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The Potter Files (part 5), Centaurs by troll

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Format: Novel
Chapters: 40
Word Count: 281,643
Status: COMPLETED

Rating: Mature
Warnings: Strong violence, Scenes of a sexual nature, Substance abuse, Sensitive topic/issue/theme

Genres: Horror/Dark, Mystery, Action/Adventure
Characters: Harry, Hermione, Charlie, Kreacher, Ginny, Neville, James (II), Victoire, OC, OtherCanon
Pairings: Harry/Ginny, Ron/Hermione, Neville/Luna, Other Pairing

First Published: 09/28/2012
Last Chapter: 04/18/2013
Last Updated: 04/18/2013

Summary:
After eighteen years, life has gone onwards for Harry and his friends. Harry is mostly left alone, now, and his main source of anxiety is that his oldest son James is about to begin study at Hogwarts. He'd like to go back in time to change things, a bit. He may get that chance. But the others all have their own problems, too. Both Hermione and old Minerva McGonagal have been unwell, and all are worried for them. And Charles Weasley's daughter, one he took no active part in raising, returns to stake her claim in his life. And an old elf returns, as does a centaur, unlooked for.


Chapter 1: Bonfire of the Twins
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[Potter Detective Agency, before lunch]

“Uncle Harry, I love you.”

Harry fought hard not to burst out laughing. But he did smile, not unhappy to be interrupted. The dark-haired wizard in his mid-thirties dropped his pen from the letter he was writing, and swept up into his arms the vivacious eight-year old girl by his elbow in a 'surprise' bear hug. Her twin sister lurked about the doorjamb at a distance watching them, peering occasionally back into the other open doorway linking Potter's business with the adjoining Weasley's Wizarding Wheezes joke shop.

If that wasn't a ready indication that something was up, twin #1's blatant statement of unconditional love was enough to tug even Harry's dimmest of brain cells. This was about the third time, just this year, that such 'urgent' protection was sought. From down the short hallway, to the small office room opposite his in the narrow building, Harry could see his wife Ginny smirk and shake her head. And go back to her own writing.

This was a much reenacted drama.

Harry could still not work out which niece was which. That was despite them growing up in front of him, their house right next door to his business office. And having seen them practically every day of their short lives. He still failed to be able to easily differentiate between Tina and Abby.

A short-lived enchantment - back when they were five - by an unnamed aunt (Harry suspected Fleur and-or Hermione!) had briefly decorated the first initial of each girl's name on their collars of whatever they were wearing, For a glorious half-year, it worked unfailingly, till the little witches countered by labeling the whole families' body parts in bright glowing letters.

All of them. Constantly. Like walking anatomy diagrams

The ingenuity of it all was staggering. Hermione was convinced the children had adult aid, but could prove nothing. Not surprisingly, all the labels disappeared within a week after the effects grew embarrassing. A magical cold war had been fought and two new actors had taken the stage triumphant.

From then on, the adults were back to guessing as to the girls' identities.

Point in fact, Harry'd been able to tell, when they were only newborns. Sweet and innocent. Not yet seduced to the darker side of chaos. But that identification involved diapering, which revealed a boomerang-shaped birth mark on the little rear end of Tina. And at this stage, Uncle Harry was certainly not going to ask his niece to bare her bottom for him to identify.

Well, in the meantime, he'd have to use his vast array of sleuthing techniques, instead of her bare butt.

“That's just wonderful, pumpkin! And I love you, too!” ('Pumpkin' was safe. Maybe he could just get her to say who she was) “What are you up to this morning?”

The one by the door peered back into her home, and looked back again at her sister. The exchange no doubt emphasized speed over stealth and long-winded obfuscation. “Not much,” said the one clinging to his arm, her head leaning against his shoulder. “We thought you'd want to take us somewhere.”

Batting 'doe eyes' and 'somewhere' translated to 'anywhere, quickly'. Harry wasn't so dim as to not get that right away. He pushed slightly away from the desk and set the girl on one knee. “Well, I am not really up to much. Guess I can take you some place. How about the zoo?”

“The Zoo is boring.” Asserted the red-head girl at the door. “None of the animals can spit fire or eat people.”

The one at his shoulder heartily agreed. “Since we went with Uncle Charlie and Auntie Veronica to the 'Dragon Show', that Muggle place is decidedly second-rate.”

Harry could see his wife shake with suppressed laughter, with her red-head buried on her folded arms on her desk. The 'last' time, it had been her turn to have the girls charm turned her way. Obviously, they found her less responsive. Or more probably, Uncle Harry was seen as a lot more gullible and pliable to their devious plans.

“Well, that's not entirely true.” Harry sat back, an elbow on the chair's arm and his chin in his hand. “The people-eating bit, I mean. There are definitely tigers, crocodiles and the odd lion that would really like you two for lunch.”

Twin #2 by the door considered that, briefly, but then shook her head. “No, not nearly so good. Pretty boring. The dragons were so much better and exciting.”

“Hmmm.” Harry was doubtful of that. Better wasn't a word he'd use. None of the dragons he had met were anything other than carnivorous. “Don't care much for them, myself,” Harry said.

“That's because you don't understand them.”

In the background, down the hall, Ginny Potter nodded forcefully, fully in agreement. Well, he thought, they were obviously not going to let him be without a convoluted story. And it obviously amused his wife, so why not play along. And he now curious as to why the girls were now here, seeking the Potters' protection. Harry made a surprised face, “No? Really?”

“They are nice. Just misunderstood,” insisted Twin #1.

He looked down at her cute face, the perfect little copy of her mother. “They can be the size of your house and breath fire. And one tried to eat me.”

“Uncle Charlie says that's just nature. Like waving a steak at a hungry dog. You probably annoyed it.”

Harry simply nodded, accepting the error of his ways. “True. I'm not very good with animals, period. Charlie obviously knows better than me.”

Twin #2 wholeheartedly agreed. “He says you are getting better. Daddy agrees, too?”

Endorsements from any of the Weasley brothers, especially George, were a two-edged thing. “Do they, now? And why do we need to leave, right this minute?”

There was a pregnant moment of expectation, but the twins were naturally adept at misdirection.

“You look bored. We are bored. Let's do something exciting together.” The niece at his shoulder purred. Both girls nodded vigorously.

Ginny shook her head, and returned to her letter writing. She would be no help. “We need you to get more outdoor experience,” Twin#1 said, putting Harry pen into the drawer and shutting it.

Her casual handling his desk should have raised alarm bells in Harry's mind, all by itself. The fearsomely battered object let no one but Harry and those he deemed safe – like the twins' mother - inside it.

The haunted desk didn't even flinch at the girl's hand pat!

“I have no interest in seeing dragons.” Harry grumbled.

Twin #2 raised a concerned eyebrow to her sister, but Twin #1 wasn't daunted. She was obviously the 'persuasive' one of the pair. “Oh, got enough of them. Thanks. We were thinking ….somewhere else.”

“Naturally,” Harry agreed.

“Got loads about dragons, from last time, anyway. And Auntie 'V' got to use that loose pipe to help us count the mama dragon's teeth …....”

Both Ginny and Harry simultaneously said “Huh?”

'Twin-by-the-door' made a tiny sound, and her eyes glared above her fiercely smiling teeth at her sister.

'Shoulder' twin looked like she had said too much. The young witch said defensively, “It was James' fault. He dared Albus to tell how many teeth the dragon had, and when Al refused to go in, somebody had to do it. Family honor.”

Ginny had almost floated off her chair to stand now by the 'door warden'. Ginny demanded, “Abby, when did this happen? We know nothing about this.”

Despite his incredulity, Harry wondered (again!) how his wife was so easily able to tell one girl from the other.

But the girls seemed to realize that they could no longer be carefree and breezy. Aunt Ginny was much more suspicious and authoritarian than soft-hearted Uncle Harry. Abby gave the other (Tina?) a startled look, realizing Ginny was now at her elbow and much more likely to 'read' her mind. Tina spoke up, to fill in the obvious sudden drop in conversation. “Oh, you know, last week. When they took all of us kids.”

Ginny wasn't fooled easily. And this solved a little domestic mystery she had wondered about from last week. “Explains the frazzled nerves when they came back. And the clipped sentences and the hurried exit.” Ginny sardonically said to Harry. “You remember? Charlie offering to take all the kids. Insanely thinking he could control all of them, at once.”

“I just remembered laughing.” It was a funny idea, Harry remembered.

Charlie Weasley is the uncle of the twins, after all. And his wife Veronica their longtime friend and vampire. If the Potters trusted anyone with their children, those two would have been high on the list. If the simple-minded childless couple thought they could wrestle with the lions, Harry figured they asked for it.

But wait …!

Harry demanded. “Teeth! What loose pipe? Start at the beginning.”

Abby mumbled reluctantly, now looking like this was NOT what she had wanted to talk about. “Well, James bet Albus how many teeth the mama dragon had. The one that was sleeping.”

“Purple. And very fat. And when he wouldn't do it, we had to.” Tina said matter-of-factly. “Not like we were going to send Hugo. Please, we aren't reckless.”

Sending in quiet, compliant Hugo was exactly what Harry would have expected of these little monsters. Harry bought time for his thoughts to catch up, by removing his glasses and rubbing the bridge of his nose.

“Why?” uttered Ginny.

Not, 'are you insane!'

Or, 'you could have been killed!'

“We couldn't see!” Tina sounded incredulous, if that wasn't the most obvious reason. “It was asleep. Dragons snore. Like Daddy or Uncle Harry. We couldn't see the teeth because of the tongue in the way.”

“Oh, …....God!”

“So we lifted up the lip. Their teeth are very hot, and yellow.”

“Bad breath, too!” Said the other, fanning her face in disgust, just from the memory.

“Then Aunt 'V' put the pipe in, to force open the jaw. It was actually a big help, but the made the mama dragon burp.”

“Ugggh!” emphasized Tina.

“So we counted. I think Uncle Charlie was trying to help, but James kept messing up the count. Uncle was yelling, and making Hugo cry.”

“Stinky pig!” Tina commented.

“That wasn't nice,” Abby corrected her sister. “Hugo's sensitive.”

Mental images came to Harry of the scene. The crying boy, and his sons roaring with laughter and Charlie yelling uselessly as no one was listening to him. Of a frantic witch, actually an immensely old covert vampire grabbing anything possible at hand to prevent the beast engulfing one or both of the little girls. “Back to the story, you two.” Harry said with extra emphasis. “The Dragon! They eat animals larger than either of you.”

“Just the big ones.” Abby countered, edging slightly away from her aunt' frowning proximity.

Ginny pointed a finger at the girl's nose. “I believe the purple one is the size of the Leaky Cauldron.”

Tina grumpily said, “Auntie V was a prat. Yelled a lot ….

“Screamed...!” Abby clarified.

“Yeah …... and then couldn't get the pipe out of the mama's mouth. That was kind of sad. We left her there stuck with a bent pipe.”

Abby corrected, “The Dragon, she means. Ended the whole trip of us. We HAD to come home with Uncle and Auntie. Don't think they had as good time as we did.”

“Yeah. They argued when they thought we couldn't hear.” Tiny said, apologetically, but eavesdropping was the girls' second nature. “But we got to touch all of them, all the dragon's teeth. There are forty-seven.”

Abby made a vague motion with a slim little hand. “One was broken. Probably had been forty-eight.”

“Uncle Charlie was very proud. When he put us down, from carrying us all the way home, and we told him of the dare, he said James was a Fuck-face.”

Ginny reflexively spat out, “Tina!”

“No, that was Auntie V's words for him. She knows 'noise' words.”

“Wha?”

Harry understood, saying in the young hellion's defense. “Veronica swears in Norwegian. So the kids don't understand.”

Abby shook her head. “No, Uncle Charlie definitely said 'noise'. What she said …... definitely sounded like that ….word.”

“Huh!” Ginny muttered, thinking her brother was probably often the justifiable target of that swearing. And that maybe it was not working. “I don't want to hear that again. Do you understand?”

Tina reflected, “Al said it first. He should have been yelled at, too. Think he chickened on purpose.”

“Definitely. James and Al are two of those ….words. But what matters is that James lost. He had to pay up to us all his candy. Especially when Auntie 'V' lost her temper.”

“Oh, well, it was about time.” Ginny said resignedly, and she and Harry just exchanged incredulous looks.

Returning to her main theme, the true reason to why they needed the Potters to take them 'anywhere', Abby insistently said, “And we haven't been anywhere, since. And we are sooooo bored.”

Harry sighed resignedly. Between George and Madelene's daughters, and his own two boys, boredom was a rare thing for the adults lately. All four of them more than made up for George and his deceased brother Fred, in their glory years.

Harry just stood up, putting his papers and writing things back in the top drawer. And shoving his wand back into his custom-made 'sleeve' holster under his left forearm shirt sleeve.

“And where are you going?” Ginny demanded.

“Going to ask George if I can take the girls with me? Then, get them out of the area for a little while. To cool off. I can feel the heat about to come down, and it was the boys' fault.” At Ginny's glare, Harry added, “ …...mostly!” He looked at her, her brown eyes blinking in thought. “What are you going to do?”

“My appointment was for noon. Talk to that woman. Then high tail it over to Charlie's or find Maddie. Find out why we didn't hear this sooner. She 'bill collecting', you remember.” Ginny chewed her lower lip, as she always did when worried or just distraught. “Then, straight to Dad's. And find those two. Can't believe …..is it all right I use the wooden spoon on them?”

Harry didn't have to answer that one. Yelling was more Ginny's prime weapon. Words for Ginny were all so much more fear inspiring.

There was no sense in wasting time. He asked, “Girls, where is your dad?”

Tina worriedly looked back into the still silent Wheezes, “Oh, doesn't matter. He said we could go anywhere he and Uncle Lee weren't. He is very busy.”

“The attentive father,” Ginny grumbled, with obvious skepticism. Tina and Abby showed great concern, now, and jointly turned their considerable charm on to full and beamed at Uncle Harry.

Potter just pointed them down the stairwell, saying, “I'll get them out of here. Find out if any of the others knows this. And we can jointly decide which prison island to send the boys to, instead of Hogwarts.”

“Oh, cool!” exclaimed one. Harry didn't know now which, because they were dressed alike, too. “Can we visit them in prison as well.”

Harry almost laughed at that. But Ginny wasn't joining in, and he cut the laugh off. “Move out, the both of you. You might be staying at Hotel Du'Lock-up, as well.”

That got them both hustling, and Ginny gave him a frown, but also a jaunty salute.

So too did the enchanted frosted-glass Quidditch players, in Harry old front door. In fact, an almost royal salute, to the two Weasley girls.

Even lined up and 'brooms right'.

They stepped out onto Diagon Alley and the girls relaxed in almost palpable relief. Whatever they were immediately 'running' from, it was apparently something George Weasley would be upset by.

Which made Harry wonder at how bad that could really be.

Fortunately, it was a nice summer day. Even more fortunately, Harry didn't have to stay and go with his wife in hunting down his sons. It wouldn't be pretty.

After a brisk walk, past neighboring store owners who gave Potter knowing looks of sympathy, they stood briefly, before the brick wall leading out of Diagon Alley. It led out into the Leaky Cauldron pub, which was the magical alley's exit out onto the rest of Muggle London. Before he tapped the usual pattern on the bricks for them to open, Harry clapped his hands together and bracingly said, “Girls, change of plans. No animals.” Before the two could start winding up about the wild safari park they both wanted, Harry quickly announced. “Instead we are going to Portsmouth.”

One of them said, “Huh?” This was a sudden wrench in their fine machinery for escape. And both stood quizzically, wondering what could be better than ferocious beasts in of all places. Portsmouth?

To head off mighty whinging, Harry bulled right on ahead with, “It's a surprise. Don't worry. You'll love it. I have a special friend, who owes me a favor. Besides, we need to go and Auntie Gin has heartburn.”

“Lot of that,” Twin #1 (again, Harry had no sure idea her name). “And she grinds her teeth.”

“We have to go.” said Twin #2, evidently the 'timer', in this get-away plan.

Before Harry could have to respond in some neutral way, the wall began opening up, and on the other side was ….

“Uncle Ron,” both girls happily shouted and poured through before the bricks were even done moving out of the way, to smother Ron Weasley in hugs.

“Where we going, luvs?” Ron beamed.

Of course he was happy. He was free of children, and playing 'hookie' from work.

“Lunch! You're coming with us.” One niece decided for him, and they both steered him by either arm in the opposite direction.

“Guess I am.” He sardonically grinned to Harry. “Any reason for the speed?”

“Don't really know. But if we stay longer, we will surely find out,” Harry said, with resignation in his voice.

“Right-oh!” Ron slide a finger past the side of his nose, in clowning conspiracy. And the no-doubt, guilty-as-sin little girls giggled fetchingly. “Special auror's travel option.” Ron wiggled his fingers, speculatively, glancing out either corner of his eyes at the girls, “Port key to excitement …..where exactly?”

“Uncle Harry is helping us escape.....” One began, before getting a toe stepped on by the other.

The other corrected the statement to “ ..travel ….we have the day free. Uncle Harry has something to do in Portsmouth ...”

“Portsmouth?” Ron mumbled, as mystified as the girls.

“ …..and Aunt Ginny isn't feeling well.”

“Been that way since she married your uncle,” Ron whispered in loud conspiracy. At Harry's wry sucking of teeth, Ron began. “Well, why have lunch there …?”

Harry quietly urged. “Unless you want to be dragooned into a hunting party, Ron. We'd better go!”

“Oh, one of those. Got cha'.”

“I'll explain as we travel. You are not going to believe this one.”

Ron waived a fair-skinned hand at Tom the Bartender, mixing it with a scowl at Mundungus Fletcher, skulking in a corner, and said, “I thought you'd might be heading for the zoo, on a nice day like this.”

One girl held open the pub's door to the outside, to usher the slowpoke adults onwards. “Oh, no. Not anymore. Only Fuck-faces go there.”

Harry just corrected in a bored monotone. “Tina! Language.”

That seemed to unsettle the girls, who'd long ago stumbled to the identical twins being able to throw off adults by ...well, being identical. Harry just guessed, to be frank. But that made him wonder now about his wife's seeming success at their identification.

Ron was no slouch at such 'language', himself. But he goggled at the girls. “Since when are you talking like that?”

“Auntie V taught us. She's fluent in 'Noise'.” One girl announced, stepping off the curb when the traffic signal turned green, towing the others behind her.

“Noise? Oh, ….Norse!” Ron, chuckling, was quicker on the uptake than Harry. “Yeah, Uncle Charlie has a thing for girls that talk like Vikings.”

“Cool. Well, we don't understand the language. Most we can't pronounce ...”

“Are we lucky for that one,” Harry dryly said.

“Mostly, she was yelling them at Uncle Charlie. After she used the pipe on the dragon ….”

“What? Whoa! Wait a minute......” Ron silently suspended his question for a few heartbeats, then continued, “I don't really want to know all that, do I?”

“No. Not until we have a beer in hand.”




[H.M.S. Centaur, middle gun deck, after lunch]

Ron was really coming close to having a seizure, laughing so hard, he had to lean back against the old ship's twenty-four pounder cannon. “Oh, my ….Merlin, that explains so much.”

“You know some of this, then?” Harry was keeping an eye on the girls, darting fascinated between the guns on either side of the deck, as they progressed aft towards the 'Admiral's cabin' in the great ship's stern.

“Not the why. But I stopped by their house. On the front door was a hand-written note. Saying …. 'Don't ever talk to us, again. We are going somewhere, deserted and tropical. Don't you dare leave any of your children here.' Some more emphatic words, beside a hex if one of us touches the doorknob.”

“That's interesting.” Harry sniffed. “It wasn't my idea to take the kids, in the first place. All theirs ...”

“They'll cool off. Just nerves. They are just soft. No children of their own. You and I have gone through worse.

Immediately, the trip - with all of the families children - through the 'Chunnel', in Uncle Ron's borrowed auror ice cream van slash 'stake-out' vehicle, came to mind. What a nightmare!

As if sharing Harry's memories, Ron laughed again, “Mine ….aren't the problem.”

Which was largely turning out to be true, Harry had to agree. “Your lucky day. It's James that is the prime mover. Things should calm down, when he and Rose start school this fall. She's a steadying influence.”

“Calm him down. Just like Hermione, eh?” Ron chuckled dubiously, at that thought. Grasping the great black iron breech end of the cannon to lever himself back to where the girls were going. “Either that, or you two will be spending some increased quality time at the castle, for the next seven years.”

“Ughhhhhhh!” Harry groaned. He hadn't really thought of that far ahead. It was almost certain he and Ginny would be summoned to appear in the headmaster's tower. “Can you imagine? All four – my boys and George's girls - in the same house, at the same time.”

Ron began to wheeze, laughing again. “Apocalyptic!”

“Only hope the Sorting Hat heads that off.”

Ron grasped the internal door, open to let out some tourists coming the other way, then said in half disbelief, “You don't really believe that!”

“No. I bleed Gryffindor, the same as you. But might be best if one or some others of the kids were spread about the four houses. Give those four less chance to conspire. Flitwick has a point, you know, about the House rivalry aggravating the tensions.”

“They are all dipping ponces. The other houses.” Ron and his family were pretty tolerant, as far as people of different origins and philosophies. But the artificial division of the students into four groups named after the original founders of Hogwarts School of Wizardry sometimes took on a inordinately permanent importance. Especially to Ron Weasley.

Harry didn't bother wasting breath. This was going to be long, continuous intra-familial argument, he felt surer and more certain as the summer months were drawing closer to the end of August. And it might just be that Hermione's look-alike daughter was going to be as brilliant as her mother, and, maybe, just maybe, she'd be wearing Ravenclaw colors come the end of the first day.

Nothing for sure. Just Harry had a certain feel for this kind of prediction.

Ron looked around the Ship's Great Cabin. In terms of the space, the room wasn't really much bigger than Harry's office. But the tremendous arc of the window behind the center desk, and the knowledge that only one man got to live in here.

Shared with no other of the 800 souls on board. All by himself! It really was great!

Then the two wizards realized that the two little witches were dressed in the Admiral's uniform coats, Tina(?) sitting with her feet up on the desk, and Abby(?) taking tentative whacks at the desk corner with edge of a dress sword.

“Merlin! What are you doing?” Ron whipped the sword out from the one's hand, trying to pass it to Harry, who was knocking the other's feet back to the wooden deck.

“Get those off, this instant!” Harry commanded. Normally, he was a pretty weak authoritarian. But occasionally, there were moments when his voice sounded profoundly stern, like the growl of an ancient and unhappy monster. He did his best to try to be like Arthur Weasley, the girls' grandfather, but he just didn't have the knack for being in charge, day-in day-out.

But this took the cake!

“I haven't been so disappointed in you two, despite what I heard earlier ….... until now. Put those back exactly where you found these.” That sounded so weak! Harry wanted to scream, say bad words, turn the old leaded glass in the ship's stern windows molten ….....he ran out of ideas at that point. Deep inside, he was so angry at himself. But it just didn't come out well, and he knew he was a failure as a disciplinarian.

He'd be surprised to learn the girl's thoughts on this subject. They timidly removed the coats and hung them askew and not nearly how they found them. And Ron didn't make matters worse, by handing Uncle Harry the sword.

From the twins point of view - once in great while - Uncle Harry's face looked like pure fury incarnate. It didn't happen often, but the girls were more afraid on occasions like this than anything their own father or mother said to them. They meekly moved to stand to one side, by the ship's door.

Harry got a hold of himself. While he was doing that, to the girls Ron ordered, “Stay right there! Touch nothing!” Then Ron unhelpfully struck the desk with the sharp blade as he turned back to see the damage, taking off the narrow leg and collapsing the desk toward the corner.

“SHIT!”

Ron's statement was followed by the small tray of crystal drinking glasses and the Admiral's decanter shattering on the deck.

“We knew you could fix it. I just wanted to see how sharp it really was.” said the little swordsmith.

“And his coats are really small. Fit us perfectly.”

The other thought about that. “One arm though. That's a bit odd.”

Ron had his own issues with not being good at the 'bad guy' routine. But he did his best. “Not for you to decide that. And those are for people to come and see and understand this man and the times. People to be venerated. How'd you like it if some stranger was playing with your grandpa's things, whacking bits off his furniture. Think that's hugely funny?”

“No, sir.” The twins jointly muttered in chorus. They really did sound sorry. Uncle Ron wasn't as soft as he thought he was.

“I should say not!” His red hair, touched with a little gray near the temples, shook as he swallowed the screaming auror-laced adjectives that wanted to leap out. He'd been around his brand-new auror just assigned him too long. Another reason Ron was playing truant from work.

Harry sighed heavily (he did a lot of that lately), bending over to pick up some of the bigger pieces of drinking glass and said in a weary voice, “Okay, let's get this back together. Before other people come in. Block the door, and I'll get the coats back on the dummies, best I can. You, Ron, get the desk back in order. We'll ….do something for the glass ware.” The two men went to work, hearing the magically locked door knob being tried.

They only had a minute of two before the tour guides came back or got through some other entrance into the cabin. The desk was a simple Reparo spell, so was the decanter, but Ron inadvertently put the top sideways. But the coats didn't seem to fit the manikins and both men sloppily put them on anyway they could and dodged out of the cabin, through another door.

That's when they noticed neither girl was with them.

“Dammit, that's the last straw!”

“Let's take them straight to the Burrow. Your dad is better at being scary and maybe that is what it is going to take. ...”

“Where the bloody hell …?”

“No clue, you head upstairs ...”

“Up to the top deck!”

“Whatever, I'll go down.”

The two wizard separated, Harry scanning about the other people on the gun deck, a tour group comprising the largest bunch, near midships. But not a sight of a single red-head.

“Are you missing something, sir?” A twenty-something woman in a mid-18th century sailor outfit, one of the ship's guides, came up to Harry. Despite the man's outfit obviously on a woman, she looked right and incredibly fit.

In short explanation, Harry said, “Missing my two nieces. Red-heads, both eight years old.” Potter was dying to use some magic, to send out his Patronus to corral the two truants, but could do nothing like it with all these Muggles around. “My brother-in-law went upstairs ...”

“Topside, sir.” The sailor corrected in a no-nonsense tone of voice.

“Ummm, sure.”




[Fo'c'sle, ...the front of the boat]

Ron breathlessly ran up, searching the upper gun deck they'd left ten minutes before. He saw nothing, but not staying to really look, just a feeling he had to be up topside, immediately. Weasley came up a ladder, amidships, and immediately took in the great overhead forest of ropes and wood spars and the great tree-like trunk of the mainmast soaring upwards.

There were other people up here. A tour group about the ships massive steering wheels by the rear mast, milled in loose herd, many taking pictures of each other besides the helm.

And the little red-head girl, dancing across the pole sticking out front of the ship. Like a squirrel running on a tree branch.

Ron couldn't remember the trip to the front railing of the ship. He found he couldn't get onto the long pole from where he was and fruitless looked about for another way. Just as he thought he'd have to jump and/or use magic to haul her back onto deck, a young man, just older than Teddy Lupin, came swiftly to him. “Is she yours, sir.”

“My brother's. How the devil she get on that ...”

“No, idea sir. But it is not too hard, if you know what your doing. The ship's crew had to be able to get out on the spars, to work the rigging …....”

“Ahhhh, that's great. Get my niece off that pole!”

“Bowsprit, sir”

Ron knew the boy was trying to be helpful, but at this second, Weasley could really care less if he was nautically correct.

A little far-away voice called, delightedly, “Uncle Ron, up here.”

Ron shouted and pointed directly at the girl. “Don't move, Abby! Stay where you are.”

“I'm Tina.”

Ron gritted his teeth. “I'm coming to get you. …..Somehow. Don't be frightened.”

“I'm not. I can't fall off.”

Ron wasn't going to debate her complete lack of any fear of heights. It normally kicked in on him, immediately upon looking down out over the upstairs railing at home. But Ron Weasley didn't even hesitate, to leap out and down, to land falling astride the great tree-like mast/pole/bow-thingie.

The pain made his eyes water, but all he could think of was the sight of the little girl unconcernedly standing on stick not much wider than a broom handle!

Trying to re-balance himself, he promptly nearly pitched over the other side, which alarmingly looked very far down into the bottom of the concrete-drydock floor the ancient vessel rested in.

It looked very hard!

But he held on with superhuman effort to right himself back on the top edge of the mast's curve and inched himself forward, on his hands and knees.

Only to look up at the skinny knees of his niece, looking concernedly at him. Standing like she hadn't a care in the world.

“Tina! What in the blazes …?”

The girl frowned, stating in a puzzled voice, “ 'Sure-grip' spell, of course. On the bottoms of our shoes. From Wheezes'. I could walk straight up the side of the ship. Mommy made us, after that Awful Tower tour, when we went to Paris …..”

Ron profoundly was glad he hadn't been on that one. “Okay. Alright. Well, I'll just be going backwards then.”

“Why don't you just do a spell, or fly us back down ..”

“I'm an auror, sweetheart. And you might have noticed the crowd of Muggles on the edge of the dock and on the ship, looking at us.” Ron gestured to the small crowd on the dockside, looking up at the Weasley's and pointing at them. “Taking pictures? We have to look normal when we go out to their places. Those are the rules.”

“Yeah. Dad says that, too. Okay.”

“Just follow me. Don't dance or hop about. You just look incredibly …..well balanced.”

She meekly followed Ron's inching progress, back down, till he was back in the great ships foc'sle area, at the base of where the bowsprit came out from the heart of the ship. The girl did a sudden pirouette, flopping backwards with her arms extended. Ron hopped down, and she fell into his arms, just as smartly.

But causing an old woman in the crowd watching to faint.

And Ron just buried his face into to her hair in a great 'Weasley' hug. He loved his nieces, but they were making the rest of his hair gray.

There was a great cheer, from the watchers amongst the crowd on the dock's edge, with some smattering claps from other tourists watching from the ship's deck.

“Okay?” Ron asked with a tinge of exasperation edging his voice.

She said tentatively, “Yeah, suppose so. We were scared. Both you and Uncle Harry were pretty angry.”

“You did something bad, Tina. That's our job, as your uncles. You've got to learn to behave, in public.” Ron meant 'behave all of the time.' But he was too tired to get angry all over again. “Why did you put us through this? Your uncles love you and were worried to death.”

She wiggled her fingers about the fo’c’sle, “Wanted to see the gold man, up front here.”

“Wot Gold Man?” and following her pointed finger, Ron could see the figurehead's shoulder, and he realized it was a completely gold centaur, massively oversized compared to even a real one. It was pictured murderously angry -which looked completely accurate to Ron, from what he remembered- and as if furiously storming up and out of the very wood fabric of the ship itself.

The little witch said critically, “Not like the real ones. Isn't like Professor Fire-ends, at all. No naughty bits.”

Ron had to admit it wasn't entirely anatomically correct.

“Why are there all these holes in the floor?”

Her rapid change of subject threw him. But then he thought about it. Even Ron knew this. “This is the 'head' of the ship. Where the crew went to the bathroom, Tina.”

“Eeeeeeewww!” On that bit of broad understanding, she hopped back up into his arms.

"Well, it is all clean, now." Uncle Ron said dryly.

She sheepishly admitted. “Okay, I'm really Abby.” Abby sheepishly mumbled, “Sorry about that. It is safer, to change names. Sometimes. Confuses people ...”

Ron actually laughed, and hefted her in his arms, as he clambered back toward the hatchway that the helpful, nautically-correct young man was smilingly and gladly waiting for them. “You know. I remember your daddy and my brother Fred, doing the exact same thing.

“Really?”

“Really. Drove your Na-Nah and grandpa nuts.” Ron slyly said to her ear, “How do we tell you guys apart?”

“My one eye has a funny spot in the color part. And her nose is a little different.”

Ron laughed again. Inside information was the auror and Weasley way. “Okay. Just our little secret, okay? Let's find Uncle Harry and Tina, and get going home.” He stopped, having put her back down, and led the way inside. “Do you smell smoke?”




[The ship's hold]

“Abby! Tina?” Harry rushed from stair well to stair well, working his way gradually down deck by deck. He called hopefully, but so far had only elicited a response from an American woman, who improbably had both of those names

“Nothing sir!” The sailor-dressed woman -he now knew was named Lorraine- came up from the far end of the deck. “I've been asking others to keep a look out.” She had turned out to be pretty understanding, Harry thought, all things considered.

Though, he wasn't telling her they had undressed the Admiral's mannikin back in his cabin!

“Happens, surprisingly rarely, considering the number of school children we get.” She made a shrugging motion with her head and shoulders. “Can't wait till my duty on board is done. Sorry I volunteered for this.”

“Too many weekenders and kid's leaving their bubblegum? Not a great summer job, I don't imagine.”

“Royal Navy, sir. This looks good on my record. Supposed to be a plum job.” She didn't sound that 'honored.' “Really rather get back to my mates and kill terrorists.”

Harry nodded, as if he couldn't agree more. But this was not helping find either of the miscreants! “Don't think they could get past us, without us seeing. What's left below us? Is there a basement?”

“Hold and Orlop deck, sir.”

“Lorraine ….that's really great your teaching me the correct terms. But, I'm a bit torched by their behavior. You can understand my just wanting to find my girls,....”

“Sorry.” She grinned coyly. “You'll make a great dad, someday!”

“Hah!” Getting 'hit' on by a sailor! Harry smiled carefully and neutrally. He really needed to get out of this ship, fast.

Back to the main issue. “What's down there?”

“Stores and ammunition, when she was an active warship. Now, just the medical area is open to the public. The rest is closed off.” There seemed nothing else for it, so she lead the way down. 'Sailor Lorraine' needed her electric torch now, it was dark in the places between the lighting from the overhead beams. Harry could only guess what it had been like for the original crew. Under fire!

As if guessing his thoughts about the darkness, she said, “This was usually only for the badly wounded. You didn't want to see well down here.” She practically jumped down the near vertical ladder to the next lowest floor, despite the gloom. Harry followed at a more careful pace.

The bright red painted timbers and deck was completely different than the upper decks. Harry could only imagine what being wounded and brought down here must have entailed.

Lorraine and he split up. She talked to a family on their way back (upstairs! Harry stubbornly insisted on saying to himself). Naturally, the two searchers headed the opposite way from a little girl, peering around a dark hollow behind Harry, and she tip-toed out and around large crates and extra piles of rope. Away from the adults.

On her way, she noticed a curious mark, on the great ship's keel. But one she knew well. It was a centaur. She'd seen them before. Even talked to the teacher one at the castle. Mommy liked it's muscles.

She didn't notice centaur mark glowed redly, after she patted it and moved on.

Tina dodged farther into the bewildering maze of boxes museum detritis. She was mad. How dare Uncles yell at her for 'learning'! Her sister hadn't agreed, but gave her the usual time to escape. The Twins had long worked out 'escape and evasion' scenarios, in case they were separated or individually in trouble and needed to urgently disappear for awhile.

The reunion always nullified, or at least reduced, the punishment.

She tripped repeatedly, and there seemed no continuous desk, forcing her to clamber up and over the great ships beams as she moved farther aft. Tina was getting worried now. There seemed no 'basement door' as she had assumed.

What kind of museum was this, anyway? It all smelled icky and wet in here. But she knew for a fact they were on dry land. She wasn't dim, like her hapless cousin Hugo.

Where was the Merlin-be-damned exit?

It did have a perfectly serviceable extra-dimensional portal thru space and time! If she wanted to kill herself or get lost in some nightmare land.
 

The shimmering rectangle of gray hung off the side, near a tremendously thick vertical piece of wood. Tina looked at it, dismissed it, and continued looked for a decent door, window, something useful. She knew all about the portal thing. It wasn't going to take her anywhere Tina needed. Her aunt Hermione had detailed descriptions of it in her top secret notes, that she had foolishly left on her desk ......in her office ....open, for Tina and Abby to read while she dealt with some screaming fit that Hugo was having.

Honestly. Little boys.

Anyway, the gray thing was not what she needed right now. It would not take her home, nor get her off his colossally old and smelly wood hulk. She wasn't stupid. Elf magic wasn't a toy or for the whimsical, like James Potter. Tina had a photographic memory, and Aunt Hermione was incredibly diligent in describing her and the other aunts and uncles adventure across space to save the world ...or something.

She loved them, all, but they were an impossible act to follow.

Tina was going to have to back-track, get topside, find Abby and finagle a trip to the ice cream parlor out of this by making Uncles Ron and Harry the ogres feel guilty.

Her dismissal of the portal and her ducking back around a large stack of boxes caused her to miss the flash and arrival thru the gray door of a impossbly tall and muscular figure. The centaur, a real one, barely fitting even hunkered down between the overhead cross timbers. A long, flowing, red cape about his horse's half.
He looked incredulously about him, planting the haft of his lance on the partial deck at his hooves. Tina came around the box and gave an involuntary 8-year old squeak of fright, eyes wide as saucers as the blade end of the lance tracked her throat and backed her against the nearest wood pillar.

The centaur was flinching about like a cat, nerves on a hair trigger. He shoutingly ordered her name and her owner. Where was this? What was she doing here? She only cringed further at his shouting and began curling up onto the wooden deck, silently crying.

He regretted instantly loosing his temper. He'd never harm an innocent, especially a foolish human foal like this. But this was ..... too incredible to believe. And opening upon the heart of the Centaur's citadel! He demanded of the human girl her name and presence in this place, smelling alarmingly like salt water ......

Gods of the Centauri! It is the inside of a boat! The treachery!

Unthinking, his temper caused him to jab forward with the blade. It went no further, fortunately, because of the iron plate conjured in mid air out of nothing. Harry swept in, yanking the little girl to him and wrapping her in his arms, and stood with the outline of the weak ceiling light behind him, livid with anger and pointing his wand.

The standoff, witnessed only by the equally wide-eyed female sailor just behind Harry, should have been ridiculously one-sided. The centaur massed easily ten times the skinny man, and the razor sharp lance head gleamed icily lethal, more so when compared to the simple wood stick the human pointed back.

The centaur was no one he recognized. Harry could see nothing familiar about the items the creatures kept ina bandolier about his shoulders. And the red cloak was almost crimson and bore gold writing Harry could not read. Bending his neck slightly, careful to keep his eyes on the yelling centaur, Harry spoke to the sailor he could hear behind him. "Lorraine, take Abby here ...

The girl, tears of fright streaming, bawled in his ear, "I'm Tina, Uncle Harry, I soooooo sorrrryyyyy ...."

"Shhhhhhhhhh! Hush, now. I am going to stay talking to him.” Kissing her forehead and carefully passing the red-headed little girl to the woman, Harry said, “Lorraine, take her back upstairs. Find my brother-in-law. Don't talk to anyone else."

To the burly, human forward half of the creature, Harry tried to speak in a calm and disarming voice. "I am Potter. I don't know how you got in here but we have to calm things down. Lower the tensions a little ...."

The centaur shouted back at Potter, stamped his forward hooves, yelling angrily, causing impossible sparks to fly where the lance shaft pounded insistently on the deck between them. The centaur fully recognized the device the human had, and it was unequivocally forbidden and lethally powerful. No human was allowed such a thing!

But then again, the man and its squawling youngling were already subject to instant death, just by being on one of the machines of the enemy.

Neither Harry nor the centaur understood one another. The more Harry tried to used appeasing words and tones, the more furious the centaur became. And no matter how much centaur understood the human carried the capacity to disintigrate every atom of his being, the more unreasoningly furious he got.

A human with magic. Abomination!

And the centaur decided for his people that he must do something about it. Now!
The lance head whipped upwards and to the man's heart. Or it should have. But Harry was one of the greatest dueling wizards on Earth, and something even as deadly as the lance in a centaur's hands was child's play for him to knock aside with a blocking spell. But he did nothing more than block, even giving up some space as he backed away slightly from the big creature, pressing Lorraine and Tina to retreat slightly from the angry centaur and the portal.

Harry seemed unable to communicate with his opponent, hunkering low due to the overhang. And seriously trying to spit Potter through his chest with the lethal blade.
Several more attempts by the centaur were blocked, and then the centaur slammed his own head against a heavy overhead beam, and really lost his temper. He roared and thrust the lance at the spot Harry's head would have been, had he not ducked. It caught a fold of Potter's cloak, and it tore free, to be tossed aside into a dark corner.

The lance pierced a wood crate behind Harry and sending splinters and particles floating like a cloud in the space. The humans retreated a little more, but now were in a small cul-de-sac of boxes, not the passage they had come from.

“Lorraine. Leave with the girl!” Harry fingered a slight cut on his shoulder from the near miss.

“I can't get past him. There is only the one way out from the hold.”

To the centaur, all of this was baffling. His magic lance should have been as equivalent in potency and power to the human's simple splinter of wood. But in here, for some reason, it was like a stupid stick, not the human's magic wand. In fact, it almost seemed like their very statuses of magic power had entirely reversed. The wizard easily parryied the lance blows. Perhaps the vessel of the enemy foiled him.

But the centaur had the humans cornered.

Harry bumped into the sailor, who was shielding the girl behind her in a recess space between great oak ribs. “No more room, Mr. Potter!” she said.

Harry did not make the mistake of taking his eye off of the centaur. Barely turning his head slightly to one side, he said, “I'm going to catch hold of his blade. Run past us and don't look back!”

“You are going to do what?”

Harry mentally thanked that sailor Lorraine – for a Muggle - was made of sterner stuff, but just now he would have appreciated her running with all speed. Harry just cast a spell of entrapment and connected his want to the centaur's weapon with a jagged line of lightning. And lifted up both to the ceiling.

“Run!” he shouted.

The woman holding the child screamed something but ducked and ran under the lightning toward the hold's ladder.

Even more improbably, the interactions between his lance and the wand were causing impossible sparks to fly, and finally a continuous rippling stream of lightning to become connected between the two. They thrashed and whipped their respective weapons back and forth, trying to free them, and causing the boxes and even parts of the old ship's hull to smoke and ignite.

The centaur thought, The fool human! He had caused Fiend Fire to be summoned!

At the flames, the woman stopped, put the child to one side and grabbed with her free hand a red cylindrical thing, with a black serpent attached and shouted. She was obviously coming to the aid of her mate with even more devilish magic, the centaur thought. Given his seeming weakness, he couldn't fight both of them!

The centaur grasped a crate with one hand and hurled it at the woman. The sheer size and weight of the thing pummeled the woman backwards, off her feet, narrowly missing crushing the girl in the dubious shelter of a massive oak hull rib.

And shattering the hold's ladder leading upwards.

The centaur's diversion back-fired on him, as Harry freed his wand's electric attachment to the lance, and spell cast a disarming spell, flinging the lance back from the centaur's numb hand into the gray door. The spell picked up other oddments around them, Harry's cloak, gift souveniers, splinters of wood and tossed them too out through the magical door, out forever from the old wood battleship's hold.

The centaur roared, a truly stunning sound, being the lungs of a horse backing the angry bellow of a burly, muscular man. Harry almost staggered back off his feet, and stupidly blinked helplessly as the centaur pivoted on his fore hooves, making a violent kick with the rear legs. The almost certainly lethal blow just winded past Harry nose, but made him duck into a crouch.

Then the centaur leaped into the gray door, and it snapped to a little point and cracked an elvish sound of thunder. And was gone.

But the effects were long lasting. Potter didn't waste time looking for the centaur, just pulling Tina into his arms, tossing bits of crate and tourist information pamphlets off poor Lorraine and dragging her away from the now merrily burning fire.

She fruitlessly aimed her fire extinguisher at the flame as he pulled her forward. But something about the blaze defied the pathetic few blasts of the ship's fire extinguishers, or his Glacius charm spells.

If anything, that seemed to make the fire burn fiercer. And now, behind him more smaller fires had sprung up, forward in the orlop, consuming the shattered ship's ladder almost like a concious, living thing, sealing them off from escape.

They were trapped. And were going to die, unless Harry did magic now! They could only apparate out of here.

"Lorraine, sorry for this."

She blinked in bewilderment back at the dark-haired man. Who had just fenced with lightning with a horse! "Maybe we can get her to the deck above us. You lift me, and I'll push her out....

"No time, trust me." Harry shouted, and then cast Stupify, at her face and grasped her tottering body to him and Tina as well, and apparated out the hold of the ancient wooden battleship Centaur, just as 'Fiend-fire' flames advanced at their position.

The trio appeared on the dockside, amidst hundreds of milling people, too frantic to notice the three more bodies suddenly in their middle. They naturally assumed Harry was another rescuer, pulling a wounded sailor free from the conflagration that was now rising out from the center of the great ship's main deck. And even now leaping up along old tarred ropes, and the combustible network of the mainmast.

The venerable warship was doomed.




[Potter family home, Godric's Hollow, some hours later]

Ginny Potter -out of habit- held the door open longer than should have been necessary for one person to pass, and in under her arms streaked daughter Lily. Lily barely paused to say 'hi' to her daddy, as her sharp hearing immediately picked up the sound of her two cousins upstairs.

Through the ceiling of the kitchen, could be heard the bouncing once again on her mattress like mum and dad were always telling her not to.

Must be a pass to 'do-whatever-you-want' day!

Lily diverted immediately towards the stairs. Cousins were more fun than Dad, any old day!

Ginny listened, face up to the ceiling, waiting a moment deciding if she had to bellow up like a sergeant at them. Then decided not to. For a few minutes, mayhem could reign.

At Potter's still figure at the table, she said, “All done. Met the witch from Bristol. Should be a fairly normal case. Me and Veronica will take it. Since the hag hates you, for some reason. Slytherin! Go figure!” She set her cloak and purse and Lily's bag of Muggle library books down with less than careful aim at the table top in front of Harry.

His attention seemed glued to the little screen of the under-the-kitchen cabinet television he was watching. Ignoring his daughter, not paying attention to his wife who had yet again saved him an irritating hour with a hostile customer.

Okay, honestly, Lily had ignored him, but in a minute, Mr. Harry Potter was going to get an eyebrow removed if he didn't acknowledge Ginny's presence. Grunt! Something!

“Maddie will close up the office. Told her we had the girls, and we'd figure out something for dinner. Get them back afterwards. I have a headache, and can't take a mid-week sleepover. Not without strong drink. And I beat our sons to within inches of their lives, then staked their heads out in front of the Burrow for the crows to peck out their eyeballs. Dad is enjoying eating their spleens for supper, tonight.

“Hmmm, what?”

“You are not listening. As usual. How did the trip down south go?”

Harry just looked at her numbly and resumed staring at the television.

That was out of the ordinary, even for Harry. Ginny pursed her lips, but held back the hot burst of anger. Then got a cold chill up her back and began worriedly paying more attention to the screaming and shrieking going on upstairs in Lily's room.

“Tell me they are whole and not pumped up full of sugar.” Ginny demanded.

Weakly, Harry mono-toned, “Ice cream sundaes, each. Double-chocolate.”

“God-dammit, Harry! How many times do I have to tell you?” Ginny pounded a small fist on the table, making Harry's half-drunk glass of beer jump slightly. “We will never get them to calm down. Like feeding little strips of marinated beef to the schools of sharks under our feet. Or, using a feather to tickle a tiger's ear. Or …

“Or using a fence post to pry open a dragon's mouth?”

“Yeah, …..oh, should tell you. Stopped by Charlie's place. You wouldn't believe what Veronica left written on the door ...”

“They've abandoned us, for a passionate island romp, because they couldn't take a little babysitting.”

