Trix by GHL



Summary:

"But now old friends are acting strange..." - Joni Mitchell.

Voldemort is dead; Harry and Ginny are in love and living the dream. What's not to like, right? Then, a sudden rash of strange incidents piques Harry's anxiety. After years of war, are people just having difficulty adjusting to peace? Or is someone out there playing dirty 'trix'?

The story is set three months after the end of 'The Prevailing Counterpoint', and builds on characters and events elaborated therein. TPC is probably not required reading if you accept that Dumbledore and Snape are dead; that Lupin, Tonks and Fred are alive, and that Slytherins are fundamentally neurotic.


Rating: PG-13 starstarstarstarstar
Categories: Alternate Universe
Characters: None
Genres: None
Warnings: None
Challenges: None
Series: None
Published: 2014.11.07
Updated: 2017.09.03


Index

Chapter 1: Eyes
Chapter 2: Momentary Lapse of Reason
Chapter 3: Happy New Year?
Chapter 4: Tears in the Dark
Chapter 5: Black and Blue
Chapter 6: Cousin Capers
Chapter 7: Flowers in the Spring
Chapter 8: Soul Skulduggery
Chapter 9: Weasley Whimsies
Chapter 10: Two Stones
Chapter 11: Smoke Behind the Glass
Chapter 12: Footsteps
Chapter 13: Elders' Insights
Chapter 14: Strange Operations
Chapter 15: Teeming
Chapter 16: Mist and Vault
Chapter 17: Strafe and Secure


Chapter 1: Eyes

Author's Notes: So now I find myself in the peculiar position of beginning to post the story that comes before the one I've been working on for the past month. You, as readers, will end up sort-of-knowing some of the characters that I'd originally intended to be introducing for the first time. They will, courtesy of being so much younger, not align perfectly what what you see in Seeker Daughter, but over the course of Trix, I think you'll see convergence.


Chapter 1. Eyes (Dec. 10-25, 1997)

The man held aloft a small purple stocking.

Although wretched sleet spattered his expressionless face, the man stood passively in the jaundiced, feeble glimmers of a faltering street lamp. Cold rivulets leaked from his stringy hair, trailing past hollow eyes, down stubbly cheeks and neck, soaking an unseasonably thin anorak.

"Is that all you found?!" the voice snapped harshly from within the dark threshold.

"Yes." The man nodded. His voice sounded as vacant as his expression. "Her room was bare. The stocking was snagged beneath a dresser drawer; overlooked likely. Nothing else was left behind."

The voice hissed in frustration. "Well, I suppose it will have to do. What do you have for Chosen?"

The man carefully placed the stocking back into his sack and withdrew a well worn athletic shirt.

A lurid cackle sparked through the dank night. "Ooohh — much better! How did you come by this?"

"Nicked it from St. Mungo's Child Health Foundation. It was to have been auctioned at a charity benefit," the man responded blandly.

"Oh, how delightfully absurd!" Another shrill cackle erupted then subsided. "What else do you have?"

"Items for most people on your list. Each is tagged per specification." The man offered his sack across the threshold, where it was snatched by a thin, dark hand; wrinkled yet with an odd sheen that glistened in the low light.

"Very good!" the voice purred in satisfaction. "Did anyone see you at all?"

"Nobody except Colours," the man admitted dispassionately. "She came around a corner before I could Disapparate; watched me for a moment then turned away. I don't know that she suspected anything."

"You don't know?? Ewww... ambiguity is as bad as failure." Even the distant street lamp seemed to shiver at the chill that oozed from the voice. The hand emerged again, holding an equally black stick. "Such a pity — you had been doing rather well."

Silence fell over the gloomy scene, punctuated only by the rattle of droplets upon the decrepit front steps.

"Will that be all?" The man made no move; not even to wipe away droplets of rain collecting in the deep circles around his eyes.

"No," the voice replied. "Mustn't take any chances, right? Go lie in that culvert."

The man nodded. He walked stiffly down the steps and set himself face down in the cold trickling water.

"Avada Kedavra!" A flash of green split the night. After a deep breath, the voice spoke again with a soft, preternatural calm, saying, "Evanesco"... and the water was left to resume its natural, unimpeded course to the drain.

Far away, a young girl in her nightgown burst awake, scattering pillow and quilt onto the hardwood floor. Gasping for breath, she stared through the window just as the waxing gibbous moon broke its way through a bank of thick departing clouds.

Setting aside the cold prickles on her scalp, the girl rose from her bed and tiptoed in stealthy haste to the battered travel trunk at the foot of her bed. Quickly, quietly, she rifled through it. In less than a minute a tiny gasp, nearly inaudible, escaped her lips. She had found what she sought; with trembling hand, she held it aloft in the moonlight.

From within a stack of carefully folded pairs, she had retrieved... a solitary purple stocking.

Ugh — utter chaos!

The coverage was intense — flashes of light and color were sparking up everywhere. Harry Potter feverishly scanned the frenetic greenscape, fully aware that a poor choice now would only make matters worse.

Focus Harry — get it done!

With exemplary poise, he sifted dispassionately through the confusion, mapped the subtle underlying patterns, inexorably zeroing in on deficiencies. In barely more than a blink of an eye, he narrowed the plausible targets down to one — a single region whose coverage was slightly, almost imperceptibly, sparser than the rest.

His gaze darted left to right, up and down, re-assessing and verifying. After all, if he was to have any hope of resolving this now, any chance of restoring balance and order, he could not risk a miscalculation.

Everything checked out... he nodded decisively.

With one last quick breath to sharpen his mind, he committed! At arm's length, he raised the glistening object in his hand against the complex backdrop then surged forward and upwards in a fluid, deliberate maneuver. Senses honed to subtle aspects of position and motion, he registered a stream of images racing past, reflected in the shiny sphere: branches, lights, piercing eyes...

Eyes??!

"Agghhh!" Harry yelped in surprise. The delicate glass Christmas ornament sprang up, out of his startled hand, and sailed obliquely in a smooth arc. Instinctively he pivoted hard, twisting his momentum away from the imperiled tree and redirecting himself in pursuit of the escaping bulb. His long and skilled fingers gauged the trajectory, closed in...

... and clamped around the wrist of Ginny Weasley.

Standing behind him with ornament securely in hand, Ginny grinned impishly and turned to her fiancé. "Ha!" she scoffed. "And here we are led to believe that you're the star seeker!".

"Anything I can do, you can do better." Harry snatched the ornament away and affixed it safely onto the chosen branch.

"Prat!" Ginny smirked and turned to leave... but not before Harry's seeker's hand curled around her waist and pulled her tightly into the crook of his arm. He planted a firm, lingering kiss on her collar bone. His lips crept south. Ginny exhaled and arched backwards, deeper into Harry's grasp. Harry lifted his head to capture her lips.

Several incoherent vocalizations later, and Emerald — her feline curiosity now fully piqued — leapt up from her favourite resting spot near the crackling hearth, mewling inquisitively, as she proceeded to weave her way between their tangled legs.

The tender kiss was rent by an ignominious shriek and Ginny burst out laughing. "That tickles, you wretched beast!" She twisted about, trying to extricate her bare feet from the furry, whiskery dynamo.

"Are you calling me a wretched beast?" Harry raised an indignant eyebrow as he broke away from the tangle and made his way toward the kitchen to investigate the suddenly frantic buzzing of an oven timer. "After all my suffering labors, I might choose to not share the cranberry biscotti, you know."

"Double prat!" Ginny called after him as she stumbled around trying to evade the capering paws. "I promise to tickle you within an inch of your biscotti... I mean life... if I ever escape from this darling and oh so evil kitty cat!"

Harry chuckled. He had no idea why all hell seemed to break loose whenever he and Ginny locked lips, but they had long since just learned to laugh and live with it.

As he pulled the baking pan from the oven, Harry inhaled the rich vapours and sighed contentedly. He put the biscotti aside to cool and summoned a pair of coffee mugs. Taking a seat at the table, he sprawled relaxedly, raising a mug to his mouth and blowing on it in quiet contemplation. He smiled at the sounds of Ginny's affectionate prattle as she attempted to coax the cat away from her feet with the promise of an early supper. Treading very carefully, she emerged into the kitchen, magically assembled a bowl of Emerald's favorite kibble and proceeded to hover it in front of the cat's nose for several seconds before sending the meal scooting into the pantry with cat in mad pursuit.

"Ahh!" Ginny sighed in relieved liberation. She turned to Harry, regarding him skeptically; clasping her hands in a way that might have looked a bit more threatening than she intended. "So, just what are you smiling at, sir?"

"You." Harry's diffuse smile expanded into a grin.

"Well, I suppose that's tolerable." She picked up a mug and crossed the room to investigate the oven tin on the counter. "A smile that comes with coffee and biscuits might even be worth encouraging."

"Save a dozen or so for Remus and Tonks, please?"

Ginny nodded as she transferred most of the biscuits to one of their Christmas plates and carried the remainder to the table. She picked up one and examined it for a quarter second before taking a bite. "Mmmmm! Pistachios!"

"It's Andromeda's recipe," Harry explained. "I'll be curious to see if Tonks notices." His gaze followed Ginny as she took a seat across from him and rested her bare feet atop his loafers. He took another drink of coffee. "So... how exactly did you sneak up on me like that, Gin'?" His eyes peered inquisitively at her from over the rim of his mug.

Ginny wiped a few crumbs from her lips, stifling a snicker. "Oh, come on Harry! It's not as if it was all that difficult, considering where all your concentration was. Goodness — I'd have sworn you were dueling that tree, not decorating it!"

"I take our Christmas blazonry very seriously I'll have you know." He chuckled. "But I'm still surprised you took me at unawares."

Ginny met his gaze and nodded. "I'm sorry if I rattled you."

"No need to apologize." Harry offered a reassuring smile as he reached for one of the cooled biscuits, but hiding behind his easy smile was a slightly uncomfortable truth — Ginny actually did rattle him a little these days.

It wasn't their relationship that unnerved Harry — that was very nearly as wonderful as Harry could have asked for. If it was not quite perfect, then it was a trade off that he accepted. During peacetime, without constant perils to necessitate their constant crystal-clear communication as confidantes, tacticians and warriors, it was actually proving a bit more challenging to be lovers.

It seemed easier to find things to disagree over when decisions no longer carried the fate of thousands of people, but he and Ginny were nonetheless adapting well to a quieter life, and were learning to cope with the incredible vistas of opportunity that seemed to have opened up to both of them.

Yet, one source of concern that seemed to keep Harry on his toes was Ginny's magic. After Voldemort's death, her aura had become increasingly opaque to him. Very opaque, in fact. And for Harry, whose most unique and powerful skill lay in sensing and interpreting magical signatures, the effect was disconcerting, and also rather intriguing...

"Earth to Harry." Ginny waved gently across his field of vision. "Is there anybody in there?"

Harry blinked and renewed his smile. "Sorry Gin' — just lost in thought." He took a sip of coffee and gazed out the window before re-engaging her curious gaze. "So, as I was saying, there's no need to apologize. Frankly, more than anything, I was impressed. Distraction or no, I'm almost certain that if any other witch or wizard in Britain had come up behind me I would have noticed. I don't know anyone magical who has a quieter aura than you had back there. Have you taught yourself some sort of exotic Occlumency trick or something?"

Ginny shook her head and put down her mug. "Not intentionally, however, in the last few weeks I've started going through some of the memories that Salvatore Fugo left me..."

Harry's eyes widened. "Ah? What have you found?"

Ginny gazed off through the window to the snow falling gently onto the hedges and roofs further down Magpie Lane. "I found things I didn't expect," she answered contemplatively. "You know, when he entered my mind that night, it seemed as if he was just bequeathing some sort of fantastic travelogue — memories of all these amazing sights, places and experiences. At the time I figured, okay this is quaint — now I can plan two hundred and fifty years worth of fabulous vacation getaways for us, but now I realise he left me a lot more. There seem to be secrets to some of his more advanced magic..."

"How to become a stone?" Harry mused.

Ginny nodded. "Self-transfiguration to inanimate objects... aura stealth... how to appear magically inert — things one might expect from a gifted wizard who spent many decades hiding from the world. I think there are other things in there too that I haven't even begun to grasp." She paused for a moment. "I wonder if Tremelda left you anything that night? I mean, besides a splitting headache."

Harry winced, then laughed as he recalled the painful episode of Horcrux diagnostics. "That's a good question — I was so caught up in their eccentricities that it never really occurred to me that they might be teaching us magic." He pulled his chair closer and lifted Ginny's feet into his lap where they nestled into his oversized jumper. "Sometime soon I should go through my memories to see if she bequeathed anything interesting, but I'm not very optimistic. Unlike Salvatore, I think her goal that night was to understand me, rather than to instruct."

"Makes sense," Ginny agreed.

"But going back to your privileged knowledge then... I was wondering...?"

Ginny looked up and nodded expectantly.

"I was wondering if you could teach me the stealth thing?" Harry inquired.

"I'll need to understand it better first, but we can certainly try." Ginny tapped her lip for a moment, then nodded to herself. "Why? Academic curiosity, Professor Potter?" She smiled at him with a twinkle in her eye... but the sparkle evaporated as it met unexpected gravitas.

"Just curious," Harry responded unconvincingly.

Ginny's eyebrow shot up. "Harry, what are you not telling me?".

"Argh! Okay, yes, there's a practical reason." Harry sighed. "But I don't want this to mess with our happy Christmas, okay?"

Ginny nodded as an apprehensive chill crept down her spine.

"Gin', we've been spoiled. The last few months we haven't had to dodge anything more frightful than obnoxious reporters, but, well... I think it might be time to revisit some of our old prudence again. A little more stealth perhaps." Harry met Ginny's inquiring gaze with utmost sobriety. "A couple days ago, the Muggle Liaison Office handed Robards some police reports of a woman loitering near Dolwyddelan, giving villagers the creeps..." Harry took a long pull on his coffee and placed the empty mug on the table. "Tall; thin; wild eyes and long, dark but greying hair... description basically fits Bellatrix Lestrange."

Ginny made her way to the kitchen, rolling her eyes at the cheerful cacophony that continued to pour out of the living room. Off-key caroling apparently made for thirsty guests, and it was her turn to fetch refills.

Despite the racket, she was having a good time. More than anything, she was overjoyed to see Lupin and Tonks so relaxed and openly affectionate with each other. Lupin had just received an excellent job offer (Professor MacGonagall had recruited him to fill the transfiguration teaching position at Hogwarts that she was supposed to vacate as Headmistress) and he had celebrated that fine news by placing a beautiful, color-shifting alexandrite ring on Tonks's finger! A sunny grin spread over Ginny's face as she thought of what a happy, exciting Christmas this had become for her dear friends.

As Ginny reached for the punchbowl, however, a composite of past Yuletides memories flickered through her mind and the grin tapered to a bittersweet sigh.

It was only right that no festive season should ever pass without some quiet, wistful remembrance of Sirius Black — the old dog would have been beside himself to feel such love in the air tonight!     "God rest ye merry gentleman..." Ginny murmured softly to the dimly-lit kitchen as a faint mist arose in her eyes. She raised a glass of punch to her lips and took a long, slow drink.

Rather than immediately replenish the tray and return it to the festive living room, she drifted over toward the window to gaze out at a darkening sky and the dusting of snow that continued to steadily blanket their Muggle neighborhood. She put her fingernail to the window and scratched distractedly at one of the frost flowers that was spreading across the pane. On the face of it, the nocturnal scene seemed so peaceful, but if she stared out past the sparkling flakes, past the fluffed-up hedges and speckled street lights... there was darkness — cold and unknown. Despite all the reasons for joy, she had still not managed to shake the vague queasiness that had descended into her stomach from Harry's disturbing news.

She tried again to reason with herself; to accentuate the positives. Following the climactic battle in September, the autumn had been so pleasant and restorative. Death Eater attacks were non-existent; more than three quarters of all known Voldemort supporters had either been incarcerated or subjected to voluntary tracking charms, and the remaining fugitives were laying low, seemingly avoiding any activities that might attract Auror attention. Harry had remained engaged but safe — Gawain Robards was in near-daily contact with him, seeking opinions on current investigations, but Ginny's fiancé had proven content to uphold to their shared pledge of leading a quieter, less perilous existence, and had instead thrown his energies into his Hogwarts teaching duties.

Nobody (not even Ginny) expected Harry to spend the rest of his life as a quiet professor, but for the time being he certainly deserved a break. As far as protecting the world from evil, he had accomplished more heroic deeds last year than almost anyone else had ever done in an entire lifetime. His all-consuming mission was over; it had been a smashing success, and he had surely earned a bit of the luxurious peace he had brought to so many others. Hadn't he?

With that, Ginny sighed discontentedly, because as long as the despicable Madame Lestrange skulked in the darkness, there would never be true peace for Harry. Or for anyone in the British Wizarding community to be honest.

Ironically, at that very moment, Bellatrix's niece was in no mood to let people dwell in peace either. "Ho ho ho!" Tonks proclaimed as she bounced into the kitchen. "I knew it, boys! Weasley's in here guzzling all the punch!"

As Tonks grinned, a copious application of apple-red lipstick glistened in the lamp-light, perfectly complementing her wintergreen punk cut. Ginny attempted a breezy smile. Unfortunately the attempt failed, and Tonks's smirk faded to concern. "You look glum, chum. I'm guessing you heard about the MLO report then?"

Ginny nodded and took another sip while Tonks filled a glass, sloshed a bit over her sleeve, and did a quick scourgify. "Listen kiddo..." Tonks wobbled a bit then she regained her equilibrium. "Trust the Aurors on this one — we'll bring down the old cow and put her away. We won't let her get close to you or Harry. Try not to worry about her, orright luv?"

Ginny attempted the smile a second time but once again it fell short. "Thanks Tonks," she replied wearily. "I wish I could put it out of my head, but it's not easy. I know it probably sounds daft for the two people who defeated Riddle to be worried about an underling like Lestrange, but this is completely different.

Tonks nodded with an engaged frown on her face. She leaned against the counter next to Ginny, cradling her drink thoughtfully, silently waiting for Ginny to resume.

"The big difference is that Riddle was so predictable," Ginny explained. "He was evil incarnate and had outrageous power, but everything he did had a very perverse yet consistent logic and it was possible to graph a lot of his moves. That's the biggest reason Harry and I were able to defeat him — we could always guess how he would react to a given threat or opportunity, whereas Riddle constantly misjudged us. But that's where things break down now — Lestrange is such a toxic flakey nutjob!" Ginny paused and angrily blew a stray lock of hair from her eyes. "Find me one person on this bloody planet who has half a clue what that bitch is going to do next?!"

Tonks nodded, chuckling wryly but otherwise remaining silent.

Ginny moved from the window and began to pace. "Next problem," she resumed, "is the fact that she was spotted within spitting distance of our SHP safe house..."

Tonks lifted her hand to interject. "Don't let that fret you, Ginners! The most likely explanation for that is that Bellatrix is trying to find... or eliminate... Mum and Aunt Cissy. Aurors don't think the Dolwyddelan sightings have anything to do with you or Harry." Tonks took a long drink and re-filled her glass. "Either way, we doubt Lestrange will make any headway. We sent a team out yesterday to check and bolster the Fidelius. It was rock-solid before, and it's even better now. We also reworked the Apparition point a bit to make sure it's completely obscured from possible spies. I think it's a dead end for her."

"That's all encouraging," Ginny agreed, "but I personally found it spooky that the sightings happened only three days after Skeeter wrote an exposé revealing that Harry is bankrolling the Safe Homes and People program, and implying that the Headquarters is somewhere in the Gwydyr Forest. That filthy cockroach even went so far as to insinuate that SHP was a euphemism for Sneaky Harry Potter, and that he's using it to shelter criminals!"

Tonks wrinkled her nose in distaste.

"So maybe your department knows something that would really make me feel better," Ginny said, pouring herself some more punch, "but I'm thinking it's just as likely that Lestrange picked up the lead from Skeeter and went to Wales solely to try to scrounge for leads on Harry. As far as I can guess, she might not even realize she'd bumbled her way to within a stone's throw of her two sisters."

Tonks shrugged. "Okay, you've got a point — I'll bring it up in the next team meeting." She laughed. "You know, I think I see why Kingsley wanted so much to recruit you."

Ginny smiled for a moment at the compliment, then took a drink and resumed pacing. "The final problem..." she began, then paused for a long moment.

Tonks watched her friend silently deliberating. Despite Tonks' loquacious tendencies, the soft-skills Auror training she had taken told her that the best way to get the most out of this conversation was to give Ginny silent, supportive companionship as she worked through complex details. In other words, it was a great time to shut up, wait and listen. She was fully aware that both Ginny and Harry often saw patterns that everyone else seemed to miss and, although she disliked using her friends to advance ongoing investigations, the quality of insight she knew she might come away with posed a powerful temptation.

Despite the pregnant pause still hanging in the air, Ginny stopped to look out the window for a while. Finally she turned to face Tonks. "The other problem," Ginny conveyed with a note of finality in her voice, "is something I can't talk about yet."

Tonks looked at her quizzically for a moment then nodded slowly. "Ah," she said blandly.

"Sorry about that." Ginny shrugged with a sheepish smile. "I haven't had a chance to discuss it with Harry yet. That always has to come first."

"That's okay, Ginny — I understand," Tonks replied, fixing her friend with an intent gaze. "But whatever this other problem is... if it becomes a life or death thing — you're going to tell me about it, right?"

Ginny nodded earnestly, relieved that Tonks was prepared to drop the topic for the time being.

Tonks grinned. "Okay it's a deal. But blimey, sweets — what dopey barmpot started a conversation like this anyway? It's Christmas! You know — joy to the world and all that? And if we don't get some punch out to the boys soon, they're bound to start improvising!"

"Improvising?" Ginny's eyebrows spiked in trepidation.

"Firewhisky!" Tonks said with an involuntary shudder, as she rapidly filled several glasses with punch, spreading a fair puddle across the tray. "I saw Remus slip a quart of Ogden's Finest into his cloak pocket just before we left Grimmauld."

"Firewhisky?!" Ginny's tone rose dangerously all of a sudden. She muttered an oath under her breath and stomped ferociously into the living room...

Standing by the bay window: open bottle bottle in one hand, empty glass in the other, Lupin froze. He turned slowly, stiffly, and wilted in the face of Ginny's glare. "Errr..." he said with a sheepish grin, "I was just saying to Harry that we'd both love another glass of that wonderful punch of yours. And, um, you see, I was just about to put away this bottle so that I could... umm... er..."

"Save it for unclogging fouled drains?" Ginny's face displayed remarkably little humour.

"Yes, that would be it!" Remus put the tumbler down and hastily re-corking the spirits.

"Well, far be it from any Weasley to fear the fire," Ginny lectured sternly, "but I think the two esteemed Hogwarts faculty members in this room would benefit from reading page three of the Sunday Prophet." She picked up the newspaper from a small table near the front entrance and handed it to Lupin, gesturing forcefully toward the top of the page.


Cauldron Brawlers Include Three Order of Merlin Recipients

DIAGON ALLEY — Ten overly exuberant holiday revelers woke up this morning in DMLE holding cells following their part in a wild overnight brawl. Fueled by record Firewhisky sales yesterday afternoon and evening, the destructive fracas is reported to have more than wiped out Leaky Cauldron profits for the month and sent several people to St Mungo's Hospital for Magical Maladies and Injuries. Violence spilled over from the pub into South Diagon Alley where several stores were vandalized. Among those arrested in connection with the disturbances were Pansy Parkinson, Tracey Davis, and Theodore Nott, Jr., all of whom are recent Order of Merlin (Third Class) honourees in recognition for their courageous service in the Battle of Hogwarts. Parkinson and Davis were fined for disorderly conduct and released this morning. Nott is being held on bail under charges of assaulting two members of the local Diagon Alley constabulary.


Having read the article over Lupin's shoulder, Harry sagged onto the chesterfield with a look of weary disappointment etched into his face.

Occlumency sorting was tedious. Harry knew that the ultimate benefits (which ranged from stress-reduction all the way up to sheer survival in some of the most perilous situations) were well worth the effort, but the task seemed especially dreary at times like this... lying in bed, facing away from a beautiful, loving and rather concerned young woman who was waiting for him to turn over.

Harry hated making Ginny wait, but he also knew that the sorting could be a finicky task that was best accomplished while stressful thoughts were at their freshest. To make certain that Ginny didn't worry that he was brooding, he paused his introspection for a moment and reached back to grasp the small hand that was gently stroking the curve of his neck. He pulled her fingers to his lips and held them there for a long moment before releasing them.

Somewhat heartened, Ginny moved her hand to the center of Harry's chest and pulled her body in tightly behind his, softly kissing his shoulder.

Harry sighed and returned to his labours — hauling out each and every worry, doubt and fear, examining and acknowledging it, then locking it carefully into an appropriate bin where nobody could use it against him. During the war, he had typically done the exercise several times a week. It had become much less frequent over the past two months, but this week he had once again started to feel a bit embattled, and this was evident in his sorting efforts. After the work was done, Harry would achieve peaceful equanimity, but to get there involved bringing angst to the surface, and Ginny was especially sensitized to it — every time he tensed or winced, he could hear her breath catch. Even in the dark, facing away from her, Harry could visualize those little worry crinkles springing up around her eyes. He groaned softly. No sixteen-year-old should ever have had reason to acquire little worry crinkles! But then again, not many sixteen-year-olds had ever matured so quickly; almost none had ever played such a critical role in facing down one of the worst menaces in wizarding history. Ginny was entitled to a little crinkle here or there, and besides — they were one of the many unique little things about her that made her so utterly irresistible.

Focus Harry! Focus!

Harry forced aside all glowing thoughts about how irresistible his fiancée was, and came to bear on his worst current worry — the ghastly spectre of Bellatrix Lestrange's psychotic obsessions and peculiar powers. He spent several moments contemplating the unfathomable connection Bellatrix had with him — the fact that she, alone of any Death Eater that Harry had ever known, seemed capable of sensing his aura! He replayed in his mind the memory of last September's Gringotts battle — a frenzy of spell-fire, dust and distractions that had reached a petrifying climax:

Harry, in owl animagus form... counting on the element of surprise, flying straight through the air toward the entrance.

Bellatrix, ignoring all of the chaos... keying directly on the flight of the black owl...

Since the news of Bellatrix's re-emergence had been sprung on him several days earlier, the horrifying Gringotts episode, nearly forgotten in postwar complacency, had surged back to haunt his dreams. He worried that he was vulnerable to her in ways more subtle and insidious than he had been to Riddle; he had understood his link with Riddle and had found the perfect foil to it, but he had no idea what nexus Lestrange had with him, or how he could exploit or sever it. He could only hope, somehow, that learning more about Ginny's new stealth powers obtained from Salvatore Fugo's memories could somehow give him the means to occlude the connection.

Harry then proceeded to sort away his aching concerns for emotionally damaged Slytherin youth. His heart went out to Ted Nott Jr. whose bouts of irrational immaturity likely arose from a struggle with suffocating guilt over getting his own father sent to Azkaban. Fortunately, Harry had already started deliberating on this, even before Nott's recent arrest, and he was confident he had a solid plan to put his fragile colleague back on a path to recovery. There was good hope at least on that front.

That was the last of what Harry could accomplish on his own. Just a few more minor issues... and for those he needed help. Luckily he knew just whom to ask, and he was fairly sure that she was ready and waiting to assist.

Harry turned himself over. Ginny raised her arm to accommodate his motion, and then placed it back around him, gazing anxiously at his face, waiting for him to speak.

"Us," Harry said tonelessly, without elaboration.

Ginny stared at him for a moment, blinked, and then giggled softly.

"What?!" Harry grumbled.

Ginny tamped down her mirth and smiled at him in the darkness. "Sorry, I'm just trying to imagine what will happen if I ever capitulate to one of those bloody Witch Weekly interview requests. You know the sort of dopey questions they ask, right? How about this... 'So, Miss Weasley, for all the witches out there who desperately want to know how you and Harry Potter manage to stay so happy amidst all the pressure and public scrutiny — what's your secret? Do you and the Chosen One have intimate pillow chats? Does he ever bear his heart and initiate relationship discussions?'"

Harry chuckled. "Okay, okay! You're saying I need to try to articul...?"

Ginny placed a finger to his lips, before giving them a quick peck. "No Harry," she soothed. "Don't worry — I'm not Witch Weekly. I know precisely what you're asking and how's this for a nice simple answer? We're doing fine!"

Harry smiled softly. "Thank you. I'm not sure why I even had to ask..."

"There never has to be a reason, Harry. It doesn't hurt to check once in a while," Ginny mused. Her eyes strayed to his chin which she began to stroke absent-mindedly. "As far as I'm concerned, if you're occasionally a little baffled by interpersonal relationships, then it just proves that you're human. Umm... let me clarify and say that you're a human who has somehow survived a decade with the Dursleys, spent the next five years with two best friends for whom your every anxiety was treated either as a personal affront or a research project, received your first kiss from Cho I'm-an-emotional-amoeba Chang, then got your magical aura all tangled up with some high-maintenance Weasley chick who keeps needing to be rescued from mortal peril."

Harry rolled his eyes and laughed. "I..."

Ginny nipped Harry's protest in the bud with a well-timed kiss, before pulling back and proceeding in a more serious tone. "I think the biggest challenge for us is trying to bumble our way through a real relationship without that magical tether we used to have. It's a little like for months we could take examinations with the answer sheet right in front of us, and then someone comes along and takes the answers away. I found it nerve-wracking for a while, because don't forget that I was every bit as pathetic with relationships as you were..."

She ran her hand gently through his hair contemplatively for a while before continuing. "But look — we've been going for months now since the war ended and nothing's fallen to pieces yet, right? You're still sweet and thoughtful Harry. You're still smart enough to be completely smitten with me, right?" She winked at him playfully. "We handled a lot of stressful situations together without friction. Sure, I can't always sense your moods anymore and I probably seem a bit more distant to you. But you're far too precious to me. I'll never let a little mystery and ambiguity get in the way of our rightful happiness... and I know with all my heart that you feel the same way."

Harry closed in to kiss her.

Ginny met his lips curiously... experimentally... wondering whether this was going to be one of those knee-quivering, heart-hammering, mind-vaporising kisses? She savoured the moist warmth of his lips, the gentle puffs of breath. Nice. Very pleasant. But as her mind had not yet vaporised, she knew that Harry was still holding back.

Indeed, after a moment, he also pulled back and gazed into her eyes with an expression whose soft neutrality was difficult to interpret. "So we're okay, then?" he asked.

Ginny nodded thoughtfully. "From what I can tell... and I'm a world renowned expert on this you realize..." She winked again and tickled the back of his neck. "We're doing great, Harry. Of course, from time to time I will certainly do boneheaded things like shoving nasty newspaper articles in your face, and I expect that you're sometimes going to get obscure and reticent, but as long as we never forget to check back in, then I'm sure we'll continue to be the absolute envy of all precociously amorous teenaged couples everywhere!"

She stopped speaking and frowned sternly. "Now listen lover boy — just how much longer are you going to lie there and prattle on?" Ginny glowered at the overt smirk on his face. "Are you at the point yet where you're prepared to snog me senseless, or do you have more worries to offload?"

Harry pecked her nose affectionately but again retreated. "One more worry," he sighed. "Me."

Ginny schooled her thoughts, stroking his cheek pensively for a moment as she translated his vague abstraction. "Well, you're in luck, because I happen to be a world renowned expert on that too," she quipped. "Here's what I think the problem is..." Her gaze swept analytically about his face before settling back to his eyes. "I believe that you haven't really settled into a world in which you are no longer the chosen one, bound in prophesy to clash with some stupendous force of evil. You don't have an all-encompassing summons to face a daunting, perilous challenge. In essence, Harry James Potter, I believe you're bored."

Harry nodded solemnly as he began processing the implications of Ginny's pronouncement. He was just parting his lips to whisper his sincere gratitude... when he found himself thrown onto his back — all four limbs pinned firmly to the mattress. A veil of silky hair draped itself over his head, and his mouth had only the barest instant to utter a small gasp before becoming trapped within an intense blaze of passion.

The rest of the night, shall we say, was not boring.

"Maybe we can fly tomorrow," Harry suggested. "If the weather is as nice as tod... ooofff!"

"Clara!" Sally Lyon gasped as a small blonde projectile tackled Harry. Everyone winced as the blunt end of a Comet 290 nearly drove straight up his nose. Staggering a bit to recover his balance, he gave Sally a lopsided grin to assure her that he wasn't seriously injured.

In keeping with eleven-year-old sophistication, Jonathon's initial show of gratitude had been a fist-bump with Ginny, but after watching his little sister exultantly mauling Harry it became clear that he was feeling a bit left out. Ginny saw the boy's arms twitch involuntarily; she grinned and swept him into a hug. "Happy Christmas Chaser! You'll cut the defenses to shreds with a Cleansweep Twelve." Ginny pulled back to appraise the Hogwarts first year. "Yes, once you're over seven stone, we might try you on a Nimbus or Firebolt, but for someone your size, the Twelve should give the best control and handling."

"Thank you thank you thank you..." Jonathon mumbled emotionally averting his eyes.

"Are you certain it's okay for Clara to fly that broom?" Sally asked Harry.

Harry nodded. "No problem at all. The Comet has adjustable power settings. Ginny dialed it back, so it shouldn't give Clara any difficulty now. We'll adjust back upwards as she gets used to it..."

"Er, I guess I was concerned whether it's legal?" Sally clarified.

"Well obviously she'll have to promise to only ride in areas with magical disillusionment wards," Harry answered. "It would have been fine at Dolwyddelan, but now that you're home again let's plan for her to continue visiting Hogwarts on weekends."

"Are there age restrictions?" Sally pursued in all her maternal diligence.

"Not really." Harry shrugged. "Hogwarts tells first year students to not bring their own brooms to school, but there's no prohibition on riding school brooms. As far as riding outside of school, I was on a functioning toy broom before I could walk. Ginny was on a real broom as, what, a six-year-old, Gin'?" Harry inquired.

"Er yes, roughly six." A mischievous smile flickered across Ginny's face before she marshaled her features for serious conversation. "A fair number of the older wizarding families have their children riding well before starting Hogwarts. I always thought it was unfair to students born into non-magical families — most of them take years to catch up with their friends."

"I'll be sure to cast a cushioning charm on her," Harry added. "If anything goes wrong, she'll just bounce around a little."

A burst of giggling erupted from the mass of blonde hair around Harry's chest and two spirited blue eyes emerged... along with an impish grin. "Errmm..." Chewing his lip, Harry gave her a concerned frown. "That doesn't mean that you should go deliberately testing those charms."

A little cackle escaped from among Clara's giggles before she hastily clapped her hand over her mouth. "I'll be good, Professor Potter," she said chastely as she broke away from him. Harry couldn't help but notice that her eyes had lost none of that dangerous sparkle, however.

Sally stared patiently at the ceiling for a moment, then lowered her face with a weary smile. "Well, I know that they'll be in good hands..." She sighed. "In any case, thank you so very kindly for continuing to look out for us! We're truly grateful for... well, for everything!"

Harry and Ginny smiled. "You're ever so welcome!" Harry answered, while Ginny's gaze drifted over to the two children who were busily examining each other's brooms and reading the accompanying care and instruction scrolls.

Ginny glanced at her watch. "Oh dear! We must be going — we promised to do gift opening at my family's house this morning and by now probably even Ron will be awake."

Sally's face fell and the two children glanced over with disappointed looks. "Can't you stay a while for a quick breakfast? Or else come back later for tea?"

"Sorry," Ginny replied. "Harry already stuffed us full of lox, prosciutto and cantaloupe this morning — we need a little break before my mother begins the force-feeding regimen. And as for later...?"

"After the Burrow, we're heading to Dolwyddelan to spread some holiday cheer to the children there. However..." Harry grinned. "Tomorrow should be much quieter. Maybe we can all get together after flying?"

"Sure, we don't have any commitments and would love to have you over," Sally agreed. An inquisitive expression swept over her face. "So, is the safe house still busy then?"

"Very," Ginny said grimly. "We have eleven young children there right now."

"Oh..." Sally shuffled her feet nervously, battling with an awkward question.

Recalling the woman's painful experiences from the recent war, Harry recognised Sally's look of concern and rushed to reassure her. "Most aren't orphans; they're victims of circumstance. In most cases, their parents were our enemies in the war and are now in Azkaban. Some children didn't have any acceptable relatives to take them in, so we've offered them space."

"Even the most benign and righteous outcomes can have victims," Ginny sighed.

Sally nodded sadly. "So your new caretaker... Narcissa's sister? Is she coping with the load?"

"She's okay," Ginny confirmed. "A decent system has evolved — Andromeda and her husband Ted are the main caretakers, but Narcissa is stuck there indefinitely as long as her husband is on the loose. She's begun to help in reasonably useful ways. Daphne and Susan visit a lot, and we have an extra rotation of students dropping by on a regular basis to lead fun activities for the kids and pitch in with chores."

"Oh good — that's a relief!" Sally enthused. "I would hate to have left you in the lurch."

Harry smiled. "Not at all, Sally! Thank you again for stepping up and helping this fall when we had Muggle-borns to fend for. The way things are right now, we're just so happy to have you settled back here where you belong... and to have you as neighbors again!" He grinned for a moment, before settling into a serious expression. "Besides, you might not enjoy Dolwyddelan so much right now. It's... uh... it's..."

"It's a bloody travesty is what it is!" Ginny blurted bitterly as she gathered her coat. "You wouldn't believe the psychological scarring we're having to heal. Half of the kids have been raised their entire lives on a steady diet of filthy pureblood anti-Muggle propaganda. Part of me wants to scream at them to shape up and listen, but the rest of me wants to break down and cry because it's not their fault. All they really need is patience, love and a gradually broadening perspective... but I'm afraid it drives me over the bend sometimes."

"They're all making progress," Harry offered. "Andromeda's husband is a Muggle-born, but fortunately his hide is thicker than an erumpent's... er, elephant's... and he has a brilliant sense of humour, so just by being there he's helped to convince the kids that you don't have to be pureblood to be a lovable, worthwhile human. But I can't deny that there's still a hilly winding road ahead." He sighed as he moved toward the door. "Like Ginny said — every war has its victims."

Sally nodded thoughtfully, but reassembled her festive smile. "Thankfully, every peace has its heroes!"

The Lyon family all followed Harry and Ginny down to the front gate, and Sally smiled in farewell. "Thank you again, and have a very happy Christmas!"

In years gone by, the Weasley living room would have looked utterly preposterous by early afternoon on Christmas day. Today, with a somewhat reduced crowd and everyone around except Ginny now being over the age of majority, the scene was merely chaotic. Bill was spending the holidays with the Delacours near Lac d'Annecy, and Charlie was stuck in Romania due to mating complications with one of the Ukranian Ironbellies, but the twins were doing the best to compensate for the absences with merry havoc, and the resulting noise and confusion was no less than would have expected. Ron had just finished tearing the wrappings off a new pair of keeper pads from Harry and Ginny, when he whooped in an excitement that was endearing to some and grating to others (Percy and Hermione sported nearly identical grimaces) and shouted, "Cheers, thank you thank you! Bring out the next pressie, Perce!"

With a look of mild disdain, Percy shifted a pile of shredded paper to the side with a flick of his wand. He gave a cursory glance back and forth beneath the tree. "That, dear children, is the last of them," he said blandly.

"No more gifts?! No bloody way!" Incredulous, Ron began shoveling detritus from side to side as Fred made a snickering comment to George in the background.

"I think it is mate," Harry said with a grin. "You'll have to wait until your birthday for more."

"No, I don't care about me." Ron's earnest face showed a note of affront. "I should have thought the rest of you would still have a few more to open."

"How sweet of you to be thinking of others, Ron," Ginny exclaimed. "Sorry to disappoint, but I'm pretty sure we're done. I think we're all content to pile up our loot and turn on the Warbeck concert."

Ron stared at Ginny. Ever so slowly, he raised his finger and pointed at her. "You!"

"Me?" Ginny gave him a puzzled look. "No silly — it's Mum's job to turn on the wireless."

"No, no, no!" Ron shook his head vigourously. "You! You didn't give Harry a present!"

Ginny raised an incredulous eyebrow. She was in the process of preparing an acerbic response, when Harry broke in. "A single smile from Ginny is a gift more precious than all the gems in Gringotts," he intoned, prompting Hermione and Audrey to sigh melodically in the corner, while George inadvertently snorted eggnog onto Fred's shoulder.

Not to be diverted, Ron turned on Harry. "You shouldn't talk, you cheap bum! You didn't give Ginny anything either!"

"A mere blink of Harry's eyes," Fred crooned, "is a gift more cherished than all the fresh pickled toads in North Side Apothecary."

Fred was already diving for the cover even before Ginny's hand flinched, but Harry reached out to stay her lethal appendage before it could do anything rash. Ginny scowled for a moment at Fred's foot and ankle, which were struggling to join the rest of his body behind the old arm chair in the corner... then she broke into infectious laughter and turned instead to Ron. "Well if you absolutely must know, Ronald Bilius, Harry's gift to me was to buy presents for all the children at the SHP house."

"And Ginny's gift to me," Harry added, "was to buy more presents for the kids. Andromeda had them doing some crafts for their own little gift exchange, but while hand-made sock-dragons and toy broomsticks are cute, we thought we might liven up their day with books, games and some new clothes."

"How utterly sweet of you both!" Audrey exclaimed. Ginny beamed an appreciative smile at Percy's new girlfriend — a forthright, kindhearted Yorkshire lass whom Ginny had taken an immediate shine to.

"Sweet?!" Ron demanded garrulously. "What's so sweet about blowing Galleons on a nest full of snot-nosed snakelets?!"

A frosty silence descended over the room.

"Piping hot mulled pumpkin juice!" Molly called from the doorway. Carrying a tray of steaming mugs in from the kitchen, she froze at the sight of Ginny and Ron glaring daggers at each other.

"Thanks Mum." Harry took the tray from Molly's hands, and set a cup for himself on the coffee table. With a definite twinkle in his eye, he began circulating the tray about the room. "So, Ron was just volunteering to come out to the safe house to teach the kids about Quidditch strategy."

Molly blinked incredulously, but quickly recovered. "Oh, that would be lovely dear — that is so thoughtful of you!"

A smirk spread over Ginny's face. "Yes, that's a brilliant suggestion Ron," she enthused. "And I think Saturday afternoon should be fine — I'll check with Andromeda when we stop by there this evening, but I can't imagine it being a problem."

"I never...!!" Ron sputtered.

"It does sound like fun, doesn't it Ron?" Hermione mused with a menacing glare at her boyfriend. "We don't have any plans that afternoon so it should work perfectly. Would you mind very much if I tagged along, Ginny?"

"Er, but...?" Ron's eyes darted around the room, looking for nonexistent allies.

"That would be wonderful, Hermione," Ginny agreed with a grin. "If the weather's nice, you and I can walk one of the woodland trails while the boys are playing with the children."

"Brilliant!" Hermione grinned as she accepted a warm mug from Harry. "I'm so impressed that you thought of this, Ron!"

"So am I," Ginny wheezed as she fought to suppress a snicker. She crossed the room, gave her stricken brother a quick hug, then hurried toward the kitchen, and out to the yard. As the back door slammed, sounds of Ginny's howling laughter filtered back to the living room. Eyes twinkled and mouths curled upwards.

Molly surveyed the room as it erupted into mirth; even Ron's face twitched into an involuntary grin. "How I love the holidays!" the Weasley matron sighed as she sank into her seat by the fire and switched on the wireless.

The lamp-light in the small gabled bedroom was charmed to fade away as bedtime approached, but fortunately Harry had read the story a few times in the past and was able to parse the last paragraph through the combined effort of memory and squinting:

"The pot burped out the single slipper he had thrown into it, and permitted him to fit it onto the brass foot. Together, they set off back to the wizard’s house, the pot’s footstep muffled at last. But from that day forward, the wizard helped the villagers like his father before him, lest the pot cast off its slipper, and begin to hop once more."

The story complete, Harry gazed around the dimly lit chamber. He could see a frown on the face of the older girl (Harry guessed that she was about Clara's age — nine or ten). He smiled at her as the final flickers of the lamp died away. Finally she turned her head to face him. "Mr. Harry?" she asked.

"Yes Teri?"

"Some people say that's a very bad story." Her voice seemed quivering, as from some sort of tension that Harry couldn't quite place. "They say that no good wizard or witch should think they have to help Muggles like that. The hopping pot is very bad to make him do it!"

Harry sighed and made a mental note to scratch the Hopping Pot from any list of bedtime stories for this crowd. "Well, in a practical sense, those people are correct," he admitted. "Wizards and witches are not allowed to use magic to help non-magical people these days, unless the non-magical people are already being directly threatened by magic."

Teri nodded smugly.

"But the real lesson from the story," Harry explained, "is that if you have a chance to do something nice to help other people, then you should take it. You will feel a lot happier than if you just walk away and leave people to their suffering."

"Oh!" The second, smaller girl sat up abruptly in her bed. "Is that why you posted bales to get Uncle Teddy out of prison?"

Harry blinked in surprise and met the seven-year-old's curious gaze. "Er, is Ted Nott Junior your uncle?"

"Uh huh! My mummy was Uncle Teddy's big sister!" Anna replied.

Was!? Harry winced furtively, not daring to ask for clarification on the past tense... He focused instead on the question. "Anyway, yes Anna, I posted bail for your Uncle Teddy because I knew I could help him and I didn't want to walk away and let him suffer needlessly. And the other reason I did it was because your Uncle Teddy himself has done some very brave things to help other people."

"No way, Mr. Harry! Ted Junior is a bad man!" Teri declared.

"That's not true," Harry chided gently. "He got a bit, umm, confused one night and made a few mistakes, but that doesn't make him a bad man."

"I'm not talking about him getting piss-drunk and hexing those bobbies!" Teri's sudden vitriol practically startled Harry off his stool. "I'm saying he's a slimy rat — he back-stabbed his own daddy!"

Appalled, Harry stared wide-eyed at the wall for a moment, letting his pulse settle. "Teri," he began. He turned slowly to meet her glare with gentle patience... but his breath caught. A ray of moonlight had glanced through the window to illuminate her face... so hollow and pale! Set with piercing dark eyes and framed by jet black hair, she looked like... What the...?!

Harry shuddered, and turned his head away. It had been a long day; he was exhausted and had obviously become momentarily confused by a trick of darkness and imagination. He hastily discarded the bizarre image from his mind and reminded himself of the reason he was here. He was not here to judge these children, but to help with the challenging but critical task of trying to heal the damage wrought upon them. Teri might be a tough nut to crack, he assured himself, but there was a golden heart buried within the darkness. Love and patience will bring it back into the light!

Harry forced a kind smile onto his face and refocused himself back to the misunderstanding at hand. "Teri, I don't think you've been told properly everything that happened before Anna's grandpa went away. Mr. Nott said some very important things that changed how many people thought of him." Harry paused briefly to gauge whether his voice had the right blend of patience and conviction. "He apologized to many people. He apologized to Ted Junior and to me. He even apologized to the Minister of Magic herself. He spent long hours trying his best to help the Aurors, and gave them some very useful information."

Trying to assess the stony look to her face, Harry glanced briefly toward Teri, before continuing. "When I went with Ted Junior to say goodbye to his father, Mr. Nott told us that he saw more courage in that one morning from his own son than he had ever seen in forty five years from..." Harry paused for another moment, feeling a bit awkward. "From, er... He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named." Harry cringed inwardly to use the ludicrous moniker, but he wanted to make his point without frightening or alienating the children.

"Anyway, Anna's grandpa made a lot of mistakes in his life, but he's a changed man now — changed for the better. And maybe by next Christmas, he'll be sitting around a tree somewhere with you, Anna and Ted Junior, laughing, singing and opening presents."

The room fell into a restless silence for a while; Teri stared out the window, Anna pensively stroked the feathers on her new stuffed hippogriff toy, and Harry privately wondered how much longer he was expected to remain in the room, sitting as he was on a rather uncomfortable little stool. Finally Anna spoke. "Thank you for getting Uncle Teddy out of prison, Mr. Harry," she said earnestly. "He won't have to go back there, will he?"

"I hope not," Harry offered. "I think that he might instead have to come here to Dolwyddelan every weekend for a few months to work for Mrs. 'Dromeda."

"Really??" Anna asked, her wide eyes sparkling.

"I hope so," Harry indicated. "I'm fairly sure that the Minister agrees with me that your Uncle is a good young man who should be given a chance to prove he can be helpful and responsible."

Anna threw herself onto her back and sank deeply into her pillow. She closed her eyes and made a contented little keening sound as her face spread into a broad smile.

Very quietly, Harry rose from his stool and took a step toward the door.

"Mr. Harry?"

"Yes Anna?" Harry replied softly.

"Mr. Harry, I think it would be okay if you wanted to kiss me goodnight," Anna whispered. "Right here," she said, pointing to her forehead.

Harry chuckled to himself. He gently planted a kiss on the girl's brow, his lips grazing the finger that was still in place to mark his target. She giggled softly for a moment without opening her eyes, then her face relaxed into a peaceful doze.

"Happy Christmas girls," Harry whispered as he crossed the room.

"Happy Christmas, Mr. Harry," Anna replied hazily.

Harry opened the door and began to quietly cross the threshold.

"Happy Christmas, Mr. Harry." Teri's voice was crisp and toneless.

Harry assembled a smile and turned to project it back into the dark room, but... he hesitated...

Without meeting her gaze, he knew somehow that Teri was sitting stiffly upright in her bed, bathed in cold moonlight. He could tell, for whatever reason, that she was scrutinizing him with disconcerting intensity. He took a short fortifying breath. "Good night Teri," he said quietly, then retreated into the hallway, slowly closing the bedroom door behind him. As he walked down the corridor, he shivered at the sensation of two dark, frigid eyes that he could swear, even through the stout walls of the seventeenth century manor, were still fixed unwaveringly on his back.


Back to index


Chapter 2: Momentary Lapse of Reason

Author's Notes: I don't believe there's really much philosophical overlap between this story, and the Pink Floyd song 'One Slip'... but now that I've borrowed David Gilmour's artful phrase for the chapter title I have to admit that the tune keeps running through my head. Ah well -- I needed something to replace Keith Richards moaning (from the last chapter of Seeker Daughter).


Chapter 2. Momentary Lapse of Reason (Dec. 26-28, 1997)

The breeze fanned Ginny's hair out behind her like a stunning red comet as she raced out and away from Harry, Jonathon and Clara. Kicking her broom into one of the higher powers, she tore upwards from the pitch in an oblique angle, raced through a wide arc at speeds in excess of ninety miles per hour, then straightened out to drift along more leisurely, high above the Hogwarts pitch.

As she decelerated, she cast an appraising glance down toward Harry. He was whooping and laughing in wonderfully carefree release as he and the two children tossed a quaffle around. He paused for a moment and raised a hand to his brow, scanning the skies above until he spotted her. He called to the children and within a moment all three of them were waving to her from their much more modest altitude. She grinned and waved back.

This was so very much the Harry that Ginny knew and loved — he adored children; he could bring laughter to even the most taciturn little face and calm the most anxious. In return, kids energised him to the point where sometimes he practically glowed. But he had certainly not been glowing last night.

Of the five adults who had gone to the top floor to read bedtime stories to the various children, Harry had been up there the longest. Ginny had been able to coax her rambunctious little tykes to sleep in less than fifteen minutes. Given the childrens' exhaustion from a long and busy day, Narcissa, Andromeda and Ted Tonks had also fared quite well, and had gone downstairs early to open a bottle of Álfheimr wine and have a few final friendly Christmas toasts before calling it a night. Ginny, however, had curled up with a book in the quiet alcove near the top landing to wait for Harry. Indeed, she had waited. And waited. When he finally emerged, he looked thoroughly drained... except for his Occlumency shields. Those were absolutely bristling — the way they did when Harry was in combat or engaged in very tense negotiations.

What on Earth had gone on in that room??

Harry had conveyed little energy or enthusiasm for talking about it at the time, and their schedule had been too busy this morning for either of them to broach the issue. Ginny decided she would take the initiative and ask him... but that would have to wait until later, because this was not an afternoon to be squandered on angst. Mild, sunny, late-December afternoons so perfect for flying were a rare luxury to be enjoyed to the utmost.

With that in mind, she decided it was time to get serious. She bound her hair into a tight pony-tail, tucked it into her pullover and cast a windscreen charm for her eyes. She then slid her hands well forward on the broom shaft, gripped tightly and accelerated hard to the west. After picking up suitable speed, she banked sharply to the left and plunged downwards. Wind raced past as the small brown rectangle that signified the south stands rose quickly to meet her. Unconsciously, she let loose with a raw primal yell that trailed her through the sky. About two hundred feet above the seats she pulled hard up and to the right, ripping into a triple barrel-roll while executing a tight loop.

Half the Quidditch Chasers at Hogwarts would have blacked-out from the centripetal forces alone, but Ginny kept her mind on the prize — a twelve foot square terrace midway up the staircase that separated the Gryffindor and Hufflepuff sections. Just as it edged into the upper fringe of her visual field, she kicked her legs down hard, pulled up on the broom and... BOOM! The retort from her two point landing thundered across the pitch like a cannon blast. Courtesy of powerful legs reinforced by months of hill running, and the specially-tailored trainers she and Harry had ordered from a Muggle sporting equipment manufacturer, she held firm... balanced... her arm shot out to steady herself... thighs and calves braced to quell that excess two ounces of stray momentum and then... stutter step!

"Damn!" she growled as she straightened up. "So bloody close!"

Clap, clap, clap...

Ginny jumped in surprise. Blaise Zabini was ambling down the steps toward her. He was holding up a sign that he had apparently conjured for the occasion. On it was printed the number '9.8'. "Absolutely breath-taking!" He grinned as he approached. "Stunning! Quintessential form!"

Ginny waved dismissively, but couldn't prevent a half-smirk from creeping onto her face.

"Oh, and the flying was okay too," Zabini added.

Ginny shot him a searing scowl. He flinched then chuckled. To his credit, he no longer felt compelled to cast a pre-emptive protego every time he needled her. He was finally grasping the subtle art of knowing where to 'draw the line' — a subject in which Ginny had offered a great deal of practical tutoring.

Ginny smirked momentarily at his flinch and then smiled benignly. "Happy holidays, Blaise! What brings you to school in your time off?"

"Training with Summs." Zabini gestured at Keith Summerby, the quiet but talented Hufflepuff Seeker-turned-Chaser who was also making his way down to the landing. He and Ginny exchanged quick waves.

"Hey listen! Seeing you and Potter here will save my owl a workout." Zabini turned and beckoned to Harry, who waved and made his way toward the stands trailed by Jonathon and Clara.

"We've been meaning to talk to you two," Zabini commenced as everyone gathered in the stands. "About the future!"

Harry nodded blankly, with no real idea where this was headed.

"The house league has completely gone to the dogs this year," Zabini explained. "Hufflepuff and Gryffindor are playing the worst Quidditch that anyone has seen at this school since the early '80s..."

"Hey!" Ginny's cheeks flush a bit, but after a moment it was clear she couldn't muster a strong protest.

Zabini shrugged earnestly. "It's true Weasley! You and Potter didn't see the October matches because of your Ministry responsibilities, but they were utterly worthless. The Puffies never had even the faintest chance of being competitive this year, and the whole deal with you and Potter graduating early really eviscerated your beloved Gryffindorks."

Harry and Ginny looked at each other sheepishly and shrugged.

"Anyway, all that leaves Ravenclaw and Slytherin to slog it out for the cup based on the dubious distinction of being slightly-better-than-completely-pathetic..." Zabini continued, glancing at Summerby, who nodded tacitly. "And that means that scouts will probably avoid the remaining Hogwarts games like a dragon-pox quarantine, which is bogus news for those of us who were angling for the Premier League draft."

"In other words, the four of us," Summerby clarified.

Harry blinked. "You three, perhaps, but I've barely played any matches since '94..."

Zabini laughed. "Don't be so clueless, Potter! Half the teams in the league would have signed you up after your third year if you had been of legal age. If we can get scouts up here to verify that you're not missing too many limbs and can still mount a broom, a lot of clubs would draft you on reputation alone." He paused for a moment and let his expression solidify into uncharacteristic sobriety. "Okay, I'll be frank. If you and Weasley want to play in the league come August, you're in. No debate on that! Summs and me, though..." he threw an arm around the Hufflepuff, "if we don't get enough real competition and exposure over the next few months to attract invitations to summer camps, we'll probably have to rot in the development league for who knows how many years before we get a real chance."

"I'm really frightened to ask how you plan to address this little problem..." Ginny's eyebrow had a small but sharp spike to it.

"Barnstorming," Zabini replied with a grin.

Ginny blinked. "Come again?"

"We form our own team," Zabini explained, "and we go around challenging squads in the development league, maybe some top school teams in Europe. Who knows — we might even sucker a few professional clubs into exhibition matches. Normally I'd say this was daft and that no serious team would accept any challenge issued by a few crack-pot teenagers, but with the two of you headlining us..."

"Merciful Merlin." Ginny's face dropped into her hand for a moment before emerging to stare balefully at Harry. "So I'll admit that there's a very stupid and childish voice in the back of my head that thinks this sounds jolly and maybe even wants to believe that it could yield some good practical experience, but... do you seriously think Harry and I need any more notoriety??"

Zabini grinned. "Sure! You two haven't done anything completely daft in months — you must be bored out of your skulls!"

Ginny rolled her eyes for a moment, but then fell conspicuously silent. Harry had been quite inert through the discussion thus far, staring out across the pitch. After a while, however, he returned his attention to the group and spoke the most logical follow-up query. "In the ridiculous, far-fetched fantasy world where Ginny and I actually say yes, that would mean you have three Chasers and a Seeker. How were you planning to fill the defensive positions?"

Summerby nodded. "Good question."

Zabini stroked his chin. "We've thought about it a bit. Do you suppose your two nut-case Beater brothers could be persuaded, Red?"

Ginny snickered. "You're fishing for absolutely every shred of notoriety possible, aren't you Zabini?"

"Possibly." Zabini shrugged. "However, that was still intended as a serious question."

Ginny scrutinized him carefully. Zabini failed to wilt under pressure, so her expression of incredulity gradually morphed to legitimate contemplation. "I think there are circumstances under which Fred and George might agree to play," she mused. "What do you think, Harry?"

Harry nodded. "If we had garish purple robes and agreed to emblazon large WWW's on everything, they might go along on a lark."

Ginny nodded. "Yes, I think they might be willing to play. But would they actually take things seriously enough to agree to practice though??"

Harry chuckled. "I think Oliver Wood still has deep psychological scars from trying to keep them focused." He shook his head in bemused reminiscence.

"There's also the fact that they're very committed to their business," Ginny amended, "but truth be told, even without running drills, they'd probably come off as passable Beaters in development league play."

Harry nodded. "So, what about Keeper?"

"A couple options to consider." Zabini exchanged glances with Summerby. "It may come down to the question of who's good enough and who's willing."

Harry's glance darted between the two friends. "Who are you hoping for?"

"I think I can convince Grant Page," Summerby offered. "He's been stuck as a development league reserve in Kilkenny for the last six months, but he's way better than that."

"He's good." Ginny nodded appraisingly. She had put plenty of quaffles past the former Ravenclaw Keeper, but she respected his abilities. "Who's your plan B?"

"Well Ginevra..." Zabini mused, "if we were going to invite you and the barmy Beaters... I, er, figured we might be able to recruit Chess... I mean, Ronald."

An uncomfortable look crossed Ginny's face, but Harry merely shrugged. "You can be diplomatic all you like, but he'll say no because of his current commitments to the house team."

Ginny breathed a furtive sigh of relief at not having to explain that Ron's innate prejudice against all things Slytherin would definitely extend to not tolerating a Slytherin Quidditch captain. Instead, she bobbed her head in wholeheartedly agreement. "Yes, exactly! I can't imagine that he'd agree with anything that interfered with his Gryffindor practice schedule. He doesn't care how horribly he loses every school match — house captaincy means the world to Ron."

"So Page it is?" Zabini asked.

Harry nodded. "Yes, if you can get him."

"I can get him." Summerby's tone was soft spoken, but his expression held a quiet confidence.

"That's my boy." Zabini grinned. "So, we're going to play some Quidditch, eh Red?"

Ginny rolled her eyes. "Sure — if you say so Blaise. But to be honest, I still can't believe I just stood here having a supposedly serious conversation about whom we're going to bully into to joining the...the..." She burst into laughter. "The Great Zabini Flying Circus."

Girlish giggles exploded behind the teens; everyone whipped around in surprise to see little Clara doubled over in hysterics.

"Oh, be that way, you feckless little skeptic!" Zabini sniffed at the little girl. "I stand tall in the conviction that every great pioneer has confronted and swayed the unenlightened with truth and dignity."

Snort!

Ever staid and sobre; always a true friend, even Summerby had his limits. This time, his best mate's fragile ego would simply have to mend itself, because the best the quiet Hufflepuff could do right now was turn his back discreetly and, apparently, gnaw twitchily on his right forearm.

"For shame, Clara." Harry faced the small blonde with a twinkle in his eye. "We haven't even held our first practice yet, and you've already broken one of our Chasers."

Harry hung back on the periphery of the action, frowning... trying to understand what was not working with today's presentation. He had held no illusion of these kids being particularly angelic, but he had sincerely hoped for a better outcome than this.

According to Susan Bones and Daphne Greengrass, the children were bored enough by the isolation at Dolwyddelan that they generally enjoyed any decent break from the routine. From all accounts, they had responded quite well to educational visits by various friends who had agreed to donate their time and energy.

At Andromeda's behest, Tonks had given a talk about careers in law enforcement — a challenging pitch to children whose parents or guardians were generally either dead or incarcerated, but Tonks' affable nature and ever-changing hair had nevertheless managed to entertain. Neville and Professor Sprout had successfully led the children on long and lively a herbology nature walk. Ryan Jenkins and Mary-Jo Clark had introduced them to team-work challenges and coordination exercises using the Muggle activity of paintball as a very alluring (i.e., chaotic and messy) medium. Hagrid had transported over a menagerie of magical creatures that, courtesy of Andromeda's stern supervision, had not ultimately inflicted major structural damage or permanent psychological trauma. The children had even politely accommodated a delightful (bizarre, surreal) discussion by Luna and Xenophilius Lovegood, although it was not clear to Harry whether the real life lesson there was truly in the finer points of cryptozoology (Luna's chosen topic) or in the very successful application of pragmatic bribery (Daphne's conditional offer of a field-trip to Fortescue's Ice Cream Parlour in return for respect, attention and enthusiastic audience participation).

But what could one do, today, when things seemed absolutely fated to fall apart? Over and over again?

Harry would have thrown idealism to the wind and offered another fun outing in exchange for the childrens' cooperation but, unfortunately, the recent Bellatrix sighting had eliminated that carrot indefinitely. Dolwyddelan security was clamped tight; only a handful of the most trustworthy outsiders were permitted onto the estate for the time being, and all current occupants were virtual prisoners until the possible risks posed by Lestrange were better understood.

Harry sighed. It might not have worked anyway — in all honesty, even a pledge of fine ice cream might have been insufficient to coax the kids through this afternoon in good graces. He knew that children often instinctively sense weakness, and it was brutally obvious to Harry that today's presentation by Ron Weasley was a slow and painfully recurring train wreck.

The struggles were not for lack of preparation. Ron had hit the books with surprising diligence to identify a fine lineup of quirky and historically important Quidditch strategy innovations, and he had also managed to convince Fred and George to donate fourteen magical Quidditch figurines to illustrate the maneuvers. Ron had spent much of yesterday training and testing the figures to make sure they would carry out their roles properly... but today, for whatever reason, they weren't cooperating. It was almost as if the statuettes were irritated by Ron's chronically halting and ineffectual presentation style and had decided to rebel at the worst time possible.

"So with the, umm, Breightmet bottom..." Having once again managed to restore a temporary modicum of order, Ron's face was one of game persistence. "You see that Chaser 2 is deliberately drawing both defending Beaters off to the left... uhh, I mean right, but watch — just when Chaser 2 approaches within, er, let's say one hundred feet of the goal, Chasers 1 and 3 both use variants of the... what's it called? Esc... Escrow... Escrick? Yeah, Escrick! They use the Escrick feint to plummet about half way to the... Oh bollocks!"

Harry winced as the children burst into another round of titters.

With a look of tense consternation, Ron surveyed the group of figurines, all moving in slow motion. "Where the bloody hell are Chasers 1 and 3?! They were flying in formation ten flipping seconds ago!"

Steam rose conspicuously up from Ron's collar and wafted away into the cold December air. A buzz of whispers and snickers gradually bubbled up higher and louder behind him. After thirty seconds of frantic, futile search for his missing figurines, Ron snapped. He kicked hard against the frozen ground and whipped around so fast that his scarf lashed across his already-blood-shot eyes. "Listen up little missy," he spat, randomly singling out Teri who had not bothered to disguise the smirk on her face. "If you think this is so bleeding funny, then why don't you... arrgghhhh!!!"

Much to the unbridled delight of the children, Ron started dancing frenetically, shaking his left leg in lurid agitation. He kicked his left boot off, threw himself to the ground, rolled onto his back and thrashed the leg spasmodically in the air until the two missing Chasers finally emerged, somewhat shakily, from out of his trouser leg.

Ron leaped to his feet, cursing a blue streak, quenching the children's laughter almost instantly with his purplish, trembling visage. The circle of children began to stumble warily backwards away from their instructor... all except Teri, who held her ground, calmly ignoring the gale of foul, spluttered expletives, as she nonchalantly twirled an old dry reed stem in her fingers.

Fearing the worst, Harry began to make his way briskly across the meadow. Ron spotted his approach and turned on him. "Don't interfere, Harry — I have everything under control"

"No, Mr. Harry, please do interfere," Teri said icily as she gazed across the meadow at nobody in particular. "This tosser is frightening the little ones."

Ron froze, still livid, but momentarily taken aback by Teri's insinuation. With Ron temporarily flummoxed, Harry turned his attention quizzically to the girl in the midnight blue robes who seemed to have such a knack for rattling people.

But why? What possible threat could arise from a nine year old girl with no wand? Was there something wrong with her? Was she somehow... evil? Under some dark enchantment?

For all his concentration, Harry couldn't identify anything particularly disturbing. Teri's magical aura was readily distinguishable from everyone around her; it seemed more powerful and better self-regulated than what he would expect from a pre-Hogwarts child, but none of that suggested anything untoward. Harry thought he might be detecting a strange background buzz to the magic in the overall vicinity, but that, he realized, could simply be an unhappy resonance arising from the unusual amount of untamed stress in the air.

Regardless of what the magical diagnostics might suggest, however, it remained blatantly obvious that something was way out of whack. The situation was a bizarre study in contrasts — Teri standing serenely, five feet away from a seething man more than twice her weight; Teri casually tapping the reed stem into the flat of her little hand while Ron clenched his meaty fists in barely restrained fury.

Equally uncertain of what to expect, the other children stared at the two adversaries and continued to creep further back in trepidation. Not wanting to accidentally spark anything with a sudden move, Harry edged cautiously closer. He knew that his friend had a volatile temper even by Weasley standards, but after so many years of constant Slytherin goading at school, Ron had acquired enough self control to avoid the Hogwarts sanctions that violent retaliation could have yielded.

Compared to many of the Malfoy taunts and provocations that Ron had managed to endure, Teri's mild snickering was (quite literally) simple child's play, wasn't it? Harry desperately wanted to believe that his friend could keep his cool and forge ahead with the presentation, but it seemed difficult to get a good read on the situation. Without being able to pinpoint what was really bugging Ron so much, Harry was sorely tempted to intervene and be done with it — end the session early and cut everyone's losses.

Harry took another several steps closer, and finally settled on a compromise. He was now close enough to act if necessary, but otherwise he would hold back and give his friend another chance. After all, Ron had been a good sport about being coerced into giving this session, so he'd earned a benefit of the doubt.

Ron glowered menacingly but ineffectually at Teri for another moment, but then recovered a semblance of composure. "Okay, now what was I...?"

"You were talking about the Escrick feint," Teri interjected acidly, "but your little toys won't play along with you so I guess we'll all have to use our imagination again, won't we?"

"Imagination?!" Ron's voice quavered dangerously. "Who needs a bloody imagination when I have a broomstick right here?" Suddenly, impetuously, he picked up his broom from where it was leaning against a nearby boulder. "I can show you the bleeding Escrick feint! Gather around and pay attention sprogs!"

"Er Ron," Harry began to protest, but Ron shot him a scowl and swung back around to the students, glaring intensely at each of the eleven faces in turn until he had complete silence. Having subdued the audience, he began lecturing loudly but with a concise effectiveness that he'd been lacking all afternoon. "The Escrick maneuver is used for dropping down really fast in such a way that your opponent thinks you'll come out on a right turn, where in fact you're really going to veer left. It's a difficult and dangerous move, so don't try it on your own. Got that?"

Ten little heads nodded meekly. Teri, however, remained motionless except for the continual 'tap tap tap' of the reed against her palm. Ron ignored her. "Everyone watch!"

He positioned himself on the broom, and kicked hard off the ground. The instant Ron took flight, Teri spun on her heel and began to saunter back toward the house, away from the demonstration. Forty feet up Ron spotted her. "Oi!" he yelled in hoarse agitation. "Where do you think you're going, you little bint?! This is for your bleeding benefit!"

She began humming loudly to herself to block out Ron's protestations. Continuing to tap the old reed in her hand, Teri made her way obstinately back toward the house. As she approached Harry, she glanced up at him. Alarmed by the latest development, Harry cast alternating worried looks at Ron's mad airborne gesticulations and Teri's obstinate departure. "Ron, come back down!" he ordered. "Teri, wait a minute please, I..."

Harry paused as Teri turned to him. Flicking a lock of sleek black hair from her face, she opened her mouth to speak...

Itty baby Potter want to come pway...?

Harry's stomach lurched violently. Everything suddenly roiled and swirled; he squeezed his eyes shut, bit down hard on his lower lip, inhaled deeply... and his vision cleared. Teri was looking at him with an eyebrow raised quizzically.

"What did you say??" Harry gasped.

"I said that I liked your other friends better," Teri replied earnestly, blinking in momentary confusion. There was a trace of residual scorn in her voice but it was peculiarly blended with concern. "I don't feel well, Mr. Harry. I'm going back inside." She swiveled her gaze back toward the manor, and resumed her humming, although it was more tremulous and less defiant than before.

Harry caught Teri subtly giving him one final questioning glance out of the corner of her eyes as she passed. Harry's eyes trailed her for a moment, but then a sudden motion at the back door captured his attention. A thin young man — short blond hair, wearing elegant dark robes — emerged into the late afternoon air.

Draco??

Somehow in Harry's many visits to Dolwyddelan, he had never once so much as glimpsed his most controversial tenant. Yet today, at this most tenuous and fragile moment, the resident Slytherin outcast had emerged from his quarters and had decided to grace the world with bloody exquisite timing. Harry attempted a frantic gesture aimed at trying to silently will Draco back inside, but Malfoy wasn't paying him any heed — the young man was intently staring past him, upwards into the southern sky.

A piercing shriek rang out! Harry whipped around to see the children pointing up in terror. Ron's broom was rocketing off eastwards toward the pine woods, riderless, as Ron himself plunged headlong toward the ground, arms flailing out below him. Without pausing for thought, Harry pulsed out an intense levitation spell. Ron's descent slowed, but he had already dropped too far to fully arrest. Ron's extended right arm reached out to brace the hardened turf, there was a sickening snap... and the rest of his body crumpled onto the ground.

Harry, already in mid-sprint, pointed to the tallest of the children, yelling, "Troy! Fetch Andromeda!" The boy nodded breathlessly and bolted for the back door.

Harry knelt by Ron, hastily examining him. The young man was lying on his side, conscious, broken arm doubled-up beneath him, and breath coming in short rapid puffs. Harry grasped the one undamaged wrist he could reach, fumbled for a pulse and found it to be pounding like mad, but with a strong rhythmic beat. Ron's gaze swiveled quickly and latched onto Harry's face — another promising sign to suggest that he hadn't gone into shock. Harry released a small breath of relief.

"Blimey! What the...??" Ron wheezed. With his left hand, he grabbed Harry's arm and instinctively tried to pull himself to a sitting position.

"Easy mate!" Harry urged. "We need to check your spine before you go bouncing about, all right?"

"Where's my broom?" Ron rasped. "It's a Cleansweep Eleven! Dad will kill me if..."

"Shhh!" Harry put his fingers to his lips. Andromeda had come racing over to join them and had already pulled out her wand to run bone and tissue diagnostics. "Accio Ron's broom," Harry muttered offhandedly as he focused his attention on Andromeda's ministrations. Half a minute later, the broom made its appearance, sailing into Harry's hand. He laid it to the side where Ron could see it.

"Compound fracture, but the break didn't sever any muscle or connective tissue." Andromeda wiped her forehead. "It must have been a good levitation spell because, other than the arm, all damage is pretty minimal. Harry, if he wants to go to St. Mungo's we can accommodate him, but I should be able to set it well enough here."

"No! Not Mungo's!" Ron gasped. "Please set it here."

Andromeda nodded. "I'll need you up off the ground obviously. Preferably we should mend you in the infirmary because of the lacerations. Can you walk, or should we levitate you?"

"Walk!" Ron declared. Without considering logistics, he immediately began trying to struggle to his feet but howled in agony as weight shifted around his broken arm.

"Wait!" Harry seized Ron's shoulder, restraining him. "Slow down, mate. There's no rush — we'll get you mended soon enough, but you'll need to accept a little help until then, okay?" Standing up, Harry cast a spell to gently raise Ron to standing height and reorient his feet back down to reach the ground. Harry and Andromeda reached out from either side to steady Ron's chest and left shoulder until it was clear he could balance his own weight. Ron took several deep breaths and, with their guidance, began to make his way gingerly back toward the house.

Through the rougher part of the meadow, Ron had prudently dedicated his attention to studying the ground in front of his every footfall to make certain that he didn't stumble, but when he reached the flat of the back lawn, he raised his gaze and, for the first time, detected the presence of his arch-nemesis. "You!" Ron yelled in a sudden burst of apopleptic fury.

Draco Malfoy remained standing just off the main path, watching Ron's and Andromeda's progress with cool dispassion.

Ron pulled his left hand out of Andromeda's grasp and pointed at Draco. "That stinking ferret hexed me off my broom! Harry, aren't you going to...?"

"I'm going to have a quick chat with Draco while Andromeda fixes you up, Ron," Harry broke in forcefully, stepping quickly between the two enemies.

Andromeda glanced worriedly from Ron to Draco and then to Harry. Harry gave her a furtive nod. Seemingly in accord, she nodded in response, grabbed Ron's hand, and gently resumed tugging him toward the back door.

As he went past, Ron continued trying to glare at Draco, but Harry kept moving to mediate until Andromeda had her patient nearly to the door.

"I'm going to talk to him, Ron," Harry repeated resolutely, capturing his friend's attention. "You need to get your arm taken care of before the pooling blood damages any more soft tissue. Leave this to me please and I'll fill you in later."

Ron stared at Harry for a moment. "Okay" His low tone was one of corrosive hostility, but he continued following Andromeda reluctantly into the house.

Harry beckoned to the ten children who had been dutifully bringing up the rear. "Hey mates, can you all please go on back up to third floor and gather together in the library? Please tell Kreacher to serve you hot chocolate and a snack. I'll be up to join you in a little while, but I need a few minutes down here first, all right?"

"Yes, Mr. Harry," Troy replied, taking responsibility for the group. He led them into the manor through the back door. Anna, the last in line, crossed the threshold and pulled the door shut with a loud click.

Silence descended over the back yard as Harry and Draco faced each other. Draco had an uncharacteristic calmness to his demeanour. He met Harry's careful scrutiny without flinching. "I didn't do a thing, Potter."

Harry regarded him carefully before speaking, noting that beneath Draco's defiance was the strength of conviction. Harry nodded. "Yes, I know you didn't."

Draco blinked in momentary surprise, then restored his even composure and gazed back toward the meadow.

Harry's gaze followed Draco's, noting that it would have given a good vantage to the incident. "I took my eyes off Ron at a critical moment, back there. Did you see anything that might explain what happened?"

Draco's face edged back somewhat toward Harry, offering him oblique eye-contact. "Well," he began, "I suppose it all just looked like a case of Weasley trying to pull a daft stunt that he didn't have the necessary skills for. Beats me what he was trying to accomplish, but I very much doubt it was anything in the standard Keeper's repertoire."

Harry shook his head. "I agree it's unlikely that he's ever had the skill to do the maneuver, but never in six years of knowing Ron have I ever seen him fall off a broom."

Draco shrugged. "Fine. You asked my opinion and I gave it to you. I don't have anything to add."

"Okay," Harry said equably.

Draco frowned, clearly expecting a more rigorous interrogation. Unsure how (or whether) to respond further, he shrugged again.

The two stood motionlessly for some time, neither speaking. Out of the corner of his eye, Harry saw Ginny and Hermione emerging from one of the woodland trails. Harry caught Ginny's glance and, with a subtle shake of his head, gestured for her to escort Hermione (whose expression was one of intense suspicion) straight into the house. Ginny gave Harry a furtive thumbs up, said something to Hermione in hushed tones and steered her around toward the front entrance.

Harry turned back to Draco and quickly appraised him. "You look well, Malfoy, Captivity is doing you a world of good."

Draco laughed sardonically but said nothing.

"I never see you around," Harry continued. "You must be keeping a low profile here?"

Draco nodded. "Studying Potter. I have no intention of returning to Hogwarts even if they do catch Dad, Aunt Bella and the rest of the Death Eaters, but that's not going to slow me down. I still fully intend to pass my NEWTs and get started on a real life. If you ever let me, that is."

"Great that you're keeping up with your studies!" Harry's enthusiastic tone gave no hint of having heard Draco's disgruntlement. "If you thought it might help for any of the faculty to come discuss some of the NEWT modules, just let Susan or Daphne know. They'll bring it to my attention and I can make the arrangements."

Draco nodded again noncommittally. Silence descended again. After a while, Draco turned to make his way back into the house but Harry raised his hand to stop him. "Draco?"

"Yes Potter?"

"What do you know about the girl who walked up here past you just before Ron's incident? I believe her name's Teri?"

Draco's lip curled into the hint of a smirk. "I'm shocked, Potter. You usually like your ladies a bit..." He cleared his throat. "Older, shall we say?"

Harry didn't stoop to the provocation. "What do you know about her?"

Draco shook his head. "Not much. Nobody does."

"Yes, I realize that," Harry agreed. "All Andromeda could ever tell me is that her name's Teri, that she was living with Old Nott before he was shipped to Azkaban and that she's both smart and smart-mouthed. Your mum doesn't seem to know anything more."

Draco shrugged. "The only person I can think of who might be able to share some interesting speculation is Rose Parkinson. I can't vouch for the accuracy of anything she might choose to tell you, but in my experience she keeps dirt of varying degrees of earthiness on just about every witch, wizard or squib in Britain."

"What about you, Draco? You lived your life in those circles and took a more active operational interest in things than your mum — surely you know things about the girl that I don't."

Draco raised a bemused eyebrow at Harry's veiled insinuation, but made no effort to deny it. He pursed his lips. "Maybe I know one other minor detail."

"Which is?" Harry pried.

"I know her real name," Draco replied evenly.

"Which is?" Harry persisted, with a hint of trepidation.

Draco went silent for a while, gazing toward the west where some glimmers of sunset were starting to assemble among the cloud cover. "What's in it for me if I tell you?"

Harry rounded on him; impatience finally flaring. "How about I continue to pay your room and board like I have for the last three months? How about I continue to protect your hide from all your charming family friends who'd like nothing better that to fill it full of holes? Is that of sufficient value to you, Draco?"

Draco almost blinked. He didn't reply immediately, but after a moment he met Harry's gaze directly. "Promise me you won't hold the girl's name against her, Potter?"

"Of course not!" Harry bristled. "She's nine years old, Malfoy — the world still owes her a clean slate and no prejudice!"

Draco studied Harry intently for a moment then turned away to face the sunset again. "Her name is Asteria Lestrange."

At Hogwarts, Ginny rarely greeted Sunday morning with fond anticipation. For busy non-teaching staff members like herself, Sundays generally seemed to hold the same sort of frantic chaos as any other day. At Magpie Lane, however, things were completely different! Every Sunday morning was an event to be savoured... slowly... deliciously. Ginny had learned that she should keep her foot on the brake pedal... take an extra few minutes to cool down and stretch after their run... linger a little longer than necessary in the shower... actually primp for a moment in front of a mirror... choose the third top out of the drawer, rather than the first. In other words, for Magpie Sundays, she had learned to stop and smell the roses.

In fact, there actually were roses to smell here every Sunday morning. They always made their appearance magically on her dresser sometime while she was in the shower. She had never asked where they came from and Harry had never explained. Some mysteries were best left as precisely that — delightfully mysterious. Avoiding the thorns, Ginny laid her fingers on one of the deep burgundy blooms and leaned in for a fragrant whiff.

What she smelled, above all else, was bacon.

And bangers, and mushrooms, and broiled tomatoes, and crisped potato wedges!

Yes, roses were a sweet little gesture, but the real reason why Ginny lingered just a little longer than necessary over everything on Magpie Sundays was that with every passing minute in which she left the master of the kitchen to his unfettered devices, the best Full English Breakfast in all of Kent got steadily better, fuller... and more utterly, agonizingly tantalising.

Of course, Ginny couldn't hold out forever. Being foremost a Weasley, there always came a point when the aromas became simply too overpowering. Passing the mirror in the hallway, she forced herself to spend a final few seconds practicing her 'Harry James Potter, I am going to jump you when you least expect it ' smile, then made her way jauntily to the kitchen.

Harry turned to her and offered his best 'Good morning Ginny; for some reason you usually seem to like this smile ' smile.

Ginny responded with the look that always made Harry drop things.

Spatula and fork clattered onto the kitchen floor as their lips collided. Sparks flew, breath grew ragged. Emerald was fully engaged in chasing wayward cutlery and paid them no heed...

Abruptly Ginny pulled back, gasping. "Sorry," she apologized; her smile caught somewhere between mischief and reticence. "No oral sports on an empty stomach — it could get very dangerous."

Harry gave her a wicked grin as he pulled a chair out for her. Within seconds, she was facing a fully loaded plate, a ridiculous array of delectable condiments from all across the old Empire, and the choice of pumpkin, star-fruit and mango juices.

"So what's on our Sunday agenda?" Harry asked as he slid his own plate onto the table and settled into his chair. "Is everyone meeting for supper tonight at the Burrow?"

"Actually no. Mum would like to host New Year's Eve instead, if that's okay with you?" Ginny replied. "Percy and Audrey will not be there, but Bill and Fleur are returning from France on the thirtieth, and Charlie will be in Devon by mid-morning on the thirty first."

"That's fine — it will be worth the wait to see Charlie, Bill and Fleur again. But more than anything... wellll... those few days might give Ron a chance to cool down." Harry smiled sheepishly. "If I made an appearance there today, my only real question is whether your brother would break my jaw before tea, or wait until after dessert."

"Honestly Harry, I'm appalled that you would think brother Ronald would hurt you," Ginny teased. "After all, his right arm is still in a sling and he couldn't punch his way out of a snidget egg with his left."

"Thank you for the reassurances, dear." Harry smirked, pouring himself a glass of star-fruit juice.

Ginny sighed deeply and smiled in commiseration. "No, to be honest, Ron is annoyed that you saved his life again, irritated that you didn't save his life efficiently enough to spare him a broken arm, and peeved that you engineered his corporeal peril in the first place by deliberately exposing him to a cohort of sinister, demented children," Ginny explained. "Oh, and he was beyond livid to learn that you didn't hex Malfoy into a pile of quivering blond sludge."

Harry sputtered his juice.

"Was that a laugh or a sob?" Ginny's look of concern overtook her previously impish expression.

Harry smiled awkwardly as he dabbed his face with a napkin. "I don't honestly know. A bit of both, maybe?"

Ginny reached over and stroked his hand. "Just put it out of your sweet little mind, okay? Ron will be fine. In another eight to ten weeks, he will gruntingly accept your apology and he'll be absolute bestest mateys with you forever and anon... until the next perceived slight." Ginny squeezed his hand tightly, and pour warmth into him through her eyes for a moment before returning her attention to breakfast.

"Thank you Gin'." Harry flashed her a grateful grin. "And thanks also for taking him home last night."

"No problem — only doing my sisterly duty." Ginny looked the juices over for a moment and opted for mango. "Besides I knew you needed to spend a little extra time with the children. Are they okay?"

"They were a bit shaken up. A few of the younger ones were crying, but some of the others had already stepped up to comfort them — even before I got to library." Harry gazed reminiscently through the window. "Anyway, I went up there with the goal of shifting gears so that not too many of them end up with nightmares over it. I stood in the center of the old Persian rug and started to speak and... you know, it was actually kind of sweet..." He trailed off.

"Tell me!" Ginny grabbed his hand again, looking into his eyes.

"I started to talk in my ordinary, every day voice... just like I am now... and each one of them immediately keyed in on me and, I swear, within thirty seconds all of the children were sitting cross-legged in a quiet, attentive semi-circle around me."

"How darling! You've finally found your calling — Harry Potter; primary school teacher !" Ginny grinned broadly. "So what did you talk about?"

"Not much, really," Harry recounted. "I told them that because everyone acted quickly and responsibly, Ron would come off just fine. I specifically cited the Mulciber boy..."

"Troy, right?"

Harry nodded. "Correct. I cited Troy for doing exactly what was asked of him as quickly as possible. Then I told the rest of them that by sticking together and being completely quiet when Mrs. 'Dromeda was checking Ron, it helped us figure out exactly what needed to be done, and that they should be proud of themselves for being calm, responsible and helpful. After a few minutes there were no more tears, and several quiet smiles were starting to break out." Harry paused a moment to savour a tender mushroom. "You know Gin', for all they've been through, I'd say that they're actually turning out to be fairly good kids."

"I believe you're right." A faint thoughtful crease ran along Ginny's forehead. "It still depends a bit on one's perspective. Mummy Daphne practically coos whenever anyone mentions them. Neville and Luna both spoke glowingly of them. Hagrid and Tonks had no complaints. Ryan grumbled that they were undisciplined, but Mary-Jo clarified that Ryan says that about nearly everyone at Hogwarts too. Same story with Susan — she grouses about them quite a bit at times, but I wouldn't put it past her to complain about how noisy and disruptive Madame Pince can be..."

Harry chuckled.

"Anyway, it all averages out to a pretty favourable rating. So, I guess where I'm confused..." Ginny took a drink of juice, then tapped the glass distractedly. "I guess I'm still trying to figure out what could have set Ron off so badly?"

Harry pensively cut his food into bite-sized pieces for a minute. "Do you want my simple, boring opinion," he replied finally, "or would you like some half-cocked, misinformed speculation?"

Ginny grinned wickedly. "I'm in love with Harry Potter — of course I want half-cocked, misinformed speculation!"

"In was afraid you'd say that." Harry sighed. "Okay, let's say I give you both. The simple boring answer is that Ron was behaving erratically, got grouchy and defensive because his demonstrations were all bollixed, then he went a bit haywire. He took his frustration out first on the students by yelling at them, but then ultimately sabotaged himself by stomping off to try an idiotic stunt that he didn't have either the broom or the skill to accomplish..."

"Fair enough," Ginny shrugged. "Almost everybody I know who's not named Ron Weasley would believe that story. But your own counterargument is...?"

Harry fidgeted uncomfortably. "I don't want to blame anyone... and I don't know exactly what I would be blaming anyone for doing anyway, but..." He trailed off, absentmindedly toying with his spoon.

"This is something about Teri?" Ginny surmised with a pointed glance across the table.

Harry's eyebrows shot up. "You never miss a trick, do you? No wonder Kingsley never shuts up about you."

Ginny smirked.

Harry steepled his fingers thoughtfully. "I don't know what to make of her, Gin'. She's a plucky little underdog and that really makes me root for her. But then she's so jaded, it makes me ache; I wish I could throw an arm around her and say, 'Things aren't really so bad, kid — just give life a chance.' She looks out for the younger children, even though most of them don't exactly like her, but..."

"But she keeps you off balance?" Ginny's gaze flitted around his face, watching more than listening.

"Yeah, that's it." Harry nodded. "How did you guess? Do she catch you off the hop too?"

Ginny shook her head. "No, I haven't exchanged two words with the girl. I'm just feeding off your anxiety."

Harry smiled in resignation. Of course Ginny would be able to read him — she knew him far too well.

"So I guess maybe she's just a bit of a lightning rod, or something?" Harry passed Ginny the toast and condiments, then began carving one of his bangers. "A lot of the kids were joking around at Ron's expense... I didn't think that any guff Teri might have been giving him was as snide what several of the boys were dishing... but for some reason Ron singled her out and ripped into her..." Harry cringed slightly at the memory. "So of course she did just what she does best, which is to not back down. I suppose that might have been enough to rattle him..."

"But...?" Ginny pursued.

"This doesn't rationally explain how Ron could have gone so berserk as to attempt an Escrick feint."

"What??!" Ginny exploded. "Nobody told me he tried the Escrick!"

Harry nodded.

"Blooming idiot!" Ginny seethed, shaking her head vigourously. "I figured maybe he just goofed up something like the Kinsgbury swerve again. It was bad enough with the twins having to pull him out of the apple tree last summer after a basic move like that, but the Escrick?!"

"My thoughts exactly," Harry agreed. "Anyway, the final twist is wondering how on Earth he could have fallen off the broom? The Escrick should always jam you right down into the broomstick... if you're off by an inch it can squeeze, er, some body parts, rather unpleasantly, and you might crash into a hedge while you're blinded with agony. But if he had even the slightest clue about the motion sequence he should have stayed locked onto the broom."

"Right!" Ginny thrust her finger in the air. "The pros rely on it in bad weather for precisely those reasons, right? Ron should know all that!"

"Bingo." Harry waved his fork in agreement. "So, with the caveat that I turned my back at precisely the wrong moment and didn't see him come loose, my guess is that for some reason Ron didn't have the faintest clue what he was doing when he supposedly went to attempt the feint."

"Momentary lapse of reason?" Ginny surmised.

Harry shrugged.

"Teri lapse of reason?" Ginny eyed him closely again.

Harry shrugged again, but this time with a vaguely awkward air. "Okay look, the last thing the girl needs is for people to start blaming things on her as if she was a poltergeist of something but, er, well, some people seem get a bit..." Harry paused for a moment, uncertain exactly how much he was prepared to share. "Some people seem to get befuddled around her..."

Ginny closed one eye as she savoured a potato wedge. "Accidental wandless magic, perhaps?"

"Perhaps, though I kind of doubt it," Harry replied.

"Something worse?"

"I hope not." Harry frowned uncomfortably.

"Who is this girl, Harry?" Ginny asked. "Who is she really?"

Harry paused for a long moment, staring at his fork. "Malfoy says her real name is Asteria Lestrange."

A long, tense moment hung between them as Ginny gawked at Harry. "Wow! You don't think...??"

"I don't know what to think, Gin'." Harry released a slow, taut breath. "Rastaban, Rodolphus and Bellatrix were all in Azkaban long before, during and long after Teri's presumed date of birth so I can't see how any of them could have conceived her. And there are no other known Lestranges in Britain."

"Maybe she's from the Normandy line?" Ginny suggested. "That's where the Lestrange family originated."

"Maybe." Harry rubbed his chin. "So she could have been abandoned on this side of the channel for reasons completely independent of Bellatrix and the two brothers. I suppose that might explain why nobody around here seems to know anything about her."

"Right." Ginny nodded. "So basically her parentage is a mystery for the time being. And for all we know I was just leading you down a cul-de-sac with that question anyway. Whatever difficulty Ron and you have been having with the girl may be uniquely related to who she is, irrespective of her family."

Harry shrugged again, noncommittally.

"What do you know about her magic, Harry?"

"She's definitely precocious," Harry replied. "Her aura has a refined power that I'd normally not expect to find in Hogwarts students before third year."

Ginny' eyes narrowed. "Thus begging my earlier question about accidental wandless magic?"

Harry shook his head. "I still don't think she did anything to accidentally make Ron act like a git or fall off his broom. Andromeda, Daphne and Susan file reports on all accidental magic and Teri hasn't been implicated in anything so far."

"Ah." Ginny pursed her lips. "But if she was truly precocious she might be doing intentional wandless magic. They might not notice that."

"True," Harry admitted, "but I, personally, would have been able to detect any spell powerful enough to confund Ron or knock him off his broom."

"Maybe she blocked you with Occlumency?" Ginny suggested.

"Merlin, Gin'!" Harry laughed incredulously. "She's only nine years old — the only person I've ever met who might have had precocious pre-Hogwarts powers like that was Tom Riddle."

"I know one other person who probably could have done all that if he hadn't been subjected to years of humiliation and intimidation by magic-hating Muggles." Ginny directed a sly glance at her fiancé.

"Oh? And who is that?" For some reason, Harry's tone seemed just a little worried.

"Harry Potter," Ginny replied.


Back to index


Chapter 3: Happy New Year?

Author's Notes: This might be the last post for a while, as time has ceased to be as readily available as it was for periods of last year. The remainder of this story remains mapped out in my mind, but my fingers have lagged behind. In any case, for all of those who are celebrating holidays this time of year, please accept my best wishes for happiness!


Chapter 3. Happy New Year? (Dec. 31, 1997 — Jan. 1, 1998)

"All right, everyone, listen up!" Blaise Zabini waved to attract the attention of a small but boisterous crowd bouncing vigorously on the Hogwarts pitch trying to keep warm. "Operating on the theory that if everyone was happy and comfortable you might stand still and shut your traps for a few minutes, let's see if we can arrange a warming charm or two." He scanned the faces for a moment and settled his gaze on Harry. "I realize that Potter over here is a man of almost no discernible talents, but rumour has it he's good with thermals. Harry — while I continue to make an arse of myself up here for another couple minutes, can you please cast charms on our brooms, on the seats in rows 4 and 5, and on Colin's little daguerrotype thingy?"

"You m-mean camera?" Colin piped up in a shivery voice.

"Ha, I knew it!" Zabini puffed triumphantly. "Wait 'til I tell Professor Burbage that she got it wrong!" He glanced around at the bemused audience, and shrugged sheepishly. "Sorry, a bit distractible today. Anyway, moving right along to this key milestone in Quidditch history! As some of the more gifted intellects among you have now grasped from the huge banner behind me, this is the dedication and inaugural practice of the phenomenon which a dear friend of mine has dubbed, 'The Great Zabini Flying Circus! '"

Fred scowled. "Whenever are you going to learn to keep your catchy little phrases to yourself, sister dearest?" he grumbled, elbowing Ginny.

Ginny winced. "I swear — I intended it as a pejorative!"

"Uh huh." George nodded. "The road to Hell is paved with intended pejoratives."

"Really?" Luna piped up. "Father says that Muspelheimer cement is best suited to hot climates. One would have thought that..."

"Ahem!" Zabini' boomed over his amplifying charm. He scowled at the chatty foursome. "The sooner our loquacious gathering buttons down their flappy lips, the sooner we'll all proceed to our nice warm brooms or seats and get down to the business of having fun!"

Luna smiled placidly. "Every time he gets tetchy like this," she whispered to Ginny, "I imagine him wearing nothing but a really long feather boa."

Ginny coughed violently. "Sorry," she sputtered, "carry on please. I'll..." she managed a hurried, somewhat laboured breath, "be right back..."

As she hurried toward to lockers, Zabini glared at her for a moment before continuing. "For those people just arriving now..." He gazed in bemused consternation at a group of uninvited Hufflepuffs who had just arrived. "We will have warm seats available in just a moment." He cleared his throat. "Given the historical nature of this occasion, I would like to call upon Mr. Harry James Potter, Order of Merlin First Class, to issue the club dedication."

"Me??" Harry looked up in surprise as he finished the warming charm on the final seat in row 5. "Why me? You're the one whose name is plastered over everything!"

Zabini shrugged. "According to reputation, another one of your sparse competencies is public speaking. You're also known to be fairly concise." he added pointedly.

"Okay, okay." Harry rolled his eyes and made his way back down to the pitch. "Seats are warmed — everyone grab one and I'll try to be brief."

"Daffy, you can be the official chronicler for today, okay?" Zabini signaled to Daphne Greengrass, who had been talking with her twin first year siblings. "We'll borrow your memory of the speech later and stash it in a pensieve for posterity, so please try to pay attention to Potter. Can you do that?"

"I always pay extremely close attention to Harry," Daphne replied sweetly. "And sometimes I even listen to what he's saying..."

