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."
"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.
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.
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.
Very great caution, he picked up the serving spoon.
Very very tentatively, he extended the spoon toward the tray, and...
"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..."
"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...
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.
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."