Rating:
R
House:
Schnoogle
Ships:
Ginny Weasley/Harry Potter
Characters:
Harry Potter
Genres:
Action
Era:
The Harry Potter at Hogwarts Years
Spoilers:
Philosopher's Stone Chamber of Secrets Prizoner of Azkaban Goblet of Fire Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them
Stats:
Published: 04/17/2002
Updated: 01/04/2004
Words: 584,432
Chapters: 31
Hits: 808,247

Harry Potter and the Triangle Prophecy

Barb

Story Summary:
Harry's 7th and final year of school. In a time of uncertainty, the Muggle world has found a source of comfort and stability. Only Harry suspects that it isn't safe. Wizards are more concerned about themselves than Muggles since Voldemort's return, but are only Muggles at risk? Will anyone listen to Harry? He must decide whether to make a sacrifice that will change him--and the wizarding world-- forever.
Read Story On:

Chapter 18 - Fiefs

Chapter Summary:
Harry's seventh and final year of school. In this chapter, Harry and Alicia go to see Dumbledore about her father and Roger, Hermione takes a look at something Ron saved on his Omnioculars, the seventh-year Gryffindors take their Apparition tests, and Harry and Ginny have a confrontation and he finds out about the Great Plan. Also, a Weasley family feud puts a damper on Christmas dinner--and who is Ron writing to at St. Mungo's? The third part of the
Posted:
03/12/2003
Hits:
26,008
Author's Note:
Broome Park, in Kent, really is in Barham parish and halfway between Canterbury and Dover. While I could not resist making someplace with the name “Broome” a wizarding estate, it is actually a golf club and not open to the public. (Or at least that is what they would have you think...can we say “Muggle-repelling charms?”) Seriously--I apologize to the operators of the Broome Park golf club for borrowing their property temporarily, and do sincerely hope that no one Apparates onto any of the greens when someone is trying to putt. Especially if they have left their clothes behind. If you are interested in learning more about (the real) Broome Park, go

Harry Potter and the Triangle Prophecy

Chapter Eighteen

Fiefs

The medieval castle originated in the ninth century in the Frankish Empire (what is now modern
France, western Germany, and northern Italy) as nobles began building fortifications in response
to increasing insecurity in the region.... The Carolingians (Charlemagne's dynasty) divided their
lands among royal heirs, and this custom led to a multiplicity of kings and to civil wars. The
new institution of feudalism (which usually involved cavalry service in return for land--the fief--and
political rights) resulted in an increase in lordships held under the kings....Political instability
and invasion by outside forces resulted in a breakdown in law and order and a sharp decline in the
effectiveness of central government. Consequently, power fell into the hands of whatever lords or
strongmen were able to protect local populations effectively. But the strongmen also had to protect
themselves, and the result was the building of defensive structures that over time evolved into castles.

--Robin S. Oggins, Castles and Fortresses



Harry gave the password to the gargoyle guarding the entrance to Dumbledore's office. He'd decided that rather than just going to Sirius, it would be best to take the problem directly to the headmaster. After all, Alicia had been his Head Girl just two years earlier, and Roger had been Head Boy. As they went up the spiraling stairs, Harry glanced at her out of the corner of his eye; her usually-neat blonde hair was rather windblown from her having rushed to the castle from the village, and her vivid blue eyes looked bloodshot, as though she hadn't slept since her father was arrested. Perhaps she hadn't. Harry was starting to think he should have asked Hermione to come along, but after she and Ron had stumbled into the entrance hall to greet Alicia, Hermione had suggested that she and Ron comb through the newspapers some more to find out as much as possible. He'd asked her to send Sirius up to the headmaster's office in about an hour. He could talk to Hermione and Ron later, to tell them what he'd learned from Alicia herself.

Harry knocked on the heavy oaken door and heard the familiar voice say, "Come." They entered to find Dumbledore sitting at his desk, the former headmasters and headmistresses dozing lightly in their frames. Fawkes was sitting on his perch near one of the windows, preening. The headmaster appeared to be looking over the patrol schedule, as revised by Hermione, and seemed surprised to see Harry enter with Alicia.

"Harry! What can I do for you?" He clapped his hands together and smiled.

"Well, Professor, we have a bit of a problem..."

Dumbledore half-stood and waved his hands at the chairs before his desk. "Sit, Harry, sit. And you too, my dear." As Harry and Alicia sat, he also seated himself again and put his hands together in a steeple. Harry turned to look at Alicia, whom he was quite certain had also been crying on the way to the castle, although her eyes were dry now.

"Thank you for seeing us, Professor," she said with a catch in her throat. "Before my wedding, in August, Harry said that if I ever needed any help..."

"Of course, of course, my dear!" he said enthusiastically, making Harry stare. "But, er, perhaps you should begin from the beginning. I must ask you, however, to excuse me momentarily," he said abruptly, jolting Harry. "I shall return shortly."

He rose and opened the door to his private chambers, where Harry and Hermione had been listening to him talking to McGonagall in a weakened state. He certainly appeared to be in good health again. Harry had almost commented upon this when he remembered that he and Hermione weren't supposed to know about--whatever he'd been doing that had McGonagall so concerned. Dumbledore closed the door to the other room behind him when he left, then reappeared very quickly, not bothering to close the door again before sitting at his desk and clapping his hands together once. "So! You were going to start from the beginning, Alicia?"

Harry wondered why he wasn't asking after her. Perhaps because she was so obviously in distress, he thought. To exchange pleasant, "So how are you?" banalities wouldn't be very good form just now.

Alicia swallowed before beginning. "It all began, really, in our seventh year. Well, it didn't begin for me. Not exactly. It began for Roger. He received a recruitment letter..."

Harry gasped, but Dumbledore frowned. "Recruitment letter?"

It was Harry's turn to frown now. "Like I did, remember? A Death Eater recruitment letter. I told you I thought Roger might have received one also. Sir," he added, remembering to be deferential. Perhaps Dumbledore's memory was affected by whatever he had been doing that made him so weak, Harry thought. It seemed that McGonagall had been successful in convincing him to stop it, whatever it was. "Well, Per--I mean, another person received a letter about the same time," Harry said, very nearly saying Percy Weasley's name and stopping himself. "But that person didn't have to turn up, because after Lucius Malfoy went to prison it was all a moot point, as he hadn't shared with Voldemort the names of the people he was attempting to recruit, apart from mine..." He noticed that, to her credit, Alicia didn't flinch at the name, although that might have been because she was Muggle-born and didn't grow up in the wizarding world.

Alicia sighed. "Roger didn't know that. He said he'd heard about a wizard and witch who'd recently left school--Marcus Flint and Penelope Clearwater--and there were whispers that their deaths and the deaths of their family members had occurred because they had been recruited also and had refused. Roger was worried about his family's safety. So, even though Lucius Malfoy went to prison--" She practically choked on the name; "--Roger didn't assume that his family would be safe. He wrote a letter..."

Harry frowned. "Wrote a letter? But Malfoy was in prison--" She raised her brows and looked at him with wide eyes. Harry's jaw dropped. "You're joking," he whispered. "He wrote to Voldemort?"

She nodded grimly, her mouth in a pale line. "He was convinced that if he didn't, he and his entire family would be killed. He had no idea that he needn't worry, after the trial..." Alicia reached out her hand and Harry took it, squeezing, to show his support. She looked at him for a moment, then away, reddening.

"So," Harry said, prompting her to continue. "What happened after he wrote the letter?"

"He finished school, and after taking the train to King's Cross, he met up with a different Death Eater where he was originally supposed to meet Malfoy."

Harry's ears pricked up at this. "Who was it? Someone we don't know about?"

She shook her head. "He didn't find out; the Death Eater was wearing a mask and hood. He said that because Roger had come as ordered, he and his family were safe, but he had to do something to prove his loyalty, and he was given an 'assignment.'"

Harry nodded. "Right. That's standard. So--what was he supposed to do?"

She reddened again. "He was supposed to get me to marry him."

Dumbledore leaned forward, looking perplexed. "Why, my dear?"

"Well, evidently the Death Eater assumed that because Roger and I had been Head Boy and Head Girl together, we were pretty close." She allowed herself a small laugh for a moment. "Obviously, he'd never seen us at a prefects' meeting..."

Harry saw that Dumbledore's eyebrows had flown up now and wondered why. "Ah, yes. Head Boy and Head Girl. He would assume that. Right, right..."

"Roger explained to him that he had a girlfriend already," Alicia went on. "And he didn't see why his assignment should be to marry me, either. He asked why he was supposed to do that, but the Death Eater wouldn't tell him. He just said that he'd find out everything he needed to know as the information was needed. And that he should follow orders if he knew what was good for him." She put her hand up to her mouth, trembling. Speaking through her fingers, she said, "He told Roger to use Imperius to make me go out with him and to do--other things--"

Harry squeezed the hand he still held and covered it with his other hand. After having been placed under Imperius by Lucius Malfoy, to be placed under Imperius again, and for a similar purpose, must have been a traumatic experience for her.

Dumbledore nodded and gave a small wave to her. "Continue when you are ready, my dear," he said softly.

She nodded, her mouth clamped tightly closed, as though she was struggling to regain her composure. "So," she finally said, "Roger did as he was told. He turned up at my parents' house, surprising me, and said he'd been sorry he was such a prat during our seventh year and hoped I would forgive him and let him take me to dinner. I remember at the time that I wanted to tell him off, but instead I heard myself accepting the invitation.

"During the rest of the summer, we went out frequently, although it was only in late August that there was finally any--physical contact between us--" she said, looking a little uncomfortable talking about this. Harry patted her hand.

"Do you want me to fetch Hermione, so you can talk to her? Would you rather not--"

She shook her head. "I--I just meant kissing. He finally kissed me after a date. What I should have realized at the time was that it was rather odd that it had taken him so long to do that." She paused and took out a handkerchief, holding it tightly, but not using it. "At any rate, when I started teaching at the village school in Hogsmeade, the September after I finished school here, he would sometimes show up after lessons were over, and then take me to a pub, or we'd go to my house or something. I was teaching him to ride, and sometimes we would go riding in the late afternoon." She smiled a little. "That was nice. He'd never ridden before. He wasn't very patient with the horses at first, but eventually he became better about that. I told him that his impatience made them nervous, and he wouldn't have as good a ride that way." She sighed. "Then, one day when he'd come to the school to meet me, Fleur Delacour happened to be coming out of her classroom late and spotted him. She seemed to be very surprised, but that didn't prevent her from making off with him. I was shocked; I didn't know what to say or do. She just walked off with him, arm in arm, as though he was still her boyfriend. He acted as though I didn't exist and went along with her. I had just assumed that he was pursuing me because he and Fleur had broken up."

She looked down at her hands. "Of course, I didn't realize yet that I was under Imperius. I was quite furious with Roger, and when I went home that day I rode for a couple of hours, hoping I would calm down. When I returned to the stable, Roger was there, looking very contrite. He explained that he had broken up with Fleur--that he'd told her that it was over, but that she wasn't very mentally stable and hadn't listened. And he'd also heard about the way that veelas take rejection--which isn't very well, to put it lightly. He said that he managed to avoid her, usually, but whenever she spotted him, he had little choice but to go along. If he didn't, he wasn't sure how she might react.

"I believed him completely. We had to pretend, when we were around Fleur, that we weren't a couple. God, I was such an idiot..."

Harry grimaced on her behalf. "You were under a spell, Alicia. It wasn't your fault. And considering the way she reacted to you and Roger getting married, he was probably wise to keep her in the dark. It's possible that if he'd told her why he was pursuing you, she wouldn't have been very cooperative."

She looked gratefully at him. "Well, in the spring we'd been seeing each other for a while and still, er, just kissing a bit, now and then. Roger had been told, evidently, that he was taking too long and was ordered to--to sleep with me." She didn't look at Dumbledore. "So he suggested that I find a place in the village, which I did, since I did whatever I was told, and on the day when you came to read to my class, Harry," she told him, "Roger arrived after the children were gone for the day, and we went to my flat..."

She swallowed and Harry patted her hand again. "It's okay. You don't have to give details--" He shook his head. Putting someone under Imperius and then sleeping with them was tantamount to rape, as far as he was concerned. Poor Alicia! he thought.

"You don't understand, Harry. That--that was the day I found out about what had been going on," she said, her voice no longer shaking. "He couldn't do it, you see. Even Roger had his limits, a limit to what he would do to protect his family. We were even--we were pretty far along--" she said softly. "But he suddenly threw my clothes at me and started dressing himself, saying over and over, 'I can't do this, I just can't do this...'"

Harry breathed a sigh of relief. So Roger hadn't violated Alicia...

"And then--?" Dumbledore prompted gently.