Harry raised an eyebrow, but made no comment. Reaching the podium, he picked up a scroll with some of Zabini's rough notes, composed himself for a moment, and began as follows:

"Esteemed witches, gentlewizards, and future generations... the sport of Quidditch that we all love so dearly has remained mired in ancient, outdated customs of centuries past, ever failing to heed the changing times and attend to the innovative spirit of our modern sporting public. Yet every once in a great while, there comes along an idea that is so fresh and compelling that the entire wizarding world must stand and take notice..."

The small crowd stared in rapt attention; Daphne's mouth had fallen open in raw adulation as Harry's eyes flickered in the light of the moody Highland sky.

Smiling, Harry paused to accommodate another batch of late arrivals attempting to discreetly file into rows 6 through 8. A buzz of hushes and shushes swept through the group. Raising an eyebrow at what he considered to be rather unwarranted obeisance, a tiny smirk flickered across his face for the barest instant as he forged ahead.

"Well, if you're expecting anything grand like that, then obviously you've come to the wrong dedication."

A buzz of titters and utterances swept across the audience, but Harry maintained a straight face.

"No indeed! For today we have assembled before you a bunch of rank amateurs, out on a whimsical lark, intent on uncourageously dabbling on the unfashionable fringes of the sport of champions..."

"Okay, who put the bloody 'Evening at the Improvs' reject up there?!" Zabini interrupted with a growl as everyone started laughing. Despite his tone, however, he couldn't prevent his face from sliding into a grin as wide as most of the rest of those in the audience.

"But seriously," Harry continued, adopting a more conversational demeanour. "I would like to thank Blaise Zabini for having assembled a collection of decent amateur Quidditch players who are willing to take on this bold experiment of forming a touring exhibition team. I think we will all appreciate the chance to experience some challenging competition and I hope that some spectators enjoy the brand of unconventional play that I expect this squad to bring to its matches. Personally, however, my most profound gratification in all of this springs from some important things that we're collectively planning to achieve off the pitch. First and foremost, our squad has unanimously decided to contribute all net Flying Circus proceeds from every match, interview honorarium and endorsement to the Safe Homes and People program!"

"Woohoooo!" came Daphne's enthusiastic cry, rising above the clapping and whistling.

"Next, I would like to thank Weasleys' Wizard Wheezes for donating team uniforms, as well as all of our day-to-day surprises... I mean supplies!" Harry's smirk added to a rustle of snickers.

"Dub dub double-U!!" came Ginny's voice, adding to the cheers as she returned from the lockers and climbed to row 4.

"Let's all give a big round of applause for everyone who came out on this frigid day to cheer us on," Harry continued, his eyes sweeping the continually-growing contingent. "Especially Charlie Weasley, Fleur Delacour, Bill Weasley, Luna Lovegood, Francesca Greengrass, Jonathon Lyon and Edgar Greengrass, each of whom will bravely mount their brooms this afternoon to spar with us in this, our inaugural squad practice!"

Harry stood silent for a moment, smiling as the audience cheered enthusiastically, then raised his hands for silence. "Finally, although most of you probably already know the names and the faces, Blaise requires me for the sake of the pensieve record, to introduce the members of the 1998 Great Zabini Flying Circus!"

Raucous applause burst from the still-growing crowd, producing a pulse of noise loud enough to summon denizens of Hogsmeade to their rattling windows and doors, from which they gazed curiously at Hogwarts, wondering what mischief might be afoot at a school that was normally so quiet over the winter holidays. Harry cast a loud sonorus to compete with the vibrant cheers that continued all throughout the introductions.

"Playing Keeper... formerly of Ravenclaw House, and shamelessly poached from the Kilkenny Skylarks of the Class B Leinster League... Grant Page!!"

"Our Beater contingent... formerly of Gryffindor House... inseparable as always... Fred and George Weasley!!"

Lee Jordan chose that moment to ignite a furious round of purple and orange flares. Harry coughed, but smiled, as smoke swept past the podium then gradually cleared.

"Playing Chaser... formerly of Gryffindor House... Ginny Weasley!!!" Harry grinned from ear to ear, applauding vigorously with the excited audience as Ginny descended to join Grant, Fred and George beside the podium.

"Playing Chaser and serving as assistant captain... current resident of Hufflepuff House... Keith Summerby!!"

"Playing Chaser and serving as captain... senior Prefect of Slytherin House... Blaise Zabini!!"

As Zabini made his way to the podium, George abruptly stepped forward and raised his wand. The cheering crowd collectively gasped as a lightning-white flash sparked out and struck Zabini straight in the forehead. He blinked... raised his hand tentatively to his head as a small cloud of fog dissipated to reveal... the most atrocious artichoke hairdo to grace Hogwarts since the 1970's.

Harry doubled over in laughter. So did George... which made it all the easier for Zabini to put him in a headlock. Fortunately, after a brief tussle that produced little more than raucous shouts and cheers, both emerged with flushed faces and wide grins.

Zabini elbowed Harry out of the way at the podium and cast his own sonorus. "Now, I understand that Quidditch fans are not generally known for scholastic aptitude..." he began to a spirited round of jeers. "But, based on statistical interpolation, I'm estimating that there are still at least two people up there in the crowd who bothered to learn elementary numerals. And those people may have noticed that we've only announced six players..."

He paused for a long moment until the crowd fell silent. "Well, how right you are! " he called and turned to walk away from the podium. "That's all folks! Everyone have a safe and happy New Years celebration!"

After a moment of stunned silence, a staccato of confused shouts erupted and degenerated into a swell of chaotic protest. But rather quickly, inspired by persistent concerted shouts by Jonathon Lyon and the Greengrass twins, the cacophony morphed into a hypnotic mass-mantra, chanting "SEEEE-KER! SEEEE-KER! SEEEE-KER!"

Zabini halted his retreat, turned to face the audience and recast his sonorus louder than ever. "Okay, okay! Calm down you gaggle of bleeding fanatics!" He paused until the decibel level dropped a bit. "My sincerest apologies everybody — it's just that, well, I didn't want to disappoint you, because, er..." His face dropped and he looked dejectedly at his feet. "I'm afraid we couldn't get our top choice for Seeker."

The din collapsed instantly. Astonished faces stared from the despondent Zabini, to a grimly stoic Harry Potter and, en masse, three hundred stunned onlookers exchanged bewildered glances.

"Yes," Zabini confirmed, shuffling awkwardly, "I'm afraid to say that due to his exhaustive prior commitments and a spate of minor injuries, we will not be able to showcase the spectacular grace and agility of..." He sighed heavily. "Everyone's favourite Seeker phenom, Rubeus Hagrid..."

You could hear a pin drop for the better part of a second as confused onlookers put two and two together. From somewhere in row 8 came the unmistakable sound of a Laura Madley giggle. Then the dam broke — an uproarious pandemonium swept over Zabini as he tried to introduce the real Seeker. After several fruitless attempts to shout, he just shrugged, and lifted Harry's right hand in the air.

And with seven huge grins plastered onto their faces, The Great Zabini Flying Circus took to the skies.

"Enough everybody!" Harry swept his arm across the battalion of flashes and dict-o-quills. "We're nearly two hours later for supper and I'm surrounded by Weasleys. You must realize that this is a potentially lethal combination."

"Matthäus Gottschalk, Die Beschwörung," interjected the young man with a thin Bohemian Goatee. "Herr. Potter, if you'll be competing in amateur venues, how do you expect to be protected against dangerous fugitive criminals such as Frau Lestrange?"

Harry blinked slightly, surprised to note that Bellatrix rumours were already circulating. He cleared his throat. "Well, we're still working on the logistics Matthäus. Part of that answer is likely to remain confidential for practical reasons, but hopefully we'll be set to release a general overview of security plans before the Skegness match." Harry took a deep breath. "Everyone, that's all — we really must go. Good night, and happy new year!"

With that, Harry, Ginny, George and Fred smiled and waved one last time to the unexpected press contingent, then briskly exited through the main Hogwarts gates and Disapparated. Landing in the dark orchard above the Burrow, they instinctively reached out and grappled for one another. Arms locked into a huddle that stabilized everyone on the uneven ground. In their mutual exhaustion, they sagged forward into an impromptu group-hug.

"Blimey Harry," George groaned. "This might well be the wildest imbroglio you've ever roped us into."

"And that is saying quite a bit," Fred added with a grin.

"Imbroglio? Yeah, I suppose that about sums it up." Harry chuckled wearily. "Listen, though. It this proves completely unmanageable, then let's promise ourselves that we'll just find some way to end it gracefully."

"Sure, we'll create a plausible excuse to back out," Ginny chimed as the four broke apart and began walking down to the Burrow. "Anyone for a simulated Scrofungulus epidemic?"

Fred somehow managed to groan and chortle at the same time. "Ugh, yes that ought to secure our freedom. But Harry, I think you should suggest to Captain Coiffure that we'll need a team meeting after Skegness so that we can all decide whether this is really worth doing?"

George hummed his accord. "Yes, that would be a good time-frame for re-evaluating things, wouldn't it? By then we'll have a few weeks and a match under our belt. Who knows — it may actually be working out okay."

"Agreed." Harry nodded. "We'll give him one match and see how everyone feels."

"Provided Mum hasn't already killed us all first." Ginny sighed. "I can't believe we're so late."

"You can't believe?? My disgruntled stomach doesn't require any convincing," George grumbled.

"Yes, it was a fine idea to send Bill, Charlie and Fleur back here at six o'clock to let everyone know we'd be late," Fred said, picking up the pace, "but if those three ate the whole roast..."

Ginny laughed. "If Bill, Charlie and Fleur ate the whole roast, then Ron has probably already been indicted for aggravated assault. Don't worry, I'm sure Mum made plenty."

The door burst open in front of them. "Come in! Come in!" Molly waved eagerly. "We set aside warm plates for you in the kitchen — you can either have a sit-down out at the table, or else bring the plates into the living room to mingle."

Ginny flashed her mother a grateful smile and pulled her into a half-embrace as they entered. A wave of warm air washed over them as they were immediately confronted by a party already well in progress. Arthur hurried over to them and helped Ginny with her cloak. "We all listened to you on the Wireless," he exclaimed breathlessly. "They cut away from the 'Wizarding Year in the Review' programme to capture some of the interviews. I had no idea this was going to be such a... um... happening?"

"Believe me, that makes at least two of us." Harry quirked his brow wryly. "I'm very sorry we're so tardy!"

Arthur chuckled. "Everyone I work for in the Ministry has a chaotic schedule, Harry. I never expect any of them to show up on time for anything anymore. So just because you're younger than they are certainly doesn't mean that you're any less important... or any more likely to be punctual." He winked and cuffed Harry on the shoulder. "In any case, as long as you keep visiting us regularly and bringing my favourite daughter along, I'll cut you a bit of slack."

Ginny steered Harry and the twins toward the kitchen, where the foursome was immediately confronted by Hermione and Ron, who both rose from the table.

"Well, hello there!" Ginny smiled genially, covering for Harry who seemed to be approaching the couple with the caution one might exercise with many of Hagrid's pets. Ron, too, appeared quite awkward, however he didn't seem angry or combative, which Ginny definitely took to be a positive sign.

"Oh, hello and hello!" Hermione's response to Ginny and Harry's arrival seemed caught half way between amicable and over-eager. "Wonderful to see the two of you! Happy new year!"

Apparently overlooking the twins, Hermione bustled to the counter to grab a couple of the plates that Molly had set aside, and placed them squarely on the table at the places where Ginny and Harry customarily sat at family gatherings. "Ron and I are catching our breath out here where it's quiet — won't you join us while you finish your meal?"

"So kind of you to offer, Hermione dearest," Fred replied knavishly, sliding into Ginny's seat. "I'm sure that brother George will also be availing himself of your gracious hospitality."

"Absolutely!" George swept up Hermione's scandalized hand to his lips, before taking Harry's seat and immediately commencing to dig into the plate of food.

"Say Hermione." Fred couldn't disguise a wicked grin, "Would you mind very much if Ginny and Harry were to join us too? I expect that they may be quite hungry, and it would be inconsiderate to deny them our gracious company on a special occasion like this."

Hermione blinked, chewing her lower lip in consternation... but then recovered. "Yes, thank you very much for being so thoughtful." She glared daggers at the smirking twins. "I think Ron and I would very much like the chance to catch up with Ginny and Harry... as well !" Turning brusquely back to the counter, she retrieved the final two plates, and clunked them down forcefully at the twins' usual seats. "Harry, Ginny, sit! Ron and I wanted to speak with you before things got too lively."

Stifling their amusement, Harry and Ginny both sat obediently at their newly assigned seats. Harry looked from Ron to Hermione as they settled into adjacent chairs. "Okay, so I'm sensing that perhaps there's something in particular that you'd like to discuss?"

Hermione cast several privacy spells in a tight sphere around the four of them. Fred and George immediately pulled their plates and chairs closer to invade the ring of privacy. "So nice to share quality companionship and intimate conversation with friends and family over the holidays, isn't it Fred?" George mused.

"Absolutely!" Fred sighed contentedly. "Such a cozy little gathering, just the six of us dear confidantes."

Hermione rolled her eyes in defeat. Averting her gaze from the twins and focusing her attention pointedly onto Harry, she got straight to the point. "Harry, neither Ron nor I really know what the Imperius curse feels like, and I assume that among the four... er, well, six... of us you probably have the most experience with it. Could you describe the sensation?"

Harry nodded thoughtfully as he sliced a bite of the roast beef. "Yes, well... I guess that unless you have a very strong natural resistance to the curse, you could probably say it's a frighteningly pleasant sensation. You feel as though nothing in the world is your fault; you believe that you have no choice but to engage in your assigned task, and that task seems to be the most natural and obvious thing in the world for you to be doing."

Hermione shivered. "That's atrocious!"

Harry nodded. "Yes, that's actually a fairly good word to describe it."

The table fell silent. Hermione frowned and looked to Ron. "But it doesn't sound right, does it Ron?"

Ron nodded blankly. "No, that wasn't what I felt."

"Wait! What's the context here?" Putting her utensils down, Ginny scrutinised Hermione and Ron. "What made you wonder if you were Imperiused? The so-called Escrick feint attempt?"

Ron nodded abashedly and turned to Harry. "Listen mate, I'd apologize for letting you down and being a stupid berk in front of those kids, but..." He stared blankly at Harry for a moment, struggling to articulate. "But that wasn't me."

Harry met his stare with a puzzled look. "Er, okay. Can you give a bit more detail regarding precisely how it wasn't you?"

"That's the problem." Ron glanced fretfully around at the others. "I don't know how describe it. About the best that I can say is that if you asked me that morning if I would ever attempt the Escrick, I'd laugh and say you're daft. I never have any business trying a stunt like that. Sitting here right now, I know it was bloody ridiculous. But standing out in that meadow, I felt damned certain I could do it and — here's the strange part — I was still every bit as convinced the day after that. I had it completely rooted in my skull that if someone hadn't interfered with my flying I would have had no problem with the maneuver. It was only on the third day that I started to say, 'Ron you bloody git — what the Hell were you thinking?!'"

"Doesn't sound like you were confunded — the charm wouldn't have lasted that long," Ginny shook her head. "A charmed object might have done it, but only if you had remained in constant close proximity to the object. Is there anything you would have kept right on your person for 48 hours or so, Ron?"

Ron shook his head.

"Did you forget to change out of your Chudley Cannons boxers, Ronniekins?" George inquired innocently, drawing a scowl from Ron.

Hermione shook her head. "Those boxers went missing from the lockers during the Ravenclaw match, so I..."

"Blimey!" Fred choked on a mouthful of turnip. "I can't say what's more disturbing, Ronnie-kins — your enlisting Granger to administer your pants, or letting groupies nick them?

"Oi!!" Harry waved frantically to cut off George's inevitable rejoinder before things got too chaotic. "Spare our virgin ears, yeah? Orange shorts or not, Confundus charms aren't a likely answer. That sort of magic produces diversions more than impulsions; they can deflect you from understanding something or from doing things that way you planned, but the standard spell shouldn't be enough to make you do anything truly outrageous."

Ginny nodded. "Yes, otherwise the spell would have been banned just like Imperius."

I have a question, Ron." Harry stroked his chin thoughtfully.

"Go ahead mate." Ron nodded, his flushed face still grateful for any discussion that didn't involve his underwear.

"When you and your broom, er, went your separate ways..." Harry fixed Ron with penetrating eyes. "Did you fall off the broom or did you... well... throw it away?"

Ron stared at Harry. Initially appalled at the implication, Ron's expression gradually went diffuse. Finally, he exhaled deeply. "You know, that's a damned good question, Harry."

With glittering magical confetti still in their hair from a midnight explosion (courtesy of Weasleys' Wizard Wheezes), Harry and Ginny made their way toward the back door, intent on an early and quiet escape. Stepping out into the cold, still evening air, they met Andromeda who apparently had just opted for the same plan. She smiled at the pair and chatted casually with Ginny as the three of them strolled together along the dimly lit path toward the Apparition point. Harry tuned out the conversation and dropped a few steps behind the two women, surreptitiously studying Andromeda, observing her features and mannerisms as illuminated in the distant lamplight emanating from the Burrow.

Although he would never admit it to Andromeda, Harry considered her to be a benchmark of sorts. She was a glimpse as to what Bellatrix could possibly look like without all darkness, hatred and mania. Indeed, if Andromeda's older sibling was ever to deliberately try to appear as something less horrendous than a vile, psychotic slag, they might well be almost twins.

Harry hated to compare two people as morally distant as the formerly 'Black' sisters (even just thinking about Bellatrix made him shiver, and he was quite certain that Andromeda would be far from thrilled if she knew she was being likened to her sister) but he had to admit that there was a practical and compelling reason for it. To Harry's knowledge, Bellatrix had never dabbled much in disguises, obviously preferring intimidation over subterfuge, but... what if she decided to try? With nearly all of her habitual allies and support network on the run or in hiding, wouldn't it make sense to operate in stealth? So, then, what would happen if Bellatrix decided to take on a new persona — act more conventionally, forego the medusa hairstyle, apply glamor charms over her skeletal eyes and emerge more freely into the world as a semi-normal looking, respectable, and possibly even marginally attractive witch in her late forties?

If Bellatrix was ever to attempt such a ploy, Harry's first line of defense, of course, still lay in an assumption that he would be able to pinpoint her magical signature, regardless of what she might look like physically. For most of the past year, he had been able to reliably distinguish the magical essence of adversaries and friends alike, but he wasn't about to let himself become complacent. The fact that Ginny had recently proven herself capable of eluding his instinctive aura detection had been a valuable wake-up call, reminding him that he needed backup skills. A second aptitude that he hoped to be able to call upon would be his deep-seated sensitivity toward innate depravity and the taint of black magic, but some premonition (or paranoia) was driving him to find even a third level of security.

Ryan Jenkins (a compulsive scholar on all things Muggle) had reminded him of the basic criminology concept of character profiling — a strategy that might indeed help him to recognize his enemy not by what she looked or sounded like, not by what her magic felt like, but by all the subtle mannerisms, ticks, speech inflections and personal habits that truly defined her. The witch might be able to go to great length to make herself look different, but deep down she would still be Bellatrix Black, wealthy Slytherin pureblood, defined by her decades of upbringing, culture and attitude. Surely those would mark her as distinctly as any physical or magical feature.

Harry had spent time in his pensieve studying some personal recollections of Bellatrix, as well as a fair number that the Auror Department had archived from their post-battle interrogations from late September. Unfortunately all of those memories were of Bellatrix acting in her unabashedly demented and evil public persona. Hence arose his reluctant decision to use Andromeda as a proxy for how a subdued, hypothetically 'civilized Bellatrix' might appear. Just in case.

Truth be told, however, this was not the only reason why Harry was furtively observing Mrs. Tonks this evening. His mind kept drifting back to a nagging curiosity about Teri, and to Draco's disturbing assertion that the girl was actually a Lestrange. Despite his rational conversation with Ginny, Harry kept subconsciously throwing all sound logic to the wind and asking himself one of the most appalling questions he could imagine — was this poor girl Bellatrix's daughter?

After his many near-airtight conscious counterarguments had failed to dispel this morbid train of subconscious thought, Harry had finally decided to surrender and try a different tack. He had let himself assume that maybe it wasn't utterly impossible. Perhaps there was some (admittedly unknown and perhaps unknowable) way that an obscure act of magic or happenstance had enabled the incarcerated Bellatrix to conceive and deliver a girl of Teri's age. If so, how might that child look and behave? What special traits and powers could she have? Would there be any distinguishing physical characteristics to tie mother and daughter together? Fundamentally, what he was asking himself right now, in the near darkness of this moonless new year's night, was whether there was any compelling evidence that Teri physically or behaviourally could be taken for Andromeda's niece?

Superficially, there were several arguable points of similarity. Teri shared with the Black sisters a tendency toward slender height and an almost ghostly pale complexion. Like Teri, both Bellatrix and Andromeda had sported jet black hair in their youth (although both elder women were greying now), but the girl's hair was much more lustrous and fine than that any of the Blacks that Harry had met or seen images of. Beyond that, the features grew even more divergent. As Harry observed Andromeda's mannerisms and features in the faint glimmers filtering back from the lamp-lit Burrow, he saw little to convincingly relate her to Teri.

Oddly, though, the more Harry absorbed and pondered, the more he began to believe that the girl actually did remind him of someone he knew... or at least someone he had once met or seen. Her appearance seemed to stir distant and vaguely favourable associations. But of whom?? For the life of him, Harry could not place the source of the strange, wistful, ephemeral affinity that he felt when he revisited his memories of the girl standing in the chilly meadow that Saturday afternoon... the shape of her face... the flickers of her eyes... the brisk wind tossing her dark hair...

By the time Ginny and Andromeda had reached the orchard, they had lost the nearly all of the Burrow's distant radiance, so Harry was forced to shelve his visual observations for the time being, without having achieved any firm conviction one way or another. He shrugged to himself and returned to the world of human interactions.

"... but Tonks and Remus didn't make an appearance this evening," Ginny was saying. "Did they have other plans?"

"Hmmm, actually no. Not that I'm aware of. Nymphadora definitely told me yesterday that they planned to make it over tonight. It's probably nothing major, but..." Andromeda's woman's voice trailed off on a slightly worried note.

"It could be that one of them wasn't feeling well or something." Harry ran a hand through his hair. "In that case, it wouldn't be helpful to disturb them in the middle of the night. But if you like, I could drop by Grimmauld Place mid-morning tomorrow and make sure everything is okay. I wanted to catch up with Remus on his Hogwarts preparations, anyway."

"Oh good!" Andromeda released a taut breath. "It would be wonderful if you could do that Harry!"

"No problem!" Harry assured her.

"Oh, and Harry?"

"Yes Andromeda?"

"I was wondering..." Andromeda's tone was thoughtful; almost a bit shy. "The children really only started to get to know you over the holidays but you made a very favorable impression very quickly..."

"Harry has a way of doing that!" Ginny grinned proudly. "Especially with children!"

"That really is true, isn't it?" Andromeda said with a smile. "Anyway, I know that you'll be frightfully busy with school starting up soon, but several of the youngsters were asking about you, and..."

"Absolutely, Andromeda!" Harry broke in preemptively. "I should be able to visit them again on Saturday after supper for a couple hours if that works for you."

"My! I must say that was far simpler than I was expecting." Andromeda grasped Harry's hand and squeezed it firmly. "You are a very kind young man — thank you Harry!"

"You're welcome," Harry replied. "In turn, I'd like to thank you again for taking such fine care of the manor and everyone in it."

"Oh, it's my pleasure." Andromeda couldn't help but hang her head abashedly for a moment, before quickly straightening again. "Oh, but speaking of which, I really must be getting back. I do hope that Ted and Cissy were able to manage everything tonight without any difficulties. Happy new year Harry! Happy new year Ginny!"

"Happy new year!" they called amicably in return, and each Disapparated to their respective destinations.

Harry and Ginny arrived at their usual spot — a small clearing within a tight thicket of trees at the far end of a fairly empty car park on the outskirts of a Muggle neighbourhood near Maidstone. They had chosen the site several months ago for caution and discretion, back at a time when they neither expected, nor particularly wanted, visitors. Life had obviously changed a lot since their complete re-entry into magical society, and a noisy Apparition by the twins outside their house had necessitated Obliviating several Muggles, and alerted had Harry and Ginny to possible security issues associated with even a relatively small number of magical guests appearing in the neighbourhood from time to time. Given their natural caution, they had found this convenient thicket, erected notice-me-not charms about it, and now used it exclusively. This meant they now had a bit of a walk to contend with each time they traveled to and from the property, but that was a small price to pay for peace of mind.

Holding hands, they strolled quickly and silently for several hundred meters along Magpie Lane, to a stretch that would seem to Muggles to be an undeveloped wooded space between two fairly upscale modern residences. For Harry, Ginny and a few of their very closest friends, however, there was a neat, narrow drive curving about a hundred feet up through well-maintained shrubs, opening into a pleasant (if somewhat small) yard and their own small but attractive house. Indeed, most of the wizarding elite would likely be amazed if they ever discovered that Harry Potter lived in such a modest, middle class abode but, as far as he and Ginny were concerned, there was no reason for any of the bourgeois to ever find out. Magpie Lane was their happy little sanctuary. Perhaps some day a growing family might prompt a change in venue, but right now they couldn't imagine it any other way.

About half way up the drive, Harry's hand loosened itself from Ginny's grasp, and crept around her waist. They halted their brisk walk, and Harry looked deeply into Ginny's eyes and reached to touch her cheek. "Happy new year, my irreplaceable treasure!"

She gazed up at him with that shy smile that drove him wild. He pulled her in, and crushed his lips to hers. She opened her mouth to his, and the heat of her soul infused him, then...

Crackle... rustle... groan...

In the barest instant they whipped around, flanking each other back-to-back as per training and instinct. They rapidly, systematically scanned their surroundings for anything out of place; any additional sound or magical signature that could help them identify the source of the noise.

"Underbrush to the left; thirty feet up the drive." His voice a bare whisper, Harry began moving silently up the slope. "Stay here and cover me."

Ginny nodded as Harry Disillusioned himself and moved cautiously but swiftly up around a bend. In the dim illumination of their porch-light, Harry spied two twitching legs sticking out of the underbrush. He cast an immobilization spell on the body as a precaution and moved in quickly for inspection. "Remus?!" Harry's eyes widened in astonishment as he dropped his Disillusionment charm.

Lupin's eyes flickered. "Harry!" he gasped. "Thank Merlin it'sh you! I spl-spl-splinched myshelf."

"What the??" Harry released the restraint to better examine his friend's battered body. His gaze lingered, concernedly, on a nasty dark stain on Lupin's lower right leg. "Remus, are there Death Eaters around? Were you attacked?"

Lupin chortled unevenly. "No e-eaties, but er, yesh, attacked. Att-attacked by Ogdens."

Harry swore out loud in a bewildered mix of relief and annoyance. "Ginny," Harry called out, no longer feeling any need for stealth. "It's Lupin — he splinched himself. Do you have any dittany with you?"

Frowning in puzzlement, Ginny withdrew her miniaturized storage trunk as she walked up. "Yes, I restocked everything on Boxing Day." She withdrew a small bottle. As Harry finished cutting away the lower part of Lupin's trouser leg, Ginny knelt beside their friend and studied the wound. "Thank Merlin it's below the knee. Two inches higher and he'd be hobbled for days." She applied a few drops at strategic points on the wound. "That will get the healing started, and we can re-treat it tomorrow morning. For now, let's get him to the house."

Several minutes later, Harry was lowering Lupin onto their chesterfield while Ginny went to get their guest room ready. Lupin's head lolled to the side, but his eyes opened partially, trying to focus. Harry pondered him for a moment then went to the pantry to retrieve some anti-depressant / anti-intoxicant potion he'd made some time ago. He poured the standard three ounce dose into a glass and returned to the living room. With his free hand, he grasped Lupin by his tremulous chin, straightened the man's head and tilted it back. He squeezed his friend's cheeks with thumb and index finger to pry the jaws apart a bit and administered an ounce. Lupin swallowed instinctively.

The effect was so instantaneous, it caught even Harry by surprise. Lupin's eyes sprang open and his body spasmed for an instant before relaxing again. "Heavens Harry!" Lupin exclaimed. "What a bloody wretch I am!"

Harry stared for a moment at the unexpectedly quick recovery, then shook himself. "What on Earth did you do to get into this mess, Remus? And where's Tonks?"

Lupin looked mortified. "Tonks? She must still be at Grimmauld Place I guess?" Uncertainty crept more profoundly into each subsequent word.

"If you're lucky, maybe she's still there, Remus! With you in this shape, you ought to be hoping she hasn't found someplace better to go. Don't you imagine she's had a wonderful New Years Eve celebration?" Harry's words had quite a bit more venom than he'd intended, so he took a deep breath. "Sorry. Can you tell me what happened?"

"One drink, Harry!" Lupin's face was plaintive and confused. "I poured one single drink before leaving for the Burrow. It was to..." He paused and winced painfully. "It was to honour Sirius..."

Harry looked down at a face whose every strained wrinkle seemed to beg forgiveness, if not necessarily understanding. With a hint of confusion on own his brow, Harry glanced down at the two ounces remaining in the glass of restorative draught and nodded to himself. The average Firewhisky bender would have required the whole dose to counteract, so Lupin's rapid response to the antidote corroborated the 'one drink' claim.

Harry looked away, exhaling slowly. "Pretty strange, wouldn't you say Remus? A single drink stringing you out like that?"

Lupin shrugged sheepishly. "Yes, it does sound foolish, doesn't it?"

Harry didn't reply. He frowned and then called out, "Gin', can you take care of Remus from this point and get him to bed? I should go to Grimmauld to see if I can find Tonks."

Ginny peeked back into the living room, giving Harry an inquiring glance. She gazed at Lupin, who was watching the pair alertly, but with misery lining his face. Ginny nodded. "Okay. Please be careful, Harry."

Harry gave her a half smile. "I will, thanks!" He stoppered his flask of potion and stepped back out into the winter night.

In the darkness, Ginny felt a gentle kiss on her cheek, and breathed the scent that was Harry. He settled into bed behind her.

"Is Tonks okay?" she asked, her voice cracking a bit from sleep.

Harry nodded. "She's all right I guess. She was upset and a bit confused, but it was late so we didn't talk much. I figured she wouldn't want to spend the night alone at Grimmauld, and I didn't know if she'd be ready to see Remus again here at breakfast, so I brought her to Dolwyddelan and left her with Andromeda."

Silently, Ginny reached for Harry's hand and squeezed it firmly. Harry leaned in and kissed her bare shoulder before settling back and sighing discontentedly. "None of this makes any sense..."

Ginny nodded. "Don't worry — we'll figure this out..." She paused to correct herself. "I mean, we'll help them figure this out. Everyone will be okay."

Harry kissed her neck and then settled himself into his pillow. Within a minute his breathing subsided to the slow rhythm of sleep.

Wondering whether her slip of words was pure misstatement, or whether it contained any ironic foreshadowing, Ginny stared off into the darkness for a while longer. Forcing her eyes closed, she eventually drifted off again... into a restless dream in which she and Harry were watching as a huge mechanical clock elaborately tolled off the final bells to midnight. At the stroke of twelve, a monstrous rook in a dark witch's robe burst through the upper window, croaking the word, 'Cuckoo! ' Then all of their friends pranced through a side door, raucously yelling 'Happy new year!' from behind grotesque masks.

With a smile that disguised his weariness, Harry accepted the tray of tea and crumpets from Kreacher. Determined to project a positive attitude, he whistled (a bit off-key) as he walked down the third floor corridor of the old manor, and tapped lightly on Room 12. "Room service!" he called out.

He heard some frantic rustling within the room, and something loud and clattery fell to the floor. A few curse words ensued... and then he was met by the face of Nymphadora Tonks. Her scowl vanished, replaced by the warm, grateful smile. "Wotcher Harry!" Her ebullience belied a pale, washed out complexion and plain dark brown hair. She noticed Harry's puzzled glance, paused for a moment to concentrate, and her tresses changed to a pleasing shade of mauve.

Harry grinned. "Does the lady care to take her morning tea in the library?"

"Only if it's with you, luv!" With a bounce in her step, Tonks grabbed he shawl, and the two of them wandered several doors down to enter a large room, where they blinked for a moment in the brilliant morning sun. Harry set the tray down on a large study table, and they took seats facing each other.

"Are you okay this morning?" Harry asked as he took a sip of tea.

Tonks nodded. "Yes, I think so. How's the Wolfie doing?"

Harry toyed with his spoon. "He wasn't up yet when I left. I assume he'll be fine though. He was already coming around last night before we put him to bed." He glanced up to meet her eye. "Tonks, do you have any idea how he could have gotten so messed up?"

"I'm not quite certain, to be honest." Tonks nibbled a crumpet thoughtfully. "We were getting ready to leave for the Burrow, and he hauled out that damn bottle again. Blimey Harry, he's been tugging that quart around with him all holiday season, talking about Sirius." She put the crumpet down and turned instead to the tea. "Supposedly it's the very last of Doggy's old liquor stash. Anyway, we're just about out the door and Remus gets misty-eyed and starts mumbling about New Years Eve with Sirius two years ago, and how we needed to drink to his health. I looked at the bottle and saw that it was down to the final couple of shots, so I said to Hell with it. I figured, okay, this is obviously important to him, and it's a holiday, so let's put to rest auld lang syne." She stared deeply into her cup and swirled it around pensively.

"So what happened?" Harry prodded gently.

Tonks frowned a long time before answering. "Well... we went bottoms up then everything immediately went all queer..." She paused again, struggling to find the right words. "My head scrambled, but I swear it couldn't have been any longer than ten... twenty seconds tops. I didn't even have time to fall down..."

Harry stared at her in bewilderment. "All that excitement on a single shot of Firewhisky?"

She nodded. "And the same amount completely bollixed Wolfie. When my head cleared, he was staggering about, yelling incoherently, looking at me like I was waving murtlap tentacles at him and then, er... well, things got messy..."

"Messy?" Harry cringed inadvertently.

Tonks blanched as she began her recollection. "He picked up one of the really ugly Black family vases and, next thing I know, I'm ducking my head just as this chunk of neoclassical plaster vomit goes whizzing past. I fired off a stupefy without even realizing it, but suddenly he's got his shield up — pretty bloody impressive for a staggering drunk — and the next second he's gone. Disapparated."

Harry ran a hand through his hair. "Wow!"

Tonks nodded, taking a sip of tea.

Harry sat back for a while and gazed thoughtfully at the wall of books. "Has anything else strange happened recently with Remus, other than this one seemingly psychotic episode and his strange fixation with the bottle?"

"I asked myself that," Tonks answered, "and I haven't been able to think of anything noteworthy."

Harry pursed his lips. "Do you still have the bottle itself or the glasses to test for poison or potion residue?"

"One step ahead of you guv." She smiled. "I was pretty confuddled by things last night, but I did think to sweep the broken bottle and the glasses into a magical containment box just in case."

"Great." Despite the note of relief in his tone, Harry frowned to himself. "There has to be some explanation. Remus would never do anything daft like that if he was anywhere near his right mind. We all know he can handle his liquor, so something else must have been messing with him. Anyway, I..."

Harry stopped and gazed over Tonk's shoulder toward a slight noise at the library door. Teri walked in, carrying several books. The girl glanced over, surprised to see the room occupied. "Mr. Harry!" she exclaimed, with an eagerness that Harry had never heard in her voice before. "I was really hoping to talk to you! Would you be able to...?"

Tonks glanced over her shoulder at the girl, recognizing Teri from her questions at the law enforcement presentation Tonks had made in October. "Hey Kidders," she waved cheerfully. "How're you...? Doing??"

Teri had frozen abruptly at the sight of Tonks; the girl's eyes went wide in unexplained shock. Without warning or explanation, Teri dropped her books, turned and rushed from the room.

"Blimey Harry!" Tonks gasped, with a horrified expression on her face. "What's the bleeding problem with me?! Am I really such a scary munter?"

Baffled, Harry shook his head. "No, absolutely not!" he assured her with complete conviction. He and Tonks locked eyes; Harry reached across the table and took his friend's hand in a gesture of companionable consolation. As he projected warmth and empathy toward her, Harry found himself yet again analytically contemplating a woman for clues to a strange conundrum. Tonks, he knew, would never really be a 'top totty', but her cheerful energy, endearing honesty and kind face always emanated a pleasant, unassuming attractiveness that had completely sewn up Lupin's heart and made her a genial favourite with most of her acquaintances. She was brim full of courage; she had a fierce intensity that could certainly intimidate and often even terrorize dark criminals... but Harry was unable to imagine her ever inadvertently frightening anyone else.

Harry took a deep breath and cleared his mind. "Auror Tonks, there's something rotten in the state of Denmark."

She nodded in avid, wide-eyed agreement. "Yes, and maybe Britain too?" She smiled lamely.

Harry stood up, pulling the collar of his cloak closed. "I have some loose threads rattling that I need to tug at. I'd like to brainstorm with you more about this, but I don't want to distract you or send us barking up the wrong tree until I've done a little more thinking on my own first. Can you give me a few days to dig around and ponder a few questions?"

She nodded again. "Sure, Harry. In the mean time, I'll run diagnostics on the bottle and glass shards. Is there anything else you can think of that I should check into?"

Harry thought for a moment then shook his head. "I'm sure you're busy with work, Tonks. I don't want to go running off at the mouth, telling you what to do."

Tonks shook her head. "Harry, if I'm reading your eyebrows right, then I'm guessing that you think that what happened last night involved dark magic. If so, then last night was a dark magic attack on an Auror, if you get my drift? That constitutes an incident that the Auror Department is going to take very seriously. This is not a case of you distracting me from my work. Nah mate, this could very well become my work."

Frowning pensively, Harry nodded but said nothing.

"But listen..." Tonks squeezed his hand before draining her tea and standing up. "What I want more than anything is to put an end to this bloody nonsense. If Harry Potter is going to tell me that the best way to crank up the investigation is to give him a few days of peace to figure a few things out before any DMLE brouhaha begins, then, yeah, I reckon I'd listen to him."

Harry smiled. "Good — we've got a deal Tonks. I do promise to bring you up to speed and let you move this into official channels as soon as I see whether I can spot an easy pattern. I definitely don't want to shut..." Harry paused and stared his friend in the eye for a moment.

"What is it?" she asked.

Harry frowned. "Do you have any Occlumency skills, Tonks?"

Tonks shrugged self-consciously. "I took the standard Auror course, but I'm afraid I still kind of stink at it."

Harry nodded thoughtfully. "I think it may be time to try again."

Tonks gave her friend a calculating look and nodded slowly. Part of that nod involved a tacit willingness to take Harry's suggestion without question, but another part came from a small glimmer of understanding that was beginning to tickle the back of her mind.

As Harry walked up the drive at Magpie Lane, he spotted a familiar mane of red hair, gleaming in the bright winter-morning sun. Wrapped in an old Weasley Christmas jumper and a thick royal blue scarf, Ginny was making her way around the outside of the house, casting the usual array of basic weatherproofing wards. Harry breathed a deep, bittersweet sigh. Part of him was happy because that was the way he always felt whenever he saw Ginny, yet another part was wistful because the spells she was casting reminded him that, once again, they were about to pull up stakes and head north for another school term.

He rustled his way through some dead leaves as he approached, drawing her attention. She turned and smiled warmly. He grinned at the sight of her rosy cheeks and the little puffs of her breath drifting off into the cold air.

"G'morning beautiful!" he said casually as he pulled her sideways into a half-hug. "Is Remus already up and away?"

"Yes he is." She nodded, her hair tickling his cheek. "I hung onto him long enough to feed him a good breakfast, but he was in a solemn mood. I expect he's gone off to find some solitude for a while. I'm sorry — I know you wanted to talk to him a bit about the Hogwarts paperwork."

Harry shrugged. "I doubt this morning would have been a great time for that anyway. I'll track him down this evening at the castle."

"The castle..." Ginny sighed.

Harry smiled wistfully at her. "You feel the same way as I do, don't you?"

Ginny nodded. "Yes. This is our home now, Harry! I hate to keep leaving it."

"We're not going to keep leaving it for much longer." Harry pulled back with a small smile. "Come June, I'm resigning from Hogwarts."

"Are you sure?" she asked, biting her lower lip uncertainly.

He nodded. "I think so. Have you ever noticed how none of the Hogwarts faculty are paired up? It's a terrible place for any couple to be, especially a young couple. Accommodations are lousy; there's minimal privacy, ridiculous schedules, and most meals are shared with hundreds of students." He squeezed Ginny's shoulder, pulling her closer. "Besides, the things that I teach have fallen way down on the school priority list now that the war is over. There's no way the school can continue to support two DADA positions, and I'm worried that if I push McGonagall to sustain my faculty line, she might have to squeeze Caldwell out. So..." he grinned broadly, gazing at their pretty little house. "I'd ay my dear fiancée and I should start dreaming up our next great life adventure, don't you think?"

The kiss on his cheek was all the answer he needed.

"Come on," he said, "I'll help you with the wards and then we can finish packing."

For a while they worked in silence, each choosing alternating vertical strips of the exterior to bolster, and leap-frogging their way around the house. Standing side by side in a patch of sunshine on the southwest corner of the house, though, Ginny decided to speak her mind. "It's a good point you made about Hogwarts being a difficult place for young couples, Harry. So what do you think about Remus starting up there, though?"

Harry sighed. "That thought had obviously occurred to me. But it might be the least of his worries right now."

Ginny nodded somberly. "I thought you might say that. As I mentioned, he wasn't in the mood to talk much this morning so I'm still in the dark about what happened last night. Did you make any headway with Tonks?"

"Perhaps." Harry nodded tepidly. "What she described doesn't make much sense. Basically things were going along okay... not great perhaps, but no major complaints... then suddenly, inexplicably the situation went utterly haywire."

"Kind of like the incident with Ron?" Ginny suggested.

"Yes, a similar level of sudden irrationality as with Ron." Harry ran a hand through his hair. "Without warning, Remus seems to have gone berserk with fear, and started throwing things at Tonks. Despite his panic and delirium, he managed to Disapparate before she could subdue him. It all seemingly happened right after he and Tonks both took a shot of Firewhisky; Tonks said that a single shot threw her into momentary confusion too, so she's going to have DMLE Magical Diagnostics and Forensics run some poison, potion and charm scans on the remnants of the bottle and glass."

"Wow — how patently bizarre!" Ginny chewed her lip. "But Firewhisky, Harry? Do you suppose there's any parallel with Ted Nott?"

Harry stared at her. "I hadn't thought of that."

"No, it's not an obvious connection," Ginny continued. "With Nott, the natural assumption, even for us, was that he's erratic and disturbed because of what he's been through the past while. But once you see someone rock-solid like Remus get hit by something strange and unknown, you have to ask whether it's part of a trend and wonder whether anyone else has experienced something similar."

"That's an excellent thought, Gin'." Harry began to pace. "When I spoke to Nott before Christmas, I was so set in my mind on letting him know that I forgave him. It never even occurred to me to consider the possibility that I might be forgiving him for something that wasn't even his fault. Maybe I should ask him a few delicate questions about what he really experienced that night."

"But it would leave Ron out of the common thread if we focus on the Firewhisky business though," Ginny admitted as she tucked a loose lock of hair behind her ear. "He hadn't gone any where near a drink before coming to Dolwyddelan."

"That's true." Harry stopped and gazed absently off into the trees. "But I still like that we're thinking a bit more creatively now. Suppose Nott's and Remus's cases are related, but maybe in some other way? Suppose Firewhisky is not the common link?"

"Ah!" Ginny mused. "So what could be some other possible common threads? And can we think of something that ties in Ron too?"

"Maybe something to do with weakness or distraction, or..." Harry paused in deliberation, "Or maybe some seed of irrationality that the magic could somehow seek out and amplify?" He began strolling around the property line, with Ginny following.

Pausing to banish a fallen branch, Harry straightened up and nodded to himself. "I think one can argue easily enough that Ron's frustration was making him behave irrationally. Ted Nott was quite drunk, which of course wouldn't lend itself to sound judgment. Remus can't have been too inebriated, but this holiday season seems to have been unusually difficult for him. I would have thought that the job offer from McGonagall and the engagement to Tonks should have him sky high but he's often drifting off toward some unresolved anxieties... residual sadness from the war; some regret over Sirius, I suppose."

Ginny nodded. "That could be. It seems very subtle and unsensational though — you're basically claiming that maybe there's some magic afoot that is messing with people who are prone to being messed with. I get the feeling that more than half the Auror Department would call that theory completely dotty?"

"Yes," Harry admitted, "but I'm still going with it because you might even be able to use the premise to extend to the eerie and unsettling experiences that Tonks and I had. "

"True." Unconsciously, Ginny took his hand. "You did say that Tonks felt momentarily disoriented around the time that Remus lost it, and you yourself felt strange just before Ron went kamikaze?"

Harry nodded. "We both noticed something strange, but perhaps we either weren't as distracted as Remus or Ron, or else we unconsciously blocked it. Whatever it is.

"So, when you were speaking to Tonks this morning, was she able to give you any other interesting details that you might be able to mine for correlations?" Ginny inquired.

"No, she didn't really say anything else about the incident, but..."

"But?" Ginny pursued.

"Well something happened while we were talking." Harry ran his hand through his hair again. Unable to concentrate on the warding spells, he tucked his wand back in his cloak and faced Ginny. "It was strange... and I don't think it's going to make it any easier to anchor any correlations."

Ginny shrugged. "Well, let's try anyway."

"Okay, Tonks and I were in the library; she had finished her recap of last night's misadventure and we were about to wrap up the conversation when Teri walked in and..."

"Oh dear..." Ginny groaned.

"Yes... oh dear..." Harry sighed. "Teri came in wanting to talk to me but when she noticed Tonks in there. Tonks gave her a friendly greeting, but it was like someone dumped a bucket of ice down the girl's back. Teri raced out of there like Tonks was a Lethifold or something. Before leaving the house I knocked on Teri's bedroom door to see if she was okay, but nobody answered."

"Teri got spooked seeing Tonks??" Ginny raised an incredulous eyebrow.

"Yes, it's pretty hard to figure why." Harry thrust his hands in his cloak pockets. "After Remus going bonkers on her last night, poor Tonks was on the verge of getting a complex; like she's some kind of snake-bit jinx."

"So, let me get this straight," Ginny began pacing a slow loop around Harry. "Teri rattles you, then drives Ron around the bend, but is petrified of Tonks who loves yet frightens Remus?"

Harry gave her a bewildered smirk.

Ginny frowned grimly. "Do you get the feeling that somebody with a really sick sense of humour is getting vicious, dangerous giggles out of all of this, and until we figure out the punch-line, the giggling is going to get nastier?"

"Yes," Harry agreed.

Raising her wand to cast another ward spell, Ginny shook her head in irritation. "Any idea what we do next?"

"Well, we need to start thinking about whether it's possible the problems might be arising from some variant of a confundus spell. Would you be willing to start thrashing your way through the library back at the castle tomorrow?"

Ginny nodded.

"Beyond that, I should see if Nott is willing to talk to me about his unpleasant experiences, and..." Harry trailed off on a note distinctly lacking enthusiasm.

"And?" Ginny prompted after a moment.

"I've put this off as long as I could." Harry shrugged unhappily. "But I think it's time to pay a visit to somebody who has a reputation for being, er... very annoying."


Back to index


Chapter 4: Tears in the Dark

Author's Notes:

Dear readers, here's an update. I will unabashedly admit that the unexpected trinket nomination and award (thank you all!!) served as rather ample motivation to produce another chapter for you, and hopefully get back in the saddle. Hope you enjoy!

Sharp readers (of whom I seem to get a great number) may note, if you refer to prior chapters, that I've corrected Summerby's house affiliation. In canon it's Hufflepuff, which has the benefit of giving the Flying Circus a nice balance, with representation from all four Hogwarts houses. It may not make a huge difference to everyone, but it's always fun when a canon-correction helps give the story a better shape.


Chapter 4. Tears in the Dark (Jan. 2-3, 1998)

"Are you out of your bleeding coconut tree, Potter?!" Pansy Parkinson demanded indelicately as she barged into Harry's office brandishing a scroll.

Harry looked up from his lesson plan and blinked. "Er yes, I assume so." He pushed aside the plate left from his working lunch and cocked an eyebrow at the seventh year. "Otherwise, I'm sure you'd never have felt the need to ask."

Standing just inside the office door, Pansy smirked and beckoned to him with a long, sharp, slightly dangerous-looking index finger.

Harry blinked again, twice, before he understood that she was serious. With all due awkwardness, he rose from his desk and approached the Slytherin girl who was now standing with her arms wide open. They embraced. What would have been absolutely unthinkable a few months ago was now merely... uncomfortable... a bit morbidly amusing, perhaps.

"Happy new year, pathetic Gryffindork," she declared in a rare display of Parkinsonian affection.

"Is that any way to speak to your associate head-of-house?" Harry asked, smirking a bit as he gently attempted to extricate himself.

"I'm no simpering Daphne Greengrass." She pushed him away and smoothed the arms of her cloak. "As senior prefect, I feel the arduous responsibility of trying to keep your chronically swollen ego from bloating beyond galactic proportions."

"Much obliged." Harry rolled his eyes as he took his seat and gestured Pansy toward one of the unoccupied chairs. "So you're in here consuming my oxygen for a reason? I believe it had something to do with my questionable sanity?"

Pansy grinned. "Right!" She flicked her scroll demonstratively in the air again. "What the Hell possessed you to make an appointment with my dear, sweet and utterly discreet mother?"

"Ah." Harry nodded comprehendingly. "I need information?"

"About what?"

Harry sat back, folding his hands. "Er, I'm afraid that needs to remain kind of... private."

Pansy burst into riotous laughter. "Harry," she said pityingly as she recovered her equilibrium, "have you ever stopped to appreciate the irony of planning a conversation with my mother on some topic you consider to be too private to share with me?"

Harry stared at her unblinkingly. The girl had a point.

"So here's the thing..." Pansy swept her wand out to slam the office door shut, "I really sincerely appreciate what you did for Ted over Christmas break and, frankly, I owed you a little even before that. I also know that when Harry ' Save-The-Bloody-World -Every-Morning-Before-Breakfast -And-Twice-On-Tuesdays' Potter is trying to keep a secret, he probably has some legitimate reason for doing so. If you bring me along, I might be able to keep Mum in line for you. If you don't have anyone in that room sticking up for you, you're better off just blabbing the whole thing to Rita Skeeter."

"Better off...??" Harry mused incredulously.

"Better off!" Pansy snapped, leaning in over Harry's desk. "Everyone who reads Skeeter knows that every second sentence is a lie. By contrast, everyone who pays for dirt from my Mum knows that she stakes her reputation on being as unpleasantly and unconscionably accurate as possible."

"Okay." Harry nodded very slowly. "And in exchange for your protection services...?"

"In exchange for my services, we'll call ourselves even. No wizarding debts."

Harry pushed back from his desk and gazed at his bookshelf. Pansy also sat back, casually twiddling her wand. After a moment's silence, she abruptly stood up and tossed the scroll on Harry's desk. "If you want me to go, you'll need to sign this special 'student travel dispensation' form. Think about it, Potter," she said as she moved to the door. "Go consult your copper-top conscience. I'll loiter around the Entrance Hall for a while this afternoon, shortly before 3:00 p.m. If I don't see you, then you're accountable for your own fate."

Pansy whipped the office door open with a flick of her wand and strode through it without looking back.

Harry tapped the arm of his chair thoughtfully for a moment, nodded, then went back to work.

"So is my copper-top conscience all set to go?" Harry stood by the door of their chambers holding up their traveling cloaks.

"You are swimming very very dangerous, shark-infested waters with language like that, Harry James Potter." With a predatorial gleam in her eyes, Ginny accepted her cloak. "Yes, I'm ready."

"Great!" Harry proclaimed, "I was... eihhhooo!!" he twitched spasmodically as a split second of the Rictumsempra tickling jinx raced up and down his rib cage.

"I didn't say exactly what I was ready for." Ginny offered a peppery smile.

"Fair enough!" Harry kissed the tip of her nose. "Let's go find the lady Parkinson. The younger, arguably less evil one, that is."

They hurried along the corridor and down the grand staircase where, on reaching the second floor landing, they did indeed see Pansy. She glanced up quickly to establish eye contact. Without waiting for them, she turned and strode directly out the front door. By the time they reached the front steps, they could just make out her form disappearing through the misty gloom near the main gate.

"The girl's picked up some subterfuge habits," Ginny noted.

Harry nodded. "I'm not certain if that's for her benefit or for ours, but it can't hurt."

"Yes, I'm wondering..." Ginny's statement hung for a long thoughtful moment as they hurried through the mist. "I'm wondering if some of the darker elements in society are starting to hedge their bets a bit again? Just in case Lestrange is able to rise to a Riddle level of menace?"

"It's quite possible." Harry stopped to point out Pansy's retreating form. "But with no Fudge or Dumbledore gumming up the works this time, just maybe we'll nip it in the bud regardless, right?"

"Right!" Ginny agreed.

As they hurried along through the fog, Harry couldn't help but think that for all the golden peace they'd experienced this autumn, there was actually something quite fun about rushing back into mysterious circumstances with Ginny at his side.

They were a third of the way to Hogsmeade and were worried that they might have actually lost Pansy in the heavy mist when suddenly they heard a loud "Pssstt!" emanate from behind their favorite Apparition tree. They swung quickly off of the right and found Pansy waiting for them, dripping slightly in the drizzle. She looked at the two of them curiously for a moment. "I know where we're going — did you want to side-along Apparate?"

Harry nodded. "Sure, that's fine with me."

Pansy glanced at the pair. "So which of you two will want to go first then?"

"All three of us can go at the same time," Harry suggested. "If you're holding my hand, I can feed enough power to you to make sure all three of us are pulled along."

"Seriously?" Pansy gave him an incredulous look, then shrugged. "Well, if you say so..."

Harry and Ginny each grabbed one of her hands and, with barely a lurch or a whisper, they found themselves standing along a gravel path in a well tended coppice, with filtered sunlight sparkling through the branches. Pansy gaped at the sudden arrival. "Oi Potter — that was smooth!"

"Only way to travel, huh?" Ginny said with a grin. She looked around and spotted a body of water downhill to the northwest. "Where exactly are we?"

"Cornwall." Pansy began moving efficiently up the path. "This is Polgerran Wood to be precise; that's the river Fal down there."

"Cornwall..." Ginny mused, breathing the fresh, almost spring-like air. "That would explain the nice January day, yeah?"

"Oh, we get our fair share of slop too, so don't go buying up neighboring lots," Pansy grumbled.

"Tsk tsk. You'd love us as neighbours." Ginny winked at the older girl. "You and I could go for morning runs down by the coast then mill about on lazy afternoons, sip Sangria in the shade while our children play together in their tree house, and Harry cooks chunks of meat on that smokey, burny thing that Muggles use."

"Will you shut up before I vomit, Weasley?" Pansy requested through clenched teeth. "We're almost there. Try to be surly and condescending — you'll get better treatment that way."

Near the top of the Hill, they emerged onto a well manicured lawn that was still fairly green, as testifies to the mild climate. The gardens had died back but Harry could tell that they would likely be quite scenic by March. The house itself was stately, a bit smaller than Dolwyddelan, but far better maintained. Harry noted that it was much less ostentatious than the Malfoy summer estate, which stood to reason — the Parkinson's held a respectable (if deeply greyish) position in the pureblood hierarchy but (at least until the very recent Malfoy implosion) had not played politics with the same level of aggressive skill as Lucius and his father before him.

Following two steps behind Pansy, Harry furtively brushed Ginny's hand — an unspoken reminder for her to have her Occlumency shields at full strength. Pansy had not provided any information on the sort of information gathering techniques her mother was likely to employ, but Harry strongly suspected Rose Parkinson of being a Legilimens. Harry assumed she was probably a fairly accomplished one, but almost certainly not skilled enough to compromise either his or Ginny's defences. If the woman attempted other ploys then that would presumably be Pansy's responsibility to detect and counteract.

The moment Pansy set foot on the lowest step below the entranceway, the front door opened wide to reveal two ancient house elves (one male, one female) in immaculate blue-white striped dish towels. "Good afternoon, Miss Pansy!" they chimed in their hoarse voices. "Greetings esteemed Potter and gracious Weasley!"

"Where's Mum?" Pansy demanded brusquely, ignoring startled expressions that the two elves had acquired after Harry and Ginny smiled at them.

"In the arboretum, Miss Pansy!" the female squawked distractedly as the male rushed around to magically take everyone's cloaks. "Tea is awaiting you all. I will lead the way immediately!"

"Thank you." Harry smiled off-handedly, his tact again catching the elves off-guard, and earning a glare of rebuke from Pansy.

"Surly and condescending!" she hissed under her breath.

Pansy's mother had her back turned as they entered the arboretum. The room, unsurprisingly, was filled with numerous varieties of roses, and she was admiring some of the large, burgundy specimens near the south window.

The house elves gestured toward a glass table set elegantly for three but, following Pansy's example, Harry and Ginny remained standing at the entrance. After the older lady flitted obliviously past a few more flowers, she casually removed her gloves, threw them aside where they were scooped by one of the elves, and turned to face her visitors. "Well met Mr. Potter and Miss Weasley, Would you be so kind as to join me in tea?"

Rose's expression, a plastic smile, faltered for a moment as she noticed Pansy. "I see that for some reason you are accompanied by my darling daughter who has apparently managed to arrange a bit of time away from that most enlightened school up north. I assume, seeing that's she's helpfully accompanied you to your destination, that she will bid us all farewell. Now, perhaps?" Rose raised a pointed eyebrow toward her daughter.

Startling Pansy by placing a hand on her forearm, Harry shook his head. "On the contrary, we were very much hoping that she could stay. Pansy, Ginny and I have been very eager to catch up with each other after the break." Sealing his lie with a casual smile, he took a seat. "I persuaded her to come along so that the three of us could share some of her childhood memories in this charming place of yours."

Pansy gaped at Harry's audacity. Attempting to bluff her mother like that was the surest route to completely queering the whole deal before they even got started.

For her part, Rose blinked in momentary surprise. She scrutinized her guests for a moment, but neither Harry (withdrawing a parchment and quill from his jacket pocket) nor Ginny (absent-mindedly wandering among the roses, sniffing the occasional bloom) paid her suspicion the slightest concern. The skin on the back of Harry's neck prickled momentarily as the expected Legilimency probe came and went without the slightest trace of success.

Slightly disconcerted, but obviously still capable of facade, the matron smiled. "But of course you three would be close after the adventures you've been through together. I trust..." Rose glared furtively at Pansy, who was doing her best to stifle utter bafflement at her mother's accommodating attitude. "I trust that Pansy will not interfere with our discussion."

"On the contrary," Harry replied as he scribbled something or other on his parchment, "I expect that Pansy would be a most welcome addition."

"I suppose she may." Rose glowered with ill-disguised dubiety; paying no heed as the female house elf quickly set a fourth place at the table. "So your note indicated that you desired an audience for the purposes of some research?"

"Quite so," Harry said, looking up from his parchment. He retrieved a small photograph from his pocket and handed it to Rose. "Do you know anything of the family and lineage of this girl?"

Rose glanced at the photograph. Harry detected the slightest flicker of intrigue, but the woman projected an air of passive disinterest as she handed the picture back. "I know a bit and suspect some more," she answered. "What's your interest in the child?"

"She's a current resident at our home for children and families displaced by the recent conflict." Harry put the photo into a folder which he shrunk and placed into his short pocket. "Theodore Nott Sr. had been her guardian prior to his arrest, but beyond that we have no record of next-of-kin. British wizarding law requires that anyone serving as personal or institutional guardian of a child must attempt with due diligence to maintain some record of the child's blood kinship."

"And what are you offering in return for such knowledge?" Rose inquired blandly as she sipped her tea.

Returning his attention to his note taking, Harry made a dismissive hand gesture. "We can pay you well."

"Oh, I imagine you can, Mr. Potter." Rose sniffed. "But we are not Malfoys in the constant pursuit of Galleons. I was hoping you might propose something a little more... intellectually stimulating." The matron reached for a bowl of artfully sculpted florettes of coloured sugar and pushed them suggestively toward Harry.

Pansy's hand darted out and seized the bowl. "Harry is on a diet, Mother!" she snapped as she stood and carried the bowl over to a tray near the door. "He's not here to be fattened up like a Christmas goose."

Rose scowled for a moment then turned her gaze more neutrally back to Harry, quickly appraising his trim and well sculpted physique. "Please pardon my over-zealous daughter. As a little girl, she was once versed in tact. There are times, even now, when she's capable of being vaguely tolerable."

Making a mental note to later ask Pansy about the sugar, Harry took a sip of tea without comment (or sweetener), then met the witch's intense gaze. "You desire information, Mrs. Parkinson? Like the fact that my favourite food is treacle tart? That I have a certain affinity for auburn hair when it gleams in the sunlight? Or in the moonlight for that matter?" He paused to reflect for a moment. "It's also been known to stir my soul in the grey Highland mists..."

Harry smirked slightly at the sound of a distinctly red-headed snort emanating from behind a lush specimen of Gallicanae.

Rose laughed too, albeit with obvious scorn. She stood and walked over to a small shelf by the entrance on which several books and scrolls were piled. Most of the material, as Harry had noticed earlier, was related to gardening, but the woman pulled from the stack a glossy, hardcover book. "I am not interested in any drivel that might be propagated in useless publications such as this," she informed him, as she slid the book carelessly across the glass table toward Harry, who recoiled in disdain.

Emblazoned on the cover of the greyish book in lime green lettering were the words:

He Lived to be Chosen:

An Unauthorised Account of the Facts and Mysteries of Harry James Potter

by Rita Skeeter

Not deigning to touch it, Harry draped a napkin over the scowling picture of himself and magically nudged the book to the far corner of the table. "I appreciate your discriminating sensibilities, Mrs. Parkinson." With no trace of amusement in his face, he turned back to Rose. "Without having ever so much as laid eyes on this book before, I'll boldly predict that even within the portion of the text that is not completely spurious, there is nothing of practical interest. Nobody I consider to be a friend ever assented to an interview for the book, and I keep many aspects of my live rather private for reasons of my own concern." Harry finished his cup of tea and paused to pour himself another (drawing a gasp and sad keening sound from one of the house elves who had hoped to pour it for him) before continuing. "So, I think we both know the sort of misinformation that Skeeter traffics in, and the misuse to which she puts it. I'd be curious to know what types of knowledge you seek, and what might be done with that... power?"

Rose returned the sharp smile of someone who, despite having had to shelve her Legilimency, was beginning to enjoy aspects of this sparring negotiation. "I have already acquired a few tidbits that I will enter into your account balance," she indicated with a sly smile. "Chief of which is that your reticent public demeanour is not indicative of congenital shyness, but rather from a combination of prudence, paranoia and a rogue's disrespect for the common press. You are rather skilled, it seems, at hiding facts that could prove awkward to you or your friends, and are even better at weaving subtle smoke screens."

Overhearing the analysis, Ginny's hackles went up. All throughout her seemingly distracted floral browsing, she had been paying extremely close attention to the elder Parkinson's every word and intonation — a useful aural complement to Harry's visual record should they feel the need to revisit this meeting later in their pensieve. After hearing the woman strike disconcertingly close to home, Ginny decided to shift tactics. It was time to move beyond simply observation, forget using subtle evasions and distractions around their unplasantly perceptive host, and try something a bit flashier. Ginny removed her thick beige jumper to reveal a form-fitting, sky-blue silk chemise. She loosened her hair and added a subtle scent charm. Aggressive alluring women, she knew all too well, were often even more distracting (and threatening) to other females than they were to men.

Emerging from behind a row of Chinensis, she drifted across the room in her best Fleur Delacour imitation and swept into her seat with a glistening smile. In what she knew full well to be an appalling breach of etiquette, she reached over and grasped Rose's hand. "Don't worry dear," she said in a condescending tone that made Pansy's eyes pop. "Yes, we're looking for information from you, and no, we will not offer you a whole lot of delectable intelligence before we leave here today, but I promise you that we'll definitely make this visit very much worth your while."

Rose stared for a moment at the hand that had enclosed her own, gaped at the opulent Potter family engagement ring that sparkled in the filtered afternoon sunlight, and tried very hard to not look at the shimmering chemise that made her own lace shawl seem so... matronly. "Er, yes? Such as?" She awkwardly freed her self-conscious hand to reach for some tea that would hopefully loosen her suddenly constricted throat.

Hiding behind his own raised teacup, Harry gazed at the two females with an arched brow. Ginny was completely on her own here, and Harry wasn't even trying to speculate as to her plan. Rather, he was quite content to sit back and watch what likely promised to be rather entertaining improvisation.

"Because you've proven discerning enough to disregard such unauthourised filth..." Ginny gestured at the napkin beneath which lurked the Skeeter book. "... We are prepared to offer you exclusive and unfettered access to all drafts and notes pertaining to the authourised Harry Potter biography."

Rose choked into her tea. Pansy stared in disbelief.

"Beginning twelve months prior to the book's scheduled date of release," Ginny concluded.

"Bogward!" Rose glanced toward the door, through which the old male house elf scurried. "Please prepare a contract capturing Ms. Weasley's stipulation," she instructed hastily, as if the offer might suddenly disappear. She turned to Harry. "In return, I will offer you the extent of my knowledge regarding the child you inquired about, correct?"

Expressionlessly, Harry met Rose's gaze and nodded. The house elf immediately bowed low and scurried out of the room. Ginny sat back, and re-engaged her left hand, this time to absent-mindedly stroke Harry's forearm.

Ignoring the subtle display of distracting affection, Rose got to her feet and began pacing. "The girl goes by Teri Nott, but her real name is Asteria Lestrange," the woman stated, immediately capturing the room's attention. "Her first name is from ancient Greek magical heritage; a tribute to the Titan Asteria — oracle of the night; weaver of prophetic dreams and guarantor of astrological outcomes. Her last name almost certainly derives from her long-time guardian, Roland Lestrange."

Harry' brow arched. "Who?"

"Roland Lestrange," Rose repeated, clearly emphasizing a silent 'd' French pronunciation for the first name, and the long drawn 'aww' syllable in the last name. "Close school friend of He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named; inaugural death eater; father of Rastaban and Rodolphus."

"The he likely would have started Hogwarts in the late 1930's." Harry did a quick calculation on his parchment. "So that would put him in his late sixties or early seventies?"

"Yes," Rose confirmed, "he would have been seventy three now if he was still alive, but he was murdered nearly two years ago, several days after the mass Azkaban breakout. That is when Asteria's custody was transferred to Theodore Nott."

"Transferred to Nott, rather than to Rastaban or Rodolphus?" Harry inquired. "Or Bellatrix, for that matter?"

Rose shrugged. "None of those three you mentioned ever had much use for children. I'm sure you'll find that rather shocking to hear," she added with a tight-lipped smile.

"Roland Lestrange himself wasn't in Azkaban?" Ginny asked.

Rose shook her head. "No, he never committed any crime that was prosecuted or proven. Make no mistake, Ms. Weasley — he was as black as they come and was considered by some to be a greater dark arts genius than He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named, though only in a theoretical sense. He never demonstrated the sheer magical prowess of the Dark Lord, but he did know secrets that no sane human being could ever know."

"No sane human being...?" Harry frowned.

"Precisely the point," Rose interjected. "He spent much of his sixth year in school buried in some of the most abhorrent old tomes that few others would touch. By his seventh year, he was exhibiting such psychosis that Headmaster Dippet was forced to expel him from Hogwarts. The school greatly tightened security on what we call the Restricted Section' and removed the worst books, but by then the damage was done. Within that library, the Dark Lord seeming much knowledge that he would use in his campaigns, and Lestrange lost his capacity to function in normal society. He disappeared from Britain for decades, and wasn't known to have participated in the Wizarding Wars."

"Someone that insane became a little girl's guardian?" Harry inquired. "Do you have any idea why?"

"We're straying from what I know, Mr. Potter." Rose stopped pacing. "It could damage my professional reputation to engage in mere speculation."

"One hundred galleons per speculative answer, and we promise not to tell anyone if you're proven wrong?" Harry proposed.

"Associate head of Slytherin house, eh?" Rose smiled wryly. "Bogward, please record Mr. Potter's offer as an addendum to the contract and tally the number of questions answered."

The house elf reappeared with quill and parchment in hand. He rapidly completed several scrawls and circulated the contract for signatures. Harry and Ginny scanned it visually and magically to ensure that it was no more and no less than expected, then signed to certify the document.

Meanwhile, the Parkinson matron had resumed pacing. "The most likely scenario would be that Roland was the girl's legal grandfather."

"Via Rodolphus and Bellatrix?" Harry asked. "Despite the fact that both were supposedly in Azkaban prior to, during, and well after the girl's conception?"

Rose shook her head. "No, Rodolphus was not the girl's father. Neither of Roland's sons had the... equipment... necessary for procreation."

Harry shuddered and resolved that it was not worth paying one hundred galleons for elaboration on that point. He did, however, have a more critical question. "If I understand Wizarding law correctly in the matter of witches becoming legally bound to their family of marriage, I would conclude that Roland would be Teri's legal grandfather if she was considered to be Bellatrix's daughter." He sat back and gazed diffusely toward the some of the deepest crimson flours. "This would be true regardless of whether or not the girl was legitimate?"

"Confirmed." Rose nodded. "I have no proof, but the whispered conclusion from my sources was that Asteria was indeed Bellatrix Lestrange's illegitimate daughter. As far as your earlier query about conception in Azkaban, I have no speculation worth offering, except to say that stranger things have been known to happen."

"One final question," Harry announced.

"Yes?" Rose responded, turning expectantly to face him.

"Can you offer your thoughts on the identity of the biological father?"

"I can, yes," she replied without showing any interest in elaborating.

"Let me be more explicit," Harry stated with a slight note of impatience in his voice. "Please do offer your thoughts on the identity of the biological father."

"I have three speculations, for a total charge of 300 Galleons," the woman offered.

Harry rolled his eyes. "Fair enough. Please proceed."

"The first possibility," Rose began, "is that Roland himself somehow found a way to couple with his incarcerated daughter-in-law, in which case the girl was both his legal grand-daughter and his own illegitimate daughter."

"Charming." Ginny cringed.

"Arguing for the first prospect is the fact that Roland would have been one of very few people with the legal capacity to visit Bellatrix in Azkaban at the time of conception. As Bellatrix's step-father and as a wizard without a criminal record, he could have successfully petitioned for a visit. Perhaps he may have had some bizarre or twisted reason for arranging or forcing an illegitimate union. The counter-argument, however, is that the girl's magical signature bears little resemblance to Roland's."

Harry nodded grimly while Ginny sat quietly; a frown on her somewhat pallid face.

"The second prospect is based on what is known of the girl's precocious and rather unusual magical profile," Rose's tone dropped to little more than a whisper. She turned obliquely, and Harry and Ginny had to strain to hear her words. "I have no proof whatsoever, but some strange form of dark magic might have been employed to establish an offspring between Bellatrix and... He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named."

"Eugh," Harry gasped. "After hearing that, I'm not certain I want to know the third option."

"You're already contractually obliged to pay for it," Rose reminded him.

"Yes, that's true." Harry straightened in his chair; marshaling his features. "So, who is it then?"

"Based on physical similarities, and the conjunction of rare magical abilities as determined by magical profiling performed by myself and several other people whom I shall not name, and disregarding inconvenient discrepancies such as relative ages of parent and child, I would propose..." The woman paused, gazing expressionlessly toward an open window.

"Yes?" Ginny prompted.

Rose Parkinson slowly turned to face Harry. "I would propose that a strong candidate for paternity," she said, fixing his gaze, "is sitting right in front of me."

Ginny studied Harry carefully through supper as he negotiated the Interhouse Table banter with his usual soft-spoken humour. He contributed thoughtfully to both sides of a lively debate between Neville Longbottom and Ryan Jenkins regarding the viability of relaxing the Statute of Secrecy. Ryan had argued quite persuasively that Muggle science might soon prove capable of characterizing and understanding the underlying basis for magic, which could then eventually reduce the Muggles' instinctive fear of what was no longer an unknown. Neville, with vast knowledge of Wizarding history, hierarchy and attitudes, but very little grasp of Muggle technology or psychology, eventually left the table unconvinced, but Harry had clearly enjoyed listening to both viewpoints. He also congenially bridged over into the side conversation by Ryan's and Neville's two Hufflepuff girlfriends, Jennifer King and Hannah Abbott respectively, who were chatting light-heartedly about the recent holiday break, content to leave philosophical debates to their opinionated mates.

Despite their earlier reticence about returning to Hogwarts, Harry and Ginny were both happy enough to be back. They found the steady supply of good friends and interesting diversions to be stimulating, and Ginny was particularly glad for some good engaging interactions to keep Harry's mind occupied after Rose Parkinson's shocking intimations. The issue did need to be dealt with, however, so as Harry and Ginny wound their way up the various staircases toward their sixth floor quarters, she captured his hand and leaned into him, asking, "Are you doing okay?"

Harry shrugged. "I guess so, but wow — I pity Teri not having a better pick of possible parents!"

"Tell me about it, yeah?" Ginny laughed slightly, squeezing his arm, but then went quite sombre and thoughtful. "Well, the fact is that strange things do sometimes do happen in the magical world, Harry. Things happen that are stranger than nearly any witch or wizard would ever like to imagine — especially circumstances that revolve around an insane magical genius."

Harry shook his head. "I don't think Roland Lestrange is Teri's father."

Ginny nodded. "Neither do I, but that's not what I meant. Lestrange may not have been her father, but it occurred to me that, somehow in his warped brain, he might have decided he wanted a powerful grandchild."

"Powerful?" Harry paused mid-step and stared at her. "As in 'Riddle' powerful, or 'Potter' powerful? I mean we're both logically impossible choices, but..."

Ginny shrugged. "Actually, she does look a bit like that cute little boy I met all those years ago at Kings Cross."

Harry continued to stare for an indeterminate time, then finally shook his head. "Yes, well Lady Parkinson did say this was all just speculation. There are a number of things that might point to Teri being Bellatrix's daughter, but for all we know she's just the orphaned child of some French wizard and witch we've never heard of." He continued making his way up the stairs. "As far as whether or not Teri resembles me physically or magically, perhaps, but when she was conceived I was an eight year old boy living in a Muggle home — hardly what one would call a natural mate for a psychotic pureblood witch incarcerated in one of the most impenetrable Wizarding prisons in the world."

Ginny nodded silently as she walked at his side.

Harry ran his fingers through his hair. "I do hope the girl isn't Riddle's daughter, though. Not because I'm worried she's inherited any evil instincts, because she hasn't, but it would be a very difficult legacy for anyone to cope with these days." He sighed. "There's not much we can do about it either way, though, so let's just put it all aside for now and not tell anyone about any of this."

"Agreed." She smiled understandingly. "I'm glad you're taking it that way. It seems pretty obvious that the girl's father, whoever that may be, has not played much role in her life, so I doubt he's a factor in any of the strange things happening around her. On the other hand, knowing about a likely, if mystifying, link to Bellatrix is a lot more useful. That may, for example, be yet another explanation for why Bellatrix was snooping around the safe house."

"Exactly." Harry held up the door to the sixth floor corridor, and followed Ginny through it. "Somewhere in there we might even find some tangible clues for sorting out the wacky observations we've been trying to correlate."

Ginny nodded.

Harry paused outside their quarters, leaning beside the door. "I'd like to talk to Teri in a casual, supportive way, and try to get to know her. Since Andromeda has scheduled me to give the children a group story-time tomorrow evening, I'll be heading to Dolwyddelan immediately after supper. Maybe I'll have a chance to catch up with Teri and find out what she wanted to speak to me about yesterday. Then sometime or other, if she and I eventually establish a comfortable rapport, maybe I can try to gauge whether she has any idea who Bellatrix is, whether she ever feels any strange magic flowing around her or through her, and so forth."

"But no Legilimency, right?"

"Right," Harry agreed.

It was almost a matter of course, now, that Harry and Ginny gave each other conscious prompts and reminders about the ethics of using Legilimency. Over the past six months they had both become unusually skilled at it — so proficient that it sometimes required a deliberate effort to turn the power off. As a result, while they had both faulted Dumbledore for indiscriminate use of his Legilimens skills, they could now see things from their former Headmaster's perspective, accepting that he may have frequently scanned minds without really even realising he was doing it.

But that was not a good excuse. Unintentional careless harm was still harm; accidental invasions of privacy were still unjustified if one had the means and discretion to avoid them. And that discretion was possible for Harry and Ginny as long as they remained acutely aware of their powers, and remembered to keep them under control.

Harry let them into their study and they both threw their school robes to the side. With a flick of his hand, Harry lit a fire in the hearth as Ginny went to find some butterbeer. "Did you have a good chat with Pansy before supper?" he asked as he settled onto their chesterfield.

"A pleasure as always," Ginny replied with a smirk and two frothy mugs. "After huffing, and rolling her eyes in various inhuman contortions, she decried our obvious lack of sanity, then admitted that it actually went very well. She's concluded that you drove her mum around the twist, yet somehow made the woman all the happier for it."

"I suppose that would have something to do with exclusive preview privileges to my authourised biography?"

"Perhaps," Ginny agreed as she reclined with her feet resting between Harry's legs.

"Just one question, Gin'?"

"Sure," she replied, delicately wiping a butterbeer moustache from her lip.

"Is there someone actually writing an authorised Harry Potter biography?"

"Of course not, Harry!" she admonished. "However, I assume at some point there will be. Perhaps it will even be completed within Rose's lifetime."

"Good one!" Harry chuckled, and took a drink. "So did Pansy give you a read on how much solid info she thinks her mother still managed to pry from us?"

"Very little that's likely to be damaging," Ginny replied. "Rose got nowhere with Legilimency, as expected, and Pansy intercepted the Veritaserum mimic..."

"Those cute little sugar florettes were spiked?" Harry pursed his lips. "I figured as much — seems to me that Pansy did come in handy after all!"

Ginny nodded. "The only dangling thread is the one that couldn't be prevented. Her mum now knows that we're asking about Teri. I assume there will be some people out there who will find that very interesting."

"Calculated risk," Harry admitted with an uncomfortable shrug. "I'd hate to think that we might have placed Teri at an elevated risk, but let's add some more wards at Dolwyddelan on top of the refurbishing that the Aurors did. That's one safehouse that will now really need to be kept secure — for Teri, for the sake of everyone else living there now, and perhaps other people will need to move in before this whole Lestrange thing is settled."

"We won't have time for warding tomorrow," Ginny mused, "but let's go back out on Sunday, and perhaps bring Lucia Blevins and Laura Madley."

"Ah yes — the ward goddesses." Harry smiled fondly. "If they're free, this would be right up their alley." With left hand still grasping his mug, he engaged his right hand in working the stress out of Ginny's calf muscles.

"Ah, that feels nice — thank you!" She released a ragged breath. "So how did things go with Ted Nott?"

"Strange," Harry replied. "He too claims that he really didn't drink much that evening — which I'm inclined to believe, based on the other parallels with Remus's experience."

Ginny raised an eyebrow. "And the part you don't believe is...?"

"Ted's story of how things fell apart doesn't mesh with reality." Harry frowned at the fire. "He claims that Tracey started a nasty fight with Pansy... a love triangle spat over him, no less. He said that when he went to try to break them up, somebody started throwing things and a brawl erupted. It just doesn't line up with eyewitness accounts at all."

"No, and it doesn't corroborate Pansy's recollection either," Ginny confirmed. "She said that the three of them were having a nice festive evening, when all of a sudden Ted blew up at Tracey, threw a heavy beer stein and clonked some stranger over the crown with it. This stranger apparently stood a full head taller than Nott and, well... shall we say that the man took issue with the unprovoked assault? Apparently Stranger Bloke had a table full of construction wizard friends at his side, while Flint, Bletchley and Derrick were at a table across the room and decided to stand up for a fellow Slytherin. Pretty soon, the whole place was really... swinging."

Harry nodded. "That goes along pretty well with other eyewitness accounts, but I still didn't get the impression that Ted was lying. Confused perhaps, but I'm convinced he had no deliberate intention of misleading me."

"Confused about Tracey, perhaps?" Ginny speculated, catching Harry's eye with an analytical expression.

"Perhaps," Harry agreed. "Even if Pansy didn't seem to think that Tracey did anything to provoke an outburst, something strange and unnatural may still have cause him to imagine irrational things about her."

"Maybe a bit like how Tonks somehow seemed to set off Remus? Like Teri unsettling Ron... and you?" Ginny inquired.

Harry nodded again. "I think you're heading down the same misty path I am. Do you have any idea where this is leading?"

Ginny shook her head. "Not the flimsiest clue."

Harry nodded a third time. He leaned over to kiss Ginny's ankle, and shifted her feet to the side in order to fetch another round of butterbeer.

As the second hour of Quidditch practice wound down, Harry was taking shots at Grant Page over at the west goals, while Ginny, Zabini and Summerby were running the gauntlet against Fred and George near the middle of the pitch.

Fred and George were on a roll. They had purchased top of the line Beater brooms and had, surprisingly, put in several tough practice sessions on their own since receiving the invitation to play on the barnstorming squad. Consequently, their form today was nearly indistinguishable from the stellar play they had brought to the tough Gryffindor teams earlier in the decade. As a result, they were giving the three Chasers fits... and plenty of bruises. Zabini and Summerby were both astonished at the twins' intensity, which far outclassed any of the current Hogwarts Beater corps. Despite this, however, the most frustrated of the Chasers was Ginny.

Ginny had hoped that participating in the weekly interhouse scrimmages all autumn would have kept her sharp. It had certainly worked wonders for honing her flying and passing skills, but the interhouse Beaters had really not provided an adequate challenge, and it had now been more than six months since her last real match — last June's Quidditch Cup final. Thus, although Ginny was indisputably the top Chaser talent at Hogwarts, the fact was that she was a bit rusty. It also didn't help matters that her brothers were extending their little sister the ultimate token of respect — they had held nothing back and were pounding her as hard as they would their very worst enemy.

Zabini had just completed his tenth and final run past the Beaters, this time escaping unscathed, courtesy of a nifty reverse barrel roll that twisted him just past a bludger that skimmed his cloak below the knee.

"Missed!" George called out as he intercepted the wayward bludger with his bat and reeled it in.

Fred nodded. "Five out of ten hits on Coiffure," he announced.

Summerby wasted little time in accelerating toward through the gap for his final attempt. He had already been struck five out of nine times and, in his own quietly competitive way, was hardly about to cede the competition to his best friend and rival. After reaching a brisk cruising speed, Summerby began to bob and weave like a drunkard. Despite the appearance of erratic wobbling that would have given the average spectator motion sickness, Summerby's tactic required impressive strength, control and spinal fortitude. The display did not impress George, however. Tapping the bludger into the air in front of him, he calmly lined his sights on the mid-point of all the Chaser's chaotic oscillations and fired away.

Thwack!

The bludger glanced hard off Summerby's forearm, drawing a sharp hiss from the Chaser as he lurched off course, righted himself, and steered wincingly off to the side.

"Six of ten for the Mute," George called out.

"Sorry mate!" Fred added consolingly.

Summerby forced the grimace off his face and waved him off. "No worries, Thing Two!" he replied with a slightly pained smirk.

Ginny circled slowly off to the south, eyeing her two brothers who were now grinning in anticipation of her final attempt. "Come on, Red," Fred called (for team-building purposes, the twins had adopted Zabini's prescribed nicknames for everyone). "Just get it over with!"

Ginny, who had already been struck six out of nine times, had no intention whatsoever of just getting it over with. She could no longer beat or even tie Zabini for fewest hits (a fact that thoroughly galled her), but she was not particularly interested in finishing dead last either. She took one last lazy swoop...

Then blasted straight at Fred!

Fred gaped at his ferocious sister for a second. He tapped the bludger meekly over to George.

Ginny pulled a gut-wrenching swerve to plot a collision course with her other brother.

"Eep," George proclaimed, and volleyed the bludger quickly back to Fred.

Veering toward Fred at the last possible instant, Ginny's torque was so sharp that it tore away the cord binding her pony tail. Red glistening hair erupted out like a fireball as she locked eyes with her sibling.

Fred wilted. He ducked and bailed, just as the meteorite blazed past...

Yet, from a nearly inverted position, unbeknownst to Ginny, Fred somehow managed to stretch out with his bat and softly connect with the bludger.

In her triumph, Ginny decelerated just a moment too soon. Fred's bludger, with all the force of a wounded sparrow, drifted in and tapped her on the shoulder. She whipped around, far more in surprise than pain, and stared disbelievingly at the impudent ball which was now hovering, almost self-consciously, about six feet away.

"ARRRRGGHHHH!!!!"

Zabini and Summerby winced as the shockwave hit. Fred and George grinned nervously and began to edge away.

From a safe distance, Harry and Grant Page, who had ended their drill a few minutes ago, were looking on with interest.

"Thing One and Thing Two really sizzled today," Page noted, "but there's plenty of Chaser talent up here as well."

"Yes, definitely!" Harry concurred. "And most importantly, I sense everyone's fierce competitive drive starting to kick in. We could actually end up being pretty good."

"Er yes, if everyone survives through to our first match." Page's forehead creased worriedly as he watched the chase scene unfold. Ginny had somehow gotten ahold of a Beater's bat...

Harry laughed. "Don't worry. Weasleys brawl like badgers, but they never actually kill. Or very rarely, anyway..." He grinned, and kicked his broom into gear in order to venture courageously over toward the excitement.

The Apparition point for Dolwyddelan was located in the middle of a beech grove that the DMLE Concealment Team had transplanted near the edge of a meadow above the village. Harry and Ginny found their footing in the spongy ground and pulled their cloaks tightly about themselves to bar the bracing wind sweeping across from the north hills. They strolled up from the copse and turned to gaze momentarily down past the rail line to the Afon Lledr river, glimmering faintly in the last traces of the evening dusk. Beyond that, the street lamps on Bridge Street were sparking up as the village came to life for a Saturday evening. A sudden gust whipped their collars, bringing an end to their reverie. They turned south to put the chill to their backs and make their way up through the shrubs and tall weeds to the trailhead.

At the oakwood stand bordering the meadow they found the telltale string of stones, roughly twenty feet apart, lining their way from the meadow up into the trees, discretely pointing the way to the trail. A minute later, Harry and Ginny were strolling comfortably along a gravel path that wound its way beneath the forest canopy. Both of them could instinctively feel power fluctuations as they crossed the various ward lines, ranging from the powerful Apparition and Portkey wards, to the much subtler Muggle dissuasion field. The very last ward, located just before the manor house came into view, was in place to forcibly limit passage to only those people who were either pre-approved for entry, or those who had been provided with a special ward key. For Ginny, crossing the line produced a jolt perhaps on par with what Muggles might feel from an electric fence, but of course neither she nor Harry were truly hindered in any other way. After a brief involuntary shudder, they suddenly found themselves on the grounds of the old Potter family summer estate, Dolwyddelan Manor.

The house looked particularly stately in the dim light; its deep grey slate was still bedecked by holiday trimmings of pine, lamps lit the large ground floor windows giving the place a homey, welcoming feel. The front grounds looked crisp and trim — a testament to tremendous efforts by the Hogwarts students who had removed tons of scrub and debris from the previously overgrown lawn. After striding the final hundred feet to the front steps, Harry and Ginny were met by Kreacher, who swung the front doors wide for their entry. "Lord Potter and Mistress Weasley," he croaked with a bow.

"Good evening Kreacher." Harry smiled congenially. "Will you be joining us for story time this evening?"

The old house elf gave Harry a calculating look. "If Lord Potter requires my presence, then I should enjoy attending," he answered. "Biscuits and hot refreshments await you and your audience in the Entrance Hall."

"Thank you so much Kreacher!" Ginny beamed happily at the old elf who, having grown accustomed to his atypically friendly masters, merely bowed in return and collected their cloaks as they entered the hall.

They had no sooner stepped past the threshhold into the wide foyer between the two large staircases when a pair of high, shrill voices rang down on them from the balcony above. "Miss Daphne! Mrs. Dromeda!" the two small boys called out. "They've arrived! Mr. Harry and Miss Ginny are finally here!"

Ginny glanced up and waved. Smiling, she recognized Erik Rowle and Rennett Fawkes as the two children she had read to on Christmas night.

The boys' cries seemed to precipitate an avalanche of activity within the upper stairwell leading from the third floor chambers. A flurried noise of excited shouts and clattering feet spilled from a door off the balcony, and within moments there were ten children streaming down the east staircase to swarm Harry and Ginny. "Boys! Girls!" issued the tired but tolerant voice of Andromeda Tonks from on high. "Remember your dignity and respect! Anna, please release Mr. Potter before he topples. Erik, Rennett, Carl — Miss Ginny may give you each a quick hug, but we must allow our guests to come in out of the draughty entranceway."

Accompanying the three eldest (and least hyperkinetic) children down the stairs, Daphne smiled warmly at Harry and Ginny. Taking their hands, she gave Harry a peck on the cheek and pulled Ginny into a half hug. "I'm SOOOO glad you made it!" she enthused gaily. "If I had to listen to one more sweet cherubic voice yelling things like, ' Where's Mr. Harry?! Why is Miss Ginny not here yet?! Shouldn't we floo call them, Miss Daphne? ', I swear that my airy little head would have popped!"

"Sorry." Harry grinned sheepishly. "Practice ran late and we barely had time to wolf down supper."

Ginny laughed. "What Harry is politely not telling you is that he's tired out from having to cast strong contego shield charms on our two Beaters to prevent someone from braining them, and then he had to massage away six deep muscle bludger bruises for his girlfriend."

Daphne arched her eyebrow with a mischievous glint, but suppressed the question on the tip of her tongue. Instead she shook her head. "Quidditch is such a gentle and urbane hobby," she observed dryly, and led them to an open area in front of the crackling hearth.

Leaving Harry seated at a stool in front of the fire, Daphne and Ginny continued off to a pair of arm chairs at the side of the hearth. As the children gathered their mugs of hot chocolate and clustered around Harry, Andromeda dimmed the lamps, creating a dim, cozy, almost dream-like, atmosphere. Smiling contentedly, Harry gazed around at the eager faces. He noticed that, off in discreet, shadowy seclusion, Kreacher had indeed availed himself of his master's invitation and was watching with intrigued attention. Closer by, a circle of ten pairs of eager eyes glittered in the firelight.

Ten...

Harry's smile wavered for a moment. Once again, all of the children were in eager attendance except Teri.

It was a disappointment to him, but he didn't let himself become subdued by it. He renewed his smile and beamed it around to the attentive audience. "I apologize for being late. Because of that, I think I'd like to start with the story straight away. Are you all fine with that?"

The children nodded. "Yes please, Mr. Harry!"

Anna waved her little hand. "Will it be The Hopping Pot again?"

"Will it be a story about saving a beautiful witch from evil Muggles?" came another voice. Harry recognized the eldest Rowle boy.

"No Anna, no Svengard," Harry replied patiently. "This will be a story about eleven brave children who lived in a castle far far away."

Seeing eyes lighting up in curiosity, Harry smiled inwardly for a moment, then began his story. "One cold day in a winter long ago, the children were all alone in their beautiful castle on a high mountaintop. Their parents had all traveled to a village some miles away in the valley to purchase food and supplies before a winter storm swept in... but the storm raced in hard, and far earlier than anyone had expected, trapping the parents down in the village all night and all the next day. Back at the castle, the children..."

"What are the children's names?" Svengard interrupted, earning himself a stern rebuking glare from Troy Mulciber.

"The children's names were..." Harry paused a moment for his memory to rev up. "The children's names were Svengard, Ange and Erik... Troy and Vicky... Amanda and Carl... Sylvia, Teri, Anna and Rennett!"

He couldn't help grinning at the titters of pleased recognition. Before the audience could get away from him again, however, Harry plunged dramatically onwards, raising his voice and lowering his tone. "The storm swept in cruel and hard!" With a wave of his hand, magical snowflakes danced and swirled in the air above the children, sparkling in the firelight to the delight of his young audience. "With the adults all taking shelter in the last remaining room in the village inn, the children could do nothing but wait patiently in the castle, and hope that this was just a bad winter storm and not... a djävulens storm!"

With a flourish of his hand, the fire suddenly vanished and was replaced by a glowing image of a stone castle high on a rocky crag, beset by raging gales and lashed by sheets of snow that reshaped into a torrent of glistening daggers and pitchforks. A few tiny gasps escaped, but the audience sat in otherwise rapt, open-mouthed silence as Harry continued to narrate, summoning ephemeral visions of the brave children in debates and harrowing, heroic action — cunningly thwarting an attack by rampaging mountain trolls, navigating a confrontation with wicked ice demons, and wittily bargaining with a brusque yet open-minded dragon...

The enthralled children sat in wide-eyed, astonished silence.

All of the children except one, that is...

Despite remaining completely committed to the story and to entertaining his audience, Harry could feel a solitary aura permeating the room from somewhere on high. It seemed to bleed the essence of sorrow, like a string of cold raindrops trailing slowly down his spine.

Ginny noticed it as well; part way through the story, she honed her senses and detected the trail of magical power, following it upwards, away from the gathering... to the balcony... to an unseen corner in which the eleventh child sat hunched in the darkness, trembling, strained with unexplained internal conflict, weeping silently.

Forgetting the story, Ginny swept her magical perception outwards, gently and unobtrusively probing the vicinity of the sad child, honing in on something that wasn't exactly sorrow... something bitter and acrid, like...

Bloody hell??

Ginny's entire spine jolted and her eyes flashed wide! She choked back a sudden feeling of panic — a gripping flashback to a horrible memory from her fourth year...

... dark tendrils of smoky oily hair pressed into her face... smell of rank sweat and hatred...

... hot wand tip pressing into her throat...

... Don't look at me, Harry. Don't let her distract you. Don't ever give up the proph...

With a jolt, Ginny tore herself from from nightmarish vision. She shuddered, took a slow breath to rein in her nerves, and leaned in close to her friend. "Daphne!" she whispered urgently. "I have to go check something. Tell Harry to meet me at the Hogwarts library when he's done here!"

"Uh huh." Daphne nodded. Oblivious to Ginny's discomfort, Daphne's eyes barely strayed an instant from Harry's performance.

Ginny crossed the room quietly, her departure unmarked by anyone except Harry. Without pausing his narrative, Harry's eyes raised momentarily above his audience and inquisitively met her gaze.

Without opening her mouth or making any detectable gesture, Ginny spoke to her fiancé a single sentence.

Harry, I think I'm onto something!

Lucia pushed back from the table, and let her head and long black hair fall away behind her as she arched her back and groaned. "Damn it! These runes are driving me out of my skull!"

Laura nodded her head wearily and yawned. "I think we've done about all we can for tonight, don't you?"

Jennifer nodded, but then glanced questioningly at her boyfriend. Ryan frowned, scanned across the messy table, and pulled several of the open texts closer. "Well, we've got six decent warding recipes that nobody has used on the estate, but what worries me is that this is really just more of the same. It's all just variations of anti-Portkey, anti-Apparition and anti-trespass spells. I keep thinking that we're missing something."

Jennifer nodded again, expressionlessly. "Yeah, I'm still a bit edgy about it too, but I also agree with Laura and Lucia that we're bogging down. Maybe we need a change of venue," she suggested. "Let's pack up the spells we've settled on and go up to Interhouse Commons for an hour to brainstorm over butterbeer."

"Or coffee," Lucia amended.

"Sounds great!" Laura, for the first time in an hour, sounded enthusiastic about something. "I'll bet that..." She paused and glanced up in surprise. "Oh, hi Ginny!"

The other three students swiveled around to see Ginny hurrying toward their table in the dimly-lit and otherwise empty library. "Hi all!" she said as she caught her breath. "I know it's late on a Saturday night, but would any of you be willing to help me look into some mind magic stuff?"

"Sure." Ryan's eyes lit up with his trademark (manic) tirelessness. "What are you thinking of? Imperius? Confundus?"

Ginny shook her head. "No, those are all too short range. Anyone casting those spells like that needs to get close to the victim. I'd like us to find some methods for dynamic, long-distance mind control. And, in particular we have to find ways to block it!"

The four students looked at Ginny, then glanced among themselves. Ryan scratched his chin thoughtfully. "Do you have a pass for the restricted section?"

Ginny grinned puckishly and withdrew a sealed scroll from her cloak. "Who do you think you're talking to, Jenkins?"

Ryan laughed. "Follow me, then," he said, rising from the table.


Back to index


Chapter 5: Black and Blue

Author's Notes:

Well, this chapter certainly proved interesting to write. I think I may be capturing the zany 'comédie noire' atmosphere that I'd intended for this story. Given that this is a bit of a canary in a coal mine, your comments would be helpful.

Also, a challenge to my dear readers: if any of you correctly identify the somewhat silly allusion to a line in MacBeth, then I promise to name or credit some exotic potion to you!


