't start working on this until Yule — it's basically the same kind of enchantment as the Doorway we used to get to Zee's wedding."

Harry just stared at her for a moment. "Why?" Because she could apparate. And do that creepy thing he'd seen her practicing in Blaise's memories, where she just disappeared into one shadow and reappeared in a different one.

"Because it's a portable portal? One that's not a huge bloody box that you can't shrink without wrecking the enchantment? I didn't realise I needed a reason to make neat shite," she said, grinning. Right, so, because she'd wanted to see if she could. Got it. "It is useful, though. Side-along apparation sucks. This means I can get people from basically anywhere to Ancient House without having to drag them there myself. And it circumvents apparation wards, which is convenient if I want to just pop over from Hogwarts for a couple of hours."

"Er...right. So, I just step through the portal, and that's it?" That...really didn't sound very hard.

"Yep!" she said brightly, popping the p. "Just kill time at Ancient house for like, a day and a half. Cherri's dealing with some stuff in London, but she should be keeping an eye on the property, so you can call her if you need anything."

She led him off the path a bit — they'd wandered well past the end of town and up a hill during the course of their conversation, Harry hadn't really been paying attention to where they were going — just far enough to find a pair of trees she could pin the portal-curtain between. With hairpins, which seemed a bit odd, but he figured maybe she couldn't cast magic on it, or something.

He expected the activation of it to be more...dramatic, than it was. She just ran a finger down the middle of the sheet, and the runes began to glow. After a second, the person-sized oval they outlined dissolved into a sort of swirling vortex of... It wasn't really light. Maybe the same stuff spells were made of, when they were cast? She stepped through it, just for a second, presumably to make sure it was working, then gave him a mad grin and gestured for him to go ahead.

"See you tomorrow, then," he said, grinning back. This was going to be great — a whole summer away from the Dursleys, actually going on a proper holiday, and with Blaise...

§

Lyra waited three seconds after Harry vanished through her portal to deactivate it. She folded the silk carefully and tucked it in a shadow pocket before pinning a much cheaper, much more fragile version — the runes just painted on plain, undyed cotton — in the same place. This one's twin was hanging in an abandoned building in Knockturn Alley, and was specifically designed to channel magic inefficiently enough that it would burst into flames after about thirty seconds, destroying the actual evidence, but still leaving enough of a trace for the aurors to follow to the Knockturn flat, if they decided Harry's disappearance and presumed death warranted such an investigation. (Which they almost certainly would, he was Harry bloody Potter.) She'd already cleaned the flat itself, using spells specifically designed to foil forensic investigation, to imply that Harry's kidnapper/murderer had tried to cover their tracks behind them.

In order to make it look like he'd been murdered, not just kidnapped, she'd also updated the wards on Ancient House to interrupt all three of the monitoring spells she'd left in place, assuring whoever had cast them that Harry was dead. She assumed the same person had cast them all, since they'd used three very distinct registers for them — she'd had to go to quite a lot of trouble to figure out a way to disrupt them all without destabilizing the wards themselves. The solution she'd finally come up with was a counterintuitive mess, she'd be coming back to fix it as soon as they were settled in California. But it was worth it because practically anywhere else Harry might go, at least one of them would be able to transmit confirmation of his health and wellbeing. Well, until he left their range. They'd almost certainly fail somewhere between here and California, anyway, but this way, they'd all cut out together, which would otherwise only happen if Harry were to die. Presumably the alarm would be raised well before they flew out on Tuesday, after which point it wouldn't really matter if anyone realised he wasn't dead. They wouldn't be able to find him to prove it.

Once the portal had been reduced to little more than ash on the breeze, she worked her way back to the path and down the hill toward Hogsmeade, obscuring the traces of their presence well enough to make it impossible to figure out she had been the one accompanying Harry off past the end of town, but not so much that it would be impossible to tell he'd been brought this way in the first place.

She was so preoccupied by this task (and mentally revising the plan to fake Harry's death) that she completely failed to notice the incoming spell until it struck her from behind, knocking her to the ground with a burning wave of light magic. That the follow-up stunner hit so quickly there had to be two of them, at least, was her last thought before unconsciousness overwhelmed her

§

"Guys! Guys, she's waking up!"

Lavender? Lyra pried her eyes open with effort, blinking against the light, her head muzzy enough that, after she remembered what had happened, she thought she must have hit it when she fell. Wait, no, that light spell had knocked her down before they'd stunned her. Her head did hurt, though. Had one of them kicked her or something?