"Well, I demanded to know what was going on. He told me everything that had happened for the previous year. The recruitment letter, his being told to convince me to marry him. The Death Eater saying he was taking too long, ordering him to sleep with me. Roger said he had only gone along to protect his family. He was afraid they would be killed if he refused. He also said that he'd never stopped seeing Fleur. And now Fleur was pregnant with his child, and he didn't know what to do because he wanted to marry her, but he'd been ordered to marry me. Fleur didn't know anything about his being recruited or his sneaking around with me.

"I saw a side of Roger I'd never seen before--he'd sacrificed his own happiness for others' safety, and he'd pulled back from the opportunity to--" She swallowed and looked down. "He could have taken advantage of me, and he didn't. He said that apart from the fact that he was in love with Fleur, he respected me too much to do that to me. I was floored. He had already taken the curse off me and I felt so queer without its influence, it was almost like I was--directionless. Having my own will again felt strange after so long..."

Dumbledore nodded. "People who have been under Imperius for a long time sometimes experience something like a withdrawal afterward..." he said grimly.

"Yes. That's how I felt. Like my inner compass was gone, the thing that had been guiding me. Roger apologized profusely, but I felt that he was losing sight of something. He'd been given an order, and now how was he to carry it out?"

Harry frowned. Considering that she had married Roger... But then the answer dawned on him. "You said you'd help him, didn't you? That you'd go along and pretend to be in love with him and marry him, so that his family would be safe."

She nodded. "I felt--I felt like it was the least I could do. Who was I to say I didn't want to be in a sham marriage when it might be the difference between life and death for his parents and brother--and maybe him? After he'd--he'd been rather noble about not taking advantage--" She colored, and Harry was starting to wonder whether Alicia had fallen for Roger, because of this 'nobility.' How awkward, he thought, if she decided she fancied him after that, knowing that he still loved Fleur, who was to be the mother of his child. Knowing that he wouldn't touch her, even though they were going to be married.

"But the question still remained," Dumbledore said quietly, "why was he told to marry you in the first place? The Death Eater told him to do that, then told him to step it up when he was taking too long. Why?"

"I have my suspicions. And I think Roger knew, but he didn't tell me. After we started planning the wedding, he insisted that that was all he was told to do: marry me."

Harry sat up straight. "Your dad. He was supposed to marry you to get close to your dad, and so that his working to get your dad elected would be a logical thing. He was his son-in-law, after all--" It made perfect sense now...almost.

Alicia nodded. "I think so now, too, ever since my dad was framed. I think the idea was to have someone who was a Death Eater be close to a member of Parliament. My dad."

Harry frowned now. "But--why did you tell me a wizard framed your dad? Why would someone want Roger to help get your dad elected and then go on working for him--as Roger did--only to frame him for murder, so he'd no longer be in Parliament? If the idea was to have influence over someone in government, it wasn't a very good plan, was it? Your dad was just a junior MP, after all, newly elected."

Alicia sighed. "I don't understand this either. And I can't ask Roger what's going on because he's gone now, too. I'm convinced that someone impersonated my father and killed the whip and tried to kill Clive Metford--"

"Who?"

"The MP who was wounded. He's going to testify against my dad. At any rate, I think that Roger wasn't doing what he was told to do, so the Death Eater decided to scrap the operation, and did it by framing my dad, to get him out of the way so that that woman, what's her name--"

"Who?" Harry said again.

"Joan. No, Jane. Jane Hampton-something. So she could be the new MP from Mole Valley. And I think he killed Roger, too, but I'm hoping I'm wrong and Roger is simply on the run. I'm rather afraid for his parents; they need to be warned that their lives may be in danger. I'd have done it, but what would I say? Especially after Evan dying...." She dabbed at her eyes with the handkerchief. "Poor Evan! He overheard Roger speaking to the Death Eater once, evidently, when Roger didn't know his brother was at home, or forgot. It was during the Christmas holiday, and I think Roger may have simply forgotten that Evan wasn't at school. Evan took it into his head that Roger was a Death Eater--which he was, technically--and he decided he was going to emulate his big brother. Roger only found out because Evan left a note for Roger amongst his things, explaining this, before going off to the forest with the Dueling Club. He knew it would be dangerous and thought he should write to Roger before leaving, to let him know they were on the same side, and how he'd found out about Roger being a Death Eater."

Now Harry was understanding why Evan had come after him in the forest, and why no one else knew about his ambition to be a Death Eater, including any other Death Eaters. He also understood Roger's reaction--he really blamed himself. He'd gone along with the orders he'd received so that his family would be safe; because of that his brother had died.

"And now your dad is in prison, awaiting trial," he said softly.

"Yes. He can be positively identified by Metford, and his fingerprints are on the gun used to shoot him and the whip. He's also on the security cameras at Whitehall. There's no jury in the world that wouldn't convict him with the kind of case the Crown can make. The only problem is--he didn't do it. And we have to prove that, somehow."

Harry swallowed. How on earth was anyone going to prove that Mr. Spinnet was innocent when the evidence was stacked against him? "Does he have an alibi? Where was he when the murder was taking place? Are there any witnesses?"

"He says he was in his office, taking a nap on the sofa. Roger saw him. Dad told him he was knackered and needed a lie-down; he felt very tired suddenly--"

"A potion," Harry said immediately. "I'll just bet he was drugged. To get him out of the way."

She nodded. "Could be. Unfortunately, since he told the police that it was Roger who saw him lie down, that also makes him the last person who saw Roger."

Harry stood and went to the window, looking out at the grounds, deep in thought. "You don't think--could it be that Roger was the one who framed your dad? That that was the plan all along? And that's why he's disappeared now, as he would have been your dad's only alibi, and now he appears to be another victim? Besides, if Roger had been told to do that and refused, wouldn't his parents have turned up dead? Do we know how the Davieses are? If they're alive and healthy, I'd say the suspicion rather falls on Roger, and the tricky job is to convince Scotland Yard, without bringing up magic."

Alicia shook her head vigorously. "I refuse to believe that. Roger couldn't even sleep with me while I was under Imperius, and his family was threatened then, too. I just can't see him killing someone..."

Harry returned to his chair. "What if someone else was threatened this time, though? What if it was Fleur--and his child? Think about it--the timing of the conception. That Death Eater who was his contact must have noticed, after all of the news about what Fleur did at your wedding, that the child she was carrying would have been conceived after Roger was supposed to have started seeing you. That would tip him off that Roger hadn't broken things off with Fleur. He didn't just have Roger's Mum and Dad to threaten now, who were the only family members Roger had left after Evan died. There was also Fleur and the baby." Harry remembered how Roger had cradled her in his arms, after Draco had cursed her. "He wasn't going to let anything happen to Fleur and his child. I think he framed your dad. It doesn't make sense for it to be anyone else..."

Alicia's jaw was set stubbornly. "No, Harry. I know it has to be someone else," she insisted. Harry was more convinced than ever that she had fallen for Roger. "And my dad is going to prison if we don't find some way to prove his innocence..."

"And," Harry added, deciding to bypass the Roger issue for the moment, "we still don't know the real purpose of the whip being killed, the other man almost being killed, and your dad going to prison to make way for that woman to take his MP position."

A sudden knock at the door made him lose his train of thought. Dumbledore said, "Come in," and when the door opened, Sirius entered, looking rather urgent. He nodded to Harry and Dumbledore.

"Hello, Harry, Albus. Hermione and Ron have filled me in on what they found in the Muggle newspapers..." He turned to Alicia then, smiling sympathetically and holding out his hand. "And you must be Alicia Spinnet."

"Davies," she said suddenly, surprising Harry. "Alicia Davies." She didn't rise and take his hand, and he withdrew it.

Dumbledore stood. "If you will excuse me for a moment, I will arrange for the house elves to prepare accommodations for Mrs. Davies," he said pointedly, "in the staff wing. Harry, fill in Sirius for me, will you? And then you can escort Alicia to her rooms."

Dumbledore slipped into the next room again. Harry turned to Sirius and explained quickly what was going on. Alicia didn't interrupt him or correct him, but sat staring at her hands. When Dumbledore returned he nodded at the three of them. "Go on, then. The house elves are ready for you, my dear. I hope you will be quite comfortable. You'll be right next door to Sirius. Oh, and I need you to return after that, Sirius."

Sirius hesitated. "I can just stay, and Harry can take Alicia to her rooms."

"But I don't know where your rooms are, Sirius. I need you to show me the way," Harry told him. "I've only been to Maggie's and my aunt's rooms." Sirius nodded and they left. As he was following them out the door, Harry saw Dumbledore slip into his private chambers again.

They showed Alicia the way to the staff wing; evidently there hadn't been a reason for her to go there when she was Head Girl. She was surprised that Harry knew the password, but he said that he'd learned it when he had helped his aunt to move in. Alicia was surprised by that as well. Sirius put his hand on his arm when he mentioned his Aunt Petunia.

"I need to speak to you about that, Harry. In a bit."

Harry frowned, confused. They walked down the winding corridors and finally reached Sirius' rooms; they continued on to the door after that, which was slightly ajar. As soon as they walked in, Harry was aware of a small figure in black zipping out of the sitting room, and then he heard the familiar crack! of a house elf leaving. Evidently, one of the elves who had been working on Alicia's rooms hadn't left until the last moment.

Alicia looked around listlessly at the small, neat room, with its settee and chairs around the hearth and the leaded casement windows overlooking the courtyard shared by all of the staff, where Draco Malfoy had given Dunkirk exercise and where Harry and his sister had played, in his other life. A tray sat on a low table before the fire, with a steaming pot of tea and some plates of scones and biscuits.

"Make yourself comfortable," Sirius told her. "I need to return to the headmaster's study, but I will be back to check on you later."

"I can stay with you for a bit, if you like," Harry volunteered, but Sirius shook his head. "Erm--you can also come back later, Harry. I need to talk to you about a couple of things. If you'll excuse us, Alicia?"

She nodded from the settee, where she was regarding the tea and food listlessly. Harry was worried about her; perhaps she should talk to Hermione, he thought.

In the corridor, Sirius talked to Harry as they walked back to the tapestry leading out of the staff wing. "Harry--about your aunt--"

"Oh, right! You said you wanted to--"

"She's with Jeffries."

Harry stood still. "What? Why?"

Sirius grimaced. "She seems to think that he has a more progressive view of magic than we do here at Hogwarts. And he's the one who made her magical, after all. Plus, she didn't feel that your uncle would welcome her back."

Harry shook his head. "Uncle Vernon just wrote me a letter about how upset he is with me because it's my fault that she left him. I think he does want her back. He's all on his own now. What's she doing with Jeffries?"

"She's part of his entourage now. She's on staff. He has a huge staff. There's fan mail to answer and interviews with the press to coordinate and every time they pull up and move to another venue, there are rooms to be booked and transportation to be arranged." He gave a small smile. "From what I could see, she was in her element, actually. Ordering people around. Move this here and there. Giving reservation clerks a piece of her mind on the telephone...."

"She used to be my uncle's secretary. That's how they met."

Sirius nodded. "Well, now she's practically Jeffries' right hand. I don't think he'd sneeze without asking her advice first."

Harry shook his head. "I wondered why she didn't answer my letters. I sent her some owls and I thought they were going to Little Whinging. Then I wrote to my uncle, and he said he didn't know where she is. I never could have imagined this when I was younger..."

"That isn't all I have to tell you. After months of pumping Rita Skeeter for information, all we've received from her are the names of Death Eaters who are already in Ministry custody. Nothing really useful. She still seems to be protecting someone..."

Harry nodded. "The real Daisy Furuncle, I'm guessing."

Sirius shrugged. "Maybe. We're still repairing the damage she did."

Harry sighed. "I wish we'd never trusted her." He thought of Snape being held prisoner, and having his fingers cut off. He shuddered.

Sirius grimaced. "Albus blames himself for that. He wanted to believe that she could be useful and work for the good. But evidently, she decided when Hermione was holding her in that jar that she would never work for the same side as her."

"Everything she did was to get back at Hermione? Is she really that petty?"

"Evidently so. Or at least that's what she's told us. Every time she opens her mouth it feels like she's playing with us. We're hoping she'll slip up and give us some truly useful information without meaning to."

When they left the staff wing, Sirius turned to the right and Harry to the left, so he could return to Ron and Hermione and fill them in. Somehow, he thought they would both have quite a lot to say about Alicia and Roger. And Rita Skeeter.

He was right.

The three of them sat on the floor in the seventh-year boys' dorm in Gryffindor Tower while Harry told them everything Alicia had said, and his own ideas about it.

