Chapter 1 - The Kindly Ones by A.J. Hall
The Kindly Ones by A.J. Hall
I felt like a leper and a traitor too
To everything we once knew was true
You avoided my eye and I knew that you knew
And something in my heart screamed no
Tom Robinson: The Wedding
The two glasses were balanced on one of the yacht’s two great primary winches. Precariously balanced, one might have said; but that June night in Frikes harbour the sea was so calm it looked more like oil than water, the crew were off somewhere ashore (and had been given strict instructions not to return any time soon) and the two naked figures in the cockpit were so still that any observer - had one been able to breach the warding charms about the anchored yacht - might have suspected that they had been the victims of a Petrifying Jinx.
Eventually, with a sigh of deep satisfaction Draco stretched, extricated his arm from beneath Neville’s body, and started to haul on a thin rope which had been looped around the winch and which disappeared over the side into the depths of the water.
“Another glass?” he asked, flourishing the champagne bottle that had emerged from the depths and gripping it tightly between his thighs while he removed the foil and wire.
Neville grinned lazily back at him. His joints felt so thoroughly loosened that he was liquid honey puddling on the teak-inlaid cockpit seats, radiating the stored heat of the sun back into the night. “And why not?”
With a deft twist of his wrist and quick upward pressure with his thumbs Draco popped the cork. It went back over his shoulder and hit the water with a faint “plop”. A liberated froth of bubbles foamed up and over the bottle’s neck, surging uncontrollably back across Draco’s stomach to the dark hollow of his navel, the feathery delicacy of the line of hairs leading up to it surprised by the moonlight as the conquering tide of bubbles thickened and redefined them as threads of tarnished silver.
“Well,” Draco commented as they were lying back, propping themselves against the cockpit coaming once more, glasses in hand, “this one’s a first.”
He shrugged. “Score one for Ithaca. Today must be the first day of the entire holiday you haven’t been fretting about finding a networked fire, so you could pester someone back at the Manor about how the estate’s managing to cope in your absence. I should think by now you could recite the state of health of every last pig on the place.”
Neville felt himself flushing.
He was acutely aware that this was a holiday that they had not planned for. And, in one sense, that it was All His Fault they were taking it in the first place.
A persistent cold - neglected during the 16 hour days he’d had to put in to comply with a sudden slew of idiotic new regulations imposed by the International Council on Magical Plant Exports - had edged imperceptibly into pneumonia, which only Gran, on one of her rare, unheralded visits, had managed to spot.
Her response had been thorough and almost panicky (weak chests, it was said, ran in the Longbottom line). She had banished the dogs from the bedroom - alleging they “carried germs” - and would have banished Draco if he hadn’t proved that his will was as strong as hers when things came down to the wire. She’d done the next best thing, though; drowning him fathoms-deep in guilt for not spotting his illness earlier. Since Draco manifested guilt by alternate fits of sulks or violent argument it hardly made for a restful atmosphere.
Neville had found himself deeply grateful to Narcissa, who had confined her nursing duties to sitting on the end of his bed, nibbling at the Valrhona-dipped crystallized ginger she had brought him as a present, and enlightening him at delicious, inconsequential length about the sexual foibles of three generations of Ministerial bureaucrats, the Hogwarts faculty, the staff of the Daily Prophet and all of their respective friends, family, pets and acquaintances, completely avoiding the clouds of recrimination which had enveloped the rest of the household.
Nevertheless, it had been an inconceivable relief when the Healer Draco had dragged in at wand-point had prescribed a prolonged Mediterranean cruise by way of convalescence.
And now here they were.
He coughed. Draco eyed him sharply, as if to see whether the indiscretion would be repeated.
“I - well - I worry. Someone has to.”
“Such as, say, Mrs. P. Our very competent estate manager. His hand-picked staff. At a pinch, Lupin - “
“Hardly tonight.” Neville gestured explanatorily at the large yellow disk of the moon, which had now cleared the further headland. Across the moon-path which laid a track across the dark water the black-finned outlines of two dolphins rose and fell and left swirls of phosphorescence in the water as they played in the darkness.
“True. Or even I couldn’t complain you were worrying unnecessarily about the livestock.”
His lover grinned. “Anyway, as I said. Score one for Ithaca. It’s only since we got here that you’ve started properly to relax - you don’t find it easy getting your head round this “gentleman of leisure” concept, do you?”
“No,” Neville mumbled. “You could call it a Protestant work-ethic, provided you substituted Gran for God.” He allowed himself, reluctantly, to smile. “Probably God does. If he exists, that is. But it is lovely here, isn’t it?” His smile deepened, and became slyer. “Though I’ve got to say, when the man said When you set out for Ithaca, pray that the journey may be long I bet what he didn’t have in mind was taking one look at the chart and muttering, Ooh, I don’t like the look of those overfalls off Cape Sounion - let’s tell the crew to take it through the bumpy bit without us, and we’ll Apparate cross-country via Hydra and Spetses, and the two wildest house-parties we can blag our way into -“
Draco’s grin broadened to match his. “Max and Pietro are fun, aren’t they?”
Neville shrugged, and then nodded. “Mm. Well. Thank god your mother’s illegitimate half-brothers are better company than your father’s, that’s all I can say.”
He downed a hefty swig from his glass. “Party animal,” he added.
Draco raised an eyebrow. “And who was it insisted on trailing me through every bar in Hydra Town in the vague hope that we might by pure random chance bump into some depressed middle-aged Muggle singer with a Canadian accent?”
“Well - it was worth it on the off-chance. As we were there.” Draco was still looking sceptical. Neville sighed.
“It’s a folk club thing. You wouldn’t get it. Anyway, ok. You win. We’re on holiday, and I’m going to unwind and let the estate look after itself for the next fortnight.” He paused. “Unless there actually is an emergency, of course.”
“Deal. Emergencies excepted. So, where to next? We can’t stay here - the man at the taverna said there’s two flotillas due in tomorrow. The place will be overrun with seasick Muggles. And I’m hardly going to be heading in that direction.”
He nodded towards the west. Cephalonia was hidden behind the nearer headland, and a mile or so of strait separated the two islands, but in the calm night noises carried - especially to war-sensitised wizarding ears. A burst of raucous house music broke upon the thyme-scented night air, as the late bars of Fiskardo opened for business.
Neville - expecting the question - reached into the open-fronted recess in the cockpit wall, pulled out a chart, plonking it in front of Draco. Draco moved the champagne bottle up behind Neville to make room for it.
One stubby finger stabbed down.
“Here. Paxos. No airport - the whole island isn’t more than six miles long at the outside. Only three villages on the whole place. And we won’t go to the main one - this harbour at the north end - Lakka Bay - will be perfect for us to anchor up.”
Draco looked, shrugged, and nodded. “Sounds fair enough. What’s that - sixty miles?”
“Give or take. Less than eight hours, even if we take it steadily. Be there for afternoon tea.”
An elegant nose wrinkled.
“That a hint you want a refill?”
Without waiting for a response, Neville swept his arm back to collect the bottle. Over-impulsively, of course, as ever, fuck it. His belated rescue grab failed - the bottle tipped inexorably over, spilling its contents across his chest.
“Oh, shit! And that was the last of the vintage your mother gave us, too. Oh, god, I don’t know why I’m just so fucking clumsy -“
Draco’s eyes glittered in the moonlight. His tongue flicked out, sweeping across his lips in a lazy, defining arc.
“Well,” he drawled, “now you’ve done it, it would be a crying shame to waste it. Especially since it was a present.”
He bent his head, and, with the concentrated precision of a Burmese cat applying itself to a pool of spilled cream, began lapping at the champagne trail that led down Neville’s body.
Each nerve Neville possessed began to quiver. Separately.
Eleanor looked across the room, mentally inventorying the packed suitcases sitting by the hotel bedroom door. She would have liked to risk a quick look at her watch, but was unsure whether the movement of her arm would awaken her sleeping husband.
A complicated business, this double bed one, and one which was going to take more getting used to than she had expected. So many extra limbs to manage - and there didn’t seem to be a way of arranging them which avoided awkwardness - also, she’d not anticipated just how much heat an extra person added, and she’d found it difficult getting comfortable, even without the added, embarrassing difficulty of dodging round the damp patch - she knew now what the girls at work had meant by their sly comments about such matters, which they conspicuously cut short if they saw she could hear them, assuming - quite wrongly, of course - that she’d be shocked. Mummy had always emphasized that just because other people led their lives according to different standards that was no reason to look down on them, or to make a parade of one’s own values. And both she and Reverend Mother had insisted that one day she would find someone who shared her principles, and wouldn’t pressure her to change them, not like -
As ever, her mind shied away from the forbidden topic.
That was all over. Had been for years.
And anyway, Mummy and Reverend Mother had, after all, been quite right: the proof of that was right here besides her.
This time she did move her arm - after all, missing the flight would be a disastrous start to the honeymoon, and she really ought to check the time -
Still only 3.10 am. And - it seemed she hadn’t been careful enough moving her arm. The body next to hers stirred. An amused voice spoke out of the darkness.
“Honestly, Ellie, I’m not going to miss the plane. I have caught them before, you know.”
Unlike you hung unspoken on the air between them. She gave a small, embarrassed giggle.
“Sorry. But it is so exciting.”
Roddy’s voice had a husky edge to it.
“It is. And you’ve no idea what it means to me, being the one to show you it all. I only wished I could have gone on with my original plan and kept the destination a complete surprise until we got to the airport -“
But then I’d have missed all the fun of reading up in advance and going over in my head what I was going to see first, and buying the right books and clothes -
Dutifully, she said, “Well, that was a shame for you. And I do love surprises -“
Which was, by and large, true, so no need for her to cross her fingers there. But it seemed it wasn’t just double beds which made marriage complicated, and no-one explained that sort of thing to you in advance.
“Yes. Well. It was my own fault. I made some stupid joke to your father about whisking you off to Las Vegas, and he got so agitated I had to come clean about where we were really going.”
“Oh, golly. Poor Daddy! Not only abroad, but American abroad. With neon lights and gambling dens! No wonder the poor pet got fretful.”
Roddy’s voice was rueful. “And the rest. He cross-examined me for hours. I practically ended up having to give him my formal oath that we weren’t going anywhere - what’s that word he’s so keen on? - oh, tripperish, yes - that there wasn’t even an airport on the island itself, and no night-clubs or anything. I could understand it if I’d been planning to take you to Majorca or the Costa Brava, or somewhere else that the oiks have colonised, but a villa in the Ionian? I mean, given you can hardly move in their house without tripping over some book or other written in Latin or Ancient Greek, I’d have thought you’d have been off to Epidavros or Mycaenae or somewhere every summer.”
She paused to select the right words, conscious of the shifting balance of proper loyalties - another thing no-one prepared you for, that.
”Well, Daddy was just too young to go before the Colonels got in. And then, I think when they toppled them, Daddy was planning to visit, but somehow he didn’t get around to it before he married Mummy, and I came along, and by the time I was old enough to get anything out of it, he thought it’d have all been spoiled by package tours and cheap tourist hotels and people who were just going for a tan and who didn’t care about the culture, and he couldn’t bring himself to face it.”
Her husband snorted. “He might just as well have come clean, and admitted he doesn’t like foreign food. Like my father.”
Justice impelled her to speak. “Oh, but he does! He loves foreign food. Mummy remembers when she was little, and he’d just started as Grandfather’s research assistant - that was back when, Mummy says, spaghetti came in long blue packets, and you only got olive oil in little bottles at the chemist, and you used it for earache and to oil your recorder - and he cooked everyone genuine Tuscan food out of Elizabeth David for the Department’s New Year party, and no-one knew what they were eating.”
“I’ll bet.” She stiffened up, conscious of his scepticism. His tone changed to banter.
“Well, speaking of foreign food, I hope you aren’t planning to overdo it. You were absolutely stunning today, in that dress, and when I remember what a little podge you looked at that Rugby club dinner, the first time I ever saw you -“
His hand, unfamiliar in its possessiveness, stroked up under her nightdress, over the smooth skin of her belly. She tried to suppress her instinctive response to suck in. He pinched, very gently, the soft flesh just below her navel.
“Mind you, there’s still some work to do. After we get back, I’ll have you down to the gym, and that should soon shift those last pounds.”
Despite herself, she made a small, reproachful noise at the back of her throat. His tone changed again.
“Come on, Ellie, lighten up. After all, if a man can’t tease his own wife on his wedding day, who can he tease?”
She made an effort to match his tone. “It isn’t the wedding day any more. Not for three and a half hours it hasn’t been. We’re quite an old married couple.”
He turned over, away from her, composing himself back to sleep again. “Yes. And one whose alarm clock is set for 6.15. So stop chattering and let me have the rest of the night out.”
The bedroom was quiet. Despite herself, she found herself stealing another glance towards the suitcases standing by the bedroom door, and suppressed a gasp of almost unbearable anticipation.
Just eight hours to go - and then -
She shook her head, in a determined attempt at self discipline.
There’s no point in trying to plan in advance for what it’s going to be like. After all, it’s bound to be completely different to how you could possibly imagine it.
The tiller extension had tangled itself up with the mainsheet. Again. Fortunately, hardly any breeze crept into the little horse-shoe shaped bay, given the protective jaws of the headlands, the westerly one graced with a formidable lighthouse whose origins doubtless dated back to the days when the Doges ruled these waters.
Eleanor disentangled herself, this time without incident. The cats paws rippling across the glassy surface of the bay warned her in time that there was more breeze coming, and she braced her bare feet under the toe-straps of the hired dinghy and leant outboard to keep the boat from heeling too much as the sail filled.
The little gust carried her towards the large blue-hulled yacht that lay at anchor under the sheltering cliffs on the western side of the bay. She had come in at dusk the previous evening, managing to ghost in under sail notwithstanding that the wind had dropped away almost to nothing as the sun set. What had struck Eleanor, as they watched from their table at the little waterfront taverna, had been the silent efficiency of the yacht’s approach to her anchorage. No throb of engine or panicked yelling of commands had been allowed to mar the stillness of the evening. One moment the yacht had been sailing; on an instant she had rounded up into the wind; her sails had been let fly and - she had been at anchor, canvas already down and in the process of being given a harbour stow by the crew.
Calm efficiency was not something Eleanor readily associated with boat handling.
Yesterday, watching the slick precision of the yacht’s arrival had reminded her by sheer contrast of long-ago family trips on the Broads, where Daddy had always managed to make an intense drama out of performing even the simplest manoeuvre. Mummy would start to flounder and panic under his rapid sequence of confusing and contradictory orders; any attempt by Eleanor to assist would only earn her an earful to the effect that her father now knew why sailors had traditionally regarded women on board as the worst of bad luck and anyway why couldn’t she just put that rope down and start doing something useful, hey? and it would all turn into a frantic melange of useless belated fenderings, panic, flogging sails, nipped fingers and hurt feelings.
