- Cho Chang/Harry Potter Hermione Granger/Viktor Krum Original Female Witch/Ron Weasley
- Harry Potter
- Action Suspense
- The Harry Potter at Hogwarts Years
- Philosopher's Stone Chamber of Secrets Prizoner of Azkaban Goblet of Fire
Published: 02/06/2003Updated: 02/18/2003Words: 264,404Chapters: 34Hits: 87,813
Harry Potter and the Flying Squad
- Story Summary:
- Fifth year in Hogwarts. Even before terms start, Harry is involved in the defence against an evil attack from the Dark Forces, something which ``later will be called 'The Hogwarts Express Accident' ...``In Hogwarts, many things are different - most of all, the joining of all four``Quidditch teams in the 'Flying Squad', for patrol and exploration services.``For Harry, this looks like a path toward Cho Chang, except that - well, ``maybe this should really be left to the story itself ...``At any rate, expect Giants, Goblins, and house-elves to play their roles in ``this fic - as well as some new characters.
Chapter 24 - Ordeal
- Chapter Summary:
- In this situation, with his favourite teacher caught by Voldemort, all Harry can do is waiting, hoping Dumbledore's attempts are successful ...
- Author's Note:
- If this fic is truly English, then it's thanks to the efforts of two people:
24 - Ordeal
In his bodiless state, Harry was unable to feel shock or desperation. That would come later, he knew. The figure in the cell ... He tried to see more, but couldn't turn his head since there was none. He directed his mind toward the small spot at the corner of his vision and examined all the details: dirty garments, dark spots ... blood?
Then he remembered that there was a possible source of information in plain sight - the snake.
"What will happen to him?"
"My master will ask him questions," replied Nagini. "He will use him for some purpose - sooner or later, his body will be mine."
"I don't know. He might send this guest to invite another guest - my master often uses people that way."
"I'll come back, Nagini."
Harry retreated into the misty nowhere, then sensed around. There was no voice, but a strong pulse ... Why hadn't he sensed it earlier, while searching for Nagini? Either it hadn't been there some minutes ago, which was unlikely, or he'd been in the centre of that pulse, in which case it emanated from the room with Cho, Almyra, Dumbledore, and his own body sitting in the chair. He aimed for the pulse, was attracted without effort ... felt close to it, warmed by it: a sphere of human feelings.
He dived into the sphere.
Lightness, warmth, colours, shapes ... He was back. His eyes still focusing, he saw Cho jumping up and hurrying over to him.
"Harry!" She reached him, touched his shoulder, his face, his hair, showing an expression of deep relief.
He took her hand. "I'm fine," he said, then turned toward Dumbledore. "The guest is there. It's Professor Lupin!"
Shock in the faces of Almyra and Cho. Dumbledore's face - a complete lack of surprise, the smile was gone, the features were still changing, losing all kindness, a hard glare, eyes burning. "Describe it, Harry!"
He explained what he'd seen and repeated the short conversation with Nagini.
He'd barely finished when his own shock hit him at full force. His body tensed and bent, his hands turning to fists, nails cutting into his own flesh. "No ... Please - not him, not the only one who - "
Dumbledore was on his feet and had reached him in an instant. Harry was lifted up; dimly he heard Dumbledore's command to the others to follow. He was carried along the floor with incredible swiftness, his mind caught in a silent scream that refused to face the unbearable pain of knowing. They went up the stairs, then he was dropped into a chair; an instant later, something landed on his shoulder ...
After just a few moments, a warmth streamed through his tense body - relaxing his muscles, smoothing them so he could hide his face in his hands ... Someone was holding him, stroking his hair, murmuring - not English, maybe Chinese.
After a while, the need to ask was more urgent than the pain. He looked up with his wet face: yes, that was Cho at his side, Fawkes on his shoulder ... Dumbledore was sitting across from him, watching him with sympathy, a layer of friendly emotions on top of rage and fury.
Harry had to know. "Professor, what can we do? Can we - "
"We'll try, Harry." Dumbledore's voice was sharp. "I promise you that we'll try - that's what I can give you. We need some time. It depends on how long Voldemort will keep Lupin. If it's long enough, there is a chance."
Long enough ... How long would it take Voldemort to interrogate Lupin, or use him, or ... Another wave of desperation started to crash through Harry's mind -
He looked up. Dumbledore was staring at him, fire in his eyes.
"Voldemort is holding Lupin prisoner - that means he wants to use him. He's in no hurry to kill him. He'll ask him questions, might think of using him as a hostage, or send him under the Imperius curse for some purpose - it gives us some time."
Harry hung on Dumbledore's every word. Some time ... Enough to do what? Storm that house? But before they could get inside, it would -
Dumbledore spoke again. "We'll use that time, every minute of it. If we fail, it won't be because we lost time in despair. Do you agree, Harry?"
He nodded. Lupin - his teacher in the art of Zen, meditation, and fighting. He wouldn't fail.
"The people we need here," said Dumbledore, "are Professor McGonagall, Mr Krum, and Mr Weasley." He looked at Almyra. "Miss Benedict, would you please ask Professor McGonagall to join us immediately?"
"Yes." Almyra headed for the door.
"Cho and Harry - please fetch Ron and Mr Krum - and nothing goes outside this room!"
Harry followed Cho to the door, using the first steps to steady himself completely. They descended to the bottom of the staircase, where they separated: Cho went for Viktor's office, Harry for Ron's.
He was lucky - his friend was sitting there. "Ron!"
"What's - what happened?" Seeing Harry's face had alarmed Ron.
"Not here. Dumbledore's asking for you - please come."
They reached Dumbledore's office and found McGonagall already there. Moments later, Cho came back with Viktor.
Dumbledore made them sit down. "Ladies and gentlemen, we have a task to perform, a task about which no word can be said in public - not as long as we're working on it. Can you promise that?"
Nods, expectant looks.
"Through a trance, Harry found a way to make a mental visit to Voldemort's house and talk with his snake Nagini. When he did it yesterday, he learned that Voldemort was out to catch a guest. At my request, Harry did it again a few minutes ago. He found Nagini guarding that guest, rather, that prisoner who was lying in a cell. The prisoner is Mr Lupin."
The newcomers' faces were full of shock.
Dumbledore waited a few seconds, then continued, "There's a small chance that we could help Mr Lupin escape. We'll use that chance - either until there is no more chance or until Mr Lupin is free. As long as it takes - this way or the other - we need cold blood. Do you hear me?"
Nods, murmurs of "Yes."
"Our first goal is to find the house. For that, I need Mr Black alias Mr Snuffles - here at Hogwarts. Getting him requires the fastest messenger we can think of - which is you, Mr Krum, on your Steel Wing."
At Viktor's expectant look, Dumbledore showed a parchment and a medal Harry recognized immediately - he had used it as a portkey during his training with Lupin.
