Chapter 14. Strange Operations (March 2-6, 1998)
"... but the key is how well we all work together." Ginny beamed around at her Quidditch mates. "Keith and Blaise are the best passing and blocking Chasers I've ever played with; our Beaters are awesome; our Keeper and Seeker..." She laughed. "Well you know the story lines on those two, yeah?"
"Miss Weasley, in light of having scored all eight of The Flying Circus's goals tonight, would you care to comment on the growing opinion that you're a Quaffle hog?"
"I, uh..." The beaming smile vanished from Ginny's face. Instantly crestfallen, her gaze faltered, sagging earthward.
"I'll answer that, Red." Zabini reached forward to angle the recording wand toward himself and project his jaw into the Daily Prophet staffer's personal space. "Let me tell you a bit about our system, Smudgely. Barring crappy weather, Flying Circus Chasers always pass until we find the open wing. Summs and I weren't able to break clear of Catapults coverage much tonight, so we kept passing to Weasley. If she scored a lot, it's because it was the best way to give us a good lead."
Smudgely raised an eyebrow. "So you might claim, Mr. Zabini, but when one Chaser scores every goal, it's hardly a demonstration of teamwork and good sportsmanship."
"Sportsmanship — oh my!!" Zabini clasped chastened hands to his cheeks. "We'd be most honoured and humbled to be instructed in sporting decorum and etiquette from such a principled Daily Prophet reporter, sir."
"Er well..." Smudgely lowered his recording wand, raising a suspicious eyebrow.
"And speaking of teamwork..." Zabini gestured over the reporter's shoulder. "Why don't you give your colleague Kikis Trecus a hand back there? Her mouth is still bleeding from the so very virtuous elbow you threw when you shoved your way past her."
Hands dropping to his side, Smudgely muttered something morosely unintelligible as other reporters edged their way around him.
"Quinticent Marish; Seeker Weekly. I have a question for Mr. Zabini, please?"
Zabini grinned. "Sure Quin. What's up?"
"Mr. Zabini, your Flying Circus has played in, I believe, five matches in the past two months, against steadily mounting competition." The short, round-faced reporter consulted his notes. "I haven't yet heard any announcements for your next match, though. Can you share any plans with our audience?"
"Ah, good question. As you recall, we've already run through a number of challenges extended to us by clubs such as Skegness and the Luxembourg juniors, and now we're waiting on others. As well, we've propositioned most of the clubs in the Premier League." Zabini swept his hand toward Daphne at his side. "Can I refer you to our Executive General Manager, Miss Greengrass, for updates on that correspondence?"
"Certainly!" Marish adjusted his wand. "Good evening Miss Greengrass."
"Good evening, Mr. Marish." Daphne unfurled a scroll and adjusted a pair of spectacles that she seemed to have recently acquired. "So. Among the top professional clubs we've approached thus far, we have only received outright rejections from three squads — Ballycastle, Tutshill and Chudley, but they're all dreadful dullards anyw-"
Zabini's disapproving eyes suddenly widened as Daphne stepped discreetly but firmly on his foot, and smiled at Marish. "Sorry, what I obviously meant to say was that Ballycastle, Tutshill and Chudley are a bunch of no-fun poopers."
Ignoring Zabini's uncomfortable fidgeting as he attempted to free his foot, Daphne reconsulted her list and continued. "So, among the rest of the Premier League clubs, we're currently in vigourous negotations with four, including one of the top contenders for the league title."
"Title contender?" Marish blinked. "Given Kenmare's recent swoon and what you said about crossing off Ballycastle and Tutshill, that would leave Montrose? Are you suggesting the prospect of a Lennox Campbell / Harry Potter showdown?"
A buzz rippled across the cluster of reporters, but Daphne merely smiled inscrutably. "Sorry, Mr. Marish. I can neither confirm nor deny such details while negotiations are still ongoing. Because you're such a sweetie, though, I could share with you a couple of surprises in this morning's post."
Marish nodded vigourously. "Yes, ma'am. Please do!"
"Well, the one huge surprise which we have to take very seriously is that the Portuguese Nationals proposed that they could squeeze us in for a match on May 12th. They're doing a tour of the British Isles over the first two weeks in May, and actually thought to save a slot on their schedule in case we were available."
"Fascinating!" Marish nodded, wide-eyed. "What was the other surprise?"
"Wellll..." Daphne pursed her lips. "We're in a bit of a quandary on how to respond to this, but we've been invited by the Haitian Minister of Magic to visit Gonaives and play the defending world junior champions."
Zabini gave a noncommital shrug. "Yes, well some of us have N.E.W.T.s coming up and aren't thrilled about cross-Atlantic travel this spring."
"Kikis Trecus, Daily Prophet." The reporter dabbed a bit more blood from her lip and pointed a recording wand toward Zabini. "Mr. Zabini, just a thought, but you'll have Easter break coming up. You could propose a match over the long weekend."
"Ehh..." Zabini scrunched his face thoughtfully. "That's an idea. Thank you for the suggestion, Ms. Trecus. Now, are there any other questions, or can we just abandon Potter here with you all, while the rest of us go get showered?"
A chuckle emerged from a familiar Bohemian goatee standing several rows back. "I do have a question for Herr. Potter?"
"Matthäus!" Harry waved at the German correspondent. "What can I do for you?"
"Herr. Potter, what ist the matter? You catch only a Snitch tonight. No falling spectators? No criminals?"
Harry grinned. "Don't complain, Gottschalk. The optimistic answer is that hopefully there really wasn't anything for me to catch besides the Snitch. We now know a bit more about what sorts of admissions wards to use, which should keep the audience safer. DMLE also took a few other safety precautions, so I believe that all helped give us a fairly quiet evening."
"Ah? So our troubles are over then, ya?"
"Oh, I wish." Harry's chuckle didn't project quite as much mirth as it could have, but he nonetheless smiled for the reporter. "With any luck, however, things still will be just as quiet and peaceful next time we meet. Have a nice evening, Matthäus."
Harry threaded his fingers through Ginny's and he walked with her toward the lockers.
