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 18 - Brainstorming

Chapter Summary:
The Carron Lough castle is the place where all people meet - together with their children, after being invited by Harry and Cho. The Weasley gang, the Hogwarts gang, Groucho people, some Goblins ... For just one purpose - a brainstorming with the goal to find out who might be found behind the recent events.

18 - Brainstorming

Such a castle, thought Ron, would be hard to beat for an occasion like the one today. The large hall, otherwise hardly used once a year, was full. But this fullness was of the generous kind, with all people sitting at tables and the hall being decorated as a spacious conference room, simply because this was a conference, after all.

Even so, Ron counted twenty-eight heads. He counted in the line of his duty since he'd been nominated as the protocoller - mostly by himself. And this number included just the adults.

The children were everywhere - save this hall, that was. And hopefull not literally everywhere, they better clustered, otherwise the four students Ron might have called au pair would never manage to supervise them.

Beverly was one of them, and she had gathered three other members of her Baby Care group from Hogwarts. One of them was even a boy, as Ron had the opportunity to notice when delivering his own breed. Rumour had it the babies weren't this boy's main reason to join the group, and this job in particular, at least not in first place.

This rumour was spread by Sandra, who'd heard it during a recent visit at Hogwarts. And Janine had heard it from Sandra, and Ron had heard it from Janine. Well, okay, really interesting, wasn't it? Somehow he had missed the point, but what the hell, today's topic filled Ron's mind more prominently.

This topic was somehow related to the Great Plot, and thus to children, so much he knew. And with the recent events, it wasn't by accident that the hosts had emphasized - no, demanded without exception that all invited people would come with their children.

Ron hadn't counted them, his protocol duty didn't stress that far. But simply by looking around, he could total them up easily, coming out at seventeen, his and Janine's contribution forming the largest sub-group. With Sophia, Hermione's and Viktor's daughter, the youngest at her age of ten months, and Héloise as the oldest.

His niece, as well as her brother and the hosts' two offsprings, counted as children only halfway, the other half was supposed to help guarding. From her mother, Héloise had received the special order to tend her sister Ismène, only Ron had little doubt that this task had quickly been passed over to Michel.

Hermione had driven Gabriel into a severe moral conflict. Not fully aware of the current situation in Carron Lough, she arrived with the expectation Gabriel would volunteer for the job of tending Sophia. Basically correct - only there was Tanitha, by sheer presence claiming the same. Beverly solved the dilemma by pointing out that Gabriel was most certainly more efficient in his role as the Pied Piper, except she didn't use this term, and she promised Hermione to take care of Sophia, just as so often at Hogwarts.

The people here in the hall could be divided into three groups. There was the Potter-Weasley gang, counting twelve heads - although, counting Paul together with Ginny was a bit daring, to put it mildly, heehee. Anyway - the Hogwarts group made six people, the Lupins, the Krums, and, long no see, the Snapes. And the rest came from everywhere, with Groucho Something as the common denominator for most of them.

Except for Sirius and Deborah, of course, while for Urion the Undispensible and Wynor the Whistler, this connection was present though not widely known.

And this thought brought Ron back to the Great Plot, because there were several people in this room who never had heard about that. He was looking forward to seeing whether his private guess of the agenda - or part of it - was right.

Now Ron could watch Harry getting up from his seat. When the murmurs had faded, Harry said, "My dear friends ..."

He stopped - some people had twisted around because they heard Harry's voice from behind while staring at him.

Harry showed a short smile. "Yes, I'm using a microphone, and the loudspeakers are in the walls. This hall is too large for my untrained voice ..."

Ron, the politician, felt Harry's quick glance to him.

"... and I realized that the good old Sonorus charm isn't really up to the task - those near me would be deaf till the end of our meeting, and those in the opposite corner still had trouble. This is a break of tradition, I know, and for some reason of which you're probably not yet aware, this is already my introduction, rather than a lengthy side remark."

Ron, who never felt shy of copying someone else's style, made a mental note about this trick opening, while the only word in his protocol so far was tradition.

"We invited you for several reasons," continued Harry. "They're all on today's agenda, but please allow me to keep them still to myself, at least for a few minutes. The recent events have been the trigger - I mean the killing of Ramon and Marie-Christine Garcia. They were murdered, even if the term may be technically incorrect in the case of Ramon."

Everybody in this room had heard the news before, so Ron saw only attention in the faces, no surprise.

"To the outside, it looks like a failed kidnapping, and as far as we're concerned, it may stay that way in the press. To the inside, though, it looks a bit different. But before I can come to that, I have to make this round unique in some sense - or is it unanimous? Whatever ..."

