- 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: 04/12/2003Updated: 05/05/2003Words: 178,786Chapters: 22Hits: 20,126
Presents from the Past
- 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 14 - Intermezzo
- Chapter Summary:
- Harry realizes that the raid against the 'Delivery Boy' wizards was quite unsuccessful in one important aspect - evidence. So he talks first with Sheila and then with Paul about the method to gain evidence. Sandra, in the meantime, starts her journey into the Forbidden Forest, together with Frédéric. The idea is a meeting between the Centaur Firenze and Frédéric. First, however, both of them have to master some difficult conversations.
14 - Intermezzo
Ireen poured coffee into Harry's cup, then into her own. It was more a gesture for tempering her impatience than for real need; the cups were only halfway emptied. She put the can down.
They were sitting at a table which counted as breakfast for Harry and as a late lunch for herself, while Tanitha in her high chair didn't mind the terminology, as long as she had something to chew on. By now, though, the girl seemed close to the point of falling asleep, and considering the style of conversation, you could think Harry was fighting a similar problem. But Ireen didn't think so.
Yes, it had been a very short night for him, after returning in the early morning hours from that raid near Santa Monica. Now he was sitting here, chewing as mechanically as Tanitha, and Ireen had to press hard for the scarce description she was earning. But sleepiness and a full mouth together couldn't be the only reasons for Harry's monosyllabic style. Maybe it had to do with his dislike of presenting himself as the cool-minded hero in the tale.
He swallowed his bite and sipped some coffee before talking again.
"Then ... We waited some more minutes, but nobody else came out. When Seeger gave the signal for moving in, the three of us went up on our broomsticks to bring the the three stunned wizards down. We did, in a way, but the one who'd been sent to check the roof is the only one still alive."
"What? Of these three?"
"No - of all of them. In addition to those we knew about, they found two more corpses inside. One had died from too much gas, or lack of oxygene, whatever, and the other - a young woman, maybe some office clerk, perhaps another member of that gang, anyway, she was shot."
Ireen looked horrified. "From their own people?"
"Yes." Harry dropped the remnants of his roll and reached for his cup again. "Carl thinks she was trying to surrender, or to persuade the others to give up, or something like that."
"And the two that were stunned by Rahewa?"
"Shot wounds in head and chest." Harry looked at Ireen. "Sounds familiar, huh?"
The remark was rude by conventional standards, incredibly so by Harry's own - Ireen stared at him for an instant, just long enough to realize that his anger wasn't directed to herself.
"Are you trying to shock me? Every citizen in the States knows this is the standard execution method in gangs, so what the hell are you trying to say?"
"I don't know ... Sorry."
A suspicion rose in her. "Are you blaming yourself for those killings?"
Harry leaned back and exhaled. "Not really - not directly, that is." He raised his hand. "Wait, hear me out. I'm not going to cry a single tear after them, don't worry about that. It's just that the two survivors have been some borderline figures in that group, for all we can see. An alarm goes off on the roof - who do you send, the boss man? Certainly not."
He made a fist, however without crashing it on the table. "Why, why, why didn't I stun the two coming out?"
She couldn't follow instantly. "You mean they were still alive then? So what? Would be four rather than two - who cares except them?"
"Ireen!" Harry's voice expressed some impatience. "These were the heads, won't you agree about that? If I'd stunned them, they would have collapsed, no reason to shoot - but no, this would have been just too simple, it had to be the brilliant elegance of the disarming spell. And it pulled them forward, and this looked like the recoiling of a firing gun, and next moment, they had no faces any longer. So much for elegance, and now Carl's trying to find the tiniest proof that these were the kidnappers."
"Is there any doubt?"
"Not for me, not for Carl, not for anyone's been there. Doesn't count much - the two survivors are never going to talk - they'd face death sentence, while now, Carl has even trouble finding a reason for arrest."
Ireen stood up and walked behind Harry's chair. There she bent down. "You know what? You're suffering from an overdose of crime. I'm not entirely sure whether I'd get Cho's approval, but anyway, I think I should give you an overdose of an antidote."
"Oh my god." Harry twitched.
Ireen walked back to her chair and sat down. "Thanks a lot! Comments like that really turn me on."
A rare view - Harry's face blood-red. "I'm sorry," he murmured, "for a moment, I thought you were serious."
That made her more upset than his first reaction. "You think I'm joking?" Her hand went to her belt and came up with her phony. "Wait a sec - just let me ask Cho, and give her a chance to join this particular party ..."
She had known how fast he could move, hadn't she? Still, it was a bit perplexing to see him suddenly right in front of her, holding her hand with the phony. In some way, it was a bit arousing, too.
"Please, Ireen." Harry's voice was begging.
She looked up. "You mean - just us two?"
His grip at her hand loosened, and a smile appeared in his face. "Maybe we should have a cold shower together."
"Does it work? I never tried that." She felt the moment fade, wondering whether she should be glad or disappointed.
Harry bent down and kissed her lightly. "I'm in a bad mood - I was, a moment ago, and that's not a good basis. Otherwise, asking Cho's definitely the right step."
"I might come back to that topic, although" - Ireen grinned - "if you're running around in California while it's evening here, that'd be something else."
Harry sat down again. "I think I can be back in time." He reached for his neglected roll and resumed eating.
Thinking about the new situation, Ireen said, "Now that the kidnappers are caught - or dead - I could return any time, isn't that so?"
Again Harry stopped chewing, swallowed. "Do you like being pestered by the press? Want to see yourself in the seven o'clock news? Or the picture of your house in TV, with someone smiling into the camera and telling everyone that you refused any comment?"
"No, thanks." After a moment of silence, Ireen said, "I'm not even sure whether I want to go back at all. This place here - " she stopped, looking alarmed, and corrected herself, "I mean, the area here, the people, even the rain ..."
Harry examined her. "This castle offers a lot of room," he said. "For more than four people, and for all shades of being together or keeping to yourself. If you fell in love with it ..." He let the words hang in the air.
"I'm not sure yet," she replied hesitantly. "If so, it weren't the walls alone."