After Harry's last answer, the Quidditch Tonight coverage had wrapped up fairly quickly and the Wizarding Wireless programming had moved to recordings from an old Nine Inch Wands concert. The large crowd gathered around the Slytherin Common Room's receiver was still pretty amped, however. Butter beer was flowing freely, adrenaline was high, and even the Prefects weren't inclined to badger their charges about the hour, and the fact of it being a school night.
Tracey Davis, on the other hand, had drifted quietly to the edge of scene and seemed about to escape down the corridor toward the dorm when Pansy glimpsed her out of the corner of her eye.
"Oi, Davis!" Pansy worked her way through the crowd to flag down her friend. "You off to Bedfordshire already?"
Tracey yawned and nodded.
"So early?" Pansy frowned. "You're not usually one to lay off a good excuse for carousing."
Tracey shook her head. "Too tired, Parksie. You have fun."
Pansy's eyes narrowed to thin slits. "You sure you're not tetchy over the school denying us passes down to Caerphilly to attend the match?"
"Nah." Tracey shrugged. "That was no big surprise after the Wigtown incident. And Skegness..."
Her expression still slightly skeptical, Pansy nodded slowly... then blinked as Ted Nott approached them.
Ted extended his hand. "Hey Tracey, you forgot this." He was holding up a silver chain with a striking amethyst pendant.
"Spacey!" Pansy gasped. "You're not wearing your amulet!"
Tracey shrugged again as she accepted the talisman. "Don't get snarky, Parksie. I put it down for a minute and forgot to put it back on."
Turning red, Pansy sputtered incoherently, but Tracey turned unconcernedly, slipped the chain over her neck and resumed her path toward the dorms.
Nott's hand brushed Pansy's. "She's always been a bit flightly, Parks. We'll just have to keep an eye on her."
Pansy's mouth tensed to protest... but then she deflated. "Dizzy muppet better not get herself in trouble again."
Surprised at the odd, somewhat tremulous tone in his ex-girlfriend's voice, Ted's gaze rose to Pansy's oblique profile, trying to read her expression.
What was it? A bit whiny, but not petulant. Was she frustrated? Sad?
Ted shook off his deliberation. He straightened up and brushed Pansy's hand one more time before turning away. "Yeah, well, like I said, we'd both best keep a look out for her, right? There's strange stuff going on and I'd rather than she... we... don't get snarled up in it."
Pansy pursed her lips, nodding as she gazed at the dark corridor down which Tracey had gone.
Standing in the stadium runway leading up from the lockers, Harry glanced at his wrist watch, then back to his companions. "You go on ahead; I'll stay back and wait for Ginny."
"Uh, okay." George looked concerned. "But you two are going to join us, right?"
Harry shrugged. "Sure, as long as she's still up to it. She was looking a bit drained toward the end up the press conference."
Fred scratched his chin. "Maybe we should stick around in case she needs a little persuasion."
"Persuasion" Harry raised an incredulous eyebrow. "From you?"
"Of course us." Fred shrugged. "Who else?"
Harry laughed. "Are you trying to tell me that you've been her brother for nearly seventeen years, and you still haven't figured out that the best way to persuade Ginny of something is when you don't actually try to persuade her?"
"Fred you duffer! " George laughed. "Did you take a bludger to the head tonight, or are you channeling Ron's social instincts? Harry's nailed it — the instant we start hassling her, she'll dig her heels in."
"Blimey, why didn't we think of that?" Fred laughed as well. "Very well then — I'm a mite thirsty anyway. Let's just leave without them, and they can catch up later."
"Very well, Harry-kins." George waved flamboyantly. "We'll be at the Ty Sini Ŷn — it's a pub down in magical Eglwysilan. Our sister we shall leave in your capably unpersuasive hands."
Chuckling, Harry rolled his eyes, and turned back toward the locker doors as the rest of The Flying Circus strolled away toward the Apparition point. Pulling his cloak tight against the night's chill, he shoved his hands into his pockets, nodded genially to a trio of custodial wizards on their way out to clean the grandstands, and settled in to wait...
He thought it odd that Ginny should take so long in her post-match washup, especially with the evening getting on as it was. He was starting to wonder if he should see about flagging down a female stadium attendant to check the witches' shower room to ensure Ginny was okay, when finally the door opened.
Ginny emerged; her hair gleaming and face still flushed from the shower. She flashed Harry a quick smile but... that's exactly what it was — quick. Within seconds, her eyes had strayed elsewhere; no real hint remained on her face of the post-match ebullience or satisfaction.
"What's wrong, Gin'?" Peering at her face, Harry reached for (but didn't quite catch) her hand. "Hey, you aren't still dwelling on what that tosser Smudgely said?"
Ginny exhaled and scuffed her trainer distractedly on the polished stone floor as she began to lead the way out of the tunnel.
"Huh." Harry fell in step with her. "You really are upset with the git, aren't you?"
"You shouldn't be." Harry shook his head in annoyance. "Blaise pegged it perfectly. What you did tonight was exactly what the rest of us needed. If we'd been forced to rely on a middling-good scorer like Roger Davies in your place, we'd have gotten pounded every time down the pitch. We'd have fallen behind and would have been really vulnerable to a balky Snitch."
Ginny looked away. "I should have set up Blaise or Keith for at least a couple scores."
"Nah. They were both playing brilliantly to their strengths tonight, but their strengths don't yet include scoring against good professional opposition. That was a task we had to leave to someone who knew how to beat Weil. That someone wasn't going to be Blaise or Keith. I mean, blimey — it wouldn't have been Angelina or Davies or Pucey — not even Liu Song Ye, and it certainly wasn't going to be someone who was going to pass up makeable shots. The only person I know who was going to give us that lead tonight was Ginevra Molly Weasley. You were phenomenal, you were crucial, and you can't let some twit from the Dribbly Privet try to tell you otherwise."
"But Harry..." Ginny frowned. "There were Holyhead scouts in the stands tonight. I don't want Gwenog Jones thinking I never pass and block. Established stars like Griffiths and Morgan will mop the locker room with my face if I don't pass and block for them."