Ginny blinked, “Yes, um, how did you …. ?”

“Ron was there before you. He tagged along with me and the girls to the ship museum.” Harry just faintly shook his head, saying vaguely, “Vampires!”

“Huh?” Ginny mumbled in confusion. Harry just pointed to the television. She gave him a disgruntled second glance, then reached over to turn up the volume to the tiny picture.

There in the middle of the screen was undoubtedly a helicopter image of a huge conflagration on the ground below. In some port area in an old downtown. Warehouses and shipyard cranes, loomed in the background, along with a crisply painted gray warship with a radar mast spinning smartly. With the union jack at it's fantail, jauntily wafting in the smoky breeze, matching a larger one nearer the fire. There was a tugboat, in the water at the nearest point of the harbor it could reach, with some huge pile of burning wood in the bottom of a deep man-made depression, aiming a pathetic tiny spray of water at the yellow-painted stern of an old sailing ship …

“Portsmouth? Where you went today? With the girls …..”

“H.M.S. Centaur, museum.” he said flatly.

Ginny just looked at him vacantly. As if in answer to her silent question, a resurgent pillar of flame sprang up out of the midships hatch. A television announcer was breathlessly importuning “..... only minor injuries so far reported ….A great ship is burning, tonight. All of Britain, indeed much of the world is in shock at this calamity before us. Generations of school boys who trod her decks, grown men and women, of all ages across the globe, are reeling in shock and sadness as her mighty wooden walls are succumbing to an impartial, but all consuming enemy ...”

Mrs. Potter also looked on in surprise, then began adding together the bits of evidence she had laid before her. Her eyes wide, Ginny uttered, “Tell me you didn't do this?”

Harry finally reacted to that. “Yes. Well, I mean I didn't cause it. Met a centaur on board ….

“A centaur?”

“A centaur. Unhappy with me, and somehow appearing through an elf's dimensional doorway.”

“Huh? Door ….......Harry, centaurs don't like boats, or water.”

“Didn't like me, or Tina. Almost spitted her on a spear – like an cocktail olive - before I interrupted it. Got Tina and a crew member out of the hold, before the fire took over. Nothing we could do. Just about everything on board is a explosion waiting to happen.”

“Wait, what about Ron and Abby?”

“Met them on the dock. I took the girls out of there, and Ron stayed behind to help. You know ….first auror on the scene! But nothing much we could do to help. Only some minor smoke inhalation injuries, when I left.”

“What about the centaur?”

“Jumped back into the doorway. It vanished with the usual 'crack.' You remember, Kreacher …..”

“Uh, huh.”

“Well, just like that. Same kind of gray doorway, too!” Harry seemed lost in the memory. “No elf, I could remember seeing. And I couldn't see inside it. But just like Kreacher's, otherwise. ...”

They resumed watching the TV. The center of the ship collapsed in on itself. The mighty bow, with its gilt centaur pointed up towards the sky, as the rest of the ship began to disappear into flames and black smoke.

“So, ice cream.”

“Yes. I had no energy left to fight them. I am weak.”

Ginny pulled his hand to her lips, kissing the black smudged knuckles and carelessly pressing them to her cheek. “No you're not. Just human. I would have done that, too. I understand …....I understand …....”

With a final rush, that rocked the helicopter high above slightly, the central fire sucked in the rest of the ship, taking in the masts and rigging, and leaving only the square stern and the golden figurehead last. The gold centaur almost seem to writhe, and Harry could almost swear it turned to look right at him,

And was gone into the flames and smoke.

*


Chapter 2: Suitcase in the Rain
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[Diagon Alley]

The young witch warily walked through the old doorway of the Leaky Cauldron in from the light rain. Some shadowy figures in the rain had paced her walking progress, since she had left the city bus stop, and she was scared. Maybe it was her nervous looks back at them, but something about her told them she was vulnerable.

Until she entered the strange pub. Then the opportunistic muggers steered off, for some other easier prey. Locals left it alone. For no apparent reason they understood. Just it and the people about the 'Cauldron' faintly repulsed them.

The girl never saw them leave. But to Jennifer, letting the heavy oak door shut with an ominous iron 'thud' was a vast relief. She knew she was now 'mostly' safe.

Behind his battered wooden bar, Tom peered at her in curiosity. It was a slow late afternoon for old Tom, the Cauldron's ancient owner. Not many customers and it wasn't a regular time for young ones to be entering the place.

Maybe something to break the summer monotony!

Bartending could be an lonely job, this time of day. But then again, it was still early as far as serious drinking went. There were only a couple, fairly mute regulars in attendance, so far. Good times or bad, drinking went on in a fairly consistent, profitable manner. Tom had no fears on that score.

She definitely wasn't a regular bar-goer. The girl was dark of hair and light brown of skin. And she would have been truly a Latin beauty if she wasn't soaked, smelly and dirty, even wet under the light rain jacket. The girl shrugged off the hood of the jacket to let a further rain cascade to the old wood floor of the pub.

The Cauldron was the transition point into and out of the main magical shopping place for London's wizards and witches. For several centuries, new witches just like her had stood, a little dazed and uncertain what to expect. It was even more a problem for Jennifer than it would be for an ordinary witch. Jen had led a relatively sheltered life, and had not mixed with other magicians, at her mothers insistence. Also, the few times coming here, she was escorted and herded about by her stern and humorless mother. Never long enough to get familiar with the place and certainly not the pub

Jen could not for her life remember where to go from this point forward.

Those visits had been all business for the famously brittle Madame Cortez, her mother. There had been little interaction with strangers for her daughter, Jennifer. Her sole role it seemed was to be barked at and to follow meekly in her mother's wake. And the last time had been years before Jen had even begun at Hogwarts. Her domineering parent always doing the shopping alone, and rarely taking Jen out to see other people.

Her lone daughter didn't exactly know what to expect now. It was a wonder, frankly, she'd turned out half normal and able to interact with people. Jen looked worriedly at the stairs, thinking she had to go up or something like that. She had never done this alone.

“How are you, young lass, this arid and parched afternoon?” Old bearded Tom smiled kindly through his whiskers, gesturing for her to come in and sit at the nearly empty bar.

She did so, putting the old battered suitcase down by a stool, and gratefully sat down.

Tom's elderly sister came in from a back room, caught the concerned look from her brother and bustled up to the girl. “Are you in trouble, my dear? We are all witches and wizards here. You are safe in the Cauldron.” The old woman unconsciously wrinkled her nose, catching the faint whiff of sewer.

Try as she might, Jen hadn't been able to get rid of the stench.

“Yes, thank you. I ….I am okay. Just a little lost and ….wet.” Tom, sister Lynne and the other two old men in the pub chuckled gently, to put her at ease. Rain was part of the atmosphere, this time of year.

Well, in London, just about anytime of year.

“I haven't been to Diagon Alley since I was really little. I wasn't even too sure I found the right pub....”

“Oh, this is the place, it is. Right 'nough. Can't miss it. Only place the fire whiskey is hotter than a tourist in the sun.” Tom tried to put the girl at ease, but after a few awkward seconds, he could tell the poor thing was not in a joking mood. It was a weak joke, in any case.

He gave a look to his sister and a nod. This time of year, there was always one or two like this one that came in through the door. Poor or confused or just both. But usually they were younger than the teen. But it happened to the older ones, too. Muggle parents, finally not being able to take the changes in their child, after a few years of Hogwarts opening the new wizards to the 'real' world. And either showing them the door or the teen left on their own.

It wasn't pretty. Ever! Tom was too old and too acquainted with what the young woman was feeling to make light of it.

Seventy years deadened the pain – a bit – from preventing Tom from trying to make light what must seem the bitter end of a horrible day. But his sister was still mentally agile enough, though a bit creaky in the limbs, to step into action. Not that they knew the young witch. As common a wizarding crossroads as the Leaky Cauldron was, Lynne and Tom did not know every witch and wizard in Britain. Some lived stridently apart.

Some weren't even human. Those Lynne and Tom were glad never darkened her door.

In an earlier age, when the world was even more callous than it was now, some orphans hadn't made this far. As it was, the situation was just the same. As gently as she could, Lynne asked, “Not how you thought it might be, in the end, my dear. Was it?”

The teen girl -sixteen or seventeen- if old Lynne had to guess, shook her head. And said, “Might not be completely over. There's still a chance (sniff) …... maybe when things are calmer. My mum …....she knew I was leaving … told me to go to my friends ….....not come back.”

The old woman caught her breath at that, tssking disapprovingly.

Jen shook her head. Her own words back to her mother weren't anymore attractive. Nor decent enough for repeating. Before the shutting door had nearly closed, and Jennifer had apparated away to ….anywhere, with the dilapidated suitcase that was currently the only thing she possessed.

And the Magic wand. That was one asset that made the difference. That first night in the woods.

But Jen knew she could not live like that. Her life was set before her. Only this last summer would have been like all the others, except things at home had become dangerously frosty. Days would go by with nary a word between her mother and herself. The final straw had been an innocent off-hand remark about Jen being glad to return to her friends. She had never meant more than that, but that had set her mother off in a tirade about the 'worthless' Weasley's and Jen happily being one of them.

She still found herself furious at her mother. Jen didn't know how she could talk to her again in any polite tone.

Just as well. Jen ruefully figured she would have been squatting under a bush a month ago, otherwise. And in only a week more, there would be the train to the ancient castle in the far north. A last one for her, as a Seventh Year. On that day, she was emotionally free.

Or really, she could apparate now, like so many her fellow Seventh Years did. To show how adult they were. To places to stay, anywhere in the land that witches with no permanent address chose to go. Jen had tried that, this fifth afternoon of vagabondage.

For Jen, in her anger and wrath, it had meant at first the patch of woodland across town from her mother's. Then, randomly traveling by wizard apparation to places she had gone to on day hikes with friends. Anywhere to be alone. She had wanted no one to talk to or have them tell her what an idiot she was. By day three, she accepted that cold, hungry and with no real shelter from the rain but her light jacket was the height of stupidity. Also, being alone in the woods was scarier than she had imagined.
Today, in rather more dire straits than that first evening, Jen set out to find people she knew.

That was the beginning of a string of disasters. Appalling bad at useful magic like Patronuses, and no handy owl available, she went to the Mid-lands town trying to find her husband-to-be. To find her fiancee, Robert, already gone from the country, on his internship. And Jen didn't want to face her future mother-in-law, Mrs. Montfrey.

Not looking and smelling like this!

Panic began to set in from there. And no seeming spell she could come up with would let her contact her only close remaining friends on this Earth. The Tonks house was unfindable. Teddy's grandmother's house was unplottable and hidden by magic that foiled anything she tried.

Despite that she was an accomplished young witch. The best in her class. For almost all six previous years at Hogwarts. But even if she was not already at the end of her rope, and brilliant beyond imagining, she would have been hopelessly frustrated at the protection spells around the home of Andromeda and Teddy Tonks.

They had protection that had foiled Voldemort himself.

Jen was also completely hopeless at simple camping. Not something her mother had ever deigned to try, so Jen knew nothing of such things but what she'd read in books.

If it wasn't for her magic wand, and the spell for 'fire', Jen would have probably have died of exposure in the cold rain.

And but for the tin of vienna sausages she had managed to talk a convenience store clerk out of for the few pennies in her pocket. The canned meat was as close to living death as she had tasted.

She similarly tried to go to Ted and Robert's friend Matthew Cantwell. But he and his father were not back from their vacation either. And that left – not last or least thought of, but certainly what seemed the hardest to bring herself to go.

The home of her best friend, Victoire Weasley.

Not because she hadn't wanted to or did not love her friend like a sister. It was that last stage of acceptance of who Jennifer was and what she represented to Victoire's family. An unwanted cousin begging at the door. And the humiliation of showing up at the front step of Victoire's father's home. The father whose brother had been revealed as Jennifer Cortez's actual real-life father. And who her mother and seemingly everyone had lied to Jen about for almost fifteen years of her life.

The thought of herself standing there – penniless and bedraggled – seemed too pathetic for Jen's pride to stand. She still had her mother's temper, that was for sure.

Then came the acceptance of yet another night in the woods, tentless and shelterless and with nothing to eat, proved absolutely nothing. Jen was not cut out for wilderness living. She needed shelter.
She decided to swallow her pride. Jen had met her friend's parents, Fleur and William, at school. They were seemed descent people.

In fact, they were Jen's family. And from the sounds of what Victoire had told her in the long two years since the truth was revealed, William Weasley was opposite of the abandoning, heartless, careless wretch that his brother must be.

But Jen couldn't find Shell Cottage, either. A horrible day spent, wandering along various coastal Cornwall towns and beach roads. Then it began raining again.

So Jennifer thought to try Diagon Alley. Maybe there was a doorway she could magic a hide for herself. And not be seen by the world for a blessed week.

The old woman's picking up the suitcase and walking on toward the pub's stair startled Jen out of her daydream. “Wha' …. mam, where are...?”

“To your room, child.” Lynne did not break stride, slowly leading the way up several flights of stairs, which definitely put a strain on her old knees. But the girl's suitcase was ridiculously light.

There might not even be a change of clothes in there!

The young witch followed obediently, after a gesture from the bartender. A few steps behind, Jen finally had the courage to say, “I don't have anything to pay with ….. I mean I have no money.” Jen thought it best to be honest. “Maybe I could work for my way for a few days. For a spot in a closet with a blanket. ...”

“Don't want your money.” Old Lynne turned to look the girl in the eye. “Wouldn't take it, if you had.”

Jen seemed a little lost with the tremendous generosity. She had never met this woman. They owed her nothing!

The woman looked Jen up and down. The girl smelled of woodland and having lived in her shirt and blue jeans for too many days straight. “Some ….long years ago. I walked in through that very door, downstairs, with a five-year old brother in tow with pneumonia and not even an empty satchel like this 'un. The old man that owned this place then did what I am doing now. And told me the payment I owed him was to do this for you that would follow me, in the years to come. And I have had to -every couple of years, sad to say. And will till I'm called to a final rest.”

Lynne opened the little attic bedroom, She could barely stand upright, herself in here. But it was clean and dry. A little bed squeezed into one side of a ancient dresser. And with a little window where the haphazardly slanted roofs over the Cauldron met, that overlooked Diagon Alley.

Old Lynne turned around to see Jennifer silently crying. She did not go to embrace the poor girl, despite Lynne's inner urge. The girl was a grownup witch, not a babe any longer, and she needed to master herself. Besides there would be time later to cry. It was a hard life.

But Lynne did do one thing. She whipped out her own magic wand and waved at the teen and suddenly Jen's clothes smelled clean and fresh as if they had just been newly laundered.

Lynne cackled. “It's a simple spell. They aren't teaching the things -these days- like they should for children to face the world.”

Jen gave a watery chuckle in return. “No. Suppose not.” She wiped her face with her palms and tried to smile.

The old witch nodded. “Better in Dumbledore's day. It was. That's a fact. He was my teacher. And later my friend. The greatest wizard the world has seen. We will not see his like again.”

Jen could only nod but had no real idea. She hadn't even been born when the war happened that took that old Hogwart's headmaster's life.

“Now, then. There's a loo - down the first stairs behind you - and then meet me in the kitchen. I am too ancient to do all these aero-bits, up and down the bleedin' stairs. Could use your help.”

Jen meekly nodded.

It was a vastly better hour, than any she'd spent in five days.




An hour and after two whole roast beef sandwiches later, Jen was up to her elbows in dish suds and sweeping out the little kitchen. Taking out the garbage. And chasing out the Alley's contingent of permanent stray cats who tried to sneak inside the Cauldron. Who weren't quite as passive and easy to intimidate as Jen expected. There was something extra mysterious about Diagon Alley's cats.

“Never met any, like these kitties.” Jen said to Lynne, who was gratefully sitting in a corner. The last one encountered, a big dusty black tom, almost looked with pure contempt at Jen approaching with a broom. And nearly batted back the broomstick into Jen's face and then leapt out the door with an almost human snarl.

Lynne luxuriated in the few moments of peace. Jennifer had even taken charge of another guest for the night, taking the bags and bed linens to that room without being asked. This was the first evening the old woman had not needed to do anything in years, except give needed advice. Completely unexpected, the girl had proved to be completely competent at a stove and not intimidated to do house work.

About the felines, Lynne had no worries. “No cats are like these. Not outside those that live in Hogsmeade or even the Forbidden Forest.” Old Lynne calmly smoked an old pipe. It was a 'light' night tonight. And Tom had only a few customers at the bar. “Mind ….those from the Forest might also snack on you, as soon as look at a pretty thing like yourself. Don't take any strays from there, my dear.”

Jen gave a grim snort. “No, want nothing more to do with that place. Almost lost my future husband, Robbie, to that Dragon that was loose in there, as few years back.”

Lynne excitedly widened her eyes in remembrance. And pointed to the girl with her pipe, “Robert! Robert Montfrey? That scallywag! Why, he's great friends with Ted Tonks! And even the Potter's, themselves!”

“Ted's my friend, too. I tried to find him but couldn't. His Victoire, as well! My best friend. Figured it would be better to at least be protected, in some doorway back in the Alley, than alone out in the woods again. That was my plan, anyway.”

Lynne wasn't hearing this. She about swallowed her pipe stem in disbelief. She waved the girl silent, “Victoire Weasley! Have you lost your brilliant wits you've got, in that gorgeous head? Don't 'snow' me. I knows a smart girl when I talk to one. You've got friends all about you, here. You're best mate's aunt and uncle live just down the Alley from this very spot.”

Jen blanched and looked uncomfortable. She breathed out “Ummmm, yeah ….......I know.”

Lynne looked disbelieving at the girl and now felt a little cross. She had been sincere about taking in stray witches and warlocks, and felt briefly taken advantage of.

Then she looked closer at the raven-haired girl's face.

“Well …....Merlin turn me a gargoyle!”

Jennifer had been getting that a lot, in the past three years. Puberty and apparently her body were betraying her heritage to one and all, if they looked closer past her black hair and brown skin. What made it worse was that Jen didn't see it. Certainly, the constant presence of her best friend …..now first cousin, Victoire's permanently beautiful face didn't seem to stop the comparisons at school.

Jen seemed the only one that couldn't see the instant resemblance.

All the kids now knew it. There were few secrets among the students. Or at least no real personal secrets at Hogwarts. Or maybe, somewhere, in some corner of a dorm, there might be a few troll-like Second Years who hadn't heard Cortez's secret father turned out to be Charlie Weasley.

Lynne sat back in her wood chair. And nodded understanding. “Didn't know, then, child?”

“Not until after the boys were rescued from the woods. Some three years. Mostly not talked at all about. Especially at home, until this last weekend kind of blew things up, permanently.” Jen scrubbed away at a burnt piece of pie on a pan edge, then let it drop back in the water to soak. It just maddened her to think how futile putting off the confrontation with her mother had been.

Angelique Cortez would never forgive Charles Weasley from callously abandoning her. Or accept that she was to blame, as well. That was why they had lived so apart from others. At least, until the unwanted daughter finally went to Hogwarts and learned the truth.

Jen bitterly laughed. “Mom was furious that I found out, but I have to laugh at that. How was that supposed to be a secret? When just about every bloody person I meet spits out their pipe and points at my face -like I have boogies hanging out- that I'm a freaking Weasley!”

Lynne had to the grace to be a bit embarrassed at her own reaction. Tapping her unlit pipe on the stone f floor, she mumbled, “Sorry, Jennifer. Guess I'm no different.”

Jen waved that away. It didn't much matter anymore. “Was going to pretend it didn't matter. But my mother was …...is ….. not as accepting. Still! Seems to think I should shun the Weasleys and Potters as equally as she does. And won't accept that the day I stand with Robert to become his wife, my best friend and her husband and their families are going to be there, too!” Jen tapped the sink and and tossed the scrub brush into the flat, now-sudsless water. “Last straw, really. Stupid screaming fight. I didn't even think what I needed, just grabbed the case in my closet, threw in some undies ….”

“One, my dear. I did your laundry. Won't get very far with tiny knickers like that and one T-shirt. 'Less you is takin' up street-walkin' as a profession?”

“No!”

“Thought not.” Lynne chuckled. “Some girls do. That aren't as lucky as you.” Well, this was a vastly better end to an awful glimpse back into her own horrid nightmare as a homeless witch. She wouldn't wish that three months on her worst enemy.

May Tom in his innocence never know what she had had to do to keep them alive.

“Well, then. Are you all finished?”

“Yes, except what Mr. Tom's got ….”

She cackled. “He can figure that much out. Old Tom's been working the same ugly bar glasses, in his little sink out there, before you was even a gleam in your daddy's handsome face. I remembers that rogue well, young Jen.” Lynne creakily got to her feet, and cackled, pointing the pipe stem at Jen's nose. “And maybe now I remember a certain dark-haired witch, who giggled and flashed the same pretty eyelashes you've got, at a young man with no scruples in that very black pit of a barroom.”

Jennifer blinked, unable to form a reply.

Lynne laughed to herself, “Oh, yes. Darling Jen. That story is as old as the first couple. Been acted out, in fancy mansions and little hovels, since well before humans took up magic. You ain't the cause. You're the glorious result. And you make those two regret their foolishness every single remaining days of their miserable lives.”

“Huh.” Jen didn't seem to think they cared, one way or the other. She made a desultory knocking of the dish brush against the stubborn pie plate, mad at herself for not being able to clean a stupid plate with magic. Wishing she'd got even that kind of convenient magic from somebody. “Well. I'll do my best.”

Lynne cantilevered herself upright to her feet and beckoned the girl to follow. “Alright, toss the brush, and comes with me.”

“Where?” But the woman was leaving the kitchen. And headed to where Jen had suspected she'd to be ordered to go all along. “No, that isn't right …..”

“Wheezes! Can't hide forever. That's what your mother chose to do and look at the result. You are going to be a grown up witch? Then start taking charge of your life. Be responsible! Your mother failed at that, and picked the wrong warlock to take a tumble with in the hay. And I think you'll find things aren't exactly the way you heard about those families, all this time.”

Cowed into obedience from the formidable old woman, Jen followed Lynne out into the bar. There were only a few more customers in the Leaky Cauldron, all old men who looked like past veterans at holding up a bar. Lynne went right up to an ancient little man. With straggling hair and shifty, rat-like eyes.

“Mung? I've got a mission for you, you miserable old coot?”

“What would that be, my jewel beyond praise.”

“Jewel me fat arse, you old sneak thief! This lovely witch has some business at the Wheezes. Would you take a chance on savin' an old woman's joints in shuffling down the Alley?”

All the men about the bar chuckled. Even Mundungus. “Sure, Lynne. But they should be closing up, about now.”

“I think, in this case, the Weasleys will want to see this young woman.”

Mungdungus Fletcher grunted dubiously, eyeing the teenager with suspicion.

Then his eyes lit up with a greedy glow. “Well, I'll be a pixie!”

“Hah! Not likely, Mung. You ain't got the legs.” Tom chortled. He'd figured out the girl almost a minute into her arrival at the door this afternoon. He'd quietly left it for his sister to work things out on her own. Their long lives together had worked best if he didn't push dramatic change upon Lynne, too suddenly.

Especially when he figured out choice gossip like this before she did.

Fletcher craftily eyed Jennifer for profit possibilities. “Ummm, no reward ...is there.....?”

“Mung!”

“Just teasing. Not take a knut from anybody for rescuing a fair damsel like yon lass ...”

“Hey!” Jen said tersely.

“Alright. Dark damsel. Right sharpish in her moods, too. Like her mother, I suspect.”

Lynne just rolled her eyes, and held out a shot glass for her brother to fill up for her. Jen's face darkened like the London sky in the pub's grimy windows behind her. Judging the comparison with her mother a sensitive topic to Jennifer, Lynne said “Take her now, Mung. Comparisons with her mother are likely to have her gutting you like the scheming rat you are.”

Fletcher's friends and Old Tom all laughed knowingly. It was perfectly true. Fletcher was the ultimate schemer.

“You always say such sweet things, Lynny.”

“Not in another ten seconds.”

“Let's go.” Fletcher hastily scuttled away to a far brick wall. The teen followed him. Jen now vaguely remembered her mother tapping some sequence of the bricks. And soon proved to have remembered that correctly, just not how to do that.

The magic entrance to Diagon Alley was revealed after Fletcher carelessly tapped the certain bricks in the proper sequence. Hidden behind the Leaky Cauldron pub. That sometimes Muggles who were lost tourists or just unfortunate enough to not have picked a higher priced establishment to get tipsy in. They had no idea that modern day witches and wizards lived amongst them.

“I'll take you to there, but it's easy to see. Once we step past the garbage cans, out back, you can see straight on down to Gringott's and in between is …..”

“Holy Shit!” Jenny hadn't been here in so long, she forgot that nobody except a blind mole or maybe eye-less cave fish could not see Weasley's Wizarding Wheezes joke shop from any point in standing in Diagon Alley. Lee Jordan and George Weasley had recently taken to sprucing up the joint, so to say, and making the front entrance sparkle and radiate alternating colored glows, like the foggy cartoon breathe of a wooden dragon.

With a giant red-headed Hatter sitting across it's skull. Occasionally whacking the dragon with a mallet and causing its mouth to open up to reveal the glittering contents of the store down it's impossibly narrow gullet.

“Yeah. Beautiful, even in the daytime. Something subtle. Love it. Me two best customers. Mind you, that's strictly confidential. You understand? Not that you'd betray any of your kin to the authorities.....”

Jen had already had just about enough of strangers gawking her. She was going to face her new found family on her own. “I'll …...handle this from here. Mr. Fletcher. Thank you.”

Old Mung looked skeptical at the pretty girl. But it was safer in this Alley in this day of age than any Fletcher had lived through in his long years of sneaking.

She'd be perfectly safe.

Just to show off, however, Mung handed her her wallet. Which he had liberated a few moments ago without her noticing. “Watch where you keep that, young Miss Cortez. Maybees' on a lanyard, someplace close to yer heart. And don't try any of them jelly babies or toffees, except wot the person behind the counter is eating himself.” Mung winced and made a dramatic face. “Can be a bit ….gastronomically explosive, if you know what I mean.”

Jen sardonically took the wallet, saying “Thanks …..Mr. Fletcher. And I know a bit about you as well. Teddy's last house party was well supplied by a certain …..liberal-minded individual. Ted was very grateful.”

“Ah, well......” Fletcher inspected his fingernails, and looked briefly modest. But then he said, “Don't think it is going to be anything like what you fear, Jen Cortez. I knows this bunch since they was younger than you are now. The world is a better place, 'cause o' them. And you can quote me on that!” The grinning thief suddenly didn't seem so terrible.

Jen smiled, honestly, for the first time in what felt like years. Giving the grinning cutpurse a weak punch in the shoulder, and bravely walking straight into the dragon's maw.




[Weasley's Wizarding Wheezes]

Jen's trip down the dragon's throat did not end messily. Or in quivering meaty bits. But there were brief spouts of flame threatening to singe her backside. And gooey things dripped on her as she made the passage past the rear teeth, walking on a spongy, rather realistic giant tongue. Then the illusion ended. At a real doorway, and the glittering, multi-level atrium of the normal, noisy Wheezes joke shop.

Well, almost normal. Jen disgustingly brushed off some greenish bits of something like fake snot off her shoulders. That apparently hadn't been just an illusion.

“May I help you, miss. Store closes up in a few minutes.” A truly beautiful woman, sitting behind the tall counter next to the central staircase, happily said. She was dressed in simple plain sweatshirt and jeans, but bare feet. And no make-up. And she still would have put to shame a ball room full of Muggle super models. “Are you looking for something for yourself? Or for friends? Just ahead of the preschool week rush, luckily. We got quite a bit of …..”

The witch was standing and coming around from her stool and now frozen in the inevitable recognition. Then she grinned at Jen, “Well, son of a gun! Guess I wins the prize.”

“I ...ah....am looking for Mr and Mrs. Weasley....?”

Maddie proudly swept a hand out and grandly waved to the gaudy store. No other customers were present. But the sounds of boxes rearranged and curses were coming from one of the higher upstairs levels, so some others were present. “Found herself. Madame Madelene Weasley. In my barefoot glory. My wizard and humble husband George is out, for this evening. Embarked on a grand mission of rescue and danger on this soggy night. The like few have experienced before.”

“Really?”

“Well, no actually. He is tramping about some woods, with a couple of others. Looking for you, in fact. Didn't want to get his lazy ass up and out of the easy chair. Harry, neither. Till we told them to or else.”

Jen had to ask. “Else what?'

Maddie smiled and brightened up the loudly color skewed room even more. “You are gettin' married soon, yourself. Next year?”

Jen nodded.

“You'll find out.” She tossed off a pile of horrendously clashing scarves off a wood chair and pointed the teen to sit down. “Time I got my clan to eat some humble pie. This should be quite enjoyable.” She turned and looked up and called loudly. “Lee! We are off the hook. I found her.”

There was a thud of something heavy, and a swear word. “Where?”

“Our front door. I'll make the call, then, shall I?”

The upstairs wizard laughed. “Sure! Yeah! That beats another night fun-filled of sloshing in a swamp.” The still unseen 'Lee' made some more sounds of shoving boxes and heavy objects. “Guess Harry was right. Once again.”

At Jen's quizzical look, Maddie supplied. “Harry. Harry Potter himself, mind you. Said if we just wait around here, you'd be walking in like there had been nothing amiss. He's got a nose for things like that.”

“That's what 'Tori tells me.”

Maddie smiled again. “It's all true. But there'll be time for stories later. You hungry?”

Jen shook her head. “Ms. Lynne has me working for the week. For room and board. I wasn't sure what I'd find tonight.”

“Don't have to. Ever. Our home is yours.”

“Thank you, but …..I just need some time alone. This is all piling on top of me. This past week has been …. bad.”

Madelene understood. She had been a runaway, herself, once upon a time. “Okay. I'll just make some Patronus-eses and call the lazy louts out from their swamp crawl.”

That was extremely unusual. Jen had no idea one could do more than one.“Patronui! Plural? We've only learned to do one at a time.” Or she thought to herself, most had! Mine was like a wren, but with one wing and no sense of direction.

Maddie scoffed. “It's easy.” And the tall witch pulled out her wand and waved into existence three enormous ghostly wolves. That waited unconcernedly for Maddie to instruct them, not even flinching when two twin girls rushed to a sliding stop. Passing completely through one wolf.

Which proceeded to lick the nearest girl full in one ear, smearing the small witches hair around with imaginary slobber and making her giggle.

“It's worse when they pretend to pee on your feet.” Declared the unlicked one.

The other bent her ear and neck against her shoulder, trying to rub away the electric sensation that was still coursing it's way up and down her spine. “My ear feels full of goo. And could have sworn my foot was wet, last time. Honest.”

“You are our cousin. Aren't you?” The first one demanded.

“You are very dark. I think you are the first of us girls with black hair.” said the other.

“Darker than the Potter boys, anyway.”

“Yes. But they are shit-heads.”

Mrs. Weasley interrupted the rapid fire interrogation. “Girls. That's rude!” Maddie lost some of her earlier good humor. “Could we at least try to make a good first impression.” Madelene began talking to the wolves, in a subvocal voice, and then they leapt away, dissolving into fading mist.

The last one out stopped to lift a hind leg on the dragon tooth closest to the door.

“What do you mean good impression?” One twin seemed genuinely surprised that wasn't obvious.

“We are making nice.” The other asserted. “We brought her jelly beans.” The girls, as usual were identically dressed and at first glance, virtually identical in their face and red hair. The one bringing candy offered a little bag to Jen.

Immediately charmed, Jen leaned over to look into the draw-stringed opening as if seriously choosing. But Jen was not completely bamboozled. Having been warned by cousin Victoire and now the Leaky Cauldron's leading thief not to take any candy for granted in this establishment. “Thank you, very much. But that's a vomit or boggie flavored one, isn't it?”

“Wow! She's good.” Said the other girl, as her sister withdrew the little drawstring bag with equal approval. “Bird poo, actually. Various species ….”

Madelene really was disgusted, “Girls! What in God's name is wrong with you?”

“Just the taste! Not real.”

“How do you know that?”

There was no safe answer to that. The other twin quickly spoke up instead, “Daddy thought that was rather tame, actually. So these were just the experimental ones. We are going after something more exotic for the next batch. Pixie's!”

“Lord! How could you be my babies?”

From upstairs, Lee's voice sounded approving, obviously listening with keen interest. “That's great girls. But don't use the real thing this time.”

Maddie frowned up at the ceiling, unable to see Lee Jordan through the several flights of stairs and the several overlapping layers of balconies of the Wheezes Jokeshop. “Dammit, Lee! Are you two putting them up to this?”

The girls, Jen included , all laughed.

“Not at all.” Lee sounded strained, as if lifting a great weight. “Girls have a naturally inherited urge to be funny. Be grateful they didn't get a real sample of dragon dung they were actually looking for this summer.”

Whatever response to that was lost, as a great crash and shattering sound of dozens of little bottles sounded from up above the women.

Maddie began to move to dart up the steps, calling “Lee? Are you alright ….?”

“Don't come up. I'm okay. The box fell on top of me. Just covered in this stuff.”

“What stuff?” Maddie demanded.

“Covered in it. That new love potion, 'Implacable'. Ugh!“

Madelene Weasley wasn't too sure she knew about 'that stuff'. That was a section of the store she adamantly stayed away from. And had tried to discourage the Wheezes' owners from being in the market in the first place.

Most of it was not much better than the girl's poo-flavored jelly beans, anyway. With even less romance inducing power.

“Okay.” Maddie turned to the new arrival. “This is not usually how we greet someone.”

“Actually fairly standard.” Twin one said.

“We met one of the second-cousins with a our underpants on fire.” Said the other.

“One wonders why we don't get a Christmas card from that branch of the family.” Maddie ruefully pursed her lips sideways. “Think that is enough, for one evening, girls. Let's call it closed, for the night, shall we. You've got school ...”

“NOT till next week.” One twin said outraged.

“And we haven't introduced ourselves. The other twin eight-year old reached over to take Jen's wrist. “I'm Abigail.”

“I'm Tina.” Declared the other.

Again. Careful coaching the past year had prepared Jen. At least for this hurdle. “No you're not. Other way around. I've got you figured out, already. So that trick is not going to work.”

This was more electrifying than the failure of jelly bean trick. Both girls looked significantly at one another and coolly assessing their new first cousin.”

“Bold. And sharp. This one is.” Said the now-revealed Tina.

“Pretty, too. I'd be careful, of trusting that sharpness. If I was you?” Suspiciously muttered Abbie.

“Really?” Jen grinned.

“I smell Victoire's handiwork in this.” Tina surmised.

“Definitely. Those damned shitty veelas ….”

“Girls! Language.”

Whatever that language correction was, it too was now interrupted by a terrific flash, and a crash of thunder. Jen looked to see what rocket or airplane had struck what part of the store, when she grasped that the flash had come from the front door. Smaller flashes caused the forward teeth of the dragon to show in brief outline.

“Oh! Thought I'd turned that off.” Maddie said absent-mindedly, vaguely waving her wand at the front door to the jokeshop.

That produced nothing but a shower of sparkles out of the Puking Pastille's manikin's ear.

But it did cause all four witches to be staring out the front door just in time for another flash and floor shaking thunder crash. To see the outline of an immense, wolf-shaped man outlined in the brief brilliance. Then disappear as all went black in the doorway.

Then Bill Weasley strode into the jokeshop. Slightly damp from the off and on sprinkles in the evening. And looking distinctly unhappy.

“Uncle Bill!” Cried one twin joyfully.

“Our favorite!” The other declared.

“I happened to hear you say that to your Uncle Harry. Not three hours ago.” Bill said sternly, but knelt down to receive twin embraces about his broad shoulders and head. To Jen, he once again properly just appeared like a big man, getting giggling kisses from too-coddled nieces. But even that reminded Jennifer of a big dog..

A big, jagged-faced, fearsomely grim wild animal. Being swarmed by two affectionate pups.

“He was our favorite. Then. He brought candy.”

Bill was unimpressed. “Rot your teeth. I imagine Uncle Harry will be crushed at being demoted, Tina.”

“He should bring more, next time. I'm really Abbie, Uncle Bill.”

The big man slightly sniffed. Jen heard that distinctly. She had very good hearing. And the big man shook his head. “No, you're Tina. I don't have candy. Now, run along to your rooms. It's late and we've got grownup stuff to discuss.”

This was the worst night of the young girls lives. Foiled not once, not twice, but now being outfoxed a third time in a span of about ten minutes. Never had their 'twin-identity-switching-ploy' been hoodwinked by an adult. To have it happen again, in the span of their new cousins' arrival, was simply unthinkable.

'Tori did not count. They had told her her secret as a deal not to reveal that they snuck out one night when she babysat.

Maddie smiled in secret triumph at Bill. Who winked back. The humor left when he looked to Jen. The wolf-like wizard's face looked keenly at Jennifer, letting her know who was going to be in charge for this conversation

A pitiful little voice, from far upstairs, squeaked “Help.”

Bill looked puzzled and Maddie called back towards the ceiling.“Lee, is something still wrong?”

“I ….. am covered in this …...goo. And this is the stuff that works on skin contact. Not an internal potion. And I have no wand to take it off with.”

“Oh, boy.” Maddie now was seriously troubled.

“What 'goo'?” Bill said suspicion's triggered.

Mrs. Weasley lowly muttered, “The box of that new love potion dropped on him. He said some of the bottles broke.”

Even Bill now looked alarmed. “Not that damned 'Irrepressible' ….”

“ 'Indefatigable'.” Abby corrected.

“ 'Implacable', you silly.” Tina hip-bumped her sister.

“Ah. ….okay. Lee. Umm …..” Bill looked about him. Then as a brief aside to Jen. “I'm a curse-breaker. I end up having to undo something or other these two idiots cover themselves in. At least once a week.” Then he stopped, and gave Jen a hard look. “So!” he declared, as if that was his final point of a long summation. “You are here. Safe.”

“Ummm. Yes. But how did you know ….?”

“Your house is always warded. You've been under guard since you were two. Your behavior this week is just this side of puerile and as juvenile as these girls are ….” The scarred broad face was fierce and took Jen's breath away.

Even had she the stomach to get angry, she was suddenly speechless.

Madelene Weasley - for one – didn't seem intimidated at all. Stepping between the girl and the wizard, she pressed him backward with a pretty finger. “DON'T YOU ...growl at people in my house, William Weasley! Think you a great man, snarling at a girl. Thought better of you ...”

“You any idea where we've been tonight? He had us searching the town sewer ….

“William! That will be enough.” Tall, shapely Maddie was not looking so daffy and happy now, as Jen first saw her. The woman sternly looked at the gruff man, and he briefly cowed.

For the moment.

He called back up into the air, instead. “Alright. Lee. Stay where you are. We will come to you ...”

“Don't anyone come near me!” The unseen Lee's voice was frightened now.

Jen, still only now getting her tongue to work. This uncle growling at her had really had her shaken to her toes. But she had to ask, in a still quavering voice, “Why can't you go up and give him a good Scourgify ….?”

Lee answered from the echoing stillness of the air in the stairwell, alarmed at what she suggested. “Love potion. First person I see …...”

Jen looked up at Bill Weasley. All six-foot three and twenty stone of him. “ ….....Oh!”

“Had an alarming glimpse of that old Umbridge dummy. Here in the corner.” Lee muttered to no one in particular. His voice then trailed off in a dispairing …..“Oh, please God, may that not work the same way …..”

“This is a problem.” Bill rubbed his grizzled face. “What a night? First Charlie and George, and now …..”

“What do you mean?” Maddie demanded.

“Covered in sewer muck.” Bill pointed at the now no-longer missing witch. “Your father has been frantically searching the streams, lakes and ponds, near your mothers house. For three days, now!”

Jen again felt breathless, “My father?” She hadn't known she had a living one till three years ago this summer. The twins, wide-eyed and drinking it all in, watched from the bottom stair step. Eager to hear more.

“Followed your trail from some woods, outside your town.” Bill waited till she nodded. “Then lost the path, except that it seemed straight into that little containment pond by the highway.” Bill grimly smiled. “I don't think he's slept, either, for the past three days. Tonight he demanded we check the sewers in town, in case you had been swept off in a downpour. Or spirited away by shit-loving grindylows, or something worse …”

“Language, Uncle!” One twin teased.

“Silence, child!” The snarl made Jen blink. It made the girls look frightened.

Maddie was now a little angry. “I know you've had a long couple of days, Bill. But shut it!”

“Somebody. Please do something.” Lee plaintively called.

Bill closed his eyes. “Right. Okay, Lee. First things, Maddie get the girls across to the Detective's office. Then get me Jennifer's things, for Shell Cottage. I'm not finished with her, either, after I've sorted Lee out ….”

Jen finally had recovered her temper. Things and been done and said, all without her so much as a word in it. And a father she'd never even met killing himself from worry and still not the guts to stand here and yell at his foolish daughter. The son of bitch!

Well she'd had enough.

“I have a place, tonight. And a job, till school starts. I am quite alright and I will be staying.” All in the room wordlessly waited for more, and Jen finally said. “Uncle.”

Bill looked narrowly at the brown-skinned girl. He could ignore her. But he was also mindful of what she had just been through. And despite the overwhelming heritage given Jen by her Latin mother, Bill Weasley could see his mother -her grandmother- faintly, about her eyes.

He nodded. “Fine. You stay within the alley. Never leave. When the time comes, we'll take you to the train. That's the end to it.” Bill knew he'd let his emotions get away from him.

Bloody carnival, these past three nights.

“Sorry.” The gruff man mumbled and ran up the stairs, two at a time. Heedless of the cries of the wizard helplessly covered in 'love'.

Maddie corralled all three girls and pushed them out the dragon's gullet to the Alley.

“Nothing unusual. For this family.” She said brightly. Her bare toes did not seem bothered by the wet cobblestones, and she steered the three toward an adjoining building off a short side alley to the Wheezes.

Jen had to give a nervous giggle, in return. “Everyone seems a bit ...stretched. I am sorry.”

Maddie laid a hand on a seemingly anonymous door of the building right next to the Wheezes. There was no signs. No names. The shop window next door was boarded up.

Jennifer was a bit confused. “Is this your home? It seems so ….abandoned?”

Maddie pushed the girls through, but smiled mysteriously. “No. My work place. Actually. I was just watching the store because George was out dredging Lower Tintagel's sewer for your body.”

Jen felt like she'd just got reprimanded again. But this one felt like she'd just stepped on a kitten.

“I'm …..really sorry.”

“For penance, come take hold the door knob for me,” Maddie quietly commanded.

There seemed no reason. The twins were silent watching, next to their mother. Madelene gestured to the door knob. “Go on,” she almost whispered.

Jen took the knob like it was electrified. But there was no shock. No spark.

Was this another stupid prank?

But the frosted glass suddenly came alive with movement. Black and dark gray charcoal figures, men on old-style racing brooms flew helter-skelter, then coming all at once to float in the glass, watching Jennifer. Looking at her face. Then, a Quidditch captain - Jen had to endure the boys panting about the game endlessly at school, she knew what the jersey numbers meant  – gave her a nod and the team flew off back in to some vanishing point, in the frosted background.

“That's it then.” Said Tina.

Abby was dissatisfied. “All this for getting' yelled at. Uncle Bill's in a stink. Lee is covered in teenager sweat. And we are losing our mojo.”

“This night sucked!”

Madelene just look beaten down. “Girls. I have had just about the limit. Where are you learning to talk like this”

“From you.” Abby said, slyly, then switching into her mother's East End accent. “Wot do you mean, then, luv?”

“I really can't wait till they have me committed. In the daffy home for batty witches.” Maddie said wearily to Jen. “Don't let a man touch you.” The woman indicated the two girls. “You'll get these as the reward. After your hips are blasted apart.”

“Ah, well, Maddie. Umm ….... that is a trifle late advice, within another year.” Jen bashfully said. Mindful of the two eager faces smiling at there mother's elbows.

“Course she's one of us. Didn't need the daft door.” drawled Tina.

“Look at that sexy body. And the face. She's like a combination of Aunt Ginny and Victoire and that Spanish actress.” Abby snapped her little fingers. “You know the one!”

Tina snapped her fingers back. “Don't tell me. On the tip of my tongue. Mom's glamour mags. We'll be right back.” The girls just leaped backwards, scrambling up the dark stairs.”

Maddie just shook her head, grabbing the door to close it upon the twins triumphant comparing Jennifer with the latest poparazzi photographs. “We'll see you in the morning. I'll be over with some old clothes. I'm a bit too tall for you. But there is lots of old stuff that will work if we cuff. You don't have anything else, do you Jen?”

Jen took a big breath, but might as well spell it out. “Not really. Panties. And a Tee-shirt. 'Bout it.”

“What a girl needs. We will work on getting your stuff. You won't want to go home, right now.”

“No?”

“No. The words between your Aunt Ginny and your mother are still probably causing aircraft problems over Devon.”

“Oh.”

“Goodnight. Jen.” And Maddie closed the door firmly. Jennifer still didn't know if this was their home, or some sort of strange genetics test. Jen had a feeling she'd passed.

The Alley was dark and deserted. And got darker when all the lights coming out of the Wheeze's dragon suddenly extinguished, with a final rumble of distant thunder.

Jen was wondering how to get the brick wall at the Cauldron to open up for her, when the bricks scurried and clattered away from her touch and formed a passageway into the old pub.

But the night was still not over for her. Because, standing in the middle of the barroom floor, quietly stared at by the still unmoved old men Jen had left when she'd first entered about four hours ago ….was a newly arrived witch.

Ginevra Weasley Potter stood wet, tired and on the jagged edge of a good scream. But at the sight of the girl of the hour, struck mute and seeming unable to breath. Looking at the girl tremulously walking out from the Alley entrance.

They had never met. Knowing who each other was, they had avoided one another for two years.

Mundungus Fletcher sat on in a back corner booth, snacking on peanuts. Eagerly expecting fireworks.

There was no running away, Jen admitted to herself. This was her aunt. All hiding failed, sometime.

Ginny didn't know what to say. She had gotten here, to meet with Maddie and Lee as the next drafted shift to be yelled at by her frazzled brother Charlie.

Who had caused all this. By being a dirty, scheming shit of a man.

Neither witch knew what to do now.

Ginny solved it by wordlessly pointing to the Cauldron's stairs. And Jen wordlessly scooted past and disappeared up.

Just seconds later, the Leaky Cauldron's door burst open, and Bill and Fleur's daughter, also still soaking wet rushed in. Ginny just continued pointing up the stairs and the girl rushed up.

Harry Potter came in behind Victoire. Calmly restraining his inner sense of triumph, he said, “Thought so. Actually ...”

Ginny just cut off the victory speech. “Not tonight. My love. Please? Where is George and Charlie?”

“Not here. Being de-sewerfied. Be grateful.”

“I am. Husband. I am.”

*


Chapter 3: Train Ride of the Cousins
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[Attic spare bedroom, Leaky Cauldron Inn, morning]

Jennifer Cortez idly straightened up the tiny bedroom. It was a small space, so that meant really just getting the sheets and pillow cases off, and neatly piled for old Lynne to take. It was an old attic corner long since converted into a serviceable guest room. With just the little triangular window showing the gray sky outside.

