Harry Potter isn't the first person to get the plague, but he's dead within the week.
It doesn't make any sense, Millicent thinks, for one person's life to be valued above anyone else's, but the magical world has never been known for its logic. St. Mungo's is turning people away and there are dozens of bodies heaped in the Hogsmeade cemetery, but it's not until Harry Potter dies that people start panicking.
Perhaps Millicent would be panicking too, if her parents hadn't been killed two months after You-Know-Who took over the Ministry. She learned of their deaths over breakfast, silence spreading down the Slytherin table as Blaise pointed her to page five of the newspaper: "William Bulstrode (muggleborn) and his wife Elvira (pureblood) were found dead in their home on September 23rd. An Auror investigation has concluded that it was suicide."
"They haven't," Millicent choked out as the letters blurred in front of her eyes. "They would never—"
"I know," Blaise said quietly, and the next moment Pansy's arm wrapped around her waist.
They almost carried Millicent back to the common room, and they protected her from the teachers when she missed two weeks of classes. It's true that Slytherin house is mostly pureblood, but loyalty goes beyond ancestry: Slytherins take care of their own.
The people panicking over the plague have more to lose than she does. In the seven months since her parents were killed, Millicent has found it hard to care much about anything.
At the edge of her vision the fire in the Slytherin common room flickers, red shading to purple for a moment, and then Pansy's dark bob appears in the flames.
"Mill? Are you there, Mill?"
Pansy's the only person Millicent lets address her by a nickname. Some things are earned.
"I'm here," Millicent says, crossing the room. She sits down in front of the fire and sees Pansy's face relax. "How are you, Pansy?"
"Same as yesterday." That may be as good as any of them can hope for, now.
"And the others?"
"Baddock died yesterday. No new infections this morning."
Millicent nods, a knot of tension easing. It's a temporary respite, because the infection takes hold so quickly that the news will be outdated in hours, but for now her friends are safe.
"It's quiet here," Millicent offers. "My round was fine. Sprout thinks maybe the quarantine has controlled it."
There's a moment of silence, and Pansy bites her lip.
"Don't tell anyone I said this, Mill, but... If even the Boy who Lived can't survive the plague, what hope do the rest of us have?"
"You never thought Potter was special."
"Maybe I was wrong about that."
"You wanted to hand him over to You-Know-Who," Millicent points out, and Pansy makes a face. That was ten days ago. It feels like months.
"If they'd taken my advice, then perhaps this wouldn't be happening," Pansy retorts. "It can't be a coincidence that Potter offs the Dark Lord and three days later his friend drops dead."
Ron Weasley was the first victim of the plague. He went pale and started moving stiffly on May 4th, a few hours before Professor McGonagall. At first even Mediwizards didn't know what the symptoms meant, but everyone recognizes them now. First comes the pallor and muscle tension, followed by fever and shaking four to six hours later. Within eighteen hours of infection, people begin to hemorrhage, blood flowing from their eyes, ears, nose, and mouth. They die in minutes after the bleeding starts, and everyone touched by a droplet of blood is infected.
The common room should be full of OWL and NEWT students with their heads buried in textbooks or frantically scribbling notes. Instead, there are barely three dozen people left at Hogwarts and the castle is strewn with abandoned belongings, Baddock's Gobstones scattered amid Daphne's magazines and Blaise's flashy Swiss watch. There's been a Quarantine Curse around the border of the UK since Madam Pomfrey reported the third case to the International Federation of Wizards, so anyone who tries to leave Britain is annihilated in a cloud of smoke. Any sensible person would leave if they could, since no cases have been reported abroad, but now there's no way out.
"You-Know-Who wouldn't kill purebloods like this, would he?" Millicent says bitterly.
Pansy shrugs, her lips pursed tight. She looks thinner than she did a week ago, cheekbones becoming prominent. "Who else would do it?"
Millicent has no answers about the plague, none of them do, but it's impossible to stop thinking about it. If they knew the cause, then maybe they would be able to stop it.
"Are you sure you don't want to come here?" Pansy asks after a long silence.
"No, I'm all right. I don't want to intrude."
"I've told you that you won't be intruding. You'll be safer here, Mill."
Millicent has always relied on Pansy, and this past year more than ever. Pansy is a natural leader, she invariably has a plan, and she doesn't let her friends down. Millicent has never seen her so frightened before.
"I'm useful at Hogwarts." Millicent says, looking away.
She doesn't say: I can't bear to see you with a home and family, because it's everything I don't have. She's certain that Pansy knows.