Seeing that yacht arrive had brought all sorts of memories flooding up in a rush, and she’d tried to convey the sense of loving, protective chaos that had been her childhood by describing it all to Roddy on the spot, but it seemed she hadn’t done it right; he’d changed the subject almost immediately.
He was, she thought, still rather stiff around her parents. Though, of course, Daddy’s crusty academic guise must be really quite daunting if you didn’t realise what a softie he was underneath. Roddy would soon find that out. And also, it seemed, boats weren’t one of his things; he’d been almost annoyed when they got to their villa and discovered a note from her parents to say that once they’d found out the resort they’d booked them a couple of Toppers from the local sailing school as a surprise extra present. He hadn’t really been all that keen on her taking one of them out this morning (and had looked almost comically appalled at the suggestion he might accompany her) but she’d argued that Daddy would be inordinately disappointed about the failure of his present if she didn’t come back with at least some photos taken from the water. And given everything Daddy had paid for already - the reception, her dress, and an extraordinarily generous cheque to set them off, as he’d said, housekeeping on both the right feet - that would look most dreadfully ungrateful. An argument that in the end Roddy had accepted.
She sneaked a guilty look at her watch. She was outstaying her furlough; Roddy might well have made it down from the villa already. Perhaps he was already waiting for her back at one of the tavernas in the main square. It would never do to be late on top of their - not quarrel, of course, because Roddy never quarrelled - it was one of those points of fascinating difference about him she’d been drawn to from the first, after her volatile childhood (his parents hadn’t either, not in thirty-five years, he’d told her) - but, anyway, lack of harmony that morning.
She twitched mentally: perhaps she was, after all, at fault for being selfish - Reverend Mother, probably, would have said she was, come to think of it, because in her heart of hearts she had known - or at least suspected - that Roddy didn’t care for sailing before mentioning the dinghies, and by assuming that they’d be using them, perhaps she’d made it difficult for him to say no without feeling guilty, which was manipulation, and so of course wrong -
The wind freshened again as she neared the mouth of the bay, and she shivered a little; she was not yet dry from the last capsize, and even with the sun beating down the sharp breeze raised goose-pimples on her bare, still pale arms. However, the little spurt of speed it had given to the dinghy had brought her, at last, under the stern of the anchored yacht.
Alecto ran in a fantastic, gold cursive script across the transom. In more prosaic capitals underneath was its port of registration: PIRAEUS. She raised her little disposable camera, hanging by its protective strap to her wrist, to her face so as to snap its glory as it lay at anchor.
The swimming step dangled down into the water, and the tender still swung from its davits; it seemed the yacht’s crew was still aboard, though there was no-one on deck. She wondered what could keep anyone below on so beautiful a morning. She was, however, conscious of sneaking relief that no-one was there to watch her unashamed gawping at the beautiful lines of the vessel and the bleached sumptuousness of its teak-inlaid decks.
The high sides of the anchored boat abruptly blanketed her wind. The sail drooped, and her frantic waggling of the tiller to propel the boat forwards only succeeded in sending her into the yacht’s hull with a subdued but undignified thump. Her head shot up, expecting to have to brave the wrath of an indignant owner leaping protectively to the defence of his gel-coat, but no-one stirred aboard. Guiltily, she fended off with the palms of her hand, caressing as she did so the sun-warmed smoothness of the yacht’s hull, its dark gloss silky against her skin.
The fending did the trick - the recoil from her pushing propelled the dinghy along the hull and then out past the yacht’s bows. Once out of its shadow the freshening wind caught her, unexpectedly, and in a rush she tried to dump the mainsail to control the little dinghy’s heeling.
The mainsail block jammed, trapping the sheet before she could release it. The dinghy, its sails too tight for the angle of the ever-increasing breeze, went up on its ear. Below Eleanor’s stretching toes water slopped in over the leeward gunwale. She hiked her weight out over the windward side as far as she could to balance the boat, but the wind freshened and the dinghy accelerated out of control. Panic vied with exhilaration within her, as she ripped unstoppably across the little white-capped waves, her fingers still - mindful of age-old instruction - curled around rather than gripping the tiller extension, caution left behind in her sword-straight wake. The sun blazed down on the laughing ripples ahead of her. Words of an old song soared to her lips. Absurdly, she yelled them aloud in her joy and terror.
Cancel my subscription to the - Resurrection -
The dinghy screamed across the bay towards the village nestled against the farther shore.
There was a sudden, sickening crash. The shock juddered all through her body; the noise of ripping nylon seemed to go on forever. The dinghy came to a dead stop. She catapulted out, and forward. She had a fleeting impression of a horrid tangle of rigging and detached spars before the salty water closed above her head.
She was only submerged for a second or two, and her initial panic about getting trapped under the sail eased as she kicked her way free of the capsized dinghy to emerge, spluttering, holding on to its centre-board besides its upturned hull. Her camera was still on its wrist-strap, thank goodness, and it was waterproof, of course, so no problems there -
A worried voice, with a strong Northern English accent, said, “I’m most terribly sorry. You are sure you are all right, aren’t you? I really am so incredibly sorry. It was completely my fault.”
Bobbing beside her, besides the wreckage of his windsurfer - that must be what she had collided with, then - was a young man; damp brown hair plastered over his forehead, blood from a scrape trickling down his face, worried eyes regarding her with concern.
She tried to sound reassuring.
“Yes, really. Truly. I’m fine.”
Which - absent a bruise or so (she had always bruised easily: hockey at school had left her shins looking like maps of the world done in purple and yellow, and it was, briefly, a shock to realise that the bruises which she knew were going to blossom on her hip-bones and rib-cage from the recent impact were no longer an entirely private matter) - was entirely true. The boat, now - she shot a sidelong glance at the dinghy. The state of the mast and boom did not look very healthy. He caught the direction of her glance and smiled a trifle shyly at her.
“Please don’t worry about it. I’m sure it looks a lot worse than it really is. And I can assure you I’ve had plenty of practice at estimating the cost of repairing disasters.”
There was a hum of an outboard behind them; the safety boat from the sailing school had come out to lend a hand. The driver, a tanned Aussie with spiky blond hair, hauled her inboard with a practised hand, even though she did end up going over the RIB’s side with an undignified flop-and-wriggle motion, and landing in a heap in a puddle of warm seawater in the bottom of the hull. The young man, treading water besides his windsurfer, looked up at the driver of the RIB.
“I’ll be over in a few moments, as soon as I’ve got dressed and got my things from the yacht. It was entirely my fault, so if you’ll let me know what the repairs are likely to come to, I’ll let you have my details.”
Eleanor made a shocked sound of protest. “Certainly not! I can’t possibly let you! It was at least as much my fault as yours - and anyway - “
What on earth would Roddy say if I were to let you do that? I don’t even know your name.
She let the rest of the sentence hanging. The rescue-boat driver grinned cheerfully. “Shouldn’t worry, mate. These dinghies are bloody tough. That’s why the company buys them. Doubt there’s anything you’ve managed to do that can’t be fixed with WD40 and a bit of duck tape.”
She gaped at him.
“WD40 and duck tape?”
The driver’s grin broadened. “Engineer’s creed. World goes round on WD40 and duck tape. When it won’t move and ought to you use the first, and when it does move and shouldn’t you use the other. And if neither of those can solve it, it isn’t worth worrying about.”
“Well, at least,” the young man in the water said doggedly, “you’ll allow me to buy you a drink? Just let me get rid of this” - he indicated the windsurfer -“and I’ll see you in the main square, OK? Fifteen minutes. Least I can do.”
“Um - well - “
The driver had finished tying the dinghy to the back of the rescue boat by some insane complication of macramé, and was about to pull the start cord on the outboard again. Eleanor thought of Roddy - thought of her parents’ carefully instilled creed of politeness - realised that the strange young man would in truth be hurt if she turned his offer down - gulped and decided to wing it.
“Yes - thank you, that’s very kind - only I don’t have very long - I’m supposed to be meeting my husband in the main square for lunch - we’re here on honeymoon, you see -“
There, she thought belatedly, if you did have an ulterior motive -
She was simultaneously overcome by her arrogance in presuming any such thing and the appalled realisation that it had not occurred to her to think of anything of the sort earlier.
The young man in the water smiled up at her. He had a disarming grin, made more unthreatening by his broken, peeling nose and rounded features.
“Then I’ll buy you both a drink. Least I can do, seeing as I just nearly widowed him. See you later. The name’s Neville, by the way.”
- and then the outboard on the rescue craft roared into life, and they were heading back towards the base at a considerable rate of knots, and she was not sure he had caught her own, hurried, self-introduction over the noise of the engine.
It had taken her less time than she had feared to deal with the boatyard (who persisted, reassuringly, in their view that worse things happened at sea; and that duct tape would solve all and, if she could bear not to take the boat out that afternoon, they’d have it all sorted by tomorrow); disentangle her hair (it always tended to the bushy side when wet); slide into her cotton frock and sandals, and to head into the village square where four or five tavernas converged.
She was obscurely relieved to note that Roddy had not, in fact, made his way down from the villa yet; in fact, even her new acquaintance had not found his way to the main square by the time she got there. Apart from quantities of the island’s cats, the only person present when she arrived in the central concourse was a slight, elegant figure wearing a Panama hat, long-sleeved black silk shirt, and baggy, black linen draw-string trousers; who was tipping his chair dangerously back on two legs, putting his head and most of his body into the shade of a venerable lime tree which overhung a corner of the square, his feet on the aluminium table; a battered copy of Beasts and Superbeasts in his hands. He made no acknowledgement whatsoever of her arrival, but merely turned another page.
She sat down a couple of tables away, and wished she’d thought to bring a book, too. Fortunately, before the situation could become too awkward, there was a cheerful shout from the other side of the village square.
“Hi! Sorry I kept you waiting.”
Neville, now dressed in sawn-off jeans and a T-shirt, was picking his way through the maze of tables and chairs that covered the square. His shout, it seemed, had attracted the attention of the other tourist, who sat up abruptly, allowing the front legs of his chair to return to earth with a resounding thump. He removed his sunglasses to reveal a pair of intent eyes, set in a sharp-featured face. Neville spotted him at about the same time.
“Oh, hello, you. The crew told me you’d emerged at last. I see you’re opting for the Mafioso chic look today?”
The black-clad man smiled but, Eleanor thought with a sudden shiver, in a thin-lipped way that added an extra edge to the joke.
“Yes. Indeed. So go on. Make me an offer I can’t spell,” he drawled.
Neville raised his eyebrows and pantomimed shock.
“Leaving your options wide open, aren’t you? Don’t tempt me. Anyway, how long have you been on shore?”
He shrugged. “Just long enough to have pole position on the jetty for watching that idiot girl in the dinghy try to T-bone you.”
An embarrassed tide of red spread over her face and shoulders. Neville sighed. “Draco, do take that foot out of your mouth. You’ll be needing to make room for the other one in a minute.”
He turned to her. “I do apologise for him, really. Eleanor (I did catch your name properly, didn’t I?) meet Draco. Draco: Eleanor. The collision with whose dinghy I was totally to blame for, earlier. I promised to buy her a drink as a minor apology for attempting to drown her on her honeymoon.”
“Honeymoon?” His friend’s eyes glittered with interest. “If it’s your honeymoon, what on earth are you doing wasting time sailing when you could be -“
Neville’s voice was sharply reproving.
“Draco! However you were planning to end that sentence, don’t.”
Despite his tone, he was grinning and Draco responded to his expression not his words. His face, also, relaxed.
“There you are, you see. You met Neville less than half an hour ago and already he’s given you a perfect illustration of what he sees as his two main aims in life. Taking the blame for everything, and keeping me in line. Both doomed to be eternally frustrated, of course. That’s my main aim in life.”
Neville made no attempt to deny this assertion. Instead, he pulled up a chair at Draco’s table, and gestured to Eleanor to join them. The waiter appeared at her side at this precise moment.
“Er - kally speh rah,” she began carefully, conscious of Daddy’s dictum that even if one only spoke a little of a language, it was far better to attempt to communicate in it, at the price of feeling a prize chump, rather than behave like an ignorant tripper, and expect everyone to speak your language.
The waiter looked at her with bafflement.
At which point Draco turned to him, and unleashed a positive torrent of fast, fluent Greek which (from the changes in the waiter’s expression) was amusing, informative and distinctly scurrilous, all at the same time. At the first pause, the waiter nodded, and started to enumerate something on his fingers, keeping up a running commentary in the same language.
When he had finished, Draco turned back to the others and smiled sweetly. “Well, if you’re planning on lunching here, he suggests that you go and inspect the fish in person. Just landed and positively flapping, allegedly. Anyway, onto more important things. What are you having to drink? Can’t keep the chap hanging about all day.”
That settled, and the waiter on his way back inside, she turned to Draco.
“Golly,” she said, “I wish I was that good at languages.”
“Try cheating,” Neville suggested helpfully. Draco wrinkled his nose.
“You’re only jealous. Just because I’ve been blessed with the gift of tongues.”
Neville, who looked rather as though he had wanted to say something different, turned instead to Eleanor.
“Anyway, what are you planning on eating?”
She paused. Having lunch with them had not formed any part of her plans. She prevaricated.
“Well, I don’t think I can really say until my husband gets here and I know what he was planning to do about lunch.”
Her voice trailed off, a trifle hesitantly. She really wasn’t at all sure how Roddy was going to react if these two assumed - and they did seem to have a tremendous capacity for assuming, both of them - they would join them for lunch since Roddy had not even met them. On the positive side, judging by their accents and manners they did plainly fall in the category Roddy liked to call “PLU”. Even as she thought it, she winced; she knew what he meant, of course, and it was hypocritical - as he’d pointed out several times - for her to complain about his actually saying it when it was true she made the same assessment every time she met someone new - everyone did -
Neville smiled at her.
“Well, while you’re waiting for him I’ll go and take a look at the fish. As we’re here early, if it’s as good as he claims it might make sense to earmark the cream of the catch before the mad rush happens.”
He vanished into the depths of the taverna, passing the waiter who was bringing their drinks in the doorway and, she noted enviously, also managing to exchange a few brief words in Greek. Draco leaned back again in his chair, curled his fingers round his beer, and said,
“Personally, I’m planning to go for the kalamarakia. I do adore squid; it reminds me so of school.”
Eleanor’s mouth dropped open: a shade inelegantly, she reflected a moment later.
“Goodness! You must have gone to a most unusual school,” she exclaimed. His brow wrinkled.
“True enough, but what makes you say so?”
Before she could stop him, he was topping up her retsina from the bottle that - despite her insistence only on a glass - the waiter seemed to have presented them with, and raising an enquiring eyebrow. Eleanor blushed a little.
