I had been making contingency plans for months in preparation for such a moment. I knew a blind spot on Richard’s roof that allowed me to Apparate without being seen and gave me quick access to the stairs leading down. It was a very tight fit and the slightest error would have me Apparating in the middle of a wall, but it is one talent I have always been able to depend upon, even without a wand. I can then descend when an enemy would look for me ascending from the street level. So I went down two flights to the landing, where I was able to look through the window in the stairway door to Richard’s front door at the opposite end of the hall.
Napoleon is supposed to have said that he preferred his generals to be lucky rather than good. Having been on the unlucky side of an ambush, I must agree. I carefully looked through the glass and saw the backs of two wizards outside his door. I silently turned the handle and readied my wand. I came through the door attacking with non-verbal spells and hoping the visitors’ intent was to do harm rather than asking him why his subscription to The Daily Prophet had lapsed. One was down and the other twisting around to return my attack when Richard opened the door and caught the second man as he shot a green bold at me, which then went wide of its mark as he fell. Richard quickly grabbed their wands as they lay unconscious on the hall floor.
“I must say your timing is a thing of beauty,” he said as he stood-up, “if not a joy forever.”
“I’m feeling quite good at the moment, in any case.” I looked down on the men. “You go get your escape kit and I will wrap your packages.” Richard turned back into the flat. “And pack as much food as you can, we might not want to move for a few days.”
“Do you recognize them? Ministry? Death Eaters?” He called from inside.
“If they’re Ministry, they’re too new for me to know them.” I had managed to resign and gone to ground just before the Ministry fell to Voldemort’s minions, three months previously.
I bound up our guests and made repairs to the hallway to avoid any Muggle interest. I saw the mark where Avada Kedavra had missed my head by centimeters.
Richard was back at the door.
“That was a near thing.”
“Indeed. You were less than two fingers from having to sneak my ashes into Malcolm’s grave.”
“Well…while I’m sure that it will be a popular and heavily attended event, your appearance at my funeral would be a bit unwise.” I pointed to our packages, “Considering the sudden interest in your location, a quiet addition seems the best course.”
Richard slung his knapsack across his back with a fluid motion.
“Frankly, it’s the sort of thing I’d like to avoid altogether, if we can manage it.” He looked down at the men. “What will we do with them? I don’t suppose leaving them here is a real option.”
“I thought we’d leave them on the roof, partly because it looks to be about to rain, and partly because they won’t be found as quickly. After that, we should charm your mailbox to forward anything that gets delivered to a safer location.”
“I don’t know that one.” He said conversationally, as we floated our bundles and started up the staircase.
“It’s a little something of my own. I came up with it to send the mail from the London flat to our house.”
We bounced our guests up the stairs to the roof, not very gently I’m afraid, and tucked them in an obscured corner. They could be seen if their friends did a fly-over, but not from a window from a neighboring building. Must not upset the Muggles—even now.
“I suppose either the spells will fade, or they'll be found eventually?” Richard mused.
“Probably, but we should be far from here when it happens.” I glanced at the darkening sky, “I’m guessing the rain will wake them. And, frankly, I’m not too concerned about them at the moment. It’s the two of us that I’m focused on. “
“So, back downstairs?”
This time we decided to chance the lift as less conspicuous. We did a quick check as we stepped in to the hall. There was no lurking back-up to our attackers, and the mailboxes weren’t visible from the front door.
I taught him my forwarding spell, and he put a note in the box letting his mother know that she would also be finding his mail. He told her he would be traveling and not to worry, as he had a good friend along.
“She'll guess it's you,” he smiled, “I recently told her if I found the need for a sudden vacation, you're the first one I'd choose to travel with.”
I wish I had as much faith in me as Emma does.
We went out a side door that led into an alley open on both ends, and clear of any obvious lurkers. A couple of quick spells revealed no hidden problems, so we slipped out and closed the door quietly behind us.
“Somewhere placid and rural?” He suggested.
“Do you have a place in mind?”
“I do, care to come along?” I took his hand and in a moment we were in the whirl between here and there. We came to rest on a deserted rural road. I knew the spot in an instant.
“The Ramsey Family View.” I said almost to myself.
“It seemed the right place to start,” Richard said, “like getting his blessing on our new project.”
It was a place where the road had swung out from a blind curve to a steep drop off the right side as if designed to make way for the most dramatic view of the mountains. A small river ran under the road and down into the rough valley.
The bend in the road is where my (then future) father-in-law would pull off the road and wave his hand at the vista before a first time visitor and say simply:
The visitor either expressed polite approbation, or true appreciation. Thus were the sheep divided from the goats in the hearts of the Ramseys.
Both Richard and I had passed the test, to Malcolm's relief.
“Yes,” I said slipping my arm around Richard,” the perfect choice.”
We picked a spot near the stream, up a slight rise on the left side of the road, and sheltered from a direct view by passing cars.