She sat down. Her moment of rebellion had been quickly exhausted. Jennifer would obediently wait for her escort to come. The Weasleys were trying to help her and she wasn't out to prove anything by wandering off again. Besides this morning, Jen would be going on the Hogwarts Express, for possibly the very last time. Jen was going back to friends - and now – the knowledge she wasn't alone anymore.

That felt incredibly wonderful. It was like being with Robert, only spread out several times greater. That she'd be wanted for just being herself. She'd wait here all morning long, if necessary

Victoire was sure to be one of her travel companions, this morning. Maybe 'Tori's scary father, too. Jen didn't think deep down he had meant harm, but she'd be relieved if it wasn't Bill Weasley.

It was unfair to him, she admitted. He and many others - apparently most or all the adults in the Weasley family - had spent quality time wading into bogs and storm drains. Searching for her dead body. If that wasn't thankless and miserable, Jen had a hard time imagining worse. Just ….. something about the man made her uneasy.

It hadn't always been so. Jen had known and admittedly had a long distance crush on Victoire's hulking father. It was gone, the moment the others revealed who she really was in the school infirmary, at the end her Third Year.

Maybe because she knew he had a close resemblance to her father. Perhaps it was because he was a real live, flesh-on-the-righteously-angry-man that Jen hadn't much experience. Just not as safe or benevolent as her imaginary father had been. Jen always dreamed her father bursting in the door at her mothers home, causing the permanent cloud of doom that seemed to pervade the Cortez home to evaporate in rainbow-like glory, and sweep Jen away to ….someplace better.

Jen now understood that to have been a cruel fantasy. Because as a little girl, she'd thought it because she was told her dad was dead.

Instead, he'd been happily oblivious to her. And to several other children he'd ignored. That at least made her comforted not to have been singled out, or deliberately ignored by the Weasleys. They hadn't known about her either. Or had been warned off by her bitter mother.

There was a tentative tap on the door that interrupted her bleak thought. It seemed too early to get going to King's Cross station. It wasn't far, especially as they would just be taking a port key to an empty storeroom that Muggles were shut from. Special connection from Diagon Alley. More so than earlier years, Muggle vehicle traffic had made it next to impossible for people to physically get to the station by regular means of driving or even taking public transportation. Almost always, several families had been left behind, unable to reach the Hogwarts train from Track Nine and three quarters.

The Ministry decided it was fast getting ridiculous of only having one train. And also made more port keys and the flue network available. Why that hadn't been done years before was best left unasked. The bureaucracy had finally figured out a problem it could easily solve. Progress came eventually.

Sometimes in spite of itself.

Everything today, she reflected, was going to be new. Jen called out to the unknown visitor, “Come in, the door is open.” She expected the Cauldron's owners - Tom or his sister.

The door - more of a hatch, really - slowly opened, and a gray-haired wizard peeked in. “Do you mind if I come in, miss. I am a bit early and didn't wish having to sit in the bar. Don't fancy it as much as I used to. Too many memories.”

“Umm, I guess so …..but I am waiting for some people. They are going with me to the Hogwarts train.”

He smiled gratefully, and had to step up over the coaming, but also remaining ducked down to avoid the overhead roof joist. “I know. I am one of them.” He smiled, the lines on his partly balding head crinkled a little, along with his kind face. He seemed to radiate joy and Jen was immediately taken with him.

Then realized who he was.

“I am Arthur Weasley. Your ...”

“Grandfather!”

He seemed pained by it, wringing his hands nervously. “Not how I wanted to meet you. Your mother made it plain the year after you were born - and we found out about you - we weren't welcome. We tried to respect that.”

“I know. Not your fault.” Jen nodded. Tapping a hand distractedly on her trunk of school things, rescued from her former house. Her mother hadn't even come to deliver it, though she knew her daughter was safe and no longer living a tramp's life in the local park. “My mum is not ….. she's not a good person.”

Arthur gestured if he could sit, and she made room on the old narrow bed. There was only room for the bed, the little dresser, and a bare few feet of floor for the door to open inwards.

“I don't think it helps any to blame her,” Arthur Weasley kindly said. “She was handed a hard job. The hardest, maybe. Even for a modern witch, a single mom in this day and age has got a lot against her.”

“Taking it out on her daughter? Ordering me out of the house and then not looking for me?”

Arthur shook his head. “She called for us, when you didn't come back. Angelique is ….probably is devastated – I hope – at how she acted.” He thought about it for a moment. “May take awhile for you to find that out from her.”

“Huh!” Jen grunted.

“No, I don't think she's a particularly likeable person. Not even a good parent, to be honest. Not boasting for ourselves, but we've managed okay for being ordinary folks and not hugely wealthy. I say this as a father of seven and a grandfather of …... well, I've kind of lost count now. You'd be official number nine I suppose ….except there are a whole bunch...”

“Yeah. Something like a dozen more half-brothers or sisters.”

He cringed slightly, and nodded. “Yes, something like that. You are the youngest of …..your father's children.” Arthur replayed his sentence over in his head, and felt just about run over with guilt and empathy for what the girl must feel like. She was almost done with school, and there were one or two of her unknown half-brothers and sisters close to becoming parents several times over.

What would he say if sitting in her shoes. Probably tell him to get the hell out of the room, you old fraud!

The teen ...no, young woman looked down at her plain clothing. Nothing remarkable for Jen Cortez, despite Maddie's wish to spruce her up for what was sure to be a trip she'd be singled out by others to be stared at. “Thought maybe …..he'd be coming to talk.”

Arthur had to think who 'he' was, for a second, but then fully understood. “I would never have expected that. But he should have. A long, long time ago. My son Charles has spent a good chunk of his life avoiding commitments and responsibilities.” He sighed. “A lot of them.”

“Not your fault … grandfather.”

Arthur grimly tapped a fist on his knee. “Always was, Jen. Responsibility starts with the parents, and I let Charles get away with a lot in his life. Just thankful it wasn't criminal. And that he is trying to make up for it, finally.” Weasley looked her in the eyes, “Charles spent almost every waking moment last week looking for you. He really did. Give him that tiny little bit of credit, when the day does come when you speak to him.”

Jen felt so sorry for this man. She was old enough now to see one didn't have much control over one's child once it effectively left the home. Which was really gone to Hogwarts or one of the other wizard academies, after age eleven. Jen had to ride herd on enough trouble makers - as a prefect the previous year - to not relish having to take them home even for a few weeks in summer. Hogwarts as a proxy parent hadn't done so well for a number of wizards and witches. But some of the magician parents were just plain awful. Worse ever than her controlling mother and absent father.

“Is there anything we should do for them? The others, like me.”

That surprised Arthur. He'd rather expected yelling and screaming, not generosity. Or her scorn for him, tossed in his face. That's probably what his daughter, in her shoes, would be doing right now. Jennifer was turning out to be a much more grown up, mature witch than Arthur could have hoped for. He was gratified to be able to answer, “No. All safe and sound. Well …...we lost one already. Traffic accident. But the rest going on about their lives. But only a handful know the truth. What their mothers wanted ...at the time. I don't know if that was for the best or not.”

“It is. Emotionally, this has been a bit of a roller coaster ride. Last year, I would have chucked the dresser drawers at you and stamped my feet like a mad toddler on top of your face.”

Arthur laughed at the mental image, feeling a bit better that his prediction wasn't that far off. “Sounds more like your aunt Ginny. And maybe your late grandmother, too. Molly was solid rock, to lean on, when times got bad. But watch out if you were wrong. Maybe a late reaction to what your dad put us through. We didn't do so well ...at parenting. With him.”

Jen made an attempt at a weak, toothless smile. “Sorry I missed her.”

“I am, too.” Arthur said, “I am prouder of the other kids. And – of course – Harry. More or less an adopted son.”

“You don't get much better than that.”

Arthur rocked his eyebrows. “Well, mostly. There were a few rocky patches ….from time to time.” He looked about the room. He wasn't a tall man, and he'd have trouble in here. Both George and his wife would be bent double.

As if guessing his thoughts, Jen smiled. It lit up the little room. “Yeah, tiny. But then I didn't have much to fill it with. Maddie brought up a suitcase of some old things for me to try on. Took a header on the first beam right there.” Jen pointed to the one just inside the door. “Even …..Aunt Ginny visited and had to duck.”

Arthur gave a fond chuckle and Jen tapped her toe on the small trunk by her knee. “Most of the 'regular' stuff does fit, with some tweaking. Clothes ….I mean. Maddie's ridiculously tall and got curves like I will never have. The twins will be something to watch ...when they reach that age.”

“If we haven't all had to relocate. To another country, by then.”

That made the girl really laugh. “Least Victoire prepared me for them.”

“Pretty much what George deserves. To be honest. Just deserts for a hell-raising childhood, both he and his late twin brother. If he wasn't such a good man, I'd be really worried. But things will turn out alright.”

“Better than my dad.”

Arther sucked on his teeth. “Yes. We keep coming to that. Don't we.”

She waved him to silence. “I've had a good couple of months to mull this over, grandfather. He has missed the boat, as far as I am concerned. Looks like mom has, too. We should be sorry for them.”

“You are a too generous woman, Jennifer. Thank you,” Arthur said breathlessly.

That left a full thirty seconds of awkward silence. To fill that up, eventually Arthur said “You've met your aunt. Good. I wasn't too sure how that would go.”

“Seemed okay. Very …... subdued to me. Not huggy or weepy or sentimental. I liked that.”

“Certainly not Ginny.” Arthur wasn't too surprised. His daughter was always quietly in control of her emotions. “Hermione …..Ron's wife, might have been that way. She's had a hard couple of years, recently. Not doing terribly well, health-wise. We are worried. My daughter, on the other hand, feels tremendous pressure to be just like her mother. When she patently doesn't have the temperament. Too moody. She's her own witch. More like Bill, really.”

“Huh!” Jen grunted. Jen hoped that wasn't the case. Jen had never felt so uncomfortably guilty in her life under Uncle William unblinking stare. All she thought about now was Bill Weasley's disappointment, and apparent expectation she'd behave exactly how he prescribed.

Arthur smiled, “Yes, I know about Bill. Bit of a temper. But they spent a rotten seventy odd hours, after they lost you in the woods. Thinking you were dead in the swamp. He takes losing track of people rather too seriously.”

Jen rolled her eyes. “I won't do that again. Not without a tent and about a dozen helpers. I had no idea anyone would miss me like that.”

She immediately felt that had been the worst thing she could say. Arthur Weasley felt tremendous guilt for something he couldn't do anything about. Jen very much didn't want this first meeting to go like this. Almost as if from some other part of her mind, she blurted aloud, “Aunt Ginny was quiet because she brought me her wedding dress.”

That seemed to stagger Arthur. Tears glistened in his eyes, as he said, thickly, “Was my Molly's …........
hell of a girl, is my Ginevra …. wish you had a chance to meet your grandmother ….”

Whatever else he was going to say was pretty much forgotten. Because Jen buried her face in his chest and they both cried for what seemed a long time.

Eventually, they just stopped and he just held her in his arms. He finally gasped, “Lot to make up for, Jen.”

She pushed back from him a little, still holding his aged hand. “No. Don't start off thinking that. I haven't had a hard life. Just kind of ….lonesome.”

Arthur gave her hand a squeeze and chuckled. “Well, are you going to be sorry you wished otherwise. Nothing but attention is going to happen. From now on through about this time next year, it will be done with school and weddings. It's going to be a jammed packed ten or twelve months. I command you to tell me when you've had enough.”

“Yes, sir.”

“Percy will be here any minute. He'll be taking you to the station. Another of your uncles. He is a diplomat. Just be quietly accepting. I have to tell you that so you aren't incredulous.”

That got her to laugh.

“All ready to go?”

Jen nodded. “This trunk has all my worldly belongings.”

Arthur had to nod in understanding. “Sad to say, I've seen others getting on the train with much less.”

“Yeah. Me too. That's why I am not going to stand for people pitying me.”

Arthur nodded. There was a hard knock on the door, so he got up to hit open the latch, and there was his oldest 'official' granddaughter - Victoire – standing crouched under the low door lintel. Frowning.

“Have you made her cry?” She crossly demanded.

“No, my chere'. Nous sommes simplement faire connaissance, et j'ai laissé tomber sa valise sur son pied." {we are just getting acquainted, and I dropped her trunk on her foot.}

A little white lie, but he thought only Victoire would understand his mangled French.

Concern immediately replaced Victoire' displeasure. “Why on earth are you picking up her trunk, in the first place? At your age! Daddy would take that in one hand. I am going to tell him, the next time you do that again ...”

Arthur muttered to Jen, “I don't have to tell you whose daughter she is.”

The frown came back on Victoire's beautiful face. Her eyes almost seemed to have a golden color, at certain angles. Like a beautiful wolf. “And when did you learn French?”

“If I have to spend next summer in South France, with Fleur's folks, a few fractured expressions seem a good idea.”

“Hmmmph. They speak English better than your French. And we are going to be there, too. So is Jen.”

“I am?”

Tori smirked, “You are staying with me. On breaks. And that is about final. Don't argue with us. Till your wedding, then you're Robbie's problem.”

“You are about a subtle as a blow torch.”

“I blame my parents.”

“I do, too.” The two friends shared a laugh.

Jennifer was going to come back, or try to, to the this little room in the Cauldron. As if reading Jen's mind, Tori cut in, “Sorry. This is a special room. There will probably be another here …..”

“ …...Less fortunate, than me.” Jen finished for her. She got up and made the trunk levitate up off the floor, with her magic wand. Not on her foot, like her newly met grandfather had just said in poor French. But that was sweet of him.

She knew the language, too. Expensive tutors her mother had insisted on had finally proven good for something. They had allowed her to hear her grandfather keep their shared few minutes confidential.

Jen felt so blessed.

“A good lifeboat. Let's leave it in good order for another.” All three filed out, and shut the little door and the little room became quiet again.

Expecting its next survivor.




[Hogsmeade train station, dusk]

As both girls had gotten used to doing, they waited with the other older kids who still rode the train for the younger kids -led by the excited Second Years- to stream off the train. But they still had to wait for Hagrid the Half-Giant to lead the new First Years to their boats.

That included the girls' first cousins, Rose and James. In the several hour long train ride, the rambunctious eleven-year olds had vanished from the private car room that Victoire and Jen took over, with a few of their other classmates. The youngsters had briefly been content to be the focus of attention of the older Hogwarts students, but got bored with being 'Tori and Jen's 'little cousins'. Rose with James following, had left soon after the snack cart had stopped by the rail car’s room.

It had begun to seem sort of normal. No one had mentioned Jen's traumatic week, but all surely knew something about it. Several of the Seventh Years looked ready to ask, but seemed warned off from expressing their curiosity by Victoire's steady stare.

Things were not helped by the company. Once at the train station, Uncle Percy had taken it upon himself to declare he should accompany this first large bunch of nieces and nephew to the castle. Both Arthur Weasley - and the Potters once they also joined - had tried unsuccessfully to steer the impulsive Percival Weasley to a new sense of mission. Percy even laughingly declined an invitation to dine with Harry and Ginny at their house, seemingly intent on going to Hogwarts and nothing would stop him.

All were light-hearted and polite about it, but Jen sensed massive relief on Ginny's part that the offer had been declined. As for Harry Potter himself, he seemed neutral about Percy. Or, rather, he did not care whether Percy was on board or not. As if, Percival Weasley's presence with the children would make no difference in their safety

Even Arthur Weasley seemed to resignedly fix a blank smile, when the girls had been handed off to Percy, back at the pub. So to had the owners of the Cauldron, come to say goodbye, almost ignoring Percy's blather about a possible health code violation. Old Tom and his sister serenely smiling as Percy described his many accomplishments to Jennifer – as Victoire impatiently tapped her toe – throughout Percy's self-initiated resumé.

Which was often, long-winded, pompous and rarely with short sentences.

Nor did she think the Cauldron owners cared one whit about Percy reporting them. They were a pub. What they sold was bad for your health, regardless.

At the train station, the older girls and Arthur conspired together to encourage Percy to find a choice rail car room, letting the Potters have a few private moments with James and Rose. It was sort of exciting to be included in her first family 'joint action', and Jen followed her grandfather and cousin's conversation leaders that completely kept Percy occupied and blathering till Arthur had to make a hurried exit, kissing the girls goodbye as the train left the station.

A long time - seemingly – stuck in a small room with Percival was an education. He talked incessantly, featuring his own personal favorite wizard - himself. There seemed few subjects he hadn't dabbled in that weren't revolutionary and/or ahead of its time in the magical world, and therefore made top secret by the Ministry.

Jennifer had heard about Percy Weasley, so was slightly prepared. According to his niece Victoire, Percy was a good, brilliant wizard crippled by any sense of tact or humility.

He rarely let the girls get a word in edgewise, and Jen finally realized towards the end of the day that she was feeding the monologue by not just tuning Percy out, as Victoire eventually did by opening up a book.

Percy's endless conversation managed in the first hour to encourage the other Seventh Years to find excuses to be elsewhere on the trip, leaving 'Tori and Jen agonizingly alone for an interminable time. A sense of new found family obligation made Jennifer reluctant to similarly abandon Victoire.

Besides, the annoying wizard would have come looking for them.

Merlin she could use something like a Invisibility Cloak!

Tedium was only briefly relieved by the two younger children straggling back.

James was actually ushered in by his cousin Rose, looking ruffled and breathless. Neither looked like they wanted to talk. Percy naturally ignored that or was blithely unaware.

Probably both!

“Didn't find any new friends to start the day with, eh?” Percy bored straight in, as shy as a cannon.

Rose answered immediately. A dead give-away that it was rehearsed. “Umm, no Uncle Percy. Other rooms were full, or we don't know anyone.”

Percy rolled his eyes, dramatically. “Not like my first day. Met everyone on the train, and solved the Snack-Lady's problem with her cart and the engineer's difficulty with the throttle. All before we arrived at Hogsmeade. Smashing successful time introducing myself to the available witches ….”

Victoire broke into Percy's glorious 'First Train Ride' story. “Ah, Uncle. I could really fancy another Cauldron Cake. Have you any idea when the snack cart rolls past again.”

Jen seamlessly served a supporting volley, “And I was hoping for another chocolate frog. One wasn't enough.”

“No, I don't believe so either. And she is decidedly tardy in coming back here. I have a good mind to give the old witch a talking-to.” It would indeed be a miracle, if the woman came back voluntarily. Percy had complained of the prices and she had rolled off in a huff, on the first occasion.

Percy nodded sagely to himself. “Yes, use some of that diplomatic muscle I've got behind this Foreign Office tie.” Percival fingered the perfectly knotted tie at his chest. The 'semi-official' colors of the Ministry of Magic's foreign relations branch, which of course no one but Percy wore.

Victoire perfectly put on a worried face, a brilliant bit of acting that Jen couldn't hope to copy. “Take care, Uncle. I don't want you to get into trouble.”

“Never fear, Victoire. I've bearded worse dragons in their dens, in my time, than that old woman. I'll return with the whole damn cart, I will.” Percy dramatically swirled his cloak about his shoulders and stepped out through the door and let is shut with a profound click. James just breathed out a sigh.

“Phoooooof! Thought he'd never leave.” Rose let her head fall back on the head rest with dramatic agony worthy of Victoire's performance.

“We are nearly there. Another five minutes of exciting travails over the Kokoda trail with headhunters would put me in a coma.” 'Tori rubbed her temple with one beautiful hand, leaning over to flick the inside lock on the door with the other. It wasn't much of a real lock, just a polite message on the other side to not disturb the occupants. But the symbolism was enough for the four in the room to breath a little easier.

“Uncle Percy wasn't paying much attention. We are almost to Hogwart's valley.”

Jen had to nervously laugh. “That was the longest ride on the train I've ever been on.” All four kids laughed together. Out of a sense of communal suffering.

James gave an shallow chuckle, stiffly erect in his seat. “Mom doesn't usually volunteer for Percy to come over. That was like throwing herself on a skrewt.”

Jen raised her eyebrows, “Oh, you know what those are?”

Rose said authoritatively, “Hagrid regularly comes over every few weekends. We've gotten most of the details from Teddy and the others.”

'Tori gave a grim chuckle, “Wouldn't be half as bad if he didn't try to 'improve' them, every other year.”

Jen remembered them well. “Our Second Year, they spit lava and farted deadly acid.”

Victoire narrowed her eyes, trying to recall that. “I remember poisonous darts.”

Jen shook her hear. “Our Fourth Year. That Slytherin got one in the rear end after the first day, and Headmaster Flitwick ordered the rest of the buggers destroyed.”

“Oh yeah, wonder what happened to 'Half-ass' Rodgers?” That got both James and Rose to grin and stop looking so woeful.

Jen snorted. “Probably working a garbage truck. Like his dead-beat brothers.”

“He fancied you, you know.”

“Rather go on a date with the skewts.”

Only Rose politely smiled at that. Cousin James silently watched the dusk fall on the lakes as the train came into the mountains towards Hogsmeade. James Potter could usually be depended upon to be the life of any party. But upon his return, he was morose and spoke in monosyllables when he came back into the private room. Staring our the train window at the dark green and gray landscape flashing past.

Randomly, Victoire tried to coax James out his apparent mood with polite talk. It got little but quiet
grunts, and she was certain her most troublesome cousin was up to something. Now that Uncle was gone, she simply kicked Jame's foot. “Wotcher, Jimmy?”

“Nuthin', 'Tori. Just want to watch the scenery. That's all.” Jame returned to staring out the window.

Rose was not her familiar supremely confident self, the red-haired younger version of what Jen had known as one of her best teachers. And Jen's primary teacher this last year, the famous Hermione. Rose chewed on her finger nails, twiddled her fingers restlessly and tangled the ends of her curly long red hair. Familiar enough to Jen - who long had a similar nervous tick – that she took it upon herself to talk to the young girl and calm her nerves.

“It's going to be fine. We've all done this. Your mother was in your shoes.” Jennifer cocked her head at the silent James. “Saved his dad's life by the end of the first day.”

That got some reaction out of James. Anything someone said about what he 'knew' to be the Story, James would not hesitate to correct them. “Did not! It was a lot later …...” James shot out. He shifted uncomfortably in the window seat. As if in pain.

Victoire nodded to herself. “What happened? I'm the school nurse's assistant, this year. Start talking or it's straight to Madame Pomfrey and a green tea enema.” How she kept a straight face, Jen wasn't sure, but Cortez was fairly sure she was only kidding about the enema part.

“Dammit, Victoire, don't mother me.”

“Or was that enema jellied Habanero?” The older Weasley girl offered with a dangerously gleam in the eye.

Rose nervously spoke up, when James stubbornly didn't talk. “Everyone knows who we are. We were 'meeting and greeting' down the hallway like rock stars. Then we came upon a couple of big Hufflepuff guys, picking on a Slytherin.” Rose Weasley had grown up a witch and knew perfectly well the different Houses in the School that occupied so much of their lives. “James stepped in between. And these guys decided we looked a lot more fun. They were a whole lot bigger when they turned on us.”

James muttered, “I handled it, Rose.”

“Fat one punched you in the shoulder. How 'handling was that.” Rose shot back.

“No one touches my cousin.”

Jen looked suspiciously at Rose's lip. And now detected hurried and haphazard cut-lip healing spell at work. The dark-haired girl gently cupped Rose's cheek and the younger girl flinched at the touch.

Rose shook her head, tentatively wetting her lips. Gently. “Just swiped at me. Me ducking right into an arm rest did that.”

Victoire looked a lot more like her famous grim father, at this second, than her beautiful mother. “Fat guy, with short spiked hair?”

“No, but he was one of her three guard dogs.” James reddened at Rose's description. Victoire looked severely at her cousin. “Tall witch. Much bigger than me,” The boy breathlessly said. “To be honest, maybe as big as all four of us put together.

The two older girls exchanged glances. Victoire' looked trifle accusatory. They could picture the moment. A young boy being punched in the stomach, humiliated in front of others that were probably too scared themselves to do more than just giggle nervously. A bigger, meaner girl with corded muscles like Muggle cartoon super villain and a dungeon-master's compassion.

Jen had a excellent memory of Hogwarts troublemakers, from last year. “So, Natasha is branching out into petty assault.”

“That bitch is mine.” Victoire stated grimly.

“No!” James angrily whispered.

Jen looked a trifle grim herself. But also a tad defensive. “Let's …....not forget tending to James, 'Tori! We'll be up to the station in minutes, so …...keep in your seat.”

Angry Miss Weasley eyed the locked door. The older girls didn't explain their argument to the younger cousins. Eventually, Victoire sighed and leaned over to place a hand on James chest. He flinched from the contact, and his cousin said, “Maybe a cracked rib. After the 'Hat' sorting, you are going to the nurse or I call your mother.”

“I deal with this in my own way.” James tightly ground out. “This 'Natasha' knew who I am ….”

“Yes, she knows who you are.” Victoire agreed

James pointed his finger at his chest. “That was public to make it plain I have to cry to Mum or Dad to get even. She's bigger and meaner and smart enough to probably done this to others, all the past three years. You both know all about her, don't you?”

“Yes. We know of her.” Jen said crisply. The older witches in the room had to admit the said 'Natasha' was the current bad apple of the school. From the first day she'd stepped into Hogwarts two years before.

To be honest, a bit of a reclamation project, upon Jennifer's part.

The older girls were not forthcoming in explaining their silent argument. Rose and James exchanged looks of their own. “I see how this is going to play out.” James nodded, “Rose and I are going to be tested by creeps like her. Continuously, until they learn better. This Natasha wins the moment my folks step through the Front Gate if they are hear about this. Because for the rest of my time at school, I am the 'cryer' who called for his parents. Think a Potter would get over that?” He looked determined, despite really wanting to cry. “And she'll just be there for Albus and Lily. Do the same to them.”

“You are being stupid and male. Let the grownups handle this. If 'Tasha' isn't expelled before then.”

“Can't count on that. And I'm built like Dad. Not going to win boxing matches. I have to use what's up here!” James tapped his head. “And Uncle George.”

“Or you are expelled, in your First Year. Any and all of Uncle George's 'products' are banned.” Victoire shot back.

“If they find them!” James seemed to feel he had his own plans, in that regard.

“We have to fight on our own two feet. Our brains. Only way we win respect.” Rose sounded a lot like her mother as she said that, and that made both the older girls try not to smile. “Besides, the thugs were obviously waiting for us. James was thinking with his 'Willy' ….”

“Heh!”

“ ...instead of like his Dad. And if we let this go, she or others similar will be around for the others, won't she? Maybe Hugo, before Al and Lily. My brother's so ….. fragile.”

James nodded to her. He was on fully on board. “Both of us are the 'blockers' for the others.”

“Just be careful,” Jen shook her head. “Hogwarts can still be a rough place.”

Rose sounded a lot more like her real age. “And this is just the first day! It is supposed to be fun and wondrous.”

“More like a prison,” James winced. Rose's rushed first aid aid was wearing off and his chest hurt a lot. “And some of the inmates can use magic.”

The train lurched and the sound of braking and hurried rustling out in the corridor as kids rushed to collect their things left in their seats.

Hogsmeade Station.

Jen was glad the ride was over.




[Hogsmeade train station]

The first person off the Hogwarts Express wasn't anyone Veronica Weasley expected. Her brother-in-law, Percy Weasley hopped easily and energetically off from the front car, even before it came to a stop. Right in front of Hagrid's hulking form. The big man caught Percy's forward stumble with one ham-sized fist, preventing the slight wizard from plowing face first into a luggage cart.

“Al 'Ri, Percy.” Hagrid chuckled mightily.

Out of breath, Percy nodded. “Need to talk, quickly, to Veronica. Have you seen her?”

“Oh, aye. Right up there by the station house. Waitin' to see that the girls got here safe 'n' sound.” The big man conspiratorially leaned down to Percy's face level. “Mostly, to keep brother William from pacing the train, on its trip up here.” Sliding a knowing sausage of a forefinger past his nose, Hagrid winked at Percy, “Know how he obsesses about things.”

“Do I ever, Hagrid. Thanks. All went well, except I think the younger kids were given a slight scare. You taking the First Years, as always?”

“Till the day I can't do it, no mo', Percy. And that's not for a few more years.” Both laughed and Percy patted Hagrid on the shoulder and hurried on.

Veronica looked quizzically at Percy coming forward. “I didn't expect anyone to come with the kids, Percy. Is it okay with them?”

“Fine, fine.” Percy said distractedly. Then he waved vaguely in the air, as if of little consequence,.“Oh, there was a slight altercation. Exactly what Harry expected. I don't think there was any real damage, but I had a talking with all the prefects before the train stopped. Headmaster Flitwick will be given a full accounting shortly.”

Veronica – formerly the witch known as Astrid to the Weasley family – sighed a mental sigh of resignation. Living under a false name and a new identity since she married Charlie, she had had to spend a lot more time with Percy than ever before. It had not been nearly as onerous as the rest of the family teased, but Charlie's younger brother was still 'Percy', obsessively unctuous about the regulations being enforced and violators of said rules punished for the least infractions.

Charlie had long learned -and now Veronica- that sometimes Percy just needed to be reminded, verbally, that he was being a pain in the ass.

Then he'd snap to normal for a few minutes.

“Don't make this a big deal, for James and Rose sake. Unless there was blood spilled, both are going to have to stand on their own, up there.” She pointed back over her shoulder toward the distant towers of the old castle school. “In my day, people would fight actual duels, because somebody two years or two generations before looked cross-eyed at one another. As long as it is just juvenile behavior or stupid pranks, the less grown-ups get involved - other than the teachers - the better.”

“Regulations must be enforced, Astrid!”

“Don't be a prat! And it's Veronica! Percy, please. You are as bad as Charlie.”

“Umm, no I'm not. Listen, before the kids come past, I need a favor.” Percy wasn't listening and he obviously had something only he would consider more important than preventing open warfare amongst their younger family and people who hated the Potters and Weasleys.

Veronica waited patiently. Hopefully, the longer she dragged this out, the kids would begin trooping by and Percy would be too distracted or paranoid to continue. It had been a long day, and she wanted to go home.

Percy eyes shifted back and forth on the platform, seeking out others that might overhear any of his carefully guarded secrets. “Ummm, yes, ….well. I've met a woman.”

“Well, yes you have. We are talking right now.”

“No, no. I mean to say, …... you know ...”

Then what he said dawned on her and she could see with her extra-special vision that he was blushing beet red in the twilight and the reflected sunlight off the distant mountains of the setting autumn sun. She smiled rakishly, “Percy, I am so pleased. This is wonderful news. Is she here?”

“Ah, no, she's probably just finishing up at her job at the embassy. Met her on my South Pacific mission. She works at the Great South Seas embassy to the Ministry.” He nervously straightened his tie, and sounded bashfully boastful, “It's a pretty small office, two or three to support the main representative.”

“Fantastic. Is this serious?”

He grinned nervously. “Well, …....think so. Haven't 'popped' the question - so to speak. I mean, didn't want to rush things.”

“I can't wait to share the news ….” She really couldn't help from smiling. Percival Weasley with a woman may be the event of the year!

He interrupted. “Wait, please, don't say anything yet. That's what I am trying to say.”

In her private opinion, Veronica thought any woman that would take more than a hour of time in close proximity with Percy had to be brain damaged or desperate. Or both.

But she wouldn't say that. Charlie cared for his awkward younger brother like no one else in the family bothered to do. She felt obligated to be supportive. It was kind of irritating to be with Percy, instead of spending more time with Ron, Ginny and the others. Who tried to avoid him, unsurprisingly. Like she used to in her former identity. But honestly, once she stumbled on the habit of talking to him directly, as with an oblivious child, he could (briefly!) be charming.

The things one must do for family!

The vampire smiled expectantly.

Percy spoke rapidly. “I need your advice. And maybe your help. Only you could tell me.”

“Be nice. Talk about her. Worship the ground she walks on. The moment you mention a page of a Ministry regulation, stab yourself in the hand with a hat pin. We've talked about doing that, before! What more do you need to know?”

“I need you to check if she's a vampire.”

Veronica blinked, shaking her head dazedly and grabbing him by the cloak collar to pull him closer. “Not funny, Percy.”

“No, I am serious.”

“You said she's a witch?”

“Most definitely.” He smiled, mischievously. “Very good with potions.”

She gently poked him in the shoulder. “Then she almost certainly can't be. I am the only one ….of those kind ….” as the first of the older kids, began to stream past, Veronica whispered, “....near your family. It's no joke and not something my kind would fool with now.” She narrowed her eyes, “Why you think this?”

Percy swallowed, and whispered back, “ 'Cause she's got a tattoo.”

Veronica blinked and resited the urge to shake him. “Are you crackers? Lot's of people do. Been doing that for several thousand years. Your hairy ancestors did it before Stonehenge and Julius Caesar. Is that a problem for you?”

“Well, no. I knew that there was a bit by her ear and to the side of her cheek ….”

“You're not going to let that stop you, Percy. Are you?”

“Slightly more …..elsewhere.”

She blinked stupidly again, then broke out into an even greater grin, worthy of a Great White. “Why Percy. You dog, you!”

“Not in front of the children.” He waved rather senselessly about, probably causing greater interest to himself from the passing teenagers than if Percy had just stood whispering.

Master of disguise and dissembling, Percy Weasley was not.

She gently flicked a finger tip on his forehead. “You are an idiot. Tattoos do not mean she's a vampire. It is almost certainly tribal or family. I've never been there, just what was on the news over the years. You've been watching too much of that stupid television crapola. Honestly, in all my years I only knew one that had a few in a discrete place.”

He looked vacantly, almost beseechingly, down to her face. In her new disguise, she was annoyingly short compared to the Weasley men. She couldn't wait to go back to her old face and height.

Unfortunately, it would have to wait one or two generations of wizards.

She breathed out impatiently through her nostrils. “Did you wake up in the morning from the all-night shagging with a knife in your ribs, lacking your wallet or your body drained of blood?”

“No!”

“Then she's probably not a gang member or one of the undead. Just a misguided desire for your body.”

“Please help me. I don't know what to think, and I am not very good at this sort of thing.”

“Think you've figured out the essential part already.”

Percy gave her a hurt puppy look, and Veronica saw both Victoire and Jennifer come out of the train and waved to them to come over. This torture would thankfully end in seconds.

She stamped a foot impatiently. “What do you need me to do?”

“Meet her. Ask us over for dinner.”

Veronica frowned. “You know I don't do dinners well, with strangers. Does she have a big mean brother or a father with a sharp axe?”

“I don't really know.”

“Find out. I will check on her and her family, when I get in the office tomorrow. Just in case.” Veronica frowned at his sudden hopeful joy. She told Percy flatly, “I'm not looking at her naked.”

“Would you know if you met her, up close?”

The older girls in their final year at Hogwarts came up to the adults, looking bright and expectant at Veronica and Percy. Forcing Veronica to say out of the corner of her mouth, “Of course, instantly.”

“All I needed to hear. I'll send an owl, once I find out if she's free tomorrow.”

“Tomorrow? But we need to see if it works for us ….”

“It will. I am totally confident.” His moods could change like the summer breeze. Percy seized Veronica's face, kissing her, then He rapturously seized Victoire in a big bear hug, kissed both her and then Jen for good measure. “Have a fabulous school year you two! Totally confident about this. Expecting to hear about that internship at the Ministry!” Percy wagged a finger at Jennifer, and just trotted away from the three witches. “Talk to you as soon as Harry's office opens. See you tomorrow.” And apparated straight away before Veronica could even utter a word.

There was a silence and an ironic shrug of the shoulders between the three, and the girls just meandered onwards at the tail end of the line of teenagers walking toward the carriages.

“Internship?” Veronica asked.

“Be the last place I'd go for a job, is the Foreign Office.” Jennifer replied. Victoire merely raised an eyebrow in agreement.

Victoire gestured between the two witches. “This is another aunt, Jen. Meet Veronica.”

Veronica had been very good at accepting she seemed like a completely different person, to people she had met many times previously. She knew Jennifer from before the whole business with the dragon. Of course, that was with her old face and body and voice. She couldn't be the tall auror for a good while, and she didn't want to go back to having to worry about who in the family knew about her 'little vampire' issue.

Victoire and Teddy, thankfully, would most probably be the last in the family to die of old age knowing what she was. Then Veronica could go back to what she was determined more and more to return to. Her old face. Over six feet tall. Weasley-red hair.

Eternally married to a man who was also a covert creature.

For now, this was another great-niece who was currently taller than 'Veronica.' Jen smiled expectantly, but slightly down from above Veronica.

This height disadvantage thing was already getting old.

“Walk with us, we've missed the last carriage.” Victoire waved at some kids she knew in the last one, for them to go on ahead.

“Sure, I suppose. Just to the fence line.”

Victoire spoke in a light confidential voice to Jen, “Our aunt doesn't like to go to the castle. Bad memories.”

“Oh, I see. The war?” Jen said brightly, and Veronica just vacantly nodded.

That was as good as any reason to give.

“He's quite something. Really.” Jen filled the brief silence and thought silently how to describe the 'something' that Percival Weasley had been.

“We are all reasonably certain he is something.” Veronica agreed.

'Tori kept carefully silently neutral.

By the time they reached the fence line guard shack, and its two great winged-hogs carved on either gate post, it was dark. “Surprised and overwhelmed by all of you doing this for me. I don't know how to thank you. I thought I would have do this alone.” Jen hadn't thought about her mother, all day, and found now it didn't hurt so much.

“Never a problem. Most of this is the obsessive insistence of your uncles Bill and Percy. Little things we do to keep the men in compliant passivity. Your grandfather thought the escort thing was rather overkill, but ...well, you know. Men!”

“He must be quite a handful. Your husband.”

“You wouldn't believe in what ways.”

Victoire brightly grinned, picking up her tote bag and slinging the carry strap over her shoulder to go on ahead towards the school. “Oh, no. Percy's not her husband.”

“Oh, sorry. That would be rather dreadful.”

Veronica also didn't realize that Jen hadn't been referring to Charlie. And now thought it best to be honest. “I am married to your father, Jennifer.” At the returning shocked silence from the girl, Veronica just gave them each a light kiss on the cheek and walked away from the girls.

“Sorry for the surprise. I wish you all of the best.”

Victoire said nothing, waiting for Jen to react.

It was only later, when Jen thought on it, that her father's wife walked away into the moonless dark evening without a wandlight.

“Just when I feel comfortable around you people. They do these things to me.”

Victoire took her arm, and lead her on past the pillared gate. “Get comfortable with it. You've been one of us, all along.”





[Hogwarts Great Hall, end of First Year's Sorting, hours later]

The Sorting Hat shouted out, “Ravenclaw!”

Rose disbelieving just stood up and plopped the talking wizard's hat back on the chair and walked backwards from it, like it was a nest of adders.

Most of the Main Hall was equally in disbelief. A Weasley! Not put in Gryffindor's House! Ron Weasley's daughter.

The girl's mother seemed just as surprised. Or maybe just not as prepared as she should have been. Hermione would have dropped her wine glass had the elderly Sybil Trelawnee not caught it in her hand. Mother and daughter stared at one another in shock, one older with brown hair and the younger with red, but the blank faces were the same.

In between, standing all of his three and a half feet in total height, was a speechless Headmaster Flitwick. “Always …..a surprise. Quite ….. remarkable. Let's all give our First Years a big hand everyone. We are now …..done with the sorting.” The older students tepidly clapped, growing stronger as they welcomed their new fellows into the house benches. Most had gone to where older siblings or their parents had gone.

Except for a random two or three. That occasionally happened. But ….

Hermione Weasley's daughter not a Gryffindor!

Flitwick couldn't disguise his flummoxed reaction. Old pride in his old house, and long standing private misgivings about old families expecting ...nee, demanding their precious children only go where tradition and history demanded predictable results.

Magic didn't always like predictable.

Almost unbidden, Flitwick felt his mouth almost talking on its own. “Unless -of course- the Sorting Hat wishes to further instruct the …..umm, new students.” This really was a surprise. Maybe something big was going to come out of this.

“No.” The Hat's mouth pursed with distaste. “Done for the year. Could use some conditioner on the brim.” The crooked, shabby point tilted in the still speechless Professor Weasley's direction. “Good night, Hermione. Our bargain is settled.”

Flitwick did a comical double take at the hat, but it sat silent now. Then he did a narrow look at Hermione. She stonily did not meet his eyes, but now looked at her niece Victoire, who helpless shrugged.

“That will be all ….for the evening. Finish up your desserts, if you please and to your Houses. Let's get a good nights rest. School begins on the morrow.” Flitwick stood not even as tall as the youngest First Year in the room, but his voice was clearly heard by all. He was a little man but when he spoke, people listened.

Except in this case, he didn't sound so sure himself what just happened.

James Potter lurched to his feet, and took two steps in a numb charge towards the Ravenclaws happily bubbling about what just happened. Rose was in their midst, glancing back to him and to her mother still sitting at the teacher's table. But distracted by excited new House mates all trying to talk to the famous daughter of the school's most famous teacher.

James however seemed stuck in moving no closer. That was because his new older cousin had him by the back of the collar, and his other fellow Weasley cousin by the shoulder.

“This is a mistake. This can't be happening?”

Jen said in his ear, “She's going to where she'll be sleeping in a girls dormitory. Not to another planet. You'll see her in the morning. Sit in the same damn classes for the next seven years ....”

James was weak and a little unsteady. The grinning face of the Third Year girl across the room who 'sucker punched' him, and her squadron of toadies kept him steady, though. James grinned nastily back, thinking that was the only response he'd be able to give.

Tonight. “Well, if I have to be honest, I probably won't be the same classes after O.W.L.S.”

Victoire was equally dubious. “Not in tomorrow's, either, if you don't turn toward the Great Stairs and start towards the Infirmary.”

“Anything, extraordinarily the matter, Miss Weasley?” Professor Neville Longbottom came softly strolling up in between the sniggering Hufflepuffs and the dazed Potter.

“No, sir. He is just going up to see the nurse for a …..headache.”

“Terrible one, professor.” Jen supplied.

Neville wasn't buying it. “Bloody Potters! Waited eighteen years for this night and he is in a fight on the train on the first afternoon.”

How Neville knew that already, the girls didn't bother to speculate. Probably the whole train load knew about it before the First Years got off their boat ride across the lake.

“Not my fault, actually, professor,” Jame obstinately replied.

“No?”

“Threatened Rose. Nobody does that. They'll rue the day. Trust me.”

“Names?” Once in awhile, Neville secretly liked channeling his old nemesis, Snape. It was a private pleasure.

James just grimaced and held up his hands in ignorance. His was a face that promised future sleepless nights for Neville.

The good years were over!

Professor Neville Longbottom, head of Gryffindor House, bent over to look James in the face. “My eye is on you, James. So areYi's and the Headmaster's. Hell, the entire damn castle! Welcome to Hogwarts.” Turning to the older girls, Longbottom barked, “Very well. Then straight to the tower. Lock him in if you have to.”

“Yes, sir!”

“I have a headache.” Longbottom stated, as if everyone should know this. Then Neville waved to the silent watching Gryffindors, waiting at their table. “ Come on everyone. Ruined my bloody night of my best friend's son's arrival. Fruit not fallen far from the tree.” Neville led the way towards the stairs, the Gryffindor House the last to leave the Main Hall.

One of the new kids could be heard whispering, “Does this always happen?”

“You wouldn't believe how often.” Neville answered from the head of the line leaving the Hall.

Leaving the two young women alone with the tottering boy.

“Always with the grand entrance, James.”

Young Potter grinned dangerously, “Got three guaranteed dates to the Christmas Ball, already. With me around, you girls don't stand a chance.”

“Come on.”

*

 


Chapter 4: Not Funny
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[Griffyndor House portrait entrance, Monday morning]

Jen Cortez walked out the Fat Lady's Portrait and paused with practiced irritation. Her friend and long-time roommate was constantly forgetting something or other, and Jennifer didn't even bother to ask anymore if Victoire remembered everything. She waited a minute or two, let several new students pass by and looked with smug omnipotence when Weasley breathless reappeared at a rush.

“I know! I know! Thank you,” Victoire smiled at Jen's grumpy face, and continued doing so when it wasn't returned. Cortez had been in a mood since waking up late and Victoire was in 'morning rescue mode'.

Which meant like a tormentor!

“We will miss you both, so much. It will be like the end of an epic tragedy.” The large woman captured in oil and vast swathes of canvas fondly clapped her hands together. Beaming with vast if vacant happiness.

It wasn't really worth it to take out a bad mood on a picture. Most apart from the former headmasters weren't all that bright, and the Fat Lady was no exception. Jen looked at the Fat Lady incredulously, “What tragedy? We haven't left yet. We are here another year. Seven Years! Remember?”

“Both young birds, sprouting wings to go off to feather their own nests.” The big woman didn't seem to hear their words. “I remember my own debut – my entrance into society – like it was just yesterday.” The painting heaved a massive sigh. “Devastating!”

Victoire gave an annoyed look of exasperation to Jen, who just shrugged back in return. They had conversed with The Fat Lady’painting at length of their plans by the end of last term. She seemed chronically unable to remember personal details or like other paintings, melded them together from other memories they sort of remembered from years past. Either that or their sense of the passage of time was a tad muted.

The painting seemed to insist that the girls were leaving tomorrow, to be given away in marriage to princes in far off countries. The fat witch seemed to have short memory on anything after 1820.

As romantic as it sounded, reality was both girls had fifty things to do at once and this was just the first day of school.

“No, we are really sneaking off to join a narcotics trafficking gang, as highly paid lesbian assassins.” Miss Weasley confidentially added, “They desparately need witches, you know.”

Catching on quickly to the theme, Jen snapped her fingers. “Damn, left my catsuit and my push-up bras, when I ran away from home.”

“I'm sure Aunt Hermione will let you use hers.” Victoire nodded seriously.

“Thank goodness!”

“We have to think of our image, you know!” Victoire didn't even turn to look back at the shocked face of the still hopeful opera singer witch.

Jen tried not to spoil it by snorting a laugh, but also had to shake her head at several large groups of passing new kids also leaving for class.

Jeezus! “Also not funny. You had to do that. In front of the boys.”

“You fibbed to the Fat Lady, too. Mistresss of Night!”

“Now all the underclass students will share our romance and love of guerilla fighting with the other six hundred odd inmates. And probably our future husbands.” She grumbled at the indignant painting, “Epic tragedy, my ass!”

The boys, Weasley could care less about. Any girl that didn't fawn all over them was declared suspect, in anycase. Victoire dismissed the painting's feelings about whether they were leaving for good or not. It seemed to forget who they were every other day, anyway. “ 'Bout time the 'hubbies' knew. What a man is for. My collection of weaponry is vastly time consuming to clean.”

"She's just kidding." Jen resignedly told some more smirking boys, as they passed the older girls and the offended portrait.

Why did she bother?

At the Central Keep staircase, they waited for the moving flight of stairs to return, so that the two older girls would not have to stand packed together with the new kids screaming in terror. Age did bring experience.

Victoire squinted to see both Rose among one group of scared riders. Theatrically shrugging her shoulders, with not too sincere regret, she said to Jen at her side. “They will learn. Don't know why they always think it was just the first night special effects.”

“Or they will go the long ways 'round between floors.” Jen agreed.

“You did, for two years.”

A now empty flight of stairs returned to their landing. And they were carried with now practiced nonchalance of old veterans for the decent to the lower levels. “We've been roommates for the previous six years and you've never been such a pill as this morning.”

“Just trying to get you out of your funk.”

