Chapter 2. Momentary Lapse of Reason (Dec. 26-28, 1997)
The breeze fanned Ginny's hair out behind her like a stunning red comet as she raced out and away from Harry, Jonathon and Clara. Kicking her broom into one of the higher powers, she tore upwards from the pitch in an oblique angle, raced through a wide arc at speeds in excess of ninety miles per hour, then straightened out to drift along more leisurely, high above the Hogwarts pitch.
As she decelerated, she cast an appraising glance down toward Harry. He was whooping and laughing in wonderfully carefree release as he and the two children tossed a quaffle around. He paused for a moment and raised a hand to his brow, scanning the skies above until he spotted her. He called to the children and within a moment all three of them were waving to her from their much more modest altitude. She grinned and waved back.
This was so very much the Harry that Ginny knew and loved — he adored children; he could bring laughter to even the most taciturn little face and calm the most anxious. In return, kids energised him to the point where sometimes he practically glowed. But he had certainly not been glowing last night.
Of the five adults who had gone to the top floor to read bedtime stories to the various children, Harry had been up there the longest. Ginny had been able to coax her rambunctious little tykes to sleep in less than fifteen minutes. Given the childrens' exhaustion from a long and busy day, Narcissa, Andromeda and Ted Tonks had also fared quite well, and had gone downstairs early to open a bottle of Álfheimr wine and have a few final friendly Christmas toasts before calling it a night. Ginny, however, had curled up with a book in the quiet alcove near the top landing to wait for Harry. Indeed, she had waited. And waited. When he finally emerged, he looked thoroughly drained... except for his Occlumency shields. Those were absolutely bristling — the way they did when Harry was in combat or engaged in very tense negotiations.
What on Earth had gone on in that room??
Harry had conveyed little energy or enthusiasm for talking about it at the time, and their schedule had been too busy this morning for either of them to broach the issue. Ginny decided she would take the initiative and ask him... but that would have to wait until later, because this was not an afternoon to be squandered on angst. Mild, sunny, late-December afternoons so perfect for flying were a rare luxury to be enjoyed to the utmost.
With that in mind, she decided it was time to get serious. She bound her hair into a tight pony-tail, tucked it into her pullover and cast a windscreen charm for her eyes. She then slid her hands well forward on the broom shaft, gripped tightly and accelerated hard to the west. After picking up suitable speed, she banked sharply to the left and plunged downwards. Wind raced past as the small brown rectangle that signified the south stands rose quickly to meet her. Unconsciously, she let loose with a raw primal yell that trailed her through the sky. About two hundred feet above the seats she pulled hard up and to the right, ripping into a triple barrel-roll while executing a tight loop.
Half the Quidditch Chasers at Hogwarts would have blacked-out from the centripetal forces alone, but Ginny kept her mind on the prize — a twelve foot square terrace midway up the staircase that separated the Gryffindor and Hufflepuff sections. Just as it edged into the upper fringe of her visual field, she kicked her legs down hard, pulled up on the broom and... BOOM! The retort from her two point landing thundered across the pitch like a cannon blast. Courtesy of powerful legs reinforced by months of hill running, and the specially-tailored trainers she and Harry had ordered from a Muggle sporting equipment manufacturer, she held firm... balanced... her arm shot out to steady herself... thighs and calves braced to quell that excess two ounces of stray momentum and then... stutter step!
"Damn!" she growled as she straightened up. "So bloody close!"
Clap, clap, clap...
Ginny jumped in surprise. Blaise Zabini was ambling down the steps toward her. He was holding up a sign that he had apparently conjured for the occasion. On it was printed the number '9.8'. "Absolutely breath-taking!" He grinned as he approached. "Stunning! Quintessential form!"
Ginny waved dismissively, but couldn't prevent a half-smirk from creeping onto her face.
"Oh, and the flying was okay too," Zabini added.
Ginny shot him a searing scowl. He flinched then chuckled. To his credit, he no longer felt compelled to cast a pre-emptive protego every time he needled her. He was finally grasping the subtle art of knowing where to 'draw the line' — a subject in which Ginny had offered a great deal of practical tutoring.
Ginny smirked momentarily at his flinch and then smiled benignly. "Happy holidays, Blaise! What brings you to school in your time off?"
"Training with Summs." Zabini gestured at Keith Summerby, the quiet but talented Hufflepuff Seeker-turned-Chaser who was also making his way down to the landing. He and Ginny exchanged quick waves.
"Hey listen! Seeing you and Potter here will save my owl a workout." Zabini turned and beckoned to Harry, who waved and made his way toward the stands trailed by Jonathon and Clara.
"We've been meaning to talk to you two," Zabini commenced as everyone gathered in the stands. "About the future!"
Harry nodded blankly, with no real idea where this was headed.
"The house league has completely gone to the dogs this year," Zabini explained. "Hufflepuff and Gryffindor are playing the worst Quidditch that anyone has seen at this school since the early '80s..."
"Hey!" Ginny's cheeks flush a bit, but after a moment it was clear she couldn't muster a strong protest.
Zabini shrugged earnestly. "It's true Weasley! You and Potter didn't see the October matches because of your Ministry responsibilities, but they were utterly worthless. The Puffies never had even the faintest chance of being competitive this year, and the whole deal with you and Potter graduating early really eviscerated your beloved Gryffindorks."
Harry and Ginny looked at each other sheepishly and shrugged.