"That's Mr Black's address. You'll need your navigation skills to locate it, Mr Krum. You'll need Harry's Invisibility Cloak to fly undetected, and you'll take this medal with you. It's a portkey to the place where the Hogwarts Express arrives - you and Mr Black will use it to return together."
Viktor stood up. "Is okay, Mr Dumbledore. I'll find him - if somebody tells me how he looks."
"Harry will describe him to you, and will give you his cloak. If you can start right away, Mr Krum, I hope to see you back with Mr Black in three hours."
Harry and Viktor left the room. On the way down the staircase, Harry described Sirius' current appearance. "To check his identity, ask him who's Padfoot; that's his own nickname."
"Yes, Harry. When you haff your cloak, meet me in the storage room."
Harry stormed to his dormitory, took the Invisibility Cloak, and went down again. He found Viktor waiting outside, his Steel Wing ready.
Viktor moved the cloak over his head - next second, he was gone, together with the middle section of his Steel Wing.
Viktor's voice from mid-air said, "See you, Harry."
The two ends of the Steel Wing rose up and accelerated away. Watching, Harry noticed that anyone looking up would believe he'd seen two birds flying the same direction.
* * *
He returned to Dumbledore's office. Ron was gone.
"He's searching the school archive," replied Dumbledore, "to gather all information we've stored about a former student by the name Tom Riddle."
Tom Riddle was Voldemort's original name. Suddenly, Harry saw how Dumbledore would try to find the house: he would look for a family residence, for a place where the Muggle police had found a dead old man, for a graveyard on which a stone with the engraving Tom Riddle could be found!
Dumbledore reached in his desk and came up with something that looked like one of those cards found in Chocolate Frogs.
"As soon as Mr Krum is back with Sirius, I'll be gone for some time - with Sirius, that is. Professor McGonagall will be the only person you can talk to about this issue, aside from discussions within your group." The Headmaster gave him the briefest of smiles. "I know that you're in the worst position of all, because all you can do is wait. To ease it a bit, and also to make sure that our knowledge doesn't accidentally spread through the school, I suggest two measures."
"This" - Dumbledore showed Harry the card, which was a picture of Nicolas Flamel, Dumbledore's fellow wizard - "is a key, the key to a room with some comfort, large enough for all of you to sit and exchange thoughts and hopes. This is the only key; I think you should be the one to keep it."
Harry stood up to receive the card.
"To simplify things, Harry, you should include Miss Granger in the group - also with respect to Mr Krum; otherwise, our confidentiality won't hold long."
"In a minute, I'll show you where you can find the room. Please use it inconspiciously, which means you should take your meals in the hall with the other students, although the room would provide the same services. Aside from that" - Dumbledore looked Harry in the eye - "it's mandatory that you do nothing without consulting me first. In particular, don't visit Nagini!"
"No, Professor Dumbledore ... I hadn't planned it, but - why not?"
"One reason - as bad as it sounds - is that you might find Mr Lupin dead."
Harry's stomach contracted painfully.
"That's quite unlikely," continued Dumbledore, "at least for the next few days. Another reason is that we simply don't know whether Nagini spoke the truth - it could easily be a plot of Voldemort. One way or the other, an unprepared conversation with that snake might hurt our chances."
Unprepared? Did it mean -
"What's more, you will visit her again, Harry - after I'm back, hopefully with the information we need, and after careful instructions as to what to say."
So Dumbledore had a plan! A small flame of hope began to burn in Harry.
"And now let me show you the entrance to the room, then it's time for lunch."
As it turned out, the room could be reached from the same staircase that led to Dumbledore's office. Standing in front of the closed door, Dumbledore pointed to a metal plate under the door handle. "Here - hold the card up to it, with the face toward the door, then it opens. It's a guest suite; please try it after lunch."
Harry nodded, put the card into his pocket, and walked to the Gryffindor table.
Ron's seat was empty - that meant he was still looking through the archive. Had his reorganization brought some order? That project, target of so many teasing remarks, suddenly was crucial to Harry's hopes.
Hermione looked at him expectantly. "How was your, er, visit?"
"Not here - later."
She examined his face. "Harry, did you - did something happen?"
"Have you seen Ron?"
"Yes, he's in the archive."
"What's he looking for?"
For anyone else, Harry's answers should have been enough to stop asking questions - a concept beyond Hermione's grasp. "How much later?"
"By the way - have you seen Viktor? Do you know where he is?"
"And?" Before Harry could answer, Hermione added, "Let me guess - later?"
"Wow - that must be exciting news! Whatever I ask, your answer is 'later'."
"You'll hear it soon enough, believe me."
It stopped her questions, although Harry could see how she kept thinking about what might have happened. Once she started, "Harry, how - " but stopped immediately when he shook his head. Gradually, her expression turned more and more worried.
* * *
As soon as possible without causing attention, he stood up.
Hermione asked, "Where are you going?"
Harry pointed to the entrance which, for Hermione, was only known as the path to the Headmaster's office. "You'll find me on the staircase."
He climbed to the landing where the paths split into two, one to the guest suite and the other further upward to Dumbledore's office. There he sat down to wait.
Had Ron found something? He would see him coming upstairs - or downstairs in case Ron was already in Dumbledore's office.
Minutes later, he saw Hermione climbing the stairs, looking around, and finally accelerating her step when she spotted him. Then he heard other footsteps from the bottom of the staircase. Ron? No - that wasn't Ron's step; also, there were more than one pair of feet.
Hermione reached the landing. "What's this?" she asked.
"A guest suite. I have a key."
"Why? What's it for?"
"It's the only place where we can talk about what happened, and what's happening right now."
A head appeared in the staircase, immediately followed by another one - Cho and Almyra.
Seeing them, Hermione asked, "They know?"
"Yes." Harry took the card with Flamel's picture and pressed it against the metal. There was a soft click, then the door opened a bit. He pushed it wide open and stepped inside, leaving the door ajar for the others to follow.
Luxury ... that was the first impression. Hogwarts in general already offered decent comfort, every piece in the halls and classrooms made of high-quality material built to last, but the equipment in this large, comfortable-looking room was outstanding. At any other time, it would have been good for a delightful inspection. Not today.
Hermione had followed. Cho and Almyra entered the room, and Almyra closed the door.
Harry turned to Hermione. "Okay - now listen."
"Wait a second - as much as I want to hear it, why are you telling me? What's my role in this plot?"
Was it the presence of the other two girls? Was it yesterday's lesson that made Hermione respond carefully to an offer for information? On any other day, Harry would have had more nerve to enjoy the rare moment.
"Your role," he said, "is the same as ours, more or less: we have to appear normal outside this room. If we know and you don't, it won't work - and Viktor's involved, so that's another reason for telling you."
Hermione's expression showed anxiety and concern. "You've seen the guest?"
"Is it Sirius?"
"No. Viktor's on the way to catch him - he's travelling with the Steel Wing, and he's got my Invisibility Cloak."