“It was a long evening. Of a very long day. I think you'll agree. Embarrassed me in front of my ...step mother, I guess she is.”

“Don't worry. She even has less of a sense of humor than you. Kind of a Varangian Guard ...-thing.” Victoire smiled to herself.

Jen gave her cousin a confused look, not understanding the reference. “A who-kind of guard?” When 'Tori didn't answer, Jen let it pass by. “And bored to death by another uncle.”

Victoire did roll her eyes and nodded in agreement. She countered with , “Well, ....Percy. You are allowed to avoid him. Father does as a habit.”

Jen held up a hand, with a three fingers extended. “And thirdly, introduced to my super genius and terrorist cousins for the first time as the weepy runaway.”

“Rose is a sweet girl. She must be exactly like Professor 'W' was at that age. Not really fair to lump James and her together. He really is a genius. And you were never weepy, Jen. In fact, you've been rock-solid, Beyond what I ever expected.”

“Did my crying in the rain, 'Tori. You found me and I love you for it. Now bugger off!”

Victoire Weasley beautifully blushed as their stair bypassed the slowly moving screaming mob of First Years. “It's nothing. I have the rest of a year to reestablish my sinister side.”

“So modest.” Cortez rolled her eyes, but was feeling better by every second. All summer, she longed to be standing here, and it smelled exactly how she remembered it. She inhaled a big breath through her nose.

Victoire laughed. “Now you are doing it, too. Joshua Kipwalter was constantly doing that all evening long as we waited James getting his medical at the infirmary. Bringing in the 'very essense of Hogwarts'!” Weasley dramatically intoned that last bit. Exactly as Josh would do as the pompous windbag he was.

The smell was exactly that, Jen agreed. “Damp stone. Old wood. Metal suits. Hundreds of years of dusty oil paintings and ancient parchment. Lots of leather and that ozone smell of old spells. I can't begin to describe it.”

“Like a baggy old man's club. Missing the dentures.”

“Hmmm, probably.” At level three, the witches now got on the newly arrived stair, as it swung up now conveniently empty. Jen said, “You'll miss it, too. Seems already echoey empty, without the boys.”

That meant their now graduated fiancee's. “Don't remind me. I was halfway to getting one of the younger kids to go tell Ted it was time for our nightly walk …..”

Jen corrected, “Snog.”

Victoire aimed a poor punch at Jen, and missed. “And then remembered their room was empty now. That hurt a bit.”

“I miss them, too. Don't go all weepy on me.” The girls got off the stairs at the Fourth floor, ducked through a portrait through a shortcut they had found long ago, and were suddenly all the way across the castle in another corridor towards the Seventh Year study tower. “Ten more months.”

“Reminds me, I've got to look for bridesmaids dresses for you. Very low cut and slinky, something extra frilly, maybe ….”

“Ugh. Must you.”

“A tradition, I’m told. Be nice to me and maybe I’ll let you make it a useable cocktail dress and not as a chiffon street tramp.”

“Not fair, really. You'll get to show up in cutoffs and sandals at ours.”

“Hmmm, well, I wouldn't be too sure about that, now. You've suddenly got a lot more people interested in you. Pretty upset to hear you've snuck off for 'Terror Island' -Back alley Weddings and Pirate Costuming – to get hitched with Robbie. Think you've got a grandfather and some aunts who will care a great deal.”

“They hardly know me.”

“WE take family very seriously.”

Jen was beginning to crave her old anonymity. “Now you're making me want to look up this 'Terror Island'.”

“Probably in the phone book. I am being serious, Jennifer.”

“I hope it is in Calcutta. With open sewers and lots of flies.”

“We'd follow you anyway. Mark me. I'm not kidding. You've met Daddy on one of his more bubbly nights. Imagine him knocking down the door of Hotel du' Shithole, with Aunt Ginny right beside him, with hot branding irons for Robert.” Victoire thought that was all too likely to be true. “Not joke, we'll be doing a serious rethink of your plans this winter.”

“I am going to wear your bridesmaid dress, too! Wherever I sneak off to, in the mud.”

“With a real corset. Hard for Robbie to take off. Big ugly buckles! Has to be very ugly ….”

“Merlin, what a family!”

“We grow on you.” Victoire beamed her thousand-watt smile. “You're feeling better, aren't you?”

Yes, she was.



[Hogwarts, late morning, floor unknown]

James Potter came out to a branching of connecting hallways that had him completely baffled. He'd been to Hogwarts before, as a little boy, but only in the main areas as a visitor. This part of the castle-school, with seeming identical corridors and indifferent upperclassmen passing by wasn't anything like he expected. James was a lot less confident he knew where he was going than he was a half-hour ago.

Everyone got lost in Hogwarts. Some spent all six or seven years there being confused on a daily basis.

Don't these people believe in room numbers! James fumed to himself. In actual fact, he’d been counting on Rose to point him in direction, but she’d been blithely happy, chatting away with all the First Year girls ….before, during and after the very first Charms class.

James had got tired of waiting and just stomped off. Now he was lost.

She seemed to have completely adjusted to being here. Over the Sunday since they been separately getting ready for the First Day of school at Hogwarts. Totally recovered from the shock of not joining her parents traditional house.

James almost wanted to be there when Uncle Ron got the news. He’d have to contact the Twins and get a recording.

This was ridiculous! James let fall his backpack of notebooks to the stone floor with a careless thump and looked around for help. Nothing for it. He'd have to ask somebody where the hell he was.

Naturally, he did not look too inquisitive at a few sets of passing older boys, looking his best non-chalant idleness. As if just resting from an exhausting flight running away from hordes of fans. Piping up, like a lost little chick that the obvious weedy boy needed help because he was lost without ‘mummy’ was a ‘no go’.

That was asking for fresh humiliation and abuse, that no First Year boy needed. James waited till three very good looking older girls came by.

Girls, of course, couldn’t resist him! Three very, very likely birds were just now were approaching his spot in the hallway.

James put his best 'little-boy-charming' face on and asked, “Ummm, ladies, I am looking for Transfiguration?”

One girl tossed her long blonde hair and just just laughed. The dark-red head just curled an upper lip in a matching sneer, and the third giggled. They kept on walking away without pausing, displaying very attractive backsides but little sympathy.

The brunette giggled again and called over her shoulder. “Other side of the castle, tosser!” And the three just swayed their way out the hallway to an connecting stairwell.

James heard one mutter 'Potter' and another answer 'loser' as the girls stepped down the slightly echoing stairs.

Well, didn't expect that! James stood looking a little lost in thought, idly tapping in fingers on to his chest.

Most boys would have had their egos a bit bruised. But James was made of sterner stuff. He was an irrelevant eleven-year old, as far as they were concerned, anyway. Give it a few years and they'd be bashing each other over the head to gain his attention, he figured.

He dutifully trooped through another series of seemingly similar hallways. He was hopelessly late for Transfiguration, at this stage. And by now, he was past the inhibition to ask for help, but he hadn't found a familiar face at all. Definitely not his older cousins, who must be busy doing things older students did. Frustratingly, he didn't find a single Gryffindor in passing. Certainly, none of his fellow First Years.

Who were all probably now in class. Having a good laugh at his expense.

Four more times, he got lost and misdirected to ridiculously remote parts of Hogwarts. James was slowly detecting a pattern.

Older students, which meant everyone, sent him in the complete opposite direction he needed to go. Using logic, James went the counter direction.

And still was lost!

The only time he truly recognized anything was a glimpse through a distantly opened door of the Great Keep and its moving stairways. At that point, James almost chickened out, to retreat back to his Commons room and ask for help from the on-duty prefect.

James just didn't want to be seen begging for help from 'an adult'. Or Professor or Madame Longbottom. Or Aunt Hermione. He'd passed by several teachers, without even considering asking them. Even that strange ghost one, that kept mumbling to himself as if continuing a long dialogue only for himself.

He'd tried another group of girls. This time younger, more his age. They were less intentionally cruel than the older ones, but directed him to some place that was obviously dealing with plants. From the more humid hothouse smell in the air.

Obviously, the older kids were having a lark on the 'newbies'. He was doubly marked for practical jokes, being a Potter as well as a First Year. Both Neville and his father had warned him, but James hadn't really taken them seriously.

He'd never experienced a collective group effort against him. Not like this. At the last Muggle school he'd been at, he been one of the older ones. Popular. Had lots of friends. Nobody cared he was a 'Potter'. None of the Muggles knew the family was famous or magical.

Lord, he really missed that place. Suddenly and for the first time in months.

James was having guilty thoughts of longing for his old mates at that Muggle primary school. He hadn't thought anything of them, in all the excitement of the summer with getting his own magic wand and his parents obvious stress over his finally attending the school of magic.

At this moment, James would give anything to see his old friends. Wondering what they were going through at their new Secondary School. Even his siblings, Al or Lily.

James ducked into a narrow spiralling staircase, that didn't have anyone entering or leaving. He didn't feel like talking and being an instant stupid target for humiliation.

He walked up the steps to get out of view from the corridor, feeling like he was on the verge of almost crying. His chest still ached, from where the Nurse had applied the healing magic during the day, yesterday. Only letting the boy return to his dorm after determining nothing was really damaged. Just a bruise and his ego. James was prohibited from sports for the week, but could go to class. As he had stupidly demanded.

He was determined not to appear weak. To anyone.

James angrily wiped at cheeks with his shoulders, glaring at the stone wall as if it was the ancient castle's fault. He wasn't supposed to get homesick or lonesome.

He must be stupid.

"You are okay. This happens to everyone."

James froze in mid-step at the woman’s words. But there was no one in sight!

Then he understood he was not alone in this narrow tower. The sound of a reassuring female voice came to him, echoing softly. From somewhere a turn or two of the spiral above him, but out of sight.

"Why do they do this? It isn't funny." A boy's voice. One James recognized as one of the other new students. A Hufflepuff boy. Tom ....something.

"It's why all the prefects constantly tell you guys to stay together. It's an old, hoary tradition to send the new blokes off by themselves to odd corners, opposite directions. Been a stupid gag for decades."

For a second, James thought it was his cousin Victoire. Then he recognized her voice as being from the new rescued one. Jennifer?

They were just out of sight, past the next turn of the stairs.

The sad sniffly boy mumbled, "It isn't funny."

"No. I know very well. Did it to me, till I got smart enough to stop being a victim and make friends. Then it went away.”

"Not good at that." Tom said with a slight hitch in his voice.

"Yeah, it is tough, the first few weeks. Another thing that helps, Tom, is not to believe what others say of your fellow kids. Find out for yourself. I never would have dared talk to Victoire Weasley, till I found her in this very tower, just as sad as you. I'll bet there is a lot of First Years today, in little odd corners like this one. Just as lonely and lost as you, Tom. You can help them, now."

"Still don't know where I am."

"But you can see the armor suits! Get close to one, next time, and whisper to it that you need direction to such-and-such room. It will point in the direction to go, so only you can see."

"Really?"

"Really. And the ones along the way will take up that. Till you are close, then they will hold out the number of fingers to the door you want. If you can't find that yourself."

The boy's relief was palpable. "Thank you."

"Just be warned about the ones showing you to the last door. The one finger they hold up might not be 'number one', but something a little more ... emphatic.”

Tom gave a shy snort of a laugh.

"They can be a bit snotty, to be honest. But won't steer you wrong. Tell the other First Years. And you'll be surprised to find you aren't alone."

"I never thought ......bit embarrassed to ask." James imagined Tom now looking at the gorgeous dark-haired girl, sitting with him on the spiral steps with something approaching worship.

Jen laughed gently. "Go on then. Upstairs and to your left."

The sounds of movement told James that Tom was leaving. But he heard Tom mutter. "The other boys think you are the most beautiful girl in school. You and your sister ..."

Jen snorted a disbelieving chuckle. "Now you are a bit cheeky, young man. And she's my cousin. And has always been the 'most beautiful.' "

"No. Ah donna think so." Tom said with a faint touch of a Scot's burr. And Tom hurried up the steps.

There was some silence. And James worried that his cousin would go down the stairs and find him. As quietly as he could, James tip-toed about and slowly descended step by step back to the corridor he came from.

"Did you get all that, James." Jen called gently, still out of sight.

He halted, and gave a despairing slump of his shoulders. But turned around again, and stepped up to finally see Jennifer, her hair pulled back and pinned behind her head.
Sitting on the steep spiral step, above him. With a cat-like smile on her face.

James sighed. "Yes. I didn't know that, either. About the damn armor. Wondered why there was no signs or numbers on the walls."

"Stupid tradition. And the classrooms change to different subjects, all the time."

"Wonder why Dad or Neville or Uncle Ron never warned me ......?"

"Well, I don't know if everyone knows this. From your dad's and Professor Longbottom's reputation, asking for help didn't come second nature. About the armor and room directions, I mean. Let's see if we can just have all the First Years know this and play a trick back on the Upper Years." Jen smiled with a familiar naughty grin.

James grinned back, "You really are one of us. The Twins will be proud."

"I am not that bad."

"No. I mean rescuing people. Weasley and Potter tradition. We go to dark places and give people hope. And all that. You know ......hero crap?"

"Huh!" It was Jen's turn to be surprised.

"Family tradition. You get used to it." James said with more confidence, finally. And gestured up the stairwell, "Ummm. Up and to the right?"

"No, left. And don't give 'The Finger' back at the armor. They don't seem to forget that and it can get ruder and more blatant as the months roll on."

"Maybe that's what happened to Neville and Dad. They seem to think the armor suits hate them."

"Probably how the suits remember stubborn boys who don't ask for help."

James stepped to walk past her with a sardonic look. "Just our secret. Right? I mean left. Rose will be endlessly a pain if she hears of this about me."

"Depends upon your future behavior." Jennifer smiled with all the irritating superiority of his other older cousin.

"Great!"



[Hogwarts Great Hall, lunch]

Victoire and Jen met at lunch. The girls now had very full days. Seventh Years had no free time during their day. And if they weren't assisting in classes, Flitwick had them mentoring the NEWT students while Hermione Weasley had them doing their own extensive course load.

Lunch together was not going to be a common occurrence.

James Potter smiled broadly, as his older cousins sat on either side of him at one table with mostly other Gryffindors. He already assumed an air of confidence, whenever in public, like he completely knew all the school practices inately.

And James didn’t huddle fearfully with all the other new kids. Appearance was everything. The collective groups of First years, squished together in packs and eating with a tense look of fearfull new gazelles surrounded by lions. They just invited being devoured wholesale, James thought.

Besides, he wasn't as fussed about the House partisanship as he let on. He figured that
sort of thing naturally trailed off, as the weeks progressed, and the intensity of the House rivalry got battered by opposite sex and other attractions. There were plenty of multiple Year-Different House friendships and it was only for dinner did students normally just sit by House.

Being picked for one group or the other didn't mean they were all friends. As months wore away in the castle, some often found they liked some in their own house a lot less.

And James sort of enjoyed the almost palpable wave of jealousy he felt from all over the room, from the other boys, as the girls sat by him. Sort of subtle revenge for obviously pointing him astray, this morning.

“So, how was class?” Victoire innocently asked.

Jen didn't flinch, carefully not meeting James in the eye. But she gave him a secret smile. To Victoire, James recovered a more confident swagger, “Hmm? Oh, fantastic. No problems”

Some new girls passed, in giggling, collective protection of large groups. But several said 'hi' or 'heh, James.' to a barely listening Potter as he scanned about the Main Hall at the others sitting down for lunch.

“How do you do it?” Victoire whispered, wonderingly.

“Hmm?” James reached for a jug of lemonade.

“Been here for all of a day, a train ride and one assault and you've got girls already asking me about you.”

“Animal magnetism. Females can't help themselves …..” He actually was a bit annoyed he hadn't run into a bit more of that, this morning. But that was water-under-the-bridge. James was peering around Jen, looking toward a group of new Ravenclaws.

“Tah! The arrogance! I hope I'm there to see 'she' – whoever that unlucky girl is – take you down several pegs.”

James finally seemed to hear her prediction, giving it a dismissive grunt. “Like that is going to ever happen.”

Jen finally figured out that the boy was searching for Rose. “She must be still coming down from Ravenclaw commons.”

James blinked, a bit confused if that was Rose or the mythical 'she' who would come to rule his life. “Oh, yeah. Just checking.”

Victoire looked Jen in the eye and smirked. “Surprised Rose can last without your constant presence?” Weasley said to the young Potter.

“Just watchful. This morning was very educational, about who we will be seeing all day. Rose and I have the same classes, as you reminded me so nicely, yesterday.” James was still looking about the room, as if cataloging who was who. A young watchful cat mindful of larger predators.

“There she is!” Jen nudged James elbow.

That was exactly both the females James was looking for, though he hadn't voiced that. Rose Weasley came to the entrance, with a tremendous pile of books in her arms, blinking a bit dazedly at the already noisy throng.

And the taller shape of the other girl, coming at the same time. There was a blur of several people passing in between, at the exact same moment the older girl in Hufflepuff colors passed close.

But all of Rose's books were knocked out of her grasp and flying in odd directions when vision cleared for the three, to sniggering and laughing comments from those already sitting at the tables.

“Did you see that?” James turned his seat on the bench to pull his legs out from under the dining table to hurry to join Rose.

“NO!” Victoire grabbed him firmly by one forearm. “Mind your temper and sit down.”

“ ….must have just got nudged.” Jennifer hadn't seen anything except the books and papers scattered.

“She's not that clumsy.” James hissed.

Rose stood furiously disgusted at the non-helping passers-by, and she collected the fallen books, shutting one big one with now bent and mangled pages. She too seemed to be looking for whoever did that, but did not catch the perpetrator's identity and it was rapidly becoming hopeless as the main body of classes let out for lunch and were filing in through the door.

Rose joined them, sitting down opposite the other three. “I …..must have got bumped. Stupid shits ….” Rose grumbled, trying to fix some of her text books.

“No accident. I know exactly what happened.” James was no longer concerned about Rose. She was safe and unhappy, right where he needed her to be. The other one he was interested in was the big girl laughing with her Hufflepuff mates.

Victoire was watching that group, too. And they seemed aware of it, gradually clamming up except for whispered sniggers between them. But graceful, beautiful Victoire Weasley's cold stare was hard to ignore.

They knew she knew.

She released the unresisting James, who just sat beating a light tattoo with his finger tips. In thoughtful consideration.

“Thank you so much for helping.” Rose mumbled in low-voiced sarcasm.

“Yeah, no problem.” James wasn't listening. Or rather, he was fully aware of his cousin's unhappiness, but didn't care. “Don't be stupid with a colossal armload of that crap, next time.”

“Need them for class, pimple!”

“No, for homework, Rosie. It's the first day. Teachers already are impressed that you love their textbooks. Leave them at your desk.”

“.....folded these pages. Got some dirty, too.” Rose brushed back her red hair out of her face, trying to bend back a permanently damaged book. Like her mother, Rose had an almost religious attitude toward enormously thick books, reading voraciously.

Ridiculous, thought James.

“Here, I can do this ….” Jen got out her wand and tapped on one big book with a broken back, mending it and neatly having the creases magically straighten out and disappear.

“That's nice. You have to teach me,” Rose muttered.

Jen confided,“They'll stop, eventually. Did it to me, too.”

“ 'Bout once a week, in the beginning.” Victoire said, still distracted. Like James, she hadn't stopped watching the Hufflepuffs. Like a wolf paying attention to a newly discovered enemy.

“What stopped it?” James lightly asked.

“Gave them wedgies, everytime and everyplace it happened to her.” Victoire patiently said.

Jen rocked back a little in surprise. “I didn't know that!”

“Ted and I magicked your books, with some helpful jinxes for you. Matt snuck them away from you, whenever you weren't looking. He's very light-fingered.” Victoire returned to the remains of her salad, still quietly aware of hostile attention.

“Glad I'm so helplessly in your debt.” Jennifer said in a disgruntled voice.

Victoire pensively wiggled her fingers, ignoring Jen's mood. “It's nothing. Fixed to the books themselves. Had to put a safety spell of the owner not putting down the book too hard, on her own. Think both Robert and Mathew can testify that wasn't enjoyable.”

“Interesting!” James smiled. He beamed that pleasure in a sideways glance at his oldest cousin, and she stonily looked straight across the room as if ignoring him. But with a slight lift of one corner of an icy lip and a secretive glance at his grinning face.

“Well, we have things to do.” Jen brightly returned to happier subjects. “All going well, other than this?” She asked Rose.

“Yeah. Love it. Just about all in my room are as smart as me. Got the same subjects, too. Haven't looked forward to school so much in my life!” Rose's enthusiasm was almost electric.

Both Jen and Victoire smiled to one another. It was never a coincidence that similarly compatible new students were grouped together, as much as possible. Ravenclaws, as much as any, seemed to get the really brilliant minds as a matter of course. Of course, Rose was with four or five similarly sharp new girls.

“Yeah, yeah, yeah ….. that's great.” James was lost in thought.

Rose rolled her green eyes and just reached for some chicken salad sandwiches. “Just have a tremendous feeling about being here. Haven't felt so excited about school. Maybe in years ….”

“She's all of eleven.” James informed them.

“All that!” Victoire sagely nodded.

“You are both so funny.” Rose said around her first bite of sandwich. Pointing to James's notebook beside his plate, she said, “At least we can sign our names rapidly in cursive, not one block letter at a time, as in Gryffindor.”

“It's to help the other Houses read our names and weep.” James agreed. “For simpler minds.”

“Tah!” Rose sniffed. As the older two, 'simpler' Gryffindors gathered their own oddments together to depart, Rose asked James, “Bring your broom?”

“Mom or Dad will send it, when I need it.” James calmly munched, focused on the Hufflepuffs on the opposite side of the Hall.

“Gods, Quidditch!” Jennifer intoned with quiet resignation.

Victoire stood to leave. “Luckily, for us all, First Years don't play.”

“Out of practice. Not regulation.” Rose evenly replied. As that was common knowledge.

Such discussion about his father's and his favorite all consuming pastime managed to draw James attention. In a carefully neutral voice, he asked, “Why?”

“Just …....wondered.” Rose lightly and not very convincingly looked elsewhere, as if that was more important than James Potter being ready to fly.

“Hmm.” James curiously grunted. The others of the House team had already descended, in mass, upon him, before he had even left the Common room. They wanted to know if he was ready to fly, and about his cousin Rose, who was supposed to be standing beside him, in Gryffindor colors, in the Quidditch locker room.

That was on the minds of all real Quidditch fans at Hogwarts. This morning.

“As truly engrossing as it is to listen to you two fence each other for information, we have better things to do with our lives.” Jen got up, pointing to Rose's mammoth book collection. “James is right. Just one or two. Don't be a target.”

Victoire couldn't help thinking, Pot calling the kettle, 'black'. As they walked away to the older girls busy schedules.

But she still gave the Hufflepuff girl across on the opposite side of the Great Hall a long look as Victoire stood behind her cousins. It wouldn't be enough to scare that one, but Victoire wanted it plain Natasha Czyrcyk knew who would be reckoned with, should this become more serious than stupid pranks.

Czyrcyk steadily watched back. But the Third Year couldn't match the calm level of patient hostility of Victoire Weasley.

She was outmatched, easily.

Several boys, all James age, suddenly swarmed about the table. Hardly any were Gryffindors. James had the great good fortune of being able to make friends almost anywhere and in a few days had made some at Hogwarts already.

Even quicker, if he had good looking female cousins.

“Heh, James,” said one thin First Year in a light cloak with Slytherin-colored trim.

“James!” another rotund boy said, a Gryffindor Rose vaguely knew as 'Jim'.

“Don't go yet. Aren't you going to introduce us?” Another Slytherin boy, a Japanese boy last-named Akira. 'Yoshi' brightly looked to the older girls, nudging Potter with an elbow.

“Hello, kids.” Victoire devastatingly smiled. She was long practiced at this. To her, it was like the adoration of happy puppies. They weren't anything but harmlessly ingratiating.
Boys, very especially older ones, needed to be set in their place, right away.

Both girls tolerantly traded pleasantries with the boys, but edged away with every intent to get on with more important school work.

That worked on some, but obviously new friends able to run with James had extra libido. “I'm Greg,” Gregory beamed at Jennifer.

“I'm engaged.” Jen flashed her beautiful teeth again, her dark eyes sparkling as her long fingers wiggled to show her tiny ring, and the teenaged witches walked away.

Laughing.

“Beautiful.” Jim Touchant whispered. “God, look at those legs.”

“She smiled at me. You guys saw ...” Greg voice trailed off, dreamily.

“You are eleven!” Rose Weasley said in disbelief.

“She'll remember me. You'll see.” Gregory assured her.

“Pathetic!” Pronounced Rose at the indifferent boys around her. With a look of disgust she usually reserved for her twin cousins' more revolting experiments.

James didn't seemed bothered by his new friends hungry appraisals of his older cousins backsides. “Important for their development, Rose. Let's not loose our focus on the bigger picture.” Potter returned his attention back to the distant Hufflepuffs, who were also focused on the two older girls departing, but shiftily and unhappily more chastened.

“Wedgies.” James whispered happily.



[Hogwarts hallway, next day, late afternoon]

The young red-haired girl walked on her own down the castle corridor. Passing an occasional older student or a castle ghost mumbling to themselves, with two colossal spellbooks clutched in her arms.

She did not seem to notice two taller, bigger boys alternately move from hide to hide as they trailed her path.

One of them gestured finally, making a pushing motion and successfully silently commanding. Something usually only older students were adept at. Nearly one hundred feet away, both books suddenly flew out of Rose's hands and scattered themselves and several papers she had tucked within their pages in four directions.

“Shit!” The girl shouted, rather unladylike.

Neither boy cared, as both immediatley fell, struggling and writhing on the castle stone floor.

Both Andrew McGloughie and Malcom DeZitterinni were still straining and embarrassed at their futile thrashing about, glaring at older students unhelpfully laughing at them as they walked by. As did their erstwhile friends Natasha Czyrcyk and Doug Bolton, when they both came in from the Central Keep stair entrance, and just laughed out loud at their friends predicament.

And from a window, several floors above in the adjoining courtyard, Natasha saw a thin, dark-haired boy watching.

Who jauntily waved a happy salute to her and disappeared.

*


Chapter 5: Aunt, Finally
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Luna Longbottom happily strolled down the corridor of the old castle. She liked this part of the school, best. These were the First Years classrooms, mostly, and full of still intensely excited and anxious eleven year olds.

The older students were okay, the school librarian felt. Most were still the nice kids these were. A couple weren't, but that seemed the same when she had been in their place.

But the First Years were all 'fresh and newie', she liked to think of them as. Not worldly wise and insolently arrogant as the Third and Fourth Years. Who acted as if they knew it all and were past veterans of Hogwarts. Of course, the young wizards - no matter what age - had no idea – really – of what it was like out in the real world. At least the very youngest were open and truthful about their amazement about magic.

The new children - and to be fair - their Second Year counterparts, were still new to the wonders of the castle. As well as magic being constantly on display and in use. Unlike most of their homes back in the Muggle world. The ordinary world where magic could not flaunted outside the private individual's home.

Hogwarts had no such restrictions. Ghosts flitted about through walls and students, fitfully interacting with the living or just ignoring their presence. Armor suits - some grotesque, frightening concoctions of steel and sharp edges and others simple and functional – waved, gestured and otherwise did all but strolled about with the children. Pictures on the castle walls had characters that moved about and some conversed with the watchers. And the staircases in the Keep moved up and down through mid-air.

An infamous specter, Peeves the Poltergeist, was down the hall, already making himself known. To Luna's ears, Peeves cackling laugh was a sure sign somebody had been the initial victim of some childish stunt by the mad ghost.

Luna herself contributed to the exotic surroundings by her outfit. This outfit was all intense blues, greens and reds, a prism gown with a faint halo of sparkling points of light that followed the blonde woman like a faint cloud. From a distance, she was all anyone's eyes were attracted to. Looking like an intense electric signpost of a woman with paperclip earrings and tiny flashes of lightning sparkling out from her head.

She thought she'd keep it subdued, for the first week.

Luna came up to her husband. Professor Longbottom was looking distracted and harassed.

She kissed him on the cheek. Neville seemed startled to see her.

Not her outfit. That was 'de regueur' for Luna. Neville hadn't even noticed her approaching. Luna had been wearing ridiculous clothing at the beginning week of Hogwarts school year every year of their marriage.

She straightened his tie, and tisked about a missing collar button. “Why don't you go ahead and run on to your classes, Nev.”

“Uh, one of us should be around.”

“Why? Feeding Harry's paranoia just gets us nowhere.”

“He asked me to. Bill, too.”

“Do you always do what they want?”

Neville looked uncomfortably like he would have said 'yes', but was conscious he was talking to his wife. “ 'Course not.”

“Good answer. I'll do it. Nothing exciting is happening in the Library. I have a Seventh Year holding down the front desk. So shoe......” Luna made fluttering motions for her husband to be off. “Find a plant to worry.”

“One of us should still be about, when James changes classes. When they go off to Dark Arts.” Neville said doubtfully.

“That's why I'm here. Being part of the background.” Luna looked at her husband with fond puzzlement. “They aren't fine porcelain or fragile birds. James can more than look after himself. Rose is a tigress …..”

“That's what we are afraid of.”

Luna smiled fondly and pushed Neville onwards in the direction of Herbology. “She's only punched one in the eye, so far. I think she's establishing her presence nicely.”

Neville rolled his eyes, looking rumpled in his old cloak and unpressed shirt collar.

Luna beamed another thousand watt smile, and kissed him lightly on the lips. “Go on. If you are a good boy, I'll show you one or more of my new tattoos, later at home.”

“Ah ….” Neville seemed stunned by the idea. Eyes worriedly glancing about her outfit, afraid Luna had actually gone that final step of appearing in public without any actual physical clothing on at all.

No. All normal. If you ignored the lightning that occasionally flashed from her ears to little pendants sprinkled about the tips of her long blonde hair.

“Tiny one, Nev. They wash off.” Luna assured him, pressing his arm.

“If you are sure.”

“Go away.” Luna happily ordered. “Hermione is too tired.”

Neville looked a tad overwhelmed, shrugging to a nearby suit of armor.

Which shrugged back.

Luna watched her husband disappear.

Just in time for her to catch a sight of her good friend, Hermione. Off in the distance of the hall, past the turnoff that Neville had just gone down. Weasley actually made a stunned face, catching sight of Luna's outfit.

One would have to be blind not to see Luna, actually.

Luna again made exaggerated shoeing motions, wanting Hermione to stay away and go back to her rooms. Even from here, Luna could see her young-old features. The weary way she carried her shoulders and shuffled.

Hermione was only one year older than Luna's thirty-four years. From a distance, Weasley looked twice that.

No one knew what to do. Hermione seemed to be fading in front of their eyes. Worse this year than the last. Ginny Potter and Luna had already decided between themselves that they would care for Weasley's children. If and when it should come to that.

That had been a depressing conversation the two had had just the last week, which had ended with both of them crying in their beer glasses.

It seemed so damn unfair. Luna hated getting old. She wanted her friends to last forever.

Her depressed musings were interrupted by the School clock suddenly chiming. Everyone in the hall seemed to pause, waiting a few breathes in the silence afterwards. Then the classrooms opened up and the children poured out.

The clock was never exactly accurate. It had a mind of its own, and randomly chimed when it felt like it, regardless of the hour. A newcomer to Hogwarts - much less a teacher or a new student - was always ill-advised to set his watch to the castle's timepiece.

The hallways were now crowded. A few kids took a step back at catching sight of Luna. But most now already took the witch's bizarre outfits in stride. It was no big deal.

James and Rose both smiled to see Luna.

“Hello, you two. How you getting' on?” Luna ruffled James untamed hair and tugged at Roses's Ravenclaw colored cloak collar, a secretive smirk on her lips. Luna gestured that she would walk along with them, knowing of course exactly where they were headed to. And that this was not a coincidence.

Not this first week.

“Taking your electricity out for a walk, Luna?” James ventured a finger at a little metal object in the librarian's hair and got shocked for his troubles. Flinging back his hand and looking wide-eyed that it had been in fact real electricity.

Rose and Luna laughed at James. “Stupid!” Rose pronounced. “I've found a baby moat monster you can stick your toe at, at the fountain courtyard down outside second floor …..”

“Ha, hah! Very funny.”

“I am headed towards the Master's tower,” Luna said vaguely. “What are you two up to now?”

“Dark Arts.” Rose said, knowing this wasn't entirely a coincidence. As Luna's husband - Professor Neville - had 'just happened to be walking by' at all three of their past four days at the castle.

Luna made a wordless, understanding sound in her throat. Nodding her head.

“You don't have to keep doing this. You know.” James said, walking beside the 'electric' woman. Carefully keeping his hands away from the stray fingers of electricity that randomly strayed his direction. “We are not children,” said the child.

“Do you want me to make them stop.” Luna smiled craftily.

“Yes.” Rose smiled. “He's better equipped, now.”

“I only got lost that first day. Dammit!” James frowned, a miniature replica of Harry's face.

“He's sensitive, you see.” Rose nodded understandingly.

“They all are.” Luna whispered confidentially. “It's a male thing. Directions.”

Rose made an understanding face, as if comprehending a vast truth. James just looked at both with contempt, as they stopped in front of the hallway connecting to the Dark Arts Tower.

There was Mr. Twittingham – the Dark Arts professor - standing grim and unsmiling. His thin black face and dreadlocks looking as if they had never been joyful a moment in all if their existence.

“Madame Librarian.” Twittingham greeted her solemnly.

“Professor.” Luna returned calmly.

He did not spare a word for either child. His eyes made a slight motion down the hallway behind them and both First Years got that their presence was not wanted.

“This will be the last time, understand?” Luna said to both. They both nodded, grateful that they would no longer be getting this personal escorting thing all about Hogwarts.

Hagrid 'accidentally' meeting them both – all week long - at the Main Hall at meal time had been the most embarrassing instance.

James rolled his eyes, but hurried off after Rose. Giving Twittingham a careful look of mistrust.

Twittingham waited till the children were gone. He was always careful, Luna noticed. To avoid speaking in front of large audiences, especially. Apart from this classes, that is. Twittingham was an unknown quantity, still, despite having successfully taught Dark Arts now, beginning the third year in a row.

Unprecedented! Twittingham was the first wizard to have taught Dark Arts more than one year in a row in almost the last thirty years.

“Madame Longbottom. I wish to make known to you my desire to do some research within the Library.” The man spoke stiffly. As if they had only just met.

“Well, of course, Mr. Twittingham. You can enter at any time. It is all accessible to you, as part of the faculty.” Luna's frowned in slight puzzlement. “There is no restriction to you.”

His very black skin glistened, slightly, as he paused before responding. “Oh, of course, it is, Mrs. Longbottom. But I have more need for your aid, actually, in doing some research …...”

“It's Luna, to those that know me. Professor. I am here to support the staff and students. At all times.”

“Ah, thank you.” The almost always strictly formal man seemed uncomfortable with familiarity. Luna
bet that he didn't have a close friend within the castle. In fact, she thought, Luna had no inkling at all if the man had family and or friends outside of Hogwarts, either.

“Thank you ….....um, Luna. Though I prefer not to, madame. It's an old family habit. Back in the islands, we are taught to address ladies formally.” Twittingham said, soft sounds of his West Indian home.

“Certainly, Professor Twittingham. What are you looking for?”

“Papers or materials related to a Bartolomeus Welles, Madame Librarian.”

Luna looked blankly back at Twittingham, shaking her head. “Ummmm, not a name that I am familiar with, I'm afraid.”

Twittingham silently waited as more students filtered past the adults, gesturing for Luna to accompany him to a side hallway, leading off to subsidiary classrooms and closets. “I would have been surprised if you had. A contemporary of the American, Benjamin Franklin. Rather deeply involved, briefly, in research of electricity, energies, gravity and time, in fact. Except he was a wizard and had to keep his ideas secret. Especially in America.” Twittingham eyed Luna's personal electrical storm with concern. “Sort of a personal project of mine. Your outfit is serendipitously bringing him to mind.”

“I …..had no idea. This was just for the students' benefit.” Luna fluttered her fingers about, stray fingers of crackling electricity tracking along with her metal finger rings.

Twittingham noticeably stepped a slight pace back from her.

“Unsuccessfully, researched, I'm afraid.” Twittingham said. “Little is known of him and he was not nearly as good at public display or attention as the American. The colonial conflict and his retreat with his family back to loyal crown lands in the Indies assured his anonymity.” Twittingham seemed to debate revealing more, but then said as with slight reluctance. “I am a very distant descendent, Madame.”

“Ah, I see.” Luna tried to smile agreeably, not sure where this was all heading. “I am happy to try. But if they were his private things and he was not published …...”

“No. I am unfortunately sure he was not.”

“Wouldn't you have had more luck in America, Professor?” Luna asked. “Now that many collections have been concentrated in the Far Northwest …....”

“I am certain it was not. Welles would have been a loyalist and if anytin' would have gone to to the public magical collections, British Hogwarts would have been it. Nor am I able to gain access to America.” Twittingham said obscurely. “Not welcome, there, I am.”

“ I see …...” The 'electric' Luna waited for more explanation. It was not forthcoming. Twittingham patiently waited for her to speak and she eventually ventured. “I …..I will be happy to look. The subjects he would have been involved with …....? Electricity?”

Twittingham nodded, waving his hand that he'd have to join his class. “Any connection to it. Time, light, gravity, existence of the universe ...”

“That's …..rather broad, Mr. Twittingham. About two hundred or two hundred fifty years old? Could be almost anywhere in the Library.”

“Why I avoided involving you, until now. But I have found nuttin', looking on my own.” Twittingham usually hadn't revealed his slight accent, and maybe it was a mark of his sudden effort to be personable that some of it was slipping out in his speech. “My own limitations with other people, I constantly grapple with. You seem amenable to a scholarly project, from my brief conversations with Professor Weasley. I could use a 'fresh' eye, so to speak. And the Library is your province. I have come to think I must give up or assume anytin' Welles had done was lost.”

Luna blinked, lost in thought. Her pale skin and large eyes made it look as if she'd been finally shocked into silence by her own lightning display. “Of course I will try. Happy to. Don't give it much chance of success, but all sorts of things are hidden or lost in the Library. Might take months or even years. I am finding things all the time.”

“I appreciated, it Mrs. Longbottom.” Twittingham stiffened, more formal now, trying to wordlessly indicate he was returning to his normal, grim, unsocial persona. “I must attend class, Librarian.”

“Oh, um, of course.” Luna was disappointed the man seem to retreat back into his stern demeanor. She thought she had made sudden progress into getting Twittingham to 'bend' a little. She nodded farewell, and Twittingham closed the door to his tower with a firm thud.

Luna aimlessly walked back toward her portion of the castle.

Surprised to find Headmaster Flitwick, standing astride the corridor to the Keep. Watching her.

“Filius! Good morning.” Luna smiled.

“Luna, my dear. Couldn't help notice your conversation with our dark tombstone of hilarity.” The very tiny wizard pointed vaguely back towards the Dark Art's corridor Luna had just walked back from.

“ Umm, yes.” Luna looked back as well, Tiny finger lightning scrawled up and down her blond locks as her long haired waved at the turn of her head. “Wants me to help him look for an old relative's things. Maybe in the Library.”

“Hmmmm.” Flitwick wordlessly sounded in his throat, a hint of doubt. But before he could ask for more explanation, a fingerling of electricity from her outfit just barely brushed the tip of his nose and one tip of his exaggeratedly pointed mustache. “Oh, dear.” Flitwick stepped back, fearful.

“Oh, sorry.” Luna made odd hand sign and snapped her finger tips back at her head. The lightning in her hair vanished. “Nev was a bit nervous about it, too. Took me all last night to prepare. Hard to sleep sitting upright, without curling up about him like I usually do.”

Flitwick gave her a nervous look. “Yes, my girl. I am sure that was a, ...uh, interesting evening.”

Luna just smiled vacantly back. Without a care in the world for her devilish magic., “Just getting our kids to their classes. You know …..especially, our little new Ravenclaw!” She giggled mischievously.

The little wizard shared a quick laugh and then happily considered all the ramifications having Hermione and Ron's daughter in his House entailed. “Yes, that was very satisfying.”

“Balance, Filius. In the universe.”

“Hmmm.” Flitwick returned, as neutrally as possible.

“They should stop. The escorting bother.” Luna smiled, “The children are here at Hogwarts. As safe as can be.”

Flitwick nodded. “I'll pass on the suggestion, Luna. Never fear. Hagrid and or Neville shadowing about Rose's or James' movements about the castle is getting a tad ridiculous.”

She just made an exasperated sound and waved goodbye.

And Filius Flitwick remembered he forgot to ask exactly what Twittingham – the one great mystery member of his large school staff – had asked Luna to do.




[Hermione Weasley's new office]

Filius Flitwick walked the halls through confused and milling children, mostly directing them to where they should be going. That seemed the Headmaster's main purpose in life. Today! Through the first week, most of the youngsters had absolutely no idea where they were going. Even the older ones forgot some of the maze of corridors of the castle during the summer months.

It took a week or more of repeatedly getting lost to finally figure out there was no real plan, and no two levels in the old castle were alike.

This was a castle of magic, and maybe that had been the point intended by the builders.

Or, rather, no one had intended anything, Filius thought with rather firmer conviction. If they had, it would be the first successful long term project wizards conducted that Flitwick would have encountered.

Flitwick kindly directed some, herded others away that were just 'hanging out' and in general tried to restore a little order. Eventually, the din died down to a more tolerable level and continued on his way. Flitwick had learned long ago he couldn't possibly solve all of the problems everywhere at Hogwarts. He no longer tried.

Eventually, the lost kids would find their way, ask for help or end up at his or his deputies office!

He came to Professor Hermione Weasley's office door. It said so on the gold plate next to the door knob. The school had moved her office, over the summer, to the more accessible First Year floors on the more 'normal' levels. Hence the corridors full of small children.

He politely knocked and upon hearing her voice call stepped through the doorway, and entered.

“Headmaster. Good morning. Didn't make it for breakfast.” Hermione said breathlessly, and moved to rise from her desk.

“Stay Hermione. Sit.” Flitwick commanded and moved to hop up into one of the nice wood chairs arranged about her desk. It was a pleasant room, Filius was pleased to see, with lots of light and nice view of a Herbology garden outside.

Far better than the eagle-like eerie she had had last year. Barren and sterile and high up in one of the lesser used classroom towers. Flitwick knew she preferred being nearer her older students, but mobility wasn't easy for Hermione now, and he had finally talked her out of it over the summer.

She looked thin, to Flitwick. No ….rather, gaunt. Frail. More so than from just the effects of age. Filius knew about those far better than most. There was even a faint ...fading of her hair color, from its normally steady brown.

As if life was slowly being lost her. Evaporating.

It was making everyone miserable who was her friend.

“And I don't expect you to make there for every meal. Poppy has already instructed the House Elves on your dietary requirements. This where I expect you to be ...”

Hermione was mildly irritated by the extra attention. The more people did things for her, treated her like an invalid, the faster she felt it happening. “Please, Filius. For Merlin's sake ...”

Flitwick wasn't listening. One dead give away was his habitual twisting an end of this mustache between his fingers. “And the Seventh Year Tower now has a spiraling staircase. Just like mine.”

“Well, …......can't say I complain about that, Headmaster.” Hermione smiled, and for a moment, the room was as he remembered it, and she was his brightest student.

“Minerva's idea. To be honest. Though should have thought it, myself.”

“She and I are a pair, aren't we?” Hermione's face smiled, looking tired despite it just being the start of the day. “Getting more and more alike, to look at us.”

Flitwick nervously nodded. That wasn't the first comparison he had heard. It was as if Hermione had aged twenty years just in two years back at school. “She is in her seventies, however. A veteran witch with lots of years behind her. You are still a young woman. Lots of time left for you ….”

“No.” Hermione calmly murmured, looking Flitwick in the eyes. “Don't think there will be more than this last year, Filius.”

“Don't say that. I won't hear of this defeatism.”

“Mungo's is baffled, Headmaster. There isn't much they can do, but make me comfortable.”

That was a complete lie! Hermione knew full well the cause of her ailment. From the faded bite mark scar on her upper arm, that barely showed. The original wound had seemed completely benign.

It was not. From the teeth of a dragon, no one was walked away unscathed, according to myth. Hermione now knew it to be all too true. And it had marked her in more ways that a cut on the arm. The venom was not killing her, but trying to transform her into a hybrid creature like the one that had injured Hermione. One of them. Like what her brother-in-law, Charlie, was now.

The odd animal pendant she wore around her neck – seemingly as a eccentric keepsake of the adventure – was actually preventing the transformation. And also killing Hermione.

She could tell no one the truth. Not even her husband, Ronald. Part of the bargain for their lives.

“Hospital tried to talk me into residing there and not go back to Hogwarts.” Hermione said calmly.

Flitwick's face looked agonized. That was a dreadful thing for him to hear, and he wondered if she shouldn't have done just that.

She smiled kindly at his concern. “Some sort of cancer, Filius. It happens. To much better witches than me ...”

“There aren't any ...”

“Don't be thick. I just …. I need to keep busy. And I don't want to ...fade away in my house.” That made her catch in her voice, and Hermione took a sip from a glass of water by her elbow. It magically refilled itself when she put it down. In a steadier voice, she said, “You are going to have to get a replacement for me. Definitely by next year, Filius. There is little sense in pretending and I want to be able to spend as much time with my kids and on my History of Magic project as I can.”

This was making Filius irrationally angry, this sense of helplessness. But there was something he could do to help her. A little thing. “Hermione, that is why …..when the time comes that classes are too much of a burden, Ronald and Hugo are moving in with you in one of the residence towers......”

“Filius....” Hermione weakly smiled, at his generosity, trying to come up with a way to thank him for such a gift - and maybe – refuse. Hermione didn't want to be seen by gaggles of children, as her body crumbled from within.

The little man wouldn't hear of it. Overriding her refusal. “Already seen to. Teachers and their families lived here before.”

“Not for some hundred years.” Hermione pointed out.

“The Great War changed many things in this land. Hogwarts included. No reason it can't reverse itself, just hasn't been fashionable. Until now.” Flitwick got back down to his feet, and she had to bend her neck to see his face past the desk lampshade.

She felt extra tired today. And extra emotional. Tears began to run and Hermione wiped her face, unable to stop them.

“That's an end to it. Plus, you'll be closer to the Library and Luna.” Flitwick's short legs made him wobble slightly. Plus his short stride made it necessary for her to kneel and hug him. She couldn't stop crying now. It made her feel weaker, but - for him - she'd show a bit of emotion she kept bottled up.

“I know, my girl.” Flitwick closed his eyes, face pressed to her shoulder. And her now light brown hair with strands of gray. “I know. We will make the best of it.”

“Carry on. Right?” She leaned back, hands on his small shoulders.

“Bring your parents, from time to time, too!”

“Oh, God!” Hermione sniffed, wiping her cheeks with her palms.

Flitwick smiled knowingly, opening the door to the echoing hallway. “Sure your mother won't mind. The very least we can do.” Flitwick tapped lightly on her name plate. “First class in a hour, Professor.”

“Yes, Headmaster. See you at supper time.”

“Look forward to it.” He considered something he had almost forgotten, and was pretty unimportant, in the big scheme of things. But, if she was in a talking mood …..“Oh, that reminds me,” Flitwick looked up, still holding open the door. “The Sorting?”