"Anyway, all that leaves Ravenclaw and Slytherin to slog it out for the cup based on the dubious distinction of being slightly-better-than-completely-pathetic ..." Zabini continued, glancing at Summerby, who nodded tacitly. "And that means that scouts will probably avoid the remaining Hogwarts games like a dragon-pox quarantine, which is bogus news for those of us who were angling for the Premier League draft."
"In other words, the four of us," Summerby clarified.
Harry blinked. "You three, perhaps, but I've barely played any matches since '94..."
Zabini laughed. "Don't be so clueless, Potter! Half the teams in the league would have signed you up after your third year if you had been of legal age. If we can get scouts up here to verify that you're not missing too many limbs and can still mount a broom, a lot of clubs would draft you on reputation alone." He paused for a moment and let his expression solidify into uncharacteristic sobriety. "Okay, I'll be frank. If you and Weasley want to play in the league come August, you're in. No debate on that! Summs and me, though..." he threw an arm around the Hufflepuff, "if we don't get enough real competition and exposure over the next few months to attract invitations to summer camps, we'll probably have to rot in the development league for who knows how many years before we get a real chance."
"I'm really frightened to ask how you plan to address this little problem..." Ginny's eyebrow had a small but sharp spike to it.
"Barnstorming," Zabini replied with a grin.
Ginny blinked. "Come again?"
"We form our own team," Zabini explained, "and we go around challenging squads in the development league, maybe some top school teams in Europe. Who knows — we might even sucker a few professional clubs into exhibition matches. Normally I'd say this was daft and that no serious team would accept any challenge issued by a few crack-pot teenagers, but with the two of you headlining us..."
"Merciful Merlin." Ginny's face dropped into her hand for a moment before emerging to stare balefully at Harry. "So I'll admit that there's a very stupid and childish voice in the back of my head that thinks this sounds jolly and maybe even wants to believe that it could yield some good practical experience, but... do you seriously think Harry and I need any more notoriety??"
Zabini grinned. "Sure! You two haven't done anything completely daft in months — you must be bored out of your skulls!"
Ginny rolled her eyes for a moment, but then fell conspicuously silent. Harry had been quite inert through the discussion thus far, staring out across the pitch. After a while, however, he returned his attention to the group and spoke the most logical follow-up query. "In the ridiculous, far-fetched fantasy world where Ginny and I actually say yes, that would mean you have three Chasers and a Seeker. How were you planning to fill the defensive positions?"
Summerby nodded. "Good question."
Zabini stroked his chin. "We've thought about it a bit. Do you suppose your two nut-case Beater brothers could be persuaded, Red?"
Ginny snickered. "You're fishing for absolutely every shred of notoriety possible, aren't you Zabini?"
"Possibly." Zabini shrugged. "However, that was still intended as a serious question."
Ginny scrutinized him carefully. Zabini failed to wilt under pressure, so her expression of incredulity gradually morphed to legitimate contemplation. "I think there are circumstances under which Fred and George might agree to play," she mused. "What do you think, Harry?"
Harry nodded. "If we had garish purple robes and agreed to emblazon large WWW's on everything, they might go along on a lark."
Ginny nodded. "Yes, I think they might be willing to play. But would they actually take things seriously enough to agree to practice though??"
Harry chuckled. "I think Oliver Wood still has deep psychological scars from trying to keep them focused." He shook his head in bemused reminiscence.
"There's also the fact that they're very committed to their business," Ginny amended, "but truth be told, even without running drills, they'd probably come off as passable Beaters in development league play."
Harry nodded. "So, what about Keeper?"
"A couple options to consider." Zabini exchanged glances with Summerby. "It may come down to the question of who's good enough and who's willing."
Harry's glance darted between the two friends. "Who are you hoping for?"
"I think I can convince Grant Page," Summerby offered. "He's been stuck as a development league reserve in Kilkenny for the last six months, but he's way better than that."
"He's good." Ginny nodded appraisingly. She had put plenty of quaffles past the former Ravenclaw Keeper, but she respected his abilities. "Who's your plan B?"
"Well Ginevra..." Zabini mused, "if we were going to invite you and the barmy Beaters... I, er, figured we might be able to recruit Chess... I mean, Ronald."
An uncomfortable look crossed Ginny's face, but Harry merely shrugged. "You can be diplomatic all you like, but he'll say no because of his current commitments to the house team."
Ginny breathed a furtive sigh of relief at not having to explain that Ron's innate prejudice against all things Slytherin would definitely extend to not tolerating a Slytherin Quidditch captain. Instead, she bobbed her head in wholeheartedly agreement. "Yes, exactly! I can't imagine that he'd agree with anything that interfered with his Gryffindor practice schedule. He doesn't care how horribly he loses every school match — house captaincy means the world to Ron."
"So Page it is?" Zabini asked.
Harry nodded. "Yes, if you can get him."
"I can get him." Summerby's tone was soft spoken, but his expression held a quiet confidence.
"That's my boy." Zabini grinned. "So, we're going to play some Quidditch, eh Red?"
Ginny rolled her eyes. "Sure — if you say so Blaise. But to be honest, I still can't believe I just stood here having a supposedly serious conversation about whom we're going to bully into to joining the...the..." She burst into laughter. "The Great Zabini Flying Circus."
Girlish giggles exploded behind the teens; everyone whipped around in surprise to see little Clara doubled over in hysterics.
"Oh, be that way, you feckless little skeptic!" Zabini sniffed at the little girl. "I stand tall in the conviction that every great pioneer has confronted and swayed the unenlightened with truth and dignity."
Ever staid and sobre; always a true friend, even Summerby had his limits. This time, his best mate's fragile ego would simply have to mend itself, because the best the quiet Hufflepuff could do right now was turn his back discreetly and, apparently, gnaw twitchily on his right forearm.