For an instant, Hermione looked relieved.
"No! Oh my God ..." Slowly, Hermione slumped into a chair, her eyes fearful, fixed on Harry.
He gave a short summary of his visit, what he'd seen, and what Dumbledore had said and done. He finished, "Assuming Viktor doesn't take long to find Sirius, he should be back within the next two hours."
Cho asked, "What do you want to do now, Harry? Sit and talk?"
"Not yet," he replied. "You can, but until Ron's back from the archive, I'll do my waiting outside in the staircase - or until Viktor's back with Sirius, depending on which comes first."
"Then I'll ask Ron what he's found, and have a word with Sirius. And then I'll sit here and do what Lupin has taught me to do at the beginning of a fight: meditate ... Afterwards, we'll have lunch."
"What about their visit to Gryffindor?" asked Hermione, looking at Cho and Almyra.
Almyra started, "Under these circumstances, we - "
"No!" interrupted Harry. "Please, let's do it, but here. Then we can talk - we need to talk. I don't know if I can, but I'd go crazy otherwise."
The girls nodded. Almyra said hesitantly, "Harry - can you show me how to meditate?"
"I can show you what I've mastered for myself, but that's not much. Lupin ..." Harry choked, then swallowed. "After I've seen the others come back - okay?"
He walked through the door, closed it, and sat down on the stairs. Yes, he was waiting, but it didn't feel like that. Not yet. Too many thoughts were whirling through his mind.
* * *
The numbness of his initial shock was gone. Slowly but steadily, it was being replaced by a white-hot burning inside his head. As Harry sat on the staircase, he had to fight hard against it: the burning meant nothing but despair, something he couldn't afford, not now, not later, not tomorrow, not until this affair had ended ... not afterwards either, whatever the end was. He wanted to meditate, but he couldn't; it was more important to focus on what was happening now, in the next minutes, maybe hours.
How to fight despair? Change it into something else, Lupin had said. Using the emotion that had been stirred up by the enemy, using it constructively - that was the key to success. For a while, all Harry could do was hold a wall that protected him from drowning in the waves of despair.
Ever so slowly, he was regaining control. He had started to change the direction of those waves, away from him and toward a target. Despair mutated to hate ... still not constructive; "Hate is blind," Lupin had said. Then Harry knew how he would ride the waves.
You hate ... who? Voldemort. So take your hate, hone it, and form it into determination. As lead might change to gold, his hate transformed into a powerful determination. He no longer hated Voldemort: he was determined to extinguish him.
Harry still felt unprepared, with no idea how to do it. This had nothing to do with the current situation, which meant it wouldn't help Lupin; the only connection was that Lupin's capture - and probably torture - had formed Harry's determination. He would make an end to the being of Voldemort - maybe in a month, maybe in a year, or two years ... eventually, he would do it.
The thought felt entirely new. Beforehand, Harry had been frightened, or hateful, or had simply wished Voldemort didn't exist. As strange as it seemed from someone else's perspective, he hadn't felt personally involved. True, when he was younger, the thought of revenge for his parents' death had come up every now and then, but only as the outcry of a child unable to stand his fate. This new thought had an entirely different quality.
Would somebody else do it first?
Unlikely ... Dumbledore seemed the only candidate. If Dumbledore killed Voldemort in the course of the rescue operation, Harry wouldn't complain, but he didn't expect such an outcome. Dumbledore would concentrate on saving Lupin, which was a totally different goal, as Harry knew well since his lessons with Lupin. If Voldemort killed Lupin before they had a chance to save him, Dumbledore would immediately return to Hogwarts. Harry knew what Dumbledore was doing right now was an exception, justified but risky. Holding the fortress of Hogwarts was the Headmaster's true task.
Footsteps were coming up the stairs in a rhythm which told Harry that it had to be Ron.
When Ron appeared in the staircase with parchments in his hand, Harry asked, "Have you found him?"
"I've found something. Follow me."
They climbed upstairs, knocked, and entered Dumbledore's office.
Ron put the parchments on Dumbledore's desk. "Here - that's the Riddle file, except it's useless because someone has tampered with it - no address, no background, according to this file, a student named Tom Riddle came from nowhere. But I've found something else."
"What is it?"
Ron's face gleamed in triumph. "A letter - wasn't put in that file, otherwise it would have disappeared together with the other parchments. I remembered a letter from some time ago, when cleaning up piles of old stuff. It's a letter from the Ministry of Magic, to inform Hogwarts about a criminal case in which three members of the Riddle family were killed."
"And this letter - "
"Mentions the name of the town. Little Hangleton."
Dumbledore was on his feet. "Ron - if we succeed in saving Lupin, he'll have to thank you first! Without your work, it might have taken days to find the address."
Ron showed pride, though no joy. "Not the first, Professor. Without Harry - "
"True," admitted Dumbledore, "I certainly haven't forgotten, but this is the first successful step in our rescue efforts."
Harry and Ron walked down to the guest suite. Ron watched Harry opening the door, peeked inside, and breathed heavily at the sight of the luxurious room. "Wow - I wish I could appreciate it more."
* * *
Harry resumed his guard in the staircase, waiting for Viktor and Sirius. Ron was probably telling the girls what he'd found, but there was hardly a sound coming through the closed door.
A quarter of an hour later, Harry heard the door open. Turning around, he saw that it was Cho.
She closed the door and looked at him. "Mind some company?"
Rather than answering, he moved aside to make room for her. Almost by itself, his right arm came to lie on her shoulders; his other hand found hers, held it, and was held in return.
Her voice was low. "Can you stand it?"
"Yes ... I'm really waiting to meditate, but thanks to Lupin's lessons, I can keep it under control. It feels like waves rocking through me, but now the waves have found a target."
"The target - it's not Lupin, is it?"
"No. I hope they'll ... every once in a while, I can touch the tought for a moment, then I have to put it off quickly. Anyway, that was what I needed to form my thinking and point out the target."
Cho nodded. "To kill Voldemort."
Was he surprised at Cho pointing it out?
"Exactly - although killing isn't the proper term. What I'm going to do is make an end to a - a state, and as part of the task, Voldemort must cease to exist ... How did you know?"
"I knew since - it wasn't quite after you returned from the tournament, but after I had a little time to think about it. Although - I suspected it even before ..."
Cho had started crying.
"Isn't it obvious?" she sobbed. "Voldemort knew it for fifteen years - why do you think he tried to kill you? And Dumbledore, he knew it for almost as long as that ..."
Sobs were ripping through her body, alarming Harry in a way that was no less than astonishing. A minute ago, he would have denied there was still room for any emotion other than concern for Lupin and his determination toward Voldemort.
"Cho - what ... why are you crying?" He held her tighter, tried to still her shaking body.
"Why? What a stupid question! I knew it - I knew what would happen. Not looking for trouble? Ha - if trouble doesn't find you for a few weeks, you'll jump up and down, shouting, 'Here I am!' I tried to avoid it, tried to keep myself away, only I couldn't ... Because - oh dammit!"