"All right, I'll Floo you same time tomorrow," Pansy replies, voice brisk again. "Take care."
"You too," Millicent says, and Pansy gives a thin smile.
The fire sputters for an instant, embers flying onto the carpet, and then Pansy is gone.
Under the quarantine, every day is the same. Millicent wakes to the hum of her alarm in the silent dormitory and immediately assesses herself for symptoms. Then she gets out of bed, walks to the bathroom in her underwear — there's been nobody else in the Slytherin rooms for over a week, so why be self-conscious? — washes her face and brushes her teeth. Rationally, Millicent knows she'll probably be dead before she develops cavities, but the routine gives her a sense of order. Besides, even if it's the end of the world she prefers having fresh breath.
She returns to the dorm, changes her underwear, and then picks up her Anti-Contamination Suit. There are only two of these suits in the castle. One hung in Madam Pomfrey's office, where the nurse didn't think to put it on until it was too late. As acting Headmistress, Professor Sprout commandeered that suit for the use of school staff. The second suit hung in Professor Snape's chambers.
If Pansy wasn't an expert eavesdropper, Millicent might not be alive. Thankfully, Pansy knew the password to Professor Snape's rooms and shared it with the older Slytherins after his death. As soon as Madam Pomfrey announced that the disease was highly infectious — hours before dying of it herself — Millicent ran to Snape's chambers and grabbed the suit. Professor Snape was an exemplary Slytherin and a survivor, so she thinks he'd approve.
Every morning, Millicent carefully inspects the suit for damage. It's been used for handling dangerous potions, making the fabric blotchy and thinner at the fingers, but it's held up so far. She can't help worrying that one day it might not work.
When neither visual inspection nor spells reveal any holes in the Anti-Contamination Suit, Millicent puts it on. It takes several minutes for her to step into the overalls, pull on the mask and gloves, and then meticulously spell the seals closed. The suit would dwarf most women, let alone children, but Millicent is as tall as Snape and the fabric is generous enough to cover her hips and breasts. It fits her comfortably, and Millicent has no intention of giving it up. She removes the suit to eat, sleep, wash, and go to the bathroom, but only in the solitude of the Slytherin common room.
As one of the two people with a suit, Millicent agreed to help Professor Sprout maintain the quarantine at Hogwarts. Her assigned tasks are simple and repetitive, and although the suit should keep her safe, that doesn't stop her heart racing every time she opens a door. When Millicent is certain the suit is secure, she performs a disinfection spell — a precaution she performs over a dozen times each day — takes a deep breath, and leaves the common room.
From that point onwards, she tries to keep her mind as clear and dispassionate as a To Do list. Walk to kitchens and collect food. Walk to Hufflepuff house entrance. Disinfection spell. Enter Hufflepuff common room. Distribute food, take register of names, and inspect all the students. Disinfection spell. Leave Hufflepuff house. Disinfection spell. Walk to kitchens and collect food. Walk to Ravenclaw house entrance. Disinfection spell...
The routine is proceeding the same as as it did yesterday, until Millicent walks into the Gryffindor common room and finds a group of terrified, sobbing students.
"Pearce is dying! You have to do something!"
"Let me out, let me out, I want my mummy!"
"Calm down!" Millicent shouts, raising her hands. "I can't hear you. Quiet!"
The last order seems to work, and Millicent grabs that chance.
"Janine," she says, pointing at the tallest girl. "Tell me what happened. Everyone else, eat your food."
"Your immune system works better if you eat properly, so you're less likely to get sick," Millicent says loudly, interrupting their protests. "Go and eat."
She turns away from a rebellious-looking girl and takes Janine's arm, pulling her aside. The explanation is rushed and out of order, punctuated by panicky questions, but gradually the story comes together.
"Pearce is your Prefect?" Millicent confirms.
"Yes! The only one left. And I'm the oldest apart from Pearce, but I don't know what to tell anyone to do, but—"
"You'll be fine," Millicent says, but Janine's mouth trembles as if she's on the verge of tears again. Fuck, what are you supposed to say? "You're doing great. Stay calm and strong, and it will help the others."
Janine wavers for a moment and then says, "Neville Longbottom used to tell us that. For when we had lessons with the Carrows."
"Yes, that's it exactly," Millicent says gratefully. "If you're brave now, then you'll make Longbottom proud."
The girl raises her chin and squares her shoulders, and Millicent thanks her lucky stars for the stereotypical courage of Gryffindors.
"So Pearce started feeling ill last night?" she asks.
"Um, yes. It was just after Madam Hooch came with our supper."