“Well - it’s just that my husband - from everything he’s said about Stoneyhurst - the last thing that would persuade him to order anything in a restaurant would be if it reminded him of school - and Daddy said the same about Rugby - I’d assumed all public schools were the same -“
“Far from it, as the Beater said when he aimed the Bludger at the opposition Seeker and took off the umpire’s head.”
From his tone it must be a quotation; indeed, it had a vaguely familiar sound - but infuriatingly she couldn’t place it. Though she must have made some sort of gaffe - though she was puzzled to see what it could be -
She took a large gulp of the retsina to cover her confusion, and then another. Draco topped up her glass again before she could stop him.
Life - in the hot still noon of the village square - started to acquire an attractively blurry edge.
Phooey, she muttered. Yes; Roddy might object to her striking up acquaintances with other tourists - yes, other tourists, she said spunkily to Daddy, who seemed to have intruded himself in her thoughts as the other half of the conversation. But so what? She was grown up, and a married woman, and begged leave to choose her friends and acquaintances for herself, thank you.
From a place she had suddenly found outside of herself, she looked down at Reverend Mother, and Mummy and - yes, even Daddy and Roddy - and told them politely but firmly -
“Elli! I’m sure that’s more than enough. For the middle of the day. Especially as you aren’t used to drinking.”
Guiltily she looked up and then round. Roddy’s approach - from the opposite side of the square to the one she’d been expecting him from - had been so unobtrusive that he was leaning over the back of her chair before she had noticed his arrival.
Draco leaned back in his chair and raised an eyebrow.
“Ah. You must be the husband, I take it.”
Roddy looked first at him, and then - slowly - at her. Eleanor repressed a shiver. Roddy’s voice was coldly polite as he responded.
“Excuse me? “The husband”?”
Draco’s eyebrow went higher.
“Oh!” he said. “I’m sorry, but it hadn’t occurred to me that Eleanor was likely to be into that sort of thing. My mistake. A husband, then. Of course.”
Eleanor thought, for a moment, she had forgotten how to breathe. And then, in the interminable instant before Roddy responded, she caught with relief Neville’s cheerful Northern accent from the taverna doorway.
“I think you and your husband ought to seriously think about eating here, Eleanor. They’ve got some swordfish that looks simply - “
He broke off, abruptly. Roddy spun on the spot. Through the heavy silence in the noon-baked square Neville walked onwards towards the table, his eyes fixed on her husband. Eleanor noted that Roddy’s skin had paled; his habitual tan looked like a scum on top of a profound pallor. His muscular hand clenched into a fist below the level of the table. Neville had a reddish flush that accentuated his recent sunburn. Draco’s eyes flickered from one to the other, his lips set in a tight line.
Neville spoke first.
“Roddy. Good heavens. Well, fancy meeting you here. After all these years.”
With fastidious precision Draco picked up the half-lemon - so under ripe it looked more like a lime - and squeezed juice over the florets of deep fried tentacle on his plate, as though the placement of every drop was the deployment of an infantry company in a battle that would decide the fate of empires.
Neville - drawn in by the disproportion between the effort expended and the sheer inconsequentiality of the whole proceedings - lost his nerve, and broke his self-willed silence.
“Yes?” he enquired irritably.
“Yes,” his lover agreed. Infuriatingly, Draco then paused. He smiled.
“So,” he added after a moment’s thought, “unfinished business. I presume.”
Neville gritted his teeth.
“The last bit of your unfinished business we met was, if I recall correctly, seated astride a Doomsday Missile and all set to destroy the world.”
With a leisurely air, Draco contemplated one of the squidlets on his plate. He speared it, ate it; and smiled.
“Um, yes, Pansy. And you should have had to deal with her when the PMT was really being a problem. I agree. Entirely. No room to talk. No room at all.”
He tipped the rest of the bottle of wine into his own glass before continuing.
“So,” Draco said, his tone for once absolutely serious, as he gestured for the waiter and a refill, “when was he? And why?”
Neville thought, rapidly. He had - one always does - thought he had given up to his lover as much as it was discreet and proper to know about those who had gone before. And the humiliation and sense of faint ridicule that was always stirred up on those infrequent occasions when he disturbed his ghosts scarcely demanded that he pull anything deeper out of the past.
“It was a very long time ago,” he said.
“Obviously.” Draco reached across him to the olive-oil flask compressed in the cruet next to the paper napkins. Having sprinkled the oil on his bread, he gestured expansively with the flask.
“I cannot possibly imagine,” he added, “that you could ever have dreamt of taking to bed that - moppet - at any time when I was a remotely plausible alternate contingency.”
Involuntarily, Neville gave vent to a choked gasp of amusement. “Moppet” was the last word he would have chosen to describe Roddy, personally; he had bulked up considerably since he had seen him last although - being Roddy - it was all muscle without an ounce of fat. But he had lost most of what he had once possessed by way of neck, in his studied muscularity, and Neville did not think the change had been for the better.
He pictured Roddy’s likely reaction to hearing Draco describe him so, and giggled again.
“Good,” Draco added dreamily, “I’m glad we share the same outlook.”
Involuntarily, Neville’s voice had acquired a hard, almost accusing edge. “I was sixteen when I met Roddy the first time - Easter holidays 1998. If you want to be so clever, tell me what - no, who - you were doing then - OK?”
Draco paused. His voice dropped to a husky purr.
“Spring 1998? Well let me see.” His voice changed, became less emphatic. “Yes. Um, yes. Awkward times. The Dark Lord did indeed want a little harmony among his - um - family - “
Neville saw Draco’s lips curl away from the word as if it had been bathed in acid. Nevertheless, he continued speaking.
“That would be when I was learning Dark Arts. Properly, I mean. Not Defence, and not from a procession of doddering incompetents.”
Draco’s tongue flicked out, moistening his dry lips.
“From a lecherous old goat with a remarkable facility for the Imperius curse, I have to say.”
“Draco! He didn’t - ?”
A chopping gesture with one elegant hand cut him short.
“Well. Less than he might have. Curious sense of honour among - yes, well, among what would you call them? Oh well. People didn’t join the Death Eaters to explore their mutual interests in jam-making and swapping crochet patterns, after all. No doubt he was waiting to go further until I became fully one of the gang.”
“What became of him in the end?” Partly that was real interest; partly an attempt to deflect Draco - not that it was likely to work, such efforts never did - from continuing his own probing. Momentarily Draco looked surprised, and then calculating; rather like someone who had suddenly hit upon a possible solution to a cryptic crossword clue and was trying it to see whether it fitted the space.
“Actually, you killed him.”
That took him aback. “I did? When?”
Draco shrugged. “That time we went after the Lamina Regis, remember, and we got to the small-holding a short head behind the Death Eater ambush?”
Even after so long, he flinched. They had walked into hell that day (the bodies of the old couple who had owned it, their battered skulls loaded with clustered, satiated masses of bluebottles, lying prone amid the heartless early summer glory of the flowerbeds). Getting out had taken desperate measures, which previously he had not dreamt he was capable of. Disarmed early, he had flung a loop of baler twine around the neck of one masked Death Eater, in a desperate attempt to deflect his wand’s focus from Draco.
And then - feeling the writhing Death Eater go suddenly limp - falling heavily forwards and away from him - realising, with an odd sense that the world was shifting away from him, and the patterns of the stars had altered, that the man was dead, and that he had strangled him personally.
“Um, yes, him.” Draco gestured with a bit of bread. “When his mask fell off as he dropped - god, those masks were about the Dark Lord’s second stupidest idea ever, you had to enchant them six ways to Sunday to make yourself able to see a blind thing - and while obviously his face was pretty much changed -“
“I know - “
The suffused, bloated face of the strangled man, his black tongue lolling horribly from his collapsed jaw, had haunted his sleep for years, and during his recent illness had jeered endlessly at him through an interminable succession of fever dreams. Draco looked up at him with quick concern, as quickly veiled.
“Well, anyway, I didn’t have time to do more than think god, he looks familiar - I wonder where - before the next wave of them hit us and we had to bolt. I think we were halfway across the next county before I thought oh, yes, so that’s who - Do you want me to do you the same favour?”
The question, so abrupt and so incongruous in the sleepy sunshine of the whitewashed village square, shocked him upright.
Draco shrugged, but his hooded eyes had a sharply intent glitter about them.
“Don’t act all surprised at this, but I didn’t care at all for - Roddy.” The slight pause before saying his name made his distaste all the more palpable. “I didn’t like the way he looked at you.”
Neville vented a high, mirthless laugh. “Hardly reason for strangling someone. And anyway, I doubt you’re right. I’d have thought that would be the last expression that would be crossing his face, today.”
Draco crunched another squidlet before responding. “Oh, I agree. And anyway, I’ve got no objection at all to people looking at you in that way. In fact, it gives me a hell of a kick to watch other people counting my blessings.”
Neville snorted. “Well, each to their own kinks. But I shouldn’t imagine you get much fuel for that one.”
Draco went pale and there was the tension about the corners of his mouth and flaring of his nostrils that betrayed that some invisible line had been crossed, and that he was now truly angry.
“Oh, try keeping your eyes open about you, why don’t you? Try working on actual facts, not lunatic beliefs about yourself for once in a while. You are extremely fanciable, and wanting to drag you off to bed and fuck you - repeatedly - is not a unique perversion I happen to have invented all by my little self.”
He paused, and with a hand that was not entirely steady refilled his glass again, and downed the contents in one. The wine seemed to put a brake on his intensity, because his expression changed, and he said,
“And, come to think of it, I wouldn’t be at all surprised if Roddy wasn’t half way to blame for that nonsense in the first place.”
That jolted him. He thought, cautiously, around the implications. Although it had happened often enough by now, it was still a surprise to encounter Draco’s flesh-curdling lack of tact accompanied by insights that others missed or, if they appreciated, did not allude to.
“No,” he said carefully. “I think I was doing it to myself well before he came on the scene. But come to think about it - if you were to say encouraging it rather than causing it - I wouldn’t say that you were wrong.”
Draco’s exhalation had a faint note of triumph about it.
“Could a human be part-Dementor, do you think?” Without waiting for an answer - and, indeed, Neville could hardly have found one if asked - he added,
“Why is he scared of you?”
Draco nodded. “That was how he was looking at you. Scared, and as though he hated you, a little. Or something about you.”
He snorted, cynically. “Afraid I might let something slip to - whatserface - Eleanor, no doubt.”
“He won’t have said?”
“Roddy?” He snorted again. “So far into the closet his post gets sorted in Narnia.” He could tell Draco had missed the reference, so he amplified. “Deliberately tell her about something like that? When he’s gone out and got himself a nice innocent girl so he can play nice normal happy families for the rest of his life?”
His face told its own story, it seemed. Draco nodded, gravely, acceptingly. “I see. One of those.”
“As you say. Not really gay because blowjobs aren’t really sex. And it’s all just a phase, anyway. Just teenage hormones - though he was 22, actually, come to think of it. Anyway. You know.”
Draco raised a questioning eyebrow.
“Was it you who ditched him, or vice versa?”
“Me.” His mouth was dry. Draco, his eyes narrowed in thought, nodded.
“Mm. A first, I suspect. Very unfinished business - for him. And abysmally timed, your reappearance. His problem, though. So. Your call. Do I tell the crew to up anchor and push off to Preveza or somewhere? Or hammer it up the coast for a couple of days, and go and drop in on ma’s island? She told us to bob by if we got a chance.”
In the square it was suddenly very quiet; it seemed as though more ears than Draco’s were hanging on his response. And the temptation was, for the moment, overwhelming; they had a boat, no fixed plans, no pressing reason to stay in one harbour rather than another. It would be a diplomatic withdrawal, in everyone’s interests: a kindness, in fact.
He shaped his mouth to assent to the proposition, but the words stuck in his throat.
I was born of the hills and the hills endure. Let others retreat.
“No,” he said hoarsely. “We stay.”
Draco looked up from his demolished squid, started to say something, and then appeared to change his mind.
“Your choice,” he said, and then his face became lit by a sudden, malicious amusement. “Perhaps it’ll turn out to be fun. Anyway, it’s been a long morning. Can I suggest that we’d both benefit from a siesta? Back on board?”
And the invitation was naked in his expression.
“No, Eleanor,” Roddy snapped irritably. “I do not think I’m overreacting.”
“Well,” she snapped back, “how can I possibly be supposed to tell if you don’t let me know anything?”
His expression was so appalled that she felt an instant urge to apologise (though, the small rebellious part of her brain muttered, knowing what she was apologising for would still be nice).
“I mean,” she persisted, “I gather you know Neville - “
“I knew him,” Roddy corrected. His pace quickened, so she almost had to run to keep up with him. As they double-timed it up the white pebbled track through the olive groves towards the villa the sun was hot on the back of Eleanor’s bare neck; she thought regretfully of the shade of the lime tree in the village square, and the cool of a glass of chilled retsina in her hand.
“It was,” he added quellingly, “a very long time ago. When I was doing a work placement, after I’d finished at Cirencester, up in the Ribble Valley. And we haven’t seen each other since, and I, for one, would have preferred it if we hadn’t again, either.”
“Oh, Roddy, why? He seemed perfectly nice - and his friend -“
“His friend?” Roddy’s face twisted in distaste. “Honestly, Eleanor, I do wish you’d grow up a bit. They were hardly acting just as friends. In fact, that blond p - ” he bit off what he was going to say and substituted, instead, ” that way he was just ogling him - just so completely slithering all over him - it looked as though in half a minute he’d have been stripping those shorts right off him - oh, it made me feel ill to watch it. Even you ought to have noticed.”
“Golly! Do you really think that’s true?” She got the impression, from Roddy’s furious glance, that her response was not all he had expected of her. Nevertheless, her inner honesty had to admit that her principal feeling was disappointment, tinged with faint self-reproach that she must have let major clues wash straight over her head - of course, Reverend Mother had always claimed that she was undoubtedly the most unobservant pupil that she’d taught, and doubtless would say that this only proved it - it was a pity, in a way, because although there were of course people like that around the University - for instance, Daddy’s research assistant, a couple of years ago, who hadn’t really worked out (not a truly scholarly brain) - she’d never, somehow, really had a chance to talk to them.
And though, of course, it would be far too cringe-makingly embarrassing to actually ask them anything really personal (she blushed a fiery red at the very thought of it) but it would be - interesting - to find out what they actually thought about things. Did they accept it was Sin, but do it anyway, or was it sorted out in their own minds, somehow, so it wasn’t? And how did they think of couples like her and Roddy - just too unbelievably boring and conventional for words; or did they feel resentful about their serene unquestionable acceptability? And if they did think it was Sin, what would it be like to - presumably - love someone so much that one carried on regardless, despite its being Sin, and hang the consequences? Awful, of course, but somehow rather magnificently romantic all the same - All for love and the world well lost -
“Ellie! You have got to be the single scattiest person I’ve ever come across. You clearly haven’t heard a single word I’ve said for the last five minutes.”