I pulled a miniature shed which looked more like a battered bundle of sticks from my bag, checked to make sure we were not observed, set it on the ground, and cast an enlargement spell.
“Won't that draw attention from the locals?” He inquired.
“It would, but an aversion spell will keep them glancing away without looking at it. I have a few other useful spells as well. While I'm casting them, why don't you get some water?”
When Richard returned he entered what looked on the outside like a small shack that was being pulled down by long years of gravity and hard weather, unremarkable and certainly not worth investigating. He entered to a one-room cottage with a sleeping loft, a small kitchen area, a round table with two chairs and a fireplace with two over-stuffed chairs facing it. I had put a fire on the hearth and set out the tea things.
“You put the kettle on and I'll start dinner. I do like what you and your decorator have done within the limits of the architecture.”
“I spent nearly an hour getting this all together, notice how the upholstery and the rug are so nearly the same shade of green? Also note how the table and chairs are from the same set.”
“Of course, it is the nicest “hide-out” I have ever seen. I will christen it with a meal worthy of its ambiance.”
He clearly had been prepared for a fast departure, but with class and dignity. We had a nice piece of fish, steamed asparagus, a wild and brown rice blend, and a small salad—paired with a nice white wine.
“Remind me always to flee with you in times of crisis; I was going to open a can of something.”
“I'm afraid this is the high-water mark, it was in the refrigerator for a guest tomorrow night.”
“And when the guest shows up tomorrow?”
“It's just as well. He's a Muggle, and he's better off thinking I was just some tosser he can do without. Safer for everybody.”
“You have been dedicated to the safety of single Muggle men for some time now.”
“Do we want to have another lively discussion of comparative dating practices?”
“No, you're right; this isn't the time for it. Not that we don't know how the discussion will end.” It would end, as always with my admitting that while he entered every potential relationship with one foot out the door, I could always find a reason why it wasn't a good time for me to date just now. My last date had been with my husband.
So we cleared away the remains of dinner, cleaned the kitchen, and sat with our tea by the fire.
“Do you have plans for the next step?” Richard was holding his cup and saucer, and staring into the fire.
“Yes. That is, I have a contingency plan. For the moment I thought we could hold out quietly right here—at least through the weekend. We can take our time to decide out next move, and whether it should be our next move.”
“Do you think we should split-up?”
“That’s one of the points we need to work out, which is safer and/or wiser: teaming-up or scattering? Tonight, however, my only concern is whether I should have another cup of tea before turning in.”
Richard took a sip and watched the flames.
“Yes,” he said at last, “tomorrow is soon enough. Right now I don’t want to think beyond a good sleep”
I looked into the fire as well, savoring the moment of companionship and peace. Today we did not die and we did not kill—a good day. How many more days will end as well?
I woke in the middle of the night, disoriented. I placed myself, after a few confused seconds, in the sleeping loft of the shed, with a soft glow of light from the kitchen below me. The hardest thing to place was the breathing. The breathing is wrong...because it wasn’t Malcolm—it was Richard. It was strangely unsettling and comforting all at once. Richard was safe, for the moment, as was I. We were together if trouble should come, and able to face it together as well as any two living wizards. For the moment, we were each others best chance. I managed to relax, and mercifully, to fall back into sleep.
By breakfast a steady rain was falling. It added to the sense of isolation from the world—a good thing at the moment.
“I hope this encourages the less motivated Snatchers to stay home and to stay dry.” Richard commented as we cleaned-up the last of the breakfast things.
“We'll need to move the place a bit, we don't want to leave a dry patch to be noticed by a passer-by.” I had a hover charm on the shed that kept it floating a few inches off the ground to avoid leaving an impression. By guiding it a few feet higher up the hill I hoped there would not be a sign we had ever been there. You never know when returning might be necessary.
Back inside I joined Richard in front of the fire, where a nice cuppa waited for me.
“So, it is morning, we are shrouded in rain, and our little country house is out of sight and mind. What next?”
“Yes, what?” I paused and took a sip of tea. “Well, I have prepared another out of the way dwelling for a more long-term ‘hunkering-down’.”
“Staying in one place? Is that better than this?”
“An excellent question, and one that I have pondered many a long night. Staying on the go does have some seeming advantages. No patterns to notice, if one comes and goes. No shopkeepers becoming too familiar and wanting to know too much.”
“I assume you are well provisioned to minimize the need to go out?”
“Yes—but of course then cabin fever looms as a problem. But then, no matter where this place is, it's still the same inside, so same issue.”
“And no way of knowing who will be waiting when you arrive in your new location.”
“Or one could find an unexpectedly superior location.”
“Also a consideration. I have dithered between all of these, and dozens more permutations.”
“And decided on a fixed point.”
“With a bag ready for a quick grab and go—should the situation take a sudden turn.”
“And this place?”
“Could be in the bag. Could go walkabout with a friend.”