Millicent performs a quick calculation and winces at the answer. Pearce probably isn't hemorrhaging yet, but it won't be long.
"Stay here," she tells the girl. "You're in charge of the others. Try to keep them calm and don't let anyone go near Pearce's room. I'll charm the door so it won't open."
The girl nods, and after a moment Millicent nods back. She's never been able to make people do what she wants by flashing a grin the way Blaise or Daphne can, or talk people into things like Pansy or Draco. They'd do a better job of this.
Millicent sends a silent prayer to Circe that her suit will keep working and pushes open the door.
The room is silent except for the rasp of labored breathing.
"Pearce?" she calls out. "Andrew? How are you?"
"I'm...not good," says a quiet voice, and Millicent follows it to a bed. The light is dim, and Millicent raises her wand to illuminate a pale figure lying there. It's a sandy-haired boy whose body is trembling, his skin very pale and beaded with sweat.
"I'm dying, aren't I?"
Pansy would have a better way of saying this, but Millicent's never been good with words.
"Yes," she says, "Probably within the next four hours. I'm sorry."
"I don't want..." the boy says, then starts to cough violently.
Millicent clenches her jaw because she doesn't know how to deal with this. Children shouldn't be dying. Wasn't the battle supposed to fix things?
"I don't want to hurt any more," the boy says when he can draw breath, the words slurring together. "Please."
"What do you want me to do?" Millicent begins, and then he meets her eyes and she knows. "I can't."
"Please," he says again. "Make it quick."
"There's poison in the potions store," Millicent tells him, taking a step back. "I could get it and come back."
"I could be bleeding by then," he says, and then his body convulses with a spasms so violent that he almost falls out of bed. He's right. By the time she gets back, it might be too late.
"Andrew," she says, looking him in the eye. "Are you sure?"
"I've never done an Unforgivable," Millicent says, hearing the fear in her voice. "But I'll try."
Millicent closes her eyes, remembering what the Carrows told them, and hopes that pity instead of hatred will do the job. When her mind is clear and focused, she opens her eyes and forces the words "Avada Kedavra" past the lump in her throat.
Her wand barely sparks. It takes two more tries before Millicent spits out the words with enough resentment and frustration to produce a blinding flash of green light. Andrew lies still, his eyes staring blankly. He looks so young.
Millicent runs to the bathroom and retches into the sink. It takes several minutes before she is composed enough to force herself back into the room, and then then she throws a sheet over him. With a shaking hand, she levitates Andrew's thin body out of the tower window and down to the grass. Ever since the battle, new graves have been multiplying around Dumbledore's tomb. Andrew isn't the youngest, and she doubts he'll be the last.
Millicent mutters the disinfection charm over and over, watching the magic flare blue over the outline of the suit six times before she dares to leave Andrew's room. She spells the door closed behind her with a charm that none of the students will be able to unlock.
"I'm sorry," she says to the silent crowd of Gryffindors. "Andrew Pearce was a good person, and he died bravely. Try to be strong in his memory."
The wailing students are still audible as the portrait swings closed behind her. Millicent casts the disinfection spell three times more, ignoring the Fat Lady's demands for an explanation, and then goes to report to Professor Sprout.
"Andrew Pearce was infected," she says, keeping her voice emotionless and her eyes fixed on the wall above Sprout's head. "He died. I made sure nobody was exposed to any blood."
"And the other students?" Professor Sprout asks.
"None were visibly infected. Perhaps by this evening..."
"...they will be," finishes Sprout. "Thank you, Millicent. Are you all right?"
"I'm careful with the suit and disinfection spells."
"But emotionally," Sprout says more softly. "This is hard on everyone. Are you—"
"Don't worry," Millicent snaps, and Sprout doesn't pursue it further.
Millicent walks from the Headmistress' Office down to the grounds, where she expects to see Andrew's body lying on the grass beneath Gryffindor tower. Instead, she finds Madam Hooch standing there in the other Anti-Contamination Suit.
"Did you bury him?"
Hooch nods. "You're doing a good job, Millicent. Don't doubt that."
"You realize that I murdered someone today," Millicent snaps. "I cast the killing curse on him!"
"Did he ask you to do it?"
"Yeah," Millicent mutters after a long moment. "But that doesn't make it better."
"Of course it makes it better," Hooch says, stepping closer, and her gloved hand squeezes Millicent's shoulder. "Every Mediwizard does it. Sometimes it's the kindest and the best thing to do. It makes you a hero."
Millicent stares at the ground. The grass is already becoming overgrown without Filch tending to it. "Have you ever...?" she asks.