"For shame, Clara." Harry faced the small blonde with a twinkle in his eye. "We haven't even held our first practice yet, and you've already broken one of our Chasers."
Harry hung back on the periphery of the action, frowning... trying to understand what was not working with today's presentation. He had held no illusion of these kids being particularly angelic, but he had sincerely hoped for a better outcome than this.
According to Susan Bones and Daphne Greengrass, the children were bored enough by the isolation at Dolwyddelan that they generally enjoyed any decent break from the routine. From all accounts, they had responded quite well to educational visits by various friends who had agreed to donate their time and energy.
At Andromeda's behest, Tonks had given a talk about careers in law enforcement — a challenging pitch to children whose parents or guardians were generally either dead or incarcerated, but Tonks' affable nature and ever-changing hair had nevertheless managed to entertain. Neville and Professor Sprout had successfully led the children on long and lively a herbology nature walk. Ryan Jenkins and Mary-Jo Clark had introduced them to team-work challenges and coordination exercises using the Muggle activity of paintball as a very alluring (i.e., chaotic and messy) medium. Hagrid had transported over a menagerie of magical creatures that, courtesy of Andromeda's stern supervision, had not ultimately inflicted major structural damage or permanent psychological trauma. The children had even politely accommodated a delightful (bizarre, surreal) discussion by Luna and Xenophilius Lovegood, although it was not clear to Harry whether the real life lesson there was truly in the finer points of cryptozoology (Luna's chosen topic) or in the very successful application of pragmatic bribery (Daphne's conditional offer of a field-trip to Fortescue's Ice Cream Parlour in return for respect, attention and enthusiastic audience participation).
But what could one do, today, when things seemed absolutely fated to fall apart? Over and over again?
Harry would have thrown idealism to the wind and offered another fun outing in exchange for the childrens' cooperation but, unfortunately, the recent Bellatrix sighting had eliminated that carrot indefinitely. Dolwyddelan security was clamped tight; only a handful of the most trustworthy outsiders were permitted onto the estate for the time being, and all current occupants were virtual prisoners until the possible risks posed by Lestrange were better understood.
Harry sighed. It might not have worked anyway — in all honesty, even a pledge of fine ice cream might have been insufficient to coax the kids through this afternoon in good graces. He knew that children often instinctively sense weakness, and it was brutally obvious to Harry that today's presentation by Ron Weasley was a slow and painfully recurring train wreck.
The struggles were not for lack of preparation. Ron had hit the books with surprising diligence to identify a fine lineup of quirky and historically important Quidditch strategy innovations, and he had also managed to convince Fred and George to donate fourteen magical Quidditch figurines to illustrate the maneuvers. Ron had spent much of yesterday training and testing the figures to make sure they would carry out their roles properly... but today, for whatever reason, they weren't cooperating. It was almost as if the statuettes were irritated by Ron's chronically halting and ineffectual presentation style and had decided to rebel at the worst time possible.
"So with the, umm, Breightmet bottom..." Having once again managed to restore a temporary modicum of order, Ron's face was one of game persistence. "You see that Chaser 2 is deliberately drawing both defending Beaters off to the left... uhh, I mean right, but watch — just when Chaser 2 approaches within, er, let's say one hundred feet of the goal, Chasers 1 and 3 both use variants of the... what's it called? Esc... Escrow... Escrick? Yeah, Escrick! They use the Escrick feint to plummet about half way to the... Oh bollocks!"
Harry winced as the children burst into another round of titters.
With a look of tense consternation, Ron surveyed the group of figurines, all moving in slow motion. "Where the bloody hell are Chasers 1 and 3?! They were flying in formation ten flipping seconds ago!"
Steam rose conspicuously up from Ron's collar and wafted away into the cold December air. A buzz of whispers and snickers gradually bubbled up higher and louder behind him. After thirty seconds of frantic, futile search for his missing figurines, Ron snapped. He kicked hard against the frozen ground and whipped around so fast that his scarf lashed across his already-blood-shot eyes. "Listen up little missy," he spat, randomly singling out Teri who had not bothered to disguise the smirk on her face. "If you think this is so bleeding funny, then why don't you... arrgghhhh!!!"
Much to the unbridled delight of the children, Ron started dancing frenetically, shaking his left leg in lurid agitation. He kicked his left boot off, threw himself to the ground, rolled onto his back and thrashed the leg spasmodically in the air until the two missing Chasers finally emerged, somewhat shakily, from out of his trouser leg.
Ron leaped to his feet, cursing a blue streak, quenching the children's laughter almost instantly with his purplish, trembling visage. The circle of children began to stumble warily backwards away from their instructor... all except Teri, who held her ground, calmly ignoring the gale of foul, spluttered expletives, as she nonchalantly twirled an old dry reed stem in her fingers.
Fearing the worst, Harry began to make his way briskly across the meadow. Ron spotted his approach and turned on him. "Don't interfere, Harry — I have everything under control"
"No, Mr. Harry, please do interfere," Teri said icily as she gazed across the meadow at nobody in particular. "This tosser is frightening the little ones."
Ron froze, still livid, but momentarily taken aback by Teri's insinuation. With Ron temporarily flummoxed, Harry turned his attention quizzically to the girl in the midnight blue robes who seemed to have such a knack for rattling people.
But why? What possible threat could arise from a nine year old girl with no wand? Was there something wrong with her? Was she somehow... evil? Under some dark enchantment?