"I agree with you," Ron said adamantly; he'd been playing with the dials on his Omnioculars while he listened to Harry and he continued to do this as he spoke. "Davies framed Alicia's dad and that's why he's disappeared. He did just what he was supposed to, or else we'd be hearing about his parents being killed, wouldn't we?"

"We still don't know that they're safe," Hermione reminded them. "And that's only one possibility. There's still the possibility that his contact in the Death Eaters did it and offed Roger. Alicia really seems to believe he's incapable of murder, according to Harry. She did agree to help him by marrying him, and she had to work closely with him to get her dad elected. The Death Eater may have realized that by leaving Roger's parents untouched, it would look like he was the guilty party. To people who knew what he was told to do, that is."

Harry drew his lips into a line. "Somehow, though, I had the impression that there were some things that Alicia wasn't saying. Like how she feels about Roger. What she'd do to protect him, if she could. And what they did--if anything--involving magic to helped her dad win the election. The Ministry would probably consider that illegal, I'm guessing."

Hermione's mouth twisted and she looked pensive. "I hadn't thought of that. You know, magic might not have been necessary for him to win. Now, if he'd tried to run as a Conservative in Northamptonshire and he'd won, that would be pretty suspicious, in such a predominantly Labour area, but it's no shock for a Conservative to win in Mole Valley--or anywhere in Surrey, for that matter--"

"--except in Guildford. I know, I know. You told me already." Harry shook his head. "Politics. I always avoided thinking about it when I was younger because nothing could get Uncle Vernon hacked off faster than seeing some political confrontation on the news. Even Aunt Petunia couldn't stand it when he started screaming at the telly. All liberals were 'stupid bloody farts.' He drove us all barking mad. Dudley probably had it worst, in a way. He had to sit there and parrot every political opinion Uncle Vernon spouted, when he'd much rather be blowing things up on his computer. But he wanted his son to be a little version of him--okay, not so little--so that meant Dudley had to have all of the same political opinions, too. I actually pitied him at those times--a bit. I could tell he thought it was a ruddy bore. On the other hand, I managed to sneak into his room and use his computer when that was going on downstairs. I always thought I wanted that computer so much, but then after he was gone, I never wanted to touch it really. I only used it to try to find Maggie," he said softly.

Then that made him remember what Sirius had said about his aunt. After he told them, Hermione, to his surprise, merely nodded sagely. "I thought that's where she'd go. Frankly, I was surprised that she went back to Surrey. And now it turns out she didn't. I don't know why you're so shocked, Harry. I also had an idea that she was fairly miserable here..."

Harry squinted at her. "How'd you know that?"

"Well, remember that time McGonagall asked me to cover her class for half-an-hour? Your aunt was in it, along with the Slytherin first years. God, it was awful. Every little supposed slight someone sent in her direction was rewarded with horrible hexes from her. I don't know how many house points I took away from Slytherin before McGonagall returned..."

Ron snapped his fingers with a disappointed air. "Too bad she left. It would be pretty simple for Gryffindor to win the House Cup this year with your aunt in Slytherin, Harry." He grinned. Hermione looked like she was trying very hard not to smile.

"Be fair, Ron. It was very difficult for her, to be in her forties, becoming a witch and then going off to school with eleven-year-olds. How would you like it?"

Ron shrugged. "It probably didn't help that she was a generally disagreeable person. Maggie's doing all right, and she's older than all of the students in the classes she's taking. And even though she's younger than any of the other teachers, none of the third and fourth years in her Divination classes give her any trouble."

Harry nodded. "But that's probably because they respect her. When it comes to Divination, she really knows what she's doing. She's not like Trelawney. Maggie's the genuine article."

Almost as though she knew he was speaking about a Seer, Sandy suddenly hissed at him, "She shall See."

"Who, Sandy? See what?" It was one of the more cryptic things she had ever said to him.

She didn't answer him. "What's going on, Harry?" Hermione asked excitedly; whenever she heard Sandy talking to him, she was always very keen to know what it was about. He shrugged.

"Sandy said, She shall see," he told them.

"Oh," Hermione said. "Well, maybe what she meant was this--" And with a swift movement, Hermione snatched Ron's Omnioculars from him and put them to her eyes. "You know, I still haven't seen that Quidditch match from the summer, the one you keep saying I should watch on these things--"

Harry stared at Ron, his heart in this throat. Bloody hell. The images of Draco and Mariah down by the lake were still on there, as far as he knew. Gosh, Sandy, he thought sarcastically. Thanks for the warning.

Ron swallowed and reached out for the Omnioculars. "Um, Hermione, you don't really want to see that game. I know how bored you are by Quidditch. Just hand me the--"

But it was too late. Hermione was staring into the eyepieces with her mouth open in surprise. She had gone very stiff as she continued to watch what was before her, and Harry braced himself. Oh no oh no oh no. Not again. Now they're going to have a huge row...

"Ron! Harry!" she said in wonder. "Have you seen what's on here?"

They looked at each other guiltily. "Look, Hermione, it's all my fault," Harry said, his voice shaking. "Don't blame Ron. It was my idea to try to find a way to--"

She lowered the Omnioculars from her face and frowned at him. "What on earth are you talking about?"

Ron and Harry looked at each other and back at her. "Erm," Harry said. "What are you talking about?"

"Here. Let me rewind it first," she mumbled, fiddling with the dials again. Harry wondered how he and Ron were going to get out of this one. Hermione checked the position of the Omnioculars and then handed them back to Ron. "Now flick the 'forward' switch," she instructed him. He looked at Harry uncertainly, and Harry wondered whether Ron was going to do something like say, "Hermione! I have no idea how that was recorded by my Omnioculars..."

Instead, after viewing for a few minutes, Ron's jaw also dropped. "Bloody hell," he breathed, his eyes glued to the eyepieces. "So it's her! I should have known..."

Harry frowned. "Would one of you care to enlighten me?" he whinged, feeling a bit left out suddenly.

"Rewind it and show Harry," Hermione said to Ron. Ron did, and handed the Omnioculars to him. He frowned when he first looked in the eyepieces; the image was frozen, and it appeared to be solid green. He had no idea what he was looking at. Ron reached over and flicked the 'forward' switch, and the image started moving. He also heard, very softly, the voices of the people nearby. Evidently, Ron had accidentally had his Omnioculars set on 'record' when they were waiting in line to go into the Quidditch game. The green he was seeing was the grass of the pitch, and soon after the image started moving, Harry saw Ron's rather large feet move into view; Harry remembered that Ron had been swinging the Omnioculars around impatiently while he was waiting. As the images jumped around unpredictably, showing his feet and lower robes, Ron's feet and robes, and then Ginny's, Harry heard again the conversation they were having while waiting for the Aurors to screen all of the spectators...

He heard a soft thud which was him kicking a piece of turf, followed by his muttering, "Why are they even bothering to hold Quidditch matches if they're so worried about security?"

"Stop it when Ginny mentions getting to the bottom of the Diagon Alley attack," Ron instructed him loudly.

"Blimey, Harry," he heard Ron again; this time his voice was faint and faraway, coming from the tiny speakers on the Omnioculars, projecting the sound directly at his ears, but so quietly people around him couldn't hear it. "Do you know how people would panic if the League Cup was canceled? I mean, the attack on Diagon Alley was bad, but they never even canceled the League Cup during You-Know-Who's first reign of terror. Everyone would think it was the end of the world if they did that."

"You mean they wouldn't have a good way to pacify everyone," Ginny countered; all Harry could see of her was her hand waving impatiently in the air. "This way, they can simultaneously occupy people with mindless sport--"

"Bread and circuses," he heard himself mutter.

"--and make it look like the Ministry's really doing something, just because they're checking over everyone who's entering the stadium. I'm sure they're really going to get to the bottom of the Diagon Alley attack by doing that."

Harry flicked the 'stop' switch abruptly and stared at the image before him. In the upper left-hand corner of the picture was part of a woman's face. Ron must really have been swinging the Omnioculars around wildly; Harry was used to his nervous habits and hadn't though twice about it at the time, but now, because of his having been recording and swinging the Omnioculars around, Ron accidentally documented the presence of someone else standing nearby....

He lowered the instrument from his face and stared at his best friends. "Is that who I think it is?"

Hermione nodded. "Which means she's got to be one of the Daisy Furuncles! It had to be someone who was near enough to hear what you were saying, since Ginny's words ended up in that article Daisy Furuncle wrote. Except she was attributing it to you, Harry, not Ginny. So why should 'Daisy Furuncle' protect Ginny?" Harry furrowed his brow. It was a good question. Hermione, however, evidently didn't think he wouldn't know the answer to this. "Harry!" she cried, exasperated. "She did it because Ginny was still Draco's girlfriend at the time! Don't you see? She was protecting Ginny because of Draco..."

Harry looked at the image again; the nose, the hair. He flicked 'forward' again and a hood was swiftly pulled over the head and the woman turned away, while Ron's indignant voice was heard in the background:

"Ginny! Don't say things like that here, all right?"

He heard his own voice then, although all he could see now were Ron's shoes again. "I agree with Ron, Ginny. You can't be too careful what you say in public. Rant back at Hog's End, all right?"

He stopped it again and lowered the instrument once more. The three of them looked at each other; Harry saw that Ron and Hermione were frowning at him. He bristled at them.

"What? What are you looking at me that way for?"

"Because," Hermione said, sounding just a little put-out. "That's the mother of your new best friend."

Harry drew his mouth into a line. "He's not my best friend. You two are. And he can't control his mum. She disowned him, remember?"

Ron looked skeptical. "Whenever she's mentioned her son, which wasn't often, it was never too bad. She may be having second thoughts about cutting him off. Maybe she thought they could make up if she wrote nasty articles about all of the people he didn't like--you, me--"

"Sirius," Harry said suddenly. "She wrote some awful things about Sirius. And she tried to make out that Katie was an idiot for going with me. She also mentioned Sam going to prison..."

"Or--" Hermione said slowly, looking thoughtful. "Perhaps you and Sirius and Sam, among others, were targeted because she thought there was a danger of his not hating you anymore. You and Malfoy were working with Sam and Katie during the summer, and Malfoy went to Ascog--Sirius' home--for part of his holiday.... She needs to bring him back to her side if there's to be any kind of Malfoy family reunion. So she has to drag your names through the mud. She may have hoped that if she did this it would mean he wouldn't be feeling too kindly toward all of you...."

"You think?" Harry frowned. He lifted the Omnioculars to his face again and rewound the images slightly, so he could catch that glimpse again of Narcissa Malfoy's face. After watching it again, he lowered them and sighed.

"Unfortunately, now that Alicia's dad has been framed, Sirius and the other operatives will be a bit busy with that. When a man's life is on the line, I can't very well ask Sirius to go looking into Malfoy's mum, just because she wrote some nasty things." He frowned, feeling vaguely discontented. Hermione agreed. Ron, however, looked like he felt very restless about this.

"Oh, come on, Harry. Can't we at least send her a howler?" he pleaded. Harry laughed; the idea was tempting. Hermione looked a bit wistful for a moment, and sighed.

"What's with you, then?" Ron asked her, putting his hand on the back of her neck and rubbing affectionately. She looked like she was coming out of a lovely reverie.

"Oh, nothing. I was just thinking of sending Rita Skeeter a howler, actually. One which would burst open and send bubotuber pus flying all over her..."

The three of them burst out laughing then at this agreeable mental image, and while they were laughing, Harry saw Ron surreptitiously throw the Omnioculars under his bed, before Hermione took it into her head to look at anything else he had saved on them.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

Now, whenever Sirius wasn't teaching Apparition, he was off investigating Alicia's father's case. He knew a good lawyer for Mr. Spinnet, a witch who had studied law and was a barrister. Harry, Ron and Hermione visited Alicia every day in her rooms. Ron, oddly enough, was especially helpful in keeping her spirits up, telling her a number of things his doctor had told him when he'd been in St. Mungo's. Harry was impressed.

On the last day of the term, Harry, Hermione and the other Gryffindors went to the village with Sirius to take the Floo network to London. They were going to the Department of Magical Transportation to take their Apparition tests. To avoid taking a large number of students in one go, the Slytherins, Ravenclaws and Hufflepuffs had already gone. Harry didn't care for the idea of Crabbe and Goyle Apparating--but then he learned that they'd both failed, and would have to try again. He'd felt pressure to do well before, but now he really felt pressure. The last thing he wanted to do was be like Crabbe and Goyle...

They went alphabetically. Since Lavender had stopped attending Apparition lessons, Seamus went first, standing with his wand poised before him, visibly shaking. One moment he was there, the next--he had vanished with a pop! The problem was--his clothes remained. "Bloody hell!" Sirius exclaimed when he saw the pile of clothes on the ground, including Seamus' drawers. He smiled feebly at the Ministry official who stood nearby; Harry thought he remembered his name being Basil, from the World Cup. "Excuse me; be right back," he said quietly, clearly embarrassed that Seamus had bollixed the test. He took the clothes and with a wave of his wand Disapparated with a pop!