And up she was, hurrying down the stairs.
He called, "Cho!"
"Give me ten minutes," came her voice from below. "I can't stand girls crying in public, especially when ... I'll be back!"
He slumped down again, feeling shattered, like he were being fround in one mill, only to be pushed into a second and, escaping that, facing a third. Lupin had been captured by Voldemort, who knew that Harry was - had been, would be? - his deadly opponent ... as Cho knew, Cho who couldn't keep ... it was too much, more than Harry could handle at once.
First things first - Lupin and Voldemort had priority now; Cho wouldn't run away. What a stupid thought - Cho had done exactly that, while Lupin couldn't ... Still, Harry knew that only the words were wrong, not the thinking.
Ten minutes passed. No Cho. If his priorities were at Lupin and Voldemort, then why did he wait more for her return than for Viktor and Sirius?
Five more minutes passed, then ten.
The door behind him opened. "Harry," called Ron, "they're coming! We saw them through the window."
He raced up and headed for the window.
Along the lakeside came two familiar figures, one of them slim, the other huge: Viktor and Sirius, already close to the entrance. It was incredible how quickly Viktor had found Sirius; riding a Steel Wing at full speed was definitely a fast method of travelling.
Harry stormed downstairs and met Sirius at the bottom of the staircase. "Si - Simon!" He flung himself into his godfather's arms, was hugged in return and comforted.
"Harry." Sirius held him tightly. "If there's a chance, we'll take it. Don't give up hope. I know what I'm talking about, remember?"
Yes, Sirius knew. He had stood twelve years of Azkaban.
"Now let me talk with Dumbledore."
Harry released his grip and followed him upstairs. At the landing, Harry said, "I'll wait in here," then entered the room again.
The others were looking at him. Hermione seemed more relaxed, probably an effect of seeing Viktor safely back. Almyra had a question painted on her face - of course, she'd seen Sirius only from high above.
"Almyra, do you know who that is?"
"Your godfather - Mr Black alias Mr Snuffles. Is he the same - "
"Yes - the one you were asking yourself what happened to him. He and Lupin were classmates at Hogwarts. By the way, you've met him before."
"I saw him, yes, only I wouldn't call it a meeting."
"No - you saw him before, with switched roles. He and you, you've something in common."
It took a second, then Almyra's eyes went big. "On the Hogwarts Express?"
"Yes, exactly. He used to be a safeguard between Lupin and other people."
Hermione's glance switched between Harry and Almyra. "What does Almyra have in common with Sirius?"
Harry bit his lips. Him and secrets ... Glancing at Almyra, he saw she was tilting her head toward Hermione. Asking for confirmation with his eyes, he saw her nod.
"Almyra's an Animagus," he said.
Hermione's mouth fell open.
Ron wheeled around and stared at Almyra. "Wow - that's cool, awfully cool ... What animal?"
Almyra's face was coppery. "Birds," she said.
"Birds?" Ron didn't understand. "What bird?"
Hermione had recovered. "An owl, right?"
Watching Hermione's expression, Harry said, "And a falcon, for day business, and an eagle, in honour of Ravenclaw."
Any other day, it would have been fun to watch Hermione and Ron at this moment.
Ron regained speech first. "Harry doesn't make jokes of that kind, but - is it true, Almyra?"
Ron stared at her in fascination. "Say - are you a genius or simply mad?"
Almyra gave him a quick smile, the first in what already felt like an eternity.
"It's not that complicated - not after you've mastered the first transformation, that's the difficult one. Besides, those birds are all similar in size and habit, except one is a night bird and the others are day birds. You know, most Animagi simply stop after they've mastered the desired animal - for them, there's no reason to proceed further."
Hermione asked, "And for you?"
"The ability to transform was just a step in a greater project. True, it's a great feeling, and I went for an owl first because that's what I wanted to be - a bird. It's simply fantastic, flying through the sky."
Hermione was hooked and wanted more. "Your project - is it a secret?"
"Yes - no, not really. I don't know - but anyway, today's the day to call things by their names, right? Especially with ... Well, what I'm trying to find is a method of healing werewolves."
"That's why!" Hermione was excited. "But - what do you mean by healing?"
Almyra shrugged. "To get it under control ... The optimal technique would be not to turn into a werewolf. Almost as good would be to turn or not turn, depending on your own will. A minimum solution would be to change the werewolf to a wolf - I mean to provide him with the same self-control an Animagus has ... That's where this step fits in. Anyway, I'm nowhere near to a solution, so your potion is still unchallenged."
Hermione looked deeply impressed. "It's not mine, I've only learned how to brew it. Compared to what you're doing, it's like kitchen work."
"No, it's not," protested Almyra. "I'm a mess with potions - I know the recipe, see, actually making it is as out of reach as the moon."
"Really?" Hermione felt pleased. "Snape said he knew three students in Hogwarts who could do it, so I was sure you were one of the other two."
Almyra shook her head. "Not me."
Hermione seemed to scan Hogwarts students in her head.
Somebody knocked at the door. Harry went over to open it.
It was Sirius. He took a few steps into the room, then looked around. "Very nice - we should meet here again after this story is over." Then he checked the other people in the room. "Hello, Hermione, Ron - each time we see each other, there's some trouble, right?"
Following Sirius' glance, Harry said, "Sirius - this is Almyra Benedict. Al, this is Sirius Black - you two have met already."
"Nice to - " Sirius stopped and shook his head. "But I'm glad to meet you, Miss Benedict - personally, that is."
"Mr Black - I'm afraid the same indication also applies to our meetings."
Harry lost patience with the small talk. "Sirius, what's going to happen now?"
"We - that is, Dumbledore and I - will try to locate the building; that's the next step. Thanks to Ron's work, it shouldn't take that long."
"Then we'll establish a portkey connection between here and a safe place near the building. Then - well, I guess there'll be some dogs and cats strolling around that building, to confirm it's the right one, check whether Remus comes out under a spell, and hold guard while Dumbledore's working on a plan."
Harry felt surprise. "McGonagall will be part of the watching team?"
"Certainly," replied Sirius. "We need every Animagus who can move around without causing suspicion."
Almyra stepped forward. "Mr Black - I can offer an owl."
Sirius' eyes narrowed. "You?"
"Yes. Or alternatively, I can offer a falcon."
"That sounds great - a day bird and a night bird, that's exactly what we need. But you'll have to check with Dumbledore. At any rate, every Animagus who can handle more than one shape is supposed to call me Sirius - or Simon in public. It's a family tradition."
"What a coincidence," replied Almyra. "There's something similar in our family - I'm called Al."
"Okay, Al" - Sirius' smile faded quickly - "as much as I'd appreciate your help, first we have to find that house. And Dumbledore has to agree ... Until then, think it over, whether it's really a good idea to be near someone who'll kill you at the first wrong movement ... I'm serious, and I won't think less of you if your answer is no."
