Cho Chang/Harry Potter Original Female Witch/Ron Weasley
Harry Potter Original Female Witch Original Male Wizard
Action Suspense
Children of Characters in the HP novels
Published: 04/12/2003
Updated: 05/05/2003
Words: 178,786
Chapters: 22
Hits: 20,126

Presents from the Past

Horst Pollmann

Story Summary:
Thirteen years after Hogwarts. Eight years have passed since the last time we saw our heroes. The number of children walking or crawling through the scene has grown from three to more than a dozen. And some of them are in the focus of attention - this way or the other ... Harry and Cho moved from California to Ireland. One of the reasons was to have the same time zone as Paris, where some other people are found, and some other children. However, it's their old place where the first dark clouds appear ...``A fic most of the characters known from the previous one - well, except for all these shorties somewhere between ten months and eleven years ...

Chapter 10 - Questions and Answers

Chapter Summary:
Sandra Catherine meets the High Priestess and has the opportunity to ask her some questions. The answers are quite different from what Sandra expected.

10 - Questions and Answers

It was weekend. Saturday, to be precise, which was the better part of it because Sunday would follow and because you could do things that weren't suitable on Sundays. Shopping, for instance.

For Sandra, however, Saturday meant visiting Aram'chee, the High Priestess, her mentor, teacher, friend, and the only person from whom she wouldn't even try to hide something. There was no use, because Aram'chee would find out anyway. There was no need either: the High Priestess would blame her, oh yes, she would, mercilessly so, however in a way you could bear to listen. And understand. And find peace with yourself and all your failures.

"The High Priestess must be a woman," Aram'chee used to say. "More than anything else, this means that the High Priestess must be a human being, with all the glitches that are built into us. Being the most human witch, that's the essence of what will be your obligation, later."

She didn't press her either. "I praise the gods who let us meet when you were so young," Aram'chee had said at occasions, "because it gives us time. You can be the child you are, you can become the young woman you'll be, before it's time to take over the full burden. Fate is merciful, sometimes."

Sandra's life would split into three phases. The first of them was the current one, living the life of an almost ordinary girl. Almost - that was good, ha ha.

Anyway, this time would be followed by the phase Aram'chee was currently in, that of the High Priestess in duty. In personal lifetime, this part would be the shortest of the three while in historical years, it would span an unknown number of centuries.

Aram'chee, for example, was spending lifetime less than a day per week. Just the hours of these visits, and still this was her highest life consumption in a long time. For the rest of the week, she kept herself in some kind of stasis, about the only topic Aram'chee didn't go into more detail during their conversations.

The third phase in Sandra's life would start after the duty of the High Priestess had been passed over to a successor. For Aram'chee, this phase was close, in some sense, and Sandra could feel the woman's expectancy better with every year. For Sandra herself, about ten more years would pass until then, while for Aram'chee, the total time awake still as the High Priestess would be less than a year, just right for getting in sync with modern times and their rapidly changing trends.

Sandra apparated to the Crusader castle near the Lake Tiberias where, somewhere deep down, the High Priestess had her residence. Sandra's first apparition jump brought her to the outer wall, close to the gate at which an ordinary tourist would be ordered to buy a ticket. Peeking through the iron bars, she spotted a corner where she could wait for Aram'chee to appear and apparated inside.

She didn't even have to send a mental call. Her presence alone would awake Aram'chee, as it had been the first time Sandra visited this place, eight years ago.

Moments later, the air at her side filled with the High Priestess. To the outside, Aram'chee looked like a woman around her forties, a very attractive one. Her black hair was cut longer than today's fashion. A face - Aram'chee wasn't beautiful in the common sense, still her face would turn heads wherever they went. Well, little surprise, after so many years without the normal penalty of ageing signs. She had a tall body, neither slim nor sturdy, a figure that caught the eye from any angle, although the one from front was clearly the best. Sandra hoped she would grow breasts comparable to those.

Today, Aram'chee wore a simple linen dress, perfectly matching the small crowd of tourists around. Turning to Sandra, she said, "Hello, little witch. Which horizon would you like to face today?"

"Hmm ... In the mood for shopping?"

Aram'chee smiled. "Why not? What do you need? Or should I ask, what do you want?"

"Not for me!" Sandra looked the High Priestess up and down. "For you - I thought we should get you a bit dressed to the fashion."

Two dark eyes, in which a sparkling glowed, were resting on Sandra. "This must be your mother's side in you, little witch. At the surface, it appears just as part of my education to modern styles and behaviours. While from another perspective, it strongly resembles the common habit of any girl your age - fetching a puppet out of the box, dressing it to the last fashion, then store it away some time later."

Sandra hadn't looked at it that way, or hadn't realized by herself which motive was driving her. Even so, she saw no reason to protest, not at such an enticing idea.

"Fine with me," said Aram'chee. "And where?"

"Well, Paris - where else?"

"I was told there'd be better places for shopping clothes than Paris - Milan, for example. But I was also told that nobody wants to be in Milan at this time of the year, or the week." Aram'chee nodded. "So Paris, then. Go ahead, I'll follow you."

Thanks to Fleur, Sandra knew some shops offering first-rate fashion at acceptable prices, employing staff who used to move the corners of their mouths upward, rather than downward. These shops were a far call from the tourist traps near Champs Elysées. Still, Sandra's apparition jump didn't aim directly to these small side streets. Instead, she just used one of the two targets in Paris she knew best: the place in front of the Beauxbatons school.

She had selected the place because it offered a Métro station. For reasons Sandra couldn't really follow, Aram'chee loved riding subway. From Sandra's own perspective, the Paris Métro was a punishment with dirty seats, bad smell, loud noise, and these unpleasantly sharp pushes at each bend and every station. But Aram'chee loved it, and despite all the people around, a Métro wagon was a good place for telling the latest news, though not for a serious conversation.