Here it comes, Ron thought, feeling satisfaction about his proper guess.

"... and before some of you start asking, what the hell he's talking about, let me just tell you, at least in the short version."

Harry inhaled. "About eight years ago, we started doping every new-born child on earth. I'm exaggerating a bit, but this was the goal - every child. And the purpose was - well, to make all of them magical. A wizard, or a witch."

Ron had been looking forward to see some faces - that of Snape, for instance, or that of Samantha. But somehow the effect was a bit disappointing - maybe it took a moment longer for them to register the full extent of what Harry had said in these scarce words.

"When I say we, I mean the entire Goblin community and Groucho, or the people behind and inside. In particular, Groucho Biochemicals is the dope factory, and the financing is done from both sides - if you ever wondered why Groucho isn't printing its own currency, now you know why. By those who knew all the time, this scheme is called The Great Plot."

The few people for whom this was stunning news were turning their heads, and even without looking, Ron knew toward which figures. A dope, Harry had said, leaving it open which dope and invented by whom, and the three candidates - Hermione, Beatrice, and Clemens - were the targets of these stares.

"And Ramon," said Harry at this moment, "was chief executive officer of Groucho Biochemicals."

He had their attention again.

"And Marie-Christine, aside from being his wife, was a major factor in the destroying of the dark wizards."

Murmur rose. What had the dark wizards to do with the recent events? Voldemort was dead, wasn't he? And what was Harry trying to imply, stating that Ramon had been the CEO of Groucho's Bio branch.

"What puts these things together?"

Formulating the common question, Harry killed the murmur at once.

"That's something we have to find out quickly, and I have to tell you - we'll ask this question to all of you, in a way that has worked already in the past. But that'll come later."

Ron's glance went to Hermione, meeting her eyes. They both knew what Harry meant, and almost in unison, they both looked at Francesco Lopez, who had taken part the last time when such a difficult question was examined.

"Something else needs to be discussed first. To explain what it is, and to give you already a key argument in the discussion later, let me tell you something that didn't go to the press."

All eyes watched as Harry took a sheet from the table.

"When Marie-Christine was found dead in her car, there was also a parchment. A parchment, mind, not a sheet. This here isn't a copy, I wrote it down from memory."

Harry read, "This woman has paid for her crime against the spirit of wizardry and witchcraft. Her husband already went ahead - and others will follow. Signed, the True Wizards."

He looked up. "We must assume they're serious. And this means, there is an acute danger for everybody in this room ... and for the children outside too."

* * *

When the shocking implications from Harry's words came to full effect in her mind, Fleur wasn't the only mother who rose almost instinctively, with just one impulse: How are my children? But like the others, she stopped in mid motion, seeing Harry's imploring gesture.

"Please," he said, "calm down - no reason to worry at the moment." He smiled, for the first time in this room genuinely. "What do you think why we made sure you'd come with all of your children? It wasn't just to save you the hassle of finding a babysitter."

Yes, sure, only his joke didn't prevent him from some furious glances, among them Fleur's own.

"And we're not alone." Harry turned to the table where the two Goblins were sitting side by side. "Urion - how many of your men are currently patrolling around this castle?"

"A full platoon," came the growling answer. "That makes about thirty - I wasn't in the mood to take chances, won't find it some time soon either."

And we have two, thought Fleur, only they guard an entire street, and what if ... Just then, she felt Harry's eyes rest on her. He said, "Before you think that's some Potter privilege, and what about your own home ..."

Just before Harry took his eyes off, Fleur saw the shortest hint of a grin.

"... let me assure you - you're offered any protection and any support that's within reach of the Goblins." Harry looked at the Goblin colonel. "Urion?"

Even seated at the table, Urion's resonant voice reached the opposite end - but then, he had the advantage of total silence.

"When arriving at home," he said, "you'll already find some guards in position. You might not see all of them, but anyway, if you think there should be more, tell us. And when travelling, shopping, having a walk - you and your children, you'll have an escort. You can reject it, if you want - we won't argue, we just offer protection."

After all these years, Fleur knew Wynor the Whistler well enough to see the flicker of irritation in his face. Next instant, Héloise's godfather was up.

"The Goblin community takes this seriously," he said, "and in addition, we take it very personal. The Goblins have devoted themselves to the great goal that has been designated by ..." He faltered for an instant, continued, "by us together, and any attempt to put this goal at risk is an attack against the Goblins."

Urion the Undiplomatic brought it to the point. "That's a war declaration."

Wynor nodded with an expression resembling meekness very much, at least for Fleur's trained eye.

"This is why our support comes fullheartedly and doesn't mean any obligation for you, in no sense whatsoever. We only ask you to accept our help, even if it might cause some inconvenience at one occasion or another."