For all his concentration, Harry couldn't identify anything particularly disturbing. Teri's magical aura was readily distinguishable from everyone around her; it seemed more powerful and better self-regulated than what he would expect from a pre-Hogwarts child, but none of that suggested anything untoward. Harry thought he might be detecting a strange background buzz to the magic in the overall vicinity, but that, he realized, could simply be an unhappy resonance arising from the unusual amount of untamed stress in the air.
Regardless of what the magical diagnostics might suggest, however, it remained blatantly obvious that something was way out of whack. The situation was a bizarre study in contrasts — Teri standing serenely, five feet away from a seething man more than twice her weight; Teri casually tapping the reed stem into the flat of her little hand while Ron clenched his meaty fists in barely restrained fury.
Equally uncertain of what to expect, the other children stared at the two adversaries and continued to creep further back in trepidation. Not wanting to accidentally spark anything with a sudden move, Harry edged cautiously closer. He knew that his friend had a volatile temper even by Weasley standards, but after so many years of constant Slytherin goading at school, Ron had acquired enough self control to avoid the Hogwarts sanctions that violent retaliation could have yielded.
Compared to many of the Malfoy taunts and provocations that Ron had managed to endure, Teri's mild snickering was (quite literally) simple child's play, wasn't it? Harry desperately wanted to believe that his friend could keep his cool and forge ahead with the presentation, but it seemed difficult to get a good read on the situation. Without being able to pinpoint what was really bugging Ron so much, Harry was sorely tempted to intervene and be done with it — end the session early and cut everyone's losses.
Harry took another several steps closer, and finally settled on a compromise. He was now close enough to act if necessary, but otherwise he would hold back and give his friend another chance. After all, Ron had been a good sport about being coerced into giving this session, so he'd earned a benefit of the doubt.
Ron glowered menacingly but ineffectually at Teri for another moment, but then recovered a semblance of composure. "Okay, now what was I...?"
"You were talking about the Escrick feint," Teri interjected acidly, "but your little toys won't play along with you so I guess we'll all have to use our imagination again, won't we?"
"Imagination?!" Ron's voice quavered dangerously. "Who needs a bloody imagination when I have a broomstick right here?" Suddenly, impetuously, he picked up his broom from where it was leaning against a nearby boulder. "I can show you the bleeding Escrick feint! Gather around and pay attention sprogs!"
"Er Ron," Harry began to protest, but Ron shot him a scowl and swung back around to the students, glaring intensely at each of the eleven faces in turn until he had complete silence. Having subdued the audience, he began lecturing loudly but with a concise effectiveness that he'd been lacking all afternoon. "The Escrick maneuver is used for dropping down really fast in such a way that your opponent thinks you'll come out on a right turn, where in fact you're really going to veer left. It's a difficult and dangerous move, so don't try it on your own. Got that?"
Ten little heads nodded meekly. Teri, however, remained motionless except for the continual 'tap tap tap' of the reed against her palm. Ron ignored her. "Everyone watch!"
He positioned himself on the broom, and kicked hard off the ground. The instant Ron took flight, Teri spun on her heel and began to saunter back toward the house, away from the demonstration. Forty feet up Ron spotted her. "Oi!" he yelled in hoarse agitation. "Where do you think you're going, you little bint?! This is for your bleeding benefit!"
She began humming loudly to herself to block out Ron's protestations. Continuing to tap the old reed in her hand, Teri made her way obstinately back toward the house. As she approached Harry, she glanced up at him. Alarmed by the latest development, Harry cast alternating worried looks at Ron's mad airborne gesticulations and Teri's obstinate departure. "Ron, come back down!" he ordered. "Teri, wait a minute please, I..."
Harry paused as Teri turned to him. Flicking a lock of sleek black hair from her face, she opened her mouth to speak...
Itty baby Potter want to come pway...?
Harry's stomach lurched violently. Everything suddenly roiled and swirled; he squeezed his eyes shut, bit down hard on his lower lip, inhaled deeply... and his vision cleared. Teri was looking at him with an eyebrow raised quizzically.
"What did you say??" Harry gasped.
"I said that I liked your other friends better," Teri replied earnestly, blinking in momentary confusion. There was a trace of residual scorn in her voice but it was peculiarly blended with concern. "I don't feel well, Mr. Harry. I'm going back inside." She swiveled her gaze back toward the manor, and resumed her humming, although it was more tremulous and less defiant than before.
Harry caught Teri subtly giving him one final questioning glance out of the corner of her eyes as she passed. Harry's eyes trailed her for a moment, but then a sudden motion at the back door captured his attention. A thin young man — short blond hair, wearing elegant dark robes — emerged into the late afternoon air.
Somehow in Harry's many visits to Dolwyddelan, he had never once so much as glimpsed his most controversial tenant. Yet today, at this most tenuous and fragile moment, the resident Slytherin outcast had emerged from his quarters and had decided to grace the world with bloody exquisite timing. Harry attempted a frantic gesture aimed at trying to silently will Draco back inside, but Malfoy wasn't paying him any heed — the young man was intently staring past him, upwards into the southern sky.
A piercing shriek rang out! Harry whipped around to see the children pointing up in terror. Ron's broom was rocketing off eastwards toward the pine woods, riderless, as Ron himself plunged headlong toward the ground, arms flailing out below him. Without pausing for thought, Harry pulsed out an intense levitation spell. Ron's descent slowed, but he had already dropped too far to fully arrest. Ron's extended right arm reached out to brace the hardened turf, there was a sickening snap... and the rest of his body crumpled onto the ground.
