Chapter 4. Tears in the Dark (Jan. 2-3, 1998)
"Are you out of your bleeding coconut tree, Potter?!" Pansy Parkinson demanded indelicately as she barged into Harry's office brandishing a scroll.
Harry looked up from his lesson plan and blinked. "Er yes, I assume so." He pushed aside the plate left from his working lunch and cocked an eyebrow at the seventh year. "Otherwise, I'm sure you'd never have felt the need to ask."
Standing just inside the office door, Pansy smirked and beckoned to him with a long, sharp, slightly dangerous-looking index finger.
Harry blinked again, twice, before he understood that she was serious. With all due awkwardness, he rose from his desk and approached the Slytherin girl who was now standing with her arms wide open. They embraced. What would have been absolutely unthinkable a few months ago was now merely... uncomfortable... a bit morbidly amusing, perhaps.
"Happy new year, pathetic Gryffindork," she declared in a rare display of Parkinsonian affection.
"Is that any way to speak to your associate head-of-house?" Harry asked, smirking a bit as he gently attempted to extricate himself.
"I'm no simpering Daphne Greengrass." She pushed him away and smoothed the arms of her cloak. "As senior prefect, I feel the arduous responsibility of trying to keep your chronically swollen ego from bloating beyond galactic proportions."
"Much obliged." Harry rolled his eyes as he took his seat and gestured Pansy toward one of the unoccupied chairs. "So you're in here consuming my oxygen for a reason? I believe it had something to do with my questionable sanity?"
Pansy grinned. "Right!" She flicked her scroll demonstratively in the air again. "What the Hell possessed you to make an appointment with my dear, sweet and utterly discreet mother?"
"Ah." Harry nodded comprehendingly. "I need information?"
Harry sat back, folding his hands. "Er, I'm afraid that needs to remain kind of... private."
Pansy burst into riotous laughter. "Harry," she said pityingly as she recovered her equilibrium, "have you ever stopped to appreciate the irony of planning a conversation with my mother on some topic you consider to be too private to share with me?"
Harry stared at her unblinkingly. The girl had a point.
"So here's the thing..." Pansy swept her wand out to slam the office door shut, "I really sincerely appreciate what you did for Ted over Christmas break and, frankly, I owed you a little even before that. I also know that when Harry ' Save-The-Bloody-World -Every-Morning-Before-Breakfast -And-Twice-On-Tuesdays' Potter is trying to keep a secret, he probably has some legitimate reason for doing so. If you bring me along, I might be able to keep Mum in line for you. If you don't have anyone in that room sticking up for you, you're better off just blabbing the whole thing to Rita Skeeter."
"Better off...??" Harry mused incredulously.
"Better off!" Pansy snapped, leaning in over Harry's desk. "Everyone who reads Skeeter knows that every second sentence is a lie. By contrast, everyone who pays for dirt from my Mum knows that she stakes her reputation on being as unpleasantly and unconscionably accurate as possible."
"Okay." Harry nodded very slowly. "And in exchange for your protection services...?"
"In exchange for my services, we'll call ourselves even. No wizarding debts."
Harry pushed back from his desk and gazed at his bookshelf. Pansy also sat back, casually twiddling her wand. After a moment's silence, she abruptly stood up and tossed the scroll on Harry's desk. "If you want me to go, you'll need to sign this special 'student travel dispensation' form. Think about it, Potter," she said as she moved to the door. "Go consult your copper-top conscience. I'll loiter around the Entrance Hall for a while this afternoon, shortly before 3:00 p.m. If I don't see you, then you're accountable for your own fate."
Pansy whipped the office door open with a flick of her wand and strode through it without looking back.
Harry tapped the arm of his chair thoughtfully for a moment, nodded, then went back to work.
"So is my copper-top conscience all set to go?" Harry stood by the door of their chambers holding up their traveling cloaks.
"You are swimming very very dangerous, shark-infested waters with language like that, Harry James Potter." With a predatorial gleam in her eyes, Ginny accepted her cloak. "Yes, I'm ready."
"Great!" Harry proclaimed, "I was... eihhhooo!!" he twitched spasmodically as a split second of the Rictumsempra tickling jinx raced up and down his rib cage.
"I didn't say exactly what I was ready for." Ginny offered a peppery smile.
"Fair enough!" Harry kissed the tip of her nose. "Let's go find the lady Parkinson. The younger, arguably less evil one, that is."
They hurried along the corridor and down the grand staircase where, on reaching the second floor landing, they did indeed see Pansy. She glanced up quickly to establish eye contact. Without waiting for them, she turned and strode directly out the front door. By the time they reached the front steps, they could just make out her form disappearing through the misty gloom near the main gate.
"The girl's picked up some subterfuge habits," Ginny noted.
Harry nodded. "I'm not certain if that's for her benefit or for ours, but it can't hurt."
"Yes, I'm wondering..." Ginny's statement hung for a long thoughtful moment as they hurried through the mist. "I'm wondering if some of the darker elements in society are starting to hedge their bets a bit again? Just in case Lestrange is able to rise to a Riddle level of menace?"
"It's quite possible." Harry stopped to point out Pansy's retreating form. "But with no Fudge or Dumbledore gumming up the works this time, just maybe we'll nip it in the bud regardless, right?"
"Right!" Ginny agreed.
As they hurried along through the fog, Harry couldn't help but think that for all the golden peace they'd experienced this autumn, there was actually something quite fun about rushing back into mysterious circumstances with Ginny at his side.
They were a third of the way to Hogsmeade and were worried that they might have actually lost Pansy in the heavy mist when suddenly they heard a loud "Pssstt!" emanate from behind their favorite Apparition tree. They swung quickly off of the right and found Pansy waiting for them, dripping slightly in the drizzle. She looked at the two of them curiously for a moment. "I know where we're going — did you want to side-along Apparate?"
Harry nodded. "Sure, that's fine with me."
Pansy glanced at the pair. "So which of you two will want to go first then?"
"All three of us can go at the same time," Harry suggested. "If you're holding my hand, I can feed enough power to you to make sure all three of us are pulled along."
"Seriously?" Pansy gave him an incredulous look, then shrugged. "Well, if you say so..."