Seeing some questioning looks, Fleur wondered what might be left unclear after Wynor's statement. Only she was already too much used to this kind of service, as she could register at Harry's next words.

"For all of you not as familiar with Goblins as some others," he said with a grin, "let me translate Wynor's words a bit. Of course it means free of charge, and please don't try to tip the guards, that'd be very insulting ..."

Urion the Unabashed stared at him in perplexion - the idea of a tip alone seemed to make him speechless.

"... while otherwise it's just a question of your personal style and ethics. It's definitely not forbidden to be grateful, and regarding the way of dealing with the guards - these are warriors, and I think your common sense is as good as mine, so ..."

This remark should have been good for some laughter, only it didn't come, maybe because of the speed at which some people had to cope with unexpected news.

Samantha was quicker than others. She called, "Can we offer them a drink?"

Before anyone else could answer, Fred shouted back, "Is the Pope a catholic?"

Maybe Urion had planned an answer, maybe Harry - they found no opportunity because everybody started to talk at once. Fleur turned to her husband. "What do you think - should we offer them a room or two?"

"Hmm ..." Bill looked embarrassed. "I'm used to bankers only, not to warriors. I'd ask Harry, except it feels so stupid asking."

Fleur felt more practical. "Common sense, he said - I'll offer them, and they can say yes or no thanks."

For herself, having Goblin guards around was part of her daily life. For others, such a state felt different, so Fleur was the last to think about the common question, eventually formulated by Bonnie, George's wife. "How long will it take?"

"Until we've found them," gave Sirius the obvious answer.

Which wasn't really satisfying, so the chatting died, and the eyes turned to Harry again.

"That's of course correct," he said, "and as long as it takes, I beg you not to be careless. Please. Our chances to find them depend on several factors, and one of them is the outcome of the next topic on our agenda. It's a brainstorming, as some of you already guessed. I'm going to inform you about all the facts we have, and all the non-facts too, and then we'll ask ourselves the essential questions - one, in particular."

"Which one?" called Viktor.

"Wait and see." Harry smiled. "It's a good tradition to let Hermione do the moderation, and she'll be the first to tell you that you're supposed to find out by yourself."

"Yeah," replied Viktor, "but you know more than I do."

"That'll change soon." Harry looked around. "We need a bit preparation, and I've got the feeling we better let the general discussion take place first. So - let's have a break."

Into the shuffling of chairs, he called, "Don't eat too much - a full stomach's a lazy thinker."

* * *

There hadn't been a seating order. Before the break, Paul had been sitting next to Deborah, in a way quite a natural choice, except that the seat at his other side remained empty for a while.

A very unsettling while, to be honest - until Ginny arrived, found a seat at another table, not exactly opposite, and after that, the few latecomers saw no more reason to avoid the seat at Paul's side.

It had been Ireen who filled it, after helping outside until the last minute, and her choice seemed as natural as Paul's own a while before. Except that - well, he couldn't shake off a feeling of ridiculousness, despite the more than serious topics discussed.

And now there was a break, and people were walking around everywhere.

Like, say, the buffet outside. Like, say, Paul himself, by some accident reaching the same corner as Ginny moments ago, by some other accident a choice nobody else seemed to prefer.

"Hello, Ginny."

"Salut, Paul."

They ate a few bites. Not exactly together, simultaneously came closer to it, for example because Ginny anyway kept picking like a bird. So she was the first having a mouth free for talking. So she said, "I heard you were successful."

"That's a myth Harry's spreading. I didn't find them, I only sent him to the right spot at the right time, purely by accident. And besides - " Paul stopped, becoming aware that Ginny might have meant something totally different.

A careful glance revealed nothing. A fashion model could hold a poker face when other people would already shout insults.

He finished lamely, "Didn't help. I got rich anyway." Registering the questionable nature of his statement, in this environment, he added, "For a journalist, I mean. It's all relative."

"And now you're working at the other half."


Pretty well informed she was, by all means, wouldn't it be nice to know whether someone had told her voluntarily or ... Paul twisted inwardly - had she really meant the public reward? Or had she switched to the topic he had suspected already in her first question, only then it was no switching at all, was it?

Ginny saved him from the disquieting doubt. "I also heard you found something more, in addition to - sorry, I mean, aside from kidnappers." The correction in mid-sentence was accompanied by a faint smile, leaving it to Paul where to place her remark, on a scale ranking from a mocking play of words to a nasty sting, coated with politeness.

He jumped over the trap, opened his own. "You're well informed."

"Not really, just a hint or two. But I just got confirmation."

