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SIYE Time:17:05 on 22nd October 2017


Trix
By GHL

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Category: Alternate Universe
Characters:Draco Malfoy, Harry/Ginny, Hermione Granger, Luna Lovegood, Neville Longbottom, Nymphadora Tonks, Remus Lupin, Ron Weasley
Genres: Action/Adventure, Angst, Humor
Warnings: Death, Mental Abuse, Mild Language, Mild Sexual Situations, Negative Alcohol Use, Violence/Physical Abuse
Rating: PG-13
Reviews: 133
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.


Hitcount: Story Total: 28488; Chapter Total: 990
Awards: View Trophy Room




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!





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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 B, 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."

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