Almyra's face had paled a bit. "My offer still stands."
"Yeah, probably it will." Sirius looked appreciative. "You find that kind of strange people near Harry." After these words, he looked at his godson. "All right, I'm going to find my friend Remus. See you."
After Sirius had closed the door behind himself, Harry stared at Almyra. "Why, Al? What's your reason to risk your life watching that house?"
"It's quite simple," replied Almyra. "I have to protect an investment. Lupin's my case number one, do you remember?"
Harry watched her face. "That's not reason enough, not for someone with a clear mind."
Almyra bit her lips. "There are more reasons. To pay back, for instance, that Lupin agreed to appear in the study. What's more, he's the one who sent you to protect Cho - and by some accident, it's my ability that is required ... You know as well as I that a bird is just the right animal for that job, so that might be the difference between make and break. Although" - she turned toward Hermione, who was listening in astonishment - "you've done things with Harry that were dangerous, haven't you? So please tell me, were you frightened?"
"Yes - especially before it started."
"That's good, because then I'm not the only one. Honestly, I'm scared enough to ... you know what I mean." She turned again. "Harry, what about the meditation? Does it help?"
He nodded. "Absolutely."
"Then please, let's do it now."
Ron and Hermione stood up, about to leave. To Harry, Hermione asked, "Can we leave you two alone?"
"Whatever that's supposed to mean," he replied, noticing a short blush on Hermione's face, "the answer is yes."
A moment later, he was alone with Almyra. Looking at her, he knew - any other day, they would have laughed aloud about Hermione's question, or maybe about his answer. Even so, the short exchange had improved their mood, which was a good start for a meditation.
Harry went to a wall and sat down, feeling the thick, comfortable rug underneath. He said, "Al, find yourself a place to sit down."
"Why not in a chair?"
"You have to balance out your body. Actually, this should be the lotus stance, but I never managed, so that's as close as I can get."
After a moment, Almyra came to the same wall, some feet away, and folded herself down. It was an excellent choice, as Harry noticed immediately - they were close enough to talk but without hearing each other's breathing, and they could talk without staring at each other.
He said, "What I know is, meditation is something to clear your mind, collect your strength, and find answers to questions. I guess we should formulate some questions first. I'll ask them aloud - the same questions I'll ask myself afterwards. Okay?"
"Wait a second - the meditating itself, how's it done?"
"Um - you think, and you scan your mind for an answer - a honest answer! I guess that's it, basically - not what you want to answer, not what someone else would like to hear, but your own true answer."
"Sounds like research."
"Really?" Exploring your unknown self in a private case study? Aloud, Harry said, "Maybe it is. Ready?"
"Ah - wait: Al, are you aware that this is a fight?"
"A fight? Why? I don't intend to fight, certainly not with Voldemort - all I'm going to do is sit in some tree and watch."
"Yeah, but look at it that way: you offered to take something away from Voldemort, meaning the information of what's happening in his house - and we know that he wants to keep that information. If you fail, you won't get it, but if you fail worse, he'll kill you. Is it still not a fight?"
"Oh my God, Harry - is that how you're inspiring yourself? For me, the effect is totally different!"
"That's the first step. Remember, Al - only the truth!"
"Whew - it's a frightening truth ... okay, yes, it's a fight."
"What's your goal?"
"Er - to rescue Lupin."
Harry waited silently, becoming aware that his teaching already worked as preparation for his own meditation. He could easily have fallen into the same trap Almyra had stepped into; listening to her mistake made sure he wouldn't.
After a moment, Almyra asked, "Is there something wrong with what I said?"
"What? I don't see it."
"You can't rescue Lupin. If anyone can, it's Dumbledore."
"Yes of course, but ... oh, I see. Okay then, my goal is to watch that house, hiding in my animal shape as an owl - or a falcon, maybe - and collect information that'll help in rescuing Lupin."
"Is this your only goal?
"Yes - I'm not trying to impress anyone, if that's what you mean."
"No, I didn't think of that - my mistake, I asked the wrong question." Harry tried again. "Is this your complete goal?"
"Seems as if it's not, listening to you ... Well, of course I'd like to come through alive - and unharmed."
"Right - except that there's no of course, Al. Your goal might have been to gather the information even if you got killed."
"No, it's not, but I see the point ... got it, Harry, go ahead."
Checking the questions in his mind before asking them aloud, Harry remembered that Lupin hadn't been his only teacher in such preparations. The meeting in Dumbledore's office, during the summer break, also had taught him a lot.
He asked, "Can you do it?"
"Ahh - yes."
"Are you up to it?"
"I don't know ... probably not, that's why I'm sitting here."
"Right. So you'll ask yourself again after the meditation, okay?"
"And you'll answer honestly?" Harry's voice was pleading.
"Yes - no need to worry, I see what you mean."
"Good. Do you want to win that fight?"
A moment of silence told him that Almyra had stopped herself before giving the seemingly obvious answer. Then, she said hesitantly, "I just remembered there's no of course, but, er, can you tell me what it means?"
"Yes, in particular since I had the same trouble the first time I did it. It means that there's no sense in saying; 'I'll try my best.' It means, doing it half isn't enough. Only the winning counts - but listen, if it's easy play, there's nothing wrong with that, because that's not a school test. Although I don't think it'll be easy play."
Some more silence, then Almyra said, "That's something to think about for a while."
Harry nodded to himself. How right she was. Aloud, he asked, "What's your strength?"
To his surprise, he heard her giggle. "Sorry, but - you know, I feel embarrassed telling you what I think about myself."
He smiled. "Sure, okay - it's enough to answer that yourself, in a few minutes. The same goes for the next question, the one about your weakness ... Two more questions, then we're done with our program. The first is, what's your enemy's strength?"
"He's Voldemort ... a dangerous, powerful dark wizard. Do you expect me to count his abilities?"
"Only one is important."
"Only one ... we're not discussing who's better, he or Dumbledore, so - hmm, I can guess, Harry, but there's none outstanding for me."
"He kills without a split second's hesitation."
"Oh - yes of ... I mean, yes."
"What's your enemy's weakness?"
"I see only one, and that's you!"
Unsmiling, Harry said, "Then look deeper, and look at the things at hand."
Another moment of silence, before Almyra said apologetically, "You've lost me, Harry ... please help me."
"The things at hand, that means he's at a known place, he's under surveillance without knowing, he's holding a prisoner that can't be killed immediately - even if the only reason is to torture him. And there's more - in his new body, he's as vulnerable as any normal human, which means that he can be killed. At a deeper level, look at the reasons why he failed to kill me: he wasn't prepared well enough, the things that happened came as surprises ... he's not doing his homework, and he's overestimating himself."
"Wow ..." Somewhat awestruck, Almyra asked, "Did you find these answers by yourself?"