So much for avoiding traps. Ginny could play such games considerably better than Paul himself ... maybe because he didn't like them. He looked her in the eye. "If you want to know more - I'm ready to trade."

A short but appreciating grin went over Ginny's face. "Well, why not? His name's Giancarlo."


"He's Italian, makes in fashion, what else? A journalist." Her eyes were sparkling at these words.

"She's an office clerk in a company for special effects. I met her while searching for the candidates."

"He's just the opposite of you - joyful, charming, a womanizer and a bastard. But for a change, it's quite entertaining."

So he wasn't charming? Paul didn't think he'd agree at once, and he found no help in hearing the rest either - he knew by himself he was no bastard. But Ginny held the steering wheel in this exchange, stood waiting with an expectant face, so he swallowed and said, "She's ... it's not the opposite, maybe except - well, she's - reliable." At the last instant, he had avoided saying fair.

Even so, he saw Ginny's eyes narrow for an instant. Then she said, "At the next best opportunity, I'll tell him to get lost. Hopefully before he's going to tell me."

Trapped again. Neatly, without haste and pressure, Ginny had cornered Paul to hear the answer to a question he wasn't even ready to ask himself.

"That's ... I just don't know," he said, "we didn't raise the topic yet; it's more a kind of playing by ear. I'm left in debt of that answer, I'm afraid."

Ginny curled her lips. "I hadn't planned to offer a loan."

"I hadn't planned accepting it," replied Paul. "But concerning the interest - I didn't stop loving you, Ginny."

She smiled. "Sometimes I forget that you can play with words as well as anyone, Paul. Maybe it's because you save most of them for your articles."

"Maybe we both suffer from our profession. I spend too much eloquence and sharpness in scandal reports, and ..." He hesitated.

"And I have to be nice and sweet and quiet on the catwalk, have to jump when I'm called out, so there's nothing left in the evening, huh?"

"I didn't say that ..."

"But it's what you thought, Paul." Ginny's voice sounded more imploring than angry. "That's exactly the point - okay, not the only one, and maybe not the most important one, but it's the point I can blame you for."

This hidden confession wasn't helpful either, since it didn't tell him anything new. Paul stared at her. "You mean, if I were upset enough, shout at you, treat you badly, that would help?"

She grinned naughtily. "There's nothing wrong with a little spanking, Paul."

He laughed, more dutifully than with joy, stopped when her expression made him wonder if this really had been a joke. Agreed, in a way it hadn't - still, the seriousness was only metaphorical, wasn't it?

At this moment, Ireen came along. "Break's over," she said.

They both nodded, expecting Ireen to move on. Only she didn't, instead looked at Ginny and asked, "Want to switch seats?"

"Is this an offer or a test?" Next instant, Ginny flushed. "I'm sorry, Ireen - I totally forgot to tell you - to express my symphathy, er, with you and Tanitha. Please forgive me for being so late."

"Thank you, and it isn't late - it only looks that way, for all of us." Ireen's voice was apologetic. "You know what's strange? Please don't get me wrong, but - you know, we see each other seldom, and so it's perfectly all right, and still it feels so - so ..."

"Out of place?" tried Paul to help.

"Yeah, something like that. As if I'm getting something I don't deserve." Seeing two blank faces, one of them mixed with embarrassment, Ireen added, "I mean - I'm here and can say thank you, but where's someone to whom we can express our sympathy for Ramon and Marie-Christine?"

Paul said, "We just can do our best in what's coming now."

Ginny, Weasley that she was, asked what Paul himself never would have dared. "Ireen ... You're here, you said - er, in contrast to Marie-Christine. If there'd been something like a choice ..."

Ireen helped her. "You mean, am I better off? Yes, absolutely, trust my word. Sure, in the first hours, but ..." She smiled. "There isn't a choice, which is just good, because I might have taken the wrong one." She turned. "Let's go, we're late."

Somehow, her initial offer was forgotten, at least none of them was coming back to it, and so they all walked toward their previous seats, feeling a bit awkward since they were the last to arrive, and everybody else was watching them.

* * *

This meeting was no congregation of Groucho Industries, regardless of all the Groucho people sitting around, and of those missing because they were dead. But it was her home, and Cho wouldn't have declined when being asked to moderate a bit by herself.

But no, it had to be Hermione, who else, the know-it-not-quite-all as Cho had dubbed her since two other potions geniuses were around. Not in public, of course - you didn't say something like that to your own employee.

And besides, shouldn't she be thankful? The last time they did such a brainstorming, it had been in search of herself, caught by Voldemort. Glancing to Francesco Lopez, a Pinkerton agent then and the chief security officer of Groucho soon afterwards, Cho met his eyes. So he had the same memory right now, only he had no objections against the selected moderator.