"Yes," Hooch says simply. "You did the right thing, so you'll come to peace with it. Come on, walk with me."
Millicent follows, and they walk in silence around the edge of the lake. She watches the iridescent dragonflies hover and dip, sending out ripples as shadows dance across the water from the swallows chasing insects overhead. Wildflowers are scattered in the grass at their feet, pink and blue petals fluttering in the breeze. They walk and walk until the sun disappears behind the mountains and Millicent is calm again.
"Thank you," she tells Hooch as they approach the castle.
"I know I'm not Professor Snape, but I'm here if you need me," Hooch says.
"He was no good at talking anyway," Millicent mutters, and unexpectedly Hooch smiles.
"No, he wasn't, but you've picked up his talent for expressive silences. Good night, Millicent."
"Mill! Mill! Are you there?"
Millicent stumbles out of bed, tugging a blanket with her, and almost falls over her own feet on the way to the common room fire.
"I'm here," she says, stepping in front of the fire, and Pansy glowers at her.
"Where the hell have you been? I Flooed you four times yesterday and you never answered. I thought you were..."
"It was a bad day," Millicent said, looking down. "One of the students was infected and... Well, he asked me to kill him, and I did."
"It was the right thing to do," Millicent says. She forces herself to meet Pansy's eyes in the fire and see sympathy there.
"You're nothing like the people who killed your parents," Pansy says, answering the question Millicent hadn't let herself say aloud.
Millicent says nothing and looks away, scrunching up the blanket in her hand.
"You should come here," Pansy says after a moment. "It'll be safer."
"No, they need me, and..." She falters for a moment, thinking about Hooch.
Most Slytherins liked Professor Snape best, but Millicent has harbored a soft spot for Hooch ever since first year. Hooch is firm and capable, a doer instead of a talker. The sight of her striding past in breeches and sturdy black boots, cropped hair ruffled by the wind, is a familiar part of Hogwarts. Hooch doesn't know it, but she taught Millicent far more than flying — to stand up tall, and not to apologize for her physical strength and unfeminine clothes.
Perhaps it's stupid, but the walk with Hooch yesterday brought her a sense of strength as well as comfort. It may not be something Pansy would understand, but that doesn't mean it's not valuable.
"I'm going to stay, but thanks," Millicent says. "How are the others?"
"The people I've spoken to are fine, but I haven't heard from Greg for two days. It's — I don't want to lose anyone else."
There are a few beats of silence, and then Pansy visibly composes herself. "Well, you must have rounds to do. I'm going to make a few more calls."
"I'll talk to you tomorrow, I promise," Millicent tells her.
"You'd better," Pansy says, flicking her hair back. "Don't you dare give me another fright like yesterday."
Millicent watches Pansy's face disappear amidst the flames, letting herself be soothed for a moment by the knowledge that her friends are still safe. Then she pulls herself together; she has work to do.
Quickly, she washes, checks her suit for damage, puts it on, and spells the seals closed. Then, steeling herself, she goes to Snape's chambers for a flask of fast-acting poison. They used to keep a tally of the number of times Professor Snape threatened to poison the Gryffindors, but she lost count when it reached over two hundred. For all his threats, Snape never did it. Millicent might have to.
The Hufflepuff and Ravenclaw students are fine, so by the time she reaches Gryffindor, Millicent has almost managed to persuade herself that Pearce is a one-off. Then she pushes open the portrait-hole, steps inside, and the smell of blood hits her.
"Help us!" a boy shouts, and hands grab at Millicent's clothes, making her almost drop the trays of food she's levitating.
"Let us out! Everyone here is going to die!"
"Where's Professor Sprout?"
"Get back!" Millicent shouts as someone tugs at the mask of her Anti-Contamination Suit. "I'll hex you all if you don't get back!"
There's a tug at Millicent's elbow, and she sends a stinging hex that way without looking round. The students back away, and Millicent lowers the tray of food to the floor.
"Where's Janine?" she demands.
The students stare at her, a silent, glaring semi-circle.
"She got sick," one of them says sullenly. "She used to sleep in the same room as Pearce."
"Where is she now?"
"Hooch said to sleep in separate rooms," says a girl. "We haven't seen Janine since last night."
She's probably dead, Millicent thinks. Aloud, she says, "Take your food and go back to your rooms. Stay away from anyone who looks sick. Hooch is right that you should minimize contact with anyone who isn't wearing an Anti-Contamination Suit."