Chapter 5. Black and Blue (Jan. 3-5, 1998)

Harry strode quickly through the darkened library, honing in on the only light and noise he could detect — a faint buzz of hushed voices that led him toward a far corner where a single dimly lit lamp painted an atmosphere of clandestine intrigue. He turned the aisle and spotted Ginny, Ryan, Jennifer, Lucia and Laura all huddled closely around an old tome, whispering animatedly, unaware of his approach.

Not wanting to startle them, Harry's vocalizing was soft. "Ahem."

Ryan raised his head from the huddle and met Harry's eye. "O bò !" he declared gravely.

"Ah! And a very merry bassoon to you, Ryan!" Harry replied.

"No not 'oboe', Harry." Ryan either missed the humour or chose to ignore it. "O bò is a dark faction within the West African Vodoun magical community."

Harry nodded, slightly chastened. "Oh."

"!" added Ginny with a helpful smile. "None of the rest of us had ever heard of it, but Ryan is enlightening us. Apparently very little is known about O bò magic in Europe, and the few mentions we've found in books suggest a shroud of mystery and misconception. The least apocryphal descriptions seem to be in this book written by a nineteenth century Danish wizard, Jens Tvivlender," Ginny explained, pointing at a dusty tome bound in faded green cloth. "Tvivlender traveled deep into the African interior off the Gold Coast in what is known as today as Ghana. He took cursory notes on indigenous magic and published a short text in 1857 cataloging some of the practices of the Vodunsi and Bokors that he interviewed."

Laura put aside her book. "Vodunsi are priestesses who practice the standard light Vodoun magic. Bokors seem to be like our dark wizards; they can do the same basic magic as the light priestesses, but have also concocted some fiendish dark sorcery."

Jennifer shuddered. "Very dark! Pitch black!"

"At least that's what's written." Ryan handed Harry a heavy comparative magic text open to a cursory article on sub-Saharan cultures. "Very few of Tvivlender's claims, especially the most shocking ones, have ever been conclusively verified by European wizards or witches, but if he was accurate, the Bokors may have had some of the most horrendous magical subjugation practices devised in the history of magic."

"Mind control." Harry's half-skimmed the page in front of him before gazing thoughtfully off into the flickering shadows.

"Exactly Harry!" Ginny nodded enthusiastically. "We've been dancing around something like this the whole time without realizing it. Imperius, confundus — nothing in our standard spellbooks seems to fit what we've been observing. But the Fugos gave us a tantalizing glimpse of how much more there is to learn if you break out of the standard bounds. I'm sure there's a great untold manifold of exotic wizardry out there that even Dumbledore probably never considered. Some of it could be amazing and wondrous, but there are bound to be very horrible things too."

"Point well taken." Harry returned his attention to Ginny. "So what set you on this trail? Were you catching those traces of mind magic this evening?"

"Yes." Ginny sighed. "I'm sure you felt how miserable Teri was, but there was something else. I assumed you were distracted with your story-telling responsibilities and may not have been sensing it, but I did, and..." She paused, chewing the bottom of her lip.

The students fell completely still in tense anticipation as Ginny remained in deep thought for a while with a troubled frown on her face. Harry studied her, wracking his memory for any disquieting sensations he might have experienced. He had certainly detected Teri's distress, but could not recall any other noticeable disturbances.

"For the most part, it was rather faint." Ginny hesitated again as she struggled to clearly explain the episode. "Yes, it began very subtly, but the more I looked for it, the closer the attention I paid, the more it seemed to... amplify." She shuddered slightly. "It was like following an unpleasant odor into the pantry, you track to down to one old jar, then you go to open it. In that moment, it was like..."

Unbidden, the vivid and disturbing memory raced back through Ginny's mind and she released a sharp, involuntary hiss. "That moment, just for an instant, it was like Bellatrix Lestrange was in the room with me."

Everyone stared at her. For a long moment, the only sound any of them heard was the ominous knell of their own heartbeats. Finally, Harry found his voice. "What was the sensation? What made you think of Bellatrix?"

Ginny's gaze locked onto Harry for a moment with a fierce intensity... then it slackened, replaced with weariness. "I know her magic, Harry. I know the whiny snarl of her voice; I know the foul smell of her breath. You're not the only one in here who's had a close brush with that deranged bitch," she said quietly. "Maybe it slipped your mind... I mean, so many desperate things have happened over the last while that you're entitled to lose track of the occasional crisis." Ginny met Harry's eyes again as he raced through his recollections, trying to connect with the right incident.

Harry gasped. "The Department of Mysteries!"

Ginny nodded solemnly and turned to face the four puzzled and alarmed students. "This was a couple of years ago. It was before Harry or I had picked up much common sense." She shrugged lamely. "You probably heard rumours and saw Harry's picture in the Prophet alongside Dumbledore and Fudge after that incident..."

"One of my stupidest impulses ever." Harry gritted his teeth,

"Yes and no." Ginny shook her head. "It served its purpose, didn't it? We wouldn't have won the war so quickly without the lessons you learned, Harry."

"Yes, I suppose." His tired sigh briefly masked a hard edge to his voice. "It was asinine; it killed my god-father, but it brought Riddle out into the open in the most lurid technicolour way possible for the sheepish Ministry and toady journalists..."

"Ah." Ryan nodded seriously. "But, fortunately you're not bitter."

Harry stared at his student for a long moment... then chuckled, and turned his focus back to Ginny. "Sorry for the theatrics, and sorry for forgetting the hell you went through that night. I can still remember my chest seizing up when I saw that filthy hag go to grab you."

Ginny gave Harry a regretful look. "Not my best moment, yeah? Nor was it for any of the rest of us — imperiling someone who shouldn't have actually needed saving in the first place."

Aware that she and Harry had lapsed into an almost private conversation in the midst of several students who were practically thrumming with curiosity, Ginny paused a moment to clear her mind of the horrific, grievous memory, and focus on a simple, useful narrative to share. She took a deep breath and scanned across the faces at the table. "You can get some basic facts from the Daily Prophet — I can't recall the exact date, but it was late June 1996. You'll glimpse a lot of holes in the story, though, because Dumbledore prevented the Ministry or the press from interrogating us. Consequently, we kept a lot of details to ourselves, and the Ministry suppressed a fair bit too. Among the various untold incidents from that night was a mad brawl with Death Eaters. Now, where was it that...?"

Harry sank into a seat. "Had we gotten into the Death Chamber...?"

"No, still in the Hall of Prophesy." Ginny shook her head. "One of the thugs grabbed for me in the frenzy, and Bellatrix honed in and threatened me with Cruciatus if Harry didn't hand over...well, let's just say 'some very valuable information'. The whole place was rife with evil characters, and there were doubtlessly several Death Eaters in the room with more magical prowess than Lestrange, but to me, in the heat of that horrid moment, the sheer venom of her hatred was absolutely breathtaking!" Ginny's description tapered to another quiet shudder.

"Ginny didn't cave," Harry hastened to add. "Her strength and defiance gave us the opening we needed. We were able to create a distraction and break the confrontation. After that, well... a lot of things happened... both good and awful... After the rubble settled, we were all shaken to the core, but she and I... and the other students... were all still alive."

Harry swallowed deeply, his eyes remote. "For some time after, I retreated into my own personal Hell, but I gradually found the strength to face and acknowledge the horrible repercussions of my wretchedly poor choices. Those admissions could have broken me, but instead, with the help of a dear friend, the contrition saved my life, transforming me into the person you see before you. And in that process of reawakening — I must admit that it took me a while to realize this — but it was really during that times when I began to recognize the sort of mettle that Ginny was made of. I began to understand how much she meant to me; realized that I needed to get to know her better, and somehow deep inside began to understand that I couldn't do everything all alone."

Harry's eyes fell expressionlessly to his folded hands. The group fell silent, as the dim lamp flickered; the stacks and shelves projected eerie, dancing shadows. Jennifer instinctively leaned into Ryan's chest, seeking her boyfriend's hand...

"So Bellatrix was forcing her will on Teri?" Harry asked, breaking the deathly stillness, but not yet looking up.

Ginny nodded. "I believe she was trying to. It may have been touch and go for a while, especially in that moment when her power suddenly surged, but I'm convinced that Teri was able to fight off the attack. I imagine..." Ginny shook her head off-handedly, dropping her tone. "I can only imagine that the struggle was very frightening and painful for the girl. And I got the sense that a part of her was already feeling weakened and demoralised over not being able to join the other children in enjoying the story-telling. If I'm guessing everything correctly, I believe that Teri wanted to attend, and Bellatrix really wanted her to be down there, but she somehow sensed that whatever Bellatrix told her to do would have been precisely the wrong thing."

"Wow," Harry nodded, raising his eyes. "Smart girl."

"Yes, it would seem so," Ginny agreed. "Anyway, I believe she somehow managed to fight off some sort of command to go down there. Unfortunately, I have no idea what it all meant. What was the plan? Why precisely was Teri instructed to go down there, and what would have happened if she hadn't been fighting back those commands?"

"Oi." Harry exhaled deeply and ran a hand through his hair. "I shudder to guess."

"But the good news," Ryan interjected, "is that Lestrange failed. Maybe she forced the girl to descend from third floor down to the balcony, but no further. That tells me that if Lestrange was attempting something like O bò magic, she must be still a novice. I'm pretty certain that a Bokor adept would have been able to wrest control."

"Unless the girl has unusual magical powers," Lucia amended.

"Sure, as far as we know." Ryan shrugged. "There's nothing written here about how to resist Bocio impulsions, but like Imperius, it may be possible."

"Bocio?" Harry inquired.

"I assume that's the magical vehicle Lestrange is using. A Bocio a fetish or doll of some sort," Ryan explained. "It operates using sympathetic magic, and provides a conduit for the Bokor to command, harm or even kill a victim. Most critically, it works perfectly well over long distances."

"Sympathetic magic..." Harry stroked his chin. "By that term, you mean that this Bocio thing becomes a representative of the victim. Thus, if a Bokor does anything to the doll, the victim undergoes a sympathetic response?"

"Exactly." Ryan nodded. "The Bokor could theoretically use it for Confundus, Imperius, Cruciatus, Avada Kedavra, or any one of many more spells that we know about. Theoretically you could also use it for good magic like shield spells or wound healing, but I doubt we'll see much of that in this case. I should also add that the O bò culture probably also provides other unique spells to throw into the mix."

Ginny frowned. "So you said that the good news was that Lestrange wasn't very good at this magic. What would you say is the bad news?"

"Basic logical stuff, but it still bothers me." Ryan consulted a scroll full of notes. "My first worry is that although Lestrange isn't very good at O bò, she obviously knows more about it than we do. Secondly, if she's smart, then the whole time we're struggling to catch up, there's no reason why she might not also be working to refine her techniques... and possibly even learn more advanced ones."

"Errr... dare I ask for some examples of more advanced O bò magic?" Harry fixed his student with an expression of foreboding and disquiet.

Ryan's held Harry's gaze for a long moment. "Well..." he began before pausing to clear his throat. His gaze alighted briefly upon the taut faces of his companions, then drifting reflectively across the tremulous brooding shadows... shadows that might as well be shrouding teeming swarms of imperceptible malevolence and morbidity. "Er, perhaps this discussion can wait until daylight," he suggested in a tone lacking his characteristic staunch stridency.

Despite lying in a bit on Sunday after their late night of tense deliberations, the sun had still not yet risen when Harry and Ginny awoke to go for a crisp morning run around the lake. They were joined by five members of the super seven group of stellar students from Harry's immensely successful defence studies practicum. After the long workout, the group gathered at the Interhouse Table for a late but spirited breakfast together which, like all good things, was now coming to an end.

"Ah!" Mary Jo sighed, pushing her plate away. "Time to get cracking, troops! Transfiguration essay awaits."

Jack groaned. "I suppose we have to, considering it's due tomorrow. Where are we meeting?

"Interhouse Commons?" Jennifer suggested.

Mary Jo, Jack and Sarah nodded. Sarah looked at her watch. "I'll go up to check on ickle sickie Quinn to see if he wants to come down. He's well enough now to be playing chess in the Ravenclaw common room, so he ought to be well enough to pull his weight on the essay."

Mary-Jo nodded. "Glad he's feeling better — Nick's had a fever ever since he got off the train last week."

"Nasty virus, isn't it?" Ginny gave Mary-Jo a concerned look. "Please give both of them our best, and let me know if they could use some pepper-up potion."

"I'll ask — thank you Ginny!" Mary-Jo replied.

Harry put aside his Daily Prophet. "Did you say this was a transfiguration essay? How does everyone feel about Professor Lupin in his new role?"

"He's great!" Sarah replied, with enthusiastic nods from Mary Jo and Jennifer.

Jack rolled his eyes. "I'll like him a lot better if he doesn't assign a two foot essay every week.,"

Harry laughed. "Don't worry, I'm sure he won't do that to you! He's generally a very hands-on instructor; I assume he just assigned the essay to get a feel for where everyone stands on the subject."

"I agree," Mary Jo rose to her feet. "Come on Trowers — quit dragging your feet. The sooner we get this done, the sooner we can hit the Room of Requirement."

"Yes, boss lady." Jack smirked off-handedly to Ryan.

The four sixth-year students trundled off, leaving only Ryan. He turned to Harry and Ginny. "So you're heading over to the Manor today to work on the wards?"

Ginny nodded. "And that reminds me..." She quickly downed the last of her pumpkin juice. "We're supposed to meet Laura and Lucia in the Entrance Hall in two minutes."

"Oh. Right you are." Harry stood up and pushed his chair in. "What's your plan for the day, Ryan?"

"I have some vague ideas and questions on the project," Ryan replied as the three of them walked together out of the Great Hall. "I'm going to hit the library while it's quiet."

"That's wonderful — thank you for pushing ahead on this Ryan!" Ginny gave the student a quick smile. "I wish you luck and insight!"

"Thanks!" Ryan waved farewell to his two mentors and continued on his way.

Quietly traversing the empty hallway toward his destination, Ryan opened the library door carefully, and closed it behind himself without a sound. He paused for a moment to look and listen. Dead silence — just the way he liked it.

Ryan Jenkins was rarely seen in the library. In truth, he spent more time there than almost anyone else in the school, but it just happened that he visited most often when nobody else was around. A self-admitted freak of nature, Ryan rarely slept more than two or three hours per night, and at several times in his school career had gone more than 48 straight sleepless hours without any outward signs of stress. This combination — his love of the library and his night-owl schedule — had made him an ideal candidate for achieving some of Harry's most secret and sensitive research needs.

This particular project certainly counted as both secret and sensitive. The issues it broached went beyond unpleasant. Mere rumours of the subject matter could conceivably produce volatile over-reaction, and potentially even sew panic and hysteria. Furthermore, if the enemy learned someone was pursuing this research, the revelation could perturb the situation and drive Madame Lestrange to untold new sinister creativity. And it was hardly as if she wasn't already being frighteningly creative!

Ryan proceeded quickly and quietly to the peripheral wall of the library and worked his way along a cunning long-cut route toward the restricted section. All remained completely quiet around him as he moved briskly along the final open-section aisle and turned the corner into the realm of deepest mystery...

"Mr. Jenkins!" came a brusque female voice. "Where do you think you're going?"

Ryan groaned to himself — he knew that voice and the implications it held for his secrecy. He turned to face a rare person who spent even more time here than he did — Hogwarts Head Girl, Hermione Granger.

"Good morning, Ms. Granger." Ryan's tone, respectful but bland, was actually carefully honed to convey a conviction that he had done nothing wrong. "I was just about to pursue some details on a research project I've been assigned." He leveled a disaffected gaze at her in hopes that this plain, unspectacular truth might dissuade any further inquiry.

Hermione raised a skeptical eyebrow. "You've been assigned research requiring access to the restricted section?"

Ryan nodded. He reached into his pocket and preemptively handed her his permission form.

Hermione scrutinized it carefully. "So this is for Harry, is it? What does the project involve? This form is not very specific."

"Sorry, I'm not at liberty to elaborate," Ryan replied.

"You're not at liberty to discuss the fact that you're researching esoteric mind control methods, possibly originating in West Africa?" Hermione attempted, without much luck, to disguise a very smug expression.

Ryan maintained his steely composure, but he could sense that things were slipping away from him.

"And no," Hermione hastened to add, "in case your research advisor suspects me of using Legilimency, the truth is much more mundane. Several books in the forbidden section were re-shelved carelessly last night. I found one of them inserted upside down, and several more that were not pushed in precisely level with their immediate neighbours."

Ah, pish... Ryan's stoic facade finally eroded into a face of consternation. He couldn't help grumbling internally about Laura (sweet, brilliant, but the kid doesn't have a subtle bone in her body! ), and he also reserved a kick in his own tail for not checking to ensure she had put those books back exactly the way she found them. More than anything, though, Ryan's expression contained a bit of something that was very rare for him — astonishment. The last thing he might ever have expected to happen on this quiet Sunday morning was to come face to face with someone who might actually be even more detail-oriented and fastidious than he himself was!

However shocking that seemed, he banished the revelation from his mind and sighed. "There is a perfectly valid reason for the research, and ample justification for being very discreet about it."

"Oh yes, I'm fully aware there's a good reason for the research!" Hermione snapped. "What I don't see is any justification for is keeping me out of the loop on this. I was the one who alerted Harry to the problem in the first place, and it's my own bloody boyfriend at the center of the case!"

Ryan blinked. "Chess?! Er, I mean Ronald?"

"Yes, Ronald! " Hermione glared at the younger Slytherin impatiently. "Didn't Harry tell you about Ron's incident, or is he even keeping you out of the loop?!"

"I, er... Well, he didn't give all the names as such." Ryan shrugged. "I know a few, although for common decency, I'd rather not share the identity of the primary victim that Harry and Ginny are especially concerned about. Beyond that, we know of an Auror might also be targeted, as well as an indication of other people being affected, though it's not clear to me how many of them are believed to be direct targets, since some of them may only be experiencing secondary effects."

Hermione face froze; a tiny gasp escaped. "Wow!" Her voice (a whisper despite the library's deserted state) finally seemed to grasp the reason for Ryan's circumspection. "I had no idea there were others!"

"Well, now you know," Ryan grumbled, obviously conflicted by his disclosure. "Now please don't spread any of this to anyone. Things are rather dicey and may go on to become very grave very quickly. We could have an outright disaster on our hands if people start talking about it. Do you understand that?"

"Of course I understand — I'm Head Gi-" Suddenly Hermione caught her righteous indignation and stifled it. She stared at the boy for a moment, and sighed. "Sorry, what I really meant to say was that I do now understand your caution now. You're to be commended for being so discreet, but I'd like to hear more about the research."

Ryan stared at her. "Er, I don't quite know if...

Hermione shook her head vigourously. "I'm not prying. I swear my lips are sealed; I won't even tell Ron. What I'd like is to help with this, Ryan Jenkins. Trust me. I promise I'll clear it with Harry."

Ryan looked at her uncertainly. He knew that his mentors had been taking a hands-off approach toward Hermione recently. He also knew that Harry, in particular, had feuded with the girl in the past, but Ryan assumed that this was all well-mended and that Harry's reticence was probably aimed at trying to not distract the Head Girl from her never-ending NEWT revisions. Ryan was fairly confident of Hermione's integrity, prudence and intellect, remembering vividly the critical role she had fulfilled in the Battle of Hogwarts. In fact, her key contribution had been ingenious ward innovations — just the sort of thing that might really come in handy in dealing with the strange mind magic. Exhaling, he shoved his hands in his pockets and nodded. "Okay, if you can spare the time, then I can probably use the help."

Hermione exhaled. Her eyes brightened for a moment and the ghost of a smile crossed her lips before the standard no-nonsense face reasserted itself. "Very well then, what's the assumed mechanism of mind control?"

"Errr..." Ryan paused awkwardly, wondering whether he really ought to clear this arrangement with Harry or Ginny before going too far out on a limb.

Sensing his discomfort, Hermione coaxed a real smile onto her face to ease the tension. "Sorry for pushing on so briskly," she said earnestly. "It's just that I have a rare, precious, wide-open Sunday in front of me. If I was to get started helping you now, the two of us might make some rapid progress on this extremely critical project, wouldn't you agree?"

"All right, I guess. Makes sense to me."

"So what spell do you think is being used?" Hermione rephrased.

"Not a spell, exactly." Ryan gestured toward a table deep in the restricted section.. "That's probably what makes the magic so efficient, and makes it a real challenge to counteract."

"Okay, what is it, if not a spell?"

"Sympathetic magic," Ryan replied. "Some sort of charmed proxy that the perpetrator can use to manipulate the victim."

Hermione's eyes widened incredulously. "Huh? West African charmed proxy... like a voodoo doll? Harry thinks someone is practicing voodoo??"

"Uh, you mean Vodoun?" Ryan blinked at her in puzzlement.

"Voodoo, Vodoun — same thing, right?" Hermione shrugged. "Sub-Saharan sorcery, mysterious ethnobotany, little dolls with pins in them, and all that?"

"Where in Merlin's name are you getting this all from?" Ryan ran fingers through his hair, Potter-like. "I put in eight hours in the library scrounging for the tiniest scraps, and you waltz in here spouting stuff like you just read it off a Chocolate Frog Card?"

"Ummm." Hermione allowed a small, sheepish smile. "Er, well, would you believe Muggle fiction?"

That stopped Ryan in his tracks. "Oh," he said. After a moment, he thought the better of it and added, "Oh."

Hermione shuffled her feet. "Yes, I suppose that kicks the credibility down a bit... Muggles do tend to make up a lot of things,"

Ryan was frowning. "Well yes, but they do get some details right at times. I'm actually a bit of a Muggle enthusiast, you know?"

Hermione raised an eyebrow.

"Things like paint ball, physical fitness, battle tactics... Muggles really have those things down cold!" Ryan grinned. "You know, I've even seen, erm... moving pictures I think they're called?"

"Do tell?"

"Yeah, I saw 'Lawrence of Arabia' last summer," Ryan supplied with a grin. "Oh, and '300 Spartans'!"

Hermione rolled her eyes. She couldn't believe that she was standing in the library having a supposedly weighty conversation with a fifteen-year-old wizard prodigy about... war movies. "Yes, well I appreciate that." Hermione nodded with what earnestness she could muster. "In all honesty,though, I rather doubt Leonidas or T.E. Lawrence would be much help with the current problem."

"True." Ryan pursed his lips and shifted his mind back to more pressing issues. "What I was going to say is that the Muggle stuff you talked about a minute ago isn't completely off the mark. Bocio magic tends to work best if the fetish looks at least a bit like the target, so dolls do tend to work well. Also, the preparation may require exotic herbs of some sort, and I recall a brief mention of using silver needles to inflict highly localized pains or maladies."

"Really?"

"Yes, so I've been wrestling with this one question, and I was wondering...?" Ryan paused. He scanned Hermione's face to gauge whether she was likely to take this seriously.

"Yes?" Hermione prompted.

"I was wondering if the Muggles could explain how a Bocio becomes associated with its target? How would you make a fetish that affects me, instead of you, or Ronald or someone else?"

"Ah! Good question..." Hermione tapped her lips. "Let me think about that..."

Harry beamed gratefully at Ginny, Daphne, Laura, Lucia and Ted Nott who had all gathered in the demoralizing sleet to help add ward fortifications to the Dolwyddelan estate. He raised his hand to bring the modest smattering of conversation to an end. "Good morning, and thanks for braving the elements to come help! We have six wards and six people to set them, so with any luck we can all make our circuits in a couple hours and be sitting around a nice warm fire by lunch... which Daphne assumes me will be hot, hearty and delicious!"

Daphne grinned her agreement as she hopped in place to keep warm.

"Ginny will hand you each a scroll with the runes that Laura and Lucia have carefully crafted," Harry continued. "Please proceed around the perimeter of the front lawn and the meadow in back. Every hundred feet or less, please find a fixed permanent object — a large stone is best, but a sturdy tree will suffice. You will then anchor a ward to it by pointing your wand through the center of the rune and into the heart of the ward stone or ward tree. Because of the way the girls have crafted the runes, it will be possible to anchor each ward with the same simple incantation — 'Ad chirographum potestatem lapis'. Can everyone remember that?"

Ginny laughed as she opened her scroll. "They wrote it out for us right at the top of each parchment, Harry."

"Brilliant." Harry chuckled, smiling at Laura and Lucia. "I'd make a wisecrack about how little faith you two have in our memories, but anything that gets us out of this foul weather faster has my vote!"

"Let's spread out a bit so we're not getting in each others way," Ginny suggested. "Maybe Daphne, Laura and I can work clockwise while you three work counter?"

"Good idea," Harry agreed. He, Ted and Lucia began to trudge off in a westerly direction.

"Last one back to the house sucks doxy eggs!" Daphne called out teasingly to the departing trio.

Harry shook his head. "No way. The last one back has my deepest gratitude and sympathy!"

"Spoilsport!" she sang back in response. "Some day when you least expect it, I'm going to tickle every speck of decorum out of your courteous little soul!"

Harry laughed, though Ginny did not. She grumbled something under her breath — perhaps a reference to somebody's dead body — but fortunately her irritation didn't last. Within a few minutes she was once again joking with the two students as they leapfrogged each other around the perimeter, each casting their own unique wards.

Harry, Ted and Lucia were more taciturn; they all retreated into their own respective thoughts and went quietly about the assigned tasks at their own pace. Unsurprisingly, Harry proved to be the most efficient ward caster of the entire group by a substantial margin. Ted fell behind fairly quickly as he struggled with the spell, but even Lucia couldn't keep up, despite casting expertly, concentrating hard and moving briskly from site to site.

Within forty minutes, Harry had drifted completely out of sight of the others in the rolling terrain. In fact, he had already progressed around to the furthest reach of the back meadow. Carefully counting the paces to his next ward, he gazed ahead to a natural drainage gully that led from the meadow down to a mountain stream that edged itself along the southern and eastern fringes of the property on its circuitous path toward the Afon Lledr. Within the ravine he spied a large granite boulder likely deposited there by a glacier from some past millennium — a perfect immovable fixture on which to anchor a ward. He made his way downward, taking care not to skid on the loose stones

As he pulled out the parchment to cast the warding spell, Harry heard a rock clatter a bit to his left. He looked up and jumped! Standing twenty feet up the gully's path, staring obliquely away from him, shivering in a soaked black cloak, was Teri.

Harry thrust aside his momentary surprise and smiled amicably. "Hello Sugar Plum, what brings you out in this mess? You'll catch a chill!"

Teri only sniffled a bit. She said nothing and didn't meet Harry's eyes.

Harry took quick stock of his own clothing — a jumper and anorak — and debated whether he could spare one of them for the girl. He would be perfectly comfortable in either if he could only cast a thermal charm, however Flitwick had once warned him that such magic might interfere with ward casting. Suddenly Harry hit on the obvious solution — he had his miniaturized storage trunk along!

"Hey," he called to the girl. "Let me lend you an extra jumper. You can wear it as long as you need, and leave it at the house later. If it keeps you warm enough, you're more than welcome to come join me as I finish with the wards!" Without waiting for a response, he reached into his pocket, pulled out the chest and summoned from it one of Ginny's old Weasley Christmas jumpers that had been left in there for some forgotten reason. He laughed and held it up. "It may look a bit frumpy, but this jumper is toasty warm, and is guaranteed to hug you with love and good will." Extending it toward her, he began walking up the trough in her direction.

Speaking nothing and still not meeting his eyes, Teri raised her hand to stay him.

Harry paused in consternation. He noticed a distinct chill in the air that had nothing to do with the wind and sleet. A sensation of sorrow wafted past him, but it was weaker than yesterday evening. Harry also detected an unpleasant buzz in his ears, like a distant swarm of insects. He recognized it as similar to a subtle feeling he'd registered before at times in Teri's presence, but right now it was stronger — a lot stronger. He wondered if some sort of balance might have shifted in the girl's struggles...

Teri shuddered violently!

Harry bit his lip — the girl was in trouble! The quandary wrenching Harry's conscience was what he could do to protect the girl without actually endangering her. After a moment he knew he had to at least try. "Teri, I'm here to help." He sculpted his voice carefully to project empathetic calm. Placng the jumper down on a large stone, he pushed his normal senses to the background and began turning his thoughts toward her.

As Harry's eyelids closed, the vaguely unusual sight of a cloaked girl shivering in the sleety drizzle was replaced with an image of appalling turmoil. His imagination tuned to power signatures, Harry subconsciously translated the dynamic magical auras into a disorientingly vivid visual — seething currents of magic; a glowing sapphire core twisting and straining beneath a lurid swarm of black tendrils — writhing, clutching, choking.

"Go Mr. Harry!" The girl's voice sounded pained and desperate.

Stay, stay... come closer pretty little Potty...

"Go," Teri whimpered.

Come closer, itty baby Harry!

The black swarm grew denser, swelling with deranged, repugnant lust. The blue core flickered tremulously — engulfed, weakened, sliding desperately toward some perilous brink. On purest blind instinct, Harry surged forward, swathing the entire roiling mass with his power, willing his magic to pry the frigid black abomination away from Teri.

It worked immediately... but not as he intended.

The teeming mass leaped from Teri's blue core onto Harry; he was instantly beset by an atrocious violation which felt nearly exactly like countless spiders and maggots swarming every inch of his body, smothering him in a continuity of itches and scrapes, overlaid with icy, creeping slime. Having invited this revolting torture upon himself, Harry clenched himself into a tight fist, bracing against the nightmare, wracking his recoiling sensibilities for some viable means of defence.

And then came the first sting.

Harry gasped. He had never known anything quite like it — the pain was much more localized than any Cruciatus curse he'd ever experienced, but also sharper. Worse still, it was more than just pain! Unlike the mixture of burning, aching or throbbing that we know as pain, Harry felt an appalling sensation of tugging. He felt as though he had been punctured and some unknown vampirical force was sucking on the wound.

The second stab came — just as intense, but broader! With his eyes squeezed tightly shut, he had no idea whether there was any real physical wound on his body, but he was seized with the horrid image of blood and power spurting from his magical core.

He beat back the sickening pain and distracting imagery, and instead willed his aura back into firm cohesion. The first wound closed, and he felt the second puncture slow to a trickle. Not wanting to force the black swarm straight back onto Teri, Harry pushed against it cautiously, experimentally, and felt it begin to abate in places... but then came a third stab... a fourth... He clenched his teeth and prepared himself again to...

Fear not, mein lieber Potter...

"Tremelda?!" Harry whispered in astonishment.

You have the strength to endure. Put aside your struggles, and learn...

"Learn what? Learn how?" More and more stings and stabs were tearing into him, faster than he could close them, but Harry focused his every sensory resource toward a single goal — hearing the words of his dear, deceased mentor.

Each tendril of pain is a seed of knowledge...

Harry nodded in vague comprehension as he felt the spirit of his ancient friend withdraw. His current plight of vicious magical assault shifted back into focus — he counted at least a dozen punctures tearing and dispersing his magic and soul, but somehow the whole context seemed different now. From Tremelda, he had found confidence! He knew now that in magic and soul he had a tremendous, nearly inexhaustible reserve. Harry Potter would not to be threatened by some foul bitch's cruel jabs!

With this new-found composure, came renewed focus. Per Tremelda's advice, Harry ceased to struggle against the black menace, and instead reached his mind into it, seeking to understand its essence, its evil and the manner in which it inflicted damage and suffering. He identified one particularly sharp gaping wound in his soul and sought to embrace its every ghastly sensation — the acrid pungence of burning tar... the metallic taste of a bloodied lip... the ripping staccato of moisture spattering off hot grease... a hellacious perverse music of Bellatrix Lestrange shrieking in mortal combat...

Harry was still cataloging these abominable details when his friends reconnected with him. Ginny arrived first — a blast of vengeful anger from a super-heated kiln, roasting the blackness to instant dust. Then, moments later, came a second, more subtle presence... a fresh spring breeze rustling the grasses, cleansing the caustic air... sapphire blue...

"Harry... Harry... Harry..." Ginny's kept whispering it, over and over, as if her entire universe was embodied in a single word.

Harry exhaled.

Two other exhalations immediately followed, and Harry recognized them both. One breath of passion and utter relief emanated from two lips pressed to his temple, ruffling his hair. The second, a ragged sob, emerged from further down, sending a puff of mist up from his chest. He opened his eyes to find Teri clutching him, quivering faintly, a fold of his anorak clenched indelicately between the girl's chattering teeth. And wrapped protective around them both, of course, were Ginny's mothering arms; her breath and pitched heartbeat now beginning to subside from the brief but adrenalised battle.

"Is everyone all right?" The expression of concern came from somewhere above the ravine; Harry recognized Lucia's voice.

Ginny opened her mouth, not really knowing the best reply, but Harry beat her to it. "I think we're okay," he called back in a voice that sounded surprisingly normal. "Ginny and I will need to take a break from wards for a while to take Teri back to the house. Can the rest of you carry on without us?"

Lucia didn't answer immediately. Another pair of hurried footfalls announced the arrival of Laura and Daphne. "Are you sure you're well enough?" Daphne was panting; hoarse and slightly frantic.

Without releasing Ginny or Teri, Harry rose to his full height and aimed a passable smile toward the three students. "I won't lie and claim we all just had a pleasant amble through the arboretum, but..." He paused for a moment and glanced down at his body to confirm that it was not truly riddled with bloody gashes. "I believe we're all capable of walking back to the house without a fuss. Besides..." He grinned, "I would hate to cut short this pleasant outing you're all enjoying."

Daphne snarled and looked around for something to throw at Harry, but failing at that, she joined Lucia and Laura in a little laugh. The three students turned about and returned to their assigned routes, while Harry pulled Ginny's old Christmas jumper over the ice-like Teri. Taking the girl's hand, and accepting Ginny's, Harry led the way back to the house.

When the tilting and swirling floor began to regain some respect for fundamental physics, the witch rose shakily to her feet. The dimly lit chamber trembled as her gaze darted from the pair of smouldering reed fetishes to the blackened patches on the wall and ceiling. Turning slowly, her coal-black eyes fixed themselves on her companion — a wizard behind whose genteel, dispassionate face lurked an oddity — an odd complexion that seemed almost shimmery, subtly blurring and sharpening from moment to moment.

The witch seemed little bothered by the unusual optic effect... but the man's calmness seemed to utterly enrage her. The flesh on her sallow face pulled back; the room filled with a hissing noise for a moment, then...

"AAIIIIIAAGHHHH!" Shrieking in rage, she spat a mouthful of blood and a shattered upper incisor into the wizard's stoic face. Whipping out her wand, she spun about and lunged rapaciously toward a cabinet stacked with strange materials and oddments.

Faster than a striking snake, the wizard seized her wrist.

"Tut tut," he chided condescendingly. "We invested a lot of time on that collection, Bella. We will find it most helpful for our subsequent trials." He squeezed her wrist with a momentarily crushing strength that completely defied the deep lines on his face. As she winced in pain, the wizard took advantage of her distraction to casually, surreptitiously siphon the blood from his face and scourgify his collar. He gave her a mirthless smile. "Let us keep our faith, dear. Considering that the boy eliminated the Dark Lord, I believe that your experiment today actually went fairly well."

She stared at him, digesting the coldly purring words of consolation. Chest still heaving, and hair strewn with blood and mucus, Bellatrix nonetheless found the presence of mind to nod her assent.

"Live and learn," he said casually as he turned to walk from the chamber. "Soon we will determine what went wrong in our preparations, and adjust accordingly."

Bellatrix turned to watch his retreating form. Her wand hand twitched in a momentary petulant impulse, but she suppressed the urge to curse him. She hated that foul, manipulative vermin and she would deal with him one day... but for now she detested Harry Potter far more!

Once again the ray of bright afternoon sun crept onto the page of text Ginny was trying to read, and once again she moved the book into the shade so that the brilliant glare didn't smart her eyes.

Didn't this figure?? Saturday had been a bleak, drab day; Sunday had been utter piss, and now Monday was going to mock her with a flashy, cheery, March-like ebullience as she sat in the bleeding library all day. She sighed, tucked her hair behind her ears and scanned down the list of topics Harry had asked her to investigate. She had been able to come up with clear answers for all of the first six questions that Harry had scrawled out, but as far as she was concerned each of the details she had uncovered was just nibbling around the edges of the one real problem.

How could Bellatrix's magical aura barge past some of the nation's the most powerful wards, grapple out across untold distances, and invade another person?

It was possible that some other explanation existed, but both Harry and Ginny had explicitly agreed on something that most wizards would consider to be impossible. All of the evidence procured from their magical aura perception was suggesting that Bellatrix, from an unknown hiding place almost certainly quite distant from Dolwyddelan, had somehow uncovered a way to project part of her magical soul into her living, breathing and highly unwilling daughter.

In contrast with the basic enslavement enabled by O bò magic, it seemed that Bellatrix must have stumbled onto something much more dynamic and devastating — the capacity to enter a victim, perceive things with the victim's own eyes and ears, and potentially even cast spells on the fly using the victim's own magic. Nobody who knew the circumstances — not Ginny, not Harry, not Ryan or even Hermione — could even begin to hypothesize how the witch was doing it. They had found no clear precedent. Riddle's diary had been capable of possession, but had required fairly frequent direct physical and mental contact to sustain a connection. Riddle had acquired a long-distance conduit to Harry through freakish accidental soul magic, but he had never truly been able to inflict his will on Harry through that nexus. Nothing else in the Hogwarts library suggested anything comparable and, while O bò remained a topic of active interest to them, it did not go far enough on its own to shed light on what had happened with Teri.

The truth was out there somewhere though. Ginny knew that they had collectively dug up a lot of sketchy concepts in the past couple of days, and perhaps somewhere in that mess there were useful clues, but they had certainly not yet been able to fit any of the pieces together in a way that made any real sense.

With a groan of frustration, Ginny once again moved her materials from the pesky sunbeam and looked at the last item on her list. She blinked in confusion as she read it.

Req. mood restorative? Pls. check potion ingredient compendium for mild restoratives.

"What in Merlin's name are you going on about, Potter?" Ginny muttered to herself, massaging her aching temples. After re-reading the request to see if it made any more sense on the second and third passes, Ginny shrugged, and surrendered to illogic. She rose stiffly from the desk and made her way along a well practiced route to the potions aisle, where she located "Potions Ingredients and their Functions: A Master Index" by Fillette Fennisnake. Wrestling the tome off the shelf, she lugged it back to her desk and flipped through toward the restoratives section.

A fragment of parchment fluttered out of the book and landed on the floor.

Huh?? Ginny frowned at the scrap, now lying by her foot, and saw that it had handwriting on it. She bent down to retrieve it, then flattened it against her desk. The nondescript writing stated:

GMW — I have what you seek!

Meet me on the east ramparts at 3:00 p.m., January 5, 1998.

Come alone!

Ginny gaped. "GMW — is this addressed to me?!" Her accidental vocalisation drew a ripple of grumbles and titters from other nearby library denizens, but her focus remained ion the strange note. Bloody hell, this is today's date! She whipped out her watch to read the time.

It was 2:52 p.m.

Ginny pushed herself away from the desk and threw her head back, silently cursing as she wondered who it was from, what it was about, and whether or how she should respond to it. On one hand, without a solid grasp of whom she might be dealing with, there was always a risk. With most Death Eaters incarcerated or still determinedly in hiding, meeting a new contact or informant was less risky than it might have been a few months earlier, but on the other hand she had acquired a bit of fame since Riddle's death, so it could be some barmy fanatic.

She knew, of course, that if she simply ignored the note, curiosity would eat her alive...

Yes, the best plan would be to carefully investigate, but make certain that someone else knew where she was. Unfortunately Harry had said he was going to hole himself up in the Room of Requirement until four o'clock, hoping to meditatively unravel the finer details on what had happened yesterday in the meadow. In the extremely limited time left before 3:00 p.m., she had no idea if she could track down any of their other inner-circle colleagues to let them know where she was headed.

Her mind awhirl, Ginny rose from her chair and began walking mechanically toward the library door, uncertain exactly what she was about to get herself into.

"Hello Ginevra! You're looking quite peaky today — have you been collecting onummorbos too?"

Ginny stopped dead in her tracks and spun around. Bathed in sunlight, her head a glistening blonde halo, sat a placidly smiling Luna Lovegood.

Ginny met Luna's gaze and raised a finger inquiringly. "Hey, Luna...?" She paused as she wondered how, exactly, she was going to phrase the question.

"Oh, but of course I do, Ginevra," Luna's smile softened knowingly. "You hardly need to ask, don't you realise that?"

"I... uh what?"

"You hardly need ask," Luna repeated. "You should know very well by now that I've always admired your hands. Especially the fingers! I think you have the most graceful fingers in the whole school, and I'm certain Harry will adore that one." Luna pointed toward Ginny's raised hand.

"Oh! I, uh, thank you." Ginny lowered her finger self consciously. "But, I..."

"Oh, don't mention it! What are friends for, after all?" Luna responded in a tranquil voice.

"Thanks, thanks." Ginny nodded hurriedly before the conversation thread could be allowed to unravel further. "Uh, Luna, I'm headed up to the east ramparts..."

"Oh, thank heavens you've finally come to your senses!" Luna's eyes widened in concern. "A bit of sunshine will do wonders for the onummorbos. Half an hour up there, and the rest of you won't look nearly so washed-out when it comes time to show Harry your pretty finger."

"Oh yes, I'm sure!" Ginny agreed. "But if you don't see me back in the Great Hall by suppertime, could you please let Harry know where I went?"

"Certainly, Ginevra! I'll tell him you've gone up to the east ramparts to get a bit of sunshine." Luna beamed happily at her friend. "And I promise I won't spoil your surprise about the finger." The girl attempted a wink, although it came out as a bit of a twisted blink.

"Er, well, okay yes — that will do. Thank you Luna!" Ginny turned and hurried out of the library.

Luna frowned. "She needn't have run — there's still nearly an hour before sundown." She gazed up toward the sunny Gothic windows. "Ah well — the spirit of youth is oft misguided but ever so sweet!"

Whether sweet, misguided or otherwise, Ginny raced up twelve flights of stairs, tore down the seventh floor corridor past the Astronomy Tower, and through the archway onto the ramparts. Catching her breath, she scanned up and down the length of the walkway.

It was deserted.

Ginny stared at her watch. It was 3:02 p.m. "Oh come on! Two minutes! Surely you can spare two minutes!"

"Yes, I can do that," a familiar voice agreed, as two hands wound gently around her from behind.

"Oh bloody hell." Ginny rolled her eyes.

And then she began to laugh.

Harry's lips found the precise spot on her neck that always altered the pitch of her laughter... but before the breathing became ragged, he raised his face again to press warmly against her cheek and tightened his grip around her waist. In the golden, late afternoon sun and unseasonably mild south wind, Harry rocked Ginny in languid time to some unknown song.

"You tricked me," she murmured; the letter of her protest belied by a content smile.

"Hmmm?" Harry mused. "Are you suggesting that I don't have what you seek?"

"But..." Ginny's words drifted off in the breeze. She had to admit that her heart wasn't really invested in this debate; not when it had much more wonderful things to invest itself in right now. She pulled Harry's arms a bit tighter around herself and added her own little cadence to their peaceful sway.

"So you were looking for mood restoratives, right?" Harry smiled, and didn't wait for an answer. "Well, who needs a potion, when you have a little sunshine, fresh mild air and a bit of time alone with the one you love?"

"Mmmm mmmmm," Ginny replied thoughtfully.

Some time later, they watched the sun set — a great ball of hope and promise atop the distant southwest hills. For a while they found creative ways to keep each other warm as the evening chill set in... then they walked slowly back into the castle to resume their quest for truth and peace.


Back to index


Chapter 6: Cousin Capers

Author's Notes:

Credit and appreciation is due to Martin (Gin110881) for reminding me in a review of The Prevailing Counterpoint just how awkward a collaborative student / Auror program is likely to prove. This chapter reflects that. Thanks also to Aimless for catching glitches and setting me straight. Hope you enjoy this somewhat transitional chapter.

Note added Aug. 8, 2015: A missing moment has been added to the end of the Auror meeting in this chapter. Credit again is due to Martin for pointing out a plot issue that was not explicitly dealt with in the text in the earlier version.


Chapter 6. Cousin Capers (Jan. 9-10, 1998)

To get a sense of the electrified atmosphere pulsing through Hogwarts on Thursday and Friday, one need have looked no further than the charms classroom chalk board. Conveying sporting fervour and professorial frustration in equal measure, Professor Flitwick's looping script scrawled across nearly the entire writing space, spelling out the following message:

HOGWARTS FORECAST FOR FRI., JAN. 9:

PARTLY CLOUDY; LIGHT WINDS; NIGHTLY LOW NEAR 8 °C

GO EAGLES!!

NOW PLEASE PLEASE PLEASE

TRY TO SIT QUIETLY AND CONCENTRATE ON CHARMS!!!

This strange missive had come about for one simple reason: the entire school had gone a bit berserk. The recent flu epidemic had run its course and faded from conversation, but it had been replaced by another, perhaps even more debilitating, outbreak — Quidditch fever! Everyone, from the mousiest first-year to the most jaded, disaffected seventh-year was gearing up to see a rather unconventional scrimmage!

In truth it wasn't supposed to be a big deal... but sometimes modest circumstances, once conflated, can swell to prodigious expectations. On Tuesday afternoon after Transfiguration class, Zabini had casually approached Ravenclaw Quidditch captain Duncan Inglebee with a proposition — he was looking to task The Flying Circus with a bit of a practical test before their first scheduled match (January 19th against the Skegness Shrakes), and he wondered whether Inglebee's squad might enjoy a bit of a friendly tuneup? He suggested Friday evening, since nobody had reserved the pitch for that time.

By Tuesday evening, Inglebee had accidentally let slip to several dozen people that his squad had been challenged by The Flying Circus to take part in a head-to-head showdown, pitting this year's best squad at Hogwarts against the best team that... er, well, that nobody had ever played before. Within hours, a full-bore maelstrom of wild speculation had erupted.

Ultimately the resulting tangle of stories had alarmed both Harry and Flitwick enough that they decided to haul Zabini and Inglebee into Flitwick's office first thing Wednesday morning to determine what was going on, and figure out whether it amounted to something viable and within Hogwarts regulations.

"Okay," Harry had said, "according to the current rumours, this Friday evening, down at the Quidditch pitch we will be experiencing either A — a scouting mini-camp organized jointly by Holyhead and Falmouth, B — an ambush by rogue Heliopaths to retaliate for mistreatment during the Battle of Hogwarts, C — a match between Ravenclaw House and an exhibition team that will take place of the usual House Quidditch Cup Final, or D — something else entirely. Would either of you care to enlighten?"

Harry had proceeded to fix both Zabini and Inglesbee with a hard look that the most practiced eye might realize was tinged with amused exasperation.

Happily, within ten minutes, both Harry and Flitwick were able to translate the apparent plan into something that could actually prove, under the right circumstances to be legal, useful, safe and entertaining. In consultation with McGonagall, they decided to go ahead with a scrimmage, and establish realistic ground rules. The three faculty members had ultimately set weather stipulations, because both Harry and Flitwick had adamantly agreed that there was no point in risking injuries or illness for the sake of a meaningless pre-exhibition scrimmage.

Since Flitwick possessed a charmed wireless receiver capable of receiving Muggle news and weather forecasts from nearby Dufftown, he volunteered to track the conditions and make the final judgment on whether to hold the event. Hence, the chalk board updates.

As the scheduled day grew nearer and Flitwick's forecasts steadily converged toward favourable weather, the chatter grew from the original buzz to an undulating roar, and absolutely nobody was referring to this as 'a meaningless pre-exhibition scrimmage'. Instead, the broad consensus held that this might well be the single best opportunity all dreary-long year for an exciting Quidditch match at Hogwarts.

Wagers began springing up, and speculation was rampant.

Why had Zabini approached Ravenclaw rather than Slytherin? How much would Zabini cheat? How good would Page be after eighteen months in semi-pro? Would Ginny be allowed to terrorize the skies, or would she be kept on a tight rein to prevent injuries? Would Summerby ever actually say anything? Would Potter stipulate a super-fast professional Snitch? If so, would (Ravenclaw Seeker Orla) Quirke get so much as a glimpse at it before Potter made the catch? Would Potter shank the Snitch a few times to prolong the match? What crazy stunts would the twins pull? Would they charm the Bludgers to explode into green hair dye on contact? Was anyone safe with those two lunatics back on Hogwarts grounds? And, last but not least...

Could Ravenclaw keep this match even remotely close??

"Sure!" Harry replied in answer to Hannah Abbott's question as he and Ginny accompanied a crowd of students on their way together down to the pitch. Terry Boot's and Michael Corner's heads swiveled at the unexpected answer and they tuned themselves intently to Harry's voice as he elaborated. "Ravenclaw has a mature team, and most of their squad has been playing and practising together for years We, on the other hand..." Harry shrugged. "We've only been mucking about for a couple weeks. I think we'll be hard pressed to even keep pace with them."

"Bollocks Potter!" Zacharias Smith gave him a defiant sneer. "Forget playing your silly confidence games — I have a ten galleon wager down on you and your arrogant goons to run up at least a five hundred point margin over those gormless nancies. Easy money! If you can't demolish those Chickenclaws, you should all be ground up and fed to flobberworms."

"Oh, and who asked your opinion, Smith?" Sarah Lindsey shot him a searing look. "Now that I think of it, I can't recall anyone in the entire annals of recorded history ever asking your opinion for anything!" She turned to stalk away, but added congenially over her should, "Harry, Ginny — have a good match! I hope you all play well and have fun!"

"Have fun?? Stupid bint hasn't the slightest clue about sports." Zacharias scowled squintily in the direction of her retreating form, before suddenly flinching in surprise. "Hey! What the h... squawk squawk squawk SQUAWK squawk?!"

The group was laughing uproariously a minute later when Neville rushed to catch up with them. He gazed around at the faces with a puzzled grin. "What's so funny, mates?"

The answer, unfortunately, was accidentally clobbered by Neville's leg. "Oi!" he yelped, leaping back at the unexpected site of four pounds of ruffled, indignant feathers, claws and beak attacking his careless ankle. "What in the name of...?? Where'd the minging chicken come from??"

Needless to say, it was a rather foul (fowl) night for Zacharias Smith... but at least he could be comforted in having been at least partially correct. The match was not particularly close, and Ravenclaw did not really hold their own. Indeed, in mockery of the days of hype and eager anticipation, there was nail-biting sporting drama for a grand total of two minutes... before things really fell apart for the Eagles.

Ravenclaw actually scored first, with Lisa Turpin feeding Chambers a sharp pass on Grant Page's far side for an easy Quaffle to the left-most hoop. A few cat-calls emerged from the Ravenclaw stands. "Over-rated!" they called out to their former Quidditch Keeper, but Harry didn't think so. Even before the Quaffle got past Page, Harry knew that the goal had nothing to do with Page's skills, Chambers' scoring prowess, or even early-match nerves.

It was simply too dark!

Harry had spotted Page squinting fiercely, trying to track the Quaffle as Turpin and Chambers had closed in. Swooping about the east end of the pitch, Harry glanced up and noticed that two of the magical lights above Page's hoops had gone out! Nodding to himself in recognition, Harry adjusted them on the fly with a quick wandless spell and they flared back to life. Page looked up, first at the lights and then toward Harry, and flashed him a grin. Problem solved for The Flying Circus.

And bad news for Ravenclaw.

With Page adequately illuminated, the Keeper became very nearly impermeable, and the small Ravenclaw lead evaporated faster than Firewhisky in the Gobi desert as The Flying Circus began scoring in buckets. Their Chaser strategy was blatantly obvious from the very first play onwards, but it confounded the Eagles. The simple yet effective scheme was for Summerby to do most of the Quaffle handling, and feed the hot hand.

In the early going, this meant sticking within fifty feet of Ginny on all offensive plays and tossing her the Quaffle as soon as she had anything that looked remotely like an open shot on goal. After she scored on three of the first four excursions into Ravenclaw territory, the Eagles shifted tactics and began to swarm her the instant she embarked on an offensive. This, however, soon proved equally futile — Summerby instead began feeding Zabini and, although not possessed of Ginny's brutal scoring instincts, the team captain nonetheless made Ravenclaw pay dearly for ignoring him.

Bludger control was a complete washout for the Eagles. Beginning with the first play, Inglebee and Samuels proved to be no match whatsoever for the twins who played the whole match with an intensity that was both fierce and, strangely, rather humane. Fred and George found that they could protect their Chasers with their near-perfect keep-away skills, constantly foiling Ravenclaw Beater attempts to get anywhere near the Bludgers. The only (debatable) weakness in the twins' performance was their susceptibility to an unexpected emotion — pity.

In other words, there's no need to hurt anyone, if it's clear nobody can hurt you.

As it happened, Ravenclaw offensives were so disrupted by Ginny and Summerby zipping through the passing lanes in combination with Zabini's cloying on-Quaffle defence that the Eagle Chasers Turpin, Bradley and Chambers were completely rattled, even without Bludgers to flee from. Fred and George knew that Harry had hoped to avoid injuries and animousity, so despite their countless chances to clobber opponents — opportunities they never would have squandered against any Slytherin team of old — they held back, controlled the Bludgers, and let the blighters slog on unscathed. The closest the twins came to their old feisty ways occurred several times they noticed Ginny growing frustrated by unrelenting triple-teams. Even that bit of contention didn't last long — after Fred and George had each whacked the Ravenclaw Chaser Bradley with sharp, glancing blows in the span of less than a minute, the triple-team plays disappeared. From that point onwards, a single sidelong glare from either Fred or George was usually threat enough to spread a sticky defence.

Unsurprisingly, after several raucous minutes to open the match, the huge crowd grew eerily subdued. There was a rustle of appreciation as Ginny intercepted Turpin's pass and executed a wild, single-handed slalom run through the Ravenclaw defence to produce another mind-bending score; a bit scattered applause trickled through for other noteworthy plays, but the audience began to spend an increasingly large percentage of the time simply staring with wide, silent eyes at the systematic evisceration of what was arguably the best student team at the school.

Thirty five minutes into the match, high above yet another crisp Flying Circus offensive, Harry sidled up to his Seeker opponent.

"Hey Orla," he said.

Orla groaned, turning to him with an exasperated smile. "Hi Harry. I suppose you're here to tell me that you're watching the Snitch right now, and you're wondering if I'm ever going to see it too?"

Harry gave her a small smile in response. "Sort of," he admitted. "I was going to ask whether you figured I should end this now, or let them play a while longer?"

"Harry!" The Ravenclaw Seeker stared at him. "It's the Seeker's code — if you see the Snitch when you have enough points for the win, you go for it!"

"Ah." Harry pursed his lips and nodded. "And how about now?" Flicking his hand, the scoreboard suddenly went blank.

A loud murmur swept through the previously stoney crowd. After a moment, the magically amplified sound of a chuckling Flitwick resounded across the pitch. "Ahem! Very well, everyone, I guess maybe we should just forget the score. Play on!" With an amused grin, he waved knowingly at Harry.

"Okay, okay." Orla laughed. "We'll play it out, but if I ever see the Snitch, I'm going to grab it from right under your nose!"

Harry merely smiled and winked.

Down below, after some momentary confusion, the other players shrugged and soon settled into an untallied scrimmage that actually turned out to be much more entertaining for all. Instantly freed from the pressures of a horrendous deficit, the Eagles loosened up, threw away their playbook, and began experimenting. Turpin, Chambers and Bradley discovered that the key to disrupting Summerby's unflappable orchestration was not to attack the receiver or the passer, but rather to sustain constant motion in the passing lanes, seeking to contest every pass and play for possible interceptions. Ravenclaw Beaters Inglebee and Samuels realized that they needed to act as wedges to drive Fred and George apart so that the twins couldn't constantly cover for each other.

Ultimately, the outcome wouldn't have been hugely different. The Flying Circus still scored far more often than Grant Page made mistakes. The untold tally at the sixty five minute mark when Harry pulled down the Snitch must still have been quite ridiculous, but for at least the last twenty-five minutes, the aerial maneuvers and gamesmanship proved to be immensely engaging for both players and the crowd. And, gratifyingly, nobody seemed to care what the score was!

Well, almost nobody...

"Five hundred and thirty bleeding points, ta twenty!" Seamus shook his head in awe.

"Cobblers, mate!" Dean countered. "Ravenclaw had to have had at least forty points — Chambers himself had thirty!"

"Nah, Dean, two o' Chambers goals were waived fer Bradley's stooging!"

"Stooging?? As if Zabini wasn't stooging for at least five of Weasley's scores! I swear he..."

"Whoa, mate — watch where ye're walking!"

"Whoops! Wha...??" Dean leapt back several feet as an enraged bird threw itself at his legs. "What's with the rowdy chicken?"

"Huh..." Seamus paused in momentary consternation, before chuckling. "Dunno Dean — the way the li'l tyke's scratchin' dirt at ye, it's almost like he thinks yer completely off yer trolley."

Many say that the best way to get people's attention is to put on a show. Indeed, Friday night's scrimmage must have truly resonated with Hogwarts students, because the next morning's weekly interhouse Quidditch club suddenly ballooned from the usual genial affair involving roughly twenty regulars into utter bedlam! Harry estimated that nearly fifty students had shown up to the pitch... and he was feeling more than a bit guilty because, in the midst of all this chaos and excitement, he was going to have to skip out.

"Are you sure you can handle this insanity?" Harry asked quietly as he pulled Ginny aside on the outskirts of the crowd.

By way of answer, she simply leaned in and gave him a friendly peck on the cheek. "Don't worry. Zabini, Summerby and Stephanie have all promised to help; I was thinking perhaps two of us can run a few drills on the side for the novices, while the other two officiate a couple of parallel scrimmages. Anyway, we're sure to figure something out. And besides, what you have to do is much more important than this!"

Harry pulled her in tightly for a quick hug, and kissed her forehead. "Thanks!" He pulled back to beam a big smile. "Wish me luck!"

They gave each other one final squeeze before parting, then Harry made his solitary way off the pitch, down to the front gate and beyond. Lost in thought, the walk to the Apparition point barely registered in his mind, and he soon found himself striding through the woods toward the Dolwyddelan manor house... for the first time since his nightmarish experience six days ago.

Making his way along the final stretch of the path to the steps, both front doors swung open and he looked up to see Kreacher and Andromeda waiting for him. "Good morning!" He gave them a cheery wave.

Andromeda smiled, and Kreacher bowed. "Kreacher bids the Lord Potter a fine morning," the elf said in his usual rumble. Harry smiled to them both and, for the sake of civility, did not roll his eyes at the incurably formal deference that Kreacher continued to subject him to.

As Harry shed his cloak, in the Entrance Hall, Anna and Ange rushed out from the kitchen, outfitted in aprons and washing gloves. "Good morning, Mr. Harry!" they called out excitedly.

"Shall I go fetch Teri for you, Mr. Harry?" Anna asked.

"Good morning, Anna! Good morning, Ange!" Harry grinned at the girls, but instead of answering Anna's question, he turned inquiringly to Andromeda.

Andromeda shook her head. "Thank you Anna, but no. We'll not fetch Teri quite yet. Mr. Harry and I must first have a quick chat together in the study. Now girls, please finish up in the kitchen so you're all done before Miss Susan and Miss Daphne arrive for Sunday morning play time!"

Harry laughed as the girls squealed happily and chased each other back through the door. In a display of the friendly familiarity that had developed between them, Andromeda linked her arm with Harry's and led him into the old ornate study off the Entrance Hall. She closed the heavy oaken door behind them and gestured him toward a seat by the fire. "Tea, Harry?" she asked.

"Yes please, and thank you." Harry stretched his legs out comfortably. "So your owl indicated that Teri has been doing well all week?"

Serving the tea and taking a seat beside him, Andromeda gave Harry a weary but satisfied smile. "Yes, a tremendous improvement. We had been growing increasingly worried even before last weekend's incident. Teri had been having intermittent but fairly frequent spells of unexplained discomfort and disorientation from mid-December onwards, but after sleeping off her exhaustion from Sunday, she got up on Monday morning and has been on a steady, even keel ever since. She's actually doing better now than she had been last autumn when she first arrived here."

"That's great to hear." Harry sipped his tea pensively. "And you're certain that she's comfortable with speaking to me?"

"Yes, Harry." Andromeda nodded with quiet conviction. "I should mention that the circumstances are somewhat unique — Teri has made it consistently clear that she has no intention whatsoever of discussing anything about last Sunday with anyone, except you. And when I told her that you wanted to speak to her about it, she was actually... well 'eager' is never really a word I use with Teri in any context, but she seemed relieved that you were willing to meet with her, and quite open to doing it as soon as you were available."

"Wonderful!" Harry smiled. "Well, I'm ready whenever you and she are. My curiosity is going through the rafters."

Andromeda stood, picking up her tea as she did. "I think I've aid all I need to, and I believe Teri was ready for you an hour ago." She gave Harry a wry smile. "I think you'll find her quite curious about you too. Please sit tight for a moment, and I'll have Anna fetch her."

"Thanks Andy," Harry returned her smile, then angled his face toward the door. "Kreacher, could you please bring some hot cider to the study please? You can leave it right inside the door."

Harry moved his feet closer to the fire and closed his eyes, not in weariness, but rather in contemplation. He retreated into his magical senses until he could feel the humming signature of the old manor, something typical of a place that, despite having been abandoned for much of the last half century, had been occupied by wizards for many generations prior to that. Above the background buzz, he sensed the powerful white flame of Andromeda's aura retreating as the witch made her way to the kitchen, and he dimly registered the flickers of numerous other people moving about the building in their daily activities. And then after a while he detected the strong, blue glow that he was now becoming increasingly familiar with. It grew steadily stronger and more luminous in Harry's mind... until he heard the study door close with a soft click. Then he opened his eyes.

Teri stood by the door, holding several books under her arm, looking at Harry uncertainly. "Is it okay to enter, Mr. Harry?" she asked.

"Of course, Sugar Plum," he replied. "Sorry I had my eyes closed. I... well, I was just sort of getting to know you better."

She stared at him for a moment, then slowly, inquiringly, raised a finger and pointed at her head.

"Yes." Harry gave her a soft smile as he raised a finger to his own temple. "That's exactly what I mean. I suspect you probably do the same thing with me sometimes, don't you Teri?"

The girl stood in silent thought.

"Well, why don't you come in and show me your books." Harry gestured to the armchair that Andromeda had vacated. "Please take a seat."

Teri quietly obeyed, spreading the books on the table by the fire and settling into the chair.

"Would you like a cup of hot cider?" Harry asked, indicating the tray that Kreacher had placed near the doorway.

"Yes please." Teri was just starting to rise to fetch it for herself, when Harry reached out and placed a hand on her arm. She looked at him with a puzzled expression.

Harry gazed into her eyes. "You don't really need to walk over there to fetch it, do you?"

She stared at him for a long moment then settled back into her seat. Ever so slowly, she shook her head with a peculiar, somewhat guilty, expression.

Harry smiled. "It's okay, Teri, this can be our little secret. Go ahead and summon a cup for yourself — I promise you won't get in any trouble."

Teri scrutinized him carefully for a moment, then she nodded again. Without any other motion, she closed her eyes and a slight frown crept over her face. Over by the door, one of the cups rattled.

Attention still mostly trained on his companion, Harry's peripheral vision monitored the tray with curious anticipation. The cup sat still for a moment, then ever so slightly... hesitant like a fledgling sparrow poised on the nesting branch... the cup lifted. It lingered for an instant, an inch above the tray, but then, absolved of its gravitational duty, raised up and glided confidently over to the girl. Eyes still closed, she raised her hand and intercepted it with a Seeker's perfect grace, not spilling a drop.

She opened her eyes to meet Harry's quietly beaming gaze. An expression crossed her face — for the first time in Harry's recollection there was nothing cold or hardened in her eyes; no trace of a frown or smirk. It may have lasted only an instant, but it was, unmistakably and genuinely, a smile.

The girl and young man regarded each other in silence for a moment. Harry raised his teacup to Teri. She quietly reciprocated, and another smile drifted briefly across her face.

Harry then turned his attention to the books on the table. "So let's see what you've brought..." His gaze caught upon a familiar greyish hardcover with lurid green lettering. "Yugh!" Shivering a bit in revulsion, he shook his head. "We have lots of good, clean firewood in here — why bring that lump of flammable filth?" Still griimacing, he looked around in vain for something to cover the leering image of his face.

Teri burst out laughing at Harry's exaggerated disgust, then fought back a lingering smirk to restore her normally serious demeanour. "Just one question first, Mr. Harry, then I'll put it away."

"Okay," Harry nodded equitably as he averted his eyes from the literary abomination.

"Is anything in that book true?"

It was Harry's turn to burst into laughter. "I don't have the foggiest clue, Teri," he answered. "I know that's not very helpful, but I've never even opened the book and hope I never have to. May I ask why you were reading it?"

Teri paused for a long moment; seeming to struggle with the question. "I don't know Mr. Harry. It was not exactly curiosity." She shook her head slightly. "I think... I guess... I would like to get to know you."

"Ah." Harry nodded. "Well then perhaps we can get to know each other the proper way — by spending time together, talking when whenever we can, and helping each other. Becoming friends perhaps?"

"That would be very nice," Teri agreed softly. "I apologise for bringing a book that you don't like, Mr. Harry. I asked Miss Daphne to find it for me, but that was back when I... when I was worried that it might never be possible for us to be friends."

"No need to apologise; I'm pretty certain I know what you mean." Harry gave her a reassuring smile. "And as you've guessed, these are all reasons that I came to see you today — in part because I would like to become your friend, and partly because I was wondering if you might be able to talk to me about the... problem you've been having?"

Teri's gaze locked onto him. "If I talk to you about it, do you think we can keep it from happening again?"

Harry met her gaze. He contemplated the girl whose earnest eyes saw more than the light alone revealed; whose incisive ears heard more than sound. Something fundamental occurred to Harry — he realized that Teri, like Ginny, was someone he would never be able to truly ever tell a lie to. Ginny didn't need her Legilimency to read him like an open book, and Harry was becoming convinced that Teri must be developing that skill too. He sighed. With people like that, it was never particularly easy to deliver difficult answers.

"It's hard to say yet. Like any good witness in a challenging investigation, whatever information you give me may well make the difference between our success in figuring this out, or us never cracking it, but I'm afraid that I can't promise you a perfect solution right away." Harry watched the girl nod emotionlessly, then continued. "The best I can guarantee is a pledge to do everything in my power to find an answer. Hopefully it won't take us too terribly long, and with luck the solution will last us forever."

Teri nodded in tacit acceptance and gazed into a dark corner of the room. Harry let her sit in silence to gather her thoughts and recollections. After a while, she turned again to face Harry and the words began to come, with a careful deliberation that made her sound much older than her nine years.

"It was like being bullied. It was as if I had someone bigger and stronger following me around, making me do things I didn't want to, and... no..." Teri shook her head. "Maybe it's more like I was a doll and I had someone playing with me, making me do stupid things."

Harry watched with sympathy and concern but said nothing as Teri turned away to stare into the depths of the fire. "I hate her!" The hardness of her words subsided to a low seethe, barely audible above the crackling flames.

"Her?" Harry raised an inquiring eyebrow. "Do you know who she is?"

Teri shook her head angrily. "No. She doesn't care about names. The only thing important to her is that she can be the master and I have to be her slave!"

Harry gazed at the girl with a gentle sadness. "I hate to make you revisit this, but it would help me if you could give me some examples of things she made you do?"

"It started with stupid things like, lift your arm above your head, or kneel down and kiss the floor." The girl winced in embarrassment. "Later, it started to get really creepy. She would make me stare at Mrs. Dromeda sometimes, or walk around the house looking carefully at rooms, doors and windows..." Teri paused as she noticed Harry taking notes.

When Harry's quill ceased, Teri resumed speaking in a weak, haltingly tone. "I never really knew when she would visit. Much of the time, she would leave me alone, but she did often seem to guess whenever an interesting visitor was going to meet with us. So, of course she had to visit that Saturday after Christmas when we were all in the meadow..."

Harry's ears perked up.

"Up until then, she mostly just watched any guest we had, so I swear, there was no reason for me to suspect she would want to h-hurt..." Teri paused to swallow hard. "You remember, Mr. Harry, that thing that happened to your ponce friend? The one with the Quidditch toys?"

"Ron?" Harry nodded, with a frown. "Teri, did Bel-... did she... somehow force you to use your own magic on Ron?"

Teri shook her head. "I don't think so, but she kept trying to force me to get close to him... and I started to feel strange. And I felt a..." She paused uncomfortably, and turned back to gaze at the flames. "I kept hearing a loud buzzing — almost as though I had bugs in my ears."

Harry tapped his quill against a blotter thoughtfully. "Was she was channeling her magic through you, then?"

"I don't know." Teri shrugged. "Maybe."

"So what happened next?"

Teri took a deep breath; her hands clenched hard about the base of the chair. "I got angry. The buzzing was making me feel sick, and your friend was shouting and yelling at me, and the bitch kept pushing and pushing me to get closer to him, so I just refused to give anybody the satisfaction of... well... hurting me. So, I just said no. I forced myself to calm down, to not go off and throw a wobbly. And when I got calm enough, I made myself walk away."

"You looked amazingly composed." Harry gazed at her in quiet admiration.

"Mr. Harry, I..."

Harry looked up from his notes in surprise — for the briefest instant, Teri's voice threatened to crack; its pitch had seemed anything but calm. However, in the split second it took him to raise his eyes, he could already see her restoring the equilibrium she needed to speak evenly. "Mr. Harry, when I was little, there were lots of times I had to pretend to be very calm. Even if I wasn't."

A sharp pang shot straight through Harry's chest. Unbidden, scores of his own worst Dursley memories raced across his mind, overlaid against the image of the stoic girl sitting by the fire. His hand twitched, wanting to reach for hers so that perhaps, together, they could somehow exorcise their own private pains. But he held himself back, not knowing how a child of untold hardships would respond. Instead, hoping that she would be receptive, his eyes projected sincere empathy for a moment before turning back to his parchment.

"Through all that you've described..." Harry paused for a moment assimilate his notes. "Through all of this, you never lost yourself? You were always Teri, and you always knew what Teri wanted, but... there were times it felt like it wasn't you who was getting to decide what to do with your body?"

"Yes," Teri agreed. The momentary pain a minute ago seemed to be past her now. She picked up another book from the table and handed it to Harry. "How was she doing it, Mr. Harry? What spell was she using?"

Harry scanned the book's cover. It was an updated copy of Miranda Goshawk's 'Book of Spells'. He frowned sadly at her earnestness and at the lack, once again, of any satisfying answer to offer. "This is a good book, but even it may have nothing that can help us, Teri," he replied. "Someone has found some very strange magic that I don't understand yet. That makes it a lot more difficult than just looking up a counter-curse or a ward spell. But please understand this — the people that I work with have solved some very scary and strange riddles before, and we are going to find a way to beat this one too."

Teri nodded her head slowly. Studying her carefully, Harry finished his tea and put the cup down. "Do you trust me to help you with this, Teri?" he asked.

"I do, Mr. Harry," she averred.

"Can I talk to several people about some of the things we discussed today?" Harry asked carefully. "Only a few of my closest friends; people I trust with some of my deepest secrets to help solve some of my most challenging problems?"

Teri nodded again without meeting his gaze.

Harry smiled. "I'm very glad we were finally able to sit down and talk. Do you think we can do this again after I've had a chance to think about things some more. Maybe next week?"

"I think so," she said quietly.

Harry considered the girl, sensing a renewed reticence. Wondering if it was because of the challenging and ambiguous nature of the problem, he forced a smile onto his face, hoping to boost her mood. "So, do you think we should go out and see what kind of silly things Miss Susan and Miss Daphne are planning for the others?"

Teri shrugged. She put down her mug, but made no effort to stand.

"Is there anything else you'd like to talk about first?" Harry asked, still trying to project a cheery demeanour to disguise his growing concern.

She shook her head.

They sat in silence for a minute; Harry watching the girl as she stared at the fire.

Wondering if Andromeda might be able to shed light on the girl's sudden introversion, Harry finally rose from his chair. "Thank you, Sugar Plum," he said softly. "If ever you need to talk to me, please tell Mrs. Dromeda, and she'll be able to find me, okay?"

Teri said nothing.

As Harry began to cross the room, she finally stirred from her fugue. "Mr. Harry?"

"Yes?"

"Mr. Harry, do you think..." The girl paused and turned her back to him. "Do you think Miss Ginny will ever forgive me for what I d-did to you last weekend?"

"Ever forgive??" Harry was taken aback. "Heavens, Teri!" he exclaimed. "You don't need anybody's forgiveness. Ginny knows that it wasn't your fault. She knows exactly who was attacking me, and she knows blo-... er, she knows very well that it wasn't you!"

"I know I wasn't attacking you, Mr. Harry," Teri stammered, her voice beginning to break again, "but it never would have happened if I hadn't been there. I tried to stay away, but I c-couldn't. And... and Miss Ginny was so... angry..." The girl's closing voice had faltered to a wavering whisper.

"Miss Ginny wasn't angry with you!" Harry shook his head vigourously. "She was absolutely irate with the same person you and I are both upset at, but she wasn't mad at anyone else. If you were able to catch the subtle currents beneath her anger, you would have sensed frustration and worry. This situation is very troubling for us all, because we simply don't understand how to prevent these attacks yet, or how best to fight the sort of orders you were getting, or what we ourselves would do in your position. We're also concerned that the attacker is still learning new tricks, so even if you might have been able to resist the commands before, we can't expect you to succeed all the time."

Teri nodded quietly.

Harry's breath caught, afraid his candid outburst may have gone much too far for such a young audience. In fact, however, the girl's anxiety actually seemed to diminish, as if she was less concerned about perilous uncertainty than about the stigma of having caused disappointment or anger.

Harry nodded slowly, opting to change his tone back to gentle reassurance, "Miss Ginny is very powerful and very protective. That's what she was doing on Sunday — defending us — protecting both of us. She chased away the enemy so fiercely that you haven't had any problems in nearly a week, right? That was all Ginny meant to do."

Teri nodded uncertainly and turned obliquely so that her face was partially visible to Harry.

"Did Miss Ginny hurt you?" Harry asked softly. "Because if she did, I'm certain that it was purely accidental, and that she would very much want to apologise."

Teri considered this for a moment, then shook her head. "No, she didn't hurt me, but it was very very scary."

"Er yes, I know. I was there." Harry chuckled. "You're not the first friend that she's unintentionally frightened like that. I'm sure she will want to apologise to you, if you're willing to talk to her."

Teri didn't seem to have heard Harry's last statement. Her attention drifted back toward the fire for a long moment, but then she turned to face Harry directly with a fierce glint in her eyes. "I'm glad that neither you nor Miss Ginny is upset with me Mr. Harry. But you wouldn't have caved to the orders. You've never done anything the insane bitch told you to, have you?"

Harry rubbed his chin thoughtfully. "Well, I don't know if your attacker has ever actually tried to command me, as such. Not using the methods she's been using on you."

"If she did, you would tell her to stuff it," Teri stated baldly.

Harry nodded. "I can't say for certain, Teri, but I think I could fight her off..."

"Mr. Harry, I don't want to ever let anyone use me to hurt people again." Steely determination shone in the girl's eyes. "You have to teach me everything you know about how to fight it."

"Blimey," He stared at her with wide eyes and ran a hand through his hair. "I'd have to start with Occlumency, but that's a seventh year NEWT option, Teri. A lot of students skip it altogether because it's so hard. And who knows how difficult it will be to learn any other spells we might need for dealing with... well, against whatever magic we're up against...?"

"That doesn't matter. You can teach me, uh, Occlumency to start with, and when you figure out other ways to fight it later, I'll learn those too," Teri stated obdurately.

Pinned by the girl's unbending stare, Harry knew better than to laugh or disagree. "Okay Teri," he said in a matter-of-fact tone, "we'll try. Starting next week."

Teri scrutinized him for a long moment with all the delicacy of a cudgel, then nodded. "Thank you Mr. Harry." At last, her tone lightened. "Now I think we can go see what silliness Miss Susan and Miss Daphne are up to."

Harry was late.

Only a few minutes late, mind you. Several students had accosted him on his way back through the Entrance Hall to ask him about an upcoming Hogwarts Army training session, and he could never brush off that sort of enthusiasm. The meeting could get along fine without him for a little while, right?

Perhaps not. By the time he stepped into the fifth floor DADA classroom, you could practically cut the atmosphere with a well-honed diffindo. With a pulsating red complexion, Auror Williamson paused in mid-sentence as Harry entered the room, and lowered the menacing finger that had jabbed mere inches from Ryan's stoic, unwavering face.

Ginny rolled her eyes, then gave Harry a quick smile, pulling out the chair for him beside her. Harry grinned his thanks, took the proffered seat, and nodded affectionately to Ryan, Hermione, Lupin and Tonks. "So," Harry said, pulling out parchment and quill, "it seems we already have a frank exchange of views underway. Perhaps Auror Williamson can bring me up to speed?"

Williamson swept his ponytail back and turned to glare at Harry who unconcernedly occupied himself with pouring himself a cup of coffee from the decanter. "Potter, are you telling me that you've suspected since New Years Day that someone, perhaps Bellatrix Lestrange, has been carrying out mind magic attacks and you didn't inform the Auror Department?"

Harry blew casually on his hot coffee, ignoring the multiple errors and inconsistencies in Williamson's statement. Uncertain how much Tonks had needed to tell her erratic Auror partner and not wanting to inadvertently implicate her as a tacit party to any delay, Harry glanced quickly past the apologetic look she was giving him. Instead he put his cup down and turned to meet Williamson's glare squarely. "You've reminded me several times yourself how thinly the Auror Department is stretched right now, Williamson."

Harry straightened in his seat and leaned forward; slowly, ominously encroaching into the Auror's space. "I had no intention of distracting your department with any allegation until I was confident it had some meat to it. Ultimately I confirmed enough of my initial suspicions last weekend to warrant a Sunday afternoon Floo call to Chief Robards. So, by my calculation, it took us three days to build a credible allegation, and it took you five days of sitting on it before agreeing to meet with us."

Still angry, but no longer quite able to credibly match Harry's intensity, Williamson diverted his attention to the parchments in front of him. "I see." He shuffled his documents pointlessly and irritably. "So, in order to put meat on a potentially spurious issue, you diverted Jenkins from his Auror-assigned research?"

"Auror assigned?" Harry raised an eyebrow. "Administration of the Joint Auror-Student Research Experience Program is shared equally by Chief Robards and myself," Harry answered unapologetically. "Until Ryan leaves Hogwarts, his first priority is to pursue work that will benefit his NEWT scores, and thus I reserve some latitude in choosing activities that utilize and augment his talents. Furthermore, I know from Robards' evaluation that Mr. Jenkins has performed exemplary volunteer service thus far to the Auror Department, but I will remind you that his service remains precisely that — voluntary. If you feel strongly about it, please write a complaint to Robards and send a copy to me. He and I will sit down and discuss your issue at one of our biweekly meetings in the same way we handle all other aspects of the program."

Harry finally took a drink of his coffee, then added, "It looks like we have forty-five minutes left to discuss the latest evidence, and plan possible coordination. Are you ready to focus on some real work now?"

Williamson's anger had subsided past petulance and onwards toward grudging acceptance. "Okay.".

"Ryan and Hermione." Harry gestured cheerily to the two stony-faced two students in the room. "Do you have any updates on the Bocio hypothesis?"

Ryan straightened, shaking off his earlier affrontedness. "Why yes, Harry. We've determined that the Bocio..."

"Er, sorry Ryan," Hermione interrupted, "but before you get too far, perhaps we should check to see if everyone here is familiar with the Bocio concept?"

Remus and Tonks both shook their heads. Williamson looked baffled but said nothing.

"Okay, well the fifteen second explanation is that a Bocio is a type of charmed proxy devised in the West African dark magical community for channeling spells over long distance to a specific victim," Hermione explained.

"The Muggles apparently call them 'voodoo dolls'," Ryan added with a self-satisfied smile that Hermione found quite amusing. Lupin and Tonks, both fairly familiar with Muggle culture, lit up with obvious comprehension; a flicker of confusion crossed Williamson's brow, but he nonetheless nodded seriously.

"Anyway," Ryan continued, "we believe that compared to the various better-documented mind control methods, the Bocio could be especially plausible. The symptoms described by our presumed targets don't resemble more common spells such as Imperius or Confundus, and the wards at Dolwyddelan and Grimmauld Place should have prevented any likely culprit from approaching near enough to attempt any other technique."

Ginny frowned pensively. "Are you any closer to resolving how Bocio are made?"

"There are two factors to consider." Ryan raised a pair of fingers to enumerate. "First is the question of which ingredients are required to construct an object to house the magical intent, and second is which spells are needed to activate the object so that it can actually communicate magic. For the latter, I doubt that we would be able to come up with the exact spells the African Bokors use, but I'm guessing that they resemble the basic wand making spells that are covered in seventh year Charms."

Ginny's eyes lit up. "Because a wand itself is basically also a charmed proxy for someone's magic?"

"Exactly Ginny!" Hermione smiled with the joy she found in any good analogy. "A wand is a proxy that channels magic from you, and the Bocio is a proxy that channels it to you. And just as the best wands are composed of special materials, so are Bocio. I think we're converging on the basic ingredients — the structure needs to be constructed from any organic matter that is good at retaining magical essence. Thus any wand wood should suffice. The West Africans don't have good native wand woods, but they do have marsh grasses that, when woven or braided carefully, supposedly work pretty well."

"And how are Bocio personalized?" Harry asked.

"Well," Hermione replied, "just like a wand has a magical core, so too does a Bocio, with the exception that the core is not derived from just any magical creature..." She paused for effect. "The Bocio core requires a piece of the victim!"

"So what piece of the victim does one need?" Ryan asked rhetorically. "Anything that is infused with the target's magical signature. Based on some tissue-specific magical retention studies done a while back at St. Mungo's, magical signature is highest in flesh and blood, so a Bocio with a core derived from those would be strongest. Bones and teeth are quite good. Hair and fingernails are acceptable."

"It is possible," Hermione added, "that long-worn articles of clothing may also work, since they pick up magical essence over time from residual skin and hair matter, and just simply from being close to someone casting spells. Ryan and I are still debating that, though. He believes the only way Lestrange could exploit the weak signature from clothing would be if she has some way of amplifying the Bocio effect beyond traditional African techniques."

Lupin leaned forward with an expression of great interest. "So perhaps we should concentrate on whether Lestrange or any of her cohorts have been able to steal tissue samples. Dora, do you suppose we could have someone check St. Mungo's to see if there have been any thefts from their blood and tissue stores?"

Tonks nodded. "Good idea. Of course St. Mungo's has amazing security on those stores because dark wizards have lots of reasons to want to get their hands on those samples, but it's definitely worth investigating."

"Please do check." Harry frowned, as he processed the scope of the issue. "Unfortunately, there's no way Lestrange got everything she needed from St. Mungo's."

Williamson looked at him. "And why is that, Potter?"

"Because I'm one of the targets, and I've never been treated at St. Mungo's," Harry replied. "It's possible that some Muggle Hospital may have kept a bit of my blood at some point in my childhood, but that's not their standard policy. Poppy has a single vial of my blood in store here in the Hospital Wing, but she checked it carefully a few days ago, and it's never been tampered with."

"Ever get your hair cut, Harry?" Ryan asked his tousle-mopped mentor with a devilish grin.

Harry shook his head. "Actually no. Not in at least seven years, anyway." He looked up to see puzzled looks. "Same reason that Tonks doesn't need haircuts," he explained. Lupin and Hermione both went slightly wide-eyed at the revelation; Tonks and Ginny both nodded knowingly; Ryan merely shrugged — nothing about Harry surprised him much anymore.

Harry paused in thought a moment. "Given how notoriety always seems to dog me, it seems kind of surprisingly but I really haven't left much of a physical trail. I've certainly shed blood here and there before, but I haven't been wounded in public recently — almost certainly not during the time frame in which Lestrange seems to have been pursuing her latest shenanigans. I don't need haircuts and don't cut my nails. Surely I've shed the occasional strand of hair here and there, but most of them are lying around in warded locations as well. I don't give my clothes away or leave them lying around..."

"Not true!" Ginny exclaimed suddenly.

"Ha!" Tonks snickered with a jocular elbow to Lupin. "Did I hear that aright, Luv? Are you prepared to believe that the goldenest gilded couple is finally airing a little bit of premarital dirty laundry?"

Ginny rolled her eyes. "No, you muppet, I mean it's not true that Harry's never given away any clothing!"

"Hey, you're right Gin'!" Harry exclaimed. "St. Mungo's Child Health Foundation! Back in November, they kept pestering me for an article of clothing for some kind of auction... and then a bit before Christmas they asked me for a second one, because..."

"They lost the first one!" Harry and Ginny exclaimed in unison.

"Interesting," Tonks mused. "I guess I have a second thing to check into when I head over to Mungo's. I wonder if..."

"Something wrong, Dora?" Lupin asked.

Tonks sat with a puzzled frown for a moment, then a strange glint lit in her eyes. "Merlin's hurlin' cabbage stew..." she swore under her breath.

Ginny's brow arched. "Huh? What is it?"

"Early December I was coming out of the showers at Auror headquarters at the end of shift and I saw a strange bloke in there," Tonks recalled. "He had a DoM maintenance uniform, but I'd never seen him before. I almost questioned him, but I was only wearing a couple of towels, and he was rushing off, so I let it slide. Then when I went to get dressed, I discovered that one of my Knickie-Sues had done a runner!"

"Errr" Hermione twitched nervously, "Are you saying that a pair of underwear was stolen?"

Tonks nodded. "I know that stuff happens all the time to the Harpies." She winked at Ginny. "But it seemed a bit daft at Auror headquarters."

"Were they clean or dirty?" Ryan asked analytically... then he froze with a look of mortification etching itself deeply into his face.

Tonks pinned Ryan with an evil grin that propelled him very low in his seat. "Listen Honey Bun. If you intend to tell me all about your private leisure interests, then you might want to wait 'til my fiancé isn't in the room."

"Erk..." Ryan protested.

"Ahem!" Hermione broke in loudly. "All jests aside, please. For the purposes of this investigation, Ryan's question is not only relevant, but potentially quite important. So which is it — clean or dirty?"

Ryan exhaled and gave the older student a furtive look of relief and gratitude. Tonks, meanwhile, offered Hermione a cheeky sneer. "Ever the spoilsport, eh Granger? The answer is 'dirty'."

"I assume that's bad news," Harry stated soberly. "One would have thought we could rely on a bit better security at Auror Headquarters."

Tonks nodded. "A combination of being short-handed and the fact that we went on the offensive after Voldemort died, I suppose. I don't think anyone has been expecting any Death Eaters to actually try something right on at our own home ground." She glanced at Williamsons, who nodded with a frown.

"I guess you'll want to take a few matters into your own hands, Tonks," Harry suggested. "Do you think you can amp up the personal wards around your locker?"

"Already done, Guv." She nodded with committed sobriety.

"And Occlumency?" Harry pursued.

"Class starts tomorrow — I promise I'll give it my best!" Tonks gave him an earnest look.

The table went silent for a long moment. Ginny glanced around and her gaze settled on Williamson. "Well, I'd say that good progress has been made in a very short amount of time." She then turned back to face Ryan and Hermione. "But if the victim's clothing hypothesis holds up, then we're likely confronted with the added question of how Lestrange has been able to enhance the Bocio's magic?"

"Tox report on the Firewhisky came back negative," Tonks related.

"Right." Ginny nodded. "So no obvious link there,"

"Yes, nothing direct anyway," Harry agreed. "But based on this morning's chat with Teri, I may have a glimmer of a different scheme. I believe Lestrange may somehow have used Teri's presence to amplify the command on Ron, and as a conduit for attacking me."

"Presence? As in, Teri acting like a..." Ginny paused for a moment as she recalled an old Colin Creevey tangent. "Focal lens!"

Harry frowned for a moment, then nodded. "Good one."

Ginny smiled momentarily, then turned her focus on Tonks. "Hmmm... Could she also have used you as a means for confounding Remus? Tracey Davis to get to Nott?"

Tonks shrugged wide-eyed.

Lupin shifted uneasily. "Eh, well, perhaps..." A troubled look crossed his face.

Tonks watched him, then nodded. "Yes, maybe. I need to think about it..."

"We'll have to compare details from case to case in order to understand how the magic might have manifested," Williamson interjected. "Tonks, can you go and talk to the girl out at Dolwyddelan?"

"No can do, matey," Tonks replied.

"And why not?" Williamson's eyebrow spiked irritably.

"Mum says that the girl will only talk to Harry," Tonks explained. "No substitutes."

"What barmy nonsense is that, Tonks?!" Williamson glared impatiently at the faces around the table. "Why shouldn't she talk to you? She's your own first bloody cousin!"

Tonks scowled at him. "Ah well. Blood doesn't seem to factor into the girl's..."

"Blood?" Lupin mused softly.

"Blood lineage?" Hermione clarified, nodding enthusiastically.

"Yeah, there's a thought! So Teri's probably Lestrange's daughter." Harry tapped his lips. "Tonks is Lestrange's niece. I wonder if Tracey Davis is...?"

"Related?" Ryan inferred. "Yes she is... give me a minute..." The student gazed at the ceiling as he sifted facts around in his head. "Tracey's maternal grandmother was Hilda Rosier, sister to Druella Rosier, who was Bellatrix's mother. That makes Tracey a second cousin to both Teri and Auror Tonks."

Hermione started at Ryan in amazement. "Since when is any fifteen-year-old boy a fount of genealogy facts?"

Ryan shrugged. "Most Slytherins are taught all that drivel around when we learn our first letters. Lineage is how pure blood parents determine who their children should be friends with." He offered a twisted half-smile.

The table fell silent as everyone digested the information. Tonks hummed in thought for a moment. "So maybe there are a bunch of us dear little cousins running about unknowingly spreading Auntie Trixie's good cheer?"

"That's a very jaunty way of looking at it," Harry agreed with a wry smirk. "Maybe I should visit Tracey sometime soon and see if she's willing to talk about the Diagon Alley incident?"

Everyone nodded... except for Williamson. "We're going to leave the Davis girl out of the investigation for now," he stipulated with bland inflexibility.

"And why exactly is that?" Humour and patience evapourated from Ginny's face as she turned to once again face the Auror.

"The Davis, Parkinson and Nott incident is the most tenuous link of all, and it's far too easy to explain in terms of youthful irresponsibility, mental instability and alcohol," Williamson replied. "Besides, too many people have already been privy to these highly hypothetical and very disturbing allegations about some sort of mind control plot. If we keep tipping more people off about an investigation like this, we could have a panic on our hands!"

"Some of us actually know how to broach issues discreetly," Ginny seethed into her coffee cup.

Harry tapped the table coldly and unpleasantly. "And some of us prefer not to risk leaving important insight or problematic risks unattended."

"I have seniority here, and my decision stands," Williamson decreed. "We will not question Davis, Parkinson or Ted Nott. Period. We will also not question any other people not hitherto discussed without my expressed approval."

A stoney silence fell about a table now split equally between expressions of rigid anger and obvious discomfort.

After a long moment, Ginny took a deep breath and quietly surveyed the gathering. She sighed. "We're not likely to make any more progress today, and the noon-time bells sounded a while ago. Dobby has catered a spread for us up in our quarters. Can I interest any of you in the finest fare Hogwarts can offer?"

Lupin and Tonks agreed immediately. Hermione appeared to be wavering. "I'm not sure, Ginny — I've barely seen Ron all week and he's getting a bit tetchy..."

"Drag him along, Hermione — tell him we'll have extra puddings!" Harry smiled at her as he began pulling his scrolls together. "How about you two — Ryan? Auror Williamson?"

"Sorry," Ryan replied. "Potions homework."

"Prior obligations," Williamson answered gruffly, "but thank you anyway."

As Harry, Ginny, Lupin, Tonks and Hermione climbed the stairs to go find Ron in Gryffindor Tower, Harry and Lupin fell a few steps back of the loquacious females. Harry threw an arm about his friend's shoulders. "Nice to have you back here in the hallowed halls, Remus."

Lupin grinned. "Yes it is nice, isn't it? Standing up in front of those bright young faces will never get old for me, but I also have to admit that it's wonderful bumping into Minerva, Filius and Hagrid every day, and especially you and Ginny. There's something special about getting the old friends together again, don't you think?"

Harry nodded reflectively. Old friends. New adventure.

The small flame poured dreamily upward from the wick. It jostled feverishly every five seconds, perturbed by the soft puffs of the girl's breath, before resuming its wraith-like shape.

Face illuminated by only the pale flickering glow, the girl sat in deathly stillness in the darkest corner of a dorm known for its dusky gloom. A large text lay forgotten in front of her as her wide eyes tracked the dancing flare, staring through its candescence toward invisible mysteries lurking in some dark place beyond.

The charms essay beneath her forearm remained incomplete — just as it had for the last forty minutes of her now-wasted free period. The quill in her hand had trailed off part way through a sentence; in sudden unexplained spasm it had pierced straight through the parchment and snapped its tip, but none of that seemed to trouble her.

She let the quill slide to the desk; her hand reached slowly toward her face and grasped a loose strand of hair dangling in her field of vision. With deliberate care, her thumb and fore finger closed around the filament, poised to gently move it to the side.

Motion ceased again. Several quiet breaths passed unnoticed.

Snap!

In a sudden wrenching jab, the hair was forcibly yanked from its roots. It quivered, trapped within the girl's vice-like grip.

Ever so slowly, the hand returned to the center of her field of vision, honing in on the lone candle. With the precision of a surgeon, she jabbed the tip of the hair straight into the heart of the flame. With a sharp, nearly instantaneous spark, the fibre hissed and coiled into a tight little ball of charred, disordered protein. A small tongue of smoke wafted up and was gone.

Apparently intrigued with the effect, she began moving the bundled, charred end closer to the flame to reignite, when...

"Oi! Space Pixie!" Pansy Parkinson shouted. "Quit messing with the candle and join me for lunch."

Tracey Davis let the hair fall to the desk, and turned to smile blandly. She rose from her dark corner of the seventh year girls dorm, blew out the candle and walked past her puzzled, frowning prefect, out of the room and down the hallway toward the Slytherin Common Room.


Back to index


Chapter 7: Flowers in the Spring

Author's Notes:

Here's another chapter for my dear readers! Sincere appreciation for the Trinket votes and another round of nominations! I didn't get any responses for my MacBeth challenge (chapter 5) so that's still open, but here's a new one: What is the twins' motivation? If you answer correctly before chapter 9 is posted, then I'll name a wacky beater tactic after you :)

In response to some grumbling about 'Times New Roman', please let me know if you prefer the new font? Perhaps your browser can't tell the difference. Either way, please let me know.


Chapter 7. Flowers in the Spring (Jan. 18-19, 1998)

There was complex detail to much of the aura — loose threads, shreds of memory and flowing thought — but Harry paid it no heed. He had been entrusted with a position of power and responsibility, and his respect for privacy was of tantamount importance. Fortunately, unlike most Legilimens, he had honed the ability to operate with nearly surgical precision — both he and Teri knew that he could enter and leave without seeing anything more than he was supposed to.

And so, he was doing exactly as he promised.

Surprisingly, it did not go unnoticed! Despite the fact that Legilimency is rarely pleasant for either the examiner or the examined, Harry was actually greeted in Teri's mind with a sensation that was ever-so-slightly warm and comforting... It was gratitude!

Harry felt himself heartened. He had harboured many misgivings about doing this. A variety of reasons had prompted him to ultimately cave to Teri's insistence on the training, but logic had still not been quite able to assuage the feeling that invading a child's mind was a violation. Having the sense that she was aware of him — that she understood his presence and was accommodating it, finally let him put aside the guilt and do what was probably best for all.

Harry's first pass through her mind was tentative. Without truly examining any actual thoughts, he wandered around, getting a sense of the layout of Teri's aura structure. It lacked the clear boundaries of an accomplished Occlumens, but neither was it the disordered mess that defined most peoples' minds. Instead there were the preliminary rudiments of walls in places, and it was Harry's task to find the best, most concentrated fortification, and test it.

As Harry explored, he noticed something interesting. Any time he dwelt just a little longer than usual within a given region, he could sense a response. The mind structure close to his perception would subtly reorganize — some thoughts would be whisked away from his proximity; others would be moved in to pad the gaps. This was rather impressive. Harry considered himself to be quite proficient in stealthy exploration (albeit not in quite the same league of subtle Legilimency as Dumbledore and Salvatore Fugo) and assumed that he could do a fair bit of maneuvering in ways that most people with novice-level Occlumency instruction would never detect. The fact that Teri could sense and adapt to his presence suggested that, despite her young age, the girl already had the instincts to become a master Occlumens.

After less than thirty seconds of exploring, Harry identified the fortification that he was supposed to test. While most of the aura contained texture and nuances, this feature was opaque and featureless. Having developed a good feel for the nature and power of Occlumency shields from testing those of his seventh year students who were learning the subject, this one looked similar to what he generally expected to see from someone who had been working on the mind exercises for a while — more evidence that Teri's magical control was extraordinarily advanced for a nine-year-old.