"Yes, I know," he interrupted her, "the floors have this special charme, and the ceiling looks so inviting - not to forget the windows and the - "
"Please don't tease me, Harry, you know what I mean, the people, and all of them - you, Cho, your children, the house-elves ... The atmosphere altogether. I know I'm going to miss it."
He asked, "Do you trust me?"
"What? Yes, of course ..."
Ireen stared at him uncomprehending. "Yes! And Sandra, and Gabriel ... " In an attempt of ridiculing the moment, she added, "And most of all I trust Nagini - why?"
"Because it doesn't look that way. Nobody told you to go, and still you can't relax at the thought of staying."
"Oh." She smiled tentatively, grew serious again. "I see. But you know, taking it to such an extreme - I'm not used to it, it's ... it's so un-American."
A sparkling glowed in his eyes. "And un-Japanese too," he said, "terribly so. Then it must be Irish."
"Yeah - as Irish as Beverly."
They both laughed about the picture of this girl so famous for saying out aloud her exact thoughts.
Harry startled Ireen by first catching Tanitha's attention and then the child herself, all this without a single word - and without a single movement from his side, except for his arms which took the floating girl and put her on his lap. Then he said, "Do you want to join your daughter?"
"Huh?" Ireen almost flushed, feeling an instant of embarrassment - for a second, she had taken the question literally, just when it had crossed her mind that right now, an offer like the one before might find more fertile ground.
Harry gave her a brief grin. "Do you want to be a witch, Ireen?"
This time, she flushed seriously. With some effort, she said, "Maybe that's the only real drawback in this household, you just can't have a secret ... not even a moment's thinking." The last words came as a whisper, managed only because her cheeks were burning anyway.
"It cuts both ways," Harry replied, his eyes at Tanitha. "Guess why I snatched that sweet bundle here out of the high chair?"
This remark did little to calm Ireen down, more the opposite. "Isn't she supposed to be my roadblock, and yours Nagini?" Her breath had quickened a bit.
Harry glanced at her. "You won't believe how much I'm tempted to play a little game with mind waves."
"Why don't you do it?" Her voice sounded strangled - the memory of his way of heating up a roaring fire was almost too much at this moment.
"Because even touchless sex is ruled by the same principle - but I promise to come home in time." He stood up. "So the answer is yes, isn't it?"
He came over and put Tanitha into her arms. "Here - I'll talk with Sandy about the issue, so she can ask the High Priestess. Time for me to catch some Californian sun."
Ireen asked, "Do you think she'll agree?"
Harry stopped at the door. "It's definitely a matter of when and where, not if ... See you later."
Ireen went upstairs with the girl and tucked Tanitha in her bed. Sitting down on her own, she stared at the wall, lost in thoughts. Being a witch ... The emotion was so strong, she felt the heat return, a quivering between her legs.
How would it be? Playing tricks with a wand - and which spells were good to play games with a body? Or two? She wasn't going to make it till the evening, not in this state, her mind failing to stop these pictures, of a wand gliding over her belly, her thighs, its tip touching her core, parting her, smooth and cool and hard and powerful ...
For a short while, she kept lying motionless, imagining what the evening would offer. Then she realized, if she didn't get up in a hurry and find something to kill the time, she would spoil the anticipation for herself. Falling asleep within the next five seconds would be a solution.
Only she wouldn't. So maybe she really should try a cold shower - despite her serious doubts that the effect would be calming.
* * *
Harry entered the precinct and reached the large room with the many desks and the few door-separated cubicles. He found them unusually empty, including Seeger's own micro office. At least, Sheila was seated on her chair.
Part of her, that was, while the rest bulged to both sides.
He walked over. "Hi, Sheila. Where's everybody?"
"Most of them are in that building, or what you left of it, scanning every square inch for evidence." Sheila grinned. "And crying like never before - that gas is sticky."
The grin faded. "In the headquarters, for rapport. They're grilling him over a low fire."
Sheila rolled her eyes. "You are no cop, Harry, and certainly not an LA cop, otherwise you wouldn't ask that question. Eight people dead, two arrested, a building just good for the demolition crew, and not the smallest bit of evidence that these scumbags violated any law other than spitting on the sidewalk."
"Now wait a sec - at least three of them were killed by their own people. What about that?"
"Yeah, okay ..." Sheila leaned back, to which the poor chair responded with a desperate squeak. "Nobody's going to believe these were innocent citizens, but last night's raid was supposed to nail the kidnappers, and from this perspective, we haven't even got the black under the nails - zilch, Harry. And the two survivors - the one from the roof is in the hospital, busy to file a lawsuit against the LAPD for gas poisoning and against an unknown attacker who knocked him down - "
"Is he, huh?" Harry felt his rage grow.
"Yes, and your present from the car crash is screaming about unjustified arrest - I wonder how long we'll have the pleasure of his company."
"Then let me interrogate him - or the one in the hospital."
Sheila watched his face. "Definitely not, Harry - we've got trouble enough from yesterday's action, no need to pile up more."
He stared at her in disbelief. "Say, is this a complaint?"
She snorted. "You didn't ask me to sugarcoat it for you, Harry, did you? That's the system here, it protects criminals much better than us other idiots. If you want to do Carl a favour, find evidence, is all that matters."
Her voice grew a bit softer. "But calm down first - if you want to hear something that'd help in that direction, talk with Woods - you've got yourself a friend in the master sergeant, says he never before had a gig like that, none of his people hurt ..."
Yes, Sheila's words alone were already good to soothe Harry's temper.
"... only he's SWAT, and they give a damn for evidence." Sheila drew a face. "Don't think I'm unthankful, Harry, but just between you and me - if any of them had caught a bullet in the leg or so, our most pressing problems would be solved."
That's crazy, thought Harry, but had the wisdom of not saying it out. Instead, he asked, "Would it make sense to join your colleagues in that building?"
"Not really - you are no detective, you just don't know how to work in such a situation." Sheila's grin came back. "And besides - you wouldn't like it there, and what's worse, they wouldn't like you, since there's no one else to blame for that tearful mess."