Going retrograde through the recent events, first Sandra told Aram'chee about some other shopping that had taken place in Japan. The High Priestess listened silently, glancing around with an attentiveness that would mark her as a tourist instantly - but then, she was a tourist, wasn't she?

And she was looked at by other people. Men, mostly, but also women. Some of them casually, others more openly, up to the level of impolite stare. Every now and then, Aram'chee played the game of the staring eyes by herself, at someone just too impertinent. She never lost.

From the list of shops she knew, Sandra selected the one with the most complete stock, where they'd find everything, from underwear to costumes. Except shoes, of course, however a decent shop for shoes and handbags resided nearby. A while ago, Harry had simplified the procedures by providing the High Priestess with a Gringotts account, including a GALA, the wizard credit card. Since then, Sandra and her teacher no longer caught attention from running around with a bag of galleons.

When they came out of the shop, Aram'chee looked like a different woman. Skirt, blouse, a feather-light sweater strung over her shoulders - and the large bag with her old stuff had been left inside, with the order of sending it to Fleur's address.

They walked the few steps to the shoe shop, where Aram'chee got a pair of light sandals, pretty flat, because she wasn't really used yet to the size of heels fashion would dictate. Then they were done with shopping.

Both of them felt like having a drink first, and maybe some cake afterwards. To Sandra's relief, Aram'chee agreed to a simple apparition jump, rather than the Métro again. They came out at the Seine promenades, one cafe bordering the next - and full of tourists, as far as the eye could wander.

Sandra said, "Fleur thinks Paris is no place for people either, at this time of the year. What now?"

"A boat ride." Aram'chee's glance followed the sightseeing boats that were passing up and down the river. "A bigger one, with a cafe on board - they seem not quite as crowded as the smaller ones."

A boat ride ... Sandra would never ever confess in school that she'd done something as dull and boring as that, at the weekend. But so what, she wouldn't talk about her meetings with the High Priestess anyway. And the main goal of their meetings was to talk, so sitting there, gliding across the water, a large piece of cake in front of you, couldn't be that bad.

Checking the timetable, they learned that docks could be found all along the river, with those at more remote places promising less passengers or a better seat from the start. So they went to the farthest of them by going through a short sequence of apparition jumps by eyesight.

The next cruise would start in twenty minutes' time. They found a bench, and finally they could talk.

Sandra told the High Priestess about the kidnapping cases, in particular about the last one, how Tony had died, and what her father was doing since then. Then she asked, "How can people kidnap children? Are those still humans?"

Aram'chee had listened silently. Now she said, "It's greed that drives them, and greed is an essential human aspect. So you know the answer yourself, don't you?"

"But children, Aram'chee! Small ones, babies."

"They were treated well, you said. So tell me, what is it that makes kidnapping so particularly terrible?"

Sandra stared at her mentor in disbelief.

"What is it, little witch?"

"But ... taking the children away from their mother - the thought alone ..." Sandra didn't know how to emphasize her horror still stronger.

"Is the mother the only person who can feed them, protect them, give them warmth and love?"

"No, of course not. But - " Again Sandra stopped, slightly blushing, because just then she'd become aware that her own mother, Cho, had left these tasks to other people. Agreed, not in the first months, and Sandra's father had more than volunteered for this role. But even so, there was no denying - when Sandra was in the age of the kidnapped children, Cho used to say goodbye in the morning and hello in the evening.

Aram'chee had a fine smile on her face, a clear sign that she knew what was racing through Sandra's mind. She said, "In poor countries, there are mothers selling their babies, for adoption. What about that?"

"Really?" Only her confusion could explain this nonsense question - Sandra knew that the High Priestess was honest. She hurried to say, "Why do they do that? For a living?"

"Sometimes this is not even their primary motive. They hope their children will have a better life than with themselves. Some of them have this hope, and often enough it's true. But I have another question, little witch." Aram'chee smiled broader. "When I met you, I claimed you as the next High Priestess. Was this kidnapping?"

"No, of course not."

"Your mother didn't think so. She was ready to kill me. And even if it wasn't kidnapping, I never said I'd give you back."

Sandra felt trapped in a corner. Before she could find another argument, they had to enter the cruise boat, and went inside to find two good window seats and order drinks - coffee for the High Priestess, Orangina for Sandra herself.

Glancing up, she saw that Aram'chee was waiting patiently for Sandra's next comment, and would do so till the end of the cruise, if needed. After another moment of fruitless efforts to find a weak spot in this weird line of statements and questions, Sandra said, "Please explain it to me."

"You told me that treating the children well, to let them live, is unusual. So here we see one reason why everybody's instant feelings are dominated by horror and disgust - until they are really back home, common experience tells the parents they won't see their children again."

Sandra nodded, feeling easier.

"This is just another example how feelings and beliefs dominate us humans, while facts are neglected. And even if not, facts are insufficient to change our impressions."

Sandra had heard this before, would hear it again, more often than she felt ready to appreciate. According to Aram'chee, the human nature could be described with just a dozen such statements, and the older Sandra grew, the more grew her bad feeling the High Priestess was right.

The waiter brought their drinks, and both of them sipped greedily. Then Aram'chee said, "Before continuing with my explanation, let me tell you - kidnapping is nothing new; it has been done through all centuries. However, killing the victims is a new development - and I have to admit, I feel disgust myself in spite of knowing exactly why." She smiled again, this way telling Sandra that she knew how boring it was to hear times and again about facts versus feelings.