She was in a dark room, surrounded on all sides by spotlight charms, preventing her seeing more than a few feet — and also preventing her escaping into the shadows, she wondered if that was intentional — but there were definitely people moving over there.

People who had tied her up — with actual rope, what the hell?! she thought, as her freeform finishing charm failed to break what she'd initially thought was an incarcerous — and brought her... Where the fuck even were they? Somewhere dusty and dark, but the only feature she could really make out was the battered wooden floor, and that was hardly identifying.

Eris, what's going on?

The goddess declined to answer, which suggested Lyra wasn't going to like whatever was about to happen to her, or the fact that her Patron hadn't warned her to avoid this...whatever this was.

"Good," an older, male voice said. Before she could place it, le Parc stepped into the light, wearing a scowl and holding his wand at the ready. "Good afternoon, Miss Black," he said.

She snorted, his overly formal French coming off as more affected than intimidating, despite the fact that she was obviously at his mercy, tied on the ground with a weapon trained on her. She couldn't help it, being in danger always made her giddy and excited, and that made her even more prone to antagonising people than usual. Including people who had her at their mercy, tied up on the ground with a weapon trained on her.

"Stupid cunt," he spat, casting a striking hex directly at her face, slamming the back of her head into the floor — guess that explained the headache. Though she had no idea why he would have bothered doing that before she'd come 'round.

"Le Parc," she muttered, struggling to sit up with her hands tied behind her and her legs. "What the fuck are you doing?"

"We're giving you a lesson in manners, cousin," Draco said, joining the older Slytherin in the light.

"Who's we?" She was positive, now, that she'd heard Lavender — she and Draco had been colluding about something for ages. Lyra had entirely forgotten about that, actually, it had been months, and they hadn't done anything.

Cissy's brat declined to answer the question, throwing a nerve-tweaking hex at her instead (pathetic). Someone outside the circle of light followed up with...some kind of nightmare hallucination curse, she thought, there were hundreds of them, she didn't know all the incantations. It didn't do anything, anyway. She definitely recognized Lavender's voice in the wake of it, though.

"I told you, she's some kind of dark creature — dark magic doesn't hurt her."

"And I told you, she's not," Malfoy said. "Father said she's human."

"You...asked Lucy if I'm human? Really, Draco?" That was kind of hilarious, actually.

"Aspernor!" Another wave of burning light magic washed over her. This time she recognized it as the repulsion spell Lupin had taught them to deal with minor dark creatures, doxies and so on, at the beginning of the year. "See," Lavender added when Lyra failed to conceal a wince.

"Shut up, you two," Le Parc ordered them, shoving Draco back into the shadows with Lavender and whoever else. "She's human enough to bleed," he added, throwing a cutting curse at her shoulder to prove it.

She glared up at him, ignoring the pain. She'd had worse. "Where are you going with this, you fucking moron?" Because really, there were only two outcomes, here: either she lived to wreak retribution on this moron, or he killed her. And she was pretty sure he didn't have the balls to kill her.

"Just making certain I have your undivided attention," he said, sounding...almost pleased.

"Because...?"

He smirked, pulling her wand out of his pocket. "Because I wouldn't want you to miss this, of course." He trailed a finger down the length of the dark wood before seizing the tip as well as the handle and unceremoniously snapping it over his knee, tearing the heartstring from its core. The pieces burst into flames as the enchantments worked into the magical instrument were disrupted, the energy they channelled unravelling violently.

"You—" Really, she had no word insulting enough. "You uncultured fucking barbarian!"

It was extremely taboo to even touch another person's wand without their permission. (There was a reason she hadn't told Maïa she was taking the Trace off hers, back at the beginning of the year.) Even in circumstances where it was expected that someone else might touch your wand, like if you were disarmed in a duel, they would never use it outside of a life or death situation, and breaking a wand was...practically unheard of. Yes, Ciardha had made the point that in a real fight, if you wanted to be sure your opponent wouldn't be able to recapture their weapon, breaking it was the only real option, but hardly anyone ever did, preferring to take them as trophies. She knew Meda had snapped Cygnus's wand when Other Bella killed him, but aside from that...

Not that her wand was that special to her, she'd been thinking about getting a new one, anyway — the walnut and dragon he'd just destroyed had been a perfect match when she'd been seven, but she'd noticed when she was looking for heirloom wands for Siri that it wasn't much more responsive to her anymore than most of the other family wands. Presumably for the same reason it physically hurt to cast light magic, now — Eris and the Dark as a whole had become much more a part of her over the past couple of years than they had been in the immediate wake of her Dedication. But she hated being defenseless, and it would take time to get a new one, even one of the heirloom wands that were still at Ancient House.