Harry finally trapped her hand and squeezed it. "Well, you actually did pass, and pass well at that — it just happened that Blaise and Keith always passed straight back to you before you had a chance to block for them." He sighed. "To be honest, our competition is going to get tougher and tougher. I think what we'll most need from you is for your scoring instincts to get sharper and sharper. Yes, all of the Chasers are going to have to pass like mad against Portugal and Montrose to work around their defensive sets, but I'm fairly certain the team will be looking for you to take at least two thirds of the actual shots on goal. To stand a chance, we'll all have to maximise our strengths and minimise our weakness, which means neither Keith nor Blaise are going to shoot much, which means you're unfortunately not going to have many chances to showcase your offensive blocking skills in public for a while."
Ginny nodded resignedly, but Harry touched her cheek. "Fortunately, it hardly matters, right?"
Ginny raised an eyebrow. "Why not?"
"Because..." Harry grinned. "Most of the raw skills and instincts for offensive blocking are the same as you use for defence. Tonight you defended brilliantly — your best match ever. You completely tied up a solid second-tier professional Chaser, right?"
"That's true I guess. Thanks!" She smiled more genuinely this time, although it faded again into a blank, pensive expression. "But I've actually been fretting about more than just Quidditch. I mean, someone just insinuated that I'm acting a bit selfish, but if you look at the bigger picture, I really am, aren't I?"
"Huh?" Harry stared at her.
Ginny shrugged. "Well, just look at my life right now. Sure, I'm working for the school, and yes, I really do want to help catch Bellatrix and all, but where am I really investing my energies? I somehow got it into my head that I could make a go of this Quidditch thing and it's occupying rather a lot of my time..."
Harry squeezed her hand. "Bravo! You've more than earned the right!"
"But..." Ginny looked at him uncertainly; her soft protestation descending into confusion.
Harry shook his head. "No buts. You've already done a exemplary service to all of Magical Britain; you earned Order of Merlin First Class, and thousands of witches and wizards are far safer now as a result. It's okay if you want to keep serving the world, but it's more than okay if you want to be a sixteen year old witch with glowing dreams. You've earned any opportunity to have fun and do things that make you happy. And if those fun and happy accomplishments spark the dreams of another generation of little witches and wizards, then all the better, yeah?"
The pair found themselves back out on the pitch in the dimly lit, starry Welsh evening; a smattering or maintenance staff rustled in the distance, doing their best to not disturb the two celebrities.
"Of course you're right." Ginny laid her head on Harry' chest. "It's all so very complicated, isn't it though?"
"You have that right, love." He placed a protective arm around her. "I'm not sure it will ever stop bein- Oi!!"
"Luna Lovegood; special correspondent; the Quibbler. I have a question for Miss Weasley?"
"Agh!" Ginny let out a taut breath and loosened her fingernails that had inadvertently jabbed deeply into Harry's back. "Luna, it's wonderful to see you and all, but please put the quill away — our press conference ended fifty minutes ago."
Harry smiled. "We might be meeting up with some of the gang down at the Ty Sini Ŷn. Would you like to come along?"
Luna raised a shrewd eyebrow. "That was actually not one of your notorious diversionary tactics, Harry."
Harry blinked. "I, er, no it wasn't."
Ginny grinned. "I'm pretty sure it was a genuine invitation, Luna. Would you like to come?"
Luna turned her unflinchingly skeptical expression upon her best friend. "Four questions and one statement first."
"Uh, beg your pardon?" Ginny gave Luna a confused look.
Luna unfurled her scroll and turned to Harry. "In exchange for the pleasure of my company, I'd like to ask Ginevra four questions first."
Harry nodded. "And make a statement?"
"Tut tut." Luna shook her head. "I'm the one specifying the conditions, Harry."
Harry stolidly fought back a bemused smirk, but his discretion was wasted since Luna had already fixed her attention back on Ginny.
"Miss Weasley... May I call you Ginny?"
Ginny rolled her eyes. "Luna, you call me Ginny every day at school."
A frown creasing her forehead, Luna took a moment to ponder the response, and then began scribbling furiously. After about fifteen seconds, she paused to skim her parchment. "Decree for the Restriction of Underage Sorcery — reasonable or preposterous?"
"Oh blimey... A bit of both?"
A blonde eyebrow arched above the edge of the scroll that mostly obscured Luna's face. She tapped her quill impatiently twice. "Miss Weasley, do you lead your waltzes with the left foot or right?"
Ginny fidgeted uncomfortably. "I, uh, prefer to let Harry lead."
Luna lowered her parchment to scrutinise her friend for a moment. "Very well, I'll put you down for 'left'. Final question. If Hyperia and Anders were part of a Quidditch... bunch..., who would play Beater?"
"Fred and George, of course!" Ginny grinned.
Harry nearly snorted at his girlfriend's perfectly obtuse answer, but instead gaped in puzzled surprise to see Luna's expression actually light up like a child at Fortescue's. Indeed, the Quibbler correspondent began bouncing excitedly on her feet as she scrawled several long lines of detailed notes.
Lodging the luxuriant feather behind her ear, Luna sighed contently. She shrank her scroll, tucked it into her stocking for safe-keeping, then smiled at her friends. "Onwards to Ty Sini Ŷn, then? Shall I do the singing, or would either of you like to begin?"
Ginny and Harry glanced awkwardly at each other; neither of them quite certain how best to reply...
With Mary Jo Clark's assistance, Harry helped the sixth year Ravenclaw student to his feet, then turned to face the class. "Can anyone tell me Claude's biggest mistake?"
He paused to gaze about the twenty faces, then shook his head. "Let's have someone other than Mary Jo and Ryan, please?"
Several more tentative hands rose as Ryan and Mary-Jo lowered theirs. Harry's finger darted out and picked at random. "Jack?"
The Hufflepuff student stood. "The Impedimenta jinx is too slow to cast?"
"Exac-" Harry caught himself. "Wait. Jack, can you tell me why the Impedimenta is slow to cast."
"Uhh..." Jack scratched his cheek. "Er, because it takes a fair bit of power?"
Harry shook his head. "Impedimenta is a first year spell — it's like cutting butter. Can anyone else explain why Claude couldn't cast a simple Impedimenta in the time it took Colin to stun him? Sarah?"
Sarah Lindsey stood. "Because the incantation is like..." She paused to count on her fingers. "It's five syllables long. I hate that spell because I'm always afraid I'll garble it and cast that guilt revealing spell instead."