Harry and Ginny each grabbed one of her hands and, with barely a lurch or a whisper, they found themselves standing along a gravel path in a well tended coppice, with filtered sunlight sparkling through the branches. Pansy gaped at the sudden arrival. "Oi Potter — that was smooth!"
"Only way to travel, huh?" Ginny said with a grin. She looked around and spotted a body of water downhill to the northwest. "Where exactly are we?"
"Cornwall." Pansy began moving efficiently up the path. "This is Polgerran Wood to be precise; that's the river Fal down there."
"Cornwall..." Ginny mused, breathing the fresh, almost spring-like air. "That would explain the nice January day, yeah?"
"Oh, we get our fair share of slop too, so don't go buying up neighboring lots," Pansy grumbled.
"Tsk tsk. You'd love us as neighbours." Ginny winked at the older girl. "You and I could go for morning runs down by the coast then mill about on lazy afternoons, sip Sangria in the shade while our children play together in their tree house, and Harry cooks chunks of meat on that smokey, burny thing that Muggles use."
"Will you shut up before I vomit, Weasley?" Pansy requested through clenched teeth. "We're almost there. Try to be surly and condescending — you'll get better treatment that way."
Near the top of the Hill, they emerged onto a well manicured lawn that was still fairly green, as testifies to the mild climate. The gardens had died back but Harry could tell that they would likely be quite scenic by March. The house itself was stately, a bit smaller than Dolwyddelan, but far better maintained. Harry noted that it was much less ostentatious than the Malfoy summer estate, which stood to reason — the Parkinson's held a respectable (if deeply greyish) position in the pureblood hierarchy but (at least until the very recent Malfoy implosion) had not played politics with the same level of aggressive skill as Lucius and his father before him.
Following two steps behind Pansy, Harry furtively brushed Ginny's hand — an unspoken reminder for her to have her Occlumency shields at full strength. Pansy had not provided any information on the sort of information gathering techniques her mother was likely to employ, but Harry strongly suspected Rose Parkinson of being a Legilimens. Harry assumed she was probably a fairly accomplished one, but almost certainly not skilled enough to compromise either his or Ginny's defences. If the woman attempted other ploys then that would presumably be Pansy's responsibility to detect and counteract.
The moment Pansy set foot on the lowest step below the entranceway, the front door opened wide to reveal two ancient house elves (one male, one female) in immaculate blue-white striped dish towels. "Good afternoon, Miss Pansy!" they chimed in their hoarse voices. "Greetings esteemed Potter and gracious Weasley!"
"Where's Mum?" Pansy demanded brusquely, ignoring startled expressions that the two elves had acquired after Harry and Ginny smiled at them.
"In the arboretum, Miss Pansy!" the female squawked distractedly as the male rushed around to magically take everyone's cloaks. "Tea is awaiting you all. I will lead the way immediately!"
"Thank you." Harry smiled off-handedly, his tact again catching the elves off-guard, and earning a glare of rebuke from Pansy.
"Surly and condescending!" she hissed under her breath.
Pansy's mother had her back turned as they entered the arboretum. The room, unsurprisingly, was filled with numerous varieties of roses, and she was admiring some of the large, burgundy specimens near the south window.
The house elves gestured toward a glass table set elegantly for three but, following Pansy's example, Harry and Ginny remained standing at the entrance. After the older lady flitted obliviously past a few more flowers, she casually removed her gloves, threw them aside where they were scooped by one of the elves, and turned to face her visitors. "Well met Mr. Potter and Miss Weasley, Would you be so kind as to join me in tea?"
Rose's expression, a plastic smile, faltered for a moment as she noticed Pansy. "I see that for some reason you are accompanied by my darling daughter who has apparently managed to arrange a bit of time away from that most enlightened school up north. I assume, seeing that's she's helpfully accompanied you to your destination, that she will bid us all farewell. Now, perhaps?" Rose raised a pointed eyebrow toward her daughter.
Startling Pansy by placing a hand on her forearm, Harry shook his head. "On the contrary, we were very much hoping that she could stay. Pansy, Ginny and I have been very eager to catch up with each other after the break." Sealing his lie with a casual smile, he took a seat. "I persuaded her to come along so that the three of us could share some of her childhood memories in this charming place of yours."
Pansy gaped at Harry's audacity. Attempting to bluff her mother like that was the surest route to completely queering the whole deal before they even got started.
For her part, Rose blinked in momentary surprise. She scrutinized her guests for a moment, but neither Harry (withdrawing a parchment and quill from his jacket pocket) nor Ginny (absent-mindedly wandering among the roses, sniffing the occasional bloom) paid her suspicion the slightest concern. The skin on the back of Harry's neck prickled momentarily as the expected Legilimency probe came and went without the slightest trace of success.
Slightly disconcerted, but obviously still capable of facade, the matron smiled. "But of course you three would be close after the adventures you've been through together. I trust..." Rose glared furtively at Pansy, who was doing her best to stifle utter bafflement at her mother's accommodating attitude. "I trust that Pansy will not interfere with our discussion."
"On the contrary," Harry replied as he scribbled something or other on his parchment, "I expect that Pansy would be a most welcome addition."
"I suppose she may." Rose glowered with ill-disguised dubiety; paying no heed as the female house elf quickly set a fourth place at the table. "So your note indicated that you desired an audience for the purposes of some research?"
"Quite so," Harry said, looking up from his parchment. He retrieved a small photograph from his pocket and handed it to Rose. "Do you know anything of the family and lineage of this girl?"
Rose glanced at the photograph. Harry detected the slightest flicker of intrigue, but the woman projected an air of passive disinterest as she handed the picture back. "I know a bit and suspect some more," she answered. "What's your interest in the child?"
"She's a current resident at our home for children and families displaced by the recent conflict." Harry put the photo into a folder which he shrunk and placed into his short pocket. "Theodore Nott Sr. had been her guardian prior to his arrest, but beyond that we have no record of next-of-kin. British wizarding law requires that anyone serving as personal or institutional guardian of a child must attempt with due diligence to maintain some record of the child's blood kinship."
"And what are you offering in return for such knowledge?" Rose inquired blandly as she sipped her tea.
Returning his attention to his note taking, Harry made a dismissive hand gesture. "We can pay you well."