"Where are you going with this?" she asked, her voice as cold and even as she could make it when she was this angry. Because there were only so many ways this could play out, especially if they were serious enough to break her wand. "I doubt Darling Draco and his little girlfriend signed up for murder."

"Murder?" Lavender repeated.

"You can't possibly expect me to let this little...incident pass un-challenged."

"It amazes me, your arrogance," le Parc said, throwing another cutting curse at her, this one leaving dozens of small slashes across her chest and face. "To threaten us even now?"

Well, she could have offered to pretend all this never happened if they released her right fucking now, but somehow she doubted they'd take her up on it. Plus, she'd just said the first thing that she thought of, and trying to de-escalate a situation was never the first thing that she thought of.

"Er, maybe we shouldn't..."

Draco's hesitant objection — perhaps he wasn't as stupid as he generally acted — was cut off by someone, an older girl, casting a bone-breaker at her. It hit her in the leg, her left femur cracking with a sound like a gunshot.

Lyra screamed. Cutting curses were one thing, but she hated broken bones. Ow, ow, fuckity OW.

Le Parc gave her a sinister smile as a pummeling curse struck her from the opposite direction, bruises blossoming under her robes. If she hadn't already realised they weren't fucking around... ERIS, if these idiots beat me to death because you couldn't be arsed to warn me...

"Stop it!" Lavender shrieked. "I didn't help you just so you could– could kill her! I don't like her any more than you do, but you said we were just going to teach her a lesson!"

"This is a lesson," another older Slytherin said — Rowle, she thought his name was. He stepped out of the shadows to give her a hard kick in the gut. She curled inward reflexively, screaming again as she unintentionally moved her broken leg. "A lesson about what happens to blood traitors and line thieves."

"Line theft?" she coughed, trying desperately to get some air back into her lungs. She wasn't a blood traitor, either, but that was more debatable, given the politics of the last generation. The fact that she was a Black was not.

"Triterum demergunt!" another voice cast. As water filled her lungs, choking what little air she'd managed to recover out of her, the girl added, "Your mother killed my parents like this..." Just as she was on the verge of passing out, the water vanished. "Made me watch as she cast it again..." She gasped for air, but the process began again almost immediately. "And again..."

The third time, she actually did pass out before the suffocating water vanished. She was revived with a lightning hex, her muscles twitching uncontrollably, pulling at her broken leg and the ropes around her wrists.

"...can't actually kill her!" she heard Draco saying, somewhere out of sight. "Mother would kill me..."

"Mummy might kill you anyway," Lyra managed to rasp out. "If I don't do it first."

"Still so arrogant... I marvel, truly," le Parc said, as someone — Rowle? — cast half a dozen caloris jinxes at her, each one burning as though someone had touched the end of a hot poker to her skin. She flinched. It wasn't unfamiliar — it was one of Auntie Walburga's favorites, actually — but some of them had fallen in rather sensitive places.

"Unless you really do kill me, there's nothing you can do to me that hasn't already been done," she spat. "By wizards more powerful and far more experienced than you insufferably moronic children! I will—"

"Crucio!" the same witch who had almost drowned her shouted, the curse hitting Lyra in the same shoulder le Parc had cut. She screamed as every nerve burned, but it wasn't anywhere near as bad as it could have been. She could still perceive the passage of time, for one thing, and Draco interrupted after only a second or two.

"Morgan! What are you— That's Unforgivable!"

Lyra giggled, panting for air. The moment of absolute bliss that followed the Cruciatus being lifted (along with the growing excitement that would...probably be fear, if she weren't herself) made it really hard to stay quite as furious as she'd been before it was cast, and he just sounded so outraged.

"Fucking freak," someone muttered from the dark — the one who'd broken her leg, she thought. Lyra ignored her. That she was some kind of freak was nearly as widely-held an opinion as that she was insane, and she was well aware that being cruciated didn't improve normal people's moods.

"Nice try, Morgan. Victoria, right?" A seventh-year Hufflepuff, that would explain why she hadn't recognized her voice. She'd hardly talked to the older Puffs at all. "But you have to mean your Unforgivables," she said over Victoria slapping Draco and cursing him for revealing her identity. Not that Lyra was exactly likely to turn her over to the aurors for casting a fucking pain curse on her (and rather ineptly, too). She'd much rather deal with them herself than report any of them for this little adventure, actually, though there was, she supposed, no way they could know that. "Hatred isn't enough, especially when you hate Other Bella, not me—"

"Fuck, doesn't she ever shut up?" Rowle complained, cutting her off with the same kiddie silencing charm she used so often.