Harry chuckled as the rest of the class laughed. "Quite right! Neither Impedimenta or Impenitenta really roll off the tongue, do they? Okay, we have thirty seconds before the bell, so let's think quickly — if you really want to immobilise someone and you need to do it really fast, what's your best option? Luna?"
"Use a nonverbal spell, Harry." Luna stood and gathered her materials. "It's perfect if you want to cast quickly, if you want to cast silently, and if you're ashamed of your singing voice."
"I, er, yes. Very good Luna." Harry's smile from the excellent first two criteria was wavering a bit as she finished her sentence, but he moved ahead briskly. "Great class, everyone! Please read the first two sections of Chapter Eight before Friday's class, all right?"
As the students rustled and clattered their way out of the room, Harry began putting his materials away, then paused, sensing a presence at the door. He glanced over and saw the diminutive figure of Professor Flitwick. Harry smiled and beckoned him in.
Entering, Flitwick gazed up concernedly. "Are you free this period, Harry?"
Harry nodded. "Is something wrong?"
"Ehh..." Flitwick scrunched his face equivocally. "Perhaps. Minerva would like you to come help with an unexpected visitor."
"Oh?" Harry's eyes widened. "Who?"
"Iona Crabbe. Vincent's mother."
"Oh." Harry stiffened as he picked up his rucksack. "How is she?"
Flitwick pursed his lips. "I'm not certain, to be honest. I was up in the Headmistress's office when Iona flooed in. I left very soon thereafter, and she hadn't yet betrayed much emotion."
"Okay, thank you for letting me know." Harry sighed. "I'll head straight up; I guess I'll find out soon enough for myself."
Flitwick nodded. "Good luck, Harry."
Feeling quite pensive and subdued, Harry made his way alone along the fifth floor corridor and up the stairs. "Iberian Lynx," he spoke to the sentinel gargoyles, then took a breath and mounted the final moving staircase. He listened as he rose, trying to gauge the tenor of any conversation that might be taking place; trying to predict whether he (as a long-time enemy of Crabbe's, and a witness to the former Slytherin student's untimely death) would be assaulted by a mother's bitter, recriminatory tears. Or worse.
Harry could indeed hear two female voices — Professor McGonagall, speaking in her crisp Scottish burr, interpersed with another voice — low and elderly. Neither seemed particularly agitated. Or not yet, anyway.
Harry knocked lightly, but had to wait only a split second for McGonagall's welcome. "Come in Professor Potter; so good of you to join us."
Harry nodded to himself at the choice of monikor. McGonagall would most often call him 'Harry' these days — to his face or in the company of mutual friends. The formal title, he assumed, would confer onto him an air of authourity; it would subtly convey to Mrs. Crabbe that she would be speaking not to her son's schoolyard rival, but rather to a dignified faculty member who in a different world (one in which Vincent had shown a bit of aptitude in magical defence) might actually have been the youth's instructor.
Harry entered the room at a measured pace. "Good morning, Headmistress." He angled slightly toward the witch (seated; nervously cradling a teacup as she watched him) and extended his hand. "And you would be Mrs. Crabbe. I had hoped I would have a chance to meet you."
Looking rather old and frail to be the mother of a brawny seventeen-year-old, the woman stared at Harry's hand but made no move to take it. Instead she pulled her cup and saucer closer to her chest. When the porcelain began rattling, McGonagall reached forward to stead the witch's hands and gently lower them (and the hot tea) back to the table.
McGonagall glanced at Harry. "Do pour yourself a cup and take a seat. I believe Iona has some questions for you, if you can spare a little time for us?"
"By all means!" Harry poured a cup and brought it with him to the open seat at the table. He raised the tea toward his lips. "How may I help you, Mrs. Crabbe?"
"You were there when Vincie died?"
"Yes, I was there." Harry put the cup down, and met her eyes. "I'm immensely saddened for your loss."
From her glazed expression, it didn't appear that Iona Crabbe had processed the condolence. Rather, she looked quickly away, focusing timidly at the table as she assembled her next question.
"Is it true he died of heart failure?"
Harry raised an eyebrow. "They listed the cause of death as heart failure?" He studied her face, trying (without Legimency) to anticipate where she might be trying to take this conversation.
The witch nodded.
Harry sighed. "Well, I assume that's sort of how he died — his heart did stop beating, after all. It probably wouldn't be easy for even a well-intentioned DMLE medic to pin down any more specific cause of death."
"Mr. Potter, please tell me..." The witch's voice dropped to a hoarse whisper. "Was my Vincie murdered?"
Harry tapped his cup for a moment before forcing himself to once again meet the woman's plaintive gaze. "Perhaps, Mrs. Crabbe, but I don't yet have any proof."
"Why was he murdered, Mr. Potter?"
Harry exhaled deeply, doing his best to not convey any hint of exasperation. "Mrs. Crabbe, you're asking questions that I might only be able to answer partially, and with uncertainty. And furthermore, before answering anything, I'd really prefer to understand what you'd hope to gain with any of this speculation."
Her eyes sparked with momentary fierceness. "Young fellow, I am a mother and an aunt. I have lost a son and a brother this year under mysterious circumstances. My husband and most of his friends are in Azkaban, and someone is running about murdering those of us who remain free. I'm an old woman and can defend neither myself nor my little niece with the strength I might once have. I need help, Mr. Potter. I beseech you!"
"My help? In terms of needing sanctuary, Mrs. Crabbe?" Harry's eyes widened in recognition. "A safe haven like what our SHP program promises?"
"Yes, obviously!" In her intensity, the witch glared at him. "Why else would I come to you?"
"Ah!" Harry's chest loosened in relief. "Well, hopefully we can make something work, then. However, given the exceptional security we maintain about our safe house, I'm going to need you to submit to an interview under either Veritaserum or Legimency first. Are you prepared to do so?"
Iona stared at him for a moment. "Right now?"
Harry shook his head. "I wouldn't presume to tie up the Headmistress's time with non-school matters like that. Maybe we can arrange the interview for an evening later this week, or on the coming weekend? In the meantime, perhaps you and your niece can make discreet preparations to go into hiding."
The witch pursed her lips, contemplating the offer.
Harry reached into a cloak pocket and pulled out a spare HART bracelet (he almost always kept an extra on hand in case of emergencies) and handed it to her. "Mrs. Crabbe, I think it's quite unlikely that you'll encounter any dire peril before we can get you into our safe house but, just in case, you might take this. It's an emergency summoning bracelet, and can also be used to Portkey here to Hogwarts."