"Not all, and the others with the help from Lupin. Okay, that's it - you know what to do?"
It was the last word spoken for some time. For a few more seconds, Harry could hear Almyra's breathing, then he was alone with this thoughts and feelings.
* * *
His feelings, in particular, were prevailing, resisting his attempts to push them aside. What Cho had said on the stairs ... He had to split his meditation into two - no, three parts: a quick check of the current situation, then Cho, then his determination concerning Voldemort.
Could he do anything to help Lupin?
If there was any role for him, it would be defined by Dumbledore. Actually, yes, there was a role - the Headmaster's words had indicated something, however without giving details. Until then, Harry had to keep a cool head and preserve his abilities. Something else? Yes, he could support those with more active roles, like Sirius, or Dumbledore, and Almyra - he did so right now ... He could do something more; he would do it this evening, and it would help all of them to come through the days ahead. Something forgotten? Nothing as far as he could think.
Cho ... She'd said, I tried to keep myself away - only I couldn't. Away from him ... That meant - what? Did it mean what sprang to mind, what seemed obvious? There was no obvious, as he'd stated only minutes ago, so he had to be careful now. Undeniably, it meant that a power, stronger than her will, was forcing her toward him, despite the fact that she expected - or at least feared - to lose him soon and be left with a broken heart ... Regardless of all his training in facing the truth, it took him a moment before he was able to think the word.
So Cho loved him? Had to, maybe not happily, certainly not happily right now, anyway she did. It came as no surprise, in a way, but still - suddenly the world was different.
He ... loved her. Yes. He loved Cho, loved Cho Chang, loved her, loved her, a song in his blood, as strong and powerful and delicate as a phoenix song, pushing away all embarrassment and clumsiness and lack of self-assurance ... This was the only state fitting the new world - in his meditation, that was, while in public, there would be still some way to go.
Then what did it mean?
More important than anything else, he wasn't going to break her heart, and he wasn't going to let anyone break her heart.
As a consequence, he wasn't allowed to die in pursuing his goal, which was to make an end to Voldemort's being. A while ago, sitting on the stairs outside this room, such an outcome had looked acceptable; dying together with Voldemort would have been a thought Harry could tolerate. But no longer.
He had to survive for Cho ... Moreover, he had to tell her, as soon as possible, to end her misery and make sure she wouldn't do something stupid or suicidal out of sheer desperation ... So he had to develop a plan. For that, he had to become - no, it wasn't true, there was no need to be better than Voldemort, nor to be worse ... His only goal was to extinguish the Dark Lord; for that, he needed a plan and probably some special abilities. But he was special, and he had a special wand, and he had a bond with Wormtail, and not to forget, he was on speaking terms with Voldemort's snake.
Starting as of today, he would collect all the information he could and examine it to figure out how it could be used for a plan. Once Lupin was free - alive or dead - Harry would feel free to act on his own. Was he overestimating himself? Not in the goal; Cho had seen it long before - Voldemort had seen it first! For everything else, time would tell, but he was obliged to survive, so he was obliged to be thorough and careful. It wasn't going to happen next week; it had only just begun.
Harry opened his eyes. He was ready to celebrate when Lupin was back, or mourn if it wasn't meant to be. At some day in the future, he would be ready to end the story which - for him - had started today.
Turning toward Almyra, he saw that she had been watching him. He smiled. "Done?"
She gasped as if he'd sneaked in at her from behind. "Harry - for an instant, you looked ..."
Almyra opened her mouth, closed it, and finally said, "Never mind - it's gone. You look a world better than an hour ago."
"How did I look a moment ago?"
She swallowed. "Merciless."
He nodded. "Don't tell Cho - I mean not before I have the opportunity to talk with her. What did you find out?"
"A lot - for example, I found out that I'm up to it, and that I wasn't an hour earlier. And" - Almyra blushed - "all the while thinking about the questions, I was aware of you, how you were sitting next to me. It was like ... a source of confidence, and guidance and ..." Her face was a deep copper.
Getting on his knees, moving on his knees across the thick rug, Harry moved over and stopped in front of her.
"Al, look at me - as wrong as Hermione was in what she thought, she wasn't completely wrong: we can think the same way."
Losing her embarrassment, Almyra looked wondering. "Strange, I never thought of myself as a fighter, and now - "
"I heard it differently," Harry said, grinning.
"What do you mean?"
"I heard a story about some birds, and fists, and bleeding noses - long ago."
"Oh - that." Almyra grinned for a short moment before growing serious again. "And today it's about a bird, too - and this time it's me."
* * *
Harry and Almyra left the suite to look for the others. It was almost time for lunch, but Harry wanted to talk with Cho - immediately, if possible.
He checked the Great Hall, the Entrance Hall - no Cho.
He found a place to sit down and wait, with the entrance to the Ravenclaw Tower in view. Waiting - that seemed to be the name of the game for the next hours, possibly the next few days, too.
The hall filled with other students. Then he saw Almyra coming down the stairs, and Cho behind her - a Cho who looked furious.
She saw him, walked to him, and hissed, "So you've infected her with your madness? Great, Harry. Super! Magnificent!"
Almyra's expression showed helplessness.
To Almyra, Harry said, "We'll be back in a minute." Then he took Cho's hand and headed for the exit.
Cho followed without resisting, as if robbed of any power. "Where are we going?"
"Just around the corner and out of earshot." He crossed the Entrance Hall, went outside, and turned to the storage room, all the way followed by Cho.
Inside, he turned and looked at her.
Angrily, Cho said, "What's this? Are you going to tell me another secret?"
"No, it's something I've only known for minutes. What I told you up there ..."
"Yes?" Suddenly there was hope in Cho's face.
"It wasn't all; I forgot to tell you two things. The first is ..." He swallowed. "I love you."
An instant later, she was in his arms. "I love you, too ... oh my dear ..."
Holding her, feeling her, he whispered, "And that's why I'm not going to get killed, because it would break your heart."
"I know that I can't stop you, so promise me, Harry - "
"I promise ... I'll do what I said upstairs, but I'll do it only when I'm able to, and stay alive, and come back to you ... That's a part of my determination that can't be separated from the rest - that's what I found out while meditating."
She tilted her head back. "Seal your promise! Kiss me, Harry."
He kissed her, not feeling much surprise that something he hadn't done ever before was so easy - in a way, he was reminded of his first flight on a broomstick. Something else was amazing, though: her lips were incredibly smooth.
After a moment, she asked, "Why didn't you do it the last time I asked you?"
"Because - " He interrupted himself to stare at her. "So you knew all the time what you said in the forest?"
"Not everything ... only the important part."
After another moment with lips too busy to talk, she said, "Okay, our minute's over, and five more too. We ought to go back to lunch."
He held her. "Before we go: please don't be mad at Al. She's fighting the fight because she can do it and I can't - but she's up to it, and she'll come back."
"How do you know?"