"Oh, I imagine you can, Mr. Potter." Rose sniffed. "But we are not Malfoys in the constant pursuit of Galleons. I was hoping you might propose something a little more... intellectually stimulating." The matron reached for a bowl of artfully sculpted florettes of coloured sugar and pushed them suggestively toward Harry.
Pansy's hand darted out and seized the bowl. "Harry is on a diet, Mother!" she snapped as she stood and carried the bowl over to a tray near the door. "He's not here to be fattened up like a Christmas goose."
Rose scowled for a moment then turned her gaze more neutrally back to Harry, quickly appraising his trim and well sculpted physique. "Please pardon my over-zealous daughter. As a little girl, she was once versed in tact. There are times, even now, when she's capable of being vaguely tolerable."
Making a mental note to later ask Pansy about the sugar, Harry took a sip of tea without comment (or sweetener), then met the witch's intense gaze. "You desire information, Mrs. Parkinson? Like the fact that my favourite food is treacle tart? That I have a certain affinity for auburn hair when it gleams in the sunlight? Or in the moonlight for that matter?" He paused to reflect for a moment. "It's also been known to stir my soul in the grey Highland mists..."
Harry smirked slightly at the sound of a distinctly red-headed snort emanating from behind a lush specimen of Gallicanae.
Rose laughed too, albeit with obvious scorn. She stood and walked over to a small shelf by the entrance on which several books and scrolls were piled. Most of the material, as Harry had noticed earlier, was related to gardening, but the woman pulled from the stack a glossy, hardcover book. "I am not interested in any drivel that might be propagated in useless publications such as this," she informed him, as she slid the book carelessly across the glass table toward Harry, who recoiled in disdain.
Emblazoned on the cover of the greyish book in lime green lettering were the words:
Not deigning to touch it, Harry draped a napkin over the scowling picture of himself and magically nudged the book to the far corner of the table. "I appreciate your discriminating sensibilities, Mrs. Parkinson." With no trace of amusement in his face, he turned back to Rose. "Without having ever so much as laid eyes on this book before, I'll boldly predict that even within the portion of the text that is not completely spurious, there is nothing of practical interest. Nobody I consider to be a friend ever assented to an interview for the book, and I keep many aspects of my live rather private for reasons of my own concern." Harry finished his cup of tea and paused to pour himself another (drawing a gasp and sad keening sound from one of the house elves who had hoped to pour it for him) before continuing. "So, I think we both know the sort of misinformation that Skeeter traffics in, and the misuse to which she puts it. I'd be curious to know what types of knowledge you seek, and what might be done with that... power?"
Rose returned the sharp smile of someone who, despite having had to shelve her Legilimency, was beginning to enjoy aspects of this sparring negotiation. "I have already acquired a few tidbits that I will enter into your account balance," she indicated with a sly smile. "Chief of which is that your reticent public demeanour is not indicative of congenital shyness, but rather from a combination of prudence, paranoia and a rogue's disrespect for the common press. You are rather skilled, it seems, at hiding facts that could prove awkward to you or your friends, and are even better at weaving subtle smoke screens."
Overhearing the analysis, Ginny's hackles went up. All throughout her seemingly distracted floral browsing, she had been paying extremely close attention to the elder Parkinson's every word and intonation — a useful aural complement to Harry's visual record should they feel the need to revisit this meeting later in their pensieve. After hearing the woman strike disconcertingly close to home, Ginny decided to shift tactics. It was time to move beyond simply observation, forget using subtle evasions and distractions around their unplasantly perceptive host, and try something a bit flashier. Ginny removed her thick beige jumper to reveal a form-fitting, sky-blue silk chemise. She loosened her hair and added a subtle scent charm. Aggressive alluring women, she knew all too well, were often even more distracting (and threatening) to other females than they were to men.
Emerging from behind a row of Chinensis, she drifted across the room in her best Fleur Delacour imitation and swept into her seat with a glistening smile. In what she knew full well to be an appalling breach of etiquette, she reached over and grasped Rose's hand. "Don't worry dear," she said in a condescending tone that made Pansy's eyes pop. "Yes, we're looking for information from you, and no, we will not offer you a whole lot of delectable intelligence before we leave here today, but I promise you that we'll definitely make this visit very much worth your while."
Rose stared for a moment at the hand that had enclosed her own, gaped at the opulent Potter family engagement ring that sparkled in the filtered afternoon sunlight, and tried very hard to not look at the shimmering chemise that made her own lace shawl seem so... matronly. "Er, yes? Such as?" She awkwardly freed her self-conscious hand to reach for some tea that would hopefully loosen her suddenly constricted throat.
Hiding behind his own raised teacup, Harry gazed at the two females with an arched brow. Ginny was completely on her own here, and Harry wasn't even trying to speculate as to her plan. Rather, he was quite content to sit back and watch what likely promised to be rather entertaining improvisation.
"Because you've proven discerning enough to disregard such unauthourised filth..." Ginny gestured at the napkin beneath which lurked the Skeeter book. "... We are prepared to offer you exclusive and unfettered access to all drafts and notes pertaining to the authourised Harry Potter biography."
Rose choked into her tea. Pansy stared in disbelief.
"Beginning twelve months prior to the book's scheduled date of release," Ginny concluded.
"Bogward!" Rose glanced toward the door, through which the old male house elf scurried. "Please prepare a contract capturing Ms. Weasley's stipulation," she instructed hastily, as if the offer might suddenly disappear. She turned to Harry. "In return, I will offer you the extent of my knowledge regarding the child you inquired about, correct?"
Expressionlessly, Harry met Rose's gaze and nodded. The house elf immediately bowed low and scurried out of the room. Ginny sat back, and re-engaged her left hand, this time to absent-mindedly stroke Harry's forearm.
Ignoring the subtle display of distracting affection, Rose got to her feet and began pacing. "The girl goes by Teri Nott, but her real name is Asteria Lestrange," the woman stated, immediately capturing the room's attention. "Her first name is from ancient Greek magical heritage; a tribute to the Titan Asteria — oracle of the night; weaver of prophetic dreams and guarantor of astrological outcomes. Her last name almost certainly derives from her long-time guardian, Roland Lestrange."
Harry' brow arched. "Who?"
"Roland Lestrange," Rose repeated, clearly emphasizing a silent 'd' French pronunciation for the first name, and the long drawn 'aww' syllable in the last name. "Close school friend of He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named; inaugural death eater; father of Rastaban and Rodolphus."