"Eh?" She looked at it. "How does it work?"
"The Portkey is triggered by pressing this rune." He gestured toward an innocuous marking. "And to summon me, you merely have to press anywhere on the bracelet and say, 'Audite me, Harry.'"
The witch turned it over in her hand a couple of times, then slipped it around her wrist. "Thank you, Professor Potter. Thank you also, Headmistress, for arranging the meeting." She rose and reached for her handbag, apparently prepared to depart.
"One moment please, Mrs. Crabbe?" McGonagall raised her hand. "This niece you referred to — she is bound for Hogwarts next year, correct? Her name is Amelie Jugson?"
Mrs. Crabbe nodded. "Aye, that's her."
McGonagall frowned. "Her father — your brother — was Alan Jugson. Please pardon my deficiency of tact, but am I correct in inferring from you that Mr. Jugson is in fact now deceased?"
"Yes." The elderly witch slumped back down into her chair. "He died back in December, a couple of weeks before Yule. The night it happened, I felt a chill deep in my chest in the middle of the night. I got up to get myself a shot of something, ehh, fortifying. On the way to the cabinet, I checked our old family clock and that's when I noticed the change. Alan's hand had been on 'in hiding' since October but sometime that night it had shifted to 'murdered'."
McGonagall pulled in a sharp breath.
Harry bit his lip. A rapid flurry of thoughts and emotions swirled through him as he did his best to tame his own growing concerns; seeking instead to project calm empathy into an office already taut with strain.
"So then!" Ginny entered their shared sitting room carrying two mugs of hot pumpkin cider. She placed one on the coffee table for Harry and carried the other with her as she took a seat on the chesterfield. "We're to interview the Iona Crabbe and her niece tomorrow evening?"
Harry put his book back on the shelf and turned to greet her. "Yes, that's the plan. It sounds like Susan and Daphne will be able to attend the meeting, and will be available to escort our new guests to Dolwyddelan afterwards."
"Provided all goes well?" Ginny took a sip of her cider.
"Provided all goes well." Harry began pacing in front of the fire. "I think it will be fine; I'm pretty sure that Mrs. Crabbe's intentions are pure. She was very candid, if a bit eccentric."
"Eccentric? How so?"
"Well..." Harry ran his fingers through his hair. "First she asked me if Vincent had been murdered, but then she wouldn't listen when I said I had no proof." Harry paced in front of the fire in their sitting room. "She clearly already knew it was homicide, even if DMLE still isn't convinced of it enough to even open an investigat..."
Harry paused for a moment, his eyes gazing diffusely toward Ginny. Then he stiffened. "Of course!"
Ginny raised a puzzled eyebrow. "Of course?"
Harry nodded. "Yes, of course that's how Mrs. Crabbe knew Vincent had been murdered. She had a family clock like your Mum's. She told us that was how she knew her Death Eater brother, Jugson, had been killed back in December. If so, surely the clock would have been able to also record Vincent's fate, right?"
"Yes, that all stands to reason — Those family clocks are very reliable." Ginny took a sip of her hot pumpkin cider. "A bit creepy, though, to have a clock that's able to report something like 'murdered'."
"Tell me about it, Gin'!" Harry turned back toward the fire, frowning. "But what I find immensely curious is that nobody else seems to know that Jugson is dead. I asked Tonks to check his files — there's nothing about his death in the Hall of Records, and according to DMLE he's still presumed to be a living, breathing fugitive."
Ginny nodded thoughtfully.
Harry resumed pacing. "How is it that the Ministry knows precisely when a magical person is born, but doesn't know when they die?"
"Hmmm..." Ginny tapped her lips. "I'm not quite sure, Harry, but I guess maybe that, magically speaking, any one birth looks a lot like any other birth, but all deaths are different.
"So the Department of Records can cast automated charms for birth detection, but death signatures are too varied to reliably detect?" Harry lowered himself onto the chesterfield and met his fiancée's eyes. "If so, then how do the family clocks work?"
"Ah — that's a subject I know a bit more about." Ginny shifted to accomodate Harry; her toes simultaneously finding their way to a warm spot beneath Harry's leg. "As I understand it, the clock's hands sit in the background as family life unfolds around them. They quietly pick up the aura of whomever they represent, developing a magical connection with them. In order for that connection to work reliably, the person has to come home every so often — every few years at least — so that the hand can adjust the way it perceives the person."
"I see." Harry pursed his lips. "So even if the Ministry wanted to track everyone, it would be rather unreliable since most wizards and witches don't visit the Ministry building very often."
"Yes exactly." Ginny nodded. "And of course it would be political suicide for the Ministry to attempt any more tracking than they already do."
"Fair enough." Harry's face had taken on a grim cast. "So neither Alan Jugson's life nor death were monitored; his body was apparently never found, and I gather Iona Crabbe never saw fit to report her brother dead or even missing. I wonder why not? Because she didn't trust the Ministry?"
Ginny nodded. "I'm guessing that mistrust of the Ministry continues to run high in dark or grey magic circles. If Mrs. Crabbe knew her brother was already dead, she probably decided DMLE was unlikely to do anything useful for her, so why would she feel any motivation to invite all of the unwanted scrutiny that would come with filing a report?"
"Yet she was willing to come to me — Vincent's sworn enemy — after his death?"
"Sure." Ginny sipped some more cider. "It does sound as though she was a bit nervous about risking a meeting, but she might have felt it was her best option. In general I think a lot of that community has grown to respect you."
Harry blinked, shaking his head incredulously.
"Think about it, Harry." Ginny fixed his gaze. "Riddle and his inner circle are no longer around to tell everyone what to think and who to hate. Without the constant propaganda, a lot of families have had the chance to sniff about; get a fresh look at a new world taking shape around them; re-evaluate old friends and old enemies. So when they look at you, what do they see?"
"Maybe we can start with what people do not see. They don't see a dictator or a Ministry stooge. You're not running about grabbing power and currying favour with the old cronies. Those were the biggest fears a lot of people had about you leading up to the final battle, and all the worry has proven unfounded. Instead, everyone has gotten to watch you step off the battlefield, do a bit of judicious philanthropy, and largely settle into remarkably unthreatening roles in the emerging new order."