Harry, already in mid-sprint, pointed to the tallest of the children, yelling, "Troy! Fetch Andromeda!" The boy nodded breathlessly and bolted for the back door.
Harry knelt by Ron, hastily examining him. The young man was lying on his side, conscious, broken arm doubled-up beneath him, and breath coming in short rapid puffs. Harry grasped the one undamaged wrist he could reach, fumbled for a pulse and found it to be pounding like mad, but with a strong rhythmic beat. Ron's gaze swiveled quickly and latched onto Harry's face — another promising sign to suggest that he hadn't gone into shock. Harry released a small breath of relief.
"Blimey! What the...??" Ron wheezed. With his left hand, he grabbed Harry's arm and instinctively tried to pull himself to a sitting position.
"Easy mate!" Harry urged. "We need to check your spine before you go bouncing about, all right?"
"Where's my broom?" Ron rasped. "It's a Cleansweep Eleven! Dad will kill me if..."
"Shhh!" Harry put his fingers to his lips. Andromeda had come racing over to join them and had already pulled out her wand to run bone and tissue diagnostics. "Accio Ron's broom," Harry muttered offhandedly as he focused his attention on Andromeda's ministrations. Half a minute later, the broom made its appearance, sailing into Harry's hand. He laid it to the side where Ron could see it.
"Compound fracture, but the break didn't sever any muscle or connective tissue." Andromeda wiped her forehead. "It must have been a good levitation spell because, other than the arm, all damage is pretty minimal. Harry, if he wants to go to St. Mungo's we can accommodate him, but I should be able to set it well enough here."
"No! Not Mungo's!" Ron gasped. "Please set it here."
Andromeda nodded. "I'll need you up off the ground obviously. Preferably we should mend you in the infirmary because of the lacerations. Can you walk, or should we levitate you?"
"Walk!" Ron declared. Without considering logistics, he immediately began trying to struggle to his feet but howled in agony as weight shifted around his broken arm.
"Wait!" Harry seized Ron's shoulder, restraining him. "Slow down, mate. There's no rush — we'll get you mended soon enough, but you'll need to accept a little help until then, okay?" Standing up, Harry cast a spell to gently raise Ron to standing height and reorient his feet back down to reach the ground. Harry and Andromeda reached out from either side to steady Ron's chest and left shoulder until it was clear he could balance his own weight. Ron took several deep breaths and, with their guidance, began to make his way gingerly back toward the house.
Through the rougher part of the meadow, Ron had prudently dedicated his attention to studying the ground in front of his every footfall to make certain that he didn't stumble, but when he reached the flat of the back lawn, he raised his gaze and, for the first time, detected the presence of his arch-nemesis. "You!" Ron yelled in a sudden burst of apopleptic fury.
Draco Malfoy remained standing just off the main path, watching Ron's and Andromeda's progress with cool dispassion.
Ron pulled his left hand out of Andromeda's grasp and pointed at Draco. "That stinking ferret hexed me off my broom! Harry, aren't you going to...?"
"I'm going to have a quick chat with Draco while Andromeda fixes you up, Ron," Harry broke in forcefully, stepping quickly between the two enemies.
Andromeda glanced worriedly from Ron to Draco and then to Harry. Harry gave her a furtive nod. Seemingly in accord, she nodded in response, grabbed Ron's hand, and gently resumed tugging him toward the back door.
As he went past, Ron continued trying to glare at Draco, but Harry kept moving to mediate until Andromeda had her patient nearly to the door.
"I'm going to talk to him, Ron," Harry repeated resolutely, capturing his friend's attention. "You need to get your arm taken care of before the pooling blood damages any more soft tissue. Leave this to me please and I'll fill you in later."
Ron stared at Harry for a moment. "Okay" His low tone was one of corrosive hostility, but he continued following Andromeda reluctantly into the house.
Harry beckoned to the ten children who had been dutifully bringing up the rear. "Hey mates, can you all please go on back up to third floor and gather together in the library? Please tell Kreacher to serve you hot chocolate and a snack. I'll be up to join you in a little while, but I need a few minutes down here first, all right?"
"Yes, Mr. Harry," Troy replied, taking responsibility for the group. He led them into the manor through the back door. Anna, the last in line, crossed the threshold and pulled the door shut with a loud click.
Silence descended over the back yard as Harry and Draco faced each other. Draco had an uncharacteristic calmness to his demeanour. He met Harry's careful scrutiny without flinching. "I didn't do a thing, Potter."
Harry regarded him carefully before speaking, noting that beneath Draco's defiance was the strength of conviction. Harry nodded. "Yes, I know you didn't."
Draco blinked in momentary surprise, then restored his even composure and gazed back toward the meadow.
Harry's gaze followed Draco's, noting that it would have given a good vantage to the incident. "I took my eyes off Ron at a critical moment, back there. Did you see anything that might explain what happened?"
Draco's face edged back somewhat toward Harry, offering him oblique eye-contact. "Well," he began, "I suppose it all just looked like a case of Weasley trying to pull a daft stunt that he didn't have the necessary skills for. Beats me what he was trying to accomplish, but I very much doubt it was anything in the standard Keeper's repertoire."
Harry shook his head. "I agree it's unlikely that he's ever had the skill to do the maneuver, but never in six years of knowing Ron have I ever seen him fall off a broom."
Draco shrugged. "Fine. You asked my opinion and I gave it to you. I don't have anything to add."
"Okay," Harry said equably.
Draco frowned, clearly expecting a more rigorous interrogation. Unsure how (or whether) to respond further, he shrugged again.