"For one, that's part of the goal we defined: not getting killed. But there's more - while meditating, the entire time she felt waves passing from me to her, giving her confidence and strength, and at the same time I was figuring out what's going on between you and me. That means, the power that Al felt passing over must have been our love."
"That's a clever trick, young Potter."
"Trick? What do you mean?"
Cho smiled. "You together with Al: alone in a luxury suite, waves passing between the two of you - wouldn't it be enough to make any girl jealous? No, you say, there's no need because it's our love that's sending out the waves. Funny thing is, I believe you every word, and I believe she'll come back ... Now let's go; there's food waiting for me!"
Food, as it seemed, was something Cho would never ignore, come love or low spirit.
For Harry, it was different; sitting at the supper table, unable to talk about the two most important topics - although for different reasons - was a trial he hadn't expected as painful as that. He forced a few bites into his stomach, busied himself with filling his cup, drinking a few sips, swirling it around ... He felt like a poor player, strutting and fretting on stage and not fooling anyone; luckily, his only audience was Ron and Hermione, who had their own troubles.
He heard some remarks from the other students about Dumbledore's empty seat, and was grateful that nobody wanted to discuss it with him.
As soon as possible without attracting attention from the wrong people, he stood up and strolled away, aware of the glances that followed him from the Gryffindor table as well as from the Ravenclaw table, but only from those who were involved. Taking his time, he reached the exit to the staircase. The moment he was out of sight, he dropped the leisurely behaviour and hurried upstairs.
He took out the card from Dumbledore, and with a click, the door was open. He stepped in.
The others wouldn't arrive for a few minutes, so he had time for a closer inspection of the room. Several doors had caught his attention before; now was the opportunity to find out their purpose.
Trying the first, he found it locked. There was a metal plate below the handle, similar to the one at the entrance door, except that this one didn't respond to his key card.
He went to the next door, tried the same, and failed again. He tried the third door - and was rewarded with a click: the door swung open.
It was a bedroom - large, as luxurious as the other room, with a double bed, more modern in style than the four-posters in their dormitories. And there was another door. When Harry tried the handle, it opened to a bathroom.
He walked out and closed the door.
One more door in the central room was locked as well, not responding to his card. So apparently this guest suite offered room for up to eight people, depending on whether they came as couples or singles. The card in his pocket was good for the central room plus one bedroom, feeding the assumption that Dumbledore had similar cards for the other three bedrooms. Idly, Harry wondered which pictures might be found on the other key cards, then he continued his inspection.
A small door at half height was left to investigate. It looked like the door of a built-in cabinet. Opening it, Harry found an empty space. It could have been a single-box cabinet, but something looked wrong, in a way he couldn't put his fingers on.
"May I help you, sir?"
He wheeled around, his hand simultaneously grabbing for his wand - there was nobody!
He made a step toward the direction where he'd heard the voice. Next moment, he noticed a movement out of the corner of his eyes, shot his wand arm up to aim - and relaxed.
"Blimey - you gave me a start!"
A life-sized picture hung there, showing a servant in old-fashioned robes. Now the servant bowed.
"I deeply regret, sir. I could find no better way to offer my services."
"Yeah - probably not." Harry exhaled, still feeling shaky. "I wasn't aware of you being - by the way, what should I call you?"
Another bow. "I'm Arbogast, sir, the butler of this suite."
"Well, Arbogast, nice to meet you. My name is Harry Potter."
"Yes, sir, I recognized you - pardon, sir."
"How - yes, of course." His scar, what else? "That's okay, Arbogast. What services do you offer?"
"Drinks, food, and other items for your convenience, sir. What you might expect from a butler."
"This suite looks better by the minute," said Harry. Then, remembering the weird box in the wall, he pointed to it and asked, "Say, Arbogast - what's the purpose of that thing?"
"A lift, sir. It's a connection to the servants' level. You won't need it for food and drinks, but perhaps for other services."
"For instance, sir, if you want your robes cleaned, you would set them there and take them out shortly afterwards."
"I don't think we need it today, but a glass of juice would be nice."
"Very well, sir." Arbogast turned, and almost immediately turned back. "On the table, sir."
Harry stared. A large glass, unlike anything used during meals, was waiting for him there, full of a golden-shimmering liquid. He made a step toward the table. At the same moment, there was a knock from the door.
With a "Sssht" toward the picture, he opened. It was Cho.
She looked around. "Harry - did you rehearse your speech for the evening?"
"No - why?"
"I thought I heard you talking. A hidden guest?"
"Something like that, yes."
Cho stomped her foot. "Young Potter, if you think you can drag me along, just because ... Anyway, you're wrong! Who is it?"
"His name is Arbogast."
"Deeply satisfying to know that! Harry, who is it?"
Before he could answer, there was another knock from the door. Walking over, Harry had an impression of smoke was curling out of Cho's ears.
Opening the door, he found Ron and Almyra. "Come in."
They walked to the chairs.
Cho growled after him, "I'm waiting, Harry!"
"Oh, yes, right. So what do you want to drink?" He looked first at Cho, then at the others.
"That looks good," said Ron, pointing to Harry's glass. "Same for me, please."
"Yes, for me, too, please."
"I don't want a drink, I want an answer!"
"Just a second." Harry turned to the picture. "Arbogast - three more glasses of juice, please."
"Very well, sir."
The spectacle happened again: Arbogast turned away, turned back, and three glasses appeared on the table.
Harry grinned. "Here you go."
"Yes," said Ron, "that's how life should be - only with less trouble than today."
Passing Harry, Cho whispered, "I'll kill you, Potter - if nobody else does, I will." Then she marched to the table and took her glass.
A moment later, Hermione and Viktor arrived.
Two more glasses, then their circle was complete. Harry raised his glass. "To the people that hold our hopes - Dumbledore and Sirius!"
The others followed.
Putting down his glass, Harry said, "Hermione - aside from all that happened today, this is still your get-together."
"True." Hermione glanced at Almyra, who returned the glance, then back at Harry. "Um - the reason was to exchange some information, but in the afternoon, when all of us were waiting, and you outside ... Al and I were so nervous, we couldn't help starting to talk about it. Somehow, it feels wrong what we did - I mean, we talked about Lupin, too, but ..." She looked slightly guilty.
"No, that's okay," said Harry. "That just fits because, you know, I want to talk about him. I want ... to tell you about the man for whom my father and Sirius worked three years to join him when he was a werewolf - my version of the story, that is. You know parts of it already, but I must talk about him - that's the only way I can help him right now - if you don't mind."
Viktor was quickest. "Yes, Harry, do it - I want to hear this story."
The others nodded in agreement.
Harry didn't hesitate. "The first time I saw him was on the Hogwarts Express two years ago. Ron and Hermione and I, we couldn't find an empty compartment, so we had to take the one where he was sleeping. It was pure luck ..." He spoke about his first encounter with a Dementor, how he'd asked Lupin for help after the disastrous Quidditch match, how he'd worked with him to develop his Patronus, and how he'd been successful in a first test against a fake Dementor, consisting of Crabbe and Draco Malfoy.