Advanced, yes, but not yet perfect. Harry came up against the barrier and, with a bit of modest effort — enough to quicken his breathing and pulse as if he had bounded up a short hillock — he pushed through.

For the first time, he allowed himself to truly see. Then he chuckled.

He was confronted with a crystal clear image of himself — a look of ridiculous disgust on his face as he attempted to not see that dastardly Rita Skeeter's unauthourised biography sitting on the coffee table.

Clearly the girl had a sense of humour.

He broke the connection and promptly rolled his eyes at the sight of Teri's smirk. "Okay Smartie," he chided her, "were you really even trying to block me, or were you just taking the mickey out of poor Mr. Harry?"

"Of course I was trying!" she protested, but her impatient huff did not completely disguise smiling eyes. "Miss Susan told me that nobody at Hogwarts can block you except Miss Ginny, so I though I would show you something funny."

"Ha ha," Harry said wryly, but couldn't keep a few more real chuckles from escaping.

Teri's face grew more serious. "So how do I make it stronger then?"

"Ah yes," Harry also dropped his smile. "Well once you've proven you're able to make a reasonable memory container, the step I recommend next is to form several containers and begin filling each one with a different type of memory. You may want to use one container for happy or peaceful memories, another for basic facts and common knowledge that you don't care to protect, another for sad or painful recollections, one more for embarrassing or frustrating instances that you'd be happy to never revisit, and finally set aside one very nondescript looking container for hard, crucial secrets. At this point I'm sure you'll have no trouble making the bins. The sorting process itself is a time consuming, very draining, but utterly vital activity."

Teri nodded, but remained puzzled. "Yes, I understand about grouping my memories to understand what needs to be hidden, and where, but how does that make the barriers stronger?"

"I'm not sure how, but it does." A bit sheepish about having to hedge, Harry smiled and shrugged. "Both Ginny and I found that once the sorting and binning was completed, the protections seem to become almost immediately stronger. Part of the effect may come because similar memories are simply able to settle in and coexist better together, making them easier to pack into a stable container. More importantly, though, I believe that with a carefully organized mind, you'll find most aspects of your magic come to you more naturally and in greater strength. After I completed my Occlumency defences, I went almost immediately from being an average student to scoring top of my year. I suppose that when it comes to learning magic, you do your best spell work when you can give pure, undivided focus to the required task. If you've done a good job of memory sorting, your intentions aren't constantly cluttered with daydreams and unrelated worries that contaminate your spells."

Teri nodded enthusiastically. "Okay, that makes sense — I'll do it! Shall I work on it right now?"

Harry smiled. "Perhaps for a few minutes, while you're fresh."

Harry watched for a moment, bemusedly, as the girl settled into her armchair and eagerly resume an activity that he himself rather loathed. He could sense that Teri's excitement likely had as much to do with the prospects of stronger magic as they did with Occlumency. In that sense, he had to force himself not to visibly roll his eyes, since he knew full well that the sort of dedication she showed (and he admired) would almost certainly be regarded by the Ministry and much of magical society with fear and loathing. A furor would almost certainly erupt within the bureaucrats if the wrong person found out what he was helping her do.

Indeed, although the true goal of the exercise (simply to give Teri the tools to protect herself from a horrible menace) was pure, he had come to the conclusion that the legality of the instruction was a bit sketchy, and could land him in trouble. Specifically, Harry knew he wasn't violating the official proscription, which was against teaching wand magic to pre-Hogwarts students (there was no prohibition on using legal charmed objects, or learning rudimentary potions), but on any given day the Wizengamot might decide that the spirit of the law should also prohibit wandless magic, despite the fact that most young Magical children had at least a modicum of wandless ability, not all of which was truly 'accidental'.

In any case, given the circumstances, Harry knew that his social stature would breeze him past some minor violations that could land others in hot water, and he was also aware that Kingsley could probably be persuaded to give him a further bit of cover, but there was no way Harry wanted to test any of that.

In fact, Harry had not yet told Kingsley anything about Teri, and was in no hurry to. He had strong faith in Kingsley's integrity, but if the current DMLE Head was to learn who the girl was, what her risks were, and what Harry was doing with her, the poor man would be placed in a large bind, balancing between instinct, common decency, and his responsibility to his office. Current Minister of Magic Amelia Bones had made sweeping transparency rules aimed at ridding the Ministry of the paralytic secrecy that (among other things) Fudge had been infamous for, thus Harry knew that telling Kingsley the wrong sort of thing could force his friend to disclose the information to others. And while Harry felt he could probably trust many good, open-minded witches and wizards in the Ministry, he was hardly convinced that Voldemort's fall had truly produced a complete purging of dark-minded operatives from the dingier pits and crannies of government.

Consequently, Harry's mind was set — he would remain as silent as possible on the vast majority of his work with Teri... just as he held his tongue on so many other aspects of his life. There were many details of his own power and Ginny's abilities that he had never shared with anyone. He and Ginny had never spoken to anyone about their dealings with the Fugos. These fascinating, sessions with a gifted young witch were every bit as stunningly controversial, and thus seemed fully destined to join the ever-growing volume of secrets.

Yet that brought him back to questions that had begun plaguing him recently.

How big can a world of secrecy grow before it threatens to explode?

When can we put it all to rest?

Will we ever be able to bring it safely out into the open, and just forget about it?

Reaching an impasse on those yet again, Harry made a mental note to shelve the issue for the time being until he had a chance to talk to Ginny about it. For now, though, he sighed to himself, turned his attention back to Teri, and coughed gently.

Teri frowned slightly for a moment as she finished sorting a memory, then opened her eyes. "Yes, Mr. Harry?"

Harry smiled. "It's probably time for me to leave, Teri."

"Oh?" Teri's eyes widened a bit. "This went by so quickly. Thank you so much for coming to help me, Mr. Harry."

"You're perfectly welcome, of course." His smile broadened for a moment, then subsided to a slightly wry tinge. "Unfortunately, in return for me teaching you all these skills, you have to listen to me say it to you one more time..."

Teri nodded. "I am not to talk about my magic to anyone; I am not to practise anything in any place where someone might see me doing something unusual," Teri recited for him in a crisp, businesslike tone.

"Exactly." Harry beamed her a satisfied smile. "The only people who have any reason to know that you're practising magic should know better than to ask you about it or talk about it outside of my presence. If you get any awkward questions, or hear or see anyone saying anything suspicious, please let me know immediately."

"Immediately, Mr. Harry?" Teri frowned. "How?"

"Ah, that's right — I almost forgot!" Harry reached into a pocket to retrieve a plain leather bracelet which he handed to the girl. "Communication bracelet. I have it synchronized with mine." He pulled his sleeve back to reveal a similar one . "To alert me, simply press on the bracelet and say, 'Audite me, Harry.' I won't be able to hear what you're saying, but I'll know that you need me and I'll find you as quickly as I can."

Teri examined the bracelet carefully, nodded, then slipped it on with neither comment nor question.

Harry stood up. "Okay, now it's definitely time for me to get back to the school. I guess I'll see you again next Sunday?"

Teri grinned her reply. "Have a great match tomorrow, Mr. Harry. Do you think you'll be able to show me the Snitch that you catch?"

Harry laughed. "I've got to catch it first, Sugar Plum! But yes, if I get lucky, then sure I'll bring the Snitch."

"If I get lucky...?!" Teri huffed and rolled her eyes.

Harry winked on his way out the door.

Making his solitary way across the front lawn toward the path heading through the trees and vanishing into the mist, Harry caught sight of a lone figure facing toward the undergrowth with his wand extended. Upon closer inspection, Harry could see that he was trimming branches and moving stones, apparently widening the trail. He could also recognize the familiar profile of Theodore Nott Jr.

"Good morning, Ted," Harry called out. "How is everything with you?"

Nott glanced over and made brief passing eye contact. "G'morning Harry. Things are fine, thanks."

Watching him turn back to his work, Harry did not need any special sensory abilities to know that Ted wasn't exactly being honest. The Slytherin looked hollow and defeated, far too well suited to a grey sky, surrounded by a barren, snowless midwinter gloom.

Casting about for something upbeat, Harry reached into his pocket and confirmed his hopes — he still had a couple of complimentary tickets left. "Hey Ted...?" He pulled out the two small parchment slips. "Would you be interested in a couple of passes for Monday's Skegness match? Maybe you and Pansy could escape the routine for a little while — I hear there are some decent cafés and shops along the Esplanade."

Ted looked at the tickets as if they were crawling with maggots. "Erm..., no thank you," he mumbled, turning away again. "You mightn't have heard, Harry, but Pansy threw me over."

"Oh." Harry chewed his lip, sheepishly. "I'm sorry... I seem to be getting more clueless about things like that all the time."

Ted managed a smirk. "Yeah Harry — clueless — that's what all the students say about you."

Harry chuckled at the dry sarcasm. "Yes, well, when it comes to relationships they'd be right. But I do apologize for being so thick. If ever you need anything or want to chat, don't hesitate to track me down."

"Sure." Ted shrugged noncommittally, "I'll keep that in mind — thanks."

Harry left Ted to his dreary labours and walked contemplatively through the woods toward the Apparition point. Harry had not wanted to make an uncomfortable conversation even more awkward by prying, but he was troubled by the fact that, after making it through a difficult autumn and the scandal over the holidays unscathed, Pansy and Nott should decide to split up now. Harry knew that lots of couples had similar relationship trajectories, but it still made him uneasy. Maybe Ginny or Daphne would be able to shed a bit of light on the situation and reassure him that this was just a case of two troubled teens going through the motions.

Reaching the special Apparation copse, Harry Disapparated and emerged in the woods just off the path to Hogsmeade. Gazing about his destination, he blinked in surprise. The weather system that had been draping Wales in dreary grey had obviously turned to a fairly lively snow storm up here in the Highlands! Although Harry had been gone less than two hours, there were already at least five inches on the ground, and more cover was accumulating quickly in large fluffy flakes that muffled every noise and transformed the air into a vista of quiet meditation.

Despite the weight of worries — greater now it seemed than at any time since the Battle of Hogwarts — Harry found himself smiling. Everything looked beautiful. It would be the perfect walk home, if only he had someone to share it with. And, by 'someone', of course that meant...

"Hello dark and handsome stranger." came the seductive voice he'd just been thinking of.

Harry's heart leaped, but when he glanced about, looking for the source of the voice, he saw... nothing. Perhaps it was because of the snowflakes dangling from his eyebrow, or the odd acoustics of a wintery glade, but there was nobody to be-

Smack!

... hitting him in the side of his head with a moist fluffy snowball?

Harry laughed happily. "Have mercy! Come out of hiding and take pity on a poor dark stranger!"

Ginny cancelled her Disillusionment charm and stepped out from between a pair of snowy pine trees; a small avalanche cascading down as she moved. Frosty breath wafted past her smiling, rosy cheeks.

Harry stood transfixed; a small wondering smile on his face.

"Hello?" Ginny said with a little wave. "Kneazel got your tongue?"

Harry blinked and his eyes sparkled in a way that, for Ginny, suddenly returned the tongue-tying favour. "It's amazing," he breathed. "Of all the times, all the places and settings and backdrops we've been together... I've never seen your hair in the fresh falling snow."

Her eyes widened. She pulled in a taut, expectant breath...

Perhaps it was the uneven ground, but Ginny's knees didn't function quite the way they were intended as she closed the final couple of steps to her fiancé. She stumbled forward, and might have fallen if Harry's hands hadn't wound firmly about her, pulling her in snugly. Their eyes locked, then closed, as lips found their cherished partners. Snowflakes landed and melted sweetly upon their faces. And time stopped....

Sadly, time never seems to stop quite long enough. From deep within a foggy reverie of warm closeness, the soft press of lips and tongue, the tantalizing tickle of breath... an annoying bray of conscience and responsibility lurked, whining plaintively until Ginny could ignore it no longer. Slowly, reluctantly, she pulled away and gazed up with loving regret. "We're late," she said with a sad smile. "Williamson is quite likely laying eggs as we speak."

"Is he now?" Harry smirked. "Did someone transfigure him into a chicken too, or are you speaking figuratively?"

Ginny snickered. "Figuratively, I regret to say." She tugged his hand. "Come on — I'd love to stay and play in the snow all day, but we owe it to Hermione and Ryan to take the starch out of Pompous Prat again, And besides, we'll hear about final plans for tomorrow's match security."

Harry resisted, tugging back on Ginny's hand, pulling her into one final embrace. Their smiling gazes met beneath snowy eyelashes. "Talk later?" Harry's eyes crinkled questioningly. Ginny nodded. Harry kissed her playfully on the tip of her nose then broke away and the couple found themselves running and laughing their way to the castle.

They were still running — and laughing — their way along the first floor corridor to the History of Magic classroom. Ginny burst through the doorway and was rushing to pull it closed when...

THUD!

A prodigious snowball splattered off the oblique door and sprayed the portrait of an indignantly awakened Barberus Bragge. The five living occupants of the room jumped. Lupin blinked in alarm. Hermione gasped, rolled her eyes, then smiled. Ryan and Tonks smirked, and their faces spread into wide grins as the abominable snow-Harry strode in, waving amicably. "Good morning, everyone!"

"Have an accident, Harry?" Hermione inquired.

"No thank you — I just had one," Harry deadpanned. "I was running up the front walk at the same time as my girlfriend and I, er, suddenly found myself toppled into a large gorse bush. It had collected rather a bit of snow." He began scooping the compacted wet clumps out of his cloak and magically dried himself off.

"He crawled out looking like the most darling little ermine." Ginny couldn't restrain a giggle. "Yet, for some reason, the darling little ermine growled at me..."

"Please please please spare me the tedious youthful frivolity!" Williamson was glaring at the, hands pressed firmly to the sides of his head, as if stoppering a hot air leak. "You're eight minutes late!"

"Eight minutes late?" Harry whistled. "Blimey, Gin' — we made good time!"

Eyes squeezed painfully shut, Williamson massaged his temples. "Merlin help me. Can somebody explain to me how these two ever managed to defeat Voldemort??"

"Threw him in a gorse bush," Tonks quipped. "Made it look like an accident."

"Perhaps it was shrubbilimency," Lupin proposed.

"It was snow problem at all," Ryan chortled.

Williamson's face sank deeper into his hands. It was going to be a long day.

Harry and Ginny had decided, once again, to skip Sunday lunch in the Great Hall. Sundays had become possibly the busiest day of the week for them (especially today, with Blaise calling a two hour strategy session to plan for tomorrow's match) and the opportunity to escape for a while in the middle of the day had become nearly essential to their sanity.

Of course they still didn't want to shut the world out — Ginny did prop open the door to their sitting room in case anyone dropped by to see them — but Harry was busy at the same time casting privacy wards. So they could talk.

"Merlin." Harry shook his head as he finished the last spell. "I thought all the secrets would have ended months ago."

Having overheard him, Ginny slid her arms around his chest from behind and pressed herself tightly to his back. "It will all be over sometime." She sighed wearily. "There will come a day when we can release our poor prisoners from protective house arrest in Dolwyddelan, and all of them — all of us — will be free. We'll be able to open ourselves back up to the world like flower buds in the spring."

"Spring," Harry nodded with a distant look in his eyes. "Wouldn't it be wonderful if we could put this all to rest by spring time?"

"Yes." Ginny's eyes looked wistful... but her tone did not sound hopeful. For every secret that Harry and Ginny withheld from the world, it seemed as though there were three crucial, tantalizing mysteries that the world was obscuring from them. And while Voldemort had targeted last fall as a time to rush his abhorrent plans to fruition, Bellatrix seemed to have no such urgency. The past week had seemed so unnaturally quiet, it put Ginny and Harry both on edge whenever they took a moment from their busy lives to contemplate the case.

With soup and sandwiches awaiting them, untouched, on the coffee table, this moment seemed like a prime candidate for anxiety, but Ginny broke the ice before it could descend upon them. She smiled, picked up her bowl of soup and turned to face Harry on the chesterfield. "So, you wanted to tell me about today's session with Teri?" She gave him a solicitous smile.

"Yes I did!" Harry returned her warmth and picked up a sandwich. "I have to say, it's all quite baffling to me," Harry began, before taking a bite. "The sessions are going far too well. When I dropped by the manor on Wednesday, I explained briefly to her about the concept of forming protective memory containers, figuring that I could give her more detailed instructions today to get her started. Instead, this morning she informs me that she's already made one and wants me to test it out."

"And it worked." Ginny eyed him out of the corner of her eye as she blew on her soup spoon.

Harry nodded. "It wasn't Auror calibre or anything, but she had created a distinct container in four days that was about as good as any of my NEWT students have come up with — and they've been working on this since early December."

"As good as any of them?" Ginny raised an eyebrow. "Even Ryan?"

"Sure." Harry nodded with a slight smirk smirk. "Don't ever tell Hermione I said this, but Ryan has a bit of the same problem she does — I think they both spend too much time in the library. I wonder if too much reading causes magical instinct to rigidify."

"Oh?" Ginny's already raised eyebrow spiked. "And what exactly does that say about you confining me to Pince's little fiefdom fifty hours every week for endless book research, Professor Potter??"

"Hah — you got me!" Harry laughed. "I'm trying desperately to keep you under control."

Ginny brandished a single, very threatening finger above her soup bowl.

"Just kidding!" Harry flinched and threw his hands up defensively. "I've needed you down there because you're bloody brilliant. Your magic breaks all the rules anyway, so there's no way books will do you any harm... well, except maybe those Anders and Hyperia romance novels."

"You're just jealous of Anders because your Swedish accent makes you sound like a Bavarian badger," Ginny chided him with a wink. "But you're getting us off track, Harry. You were concerned about Teri's magic?"

"Yes, I am." Harry paused for a mouthful of soup. "For starters, there's the ethical issue of me condoning and abetting a minor who's making a wandless mockery of the Decree for the Reasonable Restriction of Underage Sorcery."

Ginny nearly choked on her pumpkin juice. "Er, Harry... you do remember how old I am don't you?"

"You, mademoiselle, are incomparable," Harry deadpanned. "Your age is completely irrelevant to everything in life except marriage and Premier League Quidditch."

Ginny smiled and blew him a kiss. "Okay, let me try a different tack. If you needed someone to behave in a basic, responsible manner, who would you choose — an adult Hogwarts graduate like Cormac MacLaggan, or a nine-year-old pre-Hogwarts child like Teri?"

"Good point." Harry grinned. "Although I do worry that the more powers and skills Teri acquires, the more harm Lestrange could accomplish through whatever magical connection she has with the girl."

Ginny placed her empty soup bowl on the table and leaned her head back. She closed her eyes for a moment, but re-emerged quickly with the rebuttal. "Nearly every wizard or witch in the world can be Imperiused, Harry. In all cases, the victim can be forced to do harm with his or her magic, but that doesn't stop us from teaching magic to everyone who will learn. Besides, you're focusing on defensive skills, and anything that we can do to help the girl protect herself is much more likely to have a good outcome than a bad one."

Harry exhaled and smiled at Ginny with deepest affection. "I love talking to you," he said softly. Ginny opened her mouth to respond... but a warm weight of powerful emotion coursed through her; her cheeks flushed and she looked away.

After all this time, there were still times when the thought of Harry — all that he was; all that he meant to the world and to her — made Ginny's head spin. She had grown so much in such a short year; she could go face-to-face with anyone at Hogwarts, with Quidditch scouts, even with the Minister of Magic, but when Harry turned to her and truly emoted — be it love, joy, gratitude or deep respect — it was still possible for her to forget the reputation and honours she had earned.

She frequently had to remind herself that if the saviour of the wizarding world came to her with the deepest conundrums, it was because she had never led him astray. If he loved her, it was because together they had done so much more than either would have done alone. And yet, despite the wonderful, amazing union they had, every once in a while she wondered if she would ever fail him. And in those moments, a part of her mind suddenly reverted to the insecurities of the silly little ten-year-old girl who could never meet him eye-to-eye.

Fortunately, Harry had ways of dealing with those little demons. He put down his sandwich and grasped her hand. The touch of his fingers somehow said it all — how his life had no meaning without her; how challenges were only worth tackling if they could do so together. Without thinking, she found herself shifting on the chesterfield, leaning into him, burying her shoulder into his soft, warm pullover. She breathed deeply and closed her eyes.

Harry stroked her hand in silence a long while before starting to speak again. "Should we tell anyone?" he asked. "About Teri's magic, I mean?"

Ginny said nothing as she pondered the question.

Harry began speaking again. "I'm not even certain how much of a secret it is. Andromeda is being tactfully silent about all of these meetings with Teri, but surely she's piecing things together. Tonks must have realized that if I've been pushing her and Tracey on Occlumency, that I'm not just leaving Teri out of the equation. It would be natural to tell Tonks, of course, since she has a vested interest in the case, but if I let her know then should I come right out and tell Kingsley or Robards too? If I explain how critical it is both for Teri to have these skills and for all of this to remain a closely guarded secret, will bureaucrats respect my wishes?"

Ginny opened her eyes and reached for her sandwich. "So your thinking is that you can trust Tonks with the knowledge, but you'd prefer for her to not have the burden of holding privileged information that could get her in trouble with her superiors?"

Harry nodded.

"And you're worried that if Robards or Kingsley know, it might leak out to someone who could tip off the wrong person?" Ginny pursued before falling silent again.

Harry sighed. "More flowers in the spring, you reckon?"

"More flowers in the spring, love." Ginny exhaled wearily and gave him a solemn nod. She washed down a bite of her sandwich, put the food back onto the table and leaned back into her warm niche in Harry's side.

"Dear witches and gentlewizards, this is Richard Auclair here to welcome you all to a special Monday edition of Wizarding Wireless Network's 'Quidditch Tonight'. I'm joined here at the Gibraltar Point Municipal Quidditch Pitch this evening by my trusty mate Septimo Aurrera to bring to you a rather unusual little match."

"Unusual is right, Richard! Normally coming into a match, I have a reasonable idea how things might play out, but I remain quite mystified by this one between the Skegness Shrakes — an upper-tier Class B North Midland League team — and, uh, a traveling exhibition team calling itself the, erm... one second while I find that parchment. Oh yes, here it is. They're called The Great Zabini Flying Circus, dear fans, if you can believe that."

[Chuckling] "So Septimo, what would you say to the writers at Seeker Weekly who've decided that the only reason this off-schedule exhibition match is being played is because of who's playing Seeker for The Flying Circus."

"And that of course is the redoubtable Mr. Harry James Potter, Order of Merlin first class. In truth, if this team wanted to spare itself a bit of incredulity, they could have made a more credible name, calling themselves The Merlins."

"Ah — right you are Septimo! They have, what, five recent Order of Merlin honorees in their lineup? So clearly the kids have a bit of moxie, but the question for our listeners is whether they can actually play Quidditch."

"Well Richard, they clearly all have some competitive Quidditch background, but what nobody really knows is whether they have the skills, experience and coordination to play against professional teams. I was personally on hand ten days ago for a scrimmage at Hogwarts where The Flying Circus annihilated a top student team, but there's a tremendous difference between varsity school and Class B Quidditch."

"Absolutely Septimo — the key difference between student teams and pro squads are the skills, conditioning and discipline that comes with fifty hours of training per week, forty eight weeks every year."

"Very true, Richard. But my instinct — completely unfounded as that often may be — is telling me to be very cautious about everything I say! It's quite possible that the Shrakes will thrash the Circus mercilessly, but on the other hand there might be a very unusual bit of chemistry in this group of misfits that makes remarkable things possible."

"Well dear fans, you heard it here first! Maybe before the night is over, people from all over will be calling for Septimo to be registered as a Seer in the newly renovated Hall of Prophesy. Or just as likely, you will all think that we at Wizarding Wireless Network are a troop of sensationalist blathering berks. Which will it be?? But for now, Septimo, maybe we can put aside what your gut is telling you and hone in on recent scouting notes?"

"Certainly Richard! So we all know that Potter is powerful, but can the boy fly and catch a Snitch? Well, the quick answer is that when he was thirteen or fourteen years old, scouts everywhere were starting to take notice of this flying phenom, and some were enthusiastically projecting him as the next Roderick Plumpton. Unfortunately that was nigh on five years ago, and the young man has, as we know, been a bit distracted of late. Will he pick up where he left off years ago? Has he been secretly improving all the while? Many question marks but few answers."

"How about the other positions?"

"Well, if I was assembling a school team, this would be a great bunch. Ginny Weasley is the class of the Chasers — she's not yet of age, but everyone expects her to sign with the Harpies on her seventeenth birthday and head straight for Holyhead, without putting in any time in Class B. She's a ferocious competitor, a strong agile flier, with good pass and catch skills. If you're drawing up defensive configurations for the Shrakes you have to try to keep her off the Quaffle, but that's not easy because she tends to pick off a lot of interceptions and run them down-pitch for scores. Blaise Zabini is their second scoring option — he's not extraordinarily fast on the broom, but he has a good arm and doesn't drop the Quaffle. He also plays cloying on-Quaffle defence. Keith Summerby is the field general — he has professional-level field awareness, makes good passes, and coordinates an astute defence."

"How about the Beaters, Septimo?"

"Ah! Well this may be the wild card! Fred and George Weasley play with the synchronicity that you'll only find with soul bonds or identical twins. They, like Potter, have played very little in the last few years. If you based the scouting report on their school career, you'd have said that they were good school competitors. Not great, but good. That said, however, when I saw them in the recent scrimmage I couldn't help wonder what the blazes they've been doing in preparation because they practically had those Bludgers dancing like trained seals. They didn't face much of a test, but based on their measurable skills, I do expect them to make life difficult for Skegness this evening."

"And of course we're both familiar with Grant Page."

"Yes indeed — a good young Keeper. Page was just about to ascend to the starting Keeper position out in Kilkenny when he suddenly bolted from a secure, upward track to this mysterious exhibition team. You have to wonder, Richard, if this fellow knows something that we don't?"

"One wonders indeed! He hasn't interviewed since leaving Kilkenny over the holidays, but maybe he'll be willing to provide our listeners with some insight after the game. Septimo, both squads have taken to the pitch. Do you have any quick updates on the Shrakes? They're on a bit of a roll of late, aren't they?"

"Yes indeed — winners of their last four matches, the Skegness squad comes into this match with momentum in its favour. This evening will obviously not affect the standings in any way, but I will nonetheless mention that the Shrakes have ascended to third place in the North Midland League. Long-time Shrakes fans might well be wondering whether their team might be on the way back to recapturing some of those glory days of the Class B championship calibre teams from the early '90s."

"A familiar face back in the lineup too, I hear?"

"You're quite correct, Richard! Last year's star Chaser Liu Song Ye will be back in action tonight. After having been promoted to Puddlemere as an injury replacement for Wilda Griffiths, the charming young Miss Ye has returned to Skegness to ensure that she get lots of playing time. I can't help but think that Ye, who has also played on the Chinese National Under-21 Team, could make for a very interesting matchup with Ginny Weasley."

"Absolutely! And it further tells me that this Skegness team will be playing at a position of strength. One last question before the Snitch is released, Septimo. Why are the Shrakes playing this match in the first place? Why risk injury with an unscheduled exhibition when they're just about to make a play for the league title?"

"Well, coach Bloom said she wanted to keep the team fresh during a two-week layoff, but in truth it all comes down to one word..."

"Yes?"

"I'll give you a hint Richard. It starts with the letter 'a', follows with a couple of t's, and ends with 'endance'."

"And there you have it mates — Skegness is apparently looking for a bit of exposure to boost their sagging crowds. Well, the idle turnstiles at Gibraltar Point Municipal Pitch have certainly sparked to life tonight! And a roar erupts from our standing-room only crowd as the Snitch is released!"

Harry soared above the roaring crowd and breathed in the invigorating ocean air swept up from the North Sea. Down below the action was already underway, but he indulged himself in a brief spectator moment. His eyes quickly swept the crowd to locate the Flying Circus section — a lively gaggle of nearly one hundred friends and relatives who had taken advantage of the generous Skegness ticket offerings. Even from his substantial height he could make out Arthur, Molly, Bill, Fleur, Percy, Audrey, Ron and Hermione, flanked by Lupin and Tonks and a substantial contingent of HA students. Despite all the spotlights Harry had stepped into in the last few months, his heart nonetheless swelled with pride and good will to see everyone coming out to honour them in this silly endeavour.

Just as he was turning to begin tailing the Quaffle action, he caught a slight motion out of the corner of his eye. In a friendly gesture uncharacteristic of such a Quidditch connoisseur, Ron was waving at him. Harry grinned at how caught up Ron seemed to be in the whole occasion. He waved back to Ron and to the whole section, then turned to begin the Snitch hunt in earnest.

Nearly sixty feet below, the action was heating up quickly, and Ginny, in complete contrast to Harry, was a gibbering bundle of nerves. They had come into the match with completely different attitudes. Harry, for his part, had spent the afternoon smiling and joking with family and friends, while Ginny had gone stone silent... and snapped at anyone who tried to loosen her up. Harry didn't even know exactly how to spell or pronounce the name of his Seeker opponent (a friendly Tamil fellow who had been quite thrilled to meet Harry and had insisted on being called 'Ven'), while Ginny had spent hours trying to pry loose every last minute detail of Liu Song Ye's strengths and tactics.

Bloody waste of time!

Flying frantically about, seemingly a half-step behind on every play, Ginny was cursing the scouting reports, and loathing the frustrating task of shadowing the Shrakes star Chaser.

In truth, Skegness was a team seemingly built to frustrate The Circus. With a playing style diametrically opposite Ravenclaw's cerebral, artful tactics (which The Flying Circus had chewed up mercilessly), the Shrakes posed a big problem. Poring over play diagrams, Ginny, Zabini and Summerby had come to the unmistakable conclusion that their excellent pass-defence skills would be wasted against Skegness for a simple reason — the Shrakes barely passed at all. Whichever Chaser grabbed the Quaffle at the start of any Shrakes offensive almost invariably held onto it, and relied on teammates to clear an open path to the hoops. Recognizing that they would need to play one-on-one defence almost exclusively, the three Chasers had debated their matchup assignments and eventually come to the conclusion that Ginny was the only one with the speed and agility to fly against Ye.

Now, as Ginny streaked through the sky with a scowl on her face, she wanted to scream obscenities. The Chinese witch had apparently discarded the entire book of documented tactics and was using this exhibition match to try out a whole new line of nifty moves she'd picked up from her friends on the Chinese National Team.

These moves were crisp. They were sharp. They were 'Puddlemere is going to beg me to come back' type moves.

Ye's new marquee tactic was to randomly alternate between double-, triple- and quadruple-feints. In the first minute of the match, Ye pulled a left-right-left triple feint, baffling Ginny who had never seen more than a double-feint in Hogwarts play. Two minutes later Ginny had prepared herself for the triple, and Ye pulled a quadruple. Both plays had produced Skegness scores on Page who was having as much trouble reading the Chinese dynamo as Ginny was.

"Hey Red," Zabini called as he, Ginny and Summerby wheeled about to start an offensive after Ye's latest goal. "Do you want to switch off defensive assignments? You take Thorne?"

Ginny fought back a snarl and instead just shook her head. "Ye's too fast for you Blaise. You can't stick to an opponent you can't catch up with."

Zabini frowned and nodded thoughtfully... Then, just before they split apart to charge up opposite wings, he whistled.

Ginny met his eyes.

Being as subtle as he could, Zabini reached out and tapped his own shoulder, then wriggled it a little.

Huh? Shoulder?

Ginny's eyes lit up. Hey, that's right!

It was just a hunch, but Ginny knew exactly what Zabini was suggesting. Despite Ye's immaculate poker face and exceptional muscle control, he believed that she might have a subtle but readable flinch that Ginny had been struggling to place. When the Shrake's star went into her feint contortions, she did seem to drop one shoulder. Was she reflexively bracing herself for the coming acceleration? Was she tipping her hand?

Suddenly invigorated by the prospect of an exploitable vulnerability, Ginny raced up the pitch to join the offensive. With Summerby playing on the left wing and Zabini on the right Ginny aimed straight for the goal. With a sharp roll, she dodged a Bludger just before George managed to corral it. Her brother launched it straight at Thorne who bailed, creating a sudden hole in the Skegness defence. Ginny charged straight through it and turned on a Sickle. She had barely raised her hands when she saw that glorious russet blur streaking toward her.

Smack!

Bless you Summerby — the boy always seemed to get her the Quaffle when she really wanted it!

Racing with a clear path to the rightmost hoop, Ginny caught a glimpse of blue — Ye was racing in to cut her off. Ginny grinned. Instead of trying a feint or roll to try to get past Ye, Ginny decided that the little Chaser could use a little dose of adrenaline — she charged straight at the Chinese girl.

In shock, Ye froze, and Ginny, knowing she had carved space to work with, pulled up short. With split second glances at the three hoops, Ginny threw a hard forty foot lateral, forgoing the vacant rightmost hoop that Ye was nervously blocking, and instead drilling the left ring that the keeper, in desperation, had just abandoned in his haste to cover the center.

Bulls eye!

As Ginny cut a hard path to get back on defence, she heard Zabini issue a wild primal yell. For the first time ever in real competition, The Flying Circus had drawn blood!

Still behind 30-10, Ginny was not yet feeling celebratory, but she was definitely stoked. Come on Ye — show me what you've got!

Unfortunately Ye didn't carry the Quaffle on the next play. Thorne had picked up the Quaffle off the score and held onto it as the three Shrakes Chasers made their way back down pitch. Twice Ye signaled for a pass that Ginny was sure wouldn't come. True to form, Thorne hoarded it obstinately all the way down the pitch... only to have it poked away by Zabini.

Ginny raced wide to the right wing to get herself open, turned and caught Zabini's eye. He grinned, whipped the Quaffle to her, then raced to find some open air for himself.

Whipping around to head for the hoops, Ginny gloried in the bracing wind whipping past her as she scanned the pitch, ready to...

Bloody hell...

Traveling at speed and elevation, it is unwise to roll one's eyes, but Ginny was sorely tempted. Suddenly it was as if this was Ravenclaw all over again — her entire forward field of vision was crammed with blue — all three Skegness Chasers were swarming her!

"GET A LIFE!!" she roared with such ferocity that her opponents cringed, barely noticing what she was doing with the Quaffle. In fact, she flipped it downward, beneath all of them, to be snatched up by Zabini who had crept in below the action. The three Shrakes Chasers, tangled by their close proximity to each other, scrambled awkwardly and failed to catch Zabini as he rushed over and across to poke the Quaffle into the open right hoop and make it a ten point game.

Swinging back on defence yet again, Ginny turned to gauge the opponent offensive and grinned an evil grin.

Ye had the Quaffle.

Ginny's peripheral vision swept the pitch to assess everyone's positions — Zabini and Summerby locking up their defensive assignments, Fred and George engaged in a spirited battle with the Shrakes Beaters for the two Bludgers, and then there was little Miss Dragon...

Ye was bearing down on Ginny with a fierce intensity that sought nothing less than to crush this annoying insurrection before it got any further. Her eyes bored through Ginny as if she wasn't there — because, as far as Ye was concerned, Ginny was not there! It was only herself and the inevitable goal.

Ye closed to within seventy feet and made to veer right.

Her shoulders stayed perfectly level as she continued to barrel head on, toward Ginny — toward the goal!

At forty feet, Ye feinted right again, but her left shoulder dropped. Per Zabini's hunch, Ginny pulled hard to Ye's left and — bang — in an instant the two Chaser's found themselves nearly in each other's faces. Shrieking in surprise and vexation, Ye's grip on the Quaffle softened just long enough for Ginny to whisk it away from her, rolling hard to avoid a collision.

Screaming half way down the pitch, Ye wheeled about in fury and, having an extremely powerful broom for such a small woman, rapidly closed the gap. Ginny was just lining up a shot on the open right hoop, both hands off the broom to put more power into her throw...

High above the action, Harry stared, aghast, as Ye reached out to blag Ginny broom.

Damn you wench!! Ginny'll fall!

Harry plunged down to avert possible disaster, when...

Whack!

Fred's perfectly aimed Bludger smashed Ye's outstretched hand, sending the Shrakes star Chaser into a spine-wrenching spin.

Vaguely aware that wild action was taking place behind her, Ginny tossed the Quaffle through the hoop, then whipped around to see her opponent flailing desperately. She, Fred and Harry all converged on Ye at the same time — Harry grabbed Ye's broom to stabilize it, while Fred caught the woman's shoulder.

Ye blinked in momentary disorientation, her gaze swept over the three concerned faces around her, she opened her mouth...

And let loose the most vile, blazing torrent of Mandarin curses imaginable.

Shocked and bewildered, it took Fred, Harry and Ginny a moment to realize that she was shrieking not at them, but rather at a couple of very sheepish-looking Shrakes Beaters who, once again, had been bested by the twins.

Her foul ejaculation complete, Ye smiled at the three Flying Circus mates. "Thanks!" she said curtly, then broke free of their grips to join the Shrakes offensive.

"Sweet little lady," Fred offered with a shrug as he turned about to head down pitch.

"What cha thinkin', Roonil Wazlib?" Daphne chirped as she descended upon Ron and Hermione where they stood with Percy and Audrey at a relatively quiet periphery of the large visitor's box.

"I think it's bloody brilliant!" Ron's marveling eyes scanned across the action-filled sky. "I never would have... well, I guess I didn't..." He swallowed awkwardly. "Er, well, to be honest I didn't actually think they'd be any good?"

"What do you mean, 'good ', Roon-roon?!" Daphne chided. "They're not good — they're beautiful! They're poetry! They're sprinkles of starlight sundered from celestial realms to illuminate us poor mortals!"

Hermione choked on her pumpkin cider.

"What's the matter, Granger." Daphne elbowed the Gryffindor. teasingly. "Didn't you know that dizzy little Daffy had a vocabulary?"

"Yeah, well," Ron continued obliviously, "I suppose I figured Harry would hold his own... and Page ought to have learned some skills playing in Ireland, but the others...??"

"For shame!" Daphne brandished an instructive finger. "Blasé, Summy and Pagey practice their sweet little hearts out every day. And Harry is so exquisitely Hhhhhaaaaaarrrrrryyyyyyy..." Her rant drifted away breezily for a moment, before she reeled it in again sharply. "But what about your own family, Roony?! Ginny-Gin owns the skies. She's the boss's boss's boss! And your brothers Fearsome and Great — oh my oh my OH MY!"

Ron nodded with a frown that deepened as another of George's pinpoint Bludger missiles scattered the Shrakes defence, opening Ginny's path toward another easy goal. "Yeah, especially the twins," Ron grumbled. "What's gotten into them? Why the hell couldn't they have played like that when they were on our house squad?!"

"I know the answer." Daphne gave him a smug look of the sort Hermione had once practically trademarked.

"Huh?" Ron finally took his eyes off the action to stare at the Slytherin girl as though she had purple seed pods sticking out of her head.

She smiled. "Motivation," she stated simply.

"Huh??" Ron goggled.

"Mo-ti-va-tion," Daphne repeated carefully. "That's a word, right Granger?" She winked cheekily at the bushy haired girl. "You'll figure it out soon enough, Roon-roon. But it's time for me to say cheerio luvs — must head back to the top of the box and watch Harry finish them off!"

"Completely mental," Ron muttered as he turned his attention back to the pitch. Hermione, however, stood silently. Gazing upwards in time to see Fred strip a Bludger from the hapless Skegness beaters, she nodded thoughtfully to herself.

"Not exactly the game story one might have expected, is it Septimo?"

"Woowhee no! No, not at all Richard! Before the match, I guess I might have given The Flying Circus a shot at winning if they kept the score close for long enough to give Potter a chance to catch the Snitch, but that latest Zabini goal actually puts the Circus ahead 240 to 100."

"That means the match is almost out of range of the Seekers!"

"Exactly Richard. And frankly, the way everyone's playing right now, I can't see any real way for the Shrakes to claw their way back into this one — The Circus is playing with skill and poise and they don't appear the least bit tired. If the Shrakes want to win this one, they're going to need a Venkatavisakhapatnam miracle — soon!"

"Snitch hasn't exactly been making itself available for miracles much, has it?"

"Not at all Richard — a couple meager appearances in the first twenty minutes, but it was flying too close to the Quaffle action for the Seekers to risk. It's been utterly shy now for more than half an hour, so you have to wonder when it's going to show again. Anyway, both teams are back in action again after the time-out; Thorne with the Quaffle."

"Whoops — rare miscue by the Weasley brothers. Bludger throws Zabini for a loop and Thorne's coming in hard. Summerby and Ginny Weasley converging on him and... Oh what a magnificent shot!"

"Magnificent or desperate, Richard? Either way, that Thorne's long blast to the left hoop trims the lead a notch — Circus ahead 240 to 110. Summerby with the Quaffle."

"Weasley coming up the right wing, Zabini on the left. Septimo, do you think we'll see..."

"Snitch Richard! Just above the third Shrakes hoop, and both Seekers have spotted it. Ven started with a 20 foot lead on it, but look at Potter flatten out!!"

"Circus and Shrakes alike are scattering, Septimo. There'd be times when one team or the other might try to clutter the path, but it looks like both sides are going to let the Seekers settle this on their own terms."

"Ven and Potter neck-and-neck as the Snitch flutters up and to the right. Potter adjusts... arm out... Snitch! Catch! Match!"

"What blazing speed by Potter! There might be something to that reputation after all, eh Septimo?"

"Oh, no doubt Richard! Oh and I see that Venkatavisakhapatnam is offering congratulations — the Shrakes Seeker doubtlessly put in a legitimate effort tonight, but I have to admit that it almost looked at times as though the little fellow was simply honoured to be sharing the same skies as Potter."

"Yes, but I'm sure that's natural considering the legends surrounding The Flying Circus Seeker. Anyway, legends of not, wasn't this an entertaining evening? The Great Zabini Flying Circus, a touring exhibition team composed of current and recent Hogwarts students, has just defeated the North Midland's third-ranked team, the Skegness Shrakes, by an impressive score of 390 to 110. Septimo, who's your choice for the Wizarding Wireless Network's star of the match? One of the Weasley twins for their brutally disruptive Bludger handling? Ginny Weasley for her thirteen goals? Harry Potter for catching the Snitch?"

"Oh my, what a choice to have to make Richard! I'm going to go with 'none of the above'. One could make a plausible pitch for Grant Page who played well in goal, and Blaise Zabini who proved himself to be a real captain with smothering defense and impressive on-pitch leadership, but I think my vote would go to Mr. Quiet himself — Keith Summerby. He may have only scored three times himself, but he assisted on eighteen other Flying Circus goals!"

"Eighteen assists — he'd have to be chuffed with that indeed! But as much as anything, Septimo, I think this conversation boils down to a simple conclusion — this Flying Circus is playing like a fine machine with all cogs turning in synch."

"Capital phrase, Richard! And with that, dear listeners, please join us as we head to the pitch to hear what some of the players have to say about tonight's match!"

"Quinticent Marish, Seeker Weekly." The short, balding wizard with the friendly face raised his wand, microphone-style. "I have a question for Mr. Zabini. What's next for The Flying Circus? Do you have more matches lined up?"

"You'll have to owl me tomorrow night," Zabini replied. "We have a team meeting tomorrow to confirm our plans going forward. Provided we all vote to charge ahead with a full schedule, we'll then review the letters of invitation we've received for matches and make decisions on which to accept."

Quinticent nodded. "How many invitations have you received so far?"

"Er, let me please refer you to Miss Daphne Greengrass, our Executive Press Secretary." Zabini beckoned Daphne over. "Daffs, how many owls so far?"

"Lots and lots — there are still some flying in as we speak." Daphne took her place, smiling brightly for the cameras. "I've been sorting through them as we go. Many of the notes involve concepts that the Wireless Network probably doesn't want me to repeat on air, and some propositions would require more chocolate sauce than our nation imports in an entire year, but I've counted more than twenty legitimate invitations for Quidditch matches against distinguished competitive squads across the UK and Europe."

Ginny stifled a snicker as she watched Richard Auclair hastily trying to adjust the language filters on his wireless recording charm.

"Er, yes, well, thank you for the enlightening detail, Daffs." Zabini wore a rather forced smile as he worked his way stolidly past the momentary pall. "So, yes, we're getting more requests than we can accommodate, and I should clarify that we're only considering serious matches against professional clubs, national senior and junior squads and perhaps a few very high level scholastic teams. We'll probably take on about one match every two or three weeks from now until the pro camps start in July. If anyone from the press corps wants more details on scheduling, please leave your name with Miss Greengrass and she'll make sure you receive press releases as we negotiate details."

"Luna Lovegood, special correspondent, The Quibbler," came a very familiar voice.

"Oh [bleep]," Zabini muttered.

"Hi Luna." Harry gave his friend an amused smile. "No Heliopaths tonight, please?"

"Of course not, silly boy — we all know perfectly well that Heliopaths do not play Quidditch," Luna replied with her aethereal tone ever-so-slightly tinged with impatience. "I have two quick questions for Messrs. Frederick and George Weasley."

The twins grinned, obviously steeled for anything.

She removed the impressive peacock quill from behind her ear and unfurled a scroll. "Which of you is more sensitive?" she asked.

They blinked. "He is!" they answered, each pointing at the other.

"Thank you, and who is the better singer?"

"I am!" they chimed synchronously.

"Ah. I do love unanimity." Luna smiled broadly as she recorded the answers, then placed the quill back behind her ear as she drifted away, leaving her fellow reporters scratching their heads.

"Okay everyone." Harry straightened up and took a step toward the lockers, "If there are no more questions, then-"

"Excuse me Herr. Potter. Matthäus Gottschalk, Die Beschwörung."

"Of course!" Harry grinned. "Our night couldn't be considered complete without an insightful closing question from our Freiberg friend. Are we talking about security?"

"Ah, but you are ever too sharp Herr. Potter!" The man extended his hand for Harry to shake. "No incidents or plots tonight? Everything was according to plan?"

Harry nodded. "Yes, I would certainly thank the Skegness club for helping to ensure an orderly environment, but the truth of the matter is that the Ministry of Magic has chosen to use some of these matches of ours as test runs for new ward protocols they're developing for the little gathering they're planning for Wiltshire Downs this summer."

"Ah!" Gottschalk exclaimed. "Ist the World Cup, ya? Brilliant! And you will not share details of these wards?"

Harry smiled and shook his head in a polite but firm manner. "Those secrets aren't mine to divulge. Anyway, friends, that's all for tonight! A couple quick photos on our way to the lockers if you need them, but otherwise we're packing it in." He pulled Ginny close and broke away from the media circle.

As Harry and Ginny walked wearily yet happily, arm-in-arm, back to the lockers, Zabini shouldered up beside them, accompanied by Fred and George.

"Oi mates! Thing One, Thing Two and I are going to hit the wizarding nightclub in Croft Marsh with some of our favourite groupies." Zabini projected a grin that mixed exuberance and roguishness in equal measure. "You two want to join us?"

Harry replied with an eyebrow that required no elaboration.

"Hey!" Zabini recoiled in mock dismay. "Some day I might stop asking and you two could get very lonely."

Harry rolled his eyes, but Ginny was more accommodating. "Schedule the next match a bit earlier in the evening Blaise, and maybe we'll take you up on it, but tonight you'll just have to have fun without us. Hope you all have a pint in our honour!"

George snickered. "A pint of Firewhisky in your honour, sister dearest?"

Fred burst out laughing. "Be careful what you wish for!"

Ginny's eyes got their little worry-creases in them... but she didn't have enough energy for a strident rejoinder. "Please be careful," she admonished wearily. "Drunkenness is a security risk, and we should all consider ourselves to be targets, yeah?"

Zabini nodded. "Sure thing, Red — we'll be careful."

"Come on, Parksy-poo," Daphne called from the upper edge of the nearly-empty visitor's box. "Frothy pink sparkly drinks with fairy wings are calling your name!"

Pansy bit down hard on her tongue. "Give me a bloody Ogdens poured over jagged chunks of anthracite," she grumbled to herself. "A bleeding minute, will you Daffs?! I need to drag Space Pixie back from River Styx, then I'll be right with you!"

Pansy stomped as loudly as possible down to the lower lip of the visitors box to where the sleeping girl sat peacefully. "Dingbat — it's time to go!" she hollered.

Tracey Davis did not stir. Pansy was about to shake her, when she noticed, to her surprise, that the girl was not asleep. Tracey was sitting, motionless, with a vague smile on her face, alert eyes trained on the last five Quidditch players ambling off the pitch together, heading for the lockers.

"Er Tracey..." Pansy began, in quiet consternation.

Down on the pitch, a security wizard pulled the locker room door closed behind Harry, leaving nothing but a silent moonlit field.

Tracey's vacant gaze drifted up to her best friend's puzzled face, and she offered a faint smile. "Time to go, Parksy."


Back to index


Chapter 8: Soul Skulduggery

Author's Notes:

This chapter is dedicated to my most reliable reviewers, LunaGranger and Aimless and skiutahnum1. Life is busy, but you three are a big reason I continue to carve out time for this story!

The "what's up with the twins?" challenge is still open. Quibbler dropped a hint, but Luna isn't spilling all the beans...


Chapter 8. Soul Skulduggery (Jan. 20-24, 1998)

"Urgh..." Harry groaned softly to himself.

He recognized the faint chirping noise resonating through their bedroom, not as a seasonally maladjusted cricket, but rather as a ward alarm. Out in the corridor, outside the peace and privacy wards that they had placed on their quarters, someone was pounding on their door.

Gently decoupling his hand — his tired and calloused hand — from it's happy resting place on Ginny's shoulder, he edged himself carefully out of bed.

"Hmmm...?" Ginny whimpered.

"'S'okay," he whispered hoarsely. "Just someone in the hall. I shouldn't be long."

"Mmmm..." she affirmed unconsciously.

In morbid curiosity, Harry cast a tiny lumos charm to check his watch, and grumbled to himself.

It read 2:38 a.m.

Reaching in the dark for a traveling cloak draped over the back of an arm chair, he swung the garment around himself and stumbled his way to the main entrance to their quarters. Trying not to disturb Ginny any further, he opened the door just widely enough to squeeze through and stepped into the hallway where he was confronted with the face of Mary Jo Clark — disheveled but intensely focused.

"Trouble, MJ?" Harry coughed, still finding his voice.

Mary Jo nodded. "Blaise, Daphne and Pansy Apparated back from Skegness with Tracey Davis. Tracey is really, uhh, drunk, or sick, or... or something..."

"Or something ?" Harry raised an edgy eyebrow. "What are the symptoms?"

"From what Daphne told me, Davis started vomiting at the nightclub," Mary Jo related. "By the time they were helping her back from the Hogsmeade Apparition point, she was all shaky, drool was running down her face, and she was drenched in sweat, despite the cold front moving in."

"Bloody hell!" Harry's eyes flashed wide. "That sounds just like what..."

Harry paused and frowned in consternation, momentarily forgetting that he was supposedly conversing with someone.

Eyebrows raised well up into her rumpled hair, Mary Jo stared at him. "Just like what ?"

Harry shook his head guardedly. "Something improbable. I need more detail before I start spouting wild speculation. What else do you know about her condition?"

"Very little." Mary Jo shrugged. "I'm only telling you what I managed to extract from Daphne. She banged on my door, jabbered at me frantically for a minute, then ran off to find McGonagall."

"Okay..." Harry pursed his lips. "Maybe I should go find Daffs myself. By now she might have calmed down enough to give a measured acc..."

"Oh! Shallow breathing!" Mary Jo interjected. "Daphne said that Davis could barely breathe by the time they reached the castle."

Harry's jaw dropped. "Bugger! Where's Tracey now?"

"Hospital Wing." Mary Jo gestured vaguely eastward.

"Thanks!" Without explanation, Harry turned and raced down the hallway.

As he sped through the castle, Harry's mind paged rapidly between the symptoms hist student had described, and a recent conversation — an eerily relevant exchange that he'd never really expected to be pondering again so soon:

Harry: Okay, those are my best privacy wards. Now what did you want to show me?

Hermione: Harry, please read this document. I know the scenario sounds terribly far-fetched, but under the circumstances, I don't think we can afford to ignore it.

Ryan: At the end, we've listed some specific signs to watch for, as well as a few first aid steps to try in a pinch. Remember, though, that this is based on a short medical abstract from Muggle sources. We haven't found any magical texts that corroborate the concept.

Harry: Er, okay ...

Hermione: What do you think? Do you suppose there might be anything to this, Harry? Should we keep digging?

Harry: Whew! I have to say yes, please try to find out some more — especially real case histories. But blimey do I ever hope this is all a daft waste of time!

That hope grew fainter with each of Tracey's symptoms that aligned with those on the summary sheet. By the time he banged his way loudly through the Hospital Wing doors, and skidded to a halt on the smooth floor, Harry had reviewed a few final diagnostics and response tips in his memory and was prepared for the worst.

Seeing a light in one of the examination beds, he dashed to it and arrived, gasping, at Tracey's bedside. Eyes closed and face rigid, the girl was trembling slightly. Blue tinges about her mouth and hands further supported the diagnosis.

"Bezoar!" Harry shouted to Madame Pomfrey.

"First thing I tried!" The healer scowled at him impatiently. "Honestly, Potter, do you think...??"

"Charcoal!" Harry demanded.

Zabini, Pansy Parkinson and Madame Pomfrey all gaped at him in confusion.

"Powdered charcoal, and water to wash it down!" Harry's voice was clear but urgent.

"I don't keep charcoal in my stores, Harry," Pomfrey replied, shaking off her startled fugue.

Harry growled. Spying a wooden chair about across the room, he pointed it at. "Incendio! "

The chair burst into flame. Ignoring the others' gasps, Harry held his hand up to prevent any interference as the wood burned in fierce white fire for about ten seconds, then he cast rapid Aguamenti and Reducto spells to reduced it a sodden pile of soot and fine sawdust. As Harry rushed over to scoop blackened dust from the floor, Zabini, grasping the plan, whisked a goblet full of water from the bedside table and held it out to Harry. Harry hurriedly swept several charred handfuls into the proffered water, swirled it quickly with his finger, then carried it back to Tracey's bed.

As Madame Pomfrey pried the girl's mouth open, Harry poured the grey slurry straight down Tracey's throat and gently sparked her pharynx with his finger to trigger a swallow. Harry lifted her head a few inches up off the pillow, while Pomfrey folded the padding in on itself and pushed it into place to raise the elevation of Tracey's head.

As Harry took a step back from the bed, unconsciously wringing his hands, Pomfrey reached over with a sterile cloth and wiped a trace of grey spittle from the girl's chin, then exhaled and sternly confronted her faculty colleague. "Professor Potter, if you would be so kind as to explain?"

Harry blinked, momentarily speechless as he shifted from blind instinct back to rational thought. He took a deep breath to clear the adrenaline and summon the finer details of Hermione's and Ryan's notes back into his mind. "Suspected tetrodotoxin poisoning," he answered, finally meeting Madame Pomfrey's inquiring stare.

"I beg your pardon?" The sound of Headmistress McGonagall's voice filled the dimly lit room as she strode briskly toward them, with Daphne and Mary-Jo in tow. "Could you repeat that please, Harry?"

"Suspected tetrodotoxin poisoning," Harry reiterated. "It's a powerful nerve toxin that, uh, we've been speculating about for a very confidential case that I'm working on."

Turning his attention back to Tracey, he studied her face. "It seems like a ridiculous coincidence — I'd never even heard of tetrodotoxin poisoning before last week, and suddenly we have a case on our hands." He shook his head. "I never would have believed it possible, but the symptoms seemed to be a perfect fit. Now perhaps we should take a few minutes to look for confirmation — if I've guessed correctly, we should start seeing initial recovery signs fairly quickly."

"She's stopped shuddering," Pansy observed.

Madame Pomfrey leaned over to examine Tracey carefully. "Her colouration is normalising. Pulse remains weak, but has stabilised... Unless there's a sudden relapse, I think she's going to pull through." The healer raised her head to look Harry in the eye. "So, why did you use charcoal?"

"It binds the poison," Harry replied. "Tetrodotoxin is slow acting, but extremely potent — I saw Tracey turning blue, and I guessed that a bezoar alone wasn't strong enough to counteract the toxicity. The carbon black should soak up the excess poison fairly quickly; please leave her as is for roughly twenty minutes to maximize the absorption, then, well.... I guess you should evacuate her stomach."

Madame Pomfrey jotted down several notes on a scroll and nodded thoughtfully.

McGonagall nodded seriously "I will have to notify the girl's parents and file a report to the Hogwarts Board of Governors. Do any of you know how the poisoning might have occurred? Where was Miss Davis when the incident took place?"

Harry's gaze scanned across Blaise and Daphne, who, in turn, were both staring at Pansy. The Slytherin prefect shifted awkwardly and cleared her throat. "Er, well, I don't know precisely how it happened. We left the match and went with a number of other fans to The Spiny Swampe — a nightclub in the magical community at Croft Marsh. I suppose that is where the poisoning must have taken place." Pansy rubbed her temples uncomfortably. "I don't know any obvious way, either deliberate or accidental, for her to have gotten so messed up. She had a few drinks and seemed to be having fun. Nothing unusual..."

Harry frowned. "Did anyone unexpected show up? And shady characters? Anybody who might have looked like he or she could have belonged on the Death Eater watch list?"

"Not really." Pansy shook her head. "Tracey and I chummed around with the Circus gang until nearly midnight and then she... well, this bloke came over and... er, she started to get rather friendly with him."

"Bloke?" Harry raised an eyebrow. "Someone you didn't recognize?"

"Right — never seen the sod before," Pansy replied. "He bought Tracey a drink, gave her a drippy line of some sort, and she appeared to fall for it, which is rather strange because..."

"Because Tracey hasn't let any bloke touch her in all the years at Hogwarts." Daphne tapped her lips. "A lot of us figured she was either really shy, or that she might be a tom."

"Nah, I know Tracey better than anyone else here and she's straight." Pansy glanced at her friend who was now sleeping peacefully. "Weird but straight. In fact, the last couple weeks she's barely been able to take her eyes off Harry..."

"She's been ogling Potter??" Zabini gave an exaggerated shiver. That's beyond weird — that's absolutely barmy..." He projected a smirk around the circle, an insidious glint in his eyes only slightly tempered by exhaustion.

"Everyone, please focus," McGonagall exhorted urgently. "It's woefully late. I need a bit more information, then we all must find our beds." She turned toward the bed to examine Tracey. "Harry, this tetra... er, the toxin you diagnosed — how is it generally administered?"

Harry closed his eyes for a moment, sifting through his mental notes. "Injection and inhalation are possible, but ingestion is easiest. Which means that any stranger buying drinks is automatically a suspect."

McGonagall nodded seriously. "I've never heard of the substance before. Is it common? Where would someone get hold of it?"

Harry shrugged. "I believe it's rather exotic around here. I think Hermione said that it's mostly found in amphibians and sea creatures but, if I understood correctly, they're primarily tropical species that are rare at our latitudes — especially in winter. I suppose if the nightclub was serving some rare delicacy like imported puffer fish, we might be looking at an accidental poisoning..."

"No food on the menu, Harry," Zabini interjected, "but all around the dance floor there was a huge aquarium filled with swimming shrake. Do you suppose...?"

"Shrake? Yes perhaps." Harry pursed his lips thoughtfully. "All we know right now about tetrodotoxin is from Muggle sources, but it's entirely possible that some magical creatures may synthesize it."

Mary Jo raised her hand to interject. "Shrake spines are a notoriously finicky potion ingredient. If you don't brew them properly, your potion can interfere with a person's magical skills."

"Do tell?" Harry stiffened, his eyes scanning the sixth year student.

She nodded. "In the NEWTs potion text Slughorn assigned, it says that there are reports of poorly prepared boil ointments causing people to lose control of their magic. In serious cases, victims have been reduced to nothing better than erratic, accidental magic. Control has sometimes returned to normal after a few days or weeks, but other people have had to relearn their whole repertoire of spells, and in some rare instances, sufferers have never truly regained normal magical abilities."

"Harry!" Pansy stared in dismay. "Will that happen to her? Is she going to become a Squib??"

"Listen." Harry exhaled wearily, then caught himself lest he sound too frayed. He swept an even gaze around at the assembly, and assembled a tone of carefully girded calm. "It's too late at night to waste our energy speculating. Nobody knows anything yet. We don't know for certain that Tracey was afflicted with tetrodotoxin, or exposed to untreated shrake spines, and we don't know whether that's effectively the same thing or not. We don't know how much of a dose of anything she might have received, other than that it was too much for a Bezoar to handle alone. We don't whether we treated it in time to prevent lasting consequences, and thus won't really have much of an idea what sort of recovery to hope for until maybe noon tomorrow at the earliest. All we know is that we responded to the best of our abilities and that her preliminary responses have been good. So, at least that affords us a little optimism, okay?"

The others nodded solemnly.

"MJ, can you please tell Ryan that I'd like to see him and Hermione in my office for a lunch meeting tomorrow?" Harry continued. "Pansy, I need you there too. Minerva, I can contact Robards about this, if you'd like?"

"Something basic like an alleged poisoning isn't considered to be dark magic, so we'd be contacting Kingsley rather than Robards," McGonagall corrected. "But yes, let's Floo call together tomorrow morning, Harry. Would 7:45 suit?"

Harry nodded. "Do you have everything you need for the time being Minerva?"

"I need for this student to recover," McGonagall sighed; a plaintive edge tinged her normally stoic voice. "But, apart from that, thank you all for your assistance. I don't believe there's anything left to be accomplished standing around here at this hour. Considering the nature of this emergency, any curfew violations are forgiven, but let's not push this any further — all students please return to your quarters and try to get some sleep."

McGonagall, turned and strode from the wing, followed by Zabini, Mary Jo and Pansy, with Daphne trailing. Madame Pomfrey returned to Tracey's side and began to run a series of standard magical scans. Harry quietly turned his attention to the messy remains of the incinerated chair, which he began to systematically banish.

Aware of the weight of someone's eyes upon him, Harry looked up. He noticed that Daphne had stopped and was giving him an inquiring look.

Harry smiled and shooed her off with flick of his hand. "It's okay Daffs," he told her. "I'm just tidying up after myself — go get some sleep."

She shrugged and her footsteps receded toward the door.

His cleaning complete, Harry gazed around the darkened ward, empty now except for Pomfrey finishing her final ministrations. He walked quietly over to Tracey's bed. "Poppy?" he inquired softly.

Pomfrey looked up, startled to see that he was still around. "Yes Harry?"

"Would you mind if I cast a few ward spells around Tracey's bed?"

"What sort of wards?"

"Er, well." His eyes darted around the alcove that housed Tracey' bed. "I'd basically like to create something like a makeshift magical containment box."

She looked at him thoughtfully for a moment the raised a wry eyebrow. "I assume you're not planning to explain why?"

Harry shook his head sheepishly. "Sorry, I'm operating on a hunch, based on a case that's highly confidential. But basically I don't want anyone to be able to take advantage of her while she's in a weakened state."

Pomfrey nodded her assent.

"I can make it so that you'll be able to cast any spells you need within two feet of her bed," Harry promised. "The wards will block spells from inside going out and from outside transmitting in. If anybody detects the wards, I suppose we could say that they're a protection in case Mary Jo's guess is right and Tracey displays magical control problems."

"Yes, I suppose we could say that." Pomfrey nodded. "Go ahead, but if the wards interfere with her treatment in any way, I'll drag you back here by your heel."

"Er yes, thanks." Harry gave her a slightly uneasy smile, then turned to craft a protective net.

"Mother of Merlin, Harry!" Aghast, Ginny shook her head as Harry closed his office door. "Soul snatching?!"

"It's still just a guess," Harry replied, trying to project calm reassurance. "And even if we're right, at least we're discovering it now, before she's perfected the technique."

The pair of them had just completed a meeting more dour and grim than any in months — an experience as loathsome as last autumn's panel sessions tasked with cataloging Death Eater atrocities. This time they had no murders to revisit, but if Hermione and Ryan were correct, Bellatrix Lestrange might be trying to acquire a ghastly dark power to rival Voldemort's worst moral abominations — an ability to indefinitely imprison and torment the minds and magic of innocent witches and wizards, turning their still-living bodies into mute, unquestioning slaves.

Ginny had remained stoic and engaged through the meeting, but now that everyone else was gone, she found herself agonizing over nightmarish scenarios. Harry embraced her, rocking her gently. She accepted his comforting words for a moment, but then pulled back, shaking her head. "This is more than a guess, Harry. If Hermione, Ryan, you and I all agree on something, what's the chance we're all wrong? All evidence points to tetrodotoxin; there are hundreds of easier ways to kill, so why would anyone choose something so exotic if not to try to steal her soul?"

Harry bobbed his shoulders. "Well yes, it's hard to argue with that."

"How long until we have proof?"

"DMLE is contracting with a Muggle law enforcement lab to do the toxicology tests, so maybe a week to confirm tetrodotoxin. As far as whether tetrodotoxin weakens the magical essence enough to make it vulnerable to capture and confinement will be harder to prove — the hypothesis is based on Muggle myth and pseudoscience. Unless we do find a link to shrake spines, there's no corroborating precedent in legitimate magical scholarship,"

"Magical scholarship — pah!" Ginny rolled her eyes. "The blasted West Africans never write any of their secrets down, and stiff-necked Europeans wizards won't believe anything that's not transcribed in triplicate!"

Harry couldn't help but chuckle for a moment, before the weight or worry sank down on him again. "Well, whatever the real threat, I'm confident that we'll find some way to counter it. I just hope that Tracey comes through okay, and that there aren't too many more victims before we can get this all sorted."

"Yes, let's hope." Ginny agreed softly, pulling Harry back into an embrace. They held each other in restorative silence for a while, gazing through the window of Harry's office at the surroundings, still cloaked in the remnants of the morning snowfall. After a while Ginny shifted. "Almost time for the next meeting, yeah?"

Harry nodded.

Ginny permitted a small smile onto her face as she reached into the rucksack she had left on Harry's chair. "I brought a few papers that covered last night's match."

"Oh?" Harry smirked. "Are you testing my fine, sunny mood?"

"No worries on that!" Ginny winked. "The press coverage was nice... pleasant, really. Most people still consider us a curiosity, not a threat. Look — we made the Daily Prophet!"

Harry took the proffered paper and read.

From Mystery to Mastery — Chaser Weasley Takes Control as Flying Circus Shreds Shrakes

GIBRALTAR POINT, LINCOLSHIRE — At the four minute mark of last night's intriguing exhibition Quidditch match, everything was as it should be. The surging Skegness Shrakes of the Class B North Midland League had opened an early thirty point lead on a disorganized rabble of suspect Quidditch talent calling themselves 'The Great Zabini Flying Circus'. The venerated Skegness squad seemed ready to settle into a relaxing evening of casual 'pass and score' drills as a welcome break from their strenuous league schedule when, to nearly everyone's surprise, everything completely unraveled.

In the intervening 65 minutes before the renowned Harry Potter pulled the Snitch down for the visitors, the Shrakes found themselves schooled in every aspect of the game, limping away from a 390 to 110 pounding that featured dominant performances by every player in The Flying Circus lineup.

The catalyst in the Circus's resounding turnabout was none other than sixteen-year-old Holyhead Harpies recruit, Ginevra Weasley, a talented Chaser firebrand who scorched Shrakes stellar junior catalyst, Liu Song Ye, on both defence and offence. Weasley finished with thirteen scores, and a mind-bending eleven Quaffle steals as she helped limit Ye to fifty points. Although Weasley's scouting card describes her as primarily an off-Quaffle defender, Captain Blaise Zabini cited his star Chaser's performance as an example of how The Flying Circus adapts to each opponent's playing style.

Skegness coach Lucilma Bloom complimented The Circus on playing clean, exciting and fundamentally sound Quidditch. She professed gratitude for a hard lesson in humility as the Shrakes head toward the most demanding and crucial stretch of their Class B season.

"Wow — that's great!" Harry stared at the paper in astonishment. "Factual, unbiased and doesn't try to over-interpret anything. What else do you have?"

Ginny smiled. "I scanned a few more articles with similar viewpoints; nothing particularly hostile or insightful. But, as usual, the Quibbler has a different take."

Harry raised an eyebrow as he accepted the smaller periodical and took a seat at his desk while Ginny walked over to reopen the office door.

Beating with One Heart: Weasley Twins Settling Old Score

By Luna Lovegood

Quibbler Special Correspondent

In the skies, I can tell them apart because one twin smiles more, and the other shouts a lot. On the ground, one of them watches my lips, while the other contemplates my chest. Apart from those distinguishing features, Frederick and George Weasley are identical twins in all important respects — the way they laugh, their fierce familial loyalties and, once again after a long intermission, the way they synchronize their primal instincts to strike fear into the hearts of their airborne Quidditch foes. And what great fear this Weasley pair inspires!

'Fear' is not what comes to mind when the two affable rogues are surreptitiously conjuring large slug antennae in their captain's hair during pre-match press conferences. 'Fear' is absent as the pair jests with fans and reporters before another successful match. Rather, fear awaits the skies above a grassy pitch where Messrs. Weasley own and wield the Bludgers with absolute precision and authourity. Quibbler readers take heed — at the vanguard of a revolution, the Weasley twins are poised to take the world of Quidditch by storm!

Why would these two successful entrepreneurs defer their cherished pranks and personal safety device business to return to a schoolyard sport with too-many balls and too-few safeguards? Proclaim it on the mountaintops. Whisper it by the hearth. Pump it into the stoney walls of Azkaban Cell 318. The Flying Circus's talented Beater corps are settling an old score, and when they finish making their statement... (Continued on Page 9; See "Beater Score")

Harry flipped several pages, then frowned in confusion. "There's no Page 9..."

"Quibbler print editions never run longer than eight pages, Harry," Ginny advised as she sipped her coffee.

"Then why the hell does the article say it's continued on Page 9 if it doesn't exist??"

"Luna told me once that Quibbler sales increase 10% whenever they foster an element of mystery." Ginny offered an amused smirk.

"Mystery?" Harry huffed in exasperation. "One out of every ten readers plunks down an extra Sickle at the news stand thinking somebody nicked his Page 9. Where's the bloody mystery in that??"

"A bit shirty today, Potter?" Zabini grinned roguishly as he, Daphne and Summerby entered the office.

"Yes I am!" Harry tossed the Quibbler into the bin and immersed his face in a coffee cup.

"Oh Harry Harry Harry," Daphne moaned as she circled quickly around behind him and pressed herself into his shoulders, draping her hands around his neck. "Look on the bright side. You saved Tracey's life and she'll be all right. You can't ask much more than that can you?"

A somewhat tense moment followed. Harry stiffened, uncomfortably aware of Daphne's fingers making their way down his chest. Ginny's eyebrow spiked. Zabini shifted awkwardly, eyeing Ginny and wondering how quickly a 'shirtiness' epidemic might spread through the office. "Er, yes. About that Davis business, Harry?" Zabini quickly interjected to shift everyone's focus. He took a seat and not-so-subtly indicated to Daphne that she should do the same.

"Yes?" Harry breathed a bit more easily as Daphne reluctantly parted from him.

"Spacey getting herself in trouble in a nightclub had nothing to do with the Flying Circus," Zabini asserted. "It's not our fault, right? This isn't going to affect your commitment to the squad, is it?"

Harry sighed deeply and didn't answer.

Standing by the door, Ginny met Zabini's expectant gaze and tapped her wrist watch. "Let's wait until Grant and George arrive, then we'll talk things through as a group."

Fortunately the Keeper and Beater were already bantering their way up the hallway. "Frederick the Great sends his regrets!" George announced cheerily as he strode in the door and handed his cloak blithely to Zabini. "Someone has to mind the shop and keep all those sponsorship Galleons rolling in!"

"Oi!" Page looked around at the assembled group as he closed the door. "Quite the sour-looking bunch aren't we all? I assume you've been discussing the Davis girl, then? How is she?"

"I was in the Hospital Wing over lunch," Daphne responded. "Tracey was conscious and has been able to speak softly, but she doesn't have the strength to lift her arms much or handle solid foods yet. But still, it's a big improvement."

"Poor sprog." George shook his head somberly. "I'll talk to Fred after the meeting and we'll knock together a gift to cheer her up. We can present it on behalf of the team if everyone agrees."

"That would be sweet — thank you George!" Ginny patted her brother fondly on the arm.

"Yes, thank you very much George — very thoughtful." Harry smiled gratefully, then turned to face the group. "So to get everyone caught up, just a couple of minutes ago, Blaise asked the question of the hour. Does Tracey's misfortune affect our plans to move ahead with a full season schedule for The Flying Circus?"

The others nodded silently, expectantly.

Harry folded his hands. "What I would propose is that we discuss some of the deeper issues here and then we can either try to hammer out a consensus, or else put some propositions on the table and take a vote."

The others signaled tacit assent.

Harry pursed his lips. "I would very much prefer a consensus. If it comes down to taking a vote, then I'm going to state clearly that I'll do anything I can do to protect any dissenting minority. Fan and player security is critical, and I don't believe that any majority has the moral prerogative to force anyone to act against their conscience for the sake of something as trivial as exhibition Quidditch."

Zabini's brow furrowed. "Without unanimity or a guarantee of majority rule, we might split up?"

"Yes, it's possible we might split up — maybe now or maybe later," Harry admitted. "But first let's see how far we can get as rational, accommodating human beings."

George shrugged equably. "Sure, Harry. That's reasonable."

Various murmurs of agreement ensued.

Harry gazed around at the serious faces. "Thank you for your understanding. I will be honest and state what you're all probably guessing, which is that I have serious misgivings about going ahead with a series of high-profile exhibition matches. My concerns relate to an Auror investigation that most of you know nothing about. You'll probably leave today's meeting still knowing less than you'd like, but to be fair to you I'll give you a bit of background as long as you all swear to repeat nothing of it to anyone."

Everyone nodded earnestly.

"Since late fall, a fringe dark element has emerged and is laying the foundation for some very unpleasant scheme. Their precise agenda remains unclear, but for the sake of argument let's propose that they would like to avenge Voldemort's death," Harry explained calmly. "To this end, we would assume that there a number of primary targets, all of whom played roles in the Battle of Hogwarts. Not surprisingly, I appear to be on the endangered list."

Nobody blinked. Apart from Ginny, none of the other Flying Circus members had been privy to the Auror investigation or any of the secret research, but juxtaposition of the phrases 'danger' and 'Harry Potter' wasn't particularly shocking.

Harry waited a moment in case there were any questions that he would probably refuse to answer, but the savvy audience just sat, waiting for him to continue.

"Up until I went to bed last night, I thought that the Flying Circus events were fairly well protected by the advanced security precautions that DMLE has agreed to implement for us. You probably couldn't tell, but last night's facility at Gibraltar Point was well locked down. It was probably even more secure than the last World Cup. I took to the skies without much fear that anything would go wrong at the match, and I was right. But unfortunately nobody anticipated problems that might arise as soon as fans step outside of the secure area."

Harry paused as Dobby Apparated into the office bearing coffee, tea, and biscuits for everyone. He smiled his thanks to the thoughtful house elf, who bowed and vanished. Harry picked up a fresh coffee mug whose handle bore a tiny placard inscribed 'Professor Potter'. He took a sip before resuming.

"Okay, to get to the point, last night's incident might seem at first blush to be a random, nightclub crime. Most Aurors wouldn't blink at a report of some brainless minger on the loose with a badly brewed Mickey-Finn — they'd pass the case onto local law enforcement and forget about it. In this case, however, there are strange aspects that only make sense to me if I look at them in the context of something much more sinister than attempted sexual assault. In fact, although proof still eludes me, I'm fairly certain that last night's incident was perpetrated by the same fringe dark element I mentioned a moment ago. Tracey Davis received an Order of Merlin citation for helping to rally Slytherin House to our cause, which might hint at vengeance as a motive for targeting her, but the real plot could be a lot stranger and more insidious than anybody's best guess."

"I don't see any connection between this dark plot and The Flying Circus, Harry. Did anything about the match place anyone at undue risk?"

Everyone's eyes swiveled around, astonished to note that it was Daphne who had spoken.

"Wouldn't Tracey have been in danger regardless of whether she went to the match?" she continued. "She's of age. She's entitled to request weekend passes whenever she wants, so which is riskier — going out shopping with her mum, or hanging out with a bunch of Quidditch fans who happen to be Order of Merlin recipients with extensive defence training from some sweetie named Potter?"

Daphne paused to let a ripple of whispers spread through the office, before capping off her speech. "Listen Harry..." She proceeded to stand, and placed her hands firmly on her hips, "If we kill The Flying Circus, the crooks will find other chances to attack, and they'll probably giggle in glee knowing that they strangled a fun, exciting diversion in a society still reeling from war and privation."

Harry blinked, met her fiery eyes with a genuine smile, and clapped slowly three times. "Wow Daffs! Not a bad little speech from someone who got, what, three hours of sleep?"

Daphne laughed. "Actually, I ditched my morning classes..." She smiled momentarily before reassembling her business mien. "But as Flying Circus Senior Advocate, my suggestion is that we all defer completely to Harry's and Gin-Ginny's judgment when it comes to squad and match security. Let's all promise that we'll go along with any recommendation they make regarding safety issues. In return, Generals Potter and Weasley will assure us that they will only cancel a match if there's a credible threat targeting that match, or targeting people trying to get to or from the event."

Harry eyed her shrewdly. "Ah! So Ginny and I get to decide on a case by case basis, huh? Not putting any pressure on us, are you Madame Senior Advocate?"

Daphne's shoulders equivocated coyly.

Harry frowned. "You're forgetting one possible scenario. What if somebody uses the match as a diversion to distract from some operation taking place elsewhere?"

Daphne regarded him analytically for a moment then nodded. "Okay, you can cancel a match any time you have strong reason to believe that cancellation will prevent a crime from occurring."

Harry pursed his lips thoughtfully. "Ginny?" He glanced deferentially to his frowning girlfriend who seemed to be lost in thought.

After a moment, Harry shrugged. "I want to reiterate how important it is to keep this secret, but let me make it clear to everyone that the alleged criminal mastermind we're competing with is a wild-card who thrives on the unconventional. There may be times when the most solid reason we can possibly give is a hunch. Sometimes hunches save lives!"

Harry paused to take a slow sip of coffee as the room fell deathly silent in anticipation.

He put his cup down, steepled his hands pensively, then finally spoke. "All that said, I find myself agreeing with Daphne. We can't let a small noxious fringe take all the fun out of life, so let's try to make a go of it for now."

Harry paused to examine the response from the assembly. He smiled to see huge grins spreading over Zabini's, Daphne's, George's and Grant's faces. He noted more soberly that Ginny's and Summerby's enthusiasm was distinctly muted by comparison, but they didn't protest.

"So..." Harry took back his seat. "I suppose Daphne's next agenda item is to begin negotiating a schedule?"

Daphne nodded enthusiastically and began pulling scrolls out of her hand bag, but Harry raised his hand before she could begin speaking. "That's fine, but before we officially approach any more opponents, I want Madame Senior Advocate Boss Lady to agree that any contract we sign will give us an explicit exit clause in case of possible security issues. And furthermore, the term 'security issues' must be defined as vaguely as possible so that Ginny or I can improvise if things smell fishy. Is that a fair compromise, Gin'?"

Ginny's frown abated. "Yes, that's a responsible way of going about it. Thank you Harry. And thank you too, Daphne, for being reasonable about this." Ginny's smiling eyes alighting on her long-time frenemy.

Daphne grinned. "Goody good! Up-or-down vote on Harry's proposal?"

"Aye!" came the resounding response.

"Brill!" Daphne continued. "Now, let me tell you about some of the squads that have thrown down the gauntlet!"

"Surprise!" Harry and Ginny waved jauntily to the bed-ridden student. "Triple chocolate gelato straight from Fortescue's, courtesy of a most charming house elf!"

Looking weak and pale, but alert, Tracey smiled.

"We have a freezing charm on it in case you'd prefer to save it for later, but if you'd like to try eating some now, I can help you," Ginny offered, holding up a spoon.

Tracey gave a slight nod. "Seeing as you're not from Slytherin House," she whispered with a weak grin, "I'll assume that you didn't spit on the spoon."

Harry chuckled, then met her eye. "Would you be up to answering a few questions about the wizard you met at the night club?" he asked gently. "Please don't feel pressured, because we could come back again tomorrow if you'd prefer."

"No," she said softly, after swallowing a small mouthful. "Let's talk a little while my memory is fresh."

"Thanks!" Harry gave her a warm smile. "First I want to gauge your recall prior to the poisoning. Do you remember how much money you went into the nightclub with?"

Tracey nodded. "I went in with eight Galleons and ten Sickles." Her tone, although still weak, was clear and certain. "The Swampe had an all-night special on Phlaming Phoenixes — only fourteen Sickles per urn. I bought three and tipped one Sickle each time, then I spent three Sickles on a packet of pumpkin seeds just before midnight, so I should have returned here with five Galleons and thirteen Sickles in my pocket."

His eyebrows raised, Harry looked up from Tracey's small tray of personal effects where he had been counting coins. "Well done!" He pursed his lips, impressed. "So clearly you still had your wits about you as long as you were buying your own drinks!"

"Pansy claimed that the Phlaming Phoenixes were actually quite watery, so I think we're safe to assume that by the time you stopped buying drinks, you really weren't headed for a bender," Ginny surmised, as she offered Tracey another spoon full of the confection. "How many drinks did the mystery wizard buy you?"

Tracey paused to swallow, then wheezed as she gestured toward the bedside table. "Water."

From the look in her eyes, Harry knew immediately that Tracey wasn't talking about the nightclub binge — she was having trouble swallowing. He quickly grabbed a glass from the table and helped her take a drink.

"Thanks," she croaked. She coughed slightly, then shook her head to clear it. "Fugly bastard bought me two drinks. First one seemed okay, but the second drink went down like a mouthful of Knarl quills. I vomited from the first mouthful, then ditched the drink — and the ponce! "

Harry glanced at Ginny in consternation, chewing his lip. "Strong mix!"

Tracey smirked slightly and beckoned with her finger for another spoonful of gelato. "I don't know how much alcohol it had in it, but it sure as hell was no... what do the Muggles call them? Shirley Temple?"

Harry shook his head. "Actually I wasn't talking about alcoholic strength, but rather the amount of foreign substance in there. To be honest, I don't know much about the way different poisons act, but it's always my assumption that if a crook is trying to poison someone, he'll try to disguise the taste and make it as seem as harmless as possible. If it's the poison we're thinking of, the effect you describe sounds quite... harsh, wouldn't you say Gin'?"

Ginny shrugged. "Muggles in the Far East are known to self-administer non-lethal doses of the stuff in food and claim that the effect is 'tingly'. If the dose was stronger, perhaps the sensation would be harsher as well."

"I suppose." Harry nodded thoughtfully. "We'll have to ask Hermione if she can clarify that. Anyway Tracey..." Harry returned his attention to the patient, "I couldn't help notice that you used some uncomplimentary terms to refer to the bloke who poisoned you?"

Tracey nodded, frowning. "He was pure slime. If I'd had any say in the matter, I wouldn't have gone anywhere near him."

"If you'd had any say...?" Harry raised an eyebrow.

Tracey bit her lip. "Sorry Harry," she replied sheepishly. "I've been having a lot of difficulty getting anywhere with Occlumency ."

"I see." Harry's frown deepened. "So you felt like you weren't in control of your actions?"

The girl shook her head with surprising fervour. "Around midnight I started getting impulses to act stupidly. My head got a bit fogged, and it seemed like I just got swept along... until I swallowed that filth he gave me. When the poison hit me, I panicked enough to straighten my head again. I spewed on the floor, pulled my wand on him and was about to yell for help but, by that time... well, I guess it was already too late..."

Ginny stared at the girl. "Too late? You mean the poison was already starting to affect you?"

"I guess so." Tracey shrugged. "My muscles went all weak and I could barely talk. It was nothing like the earlier impulses — I had my wits about me for a while, but I was too shaky to do much."

Harry stroked his chin. "Tet... er, the poison we're thinking of, takes longer to act. Thirty minutes or more after exposure."

"Could it have been a mix of poisons?" Ginny speculated.

Harry nodded.

Ginny turned to Tracey. "So going back to Mr. 'Fugly'. We've gotten vague details from the others, but I was wondering if you could describe him?"

Tracey nodded, but first pointed toward the spoon. "More chocolate please?"

Ginny smiled affirmatively, and as she began to scoop another morsel from the container, Tracey turned to Harry with a set jaw, speaking only two words dripping with vitriol. "Vincent Crabbe."

The metal spoon clanged to the floor. Ginny stared, agape. "You think the bloke was Crabbe? Polyjuiced??"

"Blimey!" Harry shook his head as Ginny knelt to scourgefy the spoon and floor. "Crabbe, Goyle and Bulstrode haven't been seen since they left the castle the day before the Battle of Hogwarts. Shite, Gin' — do you reckon they're working for Lestrange?"

Tracey shrugged. "He called himself Victor Carling and said he came from a Muggle neighbourhood in Lincoln, but his accent was obviously Home Counties." She devoured another spoonful of gelato. "Something kept telling me that the git really reminded me of someone — the smell, body language, crass vocabulary. The connection eluded me, but I kept fussing over it and finally, just a while ago, I sorted it out. The more I question myself, the more I'm certain it was him. Crabbe cornered me one night last year in the Slytherin common room, and I guess he still can't take 'HELL NO ' for an answer!"

Tracey unclenched her jaw and looked down in surprise to see her hands, both raised off the bed, clenched in rigid trembling fists like she was ready to take a swing at someone. Forgetting her anger, she laughed spiritedly. "Is this your idea of therapy, Harry?" She gave him a wicked grin. "Fill me full of chocolate, then hack me off?"

"Ha!" Ginny snickered. "Well, there is still almost a pint of chocolate for you to keep working on, but I think we're done with the provocation exercises for today!"

Tracey extended her newly empowered hands to reach for the pint and the spoon. "Leave those right here, please. A bit of scooping is the perfect cool-down exercise for me right now!"

"Psssstt!"

Harry and Ginny swiveled around on the stairwell and spotted Pansy beckoning them down a quiet, dimly-lit corridor on fourth floor. The pair looked at each other, shrugged, and descended a few steps to follow the Slytherin a short ways along the hall and into an unused classroom.

"What's up, Pansy?" Harry asked, as the Slytherin closed the door.

"I'm worried about Tracey," she replied in a low tone.

Ginny gave her a puzzled look. "Yes, of course. She obviously gave a lot of people quite a fright, but things are looking up. Harry and I just left the Hospital Wing and are thrilled to report that her recovery is really starting to hit stride. Another few days and she may well be completely back to normal!"

"Normal!" Pansy huffed loudly, rolling her eyes. "That's precisely the problem. Tracey's been a whacked-out nutter for weeks now — she's been off so long now that 'normal' is the last bleeding thing I'd expect from her." She turned to stare at the puzzled looks on Harry's and Ginny's faces for a moment, before completing her thought. "Why would near-death by poisoning suddenly straighten her out?"

Harry scratched his head. "Er, well, I don't know exactly, but the problem is that I'm not really sure what you're talking about. I mean in terms of describing her as a whacked-out nutter, that is. Admittedly I never got to know her when we were students, and had never taught her until we started the twice weekly Occlumency tutoring. So I guess I don't know what 'normal' should be, but nothing I've seen recently has seemed cause for alarm." He paused to think for a moment. "I do admit that she's a poor study at Occlumency, but at least she's been taking the sessions seriously, paying attention, and making an honest effort to apply the techniques. Are you sure you haven't been judging her too harshly, Pansy?"

"Huhh??" Pansy scratched her head in disbelief. "You say she seems normal? Around you ?!"

"Yes," Harry confirmed. "Why is that so strange?"

"Because, sh-.... er, well... forget it." Still scratching her head, Pansy stared off into a dim corner.

Ginny took a step toward the Slytherin. "Pansy, please tell us. It could be important."

Pansy glanced uncertainly at Harry and Ginny before resolving to proceed. "Don't hex the little ninny or anything because of this Weasley, but like I hinted to Potter last night, Tracey seems to have developed a crush on him. To be specific, a couple times in the last week or so, I caught her gawking at Harry like he had a diamond-studded butt or something."

Harry frowned. "Uh yes, I seem to remember you mentioning something like that, but I had other things on my mind at the time. You're suggesting that she's been acting fixated? Toward me?"

Pansy nodded.

Harry shook his head and exchanged glances with Ginny. "No, neither of us have noticed anything of the sort. You're certain it wasn't confusion or distraction of some sort?"

Pansy snarled impatiently. "I know her, and I know what I bloody well saw, okay?"

"Sorry to have sounded doubtful, Pansy." Ginny smiled solicitously. "As far as I'm concerned, this seems very relevant." She turned to Harry. My immediate concern is how we could have failed to notice?"

"Right," Harry nodded. "If she's fixated, then does the fixation get turned on and off somehow, so we don't see it when we're around her? Or does it mean...?"

Harry didn't complete his sentence. Instead, he and Ginny nodded subtly and thoughtfully to each other, both embarking on a similar trail of speculation.

Does this mean that Tracey is another walking confundus charm?

Who else might be affected? In what ways? Would people know if they were influenced?

Could she have inadvertently confunded Ted Nott?

Harry shook himself out of his internal deliberations. "Pansy, I have another indelicate question and..., well I hate to pry, but it may also be salient to this discussion."

Pansy gave him an unpleasant look. "I hate indelicate questions, but people tell me that I ask them all the time."

"Okay..." Harry eyed her cautiously, gauging whether to interpret that as tacit acceptance. "Why did you and Ted break up?"

Pansy grimaced. "Gah! Should have seen that coming!"

Harry and Ginny averted their eyes from Pansy's scowl and waited patiently.

"I caught Ted making a blatant pass at Tracey," Pansy answered after some time. "Tracey looked like she would rather have kissed an Aquavirius Maggot, so if you were about to ask whether she might have been slutting around, the answer is definitely no. It was all Ted pushing himself on her."

Harry frowned. "Er, well fortunately I wasn't going to ask for details, but I suppose it's useful to know the perspective anyway."

"Don't spread this around!" Pansy waved her hand emphatically. "I did break up with Ted, but he's been through enough hell and I, uhh... well, I don't exactly want to drag him through any more mud. If you know what I mean?"

Ginny nodded. "Don't worry, we'll be discreet."

Harry pushed back against his private worries to give the girl a grateful smile. "Thanks for coming to us, Pansy. If you notice anything else peculiar, it would be very helpful if you could tip us off. There could be a lot more at stake here than reputation and relationship angst."

Pansy half nodded, half hrugged. "Okay, I'll keep an eye out, as long as you watch out for Tracey — the little barmpot actually means quite a bit to me. Is that a deal?"

"Deal!" Harry and Ginny replied in unison.

"Is anyone home?" Harry's voice sounded through the large Dolwyddelan kitchen as he looked around. In truth, he could sense Andromeda's presence, but preferred not to draw attention to unusual abilities of that nature, so it seemed wiser to just call out like every one else did.

Andromeda emerged from the pantry, dusting her hands. "Oh, hello Harry! Sorry, but everyone here is running behind this morning, mostly due to the frightful wind storm that tore through the valley last night. I lost several hours of sleep myself and completely forgot about your weekly visit."

"No problem." Harry smiled casually. "So where is Teri?"

"Teri? Ah yes." Andromeda took a moment to collect her thoughts. "I believe she's outside with several of the children, helping Theodore Nott clear some deadfall from the grounds and paths. They would likely be somewhere around back by now."

"Thank you!" Harry gave her another smile and made his way out of the kitchen through the back door. His boots crunched loudly over the recently frozen ground. Harry gazed at the trees and bushes all contorted under their icy sheaths. If the sun were to make an appearance, the icescape would likely be dazzling, but under the grey skies it seemed hard and cheerless.

But not quite so dreary that the morning couldn't be brought to life with children's laughter.

Pausing his noisy footsteps for a moment, Harry looked around to pinpoint the source of distant shrieks and giggling. In the middle of an orchard to the southwest, Harry spotted the distinct sight of several small, cloaked figures chasing each other about the leafless undergrowth. Eyes lighting to a twinkle, Harry made his way toward them. As he approached more closely, he saw that two of the boys (Troy and Carl) were thrashing about with sticks, shattering ice from a small stream, while Ted Nott was groaning exaggeratedly, and staggering about from the weight of Anna and Teri, who had latched onto his two arms and were tugging him in opposite directions.

As he approached, Harry intentionally kicked at a brittle piece of deadfall; the resulting crack echoed through the glade and five faces turned to face him.

"Mr. Harry! I forgot all about our lesson!" Raising a worried mitten to her mouth, Teri released Ted's arm, inadvertently breaking a delicate balance, sending Anna and her young uncle tumbling to the ground.

Harry chuckled as several of the children burst into laughter again. He turned to Teri, who apparently didn't quite know whether to grin or grimace. He smiled. "Don't worry about it, Teri. The Aurors ought to be accustomed to me being late getting back to the castle by now, so I might as well live up to that right?" He winked cheerily.

Teri's face settled into a carefree shine that Harry couldn't recall having seen before from the normally stoic and sardonic girl. With a light laugh, she joined Harry and the two of them ambled together back to the manor house.

Harry offered his arm as they walked past a slick glaze near the back steps, and glanced appraisingly at his young companion. "You've had a good week?"

"Yes!" Her head bobbed enthusiastically. "Every new week without the bitch in my head seems even better than the last."

Dwelling much more on her general happiness than on the coarse slip of language, Harry nodded. "I'm glad to hear that!"

"And also, you won at Quidditch!" She grinned. "We were so excited! We all clumped together in the den, listening to the match on the wireless. Then the moment before you started chasing the snitch, I swear I could practically feel it. The announcers hadn't mentioned the snitch in ages, but somehow I knew you'd seen it!"

Harry gazed thoughtfully at her for a moment, then his eyes twinkled. He reached into his cloak and pulled out something small and golden. Teri gasped as he handed it to her.

Harry gave the girl a quizzical look. He was about to ask her if she'd never seen a snitch before, but he stopped himself. That question, like many that he could ask the girl, probably had an unpleasant answer and he felt no interest in spoiling a warm moment. Instead he allowed himself a private grin and quietly watched as she turned it carefully over and over in her hands, examining it intently as they entered the house and made their way toward the grand staircase.

"You can keep it," Harry told her.

The girl gasped again. "You can't mean that!"

"I can, actually," Harry replied. "Don't worry — I already have a... a few snitches."

"The snitch from the first ever Flying Circus victory!" She held it high against the grey sky, staring at it with reverence.

Harry laughed. "Er, yes, I suppose you could say that. But don't prize it too much, Sugar Plum. A snitch is meant to fly — and to be caught!"

"You want me to play with it?"

"Sure, or better yet, practise with it," Harry replied.

"Practise?"

"Exactly! I'm not going to play Seeker forever. You can't expect to take my place on The Flying Circus if you don't practise, right?"

Teri grinned for a moment, then turned her attention back to the snitch.

Harry opened the library door and closed it again behind them. After first checking to make certain nobody else was in the room, he cast several privacy wards and took a seat. "Do you have any questions before we start our lesson?"

"Yes," Teri replied eagerly, placing the snitch on the desk and finding a seat. "Who are you playing next?"

Harry laughed. "I meant, did you have any questions about magic?"

Teri folded her arms over her chest. "But Quidditch is magic, Mr. Harry!"

Harry rolled his eyes, but answered nonetheless. "We'll face the Luxembourg National Junior squad on the second Monday in February."

"Wow — they're good, Mr. Harry! They played into the semi-finals in last year's World Junior Championship!"

Harry shrugged agreeably. "Yes, I'm sure we'll have to adapt quite a bit for that match."

Teri nodded. "You're all good at adapting, right? Seeker Weekly said that was the key to the Skegness match — Miss Ginny adapting her defence to get all those steals!"

"Er, well, in truth it's better to have really good scouting so you can start with a solid plan and don't have to change it. But yes, if you're like us and have no scouts, then it helps a lot to be able to shift strategies quickly when things are faltering."

"So how did Miss Ginny figure out how to defend Liu Song Ye?" Teri leaned forward on the edge of her seat, studying Harry's face.

"You're not to tell anyone at all," Harry admonished, "but as I understand it, Miss Ginny and Mr. Zabini figured out how to read Ye's body language. Supposedly, her lead shoulder would cheat toward her preferred turning direction."

Teri nodded. "And how is it that the twins doing so well? The boys here all say that the twins were terrible cheaters at school, but in the last match the wireless went on and on about how skilled they were and how clean they were playing!"

Harry laughed again, reminding himself just how much of an innate Slytherin-bias there must be among these children of Death Eaters, and how deeply that house had hated Fred and George during their school days. He nonetheless opted to respond as diplomatically as possible. "At Hogwarts, every house assumes their opponent is cheating," Harry explained. "And half the time they're probably right. But as far as how the twins managed to improve their playing so much, I honestly don't know either. Maybe I'll have to invite them here so that they can tell you themselves. Now, are you ready to start on your lessons?"