"Quite often, the motive wasn't even money. You can find many cases in history where the children of kings or dukes were abducted by a rival competing for power, to be raised by themselves - and believe me, little witch, they were treated with luxury and honour and everything. But of course they were indoctrinated, because it was a game about power - and here we come to the main factor."

Well, thought Sandra, she should have known - power was the most human version of greed, and almost everything could be related to that. Only that she still couldn't see exactly the sequence of cause and effect.

"A normal mother," explained Aram'chee, "even if she knew that someone else could raise her child at least as well, maybe better, she still wouldn't be ready to give up on her child. We think that's normal, and it is - but it has nothing to do with the child's well-being. In the minimum, it is the belief that we ourselves are superior, so nobody can do it better. In addition, it is a question of power - children are always property, to some degree, taking away property is theft, and taking away children is the most condemnable theft."

Aram'chee grinned. "Besides - every now and then, you see a mother who really has someone to raise her child better than she herself could do. This is of course a sign of love and faith into that person - but a tiny rest of guilt will always remain, this is why any other person, who'd come and claim that child, with the best arguments, would be fought toe and nail."

Sandra grinned back. The High Priestess was talking about Cho and Harry, every single word true, nothing of it new, and still a perfect fit to settle this lesson about human motives.

"Let's satisfy our own greed," said Aram'chee, opening the menu card, "and order some big pieces of cake."

However, the card was no help for that, so they had to walk to the desk where the real thing could be inspected. Registering the small size of a single portion, they ordered twice the same - a piece of apple pie and a piece of a dark chocolate cake.

Back at their seats, Sandra asked, "How is it, to die? To die sooner than you'd have expected?"

"For whom?"


The High Priestess didn't recoil from talking with a mouth full of cake. "You did'mp afk how iph it to be dead ..."

Giggling, Sandra waited for the continuation.

Alas, Aram'chee first swallowed the bite. "... which would have been a question I cannot answer anyway. But aside from that, you were asking six questions at once."

Still in the right mood for a joke, Sandra said, "That's good, isn't it? I mean, it's not that simple to ask so many questions at once."

"Only if you can list all six of them."

Caught, because she couldn't. Joking against the High Priestess was a game bound to be lost - still. This might change some years from now, and Aram'chee's counters felt more encouraging than embarrassing.

"How is it to die in general? How is it to die in age? How is it to die young? ... These are three questions, and you can ask them about the person that's dying and about the survivors - makes six."

Something in Aram'chee's face made Sandra say, "Only there's just one answer, right?"


This devilish reply from the other side was anything but nonsense, as Sandra knew only too well, and most often it meant she was wrong. While not always - and this time, her senses told her she wasn't entirely wrong, not quite correct either.

She chewed a moment thoughtfully, then swallowed. "There's another answer for each person."

"Very good, little witch - and counting this as one answer is rhetorically correct." Aram'chee smiled warmly. "Why don't you ask Ireen?"

Because she was hanging around with Gabriel, shot the answer up in Sandra's mind, and because I didn't want to come and make clear he's better in that than myself. Loudly, she said, "Because I wasn't sure whether this is impolite, or painful to answer."

"Yes, it certainly is painful, but if you come asking seriously, honestly, not just out of curiosity, then I'd think this is your contribution, and as helpful as what your brother is doing." Aram'chee's face told Sandra - this hadn't been by accident, mentioning Gabriel in this context. "You were right in the beginning, while now, with a few days distance, it is a good thing to do."

Sandra nodded. "Yes, I'll ask her. But, you know, what I try to figure out is what it really means, death."

The High Priestess thought for a moment, which to Sandra felt like scoring in a debate. Then she said, "My best answer, it's the opposite of life. Physiologically, that's all to be said. Death is the end of a process in which something is alive. And otherwise - to really answer your question, first we had to know what's the reason of life, other than living, and this is a philosophical question we can discuss, only it's beyond my scope." Aram'chee looked almost apologetic. "Life is supposed to be freedom, and as old as I am, this goal is still waiting for me."

Sandra had to fight an impulse of guilt, which was nonsense - as if she were to blame that it took so long to be ready for her future duty.

"I can wait," assured the High Priestess, "and relish the expectancy. The Greeks had a saying - it was, whom the gods love, they let him die young. Only, I never met anyone who would have liked to be loved that way."

Sandra grinned, then grew serious again. "And suicide?"

"If it's not a moment's desperation, then it's committed because someone realizes that everything is better than the life he has, or is facing." Aram'chee looked wondering. "Did you never discuss it with your father?"

"Not particularly so, no. Why?"

"Committing suicide not necessarily means doing it by yourself, and as you know as well as I do, Harry did it at least for one person, although I'd agree to say he did it for two."

Sandra blushed. Not because of the first - this had been a dark wizard, seriously injured in the Battle of Hogwarts, who asked Harry to help him make an end to a miserable life. No, it was the second case, because Aram'chee was talking about Gérard Pouilly, and suddenly the topic of the Pouilly family seemed to grow in Sandra's mind.

Although it was fair to say, not the entire family, just one member, known as Frédéric.

"There is a boy," she started hesitantly. "He's - er, he'd have been a nephew of this Gérard. He's ..." and then, gaining speed while the cruise boat was chugging steadily ahead, Sandra told the High Priestess the full story about herself and Héloise, Benoît and Frédéric.

Aram'chee looked pleased, not saying a word.

Sandra glanced at her, looked at her dish which, miraculously, had emptied during this story, then peeked up again. "Why don't you say something?"

"I enjoyed what you told me. I still do."

"So you think it's right what I did?"