"Evidence, you said." Harry thought a moment. "What would be evidence?"
Sheila's answer came instantly. "The money - or part of it."
A desperate idea crossed Harry's mind. "Would it help to store a million in that building?"
For the first time since his arrival, Sheila's glance showed something like respect. "Nice try, but too late - you know, fake evidence isn't exactly a foreign term here around."
Talking about money had raised another thought in Harry. "Then maybe Paul has an idea how to find it," he said, "but for sure I want to talk with the two surviving wizards. When do you expect Carl being back from his barbecue?"
"After he's well done," came the reply. Then Sheila shook her head. "Harry - Carl will be the first to make sure you won't come near them, not closer than a mile - the media pack's already salivating their fangs, and the smallest irregularity ... No, I'm afraid private wizards aren't welcome in this story."
Yes, unfortunately so, and Harry could even understand the lieutenant. Still, it didn't change his dire need for having a conversation with them, at least with his sand dune acquaintance. A real conversation - coming on strong wouldn't help, conventional methods of third grade would fail for sure, only Harry could imagine some tricks of the subtle kind.
To no avail, as long as he couldn't reach that man. Even if he knew the location, he couldn't apparate inside because the prison was of course locked. Having reached that point in his thoughts, Harry started to grin.
Sheila registered it. She said, "I don't think I should ask you now, Harry - can't help thinking it's pretty unlawful what's crossing your mind."
His grin broadened. "Sheila, you're a clever girl, do you know that?"
"Tell me something new." However, in her face suspicion was fighting with pride.
"Okay, and here it is. Let the van driver go."
Watching her face, Harry could see that the surprise held for little more than a second. Then Sheila's eyes narrowed again. "I don't like a truth at any price, Harry."
He smiled. "You're as quick as I thought, only this time you've left yourself behind - I'm not going to torture him, for example because it won't be any help at all. He's extremely tough, the only promising method is a superior mind."
Which was certainly true, except that Harry wouldn't tell Sheila what it meant in his family, a superior mind. Howver, maybe that was exactly the reason why she didn't look convinced.
"Then what are you going to do with him?"
"My only unlawful doing will be to hold him in a place which is not his own choice, otherwise with all luxury he's going to ask for. Maybe with the exception of the latest news."
"You think he knows where the money is?"
"You mean to follow him unnoticed?" Harry thought it over. "Won't work, and besides, I'm sure he'll wait quite a while. But the longer I think about him, the more I'm sure he wasn't the lowest rank in the group - not like the guy on the roof."
Sheila kept silent for a moment, then asked, "You need to be there when he comes out, right?"
"Yes. The moment he leaves the locking field, he'll apparate - and I must be there to follow."
"First I'll wait whether he leads me to some place worth checking, although that's pretty unlikely - not that guy. And then - then I'll make him follow me."
"It's called summoning. I do it all the time, but normally by mutual agreement, as a way of travelling."
Sheila nodded. "Make sure you can be reached any time, Harry. If I tell Carl about your suggestion, he's going to sniff the plan at once, and at the current state of things, that's what I'd call sub-optimal." The desk sergeant with the great devotion to her job gave Harry an expressionless stare. "Even so - expect that guy being released within the next two or three days. I have a contact in that prison" - her voice turned bitter - "I can tell you, without that, we'd be the last to hear about his release."
Harry said, "Thank you, Sheila. Should you ever get tired of being a cop, give me a call - "
She interrupted him. "Don't hold your breath, sweetheart."
"No, but just in case - and in the meantime, do you need something to - er, improve the matter?" Seeing her face turn cold, Harry added hastily, "I mean, for that contact?"
Sheila's expression softened. "That's none of your business, Harry."
"Okay. But you won't turn me down coming with a Turkish pizza, would you?"
The generously padded face started to grin. "Ab-so-lu-ly not."
* * *
Paul Sillitoe dropped the morning newspaper, wondering idly whether it wasn't time to dress properly. Maybe so, only what was the hurry? He was alone in poor Tony's apartment, enjoying something that felt like vacation. Kathleen had left for work already a while ago, and even if she'd been there, would this be a reason for dressing? Quite the opposite.
But right now the door bell chimed.
Having a distinct feeling about who'd be standing outside, Paul suddenly felt a weird embarrassment, only it was too late. He closed the garment he was wearing - one of Tony's kimonos, these wonderfully smooth pieces seemed to fit everyone - and walked to the door. Right he'd been ... Damn. Paul opened the door.
Harry saw him and started to laugh.
Feeling his cheeks burn, Paul said, "Come in and tell me what's so funny - no, actually it might be better you don't."
Harry stepped in and waited until Paul had closed the door and turned to him. Then, examining the kimono, he said, "Let's make a compromise. I tell you the part you really don't know."
"And what would that be?"
"Kimonos are closed counter-clockwise. Only corpses at a funeral wear it like that."
From most other people, Paul would have suspected this to be a hoax. But not from Harry, not at the sight of his killed friend's kimono worn by somebody else. So, walking ahead, Paul took the opportunity to correct his mistake. Glancing around, he said, "I hope you don't mind me using Tony's items. They're just too comfortable."
"Yes they are, aren't they?" Without losing his knowing grin, Harry added, "Let me assure you - Tony in first place, Ireen next, and finally I for myself provide their full support in you gaining new experiences about the breathtaking touch of soft silk around a male body ... Initially, at least."
Paul muttered, "Then how come that doesn't sound relieving at all?"
"Because of your bad puritan conscience."
Harry's expression grew serious. "To help you in that, Paul, I spoke with Ginny some time ago, it was a disaster, and the only relevant information - whatever will be in the future, don't worry about unbalanced accounts of unfaithfulness. Concentrate on the lady - eh, the time being and give it the credit it deserves."
"Are you serious?" Next instant, Paul was in a haste to say, "No, sorry, I take it back, I know you are, it's just me needing a moment to adjust."
Harry smiled. "Are you serious, then?"