They all started snickering when Sirius was gone, unable to resist. Harry imagined poor Seamus standing with nothing on in the cold December wind at Broome Park, the wizarding estate in Kent where they were supposed to be going (it was where Ron went for practice when he was playing on the English team). But then they sobered, catching Basil's eye; there was no guarantee any of them would fare any better. Harry thought very, very hard about his destination. It's in Barham parish, halfway between Canterbury and Dover... He pictured Kent on a map of England, thought about what it would be like to fly there on a broom, or better still, as a golden griffin. The landscape and villages, the tiny houses and churches and schools would pass too quickly to be really seen....

Sirius popped! back into their midst, no longer carrying the clothes. "Wait a minute before taking your try, Hermione. Seamus needs a few minutes to get dressed. He arrived at the right place, just a little south of the house, actually..."

Basil held a clipboard with a piece of parchment on it; he made some rather angry-sounding scratches on the parchment with his quill. "He'll have to be taking the test again," Basil proclaimed. "We can't allow people to jump around the country naked..."

Harry saw that a smile was pulling at the corners of his mouth, and Sirius', too. They'd laugh, too, if they thought it would be all right, Harry thought. When they reckoned that enough time had passed to allow Seamus to dress, Hermione took out her wand, a look of fierce concentration on her face, as she closed her eyes and waved her wand... Harry wasn't prepared for the abrupt way she simply disappeared. He felt like his heart was going a mile a minute, as he hoped desperately that she had made it. Sirius, however, did not look like he was concerned about this.

"All right then, I'll check on Hermione and be right back," he said, once again Disapparating. Little by little, their numbers were diminishing. Neville would be next, then Parvati, and Harry would be last, since Ron couldn't Apparate. Dean would have been taking his test, but he didn't feel he was as far along as the others and wanted to continue learning what he could after the New Year, in order to take his test at Easter.

Sirius returned and reported that Hermione had been successful. Harry breathed a sigh of relief. Then he felt nervous all over again, on Neville's behalf, watching him vanish. Sirius went to check on him, as well. When he returned this time, he was grinning broadly. "That's two out of three! Not too bad..." Harry smiled at him. His students doing well reflected well on him. Harry was also glad to hear that Neville had done all right; he had been more worried about him than Seamus, before coming to the Ministry. Parvati looked nervous, but waved her wand and disappeared, like the others. Sirius returned from checking on her and said she'd been successful. Now it was Harry's turn.

Taking a deep breath, he waved his wand and thought again about the geography, the landscape, feeling a tingling all over that was like and yet unlike the Animagus Transfiguration. He'd done this before, when he'd Apparated to the opposite side of the Hogsmeade village hall, or from one end of the High Street to the other. They'd done plenty of practice Apparition during their lessons, in the past few weeks, but it had always been within Hogsmeade, to places they'd been before, places they'd seen and could picture quite easily. He decided that Apparition felt similar to separating his mind from his body, when he did the pain blocking, but he knew that he was actually traveling along a unique sort of fluid dimension in which he was made only of thought. As his thoughts turned to his body and clothes and the destination, he felt the tingling again, more strongly, as he appeared with a pop! on the estate in Kent, with Hermione, Seamus, Neville and Parvati standing about twenty feet away. He grinned, looking up at the enormous orange brick house with its jagged roofline and multiple chimneys. As soon as he arrived, the others burst into applause. He turned to them, grinning even more broadly, unable to believe how excited he was.

Thirty seconds later, Sirius arrived nearby; he turned and grinned at Harry. Clapping his hands for all of them now, he said, "Well done! Oh, very well done, everyone! And Seamus--I think Basil may let you take the test over while you're on your holiday, so you won't have to wait until Easter. All right?"

Seamus nodded. "That's grand," he said, his voice full of relief.

"Very well, then!" Sirius said. "You should be very proud of yourselves. But remember--the test is really only half over. We have to get all of you back now."

They looked at each other in alarm. They had to Apparate to the Department of Magical Transportation? Underneath Regis House, in the disused King William Street tube station that had been a bomb shelter during the Second World War?

"All right, then! We'll start from the end of the alphabet this time. You're up, Harry!"

He swallowed, no longer wondering why they'd been told very carefully about the location of the tube station, and about the large building it was under, which had been rebuilt the year before. (That had caused a number of nightmares concerning keeping the Muggles from excavating into the Ministry offices, according to Sirius.) He repeated the process of mentally flying over the landscape, picturing the room where Basil would be waiting for them...

The flowing, liquid feeling of being thought.... the tingling sensation.... With a pop! Harry reappeared before Basil, who, with a bored expression, made a quick mark on his parchment with his quill, then suggested that Harry move out of the way, to make it less likely that someone else would splinch themselves or land on top of him. He hurried across the room to where Basil stood, and watched as Parvati, Neville and Hermione reappeared one at a time. As each additional person arrived, they clapped in congratulations, and Basil made his marks on the parchment. The four of them stood on the far side of the room with Basil, waiting for what seemed rather a long time.

Finally, Seamus reappeared.

His clothes did not.

"Bugger!" he exclaimed. He used his hands to cover himself. "Hermione! Parvati! Bloody hell, turn around, can't you?"

They did, both trying to stifle their laughter; Harry's cheeks hurt from stifling his, and Neville caught his eye; he was grinning ear to ear. He had passed, and hadn't lost his clothes in the process. Sirius arrived, again carrying Seamus' clothes, looking resigned. They waited with their backs turned while Seamus dressed, swearing under his breath.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

The next morning, when most of the students who were going home for the holiday were packing, preparing to ride in the horseless carriages to the Hogsmeade train station, Harry let himself into the staff wing to find out whether Alicia was ready to leave for Hog's End. Harry had daily visited with Alicia in her rooms, usually with Ron, Hermione and Sirius.

Harry, Ron, Ginny, Hermione and Neville were going down to Hog's End for the holiday and Alicia was invited, too. Sirius, Snape and Maggie were to come for Christmas dinner on Thursday, and then Harry and Sirius were going to Ascog for most of the rest of the holiday, except for the European Cup final the day after Boxing Day (where they were meeting the residents of Hog's End as well as the other Weasleys, plus Snape and Maggie), and the broomstick race in Sweden on the last day of the year, to which Draco Malfoy was also invited. Harry had actually invited him to come to Ascog after Christmas, but to his surprise, Draco had declined, only accepting the invitation to the race.

Alicia wasn't in the sitting room when he let himself in, so he knocked gently at the bedroom door, calling, "Alicia! Are you ready? The carriages will be leaving soon..." When he received no answer, he debated whether to open the door to check on her. She was rather despondent when she first arrived at the castle, and there was little good news Sirius had been able to give her since then. He carefully turned the knob and found that she was still in bed, sleeping peacefully. But she wasn't alone.

"Sirius!" Harry hissed at him. He lifted his shaggy black head and wagged his tail at Harry, giving him what seemed to be an appeasing smile, although it was hard to tell when Sirius was in his dog form. Alicia, under the covers, had one arm thrown over Sirius' body possessively. He lay on top of the blankets. She still slept peacefully, a small smile on her face. "What do you think you're doing?" Harry demanded of his godfather.

Sirius looked at Alicia, then Harry, shaking his head. He turned back to Alicia and nudged her gently with his nose. Her eyes opened slowly; she gave the dog an affectionate smile and stroked his soft fur dreamily, down the length of his back and onto his flanks. Harry swallowed, remembering Ginny touching him that way when he was in his griffin form. Then she looked up and noticed Harry standing in the doorway.

"Oh, Harry! What time is it? I'm sorry I overslept. I did pack last night, so I only need to dress." She noticed him looking with disbelief at the large black dog. "Oh, isn't he lovely? He's Sirius' dog, but he said I could keep him with me at night. Wasn't that nice of him? I have to admit, I never expected Sirius Black to be--how he is. I'm not sure I can explain it. After the way we were all so panicked, when I was in fifth year..."

"Erm," Harry said awkwardly. "Right." He didn't know what to say. Alicia thought the dog was--a dog. Belonging to Sirius. She didn't realize it was Sirius himself. "So--has he been spending every night with you?" Harry tried to keep his voice from going up in pitch.

She leaned down and hugged the dog tightly, burying her face in his fur. "Yes. Snuffles has been very comforting, haven't you Snuffles? Funny, Sirius Black having a dog with a name like that. Seems like the sort of thing an old lady would name her dog..."

Harry tried not to laugh at her assessment. "Well, Snuffles and I will go into the next room and let you dress..."

"Oh, don't worry about the dog. He can stay. I'll be ready in a minute."

Harry hesitated for a moment, then shrugged and closed the door, wondering whether Alicia had been dressing every day with "Snuffles" in the same room. Lucky dog he thought for a moment, before squashing that thought.

He had to admit, though, Alicia seemed more cheerful than she had when she first arrived. When she opened the door she was levitating a suitcase before her. The large black dog followed. Harry gave Sirius a look, but Sirius gave what seemed to be a very pointed yawn and turned away. Oh, no you don't, Harry thought. We need to talk...

When they arrived at Hog's End, Fred greeted them in the drive, the front door of the house open behind him. "Happy Christmas, everyone!" he crowed, his messy red hair standing up all over his head. He helped his little sister and Hermione and Alicia down from the carriage, giving Alicia an extra hug when he had her on the ground.

"Alicia! How ripping to see you! I'm, er, sorry about your dad..."

Alicia ducked her head for a moment, then lifted a smiling face to Fred. "Thanks for letting me come for the holiday. My mum is staying in the flat in London that she and dad took after he was elected; she goes to see him every day. I just--I just couldn't bear the idea of being down there, seeing him like that...I'm glad to be back with old friends..." She smiled affectionately at Fred, who hugged her again.

"And Katie's here, too!" he said. "She's done with her training. It'll be just like old times, except for no Oliver. We invited him, but he's spending the holiday with his family. You've got to come to the match with us, on Saturday. We can all see Oliver then--he said he's going with his older brother, Alex. Bill knew him at school. Say you'll come?" Fred smiled winningly and it was clear that Alicia couldn't resist. She laughed, the first time Harry had seen her do so since she had returned to Hogwarts. He'd had a feeling the twins would be good for her.

"Of course I'll come. I haven't seen a good Quidditch match in ages."

Once they were inside, Ron, Ginny and Hermione opened their wickerwork cat carriers and loosed Crookshanks, MacKenzie and Argent upon the house. The cats stretched and started sniffing the various unfamiliar corners, rubbing against furniture and establishing who had which choice spot before the fire. Ginny and Hermione went up to the room that used to be Harry's, in his other life; Harry and Ron went to the room that used to be Jamie's. Katie and Alicia would share the room where Ron had been the previous summer. Neville was sharing with Percy. There was a flurry of welcoming in the front hall; George was hugging his sister and Hermione and Alicia and pounding Ron and Harry on the back. Lee was being gregarious as ever, making them all laugh with a very high-pitched impersonation of an old witch in Nottinghamshire who wasn't sure whether she wanted to sell their wares in her sweetshop. Percy waved his arms, directing traffic and ordering the twins to carry their guests' luggage to their rooms.

Harry smiled, standing in the hall, looking about at the Christmas decorations. He felt like he'd come home; this was where he should be, for the holiday. A hand appeared on his shoulder and he turned, surprised to see that it was Katie. She was smiling at him. "Happy Christmas, Harry," she said quietly, then hugged him. Harry held her for a moment, closing his eyes, glad that she was safe, but worried about what she would be facing, now that she was an Auror. He pulled back from her and smiled down at her.

"Happy Christmas, Katie," he replied, seeing that she was looking at him fondly, instead of with a faint air of resentment, as at the wedding. "How's your dad?"

"He's fine. He's coming to Christmas dinner, and then I'll be staying with him for Boxing Day. We'll see all of you at the match on Saturday. He said you were brilliant against England! Of course, you had to go and win..." She smiled mischievously.

Harry laughed. "Oh, well, I have to admit--I felt a little like a traitor myself. Welsh by birth, but English by upbringing, you know."

"And now, technically, a resident of Scotland. Well, I'm just sorry you won't be playing on Saturday. It sounds like France will be very hard to beat."

Harry nodded. "They're very rough. Fantastic Seeker. But I've also heard that Romania has an amazing team. What I've been reading in the Prophet says it should be an even better match than the World Cup game between Ireland and Bulgaria."

Alicia whirled around. "Where's Angelina? Where's my other old teammate?" Harry realized that Angelina wasn't in the hall. George colored and looked oddly sheepish.