The High Priestess showed a fine smile. "I wasn't listening with a perspective of right or wrong in mind. How can you judge in these terms when people meet and are together? There's a girl, she meets a boy - there's a development, something's happening - "

Almost angrily, Sandra interrupted her. "You talk as if this is some romance! That's nonsense, it's not like that, it's just ..."

When she didn't continue, Aram'chee prompted, "Just what?"

"I don't know, but it's not what you think. He's just a classmate - yes, he's interesting, but for once, there's his family, and I'm not even sure whether he's - er, honest, if I can trust him."

The High Priestess's voice sounded teasing. "You are telling me, you agreed to visit the Centaur Firenze with someone you don't even trust? And you expect me to believe this?"

"Well, no, I mean ..." Sandra looked unhappy. "I thought you'd help me finding a way how I can be sure. Visiting Firenze - perhaps I said yes because, you know, if they meet, Firenze and Frédéric, I can watch and listen, and then I know more."

"So I'll help you, my little witch." Aram'chee's hand came over the table to take Sandra's.

"You had your instincts working, and they said he's trustworthy. At the same time, you had your mind working, and it said he might be a risk. Learning when to trust your instincts, or better I should say, learning to recognize the messages from your instincts, this is the most complicated part of growing up - the most complicated, remember, not the most difficult. And I trust your instincts. Visit Firenze with him and do what you had in mind, watch and listen."

Sandra felt an enormous relief, so much so that she already missed to ask, but did so after a moment. "Then what's the most difficult part?"

"Maturing, what is called puberty today. Becoming a woman." Aram'chee pressed the hand in her own. "It starts like that - girl meets boy, they are together, something develops - "

Sandra giggled. "There's still time until then, lots of time."

"You are not mature yet, true, but love and passion have many shapes, many names. Friendship is one of them. Sympathy is another. How do you feel when your friend Héloise, who is so gifted by nature, smiles at him, rather than at this Benoît?"

Caught again. Sandra blushed. "I could strangle her."

"Even if a part of this emotion is some envy, because a Veela simply can cope better with the opposite sex" - Aram'chee paused for dramatic effect - "would it be true to call the rest jealousy?"

Saying yes felt somehow wrong. Saying no would definitely be wrong. "It sounds so ridiculous," muttered Sandra, "jealousy - that's something for later, when we're older and ..." Her voice trailed off.

"No," said the High Priestess. "Jealousy is built into us from birth, the only question is how much, how strong. It's truly amazing how you get along with your brother, so you didn't experience much of this feeling so far - although I'm sure you felt it toward your friend Héloise already in the past."

Had to be true - the feeling had been somehow familiar. And Gabriel ... Sandra beamed. "Nobody can be mad at Gabriel, that's why."

Aram'chee released Sandra's hand and leaned back, looking sombre. "I was so glad to hear that you've met someone, and I hope this will become a friendship, if not more."

Sandra grinned. "Did you think I hadn't enough social life?"

"Yes, my little witch." Aram'chee's smile was a bit sad. "Because the time will come when it will encounter a deep caesura, which will hold very long before it starts again. And with this in mind, I welcome every opportunity where you can use the years of your youth."

For Sandra, this prospect held no threat. She knew it for the most part of her life. Aram'chee was probably right - although, she herself couldn't press matters much, could she?

For an instant, Sandra saw herself getting all over Frédéric, with the excuse that there was no time to lose because soon she'd be the High Priestess. The picture was so funny, she started to giggle and then to laugh so hard, she was almost rolling over.

* * *

It was weekend, which meant the companies Paul had found could not be visited with any chance of meeting someone. Not before Monday, a thought Harry felt hard not to scream about. Because he had a feeling ... Because what if they picked these two days to run another attack, toward someone else?

If he hadn't decided to join Gabriel, he would have been around when Paul called Seeger.

If he hadn't decided to join Gabriel, he would have missed a few scenes to remember in years to come. And Gabriel wouldn't have known which xylophone to take. And Michel would never, never ever, have gotten his pipe drums.

It was this thought which let Harry calm down, even start grinning, imagining what Fleur would say next time they met. Yes, sure, Fleur had known that these Miyikura people manufactured drums and drum-like instruments, Gabriel had told Harry what Fleur had said at the table. But Fleur couldn't possibly know about this latest development, with this magic twist causing a quantum leap in drum acoustics, because there was no longer any physical support that would dampen the resonance - the levitated drums could vibrate freely, creating a reverberating sound unheard before.

At a hefty price, by all means.

This Tanzani had told Harry that Miyikura intented to establish something totally new - a patent for a combination of simple mechanics and a creative spell. Naturally so, if you could charge forty grand for something Harry himself - with Ray's help - would put together on a rainy afternoon, provided someone offered them the wooden pipes.

Harry wasn't sure whether Michel had noticed the price. But Fleur would have an idea and would start negotiating about who was to pay what - and Harry would grin and point out that he was Michel's godfather, after all, who finally had managed to find some decent company for Héloise's priceless Goblin harp.

Then Harry grinned broader, because suddenly he knew how to argue, feeling sure Fleur would have quite some fun from this little plot.

His wife was off, his daughter was off, his son glued to some pieces of wood, although still quite flexible with his arms, and Ireen on a visit to Beverly - to see a bit more about spell-based baby care, as Ireen had explained, which increased Harry's suspicion that she would like being a witch, if only for this reason. And he, facing a Saturday with nothing to do, had decided to fulfill his promise to Paul.

To try, at least.

Harry wasn't looking forward to this conversation with his sister. Therefore, wouldn't it be nice to improve his mood in a talk with Fleur first? It smelled a bit of cowardice, but at least it was the same city, wasn't it? And maybe Fleur could give him a tip how to argue ... provided he would raise the topic.