Hermione gave a slight grimace. “Oh! The Hat! Not entirely unexpected, Filius. At least on my part.” Her eyes rolled a little, looking up distantly in the air, “Ronald had the predictable conniption. He'll get over it.”

“Always thought you would have been a credit to my House.”

“Was a possibility, Filius.” Hermione said primly. “Hat gave me the choice.”

“Always does, if the new student has a strong desire otherwise.” Flitwick nodded.

“Hmmmm, I …..can't really recall.” Hermione looked slightly evasive. “Wasn't really a big deal ...at the time.”

“The Sorting Hat seemed to feel this was a settling of a bargain?” Flitwick said slyly.

Hermione Weasley looked steadily back at the little man. Neither spoke, then she said “I'll see you at dinner, Headmaster.”

“Huh!” Flitwick just smiled knowingly, and shut the door.




[Start of the school day]

Hermione hated the new room. And stoutly refused to tell Flitwick, otherwise. The lower floor made her feel like a grounded goose and the colors of Neville's autumn planting outside the windows hurt her eyes. Hermione craved the windy spaces and view of the gray skies up in the upper levels..

But their hearts were set on helping her in the little ways they could, and she die first, here and in great pain, before saying anything contrary about the new office.

But the offer of the apartment tower! Ron might grumble – at first – about moving here. But he had been equally trying to help in anyway he could. And the condition of her house and kitchen were the result. She had not the heart to criticize ….unduly. Ron and the children were doing their best, as hopeless as that seemed to all the family.

The others in the family were a mix of problems. Her parents and Arthur Weasley anxious and helpless except in taking care of the children, especially later in the work week when Hermione was too weak to travel. Her brother-in-law Harry was angry most of the time. More often than not. Hermione had no idea what was going on with that. Her sister-in-law, Ginny, politely deflected any concern. Hermione had a strong suspicion it was all related to anxiety about James. That and Potters' perpetual paranoia about others motives and whether people were taking advantage of them.

Up till the new school, there had been little she could do to help.

But now that James was a full fledged Hogwarts student, the ball was in her court!

Hermione shut her door and stepped out into the stream of students in the crowded hallway. She also helped a confused few, who were perplexed that the nearby door clearly labeled on their course schedule turned out to be a broom closet.

Hogwarts was an intimidating place for the brand new student.

And – speak of the devil – there was James Potter in the hallway, several doors down from her office. A miniature version of Harry's father's picture. Wild, unruly black hair. Devilish smirk on his face.
With a small group of smiling, grinning eleven-year old boys, standing about him at a corner of a courtyard that looked out upon the Astronomy Tower grounds.

He didn't look confused at all.

Uh, Oh!

“James!” Hermione greeted him upon walking to them, nodding to the others.

The other boys mumbled sly greetings to the Professor, and James seemed to be trying greatly to keep a smile from his face. “Hey, Aunt 'Mione.”

“That's Professor, within the castle, James,” she corrected him.

“Ummm, Professor.” He looked suitably chastened.

“No ….classes, any of you?” Hermione looked about at the six other boys. Other than all First Years, there seemed nothing greatly in common between them. She was actually pleased to see they represented several of the Houses the children were divided into. Some of the bitter rancor and animosity between groups – especially Gryffindor and Slytherin – seemed to have faded with the years.

“Herbology, this morning. …. Professor.” He added at the last moment.

“Tuesday classes start a little later.” One boy, in a Slytherin blue-green trimmed cloak said innocently.

“Oh, of course, Mr. Akira. How could I forget.” Hermione hadn't forgotten at all. She and Neville had long planned out that one or the other would be free and patrolling, anywhere James should be.

Only, she had expected James nearer his House tower.

Something was going on, Hermione worried.

“Well. That's quite good. Shouldn't you all be heading that way?”

“Just ...pausing to wait for …..Fergus here, to tie his shoe.” Another, a very wide boy said a little over loudly. A rehearsed excuse, if Hermione had never heard one. She thought his name as Jim,

“Yeah.” James chimed in, frowned at the inept dissembling.

“Terribly sloppy.” Jim Touchant, now she remembered the boy's name, said with earnest seriousness. One of James housemates

“Moronic parenting, Professor.” Said Fergus Mfasse nodded, not quite hiding his fully tied shoes behind his book bag.

“No thumbs.” Another boy supplied, and all seven smirked and snorted.

“James?” Hermione leaned over and fixed James with what she hope was a severely critical eye. She muttered. “Just what is about to happen?”

James said innocently. “No idea, Professor. We are just stopping to talk to you this morning.”

“Huh!” There wasn't an innocent atom within his dark hair, Hermione wryly thought. But she got no chance to voice that skepticism, as the Great Clock chimed, generally signaling an end to classes in it's habitually approximate way and several immediately doors opened at once. Spilling chattering students out into the hallways.

Almost immediately there was noise and reaction from the children.

Just not the expected burst of relief to be out of class.

From every Hufflepuff, there came the sounds of loud farting, as they walked or moved around. Several stopped, looking alarmed at their feet, or embarrassed at any around them, as if they could pass off that the strident sounds were not coming from them. Some even stopped, hopped out of their shoes, and confirmed it was not the footwear making the sounds. Because it got louder and longer, with each motion.

Equally, laughter was competing with the sounds of flatulence. As just about everyone -but even some Hufflepuffs affected – busted up laughing and pointing at their fellows. One brave soul just charged out into the courtyard lawn about the Astronomy Tower's foot, running quickly in a torn sheet-sound a that had all in within hearing uncontrollably laughing.

Even the one little boy with James. Tom – she vaguely remembered – leaked out a little 'toot', like a distant horn. The other boys all laughed.

Not so funny, was the small First Year girl, running and shrieking and ….percussing, her way into a ladies room.

Hermione swung to confront James. But he just looked haplessly guiltless, holding out his hands to show them empty and wandless. As did all his smirking friends.

“Go to your class. Now, James.” Hermione ordered. And the boys filed past with fixed solemnity, despite Tom's occasional sounding.

That she heard explode into gales of laughing, once around the corner from her.

It was only in her Seventh Year classroom tower, alone and trying out the new self-spiraling staircase - luxurious in the ease off her always aching joints - did she permit herself to laugh.




[Seventh Year Tower]

Professor Weasley brought her books into the lecture classroom, below her old office, and looked about to see if it was comfy enough.

This was for Seventh Years, only. Unlike the austere, severely gray undecorated standard classrooms, hers was all very collegial - enormous puffy over-stuffed couches and massive floor pillows. Thick carpeting, nearly wall-to-wall. And windows out of the roof of one of tallest towers in the school. Light and air. Brilliant dialogue and a cappuccino machine in the corner.

Hermione waved her wand and all the windows opened out of the tower. Now cool air rushed in, with the refreshing sound of wind from the gray skies outside. She enjoyed this so much more than the prison cell like school rooms of the earlier grades.

Vastly more than her new office. No god-damn stinky flowers, either.

Okay, it was far from a prison cell. But she felt suffocated in those lower rooms. Or maybe, it was an overwhelming desire, sometimes, to sit on the outside edge of the tower's window sill, and revel in the precipice-like height above the roofs of the Charms buildings.

Hermione never permitted herself to do that. But it was a growing hunger.

One that she was feeling now. But had enough determination to do only alone, and before classes was not a good time. Besides, there was already one of her students in the room.

The best one.

“Jennifer! You are here early?”

“Yes, professor.” Jen tapped a small stack of text books. “Already behind in course load. Can't take reading in the common room, with all the little ones chattering.”

Hermione smiled, eyes rolling at the memory. “No, neither did I. Endless rehashing of Quidditch plays such-and-such was brilliant at, or who was holding whose hand at breakfast. And did either mean anything.”

“Oh, my god! You were in our rooms this morning.” Jen laughed, half-seriously.

“Like that most of my life, since I turned eleven, and walked into the castle for the first time.”

“And met Harry Potter and Ron ….Weasley.”

Hermione heard and smiled at the hesitation of the girl at saying that name. Jen carefully had said only 'professor' all the last three years. But she said it, her family name, now, signaling it was okay to be part of any discussion. “Met them on the train, actually. Humiliated myself, trying to make up for being a Muggle-born, not knowing anyone. Thinking they were all expert wizards for years and I was such an prat. Never thought then that I'd marry him and be Mrs. Weasley.”

Jen' tanned face lightened the room, when she smiled those brilliant white teeth. No wonder all the boys were hopelessly chasing after her.

Hermione shuffled papers about her desk, then said, “You've missed the morning excitement.”

“Oh?” The girl looked up.

The teacher put her feet up on the little footstool in front of her and closed her eyes. “Something has suddenly plagued some students with an extreme bout of flatulence.”

Cortez looked distantly, about the corners of the room, as if examining her internal condition. “Oh. Well, ........ I seem to be fine.”

“Only Hufflepuffs.” Hermione kept her expression carefully solemn.

Jennifer made an honest attempt at not breaking out in a grin, saying, “That's …..unusual.”

“I have my suspicions as to the cause.” Hermione doodled with a quill, as if testing to see if it were really dry.

Not fooling either witch.

Conversation lagged for a while. Jen resumed reading while her teacher stared out the window at the usual misty clouds about Hogwarts this morning. Hermione caught herself doing that often - daydreaming. She felt drawn to an inner conversation, almost if she was debating with the fine necklace hung figurine on her breast.

She knew it made people uncomfortable, when she just drifted off like this. The professor set about getting out some books from her bag, and scouting for the best pillows to curl up on the big chair raised above the others. It was the best chair in the castle, Hermione had determined.

Her one indulgence. Rank hath it's privileges.

Jennifer Cortez silently watched her. Hermione wondered if she was comparing herself to anyone.

If so, she was looking at the wrong Weasley.

Jen looked intently, as if making a fateful decision. “I should call you aunt.”

Finally! “Well, not in class. Not within in front of the other students. But all other times, certainly you should.” Hermione couldn't help smiling. Really, really pleased this girl was finally coming out of her shell. “When its just us, like this. You can call me Hermione. You're a adult woman, now. A full fledged witch.”

“Sounds fateful. Up in a tower, like this. So very high above the other little birds.” Jen breathed out forcefully. Her best friend and now revealed cousin, Victoire, had assured her months ago it would be like this. But Jen felt herself too coward to be so forward.

Until a half hour ago. She had given herself an ultimatum. And she chose.

She had not been reading at all. Jen had actually been daydreaming about the past two weeks. About that the girl's mother had been so blindingly wrong. As awful as that first night in the downpour had been, Jennifer had been right to walk out and not come back. She had felt liberated from that moment on. And more and more sad for Angelique Cortez. Jen refused to live her life like her mother as a recluse. Jennifer had briefly hoped maybe she could be the one to reconcile her parents.

What a futile idea that had been! Her mother had chosen and so Jen was choosing, too.

Hermione clearly heard those thoughts in Jen's mind, and busied herself with unnecessary plumping the pillow. It was driving her insane, hearing them. Suddenly, a few of someone's thoughts were clearly in her mind. Random. Uncontrollable. Unblockable. Then they were gone.

This disease of transformation was doing it to her. Charlie had warned her of this. Told her of things he had done repeatedly to try to block it.

Though, Hermione felt driving into the Danube in winter was one she could safely discount as ineffective.

“You and Robbie set a date?” Hermione was only her aunt, by marriage. But Jen had now made it plain she wanted to be considered one of the family, too. So Hermione felt she could pry all she liked.

“Yes, week after School Year's End. We could have gotten it out of the way, this past summer. Had even considered that in August, before he went off on that Amazon expedition to set up Ted's group. You know, sort of ...eloping. I'd stay to finish school, but it seemed ...easier to wait.”

It was soooooo unburdening, to have someone else she could talk about this stuff, besides Victoire. Jen felt she had to force herself not to leap into the professor's lap like a kindergartener.

It felt so silly.

The professor was smiling to herself. Jen knew she must be humiliating herself in front of her new found aunt.

Jen burst out, “What's he like?” Well, sometimes, her mouth just went and did things on its own.

That one! ….was one thought Hermione hadn't gotten from her unwelcome burgeoning dragon senses. But she readily expected the girl knew nothing of her father. From the heated and blistering things Ginny Potter fumed about the woman, Jennifer's mother, it was unlikely any positive information at all had been passed down about him.

“The brothers aren't identical. I think my husband is far better. What you see is what you get. Unlike with Ronald, I always get in a conversation with Charlie thinking he isn't completely honest with me. Withholding something, that only he can know about.” Hermione put her chin in her hand. “Think that's just his way. Part of his appeal to people. Women especially. The Man of Mystery. Leaving them think they'd be the one that could break through to 'own' Charlie.”

Jen frowned at her hands. “Sounds very unappealing.”

“Charles Weasley is not a monster, Jen.” Hermione abruptly remembered that wasn't strictly true. She corrected, “....Not the man. People change, as they get older. Your grandmother's murder. Getting married. They all combined to turn him around.” Hermione smiled, “And now maybe you, being with us. He'll not have much choice, but too accept and move onwards.”

“Doubt he'll care.”

“You are very wrong. And your mother twisted their story to suit her needs. I remember her from school. I think the seduction was extremely mutual. Certainly, Charlie wasn't the only responsible one.
Not anything as bad as he's been portrayed. And not any better than other wizard. Four, in fact, living ones, I know for a fact are vastly better men.” Hermione paused. “Okay, five. But your Uncle George is living on double secret probation. For perpetuity.”

Jen laughed gushingly, like she could barely contain her excitement at having someone else to confide with. It had been just her and her domineering, soul-crushing mother, for seventeen years. “George must be really bad. Mom never allowed me to go into the 'Wheezes' Joke Shop.”

“Probably did you an immense favor.”

“Oh, I've used Puking Pastules, and Fanged Whizbees!” Jen assured Hermione. “Even some of that Joke Itch, before the Ministry banned it off the market.” After Hermione's laughter subsided, Jen admitted, “ 'Tori got us some. She has a secret stash of Wheezes products.” Jen in fact visibly blushed, not any easy thing in her olive complexion. “Didn't know the only way to stop the comedy routine was to rip everything off. Thank Merlin, Grimauld has those extra bathrooms. Couldn't get Robbie scrubbed off enough …...”

She felt she could melt right into the floor. Her face was burning so hot.

Hermione hadn't felt so thrilled and amused in months. “I know …nothing! Nothing at all. Except I've taken a few showers myself, like that. Save a few for the honeymoon.”

There was the faint sound of someone coming up the stairs to the tower room. They were about to loose their private time. Jen earnestly leaned forward to whisper, “Herm ....Hermione, You wouldn't believe the dreams I've been having.”

Professor Weasley smiled a naughty smile. “Yes. Yes I would.”

*
 

 

 


Chapter 6: Echoes of Thunder
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[Hogwart's hallway]

Rose walked out at the tail end of the rest of the departing class. The woman teaching it had an odd, accent, apparently the new witch teaching was from someplace in Southeast Asia. Rose could only say that she had an unpronounceable name, that the woman insisted the children repeat every time they had a question. The mangled state of her polysyllable family name was matched by Madame Jayarajacudamani's own difficulty with English.

Rose actually liked the visiting teacher, despite the foreign witch's tremendous handicap of being barely comprehensible. She smiled a lot. And had absolutely no hesitation in putting loudmouth class clowns - like Rose's own cousin James - firmly into general passivity by aggressive confrontations.

Certainly not what Rose Weasley had grown up with. Wasn't Rose's mum's style as a teacher or a mother – to be honest. But Professor 'Jaya's' full decibel tirades in Khmer kept everyone's attention.


Rose walked down the corridor feeling much more confident than in the opening few days of school. Everyone seemed to know who she was, and apart from the initial few stumbling blocks, Hogwarts had been smooth sailing as far as she was concerned.

Oh, there had been some initial hazing attempts. The books being knocked out of her hands had stopped completely after the first few days. And the attempts at getting her lost for her classes had failed totally. Rose knew where everything was that mattered to a First Year student in this castle. She had prepared for this her whole life.

Nothing was going to prevent her from matching and exceeding her parents expectations. No sir!

Rose reflected a little about that, and had to admit her father's interest was mostly focused on her Quidditch training. Mommy had long explained academics were a hit or miss proposition to her father Ronald.

But he was great dad, nonetheless. Rose was determined to make him proud in sports, too.

And just now, thinking of chaos and mayhem, Rose spied her cousin James around the turn of the hallway back to the Great Keep. He waved at her as soon as she recognized him, sitting waiting by the nearest statue plinth. He wasn't supposed to sit on them, but like many 'rules', James Potter casually ignored them and (usually) got away with it.

“Hey, you!” He called.

“Hey, you, too! How come you weren't in class?” Rose asked.

James smiled easily. His resemblance to his grandfather, her Uncle Harry's dad, was the most striking in mornings like this. At least from pictures of the elder James Potter she had seen. When he had a chance to tease his hair back from its careless mop, and correctly button straight his shirt, the grandson looked almost like a decent human being.

Too bad over half of the new girls her age were falling over each other trying to pump Rose for information about the 'dreamiest' boy ever. None of them would believe Rose's declarations that the Hogwarts girls were far better off staying far away from James Potter. They had no idea at all the fiendishly twisted-evil criminal mind lurking behind that goofy grin.

Yuck!


They both began walking back down the corridor, towards the central Keeps moving stairs. Unlike many of the other new eleven years olds, they hardly ever got lost. A short lifetime of family stories gave both of them enough personal knowledge to figure out at least the main pathways.

James checked his new wristwatch and seemed focused on something elsewhere, only partly listening to her words. “Oh, Quidditch meeting. Neville …..

“Professor Longbottom.” Rose said patiently.

James blinked, remembering his cousin's annoying pedantic tendencies were coming back to preeminence for a while. At this moment, while Rose was the feted as the most brilliant First Year. That would pass. James shrugged that away, “Yeah, Professor pulled me out to attend the meeting. I am the only First Year, and won't start, of course ….”

“Of course.” Rose grinned. As Ravenclaw's brain trust had surmised, Neville Longbottom was slow compared to her new team's organizers. She and the other Ravenclaw players had convened that first evening at Hogwarts.

And Professor Yi had already gotten to her before the first day had been out, recruiting her for his House team. She, too, would be a 'deep' backbencher, for the Ravenclaw Quidditch team, naturally, but only the team and the Head of House knew that.

Ravenclaws were a crafty lot, and kept many such details tightly amongst themselves. She wouldn't fly at first, either. But late in the year and come the inevitable injuries, who knew?

James probably didn't believe her about not flying yet. Rose didn't hope to fool him, and he allowed the polite fiction to continue. Neither trusted the other. Not about Quidditch! “But, Nev ....I mean, the Professor seems to feel I should at least attend. Just in case, you know,” James said carefully

Rose laughed, “He's desperate to break Gryffindor solid run of second place finishes. He's no better than we are, in being nuts for the game.”

James had to be careful – from now on – in discussing Quidditch with his closest cousin. In this, she was his opponent. For the next seven years.

But about Professor Longbottom! Might as well be honest about that! “Bang on upset he didn't get you.” James smiled, benignly. The kids had known Neville all their lives. Rose could imagine the suddenly passionate Longbottom, easily. James continued, “Have a feeling he was kind of counting on the both of us being in the wings for the team.”

Both kids, as fitting the family Quidditch tradition, were already long experienced at family backyard broom flying. They were also both naturally better broom fliers than most upperclassmen.

Rose skipped a foot across the stone landing, onto the wood staircase up leading up to next gallery. She smiled slyly. “Trying to stock his Quidditch with family players, was he? Hah, haw! Suddenly, I'm flying for Yi and Ravenclaw, as a counter?” She may have her mother's face, but under that massive mop of red hair, there lurked a naughty glimpse of her dad and Uncle George, for sure. “My, my! Whatever could the Professor be stooping to. Even Mom will think that is funny.”

James tilted his head in a side-ways shake of a head. “Dunno, frankly. When they visit in November, she might not laugh when we begin losing because Gryffindor can't fly straight. The guy picked to be our captain seemed fairly confused out there.”

“Maybe a secret tactic to foil us all. Professor Longbottom is actually a devious, secret manipulator, and a genius in building a Quidditch juggernaut, under disguise of incompetence.”

“Pretty thick disguise, if you ask me, privately,” James glanced about him, to see if any close to him could hear him speak. “Give us a year or two, but pretty much what I saw at the first tryouts wasn't much better than last year's team. Just between the both of us, if I'm honest.” Both of them had visited last year's game, between Hufflepuff and Gryffindor. Teddy' final year, and his one as Team Captain.

Poor Ted had been about the only skilled player Gryffindor had. They had won, but not brilliantly.

Rose nodded with a little understanding resignation. That was exactly her teammates assessment. Might as well be honest with James as he seemed to be with her. “Kind of figured that. Ours won't be vastly better, but I haven't had a chance to see us fly yet. Got to be better than last year's last House place mob.” Rose philosophically sighed, and both kids nodded agreement, reaching a mid-level landing in the Central Keep.

Both she and her cousin were already lost in love with the sport. Much to her mother's and other aunts dismay. Not Aunt Ginny, of course, but then again, she was a famous professional player herself, once upon a time, in those ancient days before they were even born. Rose had seen the pictures to prove it. But Ginny was a lone female supporter in a family of frankly male-dominated Quidditch crazies.

At least Ginny now had her niece, Rose (finally!), for female company.

They chatted about other school things, then reached the Fourth floor. Rose got ready to walk to her House tower. “See you at lunch,” She asked?

“Ummm, yes, sure.” James looked thoughtful and said distractedly, “Still kind of strange.”

“What, lunch?”

“No, you going into Ravenclaw Tower.”

“It's the girls dorm I sleep in, James! Not a concentration camp!”

The young Potter made an annoyed face and shrugged, “Well, yeah, I know. Just, seemed like you and me were ….... you know.”

“Both destined for Gryffindor greatness?” Rose sighed but rolled her eyes in mock despair. “I have it on good authority that Dad had a colossal fit, when Mom told him, the next day. About me in Ravenclaw. Could you imagine anything else? Even had a backyard shouting match with your dad, if you want to know.”

“Really?” James hadn't heard that.

“Hugo sends me quick notes. I got him a fast owl, for his birthday. They patched it up, pretty quickly, but Dad is always a little out of sorts when one of your dad's predictions against him comes true.”

“Well, you'll be the only one. All the rest of us are Gryffindor, for sure.”

“Hmmm.” Rose said with careful neutrality.

James wasn't listening again. “Hugo, huh? I have to get him on my network. I am sadly lacking in home intelligence, since Al and Lily are back in school. Uncle Ron and Dad usually have a shouting match, once a season, about something or other. Seems traditional, from what Granddad says.” James ever intelligent face was alive with speculation. “Didn't hear a thing about this one.”

“They patch it up. Always do.” Rose suddenly looked about. There were other students walking past, others on the moving stairs lifting up or down past them. But there seemed nothing else remarkably unusual, apart from Peeves the Poltergeist's distant cackle as he caught two new students in some moronic practical joke trap set up down at the main entrance lobby.

“Okay, what's about to happen?”

“Nothing. Actually,” James seemed surprised. “Why?”

“I've known you all my life. Please. You are an open book to me, James. You're dawdling and keep glancing up toward odd corners. And at your watch. Planning! Who are you waiting for? Are our shoes about to fly off our feet or maybe some new farting, perhaps.”

“Don't know what you mean.” James waved that away, as inconsequential. “Something like that, was just …..happenstance. Could easily have been some upper class prank. Or something the House Elves served for just the Hufflepuff table. Have no idea, myself.”

Rose looked as likely to believe the Elves did anything wrong in the always excellent food preparation as to become a goblin. “Pants bursting into flame? Teeth falling out of our heads, stuck into the Cornish pasties?”

James didn't deign to answer. But did make a considered second thought look, grabbing his chin and nodding at the 'Burning Pants' idea. “Igniting Knickers. Not a bad idea!”

Rose snorted derisively, looking about the hallway and the other students passing. Nothing seemed out of place. But then again, that was a classic James Potter scenario.

Peaceful. Silent. Then flying cream pies to the face.

Speaking of the devil, Peeves came soaring up, laughing hysterically at something he had done, and waved a jaunty salute in passing to the young Potter. “Jamesy-Wamsy, Keep up the good-sie work-sies!”

James Potter distantly acknowledging the salute, still seemed half aware he'd been happily congratulated by the most infamous school practical joker. And looked back in sudden surprise at cousin Rose's wry superior smirk. “What?”

“Think you were born guilty.”

“Probably, but Uncle George and Lee Jordan say I will grow out of it.”

Rose eyed the distant moving staircase. She could see a number of the older kids, most of them Hufflepuffs. Unconcernedly laughing and carefree on what was supposed to be totally safe and secure travel within the castle.

On moving stone staircases. Suspended above a vast, airy gulf without external support or obvious means of locomotion.

That made Rose pause in thoughtful consideration.

James knew that look in his closest cousin's face. There was a secretive practical joker, in Rose Weasley. No matter how much she pretended to be superior to James.

But whatever it was, she said nothing of it. Making a bored face and tightening up the pile of books in her hands, she said, “I weep, for our generation, the day you no longer feel guilty about what you do.” Rose said in undertone, getting her books snugger about her chest, as if for protection. With louder resigned indulgence, she said, “Whatever you have planned, wait till I get within my Tower, please?”

James looked annoyed. “Nothing is happening. See you in the dining hall.” But he remained waiting, while she walked farther along. Rose occasionally glanced back and found it ominous that James seemed to be innocently smiling and waving her goodbye.

The Ravenclaw door shut her from his view.

Almost at the same instant, several upper class students were visible to him, on a lower stair, rising up to a floor beneath him. All Hufflepuffs. All now familiar to him from the Hogwarts Express ride, last weekend.

Also right on time, too.

The tall, boyish young witch sneered up at him, making some jest that her muscle-bound lackeys all giggled stupidly at. Till they walked out of sight of James.

“Nothing has happened …...Yet!” James said to his now absent cousin, leaving with a secret smile as he turned back to view the airy depths of the vast keep, and it's constantly moving and shuffling staircases.



[late afternoon, Deputy Headmaster's office]

Hogwart's Headboy and Headgirl, both of whom were from Hufflepuff, daintily drew up their trouser legs, and showed the evidence of the crime.

“Don't you think I can see the obvious?” Headmaster Flitwick worried a curled tip of his mustache, glaring up at both Yi and the vacantly smiling boys, sitting on the bench inside Yi Chen's office. “And unfortunately, there is absolutely no evidence, dammit! Yi, how could these four be the culprits, when they are in your own damn class, when it happened?”

Yi, too, looked worried and uncertain, waving to the two older students that they could go. And distractedly locked the deputy's door behind them. And just absolutely had no idea how Potter and his new friends had managed the stunt. But was dead certain these devils knew. Oh, he was certain!  “Someway …..somehow, Filius, I know they have something to do with this!”

Exactly, how every 'left' sock, and not their shoes, of all the students belonging to Hufflepuff House, and their Head of House, was missing and unaccounted for, was unknown.

They'd all vanished in a split second of one another. Walking. Strolling. In their dresser drawers.

All except the Hufflepuff First Year Boy sitting in the lecture room with these little hoodlums. It couldn't be a coincidence.

“Mr. Akira. Do you know anything about this incident?” Flitwick picked on the one nervous looking youth, shifting quick glances at the other three.

The Slytherin boy was a Muggle-born. It was painfully obvious he could have not been the master mind. “No, sir. I don't know anything about it. Can't vanish the shoe on me own foot.”

The other three 'gang' members, Touchant, Vickers and Langford made ghosts of small giggles, then sobered up at Yi's scowl. To Yi Chen, James Potter sat with enormous aplomb, as if a thin, scrawny, dark-haired tomcat certain he would walk out Scot free with the still-wriggling mouse in one cheek!

Headmaster Flitwick growled. The little man -that nobody played a fool of - was stumped and fairly certain he'd just been completely made a fool. He was also secretly in awe. Not since the fabled last days of the Weasley twins, Fred and George, had anyone played a school-wide trick of this extent and magnitude.

It just couldn't be these First Years!

One last time! “Are any of you, at this moment, in possession of any facts pertaining to the identity of the perpetrators and the destination of the said missing items?”

There was further dead silence. Flitwick pulled in a long breath and let it out, just as long. “I warn you, if I find you are lying, or complicit in hiding any information from me or Professor Yi, there will be consequences.” The tiny man tapped at the nearby desk with one hand, twisting and unintentionally straightening one mustache tip with the other.

What consequences? For missing socks! Filius had absolutely nothing to threaten with.

To the rescue, good Ol' Chen had a sudden twinkle in his eyes, and smoothly injected. “If I may, Headmaster?” Flitwick and the boys all looked to the thin Chinaman. “Since one House was afflicted, almost certainly due to some ….group or groups from other school Houses' fiendish plans, I think all of the others should come to their aid. Some number of the others House points, equally distributed, will be portioned out to Hufflepuff as compensation. Since the school will have to buy all new pairs of stockings or socks to some one hundred students, this only seems fair that all contribute.”

“Ah, excellent suggestion.” Flitwick seemed at once pleased. If nothing else proved Yi's hunch, Potter's sudden angry clench of his jaw showed he knew more than he let on.

Had any of the four had more time within Hogwarts, they might have had more courage to speak out in utter outrage at the unfairness. But all four were still eleven-year old boys. The one Slytherin was a Muggle-born, in fact, and still nervous about wizardry. They just mutely stared in shock.

“That will be all, gentlemen. Supper time will begin shortly. You can just head back to your dormitories till then. I'm sure the announcement will make for exciting dinnertime conversation.”

The four just got up and trooped out. There was no outburst or sudden guilty admission.

When the door snicked shut, and the lock latched of its own accord, Flitwick let out his held breathe, and …......laughed! “Holy cow, Merlin, and the rest of the barnyard animals! Yi. The entire school! At once! Maybe, just maybe, I could do that, to a room-full of students. If I was in direct sight. Could you?”

Yi sat down slumped at his desk chair. “Not even the first row. And not a single left shoe was touched. A couple of girls in stockings were suddenly a bit discomfited. Almost had a wardrobe malfunction in that connecting tower near in Herbology. That was the real extent. This was a prank, but ….”

“What a prank, Chen!” Flitwick sat on the now vacated bench. It was the closest to his height he could hop up to without loss of dignity. “I'm in real awe. And now not sure if these four could have done that alone. James might have some of his father's skill, but he is still only twelve.”

Yi helplessly twiddled his fingers. “So that was my idea, of punishing the rest of the school. Others, or at least one other, probable upperclassmen, knows of this. If nothing else, that gets several hundred disgruntled inmates of these four watching them. Whichever the true architect of today’s miracle, I want to shake his or her hand, and then sentence said culprit to knitting all the replacements, by hand.”

Flitwick nodded, and got back to his feet. “Smart thinking. I will consult my panel of painted funny pictures, to see if they have insight.” Filius humphed. “Doubt they will do more than laugh!”

His old friend, Chen, just shook his head, tapping the side of his head. “School told us nothing, Filius. Nothing at all. Still hasn't done anything more than tell me there was a screaming girl, out in the one stairwell.”




[Meanwhile, in the hallway leading away from Yi's office]

“Wow!” whispered Jeremy.

Big Jim giggled, stupidly nudging the others, “Yeah, I mean, wow!”

“You sure you didn't, James?” said Yoshi Akira with more care, looking about to see who could overhear.

“For the last time, Yoshi, how could I have? I could do your sock, maybe if you were standing still. No! Correction, maybe both of your socks, only if I knew what they looked like ...” James carefully stated.

That was completely true. James Potter had absolutely no facility with complex charms of that nature.

But he knew who might!


“That is some one hundred socks, from all over the castle.” Jeremy Langford tapped on his opposite palm with his other fingers, as if calculating. “All at once. Boys, girls, all shapes, and sizes ….all lefties.”

“Apparently, halves of several girls pantyhose, to the bargain.” Manuel Vickers added. “Or are those a hose, each?”

“That is a little disturbing.” James had to admit.

“Why didn't we think of this?” Jeremy wondered out loud.

“That's what disturbs me.”

“Exactly half of some peoples underwear. Either way, they may be perverts, but they got our attention.” Akira opened a door to let them all enter into the Keep.

James Potter had to agree. “Yeah, Yoshi. Some other person or group just announced we aren't the biggest thing to hit the news at the old castle.”

“Group. Has to be.” But Langford the Ravenclaw now was thinking a little more clearly. And worried! “But who? And are they in competition?”

“Knowingly letting us take the fall. I'd say that's for certain.”

“And in one blow, Hufflepuff is twice as far as the rest of the Houses in points.” Jeremy was the paranoid of the group. “Wonder if they did it to themselves.”

That did set the rest to wondering. James had to agree that was a devious possibility. “We will keep that as a backup scenario. Obviously we would take the blame, even with no evidence. But that sounds like too much forward thinking for most of the 'Puffs I've met. And there is also the odd fact of not getting Tom. And he is one of us. The others are sure to blame any of his mates. That sends a signal.”

“At us. Yi was bound to hound us, especially when one of our own wasn't hit. Yi and the 'Puffs' will think we did it. And we have no proof other than our word.”

James Potter was now beginning to regret his sudden rise in notoriety. “That won't get me far.”

“It might mean war.”

James nodded, gesturing them on down the stairs towards the Main Hall.

A war of practical jokes with the Hufflepuff tormentors of he and his friends. James felt he was more than capable of meeting the challenge. But time was not ripe yet to reveal to his new friends all he knew.

He also didn't know exactly how many of them he could trust.

He stuck to dissembling. “Whoever it is .….....? He, she or they ...is devious. Powerful. And a bit twisted enough to go for girls underwear. Fellows, I say we have a fair fight, on our hands.”



[A week later]

James didn't count on at least one of his enemies reacting so fast.

As the hours crawled by over the last few days, there seemed a tremulous air of expectation about Hogwarts. As if all held their breath. Waiting for the next 'big thing' to happen. Neither Flitwick nor Yi seemed to able to control events. They couldn't be everywhere at once, and without specific wrongdoing and culprits at hand, the Hogwarts administrators were left with mumbling vague threats and waiting for retaliation to happen.

Revenge struck as 'out from the blue'!

As protection, all four of the Houses seemed mutually to have independently decided on departing from their House common rooms as groups. Before the mornings first class started, the largest body of kids needing to go to class got the majority of the upperclassmen escorting them. The targets had all been First Years, with the majority split between Gryffindor and Hufflepuff. Whether or not that was necessary or even wise, had been hotly debated. After the second day, the other two Houses stopped bothering, confident they would be mere spectators.

Some argued traveling as 'herds' merely concentrated the targets in one easy located bunch. James fell into that camp, fearing they were only making themselves easier to attack. But as he was the head secret perpetrator of actions against the offending twits of Hufflepuff – as well as a young, insignificant First Year - he could hardly speak his mind.

Too late! This morning, he never got the chance. By whatever weird acoustics that shaped sounds - as with light - within Hogwarts, each individual Gryffindor trooped out past the Fat Lady's portrait. And then slid out from under his or her feet and out the corridor, as if on an immense slide no one could see. All without the person behind having the least clue what ones before had just been hit with.

The corridor was fast littered with screaming, sliding kids, of all ages. Banging into statues, careening off suits of armor. Several, including James, got hung up at an odd corner, like fallen leaves in a stream. But soon got cleared out by a hurling Fifth Year, knocking them all loose like a cue ball at billiards.

They banged off corridor walls, closed doorways, the Gryffindor girls restroom and generally fell into one another as if everything was made of ice or some completely frictionless surface. And all sixty to eighty odd students sliding to certain doom against the tiny, too little railing that bordered the walkway in the immensely airy and gulf-like Central Keep.

Of course, that stopped them. One by one, Gryffindors slid out from the magically slick corridor to impact against the railing. The immensely powerful magic that prevented any student from hurling objects (or themselves) out into the vast Keep stopped them as if against a great fish net. But each impacted on the ones below, and it became a shouting chorus of voices from the cheering and jeering other three Houses, watching from below or across the Keep's roving staircases. They began counting out loud as each one struck into the pile of others.

One of the watching Ravenclaws helpfully magicked a glowing number into the broad space of the Keep. A rising body count, increasing for all to see as each body thudded into the next.

Only stopping when a furious adult finally pounded his way up to the Fifth floor.

By the time Neville Longbottom reached the entrance to Gryffindor Tower's corridor, the last First Year had just crunched into the groaning mass collected against the railing. The usually placidly benevolent Neville's features twisted in anger and he shouted some spell that flashed with a thunderclap sound that echoed off the stone of Hogwarts central keep.

When everyone's eyes adjusted back to normal, the hallway looked the same as it did before.

Neville looked back at the silent, watching students, about the Keep. He shook his fist. “When I find who's done this, there will be hell to ….” as his stepped back into the frozen hallway, and slipped flat onto his face and slid into the still-struggling mass.

Which let out one more collective groan.



[Several Days later]

Jennifer came out from a castle hidden passage. After six years, even she was more or less adept at the shortcuts – magical instant doorway or just medieval tunnel– that were worlds unto themselves within the old gray stone pile. Quite apart from the original thrill of being of a select few that knew of a hidden path, for Seventh Year students it was almost mandatory in getting back and forth between classes, on time.

She was also guilty of having a sudden return of the old crippling fear of heights. Jen knew no harm could come to her falling off into the Great Keep's vast space. But despite the Headmaster's assertions all was now safe, Jen and several other Gryffindors voted with their feet and took back passages and alternate routes.

It was going to take a few weeks to forget that seeming terminal slide into oblivion.

This particular hidden corridor was supposed to reach a hallway near the Library. But unfortunately, the passage had a fork in the path that was easy for one to go onto the slightly wrong passage. Jen came to what had to be the backside of a tapestry she did not recognize.

She debated retracing her steps but figured her new motto in life was 'what the Hell', so why not! And she batted the thick cloth to one side.

Finding she had been hidden behind a tapestry of 'The Novice with his Pants on Fire' – on a ground floor in a castle wing opposite where she needed to be. Doubly unfortunate, beating the old fabric aside was a mistake, as what seemed actual soot blew out in a small cloud and Cortez was now faintly covered in fine black dust.

The tapestry's main character whooped and hollered and occasionally screamed, flapping his perpetual burning undergarments in the woven breeze. Which -of course – dusted the air in the vicinity and all over Jen's face.

And she immediately was seized by a tremendous sneeze.

Allergies always got to her, this time of year.

Jen opened her eyes, to find a quiet tableau staring back at her in surprise. Of a First Year boy with the look of a frightened mouse surrounded by Bolton, McGloughie and DeZitterinni from Hufflepuff. Grinning insolently up at her when they recognized who she was.

And Czyrcyk, sitting quietly to one side, observing her minions harass the new boy.

Jennifer thought better of her that this kind of thing. Disappointing that she continued to shepherd Boulder, Gooie and Zit – as they were more popularly known – in a daily trawl for hapless victims. Jen's appearance had stopped anything more serious. But the boy looked both scared and immensely relieved.

Jen would deal with him, firstly. “You have a class in five minutes, Mr. Lowell. You need to get there.”

“I know miss. I, I, ….....I was just trying to pass by …..”

McGloughie sniggered, stupidly. He was taller than Jennifer, but not in a menacing way. His advantage in being a bully was that he was actually clever. That and being too weak-willed to do anything other than what the more forceful of his companions told him to do.

Jen calmly pointed a hand back the way she had just arrived. Instead of giving into the temptation of using the same hand to slap McGloughie in the face. “Well, Benjamin, then take the passage here behind the tapestry. Right to where you need to go for Charms.”

Lowell stuttered, “Did ...did, d...i di de do …..Didn't know.” Young Ben forced that out, conscious he was surrounded by older students who would all vividly remember his inability to speak. He was red-faced in embarrassment, and turned further pink when DeZitterinni smirked.

Patiently ignoring the boy's stuttering, Cortez said patiently, “I know. Place is lousy with passages like this. You'll learn. Just remember not to take the one behind the fairies tending the flowers, up on the Fifth Floor.”

“Ummm, okay.” The boy said uncertainly.

“Straight to the sewers.” Jennifer said in resignation. “Trust me! Takes awhile to remove that smell, once you've been in it for a time.”

“Oh,” Lowell blushed deep red, and edged past 'The Boulder'. “Thanks, that's a good tip, Miss!”

DeZitterinni, dark-haired and menacing looking with a cut lip that was barely healed over, snorted a derisive grunt. But the boy didn't hesitate to flee - given the chance - and the tapestry was flapping back down from the quick speed of his passage past.

DeZitterinni turned his attention to Jen. Suddenly she regretted the skirt and blouse combination she had picked that morning. Probably, nothing less than a full suit of armor would have made her feel more comfortable being ogled by those rat-like eyes. “Hey, beautiful!” he drawled. “Liking the change in scenery, every second ….”

She loathed this boy. The repulsive thoughts of her that 'Zit' must have going through his rodent mind made it difficult to keep her self-imposed vow to not strike out at him. But Jen was the 'adult' here. “That's Five Points from Hufflepuff, Mr. DeZitterinni. Another comment like that will send you straight to the Headmaster.”

Magically charmed, there was a faint sensation through their shoes of five solid thumps through the stone floor, of jewels being removed from the great House container far distant in the Great Hall.

All three boys startled. 'Gooie' reacted faster by angrily saying, “Hey, you shit! You can't do that ….”

“Another point, Mr. McGloughie, for insolence and language.” That point – too – tapped the feet of all within the castle. The blonde-haired boy – his pleasant deceptively innocent face stuck unable to decide if he should be meek or again try his luck.

He shut up.

“You isn't a pre-fect,” Bolton rather stolidly said. Sort of like an ox that could speak English part time.

“Once a prefect, always a prefect of Hogwarts, Mr. Bolton . Don't wear the badge because I am exempt from ordinary duties.” Jennifer tapped an imaginary spot on her collar and stepped closer to the lumbering Third Year old.

Jen wasn't so used to throwing her 'rank' around. But it was entirely true. They were not teachers, but all of the Seventh Year students still attending Hogwarts were prefects of the school or teaching assistants. Or both. Jen Cortez was an assistant – or 'The Assistant' – in a half dozen different classes at school. Certainly, she knew more magic than all four of these thirteen-year olds combined. She looked 'up' – as Bolton towered over her – and she said, “Or perhaps you'd like to join your mates here, in testing that out.”

He shut his mouth. Only the large boy's eyes in his pudgy face revealed any malevolent thought. But he was intimidated by Cortez.

For now!

All three surly boys stepped another pace back from her, looking now more mouse-like than Ben Lowell a few moments ago.

Behind them, Czyrcyk rolled her eyes. But said nothing and made no move to join the boys. Her supposed best friends.

She wasn't stupid!

Jen turned to the tall, thin 'Gooie' McGloughie. “You have Astronomy class ten minutes ago, Mr McGloughie. And if I am not mistaken from yesterday's class work, you have a rather abysmal appreciation of the stars of the zodiacal constellations.”

“Yeah, a ….bit ….” McGloughie looked nervously.

“That's 'Yes, Miss Cortez!” Jennifer said in a low menacing voice.

“Yes, Miss Cortez.” McGloughie corrected himself, with just a tiny shade of insolence in his voice.

Jennifer stared at him coldly, but felt rather worthless at scaring anyone. An annoying sense of duty to serve the needs of the student in this dead beat prevailed. “Get you going then. We will work on that when I get upstairs.”

The three sheepishly began to move past her, but Jen halted them with, “Mr. McGloughie, your class is that way. The stairs at the end of the hall. Mr. DeZitterinni, we will continue to have a discussion in the Deputy's office. In five minutes!”

One of the others made brief chuckling sound. DeZitterinni colored at that but resentfully turned the other way in the direction of Professor Yi's all too familiar office.

McGloughie wavered but hesitantly began walking back the opposite direction.

That left Bolton and Natasha, but Jennifer had a plan for that, too.

“Mr. Bolton , the tapestry passage leaves off by the First Floor stairs by Hufflepuff commons. The tunnel to the right. Just go there till your next class in one hour.”

How Cortez seemed to have an encyclopedic memory of their courses and schedules and pre-determined places to be in Hogwarts was frankly baffling to all three boys. And she didn't enlighten the bullies. So the three hoodlums all meekly went off in their separate directions. Czyrcyk made a start to following McGloughie.

“A moment, of your time, Miss Czyrcyk,” Jen said crisply. “It won't take but a minute.”.

“Hey, now. She don't do nothing …..” DeZitterinni said suspiciously.

“I am well aware that she DID NOT, Mr. DeZitterinni. We have womens health issues to discuss. But by all means, please remain. And add to the our discussion with your insight into clearer skin and muscle cramping. It will be most instructive.” Jen said challengingly, doing her best to sound as authoritarian as her favorite teacher.

Bolton sniggered, and even Natasha gave DeZitterinni doubtful look.

DeZitterinni just glared at her and Jennifer and left in a huff. But giving Czyrcyk another glance filled with suspicion before he turned the corner down the hall.

When they were alone, the two girls faced one another, leaning on opposites sides of the now empty corridor.

Jen didn't want to talk about those three. If they somehow vanished from existence – in the next few minutes – the world would be marvelously better. “How are you doing, Natasha?”

“Fine.” Czyrcyk said curtly. As if reluctant to voice familiarity, even though they were alone, Natasha finally quietly added “ … Jennifer.”

“I've been listening, all week, and you've seemed to mastered speaking rather well. Hardly heard you stutter at all.”

Czyrcyk visibly tensed. That was something she hated being brought up. But because Jen herself had helped – on her own time – to get Natasha to overcome her stuttering. She couldn't pretend not to acknowledge Jen's words. “Yeah, well. Not a problem …...... any more to be bothered with. Just sometimes, when I'm angry or flustered ….. that sort of thing.”

“Like young Lowell, just here a moment ago. No different from me, when I was in his or your shoes, six years past. Someone helped me. You could be a great help to him, if you tried ….”

“I'm no flogging prefect or teacher.”

“And you are not a thug or a coward.” Jen couldn't help responding to Czyrcyk's belligerence. But she did her best to be the adult speaking to a errant young witch. “Or at least you're more capable of being something other than that. I am disappointed to see you still with these three.”

Stubbornly, Czyrcyk glared and stiffened her face even more, challengingly standing toward Jen. “My mates, ain't they? Where were you when it was us being tossed around, like that little fart Lowell?” Natasha's voice hardened. “All well and good to be Miss Teacher's Pet and Honorary Prefect, La-Te-Dah ….”

“Don't! …....Natasha.” Jen said quietly, in a warning whisper.

Czyrcyk recognized she was pushing the limits of a Third Year speaking up to a Seventh Year, so she bit off the rest. She nodded, accepting their respective places. “So that's it then? You're here to keep us little blokes in line, just like the other tossers. ….”

“None of you is so little anymore. DeZitterinni is a disgusting shit. I should just let him free to insult the girls he passes by. Get himself expelled. We are better off done with the like of him. McGloughie is just a follower. Lazy and he'll go or do anything 'The Zit' tells him to. A sad waste of a wizard.” Jen watched Natasha's face, seeing the truth in her eyes. “Tell me I'm wrong!”

Czyrcyk didn't. The girl knew what her friends were like.

“And poor Bolton is just a thick sod. About as much initiative as this handkerchief in my hand.” Jen opened up her fist to display the cloth she had to carry around because of the damn sneezing.