Who, at this moment, cleared her throat through all loudspeakers. "Erm - sorry, not yet used to that microphone. All right, folks, this is a brainstorming. Who doesn't know what it means?"

No one spoke, no arm was up.

Hermione smiled. "Guess I should have asked the other way around, especially being a teacher myself. But, to make it short - what's the worst mistake you can do in a brainstorming?" She looked around, evidently grateful to find at least one arm in the air. "Ron?"

"Not to say out aloud what you think, only because it might be bullshit."

Hermione nodded.

"I mean, you're most probably right, but say it anyway."

Hermione said pointedly, "Thank you, Ron." With a normal voice, she asked, "So then, what's the purpose of this brainstorming? What's our goal?"

All eyes turned to Harry, who said, "Figuring out who's behind the killing of Ramon and Marie-Christine. Figuring out whether this has to do with the Great Plot. Figuring out if there are some dark wizards left - or new ones grown."

"Are these three goals, or just one?"

"No idea." Seeing the glances, Harry added, "Well, okay, it's not quite true, only it's a conclusion, so I don't want to offer it now."

Hermione wrote something, looked up. "Okay. What do we have in facts about the kidnapping and the killing?"

The eyes on him again, Harry said, "Before I start with that - Beatrice has prepared something to help us in this task." He turned to the other potions witch. "Beatrice?"

The dark face darkened a bit more. "Er, yes, it's the brain booster of course. I prepared a mild version - after talking with Harry, I realized that a stronger concentration would probably establish a kind of filter in our brains that would try to suppress the - er, the crazy thoughts, and that mustn't happen."

Beatrice pointed at some bottles in front of her. "This is the stuff - a pint for each of us is about right."

The bottles were sent around, and people filled their glasses. For a short while, the room resembled more a wedding dinner, with the guests preparing for a toast.

Cho took her own portion. She hadn't been aware of this preparation, wondered if this was Harry's idea or Beatrice's. Not that it mattered, only Cho couldn't warm up too much to the thought of some conversations between her husband and this black beauty.

Not relevant. She emptied the glass.

When the noise had died, Harry said, "One fact is the parchment found at Marie-Christine, the one I read a while ago. Actually, it's the last in time order." He looked around. "You still aware of the words?"

Oh yes, they were.

"Then let's come to the first in sequence of the events. You'll hear a few sentences from the phony conversation Ramon had while driving with the money. Please push aside the situation, or the words, and concentrate on the voice at the other end, the person behind."

He stepped to the wall, pressed a button, and a woman's voice came through the loudspeakers. For Cho like for most other people, the sentences were new.

"Mr Garcia, I'm passing you over now to your wife. She'll tell you ... Mr Garcia, I'm afraid we have to take more drastic measures if you don't show reason quickly ... And then? ... It wasn't planned to get in direct contact with you, Mr Garcia ... And what if your wife doesn't agree? ... Well, contrary to your remarks, Mr Garcia, this is just a minor change in the proceedings. How did you think it should be done? Delivering them at the entrance to your home? ... When you talk with them ... It will take a while, Mr Garcia. Keep driving southward."

Despite Harry's warning, the uneasiness in the room was palpable. Sirius recovered quicker than the others, asked, "What's cut out?"

Harry looked at him as if to say, not what you think. "Only Ramon's words, not a single syllable of what the woman said - that sentence in the beginning was cut off by Ramon hanging up."

Sirius' nod confirmed the unspoken exchange. "I'm sorry," he said, "I was too busy listening to the words themselves. Can I hear them again?"

Harry looked around. "Maybe I should have told you in advance that in this exchange, Ramon forces her to release the children. Okay, ready?"

Seeing the nods, he started the sequence again.

This time it was Samantha who spoke first. "She's British, no doubt. One of those upper-class bitches."

"That's what Ramon said, too." Harry smiled at Samantha. "Just good we have the opposite around."

After a moment of silence, Hermione asked, "Any other instant comment on that voice? ... No? Then let's hear what else we have."

Harry said, "When arriving at the boat house, Ramon was disabled with the Imperius Curse. We have it recorded, only the man and his voice are meaningless because he's dead. The only interesting part is one remark. Please listen."

A male voice said, "... tell the lady we'll be there within the next thirty minutes, so she can start preparing for her talk show, if it's not too late and her beauty sleep ..."

Waiting a few seconds, Harry played it again. Then he asked, "What do you make of it?"

Laila said, "My first thought is a kind of public confession - you know, what you can see in TV when agents or soldiers are caught by the other side ..."

Francesco interrupted her. "Like what the Vietcong did with our boys?"

Most others, much younger than Francesco, couldn't follow.