They were at the door of the villa, and she felt a sudden moment of rebellion at the approaching dark fustiness of its interior, and a surge of regret for the dappled sun and shadow of the village square.
“Well?” she said jutting her chin defiantly. “It just seems silly to bear a grudge all this time. And on your honeymoon, too. You ought to make it up, whatever it was all about.” A thought struck her. It was her honeymoon; and there was a certain power she possessed here, traditionally. A borrowed power, it was true, but, nonetheless, an archaic and very real one. She decided to push her luck.
“Please? For my sake? After all, it is our honeymoon. And in all charity, and for the grace of God, we ought - “
His very expression froze her before she could continue.
“Ellie.” His voice was clinical, dismissive. “I really don’t think you can possibly have a clue what we quarrelled about.”
Belatedly, embarrassingly, insight came upon her.
“Oh, gosh! Oh dear! You don’t mean - um - did he make a pass at you or something? Was that what you fell out about?”
Her husband’s brow darkened ominously.
“NO! Of course not!”
He looked at her, and then added, “Nothing like that at all. Don’t be absurd. Anyway, it was a long time ago and I’m not going into it. I think it’s disgusting for you to think about that sort of thing.”
He looked back out over the terrace, and said,
“I hope we don’t keep tripping over them. After all, it’s not a big village and we don’t know how long they’re going to be here for. Did they happen to tell you which villa they were staying at?”
She did conscientiously try not to trade on her superior information; but it was difficult not to sound a trifle smug, notwithstanding.
“Oh they aren’t in a villa. They’re on a yacht. That one.” She nodded through the tiny window (they had now drifted to the pine-furnished, barely equipped kitchen of the villa, which nonetheless boasted a view over the bay and the two encompassing lobster-claws of its defining headlands which an emperor might have killed for). There was, this evening, only one boat to which she could possibly have been referring.
“Oh!” There was a new note in Roddy’s voice. It changed, and became slow, considering.
“Goodness! When I knew Neville in Lancashire, I certainly wouldn’t have thought of him as the luxury yacht type.” He paused. “Though they did say his grandmother was very well off. Not that she looked it. If you ever went round there, she’d be wearing a coat that looked as though it had been made in the 1940s, and as for her hat -!”
He paused again.
“I suppose - she was very old - she might have died. Or perhaps - that friend looks the flashy sort - did he happen to tell you what he did for a living?”
Eleanor was abruptly conscious of a faint chill below her diaphragm. Anxious as she had been to avoid a nonsensical row, based on ancient history, it somehow hurt, physically, even to suspect that her husband might be prepared to compromise his principles because of a yacht. Even one which - her baser instincts acknowledged - she would have given her eye teeth to be taken over and shown below. She was aware her voice sounded dismissive as she said,
“I expect it’s only chartered. It’s Greek registered, you know.”
Roddy, she saw with some exasperation, didn’t seem to have heard. He was staring out to sea, his face abstracted and remote. After a prolonged pause, however, he turned to her.
“I’m sorry, Eleanor. You are quite right. It’s not as if we can really do anything except spoil our stay by being standoffish. Not that I suggest we should push it; just if you get a chance, see if you can talk to them. Try to find out what their plans are. They seem to like you. And if they are staying around, one night soon we ought to have dinner. Tonight, if they’re free. Let’s let bygones be bygones, ok?”
She nodded, dumbly. He smiled.
“What a good job I had the foresight to opt to get the villa stocked in advance. We’ve still got plenty left of the cheese, and half a lettuce and the cucumber and tomatoes. Why don’t you make us a nice cheese salad for lunch?”
Neville shrugged. “You heard me. She came up to me when I was having a coffee and asked if we were free to join them at that taverna overlooking the harbour for dinner tonight.”
Draco gaped at him (it was faintly amusing to see how near-perfect bone-structure could convert an expression that on anyone else would merely convey “gormless” into “effortlessly, elegantly, intriguingly gormless”). Nonetheless, Neville was steadied by his air of consternation; for one thing, it gave him a reassuring sense of being taken seriously.
“So - what did you tell her?”
“I accepted, of course.” He shrugged again. “What else could I tell her?”
Which was, of course, was the fundamental, irritating fact about the whole business, grinding away like a small pebble trapped inside one’s walking-boot. And more irritating, too, to know that Roddy still had the power, after all these years, to force him to do what Roddy wanted, against his own wishes, against his better judgment, or else feel he’d been exposed to the world in all his uncouth incompetence.
Draco looked at him. “Well, you could have told her that actually, sorry, but you’d got a hot date with your lover, two pairs of leather hand-cuffs, a kit-bag full of assorted sex toys and a tub of taramasalata.”
There was a pause. For Draco, presumably, it was occupied by picturing the probable effect of such a statement on Eleanor, or, conceivably, working out how much effort it would take to put into effect the scene he’d postulated. In fact, given his increasingly glazed expression to say nothing of other indications, it seemed more than a little probable that -
His lover returned to consciousness with a start, and regarded him with an expression of slyly speculative amusement. Neville started to feel better. And after all, if one had experienced getting on for seven years of a relationship with Draco - god, how had it got to be so long? - one had to have learnt some survival skills. Dead-pan, factual accuracy. No reaction at all. That was the ticket.
“Well, I could have. But I didn’t. Sorry. So that’s it. We’re going. At seven. Sorry.”
There was the sound of a deeply irritated “huff”. And then, as he had by this time half-expected, an immediately following yawn; warm, encompassing, and heart-easingly accepting.
“Oh, fuck! So you expect me to be bored stupid all evening by some Muggle arsehole, just to bandage your ego? From some time last century, for god’s sake?”
“Yes,” he said simply. “That’s what couples are for.”
Draco wrinkled his elegant nose. “Oh, well. If you must.” His expression became intent; almost exalted. “One thing, though.”
“Yes?” Watching him, Neville felt his stomach detach into free-fall.
“Well,” Draco said with the logical inevitability of someone who sets out a scientific proposition, with all its accompanying proofs on the table, “oughtn’t we to invite them to cocktails? On board? Before dinner? After all, my mother always told me: ‘Never, if you can help it, allow your enemy to meet you at the start of a crucial engagement, on neutral ground, or, worse yet, his own.’ “
He gaped feebly across at him. “But Roddy isn’t exactly my enemy - “
“No?” Draco’s eyes were wide and pale; Neville was reminded, disconcertingly, that while usually Draco’s strong resemblance to his mother dominated his features, on occasions like the present a haunting reminder that he was indeed his father’s son would surface.
Smoothly, Draco continued.
“Maybe not yours, but I can assure you, he most definitely happens to be mine.”
Those eyes held a hypnotic compulsion all their own. Without wanting to, he found himself asking, “Why?”
His eyes widened yet further. “Because he makes you unhappy.”
Neville gaped at him. Draco smiled.
“Good,” he said gently. “I’m glad you understand. I told the crew to be ready to ferry them over a little after six.”
“You - ” Words failed him. “You invited them already? And they accepted?”
A small inclination of the head was all he was vouchsafed in reply. After a moment’s silent and unprofitable steaming he recovered the use of language.
“And suppose I’d told you I’d rather lick every inch of the decks clean personally with my tongue than let him set a foot aboard?”
Draco’s eyes were watchful, but his tone did not differ an iota from before.
“Then I’d send the engineer - he’s big enough and dim enough - with our apologies and to explain that we’d unexpectedly succumbed to leprosy since lunchtime.“ The silence hung charged between them, before Neville - as he had always known he would - blinked.
“OK,” he muttered. “If you really think we should.”
“Of course,” he added delicately, “there is still quite a bit of time left until six. Especially given the illegal Time-turner I’ve got stashed in the false bottom to the navigator’s seat. And there’s definitely some taramasalata left in the galley cool-box, and I could improvise the hand-cuffs from a bunch of sail-ties -“
“Duck-tape,” Neville murmured reminiscently. “Duck tape and WD40.”
Draco wrinkled his nose. “Well, if you insist - sounds wildly masochistic to me.”
Neville grinned at him. “Perhaps we’ll stick with the sail-ties.”
The dinner was really not going well. All things considered.
Eleanor looked rather uneasily across the table at her husband. Draco, with many excitable hand gestures, and occasional excursions into Greek and, once or twice, French, was being febrile and witty; some of his remarks struck her as rather random and disconnected, and she wondered if he was not, perhaps, rather drunk. Neville, while much less extrovert, made an effort to keep the conversation to the point, and what little he said seemed interesting, and very sensible. Roddy was ill at ease and seemed, from his short snapped responses to conversational overtures and pre-occupied silences between times, to be in a bad mood. Of course, there was some justification for that.
First, the cocktail party on board Alecto had stretched out unexpectedly, due to the extravagant generosity of the refreshments (she had never had Dom Perignon before, and was slightly conscious now that she had made up for the omission rather thoroughly).
Further delay occurred when her hosts had insisted, on catching the briefest of longing glances from her towards the companion-way, on taking her on a stem to stern guided tour of the yacht, above and below (and the layout below had turned out to be even more opulent and better equipped than she’d expected - there were instruments on the navigation station that were so sophisticated that she didn’t have the faintest clue what their purpose was). Miraculously, they’d somehow managed to show the yacht to her without making her feel the least bit pushy or toadying for asking, either.
When, eventually, Roddy’s throat-clearings and pointed looking at his watch had driven them to consider leaving the yacht they were running a little late for their table (though, as Draco had pointed out, it was hardly as though, by Greek time, turning up at quarter-to-eight for a meal planned for seven was anything other than neurotically early; nor, indeed had the taverna owner taken any notice whatsoever of her attempt, earlier, at Roddy’s insistence, on booking a table for a set time).
And at that point - Eleanor still wasn’t sure quite what had happened. Draco had gone first down into the dinghy, in order to guide her foot to the thwart as she followed him down the collapsible ladder. Not that it had been needed, actually, but it was a nice gesture. Roddy had followed her - waved her assisting hand away - and then somehow the tethered dinghy had swung, on the end of its painter, away from the side of the parent yacht just at the moment when Roddy was caught with a foot on each.
The resulting ducking was inevitable.
As, it appeared, when Roddy’s head broke the surface of the water, were the recriminations.
Draco (keeping a straight face with evident difficulty, the more so when Roddy, in the teeth of his blandness, had started to go ballistic) had blamed a sudden gust of wind, but then she hadn’t felt anything - but then she was equally sure despite Roddy’s spluttered allegations that neither of them had touched the yacht hull, or done anything to shift the dinghy - and as for Neville, he’d been waiting on deck with polite blamelessness, and been nowhere near the scene of the crime -
Anyway, they’d fished Roddy out and towelled him down and found him some spare clothes of Neville’s - not nearly as smart as the rugby club blazer and cream cavalry twill slacks he’d started the evening in, admittedly, and certainly they were a little big for him, but hardly so ill-fitting or out of place as to justify his apparent determination to look uncomfortable in them: really, she would never have suspected Roddy of finding minor inconveniences and trials so discombobulating - what a good job they hadn’t walked into the same concatenation of honeymoon mess-ups as Peter and Harriet had-
At the thought of Roddy covered in soot and groping blindly around a living room enveloped in an old curtain her self-control failed, and a small giggle escaped her. The others, who seemed to be now discussing Greek weather, looked at her with some surprise.
“I’m sorry?” Neville said. Roddy made an impatient gesture.
“Oh, don’t mind Ellie. She lives in a world of her own, half the time. I doubt even she would be able to tell you what she found so funny.”
That needled her, and she had blurted, “Actually, I was thinking about a bit in a detective story -” before realising that going on to explain the analogy would hardly be tactful, all things considered. Roddy, already, was tapping his forehead and mouthing, “What did I tell you?” with exaggerated bonhomie at the other two.
Draco looked animated. “Oh, really?” He smiled, faintly maliciously. “Now you mention it, I think I might know the one, too. But I love detective stories. I keep getting lost in the hidden back rooms of second-hand bookshops trying to hunt up the really old ones, you know, with mysterious Chinamen and poisons which defy medical analysis, and the sinister stranger who comes back out of the past with the deep dark secret, and the Evil Mastermind’s Conspiracy To Destroy Europe With a Death Ray; then Neville gets into a major panic - you’ll know all about that tendency, of course, Roddy - that I’ve been sucked out of the space-time continuum altogether and tries to get Hermione to tell him where to find me. She’s got an uncanny instinct for bookshops, Hermione. Even the antiquarian sort with the secret chambers that don’t appear on the plans. Doesn’t let them see she’s afraid.”
“Hermione?” Roddy raised his eyebrows. “Who’s she?”
Draco looked faintly surprised to be asked, almost as though he thought one ought to be able to follow his conversation by instinct, without being given any context whatsoever.
“Our local vicar’s wife.”
“Oh.” Roddy reached for the bread basket. “Jumble sales and home-made jam. I see.”
Draco and Neville exchanged a complex, amused glance. “A potentially fatal underestimation, I assure you. But perhaps they breed vicars - and their wives - differently in your neck of the woods.”
Almost as an afterthought, Draco added,
“By the way, where is it you hang out?”
Roddy looked rather offended - possibly, Eleanor thought, at being accused of hanging out anywhere. “Gloucestershire,” he muttered. Draco smiled brightly.
“How nice. We’re practically neighbours. Wiltshire. Where are you near to?”
“Stroud,” he said, somewhat to Eleanor’s surprise; she hadn’t measured it, but she’d always assumed they were nearer Tetbury. But possibly he was being deliberately vague, almost, she thought, as if he had some absurd fear that these two might one day turn up, unheralded, on their doorstep, despite that no-one you met on holiday got beyond a Christmas card, and not usually that, however much well-meaning exchanging of addresses had gone on.
Draco reached across for the bottle of the richly astringent red that had arrived to accompany the spit-roasted, rosemary-scented lamb. Somehow, at the outset of the meal, the menu seemed to have been waved away as a pallid myth bearing no resemblance to the realities of what the kitchen could produce.
The food they were now eating, it seemed, was something quite other; brought into being under the influence of Draco’s fluent Greek and his deployment of self-evidently outrageous charm against the black-gowned be-aproned crone (apparently the proprietor’s mother) who had emerged from the kitchen first to spit fury and then to capitulate into amused, maternal compliance with his eloquently expressed wishes. After which a succession of intriguing, lovingly-prepared dishes had emerged at a leisurely, regular, digestive pace over the course of the evening.
“May I?” Draco enquired, his hand hovering above Eleanor’s tumbler. Mindful of the morning’s fiasco, she cocked an eye in Roddy’s direction before responding, only to note, embarrassedly, that Draco had also looked pointedly in the same direction before asking the question.
“Make your own mind up,” he said ungraciously. “You don’t listen to anything I say. And if you want to make an idiot of yourself -“
“Oh, I’m sure there’s no risk of that,” Draco interposed. “After all, it’s not as if Eleanor has to negotiate a dinghy and a swimming ladder in order to get herself safely back home after having a drink or so.”