Harry looked at her in utter bafflement, but Ginny merely smiled and continued. "How unthreatening are you to the average Slytherin students and alumni?" Ginny put down her mug to free her hands for demonstrative gestures. "Well hey, Harry, you're the Associate Head of Slytherin House! From an administrative perspective it's completely meaningless — Hogwarts doesn't need you for that and neither does Slughorn, but the kids adopted you and they don't want to let you go. And now, because Daphne can't keep her sweet little trap shut, everyone's pretty sure that you're the secret founding benefactor of the SHP. It doesn't matter what Rita Skeeter insinuates — most everyone knows that the SHP isn't some dodgy ruse. People know people who have truly benefited from the program; they know it's been a haven for friends of theirs who've had their lives cut out from under them."
Harry nodded slowly.
"But do you realise what probably reaps you the greatest approval and trust, Harry?" Ginny swept away some hair that had escaped into her face. "It's this unique package that you present — part of your image is this benevolent, non-threatening person, but superimposed on that is the wizard who took Riddle down. Given what Nott told us about the culture of terror inside the dark community, I'd bet there were plenty of people in that crowd who were secretly just as relieved as any Weasley, Longbottom or Bones when that dreadful chapter finally closed — especially once they understood that you weren't about to launch your own tyrannical regime."
"I'd like to think you're right." Harry retrieved his own long-neglected mug from the coffee table. "And you actually may be right, but optimism isn't my first instinct."
Gnny nodded solemnly, not quite able to counter the statement.
Harry gazed at the fire for a long moment. "So what do you suppose is the likelihood that Jugson's death is somehow tied in with the Lestrange case?"
Ginny frowned. "Yes, I wonder. I also wonder how many other unexplained and unreported disappearances have been hitting the dark community since the end of the war?"
Harry massaged his chin in thoughtful silence.
"Mrs. Crabbe?" Harry stood up less than ten minutes into the meeting.
An uncomfortable looking witch and her young niece turned in their seats to face him.
Harry smiled reassuringly. "We've completed the evaluation part of the meeting and, provided you choose to go ahead with your plan to move to Wales, then we're prepared to welcome you and your niece into the program."
The mousey girl with fine brown hair stared. Her elderly aunt blinked. "You're done? I, errr, wasn't aware that you'd even started...?"
"Uh, right." Harry shifted slightly. "Legilimency is never to be undertaken lightly, but it doesn't need to be painful."
Mrs. Crabbe laughed nervously. "Well, whatever you say then. I take it you found nothing of concern?"
Harry tilted his head slightly; equivocally. "I found no reason to not welcome you into the safe house program."
The guarded distinction in Harry's response was lost within the relieved smiles of the two females, and the young girl's effusive thanks.
"You're welcome, Amelie. There are eleven children already at the house — I think they'll be happy to have a new friend." Harry turned to the girl's mother. "Mrs. Crabbe, I hope you don't mind if I excuse myself, but I'm actually supposed to be two places at the same time."
Ginny rose from a chair in back. "We have defence training sessions on Thursday evenings. Harry left some of his students in charge of the session, but he usually feels compelled to check in."
"Uh, yeah..." Harry smiled sheepishly. "Sometimes they improvise in ways that, well, might not please the school governors. Anyway, would it be all right if I left you with Susan and Daphne? They're the real leaders of SHP and are far better equipt than I to answer any questions you might have about the safe house."
"Yes, I understand." Iona Crabbe rose to shake Harry's hand. "Thank you again, Professor Potter, for your willingness to help!"
"You're welcome! I look forward to seeing you around the house!"
Within a minute, Susan Bones had launched into a brief description of the house amenities and activities, giving Harry and Ginny a chance to slip out. Closing the door to the small classroom, Harry smiled to himself as Susan's no-nonsense voice trailed after them. "... and although Harry is constantly flitting off like this, he's actually quite involved with the program — arranging activities for the children, visiting every weekend. In fact, he's..."
"Susan's right, of course." Ginny smiled at Harry as they walked up the corridor. "The program might have been my idea, and it might be Susan and Daphne fussing over all of the details, but you're certainly more than a figurehead philanthropist, and people really do value what we've built."
"So you keep saying." Harry shrugged. "What's bothering me at the moment is that the 'value' of the program might be about to spike. I'd been starting to grow accustomed to the idea that the place had become much more of an orphanage than a true safe house, and I was starting to hope that even the need for orphan services might start to phase out, but instead now I'm worried that the original mission might be about make a real comeback."
"Any tangible evidence of new trouble?" Ginny shot him a worried glance. "Did you glimpse anything useful, or disquieting, from Mrs. Crabbe? Anyone still being threatened in the ways that Jugson and Crabbe were?"
Harry pursed his lips. "Well, I was trying not to use Legilimency for anything more than the agreed upon task of making sure that Mrs. Crabbe wasn't planning anything criminal, but yes — I did catch some scraps that have me a bit worried. And yes, unfortunately even if I'm only there to evaluate whether the woman's many Death Eater interactions were likely to pose any security risks, it's hard to not pick up on the odd peripheral exchange."
"One Death Eater interaction is often rather like any other Death Eater interaction, yeah? Well, what did you find then?" Ginny took hold of his hand. "I realise the information is slightly ill-gotten, but if it helps to save lives, then we need to use it."
"I suppose so." Harry took a seat on the top step of the staircase to seventh floor and stroked his chin. "I saw glimpses of a fair number of conversations — most were meaningless and none were particularly recriminating other than an untold number of violations of petty Ministry regulations..."
Ginny snorted. "We'd best not tell Percy. But sorry, please continue."
"The one discussion that I had a hard time breaking away from was a chat Iona had about a month ago with Alecto Carrow."
"Flora and Hestia Carrow's mum?" Ginny's eyes widened. "She was at the final battle — I assume she was one of those who fled after our odd bit of magic that, uh, cleared the castle doorstep."
"Right." Harry nodded. "Aurors tracked her down within a week and she submitted to a voluntary tracking charm. Her husband was a harder nut to crack, though. He inflicted some serious damage in the Great Hall later that morning, and has remained unrepentant. He'll likely be in Azkaban for a while."