The two stood motionlessly for some time, neither speaking. Out of the corner of his eye, Harry saw Ginny and Hermione emerging from one of the woodland trails. Harry caught Ginny's glance and, with a subtle shake of his head, gestured for her to escort Hermione (whose expression was one of intense suspicion) straight into the house. Ginny gave Harry a furtive thumbs up, said something to Hermione in hushed tones and steered her around toward the front entrance.
Harry turned back to Draco and quickly appraised him. "You look well, Malfoy, Captivity is doing you a world of good."
Draco laughed sardonically but said nothing.
"I never see you around," Harry continued. "You must be keeping a low profile here?"
Draco nodded. "Studying Potter. I have no intention of returning to Hogwarts even if they do catch Dad, Aunt Bella and the rest of the Death Eaters, but that's not going to slow me down. I still fully intend to pass my NEWTs and get started on a real life. If you ever let me, that is."
"Great that you're keeping up with your studies!" Harry's enthusiastic tone gave no hint of having heard Draco's disgruntlement. "If you thought it might help for any of the faculty to come discuss some of the NEWT modules, just let Susan or Daphne know. They'll bring it to my attention and I can make the arrangements."
Draco nodded again noncommittally. Silence descended again. After a while, Draco turned to make his way back into the house but Harry raised his hand to stop him. "Draco?"
"What do you know about the girl who walked up here past you just before Ron's incident? I believe her name's Teri?"
Draco's lip curled into the hint of a smirk. "I'm shocked, Potter. You usually like your ladies a bit..." He cleared his throat. "Older, shall we say?"
Harry didn't stoop to the provocation. "What do you know about her?"
Draco shook his head. "Not much. Nobody does."
"Yes, I realize that," Harry agreed. "All Andromeda could ever tell me is that her name's Teri, that she was living with Old Nott before he was shipped to Azkaban and that she's both smart and smart-mouthed. Your mum doesn't seem to know anything more."
Draco shrugged. "The only person I can think of who might be able to share some interesting speculation is Rose Parkinson. I can't vouch for the accuracy of anything she might choose to tell you, but in my experience she keeps dirt of varying degrees of earthiness on just about every witch, wizard or squib in Britain."
"What about you, Draco? You lived your life in those circles and took a more active operational interest in things than your mum — surely you know things about the girl that I don't."
Draco raised a bemused eyebrow at Harry's veiled insinuation, but made no effort to deny it. He pursed his lips. "Maybe I know one other minor detail."
"Which is?" Harry pried.
"I know her real name," Draco replied evenly.
"Which is?" Harry persisted, with a hint of trepidation.
Draco went silent for a while, gazing toward the west where some glimmers of sunset were starting to assemble among the cloud cover. "What's in it for me if I tell you?"
Harry rounded on him; impatience finally flaring. "How about I continue to pay your room and board like I have for the last three months? How about I continue to protect your hide from all your charming family friends who'd like nothing better that to fill it full of holes? Is that of sufficient value to you, Draco?"
Draco almost blinked. He didn't reply immediately, but after a moment he met Harry's gaze directly. "Promise me you won't hold the girl's name against her, Potter?"
"Of course not!" Harry bristled. "She's nine years old, Malfoy — the world still owes her a clean slate and no prejudice!"
Draco studied Harry intently for a moment then turned away to face the sunset again. "Her name is Asteria Lestrange."
At Hogwarts, Ginny rarely greeted Sunday morning with fond anticipation. For busy non-teaching staff members like herself, Sundays generally seemed to hold the same sort of frantic chaos as any other day. At Magpie Lane, however, things were completely different! Every Sunday morning was an event to be savoured... slowly... deliciously. Ginny had learned that she should keep her foot on the brake pedal... take an extra few minutes to cool down and stretch after their run... linger a little longer than necessary in the shower... actually primp for a moment in front of a mirror... choose the third top out of the drawer, rather than the first. In other words, for Magpie Sundays, she had learned to stop and smell the roses.
In fact, there actually were roses to smell here every Sunday morning. They always made their appearance magically on her dresser sometime while she was in the shower. She had never asked where they came from and Harry had never explained. Some mysteries were best left as precisely that — delightfully mysterious. Avoiding the thorns, Ginny laid her fingers on one of the deep burgundy blooms and leaned in for a fragrant whiff.
What she smelled, above all else, was bacon.
And bangers, and mushrooms, and broiled tomatoes, and crisped potato wedges!
Yes, roses were a sweet little gesture, but the real reason why Ginny lingered just a little longer than necessary over everything on Magpie Sundays was that with every passing minute in which she left the master of the kitchen to his unfettered devices, the best Full English Breakfast in all of Kent got steadily better, fuller... and more utterly, agonizingly tantalising.
Of course, Ginny couldn't hold out forever. Being foremost a Weasley, there always came a point when the aromas became simply too overpowering. Passing the mirror in the hallway, she forced herself to spend a final few seconds practicing her 'Harry James Potter, I am going to jump you when you least expect it ' smile, then made her way jauntily to the kitchen.
Harry turned to her and offered his best 'Good morning Ginny; for some reason you usually seem to like this smile ' smile.
Ginny responded with the look that always made Harry drop things.
Spatula and fork clattered onto the kitchen floor as their lips collided. Sparks flew, breath grew ragged. Emerald was fully engaged in chasing wayward cutlery and paid them no heed...
Abruptly Ginny pulled back, gasping. "Sorry," she apologized; her smile caught somewhere between mischief and reticence. "No oral sports on an empty stomach — it could get very dangerous."