"Is that it?" a boy demands. He's barely over five foot, and she guesses he's no more than thirteen. "You're just going to give us obvious, meaningless advice and wait for us to die?"
The students haven't moved, watching her with tense, desperate faces. At the edge of the group, Millicent sees a girl supporting a pale-faced friend who is sobbing quietly into a handkerchief — almost certainly infected. A boy and girl are holding hands, knuckles white, and their eyes flicker to the portrait hole behind her.
Millicent clenches her jaw and looks the boy in the eye. "What else can I do?"
"Isn't there a vaccination yet? A cure?"
"Professor Sprout talks to St. Mungo's every day. They're working on it," Millicent says, and the boy's shoulder slump.
In the shock of being grabbed, it's easy to forget that these are children, far too young to die and terrified about it. Exhaustion is written in the lines of their bodies, and as Millicent looks from face to face she sees a mixture of shock and desperate, hard-eyed calculation.
"Take the food and go back to your rooms. I'll come round to check on everyone," she orders, raising her wand in threat. Slowly, as if defeated, the students collect plates and climb the stairs towards their dormitories.
She performs a Disinfection charm before entering or leaving each room, but she doesn't hold out much hope of stopping the spread of the infection. Two days ago there were fourteen students living in Gryffindor house. Now there are only ten, and five of them seem to be infected.
Willing her hands not to shake, Millicent pours out the poison and leaves a dose of it in a glass beside the bed of every student who is sick.
"I'm not telling you to drink it," she tells each of them. "But it's there, if you want it. If you're in pain or... It's there."
Her hand is on the doorknob of the final room when she hears the student gulp down the potion, and the click of the glass landing on the bedside table. She hurries away and locks the door behind her.
From the tone of Pansy's voice she knows immediately that something is wrong.
"What is it?" Millicent demands, vaulting over the sofa to get to the fireplace. "Pansy! What's wrong?"
There are dark shadows under Pansy's eyes and her hair is a mess, hanging lank and tangled around her face. She looks tired, and frightened, and Millicent can't stop herself blurting out, "Oh, Merlin. You're sick."
"No," answers Pansy, her voice high, almost hysterical. "Not yet. But Draco is."
"He Flooed and told me last night," Pansy says, wrapping her arms around herself. "Draco's father got it first, and now they're all infected. I—" Pansy's voice cracks.
"I'm so sorry," says Millicent, knowing how inadequate the words sound. Dozens of people said they were sorry for her parents' deaths, and it never helped a bit.
"I know," Pansy replies in a voice like broken glass. "I'm sorry too, but I can't do this, Mill."
There's an instant where the words don't make sense, silence hanging in the air like the infinitesimal time between someone losing their balance and beginning to fall.
"I'm going to the manor. I Flooed to say goodbye," says Pansy.
"No. No, you can't do this," Millicent insists, jumping to her feet. "I'll come there, Pansy. I won't let you do this, you're not even sick, and you will be if you go there. You'll be infected and it doesn't make any sense for you to—"
"What's the point?" Pansy interrupts, shouting over her.
"Staying alive!" Millicent shouts back.
"Why bother? Why should any of us go through the quarantine, the precautions, the decontamination charms, and your damned suit, if everyone we care about is going to die?" Pansy screams. "I don't want to live on my own, trapped in this house with my parents!"
"Draco's not worth dying for!"
"It's not just Draco," Pansy retorts, and Millicent sways, catching herself on the arm of the chair. "A lot of the others haven't replied. The only people I reached yesterday were you, Blaise, Theo, and Draco. They may all be dead, Mill."
"No," Millicent says, gripping the sofa tightly for balance. "You're just — you're just panicking, and when you calm down it will seem better and I—"
"I'm going to the Manor," Pansy says quietly. "Goodbye, Mill."
"Pansy!" Millicent yells, but the fire flickers, and the next moment Pansy's face is gone. She grabs Floo powder from the container on the mantel, throws it into the flames and shouts, "Parkinson Park!"
Millicent leans into the fire, but the view on the other side shows an empty sitting room. "Pansy! Pansy!" she calls, voice echoing through the house, but nobody answers. She leans further forward, trying to step out through the flames, but the fire spits her back onto the carpet of the Slytherin common room. Millicent is thrown back a second time before she remembers the quarantine spells Professor Sprout established around the castle: nobody can leave or enter, except by foot.
She runs back to her bedroom, pulls on the suit as quickly as possible, and spells the seals closed before running out through the castle. Millicent is panting and sweating hard by the time she reaches the front doors, but she doesn't stop until she passes the school gates. She heaves in a breath, then twists on the spot, and a second later steps out into the hallway of Parkinson Park.