Laila said, "Yes, probably - I saw it with Israelis in the hands of Palestenians, after some brainwashing. But anyway - I think that's not what he meant."

Remus said, "The picture he's drawing - that this woman is a kind of moderator, with some guests ... Two about whom we know, maybe more."

Severus Snape had listened to both, now said, "It could be something in the middle. The Death Eaters had this habit - confessing something in front of a group of people, but certainly not in TV."

Into the silence that had fallen after the word Death Eaters, he added with an expressionless face, "It wasn't planned to be heard anywhere else, and the idea of TV ..." Snape looked at Harry. "The man who spoke - do we know more about him?"

"Don't ask for hard evidence," Harry replied, "but I'd say, a local helper who knew the location. At least part of the money was intended for him and his cronies."

Snape nodded. "Just what I thought. If the woman is part of some people in the tradition of the dark wizards, or their leader, then this man was making fun of their beliefs, with these words."

Cho, once a student who had benefitted from Snape's undercover work, beamed at him. "Excellent, Severus - you haven't lost your touch."

Hermione said, "I'm the first to agree, and Severus knows why, but please, don't let us drown in compliments toward each other. If we ..."

Somewhat irritated, she looked at her own husband, Viktor, who was chuckling in his seat, then continued, "... if there's no other direct remark, let's continue with what Harry can tell us."

Wiping the grin off his face, Harry said, "I asked the children what they saw, or heard. The only useful fact is this - they didn't see any human face where they'd been kept. All they saw was - a house-elf."

Into the surprised murmur, Ron said, "Winky."

Cho's head jerked up. "What's that supposed to mean?"

Ron looked unimpressed. "Nothing. When I heard house-elf, my first thought was Winky, and then Barty Crouch. But Barty's dead, and ... My God, Cho - I know Winky's somewhere here downstairs, has been there all the time - it's just the picture that crossed my mind."

Cho, somewhat abashed, glanced at her husband to see whether he was grinning - better that than a shaking head. But all she saw was a thoughtful face.

Paul said, "House-elf, that means an upper-class wizard family. And it comes in handy if you dont want to present a human face that might be remembered later."

Rahewa glared at him. "Do you want to say they were planning to release them, after ... after whatever?"

"No." Paul held her stare. "I just pointed out the technical benefit in a case of kidnapping."

Almyra turned to her adopted daughter. "Even a five-year-old can remember a face, actually better than most adults. And they released the children."

"Yes," said Bill, "because that's been the only way to get Ramon."

Deborah said, "Folks, that's a touchy issue for sure, if I ever saw one, but we don't get much further in challenging each other ..."

Cho watched as Hermione nodded in approval, expecting to take over again, only Deborah wasn't finished yet.

"... I say that because what's crossing my mind could easily be misunderstood as a challenge." She looked at Harry. "It's none, it's just what I'm thinking, okay? Well, we had kidnappings in the past, and somehow, it turned out well, and this is the first time it doesn't, and - sorry, I just wonder why."

Cho held her breath.

Harry's expression was masklike. "You forget Tony, Deborah."

"Oh ..." Deborah's hand was flying to her mouth. With a blood-red face, she turned to Ireen. "I'm awfully sorry, please excuse my ... It was a stupid remark."

Ireen just had time to say it's okay, then Hermione cut in. "No it wasn't. Regardless of how much it's wrong or right - we know the kidnappers in Tony's case were only after the money, and this here's something else."

Harry said, "Don't think I'm not asking that question myself, and I for my part are counting Tony too. I'm asking that still more since I learned about a remark from Firenze, the Centaur."

What was that? Cho didn't know any such remark.

"Sandra told him I was hunting kidnappers. And he said, 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."

Her own daughter? Erm, yes, sure, who else would chat with this Centaur, only this tale had slipped Cho's attention. Which for herself was equivalent to, she hadn't been told at all, and most likely on purpose. Well, the purpose wasn't hard to guess, saying dark wizards to her was raising the worst replies.

"... has changed. Let's assume there are some right-wing wizards who realized that the number of magical children is growing beyond any expectation. They don't know why, they just look to where they can see their strongest opponents. Aside from Japanese toy factories, Groucho is the most prominent force in combining magical and conventional technology. They call themselves The True Wizards, - this is not necessarily a pseudonym for dark wizards, the true ones are dead ..."

Dead they were, yes, and she, Cho, had contributed her share, had killed the Number Two after Voldemort with her Steel Wing, the same whose ... house-elf? ... But Malfoy was dead, and his son too, both died in the Battle of -

"The woman!"

Harry stopped in mid-sentence at Cho's shout, and all eyes turned to her.