“Keep him and Gooie out of trouble, mostly. Kind of failing that, with Zit. He is a right bastard and I seem to have less a handle on him than before.” Czyrcyk said in regretful voice. It had been all four of them, against the crueler ones at Hogwarts.

Once upon a time.

Natasha said to Jen with more assertion, trying to explain. “That's what I do, now. Keep them in line. My sort of roll, now. Don't take no lip from DeZitterinni. He's learned to keep it civil when he talks to any in the House. Around me he does, anyrode!” Natasha grimly flexed a long, strong hand, “That's why the shit has a bust lip.”

Jen nodded, understanding, “Wondered.”

“They were my mates, when there was nobody. Nobody! Do you know what that is like?”

“Yes! Yes I do, Natasha. All so painfully, truly well remembered. And I clung to the ones that befriended me ….”

“And they all turned out beautiful and charming and all so brilliant.” Czyrcyk said sarcastically. “Not all of us are so lucky, Cortez.”

“Luck?” Jen echoed in faint dismay. “I was thrown out of my mother's house, a month ago. She threw my suitcase out into the rain and pushed me to follow.”

Even a hard-case like Czyrcyk winced to hear it. It sounded very familiar. “That is tough. But you seem to have landed okay. You are a Weasley, yeah? One of them, after all.”

“You make me sound like I have a disease.” Jen couldn't help the sound of hurt leaking in her voice. The tall Third Year had always been a tough girl to get to know. Her looks and her demeanor a shield from a much rougher upbringing than Jen could imagine. “Shouldn't change anything for you and me. I'm still the same. Just another illegitimate daughter their playboy left behind. Never special.”

“Think he's not their favorite. And by all accounts you seem to be getting benefit of the doubt.”

It was a slap in the face, to have her fortune turned into a point against her. But Jen wasn't a fair weather friend. Victoire's folks had come for her, when it seemed bleakest. She wasn't ever going to forget that. “Didn't know them, 'Tasha. His family has been kind to me all out of proportion to what I thought. If I can be wrong, so can you.”

Natasha laughed. It had the unintended effect of softening her hard edges. The normally grim set to her jaw and the sullen look in her eye was gone and there was that lost happy girl Jen saw for tiny glimpses. “Then your set, Jennifer. One of us got her fairy godmother. The dice rolled well for you.”

“Stop talking like this a prison. You get decent grades, sometimes even exceptional. Learn how to handle magic and you are your own woman.”

“Hard to see that far ahead. Don't think I'm going to be able to put up with Old Hoggie's rules for much longer.”

Jen made a disgusted face. “Not if you are wiping DeZitterinni's and McGloughie's asses for them. Protecting them. Those three surely won't be here another year.” The older teen rubbed her behind. “Who do I have to thank for the armored boot up by my behind?”

Natasha made a wry face, looked either way down the hall. “Sorry about that. McGloughie's doing. He is good with Glacius.”

Cortez sniffed, “It was pretty good prank. Half of us are afraid to walk out to the Keep stairway.”

“Wasn't aimed at you, personally. The rest in our House were pretty irate about the socks. Took it personally that some little shit is here a few weeks and has all the prof's singing his praises.”

“Nobody knows who did it. Not even Flitwick. Potter did nothing.” Jen gave a shake of her head. “People are all a buzz because of his last name being Potter. He's just barely twelve. He hasn't even mastered tying his shoes with magic.”

“If I said you told me this, I'd be laughed out of Hufflepuff commons. Why should we believe you wouldn't protect him?”

“I would protect him. Just like you. Just like that boy a few minutes ago. Do you think I am lying?” Jen was still for a few seconds and got no answer. “Believe what you want. Stop this before it becomes something that will gets someone hurt. This is turning into a stupid feud, over nothing.”

Czyrcyk sighed angrily. “Maybe. I could give a rat's ass for being pranked. I have my own reasons for disliking Potter's family. The little bastard is the glue for others. Everybody knows. I can see that, just sitting in at dinner.”

“Is that going to prove anything. Make up for your dad in prison and mother abandoning you? Make a little boy hurt?”

Natasha did recoil a little. But the girl was not easily forgiving.

Surprisingly, she was a lot like Jen's best friend. Maybe that was why Victoire was so hostile to Jen's choice of mentoring project.

“Both of you are incredibly smart and completely waste your talents on belittling, juvenile stunts at one another's expense. Stop it, Now!” Jen felt some her despair leak into her voice. It was so futile! “You and James are a pair, Natasha. If both of you spent a fraction of the time doing what the school asks of you, you'd be able to make the stairs sing.”

“That's pretty lame.”

“I'm not good with extravagant phrases and impressing people with my speech. I'd rather convince you to come back to my tutoring. Please?”

But the earlier comparison of Natasha and James Potter was a mistake. Czyrcyk said with a sneer, “No little mage-lets or lordlings, like the rest of you Weaslings! Nobody cared how I grew up, or that my Da' was two-timing tosser who palmed me off on his rotten sister. Who doesn't want me back because she and her husband think that's why all the Potter-lovers hate them. Not because they are skin-flint, miserly shits.”

“Precisely why you got to be here, 'Tasha. The Headmaster has made a special effort to get special students - like you and me – to Hogwarts.”

“Turned out you were just that more special than the rest of us.” But Natasha relented a little at Jen's hurt look. “You get to be up in the tower, with her 'nibs'. Brilliant, like Professor Weasley and you know it! You belong here. I don't. I am going to keep protecting those that were my friends.”

“Those friends won't do the same for you, 'Tasha. I'm just as certain as I can be.” She looked sadly at Natasha, but nodded. “Said all we need to say, then.”

Jen took a step in the direction DeZitterinni had disappeared. Certain he was not going to where she'd sent him. And now looking forward to finding him inevitably dawdling on the way. “And a point to Hufflepuff,” Jen said to the air of the corridor, and the thumping sensation returned to the girl's feet. Different this time. Noticeably, a feeling of a point awarded all in the castle could sense.

“Wot was that for? I'm not your toady.” Natasha looked suspiciously at Jen.

“For giving DeZitterinni a fat lip. Do it again, if he says a crack about a girl in your hearing. Break his jaw, if it is worse than just words.” Jen gave Czyrcyk an arched look. “But you didn't get that from me. I don't know a thing about his injuries. You got that?”

Natasha slowly nodded, and they walked their separate ways.

Not really friends, but …........ Czyrcyk didn't know what the two of them were.

Survivors? Or victims?

Jen turned the corner, out of sight of the corridor she had just left, and sagged her behind onto a statue's plinth. She was hopeless. A pathetic former rules enforcer who had just told the most notorious school basher to thump another student, if she so chose. A girl who could be so much better than that.

Jen walked toward the Deputies office. Hating herself a little more.

*
 

 

 

 


Chapter 7: Meetings
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Professor Neville Longbottom took his lunch plate of food into the teacher's lounge. He hated eating alone, and he had been late for lunch. As usual.

But the House elves habitually left a setting aside, well informed of Longbottom's whereabouts and habits.

In the Great Hall, Neville was alone of the faculty present. Of the people he usually sat with, Hermione off in her tower and Luna in her library. Only studying older students or latecomers for lunch were sitting or bustling amongst each other at the tables. And as much as he usually had no problem sitting at the teachers' table, Neville currently hated the attention his bandaged and reset broken nose drew.

He looked in around the door jamb of the entrance to the lounge. Expecting to find his favorite reading chair empty.

Twittingham sat by himself in the room. Nibbling on a corner of a sandwich.

In Neville's chair!

“Oh, sorry to intrude,” Longbottom said in a nasally sounding voice. Neville uselessly wavered by the door. Uncertain if he should turn around and go back to the main table.

Twittingham looked up. He had been reading from a small, leather-bound book. Which he immediately snapped shut and shoved into an inner cloak pocket. “By all means. This is your as well as mine.” Twittingham motioned one hand about the room.

Of course, he made no movement to get out of the overstuffed chair. Neville decided it would be silly to stand there and moved to the main table in the room. Clearing a space from the usual crowd of textbooks and wizard reference tomes piled about, Neville set down his plate. “I'll ….just quick wolf this down.”

“I was just noting something in my diary.” Twittingham sounded distracted.

Longbottom just made a neutral grunting sound and continued eating. Twittingham usually kept to himself and had ignored most of Neville previous attempts to talk. Longbottom was not really great at conversation, either, and was uncomfortably aware that the man might want to 'talk' because he mistook Neville's normal courtesy for interest.

Neville was not interested. He had never like the study of Dark Arts or the defense there of. And Neville did not know this man. After two years, this might be the longest conversation he had had with the Dark Arts wizard. Longbottom wasn't even sure what his first name was.

Twittingham made the first conversational volley. “The injuries do not impair your appetite?”

Neville paused in the middle of a big bite. Getting some of it down, he managed, “Maaw. Mot rear-ry”

“Aww.” Twittingham nodded and that seemed to be the extent of what he wanted to know.

Neville hungrily devoured the rest of his sandwich and soup, and conversation lagged into silence, only broken by Longbottom smacking his lips and slurping the last of the broth from his bowl.

“Your nose …..seem to be mending.”

That caused Neville to pause, once more.

At least this time, he didn't have his mouth full!

Longbottom was uncomfortable about talking about slamming face first in front of everyone. Neville had rather spectacularly lost his temper in front of the whole school body and then fallen flat on his face. Breaking his nose and reminding everyone of that the old tosser Longbottom was still around and clumsier than ever.

Luna said it made him look rugged and sexy. Like battle scars.

She was a bit daffy, his witch.

The nurse said it would heal up nicely and the bandages begone within a day. At least the raccoon-like bruising had been eliminated. If Neville could think of someway to make the stupid protecting brace vanish, life would be back to more or less perfect again.

“Errr, yes. Gone by tomorrow. Bandages ….anyway.” Longbottom almost touched the apex of the triangular bandage, where the tip of his nose would be underneath. “Still a little …...sensitive.”

“Glacius. Such a simple spell.”

Neville stopped chewing and looked briefly uncomfortable about himself, Twittingham and the nearby chairs. As if he had missed some part of the conversation and was looking for neighbors to help out.

But the two wizards were alone.

“Not ….not too good at charms, myself. Why I stuck to plants. Simpler for a old codger like me ….”

Twittingham waved his hands, suddenly animated. “Incredibly hard. Only a handful of specialists in the world. You are a recognized expert. We can't excel in all things. Reflections of our divided nature …..

“I'm not following you?”

“Reflection of our inner selves …..divided …..” His voice trailed off, and the man seemed to be reconsidering his words. As if they were of some huge significance.

Abruptly Twittingham just got up and walked out the faculty lounge door. Without another word.

Leaving Neville now truly alone and still baffled.

“Bloody bonkers!” He said to no one.




[Hogwarts, several days later]

The 'ice' slide out of Gryffindor House had been a brilliant and spectacular success. And no one had been caught causing it. Fortunately, none of the Gryffindor's had been seriously hurt – apart from Longbottom's dignity - but could have been terribly worse. But several of key players for their Quidditch team had been bruised up enough to need being replaced for the upcoming first game.

Possibly out of coincidence. The Quidditch fanatics naturally thought otherwise.

Most outside of Gryffindor spared them few sympathies. It had been a widely popular prank on the House that most others felt needed to be brought down a few pegs. Whoever did it was anonymously acclaimed a hero to all.

Despite Longbottom's loud assertions, no evidence could be found of the culprits. Yi and Flitwick were both worriedly concerned about the path this 'competition' seemed to be headed towards. Flatulence and socks were just typical teen wizard jokes. Frictionless slides almost to a deadly drop-off was pushing the edge of tolerance.

Whether or not it was a counter-stroke, the next 'unexplained' incident was a group of students trapped on a Keep stairwell in mid-flight between the floors. It suddenly up righted, but with the occupants all safely stuck upside down in place on the stairs. Screaming and dropping their belongings on those on the 'normal' staircases and galleries below. The moving flight of stairs did a few barrel rolls and spun about it's axis returning the terrified children to their floor level of origin.

Puking and/or crying in terror. Or both.

The students had all been Hufflepuff! And there had equally been absolutely no evidence as to the perpetrator. Nor could either Yi or Flitwick even get the stairs to repeat their one time acrobatics. Neither could Twittingham – the Dark Arts teacher – when they cajoled and finally ordered him to try.

No one on the staff could even determine it hadn't just been an incredible coincidence. It should have been completely tamper-proof. Despite the massively protected safeguards governing the moving magic within the castle's central staircase.

Up till now, the jokes were still juvenile. But they were increasingly grandiose and involving not just a few individuals but whole proportions of the school population. Inevitably, someone would get hurt.

It was even beginning to infect the adults at school. Neville and the Head of Hufflepuff House were no longer on speaking terms. The others seemed to watch in gloating anticipation for the 'next big thing', or just Longbottom punching the equally insufferable Professor Crabbits on his arrogant aristocratic nose.

Either way, not helping Flitwick in the least.

Yi, ever the sportsman, hoped athletics would defuse the growing tension. The first Quidditch game, between Ravenclaw and Gryffindor, was widely seen as between the worst two teams. But seemed innocent enough. The several Gryffindor players out due to bruises and sprains would have made little difference in their loss.

Suspicion fell immediately upon Hufflepuff, of course, for the icy slide of seeming certain death. To the paranoid, somehow, they were 'in league' with Ravenclaw to humiliate Gryffindor.

Whether or not there was any basis for it, the terrifying acrobatics of the Keep's stairs pushed the conflict into open hostility between the two groups. The other two Houses just watched in cheerful amusement.

The fact that solely one of the four houses were targeted in the ice slide made it suddenly a House on House conflict. No longer silly practical jokes between individual members, now every confrontation became an issue.

This of course escalated the minor brush fire competitive scuffles that exist in every school. Pushing or words exchanged became fists. Older students who should have known more restraint came into the Nurse's office with black eyes and bloody knuckles.

One girl had her lips glued together by adhesive lipstick.

Tensions seem to infect everyone. Two groups of girls, from Slytherin and Ravenclaw – respectively - fought a minor pitched battle in a stairwell, over some imagined advance by one girl on another's boyfriend. It was stupid and pointless. But showed the contagion was spreading.

The Headmaster had been beside himself in frustration, but could find no obvious culprits. Flitwick could not just stamp his feet, glare over his mustache and order everyone to stop.

He was also now getting 'concerned parent' visits. As well as the more annoying 'inspections' from various Ministry agencies.

It was all making Filius long for a one way trip to a deserted tropical island. With no return address.



[Hogwarts, mid-afternoon]

James came into Yi's outer office with carefree equanimity. He was regularly here now, most afternoons. Rightly or wrongly, Professor Yi Chen seemed determined his proximity would defuse the obvious brain behind the newest, most troublesome gang to his Hogwarts.

How little faith they had in James assessment of his friends. They were as smart and clever without him.

As Professor Yi was about to find out.

But James was not alone, today. The boy stopping in mid stride to the chair he normally would sit at. A tall and more disgruntled Natasha Czyrcyk sat unhappily in that chair by the wall. She scowled at him, and James confusingly went to the only other seat, direct on the opposite side of the room.

A Seventh Year sat at the normally vacant secretary's desk, between the two facing chairs. He was majoring in Potions, and as one of Yi's chief assistants in classwork, rarely if ever out of the dungeons or not with his head buried in a lab table full of smoking vials and cauldrons.

James didn't know what to make of this. He was normally alone in here, in the afternoon. Something his 'gang' was counting on in making their next stroke in the 'war' seem consequential.

And Potter obviously innocent!

Something strange was about.

Czyrcyk snorted and looked unhappily up at the ceiling, and out the narrow window looking outside. The narrow room slightly curved, to follow the outer wall of the tower it sat in the ground level floor of. It did not have the best view, but was strategically placed to place Yi anywhere he needed to be, as fast as possible in the maze like hallways of Hogwarts.

“Well, this is a happy group.” James chirped artfully.

“Shut it or I'll bust your face.” Natasha suggested.

“You are a bit out of reach. Perhaps you need more stair flights to loosen up your limbs.”

“Pissant!”

“Quiet! Both of you. I'm trying to figure out why my Alchemy is not working.” The annoyed seventeen year old boy exasperatedly rubbed his face, and pounded a fist on the desk.

Yi opened his door, and looked out to see who was there. A concerned look crossed his face when he took in the surly Third Year girl and frail seeming James Potter. But seemed reassured to see stolid Philpott sitting forlornly between them.

Yi almost called Philpott to quickly enter into his inner office, thought better of it, and leaned over the boy's shoulder, tapping the crumpled parchment. “At least there, you've got too much.”

Philpott groaned. Why hadn't he seen that?

Yi thought this all an excellent alteration to his plans for the afternoon. “Keep working on it. You'll get there. I have several letters to write. Owls to send.” The sallow face turned to James, sitting innocently to one side. “What have you done now?”

“Nothing.” Potter came steadily to the deputies office on off hours from his classes. Just seemed easier than having to be tracked down, constantly. Yi and James were now regular companions. They didn't need long sentences.

“See that continues. No doubt a temporary condition.” Yi frowned, unable to perturb James aura of patently false 'cherubic' innocence. He pointed at Potter's pile of books at his feet. “You have a lesson to write out, for my Potions, class. Get to it!” Yi turned to Natasha. “As for you, Miss Czyrcyk. Have we branched out to extortion, now. Perhaps loan-sharking?”

“Don't know what you could mean, Professor.” Natasha's silkily purred.

To James, it sounded what he imagined how a puma would talk like.

With a freshly killed deer in it's claws.

“Haven't the interest in jousting with you, young witch. I'll find out why you are here on my own.” He looked to the three, smiled and turned back into his office. “Keep each other company. Have a pleasant chat. You …...” Yi pointed at Philpott, “Don't leave these two alone.”

On Yi shutting his door with a firm click, Philpott rolled his eyes, gave the other two underclassmen an ugly grimace, and put his face back to his notebook.

All in the school already knew about James Potter's war on the Hufflepuffs that had assaulted him. Philpott was also a prefect and as well informed as the rest as to the brewing, not-so-underground feud between Hufflepuff and some of the new Hogwarts students.

Most practical jokes at each others expense had been stupid or mostly harmless - so far! The Hufflepuffs had largely responded in their seeming cliché way of belligerently rallying to blame all Gryffindors. The Gryffindors, apart from James's immediate circle of young friends, largely succeeded in infuriating the Hufflepuffs still more by ignoring them. And striking at them with seeming omnipotent impunity. Or at least someone was.

Gryffindor quietly took credit for the 'stair-barrel roll' stunt. But rumor had they had no clue among themselves.

Members of the other two Houses largely watched in enjoyable comfort as spectators. Except when they were inevitably collateral victims. Like when the laundry returned with all of the Gryffindor's boys pants – plus a few from other houses - coming back with the backsides magically enhanced several times too large.

It only happened once. Philpott had to admit it was funny to watch. That they were almost all Hufflepuffs, stumping around together in a pack for seeming mutual defense, made it all the more enjoyable. But he was a prefect and took his duty seriously and wouldn't deign to seem amused by these children.

And pointedly placed his wand on the table in front of him, with a overloud tap. He wanted it clear he could stop any shenanigans the two hoodlums got up to. Philpott wouldn't stand for magic. They could call each other names, all they wanted.

In the silence, James serenely studied the fuming Czyrcyk. He knew his calm irritated people angry at him better than any words. It worked on his parents all his life! She made a good show of staring up at the ceiling, or at her feet. Anywhere but directly at him. But at length couldn't ignore James. In fact, was furiously concentrated on him by his presence.

Czyrcyk had boyishly cut, straight, sandy brown hair. About her only concession to femininity was that it was at least trimmed to the angles of her face, not as if from a bowl. The blouse buttoned up to her chin was cheerless gray. Almost prisoner drab. And her pants and shoes were equally severe.

No makeup or any decoration softened her hard features. Which were locked in a seeming perpetual hawk-like grimace. Slavic-sharp features and was easily head and shoulders taller than James. It struck James she could be actually considered 'striking', in a beautiful sort of way. Not unattractive, except when matched with the competition swimmer worthy shoulders and blade-like hands that seemed strong enough to split diamonds.

James wouldn't be asking her out on a date, anytime soon.

It was a disturbing idea, nevertheless. To distract himself from the very thought, James essayed, “Nice day, so far.”

“For spoiled idiots, maybe,” Natasha muttered.

“For all kinds of idiots, as well.”

Some knuckles cracked in one of Natasha's slim but fearsomely strong hands. “I ought to break that jaw of yours, next.”

“Perhaps you are still out of sorts about loosing your stockings.”

Rage broiled up in Natasha's face. It hadn't been the damn sock vanishing on her in mid-step. It was every torch in the tower simultaneously snuffing out. The gut-wrenching shock of being lost in a dark, precipitous place had unnerved Natasha to the core.

Thank God she had been alone! Her helpless terror of the dark revealed. The identity of the unknown Hufflepuff girl who had lost her self-control and shrieked helplessly and forlornly alone in an odd tower stairwell till rescued, when half her pantyhose had suddenly disappeared, last week, was still a closely guarded secret. By the teachers at least.

James had shrewdly guessed.

“Both of you. Shut the fuck up!” Philpott irritably ordered, and cast a shadowy envelope about himself, setting back down his wand, and contentedly letting the dark egg shaped smoke envelope him. “I can see both of you, if not hear. Move a muscle out of either of your seats, and you are helping me clean up the mess in my lab, tonight.”

Philpott frowned, and the other two heard him mutter faintly “ …..with tweezers......” before all sound was swallowed up. Both younger teens could still see him, but he was now apparently completely cut off from their noise.

“He always was a tosser.” Natasha sneered. Philpott continued to ignore her. She grinned, wickedly, taking advantage that the much senior Potions student was now deaf to her insults. “Always was a skinny freak, with only his nose in books, and not that flat-chested stick of a girl friend of his. There is a likely match!” Natasha grunted. “Marriage of convenience, that will be. Can't imagine getting children out this git, can you.”

She wasn't really asking James opinion, but he game for any opening. Always keep your opponent talking! The sound allowed you to know precisely where they were. “Aunt Hermione says she's rather a nice girl. Probably will be a lawyer and or a politician.....”

“I don't give a fuck what your shitty auntie says …..”

James ignored her interruption, but letting a ghost of anger cross his face at what this thug had said about his Aunt. But he was a cold, calculating wizard. He would bide his time.

As Uncle George always said, 'Revenge was a dish best served ….frequently, and with heaping bouts of laughter.'

As if ignoring her interruption, James continued saying, “…..inevitably some Minister's aid. Wouldn't surprise me if Philpott here is the house husband, with loads of dirty nappies. In a mansion.”

In spite of herself, Natasha snorted, “Right sort of chemistry, on 'is hands, the bugger deserves.”

“Sounds like you come from Australia.” James asked innocently.

“Moron! Grew up in New Zealand, shit for brains! Completely different place and people.” Czyrcyk mumbled some other things, but James got the general gist of 'arrogant Pommie'.

“Never met anyone from there. Sounds really interesting ...”

“Like you would know.” Natasha snarled. Unintentionally making an example of her speech with a long drawn out 'lye' sound.

“I have no idea of who you are and why you like to pound little kids in the chest.” James shot back.

That seemed to take her back, instead of just feed her continuing moronic swearing. “What do you mean you don't know …..?”

“No clue. Really. Never met you or your family before. Honest.”

Czyrcyk had just assumed her hostility to Potter was obvious. That everyone would know, as a given thing. Natasha coldly considered Philpott and then shrugged. “Doesn't matter.”

“Maybe it does? Maybe we can talk about it?”

“Like I'd talk with you!” Natasha shook her head and fumed at having to sit here and listen to this squeaky brat. She adjusted her seat and Philpott's eyes locked on her.

He might be deaf. But he hadn't been kidding about keeping an eye on her!

“Why not?” James asked.

There was no answer. Natasha looked coldly back at Potter and did not respond. Eventually, Potter got tired of the silent game and James tried to find something else in the room to look at. And eventually reached into his pile of books at his feet. He'd have to give something to Yi …..

“Put my da' in prison.” That came as if pulled out of Natasha's clenched teeth with pliers.

“Of course I didn't …..”

“Your daddy, shithead! You are a Potter-Weasley incompetent toerag. Hard to believe Potter could be your father, given what a slut your mother must have been, playing all around.”

That mother's son now was the one Philpott's eyes caught and locked onto. James relaxed back into his chair. He prided himself at being stoic about comments like that, but his temper was making it difficult for James to remain seated. The wand handle was making a sweaty knot against his shoulder blade as it pressed against him, making him aware he should really listen to that screaming voice in his head to tie this sow's tongue to the ceiling with tacks.

He could do it, too! James knew he was already a better wizard. Philpott wouldn't even have time to flinch.

But wait! Czyrcyk wasn't a name James remembered to be on the watch for. Best try for some verbal discomforting!. “Must not be that great a criminal, then, to get fingered by such lowly people as the Potters.”

“My father is a Dolohov, you shit! My uncle and aunt are the Czyrcyk's. Thought it better if I wasn't stuck with name. …....” But this wasn't said with her usual venom. In fact, Natasha looked honestly heartbroken.

“I'm sorry.”

For a fleeting moment, James did feel sorry for this girl. Czyrcyk was just like him and his cousins. The other side of the coin, so to speak. His mother and father and uncles had warned him he and the others would be meeting people like her, all of their lives. Inevitably, with inbred grudges against the sons and daughter of the 'Boy Who Lived'.

“I don't need your pity. He is in Azkaban. He did it to himself, not your ass-wipe father or me-me-me ...” Her words collided with themselves, as she stuttered slightly.

That only served to make her angrier. “Right bastard. Got himself caught for robbery with aid of lethal magic. Did it more than once, to himself, and us. You'd think getting released once would cure someone of getting nicked. But na, na, na, …...no! He had to go back to pinching something even your Da' could find.”

“He did the wrong thing. Not my dad or me! We are sorry for your troubles …..”

That lost looking, hurt girl vanished at his words. “Like yew-yew-ya, you'd even know how to begin to be sorry. Go dive in a toilet!”

Ignoring her command, James calmly said, “Take a breath. Slow down your speech. Don't think about your words ...” He'd seen that advice in some Muggle movie.

“Bastard!”

Instead of responding back at her in kind, James shook his head. Giving the oblivious Philpott a glance, the young Potter quietly said, “That wasn't our fight. Stop the attacks on my friends. We don't need to keep it going.”

“And just forget you humiliated us on that damn stairwell? Laugh it off?”

It wasn't the new 'Neo-Marauders' doing. It really hadn't. But if people were comforted by thinking so, more power to them. James wasn't about to say that to anyone. “Yeah, essentially.”

“Rot in hell, Potter!” Czyrcyk wasn't in a forgiving mood, however. Just to prove it, she hissed. “Just wait. Think you and your mates are so funny. You can't hide forever behind your precious bitch Victoire, that fat-oaf Hagrid or any of the others. There will be loads of times, in the next few months. Lots of dark corners in this castle. And, no matter what, you will be alone, sometime …..”

She was right, he thought. Well, pity for ones enemies only lasted so long, anyway! James smiled serenely back. It was worth it just to see her cheek twitch in helpless fury. “Well, today at least, there won't be much time alone, for us.”

“Wot you mean?”

As if on queue, a strangled sound came from the inner office. But before Professor Yi could storm out of his office, another adult came rushing in the main door, looking breathless. “Where's Yi?”

“Here …....” Yi came raging out of his doorway. From within came a sound of ….....gently bubbling and wet sound of large blobs of foam slapping on the flagstones in his office. Yi turned incredulously at young Potter. “My Chin dynasty armor? How on Earth did you…..?”

“Don't know what you mean, Professor.” James said sweetly.

The other teacher waved his arms in denial, “Not just yours, Yi. Every suit of armor in the castle. Bubbles. Suds. Foam. Pudding. Maybe curdled cheese …!”

“What?”

“Down by Herbology. Just come and help. Quickly!” said the incredulous wizard, who ran back out.

Yi seemed stricken. Only the sound of fizzing bubbles broke the silence of the moment. James could see over Yi's shoulder the visor and gaps in the oriental helmet of the suit rack in the inner office.

Spewing forth in orange foamy glory!

Yi grasped both troublemakers, each by an elbow, and hauled them to their feet. Then he realized his chief lab assistant was quietly and innocently humming to himself at the desk between them.

Having heard nothing at all.

“You!” Yi slapped at the top of Philpott's numb skull, dissipating the smokey zone of personal silence. As Philpott startled and got to his feet, Yi shoved the younger students to Philpott, “Get them all to the Main Hall, and keep them there. These two, at a front table, and stay with them. Or so help me, you will graduate with the lowest N.E.W.T. potions score ever recorded.....”

“Yes, sir!” Philpott stammered, but Yi was already out of the deputies office, leaving the three behind.

From Yi's open door to his office, one could hear foamy bubbles spill onto the floor from various openings in Yi's armor suit.

Natasha actually smirked appreciatively to the grinning James.

You had to admire gall like this.



[A few hours later]

Natasha Czyrcyk waited at the end of the hall, and saw De Zitterinni finally leave Yi's office. He caught sight of her, and gave a slight shrug.

The Hufflepuffs had not done this to themselves. It was mark of teachers' frustration that again something had been pulled off across the breadth of the castle with no clue as to the mad genius behind it. All possible suspects were being interviewed, but with predictable lack of result.

Nothing had been learned by yelling at the unflappable 'Zit'. Yi had pulled in just about every known malefactor in the castle and still had learned nothing.

Some of the armor still oozed streams of suds from odd gaps, hours after the event.

If the ones down by Hufflepuff's common room didn't smell so rank, it would be almost funny.

Both Czyrcyk and Potter seemed to have an obvious alibi. What drove Yi, Flitwick and the other teachers crazy was that everyone else seemed to have one, too. De Zitterinni had been one of the last Hufflepuffs to be 'interviewed' and it still revealed nothing.

Natasha entered a girls' washroom, and went to a sink to look at herself in a mirror.

Then she noticed Victoire Weasley sitting calmly in one corner.

The lone other occupant, a Fourth Year girl, left hurriedly after seeing both stare at one another.

“Was wondering if we'd get a chance to talk.” Victoire bent to see if anyone else was present in the stalls, but saw no one.

A Second-Year poked her head into the restroom. Victoire merely said, “Get out!” And the girl turned on her heel and quickly shut the door.

Weasley calmly returned to watching Natasha.

“What's there to talk about? We've had nothing to say to each other.” Natasha replied evenly. She was taller, more muscled, in every way more athletic than Weasley.

And Natasha still felt herself tense with a feeling she needed to back away from the witch.

“Seems that's changed. We do have some things in common. My soft-hearted fool of a best friend you've gulled for years. And a Dark-haired, goofy-grinned boy, possibly the most inspiring First Year to walk these halls in eighteen years.”

“Make me sick!” Czyrcyk muttered.

“Yes! Me, too!” Victoire agreed. Well, James' cousin was mostly just annoyed at the boy's incredible rise to super stardom within the school.

After only being here a month!

“You must mean that little shit Potter.” Natasha chuckled humorlessly.

Victoire also smiled. But it was altogether different than Czyrcyk's. Almost a hint of fangs in those perfect teeth. “Let's not pretend. We know who you are. My father knows about everyone's finances. My uncle is a veteran of the auror force. The little fiction of you coming from down-under lasted all of a day, maybe. In your First Year.”

Natasha got a hold on her urgent inner voice, shrieking at her to run for her life. “Well, then. Aren't we chummy, then? You're a bit late. Told Potter himself hours ago.”

Victoire was indeed surprised. “You did?”

“Didn't seemed fussed about it. He's got balls, I'll say that for the git!'

“He does, doesn't he?” Victoire could agree on that much.

“More than the rest of the family, I'd say.” Natasha made to walk out of the restroom.

Victoire laughed humorlessly. “You have absolutely no idea of what your taking on, little girl.”

Natasha did then move to walk out of the restroom. Make it seem as uncaring and brave as Czyrcyk could without giving into the irrational urge to run.

But Victoire just held up a hand and softly said, “No, wait.”

And Czyrcyk froze in mid-stride. Victoire's pretty hand was empty and no magic wand in the other, that Natasha could see. That didn't make Weasley look any less threatening. “We have this moment between us, you and me. I am not given to idle threats. For the past two years, you've been nothing more than a petty bully. Waste of potential, I'd say, but you can go on being that, for all I care. But it changed the moment Potter crossed that threshold by the Great Hall.”

Natasha eyed her opponent uncertainly. She wasn't as sure of herself as she thought she appeared. “What are you going to do about it? You'll be gone in a year.”

It sounded tough. Natasha sincerely wished it did.

Deep down, Natasha Czyrcyk was very afraid of beautiful Miss Weasley.

“Stupid pranks. Childish tricks. That's his level and you all can continue that to your hearts content. I am making a rather more personal appeal. Just us, alone. The moment that it becomes a threat to his life or health, you have me to deal with. Once.”

Victoire hadn't budged from her window seat. Natasha unknowingly had backed up against the wall by the door to put some space between them. She hated being intimidated by anyone.

Just something inhumanly frightening about this witch!

“Tough talk, Weasley.” Natasha's mouth felt dry and thirteen year-old girl fought a desire to lick her lips. And she couldn't help flinching slightly when Weasley moved.

Victoire got to her feet, …...and walked to the door, pacing smoothly on her beautiful stockinged legs and stylish shoes. She grasped the door, but turned to say, “Believe what you wish. I am accused of not being very funny and it is probably true. I have no sense of humor. I don't joke about things like this. I can't be anymore plain than this sentence.” Weasley looked Natasha straight in the eyes. “Harm one hair on my cousin's head, and you'll never see me coming for you.”

Victoire opened the door but looked back to eye the frozen stiff Natasha with contempt. Weasley's eyes …...didn't look human at all. And again, those perfect teeth briefly had a feral, sharp look. “I mean that most sincerely. Good bye.”

The brief look of creature-like menace from the young woman was then gone. A young witch smiled at Natasha again, perfectly human, unbelievably beautiful and strode out.

Weasley called before the door closed. “You have a Charms class in five minutes. You best be getting to it, Miss Czyrcyk.”

Natasha didn't move from the restroom for a good solid half hour. Her knees were still too shaky.

*

 


Chapter 8: Sunset
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[Potter home, Saturday morning]

“Al?” Harry called from the hallway into his son's room. His voice was his usual soft conversational. There was no reason to be loud. He knew Albus was in there.

His second son was indeed in his room. His bed close up against his second story window, feet propped up on the wall, face pressed close to the window. Staring up at the white puffy clouds.

“Al, we are getting ready to go.” Harry blandly ignored Al's feet on the painted wall. But he could hear his wife coming up the stairs and Harry thought it best to avoid yet one more snarly outburst.

“Hem, hmmmm.” Potter cleared his throat, and Al sullenly whipped his feet away, but held them still in the air. As if another protest of Al's was going to be against gravity.

He was almost too late, as his mother peered around the door jamb. “Very clever. You can hang them out the window on our way. I'm sure the girl next door will be very impressed.”

The feet came down with a minor thump to the floor. “I really don't feel well, Mum. I think I should stay.”

“Well, it's a good thing we are all going then. Several of the witches present are some of the finest healers in the land. Mrs. Lovegood's especially adept at purgatives ….”

“What are those?”

“They give you world-class runs!”

Harry carefully kept his face as woodenly expressionless as possible.

“Fine!”

“Good.”

“Great.”

“Ten year olds!” His mother grumbled lowly and Ginny thought it best to let Albus have the last word, just walking away to corral Lily.

Ginny Potter was learning patience. Only just barely.

“That was probably playing with fire, son.” Harry quietly muttered.

“I don't want to go, Dad. All anyone asks me is how great it must be to have the room to myself and that I can make things look how I want and don't I miss James and how my eyes look just like yours and Grandma Lily's and ….”

“Yeah. I know that's really annoying. But we all are going. This is a family thing. You are not old enough to stay alone. And probably blew any chance of that happening in my lifetime by jawing with your mother.” Harry glanced about for Al's shoes, noticing the new car posters and several Muggle rock bands had now made their appearance over James editions of the same.

The boys had roomed together since Albus had been a toddler. Considering how Harry's older cousin had treated Harry at that age, Potter had always thought that a bit strange. But the boys hadn't, and Albus was going through a protracted mourning period of being stuck alone with a kid sister.

Ginny and Harry were doing their best to make weekends full of 'family' events. This last picnic of the year at the Lovegoods was one of them. Harry was reasonably sure Al would come around.

Harry noted a lot of Al's old toys were gone. Or now haphazardly piled up in the overflowing box in the corner. And most of the pictures of cars and monsters and Muggle movies that the boys had shared without argument for years had been shifted around or changed. Albus had begun to take steps to make this his own place.

Part of a change. His boy was beginning to grow up.

Harry looked at some pasted on the wall by the door. “I understand its strange. It's only going to be this one year. Then for the next six after that you are probably going to be stuck in the same dorm room again till the point you can't stand each other.” Harry was surprised by a slightly askew old calender by the door and fought unsuccessfully to keep the grin out of his voice. “And you'll miss Miss Tropical Swimsuit, 2015 a lot less than you will if your Mum finds the ones under that racing poster.”

Al gave one poster a guilty slide of an eye, and sighed mightily. “Oh, jeez, Dad! That was James'. Not like she has nothing on.”

It wasn't a full suit of armor, either! Harry smiled a crafty smile. “Let's go.”

Albus sat up, ruffling up his already untidy hair. “All the cousins going to be there?”

“The ones not at Hogwarts. Sure.”

“I don't like any of them. And the twins scare me.”

“I'm sure there will be plenty to do without them. Between Xeno and Uncle George, I sure they will have lots for you to do. And the twins scare me, too.”

“I don't like the Flue Network. And its only just after breakfast.” Albus's heart was not into making more of an argument of it. But he really didn't like jumping into the fireplace.

“Why we are driving there.” Harry said with smugness.

“In the car!”

Harry looked surprised at the concept. “Unless I can get the stove to roll down the street.”

There was a hopeful glint in Al's eye, but he was slow to give up finding fault. “Your driving makes Mum and Lily queasy. And that is an embarrassing econo-electric car.”

“Well, what if I make it like that dark green 'four-door' on the wall by your shoulder?”

“You can do that?”

“Sure. You'll have to hand me the picture so I can take it to the garage ….”

“Uh! I ...ahhh... can't take that one down, Dad.”

Harry snorted, and then just quietly laughed. “Cheerleaders?”

“Umm, that's why I covered them up.” Al gave a guilty glance out the door, in case his mother or sister should overhear.

“Sure. And you are only ten!” Harry gave resigned sigh, grasping another car's picture. A blue one.

“No ...not, not, not that one!” Al said, in a flurry of frantic limbs, trying to leap up to grab his father's hand.

“Holy, cow!” Harry exclaimed, seeing what was underneath.

The latest in Malaysian thong stylings.

“Jeezus, Dad!” Albus traded yet another black four-door saloon photo for the 'blue' and used that to hide yet another of American cheerleaders. Al piled several shirts and blankets up to cover up the comely woman that had been hidden underneath all that Teutonic power. “Mum doesn't think I am old enough to look at stuff like that.”

“I don't think I am old enough to look at 'stuff' like that.” Harry said thoughtfully, tapping the good looking sedan's picture in his hand.

But he would really like to go for a drive for a chance. Given the high petrol prices, it was only on weekend trips with the family that people could take things like this beast out on the roads.

Perfect cover for a wizard and his family of four.

“I'll ...ah, meet you in the garage.” Harry turned to go, and thought of an additional thing. “I'll give you back the car picture and you'd better see that she is not exposed to too much light.”

“Ummm, no.” Albus agreed, with his back against a pile of blankets and pillows now firmly shielding the lovely woman's posterior from harmful solar radiation.








Harry parked the car, and he got out and went back to open up the boot while the kids ran out and onward up the hill toward the new Lovegood tower. Harry pawed at a few things and began to wonder what happened to his 'help'. He looked around the boot lid to see Ginny running hand-in-hand with both kids, gleefully laughing as they ran to meet the other cousins running down the slope to them.

George and Bill came strolling down to him and took some of the cartons and packages that were spilling out of Harry's overcrowded arms. “ Hey you!” Bill smoothly caught the plastic container of pickled eggs.

“Thanks. Lost my supportive wife and children, it seems.” Harry ruefully glanced back at the bunch, now being immediately lead in a game of crack-the-whip. Again by a laughing Ginevra Potter.

“She been drinking early?” George beside him asked. While Harry and Bill took all their arms could carry out of the Potter car, George naturally just picked one plastic bag of rolls.

“Here.” Bill just thrust a heavier box to George without asking. “Harry drove. She potioned herself to keep from getting car sick.”

“That is strange.”

Harry had thought it an overreaction, too. But to get everyone in the car and going down the road, he had not argued. “Not really. It was from one of those old potions spell books of your mother's.”

George shook his head, “No. I mean driving. Never risk my loved ones on a highway.”

“Of course not.” William Weasley grunted with the effort to carry the cooler of iced drinks, all by himself. “You merely risk your girls by cooking up a personal inferno in your workshop downstairs from their little bedroom.”

“For Merlin's sake, George!” Harry rolled his eyes and just walked toward Xeno and Minerva's tower home.

George defensively cried, “Perfectly safe!”

Bill snorted.

“What was it this time?” Harry said to Bill.

“He calls it 'Sun-in-a-Pocket'.

Harry grumbled under his breath and then said over his shoulder at George a few paces behind him. “Whatever that is, send it to James and I will hunt you down!”

George wisely did not voice his outrage at his brother's lack of faith. But followed both men with a pouty face and later on when they weren't looking, got rid of something from his pocket into the nearby fish pond that he was going to show off.

Probably was reckless. When he thought about it.








[Afternoon, family picnic time]

Witches and wizards know how to have a good backyard barbecue.

That meant despite any problems with the weather. Which is never perfectly dry, to be honest, in this part of England. But once the inevitable showers passed, there was actually some patches of sunshine.

Which was more than matched by the vivid colors of Xeno's exotic garden. As well as the gayly streaming banners flapping in the now soft breeze. Off-set by the inevitable dirigible-plums floating overhead, towering jauntily in the breeze. Maddie and Luna had been in control of the party theme, sort of autumnal feast-meets 'Sixties Rock' festival. The old music belting out of Arthur Weasley's 'magicked' speakers fills the air with sounds of sitars and heavy drum beats.

The given reason – to boost up the morale of those like Albus – is a success right away. He and his cousins are off and running around without a care in the world. As if no one had ever heard of Hogwarts and James and Rose. Minus those that had to work – such as Ron and Hermione and Percival (thankfully) – most who could be showed up with food and conversation.

It was a good, last blast of summer.

The not-so-mentioned reason for the get-together is that Minerva McGonagal Lovegood is now very old. And she was now often too frail or ill to be part of things. Minerva was spry enough to be out in the backyard of the Lovegood tower, but she mostly sat in the dappled shade under a tree. Smiling quietly.

There was a sense that this might be good bye.

The afternoon was spent in pleasant conversation and food, with the kids running in and out of the exotically decorated pavilion. Apart from a minor affair involving one of the Weasley twins and 'lawn darts', no one got into too much trouble and no loud disagreement.

The sun was now sinking towards a partly cloudy sunset. Minerva revived enough from a quiet snooze to find all the adults sitting about her in various conversations.

But no sign of Xeno, Luna or Maddie?

“Well, I think it might be the end of the day.” Minerva smiled.

Harry and Arthur, seated beside her smiled back. “Oh, not quite yet. We are expecting a bit of a 'spectacular'.” Arthur Weasley said mysteriously.

“In what way, spectacular, Arthur.” Minerva said, half-seriously. “I'm old. I'm looking forward to a tea, my warm sitting chair and to laugh at Xeno moaning about the flowers stomped today.”

“You'll see.” Harry unhelpfully clarified.

They had in fact been waiting for her to walk from her nap. As well as the setting sun. Chairs were rearranged and picnic tables pushed aside to leave a large clear space.

“Where is my husband?” Minerva looked about.

“He's directing the music.” George Weasley explained. “Which mostly involves shouting at us about the wires and not to harm his precious ancient stereo.”

As if to answer George, there was a high pitched squeal and a magnified ….”SORRY!” of Xeno's voice.

“Oh, Merlin! I hope he isn't going to sing.” Minerva whispered.

She was gratified instead to behold Luna Longbottom and Madelene Weasley appear in the cleared circle, outfitted in peasant dresses and tie-died blouses. At one of the tables, now strewn with dusty metal boxes with fascinating switches, Xeno was not going to sing but was trying to disconnect his erratic, barely functioning microphone admits a tangle of wires.

At a glance of to the ladies, Xeno queued up his old LP turntable, and loud crackles entertained the picnic for a few moments. After nothing happened, Xeno thumped a fist on box and that gets the sound of symbols to

Luna has a big 'peace' symbol painted on her cheek. Maddie has a smaller matching one, but also the word 'LOVE' on the other.

“And now, some interpretive dance.” Xeno said solemnly, and pointed to the two dancers.

“What's all this? You two, honestly!” McGonagal laughs as heartily as any can remember. This is not anything that she expected.

“We say goodnight to the setting sun.” intones Luna dramatically, arms raised pointing to the beautiful sunset, scattered thin clouds layered like colossal steps, in the distance.

Maddie follows with, “And greet the stars, which is as our nature, as true witches.”

A wolf whistle ensues from Ginny, which gets a lot of laughter from the assembled audience. Flustered, Xeno has to re-cue the song start because the dancers cant' hear over the talking.

Xeno motioned he'd restart. “Err, just settle down – for the moment. Can't make this too loud. Ready?” At Luna's nod, he lets nudges the now primitive contraption back into motion.

From the music speakers, comes this sound of flutes, and cymbals, but then some faster drums, getting stronger. Luna and Maddie began dancing, gently swaying their arms in flowing unison. The women began singing, along with the voices on out of the speakers:

When the moon is in the Seventh House
And Jupiter aligns with Mars
.....1

Minerva and several of the oldsters still among them got the song and whence it came, almost immediately. They laughed. The in-between generation, Charlie and some of his friends soon followed, grinning like idiots.

The rest born after the advent of the personal computer were just blank and frankly baffled.

But the two dancing had practiced this well. All summer in fact. And when the song became faster, and jumpier, both witches became a frenzy of choreographed motion. It did not matter if they lost synchronization soon after. McGonagal was beaming, and that was all that mattered. The audience was clapping, and the few that remembered the song sang along, Xeno and Arthur Weasley arm-in-arm, among them.

The song eventually came to a sudden transition, and a trumpet sounded. The dancers just hopped in the air, twirled one another about and little Alice Longbottom came leaping out to her mother, and she, Luna and Maddie joined in a circle, swinging and jumping to the music. That seemed to signal a general descent by the children. None really had an idea of the music but found it impossible to stay still. Luna and Maddie waved and cajoled the grownups, as a chorus began a rousing anthem of letting the light in.

Bill Weasley was surprised and dragged forth, the least likely to get out on his own. To his wife and her sister's ecstatic hilarity, who helped push him forward and of course were sucked into the throng themselves. Harry Potter was next, and then the others just mobbed into the former open circle.

Ginny was kind of off on her own. Dancing a frenzied kind of self-initiated copy of Luna's and Maddie's routine.