"Pansy! Pansy! Don't be stupid, Pansy!"
Millicent runs through the rooms of the house, darting from one room to the next, and then bursts into a dining room where two people are sitting at the table. They stare at her as though shocked into immobility. For a moment, it's like a Muggle painting of an aristocratic family with their upturned noses, expensive china, and gleaming silver candlesticks.
"Where's Pansy?" she demands.
The woman's eyes narrow. "I am Madam Parkinson, and you must be Miss Bulstrode."
"She went for a walk in the grounds," Pansy's mother says, and Millicent swears. "Really, I do think it is bad manners to—"
"Pansy told me a few minutes ago that she was going to Malfoy Manor," Millicent says, speaking slowly and very clearly, and sees the blood drain from their faces. "The Malfoys are all infected. She's gone to kill herself."
Pansy's mother gasps, her hands twisting in the tablecloth.
"No, Pansy wouldn't." says Pansy's father roughly, his face greying. He looks twenty years older than when Millicent entered the room.
"If you don't believe she's gone, then help me look for her," Millicent says.
Together they search Parkinson Park: every room, every cellar, every cupboard, every attic, every part of the garden and grounds. She keeps praying that Pansy will step out from behind a door or a shrub so that Millicent can shake her and point out how selfish and irrational Pansy is being.
It takes hours to be certain that Pansy isn't there. After all they've gone through together, grief, torture, and war, it is so stupid to lose Pansy like this. Millicent is furious at her, furious at the world, but the heat of her anger has boiled away and left her exhausted.
"I'm so sorry," Millicent tells Pansy's parents, who are huddled together on the sofa in the sitting room. "I wish I'd managed to talk her out of it. Maybe if I'd been here..."
Pansy's mother looks up and gives her a bleak smile in lipstick the color of blood. "My dear, nobody has ever been able to persuade Pansy to do anything she doesn't want to do."
There's nothing for it but to Apparate back to Hogwarts. The walk from the school gates to the castle has never felt so long. Millicent feels drained, her muscles aching and eyes swollen. It's almost as if there's a Dementor nearby; as if all the color has been drained from the world.
"Millicent? Are you all right?"
Millicent draws in a heaving breath and turns around. "No," she says and sees the fear on Hooch's face. "No, I didn't mean — I'm not infected."
"Where have you been?" Hooch asks quietly. "You didn't do the morning rounds."
"I was trying to help a friend." Millicent says, feeling the prickle of tears again. She screws up her hands, fingernails digging into her palms in the determination not to cry.
"I don't really understand."
"I'm starting to think we'll be the only ones left," she mutters, without meaning to, and blinks away the welling tears.
"Don't think like that. St. Mungo's or the Ministry will find something."
"But what's the point?" Millicent bursts out, and then the words come in a flood. "My best friend exposed herself today because she didn't want to live without her boyfriend. She was bloody-minded, a survivor, and I spoke to her every day. Now she's gone. I don't know who I'll talk to. My family have been dead for months. What's the point of being alive if there's nobody you care about left?"
"I know it's not much, but I'm here, Millicent," Hooch says, meeting her eyes. "Don't give up."
"What if it's just us? The two of us, in these fucking suits, in a country filled with corpses?"
"I don't believe it will come to that, but if it does, then we'll cope. You seem as though you'd be good company. Practical. Dependable."
"Why are you so bloody calm?"
"I'm not really calm," Hooch tells her, yellow eyes piercing. "I'm simply doing my best. Nobody knows their strength until it's tested. You're just finding yours."
There's a long moment of silence before Millicent whispers, "I wish I didn't feel so alone."
Hooch steps closer and wraps her arm around Millicent's shoulder, pulling her into a hug. The gesture is kind, but it's too much like the way Pansy held Millicent after her parents died, and the loss floods though her. She lets out a sob and leans into Hooch, feeling a hand smooth over her back, barely perceptible through the suit. It's been so long since she touched someone's skin. Perhaps she'll never touch anyone again.
They stand like that for a long time, until Millicent stops crying and her breathing steadies. Then Hooch pulls her closer, so that for a moment Millicent can feel the shape of Hooch's body against her through the layers of charms and fabric, before stepping away.
"You're so much stronger than you know. Hold on, Millicent and I'll see you tomorrow," Hooch says and goes back into the castle, towards Professor Sprout and the remaining students.