The next part in his story was the most difficult: he had to tell how he'd prevented Sirius and Lupin from killing Wormtail - with the subsequent events, resulting first in Sirius' escape, then in Lupin's dismissal, and finally in Voldemort's revival. Harry told his audience, pushed forward by an urge that held his voice steady, all the while looking at the table, and all through his story feeling Cho's arm holding him and comforting him.
"The next time I saw him was on the evening when I was invited to that meeting in Dumbledore's office, to discuss the details of the attack plan, and our own plans. It was ..." Harry's voice broke for the first time.
Nobody spoke. He covered his face in his hands, breathing deeply, feeling the tears on his fingers, and also feeling Cho's hand that was stroking his head.
After a moment, he was able to continue. "I was so happy to see him - and then he told me what I should do ... He was sitting there and looked at me as if there was no doubt about me being able to do it ..." Harry described the training sessions, in particular the one in which the Golden Patronus had appeared for the first time. Then he explained how Lupin had taught him the basics of Zen to hone his abilities as a fighter.
"The attack on the train" - Harry looked at Viktor - "we were all together except for you, so this part's just for you."
Nonetheless, his audience was just as enthralled as before when he described the scene on the Hogwarts Express, how he'd seen Lupin's Patronus wolf in trouble, and how they'd crossed the plain to unite with Lupin and to chase the Dementors back into the forest.
"Since the day he passed Defence over to Drilencu, I've seen him twice - before this morning, I mean. He told me about what he's doing outside, and we - we dropped some formalities between us." Harry choked, then steadied again. "I mean - we made clear how we feel to each other. He calls me Harry, and I call him Prof - although it's wrong ..." He explained Lupin's duty outside Hogwarts, how Lupin had refused any idea of Harry helping him, and why, and how Lupin had tried hard, so hard, to conjure up a Golden Patronus.
"I guess he hasn't managed yet," Harry finished. "I don't know whether it would have saved him - probably not. At least, it would have drained him less than the conventional one. He's suffered before, and he's suffering now - he can stand it, I know that. Voldemort can kill him, but he can't break him."
When Harry looked up, his eyes dry, he noticed how the others were looking at him. Almyra's face showed determination; as her eyes met his own, an unspoken message rang in his ears, louder than a voice and clearer than words.
Viktor broke the silence. "Harry - that snake, that Nagini - what do you think of it? Is it true what she says?"
"Well - basically I think it's a trap. It's not necessarily Voldemort's - the snake doesn't think in a human way, she's completely selfish ... If that's possible, she's even more pitiless than her master himself. I don't trust any word she said."
Ron was thoughtful. "What she said about your blood in him, and that he can't afford to kill you, or that he can't kill you, but you could do him ... I'd like to know what's that supposed to mean."
Cho's head had snapped around toward Ron, but Hermione was quicker. "We're not interested in figuring out whether he can afford it - that much's for sure!"
"That's not what I said," muttered Ron, apparently intimidated by glaring looks from two sides - Hermione and Cho.
Harry came to help. "Ron's right, there is some meaning, except that Nagini isn't a reliable source. I know, there was - I don't know, something I've heard, or seen ..."
Ron looked grateful, and used the momentum immediately. "You see, Harry got me right. Pity we can't trance him - "
It earned him indignant looks from three sides: Almyra had joined the opposition.
Hastily, Ron said, "Sorry - I didn't mean to scratch open wounds ... Maybe Fawkes could help - "
The others almost jumped, then stared at Harry.
"Sorry, but I just remembered - Fawkes was sitting on my shoulder at that time. It was - yes, after my return from the maze, when I told Dumbledore what had happened, when I told him that Wormtail had taken my blood, there was a look in his face - only a moment ... he didn't say anything, but he knows something."
"Ask him," suggested Ron.
Cho hissed, "If Dumbledore had thought it was a good idea to tell Harry, he'd done it already. But he didn't, so there's a good reason for it."
Harry said, "It's certainly a factor, but there are many others - anyway, for the next few days, that's not the most important issue. What I wanted to say is - um, thank you - for listening to me."
Viktor said, "Thank you, Harry, for telling us."
After asking Arbogast for fresh glasses, Hermione looked around. "Who has another story?" Her gaze fell on Almyra. "Al - what about your project? It feels as if there's a story behind."
Ron was staring. "Hermione - you're unbelievable! A day earlier, you would have screamed at her, and today you're digging holes for a story ... and chiding me for rude remarks." He shook his head.
"True," admitted Hermione, "but we've settled and buried it, so - " She stopped herself and looked at Almyra. "Was it wrong of me asking?"
"No," replied Almyra, "although your speed is really breathtaking." She smiled. "And you're right, there is a story, only it's the wrong one for today. I'll tell it if - well, another day."
There was a moment of silence. Almyra looked as though realizing that her denial had already told a good part of the story, leaving out names and details but not the end of it.
Hermione looked stricken. "I'm sorry, Al ... I didn't know."
"Listen to me!"
Viktor had spoken, catching the attention of the others.
"I have a story - it's not nice either, but it has a happy ending - the story of Durmstrang and our escape to Hogwarts."
Seeing the expectant looks of the others, he said, "But first, I want to tell you - Lupin is alive! If a dark wizard catches someone without killing him on the spot, he'll keep him for a longer time. It's not a good time, but it's life - that's what counts. The critical moment will come when we try to rescue him. Until then, relax as much as you can - it saves your strength."
Harry nodded. He fully agreed with Viktor's analysis, after having come to the same conclusion earlier.
Then he listened to Viktor's story about a school that seemed the inverse of Hogwarts; in their teachers, because the bad was the rule rather than the exception; with their students, which suffered from dozens of characters like Draco Malfoy; and with the general attitude according to which everything was forbidden unless it was explicitly allowed.
Karkaroff, as Viktor explained, had been just one out of many, not even the worst - there were several rivaling groups of dark wizards, not waiting for Voldemort, not willing to act subordinates of some foreign wizard who seemed more myth than reality, but dark and evil all the way.
After finishing school, Viktor had been busy looking for his own way to escape and return to the place where he'd met a girl he couldn't forget. Then Drilencu had contacted him.
As it turned out, the complicated part was the planning, the gathering of the other students at the proper time, and the stealing of the ship, while the travel itself turned out easy; Viktor had done it only months earlier.
After Viktor had finished, it was time to end the evening. A last round, served by Arbogast, deepened the feeling that this was some luxury version of a Hogsmeade pub.
It had been a nearly endless day. Getting up from the comfortable chair, Harry realized how tired he was. They agreed that the Ravenclaws would pretend to have spent the evening in Gryffindor Tower, and the Gryffindors vice versa, then they left the suite.