Luna danced with a reluctant Neville and his little daughter. Maddie had to have the twins drag their daddy George in but he wasn't as hard to get moving as Harry.

When the song ended, they all groaned and Xeno repeated the second half of the song for them.

The sun set on the last note of the song. And everyone remarked on how wonderful it was and how fitting.

There was more dancing and carrying on, but the principles decided to sit the rest out. Maddie was wincing, as someone had stepped on her toe. Luna was a bit stiff and sore, and holding her back as Neville guided her to the indicated chair next to Minerva McGonagal.

“Did you like ...” Luna began breathlessly, and Minerva just seized her face, kissing her step-daughter-in-law, holding her in unbreakable grip. Smearing some of the face paint on her old cheek.

“Guess that was the seal of approval.” Laughed Xeno, and Minerva wagged an accusing finger at him, laughing still.

“This is what you've been up to.”

“Researched extensively. Xeno directed us. Must have watched hours on Longbottom's basement TV on the 'Sixties'.” Maddie said after she hobbled over and got her equal share of hugs and kisses.

“Was going to do it at Summer Solstice. Then Neville and Harry's birthday party. But I pulled something major in my back.” Luna winced, having to bend over to take the excited congratulations of Alice, Tina and Abigail.

All three girls now sported a wide variety of body paint on their cheeks, arms and foreheads. Alice looked more like a multicolored leopard. But she enthusiastically insisted that her grandmother join in, and Minerva patiently held her in her lap, while the twins held paint cups and directed Alice in decorating McGonagal's cheek.

When the girls were done, Xeno suggested that Uncle Bill badly need similar treatment, and the three were off like fire.

“Hope we were true to the original. Got lost there in the middle. Felt something pull.......” Luna gritted her teeth. “Going to pay for that. Not as young as I thought I was.”

“You two were marvelous. This was the best one done I've ever seen.” McGonagal chortled. She had a green peace sign on an aged cheek, but the word 'P O O' underneath that.

“Really. I was a bit worried it was amateur hour out there. Especially when no one reacted at first.” Maddie said.

“Not at all. Not at all.” Minerva patted her hand. “In fact, perhaps there was a shade too much accuracy. Hence the initial slack-jawed reaction of disbelief.”

Luna worried, “I thought the hair was wrong. But I could never get the Afro-thing to look right, with my blonde hair ….”

“No, no, no! Long and loose. That was as natural as it should be. Well, about as natural as can be, in fact. I refer to, umm, …...well. Perhaps some more err, support might be key, if there is to be an encore.”

“Support …..oh, you mean...” Maddie gestured upwards, with both hands vaguely to her chest.

“Exactly, Madelene. Maybe there was too much authenticity, in going bra-less.”

Luna looked vaguely concerned. “Seemed right at the time.”

Minerva laughed, and glanced over to Xeno, who joined in more laughter. When the two were done, Xeno just kind of surreptitiously indicated with a subtle pointing of his chin to the group of young boys, clustered together by the soft drinks table.

Having an animated, and sometimes incredulous debate.

“Maybe too educational, my dear.” McGonagal said with a faint smirk on her lips.

“Bound to find out, eventually, Luna.” Xeno was still chuckling.

Now the witches looked chagrined, but smiled sheepishly to one another. “Seemed a bit daring. When you threw yours off, getting dressed up.” Maddie said defensively.

“You didn't have to join in. And if you reminded me about the kids, I'd have come to my senses.”

“Nonsense. Absolutely fabulous.” George came over with several new beer bottles, passing them out.

“Please. You are soooo transparent.” Maddie smirked.

“Think that should be the order of the day, in the Weasley house. From now on.”

“Only if you join in. Think the Wheezes customers might notice you and Lee, pants-less.”

“Hmm, not sure.” George gave a scary impression of seriously considering that idea.

“Remind me, to do my further shopping from Diagon Alley, by postal order.” McGonagal stage whispered to Xeno.

Ginny Potter came over,happily exclaiming how everyone she met was looking the best she'd ever seen. Better in fact, than the last time she'd talked to them ten minutes before! And how wonderful it was they were still alive. Harry followed behind her, looking rather concerned.

Minerva looked inquisitively at Ginny fevered 'brightness'. “Are you alright, Ginevra? You seem a trifle ...”

“Smashing! Can't tell you how wonderful and brilliant that was. Want that every morning when I wake up. Every day, even. Absolutely!” Ginny's eyes glittered in her enthusiasm. And each sentence of hers seemed to end in an exclamation point.

“Think she might have overdone the Euphoria potion, a tad.” Harry said in a small voice.

Minerva's eyebrows shot up. “Euphoria? Exactly what potion recipe did you use, Ginny?”

Ginny was ecstatic that someone else was interested. “Maximum power!. In Mom's old potion's book. Every ingredient ...fresh!”

“Oh, dear.” Minerva looked at Xeno.

And he said to the others, in explanation. “That can be a touch ...tricky. It can be responsible for some dangerous and reckless behavior. Usually, there are two post 'consuming' reactions.”

“They are?” George asked with interest.

“Severe depression. Have to wrap the person up in a blanket and tied down and straight to Mungo's hospital.”

Ginny loudly affirmed, “Not Me!”

Harry asked, “The other?”

“Don't worry a thing, Buster-boy. I'm doing fabulous, and so are you.” Ginny forcefully informed Harry. And teasingly toyed with his earlobe and seized his hand. Rubbing it ….affectionately.

“Perhaps now would be a good time for you to take her home, Harry.” Minerva told him.

Harry wasn't quite following what was wrong with his wife. “Ah ...what about the kids?”

“We'll take them. Here are the keys to the Burrow. It's a lot closer.” Arthur came forward and pushed them into Harry's free hand.

“Umm, are you sure this is necessary?” Harry weakly asked, grabbing Ginny's shoes she had just kicked off as she took Harry's hand and pulled him to follow.

“Oh, my yes.” Minerva said with grave majesty. And a little smirk at the corners of her lips. “If you wish this not to be a backyard picnic well remembered by all, ”

Harry still looked confused but gave in to the insistent tug on his arm.

Which was good, because Ginny didn't feel like wasting time, and towed Harry away toward his distant car, disguised like an Italian supercar.

She yelled out happily, “ 'Bye everyone. Great Party. The best. I really, really have to be going.” Pointing to a distant relative, Ginny called out. “Your looking so much better than before. Absolutely wonderful. So glad you all made it.” Ginny pulled Harry along, but took the time to shake the hands of the passers-by, and kissing the children. Shaking some of their hands, too.

“The other reaction?” George inquired, as his sister pushed Harry into the passenger seat and practically vaulted the car's bonnet and got behind the wheel.

“The complete opposite of wanting to curl up in a ball, and die, George.” Arthur smilingly told his son.

“Yes. Most veritably. Hers is the ….fortunate rare opposite.” Minerva laughed. “We should keep the kids away from your old house tonight, Arthur. She will be a tad ….uninhibited.”

“Perhaps we can have a camp-out?” Xeno suggested. “Get the parents to bring over some tents for the kids. Arthur and I can run the campsite, out back here.”

“Good idea.” Arthur thought about it further, and a frown showed on his face. “Though Perkin's old tent was in my storage shed.”

“In a few more hours, might be wise, Arthur.” Xeno said sagely.

“I'll go, if you rather not, Dad.” Bill came up, giving a good impression of happy Alsatian. The tip of his nose was painted red. “Thought that might happen, when she informed us how great everything was. And how much she loved France.”

Fleur Weasley beside him laughed as well. “Oui, it was about the third time she said 'it bloody enchantin', we got the impression Ginnie was a tad ….medicated.”

McGonagal took a hand up out of her chair from Bill. “Fortunate, but I don't want any of you trying to repeat the performance.”

“Least ways, till we hear from Harry,” said George.

Arthur thwacked his son George on the head with the trash bag in his hand, and disgustedly walked off towards the kids still chattering away in a furtive group.

“What?” George called back, baffled at what he had done wrong to deserve that.







An hour later, Minerva was still giggling, getting up out of her chair to grab her cane, when Xeno came to help her to the New Tower. “Loved it all. Loved it very, very much,” she repeatedly kissed him.

“Oh, you liked it?” the elderly wizard exclaimed in mock concern, “Are you on Euphoria, too?”

“Gods, yes.”

Xenophilus laughed gently. “Liar. But you did better. The last ones still alive from the Woodstock encampment were still talking about it, when I last saw them.”

“Xeno. In front of the children .....” Minerva hurriedly glanced around, but they were safely clear of listeners. She wheezed a little, but gently punched him in the shoulder. “Come on. One-Leg. Help an old witch to her cauldron. I've got to see if there is some antidote to Ginny's potion ...”

“Pretty sure, the only solution is to let things run their ...um, course.”

McGonagal wryly smiled. “Well, then. Let that be a lesson they won't forget.”







[The Burrow, in the morning]

Harry sat at the kitchen table. He was in his T-shirt but somebody's borrowed hideous plaid knee-length shorts. Deliberately if not justifiably hidden and-or abandoned in a boys dresser upstairs. He was too tired to care.

It was past nine in the morning, but he was practically asleep in his corn flakes. Ginny blearily waved a few dishes past the spout, and incredibly tired herself, just weakly knocked down shut the sink tap.

Looking out at the backyard of her own family house like she'd never seen it before, she owlishly said as she peered out the little kitchen window. “Why is the car parked by the fence? Buried to the upper rims in the mud. You can't drive on the path through the marsh.”

“I didn't drive, honey. You did.”

She looked more intently at the car. Half of it was still 'Mafiaoso' blue-black and 'mag' wheels , while the rear portion was back to wide-open tailgate econo-hatchback. “Still half-changed. And why are the doors all still open? The battery is probably dead by now, with the lights running. And what looks like …....” She gasped and self-consciously tightened Harry's button shirt about her. Which was odd, as she knew that was all she was wearing. “My underwear on the fence! And yours …...”

“Well, I think when you drove as far up to the house as you could, you were ripping off your clothes and mine. You weren't all that worried about if we didn't get out of the car ….”

“In the car!”

Harry nodded his head. It was easier to talk if he just kept his eyes shut, and maybe he could go back to a snooze in between sentences. “Insisted, in fact. Had to carry you …...um, into the house, afterward. You wanted (yawn) ….wanted the picnic table, next.”

“Ohhh, God!” Ginny's face turned crimson and she grabbed the shirt tails down to her thighs as tightly and as low as possible. She had that brief sensation the ghost of her departed mother was standing next to her, a hand on her hip and a 'how are you going to explain yourself, young lady' look on her face.

Ginny wasn't a prude, hence her current outfit of Harry's shirt. But the location! In her parents house! “Please don't kid around. We are alone in the house. I am right in remembering, Dad has the kids. They are all safe and sound ….not here?”

“That's what Bill was shouting, through the window. When he came to get the old tent out of the shed.”

Ginny breathed out a breath to steady herself, not from physical pain, just embarrassment. “No way they all don't know.....”

“Grown ups? …... I should say …probably, yes.”

Ginny Potter tip-toed on her bare feet into the adjoining wash room, and pulled off her Dad's bathrobe from the laundry pile and wrapped it around her like a security blanket. Harry had the good sense to say nothing when she came back to sit down at the table. She watched expectantly for some weak attempt at levity upon Mr. Potter's part, but he just dozed at the kitchen table.

With a faint silly grin on his face.

In truth, she didn't feel bad at all. Now that she thought on it, she felt incredibly refreshed and …..robust. Just tired, from lack of sleep, and still ….happy. In spite of the public humiliation sure to ensue. Ginny giggled, not quite able to stop it.

Harry smiled again. Glad she was at least happy. It could ….oh so.... be much worse! “Read up a little, this morning. In Ron or Percy's old school textbooks. They are still piled in the closet upstairs …..”

“When did you have time to do that?”

“When you finally fell asleep.”

“That was only an hour ago.”

“I know. I think you got lucky …..”

Ginny snorted, and looked at him keenly past her eyebrows, with her chin down. “I'm not the only one, this morning, Mister!”

Harry reddened, but wryly had to think he didn't have it so bad. “No, what I mean was the usual post reaction is severe depression, morbid thoughts, wanting to kiss Dementors …..”

Ginny reacted with a disgusted face and sat back in her chair. “Ugh! Nothing in the book said that. Just that it would taper off …..”

“Your Mum's old book wasn't complete. The one from our part of the century had some more up-to-date information. Seems more recent research showed the effect lasts longer and actually intensifies, for about a twelve hour period, afterward.” He just pushed aside the cereal bowl, and laid his head on the table.

“Are you okay?.” She idly brushed the hair from his eyes.

“Uhhh. There is no way I am complaining, mind you. Just …....really, really tired. And, no, if you insist on knowing, I do not like these shorts, and they should be burned. Also, for my ….condition, I can't refrain from saying, exhausted.”

She laughed again. “My poor Chosen Boy.” Ginny thought about it some more, now that she could more dispassionate recall the evening ….

“Holy cow, Harry!”

“Yes, ...yes. What I was thinking, exactly myself. But I have to tell you, at my age, ….I couldn't do that again, that many more times. Not without about …..several months rest. Make that, years.” Harry raised his head to look at her seat. “Isn't the wood chair rather ...cold?”

“Doesn't have to be.” Ginny giggled fetchingly.

Great! Still buzzed-up and horny! Harry shook his head. “Sweatheart. Really. There is simply no way ….”

She laughed. Ginny was pretty sure she could coax some life out of him, if necessary.

Nonetheless, they straightened up the house and the backyard without 'warming' anything back up. Then she finally sent him to bed. Harry fell asleep sitting on the bottom stair, with their underwear clutched in his hand. In fact, he could have just sworn she'd shut the bedroom door, when she came back in, shook him awake and said he had to come back down.

Neville Longbottom sat at the table where Harry had, seemingly just minutes before. But he looked not just tired, but sick.

“What's wrong, Nev?”

Longbottom thought of trying to say this anyway that would make it not true, but there seemed no choice. “Minerva passed away, in the night.”

The sounds of marsh birds and wind rustling through the grasses outside the Burrow came in faintly from the open windows. Those were the only things that broke the silence. Harry sat down heavily beside Neville, and put his face in his hands.

“Old age, Harry,” Neville mumbled. “Just old age.”

“Yeah.” Harry said weakly, through his hands.

McGonagal was as much like a grandmother to him as Molly Weasley had been a mother. A homeless orphan had little but luck in garnering friendly acquaintances, on the road. Harry had been extraordinary lucky in Molly and Minerva. And they were all going away from him. One by one.

“I hate getting old,” Harry said, sniffing. “I hate so much that it has to be this way. But Albus was right …... Albus was right.......”

His words trailed off without an explanation. Ginny and Neville looked at one another and then just shook their heads. Not understanding.

Harry didn't offer any. Ginny wrapped her arms about his head, and reached out to take Neville's hand, too.

How could Potter begin to explain the desire to hold back time. Let things ...pass.

There was little more that needed to be said. At this moment.







[Funeral, a week later]

The line of mourners began from the Burrow. It was a considerable walk, to the Old Lovegood tower site, on the other side of Ottery St. Catchpole. But that was the way the family was going to do it.

The Weasleys and Longbottoms had thought it might be just them. Xeno was practically numb and deeply disconsolate. He had delegated most of the funeral arrangement tasks to Harry and Neville. In truth, most things had been done by Neville, who seemed to come into his own when others were down and unable to think.

Harry seemed to be on a hair-trigger, ready and willing to explode in a screaming argument if things weren't going well. To be fair, the Ministry of Magic had not helped. At first, they had refused permission for McGonagal to rest alongside Dumbledore. There were still plenty of enemies of both (of Harry, too!), and those in the bureaucracy came up with new obstacles at seemingly almost every turn.

At about the point that Neville took over, plans had completely switched to a purely private affair. Only the family and immediate friends, and at the ruins of the old Lovegood home. Some in the Ministry refused official help or cooperation in securing the area. That was until the tidal wave of public support made the petty-minded hide back in the dark hovels in the office cubicles, where they belonged.

If Potter had just been a little less emotional, and had waited a day or two, he would have witnessed first hand the shift in public mood.

Magical citizens were invited to attend, to witness as the party passed along the road to the distant hilltop. No aurors 'officially' were present to block roads and keep Muggles away. But amazingly, an massive number were out sick that day.

And no Muggle car, or curious shop owner from St. Catchpole, came out to bother the funeral.

The coffin was carried by some of her students. There was no else left of the McGonagal family. George, Charlie, Bill, Percy and Ron Weasley, and also Dean Thomas, carried the fallen in a dark mahogany, beautifully-crafted coffin. There would be no magic involved. That any off them could do it easily, but chose not to.....was the point.

They were followed by Xenophilus, arm-in-arm with Harry and Filius Flitwick, They walked slowly, Xeno's wood leg making it difficult to go faster, but also Flitwick's small stature.

But they insisted on following Minerva, one last time.

Behind them, was the Longbottom family. Neville, Luna and son Henry. Little Alice carried by her other grandmother, Augusta.

After those four, came the Weasleys and Potters. Arthur walked in front, holding hands with all of his grandchildren in a line-abreast. Behind them came the other parents, plus Fleur's familty - the Delecours. And Teddy Lupin and Victoire Weasley supporting Andromeda Tonks. Still alive, and now just about the last one of her generation.

That was to have been it. But the funeral party was surprised to meet, at the edge of the Marsh, and the beginning of the paved road into town, every foot along the path lined with black and gray cloaked and dressed witches and wizards. And their children. And Minerva's former students.

Of the last sixty years at Hogwarts.

The first at the path was the Minister of Magic and his wife. In silent rebuke to those that tried to deny McGonagal honor. They fell in line behind Lupins and Tonks, and the some others followed suit. Among those soon after were the Malfoys. And because Draco was no longer in disgrace, more from the silent crowd from Slytherin House joined in. Not everyone had been Minerva's friend.

But she had been the greatest witch of their lifetime. And they had to pay respect.

And the silent line plodded up toward the broken ring of stones on the little hilltop. They faded away by dissillusion to invisibility, soon after the main party. Like a misty, disappearing line of ghosts.

Minerva McGonagal was entombed deep under the old rock hill. She had lived through crisis and tumult, to the right old age of seventy-five.

Her own way.







[Hogwarts castle, Gryffindor common room]

Victoire Weasley dumped her things by the Common Room fireplace and just collapsed in the deep sofa. Her things were all wet, from the walk back up from the Hogsmeade train station. Both Rose and James didn't even bother with dinner, all being too tired and they just went straight up to their rooms.

The cousins hadn't spoken much on the long train ride back to Hogwarts. The funeral was all on their minds and it just didn't seem right for any levity or small talk.

Jennifer came down the dorm stairs and saw Victoire sprawled unladylike on the sofa. “Well, that's an attractive pose, miss.”

Victoire sent her a finger-symbol of a non-verbal message. Followed up by, “Write me up, Proper Miss Lady Etiquette Officer Cortez. I don't care.”

Seeing Weasley was in a snarly mood, Jen just picked up Victoire's wet trench coat and umbrella with the tips of her fingers. “You know, there is a spell for rain-repellant you could bother to learn. I've just learned it. It is surprisingly easy.”

Weasley's face was sunk down, chin to her chest, broodily staring at the fireplace. “Sounds like the righteousness of the newly converted. Too much trouble. Why they invented umbrellas.”

Jen sat down, getting a wet seat on her denims as a reward. “Thanks!” But sarcasm was patently wasted time on Weasley.

Finding both that that easy chair had actually been Victoire's first deposit of the wet things till they had devolved themselves onto the floor. Waving the soggy folded umbrella in Victoire's direction, she asked, “Did you even bother using it?”

“Yes, until the rain came sideways after we got off the train.”

“Oh.” Jen had to acknowledge there was no hope for protection from that. Drenching downpours were part and parcel of living in this Northern valley. She sat down on the adjoining chair and they jointly watched the flames crackle, with the faint sound of recommenced rain beating on the nearest window.

Neither girl spoke for some minutes. Other kids came in from dinner, said goodnight, and turned in.

Seemed nobody was up for much conversation or skylarking.

“The events go okay, then? Nobody lost.”

Victoire's eyes drifted slightly to Jen's, looking oddly reflective, golden in the firelight. “Funny you mention that. Everyone wanted to know why you weren't there.”

Jen sighed, “You know why. Didn't really know her. Just that she was famous.”

“The rest of the family was there. Even the little kids. You should have.”

“Don't nag me, cousin-dear.”

“That you didn't know McGonagal. That wasn't the real reason, though.”

Jen shifted in her seat, “No. Sorry. I just didn't want to talk to either of my parents. They were there, weren't they?”

“Your father was a pall-bearer. And your mother was there at the back of the crowd, looking for you.”

“I'll bet she just wanted to cheer if they stumbled with the casket.”

“You're wrong. Angelique came up and asked me how you were. And why weren't you there.”

Jen didn't answer that, idly letting Victoire's folded, still-dripping umbrella, thump lightly on it's tip. Up and down.

Up and down.

“I admit I didn't expect that. Thought maybe she'd look at me and refuse to let me hug her in public or something. That is her usual pattern. Tell me I'm wrong.”

“Can't, Jen. She is usually a witch with an attitude. Frankly surprised she actually knew my name. Not just …..'Hey, you, where's my daughter'?”

Jen hesitated in asking what was really on her mind, now sorry she had inflicted her mother on her best friend. Instead she sought to change the subject by saying, “How's Teddy?”

“Fine. Full of mosquito bites, a stupid shit-eating grin on his face and an actual snake bite on his rear end.”

Jen smiled at the mental picture. “No! Really?”

Victoire nodded. “Easy to fix, with the right anti-venom spells. But he couldn't sit down.”

“Was that how you knew it wasn't serious? Or was the grin after you did a close inspection of the wound area?”

Victoire threw a pillow at Jen, but was beat-red for a reason. “I …..am …..a nurse in training. Course somebody with some medical training had to check. Think I'd trust a bunch of idiots in a jungle camp to fix anything on his behind? Lucky he still has a head on his shoulders.”

Jen said slyly, “Did he check your behind, too.”

“You really do have your mind in the gutter. Or are just rabidly horny. We can arrange for you and Robbie to finally hook up at one of the inns in Hogsmeade, if you can't stand it any longer.”

“Didn't answer my question, did you.” Cortez grunted derisively. “I'm a big girl. I don't need to sneak off to do the dirty deed.” Jennifer thought about it for a second, and added, “He'd just better be there and ready, June 22nd.”

“That's ….pretty much what Ted and I told him.”

Jen cringed a little. “He was there, too?” Her head sagged backwards on the top of the chair cushion. “Why am I so bad at this social interaction thing? I'd thought no one except the family was going to this.”

Victoire tapped her finger on the arm of the “I'd bet just about everyone that mattered, of all the magical population of Great Britain, and some from the continent, too, made an appearance. It was supposed to be just us.” Victoire made sure to point to Jen and herself, to emphasize her friends noted absence.

“Thanks for making me extra guilty.”

“Don't mention it.” Victoire said with a little smile. “Just the bunch of us, walking up from the Burrow. Taking Xeno up to his old tower location for Minerva's burial. People just showed up, at the side of the road. Bet that just freaked out the aurors and the Obliviation department. Completely spontaneous.”

“He wasn't upset with me?”

“Robert? No. I don't think so. I fact, he spent most of the time at the reception at the Ministry …...”

“The Ministry?”

“Hmm, mmm.” Victoire affirmed. “Mostly avoiding either your mother or your father, or hiding behind my dad. Everyone wants to see you, the girl of the hour. And he rather hates the limelight.” Victoire smiled. “It was rather cute.”

“Poor man. Why me? And why on Earth did this circus end up at the Ministry.”

Victoire made a face and gathered herself to sit up, kicking off her heels to aim her wet stockinged feet at the fireplace. “Minerva McGonagal was important. Maybe the most important witch of our lifetime. Why so many people hated her, and couldn't avoid being seen at her funeral. And this might have been some sort of political trick by the Minister. Force his rivals to make it seem they cared, too. They could have given two farthings for poor Xenophilus or Luna and her children.”

“I'm sorry for them. That zoo had nothing to do with them.”

“Why I think we never saw Xeno again after the actual burial. Or Uncle Harry. Emotions too raw.” Victoire motioned a finger to their rooms, and the girls gathered Victoire's travel things to trudge upstairs.

“Glad it's done with. Hate funerals.” Victoire said from up front on the stairs.

Jen stepped woodenly upward behind her. “Better than the alternative, I suppose. Better than being forgotten and never mourned.”

“Boy, are we gloomy chicks, tonight.”

“No more funerals, then.”

“Agreed. No more funerals.” Victoire declared with finality.

And they went to their beds with no more conversation.

But sleep didn't come to Jen. For some time, it rained harder against the window and the high wall of Gryffindor tower. But the early autumn sounds of Hogwarts wasn't the problem. Sleep just wouldn't come to her.

Unlike Victoire. Jen could tell. 'Tori snored softly or at least made a sort of gentle growling, when she was really out. It didn't bother Jennifer, unlike some of their old dorm mates. But Jen hoped Ted accepted his future wife's odd eccentricities as Cortez had.

But then there was time, after the rain stopped, Jen could tell from the silence that Victoire was awake, too.

“Are you asleep?”

In the gloom in the room, the feeble shine of the moonlight through the wet glass did not show much. But Jen could make out Victoire's almost perfect teeth flashing in a grin. “I love that question. If I answer yes, will you agree to that pink thing I showed you in the dress catalog?”

Victoire's portion of their room was too dark to see anything but her own teeth in their silent laugh.

Then Cortez answered, “Honestly? I think the pink thing looked like something the color of my innards that exploded in Potions class on somebody's elses horror of a bridesmaids dress. And they were only partially successful in chipping part of the dead body away before they took the picture.”

“Didn't really think you'd cheerfully agree. It is the most ridiculous thing. I didn't think that would go in khaki. Won't travel well abroad, in any case.”

“What do you mean 'travel well'? Or khaki?”

“Hmmmm, maybe change in the plans for the my big event. I'm thinking of doing it in the jungle. Near Teddy's 'El Dorado' dig site.”

“Don't you think Teddy's grandmother will object to you two rolling around naked in the Amazon mud in front of your little cousins?”

“Very funny!” Victoire winced in the darkness at Jen's silly chortling, but since Jen couldn't see her disdain, just settled for, “No, I mean the actual ceremony in the jungle. For the honeymoon, you get to take all the children and the old people away to some other continent.”

Jen said in a little, small, peeved voice, “I'm so relieved. How fun.”

“Your price for not being at your first family event.”

“Well, so I am abysmal at personal relations. Surprise! If you aren't too sleepy, do you mind if I ask something. What is my father's wife like?”

That opened Victoire's eyes wider. “Well, curious in spite yourself?”

“Yes. Just tell me.”

“Her name is Veronica. She'll never ask more of you than to call her that. Trust me. The extremely last thing she wants in life is for you to call her 'mommy'. She isn't like that. Veronica is quiet. To the point of being mute. Doesn't want excitement and only wants what makes your father happy. She really, really loves him.”

“Okay, then. Just nervous about the whole thing. You have absolutely no idea what it is like for me. You know Ted has just got his grandmother. I was scared of meeting my father in public. And his wife.”

“You've already met her. What do you mean?”

“Well, not really. I had no idea walking up from the train. Up till August, I kind of got used to the idea of my just having to put up with Robert's mom. And he …...just having to put up with my mother.”

“That wasn't a fair exchange, I think. Angelique Cortez has to be worth at least two to four mothers-in-law, by any fair count.”

“Well now I get to have even more irritating people. Including a step-mother.”

Victoire laughed, out loud. Then Jen joined in, glad that they could laugh about something. Thankfully, it was just them two left, in their old dorm room for six. They were the last remaining of their Hogwarts group of Gryffindor girls to still go on for their Seventh Year of schooling.

But that was okay. They had only been close to the three boys that had graduated. And they were marrying two of them, next summer.

When the giggles eased off, Victoire breathlessly said, “About the very last thing, possibly only surpassed by being buried alive in hungry dung beetles, would be Veronica Digby wanting to be your step-mother.”

Jen frowned in the dark, and worriedly whispered, “Am I that bad ….?”

“Aw, for Merlin's sake, Jen ….!” Victoire blew a breath of frustration about her best friend's near terminal obsessiveness about disappointing people. And that brought up an unpleasant subject.
“No. You are no worse than a few billion other people. You think you are the only one with flaws. I'm loaded with them ….”

Jen happened to agree, but more diplomatically murmured, “Hmm, mmm, You can be a little unrelentingly unforgiving of some people.”

Victoire made a near useless hand gesture in the dark, of what she thought of that opinion. “You know. I have been trying my best. You know who I am thinking about. Did you talk to your 'project'.”

“She has a name. And is not a monster. Just lost, like I was.”

Victoire said in a sneaky voice, “Surprised you by hating you for your family?”

Jen fumed. “Yes,” she said sullenly.

“Learn to live with it. We all have to. Part of the price for being open about your parents is learning to deal with the load of shit that comes with being a Weasley. Some of it is absolutely nothing we ever did or saw or had a hand in. Czyrcyk hates us just for being us ...”

“Natasha's had a hard life. Much worse than me. Didn't get all of the breaks ...”

“Don't feel sorry for her. I'd like to break her neck, I would.” Victoire said wistfully.

Sometimes, her best friend exasperated Jen. “For Merlin's sake, stop talking like you are a blood-thirsty killer! Grow up!”

“Listen to me, for a moment. Her family sided against ours in the war. Her father was a real Death-Eater and really tried to kill the Potters and our parents. For real.”

Jennifer didn't respond. She didn't have to. Everyone knew this history. She just never imagined it to be a part of hers, too!

“That girl …....,” But Weasley stopped herself. She knew this mattered to Jen. Enough that her friend actually voiced her disagreement. Something Victoire had fostered in all their years together .Victoire didn't bother hiding her disdain, however.

She viscerally disliked bullies and that's all that supposed New Zealander girl would ever be. In her opinion.

She rolled over to face Jen in the adjoining bed. “I know you don't like me saying this. No matter all your good intentions, Czyrcyk has a built-in grudge against us and seems to be taking it out especially against James and Rose. I can't ignore that, I'm sorry. It's how I am put together. My father's influence. My dark side.”

“You can be wrong though.”

“I frequently am.” Victoire sighed.“I tried to talk to her. Without anyone around. Totally blew it by losing my temper and trying to scare her.”

Jen groaned. “Aw, Tori”

“Failed completely. Don't think she can be scared. Didn't look it to me, anyway. I'm sorry.”

“You should be. Don't do that again. Please?”

Victoire made a nearly inaudible 'alright' murmur and plumped her pillows and noisily threw her blankets and sheets about pretending to make herself more comfortable.

Jennifer waited, feeling there was more to be confided.

“Our aunt is very ill, Jen. That's pretty plain by looking at her. She just doesn't have the energy to spend being the kid's protector. And much as I like the Longbottoms, they are sweet and sometimes daffy and can't be relied upon. That means it's up to me. And now you, too. Till James and Rose can hold their own.”

“I think Natasha is working in her own way, to keep things in check.”

“Doesn't look it to me.” Victoire looked over at the dark shape of Jen in the dark. She could see her perfectly well but did her best not to show off her unnaturally good night vision. One of many secrets she had to keep from poor Jen. Better she didn't know.

“You can be a little ruthless, 'Tori. A bit harsh. And I don't see things as that stark or perilous. It is all stupid kids, being …...stupid.”

No, Tori didn't think it just that. And you are deep down a sensitive person and badly used by people, Victoire thought. But she didn't say that. “There's a feeling like it's a bit personal, with that one. I don't have much sympathy for what she's done.”

“Think James and his little gang have been provocative, all on their little lone. Give me a chance with her,” Jen whispered. “Her father rightly in prison. Her mother truly a horrible witch …. - no pun intended. She grew up not too different than me. Being taught what to hate. Natasha is just as burdened with her family as I am with mine. They might be right bastards but that doesn't mean she's destined to be one, too. You took a chance on me. Let me return the favor.”

In the dark, even Jen could see a feral grimace. Moments when her eyes had a glint of something not beautiful. Terrifying. Her friend was famously a scary cold woman. To some people.

Never to Jen.

Not surprising, given that Victoire's parents were famously fierce people.

But Jen could tell she had sway over Victoire's strange tides. At least this moment. Jennifer was asking a little thing to most people. For Victoire Weasley, not acting sometimes was the hardest. “I can't pretend she's my friend, when I have a real desire to take her down with her throat in my teeth.”

“For me. Would you try?”

There was a quiet few seconds, and then sound of a breathe and then, “Okay.” Victoire nodded in the dark. “I won't pretend to be her friend, but maybe you're right. I accept that if you tell me you are involved. Be my guide.”

Now Jennifer was committed. She profoundly hope she knew what she was doing.

Jen reached out with her hand in the dark, stretching it out towards Victoire. Somehow, her friend just always seemed to know to do the same thing. They clutched finger tips briefly.

It was silly. An old habit that had been widely mocked by the other girls that had been their former roommates. Just something the girls felt they needed to do. Maybe, even then, because they had both grown up only children, somehow knew they really were almost sisters.

“Rotten day, Jen. ”

“People shouldn't argue or have hard, evil thoughts. Not on days of a funeral.” Jen paused to think, and then said, “You were only kidding about the Amazon-thing. Right?”

“Not in slightest. Bring mosquito repellant.”

Jen made a nearly silent whine of despair.

*

  1.  Aquarius/ Let the Sun Shine In -Song and lyrics by James Rado, Gerome Ragni and Galt MacDermot, from the musical 'Hair', 1967


Chapter 9: Couples
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[Upper Flagpole, Yorkshire apartment of Charles & Veronica Wesley]

Charlie looked at himself in the mirror, examining his chin and nose. Looking at the face that looked back at him. It was a plain but handsome face that was clean shaven, with a ready grin that had been able to melt womens hearts at one glimpse.

It was a face that hadn't changed in nine years. Unnatural some would say it. Just how unnatural, Charlie knew no one would ever believe. Much less other wizards and witches.

He didn't age. Charlie was no longer a normal man. He had been a dragon tamer, a keeper of the rare creatures in a special reserve kept for them in the Balkan mountains. Only, by accident and circumstance, he had been infected from a slight bite on his shin, and in the span of a few months, found he could do things no man had any right to be able to do. Charlie was never sick. He healed incredibly fast from any accident. He now could understand the strange growling and murmuring that the human tamers in the dragon preserve had always thought just animal noises.

Because they were actually hyper-intelligent creatures, alien to the planet. They had lived longer than there had been life on Earth and were in fact the guardians and protectors of this frail little ecology. Without the knowledge of all but a few humans down through their brief and fragile little history. A few had become like he had become, once the native life form was infected by the venom of a dragon's tooth, almost nothing could stop the transformation.

Charlie could now transform himself, if he wished, into something that would blow out the walls and roof above him. And crush the floor of the Wesley’s little flat down on top of the unsuspecting occupants below him. He tried very hard to avoid things like that happening. Keeping it hidden from all but a handful of people that knew about them.

Because it was very important that the dragons remain thought of a just violent, scary animals. Rare and exotic to wizards and mythological to unmagical mankind. Very important to continued human existence, that is because dragons were actually almost unimaginably omnipotent and also secretly in charge.

Because they liked it that way. If they didn't, dragons could wipe out humanity totally in a near instant and start things over how they wished. His silence about them was a guarantee of non-interference by the noxious beasts.

Charlie idly moved things about on the sink, reopening the medicine cabinet behind the mirror to get his get toothbrush. It was more to do something and to waste time.

Veronica's voice came through the door. “Are you through in there? I need to brush my hair.”

Around the toothbrush, Charlie garbled, “moOh, shoe hon' .” And opened the little bathroom door behind him to see into the couples tiny bedroom.

Veronica lay on the bed with eyes closed, still in her night shift, hands folded across her stomach as if composed by some careful undertaker. She did not look abnormal in anyway. Except she was deathly still. If another human could see her – just now – they'd call for an ambulance and make a foolish attempt at resuscitation.

Because Charlie's wife wasn't normal, either. Quite far from it, even for a witch. She was a vampire. One of the Undead. When she wanted to pretend, Veronica could simulate any shape and or color of human alive. When not securely alone – from non-knowledgeable eyes, she was adept at pretending to be a human woman in appearance. It was how they hid themselves from all other humans.

This morning, she was just patiently waiting for her husband to stop procrastinating.

Only a few fully knew their secrets. The family had known – apparently for years – about Veronica, well before Charlie had met her. Only Hermione Wesley and Teddy Lupin – because they had been involved with Charlie in a confrontation with a rogue Dragon, knew about Charlie and kept his secret. Charlie himself had told his father, because he couldn't stand to keep secret any longer and from guilt at the death of his mother.

Everyone else kept silent because they thought they were hiding Veronica from detection. And maybe because they thought that kept Charlie safe, too. In fact, no human power on Earth could harm Charlie. Not even a vampire.

She opened her eyes, a lovely blue shade that was her one refusal to change. She could alter their appearance too, if she chose, but her eyes appeared as they looked when she was a normal girl, one thousand years before.

“Time for me to get changed, too. We need to be going. You promised.” Veronica sat up. And looked to him

“I know I did. Wished to hell I hadn't.”

“It is important you try.”

“I'm going. Against my better judgment. But I'm doing this, because you asked me to. I'd have ignored everyone else. Including my sister and Dad.”

Veronica made a reproachful face.

He shook his head. “Not dodging out. I'm going to Hogwarts. Wish you people would listen to me, though. I disappoint so many people, I don't want to hurt the poor girl anymore than she has been.”

“Think Jennifer sounds incredibly well adjusted. It's for you, that I want this. She might be the only child of yours that you get to know.” Veronica came and leaned her chin on Charlie's broad shoulder, both of them looking at their reflections over the bath's sink. “There will come a day we can't still be here. You don't quite understand how fleeting this all is. Forty, maybe sixty years more and they will all be just memories. It can get pretty sad, Charlie.”

He sighed and reshuffled the objects on the counter. They were mostly props, to make the couple appear normal in case they had visitors to the apartment. As was Veronica's nighttime get-up. She didn't need to sleep.

Wouldn't do for anyone to suspect that the Wesley’s were anything other than ordinary middle-aged 'marrieds'. Finding her standing still in a closet or motionless in a kitchen chair tended to freak out people!

“Get out for a moment. Leave me do my obligatory girl things.” Veronica reached for a hairbrush. Charlie moved to leave, but looked back at her filling up the glass with water from the tap and begin to sip. She took a little drink and looked at his mirror image.

“Just a little drink, Charlie. That's all.”

“And nothing more?” He said that as if it was incredibly significant.

For a vampire, water was unnecessary. More over, one getting a drink on purpose was practically unheard of! She set the glass down and rounded on him with a fist on her hip and a sarcastic grimace. “Well, geez. I never heard anyone disappointed I am not out sucking up someone's blood. All the other vampires will laugh at me.”

“It's not funny.”

“I know …...very well, it isn't.” She took his hand and held it to her cheek. Her skin felt weirdly cold, in his palm. She said, “It is incredibly weird, and I'm not for a second complaining I haven't had to hunt a human since the day I stopped being an auror.”

“Drank my blood, you mean.” Charlie looked at his forearm, as if sickened by the thought of what was in there. “What if this has changed you, too? What if I've ruined you as well ….”

Veronica kissed his fingers and held his fist in hers. “Ruined a blood-sucking monster? Forced her into a lifetime of little sips of water? Listen to yourself, pig-head! I'd have blessed you, upon my knees, if that old dragon stuff in those veins burned me to ashes. You really have no idea what a horror this is.” His wife looked at him with frank disbelief, her other hand half pointed to herself.

“No.” Charlie was a selfish man, deep down. She came first, for him. If it came to it, He didn't care what she would have had to do to survive. “But what does it mean?”

She made a grim, but determined look. He recognized it well. Gently pressing him backwards out past the narrow little door, Veronica just shook her head. “Whatever it means, we never tell any of the other vampires this. Just like we tell no one of your dragon-hood. We move on and hide after a few decades. New identities ...”

“They'll find out eventually.”

“Then so what? Come that time, we won't have anyone close to us they can hurt.” Veronica Wesley grasped the door. “And then also anyone trying to mess with us will be very sorry. You and I ….we can kick their butts, really hard.”

“You are still a scary woman, hon.”

“I can be a bitch with an unbeating heart of darkness. You'd better believe that with all your might. So leave me in peace. Get some toast. We leave for Hogsmeade in twenty minutes.” And she shut the bathroom door in his face.

He sucked on lip and thought better of saying anything more. And he went to the kitchen to do what she said.




[Hogsmeade]

“Well, I nose it weren’t left in the bin.” Joe Adams was a bit put out that this was the best he was getting from hiring Harry Potter as a detective to solve his problem.

Harry bit his lip and tried to be understanding. “I am just saying, Mr. Adams, that it could have just been a tiny mistake ....”

“Tink so, Do ya?” The old wizard's jowls shook, as his spectacles glittered over his angry eyes. Outraged that such a thing would even be considered. “Out with the bloody rubbish!”

Harry backed away slightly from the old man, holding up his hands in what he hoped was a calming gesture. “No, ….I really have no idea. Honestly don't think you put your wife's remains in the the trash.” Harry glanced hopefully at his wife, sitting silently next to him.

She gave a half-silent sigh, wishing Harry would learn to deal with difficult customers on his own. But Ginny could hear how this was going and interrupted. “He was just suggesting, ...I'm sure, with no disrespect – that is a possibility, Mr. Adams.”

Like flipping a light switch, Adams angry face switched to ancient bemusement. Mollified - and patently more interested in talking with a beautiful former athlete - Adams was suddenly understanding. “Oh, of course, Mrs. Potter. It's been known to happen.”

Harry fought hard to keep blowing out an exasperated breath and pummeling the crotchety old man with the battered footstool at his feet. And as usual, when people had a choice, they took a shine to Ginny if she was present.

And blamed every mistake on Harry.

The house smelled of several decades of old newspapers and being closed up too long. Adams appeared to be a hopeless pack-rat. To the point the Potters had had to pick up stacks of old papers and books to find spots to sit down. The house was a mess, frankly, and Harry wondered how Adams could have told which pile was which of hundreds of back issues of the Daily Prophet newspaper. Or 'Witch Weekly' magazine. Some older than either of the Potters, themselves.

How he hadn't lost the urn of her cremated remains, years ago, was more a wonder. Harry thought he'd try to put an optimistic spin to the notion the urn had to be here, somewhere. “Bound to turn up. Probably lying around one of these stacks ….”

“I is shore I didn't just set her down.” Adams sat back down, glaring at Potter again. Agitated at Harry's implication.

Ginny glared at him, giving him an exasperated shift to the eyes that indicated she wanted Harry gone for a few moments. Universal wifely code to 'just shut up! Harry!'

They had been trying to combine work with an irksome chore. The argumentative Mr. Adams was proving good intentions weren't guaranteed in detective work. A quick visit to a customer here in Hogsmeade was just a convenient excuse. The Potters' real reason was a lot less pleasant than this, in Harry's opinion. He drummed his fingers on the arm of the chair as he sat back, bit his tongue, and listened impatiently as Ginny make innocuous small talk.

This was just a short stop on their way to the real hurdle of the day. A first disciplinary meeting with the Hogwarts deputy headmaster, concerning some recent activities by their son James. It was not unexpected by either man or wife. Just unexpected that it had only take a month.

And Harry had been in right foul mood since he awoke.

Combined with it just being the week after McGonagal's funeral, Ginny recognized it as Harry's old uneasiness, about returning to the castle. That hadn't been such a problem for Potter until the very real specter of his first born beginning school. Awakening to the idea of James Potter actually being now at the school of his father.

Not so miraculously, Harry correctly interpreted her silent message. The Potters had been married long enough to get some simple rules straight when it came to Harry talking. While she and Adams went back to poking about odd bookshelves and in an overflowing magazine rack, Potter drifted away to the front hallway as unobtrusively as possible, to an ancient wooden drysink.

He gratefully motioned he would look around and left Ginny happily chatting away with Adams. Walking up to the small front hall by the narrow staircase to the upstairs, Harry suddenly figured out where the urn had to be.

The elderly wizard was right-handed. The old dry-sink in the front hall on the way to the door would be where his hand would naturally pass by to set something down to answer the door. Potter listened to his much more agreeable wife's polite chit-chat for a few seconds, walked over to the dry sink, slid open the deep drawer, reached into it to pull out a the very decorated sealed urn, and handed it to a stunned Adams.

“Right here, Mr. Adams. Just set aside. I will wait for you outside, Gin.” And Harry walked out.

Ginny Potter and Joseph Adams stood silent for a few moments, and then she gently reached to tap on the urn. “Is this her, Mr. Adams?”

“Oh, I …....uh, yes, lass.” The old gentleman mumbled, “I was dead certain I'd looked there.”

Adams looked sheepishly up out from his star-shaped spectacles. Not too many wizards these days wore such outlandish things. But Ginny's quick search through the 'Who's Who' at least told her that their brief client had been an eccentric bohemian. In the 1950's. The inventor of the magical cheese slicer and self-actuating golf-hole digger.

An invention she for one had never come across in her life.

“Shall I put her back where you can see, Mr. Adams?” Ginny smiled. She took the urn out of his hands, which numbly released it to her.

“I feel such a boob, lass. I wouldna ha' called, but I couldn't find her. Almost frantic ….” The poor man looked flustered, now, and Ginny squeezed his shoulder to comfort him.

“We find this all the time. Of course you looked there. And it was gone. Probably hidden. You've probably got the oldest gremlin in town living here.” She grunted, sliding some things off the mantle that raised a cloud of dust. But she waved and coughed and placed Mrs. Adams back where she should have been.

On the nice but cluttered-to-near-capacity mantle over the old fireplace.

Ginny rearranged some old pictures of the couple, back when they must have been newly married. Adams in a British Army uniform. Another of a young woman about Victoire and Jen's age, laughing on a beach in a quite fetching soaked bathing suit. A third picture of Adams, his wife, and two babies. The last was a funny one, as both toddlers idly examined Adams chin, eyes and were pulling at his nose as the wife beside him laughed hysterically.

Ginny loved old magical family pictures. They showed such life that the Muggle ones were missing. “That's better. Keep this other stuff off the mantle, so you can see the pictures better.” Ginny gently instructed Adams. “They are more important.”

“Oh, aye. Right you are, lass.” He took some of the dusty knickknacks, carelessly tossing them on other piles. “Been a tad, lonely. Since she's been gone, Mrs. Potter.” Adams admitted, looking calmer and more relieved with each passing second. “Forgotten what it's like to have a young lady about, such as yourself.”

“Not so young. My own children are long past this stage.” Ginny pointed to the last picture of the young couple with the babies, with the picture Dorothy Adams finally falling off her seat to the floor, laughing so hard.

“Dorothy.” He smiled at the picture. “Always was a bit giggly. Hard to get a descent picture of her, without her breaking out into sillies.” Adams remarked fondly.

“With a pair like that, I'm sure she had plenty to laugh about. Do you have anymore?”

“Third, my son Will, we made that very night after the photo was taken,” Adams winked an eye and they both laughed, along with the ghostly Mrs. Adams, being pulled back to her chair by a rueful photo Joe Adams.

Ginny said, still chuckling, “I'm equally sure that wasn't too difficult.” The old man vaguely waved his hands about, embarrassed at the memory. “I don't think I know any of them. Do any live in town?”