Silence fell across the whole table. Roddy glared back at him.
“Just what are you insinuating?”
Draco smiled. “Only that you two have an easier trip home, all things considered, than we have. Only a white winding road through the olive groves to stumble along, and for that matter, no doubt the ditches round here are dry and soft, and the night is warm - why, what did you think I meant?”
“The stuff you’ve been coming out with, this evening, I don’t know what the hell you mean by this time.”
Draco raised an eyebrow pointedly.
“Really? You surprise me.”
Roddy swallowed; it was clear, Eleanor thought apprehensively, that he was now truly angry.
“Whatever you say, I can drink you under the table, any time you care to challenge me.”
The solitary eyebrow lifted higher with effortless insolence.
“I assure you, that whatever you might think - or want - to the contrary, I haven’t the slightest desire to be under this table - or any other - in your company. So I think I’ll decline the offer. Anyway, Eleanor? Your glass is still empty.”
“Thank you,” she muttered, through dry lips. It might be a mistake, but recapturing some of that fuzziness of lunchtime looked like heaven from this perspective.
Roddy continued to look truculent - with a sinking feeling she realised that, after all, her husband was indeed more than a little drunk and that she had no experience whatsoever with how one dealt with this particular social situation. From the end of the table, in the vague light of the bare bulbs hanging from the vine leaf-canopy above their heads, each with its corona of dancing, transfixed, doomed insects, she caught sight of Neville smiling encouragingly at her with his fingers spread in front of him above the table in a gesture which she had little difficulty in interpreting as “Don’t intervene. Let them get it out of their systems.” She smiled helplessly back.
“Anyway,” - with a start, she noticed that some part of the preceding conversation had been missed by her - “if you’d ever been a member of a rugby club - which, of course, isn’t likely in your case, is it? - you’d be enough of a gentleman to understand the concept of Tour Rules.”
“It’s true, I’m not a rugby player,” Draco admitted.
As she saw her husband’s sardonic eye passing dismissively over his thin, short frame, Eleanor (who had stood on freezing North-Eastern touch-lines ever since she had been old enough to graduate from sitting in push-chairs in the same place) with a cold chill suddenly pictured a slight, energetic, shrimp-like son (Mummy was no more than 5’ tall, and bird-like with it, and Roddy’s mother hardly more bulky) who would be no more likely to make the First XV than she was; and an infinity of negotiating his relationship with his father as a result.
“Roddy - ” she began.
“Thought not,” Roddy snorted.
Draco smiled. “But I have heard of “Tour Rules.” Actually, something similar does apply in my own sport. Which, I confess, I continue to play as the rankest amateur. Though, fortunately - ” he looked very directly at Neville as he spoke -“they aren’t something I’ve thought to rely on personally. But if I understand the theory correctly, it’s that nothing - or no-one - one does when away from home or sufficiently drunk should ever be mentioned by one’s tour mates to anyone back home. Have I got it right?”
He turned, his eyes wide and bland, his pose open, towards Roddy.
Her husband parted his lips to speak -
And was forestalled by Draco adding, thoughtfully,
“But, I have to confess, I’m in difficulties about their relevance at this precise moment. Could you enlighten me further?”
There was a pause. Broken, as it happened, by the waiter, saying in heavily accented English,
“Coffee? Baklava? Metaxa?”
The old Greek Orthodox priest, who had been sitting at the next table all evening, alternating little cups of strong sweet coffee with sips of ouzo, rose to go. He looked at all of them, and it seemed to Eleanor that his look was pitying.
“Good night, to all of you,” he said in English, adding something in Greek after it, something which resounded with a peculiar emphasis that somehow brought back the high solemnity of services on Good Friday to her ears.
“What did he say?” Eleanor asked urgently. “That last thing?”
Roddy shrugged. “Why does it matter? Honestly, Ellie, you can be such an idiot sometimes.”
But it was Neville who translated for her benefit.
“Ee Aghia Trias evloghisai kai thiaphylaxai imas . “
He paused, thinking it out slowly.
” May the Holy Trinity bless you and protect you. Should I ask for the bill along with the coffee and liqueurs? I think it would make sense.”
The bill had been paid - they were standing up to go - when someone (Eleanor thought, vaguely, later it might have been Roddy) - had suggested a final nightcap in a dark little bar in a side alley.
And they’d accepted - she’d had a Kahlua Cream, made, disconcertingly, with condensed milk - and the other three had had brandies and whiskies according to inclination and temperament - and it was when they had all got up to go that something had happened - there must have been something spilled on the bar floor - Roddy had twisted, slipped, completely out of control (Draco had, unfortunately, chosen to be sardonic about it) and his wild floundering progress had ended up in the lap of an ample, beaded personage, who turned out be to the Lady Mayoress of Heckmondwike, and a trifle inclined to stand on her municipal dignity -
The dinner had not gone well. All things considered.
Dawn found Roddy standing at the kitchen window, looking down at the bay, which was still in the shadow of the eastern headland, as the sun lifted itself above the mountains on the mainland: brooding violet presences at this time of the day, barely-seen ghosts shimmering through the heat-haze at all other times.
His stomach was churning within him, as it had all night - ridiculous to eat so late, especially greasy coarse food, probably prepared in the most primitive conditions - absurd to have so much to drink with it - rough wine accompanied by (judging from the guffaws) even rougher jokes from the waiter, responded to in - evidently - equally ribald vein by Draco (oh, it was so obvious he knew everything, the smooth bastard, and was milking the situation for what it was worth) - and then folly upon folly to drink small cups of thick coffee (hot as hell, sweet as love, black as a woman’s heart as the old proverb put it) and fierce raw brandy together with it - and then cocktails -
No wonder he had barely slept all night.
But even as he rationalised his disquiet, he lied, and knew in his heart he lied.
There was another reason he hadn’t slept.
It’s only a matter of time before one of them tells Ellie - or she guesses -
Of course he had always understood, intellectually, that Neville might reappear - might say something - in the hearing of his parents or, worse yet, his Rugby Club cronies - about their few fumbled evenings together in the back of the Caving Club headquarters - in fact, the possibility of meeting him again some day had been something which had occupied more than a few of his sleepless nights over the years - but he had always assumed that he would be more than capable of shutting Neville up if he ever re-entered his life before too much damage could be done.
It had never occurred to him that when Neville reappeared it would be as the acknowledged partner of someone like -
His brain hit its mental image of Draco again, and recoiled in a shower of blazing sparks. God! That hair, and that skin - that way he walked as though the earth he trod on ought to be paying in gold for the privilege -
Oh, shit! And what the fuck, what the fuck could someone like that possibly see in Neville of all people?
Damn it! And when Neville had actually had the nerve to walk out on him - for no bloody good reason, the ungrateful bastard.
And in all justice he ought to have come - as over the years he’d brought himself to believe he had - to a bad or, at least, an undistinguished end. Scrabbling in sweaty, noisy clubs for a few hours uneasy ease, or perhaps caught on CCTV in a stinking alleyway behind an ill-thought-out sixties block, his pants around his ankles and some middle-management cock in his mouth as the flashlight trapped them both -
Happiness ought to have been a foreign currency for him, and one where the exchange rate was set too high for him to acquire more than the barest pittance.
Instead - to turn up as half of an assured, cosmopolitan couple (seven years together, he’d found out last night) - happy, rich, secure in what he was and what he had become -
Hanging like the sword of Damocles over his own security.
It was only a miracle that Ellie hadn’t cottoned on already. And the humiliation of acknowledging the past to her was, literally, unbearable. Inside his head a voice said, with a cold finality:
This cannot be.
His eye was caught by a sudden, jerky series of movements down on the bay, like a water-beetle skimming across the smooth surface of a summer’s pond. Someone was going ashore from the anchored yacht. He cast a quick glance at his watch. Someone who was a very early riser indeed. Someone, perhaps, who wanted to indulge a preference for long country walks as a settler for a troubled mind, and to do so before the sun was high.
It might be the barest intuition, but somehow Roddy had no doubt at all as to who that someone had to be. He paused. The sound of his wife’s even, rhythmical breathing was still coming from the bedroom. He debated for a moment whether or not to bother and then scribbled a note, brief and uninformative:
Gone out for walk. Back later.
He weighted it down on the kitchen table with the pepper pot, and then let himself out of the villa’s back door with elaborate care to avoid waking her.
He was jogging before he was out of the villa’s grounds, and openly running as soon as he reached the main road down into the village.
Fate had chosen to deprive him of justice, had it? Well, he had seized the moment. And he would show fate who was the master here.
He caught up with Neville when he was passing the little church. The detached part of his brain that for some reason this morning was recording everything with meticulous clarity noted that the flowers were wilting on the fresh-turned earth of the newest grave, and that an oil lamp placed on the grave’s head still gave out a pallid flicker in the strengthening sunlight.
“Hello!” he said.
Neville turned. “Oh,” he said. “It’s you.” His pose, as he stood on the road a little further up the slope was closed, wary. Roddy tried the effect of a smile, advancing towards him with his hands extended a little in front of him, palms upwards.
“We need to talk,” he said.
Neville shrugged. “Do we? Why change the habit of a lifetime?”
“Come on!” He approached closer; his shadow fell over Neville’s face. “That’s hardly fair.”
He had been prepared for bitterness; that, after all, was a sort of acknowledgment that he mattered. That the underlying tone was genuinely indifferent stung, though.
“Can I just walk with you a little way?”
“If you want. I’m going up to the lighthouse.”
Neville turned, and started up the steep path through the olive groves above the church at a brisk pace. Roddy had forgotten: he had assumed, carelessly, casually that his own superior fitness would tell in any challenge of this nature. But Neville had always been good on the hills, and, infuriatingly, it took all his efforts to keep up. Conversation was curtailed; there was no way he was volunteering to betray his breathlessness. It was not until they reached the summit of the headland that he tried to speak again.
“We need to talk,” he found himself repeating, meaninglessly, to Neville’s broad back as he set off along the path around the headland at the same pace he had set coming up it. Neville stopped; he swung round.
“Why? Is it my silence you’re after? You’ve got it. Satisfied?”
He made his lips smile, his posture easy. “I never doubted it. For a moment. I trusted you completely, Nev. Your friend though, last night, had me worried -“
Neville looked rather flustered. “Yes. Well. Yes. Perhaps you didn’t catch him in the best of moods. He’s very protective. But I’m sure he’ll stop teasing, if I ask him. He likes Eleanor, I think. I don’t think he’d keep on if I pointed out that the only likely result is that he’d hurt her.”
A cold, raw, bitter-tasting anger filled him. For his safety to depend on the goodwill engendered by that empty-headed nincompoop! He averted his face, so that his fury would not show in his expression and betray him. And then the exhilaration of justice and of fate answering to his avenging hand sang in his blood.
His voice was very calm: oh, he could afford to be calm, conciliatory even. Now. He nodded.
“Thanks for that. You’ve no idea how much I appreciate it. And - I’m sorry.”
Something in Neville’s face lightened. He had always hated conflict, Roddy realised, wondering why it had taken him so long to grasp that that, too, was a weapon ready for his hand. But everything was, this perfect morning. The rough, friable soil beneath their feet and the deep blue sea pounding into the rocks far below them. Their perfect solitude, alone awake in a sleeping world.
“Don’t mention it,” Neville mumbled. He set off, again; much less frenetic this time, allowing Roddy to come up to walk alongside him. The path was slightly too narrow for two to walk abreast, though. It had to have been. It was fated. Everything was turning out right at last.
He saw the perfect place coming a few yards ahead. He dropped back a little, murmuring something about a shoe-lace - bent and feigned fiddling with it - quickened his pace to rejoin Neville, whom he had waved ahead of him - uttered a sudden, pained squeak - as a man might who turns his ankle on a rough cliff path - saw Neville begin to turn - uttered a louder, panicked yell, dropping to his knees and rolling, feeling the earth beginning to slip beneath him, aware of the solider rock ledge he had earmarked from the curve of the path above, now hidden from sight -
His outstretching toes found solid stone, and braced. Neville, his face a foot or so from his own - good God, how had he ever found him attractive? - was white, panicked, mouthing something, leaning idiotically far over the edge, holding out a hand -
And when it comes down to it, what is rugby after all but an exercise in how to apply one’s force to another’s body to bring him crashing to the ground? And he had been practising that three times a week since he was ten years old. And somehow, all the time in the world to do it now. It was easy. It was right. And Neville was still mouthing reassuring platitudes, the fool, even as his hands gripped him below the elbow.
Until he realised, and the platitudes turned into a scream, which echoed on and on as Neville’s body fell, unnaturally slowly it seemed, twisting over and over, before the merciful blue water far below brought an end to his falling.
Roddy clung to the edge of the cliff for quite some minutes, looking down. But nothing broke the surface of the waters. And then, tortuously and with infinite care, he pulled himself back to the path, and lay prone, gasping, until he was ready to cast his face into the appropriate lines of shock and horror, and stagger back into the village to raise the alarm.
Draco’s dazed slumber was shattered by a pounding rhythm reverberating through the yacht’s hull.
He dragged himself to wakefulness, fighting off the cobwebby tendrils of the sleeping potion that he vaguely recollected someone - probably the engineer - forcing him to take some time during the chaotic hours since Roddy’s distraught return with his news.
The pitiless blows continued on. Had it not been so improbable that the boat would have chosen to wreck itself in perfect three/four time, he would have assumed that the boat had dragged its anchor and was driving itself against the rocks.
Grabbing - as something of an afterthought - a towel to hitch round his hips, he scrambled up on deck, yelling for someone to come and see to the bloody boat.
No-one responded - so where the fuck were the crew, anyway?
Queasily, it occurred to him that the most probable explanation was that they were still out looking for the body. Or - perhaps - finding excuses not to be in his vicinity when the sleeping draught wore off.
Especially if they haven’t found -
He staggered along the starboard side, towards the source of the racket. Above the apparent point of impact, he leaned out over the guardrails to find a dolphin ramming its beak dementedly - but with an undeniable natural rhythm - into the hull.
“You fucking imbecilic animal!” he raged down at the dark smooth shape in the water. At his voice the dolphin flipped itself backwards onto its tail fin, standing five feet out of the water and spitting brine at Draco’s face.
It emitted a fast, high-pitched sequence of clicks and squeaks, flipping its fins towards the dying lights of Lakka in a way, Draco thought, that seemed to combine the maximum of precious expression with the minimum of communication.
The dolphin jerked its head towards the stem of the boat, while prudently keeping the hull of the yacht between it and the lights of the village. Its small eyes were knowing: its expression full of intelligence. Suddenly wholly compelled, Draco thrust himself close to the guardrails.
“Yes?” he demanded. “What do you know?”