"The he likely would have started Hogwarts in the late 1930's." Harry did a quick calculation on his parchment. "So that would put him in his late sixties or early seventies?"
"Yes," Rose confirmed, "he would have been seventy three now if he was still alive, but he was murdered nearly two years ago, several days after the mass Azkaban breakout. That is when Asteria's custody was transferred to Theodore Nott."
"Transferred to Nott, rather than to Rastaban or Rodolphus?" Harry inquired. "Or Bellatrix, for that matter?"
Rose shrugged. "None of those three you mentioned ever had much use for children. I'm sure you'll find that rather shocking to hear," she added with a tight-lipped smile.
"Roland Lestrange himself wasn't in Azkaban?" Ginny asked.
Rose shook her head. "No, he never committed any crime that was prosecuted or proven. Make no mistake, Ms. Weasley — he was as black as they come and was considered by some to be a greater dark arts genius than He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named, though only in a theoretical sense. He never demonstrated the sheer magical prowess of the Dark Lord, but he did know secrets that no sane human being could ever know."
"No sane human being...?" Harry frowned.
"Precisely the point," Rose interjected. "He spent much of his sixth year in school buried in some of the most abhorrent old tomes that few others would touch. By his seventh year, he was exhibiting such psychosis that Headmaster Dippet was forced to expel him from Hogwarts. The school greatly tightened security on what we call the Restricted Section' and removed the worst books, but by then the damage was done. Within that library, the Dark Lord seeming much knowledge that he would use in his campaigns, and Lestrange lost his capacity to function in normal society. He disappeared from Britain for decades, and wasn't known to have participated in the Wizarding Wars."
"Someone that insane became a little girl's guardian?" Harry inquired. "Do you have any idea why?"
"We're straying from what I know, Mr. Potter." Rose stopped pacing. "It could damage my professional reputation to engage in mere speculation."
"One hundred galleons per speculative answer, and we promise not to tell anyone if you're proven wrong?" Harry proposed.
"Associate head of Slytherin house, eh?" Rose smiled wryly. "Bogward, please record Mr. Potter's offer as an addendum to the contract and tally the number of questions answered."
The house elf reappeared with quill and parchment in hand. He rapidly completed several scrawls and circulated the contract for signatures. Harry and Ginny scanned it visually and magically to ensure that it was no more and no less than expected, then signed to certify the document.
Meanwhile, the Parkinson matron had resumed pacing. "The most likely scenario would be that Roland was the girl's legal grandfather."
"Via Rodolphus and Bellatrix?" Harry asked. "Despite the fact that both were supposedly in Azkaban prior to, during, and well after the girl's conception?"
Rose shook her head. "No, Rodolphus was not the girl's father. Neither of Roland's sons had the... equipment... necessary for procreation."
Harry shuddered and resolved that it was not worth paying one hundred galleons for elaboration on that point. He did, however, have a more critical question. "If I understand Wizarding law correctly in the matter of witches becoming legally bound to their family of marriage, I would conclude that Roland would be Teri's legal grandfather if she was considered to be Bellatrix's daughter." He sat back and gazed diffusely toward the some of the deepest crimson flours. "This would be true regardless of whether or not the girl was legitimate?"
"Confirmed." Rose nodded. "I have no proof, but the whispered conclusion from my sources was that Asteria was indeed Bellatrix Lestrange's illegitimate daughter. As far as your earlier query about conception in Azkaban, I have no speculation worth offering, except to say that stranger things have been known to happen."
"One final question," Harry announced.
"Yes?" Rose responded, turning expectantly to face him.
"Can you offer your thoughts on the identity of the biological father?"
"I can, yes," she replied without showing any interest in elaborating.
"Let me be more explicit," Harry stated with a slight note of impatience in his voice. "Please do offer your thoughts on the identity of the biological father."
"I have three speculations, for a total charge of 300 Galleons," the woman offered.
Harry rolled his eyes. "Fair enough. Please proceed."
"The first possibility," Rose began, "is that Roland himself somehow found a way to couple with his incarcerated daughter-in-law, in which case the girl was both his legal grand-daughter and his own illegitimate daughter."
"Charming." Ginny cringed.
"Arguing for the first prospect is the fact that Roland would have been one of very few people with the legal capacity to visit Bellatrix in Azkaban at the time of conception. As Bellatrix's step-father and as a wizard without a criminal record, he could have successfully petitioned for a visit. Perhaps he may have had some bizarre or twisted reason for arranging or forcing an illegitimate union. The counter-argument, however, is that the girl's magical signature bears little resemblance to Roland's."
Harry nodded grimly while Ginny sat quietly; a frown on her somewhat pallid face.
"The second prospect is based on what is known of the girl's precocious and rather unusual magical profile," Rose's tone dropped to little more than a whisper. She turned obliquely, and Harry and Ginny had to strain to hear her words. "I have no proof whatsoever, but some strange form of dark magic might have been employed to establish an offspring between Bellatrix and... He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named."
"Eugh," Harry gasped. "After hearing that, I'm not certain I want to know the third option."
"You're already contractually obliged to pay for it," Rose reminded him.
"Yes, that's true." Harry straightened in his chair; marshaling his features. "So, who is it then?"
"Based on physical similarities, and the conjunction of rare magical abilities as determined by magical profiling performed by myself and several other people whom I shall not name, and disregarding inconvenient discrepancies such as relative ages of parent and child, I would propose..." The woman paused, gazing expressionlessly toward an open window.
"Yes?" Ginny prompted.
Rose Parkinson slowly turned to face Harry. "I would propose that a strong candidate for paternity," she said, fixing his gaze, "is sitting right in front of me."
Ginny studied Harry carefully through supper as he negotiated the Interhouse Table banter with his usual soft-spoken humour. He contributed thoughtfully to both sides of a lively debate between Neville Longbottom and Ryan Jenkins regarding the viability of relaxing the Statute of Secrecy. Ryan had argued quite persuasively that Muggle science might soon prove capable of characterizing and understanding the underlying basis for magic, which could then eventually reduce the Muggles' instinctive fear of what was no longer an unknown. Neville, with vast knowledge of Wizarding history, hierarchy and attitudes, but very little grasp of Muggle technology or psychology, eventually left the table unconvinced, but Harry had clearly enjoyed listening to both viewpoints. He also congenially bridged over into the side conversation by Ryan's and Neville's two Hufflepuff girlfriends, Jennifer King and Hannah Abbott respectively, who were chatting light-heartedly about the recent holiday break, content to leave philosophical debates to their opinionated mates.