Maybe so. Harry apparated.

He came out in the street, to walk the last steps, have a few seconds for finding his decision, and pass the Goblin guard as an act of politeness.

The two Goblins spotted him at once and apparently recognized him equally fast, the former Ambassador who had performed his Goblin Request and once would have to find his successor in this honour and duty. Harry could recognize it in their body language - they didn't freeze, tried to behave like the best guards you could imagine, only that it meant one of them had to watch the opposite direction, and the other had to avoid staring at him.

Passing them, Harry greeted with a nod and a smile, receiving the Goblin salute with the crossbow shortly turned upward in return. He didn't tell them where he was heading to - they knew anyway, so it would have been simultaneously improper and impolite. Reaching the Weasley house, Harry could feel their pride, being the ones to meet the Excellence who refused to be addressed with this title.

Bill opened the door. He grinned. "Come in, and listen."

A single beat, seemingly light at first but then sending a humming sound so deep you'd think one of these incredibly large Chinese brass gongs had been hit. And now, flying over this echo, the sounds of a Goblin harp.

Bill said, "You've got your son some competition. These pipe drums are one hell of an instrument."

"Yes," replied Harry, "they are. When I heard them together with a flute, it sounded like something totally different from what you can hear now."

Bill walked ahead. Coming into the living room, he said, "Look what I've got, Fleur, the culprit himself."

Fleur, who had been busy cleaning up magazines and newspapers, accepted Harry's greeting with cheeks to cheeks, then said, "All right, Young Potter, sit down and get prepared."

"Uh-oh!" Harry took a chair, grinning. "Haven't heard that for quite some time, but it doesn't sound as though the meaning has changed a bit. What have I done so wrong?"

"What you've done?" Fleur bent over him, in a posture meant threatening, only what was filling Harry's vision seemed badly suited as a threat. "You'll tell me at once what you paid for that, otherwise I'm going to trance you."

Slightly bending to the side, Harry glanced at Bill. "Whatever's going to happen now, I'm excused, right?"

"No, not at all," replied Bill, only he was chuckling.

Fleur straightened, then went to another chair and sat down. "Seriously, now. Of course I was sure he'd come back with an instrument of his own, I checked their catalogue in the Internet, but this thing wasn't listed there. And it looks awfully expensive."

Harry raised his eyebrows provocatively. "Well, as a matter of fact, it is."

"And you think you'll get away with it, huh?"

"Definitely not, because it was planned to stay here." Seeing Fleur's angry look, Harry raised his hands.

"What do you expect? I'm his godfather, and in the course of this duty, I found him an instrument that does more than some background - besides, it was Michel himself who found it."

For a few seconds, all three of them were listening to another wave of music, coming from Héloise's room. Then Fleur said, "Michel told us about the two xylophones, and that Gabriel is still trying to figure out which of them to place where. At this state of things, my dear 'arry, you might tell your son to look for two places in some Irish castle - hear what I'm saying?"

Harry feigned utter astonishment. "Why? I mean, I remember what you said, some days ago, about furniture in these rooms - actually, that's why I came, to ask you which of them you'd take over."

"Oh." Fleur looked disarmed. "You mean - the instrument and the bill?"

"Right." Harry nodded confirmingly. "And - regardless of which one Gabriel has in mind to put here, I'd appreciate if you'd leave the oak piece to me and take the other one."


Seeing Fleur's suspicious glance, Harry said, "Don't worry - they're both the same price. But the other one is cedar wood."

Both Fleur and Bill understood at once and started to laugh. Her eyes wet with tears, Fleur said, "Very clever, 'arry - brilliant, I'm looking forward to meet Cho, and I feel tempted already to rub it in a bit."

"Please be kind," Harry pleaded, only he was laughing himself.

Bill said, "Okay, Harry, it's a deal. How much?"

"Erm - fifty."

"Whoa!" Bill looked a bit perplexed, then recovered. "Considering our current economy, this is probably a better investment than any kind of stocks I can imagine - but still, our kids have a fine taste, by all means."

It earned him an angry glance from Fleur.

Harry said, "You know what's most embarrassing? What I paid didn't change my balance at all, as you know - but the transfer from you will raise my account."

"Yeah," said Bill mockingly, "these damned Goblins!"

Noticing that he found himself alone in having fun with his remark, Bill added, "Save it, Harry - and by the way, for us it's not the same, but I stopped checking our balance sheets at the end of the year, when the interest is booked, and do you know why? Because no matter how you look at it, the interest's too much for the investment. So you're in good company."

"Really?" Harry felt very pleased, hearing this confession. Bill had earned himself a Goblin Request of the Privileged category, and apparently the Goblins had decided that its effects would not end with the initial grantings, which included this house and a more than generous Gringotts account.

Registering the change in her guest, Fleur said, "Please tell me, 'arry - how much was it for the pipe drums?"


"Wow!" Now Fleur looked baffled.

"It's one out of twelve," explained Harry, "that's part of the reason. They said they'll build only twenty-four altogether, so it's a very exclusive drum." He grinned. "That might come true or not - who wants to know, we can tell the Goblins that Hély's harp has found a worthy companion, so they'll forgive us if the war drums will gather some dust."

"There's no risk for that," replied Bill. "Michel said they're so different, now he too has more than one instrument." Bill lowered his voice. "But he said it only to me, not to his sister, if you know what I mean."

"My lips will be sealed," Harry whispered back.

With Fleur alone, he would have asked her how to talk with Ginny. With Bill around, however, Harry felt quite reluctant to mention the issue - which seemed totally irrational, because Bill was the oldest brother of Harry by adoption and of Ginny by birth. But then, the issue was irrational by itself, wasn't it?