"Beats me. Currently, we're still too busy with - er, well, getting used to each other." Paul felt like skating on ice, discussing such matters with a failed brother-in-law, especially if this person was called Harry Potter - basically it was great, only you didn't know when something hard and unfriendly would hit your back ... Or your nose, for that matter.
Harry seemed to sense this kind of uncertainty. Sitting down, he said, "Paul, I wish you the best, whatever it means, on a scale ranking from a comfortable dressing-gown, over a fuck-and-breakfast vacation, to a long-term relationship. The same goes toward Ginny, and if that's bound to be two different issues, who's there to blame?"
After a moment of silence, Paul said, "Maybe I've been using you as the screen toward which I could project my bad conscience" - he gave a quick grin - "and what you just said - somewhere I knew it already, only now it takes away my black goat, so I'm the only one left for that role." He chuckled. "Even so - thank you, Harry."
Harry sighed. "Give it a rest for a while. The only crime you could commit would be on Kathleen. She certainly deserves an open mind" - another grin - "in addition, I mean."
Paul suppressed the temptation to check whether his light dress was covering him decently. He said, "Yes, you're right. But you didn't come to discuss my love-life, did you?"
"Just taking the opportunity." Getting serious, Harry told him about yesterday's events and the current legal state. He finished, "Regardless of what the authorities will say, Paul, from my side, the situation's clear - you've done the job, and your bank's next balance sheet will tell you that there's no hurry to end this vacation here."
Paul felt uneasy. "Hey - wait a second. I told you some names, none of them were a hit, then by some accident you stumble over the real culprits, and that should be honoured with a quarter of a million?"
Harry shook his head. "No. Three-fifty - the reward was raised after Tony's case, pretty much as expected." Although his face kept steady, there was little doubt that Harry had fun at this reply.
"It feels so uncomplete," muttered Paul. He looked up. "Listen, I know how you think about it - in a way I agree with you, and it's not exactly as if I stole a blind beggar's earnings, but you know the old saying, the best fortune is the one that feels deserved, and this feeling is still missing here."
Harry nodded. "Maybe I have the solution for your problem, and for mine too."
"That'd be great. And how?"
"Well, as I told you, there's no trace of the money. If we could find that, it would be the missing proof. And in addition, it would make sure you get the official reward."
Paul twitched. "For God's sake, Harry - do you know what you're asking of me?"
"Wait, wait - I don't expect you to do miracles, Paul, I know how little space a few millions occupy, trust my word, I've seen them. But it's worth an attempt, don't you think so? You feel better, I feel better because I didn't know what to offer for such a potentially impossible task - "
Paul snorted, "That's a crazy argument."
"Yeah, maybe so, but you know what I mean, don't you? And look at it seriously - you're used to uncover scandels, I'm no expert but I'm sure money channels are always part of these stories, so it's not out of the question that you'd have an idea or two where to look."
With some bafflement, Paul realized that Harry was right. How often had the tracking down of some money transfers, combined with some correspondence ...
"Without any help, it'd be impossible for sure. But within the next days, the van driver will be released." Harry's eyes were glowing. "And I'll be waiting for him just outside the prison door."
Paul caught himself by feeling something like pity for this wizard. He asked, "Do you think what I think you think?"
Harry looked more joyful. "What a strange choice of words for a scandal journalist! No, I'll treat him well, do no harm, and besides, it wouldn't help either - but short of that, I won't mind using every trick that might come to mind."
"Yours?" Paul raised his eyebrows. "Or that of your daughter?"
For a fleeting instant, Harry's face looked frightening. Then he said, "Or that of Gabriel - in some regards, he leaves even Sandy behind."
Still a bit shaky, Paul asked, "Why not just using Veritaserum?"
Harry shrugged. "Could be I'll use it, only that's not really better than Scopolamine, the Muggle equivalent. You get the answers to your questions, but nobody tells you which questions to ask."
That was true. Where is the money? would be a simple question, while even Paul could imagine a dozen methods of hiding for which the wizard's answer would be, I don't know.
Then he nodded. "Okay, Harry. It's a real challenge, in a way a nice one because nobody could complain if we fail - except ourselves, of course." Feeling silly, Paul added, "But promise me not to raise the payment, okay?"
Looking solemn, Harry put his hand at his chest. "Scout's honour."
It was so ridiculous and at the same time so real, Paul felt glad they were alone. At this thought, he remembered something else. "And what about this place? I mean, do you know when Ireen will return?"
"No. But if I were you, I wouldn't waste time in checking for another residence ... With a notable exception, of course."
So, Paul thought, after running a thrilling circle, the conversation had found its initial topic again, no less exciting in its own way. And he wondered if it was just his own single-mindedness which made him think about Ireen and her options to find some enjoyable thrill for herself.
* * *
In a group of two times two friends, it was extremely difficult to run a scheme which involved only half of them, one from each side. Still more astonishing - the slow but unmistakable transit from two times two into four friends wasn't helpful in that matter, not the least bit.
Sandra had learned this wisdom while preparing for today. Her plan showed the true geniuses' brilliance, also known as simplicity: they'd pass through the linkport between Beauxbatons and Hogwarts, say hello to Beverly, the nominal destination of their visit, and then wander into the Forbidden Forest to find Firenze. Only, Sandra was no genius in plotting.
To call her poor would have been a more appropriate description. Little surprise - she was her father's daughter.
The planning itself wasn't the problem, although Sandra could only hope they'd meet Firenze - there was no way of making an appointment with a Centaur, was there? And Frédéric wasn't the problem either, he seemed totally at ease with the idea of hiding their action from Benoît and Héloise.
No, the butterflies were whirling only in Sandra's own stomach, since the common breakfast.
Some days ago, Frédéric had told her that the old interrogation protocol was in his hands. Period. From what he didn't say, it was obvious to Sandra that Frédéric would give it to her only after the promised meeting with Firenze had taken place. This was acceptable and no sign of mistrust, just a tight style of negotiation, more a reason for admiration than for complaints.