Despite their earlier reticence about returning to Hogwarts, Harry and Ginny were both happy enough to be back. They found the steady supply of good friends and interesting diversions to be stimulating, and Ginny was particularly glad for some good engaging interactions to keep Harry's mind occupied after Rose Parkinson's shocking intimations. The issue did need to be dealt with, however, so as Harry and Ginny wound their way up the various staircases toward their sixth floor quarters, she captured his hand and leaned into him, asking, "Are you doing okay?"
Harry shrugged. "I guess so, but wow — I pity Teri not having a better pick of possible parents!"
"Tell me about it, yeah?" Ginny laughed slightly, squeezing his arm, but then went quite sombre and thoughtful. "Well, the fact is that strange things do sometimes do happen in the magical world, Harry. Things happen that are stranger than nearly any witch or wizard would ever like to imagine — especially circumstances that revolve around an insane magical genius."
Harry shook his head. "I don't think Roland Lestrange is Teri's father."
Ginny nodded. "Neither do I, but that's not what I meant. Lestrange may not have been her father, but it occurred to me that, somehow in his warped brain, he might have decided he wanted a powerful grandchild."
"Powerful?" Harry paused mid-step and stared at her. "As in 'Riddle' powerful, or 'Potter' powerful? I mean we're both logically impossible choices, but..."
Ginny shrugged. "Actually, she does look a bit like that cute little boy I met all those years ago at Kings Cross."
Harry continued to stare for an indeterminate time, then finally shook his head. "Yes, well Lady Parkinson did say this was all just speculation. There are a number of things that might point to Teri being Bellatrix's daughter, but for all we know she's just the orphaned child of some French wizard and witch we've never heard of." He continued making his way up the stairs. "As far as whether or not Teri resembles me physically or magically, perhaps, but when she was conceived I was an eight year old boy living in a Muggle home — hardly what one would call a natural mate for a psychotic pureblood witch incarcerated in one of the most impenetrable Wizarding prisons in the world."
Ginny nodded silently as she walked at his side.
Harry ran his fingers through his hair. "I do hope the girl isn't Riddle's daughter, though. Not because I'm worried she's inherited any evil instincts, because she hasn't, but it would be a very difficult legacy for anyone to cope with these days." He sighed. "There's not much we can do about it either way, though, so let's just put it all aside for now and not tell anyone about any of this."
"Agreed." She smiled understandingly. "I'm glad you're taking it that way. It seems pretty obvious that the girl's father, whoever that may be, has not played much role in her life, so I doubt he's a factor in any of the strange things happening around her. On the other hand, knowing about a likely, if mystifying, link to Bellatrix is a lot more useful. That may, for example, be yet another explanation for why Bellatrix was snooping around the safe house."
"Exactly." Harry held up the door to the sixth floor corridor, and followed Ginny through it. "Somewhere in there we might even find some tangible clues for sorting out the wacky observations we've been trying to correlate."
Harry paused outside their quarters, leaning beside the door. "I'd like to talk to Teri in a casual, supportive way, and try to get to know her. Since Andromeda has scheduled me to give the children a group story-time tomorrow evening, I'll be heading to Dolwyddelan immediately after supper. Maybe I'll have a chance to catch up with Teri and find out what she wanted to speak to me about yesterday. Then sometime or other, if she and I eventually establish a comfortable rapport, maybe I can try to gauge whether she has any idea who Bellatrix is, whether she ever feels any strange magic flowing around her or through her, and so forth."
"But no Legilimency, right?"
"Right," Harry agreed.
It was almost a matter of course, now, that Harry and Ginny gave each other conscious prompts and reminders about the ethics of using Legilimency. Over the past six months they had both become unusually skilled at it — so proficient that it sometimes required a deliberate effort to turn the power off. As a result, while they had both faulted Dumbledore for indiscriminate use of his Legilimens skills, they could now see things from their former Headmaster's perspective, accepting that he may have frequently scanned minds without really even realising he was doing it.
But that was not a good excuse. Unintentional careless harm was still harm; accidental invasions of privacy were still unjustified if one had the means and discretion to avoid them. And that discretion was possible for Harry and Ginny as long as they remained acutely aware of their powers, and remembered to keep them under control.
Harry let them into their study and they both threw their school robes to the side. With a flick of his hand, Harry lit a fire in the hearth as Ginny went to find some butterbeer. "Did you have a good chat with Pansy before supper?" he asked as he settled onto their chesterfield.
"A pleasure as always," Ginny replied with a smirk and two frothy mugs. "After huffing, and rolling her eyes in various inhuman contortions, she decried our obvious lack of sanity, then admitted that it actually went very well. She's concluded that you drove her mum around the twist, yet somehow made the woman all the happier for it."
"I suppose that would have something to do with exclusive preview privileges to my authourised biography?"
"Perhaps," Ginny agreed as she reclined with her feet resting between Harry's legs.
"Just one question, Gin'?"
"Sure," she replied, delicately wiping a butterbeer moustache from her lip.
"Is there someone actually writing an authorised Harry Potter biography?"
"Of course not, Harry!" she admonished. "However, I assume at some point there will be. Perhaps it will even be completed within Rose's lifetime."
"Good one!" Harry chuckled, and took a drink. "So did Pansy give you a read on how much solid info she thinks her mother still managed to pry from us?"
"Very little that's likely to be damaging," Ginny replied. "Rose got nowhere with Legilimency, as expected, and Pansy intercepted the Veritaserum mimic..."
"Those cute little sugar florettes were spiked?" Harry pursed his lips. "I figured as much — seems to me that Pansy did come in handy after all!"
Ginny nodded. "The only dangling thread is the one that couldn't be prevented. Her mum now knows that we're asking about Teri. I assume there will be some people out there who will find that very interesting."