Teri shook her head. "One more question!" she demanded.

"Okay, go ahead," Harry replied, quirking an eyebrow in amused resignation.

"I'm certain, Mr. Harry, that you spotted the snitch before the Shrakes Seeker did. Why did you let him get a twenty foot jump on you?"

Harry sighed. This was not a morning destined for much Occlumency practice.

After Williamson, once again, refused to join the other investigators for a late lunch, the remaining group of friends relaxed, and chatted amicably on their way up to sixth floor, temporarily setting aside the strain of an increasingly bewildering investigation. An hour later, however, after the last plates had vanished and the butterbeer was beginning to flow freely amidst lively conversation, Lupin pushed his chair back discreetly, and put his hand on Harry's arm to draw his attention.

"Harry," he whispered, "We barely spoke about the Davis girl's poisoning in this morning's meeting. Do you think the incident has any connection to the case?"

Suddenly the table went very quiet, as Tonks, Ryan, Ginny and Hermione suddenly turned in unison toward the whispering.

"Ah yes." Harry scanned the attentive faces and not bothering to whisper. "Yes, that would be the proverbial purple Erumpent in the corner, wouldn't it? As far as DMLE is concerned, the Davis poisoning has nothing to do with the Bellatrix Lestrange investigation, and hence Williamson displayed little interest in asking about it."

"Yes, 'as far as DMLE is concerned '." Lupin eyed his friend inquiringly. "But she's on the list of possible Lestrange targets. Surely that would warrant some attention?"

Harry equivocated. "Well, for better or for worse, DMLE always proceeds with a certain semblance of logic. So, when Minerva and I reported the incident to Kingsley, he decided that since poisoning is not a dark art, the investigation should be referred to the North Midlands constabulary. Then, when we contacted North Midlands to alert them to a possible Vincent Crabbe connection, the local chief referred the matter back up to the Auror Department, but..."

"But the case was assigned to the general Death Eater search team, rather than the special Lestrange inquiry," Tonks interjected. "Which would make perfect sense... except if it doesn't. Do you know anything to suggest that they're missing the boat?"

Ginny smirked wryly. "'Know' is such a strong word."

"Forgive the language cock-up, Ginners." Tonks winked at her. "But you 'suspect ', right? So dish it out you two — what's your speculation?"

"Ryan? Hermione? Care to comment?" Harry gestured across the table, shifting everyone's focus onto the two students.

Ryan and Hermione exchanged glances. Ryan gestured his thumb toward Hermione, saying, "Better to ask the Muggle-born than the Muggle-fan."

Hermione blinked, and took a moment to equilibrate to the sudden attention. 'Ahem, er, yes. I have to admit some discomfort in discussing something that most Muggles believe is a fanciful fiction, and most Magical authorities won't even acknowledge as even a theoretical possibility."

Tonks shrugged. "Go ahead — we'll give you at least five minutes to explain yourself before we take the mickey out you." She gave Hermione a not-quite-reassuring grin.

Hermione raised her eyebrow but continued nonetheless. "So, within a certain school of Muggle metaphysical psychology, there is a concept called, 'Corpus-Qualia dissection ', which basically entails..."

Ryan shook his head vigorously. "That won't help anyone, Granger. Use the term you told me about. The one that Muggle literature uses!"

"But..."

"No — go ahead and use real words if you want them to understand!"

"Oh, all right." Hermione sighed and sank, red-faced, down into her seat. Everyone leaned in close, as Hermione was, for some reason, speaking into her hand. "So, who among you has heard the term 'zombies'? "

Back to index


Chapter 9: Weasley Whimsies

Author's Notes:

A not-so-long-awaited chapter this time. This one truly wanted to get written and so I indulged. Hope you enjoy a little change in pace!

Et aussi, la challenge! Aimless was indeed closer than one might have guessed. I held back my judgment to see if anyone would peg it a bit closer to the mark, but nearly full credit regardless! Now I need inspiration for a suitable reward!

By the way, nobody responded to my MacBeth challenge (Chapter 5). It is quite obscure, and my one little hint (relating to potioneering) was veiled. If nobody gets it before I post chapter 10, I'll reveal it.


Chapter 9. Weasley Whimsies (Jan. 25 - Feb. 9, 1998)

The scene looked idyllic — a crackling fire, mugs of hot cocoa, Harry stretched out on the chesterfield with Emerald purring in his lap, and Ginny at his feet. Unfortunately, the conversation did not seem destined to settle comfortably into the trivial chatter with which Harry and Ginny usually liked to close out their Sunday evenings.

It was not for lack to trying of course. Ginny casually stroked Harry's ankle with her fingers, and scrounged for casual topics. She hummed, recalling one of the day's unexpected little developments. "So, what did you say to Ron about his little proposal?"

"Ah, you knew about that?"

"Believe it or not, yes." Ginny laughed. "He actually asked my opinion before going to you. Ron never asks my opinion about anything!"

"Huh." Harry raised a curious eyebrow. "What did you tell him?"

"I told him that if he was serious about offering to help with strategy, and if he was honestly willing to cooperate with Blaise, Keith and me, then he should definitely approach you."

"Seriously?" Harry's eyes widened in surprise. "You actually told him up front that he would have to negotiate with... well, with the bunch of you of course... but especially with Zabini? I'm amazed he didn't just turn his heel and shelve the plan right then and there. "

Ginny nodded, a grin spreading across her face.

Harry shook his head. "This I will have to see to believe!"

"So you're going to bring him aboard?" Ginny asked as she sipped from her mug.

Harry shrugged. "Well, not quite yet — I sort of dodged the issue for now. I was up to my ears in grading essays, and fussing over... well, you know — what I'm always fussing over. So, no, I was too distracted to just give Ron a carte blanche invitation. But I did agree to ask Daphne to include him in the next meeting. This way we can all hear what he has to say, and decide together whether he could fit into the strategy team."

"That sounds very reasonable." Ginny stirred her drink. "But about that 'fussing' bit — the whole shrake spine business is still weighing pretty heavily on you?"

Harry nodded, frowning. "Nothing in the case adds up."

"In what sense?" Ginny put her mug down. "It seems to me as though some details are finally converging. Shrake spines and tetrodotoxin and a West African tradition of dark magic all fit with Ryan's and Hermione's hypothesis. So maybe Lestrange is planning to turn people into... what was that word again? Zombies?"

"Yes, but is she?" Harry quirked his cheek. "Every other bloody week there's some new bizarre trick... targeting somebody new. I knew that witch was psychotic, but I never pegged her as having attention deficit disorder!"

Ginny snickered for a moment then grew serious again. "Well, maybe it's part of some elaborate master plan, and we just haven't pinned it down yet."

"Well, let's see. Drunken brawl... broomstick accident... domestic dispute... psychopathic mind assault... nightclub Mickey Finn... Any pattern?"

"No," Ginny admitted.

"Nott, Davis and Pansy..." Harry began enumerating on his fingers. "Ron and Teri... Remus and Tonks... Teri and me... Davis alone... Any pattern?"

"Nothing solid." Ginny retrieved her mug and blew on it. "You could suggest that maybe Tonks is due for some more excitement, or maybe she's a lower priority because she's the only one of the three cousins who really seems capable of locking herself down with Occlumency... or maybe it's just random."

Harry stroked his chin. "The number of affected parties per incident is declining. That could mean that Bitchytrix is refining her strategies to go with what's most effective."

"Perhaps." Ginny shrugged. "Or maybe it's just random."

"Or maybe it's just random." Harry nodded.

Emerald stretched, gave Harry and Ginny each a skeptical look, then closed her eyes.

Ginny stroked the cat's fur as she continued to turn details of the case over in her mind. She glanced back at Harry. "So what has been most effective?"

"It depends on what one's trying to accomplish." Harry mused thoughtfully. "The Diagon Alley incident had the greatest overall chaotic impact, but it's not easy to coherently avenge Riddle's death with sporadic incidents of bottle throwing anarchy."

"Very amateurish." Ginny gave a scornful sniff that made Emerald's whiskers spike.

"The incident with Teri was probably my own most singularly frightening experience in a good while," Harry continued.

Ginny glanced at him appraisingly. "But it's already made you stronger, yeah?"

"Right." Harry nodded. "And it quite possible weakened Lestrange. Thanks to you."

"You're welcome." She squeezed Harry's foot affectionately. "But other incidents were certainly still serious enough. We could have lost Ron and then later Tracey, if not for timely interventions by friends."

"Yes." Harry gazed off into the glowing embers. "That implies we may need to try to stick together."

"Or it may mean that if the Bitch was smart, she would try to isolate us."

Ginny's statement brought an uncomfortable silence as their minds both tracked through worrisome scenarios. Finally Harry broke the pall. "Divide and conquer, eh? A frightfully nasty thought... but do you reckon that Bitchy is smart to think it, though?"

"I honestly don't know." Ginny took a long drink of her cocoa and tucked her feet more comfortably beneath Harry's leg before finally shrugging. "I'm only certain of one thing in all of this."

"Ah?" Harry gave her a curious glance. "And what would that be?"

"That you're not nearly as bored as you were a month ago..."

Three male visitors – two whom with distinctly red hair – strode into the Hospital Wing. The two red-heads wore blatantly roguish grins, while the third could do little but roll his eyes.

Gazing at a reflection in a nearby window, Tracey Davis spotted the trio. Seeing the facial expressions sported by the two Weasley twins, she smirked for an instant then closed her privacy screen just before they turned into her chamber. "Sorry gentlemen," she said in her best imitation of Madame Pomfrey, "the Davis girl has been sent home."

"Ah, is that so?" George's tone drooped with an exaggerated air of disappointment. "Tragic! All of these gifts will be wasted..."

"Not wasted at all." Fred shook his head. "I believe we'll just have to have a little gift exchange among ourselves."

"Oh goody!" George exclaimed. "I've always fancied having a fairy-silk negligée!"

"You did not buy me a fairy-silk negligée?!" Tracey gasped, whipping open the screen; scandalized expression on her face.

"No, of course not." Fred glanced casually at the apparently not-so-absent Davis girl. "Brother George merely fancies having one, that's all."

"Ah, well fair enough. I think." Tracey gave the twins a skeptical eyebrow. "And to what purpose do I owe a visit from you clowns?"

"Clowns?!" Fred's own eyebrow more than matched Tracey's pique.

"Erm Harry." George tapped the non-red-headed male on the shoulder. "I think the poison is affecting her vision – she's seeing more than one of you."

"Oh, of course!" Fred exhaled in relief. "Miss Davis, I feel it's important to correct you. There is actually only one 'Harry Potter' here in front of you, and he's not really all that clownish. I believe he prefers to be called 'eccentric'."

Tracey giggled. "Okay, I give up. How about I just shut my mouth until somebody starts talking sense?"

"I, er, guess that's my cue." Harry sighed patiently. "You might find this difficult to believe, Tracey, but Fred and George are supposedly here to cheer you up."

"Do tell?"

"Yes, Mademoiselle." Fred grinned. "We truly do come bearing gifts."

"Which is better than gifting bears," George explained. "But alas, no fairy-silk negligée."

Fred shook his head solemnly. "No, we left that under George's pillow, where it rightfully belongs. Instead we brought this!"

"Ummmm..." Tracey frowned as she reluctantly accepted the proffered gift. "A tin whistle?"

"No, dear lady, it's a WWW-patented personal hex detector!" George announced.

"Notice the tiny lever on the side," Fred fingered the device carefully. "If you flip the pin into the up position, the device will shriek bloody murder if anyone is wielding a wand with the intent of hitting you with a hex."

"Now if you turn the lever the other way..." George mimed the direction. "The whistle will not sound, but the premeditating caster of any ill-advised hex will begin emitting horrific sounds of, er, well, flatulence... This rather eliminates their element of surprise."

"Then finally, if you blow into the mouth-piece..." Fred puffed his cheeks. "The whistle will sing, 'Incy Wincy Spider' in a very loud and disturbing way – guaranteed to scare the trousers off any would-be prankster."

"It's actually a recording of our Aunt Muriel," George clarified.

"Please don't blow into the whistle," Fred added.

Tracey stared at the gift in appalled silence.

Fred grinned uneasily. "It's the perfect present for any fine, upstanding denizen of Slytherin House."

"Er yes, it sounds sort of, um, useful." Tracey's expression seemed caught somewhere between dutiful gratitude and awkward confusion.

"Of course!" George nodded with great enthusiasm. "Weasleys' Wizard Wheezes merchandise is the epitome of usefulness. We're actually developing a more sophisticated version of this for the Ministry of Magic."

"But lest you mistake us for dour, humourless engineers," Fred interjected, "We also brought you a gift certificate from Fortescues!"

"Oh!" Tracey grinned, grateful for both the offering and for a legitimate reason to respond graciously. "A sincere thank you, kind sirs!"

Harry smiled. "I know that this is a bit belated, but I also brought you a gift."

Tracey's eyes widened. "Harry, you didn't have to..."

"Actually, yes I did." Harry pursed his lips. "Madame Pomfrey and I are prepared to sign off on your release."

"Ah!" she shrilled. "Finally! I've been feeling completely healthy for days now, and being stuck in this place has been driving me batty!"

"Oh, I don't doubt that, and I do regret delaying" Harry shifted awkwardly. "The issue was less about your outward health, and more to do with the stability of your magical powers, and your potential susceptibility to spells. Since we're still worried about the long-term effects of exposure to those shrake spines, we were hoping that you'd consent to wearing a special amulet that will engulf your body with a magical interference field."

Harry handed Tracey a silver chain with an elegant oval pendant, inset with amethyst. Despite the object's exquisite craftsmanship, she accepted it with with a look of profound ambivalence. "So you really think that git is still after me? That wasn't just an opportunistic one-off?" A deep frown spread across her face.

Harry nodded. "You're one of several people we fear may be targeted. Whether by Crabbe or someone else, we don't know, but we'd prefer to minimize risks. The detector and the amulet aren't foolproof, but they should help give us — and hopefully you — a bit more peace of mind."

"Argh!" Tracey seized clumps of her hair. "If I'd known it would lead to so much hassle, I never would have led a bunch of Slytherin rabble up a few flights of stairs to waggle their wands at Death Eaters."

"Don't give me that, Tracey." Harry's admonition came with a sympathetic smile. "You were a hero and you knew there were risks when you stood up there with Ted and Pansy. Now stand tough for a while longer, and I promise we'll get you your life back!"

The girl shrugged, and slipped the chain over her neck, letting it settle under the neckline of her gown. "Okay then, are there any usage instructions for the pretty little necklace?"

"Actually yes," George replied seriously. "You will not be able to cast spells of your own while you're wearing it, so when you need to do magic, you can take the amulet off and store it in this pouch." He handed her a small bag that appeared to be made of a specially treated mokeskin.

Fred nodded. "We'd suggest you wear the amulet when you're sleeping or relaxing. Whenever you're up and about, and might have need of the occasional magic spell, then leave the amulet in the insulating pouch, but do make sure you have the hex detector handy to give yourself the edge in case of trouble."

Tracey nodded comprehendingly. "Any other conditions for my release, Harry?"

Harry bobbed his head equivocably. "Well, with the tools you now have at your disposal, I can't imagine you'll have much trouble at Hogwarts, but things may be a bit dicier outside of school grounds. If you decide to go on leave, it would be great if you could bring a friend."

"Okay, I can live with that," Tracey replied.

"By which, I mean, ideally a friend with good defensive skills." Harry handed her a parchment. "Here's a list of students who would be happy to accompany you on minor excursions."

Tracey grumbled something unintelligible, but then examined the list of fourteen names, noted with satisfaction that it contained five upper-year Slytherins. She shrugged resignedly and gave a conciliatory smile. "Sorry if I don't seem as grateful as I should be. This is all quite a lot to take in... and since becoming of age, I'd grown rather accustomed to my independence and freedom."

"It's certainly understandable," Harry agreed. "I'm no fan of belittling people and denying their liberties in the name of protection. I have personal experience with people trying to shroud me from unarticulated and misunderstood threats and would hate to condemn you to the same." He frowned for a moment, staring out the window at the misty grounds that had been forbidden to Tracey for the past week. He returned his gaze to her sympathetically. "People in positions of power are perfectly content treading all over innocent people in pursuit of what they feel is the best or safest solution, and I don't want to become like that. So if you see me, or "It's certainly understandable." Harry nodded equably. "I'm no fan of belittling people and denying their liberties in the name of protection. I have personal experience with people trying to shroud me from unarticulated and misunderstood threats and I'd hate to condemn you to the same."

Harry frowned for a moment, staring out the window at the misty grounds that had been forbidden to Tracey for the past week. He returned his gaze to her sympathetically. "People in positions of power are perfectly content treading all over innocent people in pursuit of what they feel is the best or safest solution, and I don't want to become like that. So if you see me, or others, acting with that sort of arrogant disregard, please just come up to me and demand some respect, okay Tracey?"

Tracey stared at Harry as she digested his candour, then nodded. "Okay. Thanks."

Harry smiled. "Great. So now you're free to go!"

"Brilliant – best news I've heard in ages!" She turned to watch the twins who were idly examining medical instruments. "Now, about your friend George and his negligée fetish...?"

"Okay, attention everyone!" Daphne's wand made a sharp gaveling sound on the table to draw to order all members of the The Flying Circus as they gathered around the fire in the Interhouse Commons after a tough practice. "Harry has asked that we take a few minutes out of our usual weekly strategy update to speak to someone who may be able, or at least willing, to help us with our upcoming match."

A few puzzled glances flitted across the room, then Harry angled himself toward the corridor and called out, "Hey Ron, would you like to join us?"

Some very wide eyes swiveled around to see Ron Weasley enter, somewhat stiffly and ill-at-ease.

Zabini blinked, then gazed at Harry and Daphne. "Okay, ha ha," he said rather humourlessly, "you've managed to pull old Blaise's leg."

Zabini paused, and noted that neither Harry nor Daphne were laughing or even smirking. "Er, this is a joke, right?"

Ron took one brief, slightly baleful look at Harry, then turned to leave.

"No joke." Harry shook his head emphatically. "Blaise, I'm sorry I was too busy to fill you in on this before now, but Ron has some comments and suggestions to make about the Luxembourg match, and I thought it could benefit us to hear them."

Ron paused under the archway, one foot back out into the corridor, but the other half-turned to await any response. Ginny caught his eye to give him an encouraging look... which he did not reciprocate.

Zabini fixed Harry with a skeptical eyebrow. "Yes, well I too happen to have a long list of comments and suggestions to make about Luxembourg. So what's going to happen when I end up contradicting one of Rooster's opinions? Is he going to blow his volcanic lava dome on me like usual?"

Ron chuckled, in spite of himself. "Rooster? I thought you always called me 'Chess'?"

"Chess was so 'last September', Rooster." Zabini waved his hand dismissively. "So, please answer my question, Potter – what happens when the two of us disagree?"

Harry shrugged. "I find that debate and resolution is crucial to good strategy development."

"In an ideal world," Ginny added, "Blaise and Ron would bash each other's ideas to shards, then Keith and I would pick up largest salvageable pieces."

Summerby digested the metaphor thoughtfully for a moment, then nodded.

Zabini glanced petulantly around at the other faces. "So what exactly are you suggesting, Red? You don't like my ideas?! We aced our last two matches!"

Grant Page shook his head. "We all appreciate that, mate, but look at the schedule – things are only going to get tougher and tougher. Daffs has us hooked up with a pair of Premier League squads!"

"Er, well, Wigtown and Caerphilly..." Zabini quirked his lip equivocally.

"Don't knock them, Zabs." Page waggled a finger at the Slytherin. "The worst Premier League squad can pound the best Class B by a lot more than the 280 point margin we hung on Skegness. And you can bet that the Wanderers and Catapults each have five to ten full time scouts trying to get them any edge they can find. We can use new ideas of suggestions from any source."

"Only if they're good ones," Zabini argued.

Ginny shook her head. "Ron's head for Quidditch strategy is as good as yours, Blaise."

Zabini stared at her. "Oi Red, come again?! His Gryffindorks lost to Hufflepuff last week! I mean, we're talking... Hufflepuff?! "

"Ron's head for Quidditch strategy is as good as yours, Blaise," Ginny repeated unapologetically, "but unfortunately he's not a very astute judge of talent."

"Hey!" Ron protested. "That's..."

"That's painfully obvious, Ron" Ginny rolled her eyes. "Seeing Dean and Seamus play Chaser last Saturday was like watching a pair of three-toed sloths getting stung by gnats! Stephanie Burroughs and Lisa Parkes can blast up and down the pitch three times in the time it takes..."

"Ahem..."

"Oops. Sorry Harry!" Ginny clapped a hand to her mouth, then re-emerged with a chastened grin.

"Ron, please come in and sit down." Harry beckoned his friend in. "Blaise, I greatly appreciate your role in drafting strategy, but I also know from seven years experience that Ron sees shapes and patterns that none of the rest of us do. I'm betting that after careful consideration, we'll find value from both of you, and I think our squad will grow up a lot faster if we have frank exchanges of view. Is everyone okay with that?"

Daphne smiled and waved her cheery assent. The twins, quietly amused by the unfolding drama, grinned. The others signalled affirmatives, and finally Ron and Zabini both nodded stoically.

"So what were you going to tell us, Rooster?" Zabini asked, not quite meeting the Gryffindor's eye.

Ron cleared his throat awkwardly. "Er, well, I've been reading play-by-play transcripts of the last World Junior Championship, and I owled Roger Davies, who joined the Bigonville Bombers last year as an apprentice scout. And, well, when I put everything together, it seems clear to me that..."

"Yes?" Zabini's voice betrayed a note of interest.

Ron fidgeted in his seat. "Er, well, that you won't have any plays that can beat them."

A long, uncomfortable silence followed. Finally Zabini rolled his head back and chortled in exasperation. "Okay, I can certainly see how this is helping us to grow as a squad! Potter, thank you very much for arranging a most insightful..."

"No, no, wait." Ron shook his head vigourously. "I wasn't done yet!"

"Ah?" Zabini smirked. "So now you're going to tell us how much we're going to lose by?"

"No." Ron continued to shake his head exaggeratedly. "I means that you won't be able to beat them unless you try something completely different. You see, Luxembourg has an elite program to train their best talents from a really young age, which is the only way such a small country can compete against the traditional Quidditch powers. Because of how the program works, the current Chaser corps..."

"De Salle, Dreikirchen and Jacobs," Ginny interjected.

"Yeah, them." Ron nodded, consulting his notes. "They've been playing as a constant unit for five years against international competition, and the three of them are absolute soul-mates. Every play they make is a team play; each of them always knows what the others are doing. They've seen every Chaser trick in the books, and know precisely how to defend against everything you could throw at them."

"Yes, well I'd sort of come to that conclusion too," Zabini admitted. "I've been thinking of some unconventional plays we can try, but first I'd like to hear what... little gems of wisdom... you're proposing."

"Well, over the last few days I've been sitting down and drafting a bunch of basic plays that I can guarantee the Luxemboug trio has never tried to defend."

"And how can you guarantee that?" Zabini raised a skeptical eyebrow.

"Because Luxembourg has never played a squad..." Ron paused for emphasis. "That flies four Chasers!"

Sitting alone in his office, Harry picked up the next scroll from a stack of sixth-year assignments he was working his way through. After squinting at the text for a moment, he turned the scroll upside down, tried again... and nodded. Another 'Luna Lovegood' work of art.

He was less than six inches through her puzzling diagrammatic treatise on the shield-strengthening properties of Ungubular Slashkilter stubble, when he was mercifully interrupted by a knock at the door. He put down the scroll. "Come in."

Looking up, Harry was surprised to see that it wasn't one of his regular students, but rather he smiled to discover that it was Ted Nott Jr. "Hey Ted. How can I help you?"

"Hi Harry," the seventh-year Slytherin responded. "I was wondering if I could come to you for a bit of advice and, er, perhaps also for a favour. Or maybe a couple favours..."

"Are you going raise the ante any further, or have you topped out?" Harry winked.

Ted chuckled. "I think I'll hold myself to that. I wanted to talk to you about my dad."

"Ah." Harry nodded, a faint chill of trepidation crossing his brow as he recalled how deeply Ted Jr. tended to blame himself for his father's arrest and imprisonment. Harry nonetheless forced a smile back onto his face. "Have you heard from him?"

Nott shook his head. "Not directly, but some of the minor offenders have starting getting released from Azkaban recently, and one of them was saying that Dad has been asking about me."

"Asking in a 'good' way," Harry suggested hopefully.

"Yes, as far as I can tell." Ted shrugged. "It sounds as though he actually misses me... or 'us' I should say. It would seem he developed a soft spot for Anna Blevins and Teri Nott."

Encouraged by the direction the conversation was going, Harry nodded enthusiastically.

"Anyway," Ted continued, "last weekend when I was at your manor in Wales, Teri asked me about Dad and was wondering whether... well... when we might be able to see him again?"

"Teri talked to you about your father?" Harry's brow rose curiously, remembering the vitriol that the girl had expressed at Christmas regarding Ted Jr.'s supposed role in Ted Sr.'s incarceration. "So you and she are getting along now?"

"Yes." Ted offered the hint of a smile. "When I first started to visit Dolwyddelan for my public service duties, Teri looked like she wanted to slit my throat... But she's gradually warmed up again. I assume it's Anna's doing — little miss sunshine kept tagging along with me on my visits, and she rarely lets Teri go off and hide alone, so, well, we've all kind of patched things up."

"Fabulous!" Harry grinned. "So basically you, Anna and Teri want to see your father?"

"Well, sort of. Basically, if it might be possible to arrange for me to visit him in Azkaban, I would go... though I wouldn't feel right bringing Teri or Anna to that place."

"Correct!" Harry's voices was a bit more emphatic than he intended, so he reined it in. "As their temporary guardian of record, I'll make it clear to you that I would forbid anyone to take Teri or Anna anywhere close to Azkaban right now. But we could probably get you there. And if your dad seems to be genuinely rehabilitating, I suppose it might be time to start on an early release petition."

"Seriously, Harry?" Ted's eyes widened in astonishment. "That was precisely what I was trying to work up the courage to ask you!"

Harry nodded thoughtfully. "Well, it's good that we're on the same wavelength... but now that I think of it, I'm not sure I'm the right person to be asking. Have you approached your head of house, or Headmistress MacGonagall?"

"Yes," Ted answered reluctantly. "Slughorn refused to even discuss any of this for some reason, and MacGonagall said I should talk to you."

Harry frowned and gazed distractedly out the window as a stream of unrelated thoughts began to flow through his mind.

"To be honest, though, I only went to them to follow the formal chain of request," Ted added. "I more or less figured, or at least hoped, that they'd send me to you anyway."

Harry nodded again, and brought his focus back to the matter at hand. "Yes, well I assume that Professor Slughorn has his reputation to mind, and I have an inkling as to why the Headmistress sent you to me. Anyway, that's fine — let's plan for you to go see him, and then make a decision about the early release petition accordingly. I'm willing to start the paperwork required for your Azkaban visit... on two conditions."

Ted blinked at the unexpected response. "Conditions? Er, sure. Like what?"

"I want to escort you on the visit," Harry stipulated, "and, strictly between you and me, I would also like a few minutes alone with your father."

Despite the cold mist hanging about grounds like a clammy veil, Harry whistled his way back from the Apparition point, rather pleased with how the morning at Dolwyddelan had gone. Teri had indeed begun making real progress with Occlumency, and had once again marched him through a long string of inquiry that had alternately amused Harry, made him think, or as often as not, done both simultaneously.

The highlight for the morning had come just as Harry was preparing to leave. Logically Harry knew that the bald pronouncement was the product, not of a seer, but rather of the black-and-white confidence that accompanies many nine-year-old minds. It had nonetheless tickled him immensely for Teri to have declared that Luxembourg would fight them to the brink, but that The Flying Circus would emerge victorious... and that Harry would catch the snitch.

The girl had certainly not fawned on him through the prediction, though. Rather, she had closed by shaking her head and waggling a pale finger at him. "But don't dawdle this time, Mister Harry!"

The recollection of her stern, fiery eyes brought a wide smile to Harry's face as stepped through the doorway into the classroom and found his seat for the weekly Lestrange briefing.

Harry looked over to see Operative Williamson staring at him. "My, isn't this exceptionally irregular!" With arched eyebrow, the Auror scanned the faces assembled around the table. "Today, the illustrious Mr. Potter is... almost on time! "

A few chuckles ensued. Harry shrugged good-naturedly. "I was able to wrap up my session at the safe house early and satisfactorily, and obviously I was just so excited to get back here for our regular little chat that I didn't tarry along the way."

"Well, I suppose there's a first time for everything." Williamson scowled at his parchment. "And also a last time. In consultation with Head Auror Robards, I have decided to suspend the investigation."

Tonks sputtered her tea. "What?! "Why??"

Lupin, Hermione and Ryan all stared in perplexity at Williamson. Harry and Ginny exchanged a glance and shrugged.

"We've been going at this for five weeks now," Williamson recounted, "and in all that time we have yet to encounter as much as a single shred of tangible evidence to suggest that what we're supposed to be investigating is real."

"What?!" Her face aghast; her mauve hair inadvertently beginning to streak crimson, Tonks couldn't help repeating herself. "What's not real about... about...?"

"What is real about any of these cock-eyed, so-called incidents?" Williamson interrupted. "Show me a body! Show me a cursed object, residual hex traces — anything! All I see is a random string of unrelated drunkenness, lovers' spats and idiopathic dizziness."

"Lovers' spats?!!" Trembling, Tonks began to rise to her feet, but Lupin laid his hand on her wrist and she paused and subsided back into her seat. All eyes upon her, she hissed something under her breath for a moment before changing tack. "I'm your partner, Williamson. Why wasn't I present for the meeting with Robards?"

The pony-tailed Auror met her glare coldly. "We didn't know if you would be suitably objective. As you're aware, although DMLE has a policy that permits operatives to investigate matters in which they are real or possible victims, the same policy requires external oversight to ensure that the investigation is not compromised by any personal stake, and to ensure that the case is legitimate and not frivolous. Ultimately, Nymphadora, since no evidence points to anything other than possible paranoia on your part or the part of several of your cousins, we decided that Auror resources would be better invested elsewhere."

Tonks' nostrils flared dangerously despite Lupin's continued gentle ministrations to her forearm.

"You'll be happy to know," Williamson added with a smile that Tonks longed to bludgeon into purplish slime, "that as long as you cooperate, your personnel record will not reflect any wrongdoing or dereliction."

A moment of teeming silence followed, in which eyes gradually drifted toward the person who had been most unexpectedly quiet through the argument. "I see." Harry stroked his chin, then gave a resigned shrug. "Well, I don't agree with your reasoning and I feel it's wrong to discount victim and witness accounts without directly contravening evidence, but my opinion wasn't requested in reaching your decision, so I doubt it will have much sway now. So be it — I hope I speak for all of us in saying that all of us wish you the best as you move on to your other cases of greater gravity."

Williamson nodded in a matter-of-fact manner.

"Such as cataloguing dark emblems..." Harry's straight face was only slightly betrayed by a twinkle in his eye.

Williamson scowled. "Identifying dark emblems is a very serious activity, Potter," he replied stiffly, ignoring Ginny's attempts to choke back an attack of snickering. "I'll have you know that in 1943, the Auror Department successfully apprehended a dark wizard after he inscribed a dark emblem in the margin of a Portkey request."

"Ah yes, that's right." Harry nodded solemnly. "Sorry to have been fifty five years late in commending your office for this remarkable doodle-inspired breakthrough."

Harry smirked as Tonks, Ginny, Lupin and Ryan burst out laughing. Hermione looked somewhat ill-at-ease for a moment, but then gave in hid her mirth behind a chaste hand.

"In any case, thank you for your service, Operative Williamson," Harry continued. "Your work here is done and you can depart the premises now."

Williamson looked startled. "I, uh, we still have uh, forty five minutes and, er, need to... um... fill debriefing... forms?"

Harry shook his head firmly. "No, no, you can leave immediately Williamson. I'll sort out any formalities later with Robards. Unless of course you would like to join Operative Tonks and the rest of us for an off-duty lunch?"

Totally flustered by the unexpected dismissal, Williamson stammered his regrets, hastily picked up his attaché case, and spilled the contents onto the floor. After a couple of ineffectual summoning spells, he managed to shovel most of his belongings back inside (albeit with several papers and a sandwich bag protruding half-way out of the semi-closed case) and scurry from the room.

Harry shook his head and released a sigh that blended pity and ennui. "Lunch?" he repeated with a half-smile.

The others nodded tacitly, and the group made their way toward the stairwell.

Harry brought up the rear with Tonks as they all ascended toward sixth floor. "This isn't your fault in any way, Tonks." He glanced at her, and scuffed his trainer distractedly on the landing. "I'm not going to pretend that this case is easy to justify, Lestrange's sheer unpredictability makes the whole affair look like a ridiculous pipe-dream, so the case is hard to sell to pin-heads like Williamson or to a bureaucrat like Robards."

Tonks bit her lip and shook her head angrily. "Yeah, but their judgment is completely bollixed. I can't believe those plonkers won't believe a word we've said!"

"Do you reckon Williamson and Robards will believe it when we drag Bitchytrix in by the ear?" Harry gave her a roguish smile.

"They bloody well better," Tonks seethed.

Harry nodded. "Yes, well don't you think it will be easier to accomplish that without Williamson hanging onto this case like a whiny ball and chain?"

Tonks raised an eyebrow as she reasoned things through... then she grinned.

Harry grinned back at her. "Patience, m'lady. It may take some time, but we're going to skin this rat."

"Dear witches and gentlewizards, this is Richard Auclair joining you from the Schwärzerbaach-Sûre Kolosseum, in the hills above Bigonville Luxembourg, to bring you another special Monday edition of Wizarding Wireless Network's 'Quidditch Tonight'. I'm accompanied by your friend and mine, Septimo Aurrera, as we prepare for the latest intriguing exhibition match featuring those delightfully unpredictable aerial athletes — The Great Zabini Flying Circus."

"Unpredictable they truly are, Richard, which is why I'm going to be very careful in making any predictions for tonight's match. Fortunately, at least on one side of the pitch we will find a known quantity. The Luxembourg National Junior squad returns the Seeker, Keeper, and all three Chasers from the group that placed third in last year's World Juniors. I saw their semi-finals match against Haiti, and let me tell you this, Richard — if not for a balky snitch, I'm convinced that Luxembourg would have beaten Haiti and gone on to play Bulgaria for the championship. Frankly, I think they could have made a fine challenger for the Bulgarians too!"

"A balky snitch, eh? Do you suppose that means The Flying Circus will have an advantage in the person of Mr. Harry J. Potter?"

"That may be, Richard. Potter displayed his superior flying skills in The Flying Circus's last match against the Skegness Shrakes, and it's tempting to try to portray Luxembourg Seeker Johannes Kurtz as a schoolboy facing off against a polished veteran. However, the truth is more complicated. Although Kurtz is still finishing his education at Beauxbatons while Potter is already well-established as faculty at the Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, let me remind you that Kurtz is actually two weeks older than Potter, and had played in at least four times as many matches in his career as the legendary hero of British Wizardry."

"Whew! You completely caught me off the hop Septimo! It's all too easy to forget that Potter is so young. Would you view the Seeker matchup as a wash then?"

"Like I said, no predictions Richard! However let me say that Kurtz has good field awareness — definitely better than Venkatavisakhapatnam showed against Potter a couple of weeks ago, and perhaps better than Potter himself. That's why I'm still astonished by Luxembourg's loss to Haiti last year."

"Well, it will be interesting to see if Kurtz can capture a bit of vindication tonight in an internationally broadcast match against a famous opponent. But moving on to other matchups, what do you think about the Keepers, Septimo?"

"I'm going to be a bit more forthcoming about this one. Luxembourg Keeper Antoine Longchamps has good skills for a junior, but what I've seen from The Flying Circus's Grant Page recently has me very impressed... No, make that 'very puzzled' — I can't figure out why he's not already playing in the British Irish Premier League. Page is very reliable in front of the hoops and takes away a lot of shots that most keepers will just bail on. That should help make up for The Flying Circus's offensive deficiencies."

"Ah! You tipped your hat on that one, Septimo! You consider The Flying Circus Chasers to be deficient?"

"I do Richard. I have no scorn for Weasley, Zabini and Summerby and find them immensely entertaining to watch, but the Luxembourg trio is truly special. Here's the difference: if you look at the scouting reports on Weasley you say 'scorer', for Summerby, you say 'passer' and for Zabini, you say 'blocker'. You might get thrown off a bit like Skegness was by the occasional role shift such as Weasley's sudden burst of on-quaffle defensive intensity, but in general, The Flying Circus needs each of them to be doing what they do best. If Weasley isn't scoring, if Summerby isn't passing, or if Zabini isn't blocking, then you have a good chance to beat the Circus. "

"As opposed to Luxembourg, Septimo?"

"Exactly! De Salle, Dreikirchen and Jacobs are completely interchangeable. They all defend fiercely, and are constantly swapping off their defensive assignments just to keep you on your heels. Each of them is perfectly willing to block off defenders and carve out holes for their mates. You never know whether any one of them is more likely to pass or shoot. So don't you dare double-team Jacobs — even if she's scored five goals in a row, she's every bit as likely to dish off to De Salle or Dreikirchen if they're in the clear. How can you beat that kind of selflessness?"

"With good Beaters, perhaps?"

"Heh heh! You're on the quaffle tonight, Richard! Yes, a few minutes ago when I was debunking that 'polished adult versus schoolboy' comparison between the two Seekers, it actually occurred to me that the analogy works pretty well... for the Beaters. This is Luxembourg's weakness. You see, the one big difference between the group from last year's World Juniors and the squad flying tonight is that they've recently lost their experienced Beaters to professional contracts in Australia. The two young fellows in the sky right now, Atteville and Schwartz, are really still just feeling their way at this level."

"And the Weasley twins from The Flying Circus, Septimo?"

"They're the real deal, Richard. They might be a bit too short to get serious consideration from the Premier League, but they can sure make those bludgers skip!"

"Oh look — the players are winding down their pre-match spin, and former Bigonville Bombers great Louis d'Harcourt is stepping out onto the pitch to release the snitch. Quick Sept! What's your call on tonight's match?"

"Uh uh uh, Rich! My lips are sealed!"

It had taken the well-intended criticism of a nine-year-old girl to reset Harry's mind when it came to Quidditch.

Harry had been enjoying the camaraderie of playing on The Flying Circus, but he had hardly been... taking it seriously. Something about the lifestyle he had been leading — a perilous existence in the shadows, followed immediately by an equally perilous life in the glaring public spotlight; something about fulfilling a prophesy to confront manifest evil, about fulfilling society's need for a unifying voice to center around... somehow in all of that, the gritty drive to excel at something trivial like Quidditch had gotten buried.

Now, because of a nine-year-old girl who kept asking pointed questions about his commitment to the sport, he was trying to find that instinct again.

Or more to the point, he was trying to apply his latent instincts to finding that blasted snitch before Kurtz did.

Unfortunately, tonight's snitch wasn't particularly interested in being found by anybody yet.

Harry thought back to his final Hogwarts games in his sixth year when he had honed his magical senses to detecting the presence of the snitch even when it was nowhere to be seen. He had been concentrating fiercely on that same sense of faintly humming magic, but as the clock continued to tick away, the best he had achieved was a vague sense of the fluttery golden object, somewhere perhaps within a two hundred foot radius, probably lurking in a confusing mess of bludgers, bodies and brooms.

Kurtz was faring no better, of course... but the rest of his team certainly was.

In the first half hour of the match, Luxembourg had raced out to a 100 — 20 lead. The Circus had adjusted their play to slow the bleeding somewhat, but now, during an official's time-out to repair a loose goal hoop, Harry dropped down about fifty feet and gazed anxiously at the scoreboard. The tally, after more than ninety minutes of play, was 260 — 130. Another Luxembourg goal, and The Flying Circus would drop onto the brink of the dreaded 'red zone' — too far behind to win with the snitch alone.

Harry brushed off any thoughts of the bitter cold wind stinging his face as he ascended back up high into the brisk winter evening. The chill didn't matter. It was time to focus on one thing and one thing alone — catching the snitch. Soon!

"Bear down!" Fred called out to George.

George flashed him a quick thumbs up, and braced for the official's whistle — ready to race out and try to ensure that the two of them monopolized both bludgers.

Indeed, the twins had commanded the bludgers nearly all match... but all to no avail. It didn't pay to control the bludgers if you couldn't hit the opposing Chasers... or barely even scare them, for that matter.

Once again, George beat Atteville to the bludger and began to dribble it up the pitch in the hopes of disrupting yet another crisp-looking Luxembourg offensive.

Out of the corner of his eye, George saw Jacobs pull just far enough away from Zabini to cleanly whip the quaffle to De Salle.

George grinned — smelling the sweet scent of retribution! He bobbed the bludger a few inches off his bat, judged De Salle's trajectory, and...

WHACK! Perfect shot! The bludger rocketed off, heading straight for...

Nothing!!

George gaped at De Salle's tight barrel roll — the Luxembourg Chaser pulled out of one of the most vomit-inducing maneuvers George had ever seen from anyone not named 'Ginevra'. Still gripping the quaffle, De Salle pulled up short and jabbed his red payload through the rightmost hoop, a split second before Page could adjust to the unexpected move.

The magical score board blinked out for a moment, then flashed back up reading 270 — 130.

Fred and George both glanced toward Zabini, looking for the sign.

Zabini shook his head.

Ginny reared her head back, and roared. "****!!"

It was just about the worst expletive to have ever emerged from her less than decorous mouth. Seething in frustration over De Salle's score, Ginny grabbed the quaffle from behind Page and gave her captain an expectant, almost plaintive look.

Blaise Zabini shook his head. Status Quo.

Zabini was obviously uncomfortable with Ron's suggestion, and even Ginny wasn't positive it could help stem the tide... but her patience was wearing very thin. The Circus needed a spark to shake them out of the doldrums, and as far as she was concerned it was far better to try something wildly infamous and fail spectacularly than to be bled dry in play after play.

But Ginny bit her lip, and nodded back to Zabini in recognition. She knew that he had slaved long hours to sculpt this squad, and had given out plenty of good advice, so she would stick by him. A little longer, anyway...

She raced up the pitch and immediately felt the suffocation of two white jerseys converging into her flight path. She didn't huff silently or even roll her eyes — Luxembourg had been double teaming her all match, so why hope they might change now? She was used to dealing with that sort of chicken-play by passing off to Zabini or Summerby, but tonight's match was unlike anything she had ever encountered before. Every time she had passed away from a double-team, somehow... Somehow!!... Somehow the bleeding Luxembourg chasers always found a way to regroup in no-time and either tie up whomever she had just passed to, or else intercept the quaffle.

After an extraordinarily miserable first half hour in which the squad had failed to execute any of their set plays, Ginny had given up on the concept of teamwork and let herself become the quaffle-hog she always vowed she would never be. She had scored all but one of The Flying Circus's last eleven goals. That might sound impressive, but she took no pride in it. She was flying to win, and a one-trick offense usually came at a big cost. Case in point — interspersed around those scores, she had missed 18 shots on goal because of the poor shooting angles Luxembourg forced her into. Furthermore, she had committed an additional seven turnovers on the sorts of steals that the double-teaming facilitated. No glory there, and no bloody wonder they had fallen behind by one hundred and forty points!

She gritted her teeth, ready to try again, hoping that maybe this time she would find some way to get the occasional pass off...

Ron's hand was sweaty and tense, and twitched violently every time Luxembourg scored, but Hermione didn't let go of it. She was trying her best to be a calming influence for her boyfriend but, truth be told, she actually found herself getting nervous too — caught up in the moment.

"Go Gin'..." Hermione heard Ron mutter as his muscles went taut again. "Hell, I wish she could pass, but they just can't... it doesn't... it won't..." His muttering devolved into incoherenc as he watched another offensive take shape.

Hermione found that, in a strange way, it was actually very sweet to see Ron taking such an interest in his siblings' performances — especially Ginny, whose tremendous Quidditch skills he had disrespected (or secretly envied) for so long. It was peculiar, Hermione thought, that a silly game like this could bring a family closer together, but it might truly be doing that.

A huge change had recently come over the gangly redhead, and Hermione had found herself studying this boy, watching with surprise and amazement as he truly began growing into manhood before her very eyes.

The best thing in the world that could have happened to him, she realized with a secret smile, was for Gryffindor to defy even the most pessimistic odds and lose their January Quidditch match to Hufflepuff.

The whole school, minus Gryffindor Tower, had buzzed in titillation over the impossibly embarrassing outcome. Several days of constant taunts had burned the ears of the mopey, tetchy Lions, and Ron could have sulked for weeks over that sort of humiliation. He could have thrown and smashed things. He could have pounded Seamus for his fourteen idiotic turnovers.

But he didn't.

Hermione could tell that Ron was saddened by the disappointment of Gryffindor being the first house eliminated from Hogwarts Quidditch Cup contention... but the tallest Weasley had held his head high — as a captain should. He had politely congratulated the Hufflepuff players — as a captain should. He had offered words of encouragement to his own dismayed players, given friendly shoulder cuffs to those who'd made the worst mistakes, and even hugged a weeping Dean Thomas. As a captain should.

The morning after the loss, bright and early, Ron had pulled Hermione out of the library and invited her on a long walk around the frosty grounds. He never mentioned Quidditch. Instead, he had asked her about her classes, about her plans for after graduation, and things like that. And he had, surprisingly, listened to her answers. He had asked followup questions, and absorbed the replies to those as well.

Then Ron had asked her if she could talk about the research she was doing for Harry.

Biting her lip, holding her breath, Hermione had quietly shook her head... and braced for the worst.

And yet, in response to what was surely another grave disappointment, Hermione's boyfriend (the young man she was now seriously considering spending the rest of her life with) had actually said nothing. He had taken a moment to gaze out over the lake, a little sadly, and then he had squeezed her hand. And they had walked on.

After running out of things to ask Hermione about, Ron had started talking about all of the things in his own life that he had been ignoring for far too long.

That was when it happened, wasn't it?

Yes it was.

That was when Hermione finally understood why she had ever made this bizarre, illogical decision to let herself fall in love with the oaf. Hermione's boyfriend may have been a bit of a loser... but he was the best damned loser she would ever find.

"Bloody hell — she missed!"

Ron's shout inadvertently jolted his girlfriend out of her reverie and back to this unfortunately stressful Quidditch situation. Hermione permitted herself another furtive grin. Her boyfriend may, himself, have become a good loser, but he certainly didn't enjoy seeing any of his friends and family losing. Hermione clutched Ron's hand tighter, and pressed herself into his chest, silently trying to infuse within him the sudden feeling of calm and certitude she had herself just acquired.

It worked — sort of.

Ron's red flush subsided a bit and he dropped the decibel level on his ensuing rant down to a level that wouldn't offend the locals. "What rotten luck," Hermione heard him grumble. "Ginny's clanged, like, eight or nine shots off the far rim. It's bad enough that those damned Limburgers cut off all her angles, but it's like even the hoops are ganging up on her. Zabini you bleeding git — call the trick play. It'll get Ginny some real chances!"

Call the trick play, Zabini! Hermione mouthed quietly to herself. Make my boyfriend happy...

"Wow Septimo! Don't know when I last saw a string of bad luck like what Ginny Weasley's been going through."

"Too true, Richard! Statistically, nearly half of all shots that touch the rim should actually end up going through the hoop, but Weasley hasn't gotten a good bounce all game. However, the fact of the matter is that even if she had been getting her due, The Flying Circus would still be trailing."

"True. I thought for a while that the Circus might be able to claw their way back into the match, but Luxembourg is just too polished a squad to let that happen. Septimo, I think the only way The Flying Circus can keep this match within Harry Potter range is by trying something radical to get Weasley some open looks at the hoops."

"I agree, especially given the fact that the bludgers have been such a non-issue. The Weasley twins haven't surrendered control of the bludgers all match, but the Luxembourg Chasers have proven exceptionally proficient at avoiding them, so that part of the game has been a stalemate."

"Speaking of which, Fred Weasley just took a hard shot at Dreikirchen, but she kept herself clear with a sharp swerve. She's comes out smothered by Zabini, but quickly dishes it off to Jacobs, who races up the right wing, flanked by De Salle. Dreikirchen is bringing up the rear."

"Whew! Nifty move by Jacobs to shake off Summerby, Septimo!"

"Jacobs has been ultra-sharp all night, Richard. She's in the clear for the hoops, but Page is way out trying to cut off the angles. She looks left, but Ginny Weasley has De Salle tied in knots. Jacobs accelerates; her arm's cocked, ready to..."

"Mother of Merlin! Drop pass to Dreikirchen!"

"Dreikirchen's all alone; quick flip — score!!"

"My oh my oh my, Septimo! Luxembourg has their holy grail — one hundred and fifty point lead!"

"The crowd is absolutely screaming Richard! So now let's... whoa! Zabini and Potter just exchanged signals, Richard. I don't know what's afoot, but The Flying Circus regroups with lightning speed. Picking up the quaffle is... bloody hell!"

"Language, Sept! This is live... Holy shit Septimo!!"

"George Weasley is bringing up the Quaffle for The Flying Circus. Yes, everyone, you heard that right — George Weasley has dropped his Beaters bat and is bringing up the Quaffle as one corner of... well, let's call it a box formation. Zabini is up on his level, to the left, Ginny Weasley is on a diagonal flying thirty feet below, with Summerby on to her right."

"Septimo, look — Fred Weasley has actually cornered both bludgers. Atteville and Schwartz are buzzing about him like panicked moths. Weasley hefts his bat and... what??"

"Heh heh, Richard. Neat choice! Fred Weasley must have figured that he didn't need both bludgers, so he just clobbered one, sending it at least two hundred feet up-pitch to the left, and now Atteville is way off the action, trying to track it down."

"Brilliant! Meanwhile, Fred Weasley makes short work of Schwartz and races down pitch to join the Chasers."

"Look, Rich! For the first time all night, Luxembourg has dropped the double team on Ginny Weasley — they're still trying to figure out what George Weasley is doing in the mix."

"What he's doing, Septimo, is passable quaffle-handling. The quaffle is over mid-pitch, and George Weasley finally tosses it down to Summerby, who whips it across to Ginny Weasley."

"Double team, Richard! Luxembourg just can't let Ginny Weasley fly clear, even with three other Circus Chasers to try to defend. She feints left, Dreikirchen flinches. Weasley, right, splits the double team!"

"Jacobs, Weasley and Dreikirchen are streaking down the pitch neck-in-neck. Longchamps is coming out from the goal to challenge Weasley!"

"Ginny Weasley's swarmed three-on-one, Richard. There's got to be a whole lot of open space somewh..."

"Wow — rocket pass by Weasley, straight to... Weasley! George that is. George reaches up to..."

"Shi... sugar! De Salle, swoops out of nowhere to intercept..."

"Oi — nice shot!! Fred Weasley just leveled De Salle with a bludger!"

"Loose quaffle, Sept!"

"Scooped up by Fr — I mean George — Weasley! He shovels it two-handed through the... Score!!"

"Weasley, uh Fred, is dropping down to check on De Salle. Hey, what Septimo? The other fellow — George — is pointing upward toward..."

"Potter! Sweet Circe, look-ee up there, Richard!"

Higher altitude... lower drama.

Way up in the colder, thinner, and far quieter air high above, Harry chuckled at the Weasley frenzy that he'd just spectated in all its glory. He could help but feel a bit sorry for the poor continental Europeans far below him who had no idea what had just hit them.

He waved to catch Kurtz's eye. The Luxembourg Seeker had dogged him through nearly the whole match, but seemed to have been just as distracted by the wild action below as everyone else in this riotous Schwärzerbaach-Sûre Kolosseum, and had not followed Harry's last subtle, yet deliberate, move.

With one hand Harry saluted his worthy opponent.

The other hand closed around the snitch.

Hundreds of miles away, inside a Welsh manor hidden immaculately from the entire world, a young girl shrieked with utter euphoria.

Harry grinned and began making his descent.

"Quinticent Marish, Seeker Weekly." The short, amiable reporter struggled to catch his breath. "I have a question for Messrs. Weasley."

"Pah, who doesn't?!" Zabini smirked as he waved dismissively and began to follow Harry and Ginny back toward the lockers.

"Is it okay if I address both of you together?" Marish asked.

"But of course." Fred grinned. "Your chances of getting witty answers are astronomically better if you interview us as a pair than if you were to speak to brother George alone."

"Er, I see." Marish scratched his head. "I think I'll leave that off the transcript for now... Anyway, I have a question that none of the other reporters have asked you yet."

"Ah!" George shook his head. "The answer is no. Fred does not perform at private parties."

Fred gave his brother a sideways glance. "That's not strictly true... but I would certainly want to preview the guest list and drinks menu before making any commitments."

"Uh, did you fellows want to hear the actual question?"

"Um Fred," George raised a puzzled eyebrow. "It sounds as though our friend here has yet another question to ask."

"Another?" Fred blinked. "Oh well, I'm feeling generous right now — please proceed with the interrogation."

"Thank you... I think." Marish consulted his notes. "Um, so what were the two of you doing visiting Azkaban yesterday afternoon carrying boxes of equipment?"

Fred and George exchanged surprised glances. "Sharp little fellow, isn't he?" George mused.

"Indeed!" Fred nodded with an expression of mild admiration. "Say, is this thing 'live'?" He gestured toward the modified wand that Marish was holding up toward the twins' faces.

Marish frowned. "Er, the wand has a direct feed to the Wizarding Wireless broadcast, if that's what you're asking."

"Good." Fred smiled. "So Mr. Marish, I would assume that you've also been wondering why my brother and I have embarked on this little Quidditch fling, especially when we have demonstrated ample success in most other aspects of our lives?"

"I, uh, well I do recall Ms. Lovegood from the Quibbler raising the issue, but I don't want to horn in on her..."

"Oh, don't worry about Luna." George waved his hand reassuringly. "She's a personal friend, and besides — she'll answer that question her own way, regardless of what we tell you."

"Absolutely!" Fred agreed. "So to answer the question that you wanted to ask us but failed to, let's just say that we embarked on the Quidditch lark to impress a certain little lady."

"Little?!" George's eyes fluttered wide, startled.

"Well, you have to admit she's really rather short," Fred explained.

"Short? As in, two bricks short of a load?" George scratched his head. "One bakewell tart short of twenty stone?"

"Eh, well I suppose there are some who would question whether she's little..." Fred shrugged. "Others might question whether she's a lady..."

"Flobbery toad, is more like it," George offered.

Fred rolled his eyes. "Now George, let us be charitable to the old dear as she is currently in a state of some privation."

"That's true." George equivocated, turning back to the reporter. "This is to say, Mr. Marish, that the person in question is a convicted felon, currently serving time in Azkaban."

"Hence our excursion to the North Sea yesterday," Fred added. "You see, a couple of years ago the person in question took a tremendous interest in our well-being."

"More precisely, the utter stifling thereof," George clarified. "You see, she worked briefly at Hogwarts and rather delighted in the torment of many students, including ourselves, whose happiness and creativity she sought to smother beneath her aura of putrescent ill-humour."

"I was going to say 'bad breath'." Fred made an unpleasant face. "But you get the general picture. Anyway, given the sparsity of real outside world news within the cells of Azkaban, George and I decided to inject a bit of colour and inspiration into the life of the poor lady..."

"Toad," George corrected.

"Er yes." Fred gave his brother an admonishing look, then shrugged. "Very well. We decided to inject a bit of colour into the life of the poor toad, and make certain she is fully apprised on how effective her attempts to destroy our livelihoods..."

"And Quidditch exploits!"

"Er, okay." Fred sighed resignedly. "Anyway, we just thought it would be a special little treat for our lovely old acquaintance to listen to a real live international Quidditch broadcast and hear precisely how miserable she has made our lives everlasting!"

"Mr. Marish?" George laid a hand on the reporter's shoulder. "Can your wand pick up the sound of very loud grinning?"

"I, em, well, not sure if..."

"A pity — we'll just have to be more prosaic." Fred shrugged. "Okay then, George — all together now..."

"Goodbye Dolores, my love!" Fred and George sang out. "Our stereophonic broadcast into your cell will fade to the pre-recorded sound of yowling, demented kittens at the count of... three... two... one... now!"

Back to index


Chapter 10: Two Stones

Author's Notes:

Anyone who's been reading the reviews for this story knows that it has recently come under the incisive scrutiny of our German friend, Martin/Gin110881. You may notice that in a few instances, this chapter weaves in some answers to some of the open questions he had raised.

This is no accident or coincidence! In one sense, I have never used an official beta for any of my stories, but in essence I do use many unofficial ones -- every reader who catches a glitch, makes a provocative assertion, or asks an interesting question. Just because the overall shape of the story and nature of the characters may be set in my mind does not mean that the narrative can't benefit a lot from all of those different perspectives you readers bring to the discussion!


Chapter 10. Two Stones (Feb. 10 — 21, 1998)

"Well..." Harry surveyed the baffled faces of the seventh year students gathered in front of him. "I assume you're curious to know why Ginny and I invited the four of you to my office this morning."

Tracey and Pansy seemed visible uncomfortable as they kept trying to not be seen glancing at Ted Nott Jr. who, for his part, seemed to be sizing up the various pieces of furniture under which he was tempted to crawl. If those three seemed ill-at-ease, however, it was nothing compared to a certain slytherophobe named Ron Weasley who was, quite literally, sitting on his hands, as he pressed into his chair to maintain as much distance as possible from any undesirables.

Unsurprisingly, nobody could muster the right words for a glib response.

Ginny attempted a breezy, reassuring smile. "You're here because you're not crazy."

"Er, thanks..." Among all of those people who blinked at the unexpected statement, it was only Ron who found his way to a response. "I think?"

Harry smiled sympathetically. "What Ginny is leading up to is that, for well over a month now, we've had reason to suspect that most of you, and perhaps all four, may have been unknowingly subjected to manipulative dark magic spells."

"Pfffwhat??!" Pansy's jaw dropped.

"Pansy, we're not certain whether this explicitly includes you," Ginny clarified. "You're the one person we're not certain of — maybe you've been targeted; maybe not. At the very least, however, you've been in close proximity to Ted and Tracey as they were being manipulated, so we felt it would be best to invite you to this meeting so that you can hear what we tell the others."

All four students found their voices at the same instant, exploding into a frenzied babble of exclamation. Not wanting to let things get out of hand, Harry raised his hand after a few seconds to recapture attention.

"It would have been nice if you'd shared that with us sooner," Ron grumbled, before falling silent. The other three, in a rare show of unanimity, nodded their fervent agreement.

Harry offered a small, quirked smile. "Yes, well under the theory of 'better late than never', we're now here to apologize and bring you up to speed on the threat."

Ginny leaned forward. "I feel an obligation to point out that while Harry is compulsively taking responsibility, it really wasn't his fault that none of you were told. He and I, and a few other people who knew about this, were all under an Auror Department gag order."

Pansy blinked. "Aurors know about this??"

"Er, in general, no," Harry replied. "The official Auror stance on this is that the problem doesn't exist."

"Oh?" Ted chuckled wryly. "But they don't want us to know about this, errr, non-problem?"

Ron nodded in reinforcement, then frowned and began chewing distractedly on one of his fingers.

"Sorry if that came across as confusing." Harry leaned back and ran a hand through his hair. "The official gag order only applied while the Aurors still thought there might be a case, but last weekend they opted to shelve the investigation and deny that there's a problem. So, in that light, Ginny and I are assuming that the gag-order is no longer in effect and we, well,..." He trailed off, gradually realizing how much of a tangled mess this had become.

"Ah yes, it's perfectly clear now." Tracey's voice rose — high, clear, and terse.

"Er, it is?" Harry gave her a wary glance.

"Yes, of course," she replied. "As long as we were at risk, you were forbidden from speaking to us about it, but now that there's no risk, you're happy to tell us all about it. All perfectly logical."

"I, errr..." Harry clarified.

"Harry..." Ginny sighed, pushing her chair back from the desk and rubbing her head. "Next time we have a complex, cerebral meeting that needs to be scheduled... let's not do it the morning after a Flying Circus victory party."

"First sensible thing I've heard all bloody morning," Ron grumbled, willfully oblivious to Ginny's tetchy glance.

"Okay, let's try starting over." Harry took a long pull on his coffee. "We asked you to meet with us because Ginny and I and a few of our closest collaborators have been looking into evidence of what appears to be sporadic use of rather sinister magic. Throughout the investigation, the facts have persistently defied logic and shrouded any clear motive, but we have growing reason to believe that what we're seeing may be preliminary experiments carried out by a skilled practitioner of dark magic who happens to be exploring some rather exotic and scary spells."

Everyone's attention turned to Ginny as she rose from her seat to stand by the window. "Regardless of the fact that the Aurors have decided to discount this threat, we know better and we think you'll agree." She paused for a moment to project a meaningful look toward each of the students before lowering her voice and continuing. "Bar fights... broomstick accidents... unwanted sexual advances... bizarre, slow-acting poisons... Pretty strange stuff, yeah? Haven't we experienced or witnessed quite a slew of peculiar, and damaging impulses in the past while?"

The four students nodded. So did Ginny as she leaned against the heavy oaken sill. "Well, we have growing evidence to suggest that this confused, self-destructive behavior is directly produced by the enemy's magical tactics."

"Oh Merlin..." Pansy slumped back in her seat.

"Okay." Ted's mouth knotted. "It's degrading to think we're being played for fools, but, well, there's sort of a good side too, right? You're suggesting that those stupid predicaments we got ourselves into weren't fully our fault? That we're not complete toss-pots after all?"

Ron shrugged. "Yes, well, I'm all for that, but what's the evidence?"

"Excellent question." Harry rose to join Ginny by the window. "For starters, I can tell you that there are at least another four people besides yourselves who have had similar experiences. I'm not going to give details or name many names, but I will admit that I too have been targeted."

"Ah." Tracey's eyes widened.

"No fooling?" Ron blinked and stared.

Harry and Ginny both nodded.

"The number of people who've been affected by this is enough alone to warrant suspicion," Ginny indicated. "At least we thought so. It would also be enough to potentially incite some nervousness in the general public if a journalist were to latch onto it as a story."

Harry's face took on a serious cast. "If our hypothesis somehow leaked out, it might be enough to incite a panic."

"What's your hypothesis?" Pansy eyed him uneasily.

"We think that someone may be planning to avenge Voldemort's death." Ginny fingered the handle of her mug. "Seven out of the eight targets thus far received Order of Merlin citations for the Battle of Hogwarts. The eighth, who must remain nameless, has an unusual relationship to our primary suspect."

"Who should also remain nameless for now," Harry added.

Ginny nodded solemnly.

Harry's gaze swept the room. "So that's the context for why Ministry officials wanted everything to be held under a web of secrecy."

"Yes." Ginny sighed. "I do admit that a part of me would love to stick it to the quill-pushers for being such plonkers on this, but I think you can see why Harry and I are still being very cagey. We don't want mass panic any more than the Ministry does, and the less our suspect knows about what we know, the stronger our chances for catching that person by surprise."

"Exactly." Harry nodded with a sombre frown on his face. "But here's the rub. At some point, hopefully soon, we may have enough strong evidence to completely absolve you of... well, a few past indiscretions that may have appeared a bit idiotic. But I think we need to hold back this information for the time being if we're truly serious about trying to keep you safe, thwart future attacks and eventually put a permanent end to the threat."

"So, I'm afraid we can't quite let you off the hook yet." Ginny projected an apologetic half smile. "You're going to have to live a while longer with your undeserved shame."

"All right, I can accept that." Nott shrugged. "I wouldn't mind getting the damned misdemeanour off my record, but I... well, it can wait, right? If sitting tight is what it takes to protect myself and the people I, uh... care about... then yeah, I'll keep quiet."

"Thank you, Ted." Ginny beamed a grateful grin, and also smiled inwardly to see Pansy's and Tracey's shared glance of surprise at hearing the Slytherin boy articulate his priorities.

"So, is everyone else okay with keeping this a secret for now?" Ginny's eyes swept the room.

The remaining three students nodded.

"Wonderful!" Smiling, Harry walked back to his seat. "With that out of the way, I suggest we take the rest of the meeting to tell you a bit more about the threat and what might be done about it. I'm sure, if you all think back to your own strange experiences from the past while, that it won't surprise you to hear that the illegal manipulation involves a form of mind control."

"Mind control?" Nott scratched his head. "Imperius? "

Ron shook his head. "Nah, we already tossed that idea at New Years, right? And probably not Confundus either, yeah? So what is it?"

"Well, unfortunately we're still working out the details," Ginny replied, "So far, this has been the most bizarre and illogical caper Harry and I have ever worked on, with the perpetrator's Modus Operandi alternating between idiotic and terrifying..."

"Right." Harry nodded, his smile fading. "Never a complete success and never, to the best of our knowledge, a complete failure either."

"Precisely the problem." Ginny sighed. "With a complete success, we would have a much better idea what the perp is really doing. By contrast, a complete failure would instruct us as to the best ways to defend."

Harry shrugged. "So that's where it is. Despite a six week investigation, we remain scratching around in the dark. But you're correct Ron. We do have ample enough evidence to suggest that the mechanism of control is unrelated to either Imperius or Confundus."

"So what the hell is it then?" Pansy interjected. "If I was to crack open any DADA text in this school, I doubt I'd find any other credible forms of magical compulsion."

"Agreed." Ginny retrieved her long-neglected tea. "Unfortunately, the curriculum in this school, and even most of the research, is extremely Euro-centric. It largely ignores a lot of fascinating, and sometimes horrifying, sorcery developed in other cultures — animal spirit proxies from Australia and the Pacific Northwest of North America, Himalayan celestial planes, botanicals from South and Central America, fetishes from Africa..."

"Our best guess..." Harry's gaze drifted from Ginny to Pansy. He let the sentence hang for a moment, deliberating on how much detail to provide, then nodded slightly to himself. "Our best guess is that the manipulation involves the latter — some sort of adaptation of the African fetish concept."

Harry and Ginny paused to see if anyone had questions, but the four faces in front of them were largely blank, clouded with varying levels of consternation and confusion. Harry sat back in his chair, folded his hands, and spoke pensively toward the hearth. "I assume you're not familiar with the phrases, so let me put it in practical terms. If someone wanted to control me, we believe it could be possible by devising an object that they magically couple to me, allowing the person to funnel spells directly at me regardless of distance."

"Because of the direct magical connection, most standard wards have little or no effect on fetish magic," Ginny elaborated. "Fortunately, some of our student ward experts have developed protections that have more general scrambling effects. They're analogous to the charms wizards had developed to create magical containment boxes, except that our charms can cover a broader area. Compared to things like anti-apparition and anti-portkey wards, it takes a greater number of our devices to secure a property, but we think we've been able to fully protect our safe house."

Still facing away, Harry nodded. "The problem with such wards is that, in close proximity to the ward stone, one would have difficulty performing legitimate magic."

"Oh?" Tracey's voice sparked with recognition. "You're talking about something like my... like my..." She patted her pockets in a state of increasing distraction. "Ah there it is! My amulet!" she pulled out her mokeskin pouch.

"Yes, exactly." Harry returned his focus to Tracey. "Your amulet is your own personal ward stone, featuring six carefully chosen ward spells that should protect you from mind control."

Ron eyed the Slytherin girl curiously. "So why does she get special protection? As opposed to the rest of us?"

"Because she's special," Ginny answered with a smirk.

Ron frowned, but Harry shook his head. "You wouldn't want one Ron, because it would interfere with your magic. Tracey is a special case, because of the poisoning attempt a couple of weeks ago."

Ginny's expression turned far more serious. "We believe the assailant at the night club intended to take complete control of Tracey. Luckily, he failed, but we're concerned that a side-effect of the toxin may be that she's very susceptible to fetish effects. "

Tracey gulped as the shocking truth began to sink in.

"Don't forget to wear it, Spacey!" Pansy admonished severely.

Tracey rolled her eyes. "Let it go, Parksy. I only forgot once."

"Twice!"

"Okay, twice." Tracey gave her friend a begrudgingly sheepish glance. "But the second time barely counts because..."

"Ahem!" Harry leaned forward, his eyes boring intensely into Tracey's. "If you slipped up a little, then we'll let it slide since it seems there's been no harm done... but please PLEASE try not to forget again!"

"And don't lose it!" Ginny added gravely.

With a sharp intake of breath, the Slytherin girl nodded in wide-eyed contrition.

Within the utter darkness and absolute silence of the Room or Requirement, Harry and Ginny reached over and clasped hands.

In direct physical contact, when they carefully concentrated, the pair could still recapture much of the magical coupling that they had shared last year. Their original connection, a vestige of the damage done to each of them by Voldemort, had been severed when their nemesis had perished, but in the deepest realms of subconscious, their magic still remembered how it felt to be coupled, and recalled something of the old paths over which they had entwined.

And magic is as magic wills.

This gentler, intentional coupling was probably for the best. Harry and Ginny each had their own very distinct and unique magical auras, each far too strong to bend to the blending that must occur within soul bonds. Thus it seemed that fate had decreed that they must each be a separate power. But this did not mean that they would have to stand alone.

Both had known, at one time, how it felt to be so very, utterly alone.

Never again.

In the darkness they connected. Harry felt the familiar, almost-dizzying swirl of euphoria as Ginny's magic touched his and then intermingled. And indeed, at the pitch dark lifted from their minds, he gazed over and saw her, reaching out with her left hand to graze his fingertips.

Ginny's engagement ring sparkled in the moody light of the ocean skies, as the pair soared, broomless, over a grey ocean, textured by a steady sea breeze. Ginny turned to Harry, beaming an eager smile, then she redirected her attention forward, where Harry saw the distant grey line of a coastline beginning to take shape.

Moments later, the pair climbed sharply to crest a jagged cliff, dark and glistening above the crashing waves. As they raced inland, the sun broke free of the heavy coastal alto stratus clouds, highlighting a landscape, harsh yet beautiful, adorned with mounds and spikes of grey, brown and red stones, baked in crystalline aridity.

Harry smiled and nodded to Ginny in recognition. If his beloved magical partner was going to train him in the art of magical stealth, why not do so in the long-time haunts of the ultimate stealthmaster — Salvatore Fugo's desert paradise in the remote reaches of Agadir, nestled within the Atlas Mountains of North Africa.

Landing quietly on a stony outcrop, Ginny guided Harry down into the nearby gravelly depression of a former stream bed. Without explanation, she dropped to her knees and began scrabbling with her hands through a bed of loose stones. After several minutes of inspection she had set aside two stones — one a smooth cobble cracked in half to reveal a dusty red interior; the other a hard small rock of very deep brownish grey, set with black streaks. She handed Harry the latter.

For a moment, Harry simply examined it as a Muggle might — peering at it from different angles and distances, turning it over in his hands, running his finger over the different textures presented on the various faces. However, the more Harry handled it, the more he realized that his fingers had begun to tingle.

He closed his eyes as he continued to touch and turn the stone. In his mind, lines of force began to take shape and he realized that at some angles the stone felt quite ordinary, but when he rotated it through other angles he would feel a sudden tug — like the swooping sensation aboard an elevator. The stone was tugging on his aura!

"Lodestone." He opened his eyes to see Ginny watching him.

She nodded. "Yes, that is a lodestone — just as you and I are lodestone. All magical beings and creatures are." She gave him a cryptic smile and handed him the cracked, red-stained cobble. "This, on the other hand, is a Muggle."

Cocking his eyebrow, Harry placed the lodestone by his side and accepted the dusty cobble. Eyes closed, he examined the stone in much the same way, but this time failed to feel any discernible affinity. He was about to put it down when he felt a sudden sensation of loss. His eyes flashed open just in time to see a smiling Ginny... fade away!

Dumbfounded, Harry sat alone in the desert, straining all of his senses (especially his magical one) to detect the woman who had brought him here. Yet all he could see were stones, shadows, and the bright glare of the unfiltered sun that cast them. All he could hear was the soft whistling of a desert zephyr. And all he could feel, magically, was the lone lodestone at his side.

Ginny was gone!

"Come back, Gin'." Harry smiled with forced calmness, and lowered the cobble to the ground.

There was a long pause in which Harry strained his ears and his magical senses to detect his girlfriend, but to no avail.

"I never left," said the voice immediately across from him.

Harry jumped. He stared, and angled his head, and squinted at nothing. He stretched his magical aura about in contortions seeking to detect anything... then he grinned broadly. "Wow! You're really, really, not there!"

"Ah, but I am." Ginny invisibly took Harry's hand.

Harry stared down at his empty hand, graced by the soft warmth of his fiancée's grasp. "Bloody brilliant," he murmured, shaking his head. "How are you doing it?"

"I am imitating the most muggly of Muggle's, except that I'm also invisible."

"You're hiding your magic... and casting a spell at the same time??" Harry scratched his chin incredulously.

"Uh huh."

Harry shook his head, wonderingly. "How?"

"I merely became like the cobble." She began to shimmer back into sight in front of Harry. "The cobble may be a Muggle, but Muggles are magical too."

Harry frowned as he recalled a passage from the old text written by the Fugos. "Muggles have magical auras just like we do, only their auras lack the coherence to perform spells." He pursed his lips thoughtfully. "So you fragmented your aura to make it appear incoherent... but how are doing magic?"

Ginny, now fully visible, grinned him. "You said it perfectly, Harry. I made my aura 'appear' incoherent! Can you define the word 'appear'?"

"Er, sort of." Harry paused for a moment to render the word to its most basic form. "Something's appearance is the sum of how we perceive that thing?"

"Exactly." Ginny leaned over to give him a quick kiss. "You, of the unsurpassed magical perception, may have perceived me as no more coherent than a non-magnetic rock, but in truth I simply altered the form of my coherence."

Harry chewed his lip, with the faint glimmer of understanding beginning to creep in.

Ginny reached for the two stones at Harry's side. She lifted the lodestone and, in a single fluid motion, hammered it into the softer cobble, kicking up a small spatter or dust and minute flakes. She then handed the lodestone, unscathed, to Harry.

The striking end of the lodestone was covered in a fine bristle of reddish dust and tiny shards, stuck persistently to the smooth dark surface.

"See Harry?" Ginny nudged the tiny shards about with her fingernail. "This is like magic done by a Muggle or Squib — little bits and shards and slivers and dust. A shard or sliver on its own seems inconsequential. A shard of magic may appear to be a small coincidence, a little bit of luck — easily ignored or explained away. Yet if many little fragments somehow align with their neighbour fragments, you can actually cast a real spell. In an ideal case, it would be like picking up a handful of sand and throwing it like a stone. In reality, though, the power is subdued, like viewing a painting through a mask of thick gauze. It takes a lot of relearning to achieve even simple spells, but even small things like disillusionment can be tremendously useful."

"Fascinating," Harry declared as he blew on the dust and failed to dislodge it. "So how did you learn how to fragment yourself? And make those fragments work together?"

"Salvatore Fugo's memories." She shrugged sheepishly. "I assume that with some combination of brilliant intuition and a few decades of quiet meditation, you or I could probably have figured it out on our own. But why spend half a lifetime doing it the hard way, when I have the memories of a prodigious savant?"

"Ah! And now you're ready to teach me?" Harry peered deeply, inquiringly into Ginny's eyes.

"Yes, I am." She smiled.

"Flippin' 'eck!" Tonks gaped at the figure in the doorway. "Why Harry luv, you're... you're..."

"Early," Ginny interjected, looking at her watch.

"Ought we be flattered?" Tonks flicked a long lock of turquoise hair from her wide eyes.

"Nah." Harry smirked as he hung his cloak on a peg by the door. "No Williamson anymore; that takes all the fun out of being late."

"Aw piff!" Tonks scowled petulantly at the tabletop in front her her. "And I was getting all aflutter, thinking you couldn't wait to be by my side again..."

"Oh, well there's that too." Harry gave the Auror a cheeky wink.

"I see." Ginny raised an eyebrow. "Always comforting to know that we can count on sobre dedication as we prepare to do battle for the fate of the free world."

Lupin chuckled, and Ginny grinned at him.

"So Ginny was saying that you've spoken to our Slytherin trio about the problem?" Tonks asked. "How much did you tell them?"

"The trio, plus Ron." Harry took a seat and opened his case portfolio. "We told them that we believe they've been targeted by an exotic form of mind control, and that we're looking both for a viable means of defence, as well as to track down the perpetrators."

Lupin frowned. "Did you tell them who we're looking for?"

"No." Ginny shook her head. "Occasionally Harry and I remind ourselves that however convinced we are that Bellatrix is behind the crimes, we have no viable proof."

"True." Harry poured a couple cups of tea and handed one to Ginny. "So admittedly, I still find myself toeing the Ministry line that we don't want to incite panic. Bellatrix is considered Public Enemy #1 in this country, and people might go right bonkers if a few high-profile Slytherins suddenly went public stating that she was chucking long-distance mind-control spells at them. We all know that Robards would flip, but so might Kingsley and Amelia."

"Speaking of Ministry types..." Ginny accepted the tea with a smile and turned to her purple-haired friend. "Did you get any flack from anyone this week, Tonks?"

"M.o.M. has been okay." Tonks shrugged. "I didn't kick up a fuss and neither did they. Pony-boy has been assigned a new partner, and so have I, which is all great because it means I don't have to splatter my intellect all over the tarmac moping about dark emblems. Mind you, nobody down there knows that I'm up here continuing to work with you on this, but this is a bloody Saturday, and a girl's entitled to a frilly little dalliance, eh?"

"Absolutely!" A grin spread across Harry's face. "Hard to find hobbies more fun or frivolous than zombie-hunting, yeah? Either way, it's great to have your wit, wisdom and expertise going forward. Are things going well with Occlumency?"

Tonks nodded. "Sure. Your compartmentalisation techniques are working well and the instructor down there isn't able to break me anymore. Any progress with your two sprogs?"

"Teri's proven to be a complete natural — she might be on par with you, Tonks," Harry replied earnestly. "But, unfortunately, Tracey has, if anything, gotten even worse since the poisoning. She's still clawing her way along in her other core subjects, but I do think her magical control has taken a hit. A couple weeks ago, I thought I was starting to see a glimmer of hope, but now I'm tempted to scrap the lessons and just let our hopes ride on the amulet."

Several others at the table nodded thoughtfully. Lupin, however, stroked the scraggly beard that had begun to affix itself to his face. "Are you any further along toward understanding whether any of this Occlumency is actually useful, Harry?"

"No." Harry's response was quick, and without hesitation, but the look on his face implied that he wasn't quite finished with the statement. He sighed. "Unfortunately, this leads us into a rather squidgy topic of discussion that I wanted to raise."

"Yes?" Lupin prompted.

"Well..." Harry steepled his fingers. "I can't help think that people like Ron, Ted, Pansy and Tracey would feel much better about this if there was something they could realistically do to help protect themselves."

"Right. That's obvious." Tonks nodded.

"The question is, 'what'?" Harry posed.

The table fell silent as thoughtful yet uninspired expressions drifted over everyone's faces.

"So, none of us has a handle on that because we simply don't have any defence strategies to try other than wards, amulets, and blind faith in Occlumency," Harry continued. "But maybe we can come up with something else."

Everyone nodded expectantly.

"So, in that mindset, let's think back to last September when we were engaged in all kinds of inspiring activities. Including some that were not technically within the Ministerially prescribed realm of magical conduct..."

Ryan grinned wryly. "This is to say, 'illegal ', of course."

"Er, thank you for that interpretation, Ryan." Harry gave his favourite student a sidelong glance. "It always felt natural to bend the rules when Fudge was bumbling along because he was an irrelevant toadying figurehead. I'm far less inclined to disrespect Madame Bones, but unfortunately British magical society is saddled with hundreds of ridiculous, outdated or simply wrongheaded regulations, constraining the research prospects of virtually everybody except Unspeakables. The Wizengamot is gradually working its way through the most preposterously irresponsible laws as we speak, but it will take years to take out all the trash."

Ginny pursed her lips. "From what I can tell, there are a number of foolish and irresponsible regulations on the books that could be used to judge most of the upper-year research that goes on at Hogwarts as being extralegal, so it's difficult, morally, to know where to draw the line."

"Yes, yes." Hermione huffed with sudden impatience. "So why don't you just tell us what illegal activity you're proposing, so we can all stew on it?"

Harry burst out laughing. "Okay, all in favour of Hermione's proposal that we start discussing illicit research projects?"

Several people around the table smirked as Hermione glared at Harry for a moment, before waving her hand dismissively.

"Okay, all jests aside..." Ginny equivocated. "We're in a bind. Obviously we have no way of developing defensive strategies against a form of magic that we don't understand and can't simulate. So the only idea we've been able to come up with for breaking through is..."

"Is to try to simulate O bò magic and see how you can beat it?" Ryan surmised.

"Bingo!" Harry nodded seriously.

All eyes riveted to Hermione as she pushed back from the table and massaged the bridge of her nose thoughtfully for a moment then turned her attention back to the group. "Well, without implying my approval, I can state categorically that there are no explicit laws forbidding the practice of O bò magic in Britain."

"Mostly because there is no mention, whatsoever, of O bò, or any other forms of exotic third-world magic, anywhere within the British magical legal code," Ryan clarified. "However, we should add that Britain has reciprocal legal treaties with more than thirty other countries. The typical treaty will imply that any activity considered illegal in country A can be considered illegal in country B if anyone from country B engages in that activity and hurts someone in country A."

"Wow — nice concise explanation!" Wide-eyed, Hermione appraised the younger student. "The joint Australian-British Magical Law Enforcement Treaty needed more than fourteen hundred words to say that, and they ostensibly even speak the same language that we do!"

"Ostensibly, yes." Tonks smirked.

"Brilliant." Harry smiled enthusiastically. "So yes, what I would like to ask our two exemplary scholars is whether they can pursue some very discrete legal analysis of the viability of creating and testing a Bocio fetish."

"Maybe you can break it down into two types of legal arguments," Ginny proposed. "The first involves idiotically general blanket prohibitions that no sane, semi-intelligent Wizengamot would ever try to enforce, and the second would be more specific and legitimately defensible laws that we must either obey or find loopholes for."

"Sure." Ryan jotted down several notes. "One quick question, though?"

Ginny nodded. "Go ahead."

"Are we only considering the fetishes?" Ryan's voice dropped to a low, quiet tone. "Or would we also be looking at... what was it you called it, Granger? Corpus-Qualia dissection ?"

Harry and Ginny both shook their heads vigorously.

"Never!" A deep frown creased Harry's forehead. "Far too dangerous. Not even under the best of intentions would we ever risk experimenting with something like that."

Things were getting serious. They had to be!

There was no other way to explain the fact that members of The Flying Circus had agreed to go on a hill run led by Harry and Ginny.

Grant Page was actually the one to suggest it, reminding the squad that they had yet to be put to the test of a truly balky Snitch. He had proceeded to regal them with cautionary tales of two hundred point leads evapourating because poorly-conditioned squads couldn't sustain their form for long enough.

"But that's what we have Potter for!" Zabini protested. The twins agreed strenuously.

Page shook his head.

Zabini, Fred and George groaned. Summerby shrugged quietly. Harry and Ginny grinned.

Showing a bit of mercy, Harry and Ginny didn't lead them on a prodigious two hour romp such as they sometimes had with the Super Seven, but they did not let the squad off without at least dragging them up to the high plateau north of Black Lake.

"I'll wager this is higher than most of you have ever flown," Harry commented; not bothering to mention the he had Ginny had flown substantially higher — having made a night flight from the Astronomy tower to a high rocky outcrop that loomed north of them, currently shrouded in mist.

Page, Summerby, Fred and George all nodded as they gazed thoughtfully at the distant roofs of the highest Hogwarts towers — a vantage that very few members of the British wizarding community could ever claim to have experienced.

"You mountain goats do this a lot?" Zabini gasped, finally lifting his head above his knees and straightening up.

"Not so often anymore," Ginny replied wistfully. "Two or three times a week at best now. Things are always so busy."

"Too many meetings," Harry agreed.

"Meetings are my specialty," Zabini interjected with a sweaty grin. "After putting me through this hell, it's only fair for you to listen to me drone about Wigtown for at least an hour this evening."

"Sure," Harry replied. "I can live with that."

"Now that's the spirit," Zabini enthused mockingly. "The Boy Who Lived... for meetings !"

Harry rolled his eyes, and raised a hand to summon everyone for the second, mostly downhill, half of the workout.

The final stretch didn't get everyone quite as winded, but as the seven Quidditch mates slowed to a cool-down walk for the final hundred yards over the castle's front grounds, it was obvious that everyone, except Harry, Ginny and Page, had rather wobbly legs and were looking forward to resting their limbs and eating their fill!

After ducking off to shower and change, the squad was expected to regroup up in the Interhouse Commons. Already present and waiting was a scowling Ron Weasley, an amused-looking Daphne Greengrass, and several steaming domed platters from which sumptuous scents were emerging.

"Hi Daphne!" Ginny said as she became the first to reach the Commons. "Hi Ron!" she added as she noticed her brother sulking in a corner. "Hey, is everything okay?"

"All's chipper cheery, Ginny-G!" Daphne exclaimed with a twinkle in her eye.

"No it's not!" Ron complained. "I came up here expecting supper, but she won't let me eat anything!"

"I had nothing to do with the food, Roony," Daphne protested, "You'll have to register your complaint with the house elves."

"Complaint? Why?" Ginny asked in a puzzled tone as she rotated the hinged dome on the nearest of the food trays. "Mmmmm!" she sighed. "Pomegranate-glazed spare ribs! Help yourselves, you two!"

"Don't mind if I do, thank you!" Daphne replied graciously as she took a plate and raised another lid. "Oooooh! Such darling little potatoes!"

"Vegetable frittata looks marvelous, too!" Ginny proclaimed, as she rounded off her plate. Taking a seat at one end of the long oak table, she glanced up, puzzled to see that Ron was still glowering at them from the far corner. "Whatever is the matter, Ron?" she asked. "Please dig in — we won't ask you to strategise on an empty stomach!"

"No, we prefer to record our play diagrams on parchment," Zabini explained with a smirk as he entered. "That way they don't wash off in the shower."

"This is your fault, you... you... bleeding Slytherin! " Ron grumbled.

"What's my fault??" Zabini recoiled. "I'm not the one writing diagrams on empty stomachs," he protested with a devillish grin as he grabbed a plate and approached the food.

"You won't let me eat!" Ron accused, in increasing agitation.

"You're insinuating that I'm standing between our star strategist and his gustatory satisfaction?!" Zabini gasped. "I'm deeply wounded, Rooster! Here," he said, taking a long step back and sweeping his arm magnanimously, "please go before me. Be my guest!"

"No no no! You jinxed the food!" Ron shouted, shaking his head and pointing a finger at the steaming trays.

"Huh?" Ginny interjected, staring bewilderedly at her plate. "What's wrong with the food? It tastes scrumptious to me!"

"It's aethereal!" Daphne agreed, savouring a bite.

"I jinxed the food?" Zabini wondered. "How so?" he asked, stepping up to the ribs and tentatively scooping some onto his plate.

"It... it... it bit me!" Ron stammered.

"Ronald!" Ginny admonished. "Our supper did not bite you! Three of us have just served ourselves without any incident. Now would you please stop clowning around and grab a plate so the rest of us can eat in peace??"

"But... but..." Ron protested weakly, with lines of pain intensifying around his eyes as a particularly delectable waft of aroma teased his nose.

"Good evening, all!" Page declared jauntily as he and Summerby arrived. "Wow! Nice spread!"

Summerby nodded enthusiastically as he followed Page in heaping generous servings onto their plates.

"You joining us for supper, Roost?" Page inquired, handing Ron a plate.

Nervously, Ron accepted the plate. With a look, bordering upon anguish, his gaze darted between the five diners chatting happily at the table, and the lush trays piled with food. Slowly... ever so slowly... he approached the spare ribs. Carefully, he placed his plate on the table by the tray.

Nothing happened.

Very great caution, he picked up the serving spoon.

Nothing happened.

Very very tentatively, he extended the spoon toward the tray, and...

CLANGGGGG!!!

"Mother of Merciful Merlin!!" Ginny shrieked. "Ron — what the hell are you trying to do? Give us all heart attacks?!"

"Blimey Ron!" Harry exclaimed as he entered the room. "You're the last person on the planet I ever thought I'd have to say this to, but please stop playing with the food, and EAT!"

"I'm not playing with the food," Ron objected whinily. "It tried to bite me!"

"Errr..." Harry scratched his head. "Can you help me understand this please? What exactly attacked you? The ribs? The potatoes...?"

"No, not the food — those bloody metal lids keep trying to bite my hand off!"

"Uh, Harry," Ginny murmured in a low tone as she rose tentatively from the table. "Do you suppose this might involve... er, you know...?"

Harry shook his head. "No," he replied in a normal tone. "If I was to guess, I'd say this might be the handiwork of..."

"Hola everyone!" Fred proclaimed loudly as he and George entered. "Sorry we're so late, but we took advantage of our visit to your hallowed halls to negotiate an invention disclosure with the redoubtable Miss Clark."

"Charming lass — such a shame she's already hooked up with that young Gryffindor fellow," George commented, then glanced at the food. "Ah, brilliant! How considerate of ickle-Ronnie not to devour all of the food we ordered!"

Ron whimpered pitiably for a moment... then froze, and raised an eyebrow.

"Yes, how unusually considerate of him, wouldn't you say George?" Fred surmised.

"Agreed Fred," George averred, handing a plate to his twin. "It's almost as if our poor brother was afraid of the consequences."

"I believe you're correct," Fred assessed. "But afraid of what consequences, pray tell? Afraid of disappointing his older brothers, perhaps?"

"Perhaps," George mused, directing a spreading grin toward his tall younger brother. "Are you afraid of seeing your dear siblings go hungry, young Ronald?" he asked as he casually filled his plate.

"I'm really afraid..." Ron replied through gritted teeth, "of what's going to happen if you don't cancel your bloody jinx on those trays!"

"Nah Page," Zabini replied thoughtfully, "I'd have to say that everything I know from the grapevine supports Rooster's conclusions. We stack up really well against Wigtown, and I think we have a good chance to take them down."

Ginny nodded. "Yes Grant, I'm with Blaise and Ron," she said. "You said, yourself, that Giovanni dell'Acqua is the most porous keeper in the premier league. And considering that Adrian Pucey, of all people, is their leading scorer, I don't think it's a stretch to say that our Chasers can hang with theirs. Susan Farley is a decent passer, and Claude Lavoisier can block quite well, but Keith and Blaise stack up well with them."

"Fred and I played against Anthony Rickett," George added. "He plays hard, but he's never been very accurate with his bat — especially when he's swinging left. If you Chasers cheat to his right, you can practically ignore him."

"Adi Saari is a much tougher Beater," Fred indicated, "But, together, George and I should be able to tie him up and keep the rest of you clear."

"Question! Question!" Daphne piped up, waving her hand.

"Ceding the floor to Madame Executive Question-Asker," Harry said with a smile.

Daphne flashed Harry a quick grin, but then instantly assembled a very studious demeanour. "What I would like to know is this," she indicated solemnly. "If Wigtown has a weak Keeper, marginal Chasers, and only one good Beater, how come they're not in last place?"

"Because Captain Coiffure's favourite team really sucks?" Fred suggested, brandishing the latest Evening Prophet Quidditch standings, which showed the Falmouth Falcons in the cellar.

"Leave them out of it, Thing One," Zabini growled. "There's a very simple answer to that, and I think it's the key to the match."

Most people around the table nodded knowingly, but Harry merely pursed his lips thoughtfully. "I presume," he said, "that you're referring to Blythe Parkin?"

"You got it Potts!" Zabini replied, raising a copy of the February 7 edition of Seeker Weekly, with the headline:

Diamond in the Rough: Can Parkin Save the Woeful Wanderers?

"She's bloody good!" Ron opined. "Not as good as Lennox Campbell perhaps, but she's only, like, twenty two years old!"

"She'll be starter for the All-Scotland Squad at the World Cup," Ginny added. "That's a great honour, considering her age and the fact that she beat out Portree's MacTavish."

"I don't think you have much chance with her, Harry," Ron stated frankly. "Your best hope is to keep her off the Snitch long enough for your mates to run up a big lead."

"Ah?" Harry mused calmly.

"I disagree," Page interjected. "I concede that you might be able to build a lead on Wigtown, but they're not going to spot you a hundred and fifty points."

"Well, then Professor Mountain Goat had better find a way to catch the Snitch then!" Zabini declared with a grin.

"Ah," Harry replied, with perfect equanimity.

"You're going to have to find a way to catch the Snitch, Mr. Harry!" Teri exhorted. "We can't sit in this dark old den on a beautiful morning like this — we need to go to the meadow so you can practise!"

"I do, do I?" Harry inquired bemusedly. "Should I assume that you'll be setting the agenda for these meetings from now on, Teri?"

Teri looked away, chastened. "I'm sorry, Mr. Harry."

Harry grinned. "Don't be," he assured her. "I brought my broom, plus one of the school's spare Comets, just in case."

"Really??" Teri gasped.

"Really," Harry affirmed. "So what exactly am I supposed to be practising then, coach?"

"Well, to begin with you need a faster, trickier Snitch," Teri advised. "So, I doctored the one you gave me..."

"You what??"

"Sorry, is that okay?" Teri replied, worriedly. "I suppose I should have asked first, but you told me that I should practise with the Snitch you gave me, so I decided to make it more challenging."

"How did you do that?" Harry asked.

"With these," Teri answered, handing Harry her copy of Miranda Goshawk's 'Book of Spells', from which several colourful bookmarks were poking out.

Skimming quickly through the bookmarked pages, Harry burst out laughing. "Sugar Plum — I believe Professor Flitwick was planning to teach you these charms in your fifth or sixth year!"

"But Mr. Harry," the girl protested, "You can't wait until then. You need to prepare for Monday's match now !"

"Okay, okay, I suppose I do," Harry chuckled. "Let's call off the rest of the exercises and head for the meadow then. Do you have a cloak?"

"Don't need one," she replied, and instead picked up a thick green jumper from a chair by the door — one whose unfashionable style Harry recognized immediately.

"Ah, you still have that?" Harry asked. It was Ginny's old Weasley Christmas jumper that Harry had lent Teri several weeks earlier during the ward-laying exercises.

Teri nodded. "I do," she replied. Would you like it back?"

Harry glanced at it appraisingly for a moment then shook his head. "No," he responded. "It's just as safe here with you as anywhere."

"Thank you then," she said. "I kind of like it — even if the other kids think it looks, er,..."

"Frumpy?" Harry asked with a shrug. "Well, it was crafted with a warm heart, to keep a warm body."

Teri nodded her quiet agreement as they stepped through the back door and out into a surprisingly springlike Welsh morning.

A few minutes later, fifty feet above the meadow, Teri caught Harry's attention and pointed. "The snitch will never leave the area between those two ward stones," she indicated, gesturing toward the rough, scrubby area on the southern fringe of the property, "and the two corners of the back lawn."

Harry glanced around analytically. "Great," he replied. "That's about the size of a Quidditch pitch."

"Exactly," Teri agreed.

Harry smiled. Knowing his eccentric little friend, the marked area probably was the exact size of a Quidditch pitch.

"Are you ready?" Teri called, as she withdrew to a distance of several hundred feet from Harry.

Harry nodded, and watched Teri release the Snitch. The little golden ball rose nearly straight up for about thirty feet, began to drift westward... then it disappeared!

"Er, Teri..." Harry called with a frown, "was that a disillusionment charm?"

From out across the makeshift pitch, the dark-haired girl nodded.

"That wasn't bookmarked!" Harry laughed.

"Oops!" Teri replied with a grin. "The slip of paper must have fallen out."

Harry shook his head in amusement, and began heading west, trying to hone his senses on a faint fluttery buzz. The other two charms Teri had cast included a variant of Descendo to cause the Snitch to plummet any time someone got close to it, and a related proximity-dependent variant of the standard hurling jinx to induce erratic vibration.

Considering Harry could only spend another forty five minutes at the manor before leaving for the weekly case meeting, he had to admit that Teri might well stump him with this lineup of pesky Snitch challenges.

Nonetheless, he was certainly going to give it a good try!

With his eyes closed?

That little inspiration had never occurred to him before, but why not? His eyes would be useless for tracking the Snitch; visual stimuli would distract him from aura perception, and he would be up there nearly alone, with minimal fear of any accidental collision.

He closed his eyes and let himself drift.

For a moment, all Harry saw was darkness, but then the first and strongest aura shone through — the blue beacon of his young student, perched several hundred feet to the side, a bit removed from the area that she had designated as the makeshift pitch. In the distance he could sense the vague glow of the manor — old stones saturated with magic, plus nearly twenty witches and wizards moving about within.

Was there anything else to detect?