Two days ago, she had used another moment alone with him to pass a letter to Frédéric in which she explained her idea. She would tell Héloise about a visit in Hogwarts, with Beverly, and some minutes with the Lupins, her godmother's parents, anyway something she'd have to do alone. Frédéric, on the other side, had to find whatever excuse to get rid of Benoît. Then they'd pass the linkport, and probably have a real talk with the announced people, only a pretty short one - just to be on the safe side, should Héloise mention that visit to Beverly some time later.
It felt so stupid, being nervous. Having reached that point, Sandra regretted not to have played openly. After all, what was so special about her introducing Frédéric to Firenze, or the other way around? Nothing, basically, except that Héloise perhaps and Benoît for sure would have liked to join, and that was inacceptable. Some time later, why not, but for a first visit - Firenze was special anyway, and every additional visitor would change his behaviour. Sandra wanted to see him only together with this Pouilly offspring.
During lunch, Héloise was chatting lightly as usual, diligently prompted by Benoît, also as always, even Frédéric seemed perfectly normal with his short remarks in-between. Only Sandra felt at a loss to add any wisecrack, at the same time avoiding glances in Frédéric's direction, for fear she might look somehow imploring and reveal something - after all, Héloise's own instincts were nothing to laugh about, definitely not.
Unfortunately, Sandra overplayed, so that Héloise saw reason to ask Frédéric, "Hey, brillybrain, what have you done to that poor girl? She's trying so desperately to ignore your presence, and" - Héloise ostentatiously inspected Frédéric's appearance - "I can't find anything at your dress that's hurting the eyes."
"Wha ..." Sandra's head jerked up, and she felt her face flush.
Even Frédéric failed the presence of mind to return some innocent joke. He only managed to shrug, combined with an unsuccessful attempt to look as though having no idea why.
Héloise started to grin knowingly. "Maybe a lover's row, eh?"
Benoît surprised them all by answering her, "Maybe just none of your business, eh?"
When Héloise stared at him with more astonishment than disbelief, Benoît added, "Otherwise she'd have told you, hadn't she? ... If there's anything to tell, that is."
Despite her panick-stricken mood, Sandra became aware that Benoît just had climbed a notch or two in Héloise's respect, although time still might pass until her friend would admit, or Benoît himself would realize. However, he hadn't improved in Sandra's own scale, first because she'd stopped underestimating Benoît much quicker than Héloise, second because his firm righteousness had made it obvious to everybody that she wasn't her usual self.
Héloise examined Sandra again, then looked at Frédéric. "Is there anything?"
"Well," replied Frédéric, "if you absolutely need to know - I asked her whether she could imagine marrying me, and she said no way."
Seeing Héloise's expression, the ironic smile in Frédéric's face made room for utter disbelief. "Hey," he said, "that was a joke, no need to look so miserable - or do I have to take it personal?"
He sent a quick glance to Sandra. What he saw there caused him to murmur, "I really don't know what grease pot I stepped into, but whatever it is, I'm sorry."
Sandra had found the time to recover. She started to giggle, said, "Never mind," giggled more, and then she was holding her stomach from an almost silent laughter that was shaking her.
After an uncertain glance in her direction, Héloise relaxed enough to contribute her own bit of chuckling, however it was lacking the spirit of Sandra's obvious joy.
Calming down, feeling the glances resting at her, Sandra said, "Well, he said it was a joke, didn't he?" And again she started to shake, without anyone following her example.
During the classes afterwards, Héloise was careful not to touch the issue. When Sandra told her that she was going to make a visit at Hogwarts, her friend seemed glad to miss the usual after-school chat in the Weasley house.
Sandra walked down the staircase and found a place near the linkport where she could wait for Frédéric's arrival. She was pondering methods of how to gain Firenze's attention in the Forbidden Forest when she saw Frédéric come along. He looked worried.
Sandra stood up. "Hey, what's wrong? Did you have trouble with Benoît?"
"Er - no, not at all."
"What did you tell him?"
Frédéric hesitated a second, then said, "That you're going to introduce me to someone, as some kind of test, because I'm a Pouilly."
Sandra stared at him. After some more seconds, she said, "In a way, it's no longer true, but then again, somehow it is. How did you know?"
"It wasn't that difficult. I mean, there's more to you than meets the eye, isn't it? You must be blind and deaf not to notice. Well, and thinking it over, with that Centaur - okay, he's your father's friend, which is an impossibility by itself according to the books, but then I realized that it must have been himself to offer some mane hair for your wand. I mean, I just couldn't imagine you or your father asking, hey Firenze, would you mind losing a hair, but it's for a good purpose. And so ..."
Sandra beamed at him. "That's such a nice picture, only - " She stopped just in time before telling him too much. Feeling sure to have identified the reason for Frédéric's solemn face, she added, "No need to worry; I know you'll pass the test, if there's still any."
Frédéric steadied. "I know, because I know myself."
"Then why don't you cheer up? Listen, we'll even get something to eat there."
At least, he could smile. "Let's go through," he said.
They went through the linkport and came out at the other side where they stepped up the Hogwarts staircase. Walking ahead, Sandra guided Frédéric through the hall outside. "Here - the Hogwarts countryside, and over there, that's the Forbidden Forest. We have to wait till darkness before it makes sense to look for Firenze."
Frédéric let his eyes wander. "It's beautiful," he said.
"Would you please tell me now what's bothering you?"
Earning another silence, Sandra took Frédéric's hand and pulled him to a grass spot nearby. She sat down. "Somewhere here, my father used to have serious conversations. Four-eyes talk, I mean." She looked up expectantly.
Frédéric sat down at her side. He broke a blade of grass and started to tear it into pieces. Finally, he started to speak.
"Since you told me about today, I was - er, happy, couldn't wait for having so much time - you know, for us together. The thought to meet the Centaur - I felt sure to get his appreciation, I mean I'm still sure ..."
"Erm ..." Frédéric looked at her, quickly focused on the mutilated blade again. "What I said during lunch - it was supposed to be something silly, only it wasn't, not entirely. And then seeing Héloise was so ..."
"And that's why you have to look the same?"
Frédéric's head jerked up. He stared at her with something like impatience. "Ah, come on, Sandra, don't play stupid! You know as well as I that for a Veela this topic's important, even at our age, no matter if quarter or full Veela. And the way she looked - if she'd said, poor Sandra, yes I know, it couldn't have been clearer."