Harry gave her a wicked grin as he pulled a chair out for her. Within seconds, she was facing a fully loaded plate, a ridiculous array of delectable condiments from all across the old Empire, and the choice of pumpkin, star-fruit and mango juices.
"So what's on our Sunday agenda?" Harry asked as he slid his own plate onto the table and settled into his chair. "Is everyone meeting for supper tonight at the Burrow?"
"Actually no. Mum would like to host New Year's Eve instead, if that's okay with you?" Ginny replied. "Percy and Audrey will not be there, but Bill and Fleur are returning from France on the thirtieth, and Charlie will be in Devon by mid-morning on the thirty first."
"That's fine — it will be worth the wait to see Charlie, Bill and Fleur again. But more than anything... wellll... those few days might give Ron a chance to cool down." Harry smiled sheepishly. "If I made an appearance there today, my only real question is whether your brother would break my jaw before tea, or wait until after dessert."
"Honestly Harry, I'm appalled that you would think brother Ronald would hurt you," Ginny teased. "After all, his right arm is still in a sling and he couldn't punch his way out of a snidget egg with his left."
"Thank you for the reassurances, dear." Harry smirked, pouring himself a glass of star-fruit juice.
Ginny sighed deeply and smiled in commiseration. "No, to be honest, Ron is annoyed that you saved his life again, irritated that you didn't save his life efficiently enough to spare him a broken arm, and peeved that you engineered his corporeal peril in the first place by deliberately exposing him to a cohort of sinister, demented children," Ginny explained. "Oh, and he was beyond livid to learn that you didn't hex Malfoy into a pile of quivering blond sludge."
Harry sputtered his juice.
"Was that a laugh or a sob?" Ginny's look of concern overtook her previously impish expression.
Harry smiled awkwardly as he dabbed his face with a napkin. "I don't honestly know. A bit of both, maybe?"
Ginny reached over and stroked his hand. "Just put it out of your sweet little mind, okay? Ron will be fine. In another eight to ten weeks, he will gruntingly accept your apology and he'll be absolute bestest mateys with you forever and anon... until the next perceived slight." Ginny squeezed his hand tightly, and pour warmth into him through her eyes for a moment before returning her attention to breakfast.
"Thank you Gin'." Harry flashed her a grateful grin. "And thanks also for taking him home last night."
"No problem — only doing my sisterly duty." Ginny looked the juices over for a moment and opted for mango. "Besides I knew you needed to spend a little extra time with the children. Are they okay?"
"They were a bit shaken up. A few of the younger ones were crying, but some of the others had already stepped up to comfort them — even before I got to library." Harry gazed reminiscently through the window. "Anyway, I went up there with the goal of shifting gears so that not too many of them end up with nightmares over it. I stood in the center of the old Persian rug and started to speak and... you know, it was actually kind of sweet..." He trailed off.
"Tell me!" Ginny grabbed his hand again, looking into his eyes.
"I started to talk in my ordinary, every day voice... just like I am now... and each one of them immediately keyed in on me and, I swear, within thirty seconds all of the children were sitting cross-legged in a quiet, attentive semi-circle around me."
"How darling! You've finally found your calling — Harry Potter; primary school teacher !" Ginny grinned broadly. "So what did you talk about?"
"Not much, really," Harry recounted. "I told them that because everyone acted quickly and responsibly, Ron would come off just fine. I specifically cited the Mulciber boy..."
Harry nodded. "Correct. I cited Troy for doing exactly what was asked of him as quickly as possible. Then I told the rest of them that by sticking together and being completely quiet when Mrs. 'Dromeda was checking Ron, it helped us figure out exactly what needed to be done, and that they should be proud of themselves for being calm, responsible and helpful. After a few minutes there were no more tears, and several quiet smiles were starting to break out." Harry paused a moment to savour a tender mushroom. "You know Gin', for all they've been through, I'd say that they're actually turning out to be fairly good kids."
"I believe you're right." A faint thoughtful crease ran along Ginny's forehead. "It still depends a bit on one's perspective. Mummy Daphne practically coos whenever anyone mentions them. Neville and Luna both spoke glowingly of them. Hagrid and Tonks had no complaints. Ryan grumbled that they were undisciplined, but Mary-Jo clarified that Ryan says that about nearly everyone at Hogwarts too. Same story with Susan — she grouses about them quite a bit at times, but I wouldn't put it past her to complain about how noisy and disruptive Madame Pince can be..."
"Anyway, it all averages out to a pretty favourable rating. So, I guess where I'm confused..." Ginny took a drink of juice, then tapped the glass distractedly. "I guess I'm still trying to figure out what could have set Ron off so badly?"
Harry pensively cut his food into bite-sized pieces for a minute. "Do you want my simple, boring opinion," he replied finally, "or would you like some half-cocked, misinformed speculation?"
Ginny grinned wickedly. "I'm in love with Harry Potter — of course I want half-cocked, misinformed speculation!"
"In was afraid you'd say that." Harry sighed. "Okay, let's say I give you both. The simple boring answer is that Ron was behaving erratically, got grouchy and defensive because his demonstrations were all bollixed, then he went a bit haywire. He took his frustration out first on the students by yelling at them, but then ultimately sabotaged himself by stomping off to try an idiotic stunt that he didn't have either the broom or the skill to accomplish..."
"Fair enough," Ginny shrugged. "Almost everybody I know who's not named Ron Weasley would believe that story. But your own counterargument is...?"
Harry fidgeted uncomfortably. "I don't want to blame anyone... and I don't know exactly what I would be blaming anyone for doing anyway, but..." He trailed off, absentmindedly toying with his spoon.