"Calculated risk," Harry admitted with an uncomfortable shrug. "I'd hate to think that we might have placed Teri at an elevated risk, but let's add some more wards at Dolwyddelan on top of the refurbishing that the Aurors did. That's one safehouse that will now really need to be kept secure — for Teri, for the sake of everyone else living there now, and perhaps other people will need to move in before this whole Lestrange thing is settled."
"We won't have time for warding tomorrow," Ginny mused, "but let's go back out on Sunday, and perhaps bring Lucia Blevins and Laura Madley."
"Ah yes — the ward goddesses." Harry smiled fondly. "If they're free, this would be right up their alley." With left hand still grasping his mug, he engaged his right hand in working the stress out of Ginny's calf muscles.
"Ah, that feels nice — thank you!" She released a ragged breath. "So how did things go with Ted Nott?"
"Strange," Harry replied. "He too claims that he really didn't drink much that evening — which I'm inclined to believe, based on the other parallels with Remus's experience."
Ginny raised an eyebrow. "And the part you don't believe is...?"
"Ted's story of how things fell apart doesn't mesh with reality." Harry frowned at the fire. "He claims that Tracey started a nasty fight with Pansy... a love triangle spat over him, no less. He said that when he went to try to break them up, somebody started throwing things and a brawl erupted. It just doesn't line up with eyewitness accounts at all."
"No, and it doesn't corroborate Pansy's recollection either," Ginny confirmed. "She said that the three of them were having a nice festive evening, when all of a sudden Ted blew up at Tracey, threw a heavy beer stein and clonked some stranger over the crown with it. This stranger apparently stood a full head taller than Nott and, well... shall we say that the man took issue with the unprovoked assault? Apparently Stranger Bloke had a table full of construction wizard friends at his side, while Flint, Bletchley and Derrick were at a table across the room and decided to stand up for a fellow Slytherin. Pretty soon, the whole place was really... swinging."
Harry nodded. "That goes along pretty well with other eyewitness accounts, but I still didn't get the impression that Ted was lying. Confused perhaps, but I'm convinced he had no deliberate intention of misleading me."
"Confused about Tracey, perhaps?" Ginny speculated, catching Harry's eye with an analytical expression.
"Perhaps," Harry agreed. "Even if Pansy didn't seem to think that Tracey did anything to provoke an outburst, something strange and unnatural may still have cause him to imagine irrational things about her."
"Maybe a bit like how Tonks somehow seemed to set off Remus? Like Teri unsettling Ron... and you?" Ginny inquired.
Harry nodded again. "I think you're heading down the same misty path I am. Do you have any idea where this is leading?"
Ginny shook her head. "Not the flimsiest clue."
Harry nodded a third time. He leaned over to kiss Ginny's ankle, and shifted her feet to the side in order to fetch another round of butterbeer.
As the second hour of Quidditch practice wound down, Harry was taking shots at Grant Page over at the west goals, while Ginny, Zabini and Summerby were running the gauntlet against Fred and George near the middle of the pitch.
Fred and George were on a roll. They had purchased top of the line Beater brooms and had, surprisingly, put in several tough practice sessions on their own since receiving the invitation to play on the barnstorming squad. Consequently, their form today was nearly indistinguishable from the stellar play they had brought to the tough Gryffindor teams earlier in the decade. As a result, they were giving the three Chasers fits... and plenty of bruises. Zabini and Summerby were both astonished at the twins' intensity, which far outclassed any of the current Hogwarts Beater corps. Despite this, however, the most frustrated of the Chasers was Ginny.
Ginny had hoped that participating in the weekly interhouse scrimmages all autumn would have kept her sharp. It had certainly worked wonders for honing her flying and passing skills, but the interhouse Beaters had really not provided an adequate challenge, and it had now been more than six months since her last real match — last June's Quidditch Cup final. Thus, although Ginny was indisputably the top Chaser talent at Hogwarts, the fact was that she was a bit rusty. It also didn't help matters that her brothers were extending their little sister the ultimate token of respect — they had held nothing back and were pounding her as hard as they would their very worst enemy.
Zabini had just completed his tenth and final run past the Beaters, this time escaping unscathed, courtesy of a nifty reverse barrel roll that twisted him just past a bludger that skimmed his cloak below the knee.
"Missed!" George called out as he intercepted the wayward bludger with his bat and reeled it in.
Fred nodded. "Five out of ten hits on Coiffure," he announced.
Summerby wasted little time in accelerating toward through the gap for his final attempt. He had already been struck five out of nine times and, in his own quietly competitive way, was hardly about to cede the competition to his best friend and rival. After reaching a brisk cruising speed, Summerby began to bob and weave like a drunkard. Despite the appearance of erratic wobbling that would have given the average spectator motion sickness, Summerby's tactic required impressive strength, control and spinal fortitude. The display did not impress George, however. Tapping the bludger into the air in front of him, he calmly lined his sights on the mid-point of all the Chaser's chaotic oscillations and fired away.
The bludger glanced hard off Summerby's forearm, drawing a sharp hiss from the Chaser as he lurched off course, righted himself, and steered wincingly off to the side.
"Six of ten for the Mute," George called out.
"Sorry mate!" Fred added consolingly.
Summerby forced the grimace off his face and waved him off. "No worries, Thing Two!" he replied with a slightly pained smirk.
Ginny circled slowly off to the south, eyeing her two brothers who were now grinning in anticipation of her final attempt. "Come on, Red," Fred called (for team-building purposes, the twins had adopted Zabini's prescribed nicknames for everyone). "Just get it over with!"
Ginny, who had already been struck six out of nine times, had no intention whatsoever of just getting it over with. She could no longer beat or even tie Zabini for fewest hits (a fact that thoroughly galled her), but she was not particularly interested in finishing dead last either. She took one last lazy swoop...
Then blasted straight at Fred!
Fred gaped at his ferocious sister for a second. He tapped the bludger meekly over to George.
Ginny pulled a gut-wrenching swerve to plot a collision course with her other brother.
"Eep," George proclaimed, and volleyed the bludger quickly back to Fred.
Veering toward Fred at the last possible instant, Ginny's torque was so sharp that it tore away the cord binding her pony tail. Red glistening hair erupted out like a fireball as she locked eyes with her sibling.
Fred wilted. He ducked and bailed, just as the meteorite blazed past...