"She's having a lie-down," Katie told her, blushing for some reason. "She hasn't been feeling very well lately. Don't worry--you can go up and see her in a bit, Alicia."

Harry followed Ron up to their room. After they were finished unpacking, Ron went to the door and said with a forced casualness, "I'll check on Hermione and Ginny..."

Harry grinned at him. "You mean you're going to kick Ginny out of the room for a while so you and Hermione can be alone..."

Ron looked enormously offended by this. "Harry! What do you take me for?"

Harry grinned at him. "You have to ask? I wasn't criticizing...Just go already. Hermione's probably expecting you, right?"

He turned bright red. "Er, yeah. She is."

Ron left while Harry shook his head, opening and closing drawers. He was rather surprised, however, when a minute later, the door to the room opened and Ginny entered. He stared at her, wondering why, if Ron and Hermione had kicked her out of her room, she had chosen to come here, of all places.

"Ginny! What are you doing here?" he asked; then he wanted to bite his tongue. It sounded like he was about to kick her out too, when that was the last thing he wanted to do. On the other hand, he wasn't all that keen to be told off again...

She gave him a small smile. "I--I wanted to talk to you. I need to tell you something--a lot of things." She sat on the end of the bed and patted the space next to her. Harry sat, confused. She was being friendlier than he'd seen her since she'd told him off (and Draco and Mariah) for carrying on with Mariah in the tunnels under the castle grounds.

Being so close to her again was almost unbearable. He knew he wasn't completely over her, but he'd managed to not think about her too much. Apart from ogling her when they went running. And when she sat by the fire in the common room, reading. And when she dueled during Dueling Club meetings, her hair like a fiery halo round her determined face... Erg. He'd tried to occupy himself with other concerns, like Alicia, so he couldn't think about her, but it wasn't dreadfully successful. Spending time with Draco hadn't helped, either. Somehow, they wound up talking about Ginny quite a lot.

She took his hand in hers and he swallowed, looked down at her, aware of how close together they were sitting, and that they were sitting on a bed.

"First--I want to apologize, Harry, for the way I had to speak to you when I broke up with Draco."

"Had to speak to me?" Harry choked out. "You told me you loved me, we were even using your sister's powers to communicate, and then--"

She leaned her head on his shoulder. "I know, Harry. But I--I had to put on a good show in front of Draco. I'm still not completely sure whether he believed it, but now that it seems the two of you might actually be friends--"

He pulled away from her and lifted her head by putting his hand under her chin. "A good show? Is that what it was?"

He felt her tremble. "Please don't be angry, Harry. I did it to protect you. Well, it wasn't just me--it's a long story...." Tears began to escape her eyes and roll down her cheeks.

"You mean," Harry said, incredulous, "you didn't mean it? You--you just didn't want Draco to hurt me?"

She smiled. "You're calling him Draco now! How funny--"

He rose and walked toward the window. He realized that he was shaking with rage. He whirled on her. "Do you know what you put me through, Ginny? Why couldn't you have let me in on the plan? Why did you have to hurt me that way?"

She looked at him in shock. "I just said! But--but now that you're friends with Draco--"

He strode toward her. "I am friends with him because I know what he can be. What he can do, if he wants to. I know that he drew a short straw in this life and that he doesn't have to be a complete prat. Yes, I thought about the Obedience Charm a bit, but that's not the only reason I'm his friend now. Do you know I showed him my Penseive?"

Her jaw dropped. "So--he knows--"

"That you were my girlfriend. Yes."

"And--and how did he take that?"

Harry crossed his arms. "Not too badly, actually. He reckons that it technically never happened, so getting upset about it is pointless...."

She smiled and walked to him, throwing her arms around his neck. "This is wonderful! Maybe he'll be able to handle the idea of our being together in this life! Maybe--"

He cut her off, pulling her to him roughly, unable to be so close to her anymore without kissing her. He held her face up and covered her mouth with his, opening his mouth and drinking her in, feeling her surprise turn to passion as she tightened her hold on him and kissed him back. But then, something at the back of his mind bothered him, and he pulled back from her, taking her arms from around his neck and walking to the window again.

"What's wrong, Harry?" she whispered.

He stared at the drive before the house. "I don't know, Ginny. I still love you. I do. I can't help it. And I want you so badly it hurts sometimes. But I'm very angry with you, too. And I don't know how long it will take me to get past that. I think--I'm just not ready to stop being angry." He turned and looked at her shocked face. He was more than a little surprised himself at what he was saying. "I'm not ready to forgive you."

Now she wasn't so much shocked as equally angry. "You're not ready to forgive me? What about when I saw you with Mariah? Do you know how I felt?"

"She's a selkie, Ginny! I didn't exactly have a choice!"

"I know!" she cried. "But do you think it was any easier to remember seeing the two of you, even knowing that? I still saw you together. And I had the pleasure of finding you in bed with Katie. To say nothing of when you were with Hermione..."

He strode toward her, feeling angrier and angrier. "I was trying to convince myself I had to get over you. I was with other people because you told me repeatedly that you were with Draco and that was that. And what about when I had to see you and Draco in the amulet, taking each other's clothes off in the greenhouse? At a time when you say you loved me? He's not a bloody selkie, or a veela, or anything. What's your excuse?"

She trembled and he could see the fire in her eyes. "I was his girlfriend at the time, largely because I was protecting you, not that you seem to care--"

They were standing toe-to-toe, shouting in each other's faces. "I would rather have had the choice of dealing with Draco Malfoy myself and having you by my side!" he yelled.

"I would rather have been in the greenhouse with you any day!" she screamed back at him.

They were standing very close, red-faced with anger, chests heaving with emotion. Harry swallowed and pulled her to him again, whispering, "Bloody hell," before covering her mouth with his once more, kissing her hungrily, feeling her kissing him back, her hands sliding up under his jumper, then pulling his shirt from his trousers and sliding her hands under the fabric, her touch on his bare skin inflaming him further, making him press her to him so that her breasts were crushed against his chest, her heart beating against his.

Every nerve in his body was standing at attention, and he could feel her trembling from head to foot. He wasn't sure how long they were kissing when he pulled his mouth away from hers and moved his lips along her jaw, then down her neck. She removed her hands from his back and pulled his jumper off over his head; after allowing her to do that, he clamped his mouth on her neck again as her fingers flew to his shirt's buttons. A feeling of desperation seemed to flow through them, telling them now, now. Before something else happened to drive them apart...

"The warriors of light shall come."

Harry lifted his mouth from her neck. He looked down at her passion-clouded face; her cheeks were quite pink, her lips swollen from kissing. "Sandy says that someone's coming, Ginny," he told her softly, his heart pounding in his ears. "I'm not sure who. This--this probably isn't the time or place for--for--" He swallowed and tried to steady his breathing, every swear word he knew rocketing through his head. What he really wanted to do was rip her clothes off and pick her up, take her to the bed, but instead he backed away slightly and sat in a chair next to the desk, slowly buttoning his shirt, trying to calm down but still feeling like he'd run about ten miles...

How did we go from screaming at each other to kissing? he wondered, staring at her. But when he saw her standing before him, still looking angry and passionate both, her hand on her sternum as her ribcage rose and fell, he didn't wonder this for long. It was possible that they could have an even more volatile relationship than Ron and Hermione. Relationship? Were they going to have a relationship? As he gazed at her, it was very difficult to not leap forward and take her in his arms again. He didn't remember ever feeling quite this way in his other life, when he was with her.

But suddenly, the door to the room opened and to Harry's surprise, Katie and Percy were standing there. Katie looked particularly surprised to see Ginny and Harry in the room.

"Oh! I, erm, thought--we thought we heard someone having a row. Well, anyway, we've had all of this wonderful snow, and we were going to go out and enjoy it. Coming?" Katie raised one eyebrow as she spoke, looking back and forth between Harry and Ginny.

He swallowed and forced a smile. "Er, yeah. That sounds great. I'll tell Ron and Hermione," he said quickly, hoping that Katie and Percy hadn't already tried walking into the other bedroom.

He had a feeling that something like that had already occurred, however, when Katie's smile turned rather mischievous and she said, "Oh, they know already. We shouted through the door. We weren't expecting to find it locked..."

Harry felt himself reddening. He was glad now that he and Ginny hadn't done anything else--he hadn't considered the possibility that someone would walk in on them. And while Percy might look amused at the idea of his younger brother sleeping with his girlfriend, Harry wasn't certain how he'd react to his little sister being in a similar situation...

"I'll get my cloak," Ginny said quickly, practically running from the room.

Katie raised her eyebrows, giving Harry a knowing smile. Percy, on the other hand, looked at him suspiciously. "Erm, going out in the snow sounds like fun. I'll be right there," he said, nodding at them. Finally, they left, closing the door. Harry put his jumper on again, then did some deep breathing to try to collect himself.

"Thanks for the warning, Sandy," he said to her feelingly. "I'm not sure what they would have seen if I didn't know they were coming."

"I have no control over what I See," Sandy reminded him. "I do know that I am glad that the shouting stopped. When you are angry, it makes me very nervous. For one thing, your arm becomes far too warm."

"Sorry, Sandy. Do you want to stay indoors while I go out? You probably don't want to be where it's snowy."

"That would be my preference, Harry Potter." She slithered out of his sleeve and he picked her up, carrying her from the room. He was very glad that he'd found her again in the park in Little Whinging.

He left Sandy curled up in a basket near the large old cooker in the kitchen and went to get his cloak; while he was fastening it, something suddenly occurred to him. He strode back into the front hall, remembering something Katie had said months ago about her trip to Hog's End...

I actually had quite a nice time this weekend. I spent most of it with--with the other Auror applicant...

Percy and Katie were bundling up in their cloaks and gloves, wrapping their old Gryffindor mufflers around their throats, and Harry stood before them, tapping his foot with his arms folded and one eyebrow raised. They stopped abruptly and stared at him.

"Are you all right, Harry?" Katie asked him, a slight shake in her voice.

"Oh, I'm fine. Tell me, what would you say is a good definition for 'Auror?' Would 'warrior of light' be a fairly accurate one?"

Percy frowned at him. "Yes, but why are you--"

Harry stepped toward Percy and pushed his finger at Percy's chest. "You, Percy Weasley, are an Auror, aren't you?"

Percy dropped his jaw. "Did the twins tell you?" he said, his voice dropping to a whisper.

Harry hid his surprise that the twins knew. "No. Katie did. Months ago. She told me that she'd been to the screening tests with someone else who lived in Hogsmeade, and then just a few minutes ago, my snake Sandy told me The warriors of light shall come. She used the plural. Sandy doesn't make mistakes about things like that."

Percy dropped his jaw. "Well. I suppose I know why you have that pet snake now."

Harry nodded. "I don't tell just anyone about this, mind you, but as you're Aurors, it's the sort of thing you should probably know. She has the Sight. All snakes do. Why do you think Voldemort has one?"

Percy shook his head. "I didn't know before, but I do now." He put his arm around Harry's neck, walking to the kitchen with him. "Perhaps if I'm going to do this, I should talk a bit with the resident expert on the Dark Lord?" he grinned. Harry was relieved to see that Percy had loosened up. Perhaps that was the Auror training.

"After Christmas," Harry said. "First we have a serious snowball battle to wage," he said, grinning and opening the back door. He ushered Katie and Percy into the garden, forgetting briefly that this was Percy's house and not the Snape-Evans-Potter house.

After a minute, Ron, Hermione and Ginny turned up, plus Neville, Lee and the twins. Alicia was evidently staying indoors to keep Angelina company. The ten of them managed to do a rather good job of pretending that they weren't of-age, or prefects, or successful businessmen, or newly-trained Aurors. They ran and laughed and sent charmed snowballs flying after each other (all except Ginny, who couldn't do magic away from school). Harry was trying to help Ginny evade some snowballs the twins had sent her way, but she pushed him out of the way and instead caught them in the air, sending them hurtling back at Fred and George. Harry marveled at her, but a minute later Fred and George were sending far too many snowballs at her for her to manage in this way, and Harry pulled her down behind a snowbank as the cloud of snowballs began to bear down on her.

A second later, they found themselves tumbling down a small embankment, getting snowier and snowier by the moment. When they stopped rolling, Harry looked up at Ginny; she was radiant, her cheeks glowing with healthy color, her eyes sparkling, her long fiery curls escaping from her hood. Knowing that they were too far from the others to be seen, he pulled her down to him suddenly in a kiss, unable to resist her, and she immediately succumbed. He rolled them so that he was leaning over her, devouring her mouth, then moving his lips down to her throat, making her gasp and grip his arms tightly.

"Um, Harry?" she whispered as his teeth nipped at her neck lightly.

"Yes?" he murmured between kisses. He felt both cold and hot simultaneously, a curious sensation.