The sequence of clicks and hisses became yet more plaintive and imperative. And equally incomprehensible. Nevertheless, the gestures of the huge bottle-nosed head were hardly impossible to decode. And self-evidently the dolphin did not seem to have any enthusiasm for their business being known to those still awake on the island.
Abruptly, Draco made up his mind. He let the towel fall to the deck.
“OK,” he muttered, easing himself over the toe-rail and under the lower of the guard rails. “I’m on. Whatever you want to show me, show me.”
He dropped into the dark, choppy waters.
The dolphin greeted him with almost excessive enthusiasm, cavorting around him in a series of extravagant leaps and arcs before it finally swerved close enough to allow him to catch at its dorsal fin.
Once sure he was attached the dolphin swirled around and shot off out of the bay.
The speed of their passage through the waves, and the turbulence of the spray flung into his face made clinging on and breathing the two most urgent priorities. Survival blissfully prevented thought. He felt a stab of emotion that was more like pain, though, when they passed beneath the lighthouse. Then they were out into the open sea, diving recklessly southwards along the barren rocky western shore of the island.
They had gone, Draco judged, about a couple of miles when the dolphin slewed in towards the shore. In these steep-sided, iron-bound waters they were within feet of the shore before it shallowed enough for him to stand up, and then it was so abrupt that he stubbed his toes on the rocky bottom as the dolphin shrugged him loose, effortlessly, and left him sprawled in the breaking waves on the rocky shore at the cliff’s foot.
The dolphin, prudently staying afloat in the deeper water, emitted a series of clicks and hisses, which, Draco thought dimly, had something of a scolding quality about them. Somehow he felt convinced that this particular dolphin had to be female.
It delivered itself of a particularly scathing sounding snort through its blow-hole. Draco got the impression that it was gesturing - with head and flipper - towards a dark crack in the cliffs. Cursing the sharp fragments of rock under his bare feet, he made his way towards it.
The darkness inside the cave reminded him - as the chill breeze raising goose pimples on his bare flesh had not - of how exposed he was here: without his wand, even without clothes. He could not summon a spell to part the shadows before him, or defend himself with anything other than his bare hands if the shades proved hostile. The merest first year Gryffindor would have been less reckless.
Or merely less despairing?
There was movement ahead; he sensed a darker patch moving against blackness, heard a stone chink on another stone. With a tremendous effort he achieved an approximation of a level tone.
There was a shuddering exhalation - not quite a gasp - from ahead of him. And a broken voice - the one voice he had told himself all day he would never hear again, and had believed, nonetheless, that he must - that it was impossible he could have lost irrevocably - the only voice he ever wanted to hear, could listen to forever, said disbelievingly,
And oblivious of the sharp stones under his soles he stumbled forwards the last two paces and into the arms he had never truly accepted would never enfold him again this side of the grave.
Time hung suspended in the cave. Outside it might have continued its predestined linear route from the moment before to the moment after, but in the dark, in the frantic giving and receiving of kisses and caresses, there was only an eternal present. That present, however, was one that had forever lost its innocence; it was now tainted not merely with the Might Have Been but the This Surely Must. The cold voice of experience sounded in their ears, and could, no longer, be wholly shut out by the barricades of their arrogant youth. One day it whispered. One day.
For that is inherent in any love which has the quality of permanence about it, for in the ordinary way of things one will be inevitably be taken and the other left: a choice made without sense, without meaning, without compassion; and the pain which has been for a brief time held back behind the barricade will crash through, and in its wild torrential plunge to the valley below sweep away all joy, and laughter, and hope in its path.
The dolphin, infuriatingly, had not decided to wait around for them. A painful, hesitant stumble over the rocks on the edge of the waves demonstrated as clearly as need be that walking home along the beach was not an option, even if there were not - as Neville strongly suspected there were - stretches of cliffs which dropped sheer into the sea at several points between them and their destination.
Neville sat down on a rock, rested his chin on his knees, and looked in the general direction of the lighthouse, which flashed on and off with its monotonous, metronymic rhythm.
“Bugger it,” he said, with an effort at a conversational tone. “Looks like a long swim home. Especially since I lost my wand when I - fell.”
Involuntarily, Draco flinched. His voice sounded deadly flat.
“Yes. I know.” He swallowed. “They - found it. Half-way down. That was when I - started to believe what they were telling me might be true.”
Neville placed his hand over Draco’s and squeezed, quickly. “Only then?”
Though it was not, after all, that much of a question. Wizards and witches had learned to hold on to their wands, even if it was the last thing they did. And, as they had seen too often during Voldemort’s ascendancy, frequently it had been just that.
Draco shrugged, shivering a little as the fresh breeze hit his bare skin. “Well, I’d had my doubts because - “
He paused. Neville turned, looking at him. Draco’s voice was unsteady.
“Roddy claimed you’d slipped on the cliff-edge - that you’d turned off the path to look at a plant, and the ground had given way beneath you.”
He shrugged again.
“How long have we known each other now? I simply couldn’t conceive of any circumstances in which I could believe that you would have been on a cliff path with anyone else, and voluntarily been the closer one to the edge.”
Neville gulped convulsively, dropping his head down close to his knees again, trying to stop any sound coming out of his suddenly constricted throat before he was ready.
“I - he was on the outer edge of the path, of course. And then he went over - claimed he’d twisted his ankle on a rock - slid down a few metres, till he was just on the brink of the real drop. And he -“
Neville’s tongue came out to moisten his dry lips; his voice was scarcely more than a whisper.
“He was begging for help - I had to force myself, to go to the edge, but I thought, I thought he couldn’t hold on, while I ran back to the village for help - and stupidly, I never thought of my wand - I think -“
His voice dropped lower still.
“I think it was almost that I was back - back when - I never dropped a hint to him all the time we were together about the magic thing - so careful, playing by all the rules like a good little boy, you know? - and so it didn’t occur to me when I thought he was in danger. Anyway, I got to the edge - stuck out my hands to pull him up and - it turned out he was standing on a ledge. Bracing himself. As I leant out, he got me off-balance and pulled me over. I started sliding - all my clothes tore - and then I was falling. It seemed to go on forever, like that time before when Uncle Algie - anyway, I hit the water - that hurt like fuck, and it was as cold as hell, too - I seemed to go down forever, and my lungs felt like they were bursting, but my hand brushed against some seaweed stuff, and I suddenly thought bet that’s Gillyweed and stuffed it in my mouth - I don’t remember a lot till I found myself being held up and nosed towards the shore by a dolphin. And I’ve been sitting in that cave wondering how the fuck I could get back to the boat for hours - I don’t think I’ve been entirely sane about it all.”
“It’s ok, anyway,” Draco said, his voice barely any steadier. “Look.”
And along the line of his pointing finger they could see the two leaping, joyful shapes speeding along the moon path towards them, curving in and out, crossing each other’s path and flipping over backwards in sheer pleasure.
“Good service, this dolphin. She obviously decided two of us were too much for her to take on alone, so she’s brought a friend.”
And, fifteen minutes later it seemed their luck was still holding; the swimming ladder was still down in the water and clambering back on board was less of a task than they had feared.
They had seen - as the dolphins slowed to approach the anchored yacht - the yellow lamplight from the saloon spilling through the portholes onto the waters. Neville gestured to Draco to retrieve his discarded towel and swing it sarong-fashion around his hips before they braved the companionway.
They had, of course, speculated about who might be there - a distraught crew, now with the disappearance of the charterer to contend with as well as their other problems? The Chief of Police, with some additional suspicion or question to raise?
They had not expected to break in on the scene they interrupted; the old priest from the village, in the act of refilling two glass tumblers with retsina from an earthenware jug, and, opposite him, the recipient of his hospitality: a grey-haired, thin-faced man in shabby wizard’s robes.
“My god,” Neville said somewhat muzzily, toppling forward down the last two steps into the saloon. At the sound of his voice the two in the cabin jerked round; the priest, unwisely, sprang to his feet and, being a tall man, fetched his brow an eye-watering crack on a beam. He said something emphatic and demotic.
“Well,” the thin-faced man said in a voice which was eerily calm, “I’m relieved to see that the rumours of your death have been greatly exaggerated.”
And Neville found himself being caught in a tight hug and simultaneously, somehow, being pounded hard on the back by Remus Lupin, and began, for the first time that evening, to believe that he really was still in the land of the living.
Hypothermia isn’t the answer. Get some proper clothes on, both of you, before we talk.
The professorial edge to Lupin’s voice had, it was clear, set Draco’s hackles rising but, on some instinctive level, worked; his hand was on the handle of the cabin door and he looking down at it with an air of faintly bewildered disgust before he apparently realised what he was doing.
He grimaced, hesitated - and Neville, unbalanced by a sudden lurch of the boat, cannoned into him. The door shot open under their joint weight, and Draco, tripping over the raised threshold, sprawled inelegantly into the cabin and landed hard on the double bunk. Following him in, Neville back-heeled the door shut and, heedless of his soaked clothing, flung himself on top of Draco, cutting off his efforts to get off the bunk.
“Oh, thank god thank god thank god -“
Speech was lost in frantic kisses, until, belatedly, it occurred to them that their absence might have become noticeable. Reluctantly, Neville struggled up. Freed of his weight, Draco rolled over and started rummaging in a locker for some dry clothes. His hand hovered first over a black sweater in a fine-knitted silk - a birthday present from his mother.
He rejected it and opened the next locker, seizing a heavy navy-blue polo neck; pulled it over his head in one swift movement, emerged dishevelled and glared at Neville as though daring him to comment.
Neville blinked. Unlike Draco, he was in the habit of going on deck during the night watches; taking the wheel, sometimes, or just sitting curled in a corner of the cockpit, looking up at the impossibly bright stars. Even in these warm waters the watch before dawn had a chill of its own; he had taken it into account when packing.
“I was cold,” Draco said, in high, accusing response to a question that had not been asked. Suddenly brusque, he forced his way past him into the saloon, pulling Neville’s sweater more tightly about him almost as though he were treating it as a poor second best to climbing inside his lover’s very skin.
Neville shrugged, dropped his soaked clothing to the cabin floor and kicked it into the tiny shower cubicle to be dealt with at leisure, before pulling on sweatpants and rugby shirt, and following Draco out to join their inexplicable guests in the saloon.
“I apologise for the intrusion,” Remus said formally, “but I thought you’d be on board, Draco. We got into rather a panic when we realised your cabin was empty.”
Draco’s gaze was stiffly averted; even the habit of years had failed to make him comfortable around Remus, despite all Neville’s efforts, and despite Draco freely acknowledging - in his absence - all he had done for them over the years. Lupin, as ever, continued as though he had noticed nothing.
“Fortunately, before Father Papaskouros and I could raise the alarm -“
The priest gestured with his glass in a way which suggested that his priorities had not necessarily lain with raising the hue and cry for missing yachties, however rich or magically connected.
“Fortunately,” Remus repeated patiently, “before we -“
“Dolphin show up, did it?”
Draco’s interjection was abrupt. Remus nodded.
“Yes. You seem to be lucky in your chance acquaintances, both of you.”
Father Papaskouros uttered a couple of laconic observations. Draco barked a sharp laugh in response. Neville’s grasp on the translation charm was slipping - it was not, he thought resentfully, intended for situations as complex as this one, and it was unfair that Draco’s natural linguistic talents were keeping him so much further ahead of the game than he was. He raised his eyebrows in a helpless appeal to his lover.
“I gather,” Draco murmured explanatorily, “that the Greek Ministry’s Animagi Register is, if anything, even less effective than ours.”
Neville’s eyes widened. He turned to look fully at the priest (briefly, he wondered whether the impact of his black-robed authority might be doing more than he had previously suspected to contribute to Draco’s air of edginess).
“How does he -?”
Lupin interjected smoothly.
“Father Papaskouros is - as I’m sure he will forgive my mentioning - a Squib. His sister, however, is not.”
With a few eloquent hand-gestures, and a flood of Greek which left even Draco frowning slightly, the priest explained. Neville goggled, uncomprehending. Lupin gave a wry smile.
“Um, yes. Although I - never succeeded in impressing this on - um - anyone to whom it might have been relevant, there are in fact good reasons for the Animagi Registers. One of them being the temptations of - ah - going native.”
Neville flinched, slightly, as he saw the priest draw himself up with stiff dignity at Draco’s tone. Lupin smiled slightly.
“Yes. Or, in Miss Papaskouros’s case, succumbing to the understandable pleasures of - um - mucking about in the water having a good time.”
Neville snorted with quick amusement. The priest, a sympathetic twinkle in his eye - some things, it seemed, did not need translation - vented another quick burst of Greek. Lupin shrugged.
“I gather - one of the local boys decided to criticise her appearance. Rather - ah - publicly. And some of his mates decided to join in. Well - “
At that point the local priest decided to supplement the explanation. He let rip with a fusillade of well-chosen Greek. Lupin blenched.
But it was Draco who translated for Neville’s benefit.
“Apparently it was too much for her to put up with. Always having been a stroppy hot-headed type, I gather. And the climax of the whole episode was that she - “
The priest’s gestures were now getting vigorous.
“Punched him on the nose, kneed him in the nuts, took a swift header off the end of the jetty and never looked back, by any chance?” Neville suggested tentatively.
Draco sniggered. “Pretty much. But also, the poor bloke had give up being a fisherman and to go off and join the Army, because of all his nets kept fetching up with holes chewed in them.” He paused, reflectively, and then he grinned. “Puts my problems with Pansy into perspective a bit, doesn’t it? Well don’t they say that hell hath -“
“Tace!” Remus shouted.
Draco’s mouth hung open in the wake of the silencing spell. Neville looked across the table at his former professor. “Thank you,” he said politely. “Any chance of you teaching me that one? Mind you, if I was going to use it every time he was on the brink of saying something horrifically tactless, it might save effort just to use a permanent dumbing Jinx.”
“That wasn’t for the sake of tact,” Remus said, his expression grim. “Sorry, Draco, but I had to stop you. You were about to say something that really should not be uttered. Not here, not now.”
Released from the spell’s influence, Draco’s mouth continued to hang open, slackly, for a moment before he said, acidly,
“I was about to utter a pretty standard cliché. I thought.”
“In the standard misquotation, yes,” Remus snapped. Draco’s eyes narrowed, but Remus had grown up in a tough school; the cool tone of his voice might just as easily have been him quelling an incipient riot in the DADA class back when they’d been third years.
“But not safe, here. You have no idea of how bad a mistake Roderick - that the idiot Muggle’s name? - made this morning.”
Draco’s face was set in lines of stiff hauteur.
“I do, you know. And - you know what? Eventually, before he dies screaming, he’s going to know it, too. He isn’t going to realise just what’s hit him until I do. I understand Macnair’s record was 18 hours. Before her eyes popped out, and then even the Invigorare charm couldn’t keep the subject conscious long enough to make it interesting any more. But - looked at carefully and with a few appropriate potions - I expect we could give his record a run for its money. And I certainly plan to try.”