"This is something about Teri?" Ginny surmised with a pointed glance across the table.
Harry's eyebrows shot up. "You never miss a trick, do you? No wonder Kingsley never shuts up about you."
Harry steepled his fingers thoughtfully. "I don't know what to make of her, Gin'. She's a plucky little underdog and that really makes me root for her. But then she's so jaded, it makes me ache; I wish I could throw an arm around her and say, 'Things aren't really so bad, kid — just give life a chance.' She looks out for the younger children, even though most of them don't exactly like her, but..."
"But she keeps you off balance?" Ginny's gaze flitted around his face, watching more than listening.
"Yeah, that's it." Harry nodded. "How did you guess? Do she catch you off the hop too?"
Ginny shook her head. "No, I haven't exchanged two words with the girl. I'm just feeding off your anxiety."
Harry smiled in resignation. Of course Ginny would be able to read him — she knew him far too well.
"So I guess maybe she's just a bit of a lightning rod, or something?" Harry passed Ginny the toast and condiments, then began carving one of his bangers. "A lot of the kids were joking around at Ron's expense... I didn't think that any guff Teri might have been giving him was as snide what several of the boys were dishing... but for some reason Ron singled her out and ripped into her..." Harry cringed slightly at the memory. "So of course she did just what she does best, which is to not back down. I suppose that might have been enough to rattle him..."
"But...?" Ginny pursued.
"This doesn't rationally explain how Ron could have gone so berserk as to attempt an Escrick feint."
"What??!" Ginny exploded. "Nobody told me he tried the Escrick!"
"Blooming idiot!" Ginny seethed, shaking her head vigourously. "I figured maybe he just goofed up something like the Kinsgbury swerve again. It was bad enough with the twins having to pull him out of the apple tree last summer after a basic move like that, but the Escrick?!"
"My thoughts exactly," Harry agreed. "Anyway, the final twist is wondering how on Earth he could have fallen off the broom? The Escrick should always jam you right down into the broomstick... if you're off by an inch it can squeeze, er, some body parts, rather unpleasantly, and you might crash into a hedge while you're blinded with agony. But if he had even the slightest clue about the motion sequence he should have stayed locked onto the broom."
"Right!" Ginny thrust her finger in the air. "The pros rely on it in bad weather for precisely those reasons, right? Ron should know all that!"
"Bingo." Harry waved his fork in agreement. "So, with the caveat that I turned my back at precisely the wrong moment and didn't see him come loose, my guess is that for some reason Ron didn't have the faintest clue what he was doing when he supposedly went to attempt the feint."
"Momentary lapse of reason?" Ginny surmised.
"Teri lapse of reason?" Ginny eyed him closely again.
Harry shrugged again, but this time with a vaguely awkward air. "Okay look, the last thing the girl needs is for people to start blaming things on her as if she was a poltergeist of something but, er, well, some people seem get a bit..." Harry paused for a moment, uncertain exactly how much he was prepared to share. "Some people seem to get befuddled around her..."
Ginny closed one eye as she savoured a potato wedge. "Accidental wandless magic, perhaps?"
"Perhaps, though I kind of doubt it," Harry replied.
"I hope not." Harry frowned uncomfortably.
"Who is this girl, Harry?" Ginny asked. "Who is she really?"
Harry paused for a long moment, staring at his fork. "Malfoy says her real name is Asteria Lestrange."
A long, tense moment hung between them as Ginny gawked at Harry. "Wow! You don't think...??"
"I don't know what to think, Gin'." Harry released a slow, taut breath. "Rastaban, Rodolphus and Bellatrix were all in Azkaban long before, during and long after Teri's presumed date of birth so I can't see how any of them could have conceived her. And there are no other known Lestranges in Britain."
"Maybe she's from the Normandy line?" Ginny suggested. "That's where the Lestrange family originated."
"Maybe." Harry rubbed his chin. "So she could have been abandoned on this side of the channel for reasons completely independent of Bellatrix and the two brothers. I suppose that might explain why nobody around here seems to know anything about her."
"Right." Ginny nodded. "So basically her parentage is a mystery for the time being. And for all we know I was just leading you down a cul-de-sac with that question anyway. Whatever difficulty Ron and you have been having with the girl may be uniquely related to who she is, irrespective of her family."
Harry shrugged again, noncommittally.
"What do you know about her magic, Harry?"
"She's definitely precocious," Harry replied. "Her aura has a refined power that I'd normally not expect to find in Hogwarts students before third year."
Ginny' eyes narrowed. "Thus begging my earlier question about accidental wandless magic?"
Harry shook his head. "I still don't think she did anything to accidentally make Ron act like a git or fall off his broom. Andromeda, Daphne and Susan file reports on all accidental magic and Teri hasn't been implicated in anything so far."
"Ah." Ginny pursed her lips. "But if she was truly precocious she might be doing intentional wandless magic. They might not notice that."
"True," Harry admitted, "but I, personally, would have been able to detect any spell powerful enough to confund Ron or knock him off his broom."
"Maybe she blocked you with Occlumency?" Ginny suggested.
"Merlin, Gin'!" Harry laughed incredulously. "She's only nine years old — the only person I've ever met who might have had precocious pre-Hogwarts powers like that was Tom Riddle."
"I know one other person who probably could have done all that if he hadn't been subjected to years of humiliation and intimidation by magic-hating Muggles." Ginny directed a sly glance at her fiancé.
"Oh? And who is that?" For some reason, Harry's tone seemed just a little worried.
"Harry Potter," Ginny replied.