Scanning across his sphere of perception, Harry now sensed a low level granularity. He quickly realized that he could distinguish the ground (many speckles of low-coherence force) from the nearly featureless sky (although excellent at conducting magic, the air was poor at retaining such energy). So at least, he could tell up from down.

Then, a second inspiration came to him. Given the choice of speckled ground or featureless sky — which was the better backdrop for detecting a Snitch?

Over Harry's entire Quidditch career, he had always been a high flyer, but this morning, with his eyes closed, he flipped the paradigm. Plunging down to an altitude of no more than twenty feet, he turned his blind face upwards and scanned the hemisphere that had once been featureless.

Not anymore! He grinned at as he almost immediately detected what appeared to his senses as a bright flickery star — almost due northeast of his current position, and about sixty feet up.

Harry raced, parallel to the ground, until he was almost immediately below the flicker, which had been growing steadily more intense as he approached. From below, he began tentatively elevating himself, studying the object carefully with his mind as he tried to guess when Teri's proximity-dependent charms would take effect, so that he could respond to the resulting rapid or erratic motions.

And that was when Harry realized something... interesting...

In watching the magical signature of the Snitch, he discovered that its rapid flickering pattern was not random! If the object was motionless, or moving in a constant direction, the aura Harry detected was almost a perfect little yellow dot. However, when the Snitch was about to change direction or accelerate, it would invariably give off a little spark, as if the Snitch was in the process of casting its own little spells (which, in fact, it very likely was).

As he slowly honed in on the Snitch, he studied it in fascination — twinkle — left turn — sparkle — a little jump upwards — glimmer — short plunge back downwards...

Flash!

The Snitch was in near-freefall. Harry realized that he must have approached closely enough to trigger Teri's Descendo spell. Luckily, having positioned almost immediately beneath the golden ball, he was neatly situated to simply reach out his hand and...

The Snitch flashed again, sending it into random gyrations, but Harry was too close and too quick. In a fraction of a second his left thumb and middle finger clamped around its squirmy little body and it surrendered.

Harry opened his eyes.

Teri was flying toward him, wide-eyed. "Seven minutes, Mr. Harry!" she exclaimed. "Why didn't you play like that against Luxembourg?!"

Harry smiled. "Very simple reason, Sugar Plum. Only today, after all these years, have I actually started learning how to become a real Seeker."

"So, I'm thinking that you seemed a bit disappointed with today's meeting?" Ginny surmised as she carried two mugs of butterbeer over to the chesterfield, where Harry was frowning at some parchments.

Harry put the parchments aside and stared blankly at a Potter crest of arms tapestry that they had hung in their sitting room last fall. He pursed his lips. "No, not exactly disappointed," he replied. "Perhaps it was more 'antsy'. Any meeting where the major discussion topic is the legality of creating a Bocio just doesn't much feel like progress to me."

"We've had one solid month with no known incidents," Ginny remarked offhandedly as she took a seat, and handed Harry his full mug.

"Yes, I'm not allowed to complain about that," Harry admitted, "but we've gone almost as long without new ideas on the case, and I can't quite imagine TwitchyBitch taking a whole month off to sun herself in Saint-Tropez."

"Patience," Ginny gently exhorted as her hand crept into his hair, massaging the back of his head. "You know with absolute conviction that Hermione and Ryan and going to find out wild and wacky things about Bocio magic now that we know there's no real barrier to them making one. And..." she reached over to the table bordering the back of the chesterfield, "you got an owl this morning from DMLE Incarcerations Department."

"Oh?" Harry's eyes widened as he accepted the scroll.


Professor H.J. Potter,
Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry

February 20, 1998

Dear Professor Potter,

By receipt of this message, please note that your request for visitation of Mr. Theodore Nott, Sr. at our Azkaban Maximum Security Detention Center (AMSDC) has been approved.

In light of our new security detail, we have instituted rigid scheduling protocols for all visitations, thus you and your approved accompanying guests are requested to appear for screening at the Azkaban Guest Welcoming Office no later than:

8:15 a.m., Thursday, February 26th, 1998

All guests are requested to bring personal wand(s) for identification purposes, although please be advised that these wands will be securely retained in the Welcoming Office, during the time in which you are visiting with any inmates.

We wish you a safe and pleasant visit, and look forward to meeting you at the appointed time.

Sincerely,

M. Cattermole

P.S. If you have any questions regarding this visit, regarding AMSDC visitor policies and procedures, or related issues, please direct them to my attention.


"Hmmm... Accompanying guests — plural?" Ginny mused as she read the note from her vantage point, nestled into Harry's shoulder.

"Ah yes, of course!" Harry replied distractedly. "I included your name on the form in case you, er, wanted to come?"

"Of course I'll come!" Ginny proclaimed.

"Are you sure?" Harry asked. "There are no Dementors there anymore, but the walls are still completely saturated with their essence."

"Dementors, pah!" Ginny replied. "I'd eat Dementor fillets for mid-morning snack!"

Harry raised an eyebrow as he scrutinized his petite yet defiant fianceé. Nah," he deadpanned. "Too high in saturated fats."

Back to index


Chapter 11: Smoke Behind the Glass

Author's Notes:

Astute readers will notice that the time has come to fulfill the award to the 'Inspiration Challenge' (as won by loyal reader, Aimless).

Anyway, my desire to fulfill that promise was clear motivation to borrow a bit of time from writing Splinters, and keep this story moving. Trix is actually the easier story to compose by a long shot (nice linear plot tends to write itself), but it's hard to compete with the boisterous response Splinters has gotten. Ah well.

That said, however, I'd like to extend a huge thanks to the many readers who nominated Trix for a Best Comedy trinket -- that certainly felt nice. This chapter is less comedic than some, but it should be fairly obvious that some humourous sequences must be coming up in Chapter 12.

Anyway, hope you all enjoy it.


Chapter 11. Smoke Behind the Glass (Feb. 23-24, 1998)


"My dear witches and Gentlewizards, this is Richard Auclair welcoming you to what, we're hoping, will be another lively Monday evening of brilliant Quidditch entertainment. I'm joined by our illustrious sporting analyst, Septimo Aurrera, and the two of us are gazing out toward Wigtown Bay and a view of... well, what can you see, Sept?"

"Eh, well not very much, Richard, due all the fog and drizzle that rolled in from the sea this afternoon. Our guests, that very intriguing exhibition team known as The Great Zabini Flying Circus, have just taken to the skies here at Bladnoch Park, but I can barely recognize any of them out in these conditions."

"The sellout crowd in attendance is still buzzing in anticipation, though. Given the reduced visibility, do you reckon they'll have a chance to watch the match they're all so anxious for?"

"Good question, Rich. The new match safety regulations ushered in by the Department of Magical Games and Sports in November requires that some basic visibility tests be passed before the Marshall agrees to release the Snitch. As I understand it, we should know the results of those tests in about ten minutes."

"Good to know, Sept. Maybe we can take the intervening time to update our listeners on what to expect from the two squads scheduled to do battle tonight?"

"Absolutely! So, Rich, what would you say is the biggest story surrounding the Wigtown Wanderers this month?"

"Errrm, should I say the recent selection of Blythe Parkin as the starting Seeker for Scotland's National Squad for next summer's Quidditch World Cup?"

"Not a bad choice, but I'd suggest something more basic."

"And what would that be, Sept?"

"I would say Wigtown's recent turnaround. True, winning two out of their last five matches would hardly seem like a great phoenix-like rebirth from the ashes, but from a squad that lost every one of its first eight contests of the season, I'd say it's really quite noteworthy."

"Yes, I'd have to agree with you! After such a miserable autumn, the Wanderers have indeed started to show some life, and with their last victory over Wimbourne Wasps, they've moved out of their tie with the Falmouth Falcons for the bottom of the British Irish League standings."

"That's all true Rich, but I think the most telling sign is not their two victories, but one very interesting recent loss."

"Against Montrose, perhaps?"

"Brilliant! Yes indeed, Rich, I was most impressed to see how this undermatched cellar-dwelling squad dogged the second-ranked Magpies all match. It was a short contest of course — Blythe Parkin and Lennox Campbell facing off against each other in fine weather is rarely a grand opportunity to really test the Chasers and Beaters, but even so, many of us were shocked to see Wigtown trailing by a mere ten points when Campbell muscled past Parkin for the Snitch."

"So Sept, you almost might be implying that Wigtown has momentum going into this evening's outing?"

"Yes, I honestly do believe that... but I don't think it's going to carry them tonight. Wigtown is facing a squad that has never yet lost, even though they've played a diverse selection of challenging opponents. Furthermore, The Flying Circus is a group that, in spite of, or perhaps because of, their idiosyncrasies, seems to find unusual ways to win."

"Heh heh. Like flying four Chasers?"

"Oh yes Rich, that certainly earned them notoriety in eking out a victory a couple of weeks ago against the Luxembourg National Junior Squad. Personally, I don't think they'll need anything quite so rum tonight though. Wigtown's Pucey, Farley and Lavoisier seem to have learned a recent few lessons cohesive teamwork, but if The Flying Circus shows up tonight playing the same kind of artful coordination that they displayed against Skegness, and if the match lasts less than ninety minutes, I shamelessly predict that Weasley, Zabini and Summerby will collectively outscore their Wigtown Chaser counterparts."

"Whoa, whoa, Septimo! Are you seriously sticking your neck out to say that a group of school-aged amateurs is going to outclass the front line of a Premier League squad?"

"I am, Rich. I've now seen all of the position players in enough live action to make some bold predictions. Interestingly, the two squads are fairly similar in a lot of ways, but it's their differences that, er, well, make the difference."

"I think you've lost me on that Sept. Would you care to elaborate?"

"Sure. Let's start by looking at what's comparable between the two groups. Beater play, for starters, could be a wash tonight. Adi Saari is a legitimate all star and is Wigtown's best all-around athlete, but Anthony Rickett is a fair bit weaker and the two haven't yet learned to coordinate very well. Meanwhile for The Circus, the Weasley twins are skilled and work well together, so I'd say it all roughly cancels out. Looking at Chasers, I would estimate that Farley, Lavoisier, Zabini and Summerby are all in roughly the same class. However, if you consider each squad's primary scoring options, all of that parity goes out the window — Weasley is head and shoulders above Pucey. And then, when you factor in the keepers, you have another real edge for The Circus. Wigtown's Dell'Acqua has been playing a fair bit better recently than his record suggests, but even on a sharp night, Dell'Acqua doesn't quite match Grant Page."

"So, the keys to tonight's match, Sept?"

"Well, if everyone plays roughly to their abilities, and as long as The Flying Circus gets Ginny Weasley some good shots on goal, Zabini's crew should rack up a decent lead with the Quaffle. The only question mark is who gets to the Snitch, and how quickly. Personally, I..."

"Sorry to interrupt, Sept, but I've just received word from officials that the match will proceed! Visibility is quite poor, but not bad enough to send everyone trudging home in disappointment. The players are all completing their warmups, and we're now expecting the Snitch to be released in five minutes."

"Outstanding! By the sounds of the big cheer from the grandstands, most of our spectators are every bit as excited as we are to hear that! A moment ago I wasn't sure how The Flying Circus would respond, since wet conditions can disrupt a smooth passing game and will obviously make it harder to find the Snitch, but look at them, Rich — they're smiling just as brightly as everyone else!"





Ginny grinned as she fired the Quaffle hard to Zabini... but the grin faltered as he bobbled it. Zabini was able to stretch wide and reel it in, but Ginny was unaccustomed to seeing her reliably sure-handed team mate fumble yet again. She wiped her pasty forehead with her sleeve and cursed silently to herself. The weather was clearly going to shake things up.

Hearing the Marshall's two-minute whistle, she pulled back on her broom handle and began to make her descent — only to see her path blocked by a figure cloaked in red and grey. Above the colourful robes (which admittedly looked rather muted in the gloom) she recognized a familiar face — former Slytherin Chaser Adrian Pucey.

As Ginny approached him, she was uncertain whether or not to smile. Pucey had always played clean Quidditch and had never associated closely with his more thuggish team mates at Hogwarts, but on and off the pitch he had always seemed aloof and unapproachable. Nonetheless, at this very moment he was right in her path, and seemed in no mood to steer clear. So, with a mental shrug, Ginny offered a tentative smile and extended her hand

Surprisingly, he reciprocated. Their hands, rather clammy from the mist, clasped firmly and the young man smiled. "Good to see you again, Weasley. Welcome to Wigtown!" He paused for a moment. "You know, I'll really hand it to you. What you're doing here — it's a good thing."

"A good thing?" Ginny blinked at him. "Playing Quidditch??"

Pucey shook his head. "Not exactly. After all of those famous exploits last fall, a lot of people — myself included to be honest — expected you and Potter to turn your backs on everyone. Rich, famous, admired — a lot of us assumed you'd retreat into the safety some Ministry of Magic ivory tower to gaze down on the lowly masses. Not many people ever thought they'd see you mucking about in the wild fringes of Wigtown on the crappiest night of the year, just to entertain people."

"Ah..." Ginny gave him a quizzical look. "And you did say this was a good thing, right?"

"Sure! Consider all the folks who stayed on the fence throughout the war — to them, seeing you as plucky upstarts trying to put the hostilities to rest and make a go of Quidditch suddenly makes you look like real flesh and blood. To them, you've got a personality now; you seem a lot more human than the Dark Lord ever did."

"Oh? I can't say I ever thought of that..." Ginny met his eyes thoughtfully and nodded. "That's very kind of you to say — thank you Adrian!"

Her opponent smirked. "Of course, you'll seem a lot more human yet if you lose tonight."

Ginny laughed, gave him a friendly wave and flew off. All of the recent time spent sparring with Zabini had taught her not just about Chaser strategy, but also a lot about Slytherin psychology. In particular, she'd figured out that the only way most Slytherins could endure complimenting a non-Slytherin was by following it with something snide. And Ginny could handle that.





Harry scowled as the greased-pig of a Quaffle squirted out of Summerby's hands, setting off yet another merry chase as the slippery red projectile plummeted down toward the pitch.

The officials may have decided it was okay to proceed with the match, but Quidditch connoisseurs were surely starting to question whether it was worth it. The quality of play tonight was sure as hell not going to inspire Vangelis to compose a throbbing, heart-strung commemorative fantasia. Perhaps a requiem, though...

Harry mopped his face with a soggy sleeve, grumbled a bit, then soldiered on. By all rights, he knew he shouldn't complain. He was aware, for instance, that a damp Snitch (if he ever saw it) would probably be easier to catch than the sopping wet Quaffle. He also knew that the conditions were every bit as exasperating to the Wanderers as they were to The Circus. Indeed, by dint of a couple choice interceptions and a trio of Ginny's end-to-end slalom runs (i.e., plays that didn't require anyone to attempt, and presumably drop, any passes), The Circus had actually managed to scrape together a 50-20 lead over the first forty minutes.

Yes, all of that was fine. What bothered Harry was that he had been completely fired up to try a completely new strategy tonight, only to encounter match conditions that thwarted him at every step.

Simply put, Harry's successful experiment with Teri the previous Saturday had inspired him to try flying below the Snitch tonight. In such thick fog and the glaring stadium lights, his magical perception of a Snitch against the featureless open sky ought to give him a rare advantage over Parkin. Unfortunately, the combination of high altitude fog and the constantly Quaffle-bobbling had conspired to drive all of the action right down to the low-altitude level that would have worked best for carrying out his Snitch search. In a chaotic match like tonight's, any Seeker trying to fly down there would spend the entire time ducking Bludgers and dodging wayward Chasers and Beaters.

Unfortunately that left him with no good options. Flying standard search patterns about thirty feet above the action, he alternated between gazing wistfully upwards, and helplessly downwards. The first option afforded him the barest, most ephemeral of hopes — sure he would spot the Snitch with fair ease if it ever flew that high, but statistics that Ron had recently compiled for him showed that almost no Snitches caught in professional or international play were ever caught more than fifteen feet above goal level. Yet if anything, the downward search was even more futile. Reduced to a purely visual scanning, how could he expect to spot a walnut-sized Snitch through the fog if he could barely recognize the eighteen stone Beater Adi Saari?

As a result, Harry felt rather like the butt of an old Muggle joke that Colin Creevey had told him last fall over Butterbeer in the inter-house commons.



Colin: Hi! Hi Harry! Did you ever hear the one about the lush searching for his keys in the pub?

Harry: Er, no...

Colin: So this bloke was sitting in the pub with his mates on a cold winter night. He'd be hoisting a few pints, laughing and carrying on... but every so often, he'd get all serious and totter over to the hearth, poke around on the floor or in the wood pile. Then he'd sigh and go back to the revelry.

The third time he does this, the barkeep comes over and says, "Oi guv. 'Av ye lost summat?"

Lush gives a wobbly nod and says, "Aye mate. E'v lost me keys."

Barkeep frowns and asks, "Ye lost 'em o'er near't fire?"

Lush shakes his head. "Nae, nae mate. Eh lost em oot in t'snow."

Barkeep stares at him and asks, "Then, why ar'n' ye lookin' outside?"

Lush shrugs. "Tae cold."

Barkeep stares some more. "But ye ar'n' goin't find an'thing in 'ere!"

Lush hoists his mug, and says, "Listen mate, af'r nine pints o' bitters, eh'm not bluddy likely tae find nuffin' ootside neither!"

Harry: Heh heh — good one Colin.

Colin: Hey! Hey everyone, did you hear that? Harry likes my joke!



Indeed, in his high vantage point, Harry's search felt just as senseless as the lush's. Unfortunately, unlike the lush, he was not warm, he was not merry, and he certainly wasn't holding a mug of frothy pleasure. His mounting frustration was somewhat assuaged by one thing, and one thing alone — the apparent fact that Blythe Parkin's game plan seemed to be failing just as miserably as his was.

For now, anyway.

Every time Harry glanced toward his illustrious opponent, he reminded himself that she would never have become one of the best Seekers in Britain if she wasn't creative. He knew that she was eventually going to find some unconventional way to defeat the fog and nab that Snitch... unless he managed to do it first.

Harry turned his focus to the Quaffle action, debating once again whether he could possibly chance prowling around close to pitch-level. Would he get a good enough look at the skies to justify the constant risk of being injured or knocked out by the endless series of wayward Chasers, or by one of the erratically flying Bludgers?

On that thought Harry's downward gaze latched, for the first time all match, onto a rather interesting Beater battle...





Fred was not particularly satisfied with the sloppy match, but he could at least take some pride in knowing that there were probably Quidditch strategists from all across the British Irish Premier League watching to see how their 'aimless gambit ' turned out. Variants of this tactic, which mainly involved blithely turning loose one opposing Beater and one Bludger in order to focus on the other Beater (presumably a stronger or more skilled player) was fairly common in casual backyard Quidditch play, but semi-serious professional squads very rarely dared try it, since even a marginal opposing Beater could take our your star Chaser quickly enough.

Unless, of course, you have a trick up your sleeve...

With the help of their younger brother Ron, the twins had figured out what nobody else seemed to have — that one could set Anthony Rickett loose with a Bludger all night and incur surprisingly little risk. The key was to be able to dictate where Rickett was able to play

The twins' gambit was simple. In order to exploit Anthony Rickett's left-handed batting inaccuracy, all either Fred or George would need to do at the start of each play was to figure out which Bludger Adi Saari would corner, get ahold of the other one, and drive it down-pitch, hard and to the left. That would invariable send Rickett off to chase the wayward Bludger, leaving the twins to direct their attention to harrying Saari.

The intent of the tactic was obvious, it was humiliating, and Rickett, needless to say, was not particularly amused... but neither had he figured out how to cope with it. From the advice of every coach and mentor he'd ever had, it was obvious that Rickett couldn't abandon the loose Bludger, but the outcome was invariable frustration. More often than not, he would either end up taking a wild, futile left-handed swing at the Bludger — a swing made even wilder by the moisture that was making bat handling trickier than usual. In the remaining cases, he would try to fly around to the far side of the Bludger, but this had expended precious time, letting the action pass too far down pitch to plausibly disrupt anything.

Yet, however adept the twins had become at this infuriating ploy, it couldn't work every time. Fred had just set his sights on cornering the loose Bludger, when suddenly, he saw a flash of red — Quaffle red — plummet between himself and the Bludger. A torrent of Chasers followed in mad pursuit. When the air cleared (figuratively of course; the fog was as thick as ever) suddenly all four Beaters and both Bludgers suddenly found themselves swept together into a state of utter pandemonium. Amongst a flailing of bats, Saari and the twins ended up scrabbling for control of one Bludger leaving Rickett, for the first time all match, in the middle of the field, unmolested, and in possession of one of the two iron balls.

To further sweeten the deal for Rickett, he could actually look across at an unencumbered, strong side shot at The Flying Circus's leading scorer, who had just cornered the loose Quaffle and was launching herself away toward the Wigtown goal.

As he pulled his bat back, Rickett could practically taste vindication...

Still half-tangled with Saari, Fred had the sudden sense that something was distinctly wrong. He glanced over his shoulder, and saw the look of gloating hunger in Rickett's eyes...

Fred knew instinctively exactly what that look meant.

For the past two months of practices and matches, the twins had forced themselves to treat Ginny as just another team mate. They had balanced their praise with ample amounts of needling. They had protected her, but not really any more than they had defended Harry, Zabini and Summerby. But at this moment, reflected in the gleam of an opponent's eye, Fred saw not his team mate but his baby sister... and his baby sister was flying through the air with her back turned to a vicious assailant.

Without the barest consideration of consequence, Fred yanked his bat out of Saari's armpit, stretched out as far as possible and, with a strength he didn't know he had, windmilled the heavy slab of polished wood.

Having lined up his shot, Rickett launched the Bludger... just as Fred clubbed down across his bat, striking right at the top of the handle.

CRAAAAAACKKK!!!

Rickett's shattered bat sent the Bludger careening off harmlessly down toward the ground.

Chunks of wood careened as well... not so harmlessly...

KLOMMPHH!

Rickett's Beater partner, Adi Saari, lurched back in a spray of fine mist.

A fine red mist...





"Oi!"

"Shite! Oh whew! Weasley — George — caught him! And there's the whistle."

"Dear listeners, our apologies for the garbled commentary, but there was a bit of a situation just now. Sept, can you fill in our listeners while I listen for updates from the field?"

"Certainly Rich. Immediately following Ginny Weasley's recovery of Summerby's dropped Quaffle, there was a wild convergence of all four Beaters and both Bludgers just up-pitch from the play. In the chaos, it appeared that The Flying Circus's Fred Weasley lashed out wildly and shattered the bat of Wigtown Beater Anthony Rickett, with the broad side of the broken bat striking Wigtown's Adi Saari in the face. George Weasley is currently escorting Saari toward the medic tent."

"Sept, the official ruling is intentional Shwacking by Fred Weasley. As an intentional foul, Wigtown will be awarded a penalty shot, and will take possession of the Quaffle after the shot."

"To be taken by Adrian Pucey, I assume. Rich, do you have any word from the medic tent?"

"Something is just coming through now, Sept. One moment... okay good. Saari's broken nose is mending well — he should be available to return following the penalty shot."

"Great! And speaking of the penalty shot, I now see Pucey wheeling about the center of the pitch, preparing to close in on Grant Page in The Flying Circus goal."





Harry glanced briefly at Pucey, but it was his own team mates that he was most interested in. The three Chasers were all clustered near where Ginny had stopped when the whistle had sounded. Fred seemed to be making his way toward the medic tent, but Harry waved frantically, catching his attention, and directing him back toward the Chasers.

As Harry collected his friends together, Zabini was watching the play unfold on the other side of the pitch. The Slytherin winced, then exhaled. "Okay mates, that makes it 50-30."

Fred stirred uncomfortably. "Sorry about that, I..."

"No worries," Harry cut him off. "Listen, there's a two minute officials time out before Saari is released and we need to use it wisely. I'd like to ask you to restructure your play patterns."

Zabini blinked in surprise. "Eh? What did you have in mind?"

Harry singled out Fred. "Hey, can you get with George as soon as he's out of the tent? Make a plan to clear everyone of the mid-pitch area about twenty feet below goal-level. You're going to need to dictate the Bludger play for five to ten minutes, but I'm betting Saari will be playing a bit tentatively for a little while after that knock, so we have a window of opportunity. Can you pull it off?"

Fred nodded unquestioningly.

Harry turned to the three Chasers. "Please pass as little as possible, mates. Get Ginny the Quaffle and let her improvise. Oh, and Ginny — go ahead and try to score, but don't be in a big hurry, okay?"

Ginny grinned and gave Harry a thumbs up.

Seeing the second twin exit the medic tent, Harry turned to summon George, then continued. "Here's my last request — while Wigtown has the Quaffle, slow them down and make them work every possession. Force them to carry it, get in their faces but don't play for steals. Clog up the passing lanes. Don't double team."

Zabini regarded him skeptically. "It's against my better judgment to ever take strategy from a Seeker, but... okay. This bloody well better work Potter!"

Harry grinned. "It will Blaise. Thank you everyone!"





Despite an unrelenting drizzle, the spirits in the guest section of the grandstands had never dampened. Smiles and jokes abounded, albeit joined by a chorus of groans every time one of The Circus Chasers dropped the Quaffle. Around the periphery of the ever-growing fan contingent for Zabini's squad tonight, however, were four individuals whose sombre, watchful demeanours did not quite blend in.

As the clock above the large scoreboard turned its hands to 8:45 p.m., by standard protocol, Ryan Jenkins glanced over at Neville Longbottom and noted Neville's left hand. Neville's fingers were curled together subtly; a practised eye would read that as the common sign language signal for 'zero'. A glance over at Terry Boot indicated the same. Finally, Ryan gazed over at his girlfriend, Jennifer King. Zero there too.

All was well.

Ryan was about to return his scrutiny toward the upper left region of the visitors' section when, out of the corner of his eye, he saw Jennifer's hand flinch. His eyes flashed back to her, and saw that her fingers had suddenly spread out flat, with her palm down.

The universal sign for 'Hey!'

Ryan's gaze followed Jennifer's eyes toward the steps below the left side of guest section... to where a young wizard in a green anorak was jostling his way through a stream of spectators returning to their seats from a brief visit to the concession stands.

Instinctively, Ryan studied the young wizard's face, studied his eyes, and followed their focus up to the front of the visitors' seats... to Tracey Davis.

Ryan spread his fingers flat, and waggled his hand slightly to alert Neville and Terry. Then, as subtly as possible, he began to make his way toward the steps.





"Our fourteen stalwart athletes have once again taken to the skies, dear witches and gentlewizards. Wigtown's star Beater, Adi Saari still appears a bit shaky, but he is nonetheless back in the air, placing himself bravely in the path between the Weasley twins and the Wigtown Chasers."

"Yes Rich — Adi is a tough customer. He's has only missed twenty minutes of action in the past two seasons. Wigtown occasionally substitutes for Rickett, but Saari very rarely rides the bench."

"Farley is bringing up the Quaffle for Wigtown, and I would expect... well hello there! What do you make of this, Sept?"

"I, er, well, it would appear that The Flying Circus has opted to shake up their defensive formations a bit. I did notice most of The Circus banding together in a tight huddle during the timeout. They must have seen some reason to alter their strategies."

"That's a strange development, Sept! It seemed to me that The Circus had done an exemplary job of defending against Wigtown's Chasers all throughout the first forty odd minutes, forcing a seemingly endless series of risky passes. Why, all of a sudden, would they start to block off all of the passing lanes?"

"Yes, I'm wondering the same thing, Rich. In this new approach, the Circus Chasers have completely marginalized Pucey and Lavoisier, and are forcing Farley to lock onto the Quaffle."

"Well, perhaps after a minute or two we'll know better what they hope to..."

"Bludger! Close call for Farley. She lurches upwards to avoid Fred Weasley's warning shot — it whistled mere inches past the Wigtown Chaser's knee."

"Ouch! George Weasley spun the same Bludger straight back at Farley, catching her on the shin this time. Wigtown Chasers had better take note — The Circus Beaters are dominating the Bludgers right now, and it's not safe to be handling the Quaffle anywhere in their vicinity."

"No question about it Rich — Farley's feeling the heat right now! She keeps looking for a way out, but she still has nobody to pass off to. Zabini, Summerby and Ginny Weasley are in there, blocking off any pass to the left, right and below the play. She has no option but to drift higher... she's already practically up into the fog bank."

"Hey Sept — look where Potter is all of a sudden."

"Aha! Right you are, Rich! Do you suppose it's a coincidence we now find him flying way down there beneath the action?"





In Quidditch, the Seeker position is generally the loneliest. Most seekers typically spend the match avoiding everyone else, in solitary pursuit of an object that none of the Chasers, Beaters or Keepers are particularly interested in. Among Seekers, however, Harry was almost certainly one of the least lonely. In match after match, he had always found the nearly constant companionship... of opposing Seekers. It seemed inevitable that his counterpart would, to varying degrees of nuisance, tail him throughout the match, giving him plenty of opportunity to become familiar — sometimes very familiar — with his competitors.

Until tonight.

As a talented professional, Blythe Parkin had flown her own patterns and paid Harry very little attention all match.

Until now.

After the injury time out, as Harry gratefully established himself in the newly formed low-altitude hole and began to carefully survey the skies above for the Snitch signature, he couldn't help but notice his opponent giving him suspicious glances. Harry knew what those glances meant — clearly his advantage would be temporary. If he wanted to exploit it, he would need to work quickly!

Even though his team mates had cleared Harry a fair-sized bubble of peace, he still didn't quite dare to completely close his eyes. A Quaffle play could shift or disintegrate quickly, and who knows what could come thundering through his space with bare seconds notice.

Fortunately, Harry had trained his perception fairly well. Even with his eyes open he could, with concentration, push the visual input deep into the background. In his mind, the sky became a grey canvas, smeared with the occasional flashes — comet-like smears of magic as one of the players crossed; smaller meteors corresponding to the Bludgers. Those, he forced himself to ignore. All he cared about was the flickery twinkling of the Snitch.

As Harry partitioned the fog bank above into strips and swept them with a determination that blended focus and urgency, he became aware of two distracting non-Snitch signals competing for his attention. One was half-expected — Harry sensed a magical signature something akin to an orange glow beaming down on him obliquely from the direction of the Wigtown Seeker as she bent her attention away from her own Snitch hunt and onto her enigmatic opponent. However, the second sensation baffled Harry.

The second distraction emanated from somewhere over in the grandstands. In it, Harry felt a penetrating coldness, completely unlike any magical aura he had ever experienced — completely inhuman, yet at the same time animate in a way that differed from any charmed object he had ever examined. The sensation droned in his mind like a throbbing contrabass... it demanded his attention... but he had a job to finish!

Luckily, shunting off those distractions, Harry finally spied what he was looking for! About thirty feet up-pitch of the harried Susan Farley was that distinct fluttery glimmer.

Recognizing that he had both a spatial and cognitive jump on Parkin, Harry abandoned any pretence of subtlety and rocketed upwards, straight at the Snitch, still not actually seeing it, but quite convinced he knew where to find it.

Harry could feel Parkin hesitate for a moment (probably wondering whether or not this was a quirky feint) then rocket after him. It was then that he recognized another of his opponent's great strengths. Parkin — a small witch, weighing nearly four stones less than Harry but riding a powerful broom — was fast! Despite his head start, the Wigtown Seeker was quickly gaining.

With roughly a hundred feet left to the Snitch, the biggest question in Harry's mind was whether Parkin had now actually seen the Snitch, or whether she was still merely following him. Experimentally, Harry angled himself a bit to the left of the Snitch.

Parkin adjusted.

Harry grinned. Gotcha Parkin! He shifted his path yet again, pointing himself directly toward Claude Lavoisier who, until a few seconds ago, had been trailing the Quaffle, seeking any clear channel to receive a pass.

The Wigtown Chaser froze at the sight of two Seekers tearing towards him like two fiery missiles, turning himself into an unwitting obstacle.

Close enough that Harry could practically smell the fear bleeding off Lavoisier, he lurched down in a sharp arc to avoid the hapless Chaser. For a brief moment, Harry's sharp trajectory placed Lavoisier in a perfect eclipse position relative to Parkin; in that instant, Harry veered hard right.

A split-second later, Parkin cleared Lavoisier and saw everything in vivid, ignominious clarity.

She was heading left.

The snitch, now visible despite the fog, was nearly twenty feet to her right.

So was Harry's hand.





"Oh my, Rich — brilliant move by Potter!"

"Wow! That's the match, dear listeners! In a series of spine-rattling gyrations, the much-celebrated Harry Potter has just outdueled one of the British-Irish Premier league's finest young Seekers to deliver victory to The Great Zabini Flying Circus over the Wigtown Wanderers."

"I must say, I can't imagine more than two or three Seekers in the whole league being able to pull off a maneuver like that but... eh, now what's going on? Where's he...?That doesn't look particularly celebratory..."

"Indeed Sept. Potter still has the Snitch in hand, but he's streaking off across the pitch toward..."

"There Rich! It's some sort of disturbance in the south stands!"





Ryan knew that security within Bladnoch Park would be good, that everyone within one seating section of the visitors' block would have been swept by a dark detector, and that there should be a dozen Hit Wizards within spell casting distance. Conversely, Ryan also knew that no DMLE law enforcement officer was paying any more attention to Tracey Davis than to anyone else among the hundred or so people in the guest section.

Fortunately Harry had assessed things differently.

Ryan knew that Harry would have greatly appreciated it if Tracey had stayed at the castle where things were a lot safer. However, the girl had a legal right to be here tonight, and she had stubbornly insisted on exercising that right. Consequently, Harry had been forced to come up with precautions.

Or, more accurately, Harry had been forced to ask some of his star students to devise some precautions.

Right now, those precautions entailed Ryan hauling out his wand and breaking into a run.

Some russet-headed people (distant Weasley cousins, Ryan guessed off-handedly) shrieked and hit the deck as he leaped over their seats.

He winced inwardly as his boot made landed on something a lot softer and knobblier than wood... probably someone's hand (ouch — sorry! ) but there was no time for a proper apology, because...

The suspect had jostled his way to within twenty feet of his target!




Catching a bit of motion out of the corner of her eye, Tracey glanced away from the mid-air celebration of Flying Circus players. The smile melted off her face as her gaze sifted through the montage of humanity and she set eyes upon... the last person on the planet she ever wanted to meet again.

Tracey somehow recognized him, even though he was in yet another disguise; even though he had a very bizarre expression on his face — what with the spaced-out eyes, the oddly puffed-up cheeks...

And then there was that strange tube sticking out of his mouth.

Bloody hell — is the idiot trying to spit on me??




The instant that Ryan saw the blow tube, a flash of adrenaline surged through his veins. Two rapid pump strides, and he leaped!

As he flew through the air several feet above the hardwood steps, Ryan saw the suspect's dispassionate eyes staring vacantly through him.

Ryan felt a small tug on his vest — a little tap as if colliding with a honey bee — and knew instantly that his duty was done.

His eyes turned toward the steep, infelicitous steps rising rapidly up to meet him.

Now comes the hard part!





Harry grimaced as he mentally projected his favourite student's trajectory. Ryan's classmates had joked frequently about how the Slytherin always tried to emulate Harry Potter, but this was ridiculous!

Fortunately, over the past year, Harry had learned a fair bit about levitating and cushioning spells. He was vaguely aware that the power signature required to save someone from a head-first plunge down steep hard steps was not the same as catching someone falling vertically from a broomstick, but he had no time to consider magical or physical theories. With only pure instinct to guide him, he lifted his hand and pushed out a bright pulse of energy...

And Ryan bounced, bobbed, then came to rest on the landing.

Harry tipped his broom down and clattered to a halt beside Ryan. He was about to check for injuries, when he heard the shouts of nearby confusion. He glanced down the steps and saw Tonks and Jennifer King wrestling with some unknown wizard. Jennifer had her arms around the man's shoulders, but his hands were still flailing about, brandishing something sharp. Tonks's hand darted out, catching the wizard's wrist in a fierce grip, trying to stop him from...

Stabbing himself??

Bewildered by the frenzy, Harry was about to unleash a stunner, when he heard Ginny's voice from up above. "Expelliarmus! "

The moment the small, dart-like object flew out of his hand, the wizard slumped despondently against Jennifer. Tonks rushed to stabilize him, and the two witches lowered him to a sitting position as Ginny landed and retrieved the discarded dart.

Satisfied that the emergency was over, Harry exhaled and turned to his student.

Ryan, meanwhile, had sat up to watch the scuffle and was now grinning. He opened his mouth to say something, but suddenly remembered something. He glanced down at his chest, scanned for a moment, and pulled out the dart that had struck him.

Harry gasped. "Ryan, is that...?!"

"Tetrodotoxin?" Ryan shrugged. "Maybe, but don't worry — it didn't poke me. I was wearing a Kelvar vest.

Harry laughed. "Leave it to a purebred Slytherin to bring Muggle law enforcement artifacts to Quidditch match! I suppose you have hand cuffs too?"

"Er, well..." Ryan discreetly pulled aside his cloak to reveal a hint of chromed chain. "DMLE security scans don't pick these things up."

"That figures." Harry nodded with pursed lips. "Same thing goes for the assailant's weapon of choice, I assume."

Ryan nodded.

"Well, I guess we ought to factor that into our preparation..." Harry helped Ryan to his feet. "Anyway, let's see if Jennifer, Tonks and Ginny have found out anything about the assailant."





"Well, my charming witches and wizards, I would be lying if I told you I really knew what just happened in the south stands, but at least I can tell you that, fresh off his winning Snitch-catch, Harry Potter raced into the audience to catch a spectator who might otherwise have taken a horrendous tumble down the steps. Meanwhile Potter's fiancée, Ginny Weasley, helped to apprehend a suspicious character nearby."

"Strange events indeed, Rich! You and I have certainly seen some unusual happenstance at Quidditch matches in our day, but I don't ever recall watching two stars, fresh from producing more than 80% of the evening's scoring, suddenly dash to the stands to save lives and fight crime!"

"Well Sept, consider who we're talking about. I doubt that many of our listening audience need reminding that there is more to Harry Potter than the mild-mannered young professor by day; amateur Seeker by night."

"Agreed Rich! Yet however unlikely it is that we will ever learn all there is to know about the mysterious hero and his remarkable girlfriend, perhaps our patient listeners may have a few of their many questions answered if we transfer our Wizarding Wireless Network coverage down to pitch-level to hear some live interviews of some of the stars of tonight's match."

"Brilliant plan! In the mean time, however, this is Richard Auclair and Septimo Aurrera bidding you good night from Wigtown's Bladnoch Field, where The Great Zabini Flying Circus has defeated the home town Wanderers by a final score of 200 to 30."





"Adrian Fenetre, Daily Prophet. I have a question for Mr. Potter and Miss Weasley."

Harry nodded his assent to the gaunt, grim-looking reporter.

"I was wondering if you two could please comment on the incident in the south stands? What exactly happened over there, and why did you feel the need to intercede?"

Ginny rolled her eyes and stepped forward. "I'm afraid, Mr. Fenetre, that our clearance to discuss the incident is the same as it was two minutes ago when the last person asked about it." She raised her voice. "Please listen everyone — we can tell you that the Hit Wizard office has taken a suspect into custody and that they believe there are no imminent threats to anyone else here tonight, but that's all! Any further questions of this nature should be directed to the Department of Magical Law Enforcement."

Harry nodded. "Thanks Ginny. Now, does anyone have any more Quidditch questions please?"

"Mr. Potter, why did you decide to fly so low after the last time out?"

Harry looked around and his eyes settled on an athletic-looking witch he couldn't quite place. "Sorry madam, I didn't catch your name?"

"Kikus Trecus, Daily Prophet."

"Ah yes, thank you." Harry smiled amiably. "Ms. Trecus, have you ever heard the Muggle joke about the lush looking for his keys in the pub?"

The reporter shook her head.

"Then you might wish to look it up," Harry suggested. "It can make a good analogy."

"Ahem! Luna Lovegood, Special Correspondent, The Quibbler."

Harry grinned. "Hey Luna — so glad you could make it!"

"Mr. Potter, what was I reading when we first met?"

"I, uh... it was the Quibbler, right?"

"Where were you on the evening of June 18, 1996?"

"Luna, er..." Harry shifted uncomfortably. "I don't like to talk about..."

"Umgubular Slashkilters have feelings too. True of false?"

"Sorry, I have no id..."

"Do you deny, Mr. Potter, that you frequently wear purple boxer shorts on Thursday nights?"

"Luna, that's none of your..."

"Thank you so kindly — you've been very helpful!" Luna smiled broadly. Turning on her heel, she strolled away twirling her quill.

Harry gazed bewilderedly at her for a moment, then shivered. "Er, well..." He took several tentative steps toward the lockers. "If there are no more questions, then..."

"Quinticent Marish, Seeker Weekly. I have a question for Mr. Potter?"

"Pah! Who doesn't?"

Harry's eyes widened; he craned his neck from side to side in search of the Blaise Zabini imitator... and his gaze settled on the unmistakable hint a saccharine expression around Ginny's mouth. He chuckled as laughter bubbled up through the crowd, rallying his waning enthusiasm. "Yes, please go ahead Quin."

"Thank you Mr. Potter." An eager smile spread across Marish's face. "So, perhaps not the usual question to ask a Seeker, but what would you consider to be the best catch of the night?"

"You mean apart from the redheaded Chaser with the cute little smirk?"

Marish glanced at Ginny's expression of scandalized innocence. "Er yes, apart from her..."

Harry paused for a moment. "Well, in all due respect to Blythe Parkin, I pulled a trick play on her — one that I very much doubt she'd fall for a second time. So, I'm proud of my Snitch catch, but would prefer not to blow it out of proportion. As far as my little intervention in the stands, I'm certainly glad to have spared my friend what could have been a severe injury... but come to think of it, he's nearly as hard-headed as I am, so who knows what would have happened." Harry shrugged sheepishly. "Sorry, but the best catch of the night wasn't mine, and it's one that I'm allowed to discuss yet..."

"So, you mean apprehending the, uh...? Ahh!" Marish nodded, wide-eyed. "Okay, no more questions, Mr. Potter. Thank you and have a good night!"

"Good night Quin." Harry smiled and locked arms with Ginny as the two began moving in earnest toward the lockers. "Good night everyone — we're all weary, cold and wet, and I'm sure my mates are sick of me droning on. Hope you all have a safe trip home!"

"Pardon me Herr. Potter." A familiar face emerged abruptly from the crowd. "Matthäus Gottschalk, Die Beschwörung."

Harry was rapidly losing steam, but he nonetheless managed a polite nod. "Hello Matthäus. The answer is 'probably not', but we'll re-evaluate to be certain."

The reporter with the thin goatee blinked. "Erm, thank you for the answer Herr. Potter, but what then ist the question?"

"Whether tonight's security breach will cause us to alter our match schedule, of course." Harry shrugged. "We may have to consider additional precautions, but I don't believe this will affect our plans."

"Ah, you are very sharp as always, ya?" Gottschalk waved as they walked away. "Danke sehr, Herr. Potter. Have a nice evening, Fräulein Weasley!"





Making their way past the lone security guard manning the only open screening port, Tonks, Harry and Ginny entered a deathly quiet atrium of the Ministry of Magic building. The tremulous light of dozens of flickering torches made the chamber's focal point, a lone marble obelisk to honour the victims of Voldemort's campaign of terror, appear almost flame-like in itself — an effect that Harry found rather moving.

Ginny's hand found his, and the two of them fell quietly into step behind Tonks.

Although Harry and Ginny may have been feeling pensive, the stirring nocturnal scene moved Tonks very little, as she had experienced it many times before. Rather, she gave her watch a business-like glance. "The Hit Wizards brought him here about an hour and twenty minutes ago. It took them about half an hour to process him. Blood work confirmed that he really is Vincent Crabbe, so kudos to the Spacey kid for being able to ID her man. No progress since then, however."

Tonks punched the lift button a bit more firmly than necessary and stepped through as the door juddered open. "Kingsley has signed off on Veritaserum, but his order didn't specify who was to administer it, so Aurors and Hit Wizards have spent the last forty minutes fighting for jurisdiction."

Harry sighed. "Do we have a resolution?"

"Yeah." Tonks flashed a sardonic grin. "Standard DMLE diplomacy — I hold your thing, you hold mine."

Ginny frowned. "Hold what thing?"

"Oops!" Tonks snickered the lift opened and she strode through it into a brightly lit corridor. "Sorry, I always forget, after all this, that you two are still just impressionable kids. What I should have said is that we'll probably have to get the Hit Wizard interview team together with the Auror interview team, and they'll administer the serum together."

"And when is this likely to occur?" Harry asked.

Tonks shrugged. "Paperwork is on their desks, so mid- to late-morning tomorrow. Do you want to attend? Kingsley signed for your visit tonight without hesitation, so I'm sure he'll agree to another appearance tomorrow."

Harry pursed his lips. "Well, let's see what we learn tonight. Has Crabbe been talking at all?"

Tonks held her wand up to a wall panel to open the pair of solid double doors they'd arrived at. "Nah, he's like a vegetable... almost as if he's been... what's the Muggle term? Turned down?"

"Turned off?" Ginny suggested. "Yes, the instant we disarmed him, he went limp and would barely respond to anything..."

Ginny glanced to her side, to find Harry in deep thought, scowling. She arched up to whisper a question in his ear, but stopped, as they now found themselves standing in front of Crabbe's cell.

Tonks was about to direct her wand toward a panel similar to the one she had signaled earlier for access to the cell block, but before she could do so, the cell door swung upon, courtesy of Auror Williamson who stared at them with silent contempt. She entered the cell, muttering her thanks, and crossed past a tall, pale-looking man in the blue-grey Hit Wizard uniform.

Harry and Ginny followed Tonks into the chamber and made their way toward the heavy-set figure in the green anorak who sat motionlessly on the end of the bench, facing the far wall.

Harry cleared his throat. "Crabbe... we've come to help you."

Williamson and the Hit Wizard glanced at each other; if they were initially surprised at Harry's unexpected tack, it was nothing compared to their shock at what came next — the totally catatonic prisoner stiffened and, ever-so-slowly, turned slightly toward the sound of Harry's voice.

Harry spoke again in a deliberate, measured tone. "I think I know what's been done to you, Crabbe, and we're working on an antidote." Despite Harry's outward calm, internally he was in acute turmoil. The overpowering magical aura emanating from the prisoner felt nothing like the petty malevolence Harry would have recognized as Vincent Crabbe — it was a searing cold hatred, completely mismatched with Crabbe's vacant expression and deadened eyes.

Indeed, Harry was convinced that the body of Crabbe he saw before him truly was... a zombie.

Yet, somewhere within the dominant vacuous reek of evil, Harry's Legilimency probe could detect, like a lone cry for help in a hurricane, the faint, bare essence of a stupid, flawed but imminently still-human youth who, until several months ago, had still been a Hogwarts student.

Extending himself as far as he dared into the frigid gale, Harry reached, reached, reached for the last vestige of humanity...

Crabbe stirred several inches further; the whisps of his soul grappling for the lifeline...

Harry reached slowly for the prisoner's arm...

Crabbe spun around, his eyes wild with terror. "Smoke behind the glass!!! Get away! Potter, don't let... eeeuughhhhh!!"

Crabbe erupted into several seconds of frantic convulsions... then collapsed onto the floor. He spasmed once... then lay still.

In horror, Harry felt as every whisp of magical aura and life force — all of the saturated evil as well as the miniscule bit of vestigial humanity — evapourated from the body on the floor.

Harry bit down hard on his lip. "Oh bloody bloody hell..."





In the darkness of their quarters at Hogwarts, with Emerald curled up at Harry's side and the Hungarian Hornback figurine whistling softly in the background, Ginny massaged her fiancé's knotted back.

Harry groaned. "I thought we won... I thought that... once we got rid of Riddle, that would be the end of it. I thought people would start to get along... live together; grow old and die together the... the normal way."

"We won," Ginny whispered. "This time last year, dozens of innocent people were being murdered every week."

"I should have stayed the hell away from him! If I hadn't tried to reach out for him, he'd probably..."

"We had no way of knowing, Harry." Ginny worked her hands deeper into Harry's shoulders. "Not even Ryan or Hermione ever suspected the bitch could simply say 'poof' and kill someone like that. Merlin! Crabbe was inside a class three magical containment facility, Harry — nobody would have guessed he might still have been in danger."

The room fell silent again for several minutes as Ginny continued her ministrations. Then her hands paused. "Well... at least now Trixie's tipped her cards. You were complaining she'd never had a success? Well now she has, and now we know better what we're really up against."

"True — she's made her point." Harry tensed for a moment, then settled back into the bedding. "I wonder what the hell possessed her to do that to Crabbe of all people? Why zombify him in the first place? I'm sure he would have been a fine little foot soldier for her without..." Harry's whole body tensed. "... without torturing his bloody soul and then tossing him off like worn-out stocking. Why??"

"Why, Harry?" Ginny took a deep breath. "It's way too simple. Gloating! That's her signature emotion; the psychobitch likes to show off! I'm sure she would have preferred to enslave or kill Tracey right under our noses, but failing that she couldn't help herself. Crabbe was expendable, and she just absolutely had to trot out her brand new power."

"Braggadocio?" Harry nodded his head slowly. "Bellatrix's fatal flaw?"

"Could be! Personally, I think it was a huge miscalculation on her part Harry — if she's betting her whole operation on Corpus Qualia Dissection, then as soon as we have an antidote, she's got nothing."

"Hmmm... I'd say it's time to double down on the research."

Ginny bent down and hugged him. "I'd say so too! Good thing you saved Ryan today, yeah?"

Harry chuckled softly. "You bet! We're really going to need that head of his... intact!"

"Do be a good professor tomorrow, will you?" Ginny gave Harry a kiss on the back of his neck. "Please tell your star student to take better care of himself?"

Harry nodded as he smiled into his pillow. "Yes boss."

"Good!" Ginny kissed him again, then slid under the covers beside him. "And now the boss says it's way past time for good little professors and research assistants to get to sleep."




A pungent aroma of dark coffee saturated the fifth floor corridor well before the February sun had broken over the frosty hills east of Hogwarts. Yet, however inviting that scent may have seemed to the students (many still bleary-eyed from last night's post-Quidditch celebrations) the brew was strictly off-limits. The vapours were coming from behind the door to Harry's office, which was closed, locked and warded against all but four people... two of whom, at this moment, were standing with their jaws hanging open.

"You can't be serious, Harry!" Hermione's books thudded down onto Harry's desk as the girl's hands flew to her mouth. "Crabbe is dead?!"

Ginny nodded. "We'd just gotten there. Crabbe had been completely catatonic, but Harry tried talking to him and for maybe five or ten seconds he seemed to revive. He was trying to warn Harry about something..."

"Then, just as abruptly, he convulsed..." Harry blew solemnly on his coffee from where he stood by the window. "He was dead within seconds."

Recovered from his momentary shock, Ryan accepted a cup of coffee from Ginny, and frowned analytically. "This really doesn't add up. Crabbe was obviously already programmed to kill himself in Wigtown. He tried his hardest to stab himself with the second dart, so it seems to me that he was trained to either succeed in his task or die, right?"

The others nodded. "One would assume so," Ginny agreed.

"So, if Lestrange wanted him dead, and she had the power to do herself, why didn't she simply do it right there in Wigtown?" Ryan began pacing by the fire. "There were wards at Bladnoch Park, but surely nothing nearly as powerful as a class three Ministry facility."

"Good question Ryan." Harry gazed out the window thoughtfully. "Suggestions anyone? Maybe Bitch simply didn't want to attract attention in such a public place?"

Hermione shook her head. "That can't be it. Lestrange doesn't care for subtlety, right? She runs around battle scenes shrieking and laughing. In the middle of a nationwide man-hunt, she shows up in Wales without any disguise asking people about your safe house. When has she ever shied away from attention before?"

"True." Ryan placed his mug on the mantle and turned to face the others. "Besides, if she really did want something quieter, she would have flipped the switch on him herself to begin with. Getting him into a public scuffle is far from subtle. Sure, people would have noticed if he'd had a little seizure and slumped over, but that's nothing nearly as lurid and indelible as the image of someone thrashing about trying to stab himself."

Hermione nodded emphatically. "My thoughts exactly."

A disorganized series of speculations and counterarguments ensued for several minutes as Ginny sat silently in her chair. She blew on her coffee for a long moment, then rose her hand.

The diffuse chatter stilled and all eyes latched onto her. She took a drink, then cradled her cup thoughtfully. "What time did Harry catch the snitch?"

Ryan tapped his head. "8:48 p.m."

Ginny consulted her notes. "Crabbe's official time of death was 10:21 p.m."

The others nodded silently.

"I think we can assume that Bellatrix knew what was happening with Crabbe the whole time he was in custody, right?"

Harry gazed analytically toward his girlfriend. "Sure — we have evidence that Lestrange has been able to see things through Teri's eyes, and Teri was almost certainly a lot more mentally and magically resistant the Crabbe."

"So let's suppose that Bellatrix wanted him dead, either to show off her power to us or to prevent him from giving us useful information..." Ginny gently tapped her cup. "Plan A — suicide by poisoning — failed right off. Plan B kicked in an hour and a half later. Maybe it simply took her a bit of time to pull off... whatever spell might have been required for that?"

"A bit of time." Ryan paused in his pacing and closed his eyes. "As in, perhaps up to ninety three minutes?"

"Precisely." Ginny continued tapping her cup. "I wonder what kind of magic would incur that sort of delay?"

Harry took a seat and arched his head back, rubbing his temples. "Yes, I wonder. I also wonder what Crabbe meant by 'smoke behind the glass'?"

Back to index


Chapter 12: Footsteps

Author's Notes:

Hmmm... Well, between Splinters and a major dose of life demands, it's been an age and a half since I updated this, but this gets the story back underway again.

The fact that this chapter is a bit different than my standard Trix formula is not an indication that I'm going to change the way I plan to write the story, but rather reflects a big scene that needed to be written. If this one (Azkaban) scene had not been so huge, you would have seen some Quidditch, some Dolwyddelan, and some miscellaneous humour. Those will return in the next chapter.

Anyway, I hope some of you get some enjoyment out of the latest installment!


Chapter 12. Footsteps (Feb. 25-27, 1998)

Harry pushed aside a stack of books on magical kinship reckoning and inheritance. The sound of his yawn drifted through the drawing room that he shared with Ginny. With a sigh, he stretched back on the chesterfield and moved his feet closer to the crackling fire.

Just as he was making himself comfortable, he heard the sound of Ginny's quick footsteps coming up the corridor outside. A moment later, she breezed into the room, smiling at Harry as she swung a rucksack off her shoulder and expertly levitated a tea set into their quarters. "Hey love. Cuppa Sencha to wind down the evening?"

"Yes please. That would be nice." Harry glanced over and met her smile warmly. "Any progress down in the library?"

"Progress indeed. Sounds like Hermione is satisfied with the legality of practising rudimentary O Bò, and Ryan has a fair number of the spell and material requirements worked out, so the two of them are planning to start on a test fetish tomorrow." Ginny removed her jumper as the kettle poured two cups in mid air. Grabbing the cups she made her way over toward the fire and settled in with Harry; a mischievous grin dancing on her face. "So!"

Accepting one of the cups, Harry raised an eyebrow at the impish expression he was confronted with. "Er, so what?"

Ginny smirked. "So, have you gotten your Quibbler fix for the week yet?"

"Fix the Quibbler?" Harry rolled his eyes. "Sorry love, but I'm afraid the Quibbler is completely irreparable."

"You know perfectly well that was not what I asked." Ginny's brandished a stern finger, but didn't fully managed to repress the twinkle in her eyes. She pulled a small periodical from under her arm and presented it to him. "Just for that, I'm going to make you read the sports page."

Harry's laugh came out as something of a whimper... but he didn't reject the proffered article. He took a slow sip of his tea and obediently turned his attention to the words in front of his face.


Potter Seeking a Firm Footing

By Luna Lovegood
Quibbler Special Correspondent

He lived. He was chosen. He prevailed.

It's old news; we all know the story by heart. And yet to this very day newspapers and magazines still routinely print columns and stories recounting and pondering the circumstances in which Harry James Potter captured our collective imagination and then continued to rise to the occasion in the face of an ever-mounting series of challenges.

Notwithstanding his enduring fame, the hero of the British Wizarding world remains a deep conundrum. Potter represents so many different things to so many people that it is difficult to write a Quidditch column about him without veering off into the inevitable non-sporting inquiries that dog his larger-than-life persona.

Excuse me Mr. Potter. That was very nice flying tonight... but, tell me, do you have any current plans for saving the world?

The inquisitive ice, once broken, spalls off more tangents than a dropped quaffle in the Wigtown fog.

Mr. Potter, how have you managed to remain kind, modest and unassuming in the face of such relentless publicity?

Mr. Potter, how is it that one of the most skilled Magical Defense professors Hogwarts has employed in the past seven years actually knows almost nothing of the shield strengthening powers of Ungubular Slashkilter stubble?

Why, Mr. Potter, do you have such an abiding fascination with Heliopaths?

And last, but certainly not least:

Mr. Potter, people have a right to know how such greatness could possibly have been bestowed upon, and sustained by, a wizard with feet of the precise shape and dimension as yours?

Unambiguous answers to mysteries such as these are not easy to come by. Despite his notoriety, Harry Potter remains circumspect in front of a recording wand. Yet fortunately, blessed with the advantage of hindsight, we may posit credible answers based on our own fair speculation.

Let us all recall that the shoes our hero wears today are filled with (albeit a larger version of) fundamentally the same pair of feet that once stabilised a young child as he rose to defy the furious yet vexed visage of one Thomas Marvolo Riddle on the fateful Halloween night in 1981, thus banishing a monstrous darkness from our society for more than a decade. Consider then that these same ten toes and two heels strode to the fore in 1992 and 1996 to thwart other dastardly plots by Riddle.

From this perspective, we are all left to marvel at these soles of destiny, nimbly upon which the heroic young wizard permanently dispatched his nemesis in 1998!

Although concealed within sporty, water-resistant trainers last night in last night's misty Wigtown Bay, Harry Potter has now dabbled his toes in the fringe of that glittering pool known as professional Quidditch. After seeing him tread cautiously but deliberately into the sporting limelight, one must wonder just how daunting it shall be for all who may someday aspire to walk in Mr Potter's footsteps?

Indeed, as I joined several thousands of awestruck spectators and thirteen stunned broom-mounted athletes in watching him captured the golden snidget to secure yet another victory for the aptly named Flying Circus, I could not help but wonder where our hero's world-renowned feet shall take him next? Is he destined to skip lightly past every expectation and societal norm, or shall his once graceful gait eventually falter to a weary trudge of the form likely to demoralise his devotees and imperil lowly earthworms and daisies alike?

Please do not stumble, my dear friend! Esteemed professor, glorious icon and champion of the downtrodden, many voices rise up and beseech you — never stagger from your wise and true course. Traipse lightly past adversity, and stride purposefully along the paths of justice.

And in life and Quidditch alike, never ever accept defeat.


"Errrr... ??"

Very slowly, Harry's hands fell to his sides, letting the article slide off his lap.

His blank face gazed toward the fire...

And stared at his loafer-clad feet.

Ginny snickered as she followed Harry's eyes. "Don't worry, Harry. They're perfectly functional, and I personally find them quite shapely... even somewhat graceful." She nestled herself into his side, not quite able to remove that slight smirk from the corner of her mouth.

"Huh? Oh, my feet." Harry put his arm around her. "But Luna never even asked me about my feet."

"Yes, well, she never brought up anything to the twins about their little excursion to Azkaban either."

Harry closed one eye and scrunched his face in thought. "Yes, I suppose that's true, isn't it?"

Ginny nodded.

"Yeah, so it's not as though I'm really insecure about my, er, soles of destiny, but I, uh... I'm confused because Luna very rarely... I mean, I know her articles can be a bit obtuse at times, but she doesn't..."

"Yes?" Ginny fluttered her eyebrows.

"Well, when she writes about something, the article usually means something."

"Yes it generally does." Ginny nodded. "Just as I assume this is all relevant somehow."

Harry frowned. "Relevant to what? Any idea?"

"You clearly have to try to improve your gait, Harry." Ginny blew on her tea and took a sip. "Put a little more bounce in your step."

"Seriously?"

Ginny snorted. "Of course not! I don't have the faintest clue what she's on about... but I'm sure you'll stumble over the true meaning sometime before you retire."

"Stumble — ha ha. Erm, well, I wish I shared your optimism." Directing his eyes pointedly away from anyone's feet, Harry chuckled and took a deep breath. "Now speaking of Azkaban, are you ready for tomorrow morning?"

Ginny shrugged. "Yes, but the real question is whether you and Ted are? That poor boy has to face down a ton of misplaced guilt over standing up to his father in the last battle, and you're the one trying to evaluate whether to release a Death Eater with close connections to two people near the heart of our investigation." She paused to sip her tea. "As for me? I'll be tagging along to satisfy curiosity and help however I can. Pretty simple by comparison."

"I don't know about that, Gin' — I think you're incapable of being just a bystander, and I'm sure you'll end up being a big help in some way or another."

Ginny shrugged noncommittally.

"In any case, I can't vouch for Ted's nerves, but I don't feel too rattled." Harry lifted his arms to accommodate Ginny as she settled her legs over his. "My plans are fairly straightforward — go in there with an open mind and see how Nott Sr. reacts to a sympathetic interview. The man gets good reviews from prison staff, but I still need to verify that he's not hiding anything dodgy behind his good behaviour."

Ginny sipped her tea thoughtfully. "You'll use Legilimency?"

"I guess so. Just passive though."

Ginny nodded her acceptance. "Okay, then I'll keep an eye on the non-verbal signals, and we can compare notes. Are you going to ask him about Teri? Her upbringing and parentage?"

Harry pursed his lips. "I was thinking of feeling him out indirectly... but only if his head seems to be screwed on right. I'd love to hear what he knows about her, but I'm damned if I'm going to let a former Death Eater know that I'm the girl's guardian of record right now unless I can be certain that he's not going to misuse that information."

"Right." Ginny took a deep breath. "Let's compare notes on his attitude. We can't afford to get caught back on our heels."

Harry raised an eyebrow and glanced for a moment down toward Ginny's stocking clad feet that were sprawled over his own.

"What??" Ginny raised her own eyebrow to match Harry's.

"Oh, I'm just quietly agreeing with you." Harry took a final sip of his tea and lowered the cup to the floor. "No more pussy footing around."

Harry and Ginny pushed aside their hastily eaten breakfasts and rose from the inter-house table. Ryan, the table's only other early morning diner, leaned back in his chair, letting the cuff on his left wrist slide back... to reveal a braided leather wrist band.

To the casual observer, the gesture would have been inconspicuous, but not to Harry and Ginny. As they gathered their cloaks and slung rucksacks over their shoulders, they inconspicuously let their own cuffs slip down to reveal identical adornments.

Rather than subtly conveying a similar taste in accessory style, they were all acknowledging a continuing state of security. The war might be over, but there was still danger out there, and Harry's students still wanted to make sure that their favourite risk-taking faculty member always had backup.

In truth, the likelihood that Harry or Ginny would have to issue a distress signal was vanishingly small, Azkaban was probably one of the most secure and least dangerous places in the British Isles for a witch or wizard to visit, but Harry was generally quite faithful to the promise he had made to his students last September — he would make no trips off the school grounds without alerting HART, the Hogwarts Army Response Team.

As a precaution, Harry's use of HART had merit; it had almost certainly saved lives in the past, and, given Harry's gradual acceptance of the strangely inverted correlation between responsibility and independence, he was willing to make a rational compromise that didn't cut too deeply into his much-prized freedom, but did reduce the guilt he might feel in allowing himself to be exposed to risks.

Letting their sleeves settle back down to normal length, Harry and Ginny left Ryan to finish reading his Daily Prophet in solitude. They walked across the Great Hall to fetch the only current occupant of the Slytherin table.

Ted Nott Jr. was stylishly dressed in sharp, all-black robes trimmed with silver buttons and clasp. Unfortunately, the crisp look made it no higher than his chin. Lifting his face to quietly greet his two escorts, the student's sunken eyes and hollow cheeks gave all the appearance of someone who hadn't slept a wink all night. Ginny's sunny expression failed to infect him; he made a tight-lipped attempt at a smile, gave it up as a lost cause, then rose to his feet to join them. He was vaguely aware of conversation taking place, but he fell in step without responding to any of it.

Finally, Ginny grabbed his arm just above the wrist, pulled him around to make it more difficult for him to avoid her eyes, and addressed him in a plain, clear and upbeat voice. "Everything will go fine, Ted." Her eyes beamed optimism and confidence, although perhaps a very practiced listener might have detected a slight hint of concern in her voice. "Your dad will be overjoyed to see you. You know that, don't you?"

Ted shrugged weakly. "I dunno, maybe. Even so, I'm not sure I can handle seeing what he looks like after six months in that hole."

"Azkaban isn't as nearly bad as it used to be." Harry cuffed Nott's shoulder gently. "I've also done a bit of asking around, and it sounds as though your dad's been a model inmate, earning himself a fair bit of lenient treatment. Based on that, we can hope he's been holding himself together okay through it all. Right?"

Nott shrugged again... but his backbone straightened a little.

Harry and Ginny caught each others' eyes and shrugged slightly. Turning back toward the corridor ahead, the three walked in silence the rest of the way up to the Headmistress's office. After rising to the seventh floor, Nott followed blandly as Harry spoke the password ("Iberian Lynx") and they ascended the rising staircase.

The door at the top was not closed, and the rosy glow of a winter sunrise was streaming through. Harry tapped lightly on the door and made his way in.

"Good morning Harry," Professor McGonagall put her cup down and rose to greet the trio. "Good morning Miss Weasley. Mr. Nott. Do you three have time to join me for tea?"

"Good morning!" Harry smiled. "Thank you for the offer, but I think we'll just floo on through and get ourselves into the queue for screening."

"Some sense in that. Word is that that they've tightened the administration of the place, and they'll likely prefer their guests to be punctual." McGonagall resumed her seat. "I wish you a successful visit. Please give my regards to Theodore."

"Huh?" Jolted out of his own distant thoughts, Nott looked up. "Oh yes, thank you Professor. I will."

Harry gestured for Ginny to lead the way through the Floo, followed by Nott, then he himself stepped up to the edge of the hearth, tossed a pinch of powder and took the final step forward as he proclaimed his destination. "Azkaban Guest Welcoming Office."

Harry experienced the familiar whirl of passing fireplaces for a few seconds, but then everything went dark for just long enough to puzzle him... Just as he was about to wonder if he should start worrying, he suddenly found himself propelled rapidly out of the Floo, bursting headlong into a drab greystone room that formed the antechamber of the Welcoming Office.

Nott and Ginny both reached out hands to steady Harry. Ginny grinned at him. "Whoa, love. In a bit of a hurry?"

"Bleeding inferior way to travel." Harry rolled his eyes. "Er, I wonder why it went so dark in there for so long?"

Ginny pursed her lips. "I suppose that once we passed the Floo hub, we probably had a straight shot across the North Sea. No intervening Floo openings to brighten things up on the way."

"That's logical. A straight shot is probably best for security reasons." Harry nodded thoughtfully, then turned to Nott. "So Ted, shall we get ourselves into the queue?"

The Slytherin youth nodded dumbly and trudged along behind Harry and Ginny as they walked from the antechamber, around a corner and came to the head of a corridor in view of the security gates. The queue, in fact, actually amounted to no more than a single elderly couple chatting amicably with one of the guards, seemingly in no rush to be admitted.

One of the two (an elderly witch) turned from her conversation, gave Harry a cursory glance, then angled back toward the guard booth. "Eh Clive. Looks like ye've got a cus'mer."

"Huh? Oh yeh, pardon me Gram'." From the booth emerged a tall young wizard in the light grey Hit Wizards uniform but with a special insignia (shaped like a bony, five-fingered claw) that Harry hadn't seen before. The guard glanced briefly at a list on his podium then stiffened abruptly and met Harry's eye. "Well blimey! You're Harry Potter!"

"Er yes." Harry cringed slightly. "I was told to meet Mary Cattermole at 8:15 prior to visiting one of your prisoners. I'm bringing two guests with me — Mr. Theodore Nott, Jr., and Miss Ginevra Weasley."

"Sure, sure. That all checks out, sir — you just caught me by surprise, being twenty minutes early and all. But I suppose nobody saves the world twice by being late, eh?" The security wizard gave a crooked smile. "Wands please?"

Ginny collected Ted's wand and handed it, and her own, to Harry, who passed all three instruments over to the officer.

The guard took Nott's wand first, lowering it carefully into an odd looking small-mouthed vase that looked a bit like the butter churn. The vase, of its own accord, gave a sudden whine and whirled rapidly around its axis, hummed for a moment, then decelerated. Just as the urn halted, the guard pulled out the wand, removed a small parchment that had wound itself around the stick, and examined the read-out. "Hmm... Theodore Nott, Jr. Phoenix feather and beech; ten and a half inches. Last spell, quarter to eleven last night — transfigured a coffee cup. No illegal activity."

"Thank you, Mr. Nott." The officer smiled. "We'll hold your wand here for safe keeping, if that's all right?"

Nott nodded mutely.

The officer reached for Harry's wand next, putting it to the same scrutiny. He removed it from the vase, and began to recite the analysis. "Harry James Potter. Phoenix feather and holly. Eleven inches. Last spell..." He frowned and squinted at the parchment for a long moment. "Eh? What the...?" He stared at Harry. "Do you mean to say, you haven't cast a spell since... December 14th?"

Harry nodded awkwardly. "Well, you see, I do most of my magic..."

"Wandlessly!" The elderly witch on the sidelines grinned toothily. "Aye! Just last week, the Sunday Prophet ran this bit about Mr. Potter and his lady doing their magic wandlessly. Isn't that right, Mr. Potter?"

"Rita Skeeter article, I assume?" Harry's face was bland, admitting none of the internal tension that roiled him every time another subtle detail of his life (or especially of one of his more obscure magical skills) appeared in print. He begrudingly accepted that the press needed to print things he found annoying in order to make money, but there were some aspects of his existence that he would certainly have preferred not to share. The wandless magic, for strategic and security reasons, was one of them, but it would seem that the filthy cockroach had bested him once again and there was no point in denying the observation to a security officer. He nodded. "Yes, the account is correct. Almost all of my magic is wandless these days. That's true for Ginny as well."

"Hmmmm. That makes things tricky." The guard frowned. "You see, I'm supposed to make sure that nobody coming past this gate will do any magic in the facility, unless they have..."

"Clearance!" Ginny slapped the side of her head. She reached into her pocket, pulling out a small bound scroll. "I have a level two DMLE clearance, and Harry has, what... level three?"

"A clearance, yes of course." Harry nodded, pulling a similar scroll from inside his cloak. "I get so accustomed to the DMLE security personnel just waving us through, I tend to forget I have this scroll."

His expression brightening, the guard reached over to examine the two documents and nodded. "Oh good, these are all you need. Technically, you probably still won't be able to do any magic, but you can keep your wands with you. Next time, just present the documents right up front and that will save you the hassle." He handed the scrolls and wands back to Harry and Ginny. "Please proceed. Mrs. Cattermole will be waiting for you at the gates to the prison proper — just follow this corridor along a few hundred feet. Enjoy your visit, Mr. Potter; Miss Weasley."

The three teens stepped past the checkpoint, turned a corner and found themselves stepping out onto a glassed-in walkway that seemed to be suspended over nothing more than a moody stretch of the North Sea. Harry's eyes widened at the sight. "Interesting architecture. This must all be new?"

Ginny nodded. "Yes, I recall reading about the renovations a couple of months ago — this is apparently a feature of the post-Dementor security here. The Ministry built the Welcoming Center out away from the island as a base where employees and visitors could arrive and function normally."

"The Center is out here because the island itself is all warded up?"

"Exactly." Ginny paused for a moment to take in the dark, looming edifice ahead as they turned a corner and the prison suddenly came into view. "They have obvious protections like anti-Apparition, anti-Portkey, anti-trespass and anti-egress, but there are a number of other wards in place, not the least of which is one intended to..."

Ginny paused as something suddenly occurred to her.

Harry's gaze swiveled over to her as he guessed what she had just realised. "A ward intended to suppress normal spell casting?"

Ginny nodded slightly. She met Harry's gaze; his eyes had locked onto her in a way that she recognised from last year — the look of someone speaking without making a sound.

Indeed, there had been a time not that long ago when Harry and Ginny could have held a long elaborate conversation among themselves without ever uttering a single audible word. A peculiar confluence of Phoenix fire, a drastic escape from certain death, their shared scars at the hand of Tom Riddle, and their insurmountable love for each other had forged a remarkable, if temporary, connection. It was gone now; it had survived only long enough to give them the strength to drive Voldemort to finally express remorse and accept death. And now all they had left were the memories of the incredible magic the connection had entailed, and a faint whisper of its old splendour.

Within Harry's deep gaze; within the whisper of their old bond, Ginny recognised Harry's concern about making any decision about Nott Sr.'s future without a strong feeling for sincerity of the old Death Eater's supposed reformation. Ginny understood that the man could definitely not be permitted to come back to mainstream society as Teri Nott's guardian unless it was clear that not only was the elder Nott committed to coming clear, but was also strong enough to resist any temptation back into darkness.

Such confidence would be next to impossible to attain without Legilimency — something Harry did not believe he would be able to accomplish under powerful anti-magic wards.

The question residing in the depths of Harry's green eyes was whether Ginny could?

Ginny thought back to her recent discovery of the unconventional magical incoherence knowledge that had been transferred to her last autumn from Salvatore Fugo. Could a low coherence form of Legilimency function under an anti-magic ward? Ginny pursed her lips, turned to Harry and, ever-so-slightly, shrugged.

Harry smiled warmly and hopefully, and shrugged in reply.

They broke off their silent exchange in time to face a smiling but curious witch, wearing the semi-formal robe of a junior administrator. She extended her hand to Harry, then Ginny. "Good morning Mr. Potter. Good morning Miss Weasley, My name is Mary Cattermole — AMSDC Director of Visitor Services." She turned Ted, whose eyes were darting about the place distractedly, seemingly oblivious to the person in front of him. "Errr... good morning Mr. Nott?"

Ted jumped. "Oh! Good morning."

After a moment of Ted not noticing her extended hand, Cattermole withdrew it and focused back on Harry and Ginny. "As you're likely aware, when Minister Bones took office in September, she signed a detailed order to re-organise and renovate the facility here. I'm afraid I actually have no idea whether or not any of you have ever visited before because no useful records were kept prior to early October, but if you had ventured here before then, I'm sure you'll notice that things have changed."

Neither Harry nor Ginny had ever been on the premises before, but they nodded agreeably. Nott made no response, other than to shuffle his feet somewhat.

Cattermole smiled enthusiastically. "Well, one thing the new administration committed itself to was studying the escape incidents of the past several years and adapting accordingly. The critical thing we learned was that Dementors were not a reliable resource for security. In Mister Black's 1993 escape, we recognised that they could be fooled, and in the subsequent escape of ten dark practitioners two years ago, we saw how Dementors could be illegally swayed, en masse, by external influences. So, I suspect you'll be happy to hear that there are no longer any Dementors under DMLE employment, and none on these premises."

"Yes, we'd heard that." Harry smiled.

"And yes, we're happy about that," Ginny added.

Cattermole nodded. "Yes. There is a trade off, of course, in the form of strong magical suppression wards that will take effect as soon as you pass through that gate." She gestured toward a stone portal leading into what appeared to be a tunnel cut directly into the grey stony cliffs of the island. "Most people notice nothing at all, but I am told that a small percentage of wizards and witches will experience some discomfort as they pass into the warded area. Are you prepared to risk this?"

Harry and Ginny both nodded.

Cattermole glanced at Ted. "Mr. Nott, are you prepared to... ?"

"Huh? Oh yeh. Sure."

"Very good." Cattermole turned and began to make her way toward the tunnel. "I have reserved meeting room six for you. Two of the guards have already already fetched Mr. Theodore Nott Sr., and he is eagerly awaiting you. Please follow me."

As they followed the witch through the stone archway, Harry directed his attention introspectively. He tensed in anticipation, and then felt it — a frigid wave sweeping across him, numbing his skin and send momentary aches coursing through his nerves. He took a deep breath, assessed himself... and felt very nearly powerless. Somehow, Harry seemed to sense that if desperate measures truly demanded it, he might somehow be able to will his way to a weak spell of some sort, but in reality he could tell that he was currently in a state of unprecedented magical impotence — worse than the most extreme bouts of magical exhaustion he'd ever experienced.

Harry's eyes flickered past Ted (who betrayed no obvious reaction) and over to Ginny, who was concentrating fiercely, eyes closed, following them blindly. After a moment, she opened her eyes and met his glance. With a smile (albeit, thin-lipped from discomfort) she flashed him a furtive 'thumbs up'.

Staring at Ginny's thumb, Harry blinked. Although weak and flickery, he could not help but notice that her extended digit was glowing — a simple, modest but successful Lumos spell!

He grinned. "Brilliant Gin'," he mouthed silently, delighted to see that her knowledge of incoherent magical spell casting was already paying dramatic, unexpected dividends.

She grinned back; her earlier discomfort now forgotten as her confidence grew!

Oblivious to the quiet experimentation taking place behind her back, Mrs. Cattermole stopped in front of meeting room six. "Here we are, and here are your two guards." She gestured toward two wizards, standing nearby in the same special Hit Wizard uniform Harry and Ginny had noticed earlier. "Louis and Fyodr will be stationed outside the door during the duration of your meeting; do not hesitate to contact them if you need anything. I hope you have a pleasant visit!"

Harry and Ginny both voiced their thanks. Even Ted, still mostly lost in his own thoughts, nodded appreciatively.

"One last thing." Cattermore held out three scrolls. "Before leaving, I would appreciate it if you could complete this brief questionnaire."

"Certainly." Harry collected the scrolls and distributed one each to Ginny and Ted. "Thank you for your assistance, Mrs. Cattermore!"

Cattermore bowed her head respectfully and turned to leave the three teens to their meeting.

"Okay then..." Harry moved toward the open door. "Shall we go in?"

Harry made his way around a privacy screen, and found himself face to face with a wizard he had seen most often behind a Death Eater's mask.

With a friendly, if somewhat artificial, smile on his face, Harry ran his eyes over the prisoner. In a split second, within the clownish orange-striped garb, Harry recognised an old and bitter adversary. This was a wizard who had heeded Voldemort's call to the ghastly graveyard in Little Hangleton; who had been injured in the wild fracas at the Department of Mysteries; who, in Death Eater robes, had broken through the Great Hall at Hogwarts into the courtyard at the end of the last battle.

Despite these acrid memories, however, Harry thought he could truly sense contrition. Yes, this man had stood behind Tom Riddle countless times, yet as the final confrontation in the Hogwarts Great Hall unraveled, Nott Sr. had been one of the first to surrender — unwilling to stand against a son who had turned to defy him.

Harry watched the man struggle awkwardly to his feet. Although certainly no younger, he looked much cleaner and more respectable than the stubbly, broken captive Harry recalled from the aftermath of the battle. He was thinner and greyer; he had a host of new wrinkles... but he no longer looked the least bit like a Death Eater.

Sensing Ginny and Ted standing expectantly behind him, Harry moved a bit to the side and extended a hand in camaraderie. "I'm glad to see you again, Mr. Nott. I've brought you your son."

A bit trembly but with a hopeful look in his eyes, Nott Sr. accepted Harry's hand and shook it enthusiastically. "Thank you! Good to see you again, Mr. Potter. Thank you for... uh..."

Nott's words trailed off distractedly as his eyes fell upon the nervous young wizard who had become plainly visible when Harry had stepped to the side. Nott Sr. gulped. "Teddy, I..." Letting go of Harry's hand, the old inmate extended a shaking arm toward Ted Jr.

Ted Jr. could not quite meet his father's eye, but he instinctively took a step forward. As gestures go, it was tentative, but it was all the encouragement the old wizard needed. He shuffled ahead and seized his son. In affable clumsiness, four arms eventually found their way into a full, familial embrace. His voice hoarse with emotion, the inmate uttered a simple gravelly whisper. "Teddy."

Ted Jr. sniffled. "Dad."

Harry and Ginny were about to edge quietly toward the exits to give the two Notts a few moments of privacy when the elder wizard broke off the hug and straightened. "Seats everyone?" He gestured at the three chairs that fanned out in front of the one he'd been seated at. "Tea? The guards left some."

"Yes please — I can serve it." Harry went over to a plain tea table in the corner and poured for Ginny and himself. "May I bring you a cup, Mr. Nott? Ted?"

Both Notts shook their heads, so Harry returned with just the two cups. He handed one to Ginny and took a seat. Sitting back, he fixed his attention on the former Death Eater, who was scrutinising him quizzically. Nott Sr. scratched his chin nervously, opened and closed him mouth a couple of times, then finally resolved to speak. "I know you questioned me after the battle, Mr. Potter, but I'm still not accustomed to meeting you face to face and not..."

Harry gazed as the grizzled inmate trailed off. "Er, yes? And not...?"

The old wizard shifted uneasily. "Well, to see you here and not be under orders to capture you at all costs and, ehhh..." He gave Ginny an awkward glance. "Uh, you know... wipe out your friends?"

Neither Ginny nor Harry blinked. Harry stirred some sugar into his tea. "Yes, I can imagine it feels strange." He took a casual sip. "But not a bad sort of strange, I hope?"

Nott Sr. stared at Harry for a long moment. Then he chuckled. "You don't rattle very easily, do you?"

Harry smiled without any real intention of answering. He put his tea cup to the side. "So, you look healthier than you did in September? Azkaban has been a welcome break from the Death Eater life style?"

"Wouldn't take much to improve over last year, eh?" Old Nott exhaled. "You know, I've sat here in my cell, reading a lot of Daily Prophet articles talking about how scared people were of Death Eaters last fall, but do you have any idea how many of us were crapping in our boots over the prospect of being shoved into the big fight with you and your zealots?"

"Er, no." Harry raised an eyebrow. "I can't say I ever really looked at it that way. I always thought that Tom's followers suffered from perpetual overconfidence."

Nott Sr. shook his head. "Eh, well it's true that a lot of the thicker blokes looked at the notion of a student army as one type of joke, and saw the Ministry as an even bigger joke, but those of us who knew how tie our own shoes and count past three could see the writing on the wall. By late summer there was a ton of momentum, and I knew it was all going your way. I mean, blimey! How many times does a bloke need to take it on the chin before he crawls out of the Graphorn paddock?"

Harry studied the man expressionlessly. "So that's what you want out of life? To crawl out of the, uh, Graphorn paddock?"

Nott Sr. chewed on the inside of his cheek for a moment. "Aye Mr. Potter. I'd like an honest life perhaps? Go home, gather a bit of family about myself again? If honest society is inclined to take me back, then I'll take honest society back."

Harry took a pull on his lukewarm tea. "Duly noted, Mr. Nott. As it happens, the Minister is starting to rethink last October's mass of incarcerations. She's starting to think about the merits of bringing some of the more redeemable Death Eater parents back to their children. 'De-orphanisation', is how Madame Bones phrased it." Harry glanced Ted Jr. who was watching the interaction anxiously. "So the issue here is less a question of society taking you back, and more a question to your son, and anyone else who might have looked on you like a father. Do they want you back?"

Nott Sr. watched quietly as his son nodded.

Harry directed his gaze back to the elder wizard. "Are you ready to go back to Shotley and be a father? An uncle or a grandfather? Are you ready to be a worthy role model for young people growing up in the Light? Can you function in a world where the Wizengamot is busily undoing centuries of underlying discrimination against Muggle-borns and half bloods? Where Voldemort is dead and will never return?"

Both Notts shuddered at the taboo name, but Old Nott steeled his expression quickly. "Yes, well I reckon I'd have some learning to do but, bloody hell, I'd be willing to try."

Seeing the two Notts scrutinising each other, Harry chanced a quick glance at Ginny, trying to guess her impressions of the exchange. She was still and quiet; her bland expression masked what Harry knew was really the intense mental effort of evaluating the inmate's real emotions. He quickly averted his eyes to avoid distracting her from her arduous labours and instead renewed his focus on the two Notts.

"Ted, how much have you thought things through? Do you have conditions that would need to be met?" Harry examined the Slytherin student carefully, trying to gauge whether the young wizard's continued anxiety was bred from fear, or merely residual stress over not knowing what to expect from this meeting. "The two of you have had your difficulties over the years. Do you think you'll be able to get along?"

"I think so, but..." A steely edge began to take shape in the younger Nott's face as he contemplated Harry's question. "You know Harry, I think so but I... well, there's a problem of trust."

Nott glanced at his father, then back to Harry. "Do you realise that in all those years risking his skin for the snake bastard, Dad never once admitted to any of his family that he was a Death Eater?"

"I... But... There was no way I..."

Ted cut his stammering father off with a baleful glare. "Yeah, I'm sure there were fine reasons to cast obscuring charms on your arm for all those years, but did you really think we wouldn't figure out that you had the Dark Mark? Not as if I even needed to do any digging — not with Draco lording it over me how my dad was a mid-level Death Eater grunt who had to grovel to the all powerful Lucius Malfoy. Imagine how chuffed that made me feel? Learning that not only is my dad a crook, but a bleeding pathetic one at that?"

No longer able to meet his son eye to eye, the elder Nott's glance darted about the room, almost as if he was searching for a hole to creep into.

Nott Junior's flare appeared to be fizzling as well. He sank into his chair, his scowl wilting to a look of weary disappointment. "Dad, if you tried to keep something like that a secret through eighteen years of my life, how am I supposed to trust that you're not going to get roped into some new criminal cabal? How do I know you're not going to ruin your life and endanger the rest of us by falling right back in with the next murderous thug?"

The elder Nott cringed; his face dropped into his hands. "I... Teddy, I..."

Ginny's hand brushed Harry's arm. He glanced at her, stared for a moment at the quaking former Death Eater, then rose to his feet. "Mr. Nott, Ted, would you like some privacy as you work through some of this? Ginny and I could step out for a while."

Nott Sr. didn't seem to have processed the question, but Ted met Harry's eyes. The Slytherin student debated silently for a moment, then nodded.

Hand in hand, Ginny and Harry made their quiet way out around the privacy barrier. Subtly, Ginny used an incoherent version of a privacy spell to occlude their own noise and to shroud both the sounds of the Notts' conversation.

"So?" Harry grasped both of Ginny's hands and gazed down at her wide eyes. "What do you think? Is the old fellow genuine?"

Ginny nodded. "Genuine, yes. I admit that he's afraid of the daunting challenges of going back into a world that regards him as a criminal, and I can't speak for his strength of character, but there's not a bone in his body that ever wants to push the dark agenda ever again." Ginny chewed her lip for a moment, gazing distractedly off into the distance. "When Ted lashed out at having a closet Death Eater for a father, the shame was simply pouring off the old man."

Harry nodded. "I know. I could feel that even without Legilimency."

"Er yes..." Ginny gazed curiously at Harry for a moment. She suspected that his own early lessons in incoherent magic might be taking root faster than he realised, but decided to defer that discussion for later, and instead stick to the most pressing issues. "In any case, I deliberately didn't let myself dig too deeply, so I was really only skimming his emotions, but the depth of his shame made me wonder if old Nott ever really even believed in what he was doing. That exchange made me guess that somewhere deep in an ignoble past he got coerced into service? I couldn't find any shred of the Lucius Malfoy arrogance or the Bellatrix Lestrange fanaticism in there — just a weary old bloke who wants one last chance with what's left of his family."

Harry peered deeply into her eyes. "Sounds like you've made the case for his early release petition, yeah?"

"I think so." She regarded him earnestly. "If you're prepared to file the petition, I'm prepared to vouch for it."

"Deal." He smiled warmly for a moment before shifting back to solemnity. "So, it's one thing to be willing to send him back to Shotley with a tracking charm. The bigger hurdle is whether we dare ask him about Teri?"

"Yes, that's true." Ginny exhaled. "It's a big risk to let an Azkaban inmate discover that Harry Potter has been asking about Bellatrix Lestrange's daughter."

"There's one possible solution, but..." Harry paused and gestured to a pair of chairs just inside the meeting room door. They sat down as Harry gathered his thoughts. He shook his head. "Ugh."

"What?"

"Sorry, I think I vetoed my own suggestion." Harry shook his head again. "I was going to ask whether it would be feasible to ask questions and then scrub Nott's memory if we got a bad response, but I'm reckoning that Obliviate is too complex a spell to attempt with incoherent magic."

Ginny nodded regretfully. "My spell casting magic is hit and miss under wards like these. Some things aren't too terribly difficult to accomplish with incoherent magic — I can knock off diffuse spells like Disillusionment, Legilimency and Muffliato without much fuss, but I'd be very leery about precision work. How do I know a simple Obliviate spell wouldn't turn the poor fellow into a vegetable?"

"There may be a way to approach the issue discreetly." Harry stroked his chin thoughtfully for a long moment. "As part of due diligence for this early release petition, we need to gauge whether Nott would be fit to return to his role as legal guardian of Anna and Teri. I could ask some perfectly reasonable and innocuous questions along those lines and we can carefully monitor how he responds, yeah?"

Ginny's eyes brightened. "Brilliant!"

Harry smiled as Ginny thought things through. After a while, she raised her finger in resolution. "Let's try this, Harry. Weave your way around to asking Nott about Anna Blevins first, and I'll try to form a baseline impression for how seriously and maturely he views his guardianship role. Dig into some personal stuff, like how he came into his foster role. If I get creeped out, I'll kick your foot and we'll break it off before you start asking about Teri."

"Good plan!" Harry rose from the chair. "So maybe you can cancel your privacy charms; we'll wander out into the corridor to stretch our legs for a bit longer while the Notts negotiate their future, and then we can..."

Harry and Ginny both swung about to the sight of Ted Sr. and Jr. stepping around the screen. The both appeared more relaxed than they had been mere minutes earlier.

"Harry..." The younger Nott stepped forward. "Dad and I got on well. If you're willing to put in the paperwork on our behalf, then I'll be more than happy to give a deposition."

"You're done?" Harry scratched his head in puzzlement. "No more big obstacles or serious misgivings?"

"Notts aren't politicians, but we can work out our problems pretty quickly." The elder wizard grinned toothily. "In fact, all of our conversations are fast — we can talk when we need to, but none of us love the sound of our own voice."

"For obvious reasons..." Ted gave his father a wry eyebrow. "Anyway Harry — yes, we're done. Things are okay. Now it's your turn with the old sod."

"Great!" Harry smiled, overlooking the intrafamilial coarseness. "Mr. Nott, there's still a bit of due diligence to be done before we can consider drafting the petition. Might I ask you a few more questions?"

"Of course." The elder Nott nodded politely to his son, then turned back toward the seating area behind the screen, while Nott Jr. stepped out the door.

Harry and Ginny returned to their seats facing the inmate. Harry pulled out a scroll and quill and and sat in thoughtful silence for a moment before commencing. "So, one option would be for Ted to file a petition as your son, and I would countersign in my authourity as a Professor and Deputy Head of House. The second option would be for me to file on your behalf as a sympathetic third party, and Ted would provide a deposition. Do you have a preference?"

Nott nodded. "If you can bring yourself to write something nice about me, I'm sure we'd get things moving farther faster under your name, Mr. Potter."

"You may be aware, Mr. Nott, that not only must I vouch for your pure intentions, but the Ministry must also have assurances that you'll be able to provide for yourself and your family — in order to minimise the chances that hard circumstances would force you back into a life of crime. Can I inquire how you plan to take care of your dependents? What resources and income you might have?"

Nott exhaled heavily. "I'm not well off, Mr. Potter, but I'll make ends meet. When my father died, he left the bulk of the estate to my half brother, Cantankerus Nott. Tank has the big tower at Tehidy Woods, the main holdings in Comet and GalloLoans, and the Gringotts vault. I was left with the little cottage at Shotley, and a monthly stipend of 350 Galleons from the estate. It's not much, but it was always enough to keep us afloat before. Sort of..."

Harry frowned. "That's less than half the salary for a starting Hit Wizard."

Nott wrung his hands nervously. "The sorry truth, Mr. Potter, is that I used to get dirty money from Malfoy from time to time."

Harry bit his lip. "Can you get by without the, uh, supplemental income?"

Nott nodded enthusiastically. "I have a trade — I can go back to Cauldron making. Potage's in Diagon Alley used to sell my wares back in the eighties; mine were some of the top sellers."

"Okay, self-sufficiency and motivation will certainly sound good to the adjudicators." Harry took a few notes. "So who's left in your family to support?"

"Eh, well, almost nobody. Teddy has a good head on his shoulders and has gotten employment offers from the Ministry, so I reckon he'll be moving out and minding his own upkeep. The boy would do even better for himself if he made sure to not squander the affections of that young Miss Parkinson." Nott grinned sheepishly. "She's a bit crass at times, but her heart's in the right place, and she and Teddy make a good pair. And she's, errr, quite self supporting too."

Harry nodded expressionlessly, not having any desire to wade into any relationship controversies, and not knowing whether Ted had told his father about the recent break-up. He wrote down a few more words then looked back up at Nott. "Any other family to support?"

"Well, Sybyl died ohh... hell, it was nearly sixteen years ago." The old man closed his eyes or a moment, took a deep breath, and soldiered on. "And I lost my firstborn, Eleanor, about four years ago. Her husband, Forsythe Blevins, was always an honourable bloke but... but that's what did them both in — him being honourable, refusing to go along with those filthy, treacherous cretins..."

The old man's voice broke; he shuddered violently only to settle suddenly at the unexpected sensation of Ginny's fingers brushing his arm. Nott's eyes, wide and bloodshot, flashed open and latched onto her empathetic expression.

"It's okay, Mr. Nott." Ginny's voice was soft and gentle. "You don't have to relive bad memories."

Fighting to settle his rasping breath, Nott nodded.

"I'm sorry for your losses, Mr. Nott." Harry's face and voice were calm and measured. "I know all too well what it's like to lose family. But eventually you have to put your memories in a special place, and focus on those you have left."

Nott nodded again; he choked back his emotion and looked away. "There's Anna."

"Yes." Harry voice was barely a whisper. "Anna Blevins. Your granddaughter."

Nott looked up. "You know her?"

"Her cousin, Lucia Blevins, is one of my best students."

Harry's response, although subtly evasive, satisfied the elderly wizard.

Nott gripped the arms of his chair for a moment to calm his anxiety, then continued. "Anna is a sweet kid — I miss her so damned much. She's been a joy to raise but, well, I have to... I admit that I did a bit of an Obliviate on her after... you know... her parents died. I did it for her own good." Etched with misery, Nott searched Harry's face. "Do you think that was wrong?"

"Do I think...?" Harry blinked and put aside the scroll and quill. "That's a brutally difficult moral question, Mr. Nott. I uhhh..." He paused a moment to collect himself. "Well, to be honest, I usually don't agree with Obliviating a child after tragedy, but it's not my place to pass judgment on every parenting decision you've made. My job is simpler — I'm here to make sure that you have good intentions and the means to stand by them."

Nott exhaled.

Harry picked up the scroll and quill again. "So you would be the guardian of record for Anna. You would be responsible for her upbringing and financing her education?"

"That's right, Mr. Potter. I'm certainly going to try, anyway. I never needed to take charity to get Ted through school, and I was somehow usually able to keep his appearances pretty well up to the level of the other snots in his house at Hogwarts."

Harry glanced up with the momentary flicker of a wry grin on his face, then returned to his note-taking. As he scribbled meaningless scrawls over the parchment, Harry cast a furtive glance toward his right foot, noting that Ginny's shoe was poised less than an inch from his calf muscle, but in all of the conversation, it had not moved an inch.

Putting the finishing flourishes on his spurious scribbling, Harry took a subtle breath. Here goes nothing... "So Mr. Nott, will Anna be your only dependent?"

Harry glanced fleetingly downward again. Ginny's foot remained stationary.

Nott looked nervous, but to Harry the anxiety seemed little different than the perennial twitchiness that seemed to manifest in both father and son. The old man shifted in his seat. "No sir. Before being locked away, I had taken another girl into my charge. She's a couple of years older than Anna. Her name is Teri."

"Teri...?" Harry wrote down the first name; his quill poised above the parchment awaiting elaboration as, once again, he chanced a glance downwards to see no subtle foot motion.

"Huh? Oh, last name?" Nott's demeanour remained somewhat frayed, but not panicked or agitated. He chewed on his lip for a moment, glanced instinctively about the room and dropped his voice to a whisper. "She's, uh, Teri Nott. I adopted her nearly two years ago."

Harry updated his scroll accordingly. "You adopted the girl from outside of your extended family?"

Distracted by some old memory, the elderly wizard nodded passively, not noticing as Harry took a quick glance at Ginny's face, registering her intense concentration, but no outward sign of concern.