When Sandra didn't answer, he said, "I know that in India girls are promised at the age of seven or so, only this isn't India, is it?"
"No, it's not." Sandra smiled at the thought. "I'm not promised to a man - to a boy, I mean." She felt the courage to try Héloise's style and added, "You're the only one in sight."
Her voice, she realized, might need still some improvement at sentences like that.
Nonetheless, Frédéric had understood. Showing a limited relief, he asked, "Then what's the matter?"
"Please don't ask me." Sandra's voice had been begging, however, seeing Frédéric's face, she felt a plea stronger than her own motive - and strange enough, this plea seemed to originate in herself. She said, "I promised to do something ... And what I'm supposed to do makes it impossible to marry, or to have children."
"You going to be a nun?" Frédéric stared at her with a stunned look.
Sandra laughed joyfully. "No, not at all - there's nothing that'd prevent me from doing - er ... having - well, you know."
Yes, Frédéric knew, and his face closed like a mask.
"What did I do wrong now?" For a moment, Sandra wondered whether spending time with boys was worth the hassle - if they caught one huff after the other, then maybe ...
"Nothing." Frédéric seized for another unfortunate grass blade. "It's just - er, it reminded me of my part in our deal."
"The protocol?" Sandra examined him. "Have you brought it with you?"
"Great. But I'm not going to read it before we met Firenze."
Frédéric grumbled, "Is this a condition with Centaurs? To have only thoughts of chastity?"
Sandra glared at him, in a mix of fake and the real thing. "Hey, I can be snappish too, you'd be surprised how much! With my mouth, with my brain ..."
She sent a light mind blow, just enough to make Frédéric's eyes widen.
"... and with my fingers too." At the same moment, she grabbed his shoulder and pushed him down into the grass.
Face to face, at a distance of a few inches. The face in front of her had lost all signs of worry, looked very expectant, matching well with the total absence of struggling or resistance in the corresponding body.
Sandra rolled around and sat up quickly. After a few seconds in which nothing happened, however, some unknown force turned her head around to look at him. He was still lying in the grass, a dreamy expression in his face.
Not finding anything better, she asked, "Did I hurt you? With the mind blow, I mean."
"Unh-hun." Frédéric smiled. "Sometimes I thought about my - my hobby, and then I thought, you're crazy, maybe not worse than someone collecting stamps, but stories and details about a famous wizard, that's so weird ..."
When he didn't continue, Sandra lost patience. "And today?"
"Today?" Frédéric came up, turned toward her, and then gave proof that he could move quickly too, using the same manoeuver she had performed moments ago. When his face was again close to hers, he said, "Today I think that's been necessary, to be prepared for you because without that, I'd be scared as hell."
* * *
Having watched his decent share of movies, having read books to that matter, having seen real-life examples, Frédéric was fully aware that - by time and occasion - he was supposed to kiss that girl so close to him. It didn't look as if she had objections.
Except maybe for this fleeting shadow of remorse that came and went in her eyes. And for the events ahead - they alone were enough to fill the day. And, not to forget, this protocol which seemed to burn a hole - if not into Frédéric's pocket, then into his ease of mind. If he'd only kept his mouth shut about that.
Would have made things worse. The few days until he found the opportunity to talk with Sandra had been bad enough.
Frédéric sat up. "We must come back to that place another day, when there's less on our mind."
Sandra followed his example, put her mouth close to his ear, and whispered, "We will." Then she went upright and held her arm outstretched. "Come on, let's go see some people."
Frédéric followed her inside, expecting to sit down in the hall and to endure the introductions during supper, an environment in which he felt sure to get along well. To his slight horror, the hall did not show any signs of hungry students, and Sandra pulled him toward some floor that looked no less than official.
And stopped in front of a door, knocked, opened it, and walked in, not letting go of Frédéric's hand. He only could follow.
There was a woman, at an age that might put her in the same category as Sandra's parents, good-looking, her teint containing a bit more than just sun-tan - Frédéric had come to that point in his observations when woman and girl greeted each other with great enthusiasm.
Then Sandra turned around. Still clinging to the woman, she said, "You'd never guess who that is, Almyra."
Hardly noticing that Sandra had switched back to French, Frédéric felt his eyes widen, felt himself stare at the woman. Almyra ... classmate and friend of Sandra's mother, multi-animagus, one of the figures in the tales about his initial enemy who miraculously had turned to a hero. He tried to steady and remember his manners.
"Good afternoon, Madam Lupin ..."
Sandra squeaked, beamed. "I knew it - he knows all the stories, about you too."
Frédéric swallowed. "... My name is Frédéric Pouilly."
The woman offered her hand. "Nice to meet you, Frédéric Pouilly. I wasn't aware of me being a celebrity, but - " She faltered, her face showing a memory resurfacing, then turned to Sandra at her side. "Sandy ..."
Said girl seemed to shrink in age, while not in size, down to a five-year-old. "Yes, he is," she said.
The woman seemed speechless, desperately searching for an innocent spot to look at. Before she could score any success, another door opened and a man came in, considerably older than the woman, his face showing his age, and more. Seeing Sandra, he started to smile.
"Hey, little witch - what a pleasant surprise!"
Frédéric watched another greeting of the heartful kind, for him time enough to realize that this could only be Professor Lupin, the woman's husband, in Frédéric's own ranking an unchallenged number two ...
The man looked at him. The woman said, "Remus, this young man's name is Frédéric Pouilly - of the Pouilly family." She was using English.
Frédéric made another attempt, also in English. "Good afternoon, sir. I - I've heard about you, but I never had thought to meet you - er, both of you ..." He looked at the woman, back to the man, wishing his voice hadn't lost its trail.
The man sent a quick glance to his wife, another to Sandra. Looking at the suspicious family member again, also using French again, he said, "Are you sure you're not confusing us with some other people?"
"Yes, I am, Monsieur le Professeur. You're ... you've been ... you're the teacher who taught Mr Potter ..." Frédéric's voice faded again.