"Yes, just like Crabbe senior." Ginny's mouth twisted in distaste. "So what did Mrs. Crabbe and Mrs. Carrow speak about?"
"Uh..." Harry stared vacantly down the quiet stairwell as he sifted through memories. "Oddly enough, they were talking about employment."
Ginny frowned. "What sort of employment?"
"I have no idea and neither, it seemed, did they." Harry cast a couple of quick privacy charms around them, even through the stairwell had remained deserted. "Remember when Vincent Crabbe left the castle with Goyle and Bulstrode shortly before the final battle? Well, about a week after that, they each owled their parents to say that they were leaving school because they'd received good employment offers."
Ginny's eyebrow arched. "That was hardly my read on the situation, but whatever."
"Yeah, whatever." Harry shrugged. "Iona sent a rather pointed owl message back to Vincent asking for details, but never got a response. Anyway, things soon got more complicated. A couple days after that, Jugson snuck out of his hiding place in the Crabbe's attic, disappeared for a while, then owled Iona to tell her that he too had been offered a good job. And once again, he never gave any details about where exactly he was, what he was doing, or even whether or not he was in touch with Vincent. Interestingly, I believe that the Crabbe family clock continued to register both of them as being 'in hiding'."
"Okay, so we have four people who all had good reasons to want to escape. They all said they'd found good work but none of them gave useful details like where they were or what they were doing." Ginny idly tapped the bannister with her finger. "Now at least two of them are dead. Blimey, Harry — I hope they got good hazard pay!"
Harry rolled his eyes.
Ginny continued to finger the wood. "Do you have any idea why Alecto was in there chatting with Mrs. Crabbe in the first place?"
Harry thought for a moment, then nodded. "Yes, Alecto was scrounging for information about the supposed employer, because her daughters had also recently been approached."
Ginny nodded with a hint of urgency. "Who and how?"
Harry massaged his cheek bones in thought. "Er, well, it seems that Cassius Warrington began dating Flora Carrow over winter break. Then, in late January, Warrington owled Flora telling her he'd gotten a new position, and saying that he could arrange summer employment for her and her sister as Field Magic Interns for 'Farfelu Operations'. Have you ever hear of it?"
Ginny frowned; thinking but saying nothing.
Harry glanced at her then continued. "Alecto had never heard of the company before, which was why she asked Iona. The conversation developed from there, and-."
"Vous êtes si farfelu! " Ginny grabbed Harry's wrist.
Harry's startled gaze darted from his wrist to Ginny's intense expression. "Er, can you run that by me again?"
"Farfelu — that's what Fleur always calls the twins! Vous êtes si farfelu. You are so wacky? Potty...?"
Harry raised an eyebrow. "Strange?"
"Strange?" Ginny chewed her lip. "Strange Operations?"
Harry got up and helped Ginny to her feet. Together, they walked in silence to the Room of Requirement, wondering just what kind of strange operations were taking root in the dimmer recesses of Magical commerce.
Harry had several books piled up in front of him in the private study he shared with Ginny. He was concentrating so deeply on a treatise on magical background measurement that he didn't even notice Ginny approaching until she put her hand on his arm.
He groaned and turned toward her.
"Groan??" Ginny's eyebrow soared high in semi-bemused umbrage. "Do I groan at you when you come to greet me?"
Harry smirked. "You do, if I'm coming to drag you to a meeting."
Ginny glared at him for a long moment, then grinned. "Yes, I suppose I do, don't I? Anyway, straighten out that smirk of yours Potter, and let's get it over with. There are lots of things I'd rather be doing with a Friday evening than listening to Blaise pontificate, but if we delay much longer, he'll be having Kneazels."
"Blaise having Kneazels? Now that I would like to see." Harry stretched his back in a way that (as Ginny noticed) rather accentuated his shoulders and lats. Obliviously, he rose from the desk, then winced. "Ugh, what am I saying?? Blaise? Kneazels? That's one image I absolutely do not want stuck in my mind."
"Ah, sorry — bad choice of metaphor." Ginny pressed close against him and her voice dropped to a breathy whisper. "Do you need a fresh image to replace it with?"
"Emmm..." Harry suddenly recognised the parts of her body that were pressed against his. "Thanks, uh, what... errr... are you sure the, uh, meeting isn't, say, tomorrow?"
Ginny's hand pressed itself against his chest, stayed there for a moment, then worked its way downward, undulating over the firm abdominal muscles it encountered...
Then it stopped; Ginny exhaled. "Argh. No, it's definitely tonight and we're late for it."
Harry's breathing rasped. "Er, yeah. They'll send someone to pound on our door if we don't hurry."
Ginny wrinkled her nose. "Bloody nuisance, but yes — we'd best go. No more distracting metaphors."
"Metaphors? Er, right." Harry nodded stiffly. "No metaphors."
So, without metaphors to distract them, the pair locked hands and exited the study. Crossing the corridor, they could already hear Zabini growling, "It's twelve bloody minutes after eight? What do they think we're running here, some sort of-?"
"Footsteps, Blasé." It was Daphne's voice cutting across Zabini's. "That would be them now."
"Where the hell have you two-?!" Zabini turned sharply to glare at... the two rather flushed faces, situated beneath distinctly ruffled hair. He coughed awkwardly. "Oi. Never mind."
Daphne smirked as Ron turned beet red and looked pointedly away. She cast a quick Gavel charm on her wand and tapped the table twice in percussive exclamation. "Calling to order the March 6th meeting of The Great Zabini Flying Circus. Harry and Gin-Ginny — help yourself to cold butterbeer from the back then please join us."
"Aye aye, Boss." Harry mock-saluted. "Any good press coverage this week?"
"Yes." Zabini held up a copy of the latest 'Seeker Weekly'. "Quint Marish wrote a great page six piece called 'Fourteen on a Shoestring'. He basically says we're playing like the fourteenth Premier League squad, despite having a miniscule budget and almost no resources."
"Kikis Trecus wrote a nice factual recap with plaudits for little Gin-Gin." George tossed a Daily Prophet into the centre of the table.
"Smudgely didn't," Fred added.
Summerby gave Ginny a quick glance. "Don't read Smudgely."