“Neville!” His teacher’s tone was full of pain and the light eyes turned pleadingly in his direction. Nevertheless, he made himself shrug.
“No. Well. Yes. Nothing fancy. No, Draco - not that stuff. Whatever. But as for the basics - this time, yes.” He could see Remus looking hurt, and made himself go on, “I’ve just found out that you can run out of other cheeks. Like - like Muggle addicts finding they’ve no viable veins left. Don’t ask for mercy. Not this time. Please.”
The tears, he knew, were wet on his cold cheeks, but he set his teeth and glared back at Remus. Who, unexpectedly, after a moment ducked his head below his stare.
“Oh,” he said, a slightly lost note in his voice. He had expected more resistance. A faint, outraged presence in his head told him that Remus ought, in truth, to have put up more objection. It was, in fact, All Wrong.
Remus looked up.
“Actually,” he said gently, “I can understand why you think that. Trust me, an overwhelming urge to rip someone’s throat out is something you might be surprised to find me managing to feel surprisingly cool about.”
The silence after that had a texture all its own; rather, Neville thought, like that of blown vinyl wall-paper: ugly, irregular and unexpectedly dominating an interior. Nor did Remus lose the initiative. He brought his tumbler emphatically down on the cabin table.
“But you aren’t the people who should do this. That’s all I’m saying.”
“And who else’s job is it?”
That let loose another flood for Greek from Father Papaskouros. Once again, the translation charm and even Draco’s own abilities failed to cope. Draco gave up mid-flood, and glared round the saloon as though his failure to understand idiomatic Greek spat out at a rate of 95 miles per hour was some as-yet unidentified individual’s fault, and that when he found him he was going to make him pay.
“Essentially, he’s saying - leave it to the - proper authorities. To the experts.”
Remus inhaled irritably.
“Yes, you stupid boy.” Draco’s eyebrows shot up in pointed shock and horror. Remus gestured emphatically. “God, and I always thought it was the Gryffindors I had to prevent from putting reckless attack before prudent self-preservation.”
He cleared his throat. “Well, I suggest you listen now, thoroughly. Because believe me; today’s events have awakened those who - if you were to blunder across their path - would regard your prolonged and painful death merely as an overture to their principal entertainment - and not an especially gripping one, either.”
He shushed Neville with a commanding gesture.
“When I got here today and realised that it was you two who’d been victims of the crime it came close to being my worst nightmare.”
Neville looked back at Remus.
“What? You didn’t know before? And when I was imagining you’d rushed here to - “
His voice faltered. Be present at the funeral was the properly cynical phrase to use. Some people, he knew, could effortlessly apply a flawless lacquer of wit over a broken spirit.
Not him, evidently. A clodhopper you remain. He gulped, and hoped no-one had noticed.
Remus shook his head. His tone, when he spoke again, was gentle.
“No. Didn’t ever know it was you two until I caught a glimpse of Draco this afternoon in the square. Fortunately he didn’t notice me. Unsurprisingly. Though to be fair Father Papaskouros had you pegged as wizards from the moment the boat entered the harbour.”
Draco must have been responsible for the small, interrogative gasp that broke the silence in the saloon. Remus shrugged.
“Get real, you two. How many wizarding yacht-brokers are there? Still fewer who have a Swan 48 on their books. This boat has been seen in this harbour before. And, according to Father Papaskouros, it doesn’t exactly have the name for being a lucky vessel, either.”
“Oh,” Draco said coolly, “that might explain the bargain price. To say nothing of why it was still available at the start of June, when every other had been taken.”
He must have caught the tail end of a question hanging in the air.
“It was something of an impulse trip, you know. Neville had flu rather badly, this spring. This was supposed to be convalescence. Anyway. So how did you find out what was going on?”
“Email,” Remus said simply.
“Email?” Draco turned towards him, dripping contempt. “Muggle computer stuff? And just what sort of wizard uses - that?”
Remus’s voice was calm and uninflected. “One who remains - through no fault of his own - the subject of Strictly-For-The-Duration owl-post random search and interception powers, actually. I suppose you weren’t aware of their lingering applicability. To certain - untrustworthy elements. After all, they were lifted for ex-Death Eaters and their close families over five years ago, wasn’t it?”
There was a pause. Neville decided it would be less embarrassing if he filled it by pulling out a brandy bottle from a locker behind the sofa cushions, and offering it to everyone a change from retsina. Father Papaskouros accepted the three fingers of VSOP Neville tipped into a clean tumbler and set to with a will. Remus swirled his own glass round in ever-decreasing circles on the saloon-table top.
“I’m sorry,” Draco said, through compressed lips. Remus inclined his head in acknowledgment.
“Anyway, I enjoy email, now I’m used to it. And a surprising number of wizards and witches use it, too.” He paused. A new note entered his voice. “Though I would like to shake warmly by the - neck - whoever it was who disabled Arthur Weasley’s spam filter. These days, half my in-box is full of forwarded spam from him, with little notes like: “How have the Muggles possibly managed to discover Engorgement Charms?” It’s something of a trial.”
Neville laughed outright. It broke the tension. Remus spread his hands and smiled too.
“Anyway, Father Papaskouros - I first met him over twenty years ago, when I was doing a rather delicate job in this locality, and we’ve kept in touch - fired off an email to me as soon as he realised what was going on. I managed to get here just in time to walk in on that unexpected scene in the square -“
Draco dropped his head. His voice was somewhat muffled. “I’d thought that girl would be too uptight to do anything but avoid me - still less to come up to me and say that she couldn’t imagine how I must be feeling, but was there anything at all she could do? - and mean it too, it was in her expression - and it was clear that bastard hadn’t expected it either; you should just have seen his face - and it - hit me on a raw edge. And it was so kind and unnecessary, that was the thing. And it stopped me - I was intending to grab her bloody husband and find out what Cruciatus would’ve - “
“Oh, god. I hadn’t expected - sorry. Talk among yourselves a minute.”
He turned away from them all. More to cover his lover’s response than anything, Neville looked across at Remus, his face interrogative. Remus’s face was hard to read.
“Well. Yes. It did strike me at the time that some men seem to have a remarkable talent for acquiring partners who are infinitely more - gallant? - than anyone could conceivably imagine they deserve.”
His gaze passed dispassionately over Neville, who flushed, nonetheless. Remus continued as though he had noticed nothing. “Unfortunately, those who are responsible for vengeance in these parts are unlikely to exempt someone merely for being a gentle, attractive, innocent girl, doing her best.”
“And? Get to the point. Remus, who are you talking about? Who are these vengeance bearers?”
“The ones who’ve always had the job. Listen, Draco, during Recent Events did your parents ever start to speculate about Voldemort’s mental health? They must have seen enough of him at close quarters to notice that besides the obvious psychopathy, paranoia and megalomania, his mind was definitely going to some very bizarre places after he returned. And not without - external pressure.”
Draco looked as though he had taken a Quaffle to the stomach. There were some topics, even almost seven years later, which were never mentioned within the Manor purlieus. When he responded his voice was uncannily normal, though.
“Actually, my father did wonder towards the end if inherited syphilis might be the answer. That Muggle father, you know.”
There was a stunned silence in the saloon. Neville repressed a wholly inappropriate urge to giggle. Draco looked round and added, helpfully,
“But ma said that couldn’t work; from what she understood about it if that were so he’d have gone loopy much younger than he did. And his nose would have dropped off, too. Not that it was much of a nose, of course, at that point, but even so -“
“I get the picture,” Remus said. With an up rush of unexpected tenderness towards Draco, Neville realised that Lupin, too, was on the edge of hysterical giggles.
Draco, with the surprised expression with which he always met a conflict between The-World-As-I-Always-Understood-It and The-World-As-Seen-By-Others turned, defensively, towards Neville.
Fuck what anyone thinks, he thought; caught Draco’s eyes, and held them. Draco’s clear ivory skin was flooded with a crimson tide. Neville suppressed his grin. He made his voice gentle, and very calm.
“So,” he said, “please enlighten us. We are all waiting.”
Remus gestured. “During the time he’d been disembodied - when we hoped he’d been driven out forever - “
Draco’s lips moved; Neville thought he was saying we being who, exactly? Remus ignored him, anyway.
“He was, as we now know, hiding out in the mountains of Albania. Less than thirty miles away from here, in fact.”
Neville gulped; he had not realised that they were so close. His shoulders were pressed back against the chart-table, though, and the passage chart was within easy reach. Unobtrusively, he cast a quick glance over it, and realised that, if anything, Remus was exaggerating the distance. The old priest caught his movement and nodded, gravely.
“They have always been called the Accursed Mountains,” he said, slowly, carefully, in Greek but allowing the translation charm full opportunity to operate. “It was a matter of regret; but did not come as a surprise when twenty years ago the Professor arrived, and told us that he believed that we had now been placed on the front line.” He paused. “My nation has been accustomed - since the days of the Spartans at Thermopylae - to holding the pass against overwhelmingly superior forces.”
His quiet dignity carried its own emphasis. Remus made a gesture towards the chart.
“It was, however, one of Voldemort’s more serious mistakes.”
“Must have taken some doing, given the competition,” Draco muttered, and topped up the brandy glasses. “We’re talking about the man who let Potter defeat him, don’t let’s forget.”
Remus smiled, slightly, but refused to be deflected from his narrative.
“And a mistake which - given he must known those stories the Muggles persist in regarding as myths - was particularly foolish. He awakened something that had slumbered for thousands of years. But, given what he had then become, he could hardly have expected to do otherwise.”
Remus paused, took a deep breath, and sipped from his glass.
“Almost from the first Voldemort betrayed his friends. Despite the laws of hospitality he brought death under the roof that had sheltered him. And before he had fully grown to adulthood, he capped all that had gone before, and became a parricide. He should not have been surprised, flying for refuge here to the Accursed Mountains, to arouse the notice of those whom he would have done better to let alone. For all our sakes.”
The cabin was very quiet now; the lights seemed somehow dimmed.
“Who?” Draco persisted. The old priest spread his fingers on the table.
“The former people,” he said, and then, catching sight of their bafflement, elucidated.
“The kindly ones.”
In the shadowy corners of the saloon something seemed to stir, and on the edge of hearing Neville caught the breath of a faint hiss.
Lupin’s light eyes were very intense in the dim light of the cabin.
“Believe me,” he said simply, “there is nothing that you should do to get between them and their chosen prey. It may take a very long time - their view of time is not like ours - but he has no possible escape. They will pursue him until his every minute is a waking nightmare, and they will never relent.”
“Pray for him,” Father Papaskouros said, brusquely. “It will do him no conceivable good, but may be sufficient to preserve your own souls.”
Neville could not leave open even the smallest possibility of misunderstanding. “How did Roddy-?”
Lupin was picking his words with extreme care.
“He chose the wrong place, and very much the wrong time. Voldemort wakening them so recently, they are restless and looking for excuses to slake their thirst. Neville, I’m sorry, but - given he’s a Muggle, he would hardly have been able to get close enough to send you over the edge in the first place if you hadn’t been even closer, once upon a time?”
Neville nodded. His voice was hoarse.
“Yes. He - made out he needed help. That he’d fallen. Had it been anyone else, I might have thought - “
Lupin’s face was grave, but understanding.
“Yes. Betrayal of one who had once been a lover - under whose roof he had formerly entered as a guest. Betrayal of a rescuer who risked his life to save him. Enough, and more than enough for them. And I could see the shadow already on him, this afternoon.”
Lupin’s voice slowed, became ceremonial, as though he were seeing the future unrolled before them all.
“Trust me, Neville: if he had tried to kill you twenty times over you would not wish on him what he has just managed to wish on himself. It will be slow, and lingering, and thorough: it will poison every moment of every day he breathes from now on and he will pray for death fifty or five hundred times over before he gets it.”
It was like being borne up under an illicit flying carpet. It was not his fault that he had succumbed; he had simply been ill, and tired, and fated, and had trusted too much. It was not his fault; and the revenge was not within his grasp either. Neville wanted to laugh out loud, or burst into uncontrollable weeping.
Instead he turned to Draco; bred to a heritage of revenge and to patterns of ancient evil.
Draco was curled up among the cushions in the corner of the saloon berth, infinitely relaxed.
“So,” he purred, “what is it that you want us to do?”
Lupin turned towards him.
“Well, nothing would be safest. If I thought Neville could get away with pretending to be dead, I’d recommend it.”
Father Papaskouros interjected.
“That would seriously upset my good friend Nikos. An unsolved death in mysterious circumstances - even of an English tourist - is a blot on the record of any chief of police. Even in an island such as this, over which the glance of Athens passes rarely, and with little interest.”
Neville sat up very straight. “He guessed?” The old priest’s eyes were considering, sympathetic, gauging the wary disbelief in his eyes. He nodded.
“It would have been difficult for him to prove it. But, my friend, you should understand that he would have tried. The young man’s story barely held together - that Nikos told me within half an hour of his getting back to the village. Nor were his hands and arms as damaged as they must have been if that touching account of trying in vain to snatch you back from the edge had been true. There was clearly something behind it. And - “
His non-judgemental yet experienced glance swept the cabin.
“It was not too difficult for him to understand what that could have been. Having observed you all. As a good chief of police must.” He spread his hands demonstratively,
“But that is all over. It must be.”
There was a pause in the cabin. And then Neville nodded. Things were working here on a level too deep for his emotions to affect them; too deep, almost, for him to sense them.
“Unless I have to, I won’t complain. Yes.”
Draco glared at him. He looked back, unafraid.
“No. I won’t complain. But don’t push it. But what now? The arse-hole’s guilty: and he knows it. What’s more, he must know that I know. What then? I don’t want to watch my back for the rest of my life.”
Remus considered. “Well, one can hardly Obliviate a whole village. Though the Ministry has tried it, before now. But I think perhaps the most intelligent thing would be to let Roddy think you’ve not suspected a thing - no, hang on a minute. You know he isn’t going to get close enough to get in a second attempt, but he doesn’t. And given what he’s got trailing him, I’d rather you didn’t see anything of him after this.”
Reflectively, the old priest said, “I feel very sorry for the young woman, his wife.”
Neville looked straight back at him. “I’ve been feeling sorry for her since I realised who she’d gone and married.”
Remus looked diffident. “I’ll try to see what I can do to keep an eye - to try and shield her from as much as I can of what’s coming. But you two - stay out of it.”
Draco looked haughty; his nostrils flared.
“And your suggestion is?”
Remus cleared his throat.
“Well, in a fall like that off the cliff - to have survived it at all - given he doesn’t know you’re a wizard - looks pretty impressive - and to have survived it uninjured is downright unbelievable. Almost magical, in fact. So, Neville, if you could somehow meet him, convince him that you’ve got concussion - memory loss about everything surrounding the incident - then he might well steer clear of you in the future for fear of jogging your memory about it all.”