So, after some more remarks, Harry said goodbye and left.

He did so the conventional way, by walking down the staircase until he reached the street, until he was seen again by the Goblin guards, so they knew about him leaving. Only then, he apparated.

His destination was the entrance to the Agence Ginnyale, how Ginny had dubbed her little enterprise. When Ron had heard about the name, he'd asked whether his sister would hire the models by IQ, rather than by their looks, and if her customers had warmed up to this approach.

It hadn't exactly improved terms between Ron and Ginny. On the other side - Ron was her only brother who could give such a remark without being suspected of looking down at her tiny company, quite in contrast to Fred and George, who otherwise might easily have been the source of such sarcasm. Yes, true, there was still Percy, but did anyone in his right mind expect something like that from Percy?

Today, the agency could be rated tiny only in an inter-familiar comparison, but not toward other model agencies. And this was the reason why Harry expected the chances for meeting her higher at this place than in her penthouse.

And right he was. Ginny herself opened the door, simply because she was the only one in the office. Seeing Harry, she looked a bit astonished and not particularly pleased. "You? That's a real surprise, that is. Come in."

Following her inside, Harry saw a desk cluttered with folders and files, while a computer monitor presented just numbers, although in fashionable colours. He asked, "Is this the leisurely Saturday of the successful entrepreneur? Bookkeeping?"

"Kind of, yes." Ginny leaned at her desk, giving Harry the impression he was about as welcome as a tax auditor, except that he could be sent off easier.

But he'd come for a reason, and now he was here. "Can I invite you to some place with less paper and more drinks, or even something to eat?"

"No thanks - I've got to finish here before I really start screaming, rather than feeling like that. And there's an appointment in a while."

"Business or private?"

"The boundaries are always floating, as you certainly know." It came with a bit of teasing in her voice, while Ginny's expression kept quite watchful. Well, they knew each other, and for once this wasn't very helpful.

Harry suppressed a sigh. "I came to find out something. It's probably not the best opportunity, but then, it's not more than a simple question. Are you still with Paul?"

There was no surprise in Ginny's face, none inside either, only the teasing in her voice had disappeared. "Since when is this any of your business?"

"Since I asked Paul the same question - well, not quite the same, but anyway, his answer was he didn't know."

"Did Paul send you?" For a moment, the anger in Ginny's face was replaced by disbelief.

"No. He's doing some research for me, and in exchange for this favour, I said I'll do some research for him, that's all."

"That's all, huh?" Rage was building up in her, Harry didn't need his special senses to notice that. "Just dropping by, having a check at my love life - why don't you come in the evening, then you could see by yourself, wouldn't even need to ask me - that would save you the hassle, since I'm not going to answer that anyway - and me too, so I could get my work done!" Ginny's head flicked toward the monitor, back at Harry.

"That's not my concern ..." His own breath had quickened too, from the efforts not to join her in this furious mood. "The only question is, does Paul still play a role in your life - in some future, if not at present, and it's his question, not mine, so if you'd tell me something like, I'm going to inform him till day after tomorrow, and now get the hell out of here, I'd call this visit a success."

"And if I told you the last part only, we could call this conversation partially successful, right?"

The bitter joke wasn't rising a smile in either face. "Maybe Ron would call it like that," Harry said after a moment, "only I'm not Ron, and he won't hear about this."

As far as he was concerned, he added in his mind, although Ginny seemed even less likely to tell her brother. A bit calmer, she asked, "What's he doing for you - Paul, I mean?"

Could this be a first peace sign? A break in the combat? Or simple curiosity - whatever, the answer would add an element totally out of place in this discussion, so Harry said, "Can we keep that out?"

"Oh, sure!" Ginny snorted. "You've asked me, I've asked you, and now we can part without the burden of having wised up - "

That did it. "I said to Paul, you weren't treated that way - hanging in the air without knowing what's going on, or what lies ahead. And he doesn't deserve it either - but maybe he's found the answer by himself, at any rate, the last thing I heard was that this evening he'll have dinner with someone."

"Fine, great - isn't this wonderful news?" As much as Ginny's voice gave a perfect example of joyful sarcasm, she was hurt somewhere. "Just tell him it's the same with me, and by some luck, we'll have adjacent tables in the same restaurant, that'd be the highlight of this magnificent day."

"Most unlikely, because he's in Santa Monica. Bye."

With two steps, Harry had reached the door and was about to open it when a calm voice from behind said, "Just a second."

He turned. "What?"

"Santa Monica, huh? That means - yes, of course, that's the only explanation - he's doing some research about these kidnappings, most of all the last one in which your friend was killed. Oh yes, I know, just didn't find the right moment to express my condolence. And you didn't want to tell me because it was off the point, or you didn't want to put pressure on me - or just the other way around, to let me find out later and feel bad." Ginny glared at him, her lips a thin line. "Whatever - it wasn't going to change my mind, and now that he's found some company, I'm sure he'll find what you want, my noble crusader."

"Very good." Harry glared back. "And pretty fast - especially in your guessing of other people's motives, mine, for instance. But you know, I can play that game too - it's not difficult at all to see why you treat him like that, not for me, that is. He might not be the one to blame, but he's the only one you can make suffer, so for once he feels the same."

Two eyes almost too big in a paled face were staring at him.

"If I want someone feeling bad, Ginny, there won't be the slightest doubt about my intentions. Please remember that, when guessing again why I did something, or did not - especially to you."

Door handle in hand, Harry added, "I'm not going to tell him. That wasn't his question anyway."

Then he was out, on the street, feeling like shit warmed over, wishing he could go back and do something other than saying he was sorry. Only he wasn't, not really, and besides, that wasn't the point anyway.