Harry tapped the shaft of the self-inking quill to boost the ink flow, then faced Nott again. "You're looking at bringing two witches through their Hogwarts education. They'll both be students at the same time up there for five consecutive years, right? That sounds like a bit of a fiscal burden. Have you tried applying for financial assistance from the Ministry?"

"Nay, it probably wouldn't work." Nott sighed. "A couple of years ago when people were dying all hell west and crooked from the war, the Ministry would sign off on adoptions with a wink and a few Galleons. But getting any sort of financial assistance was never easy. At the very least, the Ministry would have demanded full documentation of Teri's pedigree so that they could try to cover the costs by garnishing Teri's real family's estate. As it was, I didn't have any parchment records at all of her upbringing."

"Ah. Red tape." Harry equivocated sympathetically. "Er, so you don't know who her parents were?"

Nott's agitation was starting to mount; Harry could detect a subliminal shiver in the man... yet he was also aware of how focused and quiet Ginny remained.

A long, tense moment followed, then Nott sighed again and shook his head. "No, Teri's last guardian was adoptive too."

Harry nodded soberly. "What happened to her previous guardian?"

"M-murdered."

"Merlin..." Harry's whisper was hoarse and quivering — so emotive that there was no way Nott would ever have realised that the tremulous sentiment was fake. Having played his part to near perfection, Harry sat perfectly still, waiting either for Nott to continue or for Ginny to pull the plug on the session.

It was the former.

Nott trembled and looked away. "You've got to understand, Mr. Potter, just how bloody dark a world we lived in. I swear — Death Eaters killed damned near as many of their own as they killed Muggles, Mudbloods and Phoenix fanatics. How the hell anyone ever tolerated that cock-up, I'll never know! I didn't want all that sodding mess, but once they had me by the bits, I could never escape. I tried damned hard to keep my nose clean, but you've got to understand that there were times when I had absolutely no choice but to do their bidding." He bit back a sob. "It was either lick their filthy boots, or cut my own damned arm off."

"What did they make you do?" Harry's voice was low and calm. "Who was it? What was their bidding?"

Nott sat shivering, silent but for the slight chatter of his teeth.

"Mr. Nott, if there's anything you tell me now in the privacy of this room that we can somehow use to help that girl — to keep her safe — then I strongly suggest you tell me." Harry leaned in close. "If you help us to protect her, then there's no way any of this should get in the way of your release petition."

"Y-you want t-to help the girl?"

Ginny reached forward to lay her fingers on the old wizard's hand again. "Harry helps people, Mr. Nott. He helped Teddy, he's trying to help you and you can be sure he'll try to help Teri."

Nott nodded.

Harry leaned just a bit further forward — just enough to close ranks and allow Nott to whisper, but not so much as to appear threatening.

Nott swallowed. "I don't know who her parents were, but for most of her life the girl was in the care of a creepy bloke by the name of Roland Lestrange. Roland was two years ahead of me at Hogwarts. Psychotic savant; gave me the bleeding creeps way back then — long before anyone declared him insane."

Harry nodded silently.

Nott glanced anxiously at the privacy screen, but Ginny coughed slightly to catch his attention. "I have privacy charms up, Mr. Nott. Nothing you say in here will come back to haunt you, I promise."

Nott stared at her for a long moment. It wasn't clear that he fully believed her, but he seemed to want to, and that seemed to be good enough. Somehow feeling more secure dealing with a pretty, petite redhead than he felt with Harry Potter, Nott focused on Ginny and his words began to flow.

"Shotley was less than two miles from Roland's place. He was very reclusive, but once or twice a year he would show up on my doorstep and ask me to run some errands — deliver something to Gringotts maybe, or pick up some potions ingredients. Several times I saw a little waif tagging along behind him — pale as a ghost, frightened as a rabbit. Anna tried to draw her out a couple of times, but they never got much further than exchanging glances or perhaps a shy smile. Anyway, by winter of '96, I'd gone quite a while since seeing either of them, but nigh on two years ago — not long after the big Azkaban breakout — Rastaban and Rodolphus showed up on my doorstep in the middle of the night and..."

Nott was sweating and shivering at the same time. Ginny reached deeply into her own mind and tried to project to the man a sense of warmth and calm. "This information could save Teri's life, Mr. Nott. Tell us what happened that night."

Nott gulped deeply and flexed his perspiring hands. "Rastaban had deep gash down his face; Rodolphus had someone's blood all over him. They were steering Teri around like a hobbled lamb — gagged and arms tied behind her. Poor thing looked..." He cringed. "Poor girl was shocked... terrified. She fell to the floor in my entranceway. I was stunned speechless myself; I'd just started helping her up when Rodolphus says..."

Nott's voice quivered and broke. He continued moving his lips, to no avail. He coughed and wheezed somewhat, but still nothing emerged.

Yet a soft voice did rise up, speaking in slow, measured tones.

"Rodolphus said, 'This brat is important to his lordship, Nott. He wants you to keep her safe until she's needed. Fail him, and you die.'"

Shocked at the words spoken in her own voice, Ginny's hand raised from her side and clasped itself over her open mouth.

Nott stared, agape, at Ginny. Ever so slowly, his eyes wide as saucers, he nodded.

Blinking in his own surprise, Harry glanced from Nott, to Ginny, and back again. "Well Mr. Nott..." He breathed deeply. "I hope I can convince you that we didn't intend to drag you through this hell but, well..." He held the early release petition scroll aloft. "The information may well be helpful for keeping Teri, you and Anna all safe. We apologise for your discomfort, but we'll certainly do our best to make it up to you."

Still gobsmacked, Nott turned blankly toward Harry.

Her face dissolving into obvious contrition, Ginny turned to the frightened prisoner. "Yes, please, please accept my apologies, Mr. Nott. I don't know what came over me. It's like you, errr... it seemed to me that you... really really wanted to tell us that.

His eyebrows two high strained arches, Nott turned back to Ginny. He was still struck speechless... but he nodded.

Harry glanced at Nott, then took one final peek toward the floor.

The muscles in Ginny's leg were unquestionably a bit tense... but her foot had still not moved.

Hermione glared at a hangnail that had shown the temerity to appear on her pinky finger. She knew full well that she could mend it with the simplest flick of her wand, but, well... too late.

Removing the now (sort of) repaired finger from her mouth, she exhaled deeply, trying to expel the stress that seemed to be pulsing through not just her, but the entire office. She stared out the window at a pleasant morning blue, inhaled again, then turned to face the others. "Okay then. What would that foul miscreant have wanted with a little child?"

"Good question." Ryan glanced at the Head Girl — his frequent research partner — and fought back the fastidious urge to haul out his wand to cauterise the tiny (but all too familiar looking) spot of blood on her finger. Instead, the Slytherin fifth year turned toward Harry and Ginny. "So is that what you're looking for us to answer, Harry? What could a seven year old orphaned witch possibly have had to her credit that Voldemort might conceivably have believed to be 'useful'?"

Harry shook his head. "No, that's not quite the right slant on this. Riddle is dead and he'll never be coming back, so it shouldn't matter much to us what he may or may not have believed. This is more a question of, well... hmmm..."

Ginny swung around in her chair. "I'd say it's more a concern over whether there's something wrong with the girl. In particular, we would like to rule out the chance that some undetected issue with her magical abilities could lead to risks to herself or to others."

"Yes, I agree." Harry nodded. "In the best case, this could all be a frivolous waste of energy. For all we know, Riddle have have simply recognised her magical potential and wanted to warp her into eventually becoming a top lieutenant. Or perhaps he planned to use her as a hostage. In either of those cases, we have nothing to worry about — the poor girl had a horrid early childhood, but she's been on a path to recovery for a while now. It seems that Nott gave her a stable, normal environment to re-equilibrate in, and she's been making tremendous strides toward healthy social development at Dolwyddelan, so I doubt she'll turn dark now unless there's a terrible unforeseen setback. However, I'd hate to think that we're missing a critical detail — say if Riddle or one of the Lestranges did something really nasty to her years ago that could wreck her future."

"Exactly." Ginny reached for a croissant from the hitherto untouched tray that Dobby had quietly delivered. Buttering the pastry, she began thinking out loud. "If by some chance the girl is carrying around the magical equivalent of a ticking time bomb, it would be best to know sooner, rather than later. The earlier we diagnose a possible problem, the more time we have to try to counteract... whatever hypothetical challenge she, and we, might be facing."

"Hey..." Harry tapped his temple. "Gin', do you suppose we could enlist Bill to take a look at her? Some of the ancient curses he's researched are very slow to progress, but are nonetheless detectable, right?"

"Good thinking!" Ginny nodded enthusiastically. "Gringotts usually gives Bill Saturdays off, so he might even be able to accompany you tomorrow morning."

"But are you planning to explain the situation the girl, Harry?" Hermione was frowning in discomfort. "If you send a curse breaker in to start running wand scans on her, she's bound to suspect that something's amiss."

"Hah — let nobody say I underestimate the little lady." Harry smirked wryly. "Teri won't need a curse breaker poking at her to know that something's wrong. Unless I assemble my Occlumency shield before I step inside the manor, she'll probably have sniffed out a problem and be half way toward characterising it before I even open my mouth."

Hermione stared at him. "She's a Legilimens?!"

Harry pursed his lips. "Not in the usual sense, but she's certainly heading in that direction."

"Huh?" Hermione raised an eyebrow. "I don't understand what you mean."

Ginny smirked. "I believe what Harry's implying is that Teri is not yet at the stage where she can just turn on her magic and read minds indiscriminately, but what Hogarts' best Occlumens finds embarrassing is that there's a little girl who can wander into his head and browse the stacks like a customer at Flourish and Blotts."

"Ah, she has you deciphered, Harry?" Ryan frowned analytically. "Don't feel bad — it's probably just imprinting. Scamander did a study on Augureys once and observed that hatchlings learned far more from their parents in their first couple months than they did from any other bird or beast in the entire rest of their lives. So I assume that when you taught the girl Occlumency, she probably imprinted on you. It was probably her first ever experience with the sensation of mind magic and she soaked up tons of detail about your mind in particular."

"Erm, thanks." Harry smiled uneasily. "Good to have my ego assuaged a bit, but I'm not sure it's comforting to think of anyone imprinting some of the stuff I've stored up here." He tapped his head. "Anyway, I wouldn't be surprised if she's picked up a surprising number of miscellaneous scraps."

The others nodded. Harry gazed around at them soberly. "I would ask that nobody ever repeat any of this, but the girl reached A-level NEWT Occlumency standards about four times faster than I was able to teach any of my seventh years. I never intended to teach her Legimency, but that skill often comes as a natural byproduct to Occlumency training, and I assume she has a rare natural talent for both."

"Brutal!" Ryan whistled. "So here we have a mysterious sprog, raised and abused by nefarious Death Eaters at a young age, declared by Voldemort to be a valuable commodity, and now she's been filling her head with Harry Potter's secrets. It's no wonder you're keeping her so well protected!"

"Er, yes, well..." Ginny pursed her lips. "There's no denying any of that Ryan, but I really don't think Harry or I are comfortable with anyone giving that as the primary reason we're looking out for her welfare."

"No, I'd hate to think we're so coldly calculating." Harry shook his head. "Once again, let me say that she's fundamentally a good kid, and she's far too stubborn to turn dark without serious extenuating circumstances. I'd much prefer you thought that we're trying to offer her stability and support. Isn't it time that someone gave her a chance for a normal life; to play and dream the way that kids do, and to prepare to grow up chasing those dreams? She sure as hell didn't benefit from some paragon of evil trying to control her like a pawn, but I hardly think we'd have the moral high ground if we attempted to do the exact same thing."

"Bravo Harry." For the first time all morning, Hermione smiled. "You certainly ought to have grasped that better than anyone, but I'll still give you credit for not forgetting your own life lessons."

Harry blinked. "Er, thanks Hermione."

"But let's go full circle on this. What would cause a powerful adult to fixate on some orphan?" Hermione stood up and began pacing. "Dumbledore and Voldemort both obsessed over you for years, Harry, because of the prophesy. Do you suppose there's a prophesy on this girl too?"

Harry chuckled wryly. "Well, it's not as if we're going to find out now. Not after six marauding hooligans trashed the Department of Mysteries a couple years ago."

Ginny emitted a noise that could almost have been mistaken for a giggle.

"Er, well, yes. Not likely we'll ever be able to find out the precise contents, if there ever was a prophesy." Ryan rose from his chair to begin pacing the other side of the office. "Do you suppose there might still be some way to learn whether there was a fated decree governing the girl's future?"

Harry shook his head. "Unless we get lucky and find out that multiple people were aware of such a prophesy, then I can't imagine it would be easy. I keep going back in my mind to the ridiculous lengths Riddle went to in trying to track down the prophesy about me, and I can't help but think that's precisely the sort of farce we want to avoid. As of right now, there are very few people with any notion that we're sheltering Teri, and I'd be happiest if we could keep the spotlight completely off her."

Ginny frowned. "That means no prying about the grapevine. We probably shouldn't even risk making inquiries in the Ministry."

Harry nodded. "Okay, so if we can't ask around, can we think of any practical way to discreetly investigate the question of whether or not a prophesy exists?"

Hermione's finger shot up. "Reductio ad absurdum ?"

"Wait! Wait! Umm..." Ginny thought for a moment. "When you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth?"

Ryan grinned. "Elementary, my dear Weasley!"

"Hmmm... The premise would be that it's the only possible explanation for why Riddle would be interested in Teri?" Harry took a long pensive pull on his cold cup of coffee, then scrunched up his face. "No, it's way too difficult for us to classify something as possible or impossible. Remember — Sherlock Holmes was a Muggle; if he was to shadow some average witches or wizards in in action, he'd probably witness a dozen inexplicable things before they even got out the door in the morning."

"Oh yes. Too true." Ginny sighed. "So you'd be stuck with an endless series of questionable eliminations, yeah?"

"Right." Harry reached across his desk for an apple and began polishing it. "So, as of right now we have lots of possible explanations, and I think we need to consider each of them and try to gauge how plausible they are. The latent curse concept is probably the most worrisome, so I'm definitely going to try to get Bill out there tomorrow so see if he can find anything. In the mean time, I'd appreciate it if the rest of you could keep..."

Harry's sentence dangled. He set the apple quietly back onto the desk as he stared straight ahead for a long, pregnant moment, then... "Oi mates! Could we truly all be so thick?!"

Ryan stared at his mentor. "What is it, Harry?"

Harry laughed. "Think back a couple hours. Think back to before Ginny and I called a meeting this morning to tell you that back in 1996 Riddle had taken an alarming interest in Teri. Forgetting all that, what was your impression of the girl?"

Hermione frowned. "Uhhh, bright girl. Misfit. Precocious magic."

Ryan nodded. "Probably Bellatrix's daughter. Quite possibly central to this dark plot with all the exotic magic..."

"Of course!" Ginny pounded the table. "Whatever Bitchy is planning, Tommy must have foreseen too!"

Hermione pursed her lips. "Yes, well the thought had actually already occurred to me, but Voldemort's interest was known two years ago, and he never put a plan in motion, so..."

"Corpus qualia dissection?" Harry grinned. "Is that easy magic, Hermione? What about making personalised sympathetic fetishes? Is that a simple little recipe to occupy a lazy Sunday afternoon?"

"Well, no..."

"Of course not!" Harry smacked a fist into his open hand. "Riddle knew there was some truly fiendish magical potential here; I'll wager he was probably pretty intrigued, but maybe he never found time to develop it. Don't forget that he was driven to a frenzy trying to accelerate his main agenda before the Order and the Ministry unified against him, so I'm guessing that any 'Teri' project he might have considered probably got put on the back burner and stayed there."

Ginny exhaled. "So now Bellatrix has picked up the ball and is running with it."

"I see what you're saying." Hermione nodded.

"Hmm." Ryan chewed his lip thoughtfully. "That would explain a bit, wouldn't it? Good thinking on your feet, Harry."

Back to index


Chapter 13: Elders' Insights

Author's Notes:

No more Splinters or Biscuits -- back to Trix!

Tremendous thanks to everyone who voted for this story for best comedy. It truly has become a comedy, hasn't it? Not in the slapstick manner of the Fuddle Fog series, but more in the silly situations that life can place our friends in. I knew at the very start there was bound to be a comical element to element to the story when I decided the level to which neurotic Slytherins would play a role, but it has gradually solidified as a stronger element than angst. There will still be a bit of darkness ahead, as well as some bitter-sweetness, but I think the story is transforming a bit from original vision.

Anyway, I hope you enjoy the latest round!


Chapter 13. Elders' Insights (Feb. 28 — March 2, 1998)

"Huh." Bill scrunched his face, stroking his chin. "Well most of the curse victims I've worked on have had some kind of preconceived notion of where they might have gotten the affliction. You know — tomb breakers, people who received suspicious gifts, and so forth. It's not so easy to diagnose someone who has no idea how, or even whether, they might have picked up a curse."

"Right." Harry nodded and poured ounce of black coffee into his cup. "I didn't think it would be easy, so I'm not expecting miracles. I guess we're just hoping that you could meet the girl, run some simple tests and take it from there. If you find anything obvious, then great — we'll work on a solution. If something puzzles you, then let us know and we can ponder it."

Ginny smiled at her eldest brother. "To be honest, Bill, it's all just due diligence. We actually don't believe that there's any curse on the girl, other than maybe that very human curse of having had a rotten upbringing."

"Okay, I see where you're going with this." Bill reached for a small notebook and scribbled some quick notes. "I can't guarantee I'll find anything, and it's possible that I'll miss something, but if you're looking for an extra pair of eyes and bit of a different perspective..."

"Exactly!" Harry drained his coffee and rose to his feet. "If you spot of anything now or later, or any little hunches occur to you, then we'll be interested. It doesn't matter if it's in your areas of expertise."

"Understood." Bill nodded, pushed back from the table, and turned to Ginny. "You coming, Snap?"

"Nah." Ginny shook her head. "I'll be hiding up in our den doing what Saturday mornings were truly made for."

"Oh, and that would be...?" Bill raised an eyebrow.

"Poring over Brother Ron's latest Caerphilly scouting notes and preparing to debate Chaser strategy at tonight's meeting."

"Ah!" Bill's eyes widened. "I'd almost forgotten about the match. Monday, right?"

"Yes." Harry sighed. "I hate going into something like that so unprepared, but damn — things have been busy!"

Bill shrugged. "That barely matters, right? You folks probably stack up better against Caerphilly than any against other squad in the Premier League."

Harry frowned at him. "How do you figure?"

Bill casually donned his cloak. "There are only two things keeping Caerphilly out of the basement. Those are..."

"How pathetic Falmouth is?" Ginny suggested with a grin. "Hard to sink beneath a club that hasn't won a match in two years."

"Okay, make that three things." Bill smirked. "But really there are only two reasons why the catapults ever win. First of all, Hermann Wiel is probably the best Keeper in the league..."

"Don't rub it in, Bill." Ginny brandished a nearly blank parchment. "Ron's assessment of Wiel's weaknesses can be neatly summarized in one word. None."

Bill shrugged. "Sure, but Wiel hasn't seen you in action, so he might not be accustomed to Flying Circus antics. Besides, they can't win matches based on a good Keeper alone. The only other reason Caerphilly remains competitive is because, other than Lennox Campbell and Blythe Parkin, the Seekers in the league are historically weak. Four of the Catapults' five victories have been on the Snitch."

Harry wrinkled his brow. "Uh, well, is that because the opposing Seekers are weak, or because Lamont is good? He's played in two World Cups."

"Lamont? Good??" Bill grinned. "To be honest, I idolised Hector Lamont... back in my first year at Hogwarts. Blimey, Harry, he's literally twice your age! If you can sneak past Parkin for the Snitch, then you certainly ought to be able to leave Lamont huffing in the dust long before either squad cobbles together any real lead."

"Maybe." Harry glanced at Ginny. "But since when is anything easy for us? I'll do what I can, but I'd certainly feel better if our Chasers find ways to put a few Quaffles behind Wiel."

Ginny bobbed her head. "Well, yeah, that makes two of us."

Harry hadn't assumed that this was going to be easy. In an ideal world where he'd been able to plan a bit in advance, he would have gently broached the topic with Teri — brought her on board gradually over a couple of weeks rather than suddenly bringing a stranger to see her.

A stranger. A curse-breaker. A Weasley. Harry winced at all of the strikes working against winning Teri's cooperation.

Unfortunately, they had to try, and it pretty well had to be now or never. Tonks and Lupin wanted a quick resolution to the 'curse' question, and this was likely to be Bill's last free Saturday in quite a while (starting next week he had committed to meet with builders contracted to construct a new home for him down on the Cornish coast), so Harry had been forced to spring the visit on the girl with only a day's notice.

If not outright hostile, Teri was not especially welcoming. She stood over by the window of the drawing room, facing away, gazing out into the mist, nodding or mumbling in response to some of Harry's questions, ignoring others, and assiduously avoiding any eye contact with Bill who remained standing carefully (uncomfortably) just inside the entrance.

Harry sighed. "Yes, well I knew it would be a touchy subject, Teri, but this is only a precaution. Everyone likes to believe that we each control our own destiny. We all would like to think that our decisions are our own..."

Teri shrugged, but said nothing, so Harry continued. "In the vast majority of cases, our decisions really are our own. But, every once in a while, there comes a person, or a situation, where all that self-determination stuff is thrown into doubt."

"Oh yes?" Teri fidgeted slightly; her voice was low and contained no aggression, but Harry could detect a slight acidity to it. "And I'm your exception?"

Harry shook his head. "Actually Teri, I was thinking about myself."

Teri went stock-still.

"For the longest time, I had no idea who was running my life." Harry leaned back in his arm chair; his eyes drifting toward the fire. "A couple of years ago, I was forever stumbling about through one horrendous misadventure after another. There were some strange accolades in there — winning the Triwizard Championship, saving a few people's lives, but it was all haphazard, meaningless and depressing. Every time I succeeded in something, it seemed hollow, and in fact generally proved to be hollow, because for every good thing I thought I had accomplished, it was stained by nasty repercussions."

Harry glanced at Teri who remained quietly attentive, even if she hadn't yet turned to face him. He leaned over to add a stick of wood to the fire. "I was horribly conflicted. On one hand, I had the sense of half believing that I was being manipulated, while also half hopeful that I was breaking that manipulation. Everything finally collapsed around me and, in the dust and debris of it all, my head was raging in pain from having been possessed by Voldemort who had just announced for all the world to see that he was back and prepared to kill and conquer. And, if all that wasn't bad enough..." Harry paused for a moment, lowering his voice to a bare whisper. "I had just been manipulated into leading my own godfather into the trap that killed him."

Ever so softly came the sound of Teri inhaling. Harry regarded her for a moment, then spoke once more toward her oblique form. "Nobody's saying that you're being manipulated, Teri, but take it from me — the only thing as bad as being manipulated is worrying that you might be getting jerked around like that; not knowing how to find out for sure, and not knowing what to do about it."

Teri turned slowly — enough to allow Harry to see the corner of her eye, but still not acknowledging Bill's presence. She exhaled, softly but raggedly. "I understand, Mister Harry. But can't you run the tests? Can't you learn the tests from him...?" Her thumb twitched slightly in Bill's direction. "And then you and I can work on them together? Just the two of us, alone?"

Harry steepled his fingers. "It might not be the most efficient way, but I suppose I could try."

Teri nodded; a trace of enthusiasm beginning to tinge her body language.

"But..." Harry paused and hummed softly to himself for a moment. "Teri, I would hate to deprive your of this opportunity to learn a few curse breaking techniques from a true master."

Bill's eyebrow shot up. He opened his mouth, about to voice an obvious protest about the legality of teaching curse breaking to a minor. Then that little part of the responsible, decorous eldest Weasley (a mischievous part that showed he was also related to Fred and George and, for that matter, to Ginny and Charlie) shot Harry a glance... and smirked.

Harry's eyes twinkled slightly for Bill's benefit, then he turned back to Teri in earnest seriousness.

Teri turned to face him in full. "Mister Harry, I-I'm going to learn some curse breaking?"

Harry nodded. "Sure, if you're up for a little challenge?"

Teri's eyes widened. "How much?"

Harry blinked. "Er, how much what?"

"How much curse breaking are you — I mean him..." She gestured at Bill again. "How much is he going to teach me?"

Harry shrugged. "Well, I can only really guarantee his availability this morning. There are another two and a half hours before we have to leave, so I guess it all depends on how much motivation and energy you and Bill have."

"Two and a half hours?" Teri stared for a moment as calculations ran through her head. Abruptly she turned to Bill, her hands on her hips. "Well Mr. Weasley, what are you waiting for? Mister Harry, might you please see if Kreacher can bring some tea and scones for our guest?"

"... so Mr. Weasley is right, Mister Harry — you'll have a big advantage against Lamont and you'll really need to press it on Monday in case their Keeper gets really hot again. Did you know that against Kenmare, he stopped 48 out of 51 shots and if Aidan Kiely hadn't finally caught the snitch, the Kestrels would have lost! And that was when the Kestrels were in third place, so you can see how dangerous it is to..."

"Er, Sugar Plum?" Harry held out his palm.

"... how dangerous it is to lay off the Snitch against Caerphilly." Teri noticed Harry's raised hand and blinked. "Yes, Mister Harry?"

Harry smiled. "Teri, you have Bill's cloak."

Teri blinked again and turned to stare at her hand which was, indeed, holding the long blue cloak she had retrieved from the closet. She laughed and handed it to Bill.

"Thank you Teri." Bill smiled at the girl and accepted his garment.

"You're welcome sir. But Mister Harry — before I forget, please tell Miss Ginny that a Chaser can sometimes beat Wiel by flying above him and shooting for the bottom fringe of the leftmost hoop. For some reason he doesn't like those dropping laterals..."

Having followed Harry and Bill to the front threshold, Teri paused in chagrin. If not for her thin dress and a cold drizzle outside, she likely would have followed them all the way to the ward lines without even realising it. But as it was, the time had clearly come to bid farewell.

"Good work today, Teri." Harry turned from the edge of the landing. "See you next week!"

"Well done, curse breaker!" Bill also turned and waved. "Don't suppose you'd come to the Orkneys with me next Thursday to help me clear up an issue with the stone circle up there?"

"Er, I don't know if I'm allowed to leave Dol..." Teri paused and blushed. "You're joking, right?"

"Only partly." Bill smiled. "You probably learned as much in two hours as my last apprentice did in his first week."

"Oh." She scuffed her feet self consciously on the welcome mat. "Well that's only because you're a good teacher, Mr. Weasley."

Bill grinned to see, beneath the girl's diffident blush, the distinct trace of a smile.

After the farewells, Teri stood in the entrance way for nearly a minute watching the two wizards recede into the mist... until Andromeda noticed the chill of an open door, and came over to summon her back inside.

Entering the woods at the fringe of the property. Bill glanced back at the manor. "Quite the spark plug! You ought to get her talking Quidditch with Ron."

"Heh." Harry gave Bill an equivocal smirk. "Spark plug, yes. Talk Quidditch with Ron? No thank you."

"Oh?" Bill stooped to pick up a branch that had fallen onto the path. "She and Ronnie have a history?"

"You could say that. Remember the broken arm he suffered over the holidays? A part of Ron still kind of blames her for that."

"Seriously?" Bill gave Harry a curious look. "He was pretty vague about the incident. If I remember correctly, the extent of his explanation was basically, 'er, cough, fell off a broom.'"

Harry nodded. "And that's accurate as far as it goes. In truth we still don't know exactly what happened to him other than to say that the circumstances were suspicious. I can state with confidence that it wasn't Teri's fault... although admittedly she wasn't exactly helping matters at the time."

Bill gave Harry a shrewd look. "She was goading him?"

"I'm afraid so. Not one of her finest moments." Harry paused a moment to squint through the mist to locate the final path across the meadow to the Dolwyddelan Apparation point. "I'm actually rather glad she got on so well with you today, Bill. She's decided that Ron is a plonker, believes that the twins are cheaters, and considers Ginny intimidating; I was starting to wonder if she simply had a thing against Weasleys."

"Well blimey Harry, a lot of Slytherins do, don't they?" Bill chuckled. "Not all of us get on as badly with that crowd as Ron does, but we have a bit of a reputation, and not all of it is undeserved."

"I suppose so." Harry shrugged. "In any case, I'm glad she interacted so well today."

"Yes, no problems there. It doesn't hurt that I have some good experiences in mentoring powerful little witches."

Harry grinned as he caught the subtle allusion. He knew that there had been a few bumps in the road, but it was clear to Harry that Bill would always be Ginny's favourite brother.

"So Bill..." Harry paused at the Apparition point. "Did you detect anything magically problematic about Teri? Any red flags?"

Bill thought for a moment. "Obviously her magical instincts are unusually strong, but that's an observation, not a red flag. All of my standard curse affliction analyses came out negative."

"Right." Harry glanced at him in unsurprised affirmation. "But any non-standard observations?"

"Yes — one subtle thing that I don't have a simple explanation for." Bill frowned. "In order to be confident about curse detection, I always try to measure and subtract out background magic — people's auras, old spell residues, plus any active wards.

Harry nodded. "Makes sense. So, you found something in the background?"

"Exactly. Whenever she moves around, I'm detecting this low-level oscillation that follows her — I'd kind of imagine it being like a swirl you'd see when someone walks through low-lying mist."

"Oscillations?" Harry squinted in thought. "So that's something you wouldn't normally expect?"

Bill shrugged. "I routinely get little bumps and intermittent fluctuations, but this is more of a constant noise."

"What do you think it might mean?"

"I don't know for sure." Bill shook his head. "Instinctively, I'm guessing it's something you would observe for a spell that was being mostly, but not completely blocked."

Harry suppressed a shiver as a small gust of wind shook cold droplets off the overhead branches. "Can you give me an example?"

"Hmmm..." Bill kneaded his temple for a moment. "Maybe like someone casting a strong Expelliarmus against a wizard whose shield was up."

"I was afraid you'd say that." Harry groaned under his breath. "Well I'm afraid there's one little understudy who won't be accompanying you to Orkney next week."

Ryan held aloft two strange, woven... things...

Hermione gestured toward the objects. "The reeds used to make both of these were simply harvested from a marsh at the corner of Black Lake."

"We could have borrowed actual wand-wood from Professor Flitwick, but we wanted to make them as authentically as possible," Ryan added, leaning back as Dobby whisked a tray of sandwiches and fruit onto the table.

Hermione nodded. "We ran some wand making tests on the reeds. If we steam-treated them and bound them together into tight cords, we found we could produce material with about the same magical focusing capacity as what Ollivander might consider to be marginal wand woods, like balsa or larch."

Ryan held the two scraggly fetishes to the side to examine them. "It seemed that if we bundled a number of cords together the right way we could improve the magical conduction behaviour, but we weren't able to figure out a reliable strategy for that, so we mostly just cobbled together these shapes by trial and error."

"Right." Hermione laid her notes on the table. "We're definitely still novices at this, but the two Bocios do work. Somewhat."

Tonks leaned over to select a sandwich from the tray. "So who are the little dollies anyway?"

"Both are coupled to me. One of them has some of my hair clippings." Ryan held up the fetish in in left hand. "The other has a few drips of my blood for comparison purposes."

"They're also both bound together with Ryan's old stockings." Hermione gestured at wool scraps tied about the centre of each.

"Interesting." Lupin nodded thoughtfully. "So will you be giving us a demonstration?"

"Er, well..." Hermione glanced uncertainly at Ryan. "I suppose we could..."

Ryan nodded. "Sure, why not?" He stood and carried the two fetishes over to the window sill, leaving them to stand there as he returned to his seat. "Now you should be able to see Hermione cast spells on the fetishes over there, and have the spells affect me over here." He grinned Hermione. "Be gentle, please."

Hermione smiled. She pointed her wand toward the rightmost fetish. "Nuntius Capillos! "

Murmurs swept the room as Ryan's hair suddenly scattered into horrendously pillow-mussed disarray.

Ginny grinned. "Don't suppose you could make me a Blaise Zabini Bocio, do you?"

Ryan chuckled. "Anything for a price." He glanced back to Hermione. "Now can you tame the coiffe again please? I don't want to I accidentally poke someone's eyes with this mess."

Hermione again pointed her wand toward the rightmost fetish, but Harry raised his hand. "Could you try this spell using the other fetish, 'Mione?"

Hermione frowned. "Well, yes, I can. But the effect will be weaker. My spells work a lot better through the one on the right, since the blood core couples a lot more strongly."

Harry nodded. "Please try it anyway. I doubt Bellatrix had much blood to work with, so I want to get a feel for how much variation you get from the different recipes."

Lupin pursed his lips. "Good idea. It would stand to reason that Lestrange likely had quite a bit of variety in the quality of substances she used for making the various fetishes.

"True." Hermione moved her wand a bit to the left. "Bonem Corrigens."

Everyone all watched as Ryan's hair shivered somewhat, began settling, but did not quite fall back into its normal straightness.

Hermione turned to Harry. "Maybe you'd like to try to finish the spell?"

"Okay, but..." Harry sat back, examining the fetish on the left. "How should I approach the casting? I don't do magic like you -- once one goes all wandless, magic is less directional. With a wand you need to point the right direction and know the right enunciation and hand motion, but for me it doesn't matter if I stare at Ryan or at the fetish or at the ceiling; if I want to cast a spell to straighten Ryan's hair, my magic will focus on straightening Ryan's hair."

"Ah, interesting dilemma." Ginny's glance darted from fetish to Harry to Ryan. "Would it be a fair test if Harry tried to straighten the fetish's hair? "

Ryan and Hermione stared at each other.

"Hmmm." Ryan chewed his lip. "Well, why not try it? I have no idea if it will work, but it's an interesting question."

Harry shrugged. "Well, it won't be easy, considering that the fetish doesn't exactly have hair, but..."

"Wait." Ginny met the Slytherin student's eye. "Why not put a shield up, Ryan? That way Harry will be forced to try channeling through the fetish."

"Either that or he'll knock me over." Ryan grinned and reached into his pocket for his wand. "Protego! "

"This is bloody brill!" Tonks clenched the table excitedly. "Why don't DMLE teams ever do interesting stuff like this in their meetings?"

Harry rolled his eyes, but only fleetingly. In an instant, before anyone could propose any more challenges, he was already focusing on the fetish and assembling his magic.

Harry had never tried to magically straighten anyone's hair before and (prior to Hermione's spell a short while ago) he hadn't even known there was a documented spell to do so but, like all of his magic these days, he approached the task instinctively. Feeling the magic beginning to pulse out from his chest toward his arms, Harry looked at the fetish — its braided reeds folded back and forth into a small humanoid shape bound together with scraps of two stockings. He tried to picture the small head as having unruly hair that he wanted to tidy...

It didn't work. The reed cords twitched and twisted slightly against their constraints, but nothing happened to Ryan.

Harry was suddenly hit with an inspiration — maybe the fetish was best viewed not as a representation of his student, but rather as a magical portal to him.

Staring at the reed bundle, Harry blotted out details of its construction, and instead imagined it as empty... a tunnel... Somewhere within that tunnel, Harry tried to picture his target...

No.

Harry shook his head. Bellatrix was quite possibly casting spells from hundreds of miles away as if she was right in the same room as the victim. Surely she wouldn't picture her target as being 'somewhere' in that tunnel; Surely the target needed to feel 'close' — just as close as the fetish itself.

Having fixed his target, Harry let his magic flow...

"Well done, Harry!" Hermione beamed at him. "You got through without any problem, even though that Bocio was fairly weak."

Harry turned around to look at Ryan, whose dark hair was not only perfectly straight but seemed to have grown several inches. Harry rubbed his chin. "Blimey. And Ryan has one of the strongest shields at Hogwarts."

Ryan shrugged. "Your spell didn't go anywhere near my shield, Harry. If it had, I would have felt it."

Harry glanced from Ryan to Hermione. "Are you two planning to do tests across the Hogwarts ward boundaries?"

The two students nodded.

Ginny frowned. "Maybe try Dolwyddelan too? Some of the new wards we established there are different from what the castle has."

"Right — my thoughts precisely." Harry steepled his fingers. "I consider tests at Dolwyddelan to be doubly important now. Bill's observations this morning suggests to me that a tiny bit of Lestrange's influence might still be getting through. It's weak enough for Teri to block pretty easily, but..."

Ginny sighed. "But only as long as Trashy Trixie doesn't improve her own technique."

Harry nodded.

"Effortlessly casting spells across shields and wards?" Lupin kneaded his brow worriedly. "I never would have believed it possible. This could completely undermine the entire OWL and NEWT level hex defence chapters."

"More fundamental than that, Remus." Tonks shook her head. "The real problem is that it makes a bleeding monkey out of a lot of Auror and Hit Wizard defensive training. That's a tad scary, mates."

Harry nodded earnestly. "That's why it's critical to move past this phase and onto the next."

Tonks leaned forward in her seat. "Which is?"

"Countermeasures." Hermione stood and gathered her scrolls together. "Now that we know how to make these things, we need to figure out how to break them." Slinging her ruck sack over she shoulder, she turned to the fifth year Slytherin student, "I think it's time to get back to work, Jenkins."

Making his way back up the castle's front steps, Ron Weasley stepped out of the preternatural brightness of a beautiful early spring day, and into the morose gloom of the Entrance Hall.

Along with the adjoining Great Hall, the corridors felt thoroughly desolate. Being a Sunday afternoon, and a beautiful one at that, the castle had been abandoned by nearly all of the students (and even many faculty) who were out joyously frolicking on the grounds.

Not Ron though; he groaned at the thought of spending the rest of the afternoon in a Flying Circus meeting.

Not long ago, the thought of sitting in on a high level Quidditch strategy meeting would have been more than adequate compensation for missing out on a few golden rays. Not today, though. He was actually feeling a bit (gasp!) sick of the game... having just finished a very different Quidditch session — another miserable Gryffindor squad practice. Confident that nobody was around to see him, Ron let his shoulders slump and, for a moment, lowered his face despairingly into his hands.

As Ron saw it, his woes all boiled down to one simple fact — the Gryffindor's Chaser corps was pathetic. He had tried to cajole, mentor and mould them. He had tried, tried, TRIED! But now, sixty percent of the way through the season, their play was just as hopelessly uncoordinated as ever, and simply couldn't find decent ways to score.

Even in practice. They had played a full hour-long scrimmage (Ron had been joined by Coote and Peakes) in defending against the Chasers, and the Chasers had scored a grand total of... once.

Ron raised his head and began to trudge his way up the grand staircase. Within a moment, he found himself making that familiar journey from demoralisation to impotent indignation — the kind of moral journey where deeply suppressed ulterior motivations begin to seep through. He gritted his teeth.

Ginny just doesn't understand!!

Yes, that was the real problem. It wasn't so much that Gryffindor's offense sucked so badly — it was more a matter of the fact that Ginny had finished her N.E.W.T.s so early, depriving the house of two years of her playing eligibility, and forcing him (as captain) to remake the whole team. What's worse, she was rising to levels of stardom unheard of by Weasley standards. And what was absolutely worst was that little Miss Bright Rising No-Longer-Gryffindor Star had the gall to not only show no remorse for leaving her rightful squad, but actually even criticize him about the ways in which he tried to adjust for her absence.

Ron shook his head vigourously. Of course Ginny (the perfect Harpies recruit) would stick up for other girls and moan about how much better Gryffindor would be better with Lisa and Stephanie playing, but why couldn't Ginny (who supposedly had impressed professional scouts with her Quidditch acumen) understand the liabilities of having an all girl Chaser corps??

Not that George was much better — always agreeing with Ginny, then reminiscing about the three-girl-Chaser glory days of Alicia Spinnet, Angelina Johnson and Katie Bell.

What a daft comparison! Alicia and Angelina were big girls and could hold their own against the blokes. Lisa Parkes, Stephanie Burroughs and Demelza Robbins were all tiny, and they'd only get pushed around. Blimey, playing those three together would give Gryffindor a front line at least three stones lighter than any of the other squads!

'So what difference do a few stones make, Ronniekins?' Fred would then quip. 'Seems to me that the stones you should be concerned about are the ones in Dean's and Seamus's heads.

Bloody unhelpful, undercutting siblings!!

And now, Ron observed ironically to himself, he was just two more flights of stairs and one corridor away from spending all gorgeous afternoon freely donating his valuable time to those oh-so-very gracious and appreciative siblings...

Uh, well okay, he was also helping Harry. At least Harry appreciated him, but the others?

Well, for starters, there was Zabini (slimy snake!) who made it abundantly clear he tolerated Ron's presence only as a favour to Harry. Then there was Keith Summerby (filthy tosser!) who had scored nine goals on Ron in the ill-fated Hufflepuff match last month and had assisted on fourteen others. Pah!

And there was Grant Page who...

Ron scrunched his face up reflectively.

Nah, Page was okay. He was a Ravenclaw (and thus, by definition, a bit of a dork), but he was a bloody fine Keeper and had given Ron some really sharp advice on net-minding techniques...

Even still, this group was hardly Ron's cup of tea. They were flashy, talented, jocular... and they offered barely any appreciation whatsoever for the effort he put into scouting and strategising on their behalf, when he'd much rather be strolling along the lake with his girlfriend...

His girlfriend...?

Ron's weary climb part way up the final flight of steps to the sixth floor ground to a halt, and he issued a deep, plaintive sigh.

Maybe that was what was bugging him so much? Maybe it wasn't all of the under appreciation, snarky siblings, and brash athletes. Maybe it was that Ron missed his girlfriend?

Sure he saw her often enough in the Gryffindor common room, and they usually took a couple meals together each day, but they almost never spent time... alone.

Ron couldn't deny that even if he himself hadn't been tied up with these tiresome Flying Circus meeting, he would still not be able to spend a quality Saturday afternoon with Hermione, because she was stuck in the library at all hours with that weird, snotty, fifth-year Slytherin, researching some obscenely exciting dangerous something or other that Ron knew nothing about.

It used to be that when Hermione was up to exciting, dangerous stuff, it meant that he (Ron) was a part of it. Why not now? He had survived some of the most ridiculously dodgy capers with Harry and Hermione over the years, so why wouldn't they come to him for...?

"Roonil!"

Ron jumped at the sound of a frantic female voice. He set his bewildered eyes on the hastily approaching figure of...

Daphne Greengrass??

"Roonil, did you see which way they went?!"

"Whuh? Who went what??" Ron blinked wildly at the girl.

"What do you mean, 'who'?" The annoying Slytherin girl put her hands on her hips and rolled her eyes. "Harry, Blasé, Summy, Pagey and those crazy Weasleys of course! They were all up in the commons just a minute ago. I excused myself to go to the loo, and when I got back they'd all vanished!"

"Vanished??" Ron's blinking and his nervous hand gestures seemed to be agitating the girl, but he couldn't help himself. "What do you mean, vanished? Where'd they go?"

"Umm, Roonie..." Daphne seized both of Ron's aimlessly flitting hands and stared up at him with raised eyebrows. "That's what I was asking you. Have you seen them?"

Wide-eyed, Ron shook his head.

"Well, do you suppose we should go find them, then?"

Ron stared at her. "Whuhh??"

Daphne closed her eyes, counted silently to three, and re-opened them. "Do you suppose that we..." She released his hands so that she could carefully tap his chest then gesture back toward herself. "... should go find..." She put a hand to her brow and pretended to scan the empty corridor. "Them!" She swept her arms in an encompassing gesture.

"Errr..."

"Roonie, if we don't find them, we're liable to miss the meeting."

Ron blinked. "Miss the meeting...?"

Daphne examined him incredulously. "Missing the meeting would be a 'bad' thing, Roonil. They have that big match in Wales tomorrow, and I can't staaannnd the thought of them trying to play without the benefit of your wisdom."

"Errmmm..." Ron blinked again and scratched his jaw.

"Besides..." Daphne's jaw firmed into something a bit steelier than her usual demeanour. "As far as we know, they might be in trouble!"

"Trouble?"

"Trouble!" Daphne nodded emphatically. "Seven people don't just vanish like that, Roonie. What if something happened to them?"

"Bloody hell!" Ron's eyebrows rocketed into his red fringe. "Where did they go?!"

"That's what I was just asking y..." Daphne froze, then slowly pointed down to the fifth floor landing below Ron. "What's that?"

Ron's eyes tracked in the direction of Daphne's finger and settled on a messy confection lying on the stones below him, hastily discarded and partially squished. "Why that's a..." He frowned. "I'd know those sodding things at midnight with my eyes closed. That's a Canary Cream!"

"Canary Cream?" Daphne tapped her chin. "Your brothers make those, right?"

Ron nodded, frowning. "Must have dropped one on their way down the stairs. I wonder how they got past me?"

Daphne crossed past him on the way down to the landing. "Oh look! Someone stepped in the cream. There are little greasy footprints going... that way." Her eyes tracked to the side. "They didn't get past you, Roon-roon; they veered off before you got here. Those tracks lead off onto the fifth floor corridor."

"Harry's office, maybe?" Ron hurried down to join her, and they entered into the dim corridor. "Damn. How are we going to see the tracks in this low light?"

Daphne knelt down and pointed her wand toward the last footprint illuminated by the light from the stairwell. "Vestigia Invenire! " Suddenly a long line of prints glowed white in the dusky hallway.

"Huh?" Ron stared. "Where'd you learn that spell?"

Daphne grinned. "DADA class last October. You were there too, right?"

"I? Uh, yeah, of course." Ron began following the tracks. "So, Harry's office is right around this bend. I'll bet..."

Daphne caught up with Ron and joined him in staring at the line of prints which continued straight past Harry's office without veering. "Of course, Wazlib. You'd bet they continued on past the office, heading somewhere else?"

"Uh yeah." Ron looked around perplexedly.

The trail swung to the right, down a short spur corridor, leading to a closed door. Ron glanced at it dubiously. "They're in there?"

Daphne shook her head. "They probably did go through that door, but I doubt they're still in there — it's just a staircase."

"Staircase? Where to?"

"It's a short cut down to the dungeons."

"Ugh." Ron made a face. "Why the hell would they head for the dungeons?"

"Dunno Roonie." Daphne shrugged. "Hopefully we'll find out."

After whispering a spell to open the locked door, Daphne led them through it and knelt again to renew the footprint-revealing spell which had been starting to fade. The pair gazed down the dark narrow stairwell, illuminated only by a single torch several floors below, and by the ghostly white footprints.

"I don't like this." Ron scowled. "All seven of them suddenly bolting, and heading down to the dungeons by the queerest path. It's like they've all gone mad."

Daphne shrugged again. "I hope not; they're so much cuter when they're happy."

"Ehh..." At a loss for words, Ron closed his mouth and frowned perplexedly.

After descending enough steps for Ron to begin despairing of ever emerging from the cramped staircase, the footprints finally reached a final earthen landing and headed toward an old wooden door. Daphne leaned her shoulder into it, and it swung back, revealing an odd green illumination of the corridor beyond.

Ron followed her through and found himself emerging from behind a large suit of armor into a hallway he had only ever traversed a few times — the main route to the Slytherin common room, currently lit only by the soft, water-filtered sunlight of the lake above.

Ron's gaze traced the faint footprints, and his eyes widened. "Bloody hell! They must really have all gone mental!"

"Oh?" Daphne gave him a wry look. "And what makes you say that, Wazlib?"

"They all went, uhh..." Ron gestured shakily toward the entrance to Slytherin House. "They all went in there."

"Hmm." Daphne's eyes narrowed. "I admit that the choice seems a little... surprising? But with all of the students gone outside, maybe Blasé and Harry just wanted somewhere with a bit more space than the sixth floor commons?"

Ron swore under his breath. "I can't go in there!"

"Sure you can, Roonie. I'll escort you in, and we'll get to the bottom of this delightful little mystery."

"But..." Ron stared balefully at the entrance way. "Ugh, okay."

Daphne smiled sweetly. "That's my brave little Gryffindor." She took his hand and began tugging his reluctant form toward the green-lit chamber.

Ron shook his head as he stumbled along the polished stone passageway. "If this is a trap, I swear I'll hex Zabini, or Ginny, or Fred and George or whoever is responsible for such a bloody tasteless..."

"SURPRISE!!!"

Ron leaped three feet in the air; wand flailing wildly at...

Luna, Neville, and Hannah Abbott...

Zabini, Summerby and Page...

Fred and George; Harry and Ginny...

And Hermione...

Ron's girlfriend came up to him with a big grin on her face; wrapping her arms around him as Daphne charmed a silly-looking tasseled hat to stay on his head.

Hermione kissed him on the cheek. "Happy birthday, Ron."

"Whuh? Birthd...?" Ron gaped at the others, who all seemed to be wearing equally silly hats. "Is today March first?"

Hermione nodded, grinning.

A red tinge creeping up from his neck, Ron glanced sheepishly about at the smiling faces. "Aww, thanks mates!"

Don't thank us..." Fred winked at his younger brother. "... until after you've tried the cake."

"Enchantresses and gentlewizards, do not adjust your dial. I am going to lower my voice to the barest of murmurs. I would like you to hear something very special..."

[Airy sound of the wind, slowly rising into a lilting, undulating chant, scaling up to a lone high C before falling away into a patter of overlaid whispers...]

"Ah! So beautiful, Septimo! After eleven years of broadcasting in this league, I never get tired of that sound."

"Yes indeed Richard! And that, dear listeners at home, was the Caerphilly Choir and String Ensemble's impression of the mournful call of the Banshee Sini, beckoning all Catapults faithful to Dai Llewellyn Stadium here atop beautiful Mynydd Meio."

"Eh, well, if the Banshee's call sounded just a little more mournful than usual this evening, it might be a reflection of the difficult times that the storied Caerphilly Catapults franchise finds itself in these days. Not since Dai Llewellyn himself ruled the skies here with his brash rolls and Quaffle picks have the hills of south central Wales had much to cheer about."

"That's true, Richard, and the gate proceeds have suffered in these recent years of mediocre squads. However, as you and I have been discovering, there seems to be one sure-fire way to inject a bit of thrill back into anyone's lagging Quidditch culture."

"Beg pardon, Septimo? And what would that sure-fire thrill injection be?"

"Elementary, dear Richard. Just set up a match with that barmiest bunch of blazing barn-burners — The Great Zabini Flying Circus! "

[Chuckles] "Well, I can't deny that The Circus is quite the entertaining crew or aerial rogues, Septimo, but there's one little problem with that quick fix. I think it sets up the thousands of faithful fans here tonight to witness their beloved Catapults in yet another raw defeat."

"Richard, I'm impressed! You're going to pipe up in front of the entire Wizarding nation plus all of our overseas subscribers and make a prediction?"

"I, er, yes. But don't you agree?"

"Of course, Richard. I just finished speaking with four highly respected Quidditch journalists, and there was a unanimous consensus that Blaise Zabini's exhibition squad stacks up exceptionally well against Caerphilly."

"Should we break down the match ups for our listeners, Sept?"

"Certainly, Richard. Let me say up front that I believe there's only one pairing in tonight's match that really matters, and it's not the one that everyone's been talking about."

"Eh? You don't think the Keepers will decide matters tonight then, Sept?"

"That's correct — I don't believe so. I admit that a tremendous amount of attention has been paid to the battle between the best Keeper in the British Irish Premier League, Hermann Weil, and the best British Keeper who's not currently in any League, Grant Page. However, on a crystal clear night up here in the thin mountain air, I'm absolutely convinced that all of those two Keepers' best efforts will only set the stage for the real drama."

"Which is?? Spit it out, Septimo — the suspense is killing me!"

"It all comes down to how quickly the young Harry Potter torches old Gramps Lamont for the Snitch."

"Whoa, whoa! Hold your Hippogriffs, Sept! Don't you realise that hundreds of fans have likely just cast Reductor curses on their wireless sets to hear such apostasy?"

"Just telling it like it is, Richard."

"Don't you pay heed to those youth versus experience debates? Potter may have nifty moves, but Lamont's surely picked up some foxy instincts in his nineteen years of professional play."

"True, but Potter made a believer out of me in Wigtown, Richard. There were layers and layers of his own foxiness in the last play for the Snitch; you and I may never know the whole story there. Besides, no Seeker who bested Blythe Parkin has anything to fear from a thirty eight year old Hector Lamont."

[Whistles] "High praise, Septimo! So, what other subplots should we be looking for tonight?"

"Well, there's the battle for the Bludgers. What I'm going to be watching for on that front, Richard, is whether play is dictated by the three S's of skill, speed and stamina, or whether it will all come down to survival."

"No end to the provocative statements tonight, is there? Would you care to elaborate on your fourth 'S', Septimo?"

"Sure Richard. Let me phrase it like this — one of the Weasley brothers committed a distinctly unsportsmanlike act in the Wigtown. If either Fred or George Weasley pull anything like that tonight, they're liable to wind in St. Mungo's."

"Ah yes, of course. The Caerphilly Beaters take no guff."

"That's a bit of an understatement, Richard. The Catapult's headline Beater, Frank Broadmoor, is every bit the nephew of those notoriously chippy Broadmoor brothers who played for the Falmouth Falcons back in the 60's. Now, if Broadmoor is a bit of an old style aggro, he had nothing on his line mate. Lemuel Dobbin is, according to my son's dialect, what we might call a real chav."

"You don't sound like a big fan of the Caerphilly Beaters, Sept?"

"No Richard. I'd rather not sound partisan, but Quidditch is dangerous enough without contaminating the skies with thugs and sociopaths. The Weasley twins may have the Bludger handling skills to compete with Premier League Beaters, but I'm not sure I want to find out if they're tough enough to roll with the thuggish underside of the modern game."

"So good luck to them, eh? And what's your take on the Chaser match up?"

"Clear advantage to The Circus on that one, Richard. Weasley, Summerby and Zabini have a cohesive style that reminds me of the best National Junior squads and, believe me, that's a compliment. On the Caerphilly end, things are more fractious. Sophomore Chaser Ismail Acemoglu is a top end talent, but he hasn't integrated well with veterans Filemina Aitken and Katherine Higgs. Taken separately, those are three fine Chasers, but the chemistry isn't there for them to put many Quaffles behind a hot Keeper like Grant Page."

"Ah. Now what about the battle on the opposite end of the pitch, Septimo? What about Ginny Weasley versus Hermann Wiel?"

"I honestly can't project that one, Rich, but I'll be excited to find out. Everyone knows that Weasley is ready to take her Chaser act to the big stage, but tonight's match up is a fine test for her. Let's just say this — if she scores as many as five Quaffles before her boyfriend pulls down the Snitch, then I'll stick my neck out and project her as a top candidate for the 1999 Premier League rookie of the year."

"Well well well, dear listeners! A plethora of predictions from the Oracle of Aragon — Mr. Septimo Aurrera!"

"Er okay. On that awkward note, let's take you down to our correspondent covering the opening ceremony."


Harry slowed his flight and descended a bit as the stadium announcer proclaimed the arrival on the pitch the match's honourary marshall, Agatha Llewellyn. Watching her measured walk out to the centre of the field, he didn't even notice that he had company.

"Feels rather like I'm a part of history."

Harry's glance darted to his right, to find the speaker — a slight, wiry man with greying hair. Harry blinked in surprise. "History, Mr. Lamont? How so?"

The elder Seeker's eyes remained leveled toward the pitch-level preparations, but his lips turned slightly in a vague half-smile. "The great Harry Potter leaving his brief indelible mark on Quidditch. Capturing a nation's attention for another brief moment of brilliance."

"Brief? Brilliance?" Harry stared at him. "Sir, I'm hardly brilliant at Quidditch... and who knows how brief I'll be?"

"Brilliance is a trajectory." Lamont turned to face Harry directly. "When the sun makes its first joyful leap above the eastern hills, it is sheer brilliance. Yet the moment it clears the horizon, it is simply there — illuminating our day perhaps, but no longer dazzling; no longer new."

"Ah." Harry nodded in recognition. "Well, you would know more about Quidditch brilliance than I, Mr. Lamont."

"I know a little." Lamont shrugged; his piercing grey eyes scrutinising Harry. "I know not to blink when I see it. I know what to savour." He smiled. "Have a great match, Harry."

A quizzical look on his face, Harry watched the veteran's scarlet and green stripes flutter off toward the other end of the pitch. Turning ostensibly toward the distant sight of some politician winding up a short ceremonial speech down below, Harry waited for the release of the Snitch... and pondered the brevity of the moment.


Ginny Weasley was... in the zone!

In the barest of split seconds, her eyes swept the skies in front; her ears and other unknown senses mapped out to the periphery, above, below, behind...

And yet again, just like her previous five trips down the pitch, everything made perfect sense — her beloved brothers were again driving both Bludgers way off to the fringe; Zabini was tying up Aitken in knots; Summerby swerved and dodged off to the left to keep the Quaffle clear of Higgs... and Acemoglu was juddering about directly ahead — fear painted in his eyes.

When you're truly in the zone, your every choice seems to make sense. Sometimes you choose to bring out your top shelf moves. Sometimes you don't.

On this particular drive, Ginny didn't feel like doing anything wild. She knew Acemoglu was expecting another crazy barrel roll, or perhaps a stomach-squishing plunge. Every quivering muscle in his stubbly cheek told Ginny that her opponent was dancing on a hair trigger, ready to leap for whatever trick she threw at him.

So she threw nothing.

Aiming for a clear spot about eight feet to Acemoglu's right, Ginny accelerated.

Straight.

The Catapults Chaser twitched, twitched again... and gaped. His infuriating opponent had done absolutely nothing extraordinary, except fly straight past him.

Ginny rolled her eyes at the barrage of Armenian curses fading into her slipstream. She caught every inflection of every syllable of her opponent's rage, but didn't care. Because she had something more important to catch.

With a slight deceleration she angled left, leaned across her broom, raised both hands — and Summerby's pass dropped into them, light as a feather. Exactly as it was supposed to be.

That's what life is like, when you're in the zone.

On three of her scores, Ginny had needed to contend with Acemoglu on her final approach to the nets. On the other two scores, she'd confronted Weil alone. Such was going to be the case again this time.

Ginny rocketed along a slant upwards as Weil rose up to trim her angles. Quaffle clutched in her fingers, Ginny glanced to the far right hoop. It had been kind to her all night, but the tail of Wiel's broom was occluding about half of the opening.

Hmmm...

From the look in Wiel's eyes, Ginny knew that the Keeper couldn't see what she did — the Keeper was still nervously cheating a bit right.

Dropping every hint of an expression from her face, Ginny whipped the Quaffle hard to the right.

Wiel committed — both arms firing out to cover...

Nothing.

In the final millisecond of Ginny's shot, her fingernails clamped hard into the leather. Shot fake!

With a flick of her wrist, she instead jabbed the Quaffle downwards, toward the open center hoop.

Belated horror in his face, the Premier League's best Keeper saw his folly. With no hope of proper coverage, he kicked out desperately, wildly, and...

Wiel's toe miraculously scraped the Quaffle, deflecting it two inches clear of the hoop.

Ginny gave her first miss of the night a fleeting glance, smirked, and met the eyes of the startled, relieved Keeper.

"Next time," she mouthed to him, before wheeling about to stifle another Catapults offensive.


"Merlin, Septimo — the crowd's gone wild! I'm not sure if they're cheering Wiel's incredible save, or the latest amazing play by Weasley to necessitate those acrobatics."

"A bit of both, perhaps? On one hand, the crowd has to be a bit shocked to see an under-aged amateur score her first five shots on a wizard that many people consider to be the best Keeper in the Premier League, but on the other hand I'm sure there are many Quidditch fans in attendance who understand that they may be in the process of witnessing a truly exceptional performance, Richard. If Wiel can put aside his initial shock, build on this save, and give Weasley the challenge to show us just how awesome she can be, people may be talking about this match for a long time."

"Speaking of the match, Sept, what do you think the Catapults need to do in order to get back into this one?"

"Find Lamont the Snitch before it's too late? No, to be honest Rich, they need to slow things down and not panic. Yes, they're behind 50-0 after only six minutes, but I can't seriously believe that The Flying Circus can keep up this kind of frenzy for a full hour. Blimey, I'm not certain even the Irish Nationals could sustain this pace."

"Heh. Katherine Higgs must be channeling you, Sept. She's slowed this offensive right down and is calling out a very deliberate play. Summerby's closing in on her, but I very much doubt he'll play for the st-"

"Wow, no foul! That was a clean strip by Zabini, folks — crept in on Higgs's blind side to poke the Quaffle away. Zabini pumps it back to Summerby, who laterals to Weasley who... Look Rich! Acemoglu and Aitken are tangled; Weasley's in the clear!"

"She sure is! Weasley's blasting straight up centre; nobody left back there but Weil, who's coming way out to try to force her off to the side..."


Not only did Harry and Lamont both see the Snitch at the same time, but in fact they both knew the other had seen it.

While Ginny battled Weil, yet again, at the Caerphilly nets, the Snitch was flying a lazy bobbing pattern near centre-pitch. Harry had a thirty foot lead on the little ball; he braced himself for acceleration, but for some unknown reason he paused... and met Lamont's eyes.

The elder Seeker glanced from Harry to the Snitch and back again.

The crowd erupted as, down below and a few hundred feet to the south, Ginny scored again.

Lamont gave Harry an inscrutable smile. "She wants it more than you, Harry."

Harry stared in bafflement as the Catapult Seeker flew off in a direction opposite where the Snitch no longer was.

Harry chewed his lip.

Wants what?

Is he messing with my head?


"Dear Listeners, in view of your questions about whether we may, in fact, be witnessing a record performance, I've patched in Premier League Archivist, Feofan Logothetides. He joins us from League Headquarters in Tutshill, Gloucestershire. Feo, have you been following the match?"

"Yes indeed, Septimo. This Flying Circus squad is certainly full or surprises, isn't it?"

"Oh, not doubt about that! So did you have a chance to look up some numbers for Chasers getting matches off to a hot start?"

"Yessir, Sept. So here we have amateur Chaser Ginevra Weasley, who has tallied the first six... sorry, make that the first seven scores of the evening. For the Premier League, that tops this season's best start to date which, if you'll recall, was Ballycastle's Cian Healy who scored the first five goals against Falmouth last December. To put things in proper perspective, though, Weasley has a long way to go to match Fabius Watkins' all-time record of thirteen straight goals for the Montrose Magpies to open their 1971 match against the Appleby Arrows. However, if The Flying Circus can hold off Caerphilly's next offensive, Weasley may well have a chance to equal Catriona McCormack, who set the rookie Chaser record in 1963 by scoring the first eight goals against the Chudley Cannons, during her stellar first season with the Pride of Portree."

"Ah, thank you Feo! Well, that should set to rest some of the arguments brewing at the Hogshead and the Leaky Cauldron. So Richard, the Catapults have come out of their time-out sporting rather grim looking faces."

"Grim indeed, Sept. Like so many Flying Circus matches, this hardly feels like a meaningless exhibition. If the Catapults considered this to be meaningless, I very much doubt that you'd see Acemoglu getting called for an aggravated Blatching foul as he was a couple of minutes ago.

"Yes, well Weasley certainly made the Catapults pay on her resulting penalty shot. Weil seemed completely outclassed — she seems to have the star Keeper completely rattled. You can bet there are scouts studying this performance with mind to learning how a supposedly impermeable Keeper can be systematically shredded."

"Too true. But the only impermeable Keeper on the grounds tonight has been Grant Page. Admittedly, he's only had to face five shots in ten minutes thus far, but he's certainly looked sharp."

"That's definitely true, Richard. But let's see if Caerphilly gives him a bit more of a test now that they've had a time-out to get their heads on straight."

"Higgs bringing up the Quaffle again and... oh, look at that, Septimo."

"Interesting Rich. Dobbin and Broadmoor are ceding both Bludgers to the Weasley twins and are instead playing bodyguard to the three Chasers — protecting against the steal, and pushing The Flying Circus Chasers out of the passing lanes."

"Hmm, well they had to try something I guess. Higgs is bringing it up on the left; passes to Aitk-"

Oi! Higgs just barely avoided a Bludger fired in by George Weasley. That's the downside to the Catapults' Beater ploy, Richard."

"Definitely Sept, though the Catapults Chasers have been a fearless crew ever since the days of Dangerous Dai Llewellyn. Aitken handling the Quaffle now; she has some extra room carved out for her by Broadmoor."

"Zabini is still managing to cut off some of Aitken's angles, and Ginny Weasley has Acemoglu marginalised on the far right. The Catapult Beater presence has really freed up Higgs, though — she has a clear lane straight up the centre."

"And there's the pass back to Higgs, Sept! Zabini got finger on it, but Higgs reels the Quaffle in anyway, and she's off! Summerby's nowhere near — he's tied up by Dobbin; the thug is using his bat like a weapon and the officials haven't called him on it."

"No foul unless Dobbin actually hits someone with the bat, Rich. He hasn't yet, but if I was Summerby, I wouldn't count on the Catapults being afraid to give up another penalty shot."

"No indeed. Higgs is closing in; sees Aitken on her left, whips it over to- Wow, what a pump feint, Sept!"

"Page is out of position; Higgs fires at the open right hoop. Sc - oh! Page got his hand on it — amazing save!"

"Acemoglu pulls free for the rebound; he turns and — Bludger, Sept!"

"Fred Weasley nailed him, Rich. Ginny Weasley grabs the loose Quaffle!"

"Chaser Weasley swings wide to try to escape the scrum around the Caerphilly goals, but... Hell! Broadmoor's coming after her!"

"He's a menacing sight, but with Weasley's speed, I doubt that... Oh — forget it, Rich. The other Weasley — George — drilled Broadmoor with a Bludger, sending him spinning off the play."

"Ginny Weasley passes to Zabini, who carries the Quaffle up on the right as The Flying Circus looks to build on a seventy to nothing lead."


Lamont sidled up to Harry. "Enjoying the show?"

Just as Harry was about to glance at his elder competitor in askance, Harry saw a telltale flicker of gold over Lamont's shoulder, about forty feet up the pitch.

Harry played dumb, nodding coolly. "Not a bad start." Pretending to watch the Flying Circus offensive, Harry attempted to edge away in a direction oblique to the Snitch in order to try to set up a discreet play for it.

Lamont held out his hand to stay him. The Caerphilly Seeker smiled. "You can try to grab it if you like, but I could have captured it a minute ago when my troglodyte teammate was threatening your girlfriend."

Harry gaped at him. "Why didn't you, then? You would have won the match!"

Lamont shrugged. "This is just an exhibition, Harry. Didn't seem sporting of me to make you look bad when you were really just worried about a loved one."

Harry could only stare, open-mouthed.

Lamont smirked. "Besides, I love this place and I love our fans. Tonight the audience down there doesn't care who wins or loses — they came to this match in numbers we haven't seen in years hoping to see some good, wild, entertaining Quidditch of the sort we lowly Catapults rarely provide."

Harry nodded slowly as Lamont continued. "Three quarters of the crowd would love to see your lady set a record. About as many are hoping to see some mad dash for the Snitch. So, my young friend, why don't we cool our heels here for another little while to see if the red comet can bag another Quaffle. And then..." His eyes sparkled. "And then we'll see which of us can pull down the little Snidget first. You reckon, Potter?"

"You're on, Lamont." Harry grinned.


Thirty seconds later, at the instant when Ginny set the crowd into delirium (clinging upside down from her broom to windmill the Quaffle past a bewildered Weil), the Seekers' race launched. Harry saw that Lamont had spotted himself a fifteen foot lead on the Snitch, but hardly cared — that would only make it more of a real race.

The Snitch was at normal playing height, about sixty feet in front of the Caerphilly goals. Harry knew he would have to hurry — at the very least to beat Lamont, but also to grab the fluttery orb before that whole area swarmed with the next Catapults offensive.

Air shredding past him, Harry used his competitor's slipstream to quickly close the gap, then, calling on a huge burst of exertion and willpower, rocketed out from behind Lamont's shock front to fly abreast with the older Seeker.

Harry calculated that he and Lamont were about the same weight, and were riding very similar brooms, so there was no straight-line advantage for either. The one case where Harry's youth could prevail was in any spine-contorting acrobatics, such as in avoiding... oncoming Chasers!

The Snitch had just crossed directly into a line between the two Seekers and an area where Aitken was jostling with Zabini. Distracted enough with each other, the Chasers took a precious moment to recognise the hazard. Zabini looked up in time to bail, but Aitken froze.

In the slimmest of split seconds, Harry did a quick calculation. He locked eyes with the Catapults Chaser.

Don't move don't move don't move...!!

The thirty feet between them closed with near instantaneity; the Snitch hovering just over Aitken's head. Even before Harry's fingers had fully pinned the pair of little golden wings, he was leaping up, off his broom, diagonally over the petrified Chasers' shoulder.

Six thousand people gave a collective gasp.

Harry's hands and legs parted with his broom, leaving it to thread its way through a small triangle of open air between Aitken's arm and her own broom.

In mid air, Harry arched his legs back to avoid kneeing his opponent in the face... then splayed his limbs, wildly, a bit like a Siberian flying squirrel... and wrapped them back around a trusty broomstick that had risen up to rejoin him.

Taking a huge breath, Harry stabilised his careening broom, rose to a guarded crouch, and set his eyes upon a familiar competitor who was somehow back at his side.

"Good show, Harry Potter." Lamont took both hands off his broom to clap, but his face still had an unmistakably wry look. "Good show, but I still say that she wants it more than you."

Harry blinked. "Who wants what??"

But Lamont had already turned to head back toward the Catapults bench.

Back to index


Chapter 14: Strange Operations

Author's Notes:

Hey all -- another chapter! Rather than prattle about who knows what in the AN, let me put out a call for opinion: do you all care about the SIYE challenges? If so, how much?


Chapter 14. Strange Operations (March 2-6, 1998)


"... but the key is how well we all work together." Ginny beamed around at her Quidditch mates. "Keith and Blaise are the best passing and blocking Chasers I've ever played with; our Beaters are awesome; our Keeper and Seeker..." She laughed. "Well you know the story lines on those two, yeah?"

"Miss Weasley, in light of having scored all eight of The Flying Circus's goals tonight, would you care to comment on the growing opinion that you're a Quaffle hog?"

"I, uh..." The beaming smile vanished from Ginny's face. Instantly crestfallen, her gaze faltered, sagging earthward.

"I'll answer that, Red." Zabini reached forward to angle the recording wand toward himself and project his jaw into the Daily Prophet staffer's personal space. "Let me tell you a bit about our system, Smudgely. Barring crappy weather, Flying Circus Chasers always pass until we find the open wing. Summs and I weren't able to break clear of Catapults coverage much tonight, so we kept passing to Weasley. If she scored a lot, it's because it was the best way to give us a good lead."

Smudgely raised an eyebrow. "So you might claim, Mr. Zabini, but when one Chaser scores every goal, it's hardly a demonstration of teamwork and good sportsmanship."

"Sportsmanship — oh my!!" Zabini clasped chastened hands to his cheeks. "We'd be most honoured and humbled to be instructed in sporting decorum and etiquette from such a principled Daily Prophet reporter, sir."

"Er well..." Smudgely lowered his recording wand, raising a suspicious eyebrow.

"And speaking of teamwork..." Zabini gestured over the reporter's shoulder. "Why don't you give your colleague Kikis Trecus a hand back there? Her mouth is still bleeding from the so very virtuous elbow you threw when you shoved your way past her."

Hands dropping to his side, Smudgely muttered something morosely unintelligible as other reporters edged their way around him.

"Quinticent Marish; Seeker Weekly. I have a question for Mr. Zabini, please?"

Zabini grinned. "Sure Quin. What's up?"

"Mr. Zabini, your Flying Circus has played in, I believe, five matches in the past two months, against steadily mounting competition." The short, round-faced reporter consulted his notes. "I haven't yet heard any announcements for your next match, though. Can you share any plans with our audience?"

"Ah, good question. As you recall, we've already run through a number of challenges extended to us by clubs such as Skegness and the Luxembourg juniors, and now we're waiting on others. As well, we've propositioned most of the clubs in the Premier League." Zabini swept his hand toward Daphne at his side. "Can I refer you to our Executive General Manager, Miss Greengrass, for updates on that correspondence?"

"Certainly!" Marish adjusted his wand. "Good evening Miss Greengrass."

"Good evening, Mr. Marish." Daphne unfurled a scroll and adjusted a pair of spectacles that she seemed to have recently acquired. "So. Among the top professional clubs we've approached thus far, we have only received outright rejections from three squads — Ballycastle, Tutshill and Chudley, but they're all dreadful dullards anyw-"

"Daffs!"

Zabini's disapproving eyes suddenly widened as Daphne stepped discreetly but firmly on his foot, and smiled at Marish. "Sorry, what I obviously meant to say was that Ballycastle, Tutshill and Chudley are a bunch of no-fun poopers."

Ignoring Zabini's uncomfortable fidgeting as he attempted to free his foot, Daphne reconsulted her list and continued. "So, among the rest of the Premier League clubs, we're currently in vigourous negotations with four, including one of the top contenders for the league title."

"Title contender?" Marish blinked. "Given Kenmare's recent swoon and what you said about crossing off Ballycastle and Tutshill, that would leave Montrose? Are you suggesting the prospect of a Lennox Campbell / Harry Potter showdown?"

A buzz rippled across the cluster of reporters, but Daphne merely smiled inscrutably. "Sorry, Mr. Marish. I can neither confirm nor deny such details while negotiations are still ongoing. Because you're such a sweetie, though, I could share with you a couple of surprises in this morning's post."

Marish nodded vigourously. "Yes, ma'am. Please do!"

"Well, the one huge surprise which we have to take very seriously is that the Portuguese Nationals proposed that they could squeeze us in for a match on May 12th. They're doing a tour of the British Isles over the first two weeks in May, and actually thought to save a slot on their schedule in case we were available."

"Fascinating!" Marish nodded, wide-eyed. "What was the other surprise?"

"Wellll..." Daphne pursed her lips. "We're in a bit of a quandary on how to respond to this, but we've been invited by the Haitian Minister of Magic to visit Gonaives and play the defending world junior champions."

Zabini gave a noncommital shrug. "Yes, well some of us have N.E.W.T.s coming up and aren't thrilled about cross-Atlantic travel this spring."

"Kikis Trecus, Daily Prophet." The reporter dabbed a bit more blood from her lip and pointed a recording wand toward Zabini. "Mr. Zabini, just a thought, but you'll have Easter break coming up. You could propose a match over the long weekend."

"Ehh..." Zabini scrunched his face thoughtfully. "That's an idea. Thank you for the suggestion, Ms. Trecus. Now, are there any other questions, or can we just abandon Potter here with you all, while the rest of us go get showered?"

A chuckle emerged from a familiar Bohemian goatee standing several rows back. "I do have a question for Herr. Potter?"

"Matthäus!" Harry waved at the German correspondent. "What can I do for you?"

"Herr. Potter, what ist the matter? You catch only a Snitch tonight. No falling spectators? No criminals?"

Harry grinned. "Don't complain, Gottschalk. The optimistic answer is that hopefully there really wasn't anything for me to catch besides the Snitch. We now know a bit more about what sorts of admissions wards to use, which should keep the audience safer. DMLE also took a few other safety precautions, so I believe that all helped give us a fairly quiet evening."

"Ah? So our troubles are over then, ya?"

"Oh, I wish." Harry's chuckle didn't project quite as much mirth as it could have, but he nonetheless smiled for the reporter. "With any luck, however, things still will be just as quiet and peaceful next time we meet. Have a nice evening, Matthäus."

Harry threaded his fingers through Ginny's and he walked with her toward the lockers.




After Harry's last answer, the Quidditch Tonight coverage had wrapped up fairly quickly and the Wizarding Wireless programming had moved to recordings from an old Nine Inch Wands concert. The large crowd gathered around the Slytherin Common Room's receiver was still pretty amped, however. Butter beer was flowing freely, adrenaline was high, and even the Prefects weren't inclined to badger their charges about the hour, and the fact of it being a school night.

Tracey Davis, on the other hand, had drifted quietly to the edge of scene and seemed about to escape down the corridor toward the dorm when Pansy glimpsed her out of the corner of her eye.

"Oi, Davis!" Pansy worked her way through the crowd to flag down her friend. "You off to Bedfordshire already?"

Tracey yawned and nodded.

"So early?" Pansy frowned. "You're not usually one to lay off a good excuse for carousing."

Tracey shook her head. "Too tired, Parksie. You have fun."

Pansy's eyes narrowed to thin slits. "You sure you're not tetchy over the school denying us passes down to Caerphilly to attend the match?"

"Nah." Tracey shrugged. "That was no big surprise after the Wigtown incident. And Skegness..."

Her expression still slightly skeptical, Pansy nodded slowly... then blinked as Ted Nott approached them.

Ted extended his hand. "Hey Tracey, you forgot this." He was holding up a silver chain with a striking amethyst pendant.

"Spacey!" Pansy gasped. "You're not wearing your amulet!"

Tracey shrugged again as she accepted the talisman. "Don't get snarky, Parksie. I put it down for a minute and forgot to put it back on."

Turning red, Pansy sputtered incoherently, but Tracey turned unconcernedly, slipped the chain over her neck and resumed her path toward the dorms.

Nott's hand brushed Pansy's. "She's always been a bit flightly, Parks. We'll just have to keep an eye on her."

Pansy's mouth tensed to protest... but then she deflated. "Dizzy muppet better not get herself in trouble again."

Surprised at the odd, somewhat tremulous tone in his ex-girlfriend's voice, Ted's gaze rose to Pansy's oblique profile, trying to read her expression.

What was it? A bit whiny, but not petulant. Was she frustrated? Sad?

Afraid?

Ted shook off his deliberation. He straightened up and brushed Pansy's hand one more time before turning away. "Yeah, well, like I said, we'd both best keep a look out for her, right? There's strange stuff going on and I'd rather than she... we... don't get snarled up in it."

Pansy pursed her lips, nodding as she gazed at the dark corridor down which Tracey had gone.




Standing in the stadium runway leading up from the lockers, Harry glanced at his wrist watch, then back to his companions. "You go on ahead; I'll stay back and wait for Ginny."

"Uh, okay." George looked concerned. "But you two are going to join us, right?"

Harry shrugged. "Sure, as long as she's still up to it. She was looking a bit drained toward the end up the press conference."

Fred scratched his chin. "Maybe we should stick around in case she needs a little persuasion."

"Persuasion" Harry raised an incredulous eyebrow. "From you?"

"Of course us." Fred shrugged. "Who else?"

Harry laughed. "Are you trying to tell me that you've been her brother for nearly seventeen years, and you still haven't figured out that the best way to persuade Ginny of something is when you don't actually try to persuade her?"

"Fred you duffer! " George laughed. "Did you take a bludger to the head tonight, or are you channeling Ron's social instincts? Harry's nailed it — the instant we start hassling her, she'll dig her heels in."

"Blimey, why didn't we think of that?" Fred laughed as well. "Very well then — I'm a mite thirsty anyway. Let's just leave without them, and they can catch up later."

"Very well, Harry-kins." George waved flamboyantly. "We'll be at the Ty Sini Ŷn — it's a pub down in magical Eglwysilan. Our sister we shall leave in your capably unpersuasive hands."

Chuckling, Harry rolled his eyes, and turned back toward the locker doors as the rest of The Flying Circus strolled away toward the Apparition point. Pulling his cloak tight against the night's chill, he shoved his hands into his pockets, nodded genially to a trio of custodial wizards on their way out to clean the grandstands, and settled in to wait...

And wait.

He thought it odd that Ginny should take so long in her post-match washup, especially with the evening getting on as it was. He was starting to wonder if he should see about flagging down a female stadium attendant to check the witches' shower room to ensure Ginny was okay, when finally the door opened.

Ginny emerged; her hair gleaming and face still flushed from the shower. She flashed Harry a quick smile but... that's exactly what it was — quick. Within seconds, her eyes had strayed elsewhere; no real hint remained on her face of the post-match ebullience or satisfaction.

"What's wrong, Gin'?" Peering at her face, Harry reached for (but didn't quite catch) her hand. "Hey, you aren't still dwelling on what that tosser Smudgely said?"

Ginny exhaled and scuffed her trainer distractedly on the polished stone floor as she began to lead the way out of the tunnel.

"Huh." Harry fell in step with her. "You really are upset with the git, aren't you?"

Ginny shrugged.

"You shouldn't be." Harry shook his head in annoyance. "Blaise pegged it perfectly. What you did tonight was exactly what the rest of us needed. If we'd been forced to rely on a middling-good scorer like Roger Davies in your place, we'd have gotten pounded every time down the pitch. We'd have fallen behind and would have been really vulnerable to a balky Snitch."

Ginny looked away. "I should have set up Blaise or Keith for at least a couple scores."

"Nah. They were both playing brilliantly to their strengths tonight, but their strengths don't yet include scoring against good professional opposition. That was a task we had to leave to someone who knew how to beat Weil. That someone wasn't going to be Blaise or Keith. I mean, blimey — it wouldn't have been Angelina or Davies or Pucey — not even Liu Song Ye, and it certainly wasn't going to be someone who was going to pass up makeable shots. The only person I know who was going to give us that lead tonight was Ginevra Molly Weasley. You were phenomenal, you were crucial, and you can't let some twit from the Dribbly Privet try to tell you otherwise."

"But Harry..." Ginny frowned. "There were Holyhead scouts in the stands tonight. I don't want Gwenog Jones thinking I never pass and block. Established stars like Griffiths and Morgan will mop the locker room with my face if I don't pass and block for them."

Harry finally trapped her hand and squeezed it. "Well, you actually did pass, and pass well at that — it just happened that Blaise and Keith always passed straight back to you before you had a chance to block for them." He sighed. "To be honest, our competition is going to get tougher and tougher. I think what we'll most need from you is for your scoring instincts to get sharper and sharper. Yes, all of the Chasers are going to have to pass like mad against Portugal and Montrose to work around their defensive sets, but I'm fairly certain the team will be looking for you to take at least two thirds of the actual shots on goal. To stand a chance, we'll all have to maximise our strengths and minimise our weakness, which means neither Keith nor Blaise are going to shoot much, which means you're unfortunately not going to have many chances to showcase your offensive blocking skills in public for a while."

Ginny nodded resignedly, but Harry touched her cheek. "Fortunately, it hardly matters, right?"

Ginny raised an eyebrow. "Why not?"

"Because..." Harry grinned. "Most of the raw skills and instincts for offensive blocking are the same as you use for defence. Tonight you defended brilliantly — your best match ever. You completely tied up a solid second-tier professional Chaser, right?"

"That's true I guess. Thanks!" She smiled more genuinely this time, although it faded again into a blank, pensive expression. "But I've actually been fretting about more than just Quidditch. I mean, someone just insinuated that I'm acting a bit selfish, but if you look at the bigger picture, I really am, aren't I?"

"Huh?" Harry stared at her.

Ginny shrugged. "Well, just look at my life right now. Sure, I'm working for the school, and yes, I really do want to help catch Bellatrix and all, but where am I really investing my energies? I somehow got it into my head that I could make a go of this Quidditch thing and it's occupying rather a lot of my time..."

Harry squeezed her hand. "Bravo! You've more than earned the right!"

"But..." Ginny looked at him uncertainly; her soft protestation descending into confusion.

Harry shook his head. "No buts. You've already done a exemplary service to all of Magical Britain; you earned Order of Merlin First Class, and thousands of witches and wizards are far safer now as a result. It's okay if you want to keep serving the world, but it's more than okay if you want to be a sixteen year old witch with glowing dreams. You've earned any opportunity to have fun and do things that make you happy. And if those fun and happy accomplishments spark the dreams of another generation of little witches and wizards, then all the better, yeah?"

The pair found themselves back out on the pitch in the dimly lit, starry Welsh evening; a smattering or maintenance staff rustled in the distance, doing their best to not disturb the two celebrities.

"Of course you're right." Ginny laid her head on Harry' chest. "It's all so very complicated, isn't it though?"

"You have that right, love." He placed a protective arm around her. "I'm not sure it will ever stop bein- Oi!!"

"Luna Lovegood; special correspondent; the Quibbler. I have a question for Miss Weasley?"

"Agh!" Ginny let out a taut breath and loosened her fingernails that had inadvertently jabbed deeply into Harry's back. "Luna, it's wonderful to see you and all, but please put the quill away — our press conference ended fifty minutes ago."

Harry smiled. "We might be meeting up with some of the gang down at the Ty Sini Ŷn. Would you like to come along?"

Luna raised a shrewd eyebrow. "That was actually not one of your notorious diversionary tactics, Harry."

Harry blinked. "I, er, no it wasn't."

Ginny grinned. "I'm pretty sure it was a genuine invitation, Luna. Would you like to come?"

Luna turned her unflinchingly skeptical expression upon her best friend. "Four questions and one statement first."

"Uh, beg your pardon?" Ginny gave Luna a confused look.

Luna unfurled her scroll and turned to Harry. "In exchange for the pleasure of my company, I'd like to ask Ginevra four questions first."

Harry nodded. "And make a statement?"

"Tut tut." Luna shook her head. "I'm the one specifying the conditions, Harry."

Harry stolidly fought back a bemused smirk, but his discretion was wasted since Luna had already fixed her attention back on Ginny.

"Miss Weasley... May I call you Ginny?"

Ginny rolled her eyes. "Luna, you call me Ginny every day at school."

A frown creasing her forehead, Luna took a moment to ponder the response, and then began scribbling furiously. After about fifteen seconds, she paused to skim her parchment. "Decree for the Restriction of Underage Sorcery — reasonable or preposterous?"

"Oh blimey... A bit of both?"

A blonde eyebrow arched above the edge of the scroll that mostly obscured Luna's face. She tapped her quill impatiently twice. "Miss Weasley, do you lead your waltzes with the left foot or right?"

Ginny fidgeted uncomfortably. "I, uh, prefer to let Harry lead."

Luna lowered her parchment to scrutinise her friend for a moment. "Very well, I'll put you down for 'left'. Final question. If Hyperia and Anders were part of a Quidditch... bunch..., who would play Beater?"

"Fred and George, of course!" Ginny grinned.

Harry nearly snorted at his girlfriend's perfectly obtuse answer, but instead gaped in puzzled surprise to see Luna's expression actually light up like a child at Fortescue's. Indeed, the Quibbler correspondent began bouncing excitedly on her feet as she scrawled several long lines of detailed notes.

Lodging the luxuriant feather behind her ear, Luna sighed contently. She shrank her scroll, tucked it into her stocking for safe-keeping, then smiled at her friends. "Onwards to Ty Sini Ŷn, then? Shall I do the singing, or would either of you like to begin?"

Ginny and Harry glanced awkwardly at each other; neither of them quite certain how best to reply...




With Mary Jo Clark's assistance, Harry helped the sixth year Ravenclaw student to his feet, then turned to face the class. "Can anyone tell me Claude's biggest mistake?"

He paused to gaze about the twenty faces, then shook his head. "Let's have someone other than Mary Jo and Ryan, please?"

Several more tentative hands rose as Ryan and Mary-Jo lowered theirs. Harry's finger darted out and picked at random. "Jack?"

The Hufflepuff student stood. "The Impedimenta jinx is too slow to cast?"

"Exac-" Harry caught himself. "Wait. Jack, can you tell me why the Impedimenta is slow to cast."

"Uhh..." Jack scratched his cheek. "Er, because it takes a fair bit of power?"

Harry shook his head. "Impedimenta is a first year spell — it's like cutting butter. Can anyone else explain why Claude couldn't cast a simple Impedimenta in the time it took Colin to stun him? Sarah?"

Sarah Lindsey stood. "Because the incantation is like..." She paused to count on her fingers. "It's five syllables long. I hate that spell because I'm always afraid I'll garble it and cast that guilt revealing spell instead."

Harry chuckled as the rest of the class laughed. "Quite right! Neither Impedimenta or Impenitenta really roll off the tongue, do they? Okay, we have thirty seconds before the bell, so let's think quickly — if you really want to immobilise someone and you need to do it really fast, what's your best option? Luna?"

"Use a nonverbal spell, Harry." Luna stood and gathered her materials. "It's perfect if you want to cast quickly, if you want to cast silently, and if you're ashamed of your singing voice."

"I, er, yes. Very good Luna." Harry's smile from the excellent first two criteria was wavering a bit as she finished her sentence, but he moved ahead briskly. "Great class, everyone! Please read the first two sections of Chapter Eight before Friday's class, all right?"

As the students rustled and clattered their way out of the room, Harry began putting his materials away, then paused, sensing a presence at the door. He glanced over and saw the diminutive figure of Professor Flitwick. Harry smiled and beckoned him in.

Entering, Flitwick gazed up concernedly. "Are you free this period, Harry?"

Harry nodded. "Is something wrong?"

"Ehh..." Flitwick scrunched his face equivocally. "Perhaps. Minerva would like you to come help with an unexpected visitor."

"Oh?" Harry's eyes widened. "Who?"

"Iona Crabbe. Vincent's mother."

"Oh." Harry stiffened as he picked up his rucksack. "How is she?"

Flitwick pursed his lips. "I'm not certain, to be honest. I was up in the Headmistress's office when Iona flooed in. I left very soon thereafter, and she hadn't yet betrayed much emotion."

"Okay, thank you for letting me know." Harry sighed. "I'll head straight up; I guess I'll find out soon enough for myself."

Flitwick nodded. "Good luck, Harry."

"Thanks."

Feeling quite pensive and subdued, Harry made his way alone along the fifth floor corridor and up the stairs. "Iberian Lynx," he spoke to the sentinel gargoyles, then took a breath and mounted the final moving staircase. He listened as he rose, trying to gauge the tenor of any conversation that might be taking place; trying to predict whether he (as a long-time enemy of Crabbe's, and a witness to the former Slytherin student's untimely death) would be assaulted by a mother's bitter, recriminatory tears. Or worse.

Harry could indeed hear two female voices — Professor McGonagall, speaking in her crisp Scottish burr, interpersed with another voice — low and elderly. Neither seemed particularly agitated. Or not yet, anyway.

Harry knocked lightly, but had to wait only a split second for McGonagall's welcome. "Come in Professor Potter; so good of you to join us."

Harry nodded to himself at the choice of monikor. McGonagall would most often call him 'Harry' these days — to his face or in the company of mutual friends. The formal title, he assumed, would confer onto him an air of authourity; it would subtly convey to Mrs. Crabbe that she would be speaking not to her son's schoolyard rival, but rather to a dignified faculty member who in a different world (one in which Vincent had shown a bit of aptitude in magical defence) might actually have been the youth's instructor.

Harry entered the room at a measured pace. "Good morning, Headmistress." He angled slightly toward the witch (seated; nervously cradling a teacup as she watched him) and extended his hand. "And you would be Mrs. Crabbe. I had hoped I would have a chance to meet you."

Looking rather old and frail to be the mother of a brawny seventeen-year-old, the woman stared at Harry's hand but made no move to take it. Instead she pulled her cup and saucer closer to her chest. When the porcelain began rattling, McGonagall reached forward to stead the witch's hands and gently lower them (and the hot tea) back to the table.

McGonagall glanced at Harry. "Do pour yourself a cup and take a seat. I believe Iona has some questions for you, if you can spare a little time for us?"

"By all means!" Harry poured a cup and brought it with him to the open seat at the table. He raised the tea toward his lips. "How may I help you, Mrs. Crabbe?"

"You were there when Vincie died?"

"Yes, I was there." Harry put the cup down, and met her eyes. "I'm immensely saddened for your loss."

From her glazed expression, it didn't appear that Iona Crabbe had processed the condolence. Rather, she looked quickly away, focusing timidly at the table as she assembled her next question.

"Is it true he died of heart failure?"

Harry raised an eyebrow. "They listed the cause of death as heart failure?" He studied her face, trying (without Legimency) to anticipate where she might be trying to take this conversation.

The witch nodded.

Harry sighed. "Well, I assume that's sort of how he died — his heart did stop beating, after all. It probably wouldn't be easy for even a well-intentioned DMLE medic to pin down any more specific cause of death."

"Mr. Potter, please tell me..." The witch's voice dropped to a hoarse whisper. "Was my Vincie murdered?"

Harry tapped his cup for a moment before forcing himself to once again meet the woman's plaintive gaze. "Perhaps, Mrs. Crabbe, but I don't yet have any proof."

"Why was he murdered, Mr. Potter?"

Harry exhaled deeply, doing his best to not convey any hint of exasperation. "Mrs. Crabbe, you're asking questions that I might only be able to answer partially, and with uncertainty. And furthermore, before answering anything, I'd really prefer to understand what you'd hope to gain with any of this speculation."

Her eyes sparked with momentary fierceness. "Young fellow, I am a mother and an aunt. I have lost a son and a brother this year under mysterious circumstances. My husband and most of his friends are in Azkaban, and someone is running about murdering those of us who remain free. I'm an old woman and can defend neither myself nor my little niece with the strength I might once have. I need help, Mr. Potter. I beseech you!"

"My help? In terms of needing sanctuary, Mrs. Crabbe?" Harry's eyes widened in recognition. "A safe haven like what our SHP program promises?"

"Yes, obviously!" In her intensity, the witch glared at him. "Why else would I come to you?"

"Ah!" Harry's chest loosened in relief. "Well, hopefully we can make something work, then. However, given the exceptional security we maintain about our safe house, I'm going to need you to submit to an interview under either Veritaserum or Legimency first. Are you prepared to do so?"

Iona stared at him for a moment. "Right now?"

Harry shook his head. "I wouldn't presume to tie up the Headmistress's time with non-school matters like that. Maybe we can arrange the interview for an evening later this week, or on the coming weekend? In the meantime, perhaps you and your niece can make discreet preparations to go into hiding."

The witch pursed her lips, contemplating the offer.

Harry reached into a cloak pocket and pulled out a spare HART bracelet (he almost always kept an extra on hand in case of emergencies) and handed it to her. "Mrs. Crabbe, I think it's quite unlikely that you'll encounter any dire peril before we can get you into our safe house but, just in case, you might take this. It's an emergency summoning bracelet, and can also be used to Portkey here to Hogwarts."

"Eh?" She looked at it. "How does it work?"

"The Portkey is triggered by pressing this rune." He gestured toward an innocuous marking. "And to summon me, you merely have to press anywhere on the bracelet and say, 'Audite me, Harry.'"

The witch turned it over in her hand a couple of times, then slipped it around her wrist. "Thank you, Professor Potter. Thank you also, Headmistress, for arranging the meeting." She rose and reached for her handbag, apparently prepared to depart.

"One moment please, Mrs. Crabbe?" McGonagall raised her hand. "This niece you referred to — she is bound for Hogwarts next year, correct? Her name is Amelie Jugson?"

Mrs. Crabbe nodded. "Aye, that's her."

McGonagall frowned. "Her father — your brother — was Alan Jugson. Please pardon my deficiency of tact, but am I correct in inferring from you that Mr. Jugson is in fact now deceased?"

"Yes." The elderly witch slumped back down into her chair. "He died back in December, a couple of weeks before Yule. The night it happened, I felt a chill deep in my chest in the middle of the night. I got up to get myself a shot of something, ehh, fortifying. On the way to the cabinet, I checked our old family clock and that's when I noticed the change. Alan's hand had been on 'in hiding' since October but sometime that night it had shifted to 'murdered'."

McGonagall pulled in a sharp breath.

Harry bit his lip. A rapid flurry of thoughts and emotions swirled through him as he did his best to tame his own growing concerns; seeking instead to project calm empathy into an office already taut with strain.




"So then!" Ginny entered their shared sitting room carrying two mugs of hot pumpkin cider. She placed one on the coffee table for Harry and carried the other with her as she took a seat on the chesterfield. "We're to interview the Iona Crabbe and her niece tomorrow evening?"

Harry put his book back on the shelf and turned to greet her. "Yes, that's the plan. It sounds like Susan and Daphne will be able to attend the meeting, and will be available to escort our new guests to Dolwyddelan afterwards."

"Provided all goes well?" Ginny took a sip of her cider.

"Provided all goes well." Harry began pacing in front of the fire. "I think it will be fine; I'm pretty sure that Mrs. Crabbe's intentions are pure. She was very candid, if a bit eccentric."

"Eccentric? How so?"

"Well..." Harry ran his fingers through his hair. "First she asked me if Vincent had been murdered, but then she wouldn't listen when I said I had no proof." Harry paced in front of the fire in their sitting room. "She clearly already knew it was homicide, even if DMLE still isn't convinced of it enough to even open an investigat..."

Harry paused for a moment, his eyes gazing diffusely toward Ginny. Then he stiffened. "Of course!"

Ginny raised a puzzled eyebrow. "Of course?"

Harry nodded. "Yes, of course that's how Mrs. Crabbe knew Vincent had been murdered. She had a family clock like your Mum's. She told us that was how she knew her Death Eater brother, Jugson, had been killed back in December. If so, surely the clock would have been able to also record Vincent's fate, right?"

"Yes, that all stands to reason — Those family clocks are very reliable." Ginny took a sip of her hot pumpkin cider. "A bit creepy, though, to have a clock that's able to report something like 'murdered'."