Millicent's chest tightens as Hooch walks away. She wants to shout, "Stay safe," but knows the words would be redundant. Hooch is taking the same precautions as Millicent, and she's certain that Hooch won't abandon people while there is a chance of helping them. The qualities that draw her to Hooch are what make Millicent so afraid for her.
A month ago, it would have seemed crazy to feel this way about a teacher, a woman older than her mother, but those labels don't matter now. Without her parents, without Pansy, without any of the Slytherins around her, Millicent feels like a lonely planet wobbling off its axis. Hooch is a solid, shining presence in the darkness; a star tugging Millicent into her orbit.
"The quarantine has failed," Sprout says. She's slumped in the Headmistress's chair, face pale and sweat beading on her neck and forehead. Millicent can see faint tremors already in her legs.
It's a disappointment, but not a surprise, that Professor Sprout is infected. Every student Millicent has visited this morning has the plague: all of the Ravenclaws, all of the Hufflepuffs, and the two shellshocked remaining Gryffindors who made it this long by hiding in their room and casting disinfection charms on anything they touched. Everyone in the castle is dying except herself and perhaps — a fervent, desperate hope because Millicent has not seen her yet today — Hooch.
"There must be a method of transmission that does not require physical contact with the infected person," Sprout says, voice weak. She raises a cup to her lips, sips at it, and continues. "Food perhaps, or water, or an airflow the quarantine hasn't blocked. Or perhaps some magical vector. I don't know what it is."
"What shall I do?"
There is a long, awful silence before Sprout finally speaks. "Sometimes when a greenhouse is infected, it's not enough to remove the plants one by one. If you wait for each plant to die, then the spores multiply and infect others. Culling the lot is the only way."
"You can't be asking me to kill everyone?"
"To save others."
"No!" Millicent shouts. " I killed Andrew Pearce. I wasn't good at it, but I did it because he begged me. I can't cast the killing curse that many times. I can't."
Sprout smiles weakly, and for a moment pain is almost erased from her face. "You know the password to Severus' office," she says. "There should be enough poison for us all."
"What if they refuse?"
There is a knock on the door, and Millicent whirls round. Hooch walks in, and Millicent can't help staring at her, searching for any sign of illness.
"You sent for me, Pomona?" Hooch says, waving parchment in her gloved hand, and then her face falls. "Oh hells. You're sick. I'm so sorry, Pomona."
"Yes, well," Sprout says, but she pulls herself upright in the chair. "And you?"
"I'm fine," Hooch says, and Millicent thanks Merlin so hard that for a moment she wonders if she said it aloud.
"Everyone in the castle except you and Millicent is infected," Sprout says bluntly. "We're developing a plan to contain the infection."
"What sort of plan?" Hooch asks.
"You remember the outbreak in Greenhouse Five?"
Hooch lets out a long, low breath. "Well, I should think a fire like that would stop the infection, but the sheer scale... I don't know a spell that would reduce everything in the castle to ash. Do you?"
"Perhaps in the library," Sprout says.
Millicent looks from one woman to the other and remembers Pansy's tearful account of how Vince died. Mouth dry, she says, "I know a spell."
For the first and only time, Millicent and Hooch go to the common rooms together. Hooch is calm, her voice steady and back straight as she offers poison to everyone who is ill, but every now and then her eyes meet Millicent's and Millicent knows it's an act.
Hooch stresses that the students can refuse the potion, but each of them takes a tiny vial from Millicent's gloved hand, and she watches as one after another drinks. By now, they all know what the plague is like — how it develops from the fever nearly every student has already, to agonizing, bloody death. No wonder the potion is better; a bland drink, followed by a painless slide into a never-ending sleep.
By the time Millicent hands vials to the last two Gryffindors, Professor Snape's supply of poison is running low. Hopefully she will never need it again. She and Hooch leave the Gryffindor common room in silence and cast disinfection charms over their suits.
"We should give it time to take full effect," Hooch says. "I'm going to collect some personal things, and then we need to set a spell boundary — I can't promise it'll work against a cursed fire, but we should try. Meet you outside in an hour?"
Unable to find words, Millicent nods.
She goes back to the Slytherin common room to gather her things: a pillow, blankets, her toothbrush, spare underwear, chocolate, some muggle clothes, and the spellbook that was a birthday present from her mother last year: 100 Spells That Could Save Your Life. She murmurs, "I love you, Mum," as she tucks the book into the bag.
Millicent lingers in the common room for few minutes, remembering the hours spent listening to Pansy gossip, or the foul-mouthed banter between Draco and Blaise. So many friends lost. It would be easy just to stay here and wait for the flames to take her, consuming all her blood and bone as it did with Vince. She could give up struggling and stop the constant worry of assessing herself for symptoms. It would be so simple to lie down, drink the poison, and sleep.