Draco snorted. “That’s never going to work. Sorry about this, but bare-faced deception and outright lying really aren’t Neville’s strong suits.”
Neville smiled, wryly.
“Why bother - when I’ve got such extensive in-house expertise on tap -?”
The same thought struck both of them simultaneously. Their eyes met.
“Now,” Draco breathed, “that would undoubtedly work. I certainly could convince -” He looked at his watch. “Tight timing, but undoubtedly doable. If I get cracking now. Thank god for time differences. And that Snape’s such a night-owl. And let’s hope he’s got Polyjuice on hand.”
He looked up at the old priest and at Lupin.
“Wait up for me. I’ll be back.”
And he blinked out of the lamp-lit saloon.
They boarded the yacht - carefully assisted by discreet hands from the crew who had ferried them from the jetty.
The crew’s calm efficiency failed to mask the irrepressible bubbling up of high spirits which informed their every move, and which transmitted itself unstoppably to Eleanor. The sun on the waves; the cries of the gulls, the warm caress of the sun on her arms; all shared in the joy which had come with the messenger to their door at first light.
Only Roddy seemed untouched by the general sense of subdued euphoria; and that, Eleanor thought, was no doubt due to the fact that after the nightmare of the last 24 hours he could still not credit that Neville was alive after all. A bit, perhaps, like seeing a Christmas present under the tree that was exactly the right size and shape to be what one had been longing for for months, and still not believing in it until the last shred of wrapping paper had been removed.
Though there was, reassuringly, no doubt whatsoever once they had boarded the yacht. Neville lay stretched out on one side of the cockpit, supported on cushions, an impressive bandage round his head and almost over one eye. A thin-faced man (Eleanor thought, vaguely, that she had seen him in the crowd yesterday), his hair an unexpected shock of grey despite the youthful smoothness of his skin, was handing him a glass of old-fashioned lemonade as they boarded.
He smiled, and waved feebly at them. Oddly, Roddy’s frown deepened; he stumbled on the side-deck almost precipitating himself head-first into the cockpit, and, Eleanor thought critically, was not looking at all well.
“Hello,” Neville said, “come and sit down.”
Roddy was still looking rather stuffed and uncommunicative, and Eleanor, mentally chalking up yet another to her personal list of Facts about life you really need to be told before marriage, and never are, dived into the gap.
“It’s wonderful to see you looking so -” She paused. Alive? her subconscious prompted, unhelpfully.
“Looking so well, all things considered,” she finished in a rush. “It was a tremendous relief to get your message.”
“Yes.” Neville sipped at his lemonade and regarded her with surprisingly intent eyes over the rim of his glass. “I - Draco told me that you’d been round yesterday afternoon to see what you could do. Thank you very much.”
That embarrassed her, especially since Roddy was still being silent, staring almost rudely at Neville where he was propped up on cushions in the cockpit as though he could hardly believe it. Desperately, she grabbed at a passing straw.
“Yes - um - where is Draco? I’d hoped - he must -“
Her conversational efforts ran into barren sand and vanished. Fortunately, Neville seemed minded to help her out, and smiled.
“He’s below. Avoiding the sun. Too much of it running around yesterday.”
That, thank goodness, triggered Roddy into speech.
“Hardly seems worth coming to Greece at all, if he hates the heat so much,” he jerked out abruptly. Neville looked at him; paused for a moment and then raised an eyebrow. Eleanor was struck by the difference the gesture made to his chubby, unassuming features.
“Not heat,” he said gently. “The only time a geneticist got the opportunity to check, he reckoned he had lizard in his DNA. But sun, certainly. He’s got a practically religious aversion to tanning. Actually, that reminds me - “
Briefly, his hand hovered. The grey-haired man smiled, and fished an orange tube of sun cream out of one of the cockpit cubby holes.
“Factor 35, and every shop in Lakka before I finally found that one. No point in surviving death by drowning if you’re going to succumb to sunstroke. Anyway, I’m going in for a swim. Neville mustn’t, till the doctor says the concussion is clear, but would either of you two like to join me?”
Eleanor looked up at him. His eyes - curiously light, almost yellow (though that must be a trick of the light, surely?) - were deep-set and dark shadows were below them, but they were winged with laughter lines and there was a sparkle in their depths.
“I’m awfully sorry but -“
“I need to talk to Neville but I’m sure Eleanor would love -“
They came to an awkward, entangled halt. The grey-haired man grinned at her, and suddenly she found ease in saying what she really meant, fuelled by the knowledge that, plainly, Roddy did not object.
“I mean,” she said apologetically, “that the water looks wonderful, but I haven’t brought swimming togs.”
Neville looked understanding. “No problem. I expect we can sort it. M- Draco’s mother flew in for the weekend a few days ago, and she’s a devil for leaving her stuff in her wake. Remus; can you ask the crew to dig out anything they can find? Ah - I’m sorry. I should have introduced you earlier. This is Professor Remus Lupin. Who once had the thankless job of teaching me. And Draco. Which was doubtless infinitely worse.”
The stranger - Professor Lupin - shrugged non-committally, as might be expected. Eleanor felt suddenly relieved.
That, of course, explained matters. Thank goodness he was an academic, too. She knew how to talk to them. She turned to look up at the stranger.
“What’s your field? My father’s a Professor too - Durham - Linguistics, actually -“
The grey-haired man smiled. “How devastatingly scientific and precise of him. My own field - tends to sway between disciplines. A bit of Anthropology - a trifle of History - a smidgeon of Comparative Philology - frankly, I’m an embarrassment to any self-respecting Department. A student of folk-lore, I suppose, would be the kindest thing to call me.”
She had grown up with turf wars and demarcation disputes between departments. She had a faint sense of Roddy looking elaborately bored just out of her field of vision. Remus - no, she ought to think of him as Professor Lupin - grinned.
“Come in - the water’s going to be lovely,” he said. “I’ll have a root around and see if Narcissa’s left anything suitable.”
With that, he dived below, only bobbing his head up to say, “Yes; I’ve found you something. I’ll leave it out.”
And, indeed, when she ventured down the companion-way, there was a one-piece swimsuit in some shimmering silvery material on one of the seats, and the door to the heads conveniently open. She changed rapidly, and was halfway out again when she caught a glimpse of herself in a mirror which hung on a bulwark, and gasped.
The swimsuit had been designed more to highlight than to conceal; the two thin strips of material that came down from its halter-neck skimmed - barely - over her breasts, and only reunited an inch or two above her navel. At the back, the suit cut away still further. She gulped, and then turned, a little, fascinated, to see what it looked like from another angle. It was weird, because it wasn’t at all the sort of outfit she’d have dreamt of choosing for herself, but in some bizarre way it actually made her look - different. And she thought she’d like to get to know the girl who looked like that in that suit rather better.
It dawned, vividly, that whatever Draco’s mother’s taste in swimwear might be, it assuredly was nothing Mummy would have let her be caught dead in - and she hardly thought Roddy would be likely to deal with the concept calmly, either. Not with two strange men to view the effects from close quarters. Even if at least one of them was, admittedly -
She took immediate steps to salvage the situation.
Swathed from neck to knee in the fortunately voluminous bath towel someone had left out for her she emerged from the companionway, only to find that her husband and Neville were engrossed in conversation and had barely an eye for her, and the grey-haired man was already perched on the swimming step, wearing only a remarkably abbreviated pair of black Speedo trunks which seemed to be refugees from the 1970s, and obviously waiting only to assist her into the water.
Gingerly, she clambered over the pushpit, and poised, uneasily, on the edge, her towel still wrapped round her. A pair of amber eyes laughed up at her. Inconsequentially she noticed that his torso bore a fine network of old, silvery scar tissues. He caught her look (she blushed) and looked momentarily a little put out; then he shrugged and said,
“The scars? Motorcycle accident. An island or three down the chain from here.”
“Oh, I’m sorry - “ Her hand had gone to her lips. His smile changed to reassurance, and, under its influence, she added,
“Actually, we were warned not to hire motor scooters locally -“
Neville, lying back among his cushions, grinned up.
“Don’t believe a word Remus says. He seems to think that just because someone once paid him to tell us nonsense at school, we have to swallow everything he ever says after that. World without end. Tell her the real story about your scars, Remus.”
Momentarily she thought the thin-faced man disconcerted: even angered. But before he could say anything Neville continued, smoothly:
“The truth is, he’s a secret agent. If you were to find out the story behind even the smallest of those scars, he’d have to kill you. Poor Remus; such a gallant hero; and so unable to display his heroism where it might do him a bit of good.”
Unstoppably, she giggled. Remus, she thought abruptly, was still looking a little put out. It was with an air of evident effort that he smiled ruefully back at her.
“Indeed. Possibly,” he agreed. He looked up at her. She must, she thought, make a faintly ridiculous figure; small, pudgy, and swathed in a white bath-towel.
“Are you going to swim or not?”
There was something challenging in his look; something subtly - no, not offensive, that was wrong, but appraising? Certainly something unusual that - she had to admit - she’d not seen before. She cast a nervous look back at Roddy, but he merely gave her a preoccupied wave and turned back to his conversation with Neville.
Her toes curled over the edge of the hull. She had meant, of course, to ease gently into the water: apologetically, almost unnoticeably. But in the warmth of the yellow gaze, she took a different decision. Her towel dropped to the deck. Her knees bent, her arms flew back; and when she hit the water it was in the flat, all-out racing dive that had been considered (back when such things mattered) one of the secret weapons of her school medley-relay team.
“Now that,” a voice close to her ear said as she surfaced, “is what I call diving.”
He was very close to her in the water. And as she made a business of blowing salt water from her nostrils, she realised another thing they had never told her about marriage.
Suppose you found the one person you realised was the only one you could be with forever, and that you only found them a matter of days after you’d married someone else?
She fought desperately for something - anything - that would cover up her confusion, and held on fast to the last words she had heard spoken before plunging out of her depth.
“Are you really a secret agent?” she asked.
His eyes laughed frankly back at her in the sunshine.
“Now there,” he said, “is a question. You’d have a hard time finding another less likely to be answered honestly. All spies are liars by profession, and what on earth would you call someone who claimed to be a spy and wasn’t?”
For a moment he let her ponder things, and then he added,
“Race you to the blue caique and back?”
Corfu airport stank. It stank of fuel, sweating humanity, intermittently cleaned lavatories, duty-free perfumes sampled with lavish and undiscriminating hands, café Nes on tap, hot-dogs and baklava.
Outside the begrimed plate-glass windows the runway tarmac shimmered in the noon sun. The incoming flight - delayed, of course - was only now beginning to disgorge its cargo of larvae-white, foolishly bedizened incoming tourists, whose hands pawed feebly towards their vacant eyes as the brightness of the sun struck them for the first time as they emerged from the darkened plane.
His wife - God, how the last fortnight had taught him to loathe her asinine, sheep-like features and tone of resolute optimism despite all reverses - turned towards him.
“Shouldn’t be too long before they’ve got it cleaned up, and ready for us to board,” she observed, obviously. He suppressed a snarl, deep in his throat.
One good thing, though.
They had arrived late at the check-in desk.
Small wonder: that bloody woman had insisted on going round all the staff at the villa in order to present them with their tips in person, rather than - as he’d pointed out made a great deal more sense - leaving them on the kitchen table in envelopes. If one needed to bother with such a farce at all. Service charge, indeed! Fat lot of service they’d seen all holiday. Indeed, after the first few days the staff had been positively truculent; on at least two days they’d had no maids to clean or turn down the beds at all, before his forthright approach to the villa rep had managed to produce some service at last: late, and grudging, and having to be shipped from the opposite end of the island, for some intricate, unexplained and doubtless inadequate reason.
They had barely made the ferry for its scheduled departure time, and then the ferry had taken an interminable time actually to leave, being held up, it transpired, solely for the local priest and his guest - that shabby English teacher type who, it seemed, was catching the same flight and being (with typical unnecessary Mediterranean extravagance) escorted as far as the airport by his host.
But, this time at least, lateness had had its own reward. Only single seats had been left on the crowded flight - the girl at the desk had emphasised, for their benefit, how unusual it was to have so full a plane so early in the season - so for three blessed hours as they winged their way back to Gatwick he would be spared Eleanor’s tedious prattle.
Thank God, he told himself, for small mercies.
The enforced delay, however, did given him the opportunity - one of too many he had had over the last ten days (and nights) - to go over his last meeting with Neville. Did that amnesia story really hold any water? Well, on the one hand - what would be in it for Neville to lie about it? Surely denouncing him as a would-be murderer would have made more sense with all the potential witnesses and the scene of the crime all ready for inspection?
A vision of CID men waiting at the passport control in Gatwick made its quick, familiar intrusion into his consciousness, and was as rapidly banished. Neville couldn’t have done anything like that and not betrayed himself; he was so transparently honest.
Or maybe the intention was to torture him with doubt about how much he knew - there had been a slightly strange look about his eyes when he’d said goodbye - but then, on the other hand, Neville had never had the ability to lie worth diddly-squat - he surely couldn’t be up to concealing a secret of any magnitude - if he’d thought he had he’d never had been forced to take the drastic action he had - and really, when everything came down to it, he’d been so bloody unlucky not to bring it off, and be away, free and clear.
And was he free and clear now? Had Neville truly no memory at all of that final betrayal? He’d always been absent-minded, of course, but wasn’t this pushing matters beyond credibility? But what would be the point of holding off denouncing him until he’d left the village? Unless the Greek police had refused to take any interest, and he’d hoped to find the CID easier to convince?
His thoughts squirreled round and round in ever-decreasing circles.
Oh, thank God! They were on their move towards boarding at last. Eleanor, clinging irritatingly close until they were blissfully separated by the stewardess’s shepherding directions, vanished towards the back of the plane. The shabby teacher was headed in the same direction. Good! He thought savagely. Let their mutual tedium devour them both.
He - well, at least he’d managed to get a window seat, somehow. The black-clad Greek woman who had the aisle seat - her head swathed in a black headscarf that had something of a middle-eastern air - glared briefly at him as he squeezed into his place, although she had made the minimum concession to allow him to pass, and then turned to complain indignantly to the two similarly clad women across the aisle, whose resemblance to her - those sunken, wrinkled faces and hooded reptilian eyes - was so close that they had to be sisters.
Resentfully, Roddy turned his face away from the three hags and stared out of the window, at the meaningless bustle below. The circling of luggage trolleys and refuelling tankers started to make hypnotic patterns across the shimmering concrete, moving in circles which turned into a dance of profound complexity, which seemed to have some hidden but profoundly important significance. And the whirring of the engines as they started up gradually faded into the background, too, so that it was now no more than the suspicion of a hiss on the edge of his consciousness.