"Tell me about it, Gin'!" Harry turned back toward the fire, frowning. "But what I find immensely curious is that nobody else seems to know that Jugson is dead. I asked Tonks to check his files — there's nothing about his death in the Hall of Records, and according to DMLE he's still presumed to be a living, breathing fugitive."

Ginny nodded thoughtfully.

Harry resumed pacing. "How is it that the Ministry knows precisely when a magical person is born, but doesn't know when they die?"

"Hmmm..." Ginny tapped her lips. "I'm not quite sure, Harry, but I guess maybe that, magically speaking, any one birth looks a lot like any other birth, but all deaths are different.

"So the Department of Records can cast automated charms for birth detection, but death signatures are too varied to reliably detect?" Harry lowered himself onto the chesterfield and met his fiancée's eyes. "If so, then how do the family clocks work?"

"Ah — that's a subject I know a bit more about." Ginny shifted to accomodate Harry; her toes simultaneously finding their way to a warm spot beneath Harry's leg. "As I understand it, the clock's hands sit in the background as family life unfolds around them. They quietly pick up the aura of whomever they represent, developing a magical connection with them. In order for that connection to work reliably, the person has to come home every so often — every few years at least — so that the hand can adjust the way it perceives the person."

"I see." Harry pursed his lips. "So even if the Ministry wanted to track everyone, it would be rather unreliable since most wizards and witches don't visit the Ministry building very often."

"Yes exactly." Ginny nodded. "And of course it would be political suicide for the Ministry to attempt any more tracking than they already do."

"Fair enough." Harry's face had taken on a grim cast. "So neither Alan Jugson's life nor death were monitored; his body was apparently never found, and I gather Iona Crabbe never saw fit to report her brother dead or even missing. I wonder why not? Because she didn't trust the Ministry?"

Ginny nodded. "I'm guessing that mistrust of the Ministry continues to run high in dark or grey magic circles. If Mrs. Crabbe knew her brother was already dead, she probably decided DMLE was unlikely to do anything useful for her, so why would she feel any motivation to invite all of the unwanted scrutiny that would come with filing a report?"

"Yet she was willing to come to me — Vincent's sworn enemy — after his death?"

"Sure." Ginny sipped some more cider. "It does sound as though she was a bit nervous about risking a meeting, but she might have felt it was her best option. In general I think a lot of that community has grown to respect you."

Harry blinked, shaking his head incredulously.

"Think about it, Harry." Ginny fixed his gaze. "Riddle and his inner circle are no longer around to tell everyone what to think and who to hate. Without the constant propaganda, a lot of families have had the chance to sniff about; get a fresh look at a new world taking shape around them; re-evaluate old friends and old enemies. So when they look at you, what do they see?"

Harry shrugged.

"Maybe we can start with what people do not see. They don't see a dictator or a Ministry stooge. You're not running about grabbing power and currying favour with the old cronies. Those were the biggest fears a lot of people had about you leading up to the final battle, and all the worry has proven unfounded. Instead, everyone has gotten to watch you step off the battlefield, do a bit of judicious philanthropy, and largely settle into remarkably unthreatening roles in the emerging new order."

Harry looked at her in utter bafflement, but Ginny merely smiled and continued. "How unthreatening are you to the average Slytherin students and alumni?" Ginny put down her mug to free her hands for demonstrative gestures. "Well hey, Harry, you're the Associate Head of Slytherin House! From an administrative perspective it's completely meaningless — Hogwarts doesn't need you for that and neither does Slughorn, but the kids adopted you and they don't want to let you go. And now, because Daphne can't keep her sweet little trap shut, everyone's pretty sure that you're the secret founding benefactor of the SHP. It doesn't matter what Rita Skeeter insinuates — most everyone knows that the SHP isn't some dodgy ruse. People know people who have truly benefited from the program; they know it's been a haven for friends of theirs who've had their lives cut out from under them."

Harry nodded slowly.

"But do you realise what probably reaps you the greatest approval and trust, Harry?" Ginny swept away some hair that had escaped into her face. "It's this unique package that you present — part of your image is this benevolent, non-threatening person, but superimposed on that is the wizard who took Riddle down. Given what Nott told us about the culture of terror inside the dark community, I'd bet there were plenty of people in that crowd who were secretly just as relieved as any Weasley, Longbottom or Bones when that dreadful chapter finally closed — especially once they understood that you weren't about to launch your own tyrannical regime."

"I'd like to think you're right." Harry retrieved his own long-neglected mug from the coffee table. "And you actually may be right, but optimism isn't my first instinct."

Gnny nodded solemnly, not quite able to counter the statement.

Harry gazed at the fire for a long moment. "So what do you suppose is the likelihood that Jugson's death is somehow tied in with the Lestrange case?"

Ginny frowned. "Yes, I wonder. I also wonder how many other unexplained and unreported disappearances have been hitting the dark community since the end of the war?"

Harry massaged his chin in thoughtful silence.




"Mrs. Crabbe?" Harry stood up less than ten minutes into the meeting.

An uncomfortable looking witch and her young niece turned in their seats to face him.

Harry smiled reassuringly. "We've completed the evaluation part of the meeting and, provided you choose to go ahead with your plan to move to Wales, then we're prepared to welcome you and your niece into the program."

The mousey girl with fine brown hair stared. Her elderly aunt blinked. "You're done? I, errr, wasn't aware that you'd even started...?"

"Uh, right." Harry shifted slightly. "Legilimency is never to be undertaken lightly, but it doesn't need to be painful."

Mrs. Crabbe laughed nervously. "Well, whatever you say then. I take it you found nothing of concern?"

Harry tilted his head slightly; equivocally. "I found no reason to not welcome you into the safe house program."

The guarded distinction in Harry's response was lost within the relieved smiles of the two females, and the young girl's effusive thanks.

"You're welcome, Amelie. There are eleven children already at the house — I think they'll be happy to have a new friend." Harry turned to the girl's mother. "Mrs. Crabbe, I hope you don't mind if I excuse myself, but I'm actually supposed to be two places at the same time."

Ginny rose from a chair in back. "We have defence training sessions on Thursday evenings. Harry left some of his students in charge of the session, but he usually feels compelled to check in."

"Uh, yeah..." Harry smiled sheepishly. "Sometimes they improvise in ways that, well, might not please the school governors. Anyway, would it be all right if I left you with Susan and Daphne? They're the real leaders of SHP and are far better equipt than I to answer any questions you might have about the safe house."

"Yes, I understand." Iona Crabbe rose to shake Harry's hand. "Thank you again, Professor Potter, for your willingness to help!"

"You're welcome! I look forward to seeing you around the house!"

Within a minute, Susan Bones had launched into a brief description of the house amenities and activities, giving Harry and Ginny a chance to slip out. Closing the door to the small classroom, Harry smiled to himself as Susan's no-nonsense voice trailed after them. "... and although Harry is constantly flitting off like this, he's actually quite involved with the program — arranging activities for the children, visiting every weekend. In fact, he's..."

"Susan's right, of course." Ginny smiled at Harry as they walked up the corridor. "The program might have been my idea, and it might be Susan and Daphne fussing over all of the details, but you're certainly more than a figurehead philanthropist, and people really do value what we've built."

"So you keep saying." Harry shrugged. "What's bothering me at the moment is that the 'value' of the program might be about to spike. I'd been starting to grow accustomed to the idea that the place had become much more of an orphanage than a true safe house, and I was starting to hope that even the need for orphan services might start to phase out, but instead now I'm worried that the original mission might be about make a real comeback."

"Any tangible evidence of new trouble?" Ginny shot him a worried glance. "Did you glimpse anything useful, or disquieting, from Mrs. Crabbe? Anyone still being threatened in the ways that Jugson and Crabbe were?"

Harry pursed his lips. "Well, I was trying not to use Legilimency for anything more than the agreed upon task of making sure that Mrs. Crabbe wasn't planning anything criminal, but yes — I did catch some scraps that have me a bit worried. And yes, unfortunately even if I'm only there to evaluate whether the woman's many Death Eater interactions were likely to pose any security risks, it's hard to not pick up on the odd peripheral exchange."

"One Death Eater interaction is often rather like any other Death Eater interaction, yeah? Well, what did you find then?" Ginny took hold of his hand. "I realise the information is slightly ill-gotten, but if it helps to save lives, then we need to use it."

"I suppose so." Harry took a seat on the top step of the staircase to seventh floor and stroked his chin. "I saw glimpses of a fair number of conversations — most were meaningless and none were particularly recriminating other than an untold number of violations of petty Ministry regulations..."

Ginny snorted. "We'd best not tell Percy. But sorry, please continue."

"The one discussion that I had a hard time breaking away from was a chat Iona had about a month ago with Alecto Carrow."

"Flora and Hestia Carrow's mum?" Ginny's eyes widened. "She was at the final battle — I assume she was one of those who fled after our odd bit of magic that, uh, cleared the castle doorstep."

"Right." Harry nodded. "Aurors tracked her down within a week and she submitted to a voluntary tracking charm. Her husband was a harder nut to crack, though. He inflicted some serious damage in the Great Hall later that morning, and has remained unrepentant. He'll likely be in Azkaban for a while."

"Yes, just like Crabbe senior." Ginny's mouth twisted in distaste. "So what did Mrs. Crabbe and Mrs. Carrow speak about?"

"Uh..." Harry stared vacantly down the quiet stairwell as he sifted through memories. "Oddly enough, they were talking about employment."

Ginny frowned. "What sort of employment?"

"I have no idea and neither, it seemed, did they." Harry cast a couple of quick privacy charms around them, even through the stairwell had remained deserted. "Remember when Vincent Crabbe left the castle with Goyle and Bulstrode shortly before the final battle? Well, about a week after that, they each owled their parents to say that they were leaving school because they'd received good employment offers."

Ginny's eyebrow arched. "That was hardly my read on the situation, but whatever."

"Yeah, whatever." Harry shrugged. "Iona sent a rather pointed owl message back to Vincent asking for details, but never got a response. Anyway, things soon got more complicated. A couple days after that, Jugson snuck out of his hiding place in the Crabbe's attic, disappeared for a while, then owled Iona to tell her that he too had been offered a good job. And once again, he never gave any details about where exactly he was, what he was doing, or even whether or not he was in touch with Vincent. Interestingly, I believe that the Crabbe family clock continued to register both of them as being 'in hiding'."

"Okay, so we have four people who all had good reasons to want to escape. They all said they'd found good work but none of them gave useful details like where they were or what they were doing." Ginny idly tapped the bannister with her finger. "Now at least two of them are dead. Blimey, Harry — I hope they got good hazard pay!"

Harry rolled his eyes.

Ginny continued to finger the wood. "Do you have any idea why Alecto was in there chatting with Mrs. Crabbe in the first place?"

Harry thought for a moment, then nodded. "Yes, Alecto was scrounging for information about the supposed employer, because her daughters had also recently been approached."

Ginny nodded with a hint of urgency. "Who and how?"

Harry massaged his cheek bones in thought. "Er, well, it seems that Cassius Warrington began dating Flora Carrow over winter break. Then, in late January, Warrington owled Flora telling her he'd gotten a new position, and saying that he could arrange summer employment for her and her sister as Field Magic Interns for 'Farfelu Operations'. Have you ever hear of it?"

Ginny frowned; thinking but saying nothing.

Harry glanced at her then continued. "Alecto had never heard of the company before, which was why she asked Iona. The conversation developed from there, and-."

"Vous êtes si farfelu! " Ginny grabbed Harry's wrist.

Harry's startled gaze darted from his wrist to Ginny's intense expression. "Er, can you run that by me again?"

"Farfelu — that's what Fleur always calls the twins! Vous êtes si farfelu. You are so wacky? Potty...?"

Harry raised an eyebrow. "Strange?"

"Strange?" Ginny chewed her lip. "Strange Operations?"

Harry got up and helped Ginny to her feet. Together, they walked in silence to the Room of Requirement, wondering just what kind of strange operations were taking root in the dimmer recesses of Magical commerce.




Harry had several books piled up in front of him in the private study he shared with Ginny. He was concentrating so deeply on a treatise on magical background measurement that he didn't even notice Ginny approaching until she put her hand on his arm.

He groaned and turned toward her.

"Groan??" Ginny's eyebrow soared high in semi-bemused umbrage. "Do I groan at you when you come to greet me?"

Harry smirked. "You do, if I'm coming to drag you to a meeting."

Ginny glared at him for a long moment, then grinned. "Yes, I suppose I do, don't I? Anyway, straighten out that smirk of yours Potter, and let's get it over with. There are lots of things I'd rather be doing with a Friday evening than listening to Blaise pontificate, but if we delay much longer, he'll be having Kneazels."

"Blaise having Kneazels? Now that I would like to see." Harry stretched his back in a way that (as Ginny noticed) rather accentuated his shoulders and lats. Obliviously, he rose from the desk, then winced. "Ugh, what am I saying?? Blaise? Kneazels? That's one image I absolutely do not want stuck in my mind."

"Ah, sorry — bad choice of metaphor." Ginny pressed close against him and her voice dropped to a breathy whisper. "Do you need a fresh image to replace it with?"

"Emmm..." Harry suddenly recognised the parts of her body that were pressed against his. "Thanks, uh, what... errr... are you sure the, uh, meeting isn't, say, tomorrow?"

Ginny's hand pressed itself against his chest, stayed there for a moment, then worked its way downward, undulating over the firm abdominal muscles it encountered...

Then it stopped; Ginny exhaled. "Argh. No, it's definitely tonight and we're late for it."

Harry's breathing rasped. "Er, yeah. They'll send someone to pound on our door if we don't hurry."

Ginny wrinkled her nose. "Bloody nuisance, but yes — we'd best go. No more distracting metaphors."

"Metaphors? Er, right." Harry nodded stiffly. "No metaphors."

So, without metaphors to distract them, the pair locked hands and exited the study. Crossing the corridor, they could already hear Zabini growling, "It's twelve bloody minutes after eight? What do they think we're running here, some sort of-?"

"Footsteps, Blasé." It was Daphne's voice cutting across Zabini's. "That would be them now."

"Where the hell have you two-?!" Zabini turned sharply to glare at... the two rather flushed faces, situated beneath distinctly ruffled hair. He coughed awkwardly. "Oi. Never mind."

Daphne smirked as Ron turned beet red and looked pointedly away. She cast a quick Gavel charm on her wand and tapped the table twice in percussive exclamation. "Calling to order the March 6th meeting of The Great Zabini Flying Circus. Harry and Gin-Ginny — help yourself to cold butterbeer from the back then please join us."

"Aye aye, Boss." Harry mock-saluted. "Any good press coverage this week?"

"Yes." Zabini held up a copy of the latest 'Seeker Weekly'. "Quint Marish wrote a great page six piece called 'Fourteen on a Shoestring'. He basically says we're playing like the fourteenth Premier League squad, despite having a miniscule budget and almost no resources."

"Kikis Trecus wrote a nice factual recap with plaudits for little Gin-Gin." George tossed a Daily Prophet into the centre of the table.

"Smudgely didn't," Fred added.

Summerby gave Ginny a quick glance. "Don't read Smudgely."

Ginny made a mildly obscene gesture at the paper lying on the table and smiled. "Anything from the Quibbler?"

"I don't think so." Ron scratched his head as skimmed through the small periodical. "No, nothing from the lunatic fringe."

"Now Ron..." Harry chuckled and turned to Daphne. "Any progress on scheduling?"

"Uh, not much. We have a bit of a problem." Daphne made a face of pronounced displeasure. "Premier League clubs are chickening out."

"What??" Ron stared at her. "You're not serious?!"

Daphne nodded. "Ever since Tuesday morning, I've received an endless stream of rejections — Puddlemere, Kenmare, Portree, Appleby, Holyhead and Wimbourne."

Ginny blinked. "What's Holyhead's problem?"

"Eh..." Zabini scrunched his face. "At least they have a decent excuse — with their victory on Wednesday, they've edged past Caerphilly in the race for the final League Cup slot. They don't want to risk any injuries in unnecessary exhibitions."

Page scowled. "The other clubs are apparently a bunch of twits."

"Hmmm..." Harry tapped the table. "Is anyone else giving tangible reasons?"

"Security." Daphne rolled her eyes. "Little nancy poof-poofs are all claiming that playing us will pose a security risk to their athletes and fans — like we're a bunch of reckless dark-targets or something!"

An uncomfortable silence descended.

Zabini gazed around the room. "I know what you're thinking, but stop thinking it. We've had two minor incidents at or near our matches, but nothing worse than the hooliganry that goes on at other League matches. Nay mates — the fact is that our proud professionals don't want to risk being humbled by a bunch of amateurs."

"Phooey." Fred cocked a snook as he slumped down in his chair. "I was rather looking forward to humbling a few of those gormless peacocks."

Page squinted in thought. "Montrose hasn't said no?"

Zabini nodded. "That's the one silver lining in all this — we've tentatively lined them up for June 22nd. That would be shortly after the League Cup final, and before camps start. Nothing finalised yet, but they're still negotiating, right Daffs?"

"Negotiating in good faith, yes." Daphne pushed her glasses up her nose and consulted a scroll. "And Blasé neglected to mention this for some reason, but Falmouth sent us a note of inquiry a few weeks ago and he failed to let me follow up."

"We're not playing Falmouth." Zabini's eyes hardened. "I don't want to beat up on the Falcons any more than Rooster would like us pounding his Cannons."

"I'd have no qualms about plucking Falcons or pounding Cannons," George opined with a grin.

Zabini shook his head. "We're not playing Falmouth."

"June 22nd is more than three months away, Blaise." Harry enumerated on his fingers. "We're playing great right now, but we're sure to fall off our peak unless we keep a steady slate of good competition between now and then. If we back-slide too much, Montrose will utterly destroy us."

"Portugal in May, right?" Ginny consulted her notes.

"Portuguese Nationals have confirmed, yes." Daphne forwarded Ginny a scroll containing the contract.

Harry glanced at the scroll in passing. "Yes, but that's still more than two months away as well. Unless we find ways to stay sharp from now until then, what's to stop Portugal from burying us too? Either we find at least one high quality tuneup in April, or we might as well pack it in."

Zabini chewed his lip. "Barnton challenged us..."

Page laughed. "The man said 'high quality', mate."

"Picky picky." Zabini scowled. "I suppose you'd turn your nose up on Koldovstoretz Institute of Magic too?"

Fred giggled. "Russky tree pluckers!"

"Now Frederick..." Daphne shook her head sternly. "Just because they like to clown about flying felled spruce trees doesn't mean they can't play perfectly respectable broomy Quidditch too."

Page shook his head. "Negative. I don't care if they fly triple barrels and kick-dance while eating hot borscht — I have no interest in playing any more school teams."

Harry nodded. "Any other options, Daffs?"

"Wellll..." Daphne scanned her list. "Nobody's given me a straight answer on this yet, but... Haiti?"

Zabini continued chewing his lip. "Okay, here's the schtik. The Haitian Juniors wrote back again to say they'd be willing to host a match on the Saturday of Easter weekend."

"The problem is..." Daphne gave Harry a wary look. "They have this huge festival going on at Souvenance — pretty close to their stadium. Things could get a bit, uh, kooky."

Zabini frowned. "It would hardly be a lazy stroll past Fortescue's on a summer morning, Potter. The Haiti magical community sounds like a cross between untamed and unhinged — Muggles and wizards; light and dark, all mingling in a single zany, lawless forum."

All eyes fell upon Harry.

Daphne shifted uneasily and caught his eye. "Umm, not exactly your puff of pastry, Harry?"

"Well..." Harry ran a hand through his hair. "They do play a flashy, challenging style of Quidditch..."

Ginny pursed her lips. "We'd have to find ways to cut down on distractions. The seven of us in particular would have to be able to steer clear of trouble and focus on the match. I don't want any of us to have to babysit a big fan contingent in an unruly atmostphere."

Harry shook his head. "No, we ought not invite anyone, er, unless... maybe if some of the more cool-headed, responsible students were willing to come along and assist with logistics."

Ginny nodded. "We could offer to pay a few people — all the top squads have traveling staff." She gazed around the room. "Daphne and Ron would be most welcome, obviously. Maybe we could recruit some big blokes to, you know, dissuade the more 'colourful' fans. Calm, even-keeled fellows like Neville and Terry?"

"Right." Harry began scribbling notes, then glanced at Ginny. "You think maybe we should consider Ryan and Hermione?"

"They'd be way too busy to... Unless you mean...?" Ginny stared at Harry inquiringly.

"Yes, I mean..." Harry fixed Ginny's eyes and the pair locked their intense gazes.

"Er, ahem, hello?" Zabini waved his hands around. "Are you two still in there? If this is your way of saying, 'hell no', then you're not being very clear about it."

Harry broke off his gaze and glanced at Zabini. "We're not actually saying no.

"Uhh..." Daphne blinked four times in lightning succession. "Does that mean you're saying yes?"

Ginny shrugged and glanced back at Harry. "I guess so, yeah?"

Harry nodded.

"Oi! What the...??" Ron shook his head incredulously. "What the hell was it that Fleur used to say? Foozit farley-foo?"

"Well..." Harry pursed his lips, raising an eyebrow. "Yes, a little bit farfelu, perhaps."

Back to index


Chapter 15: Teeming

Author's Notes:

Well, my dear patient friends, here is another chapter!

I actually have another two chapters drafted (covering the entirety of an eventful trip across the waters as you will see). If my slowness in editing this latest chapter is an indication, though, it may take a while to release them, but hopefully you'll bear with me and derive some enjoyment from them!


AChapter 15. Teeming (April 4-10, 1998)

The bluish haze encircling the meadow’s horizon looked more like July than early April. Leafless deciduous groves still stood smoky-bare against a firm backdrop of dark pines, but one could now find several furiously happy splashes of pink and white blossoms marking a south-facing hill where the plum and pear trees of Dolwyddelan's ancient orchard had begun their vernal celebration.

High above it all, Harry felt the glory of the wind as it streamed through his hair. After a long moment basking in the fresh tingling air, he flattened out his dive, and wheeled around to locate his young competitor.

The girl, too, was plunging downward. Teri's fine dark hair fanned out behind a face rigid with concentration — eyes paying equal time to Harry (whom she had been following warily) and her continued search for an unseen Snitch that had artfully avoided them both now for the better part of forty minutes.

Harry watched her for a moment before instinctively shutting his eyes. In an instant, her normal image was replaced in his mind with the glow of her magic — a visual vaguely resembling a retinal afterimage, but more vibrant; a deep blue comet, streaming flame-like toward him.

Concentrating on the girl’s aura, Harry could clearly discern what Bill had first alerted him to a couple of weeks prior — a faint quavering; a subliminal palsy. The buoyant thrill of flying through the fresh spring air wilted, and Harry’s heart sank.

The danger was surely still far away, but he couldn’t help feeling dismay to be reminded that the traces of strange dark spells were still there; still seeking to grapple onto the girl; still plainly visible to the trained magical eye. The message was clear that even now, beneath the facade of a beautiful sunny morning that seemed to radiate youth and innocence, darkness still crouched with all its watchful, persistent malevolence.

Harry shivered.

Re-opening his eyes to the approaching girl he found, unsurprisingly, that Teri had now turned her attention completely away from the Snitch search and was instead watching him curiously.

Forcing a smile onto his face, Harry waved beckoningly. Teri nodded her acknowledgment, decelerated and began coasting in. At a distance of a hundred feet, she cupped a hand to her mouth and called out, "Are we giving up, Mister Harry?"

He nodded. "Afraid so, Sugar Plum. I have to be back to the castle in fifteen minutes."

She smiled sheepishly. "I guess the Snitch was too balky, then?"

"That's fine." He shrugged. "I’ve had plenty of matches where more than an hour passed with no sign of the little devil. It's a good lesson in patience."

"Could you have found it if you'd tried looking for its aura?"

"Perhaps." Harry shrugged. "That does amplify the signal — maybe to the point where I can match the extraordinary vision of someone like Lennox Campbell, but there’s plenty of evidence that a truly balky snitch can still stymie the most eagle-eyed Seeker if that's how it's set to play."

Teri nodded as the pair landed on the northern edge of the meadow. Her feet on the ground, she stared back over the makeshift pitch for a long moment, frowning. "Mister Harry, about twenty minutes ago, you started flying an unusual pattern that I'd never seen before. What were you doing?"

"You've been watching my patterns? I'm impressed!" Harry grinned broadly as they began to walk back to the manor. "So let’s think about it then. What conclusion do you figure we both had reached by then? About twenty minutes ago?"

Teri frowned at him for a moment. "Well, that the Snitch was playing tough, right?"

"Exactly!" Harry paused and gazed back toward the meadow. "If I was in a match, after that much futility, perhaps I’d have dropped low to see if I could spot the Snitch aura against the bare sky, but recalling how sketchy that plan got in Caerphilly, I decided to try something different today. My plan was to out-think the Snitch."

"Huh?" Teri blinked. How would you out-think something that doesn't think?"

"I’ve been mapping out a strategy for that — simple, but it’s kind of time consuming." Harry laid his broom against a post for a moment to free up his hands. "So yes, the Snitch doesn't truly think, but they often act like they do. I'm pretty sure that many Snitches are charmed to modify their patterns based on the way Seekers are seeking them. Sometimes the Snitch flies free — it'll go wherever it wants, regardless of the action around it. In this case, the Snitch flits about randomly, and the only way a Seeker can catch it is by being very watchful and a bit lucky.”

Teri nodded her understanding, letting Harry continue.

“Other times, the Snitch is a tease — it spends a lot of time flying randomly, but if one of us got close enough, it would respond by crossing straight in front of the Seeker — intentionally revealing itself before equally deliberately rushing away as fast as possible. That Snitch favours the fastest fliers with the quickest reflexes.”

Teri nodded again. “But today’s Snitch was neither of those, right?”

“Exactly!” Harry smiled. “The third Snitch behaviour I've noticed is where it spends all it's time deliberately avoiding both Seekers, as our fluttery friend did this morning. If I know that both Seekers have gone twenty or more minutes without even the slightest glimpse of it, then I assume the Snitch is flying a deliberate pattern of avoidance."

"That makes sense.” Teri frowned. “So why were you working those odd patterns?"

"You haven't guessed?"

Teri shook her head.

Having reached the boulder on the edge of the manor's back lawn where Teri had set down her borrowed Weasley jumper, Harry handed her the garment and took a seat on the smooth stone. "Have you ever played Wizard Chess, Teri?"

Teri nodded. "We play it quite often at the manor. Erik is the best chess player, although now Amelie has beaten him at least twice." She sighed in consternation. "I rarely win, except against the little children."

"Don't feel bad — I'm cobblers at it." Harry smiled kindly. "However, I’ve learned some interesting things about the game from watching my friend Ron. I’ve noticed that when he’s wiped out all his opponent's pieces except the king, he has definite strategies for pushing the opposing king into a trap. One of the easiest cases is when he still has two rooks left; in that case he can always force a checkmate by driving the king to one end of the board. Can you see what I'm getting at?"

"Maybe. " Teri chewed her lip. "But I wasn’t really helping you, was I? Won’t that plan fail if the two rooks aren’t working together?"

"Not necessarily." Harry shook his head. "The tactic is most efficient if both pieces work together, but one rook alone is powerful enough to do most of the work and the second rook, even if it doesn’t intend to, can help things along by moving around and occasionally cutting off the king’s escape route. It may take a while, but the two pieces can usually pin the opposing king, even if one rook isn’t aware of the plan."

"That's brilliant!" Teri's face lit up. "So you decided that the Snitch must be running away from us, so you were gradually forcing it it to one side? That's why you were slowly working from east to west!" Smiling, she thrust her arms into the thick wool, preparing to put the jumper on.

"Exactly!” Harry grinned. “Another ten minutes and we'd have pinned the little..."

Words suddenly failed Harry. He'd felt something.

More accurately, his magic had sensed something. It was faint, like a subtle change in the breeze. His eyes turned toward the girl, catching her in the process of pulling the heavy garment over her head...

Harry closed his eyes and saw...

Indigo…?

Harry opened his eyes to see the girl, her head just now clear of the thick jumper's neck, staring at him with an intense, quizzical expression. He blinked his eyes shut again for a moment to confirm the subtle change, then re-opened them.

“What is it, Mr. Harry?”

"Teri, your aura just changed."

Teri's eyes went wide; she shook her head. "It can't have changed, Mister Harry. I wasn't doing any magic."

"It did change — just a little bit..." Harry looked her up and down. "Do you remember how I told you that my mind interprets auras as colours? Well, the tint of yours shifted the moment you... put on that jumper?"

Still frozen, jumper half-way pulled down, Teri raised an eyebrow... then slowly reversed her progress. Her head disappeared once again within the thick folds of green wool.

Harry closed his eyes... and watched the indigo flame turn blue again.

"Huh? The jumper truly does cause it. How odd." Harry opened his eyes and studied the girl. "You don't find it uncomfortable? Wearing the jumper?"

Frowning in bafflement, she shook her head. "No. I-I actually feel... better... wearing it."

“Better?” Harry gave her a curious look.

“Better. Yes. Wearing it now sort of reminds of me of...” She gazed off into the distance toward the southern end of the estate. “It reminds me how, when I was little, I had an old woolen throw that used to comfort me when I was frightened. I clung to it for quite a while, but after a while, someone took it from me, and I learned to live without it. I guess I never forgot what it felt like to be secure in that way though, and over the last few months… well, I assumed it was just childish imagination, but...”

“This jumper makes you feel the same way? Sort of?”

“Yes.” She nodded, fingering the rough knit pearls. "It makes me feel safe."

Harry nodded, frowning. "Could you put it on again, please?"

Without question Teri once again went through the motions, pulling her head through and tugging the lower hem down to her waist.

"Can you move around a bit, please, Teri?" Harry closed his eyes.

Puzzled, the girl tentatively began windmilling her arms, then took several steps in a semi-circle.

Harry watched as the now-indigo aura bobbed about — a solid, strong, continuously unwavering glow. He opened his eyes and met a pair of wide, intrigued eyes.

"Well I'll be." Harry unthinkingly extended his hand to the girl and began to make his confounded way back toward the manor. "I'm kind of baffled at this, but maybe — just maybe — we might be onto something."

Teri spent a moment in silent thought, then nodded to herself. Although she had no formal knowledge of the complex post-NEWT magical that Harry was contemplating as an explanation, a look of comprehension crossed her face. A self-satisfied smile flickered for a moment, then subsided as she began to ponder questions weightier than most adults expect of children. She tugged on Harry’s hand. “Mister Harry?”

“Yes?” He smiled.

“Is the jumper protecting me in ways that Occlumency is not?”

Harry’s smile fell away as he nodded. “Er, I guess so, yes. Your Occlumency has progressed brilliantly, and I’m sure it will prove useful to you, but I’ve not found any proof that it helps much against the strange magic we’re worried about. That jumper, on the other hand, seems to...” He trailed off.

The pair fell silent for a long moment. Teri kicked absently at a small stone, then looked to her mentor. “You’ll figure it out, right? You’ll find a way that I can protect myself, with or without this jumper?”

Teri smiled broadly enough to infect Harry. He grinned at the implied vote of confidence. “Why yes Sugar Plum. I believe I will.”





“Er, okay.” Hermione’s wand extended toward the fetish by the office window. She turned toward Harry with an inquiring face. "So you'd like us to replicate the fetish casting experiment we performed a few weeks ago."

"Yes, but I was hoping you could try something just a little bit different." Harry stepped around Ryan to retrieve an old garment from its peg on the wall. He draped it around his student's shoulders.

Ryan raised an eyebrow. "You want me to wear... your old cloak?"

"Yes please." Harry nodded. "It's likely a bit small, but if you could pull it tight, and try to close the front?"

Giving his mentor a quizzical look, Ryan complied as Harry turned his attention back to Hermione. "Go ahead 'Mione, and use the stronger fetish."

Puzzled but bemused by the strange perturbation to their experiment, Hermione shrugged subtly and took aim at the fetish. "Nuntius Capillos! "

The fetish seemed to shiver slightly... but other than that, nothing happened. Ryan's hair did not fly into disarray, but rather remained very distinctly Ryan — neat, straight and nondescript.

"Bangin'!" Tonks surged forward; her adrenalised glance darting between Ryan's and Hermione's puzzlement before settling on Harry, who was nodding thoughtfully. "Not a whisker out of place, Harry! So what's cooking with the cloak? Did you put a charm on it?"

“No, not even a whisper!” Harry laughed. "The only thing blocking the fetish is the fabric itself. If I’m understanding things correctly, I believe that the cloak picked up a lot of my residual magic over the two or three years when I wore it a lot, and wearing it sort of, er, changes Ryan’s aura."

"Oh? So you've confused the fetish?" Ryan touched the old garment clinging tightly to his arms. “Kind of like...”

“Like a gaol-bird wearing the warden’s boots!” Hermione grinned. “You’ve thrown off the hounds.”

Ginny laughed. "Oh, how brilliantly simple!"

Harry chuckled. "I think I'd have preferred 'simply brilliant', but yes, it occurred to me earlier this morning that the magical residues in old clothing might distort the magical field enough just enough to divert a fetish."

"What a fascinating breakthrough." Lupin frowned analytically. "What gave you the idea?"

After helping Ryan out of the tight cloak, Harry took a seat. "A few weeks ago, Bill made some observations about Teri's aura that helped me to detect the effect of what I assume is a Bocio fetish trying to lock onto her. Just this morning, I happened to notice that the effect vanished when Teri put on one of Ginny's old jumpers that she's sort of adopted."

"Oh really?" Ginny's eyebrow raised. "I’d forgotten that she still has that. She actually wears it??"

"Er yes." Harry smiled sheepishly. "She says it's comfortable... reassuring even, and now I'm beginning to understand why. Uh, I don’t suppose you wanted it back?"

"No, of course not.” Ginny laughed. “It's from my third year and barely fits; probably has a few holes." She smiled. "To be honest, I'm a little surprised that she would touch anything that belonged to a Weasley. But if it has a protective magical residue that comforts her, I can understand the attraction."

Harry opened his mouth to say something, then glanced around at the assembled group and instead pivoted the conversation. "Ryan and Hermione, do you suppose you could test the clothing shield concept to see if it can be made to work as effectively as the twins' amulets? Those charms are rather unpleasant to wear; I gather people don’t like their indiscriminate magical suppression."

Ryan rolled his eyes. "This wouldn't have anything to do with Tracey Davis having been caught six times leaving her amulet lying around?"

Harry grimaced. "We're up to six already?"

"What's wrong with that nitwit?" Hermione scowled. "Isn't she aware of the risks?"

"She's been made aware, certainly. But as far as what's wrong with her...?" Ginny shrugged.

"I don't know,” Harry replied. “Pansy says she's just careless, although at a certain point one has to wonder if there's a certain willful ambivalence. But yes Ryan, Tracey’s situation certainly does factor in. I’d really like to find a new type of protection for her, and everyone else we’re protecting."

Hand in his cloak pocket, Lupin fingered his own amulet absently and nodded. "Well, let's try to get contingencies in place, please. I'd be very uncomfortable if Tracey, or any of the other targets, got too willfully ambivalent, especially consider you're all skipping the country soon. I'll wager that Bellatrix has read the papers, and I can't persuade myself that she's not scheming for ways to exploit the opportunity."

Harry bit his tongue to prevent himself from grousing out loud about how many times in the past several weeks he'd heard Lupin complain about the planned Haiti trip. Harry knew that it wasn't easy to justify the excursion as anything better than a frivolous or impetuous whim, but he could neither explain (to Lupin) nor deny (to himself) the strange hunch that visiting the most celebrated and active Vodoun and O Bò culture in the modern world was an opportunity he couldn't pass up. He didn't have any faith in his own divination powers, and he understood exactly why Lupin decried the trip as a pointless risk, but something about the strange coincidence of the Haiti invitation seemed to beckon him.

"Oi there. Harry luv!" Tonks grinned at him as he snapped out of his thoughts. "Anyone in there? Your brain of to sunny southern seas a bit early?"

"All right, all right." Harry rolled his eyes at Tonks, then turned to face Lupin. "I understand the risks, Remus, and I'll be on call with the bracelets. Kingsley also arranged emergency international Portkey priority for me if I need it. Should anything urgent arise here, I'll drop anything I'm doing there and rush back. As it stands, I ought to be home within less than thirty minutes of any summons."

Not particularly appeased, Lupin gave a half nod. "It’s reassuring that Kingsley is so supportive. To be honest, though, it’s not just domestic security that concerns me. I'm more than a bit worried about your own safety, what with the group of you barreling off into a complete unknown. Haiti is such a very different society than ours, Harry. You don’t know the customs, regulations or risks, and our Ministry has been receiving problematic reports of civil tensions there. I can think of so many unexpected ways you could get into a world of trouble."

“Listen old friend.” Harry steepled his fingers, then met Lupin's eyes. "You've done well enough trusting me in the past. I appreciate your caution and vigilance, but I’d also appreciate your placing a bit of faith in my instincts on this decision too."

His eyebrows bristling slightly, Lupin spent a long moment studying the son of his dear friends — a young man whom for whom he cared deeply, yet in an oddly conflicted way. To him, Harry was somewhere between a son of his own, a younger brother, an equal partner, and a benevolent authourity. Lupin could see a quiet conviction in the youth's face; a measured look that nobody would mistake for recklessness. He sighed. "Very well, Harry. You have my trust — just please take care of yourself."

A small smile formed on Harry's face. "I will, Remus. Thank you."

Ginny also met Lupin's gaze; her hand reached over to cover one of Harry's. "We do value your concern, Professor. We'll take care."





Sunday afternoon was bone-chillingly wet. The wind had a late November feel, and conspired with the moisture to make everything seem all the more disheartening by contrast with the pleasant weather of previous weeks. Nonetheless, for their last full squad practice before Thursday's Haiti departure, The Flying Circus slogged their way through more than three hours of strenuous drills in the rain.

For Blaise Zabini, who doubled as star Chaser on the Slytherin House squad, this hard practice landed just one day after a brutally long match that had finally ended in a demoralising loss to Ravenclaw. Yet, as Flying Circus captain, he couldn't afford to appear tired or dejected. A victory next weekend in the Caribbean would more than assuage any regrets over the near certainty that he would graduate from Hogwarts without ever winning a House Quidditch Cup.

Indeed, as he settled into the last remaining chair around the big oak table in the Interhouse Commons, he stolidly flashed a semi-convincing smile (in truth, more of a mask — a Slytherin-quality attempt to disguise the pain throbbing through his worn, weary back) and resolved that he would tap every resource at his disposal to get the edge on the next competition. He turned his gaze to that big shock of red hair that was (as always) angled obliquely away from him.

Knowing that Ron would never expect to be called upon so soon, Zabini practically shouted, "Hey Rooster!"

Zabini grinned to see Ron jump, but his ensuing tone was all business. "So let’s hear it. You were out in the cold for hours today taking notes on us. What do we need in order to win on Saturday?"

“Eh?” Ron blinked and swallowed. "You want my opinion?"

"Sure!" Zabini smirked. "Either that, or a quart of Felix Felicis. What do you have, mate?"

"Uh, okay." A bit haltingly, Ron withdrew a long scroll from his pocket. He began unfurling it, then stopped and scowled in dismay. "Bloody hell."

Puzzled, Ginny leaned over and examined the parchment. She laughed, and cast a quick nonverbal spell.

Ron sighed in relief. "Thanks Ginny. Reckon I'm going to have to find some water-proof ink for next time."

"Either that, or learn a basic Corrigo spell." Ginny smiled and leaned in to scan her brother’s notes. "So let’s see your thoughts on today's practice..."

"One sec please..." Ron skimmed quickly down the scroll with his finger. He stared for a moment then nodded. "Offence first?"

"Sure." Zabini nodded as he and Summerby leaned forward.

Ron frowned. "You're going to need to pass more in front of the goals. Emmanuella Doubye is probably going to be one of the smaller Keepers you'll ever face — only 5'7", but she's amazing at reading offences and maximising her position to cut down angles. The only squad at least year's World Juniors to score more than seven goals on her was Luxembourg. According to Roger Davies, they just kept passing so much that even their Chasers themselves didn't know what they were about to do."

“Passing, eh?” Zabini nodded wide-eyed at Summerby. "That actually sounds like a decent plan, don’t you think, Summs?"

Summerby squinted thoughtfully, tapping the table. Ginny merely smiled; quietly proud of her brother.

Her brother, however, was not done. "Chaser defensive assignments — last week you settled Ginny on defending Jean-Laurent Linto, and that makes sense because he's bloody fast, but I disagree with your other two matchups."

Zabini frowned. "Go on."

Ron turned to face him. "I think you'd be wasted on Gaby Caristil — she took barely ten percent of Haiti's shots last year. Instead we'd be best served with you sticking your long arms in front of Christelle Loraj's passes. Captain on captain, huh?"

Scratching his chin, Zabini glanced at Summerby who was sitting pensively.

"As far as Summerby," Ron continued, "I think he'd work best improvising — getting himself into the passing lanes, occasionally double-teaming Linto, and only working Caristil if she really looks like she's actually going to take a close shot on goal."

"Yeah okay." Summerby nodded slowly. "That makes sense."

Ginny beamed.

"So, brother Ron..." Fred smirked. "You're now about to tell us what we've been doing wrong?"

"Sure." Ron turned. If he sensed any familial irreverence from the twins, he was on too much of a roll to worry. Instead, he offered a blunt, straight-faced verdict. "You're both too overconfident."

"Oh ho?" George's twinkling eyes widened. "Do tell?"

Ron nodded seriously. "Listen, I know that you've run up against bigger, stronger Beaters with more experience, and you've come out smelling like roses every time, but Josué and Wilky Marasse are brilliant. They're each about seven inches taller than you, they're smart and — here's the kicker — just like you, they're identical twins and play like it."

"Ah? And what does our esteemed brother propose we do about it?"

"Focus!" A flash of red pulsed through Ron’s cheeks and forehead as he shot them a glare of smoldering intensity. "Focus focus focus! You’ve got the experience to get the better of them, but you'll need to keep your heads about you and bloody concentrate! If you don't, we’ll have Bludgers raining down on everyone like a Muggle battlefield."

Wide-eyed the twins glanced at each other. Fred turned back to Ron with a look of bemused surprise. "Aye aye, Sergeant Ronniekins!"

"Your command is our humble pleasure," George added.

Page leaned forward. "Okay, this is sounding pretty good, yeah? And what are my marching orders then?"

Ron frowned. "Keeper; let's see." He scanned down his scroll before nodding. "Ah right. Page will have to cheat."

Numerous surprised blinks circulated the table, and puzzled smirks began to form. A curious look on her face, Daphne opened her mouth to offer an innocent protest, but Ron had scrolled a bit further down his notes and chuckled. "Sorry mates, that didn't come out straight, did it?"

"Oh, I don't know, Ron." Ginny snickered at Page. "Just telling it like it is, yeah?"

Ron rolled his eyes. "No, no — the rest of the note was cut off. What I meant to say was that Page will need to cheat off Caristil. Loraj is a solid pass-first Chaser like Summerby, and Linto will shoot the lights out like Ginny, but the only reason Caristil is on the squad is because of her defence. She doesn't shoot often because she doesn't shoot well. Period. If Page blocks her out of his mind, he'll have a better chance against Linto and Loraj."

"Hmmm..." Page pushed back in his chair, stared up at the ceiling, then leveled his gaze at Ron. "Okay Rooster. You'll buy me a pint for every goal Caristil scores on me?"

"I, uh...?" Ron scratched his jaw perplexedly. "I suppose I... If it'll make you feel better."

"Oi, beautiful! I can't lose then, eh?" Page burst out laughing. "All right then. It's Potter's turn to be skewered."

"Uh right. Seeker." Ron scrunched his face and pushed aside the scroll. "Okay, well, Jovenel Timalice sounds like a good Seeker, but nobody seems to have figured out how he catches so many Snitches.”

Everyone nodded expectantly.

Ron nodded back. After a moment he realised that everyone was staring at him. “Er. Sorry. That's all I have."

"Seriously? That’s it??" George stared at his younger brother. "You cock us up for causing some bleeding Muggle Bludger bombardment, then you turn Page into a dodgy cheater, but you're going to let Harry off with… nothing?”

“Yeah!” Fred nodded vigourously. “Out with it Ron! Shouldn’t you be badgering him to focus focus focus, or command him to pass off and switch assignments?!"

"Eh well, not really..." Ron shrugged. "Seems the only person who tells Harry how to play Quidditch is that little sprog in Wales."

Fred snorted loudly, and within seconds the room had flooded with a lively round of miscellaneous ribbing about Harry’s ten year old mentor. Rolling his eyes, Harry was about to protest this (arguably accurate) characterization, but in the midst of the levity he stopped, tapped his chin thoughtfully and pushed back in his chair, the smirk on his face fading.

As Daphne reined in the meeting to begin discussing arrangements she’d made for their trip to Haiti, Harry’s mind wandered instead back to Dolwyddelan and his latest session with Teri. It was then that he confirmed something slightly curious.

For all her reputation as a precocious Quidditch savant; for all she had rarely missed an opportunity to exhort or cajole him; to challenge him with unconventional scouting reports of an impending opponent, Teri had not said a word to Harry about his upcoming match.

Harry frowned — half puzzled, half bemused. He gazed out the window for a moment… then shrugged, turning his attention to Daphne’s lecture on Haitian border security protocols.





Daphne Greengrass rarely betrayed nerves, but having just surrendered her wand plus those of twelve of her friends to a grim-looking security wizard in beaded dreadlocks, she was finding it a bit challenging to maintain equanimity. Firmly gripping her quill and clipboard, she paced beneath the large white sign whose bold red and blue lettering read:

Bienvenue sur le Portail International Dutty Boukman

Contrôle de la Frontière Haïtienne DdV

Her eyes swept the row of Portkey stalls, still waiting for...

Fffffwuutt!!

Zabini and Summerby emerged, both clutching the same threadbare oven mitt. They stumbled together slightly onto the rubberised carpet, then Zabini raised his gaze to Daphne and gave her a slightly wobbly grin.

Over the next few minutes (spread across thirty second intervals) the others arrived — first Page and Ryan, then the twins, followed by Ron and Hermione, then Neville and Terry Boot, and finally by Harry and Ginny who had held off until last to make certain that the torch back in London at the Ministry of Magic International Portkey Chamber had flashed green to indicate everyone else's safe transit.

As the group picked through the Portkeyed luggage shipment to identify their bags, they were approached by a tall wizard in a dark formal cape. His eyes swept the group then spotted Daphne; he extended his hand to shake hers.

"Miss Greengrass." His voice was a sonorous baritone; his syllables had the subtle but distinctly French inversions that Ginny and Harry both recognised from Fleur Delacour. The wizard's smile gleamed. "I am a representative from the Ministry assigned to facilitate your stay. Welcome to the Haitian DdV."

"DdV?" Ginny tapped her lip thoughtfully.

"Domaine des Vaudouisants." His teeth gleaming in a broad grin, the government wizard turned to Ginny. "This is what you would consider the magical principality of Haiti — a governing body that operates in parallel with the non-magical Republic. Now you, mademoiselle, I would recognise as Ginevra Weasley, non? And you are accompanied of course by..." His glance darted to the side and met Harry eyes. "Ah yes — the redoubtable Sir Potter."

"Just Harry, please." Harry shook his hand. "Your name is...?"

"Pierre Langlois, attaché to the Junior Secretary for International Cultural Exchange." The man turned to gesture toward a nearby checkpoint within the spacious hall. "Let us all walk together through border security and customs. As invited guests of the Minister, your paperwork has been approved and your wands should be awaiting you on the far side of the gate."

Leading the way to the port of entry, Langlois conferred briefly in French with the dreadlocked officer then walked calmly through the high curved archway, out to a skylight, glowing with the filtered hues of a hazy mid-afternoon. The others followed, in states of varying degrees of nervousness. The last to pass beneath the white stone, Harry felt the prickle of wards and magical probes, subtly different than those he’d experienced before, but not particularly unexpected.

As Harry and Ginny made their way toward the rest of their group, congregating in a breezy mountaintop foyer and gazing out high glass windows toward an expansive sweep of distant ocean, Langlois beckoned them aside.

The government attaché’s smile contained a tinge of harried bemusement. “Harry, Miss Weasley? Could you please step into this office for a moment?”

In response to Harry’s quizzical look, Langlois rolled his eyes, his heavy baritone suggesting a bit of a quandary. “It would appear that our newly acquired magical scanners, which I am assured are of the finest European fabrication, do not work properly on the two of you — an eventuality that in your case I perhaps...” He breathed deeply. “… Should have anticipated?”

Harry gave him a sheepish smile. He caught Ginny’s hand and, a bit uneasily, the two followed the tall wizard into a small office.

With a sweep of his wand, Langlois sent several piles of scrolls scurrying off onto a corner to reveal two wooden stools in front of a rickety desk that seemed rather incongruous given all the polished stone and glass they’d seen throughout the Portkey terminal. Langlois settled himself into a chair on the far side of the desk, setting off an awkward squawk as the old seat accommodated him. He gestured for his two guests to sit. “My apologies for the deplorable decor. Do you smoke?” He picked up a small ceramic vase containing hand-rolled cigarillos and held it out to them.

Harry shook his head politely; Ginny stifled a reflexive cough.

The wizard pushed the tobacco to the side, cast a privacy spell on the office door and paused for a moment, scratching his chin contemplatively. “So it would seem that even our intelligence services may have underestimated your Occlumency skills. The detectors were not able to penetrate your minds in the slightest. Per the DdV’s strict entry regulations, that poses a problem.”

“A problem? Surely we’re not the first people to have confused the scanners.” Ginny stiffened a bit. “Isn’t there some workaround? An alternate way to satisfy your regulations?”

“Well...” Langlois did not look optimistic. “Would you agree to surrender blood samples at entry and exit?”

“Absolutely not.” Harry shook his head vigourously.

The attaché nodded. “I suspected as much.”

“Could you share what, in particular, you’d be scanning for?” Harry regarded him analytically.

“Yes. Somewhat confidentially, I suppose I could share that.” Langlois fingered a cigarillo, but didn’t light it. “The Haitian DdV has most of the same entry and customs concerns one would expect from any magical nation. We restrict the comings and goings of detectably dark sorcerers. We bar the import of dark objects and carefully control many potions and their ingredients. In recent years, we have also...” He tapped the cigarillo for a long moment, trailing off.

Ginny frowned. “Well, it’s obviously not dark objects or potion substances, right? Your detectors should have found those, regardless of any Occlumency shields.”

“True.” Langlois nodded. “We have no reason to believe you or any of your party have smuggled anything in, and we will do a thorough sweep of everyone on Sunday morning to ensure that you do not… accidentally… carry away any sensitive materials or objects with you. Furthermore, your reputation largely precludes any suspicion of either of you having any dark intent. However, it is not widely known, but in recent years we have also been careful to restrict the export of magical knowledge.”

“Knowledge?” It was Harry's turn to frown. “What are you worried about? That we might be here to learn something interesting about your culture?”

“About our magic, Mr. Potter.” Langlois’s deep, dark eyes pinned Harry. “Magic is our wealth and our treasure. You may see the occasional marble and crystal facade around you. You may see over my shoulders what appears to be a fine Italian cape, but the truth is that we are a forgotten people; a deeply impoverished nation.”

Langlois pointed to a faded map on the wall that depicted the entire Caribbean island, divided into two distinct regions. He gestured to the upper right. “The neighbouring Principado Mágico Dominicano has all the good soil, more favourable weather… and Les Dominicaines possess more than 90% of the magical Larimar stone — our prized Hispaniolan currency.” His hand drifted down and to the left. “We Haitians, by contrast, were left with almost nothing. Nothing but our magic.”

Harry and Ginny nodded slowly, not quite following the logic.

Langlois eyed the pair, then continued. “Such worldly souls as yourselves may have difficulty grasping this, but we Haitians have good reason to believe that our magical prowess is superior. Superior not only to the Dominicans; not only to the Egyptians and Nubians and Indians and Tibetans, but also to your European culture. We believe that our Houngans and Mambos — our great sorcerers and sorceresses — see more than your best witches and wizards. Our spells are more subtle, more powerful, deeper and more ecstatic. Le grand Vaudou is our true currency, Mr. Potter and Miss Weasley. It is our national treasure and we offer it neither as purchase nor gift, lest the Haitian DdV surrender its only unique blessing. Thus, charms set upon our entry arch tend to temporarily diminish the ability to learn new magic, and our exit tends to dull any newly acquired skills.”

Harry leaned forward on his stool. “So you have reason to believe that our innate Occumency shields defy those charms?”

“That is correct.”

“Interesting.” Harry pursed his lips. “But rather inconvenient. It’s a shame Daphne didn’t warn us of this before we agreed to the trip.”

“It is not Miss Greengrass’s omission.” Langlois picked at the tobacco with his fingernail. “This is a matter that we do not widely advertise and is rarely an issue.”

“Er...” Ginny shifted awkwardly. “We’re here for a very brief stay, Mr. Langlois, and we’ve only come to play Quidditch. You and Daphne are in control of our itinerary — surely you can prevent us from, well, learning anything, uh, sensitive?”

Langlois gazed at her, then slowly nodded. “Perhaps yes. But...” He bit his lip hard for a moment, then finally surrendered to the urge and lit a cigarillo with his wand. He took a long pull on the acrid vapours then settled wearily into his chair. “If you agree to limit your activities to those I approve, then perhaps I can file waiver paperwork for you, and clear your entry.” He sighed. “But the forms are tortuous, and time consuming, and for this I will not be paid overtime due to DdV salary cuts that have forced me to undertake a second job as a street cleaner in old Gonaïves to pay for the Essence of Dittany I must import to treat the spell damage to my sweet Lorraine who ran afoul of the Red Bokor of Ti Perisse during...”

“Ahem.” Harry gestured slightly with his hand to bring the man’s monologue to a halt. “Red Bokor?”

“Bokor...” The Haitian wizard shifted uneasily. “Powerful magician, though not the same as a Houngan. A Bokor is… Is… Well, as they always say, a Bokor serves the loa with both hands...”

“Both hands?” Ginny frowned. “You mean, a practitioner of both light and dark magic?”

“Exactly.” Langlois nodded. “Whereas the Houngan creates and heals, the Bokor may also destroy and harm. They may even kill and, ehhhm, revive.”

“And so a Bokor...” Harry regarded his host carefully. “A Bokor hurt your wife?”

“Wife?” Langlois blinked at him, then shook his head. “No, no, my daughter. The Red Bokor maimed my sweet little daughter Lorraine.” He pushed aside a few scrolls and retrieved a wrinkled black and white photo from his desk — a small girl in cornrows, waving cheerily with a raw, deformed hand. “She was only tiny when she wandered from us in the Market in Gonaïves. Her little hand wandered where it was not welcome and, by misfortune, she upset a basket of the Red Bokor’s herbs, and he…” The man bit his lip, trembled for a moment, then shook his head. “A Bokor must always be feared. That is their way.”

Harry turned away for a moment, breathed deeply, then reached into his cloak, withdrawing a small white sack that he placed on the desk. “I’m sorry to hear of your struggles, Mr. Langlois. Perhaps you can accept a token from us? Something that should cover the cost of your daughter’s Dittany?” He offered a small smile. “Perhaps you could also consider this your overdue overtime salary. Or an expression of our gratitude for your... services?”

Langlois slowly lowered the photo and stared at the bag. Carefully inserting a pair of fingers over the cloth lip, he registered the cooling sensation of the numerous Galleons within. He abruptly cleared his throat. “Well then.” Whisking the sack into an inner pocket of his cape, he stood and gestured toward the door. “Onwards to your hotel, shall we? I believe your friends are waiting.”





“Where WERE you?!”

“W-w-w-w-w-...” Lurching to and fro, Harry’s articulations were largely garbled by Daphne’s two small fists, which seemed driven to tear the lapels from his cloak. When she finally stopped and released him, Harry glanced over her shoulder toward Langlois who was haggling with a hotel clerk. “Uhh...” Harry coughed and straightened himself. “Er, we were just having a cordial chat with Pierre about Haitian society and bureaucracy.”

“You were WHAT…?” Daphne’s fingers twitched, obviously tempted to resume their throttling routine, but luckily she caught sight of a familiar face across the room. Her scowl vanished and she waved. “Oh hello there, Mr. Aurrera! Mr. Auclair!”

Already strolling toward her across the hotel lobby, The thin, greying Spaniard extended his hand to Daphne. “Miss Greengrass! Pardon me for interrupting your conversation, but Richard and I thought we might say hello and take this opportunity to finally introduce ourselves to Mr. Potter and Miss Weasley in person!”

“Welcome to Haiti, Mr. Potter, Miss Weasley!” The short, round, balding figure of Richard Auclair stepped forward to take Ginny’s unsuspecting hand, clutching it fiercely. “Ginevra, you may count me as one of your greatest fans!” He grinned, apparently forgetting to release her.

“Uh, thank you.” Ginny smiled, uneasily failing to free herself. “I’m pleased to meet you too. I, uh, grew up listening to your broadcasts.”

“Oh, did you? How sweet of you to say so! I should really tell you about the time… Oh, but that can wait. You must be famished from all your travels. Did you know that there’s a brilliant little Taíno restaurant a few hundred meters from here that Septimo and I were...”

“Excuse me Mr. Auclair.” Harry somehow managed to pry Ginny’s hand away from Auclair’s pudgy fingers, then gestured toward the hotel desk where Langlois was now signing paperwork. “Our government minder has requested that Ginny and I maintain a low profile during our visit, so we’ll be dining in house tonight.” Harry offered a no-nonsense smile. “Perhaps you may find some others in our party who are willing to join you in experiencing a bit of local flavour.”

“Oh.” Auclair cast a quick bereft glance at Ginny’s hand, now firmly clasped to Harry’s, then nodded quickly. “Er right, I understand. And yes, I’ll be sure to invite Mr. Zabini and… Oh! Miss Greengrass, who is your friend over there with the big hair?”

With that, Auclair surged off across the lobby, waving toward some of the rest of the Flying Circus contingent.

Aurrera rolled his eyes. “I would stop to apologize for my colleague’s overzealous nature, but I fear my services may be better put to rescuing some of your friends.” He winked and tipped his hat as he strode toward the corner toward Daphne and Hermione who, to varying degrees of discomfort, had suddenly found their arms captured by the ebullient announcer.

Ginny began to laugh, but then blinked, suddenly finding her mirth cut short by a wave of odd disorientation. A reddish wash of early evening sun had broken through the clouds beyond the lobby’s bank of rear windows. Bathed in the red glow, she wobbled slightly, then felt the reassuring pressure in Harry’s grip stabilize her. She leaned into him. “Oi Potter. I feel a bit out of sorts. What time is it?”

“It’s...” Harry did a quick calculation. “Nearly seven p.m. locally, but our own confused clocks are probably still set at around midnight Greenwich time.”

Ginny scowled. “Barmy sun doesn’t know its proper bedtime in these parts?”

Harry opened his mouth to explain something about axial rotation and longitude, but Ginny’s gently bemused elbow in the ribs let him know she was jesting. Consequently, he turned his attention instead to Langlois who was approaching them; a slight frown on his face. “Were those two blans bothering you?” he asked, gesturing toward Auclair and Aurrera.

“Not really.” Ginny shrugged. “I must admit a little disappointment to learn that a voice I revered as a little girl turns out to come from the jowls of that sweaty little prat, but those blokes are certainly nothing we can’t handle.”

“Agreed.” Harry nodded. “Aurrera seems a reasonable chap, and I’m sure Auclair can be dealt with easily enough.”

“Perhaps...” Langlois glanced over to where Auclair (still clutching Daphne’s arm) seemed to be making merry with Zabini and the twins. He scrunched his face slightly, then turned back to Harry and Ginny. “However, that may depend on what you mean by ‘dealt with’. Mr. Auclair was implicated in an unpleasant incident here last year during the preliminaries for the World Juniors. There was a lot of alcohol involved, perhaps a Banshee or two, and the inside of a gaol cell for himself and a pair of Barbadian Chasers.”

“Ew.” Harry ran a hand though his hair. “So, you'd call him a bad influence?”

“That’s my assessment.” Langlois shrugged. “In the end, however, no charges were laid. The tales got a bit konfonn, and the magistrate let them go.”

“Konfonn…” Ginny wrinkled her brow. “Confused?”

Langlois grinned his reply, but then the mirth faded. “Confused, yes. That can happen here rather easily, I fear. There is no shortage of Spirit Rum in Gonaïves — especially for the Easter festival. Foreigners seem to like our drink, but you’d all best be aware that Spirit Rum is not necessarily kind to foreigners.”

The attaché’s eyes narrowed as he watched Auclair, Aurrera, Zabini, Daphne and the twins cross the threshold from the lobby to the hotel bar; his voice fell to a rasp like the winter wind over dry reeds. “They’ll be safe drinking imported Firewhisky or frilly coconut drinks here in the hotel, but I would advise them to exercise great caution even in crossing the street. Local establishments such as L’Ancienne Chevre are clouded with bad juju when the blans get mixed up in them. Our Vaudou festive celebrations get lively in ways your people are unlikely to fully comprehend.”

Ginny shivered slightly, though she didn’t know why. Given how weary she was from such a very long day near the end of an extraordinarily busy week her sense of adventure had dwindled to spare fumes, and she began to wonder just how misguided a plan it was to visit a place like this in the company of… other Weasleys. What would she do if the twins got drunk and rowdy, and got swarmed by a crowd of revelers? What if Ron got tetchy and rubbed one of the locals the wrong way? And heaven forbid any of them should encounter one of those dastardly Bokors

Ginny briefly considered storming into the bar to offer her best Molly-esque preemptive scolding, but, in her deepening state of exhaustion, her heart just wasn’t in it. Groaning under her breath, she leaned in a bit closer to Harry, and resolved to pretend that her siblings were mature and reasonable enough to handle themselves. Finally she also convinced herself that she could rely on Langlois to issue to their more boisterous friends a few choicely phrased cautions about the risks of Haitian nightlife. Thus comforted, she relaxed into the warm nook between Harry’s arm and chest, tuned out the sounds of a Konpa-Dirék band warming up on the patio, and drifted off into a standing doze.

Harry, however, had sustained his alertness, and was continuing to converse with Langlois. He shook his head at his host’s last statement and eyed the tall wizard curiously. “I have to admit, Pierre, that I’m puzzled with all these admonitions about not understanding the culture or mixing with the natives. I realise that it’s risky for foreigners to carouse with partying locals, but if your government is so serious about ensuring a safe visit, why did they invite us here at such a, uh, busy and festive time?”

“It seemed like a fine occasion for a Quidditch match.” The attaché offered a faintly wry part-smile. “We rather enjoy our Quidditch, you understand. And besides, it was your own Miss Greengrass who proposed the date.”

Harry frowned. “Your government could nonetheless have given us more advance warning of the risks of playing here during the Easter festival, rather than waiting for our arrival to fill us in. We might have agreed to a later date, you know.”

“That is true.” Langlois met Harry’s intense eyes, and held them for a moment. He pursed his lips. “I don’t have a real answer for you, but the decision was very likely deliberate. Although the DdV is nominally governed by democratic assembly, much consideration is always given to the wishes of our Vaudou elders. The Houngans see much in the stars, and the prospect of your Easter visit apparently pleased them.”

Harry stared for a moment longer, then broke off the contact, retreating into his own private thoughts, unsettled by the quasi-contradictory notions of the Haitian magical elite seeming to regard their frivolous sporting trip with great anticipation, at the same time as local bureaucrats were apparently steeling themselves for trouble. These perplexing thoughts, however, were interrupted by the feel of something cool and polished sliding into his grip.

“The keys to your room.” Langlois gesture to the small, ivory-colored wand-like sticks that he had just placed in Harry's and Ginny's hands. “You will find your quarters up that stairway, and all the way to the end of the corridor on your left. Your luggage awaits you there, as does a small private meal.” He glanced at Ginny’s closed eyes. “I suspect that a quiet evening may suit you better than our customary entertainment.”

Ginny roused herself from near sleep to smile in thanks. Still vaguely troubled, Harry nodded, seeing no value in interrogating their smiling host any more that evening. After briefly negotiating an early wakeup call to prepare for The Flying Circus’s scheduled morning practice, Harry and Ginny soon found themselves alone, on the balcony of their rustic, colonial bedroom, gazing across as the final rays of sun disappeared over the rugged Cerro Bienac Oeste.

The seafood meal (colourful vegetables arrayed about thin fillets that looked delicately crisped in ways one would never find at Land’s End) beckoned, but it could wait another couple of minutes while the couple first savoured a bit of fresh evening breeze. Still feeling languid and listless, Ginny settled herself into her fiancé’s embrace. Then she stirred, and pulled back to gazed inquiringly into his eyes.

“Harry?”

“Uh huh?”

“Why are are here? I mean, Quidditch aside, why are we really here?”

“I, uh well...” Harry chewed his lip for a moment in thought. “I haven’t quite figured that out yet.”

Ginny nodded. They she let her eyes drift away, downward this time to distant foothills where a couple of faint flame-like flickers had sprung up. ‘Celebratory bonfires,’ she assured herself. ‘Easter revelers out to enjoy a beautiful evening.’





The next morning brought a bit of clarity, in the sense of rested minds (for some of The Flying Circus, at least) and the tangible goal of a three hour practice at the Stade National de Quiddiche du Haiti.

Security was tight, and attendance was light. A dozen or more uniformed watch-wizards patrolled the pitch, stands and surrounding hillside, ensuring that only a small contingent of well-credentialed visitors were admitted to the Stadium. Scanning the stands one could find only a handful of scouts (several from the UK, a few locals, and a few others from parts unknown) and a small contingent of eight to ten reporters, including Septimo Aurrera (taking careful notes and chatting with his counterparts from Europe and the Americas) and Richard Auclair (looking on from a shady corner, mopping his face from the morning humidity, and frequently ducking in and out of the loo).

Through the morning, feeling much better than the previous evening, Harry cycled through a number of activities. Most critically, he flew numerous seeking sets, hunting for a tricky Snitch he’d charmed (as inspired by Teri’s improvisations) to sharpen his reflexes and challenge his senses. He also attempted varius aerial maneuvers, hoping to adjust himself to the heavy, moist air that was undeniably warm — a sensation foreign to him given the fresh (and sometimes outright cold) conditions he’d grown accustomed to over six months of Highland autumn, winter and spring.

In this climate, flying high was not too difficult, but Harry’s experiences with the lower altitudes were distinctly unpleasant. Not only would the broomstick take on an unsettlingly greasy feel after mere minutes, but he was often surrounded by... insects!

The bugs were biters, but Harry didn’t notice much of that because he was moving too fast for them to sink their jaws into. The only person on the squad remaining stationary enough to experience the torture of endless exposure to little venom-tipped welts was Page, whose patience and prowess in goal was severely tested by the distraction of periodic swarms of the unwanted attackers. The Chasers and Beaters escaped with relatively few bites, but the vile creatures nonetheless had an unfortunate habit of getting in the way, and seemed to constantly find ways to wedge themselves between teeth, get clogged in ears and (most horribly) fly straight into eyes.

After less than an hour, Harry had resorted to sustaining an invisible magical shield around his face and he could tell that Ginny had arrived at the same strategy, but Summerby, Zabini, and the twins were in a constant state of agitation; their eyes swollen and teary.

Shortly after ten thirty, Page let out a miserable howl. Lurching haphazardly away from a swarm that was plaguing the goals, he didn’t even try to stop the Quaffle that Summerby had hurriedly shoveled toward the lowest hoop. Zabini made a brief movement toward the falling Quaffle, then paused and began to wave his arms wildly. With an unintelligible yell, he turned tail and plunged down, away from the speckled cloud, steering instead to the edge of the pitch where Ron and Daphne were standing. The rest of The Flying Circus squad reined in their drills and descended to join him, as did Terry and Neville, how had been watchfully circling high above the periphery all morning.

“Well...” Ron tapped his clipboard impatiently. “This has been a ruddy pathetic practice.”

Zabini, who had been facing pointedly away from Ron, emitted a long, dangerous growl. He fell silent for a moment, the suddenly spun around, gesturing wildly at his face. “You want pathetic, Rooster? Then look me in the face and tell me what you bloody see?”

“Gah!” Ron took a step back from the speckled, swollen-faced Captain. “What are those things??”

“Dead bugs, Ron.” Ginny landed nearby; she was flushed and perspiring, but at least she didn’t look like a festering case of black-spotted Dragon Pox. “This is cobblers, Blaise! We’d better finding some way to deal with these things by tomorrow, or we may have to forfeit. At this rate, somebody’s going to go blind.”

“Pfehh!” George pulled up, clawing at his mouth. “I figured they’d let up as morning wore on, but they’re still teeming!”

Fred shook his head gravely. “Match starts at 9:00 a.m. tomorrow. We’ll be competing in the thick of it.”

“Hey!” Ryan's enthusiastic shout rang across from the tunnel through which he and Hermione were emerging. “We may have a partial solution. We just walked down to the village; Granger thought of checking the local shops to try to find some, uh, bug spray?” He held up a couple of bottles.

“Bless you two!” Page veered off his landing approach and headed straight for Ryan. Grabbing a bottle, he squinted and nodded. “Looks like the real stuff. Surely this’ll help a bit with the bloody little pests!”

“Muggle insect potion?” Zabini paused his bug-wiping efforts for a moment and scrunched his face. “Is that legal by international rules, Rooster?”

Ron thought for a moment, then nodded. “I reckon so. Most of the rules deal with magical advantage — no wands allowed; no alterations to the broom, bat or other Quidditch equipment. No charms on your actual body; various protective charms permitted, but only on a player’s clothing. I’ve never seen prohibitions on Muggle potions.”

“Okay then.” Zabini flashed Ryan a thumbs up. “We’ll use your insect repelling potion.”

“Errr...” Summerby scrunched his forehead. “This might help for Page hanging out by the goals, but I doubt it’ll do much for the rest of us.”

“Yes, that’s true.” Fred frowned. “We’re going faster than the bugs are, so we’ll keep smacking into them even if they’re trying to clear away. I have no qualms about stopping the little buggers from eating us, but it’s no consolation if we end up eating them.”

“Agh.” George shook his head in frustration. “Every time the Bludger dives into a cloud of the bastards, I wind up swallowing more protein than I got in all last night’s supper.”

“Ho.” Page smirked. “Yeah, perhaps that’s because you drank most of last night’s sup-”

“Bonjou gen!” An old fellow in the stadium maintenance uniform was strolling across the pitch, waving to them. “Vous avez un problème avec lè ensèks?

The group stared at him uncertainly, then everyone slowly angled toward Hermione. She frowned for a moment. “Ensèks? Vous souhaitez dire ‘insectes’?” She turned to whisper to Harry, “I think he may have a suggestion about the insects.”

“Wi, fi Ewopeyen.” The old man grinned, and held up a pair of swimming goggles. “L'équipe ici les utilise lorsque lè ensèks yo rive move.”

Hermione struggled for a moment to interpret the odd blend of French and Creole, the her face pread into a broad smile. “Merci monsieur! Nous sommes tres reconnaissants pour la suggestion!”

“Merite.” The maintenance man smiled bashfully. Turning to leave, he gestured toward their lockers. “Je vais vous laisser quelques-unes dans les casiers.”

“Merci encore!” Excitedly, Hermione turned toward the others. “I think he’s going to leave some of those goggles for us in the lockers. I can charm them to keep the insects away from your faces. And perhaps you can fly with kerchiefs over your mouths.”

“Great!” Ginny smiled, attempting levity. “Now we can change our name to The Great Zabini’s Flying Banditos!”

A few people smiled back, but nobody laughed. The twins’ gaze remained fixed on the retreating maintenance man; goggles still dangling from his hand. Zabini wrinkled his nose. “Those eye-thingies look like a bloody pain to wear.”

Summerby chewed his lip. “They could reduce vision.”

“Well...” Hermione sniffed sharply. “It’s either those, or weep your way through the match, savouring another bug breakfast.”

Ron nodded. “Shite mates, we’re not going to find a better plan, so buck up. Those goggles can’t make you play any worse than you did this morning — you might as well fly with Clabberts on your heads as face those bug herds unprotected.”

Hermione blinked in surprise. She gazed at Ron for a moment, then slowly turned away to hide a smug smile. Compliments were rare, and her boyfriend was not particularly skilled with them… but she’d take this one.





The Friday evening practice, a one hour tune-up before supper, went substantially better than the morning’s debacle. The air was hot, but the humidity was lower, and the bugs were minimal. Zabini, Summerby and the twins began practice with the charmed goggles on, and kept them in place for about fifteen minutes before shunting them aside — long enough to convince themselves that they could tolerate the constriction, but not so long as to let the experience get too trying.

Later, as they stood on the pitch listening to Ron’s comments and suggestions, they heard boisterous shouts and laughter coming from the opposite end, where seven young people (all older than Ginny; all younger than Page) strode from the locker building — their sharp black and violet uniforms whipping in the breeze.

Aha! The Competition!

Ron’s monologue fell away as he and the seven Flying Circus athletes turned to watch their foes take to the air with an easy, carefree grace that seemed almost as much of a joy to observe as it probably was to experience. As the Haitians warmed up, a mesmerising rhythm played out in the sky — four Quaffles being tossed and caught; leaping and zipping from hand to hand with dizzying precision, all while the fliers artfully dodged several soft-Bludgers.

“Ahem.” Harry waved his hand to his mates. “Our opponents had the courtesy to not gawk while we were practising. We owe them the same.”

Zabini laughed and turned to join Harry on the way back to the lockers. The others tarried a moment longer, then reluctantly broke away from the spectacle.





Daphne emerged from the Stade National, out through the private executive entrance and down to the hot dusty lot in which The Flying Circus had gathered, fresh from their showers. She smiled. “Mr. Langlois needs a moment to confirm tomorrow morning’s arrival protocol, then he’ll Portkey us all back to the hotel for supper.”

“Supper at the hotel?” Zabini scratched his chin. “Some of us had lined up alternate plans. Auclair said he’d get us free drink vouchers for L’Ancienne Chevre.”

“Whoa Blaise.” Harry frowned. “Didn’t Langlois warn you about that place?”

“L’Ancienne Chevre.” Ginny gave a corroborating nod. “He mentioned it to us. Didn’t really give details, but something about his tone made my skin prickle.”

Fred shrugged. “C’mon Gin-Gin. If a poof like Auclair can handle the place, surely your rugged, manly big brothers can hold their own.”

George laughed as Fred ducked behind him, preemptively fleeing a hex that never actually came.

“Listen, ponce.” Ginny glared. “We didn’t travel thousands of miles to get rat-arsed the night before a big match. We have a perfect record on the line, yeah?”

“Who brought old marm Weasley?” Zabini rolled his eyes. “Don’t sweat it, Red. This isn’t about carousing — it’s education. We’d merely be going out to get some exposure to a vibrant new culture.”

“Vibrant exposure, Zabs?” Page sniggered. “As in the vibrantly exposed legs of those dancing Voodoo witches?”

Daphne and Ginny both glared.

“Okay, okay.” Zabini sighed. “We promise to behave ourselves. We’re here to play Quidditch, not to party.”

Fred nodded seriously. “We’ll only go out for one drink.”

“Per hour,” George added.

“Until midnight.” Fred smirked. “At which point, we’ll start to-”

Fred didn’t finish his statement, as he and George were frantically hitting the dirt to avoid the inevitable hex. Yet still none came. Surprised, George looked up at his sister. “You okay, Snap? We would have expected triple bat bogeys by now.”

Her initial flush fading, Ginny glanced at him then looked away. “Yeah whatever. I’m fine.” With that, her fingers found Harry’s and she guided him silently away from the others.

Neither of them spoke as they ambled away on the dusty ground, eyes closed to the reddish glow of a bright, late sun. Harry knew that something was not particularly ‘fine’, that something was weighing heavily on his girlfriend’s heart, but he also knew that this was neither the best time nor the right place to ask about it.





Supper itself had been a calm, subdued affair, but Harry had remained edgy throughout, still wondering what was weighing down Ginny’s normally lively spark. Even though the rowdier Flying Circus members had all pledged to conduct themselves responsibly on this crucial pre-match night, Ginny seemed to be dreading the falling dusk. As they waved goodnight to the others and left the hotel’s restaurant, Ginny had quietly confided to Harry a bit about her non-descript fears, saying that from the moment they had crossed security at the Portkey Terminal, she had felt a vague foreboding. She had never put stock in her capacity for Divination, but she couldn’t shake the sense that some unknown presence or power in this strange and utterly foreign land was waiting for them, laying some sort of cunning trap. And somehow she worried that no amount of strictures by Langlois or caution of their own could prevent the inevitable pin from springing.

Harry knew himself well enough to be sure that he hadn’t been sensing the same subliminal dread that Ginny professed. On the other hand, never in his life had he ever doubted Ginny, and this time was no exception.

And it was for this reason that, long after Ginny herself had drifted off in his arms, Harry remained awake in their bed. Trying not to think of anything in particular, he watched the occasional flicker of night creep around the heavy woolen curtain shrouding their patio. He listened to the ward-muffled sounds of music and merriment from the Easter celebrations. Subconsciously, he felt like he was steeling himself for something. Whatever that ‘something’ was, it seemed to him that it was just about to...

Tap tap tap tap RAAAP!

Ginny burst from the bed, wide-eyed. Harry took a deep, fortifying breath. “Yes? What is it?”

“Harry! Quick — we need your help! Can you get dressed and come with us?”

“Give us a minute, Hermione.” Harry felt ice in the depths of his stomach. “What’s the matter?”

There was a pause as Harry and Ginny quickly found their feet, their clothes, and Ginny’s miniaturised trunk. They heard the nondistinct rumble of Ron’s voice, then Hermione spoke again. “We’re not exactly certain, but Ron says that some of the boys are in trouble. Daphne’s gone to wake Ryan, Neville and Terry.”

With that, Harry and Ginny were out the door, racing past Hermione and Ron down to the lobby where they encountered a frantically hopping Daphne, somewhat rumpled versions of Terry and Neville, and Ryan who looked rather… like Ryan — intense and ready for whatever.

Harry did a rapid scan of the assembled faces. “Who’s in trouble, where are they, and what’s the crisis?”

“Uh uh uh...” Daphne struggled to pull the answer together. “Blasé, Thing One, Thing Two, and Auclair all got piss-eyed. Somebody touched the sacred dancer. And-and-and I think Page and Summey are back at the Mapou Tree, trying to talk sense to the Houngan.”

A string of random expletives hissed from Harry’s teeth, conveying roughly how little sense any of that made to him, but he shook his head clear. Facing Daphne, he jabbed a finger toward the front door. “Lead. Now!”

Wide-eyed, Daphne nodded. She raced out of the hotel, leading them into a street filled with music, sweat, and a flood of live humans pulsing like a throbbing vein, bearing along the raw stench of sacrificial animal parts.

Wading into the steamy mass of humanity, flanked by Harry and Ryan, Ginny fought a momentary sense of raw, panicked disorientation, and replaced it with her infamously fiery temper.

“Pathetic plonkers!” Her eyes flared. “When I catch those gits, they’re going to bloody pay!”

Back to index


Chapter 16: Mist and Vault

Author's Notes:

Well, this chapter has been a huge change of pace to write. For starters this marks a new dawn in my operation... er, I mean a new Dawn (Dawn M. to be more precise) in that this is my first chapter to undergo the real Beta experience. Thank you DM!!

Secondly, our colourful SIYE personality, RighT3rantZ (with whom I consulted extensively on this chapter) had expressed an interest in contributing a character to the story, so in this chapter and chapter 17 you will meet West Indies Wireless commentator, Oenomaus Nises. Those experiencing difficulty understanding the Patois dialect are advised to pull up a deck chair, pour a cold beverage (pineapple-y, with maybe some other... ingredients) and just go with the beat.

I admit that this chapter may be a little challenging because you get not only Patois, but also Creole and French speakers wandering through. Oi! Fortunately everything that you need to know gets repeated back a little more comprehensibly.

Anyway, how you enjoy!


Chapter 16. Mist and Vault (April 11, 1998)

Chaotic.

Hair-raising!

Proper European vocabulary barely suffices to describe the scene of frenzied, half-naked revelers sweeping past in a wavering stream of torchlight; limbs and voices attuned to a flow of euphony and syncopation whose volume and power could easily thrill and shock the delicate ears of those of us accustomed to the sedate melodic traditions from Mozart to McCartney; Armstrong to Aerosmith.

In their urgency, Harry and Ginny blotted out the bizarre distractions and, in a well versed operational synchronicity that served them so well, focused on the challenge of finding a way through the throng. Both instinctively cast mild repelling spells outward to bolster their friends in the lead.

Daphne blinked in surprise as the living mass of humanity parted slightly in oblivious response to the magic. Recognising the opening, Neville and Terry took protective places on either side of her and, in a moment, the three had moved forward into the muddy, teeming street, leading the way toward the place Daphne had last seen her partying friends.

The group hurried along the fairly short distance to the nearest intersection and then veered northward, away from the chaos. They soon felt the ground beneath their feet change in texture, indicating that they had ventured onto what might have been trampled savanna. After a couple of minutes, the dim shapes of the sporadic nearby shrubs had begun to rise higher, now reaching past head-high.

Ever observant, Harry and Ginny studied the landscape, noting the tactical cover afforded by the vegetation, but most of their attention was caught by something beyond normal senses. They felt an increasing sense of power — a raw untamed magic of plant and stone pouring around them, swelling to a force comparable with the most hallowed halls of Hogwarts. Countering a momentary, near-panicky sensation that felt like a pondersome weight lodged on her chest, Ginny’s hand found Harry’s. Sensing each other’s discomfort, they both worked together to steady their laboured breathing into a slow, deliberate pattern, and forged their way onward, keeping pace behind Daphne, Terry and Neville, and ahead of Ryan, Ron and Hermione.

Here on the edge of wilderness, the chaotic rhythms and swarming dynamic they had seen in the village had faded low into the background. As the shrubs rose to full-height trees, the crowds continued to thin, leaving now only a sparse few people, all of whom seemed to be drifting in a languid, respectful trance.

In a darkness that was growing again in the absence of torchlights, Harry thought to check the sky. He had just begun to locate those few stars that were able to pierce the mottled night above, when suddenly their progress brought them into the even deeper shadows of a broad tree canopy. Those few remaining worshippers standing between them and their goal seemed to note their presence and urgency, and moved respectfully to the side.

Ahead of him in the deep gloom, Harry heard Daphne give a small gasp and stumble to her knees.

Lumos!” Harry’s wandless spell raised a single luminescent orb to hover above him, cutting through the murky gloom. The light shone downwards, revealing… bodies.

Daphne knelt trembling; her shoulders stabilised by Neville and Terry. A short distance away, Zabini and Auclair lay sprawled in the dirt. To one side, Fred was hunched down on all fours, his forehead resting on the ground between his hands; a little ways off, George seemed to be reclining in an awkward, three-point pose, as if he’d been abruptly caught in the act of tumbling to the ground.

None of them were making even the slightest move.

Warily, Harry adjusted his Lumos to project deeper into the darkness, past huge serpentine roots, toward the base of the great Mapou tree. He first set his eyes on Page and Summerby. Neither of them moved from where they were standing stock-still, but their eyes were open and Harry was relieved to see his friends’ pupils dilate in response to the magical light. Noticing that both were staring off to the left, Harry’s gaze swept that way, to see a...

Skull!

A hard jolt of fear raced through his chest, but then Harry breathed in relief, recalling that here, in this land, the painted image before him now was merely a symbol of respect for revered ancestors of times long past. After his initial shock, the symbol seemed almost benign, and conveyed little of the lust for horror and devastation that festered behind the symbol of Death Eaters and other morbid European cults.

Within a moment, Harry’s fear had progressed past fear and relief to a powerful sense of curiosity. Indeed, he realised that, for the first time in his life, he had come face to face with a magical practitioner completely outside of the European witchcraft and wizardry traditions. After all, the person before him was no witch, but rather a Mambo; a powerful sorceress of the famed Haitian Vaudou mystique.

Unsure what to say, or how to approach a revered Magical leader, Harry reached deep into his aura, and bent out a soft pulse of humility; of friendship. A hand grasping his told him that Ginny was echoing his strategy.

Glittering in the light of Harry’s Lumos, the Mambo’s eyes, embedded in the no-longer-terrifying skull mask, watched the pair emotionlessly.

Daphne struggled to her feet and appeared to be about to try to say something, a foolish instinct to break the ominous silence, but Harry shook his head and she closed her mouth.

The mysterious sparkling eyes observed the exchange, briefly scanned Ginny (who had remained still and observant throughout), then fixed themselves on Harry. A voice emerged on the heavy evening air, saying simply, “Seyè Potter ak Dam Weasley. Nou vin.”

There was a pause, followed by a simple translation. “You have come.”

The spoken English was accented, yet urbane in the same manner as Langlois’s — a gentility that seemed incongruous coming from a figure that Harry could now see as barefoot, and adorned in oddly coloured tatters. He pushed these pointless observations away behind his Occlumency walls (which he knew were being actively probed) and focused on the most critical point. “You know us?”

“Of course.” The Mambo laughed — a melodious, oddly asexual sound, perhaps a female’s contralto profundo. “You have come. And thus, now the others must go.” Her hand swept slowly around at their various friends standing (or strewn about) nearby.

“Go? Us?” It was Hermione who spoke, but she, Ron, Ryan, Terry and Neville all wore similar expressions of confusion and alarm. “Surely you don’t expect us to leave Harry and Ginny here? Alone?”

The Mambo gave Hermione a dismissive glance, and her voice emerged again, more firmly. “My reckoning is with Sir Potter and Lady Weasley. All others must leave this place. Those who are fit to walk must bear away these fools with them.” She gestured at Zabini, Auclair, and the twins, who all suddenly twitched to life again, with George finally completing his abrogated face-plant.

Recognising the authourity in the Mambo’s voice, Terry and Neville moved forward to help their intoxicated friends. Page and Summerby snapped out of their trances and did the same.

Ron, Hermione and Ryan looked inquiringly at Harry, but he shook his head. “Please do as she says, and please make sure everyone gets safely back to the hotel.”

Finally processing the implication, Daphne’s eyes went wide. “Huh? You’re not coming? Harry? Ginny-Gin?”

Ginny shook her head. “We’ll join you later.”

“But...”

“No buts.” Harry turned away from Daphne. “Get a hangover potion down every throat that needs it, and put everyone to bed, okay?”

Daphne stared for a long moment, then snapped to attention, burst into action, and began issuing directives.

Harry, Ginny and the Mambo all seemed to briefly note this ensuing semi-coherent process; for a moment their eyes followed as the group lurched unsteadily out from the shadows and back onto the path. Then the three magical beings resumed their intense focus on each other.

They stood in motionless silence for an indeterminate time, seemingly feeling out each others’ power. A light wind stirred, driving off the high clouds to release a moon that cast bright jagged shadows around them, carved by the odd angles of the ancient tree.

At that moment, the Mambo’s eyes flashed, and she raised her hand in summons. “The path is open to you.” She raised her arm in a gesture of invitation.

Harry’s and Ginny’s eyes widened as the great tree trunk appeared to grow immeasurably more vast. They stared at the twisting knots on its rough trunk, watching as a dark portal opened to release the slightest hint of a wafting ghostly luminescence.

“Behold the path.” The Mambo’s hand descended slowly to draw their attention to the ground, to a glowing strip that had formed beneath their feet, leading into the tree’s archway, beyond which it was lost, evanescent, in the glowing mist. “Your journey may be wondrous or perilous. It is yours alone. I neither compel nor hinder you; I shall merely show you the way.”

“How…?” Harry ran a hand through his hair as he gazed into the aperture. “Why have you opened this path for us?”

“I was summoned to this point by Kalfou.” The Mambo stood motionless, her mouth rigid even as the words drifted upon the night air. “Kalfou guides the inflections of your cross-roads. He offers you choices and chances that Ghede does not. He may lure you to misfortune and injustice, yet if you advance with open eyes and step with care along the sides of the path, he may also advise you in evading such fates.”

“Ghede is, uh, the loa of death...” Ginny frowned for a moment as she tried to recall some of her recent Vodoun reading. “Kalfou is, I think, the loa of fate and opportunity.”

The Mambo gestured upwards with her hand. “Kalfou arrives by the light of the moon. You may accept his path only while this moon is high and clear.”

“Er...” Ginny glanced toward the moon and an approaching cloud bank, glinting in the silvery light. “Harry, I think she means that it’s now or never.”

“I suppose so.” Harry nodded. “Do we enter?”

“That’s why we’re here, yeah?” Ginny searched his eyes. “It’s been one twist of fate after another trying to get us to this point. Would seem almost rude to turn away after all that.”

“Uh huh.” Harry pursed his lips. “So, we go.”

Without further hesitation, they clasped hands and began to approach the impossibly massive trunk and the gaping hole therein. The Mambo’s face barely seemed to register their choice, yet as they passed her, the sorceress reached across and pressed something into Ginny’s free hand — a small cloth pouch, thin and worn, marked with patterns that couldn’t be descried in the low light.

“Gris-gris,” the tall woman said, slipping into Creole. “Pou chans.”

“A talisman,” Ginny murmured to Harry by way of translation. “For luck.”

Harry shrugged. He didn’t know whether the situation called for luck, or fear, or anything else really. Years ago, a strong part of him had sworn that his life would be his own, and that fate and destiny would have to bend to his will. Yet somehow, it seemed that fate and destiny were still occasionally able to assert themselves and force his hand before he could wrest them back into line.

Just as fate seemed now to have steered them into non-distinct, diaphanous mists.

As they continued to walk, they realised that their feet were no longer treading upon any soft, moist subterranean soil, but rather they were stepping soundlessly across something that was neither stone nor sand nor earth. Indeed, there was no longer any true earth upon which to stand, just as there was no moon or sky to gaze up toward. There was merely mist, and a path. And the path led them inexorably onward; leaving no way to turn back. It seemed as obvious to them now that there was no way to return to the archway or the tree, just as today has no route back to yesterday.

Harry paused for a moment to gaze around, open-mouthed. “Where are we?”

His voice seemed real to Ginny, as did his hand in hers. That much she understood, but to his question there seemed no answer. She shrugged.

Harry resumed his slow pace forward, but a moment later he and Ginny both halted. The path beneath their feet flickered and faded away.

“Uhhh...” Ginny bit her lip. “What now?”

It was Harry’s turn to shrug. “I reckon we wait.”

Holding hands, Harry and Ginny gazed off into the mist, glancing in different directions, yet saw nothing other than a swirl of softly glowing vapours. Silence fell about them, but for the faint sounds of their own breath.

They waited.

Nothing happened.

They waited a while longer.

Still nothing.

Forming a rearguard to watch over the others as they steered Auclair and the variously intoxicated Flying Circus members out from the shade of the Mapou tree, Ron found Hermione’s hand and grasped it. This was a modest gesture, yet in a way slightly extraordinary. Despite the darkness; despite the fact that everyone else around was far too preoccupied with finding a sketchy trail over the rough ground, this was public affection and, as far as he was concerned, it was on full display.

The youngest of six brothers, awkward and gangly, Ron had long been conditioned to expect brassy humiliation for being even slightly sappy. Thus, he had mastered the art of insensitivity. The best things in life are often inconvenient, however. Opportunities require adaptations. And thus, there had been circumstances in the past year that had nagged at him, hinting that his defensive skills might be interfering with the one thing he prized most highly — his relationship with the Hogwarts Head Girl at his side.

Although Hermione had made overtures to him that even he could recognise, Ron was starting to grasp that the last thing he could afford at this rather tenuous stage of his maturation was to take ‘anything’ for granted. Consequently, he had taken to being more observant… and less reactionary. Thus, it had not escaped his attention how here, in the midst of an urgent situation with neither Harry nor Ginny to lean on, the two people everyone turned to for key decisions were Hermione and… Ryan Jenkins…

The Slytherin...

Self-consciously, Ron glanced around and spotted the younger boy patiently coping with Fred’s drunken stupour; pulling Ron’s brother back to his feet, all the while fielding questions from the others.

For a moment, an acidic, unfocused anger seemed to prime Ron’s veins, but then he remembered whose hand it was that Hermione was currently holding. He thought of those fingers (small, yet strong; warm yet firm) and squeezed them. Hermione squeezed back. Ron exhaled.

Despite the low light, Ron saw his girlfriend flash him a smile — quick but glowing — before turning to answer one of Daphne’s fretful queries.

Ron sighed, happy for a moment to have his insecurities assuaged. He didn’t even flinch when, by dint of responsibility, Hermione had to free her hand in order to properly steer the group down the dimly lit path.

Ron scrunched his face for a moment as his girlfriend briefly conferred with Ryan on the best route.

Ron exhaled again and remembered the hand.

It had not been easy for Ron to deal maturely with the fact that Hermione spent such a large amount of time with this young prodigy of Harry’s, always working together on Merlin-knows-what secret project. Fortunately, Ron’s gradual acceptance of that research acquaintance was aided by knowing that Ryan had a girlfriend of his own — one that the boy seemed fairly loyal to. It further eased Ron’s mind that the conduct he always observed between Hermione and Ryan was dominated by serious, humourless (and frankly quite boring) professionalism — pretty unlike any sort of tryst he’d ever observed (even from Percy). For that matter, they acted like a pair of Ravenclaw study mates. Non-Lovegood Ravenclaws at that! And as there was no way that Ron would ever stoop to being jealous of some pseudo-Ravenclaw who was always…

UHRRRKK!

A nauseating blast of stars flooded his head, and it took Ron’s scrambled mind a moment to realise that he’d apparently zigged when he should have zagged, and had slammed straight into someone whose build was far more rugged than any pseudo-Ravenclaw.

“Sorry.” Ryan, who had stopped to peer back toward the Mapou tree, grabbed Ron’s arm to steady him. “Look up there.” The younger boy gestured back up the path. “Harry, Ginny and the Mambo all just disappeared.”

“Huh??” Ron stared up at the now-empty copse.

“What?” Hermione’s hand rose to her face in alarm as she squinted in the low light, scanning the old tree. “They… they’re gone!”

“How odd.” Ryan deliberated for a moment, then released Ron. “I’d better go back to look around. You two catch up with the others and get them back to the hotel. I’ll report in later.”

“Absolutely not, Ryan Jenkins!” Hermione stomped her foot. “You’re not about to go back there without us. There’s too much strange magic in this place, and not a single person among us has enough experience with Vodoun to risk prowling about all alone.

“Yeah, no way!” Ron shook his head vigourously. “All three of us will go check it out. Or, uh, maybe Hermione and I should go back to the tree while you keep an eye on the drunks.”

An eyebrow might have twitched in the darkness, but Ryan rarely showed overt skepticism or disdain, and knew enough about impetuous Gryffindors to generally try to keep the peace. He paused, expressionless as he thought over the options, then shook his head. “No. Let’s all return to the hotel, like we promised Harry.”

“But...” Hermione bit her finger uncertainly.

“Errr...” Ron felt a surge of self-doubt, wondering if his words of protest might have unintentionally endangered Harry and Ginny.

“No buts.” Ryan’s tone solidified into something forceful and decisive. “It’s not worth our risking some big foul-up while Harry and Ginny are preoccupied with other things.”

Hermione’s teeth clamped down hard on her finger, then slowly released it. “I guess you’re right. We’ll all get ourselves back to the hotel and hope that they know what they’re doing.”

“Since when does Harry not know what he’s doing?” Ryan asked, turning pointedly back down the trail.

“What the hell are we doing??” Harry scowled into the whispy nothingness.

Ginny blew a lock of hair from her forehead but said nothing. However long they may have been here, alone in the darkness, she still felt a sense of vague anticipation, pulling her onward. There was no longer a path to direct them, but she nonetheless gave a slight tug on Harry’s hand, urging him further along into the vague nothingness. Surprisingly, after a little while, they were rewarded with a subtle shifting of the vapours — a breeze, moist but cool; oddly more akin to Britain than the sticky Caribbean spring. What drifted up to them, borne along on the chill draught, nonetheless came as a complete surprise.

"Miss Weasley, do you lead your waltzes with the left foot or right?"

“Huh???” Ginny’s eyes went wide. “Luna? Is that you?!”

Please do not stumble, my dear friend!”

“Hey!” Harry blinked. “That’s… Isn’t that what Luna wrote in-?”

Esteemed professor, glorious icon and champion of the downtrodden, many voices rise up and beseech you – never stagger from your wise and true course...”

“Luna! It really IS you!” Harry’s agitated gaze darted to and fro across the dim, featureless netherworld, searching for the source of the voice. “Errr… it is you, isn’t it?”

Silence.

Despite holding themselves with rapt attention, everything had once again fallen still, except for Harry’s and Ginny’s bated breath.

After a long moment, Harry exhaled loudly. “Well blimey. Is she here or is she not here? Luna??”

“She’s not here.” Ginny shook her head perplexedly. “We must have imagined it, just like we’re probably imagining this strange tunnel.”

“But it was something we wer