Sandra made a step to his side. Looking at the two adults, she said, "Frédéric has studied our family history - first because he had some ideas about revenge, but then, er - somehow, I mean - er, we - you know, he's a classmate."
The man's eyes started to sparkle.
To the woman, Sandra added, "He already met Gabe, and Michel. For them it's okay. And Fleur knows too, of course."
The man made a step forward, took Frédéric's hand. "Lupin's just fine, Frédéric, if you allow me to call you that way - I'm glad to meet you. You must be a courageous young man, by all means."
"Why? No - er, yes, Mr Lupin, of course - er, with my name, I mean." Frédéric didn't even find the time to feel as embarrased as he should, hearing his own stammering.
And now the woman approached him again, offered her hand again. "I'm sorry, Frédéric, please forgive me for my - er, prejudice, my only excuse is that - no, please just forget it - "
It was out before Frédéric could stop himself. "You saw it, didn't you?"
Seeing her expression, he added hastily, "I'm sorry, I shouldn't have said that."
For some seconds, nobody said anything, Then, somehow, someone had put him on a chair - the man, if Frédéric remembered correctly, and the woman was sitting too, and her husband was leaning at some bookshelves, looking very interested, his arm around Sandra's shoulders.
The woman looked at Frédéric. "I didn't really see it; I was sitting too far away. And whatever I'd tell you, it would be little more than hearsay. But I know who can tell you, who'll answer all your questions." She turned to Sandra, showing a smile for which Frédéric found just one description - malicious.
"That was mean of you," said the woman, "and that's why I'm going to return the favour - you've got one week to invite him at home - just looking in your face tells me you didn't do that yet, using poor me for testing the ground ..."
Her husband started to chuckle, while it seemed as if he had to support the girl at his side more than a moment before.
"... otherwise I'm going to tell Harry, and don't think your godmother's going to change my mind - no way, young lady." The woman turned to her husband, who had started laughing. "I'm serious, you know that I am."
"Absolutely." Mr Lupin looked at Frédéric. "You must know, that's a threat only for Sandra, but not for yourself - I can assure you, Harry will answer your questions, you can ask him."
"I'm not sure whether I should do that."
Madam Lupin asked, "How's the relationship between you and - I mean, what would Gérard have been to you?"
It felt strange, hearing her addressing a man Frédéric had never seen by his first name. "He was my father's brother," he said.
"That's been my guess," said Mr Lupin. "And your father? Does he know about - your classmate?"
"Well," said Mr Lupin, "difficult, difficult ... I can speak only for this side of things, and for that, let me tell you - if you want to know, ask. Could even be Harry's offering to tell you by himself."
Frédéric felt the obligation to complete the picture from his side. "My father - he was the one who told me to stop thinking about, er, something like revenge. And that was - he didn't tell me more, that's why I started to collect information." Almost thinking aloud, he added, "I wouldn't speak for other branches of the family, but ..."
Mr Lupin nodded. "The farther off, the sharper the judgment - it's the old story." He smiled at Sandra. "I'm not going to contradict anything Almyra said, but aside from that, I feel honoured to be among the first to hear. Does Rahewa know?"
Mr Lupin smiled. "Clever girl." Toward Frédéric, he explained, "She was close, but she doesn't know enough about the background, that might make her a bit prejudiced at first."
Frédéric said. "Yes, I know." Next instant, he wanted to bite his tongue.
Mr Lupin saw it. "Frédéric, maybe your research was a bit more successful than it should have been at your age ..."
Frédéric felt himself flush.
"... which makes me repeat my suggestion - muster the final courage and talk with Sandra's father. In a way, he was an admirer of Gérard."
Yes, I know, went through Frédéric's mind. Aloud, he said, "Yes, sir."
Madam Lupin, who had followed this exchange, now looked at Sandra. "It's so nice having visitors, Sandra Catherine - but what's the true reason for you coming to Hogwarts?"
Frédéric watched Sandra answer almost demurely, "Firenze."
The woman looked triumphant. "Gotcha!" Then she smiled. "I don't think you'll need my help to find him."
Frédéric tried to imagine how the woman might be of any help to find a Centaur. The question was bothering him sufficiently not to remember the rest of the conversation in this room. When they walked out, after Sandra had confirmed yes, they'd sit with some students rather than with the teachers, his first measure was to whisper the question in Sandra's ear.
"Isn't that obvious?" Sandra looked astonished. "As a bird - sailing over the forest."
Into Frédéric's anger about his own stupidity, Sandra grinned, "But it's little more than an excuse for her flying along. Harry told me, it's always the other way around - Firenze notices her, and then he knows someone's waiting somewhere."
"And then he comes? Centaurs aren't famous for their curiosity, you know."
"Really?" Sandra's glance would have paled Héloise sharpest weapon in this category. "Almyra doesn't offer that to many people, and Firenze knows."
This way cut down to mortal size, Frédéric said hello to Beverly, smiled friendly to the other girls her age who found him sweet and cute and whatnot - that was easy play for him, the urbane eleven-year-old sitting with female seventh-years at the Ravenclaw table, which was a shame according to some other female passing by, looking like a cleaning woman but walking straight to the teachers' table ... Samantha, as Sandra told Frédéric, which didn't tell him much - his documents offered no imformation about this person.
In contrast to another one, also sitting with the teachers. First Frédéric noticed that she was glancing more than casually to the table where they were sitting. Then he had to wait for an opportunity to cut into the chat between Sandra and the other girls, asking for that woman's name.
"That? Oh ..." Sandra neither shouted nor raising an arm. Even so, the woman's head spun around to look at her, to smile and to wave - with a fist, very strange that, but only until Frédéric's mind had caught the exact nature of cause and effect. Mind wave ...
"That's Hermione," said Sandra, confident to have told him everything.
She had indeed. Frédéric's own head turned around, slower, quite casually. To no avail - the woman was looking at him with open interest. When she saw his glance, she raised her glass.
It triggered a drilled reflex. Frédéric responded with the same greeting, took a sip.