* * *

Cho swallowed the last bite of this delicious stew. She let the last morsel of that dark bread follow. Then she used the napkin, maybe the only item seemingly out of place in this room, with its walls of rough stones and the smoke-darkened crossbeams above. After dropping the napkin on her dish, she took a deep gulp of her glass - light beer, the dark stuff that went as the local specialty was a bit strong for Cho's taste.

She belched, not ladylike at all while perfectly in sync with the surroundings, then looked at Clemens. "You were right; they really can cook. How did you find this place?"

"By pure luck, as the choirgirl said," replied Clemens, raising a chuckle from Ray Purcell and - from his wife Rahewa - a grin that made clear which particular kind of choirgirl he'd quoted.

The four of them were sitting in a back room of the Crofters' Inn, an old tavern in Kerrinan - not even the only one in this small town near Port William, at the southern end of Galloway. When looking out the tiny window, you could see the water of the Luce Bay. Craning your neck, you might recognize a dark spot in the distance, from here the only visible part of the Mull of Galloway at the other side of the bay.

Nobody would have guessed that they were holding a business meeting of Groucho Transport & Security. First because of this place here: who would select a pub at the Scottish coastline for such an occasion? Maybe as a waterhole after hours, yes, but for lunch plus business talk?

Only - a restaurant that would have suited Cho's expectations, after getting used to certain standards in Santa Monica, where in hell could something like that be found in godforsaken Ireland? Not in Dublin for sure. Nowhere near either. Until Rahewa came with Clemens' suggestion about this cute little tavern - had a back room, you could rent it for a song, and what about some countryside recreation afterwards, once the business talk was done?

So it hadn't been a question that Clemens, who belonged to Groucho Biochemicals, rather than to GTS, would be with them. "Tell him he's going to join the party," Cho had said, "because, if this was planned as some special joke, at least he'll be in the same boat."

But Clemens didn't recoil, probably had hoped to be invited, which made a nicer round anyway - and someone like him, not involved in the GTS details while owning a clear mind, might even contribute with his perspective from the outside.

Rahewa said, "Would someone please roll me to my bed, for a little nap, and wake me up when you're done? I should have stopped eating some moments earlier, I'm afraid. I feel great, though, that's not my problem, but wasn't there something like a sales campaign on the agenda?"

Cho, hearing what she herself didn't dare to admit, turned to the chief engineer. "Ray, you look as skinny as before lunch, I can't detect the slightest trace of a bulge at your middle riff. So you're the one who can push us forward."

"No pushing, please," muttered Rahewa, "unless you'd like to watch a disaster."

Ray still had been chewing, maybe just because he was eating slower than the others. Now he swallowed and said, "That'd be the day, me doing sales. I'm an engineer, period."

"So?" Cho pointed at him. "Engineers solve problems, don't they? Okay, buddy, solve our problem."

The engineer glanced maliciously into the round. "The instant problem, right? Which is, you're too fed up to think straight. Okay, get on your feet and have a walk - just follow me, half an hour, that'll do."

Groaning around the table left little doubt what the others thought of Ray's solution.

Clemens said, "I'm the one responsible for your dilemma, so I'm the one supposed to get you out. All right then, you won't be surprised when my first measure is a good potion ..."

Alarmed looks, most of all from Ray.

"... except this time it's not my own brew, because the local stuff fits ever so nicely the prescription." Clemens made a half-step to the wall and pulled a leather strap that hung there, to the effect that a bell was banging outside in the bar room.

When the host appeared, Clemens ordered four whiskies, "... the one that's never seen a bottle from inside, and remember, if the ladies' pints are less by a single drop, then they'll get you for sexual harassment."

The host, so huge he had to keep his head low in this room, stared at Clemens, then glanced at Cho and Rahewa, and finally disappeared without a word.

Rahewa murmured, "He looked as if he'd got it all wrong - I mean, us harassing him ..."

Ray started to grin, opened his mouth, closed it again, seeing Cho's expression.

The host appeared again, a jug in one hand, the other hand holding four small glasses between the fingers. He clanked them on the table, giving Clemens another stare, then, very carefully, he filled them from the jug. This done, he stood there, waiting.

Clemens was the first to reach for a glass, quickly followed by Ray and, after a second's hesitation, by the women.

Cho knew whisky from tumblers, with ice cubes and soda. She watched the two men downing the amber liquid at once, then did the same - and gasped, feeling a very tasty fire burn down her throat.

"Ahhh ..." Ray smacked his lips. "That's the stuff you dream of, in the city."

"City!" The host's growling voice was almost spitting out the word. "What can you expect from the English? Ha?"

"He meant Dublin," said Rahewa, and anyone listening might have thought she felt a bit intimidated from this giant and his peculiar manners.

The host's face changed to even deeper disgust. Examining his guests again, he said, "You aren't Irish, you." Then he filled the glasses a second time, as carefully as before, and left without another word.

Cho's eyes had followed him. Turning to Clemens, she asked, "Is he upset?"

"Not at all, otherwise we hadn't got our refill - he doesn't offer that angel's piss to everyone. No, it's just the rural courtesy. Didn't you see how much he approved the sight, looking at you?"

"I thought it was because I'm not Irish for sure," replied Cho, earning the expected laughter.

Clemens said, "All right, now that we're sufficiently awake, let's talk about some sales campaign, and I'll be the one who's going to prompt you ..."

He paused, not quite voluntarily, because Rahewa was leaning toward Cho, murmuring, although audibly for everyone, "You must know, for him, as a genuine Bavarian, such heavy food is quite common, and he became a potions wizard just because the booze they brew down there doesn't go well with him."