She cracked it immediately — that one was vulnerable to her finishing spell, unlike the actual physical ropes they'd used to tie her up like fucking muggles. (That was just cheating, seriously!) But before she could say something to the effect that she wasn't a fucking child, le Parc said, "Don't worry, Morgan, she won't remember to tell anyone."

"What the fuck is that supposed to mean?"

"It means there are ways to keep you quiet without killing you." He threw another striking hex at her face, apparently just for the hell of it. "Go ahead and do whatever you like to her, we'll just obliviate her after, and she won't be able to tell anyone anything."

Obliviate her? Oh.

She hadn't even considered that option, honestly. Mostly because she knew that they wouldn't be able to. But obviously they didn't. And unless le Parc was a hell of a legilimens — which he wasn't, she'd have felt him trying to get into her head by now if he was a legilimens at all — he wouldn't know his charm had had about as much effect on her as a nightmare curse.

Without killing you still covered an awful lot of very painful ground, but she also kind of doubted they had the balls to do anything permanently or even semi-permanently debilitating, like putting out her eyes, or something, and only Lavender seemed willing to use light magic — where had she gone, anyway? Lyra hadn't heard her say anything for...a while, now...

So yeah, she was going to stand by her earlier statement: there was nothing they could do that Cygnus hadn't already topped.

"Wait — I thought we were teaching her a lesson about respecting her betters!" Draco objected. "If she doesn't remember, then..."

"I'm sure she's smart enough to put it together, the reasons she's been punished, even if she doesn't remember the event. Isn't that right, genius?" le Parc explained, kicking her left foot.

She bit her lip to avoid screaming. "Not according to my father..." she muttered.

No one heard her — Rowle had come forward into the light to give her a sadistic grin. "Well, in that case," he said, drowning her out, "there are a few things I've been wanting to try..."

Was— Was that a transfiguration? What was he— He was conjuring aqua fortis?! Okay, maybe semi-permanently debilitating was on the table. Fuck, this was going to hurt...

Some time later — Lyra didn't know how long, she kept fading out of consciousness and getting shocked back awake — Lavender came bursting into...wherever they were.

"Guys, we need to get out of here!"

Draco was quickest to react. "Why? What's going on?"

"I don't know, but there are aurors in town, they're sending everyone back to the school, if we don't want to get caught, we need to go now, just— Holy shit, what did you do?" Lyra didn't have the energy at the moment to laugh at her one-time roommate's reaction to her current appearance, but it was actually pretty funny, her hands flying to her mouth in shocked horror.

Morgan had objected to Rowle's nitric acid almost immediately — which was also kind of funny, because drowning her and using the fucking Cruciatus were much worse in Lyra's book — so the acid burns weren't too extensive, not as bad as when she'd exploded that cauldron of half-completed burn paste in her own face. (Probably still looked terrible, though.)

Instead, they'd given her a fairly serious physical beating — almost as bad the time Cygnus had hit her with bludgeoning curses until she'd started coughing up blood — chopped her hair off with cutting curses, which meant she'd gotten slightly scalped in places — plus one had missed, nearly taking out her left eye — and the Bletchley bitch — she was the one who'd broken her leg — had decided to follow up on that by breaking every bone in her right hand and wrist. Individually. She was probably going to have to have them all removed and re-grown, and she fucking hated Skele-gro.

"So we got a little carried away," Morgan said, completely unrepentantly. Bitch.

"It's nothing permanent," Bletchley added. Which was true. She'd probably be healed in a day or two, though there was no way in hell she was taking the train like this. "Obliviate her, le Parc, and let's get out of here."

He cast the charm as the others started to clean up, removing and destroying traces of their magical and physical presence. It washed through her, breaking against Eris's protections like all other mind magic, but dragging at her mind enough to pull her back into unconsciousness yet again.

Though that might have just been exhaustion, honestly. She'd lost track of how many times she'd passed out already.


We're using Lysandra's headcanon here, so Brittany (the province in the northwest of France) is part of Magical Britain.

This chapter has been a pain in the arse. Over the course of writing these three scenes, I wrote and deleted (or rather, cut and saved to maybe use later) another 6500 words. Seriously, every one of them got re-written at least once. Also like 8000 words of Bella hanging out with werewolves over the summer — Mikael is Fenrir Greyback's given name. He and Bella were kind of bros once upon a time. This should surprise exactly no one.

Because focus? What focus?

—Leigha