"Does this mean that you're not angry with me anymore?"

He rose and looked down at her, considering this question. "No," he answered simply. He saw how confused she looked before he claimed her mouth again; she laced her fingers into his hair, holding him in place; her fingers were making his scalp prickle pleasantly. But a minute later she pulled his face away from her.

"So, you're doing this even though you're still angry?"

"Well--a little angry--" he admitted. "But somehow--" He remembered how electrifying it had been when the two of them had been shouting at each other in his room, before they had kissed...

She nodded. "Right. Shut up and kiss me," she ordered him. He looked at her with one eyebrow raised.

"I'll kiss you when I'm ready, Ginny Weas--"

But she had pulled his face down to hers again and his words were cut off.

He didn't complain.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

That night, it was very hard for Harry to watch Ginny go off to the same room as Hermione, while he had to go to the room he was sharing with Ron. His best friend dropped off almost immediately. Harry grimaced and pulled the covers back to his side of the bed; Ron wouldn't know the difference. He slept like the dead. If, Harry thought, dead people slept while sounding like a thousand sawmills...

Eventually, despite Ron's snoring, he fell deep asleep. When an unfamiliar weight on his chest and a painful pricking on his face woke him and his eyes flew open, he was surprised to see that a grey morning light was already filtering into the room. Then, suddenly, everything went black. And furry. And there was a lot of loud purring.

"MacKenzie," Harry said irritably to the large fuzzy black cat that had once been Ginny's tiny fluffy kitten, "get off my face." The cat backed up a little, sitting on his chest, looking at him with baleful yellow eyes, still purring loudly. Then she touched his face again with her claws. He winced and batted her paw away. "Cut that out," he told her, reaching out to rub the side of her face. The purring increased in volume and she leaned into his hand appreciatively, urging him on. "How did you get in here, then, eh?" he asked her as he chucked her under the chin. He glanced at the door, which he was certain had been securely closed when they'd gone to bed. It was now slightly ajar. He smiled at the cat. "You were sent to fetch me, weren't you?" She merely pushed her nose at his hand, purring some more. Harry laughed softly and picked her up, throwing back the covers. He put her down, donned his dressing gown, then cradled her against him and rubbed her fuzzy belly while he walked. "Let's go find your mistress then, shall we?"

In the corridor he put her down and she trotted purposefully to the stairs, then began descending them. Harry followed. When she scratched at the door of the drawing room, Harry turned the knob, completely unsurprised to find Ginny sitting in front of the fire in her dressing gown. The Christmas tree nearby was adorned in sparkling lights that made her look like she had a golden aura. She turned and smiled at him. He closed the door; the cat went to a squashy armchair and curled in a circle on the seat, tucking her nose into her tail. Harry sat beside Ginny on the hearth rug, also hugging his knees to his chest, grinning. "MacKenzie told me you were waiting for me down here," he said.

"Oh, really? So you're not just a Parseltongue?"

He laughed. "Oh, sure. I'm a regular Doctor Doolittle."

"Who?" She frowned. He shook his head.

"Never mind." He put his arms around her and pushed her hair from her brow. "It doesn't matter..." But then he thought of something that did matter. It mattered quite a lot. It had been bothering him the day before, but he hadn't been able to articulate it when he'd been so angry about other things...

She had leaned in, expecting him to kiss her, but he pulled back and frowned. She opened her eyes and saw that he was frowning at her, and she frowned back. "What's wrong, Harry?"

He breathed heavily through his nose. "Neville."

She turned to look at the fire again. "Oh, is that all?"

His jaw dropped. "How can you say that? I can't believe the way you just took up with him, using him so that Draco wouldn't think you were still interested in me. And then Hermione used him, too! Really--I was rather disappointed in the pair of you. I do think you both owe him an apology. Asking him here for the holiday isn't going to make up for his heart being trod on by two girls he fancied..." To his horror, Ginny was grinning at him. "It isn't funny!" he said, appalled, making her grin even wider.

"Wait right here," she said suddenly, springing up and running to the door. Her cat watched her run off, then tucked her nose into her tail again, unconcerned. Harry frowned into the fire. What on earth is going on here? he wondered. He yawned suddenly, realizing how early it was and how tired he was.

A few minutes later, Ginny came springing back into the room. "I reckon we should tell you everything," she burbled.

He stared at her. "We?" he echoed, not understanding. Maybe I just need to be more awake to get what she's saying.

"Right. I woke up Hermione, so--" Ginny turned around, looking very confused. She walked back over to the door and called into the hall, "Hermione! Where are you?"

"Coming...." came the faint whisper of Hermione's sleepy voice, accompanied by the sound of her feet, still in slippers, plodding down the steps. Ginny looked like she'd had several pots of coffee or tea. Hermione stumbled into the drawing room; Harry tried not to laugh, she was such a sight, from her bleary eyes to her wild hair and misbuttoned nightshirt, showing under her old frayed dressing gown, to her mismatched socks. (He knew the socks were no accident; she did it on principle, in honor of Dobby.)

He was feeling more awake, seeing her. He grinned. "Morning, Hermione. Sleep well?"

Her eyes had started to close again as she leaned against the door, and she opened one now and looked balefully at him. "You say something, Potter?"

He laughed, then stopped abruptly, clamping his mouth shut; he couldn't ever remember her calling him by his last name. She might have done, but he couldn't remember. "Nah. Not me," he finally was able to say, finding it harder and harder to not laugh out loud again.

Ginny was still bubbling over. "Wait here, Harry. I'll go up and get Neville now."

She was already sprinting out of the room again when Harry suddenly realized what she'd said. "Neville?" he said, horrified, getting to his feet. "You're going to wake him up at this hour to apologize? You'll just have to apologize for that!" he called after her, uncertain whether she'd heard him. He was too tired to run after her. Hermione staggered to the games table, where Ron had been playing Percy at chess the night before. She pulled out a chair and sat in it heavily, her eyes closing. A few minutes later, Ginny came running in again, her face glowing with excitement.

"Soon I think you'll understand why I'm so mad this morning. Oh, good; here's Neville."

Neville staggered into the room sleepily. He looked, if possible, less alert than Hermione. "Morning, Neville," Harry said softly, not trying to make any jokes this time. "Do you want to sit?" he added, pulling out the other chair from the games table, putting it next to Hermione's. Neville nodded slowly and staggered to the chair, sitting in it and sighing.

Hermione listed to the side and leaned her head on Neville's shoulder, closing her eyes. Harry looked quizzically at Ginny. He still wasn't certain that this was a good idea.

"Um--was it really necessary to get them out of bed this early?"

"But you've got to understand. I couldn't wait. It's just too bad Mariah isn't here--"

Now Harry was really baffled. "Mariah!"

Ginny grinned broadly. "Yes! It was all her brilliant plan, really. True Slytherin cunning."

Harry shook his head. "I think I need to sit, too." He turned an armchair so that their seats formed a small semi-circle and he sank into its depths. Ginny simply lowered herself to the floor and sat cross-legged, gazing up lovingly at Harry again.

"First of all, Neville--Harry and I are together now." She turned to Harry. "I told Hermione last night." She resumed talking to the other two. "I want to tell him about the plan. I also want to thank you for everything. You're the best friends I--"

"What bleeding plan?" Harry interrupted loudly. His noise seemed to wake Hermione up.

"God, Harry, don't you see?" she said, sounding a bit more disgusted with his cluelessness than she usually did. She spoke slowly, but Harry decided to assume that it was because she was tired rather than because she thought he was dim. "Mariah went to Ginny because she didn't think that Ginny--" she paused to yawn; "-- wanted to be with Malfoy anymore. She was honest with Ginny and said that she did want--" yawn "-- to be with him, and that they'd been carrying on. She said she was a selkie, but she'd never used that to get Malfoy. Since Ginny didn't want him, she should let him g-g-g-gooo," she finally managed to say, and then yawned hugely yet again.

Ginny went on as Hermione snuggled closer to Neville, making contented noises that Harry remembered meant she was about to fall asleep again. "So," Ginny said quickly, "I told her I'd do that in a heartbeat, but if I left Draco for you, there was no telling what he'd do. She agreed that that might be a problem and suggested we just sneak around. I explained to her about the amulets and showed her mine; she couldn't believe it. She told me about Slytherin and the family curse--she hadn't originally said that's why she's a selkie. She held my amulet and said she could see Draco. I told her I saw you, and that I was fairly certain Draco could see me, so there couldn't be any sneaking around while he had his amulet. She was surprised--she didn't know there was more than one, and she said whenever she'd been with Draco, he hadn't been wearing it." She made a face then, and Harry thought about her pride. "I reckon he might actually have felt guilty if he'd been wearing it while he was with her, and touched it and saw me..."

Harry put out his hand to her and she took it gratefully. Shaking herself, she went on. "Sorry. I'm being stupid. So Mariah and I talked and talked about how to handle the problem, and finally, she had an answer. She said she'd get the patrolling schedule changed so that she and you were on the same shift. She'd make a pass at you and I'd say I'd seen it in the amulet and then meet with the three of you and tell you all to sod off. That way, it would look like I was admitting to everything. Admitting to knowing about him and Mariah, and also the Muggle girl in the hedge maze. And not wanting to go very far with him because I was in love with you, and so on. Because of the amulet, I could bring up the part about seeing you and Mariah when I held it, and--this is the key--in front of Draco, I could tell you off and make him think I wanted nothing more to do with you!"

Harry was baffled. "But wait--I thought the two of them were on different shifts because Ron and Hermione and I had this plan to catch Mariah and Draco, and--"

"Oh, it is, in part. Except that what you didn't know was that Mariah and I had recruited Hermione already, and when you and Ron started talking to her about your plan, she decided that if she switched the shifts, it would work for both plans--you'd think she did it because of what you had hatched, and Mariah could pretend to Draco that she didn't know about the switch, although she and Hermione and I planned it."

Harry was feeling a little hurt. "Why couldn't you tell me about all of this?"

Hermione opened one eye and looked at him sleepily, and not like she thought he was a genius, either. "I told her not to tell you. It was better for you not to know. You're not the world's best actor, Harry. You couldn't even bite your tongue when your Aunt Marge was insulting your dad. You couldn't pretend not to care, oh, no; instead you inflated her. Malfoy would have spotted it right away if you knew."

Harry was flabbergasted. He remembered the way Ginny and Mariah had been shooting daggers at each other during the confrontation in the anteroom--and they'd rehearsed it all! Planned every moment of it, practically. "So you knew that she was a selkie, yet you looked so shocked when--"

Ginny laughed. "I really made you think I didn't know! That's fantastic. I was worried about that. Mariah helped me practice my 'completely shocked and taken aback' look."

Harry picked his jaw up from the floor. "But," he finally managed to say, "what does all of this have to do with Neville?"

"Well," Ginny explained, "I was afraid Draco would suspect something and still think we were sneaking around, after the break-up, and try to catch us. We had to get the amulet away from Draco. The funny part about Mariah getting it, of course, is that you were the one to mention it first. I was going to say, 'Haven't you shown her your amulet, Draco?' But you saved me the trouble. That worked out so well..."

He frowned again. "But--Mariah seemed really hacked off when she saw you wearing it that morning, you know, when she--"

Ginny nodded. "We did that on purpose. She already knew, of course. We needed for both you and Draco to see that Mariah knew, so when she was on patrol with you, after she made the pass, she could say she knew I'd see the two of you in the amulet. If you didn't know that Mariah knew I had it, that wouldn't have worked. See?"

Harry's head was spinning. "Um, can we get back to Neville?"

"Wha--?" Neville said suddenly, sitting up abruptly, his shoulder hitting Hermione in the cheekbone.

"Ow--" she said slowly, putting her hand to her face.

"Oh, sorry, Herminninny," Neville said sleepily, putting his arm around her shoulder. She leaned on him again and they both closed their eyes, falling asleep again.

Ginny laughed softly at them. "Hermione's idea. She said I should talk to Neville, because he seemed like he had a bit of a crush on me, and he'd probably help. I explained to him that you and I wanted to be together, and I'd broken up with Draco, but I couldn't be with you yet because I was afraid of what Draco would do. So I asked him whether he'd mind pretending to be my boyfriend, to throw Draco off the scent. I said I'd understand completely if he didn't want to, since he could become a target--except that I think Draco doesn't usually take Neville seriously enough for that to happen right off--" She looked fondly at Neville. "He was so sweet. He kissed me on the cheek, and said, 'I couldn't imagine losing you to someone better than Harry Potter. And if it will make Draco Malfoy squirm to see you with me, I'm in. I've wanted to get Malfoy's goat for almost seven years. This'll be like a birthday and Christmas present rolled into one!'" She grinned. Harry looked at Neville, smiling and shaking his head. No wonder Neville seemed so happy to be with Ginny; in addition to at least being able to pretend to be her boyfriend, he was also able to live an old fantasy about getting the better of Draco Malfoy.