Yet, from a nearly inverted position, unbeknownst to Ginny, Fred somehow managed to stretch out with his bat and softly connect with the bludger.
In her triumph, Ginny decelerated just a moment too soon. Fred's bludger, with all the force of a wounded sparrow, drifted in and tapped her on the shoulder. She whipped around, far more in surprise than pain, and stared disbelievingly at the impudent ball which was now hovering, almost self-consciously, about six feet away.
Zabini and Summerby winced as the shockwave hit. Fred and George grinned nervously and began to edge away.
From a safe distance, Harry and Grant Page, who had ended their drill a few minutes ago, were looking on with interest.
"Thing One and Thing Two really sizzled today," Page noted, "but there's plenty of Chaser talent up here as well."
"Yes, definitely!" Harry concurred. "And most importantly, I sense everyone's fierce competitive drive starting to kick in. We could actually end up being pretty good."
"Er yes, if everyone survives through to our first match." Page's forehead creased worriedly as he watched the chase scene unfold. Ginny had somehow gotten ahold of a Beater's bat...
Harry laughed. "Don't worry. Weasleys brawl like badgers, but they never actually kill. Or very rarely, anyway..." He grinned, and kicked his broom into gear in order to venture courageously over toward the excitement.
The Apparition point for Dolwyddelan was located in the middle of a beech grove that the DMLE Concealment Team had transplanted near the edge of a meadow above the village. Harry and Ginny found their footing in the spongy ground and pulled their cloaks tightly about themselves to bar the bracing wind sweeping across from the north hills. They strolled up from the copse and turned to gaze momentarily down past the rail line to the Afon Lledr river, glimmering faintly in the last traces of the evening dusk. Beyond that, the street lamps on Bridge Street were sparking up as the village came to life for a Saturday evening. A sudden gust whipped their collars, bringing an end to their reverie. They turned south to put the chill to their backs and make their way up through the shrubs and tall weeds to the trailhead.
At the oakwood stand bordering the meadow they found the telltale string of stones, roughly twenty feet apart, lining their way from the meadow up into the trees, discretely pointing the way to the trail. A minute later, Harry and Ginny were strolling comfortably along a gravel path that wound its way beneath the forest canopy. Both of them could instinctively feel power fluctuations as they crossed the various ward lines, ranging from the powerful Apparition and Portkey wards, to the much subtler Muggle dissuasion field. The very last ward, located just before the manor house came into view, was in place to forcibly limit passage to only those people who were either pre-approved for entry, or those who had been provided with a special ward key. For Ginny, crossing the line produced a jolt perhaps on par with what Muggles might feel from an electric fence, but of course neither she nor Harry were truly hindered in any other way. After a brief involuntary shudder, they suddenly found themselves on the grounds of the old Potter family summer estate, Dolwyddelan Manor.
The house looked particularly stately in the dim light; its deep grey slate was still bedecked by holiday trimmings of pine, lamps lit the large ground floor windows giving the place a homey, welcoming feel. The front grounds looked crisp and trim — a testament to tremendous efforts by the Hogwarts students who had removed tons of scrub and debris from the previously overgrown lawn. After striding the final hundred feet to the front steps, Harry and Ginny were met by Kreacher, who swung the front doors wide for their entry. "Lord Potter and Mistress Weasley," he croaked with a bow.
"Good evening Kreacher." Harry smiled congenially. "Will you be joining us for story time this evening?"
The old house elf gave Harry a calculating look. "If Lord Potter requires my presence, then I should enjoy attending," he answered. "Biscuits and hot refreshments await you and your audience in the Entrance Hall."
"Thank you so much Kreacher!" Ginny beamed happily at the old elf who, having grown accustomed to his atypically friendly masters, merely bowed in return and collected their cloaks as they entered the hall.
They had no sooner stepped past the threshhold into the wide foyer between the two large staircases when a pair of high, shrill voices rang down on them from the balcony above. "Miss Daphne! Mrs. Dromeda!" the two small boys called out. "They've arrived! Mr. Harry and Miss Ginny are finally here!"
Ginny glanced up and waved. Smiling, she recognized Erik Rowle and Rennett Fawkes as the two children she had read to on Christmas night.
The boys' cries seemed to precipitate an avalanche of activity within the upper stairwell leading from the third floor chambers. A flurried noise of excited shouts and clattering feet spilled from a door off the balcony, and within moments there were ten children streaming down the east staircase to swarm Harry and Ginny. "Boys! Girls!" issued the tired but tolerant voice of Andromeda Tonks from on high. "Remember your dignity and respect! Anna, please release Mr. Potter before he topples. Erik, Rennett, Carl — Miss Ginny may give you each a quick hug, but we must allow our guests to come in out of the draughty entranceway."
Accompanying the three eldest (and least hyperkinetic) children down the stairs, Daphne smiled warmly at Harry and Ginny. Taking their hands, she gave Harry a peck on the cheek and pulled Ginny into a half hug. "I'm SOOOO glad you made it!" she enthused gaily. "If I had to listen to one more sweet cherubic voice yelling things like, ' Where's Mr. Harry?! Why is Miss Ginny not here yet?! Shouldn't we floo call them, Miss Daphne? ', I swear that my airy little head would have popped!"
"Sorry." Harry grinned sheepishly. "Practice ran late and we barely had time to wolf down supper."
Ginny laughed. "What Harry is politely not telling you is that he's tired out from having to cast strong contego shield charms on our two Beaters to prevent someone from braining them, and then he had to massage away six deep muscle bludger bruises for his girlfriend."
Daphne arched her eyebrow with a mischievous glint, but suppressed the question on the tip of her tongue. Instead she shook her head. "Quidditch is such a gentle and urbane hobby," she observed dryly, and led them to an open area in front of the crackling hearth.
Leaving Harry seated at a stool in front of the fire, Daphne and Ginny continued off to a pair of arm chairs at the side of the hearth. As the children gathered their mugs of hot chocolate and clustered around Harry, Andromeda dimmed the lamps, creating a dim, cozy, almost dream-like, atmosphere. Smiling contentedly, Harry gazed around at the eager faces. He noticed that, off in discreet, shadowy seclusion, Kreacher had indeed availed himself of his master's invitation and was watching with intrigued attention. Closer by, a circle of ten pairs of eager eyes glittered in the firelight.