No. Hold on, Millicent she thinks, Hooch's voice clear in her head, and slings the bag onto her shoulder.
She goes to Professor Snape's stores once more and takes painkillers, poisons, a few antidotes, and a handful of ingredients. It's hard to know what supplies you need for the end of the world.
Then Millicent walks through the empty corridors towards the entrance, past portraits and sets of armor that won't exist tomorrow, leaving behind tapestries and sculptures that Draco described as priceless. The light is fading when she reaches the doorway, and Hooch is a silhouette against the grey sky, two brooms slung over her shoulder.
It takes them an hour to set a spell boundary around the castle, cutting it into the ground with a long knife, and then Hooch says the words that cause Hogwarts to explode into flame. Even when she was watching the battle from Hogsmeade, Millicent saw nothing to rival this: fire surging hundreds of feet high, sending out a column of smoke that turns the sky black. Before long it blazes violet and the stones glow red against the darkness.
They stand on the grass together and watch the school burn, monsters of flame surging from the turrets and billowing from every gap in the walls. A white-hot dragon bursts from the window of the Headmistress's Office, tossing a wooden chair into the air before its jaws snap closed around it, and with a pang Millicent thinks of Professor Sprout. The roar and crackle is almost deafening, and sparks fly out like fireworks, scorching the grass and sizzling when they meet the spell boundary.
"Now what?" Millicent says, turning to Hooch. The fire casts a warm glow over Hooch's face.
"We live," Hooch says, raising a hand to cup Millicent's chin.
It's a nice gesture, but Millicent can barely feel Hooch's hand through Hooch's glove and her own mask. It's not enough. She wants to feel the texture of Hooch's skin, to know the shape of her fingers, and touch the broom-calluses on her palm. Intimacy requires trust, she thinks, remembering her parents. Her mother knew the risk involved in marrying a muggleborn, but she did it anyway and never looked back. Love means taking a chance.
Heart racing as if she were standing on the edge of a precipice, Millicent murmurs the spell to unseal her suit. Hooch jumps away, wide-eyed.
"What are you doing?"
Slowly, Millicent raises her hand to unfasten her mask. As the pulls the fabric away, the air is a shock on her bare skin — a sensation she hasn't felt in two weeks. The radiating heat of the castle is a blast of hot air against her cheek.
"I want to touch you," Millicent says simply.
"What if touching me kills you?"
Millicent recalls her last conversation with Pansy, and although she's still furious that Pansy threw her life away, it's beginning to make more sense. Life isn't just going through the motions, breathing, eating, and brushing one's teeth — it's about people. People are what makes the eating and breathing worthwhile.
"I don't want to be alone. That's not worth surviving for."
For a long moment, Hooch doesn't move. Then Millicent hears her say the unsealing spell, and a moment later Hooch pulls the glove from her right hand.
Hooch takes a tiny, careful step towards her, then another, as if the grass between them were a minefield. Very slowly Hooch extends her hand, fingers trembling, and then her fingertips brush Millicent's bare skin.
Millicent expels a breath she hadn't been aware of holding, closes her eyes, and leans into the touch.
She wakes to the sound of birdsong and the sun glaring through her eyelids. She opens her eyes to see the sun over the mountaintops, its light glittering off the lake. There is a haze of smoke overhead, and Millicent turns to look at the castle, which was smoldering when she fell asleep.
The fire has burned itself out overnight, leaving nothing but stone behind. As a first year, Millicent remembers walking up the imposing steps and through the huge wooden doors, but the doors are gone now and the staircase is blackened. The granite walls are scorched, and there are still gaping holes from the battle. In this state, Hogwarts is barely more than a ruin, and only the faint tracery of spells glittering over the stonework mark it out from the many abandoned Scottish castles. Perhaps there will be enough survivors for Hogwarts to be rebuilt one day, rising from the ashes like a phoenix. Right now, Millicent daren't hope for that.
Beside her, Hooch is breathing softly. There is a fine layer of ash scattered over her face and caught in her grey hair, and Millicent bends down to blow it off her cheek. On the far side of Hooch are their supplies: two broomsticks, a box of potions, and their bags. Millicent reaches over to pull a blanket from her schoolbag and spreads it over them both, nestling closer.
She leans in and presses her lips to the back of Hooch's neck: a soft, simple press of skin against skin. It seems like the most wondrous gift. It's the only thing worth living for.