But Ginny wasn't done. "Then, after a while, I really did start worrying about Neville's safety. There was that ridiculous almost-duel, for one thing. Draco didn't act like it was nothing for me to be with Neville, as he did at first, and he definitely seemed like he was cooking up something. So Mariah suggested that, since Hermione was still trying to knock some sense into Ron, she should start seeing Neville, sort of 'stealing him' away from me. Then Neville wouldn't be my boyfriend any more and Draco wouldn't go after him, and maybe if Ron thought Neville and Hermione were seeing each other, he might see sense and stop pushing her away. And that worked too!" she crowed.

Harry shook his head at Neville. "You're either the stupidest or the most selfless bloke I've ever met, Nev. But I'll give you the benefit of the doubt and say 'selfless,'" Harry added, grinning at him. Neville had forced his eyes open now.

"Well, both jobs did have their fringe benefits. I can't really complain," he said, smiling in a sly un-Neville-like way. Harry remembered seeing him--and in Hermione's case, hearing him--snogging both girls at different points in time, and he had a feeling that he knew what Neville meant. Harry had been seething inside when he'd seen Neville with Ginny, but now he just thought, How could I not have seen it? It was all an act.

"If we try to get you a real girlfriend, do you promise to stay away from ours in future, Longbottom?" Ron demanded as he entered the room. They all looked up in surprise.

"Ron!" Ginny said half-guiltily, springing to her feet. "Did you hear--"

"Yeah, I heard everything. After Harry left our room, I wondered what was going on. Then I heard you get Hermione, and after that, Neville. After he went down, I went out to sit at the top of the stairs. Heard everything without a problem." He tapped his ear with his index finger. "Wolf hearing, you know. Rather convenient."

Hermione looked at him uncertainly, but he pulled her to her feet and kissed her soundly, then put his chin on the top of her head and looked at Neville. "I figured out pretty early what was going on, but thanks anyway, mate, for helping me see the light. And if you ever lay another finger or lip on her, I'll break both your arms, Longbottom."

Neville didn't flinch but smiled back tiredly at Ron. "Not a problem. Just see to it that you appreciate what you have in Hermione. Because if you don't make her blissfully happy, you'll have me to answer to."

"And me," Harry added, looking happily at his two best friends. Ginny crawled into his lap and put her arms around his neck.

"And you'll have to answer to all six of my brothers and my sister and parents if you don't make me blissfully happy," she said, kissing him on the cheek.

"And me as well," Neville added, standing. "But no pressure," he said quickly, grinning. They all laughed at that. Then, looking back and forth at the two couples, Neville said a little wistfully, "You were saying, Ron, about getting me a real girlfriend...."

Both girls immediately abandoned Harry and Ron and threw their arms around Neville. "He's mine!" Hermione cried, grinning.

"No, you tart!" Ginny said in a squeaky mock-appalled voice. "Get off my man!"

Neville didn't look a bit displeased about their silliness though, and had an arm around each one of them. Harry gently gathered Ginny to him once more, saying, "Here, here. There are loads of other girls in the world..."

Ron also drew Hermione away, and she smiled up at him playfully. Neville made a great show of snapping his fingers and looking disappointed.

"And I was so enjoying having a harem."

They forgot how tired they all were as they burst forth into laughter again.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

Harry was the last one to stumble out of the fireplace in the sitting room at Ascog castle. He threw himself onto one of the squashy couches between Sirius and Ginny, shaking his head. No one was laughing, or felt likely to any time soon. He usually quite enjoyed a Christmas dinner, but now he groaned, "I don't think I've ever felt more--"

"Oh, god, no..." Sirius agreed, running his hands over his face.

"--uncomfortable in my entire life," Harry finished. Hermione and Ron sat on the other couch with Neville.

Ginny was as red as her hair. Neville looked like he wanted to drop through a hole in the ground. Hermione and Ron, however, looked like their ire was up.

"I can't believe your mother reacted that way!" Hermione said to Ron, incredulous.

"You can't!" Ron said. "I'm the one with the mother living in the dark ages...."

Harry sighed and leaned back, closing his eyes, reaching for Ginny's hand and clasping it convulsively. Just when he was thinking Christmas was going to be absolutely lovely, a revelation had torn the Weasley family apart. It began with Molly Weasley arriving on Christmas day and entering the kitchen, screaming loud enough to wake the dead when she saw her son's girlfriend and her very pregnant belly.

Harry and the other guests (other than Katie and Alicia, who'd already found out) had learned on Christmas Eve why Angelina was nowhere to be found the day before. Her second trimester was over, she'd said, and the babies were getting very uncomfortable for her to carry. She was having twins. Harry had been flabbergasted, then congratulated her and George and asked when the wedding was to be. After an awkward silence, they explained that they weren't even going to start planning a wedding until after the babies were born. The pregnancy wasn't an accident, but completely intentional, because they hadn't wanted to wait. With the war and the Diagon Alley attack and the Gringotts siege, they didn't want to postpone life. Angelina wanted a proper wedding with enough time (a year) to plan it; that would have meant postponing having a child (which had unexpectedly become two children) for almost two years. They decided to reverse the order of things instead: children first, then wedding. (Angelina insisted that this meant she didn't ever have to give birth again-- "Two in one go," was how she'd put it.)

The thing that had most angered Mrs. Weasley was that it was planned. (She kept using the term "premeditated," and Harry could see that this was making Alicia very uncomfortable.) The only time Harry had heard her screech in quite the same way was when she had sent a howler to Ron in second year, after they'd taken the Ford Anglia. He had always assumed that the howler had amplified her voice. Now he knew that when she was really enraged, a facsimile like a howler couldn't come close to doing her justice...

The battle lines had been drawn. Percy, to everyone's surprise, had defended George and Angelina's decision. He'd known from the very start that they'd planned it and had encouraged them, saying that he wished he and Penny had had a chance to have a child before she was killed. "Well!" she'd replied, more than indignant. "I never thought I'd see the day that you, of all people, would completely forget decorum and--and respect for your parents!"

She stormed from the kitchen, her husband traveling uncertainly in her wake. Bill, Charlie, Maggie, Snape and Sirius had also come for Christmas dinner, and they left the kitchen as well, along with Ron, Ginny, Hermione and Harry. In the entrance hall, Molly paced, as though uncertain about the next step. She muttered under her breath as the carol-singing Christmas ornaments on the hall tree added an inappropriately cheerful tone.

"I just do not believe this. That they would be so irresponsible..."

To Harry's surprise, Hermione stepped forward. "They're just worried, Mrs. Weasley. They want a family, but with everything going on--"

The next thing Harry knew, Molly Weasley was attacking Hermione, bringing up the Rita Skeeter article again, from the Tournament, and the Daisy Furuncle article from the summer, saying that when she and Harry had been sneaking around together they'd been playing Ron for a fool. Hermione looked like she was on the verge of tears but trying to hide this behind a furious fa├žade; she stormed out of the room. Ron turned on his mother with fire in his eyes.

"You will not speak to Hermione that way, Mum! Now, I know that I'm a disappointment to you--" Mrs. Weasley suddenly put her hands out to Ron in appeasement. He brushed her off. "Don't try to make it up to me now. The letters you sent me when I was in hospital said it all. 'Try to find out if they have a cure now,' you said. You're ashamed of me. You don't want a son who's a werewolf. Well, fine! You don't have to think of me as your son anymore, if you like. But George is still my brother and Angelina is going to have my nieces or nephews, or maybe one of each, so if you don't mind, I'd like to go have Christmas dinner with my family."

He stormed out as well. Charlie looked sheepishly at his mother and followed Ron, showing tacit agreement. Bill and Maggie went to their mother; Maggie put her arms around the small woman, tutting and comforting her.

Ginny looked at them with her hands on her hips. "You're not agreeing with her, are you?" she asked her sister and her eldest brother. Bill and Maggie looked uncertainly at Ginny, but it was Snape who answered.

"Never have I seen a more disgraceful display of disrespect toward a parent," he growled iciliy. "War or no war, this is still nominally a civilized society and in a civilized society one shows respect to one's elders."

"Is that what my sister shows to you? Is that what they're calling it now?" They all whirled; George had left the kitchen and was now standing in the entrance hall, giving Snape a piece of his mind. "Because you're--what? Twelve years older than her? Convenient, isn't it? She can't disagree with you or she's showing disrespect to her elder. Well, you're not a member of this family, Snape, so stay out of our family arguments. For that matter, stay out of my house. That goes for all of you; if you don't like what Angelina and I are doing, you can leave and have your ruddy Christmas dinner elsewhere!"

George turned on his heel and returned to the kitchen. Harry was shocked. Ginny had tears streaming down her cheeks; Molly hugged her and said, "Come on then, love. I can fix up something for us back at the Burrow..."

But Ginny pulled back suddenly. "Erm, no, Mum. I'm staying here." She spoke very quietly and lifted her chin slightly. Her mother looked shocked. She turned to Harry. He stood shoulder to shoulder with Ginny.

Before she could say anything, he said softly, "I'll be staying as well, Mrs. Weasley." Sirius stood next to him with his hand on his shoulder, silent, but since he was there as Harry's godfather, it was clear that he wouldn't be leaving for the Burrow either.

Mrs. Weasley looked as though Harry had hit her and turned to her husband, who had been rendered utterly speechless until now. He put his arms around her and said, "Come along, love. We should go..." Mr. and Mrs. Weasley stepped into the fire after throwing the Floo powder, followed by Bill, Maggie, and finally, Snape, who looked pointedly at Harry and Sirius before disappearing into the green flames.

The meal that followed was a silent, grim affair, unrelieved by the slight amusement provided by the wizarding crackers. Sirius suggested to Harry that he, Ron, Hermione, Ginny and Neville could come to Ascog after dinner, instead of waiting for the morning of Boxing Day, and they all jumped at the chance to leave the tension-fraught house.

However, leaving Hog's End didn't immediately lift their spirits. The silence in the sitting room at Ascog Castle was palpable. Sirius looked down and saw Harry and Ginny holding hands and said, "Harry, is there something you and Ginny would like to tell me?"

Harry looked at Sirius, then Ginny, and put his arm around her, smiling at his godfather, who, to Harry's dismay, did not look very happy for him.

"What?" Harry said, feeling rather hurt by Sirius' reaction. Sirius stood and walked to the mantle. When he turned around he looked a little happier, but Harry could still see concern behind his dark eyes.

"It's just that--yeah, I'm happy for you both. But don't go getting any ideas about shouting it from the rooftops. It was one thing when Hermione was your girlfriend--she was already targeted by Voldemort just for being your friend. Just as Ron is. But Ginny--well, it would probably be a bad idea for anyone outside this room to know about the pair of you... Like Draco Malfoy."

Harry's mouth worked silently. "But--but--"

Sirius shook his head. "I know you're trying to become friends, but you cannot tell him. Absolutely not."

"Come on, Sirius--"

"Two words, Harry. Obedience Charm."

"But--"

"No." Harry had never felt like a small child being disciplined when he was with Sirius; he usually felt like an equal. But now he felt anything but equal.

Brilliant. That's the way to convince Draco I'm his friend... Start sneaking around with his old girlfriend, the one I said would probably never want to look at me again. Harry swallowed. "Well, others know. I think. Actually, we didn't make an announcement at Hog's End or anything, so the twins and Percy and the others may or may not know..."

Sirius waved this concern away. "I don't mean them. They're trustworthy. After all, they're--" He stopped suddenly, and Harry leaned forward, waiting.

"They're Ginny's family. Of course they're not going to tell anyone anything that could get her hurt."

"Er, yes. Right," Sirius said awkwardly.

"Maggie and Bill know," Ginny said quietly, gripping Harry's hand. "I told them when they arrived. You were in the kitchen," she told Harry. "But of course, they're also family. And Professor Snape knows as well, but he's working for Professor Dumbledore, and he's--he's with our sister. I trust him. I never had a chance to tell Mum and Dad, though; Mum went right into the kitchen when she arrived, and then the fight began..."

"Do the other girls know?" Sirius asked. "You know--Alicia, Katie, Angelina?"

Ginny looked thoughtful. "I'm not sure about Alicia. Katie knew months ago how we felt about each other, and she and Percy sort of--found us together yesterday. Just talking, mind you," she said quickly; Harry was trying not to turn red. He remembered that it hadn't been all talk. "And I told Angelina myself, yesterday, when I took some tea to her room. We visited for a while..."

Sirius looked thoughtful. "Hm. I hope Alicia doesn't know...."