"I think I know who that woman is." Cho turned to Ron. "You were right, in a way, only it wasn't Winky, it was Dobby."

Harry stared at her, whispered, "Yes, of course ..."

"Lady Malfoy," called Cho, "the old hex. Lost her husband, lost her son - nobody had a second thought about her, somehow we believed she's a decent lady, overruled all the time by the rest of the family, spends her time mourning, or not ..."

Interrupting herself, Cho smiled triumphantly. "And what if she's been the driving force even then? Lucius Malfoy wasn't exactly outstanding in his efforts to help Voldemort, took his time to join him. And Draco - does anyone remember Draco doing something by himself? I bet a million ..." She stood up, walked to the door.

George said, "Don't bother, Cho."

She stopped. "Huh?"

"Weren't you on your way to fetch the million? Nobody's going to hold against you."

A few gasps, there was too much excitement for enjoying a Weasley joke. Cho just marched ahead, although bystanders could hear something like, "Idiot ..."

When the door had closed, Ron called, "I set a tenner, says she's coming back with Dobby, to interview him about his old mistress."

He went as far as offering hundred to one, without success. When Cho returned, however, she was alone.

Seeing the faces, Cho became aware of the misunderstanding. "Oh no," she said, "I'm not going to compromise him that badly in front of so many people. But we're on track."

She turned to Hermione. "Her real first name's Lucinda, doesn't that just fit? Only she didn't use it in public, for fear of being teased because of her husband's first name. Lucinda Narcissa Malfoy, that's the one we have to look for."

* * *

Gabriel finished the last tune, then took the flute off his lips. After a moment, he mouthed it again and let a funny little trill follow. "That's the signal for food," he called into his audience.

Not his own idea. Beverly had asked him for that, some minutes ago. Because his audience was so transfixed, they'd starve, dry out, and pee themselves - if they hadn't done already - before moving away voluntarily from this piece of meadow, located between some flat rocks at the landside of the castle.

Ireland or not - this spot of green was totally artificial. Sure, the grass was real grass, only without some magical help every now and then, you'd find little more than sand and pebbles here. While now, it offered a perfect ground for this bunch if kids.

In a short distance, Goblin guards could be seen, and this was true whichever way you looked. At the beginning, some of the kids had been quite intimidated, for example Bryan, three years old and the son of George and Bonnie. Same with Deirdre, Remus' and Almyra's daughter. But mostly thanks to Sandra and Héloise, these shorties had lost their fright quickly.

Today Gabriel was soloist. Pity, somehow - with all these Goblins around, wouldn't it be great to hear a Goblin harp, or Goblin war drums? But no way.

Héloise had flatly refused to bring her harp around. Here, outside? Not a Felison, thanks a lot. Well, maybe she was right, only sweet Héloise seemed a little pissed off today, felt herself out of place among these pee-pucks. Short of anything better, she had gathered a small ring of devoted slaves, consisting of Alain, Bernard, and Donovan.

Michel, the other candidate for a second musician, had an excuse which listened to the name Ismène - provided she would listen. Ismène clung to her brother, not letting go, letting off a siren's wail when, a while ago, someone else had tried to replace Michel in that task. True, on her brother's arm, Ismène wouldn't mind him walking through a hailstorm, but normally she was more open to foreigners. Maybe today's ballyhoo was a bit too much for her.

The one who had tried so unsuccessfully was Howard, the only boy in the group of four students from Hogwarts. Officially, he had tried in favour of Michel having his hands free to beat Goblin war drums, only Gabriel could sense some more motivation, quite effortlessly so.

It had to do with Beverly, and with the bundle in Beverly's arms that was called Sophia. After his unsuccessful attempt with Ismène, Howard hadn't wasted much time before catching Tanitha, the other alternative in terms of age - this thime to the girl's full satisfaction, so the youngest ages were in good hands.

The other two students from Hogwarts, Felicity and Linda, were busy with the rest. Minus the twins, that was - at the time Carole and Diane were almost finished driving the two Baby Care students into desperation, Sandra had taken pity and had put the two little devils under her special custody. But his sister had some fun herself, as Gabriel could notice.

The crowd was moving toward the rear entrance of the main building, the one closest to the garden, as Cho used to call this little ground. Hearing this term for the first time, Harry had laughed and said, "Know a shrinking charm for rocks? Because then we could call it a Zen garden, if we'd find someone to smooth out their surfaces." But of course, the rocks had kept their size. In contrast, Harry hadn't kept his laughing.

Michel, all the time closest to Gabriel, had risen too. "Gotta get to change her diapers first," he said. "No sense in letting her sit in her own pee - except for your playing, of course." He walked away with a grin.