He saw the woman's face split into an appreciating grin, saw her turn to a man at her side. Putting down his own glass hastily, staring at the table, Frédéric felt like in a crazy dream. The couple there - the man could only be Viktor Krum, once leader of the legendary Flying Squad, and the woman was Harry Potter's old friend and classmate, and these people were sitting some feet away, their stares hitting him right behind the ear.
Suddenly Frédéric felt sweaty and awkward.
After a while, the feeling was gone, however he didn't dare to look again, so in a way, the total improvement toward his self-esteem was negligible. The only other method crossing his mind - visiting the toilet - was dismissed instantly.
At good last, the supper was over. Had it been tasteful? Could be, might have been excellent, Frédéric didn't remember.
Sandra said, "Let's go. Maybe we should say hello to Hermione and Viktor, but then we have to do conversation with half of the teachers' table, and that's not really to my taste."
The thought alone pushed Frédéric up and forward.
Walking toward the forest, he had time to regain his balance. Dusk was falling. Under the trees, it was dim and quiet. Sandra kept at his side, or he at hers, and he asked himself whether it would be appropriate to walk hand in hand.
With other girls, it would have been no question, not in a dark forest, only that other girls wouldn't walk here at this time of the day ... And he wouldn't either.
"We shouldn't go too deep inside," said Sandra. "My father told me not all creatures here are well-minded."
Good to know, that. Although, come to think of it, bad to know that - for a city boy like himself, such a forest had something of a menace. And now Sandra sat down, casually mentioning that this place was just fine, Firenze would find them anyway, Frédéric did the same, and as soon as the cracking had faded, he could feel a thousand monsters crawl closer.
As if sensing his mood, Sandra said, "Don't trust your eyes while staring at something. My father says, in this light only what you can see in the corners of your view is reliable. If you stare at a point, it takes only seconds until you think there's something moving, or jumping at you."
How right she was.
Frédéric wasn't scared, definitely not. Just extremely uneasy, and jumpy too.
A hand grabbed his own. "You are not used to countryside, are you?"
"Was it that obvious?" He felt instantly better.
The hand squeezed his own. "Not to the outside. Besides - in another forest, I might feel the same, but this here's like a backyard for me."
Having calmed down, Frédéric became aware of the forest's own rhythm, of its noise profile, like a quiet breathing. A city could offer its own kind of jungle, only footsteps on plaster were louder, while animals did not step onto dry twigs.
His hand was pressed again. Sandra whispered, "He's watching us."
Frédéric held his breath, but couldn't recognize anything. Into his exhaling, Sandra giggled as though being tickled.
Then the majestic mix of horse and man appeared out of the darkness - a lighter spot first, gaining contours, manifesting to a Centaur.
Sandra went to him, almost running, "Firenze! Hello - there you are."
Having been moved up by strong arms, she hugged the figure without hesitation. Still in Firenze's arms, she turned and struggled to be put down like a small child. With her feet on the ground, she came to Frédéric and pulled him up.
"Look, Firenze, that's Frédéric, a classmate. When he saw my wand, and I told him about the handle, he knew at once whose hair that is."
"And you, little witch, could not await to present your circus pony."
Laughing, Sandra clung to a front leg. "Oh, you - what a funny idea."
Feeling the Centaur's eyes rest on him, Frédéric bowed. "Good evening, sir."
"Good evening, classmate Frédéric. Are you a centaurophiliac?"
"Er - no, sir." Frédéric wasn't sure what it meant, centaurosomething, felt nonetheless certain he was none.
"So it was only me catching the honour of your attention?"
The Centaur was talking French, as Frédéric registered at this moment, and his intonation created a mocking politeness.
"Just call me Firenze, young wizard, your attention is honour enough."
He had fun, this horse man, pretty much as Sandra had predicted, and still totally different, lacking all ridiculousness.
"Are you Sandra's escort in this lovely night, or is it the other way around?"
Frédéric would have welcomed Sandra answering for him, only she kept silent, beaming and listening. Had to be more than enthrallment - in all her affection, she seemed to have an elementary respect which forbade answering for another person.
"We just came together. But it was me who asked for this visit." Not hearing another question, Frédéric felt forced to confess, "It was - it wasn't just curiosity. When I saw the wand, after what ... I just had to ask."
The Centaur looked down at Sandra. "And you, my little dragon, just had to agree, at such a convincing plea."
Sandra moved her shoulders, the perfect picture of an embarrassed little girl. "Usually he talks better - and I wanted you to meet him because, there was something between his family and Harry, so I thought - if you'd see him and it's okay, then ..."
Firenze laughed softly. "As if you'd need me for that, of all people, especially with that brother of yours. How is your family?"
"Good. Gabriel plays music all the time - he has a new instrument, a xylophone. Mum's as always, and Dad's hunting kidnappers."
Frédéric listened in fascination. Suddenly, Sandra sounded like talking with an elder uncle, using terms like Mum and Dad - except that maybe these people had an uncommon way of spending their time.
"Kidnappers, hm ... I wonder if that's an improvement over dark wizards, but then perhaps the difference is smaller than expected. Please tell him the times have changed less than he might think."
"Yes, Firenze." Sandra looked wondering.
The Centaur turned to Frédéric. "You can muster courage when facing real challenges, young wizard, that's quite obvious. Why something as harmless as an old Centaur makes you freeze in awe might remain your own secret."
Frédéric had different opinions about what was obvious here at this place and time, thought better than to discuss them now.
"And besides," added Firenze with a smile, "I've seen something similar before, maybe this is another linking element between these two families."
And which, if you please, was the first?
"I see," said the Centaur, "you're determined to save your courage for other occasions - right you are, Frédéric, if my bearing's worth the time."
Had this been a warning? An encouragement? Certainly not another teasing, at least not from the Centaur's voice at the last words.
Firenze ruffled Sandra's hair. "Goodbye, little girl with the many names. It was a pleasure to see you - in such company."
Then he turned on his hind legs, made a sound almost like a whinnying horse, and left, providing the perfect impression of a circus pony, deeply satisfied after a completed trick.