“Is that an offer?”
“They are both offers: in situ or defensive peregrination.”
“Anyone else joining you in your second home?”
“I've offered it as an option to Minerva, but I can't imagine she would leave Hogwarts under any situation. She will stay and do whatever she can to protect the students.”
“I can't conceive of her doing anything else.”
“My Secret Keeper could show-up at any time, if hiding were necessary. Also a relative of the Secret Keeper has an invitation if needed.”
“You are well prepared. Not that I would expect anything else.” He sat back in his chair sipping tea and looking into the fire. “A lesser man would be offended that he wasn't your Secret Keeper...a lesser man who didn't know you very well.” He turned and looked at me with a sad smile. “It's someone you hardly know—but trust completely, so Minerva must have suggested the person in question.”
I looked straight ahead and said nothing.
“You can't protect us all. It's bad and probably will be getting a lot worse. We have to be open with each other. Not knowing didn't save Frank and Alice, or Malcolm and you. Your not knowing didn't save the Potters.”
“But it kept me from being the one who betrayed them.” I said flatly.
Richard sighed. “There is nothing either of us can say that will ever settle that.” It was a discussion topic of many years standing, eternally unresolved.
He got up and went to one of the kitchen cupboards and returned with a bottle of Irish whiskey.
“Isn't a bit early in the day for that?”
“We aren't going anywhere, and we don't have to drink it all at one go.”
I started to consider how wise it was, under the circumstances, then thought about how long it had been since I had really relaxed—and couldn’t remember when that might have been.
“Yes, pour some of that into my tea.” He gave me a generous serving. “I hope I don’t need to walk anywhere this morning.”
“I will employ levicorpus if necessary.” Richard promised, pouring himself and equally fulsome serving. “As long as I am able to stand and cast it.” He smiled as he sat back down then lifted his cup in salute. “Semper ubi sub ubi!”
“Words to live by.” I returned his salute. The whiskey and tea was warm and slightly astringent as it rolled over my tongue and down to my stomach. Breakfast was happy for the company and seemed to emit a soft, warm glow.
“Now,” he said, taking a healthy sip, “if we embrace the in situ option—do we have an end point in mind?”
“Oh, that reminds me.” I said, and reached into my pocket. “Regardless of the option, this is for you.”
“A white shirt button?”
“Now it’s a white shirt button. If you should find you have a wooden toggle button in your pocket, consider it an immediate invitation to Hogwarts.”
“A Minerva McGonagall special?”
“Yes. I have a large grommet that reverts to a pebble.”
Richard took another sip, as did I.
“But surely Hogwarts will be protected from new arrivals just walking in?”
“Yes, which is why you want to pop in at the Hog's Head first.”
“No names were mentioned—but that seems a safe assumption.”
For some time we sat looking into the fire, drinking from our cups a solution that was becoming less and less tea infused as morning slid toward mid-day. Occasionally we spoke of deliberately light and inconsequential things, then fall back into silence considering the options and possibilities before us.
“You think this will be the last battle, once we find wooden buttons and pebbles in our pockets?” It was not a really question.
“I think it is likely to be my last battle—one way or the other.”
“Intension or prediction?” His tone was deliberately casual.
“Considering the number of fine pure-blood homes in which my name is uttered only as part of a curse, I can’t say the odds are with me.” Teetering on the line between sobriety and intoxication, I found myself having to concentrate more than usual to form the sentence.
“You won’t be facing them all by yourself; there should be several people of dubious worth supporting you.” He seemed to hesitate slightly when forming the word ‘dubious.’ “I, for one, will be standing back to back with you. I’m not going to bury another friend without a fearsome fight first.” He snorted at the inadvertent alliteration.
“A chance to fight!”
“A fighting chance!”
We raised our tea cups, each of us sloshing a bit of drink over the edge in the process.
“I think we’re a bit tipsy.” Richard stated as he mopped up a bit of his drink from the arm of the chair.
“And well earned, my dear.” I drained my cup—but thought better of smashing it on the hearth. “I want to look them in the eye this time.”
“If only we knew who ‘they’ are.”
"The murderous swine who pop up, unannounced, in your driveway."
We sat in silence thinking of Malcolm. Sometimes the weight of his absence is almost unbearable.
I sat my cup and saucer on the small table between us.
“That is what I have dreamed of for years—when I can sleep. It is not, however, the point. We will show-up, wands at the ready, and hold out for as long as we can.”
Richard was turning the button over in his hand. Then he closed in in his fist, and looked at me.
“A rear-guard action, drawing away the opposing force until…” he shrugged. “Who would I stand with at the end of the world if not you?”
“It will probably be a relief after having to live with me for…weeks...months?”
“So that’s sorted.”
“Yes. Sunday evening or Monday morning?”
“Early Monday, I think.”
“Another bit of ‘tea’?”
“Yes, I think just a drop more. Then lunch.”