Harry's smile wavered for a moment. Once again, all of the children were in eager attendance except Teri.
It was a disappointment to him, but he didn't let himself become subdued by it. He renewed his smile and beamed it around to the attentive audience. "I apologize for being late. Because of that, I think I'd like to start with the story straight away. Are you all fine with that?"
The children nodded. "Yes please, Mr. Harry!"
Anna waved her little hand. "Will it be The Hopping Pot again?"
"Will it be a story about saving a beautiful witch from evil Muggles?" came another voice. Harry recognized the eldest Rowle boy.
"No Anna, no Svengard," Harry replied patiently. "This will be a story about eleven brave children who lived in a castle far far away."
Seeing eyes lighting up in curiosity, Harry smiled inwardly for a moment, then began his story. "One cold day in a winter long ago, the children were all alone in their beautiful castle on a high mountaintop. Their parents had all traveled to a village some miles away in the valley to purchase food and supplies before a winter storm swept in... but the storm raced in hard, and far earlier than anyone had expected, trapping the parents down in the village all night and all the next day. Back at the castle, the children..."
"What are the children's names?" Svengard interrupted, earning himself a stern rebuking glare from Troy Mulciber.
"The children's names were..." Harry paused a moment for his memory to rev up. "The children's names were Svengard, Ange and Erik... Troy and Vicky... Amanda and Carl... Sylvia, Teri, Anna and Rennett!"
He couldn't help grinning at the titters of pleased recognition. Before the audience could get away from him again, however, Harry plunged dramatically onwards, raising his voice and lowering his tone. "The storm swept in cruel and hard!" With a wave of his hand, magical snowflakes danced and swirled in the air above the children, sparkling in the firelight to the delight of his young audience. "With the adults all taking shelter in the last remaining room in the village inn, the children could do nothing but wait patiently in the castle, and hope that this was just a bad winter storm and not... a djävulens storm!"
With a flourish of his hand, the fire suddenly vanished and was replaced by a glowing image of a stone castle high on a rocky crag, beset by raging gales and lashed by sheets of snow that reshaped into a torrent of glistening daggers and pitchforks. A few tiny gasps escaped, but the audience sat in otherwise rapt, open-mouthed silence as Harry continued to narrate, summoning ephemeral visions of the brave children in debates and harrowing, heroic action — cunningly thwarting an attack by rampaging mountain trolls, navigating a confrontation with wicked ice demons, and wittily bargaining with a brusque yet open-minded dragon...
The enthralled children sat in wide-eyed, astonished silence.
All of the children except one, that is...
Despite remaining completely committed to the story and to entertaining his audience, Harry could feel a solitary aura permeating the room from somewhere on high. It seemed to bleed the essence of sorrow, like a string of cold raindrops trailing slowly down his spine.
Ginny noticed it as well; part way through the story, she honed her senses and detected the trail of magical power, following it upwards, away from the gathering... to the balcony... to an unseen corner in which the eleventh child sat hunched in the darkness, trembling, strained with unexplained internal conflict, weeping silently.
Forgetting the story, Ginny swept her magical perception outwards, gently and unobtrusively probing the vicinity of the sad child, honing in on something that wasn't exactly sorrow... something bitter and acrid, like...
Ginny's entire spine jolted and her eyes flashed wide! She choked back a sudden feeling of panic — a gripping flashback to a horrible memory from her fourth year...
... dark tendrils of smoky oily hair pressed into her face... smell of rank sweat and hatred...
... hot wand tip pressing into her throat...
... Don't look at me, Harry. Don't let her distract you. Don't ever give up the proph...
With a jolt, Ginny tore herself from from nightmarish vision. She shuddered, took a slow breath to rein in her nerves, and leaned in close to her friend. "Daphne!" she whispered urgently. "I have to go check something. Tell Harry to meet me at the Hogwarts library when he's done here!"
"Uh huh." Daphne nodded. Oblivious to Ginny's discomfort, Daphne's eyes barely strayed an instant from Harry's performance.
Ginny crossed the room quietly, her departure unmarked by anyone except Harry. Without pausing his narrative, Harry's eyes raised momentarily above his audience and inquisitively met her gaze.
Without opening her mouth or making any detectable gesture, Ginny spoke to her fiancé a single sentence.
Harry, I think I'm onto something!
Lucia pushed back from the table, and let her head and long black hair fall away behind her as she arched her back and groaned. "Damn it! These runes are driving me out of my skull!"
Laura nodded her head wearily and yawned. "I think we've done about all we can for tonight, don't you?"
Jennifer nodded, but then glanced questioningly at her boyfriend. Ryan frowned, scanned across the messy table, and pulled several of the open texts closer. "Well, we've got six decent warding recipes that nobody has used on the estate, but what worries me is that this is really just more of the same. It's all just variations of anti-Portkey, anti-Apparition and anti-trespass spells. I keep thinking that we're missing something."
Jennifer nodded again, expressionlessly. "Yeah, I'm still a bit edgy about it too, but I also agree with Laura and Lucia that we're bogging down. Maybe we need a change of venue," she suggested. "Let's pack up the spells we've settled on and go up to Interhouse Commons for an hour to brainstorm over butterbeer."
"Or coffee," Lucia amended.
"Sounds great!" Laura, for the first time in an hour, sounded enthusiastic about something. "I'll bet that..." She paused and glanced up in surprise. "Oh, hi Ginny!"
The other three students swiveled around to see Ginny hurrying toward their table in the dimly-lit and otherwise empty library. "Hi all!" she said as she caught her breath. "I know it's late on a Saturday night, but would any of you be willing to help me look into some mind magic stuff?"
"Sure." Ryan's eyes lit up with his trademark (manic) tirelessness. "What are you thinking of? Imperius? Confundus?"
Ginny shook her head. "No, those are all too short range. Anyone casting those spells like that needs to get close to the victim. I'd like us to find some methods for dynamic, long-distance mind control. And, in particular we have to find ways to block it!"
The four students looked at Ginny, then glanced among themselves. Ryan scratched his chin thoughtfully. "Do you have a pass for the restricted section?"
Ginny grinned puckishly and withdrew a sealed scroll from her cloak. "Who do you think you're talking to, Jenkins?"
Ryan laughed. "Follow me, then," he said, rising from the table.