Harry frowned. "Why?"

Sirius looked uncertainly at Ginny and Neville. "They don't know about her dad, do they?" he said to Harry.

Harry looked at them in turn. "There's no reason why they can't, is there?"

Sirius considered it for a moment, then nodded and gave them the short version of Alicia's father's plight. Ginny and Neville looked shocked by the tale. Harry frowned at Sirius again. "So why do you hope Alicia doesn't know about me and Ginny?"

"Because I'm not certain how truthful she's being about this whole mess..."

Harry was shocked. "You don't think Mr. Spinnet actually did it, do you?"

Sirius shook his head, pacing before the fire. "Oh, god no. But she is so insistent that Roger is innocent, and I just don't think we can afford to eliminate anyone as a suspect. Even her." Harry wondered whether that was why Sirius had been staying in Alicia's bedroom in his dog form. "Ambrose and Eve Davies are still perfectly healthy, and it's been over a week since Alicia came to Hogwarts. If someone was going to kill them by now, I think they would have done. Which strongly implies that Roger--if he did it--followed his orders to the letter. Plus--if Roger is the one who did it, that means he's not above sacrificing other people to protect his own family. That's why he became a Death Eater in the first place. And many people wouldn't blame him; it's like his family is being held hostage, after all. But still. If Roger's former contact managed to get to Alicia, and if she thought she could help her dad by giving up certain information, like Ginny being your girlfriend... And then there's still the possibility that she did it herself. And killed Roger. Or at least sent him off where he's in no position to provide her dad's alibi."

It was Hermione's turn to be shocked now. "You think she would frame her own father? Not to mention, she's Muggle-born. I've never heard of a Muggle-born Death Eater."

Sirius looked very gravely at them all. "On the contrary, Voldemort would probably be highly amused to be able to coerce a Muggle-born witch to do his will. And at any rate, Roger was working to protect his family. How do we know that Alicia isn't doing the same? In a way, her father going to prison could be something that would protect him. Muggle prison would certainly get him away from the corridors of power at Whitehall. I'm starting to get a very bad feeling that Voldemort having infiltrated the Muggle government through Roger is going to be putting all of those people in danger, and Alicia might have looked on this as the only way to get her father out of office and to safety--even if it is prison. A desperate ploy, to be sure, but although the traditional way for an MP to lose his job was to be embroiled in a sex scandal, the public just don't respond to those in the same way these days. And who knows? She could have offed Roger herself, to make it look even worse for her dad..."

"Let me get this straight," Ron said, running his hand through his hair. "You've hired a lawyer for Alicia's dad even though you think she might have framed him? So we might have been eating Christmas dinner with a murderer?"

Sirius grimaced. "My theories change almost hourly, Ron. It's a huge tangle. Severus and Arabella, er, Professors Snape and Figg don't know what to think, either. And Albus has all of the operatives looking for Roger Davies now."

Harry was alarmed. "All? So this one thing has drawn everyone off from whatever they were already doing? Is that wise? What about Gringotts?"

Sirius shook his head. "Well, maybe not all. Most. Still, in that this has to do with some people with quite a lot of power in the Muggle government, it seemed prudent to pursue this before the trail grows cold. And most importantly, we have to determine what Voldemort's original goal was. I don't think Mr. Spinnet being elected was it. There's more to this..."

Sirius grimaced and rubbed his hand over his face. His mother appeared in the doorway of the sitting room, looking surprised. "Oh! Sirius! And Harry! Welcome home! I didn't realize you were all coming this evening. Happy Christmas, everyone!" Sirius forced himself to smile when he saw his mother and strode to her, his arms out.

"Happy Christmas, Mum. I think you remember Ginny, Hermione and Ron from the summer? And this is Neville Longbottom."

Ron went to the doorway so he could shake her hand and Neville did also; she clung to Neville's hand for a second, peering into his face. "Longbottom? Not Frank and Gemma Longbottom's boy?"

He nodded sheepishly and she grinned at him. "Gemma went to school with my girls! She and Ursula were quite the pair, you know. They almost had a falling out over who was going to get Frank..." She winked at Neville and he blushed; Harry imagined that he had never heard anything like this about his parents' youths.

"Well, no offense, but I'm rather glad that my mum was the one to get him," Neville said quietly. Callisto Black put her hand on his arm and smiled at him.

"Confidentially, so am I. I think Alan is a very good match for Ursula, and I think Frank and Gemma made a lovely couple." She looked sadly at Neville. "I'm so sorry about what happened..."

He nodded. "Thank you, ma'am," he said levelly, showing a maturity to which Harry was finally growing accustomed.

"Since you're all here, why don't you join the others down in the pool? Cass and Floyd are at his parents', but Ursula and Alan are downstairs enjoying themselves with Leo and Mercy. The children are a handful, though. I'm sure they wouldn't say no to some assistance..." Her eyes twinkled at them, crinkling up at the edges, and they couldn't help but smile back at her. Suddenly, the strife at Hog's End seemed very far away.

They all climbed the stairs to the rooms where they'd be staying. Neville went to Leo and Orion's room while Sirius went to his own room and Hermione and Ginny went to the guest room. After they were done changing into their swimming gear, Ron and Harry were descending the stairs again when Ron suggested they stop at Sirius' room so he could ask him something.

Harry shrugged and went along. Ron knocked, and after a few seconds the door opened. Sirius appeared, dressed for his swim. "Ready?" he asked them, grinning, clearly needing to release some tension with physical exercise.

"Well, actually," Ron said, his voice shaking for some reason, "I was curious about something. You said that all of the operatives were working on Mr. Spinnet's case. Does that mean that no one's looking for my other sister anymore?"

Sirius looked surprised. "Well, that's a good point. I'm sorry I forgot to mention that. I'm afraid we have to set priorities, Ron, and there haven't been any leads lately--"

"No, no, that's fine. I mean--I understand. Priorities and all."

Harry peered at him, frowning. Since when did Ron not want his other sister found? "You do want Annie found, eventually?" he said to his friend. Ron looked back at him blankly.

"Er, yeah. Of course. Not that today's Christmas dinner would exactly be a Weasley-selling point, of course. Good thing she didn't turn up while that row was going on. It was a ruddy civil war."

Harry was even more baffled. "Yeah, I suppose. Not that she would just turn up out of the blue. I mean, she doesn't remember anything about her early life, after all."

Ron clamped his mouth shut and looked at them both. He turned and left the room, calling over his shoulder, "Let's just go swimming," before descending the stairs. Sirius looked at Harry.

"What was all that about?" his godfather asked.

Harry shrugged. "No idea." He paused, then said very quickly, "About Draco Malfoy--"

"No."

Harry sighed. It was clear that Sirius wasn't going to change his mind.

They followed Ron down the stairs and were soon in the dungeons. When they made their way to the pool they found Sirius' sister Ursula and her husband Alan in the pool with nine-year-old Leo and seven-year-old Mercy. Mercy's almost-white eyes were as disturbing to Harry as ever. Ginny, Neville and Hermione had already reached the pool. Harry could see that Ron was disappointed that Hermione wasn't wearing the bikini from the photo she'd sent Harry from Corfu. Both she and Ginny were wearing conservative one-piece outfits in turquoise (Hermione) and purple (Ginny). Harry had a difficult time not staring at Ginny, for despite the fact that certain areas of her body were quite thoroughly covered, they were covered very tightly by the purple fabric....

Ron swatted him with the back of his hand; it hurt rather more than Harry would have liked. "Get a good look at my sister's bum?" Ron snarled under his breath.

Harry rubbed his arm. "Get a grip. If I'm not supposed to let on to 'outsiders' that there's anything between me and Ginny, you can't go into protective-brother-mode, either. The Piersons aren't to know about this, remember? The only couple amongst us is you and Hermione. Officially."

"Well, then you'll remember to keep your eyes on more neutral anatomy when looking at Ginny, won't you?" Ron hissed under his breath.

Harry sighed. This was not going to be easy.

They enjoyed being in the pool for a while, but as the evening wore on, Ursula and Alan decided to take the children up to bed. Sirius and Harry were lounging by the side of the pool when Harry asked him about what Rodney Jeffries was up to. Sirius hesitated for a moment.

"I don't mean to alarm you, Harry, since your aunt is with the organization now, but every time I go and spend some time with his people, it strikes me as more and more--"

"What?"

"Cult-like. Disturbingly so. And there are plans for a big gathering in the spring. Not sure where yet. It's to be outdoors, I know. A large venue. Designed to bring together as many people as possible. I'm trying to find out more."

They hadn't realized how close to them Neville was swimming. He swam to the edge of the pool and leaned his chin on his arms. "Did I hear you say Rodney Jeffries? He's brilliant, isn't he?"

Harry sat up, his eyes wide. "What? Why would you say that?"

"Well, he healed my Uncle Algie, didn't he? Aunt Enid, Uncle Algie and Gran always go down to Blackpool Pier for Bonfire Night, because, well--" He looked at the girls and Ron, to see whether they were listening. "Promise not to tell?" Harry and Sirius nodded, speechless. "They like to sabotage the bonfire. You know, since Guy Fawkes was a wizard and he was framed for the Gunpowder Plot..."

Sirius leaned forward. Harry remembered this vaguely from History of Magic; he knew it was yet another reason for Slytherin hatred of Muggles and Muggle-borns. A raucous Muggle holiday which had the burning of a wizard in effigy as its centerpiece. Harry had wondered why this holiday seemed to go unobserved by wizards when he'd started Hogwarts, but once he knew about Guy Fawkes being a wizard, it made perfect sense. "Go on," Sirius said to Neville.

"Well, Uncle Algie is, erm, a little--accident prone," Neville said, reddening. Harry tried not to laugh; it must run in the family. "Instead of putting out the fire in a way that no one would know who had done it, he set himself on fire. But before Aunt Enid or Gran could get to him--this Rodney Jeffries had healed him...."

Harry frowned. "I read a newspaper article about that. It said he'd healed a young man."

Neville shrugged. "Uncle Algie looks young for his age. He and Aunt Enid love Jeffries. Since October, they've been traveling with him, too. And so have some other witches and wizards. Everyone loves Rodney Jeffries..."

Harry thought of the vicar from Little Whinging, Mr. Babcock, and Dr. Forbes. Not everyone loved Rodney Jeffries. He was glad he hadn't publicized Jeffries healing his back.

"Er, that's great, Nev. Just great."

Neville went back to swimming and Harry looked quizzically at Sirius. So. Witches and wizards even thought he was wonderful. The man who was healed was Neville's Uncle Algie. What now? Harry wondered. But with Neville so close by, this wasn't the time or place to discuss Rodney Jeffries further, and Mr. Spinnet's case was more of a priority, anyway.

After they went back up to their rooms and prepared for bed, Ron asked Harry whether he could borrow some parchment and Hedwig to send a letter. Harry directed him to the desk and Ron sat down to write, the quill scratching on the parchment for some time. When he was done, Ron folded it up and wrote a name on the outside, then sealed the back with some purple wax Harry had in the desk. Once, when he'd been passing by on the way to the bathroom, while Ron was still writing, Ron had hurriedly covered the letter so that Harry couldn't see it. Harry had moved on, perplexed, but not wanting to let on to Ron that he cared.

Ron left to go up to the roof, where Hedwig was roosting, and Harry crept over to the desk; he felt the blotter lightly. There was an impression in it where Ron had been writing. He pulled out his wand and whispered, "Crayonnaise." The end of his wand was now tipped with graphite, like a pencil. Out of one of the desk drawers he pulled a piece of very thin tissue paper, for wrapping presents, and rubbed the end of the wand over it while it sat on the blotter. The words Ron had written emerged.

Harry stared. He could only make out part of it because the writing overlapped, but when Ron had been addressing the letter, he'd been leaning on a different part of the blotter. In spite of this, the name of the person to whom Ron had written the letter was partially overwritten by other things and all Harry could make out was "Care of St. Mungo's Hospital."

Ron was just writing to his doctor, Harry thought, returning his wand to normal, feeling vaguely guilty for spying on Ron. He crumpled up the papers and threw them in the dustbin, and after that he crawled into bed and was already dozing off when Ron returned. They said goodnight to each other and put out the lights. Harry stared into the dark; something was disturbing him. He wasn't sure what it was. Something he'd seen out of the corner of his eye when he'd been doing the rubbings on the blotter...

When Ron was snoring loudly beside him, he crept from bed and gingerly picked up the dustbin from beside the desk, taking it into the en suite bath with him. He fished the crumpled papers out of it and stared at each one, at the overlapping words and phrases. Finally, he found what he was looking for, what his mind had seen earlier, very briefly...

Ron was writing to someone at St. Mungo's, all right.

And it wasn't his doctor.



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