Ginny made a mildly obscene gesture at the paper lying on the table and smiled. "Anything from the Quibbler?"
"I don't think so." Ron scratched his head as skimmed through the small periodical. "No, nothing from the lunatic fringe."
"Now Ron..." Harry chuckled and turned to Daphne. "Any progress on scheduling?"
"Uh, not much. We have a bit of a problem." Daphne made a face of pronounced displeasure. "Premier League clubs are chickening out."
"What??" Ron stared at her. "You're not serious?!"
Daphne nodded. "Ever since Tuesday morning, I've received an endless stream of rejections — Puddlemere, Kenmare, Portree, Appleby, Holyhead and Wimbourne."
Ginny blinked. "What's Holyhead's problem?"
"Eh..." Zabini scrunched his face. "At least they have a decent excuse — with their victory on Wednesday, they've edged past Caerphilly in the race for the final League Cup slot. They don't want to risk any injuries in unnecessary exhibitions."
Page scowled. "The other clubs are apparently a bunch of twits."
"Hmmm..." Harry tapped the table. "Is anyone else giving tangible reasons?"
"Security." Daphne rolled her eyes. "Little nancy poof-poofs are all claiming that playing us will pose a security risk to their athletes and fans — like we're a bunch of reckless dark-targets or something!"
An uncomfortable silence descended.
Zabini gazed around the room. "I know what you're thinking, but stop thinking it. We've had two minor incidents at or near our matches, but nothing worse than the hooliganry that goes on at other League matches. Nay mates — the fact is that our proud professionals don't want to risk being humbled by a bunch of amateurs."
"Phooey." Fred cocked a snook as he slumped down in his chair. "I was rather looking forward to humbling a few of those gormless peacocks."
Page squinted in thought. "Montrose hasn't said no?"
Zabini nodded. "That's the one silver lining in all this — we've tentatively lined them up for June 22nd. That would be shortly after the League Cup final, and before camps start. Nothing finalised yet, but they're still negotiating, right Daffs?"
"Negotiating in good faith, yes." Daphne pushed her glasses up her nose and consulted a scroll. "And Blasé neglected to mention this for some reason, but Falmouth sent us a note of inquiry a few weeks ago and he failed to let me follow up."
"We're not playing Falmouth." Zabini's eyes hardened. "I don't want to beat up on the Falcons any more than Rooster would like us pounding his Cannons."
"I'd have no qualms about plucking Falcons or pounding Cannons," George opined with a grin.
Zabini shook his head. "We're not playing Falmouth."
"June 22nd is more than three months away, Blaise." Harry enumerated on his fingers. "We're playing great right now, but we're sure to fall off our peak unless we keep a steady slate of good competition between now and then. If we back-slide too much, Montrose will utterly destroy us."
"Portugal in May, right?" Ginny consulted her notes.
"Portuguese Nationals have confirmed, yes." Daphne forwarded Ginny a scroll containing the contract.
Harry glanced at the scroll in passing. "Yes, but that's still more than two months away as well. Unless we find ways to stay sharp from now until then, what's to stop Portugal from burying us too? Either we find at least one high quality tuneup in April, or we might as well pack it in."
Zabini chewed his lip. "Barnton challenged us..."
Page laughed. "The man said 'high quality', mate."
"Picky picky." Zabini scowled. "I suppose you'd turn your nose up on Koldovstoretz Institute of Magic too?"
Fred giggled. "Russky tree pluckers!"
"Now Frederick..." Daphne shook her head sternly. "Just because they like to clown about flying felled spruce trees doesn't mean they can't play perfectly respectable broomy Quidditch too."
Page shook his head. "Negative. I don't care if they fly triple barrels and kick-dance while eating hot borscht — I have no interest in playing any more school teams."
Harry nodded. "Any other options, Daffs?"
"Wellll..." Daphne scanned her list. "Nobody's given me a straight answer on this yet, but... Haiti?"
Zabini continued chewing his lip. "Okay, here's the schtik. The Haitian Juniors wrote back again to say they'd be willing to host a match on the Saturday of Easter weekend."
"The problem is..." Daphne gave Harry a wary look. "They have this huge festival going on at Souvenance — pretty close to their stadium. Things could get a bit, uh, kooky."
Zabini frowned. "It would hardly be a lazy stroll past Fortescue's on a summer morning, Potter. The Haiti magical community sounds like a cross between untamed and unhinged — Muggles and wizards; light and dark, all mingling in a single zany, lawless forum."
All eyes fell upon Harry.
Daphne shifted uneasily and caught his eye. "Umm, not exactly your puff of pastry, Harry?"
"Well..." Harry ran a hand through his hair. "They do play a flashy, challenging style of Quidditch..."
Ginny pursed her lips. "We'd have to find ways to cut down on distractions. The seven of us in particular would have to be able to steer clear of trouble and focus on the match. I don't want any of us to have to babysit a big fan contingent in an unruly atmostphere."
Harry shook his head. "No, we ought not invite anyone, er, unless... maybe if some of the more cool-headed, responsible students were willing to come along and assist with logistics."
Ginny nodded. "We could offer to pay a few people — all the top squads have traveling staff." She gazed around the room. "Daphne and Ron would be most welcome, obviously. Maybe we could recruit some big blokes to, you know, dissuade the more 'colourful' fans. Calm, even-keeled fellows like Neville and Terry?"
"Right." Harry began scribbling notes, then glanced at Ginny. "You think maybe we should consider Ryan and Hermione?"
"They'd be way too busy to... Unless you mean...?" Ginny stared at Harry inquiringly.
"Yes, I mean..." Harry fixed Ginny's eyes and the pair locked their intense gazes.
"Er, ahem, hello?" Zabini waved his hands around. "Are you two still in there? If this is your way of saying, 'hell no', then you're not being very clear about it."
Harry broke off his gaze and glanced at Zabini. "We're not actually saying no.
"Uhh..." Daphne blinked four times in lightning succession. "Does that mean you're saying yes?"
Ginny shrugged and glanced back at Harry. "I guess so, yeah?"
"Oi! What the...??" Ron shook his head incredulously. "What the hell was it that Fleur used to say? Foozit farley-foo?"
"Well..." Harry pursed his lips, raising an eyebrow. "Yes, a little bit farfelu, perhaps."