Gabriel stretched his back, looked around - and saw two figures sitting there, apparently without any intention of moving. Carlos and Esmeralda.

They were sitting side by side, hand in hand - just the view Gabriel had gotten used to, in the last two days. They were inseparable, day and night, literally - when Esmeralda went for little girls, Carlos had to guard the door - well, from the outside, but only since yesterday.

Gabriel asked, "Aren't you hungry?"

Carlos' mind formed a yes, except it didn't come. Esmeralda turned to her brother's ear and rattled something.

With limited enthusiasm but unwavering support, Carlos asked, "Can you play more?"

Looking into the girl's face, Gabriel saw no begging, no hope, hardly expectation. What he could sense was a kind of wall, with a tiny hole to peek through.

"Sure, just give me a minute, okay?"

If he wasn't grossly mistaken, there had been the smallest nod ever from that head. Gabriel asked, "Has this been Spanish?"

Another nod, the fraction of an inch longer.

"What would be yes in Spanish?"

Five seconds lasting forever, while Carlos, if only from sheer self-interest rather than politeness, kept quiet, then Esmeralda's mouth formed a single syllable. "Si."

"That might be something, learning Spanish from you. Could you say that again what you said to him, only slower so I can follow?"

Three seconds this time, then, "Es tu podas tocar más?"

"Si, Esmeralda."

Sensing the silent groan in Carlos, Gabriel said, "Before we start again - what about something to eat, here in this place?"

The idea seemed to find appreciation, only there was the problem of logistics - Esmeralda clearly refused to go inside, which nailed Carlos at the spot on which he was sitting, and Gabriel disappearing inside didn't find the girl's approval either.

Gabriel grinned. "Let me show you a trick." For a few seconds, he hid his face behind his hands, then looked up. "All right - now watch the building."

It took about half a minute, then a window opened, and the figure of Sandra came into view. "Here - fetch it," she shouted, and something came sailing toward them.

Gabriel plucked it out of the air and put it on the grass - a plastic box with sandwiches.

Another shout from the window, and a bottle of lemonade found its way down to the ground. Then the window closed.

Carlos stared at Gabriel admiringly. "Hey, that's cool! How did you do that?"

"Me and Sandy, that's like you two, we can talk without talking - well, a bit more, since we're older and ... Anyway, I sent her a picture of hungry people, and she knew what I meant."

Carlos was already chewing, Gabriel couldn't resist the invitation either, and - look there, even the girl found something to her taste.

Between bites, Carlos said, "But we can't send pictures to each other."

"Did you ever try?"

A baffled look from Carlos. "No." Esmeralda had stopped chewing and was staring at Gabriel.

"It's different from one to the other, but a little bit is always possible. What do you think - I can show you, and you teach me Spanish?"

Too fast for the girl - Gabriel could sense how the peekhole was shrinking again.

"Just an idea," he said. "At any rate - learning Spanish from you, that'd be something."

Between more bites, Carlos explained that he had learned Spanish from his sister, in exchange for French, because his father didn't use Spanish by habit. And with this reference, the pleasant mood from seconds before was gone.

In desperate search for some cheering up, Gabriel found nothing. But then, maybe the subject itself turned out helpful.

"My own father's parents were killed when he was a baby," he started, "did you know that?"

No they didn't.

"He was sent to relatives, but they were scared of magic, so as soon as he could, he moved to Grandma Weasley. That's why the Weasleys and the Potters, somehow that's just one family."

He had their full attention.

"And Rahewa, that's Sandy's godmother, she lost her mother when she was a student, but that was from illness. And her father was no good, always drunk, so she got herself new parents, and she picked the Lupins."

Maybe a bit tight, the course of this conversation.

"By the way, my own godfather, that's a Goblin. Same with Michel, actually, only mine is Urion, he's the commander of these Goblins over there. Did you know Goblins before?"

No, they didn't, and the topic of Goblins wasn't the best choice either.

In this case, it didn't strike Gabriel as an improvement to talk about Tanitha, who had lost only a father, not so long ago, while her mother was still around.

At this moment, Esmeralda said, "I don't want new parents."

"Huh? Why not?"

"They'd be killed. Each time I get a new Mum and a new Dad, they get killed." Esmeralda looked at Gabriel with defiance in her eyes. "Can you play now?"

"Er, yes." Gabriel wiped his hands in the grass, extracted his flute, and brought it at his lips.

For some seconds, the girl's idea was still whirling through his mind, a concept that seemed almost unfathomable and thus horrifying, then Gabriel pushed the thought off and concentrated on the picture in his view - a quiet place, guarded and protected by the best warriors he knew. Looking at the girl, he blew the first tune.