"... unless it's about selling that unthankful brat, because nobody's going to offer for her," finished Clemens his sentence.

"No, we won't," said Cho. "It's about the protector spheres." With some effort, she tried to concentrate - what a picture, the three top managers of GTS hanging in their chairs, hard as they were, and this solemn young man the only one ...

"Who needs them?" asked said young man.

"Yeah," nodded Ray, "that's what we try to figure out."

"But you sell them already, don't you?"

"Yes, we do," said Cho. "Only problem, we want to sell more." Seeing a slight disappointment in Clemens' face, she steadied herself. "More precisely, we want to figure out where's our market, and what it needs to adapt to this market's demands. Simple advertisement won't do."

Recognizing Cho's business-like voice, Rahewa and Ray had gathered themselves, now were sitting attentively.

Clemens asked, "Who's your current clientele?"

"People with high security demands," answered Ray. "Companies with laboratories and other research faculties that need protection, then the government - "

"Government?" Clemens grinned wonderingly. "Why? To prevent these pen-pushers from being caught asleep?"

Cho said, "That might be a market. So far, it's been for prisons."

"Oh." Clemens looked a bit uneasy.

Cho smiled. "Is it pity you feel? Or is it the thought of yourself in such a place, 'n case they find out what we've done the last years? By the way, that reminds me, two years from now we might expect a higher demand from schools worldwide ..."

Now it was Rahewa's turn to look somewhat alarmed, hearing Cho talk about the Great Plot in such public place, while Clemens, for whom this was daily business, seemed to be at ease.

"... in the meantime, we think about military applications. Army, Navy, Air Force - they showed some interest, but the budgets are limited, despite what you hear, and what's more - we're competing against an established arms lobby, and these people do what they can to tell the generals that fifty armed guards are more reliable, and that electronic survey equipment can be deactivated too easily."

"What a crap," snarled Ray, "electronic survey equipment - but generals are appointed according to the speed by which they can switch off their own biological survey equipment ..."

"Otherwise known as brain, right." Cho's smile to Ray seemed as much apologetic, for cutting him short, as hinting unmistakably that the GTS meeting was in full swing.

"Could be a matter of price, and that's certainly true if we ever address the home market. Same with the installation procedure - it had to be simplified before going that way."

"How's it done so far?" asked Clemens.

He was answered by Ray, who explained that the protector spheres would be installed by technicians from GTE. According to the engineer, it was pretty simple in a way, very much like a connection to cable TV or something like that, only so far the spheres had been offered as high-priced high quality items; making a fuzz about proper installation represented an important part of the show as well as part of their income.

Clemens asked, "Is it always done that way?"

"Yes," said Ray.

"No," said Rahewa.

"Huh?" Ray turned to her. "What are you talking about? That's the only way - we ship them always with the installation crew."

"Right," said Rahewa, "and they arrive, install it, show them how to switch it on and off, and if they're polite enough, they get a tip. That's the standard. And they deliver a report, which is also standard - except nobody reads them."

Cho examined the face of her youngest CEO. "You did."

"Yes, I did." Rahewa's expression showed little of the diligent bookworm's pride, more a kind of wondering. "It was part of my homework for this meeting, to get a feeling what's going on at the customer front. And there was a report in which the fields for installation and test weren't checked off, while the customer's signature was there all right." She looked at the others. "You know, as a single report, you'd think they just forgot, only when browsing through all of them, you get an eye for everything out of the ordinary - well, and there wasn't any other with the same glitch."


"It was a delivery of four spheres, customer in London, two technicians. I wanted to talk with the two, and just by chance, I didn't call them but went down to see them myself. Well, when I asked, the one said it must be a mistake - only they exchanged a glance, and what I felt was something else ..."

Her audience had grown very attentive, most of all Cho. Rahewa's haragei wasn't up to Harry's level, though way above normal for sure.

"... so I said, all right boys, and now once more please for the slow of mind, but short of memory, if they'd get my drift, and they did. As it turns out, they arrived there, were expected, only when they wanted to start the installation, someone told them it wasn't decided yet where exactly to install them, but it'd be okay, not their mistake, and in order not to make the customer look like a fool, they might just forget it. And to help the forgetting, they were tipped quite generously."

"How much?" It was Ray who asked, looking furious.

Rahewa wrinkled her nose. "They said hundred, but it was a lie - must have been more, only I didn't press them."

"Why not? Who are they?" Ray was almost fuming.

"Save it, Ray." Rahewa smiled at him, but her voice was that of the chief executive officer to the chief engineer. "What I did instead, I asked them, all right boys, you've been there, now tell me what you make of it - and one of them said, for all he knows, the spheres had never been planned for this office. Which means, someone's bought four spheres while making sure not to appear in our records."

Cho asked, "Who's the customer?"

"A company by the name of Three Corners Ltd.." Rahewa looked expectantly at Cho. "Got it?"

"You mean, an address for some deal around three corners?"

Rahewa nodded slowly. "I tried to reach them. No answer. There's no such company in the phone book. I had no time yet to let someone check the address, but I'm sure, the office is either empty or rented by someone else."

"But why?" asked Ray. "Why would someone worry about whether or not he's listed in some files of GTS?"

"That's simple," said Cho. "They don't want to appear anywhere. Our customer's either very illegal or very legal but secret, which for me is pretty much the same. At least, the purpose is most likely the same as always - to protect some headquarter, or office, from intruders."

Clemens said, "There's still another possibility."

"Which?" Cho couldn't think of any.

"Didn't you say, the same as always? Well, a minute ago I heard that you sell to prisons - so what if someone has bought them for this same reason? Someone who's running a very private prison?"