That got Joe frowning, but the young woman hadn't known him or his family. She wouldn't have understood his sudden pain. “All gone, young Ginny. I outlived them all.”

She felt terrible. Not what she had thought would be the answer, at all. “Ah, I am so sorry....,” Ginny began.

“No, you couldn't have known. The one girl died from the flu. The other, to an accident, probably just before you started school in yon castle, up there.” Adams pointed to a dusty window, and to some pennant streaming in the wind from the distant Hogwarts. “Will and I fought in the war. The first one against Riddle -Merlin curse the villain to the blackest pit.” Joe looked hard up at the family pictures. “That cost me Will. And Dorothy, too.”

“I know what that is like, Joe. I sadly do.” Ginny said sadly, thinking of her brother Fred. Killed in the second war.

“Why I was kinda' lookin' forw'd to meeting Harry …..you know.”

It was her turn to look a bit embarrassed. “Didn't wake up on the right side of the bed, my husband. I'm sorry. Just after the funeral, too.”

“Oh, aye. 'Spose that's understandable. She wasn't all that popular, here in the town, you know. Back when McGonagal was a hedonistic teacher and hooligan. Bunch of them was practically living like Sodom and Gomorrah, at that place the Longbottom's own now.”

“Umm, yes. So I understand.”

“Wife and most of the town's women hated her.” Adams reminisced. “Not that I did, mind you.”

Ginny briefly thought that was extremely likely the reason the late Mrs. Adams did. But kept her mouth shut, nodding.

Adams eyes twinkled. “Today, to see the Master, about young James, is it?”

“Yes.” Ginny said in a resigned squeak..

Adams gave a little chuckle and indicated the front door where Harry must be waiting in fuming impatience, outside. “Whole town is talkin' 'bout the young Potter. Like old times. Been very entertainin' …...for some of us.”

“What do you mean?”

“At night, the air above the castle can faintly sparkle, that you can see from the town.”

“Yes, I love to see that.”

“Random messages have been appearing in the sparkles. Don't last, and I'm not too sure the Master knows of them.”

Ginny felt a growing dread. “Like what, exactly?”

“Last read ...'Hufflepuffs are Turds. Don't Flush without saying Goodbye to a Classmate.”

“Oh, God ….” but Ginny gave a guilty snort of laughter.

“Ravenclaw, meself. Think it outrageously funny.” Adams grabbed something from a magazine pile and handed it to Ginny before she could answer. “Thought you'd like this.”

Ginny opened up the rolled magazine, and gasped. “Quidditch Quarterly, September, two thousand and ….. with ….no shit!” There, looking squeaky new and smiling a shark's smile, an eighteen year-old Ginny Potter smiled back, balanced on a tremendously expensive Typhoon professional Quidditch broom. A just-fitted Holy Head Harpies uniform looking newly carved on.

She missed that body, some.

The paper was slightly yellowing with age. But the cover picture was still fresh and animated, like any other wizarding photograph should be.

Hell, It wasn't that long ago!

Ginny remembered that day vividly. It had been a blur of interviews and pictures. And Harry ...not visible but beaming back at her behind the photographer. So proud, he was not speechless because he was routinely tight lipped around the press. Just afraid he'd babble and sound like an idiot. Harry later told her he'd completely forgot about them, to the point he was talking with one as if to an old friend.

Harry had come to trust few people. Outside their immediate family, he had only some friends from school that he kept in touch with, or even talked to. It was a defense mechanism, a doctor had told her. Potter had lost so many friends he did not want to chance losing another. As if the act of being a friend doomed them.

That was silly and absurd and Harry for a short while was almost a hermit. Apart from the Weasleys, Harry had generally lived alone and away from others. Those around him sort of decided they wouldn't take no for an answer, and slowly, if sometimes not entirely successfully, got Harry Potter back as a semi-normal man. One that once you had his trust, it never ended.

She happened to know that Quidditch reporter was the only one he would freely talk to, to this day.

That night after the pictures, Harry remained giddily happy, when the couple had finally escaped. Out over the dark countryside, away from the city, they had flown together after he'd found a old broom. Harry could outfly her on an old toothbrush – and she had been acknowledged the best seeker in the world at that time.

She hadn't been too sorry he'd caught her.

Damn, had that been a sexy memory and she'd better stop daydreaming …

“Ah, hmm, I ….actually never got a copy of this. My brothers bought fifty some copies and spilled beer or tore them or otherwise made them all unreadable. Morons!”

“Brothers.” Adams argued.

“They are synonymous.” Ginny agreed. She kissed the old man's cheek. “Consider us more than paid, Joe. Can you overlook Harry's lack of tact.”

“More than understand lass. I was a bit grumpy. Gettin' gappy in the noggin'.”

“We aren't far behind, Mr. Adams. Got to go, Joe. Glad we could help.” He smiled at her flustered confusion, opening the door for her exit.

Harry indeed waited just outside. “I was wondering why ...”

Ginny resignedly sighed. “We need to work on your charm, Harry.”

Harry nodded to Adams, who had followed Ginny to his door. “Alright, then Mr. Adams?”

“Fine, fine.” Adams smiled companionably.

“What's wrong with my charm?” Harry returned attention to Ginny, a faint pout on his face.

“You don't have any, today. But, generally, you aren't good at communicating with people. That's why Maddie and I deal with people that both you and Veronica alienate by just saying hello.”

Harry fumed but silently, eyes down the street or off at the surrounding mountains.

“Another thing is to look at people when you talk with them. See their face. Memorize the color of their eyes....”

“Why on Earth ….. how will that help them?”

“What's the color of my eyes?” Ginny said, dangerously arching her eyebrows.

“Brown. I've always known that.”

“What's Joe Adams' ?” she fired back.

“Umm, ….green. I guess.” Harry had not noticed. Could not see how that made a difference.

“Blue, I am afraid, my lad. Been staring at them in the mirror - shaving – for ninety odd years.”

Harry sighed. “Sorry. I just don't see how that matters …..? We got to get to Hogwarts.” Potter walked on down the narrow street back to the main Hogsmeade road, hands in his pocket. His jaw clenched tight.

Adams discreetly waited a short moment, as Ginny narrowed her eyes and glared at the back of Harry's retreating form. Adams quietly muttered, “Don't be hard on the man, Ginny. I don't take offense, and he found my Dorothy. A father and mother having to come to school to see the Headmaster usually are always wee bit anxious. I was after one of mine set Armando Dippet's beard on fire.”

“Really?” Ginny smirked.

“Accident.” Adams waved his palm and fingers though, as if he still wasn't too sure of it. “Mr. Potter has difficult roads to follow. Always will.”

“You are a remarkably sane and reasoning man, for a wizard, Mr. Adams.”

“It happens, Mrs. Potter, at least once a week, I find.” Adams chuckled, “I wouldn't want to tax my luck.”

“Hah!” They shook hands, and Ginny hurried off to catch up with her gloomy husband.

When she approached, Harry asked, “Gremlins?”

That was the Potter's standard explanation. She nodded and said, “Yes. Although that could have been true.”

“He just misplaced it.”

She didn't answer, knowing Harry was in a mood and her silent reproach was better at the moment.

Naturally, that worked wonders at getting him to vent, instead of silently pout. Which was just her intention.

Harry did not appreciate her publicly scolding him. When they reached the alley corner to turn to ward s downtown Hogsmeade, Harry found he just had to grumble. “I just found what he was missing.” he said petulantly. “It was no big deal...”

“The elderly man lost the remains of his beloved wife.”

“He stuck it in a drawer.” Harry countered.

“You forget things all the time. So do I. You need to try to be a little more understanding. It costs you nothing.”

Potter and his wife began walking back toward the center of Hogsmeade, and the road to the gray castle on the other side of the valley. “I understand I easily solved a problem that bothered him greatly. I wasn't expecting laurels and kisses for that.”

“How would you have felt if that had been your mother in the urn?”

That ended conversation between the Potters. From the set of his shoulders and the tightness of his jaw, Ginny could see she had pushed him to the edge of a tantrum. Her own fault, she reasoned to herself. Harry wasn't very mature – at the best of times. But mentioning his murdered mother was a low blow on her part.

Fortunately, they met no one – or rather – no one they knew well, on the walk out of town. Everyone in Hogsmeade knew them - by appearance – and Ginny took it upon herself to wave or say hello to people Harry ignored in his snit.

Some apparently were also amused by cross-valley midnight messages in the clouds. A few laughed, applauding the Potters as they strolled by in silence. One notably aimed a rude finger at the Potters.

A Hufflepuff, apparently.

“Harry, ….please.”

He didn't answer, just continuing to march out of town.

He was going to be sleeping in the old garage. Or with Shep, their dog, if this continued.





Around the turn at the last original house in Hogsmeade, before one came to the Longbottoms house, the couple met Charlie and his wife, Veronica Wesley

Veronica's face, a fair, freckled, plain and pleasant woman - who would not have looked out of place in any age of man on this island, looked shrewdly at the Potters and she gave her husband a hand squeeze.

Which he returned, but as he had obviously completely forgotten the crude hand signal language she had laboriously tried teaching him, only limply gave one squeeze back.

At her exasperated glare, Charlie said, “What? I indicated I'm here.”

In a hushed voice, she said, “Any twelve year old boy does that, Mr. Brilliant. Mine was 'beware' and 'be cautious and silent. They've been fighting and don't say something stupid.”

Charlie was completely baffled. “All that in a hand squeeze?”

“I used different fingers to …...why do I bother.”

“Like why are you fighting, Harry and Ginny?” He blurted that out, just as the Potters walked up.

“You are sometimes an idiot!” Veronica pronounced her verdict.

“None of your business, Charlie.” Ginny happily told her brother. She offered a hand to Harry, as if to take his elbow as any wife would want to do on a brisk walk in the autumn in the North of England. Harry looked ruefully to her, then nodded and stuck out his arm, and the Potters had made a silent truce.

“I just love to see that at work.” Charlie smiled.

“You can see why I don't take him out from the museum, much.” Veronica looked concernedly at Ginny.

“Didn't expect to see you two here?” Ginny said in a patently false tone that indicated she fully expected to see these two.

And she didn't want to talk about her difficulties with Mr. Potter. “A stroll in Hogsmeade?”

“He's got business at the castle. I'm just along to see the trees and take a good look at the valley in autumn.” Veronica smiled conservatively. She did her best to stay in this disguise's character, as plain and not too showy. In truth, she was really along to see to it Charlie didn't get conveniently lost at the town pub and not do what he had promised.

“Oh?” Ginny asked, artfully.

“He's to make arrangements with Flitwick for a school outing to the museum.” Veronica supplied.

“First Years. Probably before holiday break or just after.” Charlie dutifully explained.

“Very nice.” Ginny said agreeably. Harry just grunted.

“He's really here to meet his daughter. Hermione will see to it.” Veronica chirped, poking a playful finger at Charlie's middle.

“Ehhh-x-cellent.” Ginny said in a satisfied, gloating voice. Harry woodenly tried hard to keep a grin from cracking his lips apart.

Charlie mumbled something that sounded a lot like Harry had, a few minutes ago, saying finally, “Guess that would work okay .......” and some other words after that, which were lost as he began trudging on the castle road.

The two couples walked at first silently. They saw each other frequently, so there was little heavy chit-chat. Two of their number liked silence.

Neither Harry nor Veronica were given to much gab, naturally.

Ginny and Charlie were sister and brother. He the oldest of seven who hardly knew her all that well. They did have one thing in common though

After telling Veronica that the Adam's case was solved and the ladies needn't return next week, Ginny asked. “So, I understand you had guests visiting for dinner?”

The vampire glanced forward, to see her husband's back as he walked ahead of them. “Yes, umm, very interesting all around. I had no idea it was all that common knowledge.”

Come on, Charlie. He's your brother!

Evidently, some of her mental telepathy worked. Or her eyes were burning a small hole in the back of his neck. Either way, Charlie said in a small voice, .“Percy brought a date.”

Ginny smiled, and gave a victorious smirk of 'I-told-you-so' over her shoulder to Harry trailing behind them.

“I think that is great. Really. Brilliant.” It was so unimportant in the big scheme of things to Harry. He married into a big family, but sincerely did not take part in these little things they all did among each other to needle. To tease.

He also didn't give a damn about Percival Wesley To be honest.

Veronica slowly said, “I liked her, actually. Not what I expected. A female version of Percy would have been the believable thing.” The other three all made similar grimaces of agreement. “Not that way at all. She's from one of those South Seas island nations, border French Polynesia, actually. Most natives speak their own and French. English is kind of islander-Pidgin-Australian ….. well, I think it is mostly the television they get out there.”

“So she's not going to bore us with long-winded recitals of Romantic poetry. I like her already.” Harry happily affirmed.

Veronica heartily agreed. “My own French is a bit dated, actually. Haven't used it much in quite a while. But we all got along, after a fashion. She and I thought Charlie's Romanian a scream.”

“Mostly, off color jokes.” Charlie admitted. “Only thing I really remember, actually.”

“Dying to tell Percy that.” Veronica smiled,

“Don't you dare! His sense of humor is a …..bit thin.”

“He is a bit of a prude, my brother.” Ginny laughed and then said, “Wait. You two invited them to dinner? What did you eat?”

“Ummm, there is a Chinese take-out place, round the corner. So we didn't …..have to cook.” Charlie ducked his head in admission.

Veronica explained, “I nibbled - a lot - at the same bowl of noodles. Got away with it.”

“Pretended.” Harry said. The vampire didn't eat food.


Well, duh!

“Well, yeah, kind of had to. But, luckily she mostly wanted to meet his family. And we aren't really good examples of that, frankly.”

Harry had a frisson of a feeling, suddenly. Like something was about to be asked and promised he'd rather avoid.

Veronica appealed to Charlie, pulling him to her to emphasize she did not want to do this alone. “Okay ….... Charlie, help me out here.”

“Umm, well, that was good for starters. But he'd …..okay, I would like a bit better than we can do. Can't keep getting fried rice and chow mein every time, now can we?”

“No ….” Ginny agreed a bit suspiciously. What was she about to be strong-armed into?

“We'd like you to invite them over.” Veronica said, giving up on Charlie endless delaying asking the inevitable.

Ginny's face darkened like a mini-storm cloud. “No!” Ginny said a little more emphatically.

“Look.” Charlie stopped in his tracks, turning on his feet so all were now in a circle, amid the path to the castle. They were half way to Hogwarts. The empty, stone walled fields had finally given way to woodlands and marshy grounds leading on to the Lake beyond deeper in the valley. “This can be really good for him. Get him out of the rut he has been in for twenty some years.” Charlie looked to Ginny's fierce eyes, “Also, mend some bridges with the rest of us. Well, not me, but the rest of you four.”

“We both know it is especially tense with Percy and you two. And Ron and Hermione.” Veronica said carefully.

“Must have been the arresting party he came with to take Albus Dumbledore. And helping nearly getting Harry expelled from school, to his certain death.” Ginny said through clenched teeth. “And doing it all, knowing it hurt Mom and Dad. Especially, not caring that all the rest of us disagreed with him. Quoting chapter and verse of his precious Ministry regulations.”

Veronica took Ginny's shoulder. “He acknowledged he was wrong. Your parents forgave him. And that was twenty years ago. Shall we go on fighting and hating, for years. I've fought my share of feuds. It never ends, truly, as long as you'll hold this grudge. If you don't end the war in your heart, it never really ends.”

Charlie agreed, “Percy hasn't been to the Burrow, since Mom was dead. Dad will not go against your wishes, now that Mum isn't there. They all will act as you do, sis.”

“I never asked them to.”

“No. But now that she is gone, you have taken her place in this.”

“I asked no one to share my feelings. How convenient for the rest of you. Let sister be the villain …..”

“Stop being a cheese-head.” Veronica interrupted, still firmly gripping Ginny's shoulder. “Make this a new beginning. He is an annoying pris and that's all. Not his girlfriend's fault.”

Charlie agreed, “Well, there is that. Yes, he can be irritating. But he was never a Death-eater. And Percy fought for the castle, when the time came.”

Ginny didn't reply. Charlie and Veronica looked to Harry.

“I will be guided by her. I don't hate him. Don't like him, ….much. But what she says goes for me.”

Ginny stared from Harry, then Veronica then to Charlie. Her shoulders slumped a little in the vampire's hand. “What do you want me to do?”

“Be civil. Accepting his faults. Disagree with him. Meet the woman that I think loves him. Because I think it matters that you approve or not. Now that Mom is gone, it matters to Percy what you think.”

“But not before?”

“I think it mattered, then, too. But, irregardless, it matters now.”

Ginny sighed. “I will, for the rest of you.”

The other three sighed, too. Or Veronica simulated it. But she sincerely felt like doing so. She understood how Ginny Potter felt. But time was passing on, for all of them. She just whispered, “Thank you.” And took Ginny by the arm and got them walking again.

“I can't speak French,” Ginny grumbled.

“We know. Fleur and Hermione can. But they won't be there, because Ron and Bill won't if you don't accept him back in the family. So ….”

“I get it. Funny, I've never noticed this immense power I have over people.”

“Just in this.” Charlie qualified, “And maybe because you liked Harry, we came to accept him. Conditionally ….”

“I'm always on the edge of being taken with people.” Harry agreed.

“Okay. All of you can't take yes for an answer.” Ginny muttered.

The others knew they had pushed their luck. They kept walking toward the pillared gate of Hogwarts.

To change the subject, Veronica asked, “Are you two ready for the school?”

Ginny acknowledged, “Yes. Though, it has been a bit of a tense morning. My fault.”

“No, it isn't.” Harry mumbled, not looking at his sister-in-law. “She's Blue-gray. Doesn't use makeup.”

“Hmm?” Charlie had to turn to ask about that non sequitir.

Harry shrugged at Charlie's silent question. “Veronica's eyes. And her face. Ginny says I don't look people in the eyes.”

“Ah! Of course.” Wesley nodded in understanding. “You don't. We are always amazed you don't run into trees and trip over trolls.”

“Very funny, Charlie.” Harry looked harder at his brother-in-law. “Green, with little flecks of gold. Maybe does use makeup.”

“Now that's a new low, from you, Harry.”

“Don't be silly, Harry. He's my brother. Of course he uses makeup.” Ginny laughed and Veronica laughed along with her. But then Ginny reached up to take Charlie's chin, and looked in his eyes. “I ….thought they were brown. Like ...the rest of us. I thought.”

“Well......!” Harry said with some satisfaction.

“Not everyone knows all about everybody else. Let's not get superior.” Veronica said sagely, but looking to Charlie, gave him a significant look. Charlie did use a little makeup, to keep him aging. And his eyes had changed in the three years they'd been together.

Charlie Wesley looked back forward, up towards Hogwarts, high up on its rocky bed.

She had warned him. The changes in him were not all invisible.

Now he had to go on as if he'd always had green eyes. With odd little specks of gold. Best she change the subject. Back to the trouble at school – once again – Veronica returned to the reason for the Potter's visit, today. “All of us expected this, with James, so ease off on each other. If it had been really bad, you would have gotten a Patronus or a Ministry Owl in the night.”

“Or maybe James sent home, waiting for us on our doorstep.” Harry breathed out through his lips, saying, “Oh, ….sort of looking on the good side of things. Just a 'friendly chat with the Hogwarts' administration.”

“It could be worse, Harry,” said Charlie Wesley, from up front. Indicating that he might be sulking but he was paying attention to the conversation a few steps behind.

“Yes it could.” Veronica agreed. The secret vampire had already taken some covert steps to check up on the ruffians who had harassed James and Rose on the train. Old habits died hard.

Neither Harry or Ginny knew the details. No seeming grand conspiracy or threat to the children loomed to be in the offing. Just people that were jealous of the Potters or had relatives that had opportunistic seized advantages under the brief Death-Eater regime. And lost it, rather totally, when Voldemort had been finally destroyed. There had been bound to be some bad blood, and Teddy and Victoire had endured their share.

But both had triumphantly succeeded, and were nearly done with school. Young adults and soon to be man and wife – in less than a year – the future Mr and Mrs Lupin were headed for outstanding success after good school careers for both.

Ron and Harry's first born both starting school had been certain not to go unnoticed. Veronica had been fairly certain the worst the two would encounter were the usual bullies and travails all new kids experienced in a place like Hogwarts.

Of course, Harry and Ginny's, and Ron and Hermione's children were destined for exceptional things.

“Always with the positive feelings. I love being with vampires.” Ginny did not need Astrid – a.k.a. Veronica - feeding Harry's brief moment of equanimity with the very real possibility they'd indeed find something about James that was worse.

Veronica hadn't realized she was being too honest in assessing the dangers. “Sorry.”

Ginny just shook her head. “You are another one that has a tin-ear to other people's concerns.”

Harry wanted this topic switched to something happier. “I am not going to blame her or you or anyone else, for today. Honest, girls. Just lets get on with things.”

“You seem to be handling this well?” Charlie asked Ginny.

“No ….not really. I feel as nervous as Harry about what we'll hear.”

“Anything especially egregious?” Veronica queried. She already knew the answer was no, but didn't want the reinforce her reputation of over protective nosiness.

“Something about missing socks. And some suspicion about filling all the castle suits of armor with suds,” Harry said with faintly concealed admiration.

“Pretty cool.” Charlie said, impressed too. “Especially, if he was not within sight of the socks.”

Ginny supplied, “And may be involved in prolonged flatulence of one of the other Houses.”

“That's no big deal. Which one?”

“Hufflepuff.”

“Well, that's almost mandatory,” Charlie grinned and both men laughed and Ginny hid a guilty smile.

Veronica did not smile., “Pretty juvenile. I hope that wasn't what you are being called in for.”

“I hope it is.” Harry quietly chewed on the inside of his mouth. “Nobody was hurt.”

“No evidence it was directly him. From what we understand.”

“But he's capable?” Veronica asked.

“Oh, yes.” Ginny nodded.

“What are you going to tell James? Wagging your finger and saying 'shame on you' is pretty useless.” Charlie observed. “Did nothing to stop Fred or George. Probably incited more stupid pranks, the angrier my parents yelled at them.”

“I was ….actually planning on wagging my finger and sort of tell him to stop. Probably useless … I know.” Harry quietly mumbled.“Maybe it is justified.”

“How do you know?” Ginny eyed him narrowly, as they walked in through the wrought iron gate of Hogwarts outer boundary.

“Just …...have my sources,” Harry vaguely said, avoiding meeting his wife's eyes.

“Oh? Do feel free to share with your wife. His mother!” Ginny voice sounded tight and angry.

Veronica stepped in, cutting off more of Ginny's beginning boil. “Stop it. Both of you. The moment you step over that fenceline, you are concerned parents. Not squabbling children. Buck up - shut your trap, Harry, before you say something you'll regret – be the adults here. Hold her hand ...” pointing to Ginny, “ …..and you his, and don't turn this morning into something everyone concerned will be sorry for.”

The Potters did as she instructed. But Harry quietly said, “I am counting how many children she has.”

Ginny answered, “I've counted them. But ...I have to work with her, and I'm smart enough to keep my mouth shut.”

“Smart witch.” Veronica replied, “And after a thousand years of experience ….”

Harry said, “I had a feeling her 'thousand years' would be mentioned at this point.”

“Did you have any doubt?” Charlie grinned back.

“And you!” Veronica pointed a small but firm finger to her much larger husband's chest. All three knew she was much stronger than she looked, but wasn't why he sheepishly wiped the smile away. “You'll be happy. Nice. Even tempered. Smile.......”

“Am I receiving an award?” Charlie answered crossly.

“Yes. You are meeting your daughter for the first time. And being the exact opposite of a total ass Jennifer undoubtedly expects.”

Charlie winced. “I don't want her hurt. I'm not forcing myself on anyone.”

Ginny nodded, pleased at the firm tone of authority that her sister-in-law. “Then you'll find it hard to avoid her, as we are going to be having her part of the family as much as she will allow. Be nice. Patient. And 'turn the other cheek', at all times. And don't respond the same way to her if she yells or screams all the things she's been saving up in her head for seventeen years ….probably. You …...” and now Ginny added her finger of justice to poking Charlie's shoulder. “ ….lost your rights to being anything other than a visitor, here.”

Charlie wisely did not say anything, but nod. Conscious they're eyes were fiercely locked on his face.

Ginny smiled to Veronica. “Mum would be proud of you.”

The vampire smiled. “I try - in my weak and faint way – to live up to her standards.”

“Oye!” Harry sighed.

“Want to trade places?” Charlie quietly voiced.

“I …..am not sure.”

Charlie Wesley watched as his wife walked to another new bench, nicely placed next to an armor suit standing in the shelter of wooden guard shack in the inside of the twin stone pillars that flanked the gate to Hogwarts castle grounds.

The empty suit put its two fists to its hips, and leaned back slightly at an angle, as staring judgmentally at the two men.

“You are not coming with us?” Charlie asked, a little confused.

“You don't need me, for this.” Veronica looked uncomfortable, but decided this much she should share. “No …..not within the castle.”

“You've been there before. Many times.” Harry said.

“No ….not lately. With this face.” The three waited, expectantly, for more of a statement. Veronica sighed. “Been here long ago ...in this disguise. I …..ah …. attended Hogwarts …...looking as I am.”

“Be someone else, then,” Harry said, as if it wasn't too obvious a solution..

“And another strange woman, other than Charlie's wife, arrives at the castle to see his unacknowledged teen daughter? That's a great plan, Harry.”

“I could see that causing some comment.”

The vampire waved a hand at the distant school. “The castle is always aware. This place fairly reeks of magic. More than just human eyes are upon us and ….....I just have to stay here.”

“Are you in danger?”

Veronica looked defensively uneasy. “Not from you. But from others or Hogwarts …..we can't take the chance.”

“Who are 'we'? …...... Oh, right! Start explaining.” Ginny crossed her arms, finger tapping on the other forearm.

“Not so long ago, they hunted vampires. Still would, if we weren't so good at hiding. When I went to school here, the then-current solution was thought to be chopping up into pieces and then incineration. At the end of that year ….as fondly as I remember it …..I was revealed to be more than just a witch.”

“That was the Fifteenth Century.” Charlie pointed out. He knew the gist of the story, already. He thought Veronica was being over paranoid.

“Let's not complicate our lives, by dredging up my dodgy past. Charlie ….please. I'll be fine, right here.”

“Think this is stupid.”

“I know. We have our share of crises, today. I'll just wait here in the pleasant fall day. It's not raining, at least.” Veronica tapped on his knee and nudged a head towards Hogwarts. “Go on!”

The Potters held up one hand each in the air, questioningly at Wesley, and he conceded they needed to get on with this.

This was the longest walk up to the Castle that Charlie could remember!

“Well, if you feel like it. Could you go look for Hagrid for me?” Harry asked.

“Sure.” Veronica answered quizzically.

“Just wanted to ask him to help Neville …...you know. It is a tough job, about the castle.” Harry paused, then added. “Till James and things are a little ….calmer.”

She lipped a tight smile. “I know ….just know. You will all do well today.”

“Thanks, mom.” Ginny grinned.

*
 


Chapter 10: Things to Hide
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The couples were met at the Front Door by a waiting prefect of the school. The Potters were expected and the duty prefect at the Hogwarts main entrance had been told to take them to Deputy Master Yi. The boy looked uncertain as he hadn't been told to be expecting Charles Weasley.

“I'm ….just to see the Deputy …...., school business, afterwards.” The big man was looking all around, sounding 'important' but the prefect really had no clue. The fellow sort of looked like Mrs. Potter.

Harry needed no introduction. You needed to be half dead not to know who Potter was, the prefect figured.

Everyone who cared of course knew who Ginny Potter was. She was famous! Quidditch was the most important thing in the world, after all.

After a moment of the young fan's worshipful silence, she spoke up, “He's my brother. He has to see some people. Is Professor Weasley about?”

“Oh, certainly, Madame Potter. She's heard of you coming up the path. On her way.” The boy looked about and said in a slight whisper. “Slower …..than she used to be. Not well.”

Ginny seemed to be a bit offended at the prefect's term of respect. “Madame ….indeed” he heard her whisper over her shoulder.

“We know.” Harry quietly told the prefect, a trifle amused. “We will go to her, instead …..”

Charlie saw Hermione gingerly coming down the castle steps. “There she is. I'll wait right here.” He looked to Ginny, and giving Harry a gentle thump on a shoulder. “Go on. You'll do alright.”

“Certainly, sir.” The teenager looked relieved all he had to do was get the Potters to Yi and be away. As he had about twenty other things he needed to do. The boy turned to Mr. and Mrs. Potter and said, “Won't you please follow me?”

Harry gave Charlie an encouraging 'thumbs-up' hand-sign. And Charlie did a tiny 'eyes-rolling-to- heaven-for-guidance' in response.

Ginny just looked far away and unhappy. Like she had bad indigestion.

Hermione came to them and after a whispered conversation with Ginny Potter, urged the couple on their way.

The Weasleys waited for the others to disappear up before speaking. “Are you ready, yourself?” Hermione asked.

Charlie sighed, and nodded jerkily 'yes'. “Is this really a good idea, 'Mione? She's a young woman and a life on her own, soon.”

“Are you going to pretend you don't know her, from now on?”

“No, 'course not.” Charlie snapped.

Hermione nodded. And pointed back out the Front Door. “Go around the walkway from the courtyard, to the side entrance by Firenze's Divination classrooms. Wait in the old First Year classroom. I'll have Jennifer meet you there.”

“I don't want an audience.” Weasley said grumpily.

“Why I'm not suggesting a megaphone or the lobby here by the Front Door..” Hermione answered brightly.

“Very funny. People are full of advice, today.” Charlie responded darkly. He glanced at his sister-in-law. Hermione's once healthy brown hair was heavily gray now and looking brittle and thin.

And his face grew concerned. “How are you feeling?” Charlie asked in a small voice.

Hermione tiredly smiled. “You know, Charlie. Tired all the time. And feeling …......old.”

Charlie shook his head and turned slightly to walk to his introduction to his illegitimate daughter. He said, “No, Hermione. After a few days of feeling sore and ill, I've never been sick since.”

“And you've never been the same, since. We both know why, Charlie.” Hermione pointed her chin at the Door. “Good luck, today, Charlie. Be nice.”

“I hope I don't mess this up.” Charlie said to himself, repeating the mantra he had uttered all morning long. And walked through the open Doors.

Charlie didn't see the small figure of a girl, clutching a racing broom, join her mother in the lobby. Watching the closed Door.

Mother and daughter stood for a moment in silent contemplation.

Hermione chanced a quick glance at Rose. The red-headed image of herself. With that familiar 'naughty' smile on her little girl lips.

“Uncle Charlie in trouble.” Rose said quietly, amusement in her voice. “James, too?”

“The usual.” Hermione muttered, then a little more like a teacher, responded, “And I think you should mind your own business, young miss. Pay attention to your own affairs.”

“It's Saturday, Mum. I've got plenty of free time to be nosey.” Rose shook her head slightly. “Oh, don't worry about James. 'Tori and I have him all sorted out.”

“You do, do you?”

“He's never alone, Mum. No worries.”

Hermione thought for a second Rose meant something else, but forgot about that at seeing the broom in Rose's hand. “Where'd you get that?”

Rose couldn't think to hide it, but for a second moved to put it behind her back, as if to conceal the 'adult' sized racing broom with her slight figure. She thought better about immediately, and grinned. “Mine. We got practice in a few minutes.”

That was patently 'not!' the broom Hermione distinctly had seen Rose with all the past two years. An ancient 'Mistral-700' – old when her late Uncle Fred had used it to fly about the Burrow - years before – was what Hermione was familiar with. So old, the remains of the straw had stuck out permanently at odd angles as if it has survived being a cat-toy of a pack of demented lynx's.

Hermione's foot tapped lightly on the flagstones.

Rose quickly said, “Daddy had it mailed, a week ago. Said mine was unsafe.”

Hermione's eye flicked to the replacement broom. Something a professional would train with. Not flashy, but very clean and unscarred. The handle end towered above Rose's back like a silent laugh at Hermione's expense.

That man!

“He did, did he?”

Rose said quickly, “The old one was scary dangerous, Mum. Wouldn't even work to sweep dust.” She artfully whispered in a serious tone, “And how can I watch the old kids, safely, sitting on that old deathtrap?” She was not supposed to be an active player on the team.

That was the fiction they had all agreed upon at the last team meeting, anyway!

“You are not to be playing until next year! As a Second Year. Is that understood.!” Hermione said tightly. Rose solemnly nodded, looking seriously like the idea had never occurred to her of trying to actually 'fly' on the silly thing and darted out past the Front Door before her mother could forbid her anything else.

And slunk away to be out of her mother's sight before Hermione asked more about the new broom.

Her mother had little time to spare on her daughter's tricks. Hermione thought the game was insane. And the menfolk of her clan doubly insane – okay, including her sister-in-law and now her daughter, too!

Ronald had probably been secretly waiting for this for years.

“He is going to be in so much trouble.” Hermione muttered to herself.





[Charlie, walking outside path about the castle]

Back outside, Weasley walked about the courtyard fountain, suddenly confused about which way to go. The place had been rebuilt since the war or at least seemed a lot different than Charlie remembered. He ended following a group of kids going down a side entrance, then over a stone bridge and another path around the outside of the castle.

It began to come gradually back to Charlie. This part of the ancient buildings had not been so radically changed. He found the ground entrance and walked through the magically self-opening doors to a broad stone corridor and a high ceiling and extra-wide branching doorways.

And the distinct smell of horse!

“Friend Weasley. Good to see you,” Firenze, the exiled centaur, given a home and a chance to teach young humans by Dumbledore, came out of one nearby room and approached Charlie. The two grasped broad hands, the centaur's of course being proportionately that much bigger.

But Weasley was a strong man, for a human. Even slightly intimidating to the centaur, despite his little size compared to the half-man, half-horse.

“Friend Hermione has told me what you need. There is an old classroom down the hall on the left. You will have privacy.” Firenze said in a quiet voice, conscious the two were being slyly watched by some girls just out of earshot.

Charlie puffed out his cheeks, ignoring his 'admirers'. Or, in fact, he thought the teens might be scoping out the centaur.

Girls!

Firenze stayed the human with a gentle hand, ushering the girls on into the classroom he had just left.
When they were gone, the centaur looked down at Charlie's face. “Do not fear. It will go well, but not in anyway you expect it. Things before you are not straight forward.” The centaur looked confused at his own words, and a gave a slight shake to his head. “Seems uncertain before us, you coming here. Very strange …......”

Firenze turned to leave but said over his shoulder. “Farewell, Friend Charlie. I have a feeling you and I will not speak again.”

Charlie looked confused, one hand weakly pointing on down the Hogwarts hallway. “Alright. Just going to be down here.”

Firenze looked at Charlie strangely. The centaur's hooves clicked on the stone as he walked to his classroom, nodding his human head. His human shoulders barely passed through the width of the door, ones made to let Hagrid the half-giant comfortably pass through.

Then Charlie was alone. Really alone, this time. Merlin! And Mum, herself, too! He prayed to himself. Don't let me mess this up!




[Deputy Headmaster Yi's Hogwarts office]

Yi cleared his throat and rose to his feet as the couple were shown into the room. “Mr. and Mrs. Potter. So good of you to meet with me,” Yi said. He frowned to the prefect that was dismissed and the boy left reluctantly. The prefect closed the door, keenly glancing about so as to get the facts straight when he was sure to be mobbed by his friends when he told them who was here.

The Potters looked about and took the indicated chairs to sit. Like a lot of parents Yi had met over the years, they seemed a little dazed at the change in perspective they'd been thrust into.

Hogwarts had changed. No longer were they little kids, in trouble. People bobbed and greeted them and it was unnerving.

Called them 'sir' and 'madame'! Again! Do I look like a grandmother! Ginny fumed to herself.

Ginny smiled weakly. Harry just looked unhappy.

Yi made the usual polite 'chit-chat', not launching immediately into the obvious topic for today's discussion. Mostly it was Ginny and Yi doing the talking. Harry seemed far away, confusedly looking around as if not expecting Yi or this room at all.

Hogwarts' deputy got a lot of this reaction from parents of that generation. Dumbledore had been at Hogwarts for decades, and McGonagal only slightly less. New people in their places always seemed to confuse people like the Potters. This was not how the couple had imagined on the trip back to the old school, despite knowing changes had happened.

This had never been McGonagal's office. Completely different place in the castle and none of the contents had been hers or Yi's predecessor's as deputy headmaster of the magical school. A total break with the past, Yi had felt necessary.

It also put parents like these on the defensive. Unfamiliar ground. He was in charge.

Not feeling like wasting more time, Yi figured they needed to get right to the point. Their son James.

“Our owl's letter has informed you of the general state of affairs. The alarming escalation of ….events …..that your son is connected with. The latest - the 'Armor Incident' - seems to have ended with no great harm done. Actually to some benefit as far as some individual cases of the heavier trafficked exhibits. Cleaner than ever. There are an unfortunate handful that …...well, quite frankly reek. Not sure what causes that.”

“Nobody proved James did a thing.” Harry said, tightly. Then, seeing Yi's bland smile, accepting the unlikelihood of his son's non-involvement, corrected the statement with “ …..by himself.”

Ginny breathed out, then said. “Of course, we wish to provide for their restoration. That shouldn't be a great problem.” Her husband nodded in agreement. She finished, “We could arrange to have the …..more stinky ones substituted for others......”

“Generous of you, but unnecessary. The 'afflicted' all are emblazoned with the words 'Hufflepuff' or at least their coat of arms. No one else outside of the school would want them,” Yi softly interrupted. But he made an apologetic motion that Mrs. Potter had the right idea. “Those are now moved into a …...less exposed area in the dungeons, and some old exhibits put in place. They don't seem damaged in a real way. Just stink to high heaven. All of the other armor suits, at least in the areas commonly used by students, appear to be safely 'defused'.”

“Well, defused ...is kind of a provocative word.” Ginny said in a faint voice.

“Having all the Hogwarts armor, at least the ones in classroom floors, fill up instantly with shaving cream, all at once, struck us as provocative. Some in multi-hued colored foam ...” Yi gestured to the Song-dynasty Chinese suit in the corner of his office, “Family heirloom. Mine was in orange suds ...…....That is a mark of a truly gifted wizard ….....and a talented vandal.”

“Not …...um, damaged, I hope?” Ginny said mumbled.

Yi looked patiently neutral, “No, not harmed at all. I've actually just kept this as an example. I get mothers and fathers in here all the time who deny there was anything done because there is no physical evidence.”

“No, we believe it happened.” Harry looked in some discomfort. “He comes by his gifts …. for mayhem ….somewhat naturally. Uncles..... and maybe …...ah, suppose his parents ...”

Man and Wife just looked motionlessly considering who else they could number as possible contributors..

“Yes ….you both have an extensive record, between the both of you.”

Both Potters looked to their feet or elsewhere, in the room. Yi always got a charge out of how quickly parents reverted to their old childhood selves within the castle. Old habits died hard!

Yi leaned back in his chair, fingers pitched before his nose as in serious contemplation. “You can well imagine I frequently have difficulty with First Year students. It can be an emotional time. Parental expectations. Seeming freedom from home rules. Stories told to them by older siblings...”

“Teddy.” Harry resignedly said the name. “Forgot to include him.”

Ginny did not know why that should be a huge surprise to the most famous wizard in the world. Ted and Victoire had effectively been the older brother and sister of all the children.

Neither had been completely innocent of 'indiscretions'.

“Not Victoire, now. Certainly not.” Ginny hastened to add.

The old wizard laughed with a shrill tone Harry found incredibly grating. “Oh, my no. Miss Weasley's
challenge has always been her temper. She was never one for pranks, but a little too willing to use her fists. Which several boys found out to their sorrow.” Yi looked thoughtful. “Managed to defuse that by requiring her to teach physical defense to any girls that wished to learn. Channeled her aggression in a more helpful way.”

“Pity ….we don't have something like that for James.” Harry and Ginny both glanced at each other with the corner of their eyes, each hoping the other had such a brilliant solution quickly to hand.

Yi gave the impression he was trying to smile companionably. It mostly looked like he had a tooth ache and soon stopped. He was an old friend of Flitwick and Xenophilius Lovegood. He was not a greatly gifted wizard, and no special aptitude for teaching. His sense of humor could be best described as 'meager'. But he had stepped into the tougher role of Deputy Headmaster with vigor and things had never been so efficiently run and tightly managed at Hogwarts.

Except for a few odd instances – the really bad one had been three boys one year decided to walk into the Forest at night. A few other minor things. But Yi had managed to keep an effective lid on the worst offenses. It had actually been a rather tranquil year last year, and Yi had been looking forward to having his efficient order once more to prevail.

Then, of course, he had not met James Potter until a month ago.

Yi said, “In addition to this one, there have been a few ...unexplained events. Really quite inventively clever and not seemingly …..malicious. It may be that there is a third party involved. Or this is all just escalating because of teenage competition as to who can be more creative and-or destructive.”

Harry demanded, “Have you punished the bully that hit him on the train?”

Yi thought the Potters would be bound to know this, already. “Unofficially, yes. I know who the suspects are. An old problem ...growing worse. But his refusal to officially complain and no others we know were present would talk. Not much we can do but make it plain we are watching.”

Potter's temper was just being barely held. Harry stood to lean over the desk, to stare Yi down. “Shit lot of good that did! And you've got the nerve to call us up here for some suds ...”

“Harry. Sit down!” His wife urged and Harry did so, with an embarrassed look.

He was not handling this well, he knew.

Potter's temper seemed a tad short, Yi noted. Chen was doing his best to be 'sociable'. Best keep this on track.

“Your son James has not hesitated to make himself immediately familiar with the castle's plethora of diversions, comedic or outlandish. Already a boon companion of Peeves.”

“Oh, Merlin!” The Potters whispered in unison. Not the Poltergeist, too!

The tall thin man with the arid personality nervously tapped his quill against the papers in front of him. Yi was not really sure how to handle this. He was not intimately familiar with the Potters. Both were famous in many ways and that was always an extra burden on their children and the school. Harry was an unknown quantity to Yi . He got the instant impression that Mother Potter was the disciplinarian. But Harry turned out not to be the spoiled, pampered favored boy of the previous most famous wizard of all time. Or the weak, disinterested celebrity that let others handle the piddling details of family life.

That always immensely complicated matters for Master Yi!

Yi had talked long with Flitwick about how to handle these first months of the return of Potter to Hogwarts. It was certain to be a powder keg of expectations. The elder Potter was already showing signs of a temper, if provoked. That was his failure.

Not being able to talk to people without rubbing them the wrong way was Yi 's problem.

Otherwise, Potter himself seemed very smart and worldly wise. A profession he had chosen, being a detective, seemed to make cynics of people and Harry seemed no different. He had a critical eye and no illusions as to the innocence of this little boy.

That was always a benefit for a teacher.

Mother Potter was no cream-puff, herself. Yi knew of her better, having been a Quidditch fan. Her famous on-the-field spat with Gwenog Jones and the well-remembered 'take this broom and shove it' victory speech were legendary.

And they were highly intelligent people. Yi felt he could work with them both, if they cooperated with him. He sometimes was speechless after meeting parents, finding it difficult to believe they could have graduated from his school, at all. And that he was expected to make results of their progeny.

This would not be a problem with the Potter children. By all reports, this was the critical first one, and Yi Chen was up to the challenge. Granted, Yi did not have the access that the Headmaster had of the previous leaders of Hogwarts at his beck and call, as school portraits. But he certainly had the second best resource.

The disciplinary records of past offenders. Actually, only the most egregious of those. Minor ones were tossed out at the end of the year. The 'record breakers' were kept, of course. Things like that tended to run in families, and the wizarding families had long memories of the 'doin's and shenanigans' back at the old school. Every Year seemed to have one or two notable characters.

One's permanent record was never forgotten, at Hogwarts.

Ginny Weasley's two twin brothers - Fred and George – had special document procedures requiring handling and viewing their activities. Some were too inflammatory and dangerous to risk repeating. They were special cases.

“Let's be frank with each other. I understand that it can be difficult being who you are. The expectations. Neither of you can escape your notoriety, nor the fact that all of your children and their cousins are in for special scrutiny. They have as difficult time amongst their peers, but they will succeed.”

Harry nodded, and said, “Yes, we know. We've just been dreading …....this year for a long time, now.”
Ginny patted his hand, wordlessly agreeing with her husband.

“Nor are you alone. Well …..maybe at Hogwarts, you are still special. But in the Muggle world, thousands of famous parents are in similar situations like your own. You have aid here, and the school will do all it can.. It helps having an aunt as a resident professor. And the librarian and her husband are as good as an aunt and uncle, I understand?”

“Luna and Neville are considered part of the family.” Ginny asserted. Harry nodded. He already suspected that Neville had inordinately devoted time to keeping James thirst for mayhem quenched. Harry thought the world of Neville, but his effort was destined to be rapidly overmatched.

“It often works that way. I've just been here five years, and I can already see close friends amongst parents create ties among their children. The intermarriages, after school, further cement the ties. It's as old as human history. At least scholastic history. You should meet my Muggle friends. The 'Ox-Bridge' set might as well be inbred hillbillies from Appalachia or New Guinea.”

A little humor always helped soften the mood, Yi was told. Ginevra Potter cracked a smile. Yi could tell the Potters dreaded the meeting -maybe more so due to prescient anticipation as to how their son James would cope in this environment. He would let some of the tension out of the air. Father Potter looked like his hand would snap off the arm of his chair if he squeezed further.

“James hasn't done anything ….yet....to warrant a full school disciplinary hearing. I want you both to relax.” Almost simultaneously, both husband and wife let out complimentary sighs of relief.

Yi followed that positive note with a discordant one. “Not that you have undo reason to fear those hearings won't happen …..they will.”

Harry thought Yi was not trying to be aggravating. But something in his nature drove him to goad Harry's boiling temper. The man just couldn't leave them with a brief bit of good news without next drowning it in bad. “Like the sun rising in the east.” Harry muttered.

“That wasn't always a guarantee, under your brothers-in-law auspices.” Yi irritably shuffled a stack of documents in front of him. George and Fred's 'lighter' offenses, for the Headmaster's eyes only. Yi said flatly, “James should be henceforth banned from his Uncle George's store.”

“Already done.” Ginny launched into her 'reassuring-concerned' mother speech she had so often had to use at James' earlier Muggle grade-schools. There had been flashes – then - of his 'brilliance' but it had been mostly safely contained by the fact that wizards' children could not (or were not supposed to) do magic before the age of eleven and not outside Hogwarts. That had supposed to be inclusive of the family home, but was well nigh unenforceable by the Ministry of Magic. Ginny said, “His grandfather and ourselves have been searching also through the old family home and the various storage areas that Fred and George kept things.”

“Found some interesting things,” Harry said with an apologetic voice.

“I can only imagine,” Yi said dryly.

“Certainly at home we can control things. Here at school …..well, James won't be prevented from communicating to the outside world. I'll speak to my brother-in-law, George, but my control over him is limited.” Harry thought out that conversation and wasn't too encouraged. “There are almost undoubtedly stored caches of Wheezes items, secreted about the castle,” Harry had to admit.

Yi stated flatly, “Not even the House Elves know all the secret places within the castle. Nobody does.”

“There wasn't much hope for that. Just be prepared.”

“Oh, I have been. Most assuredly. I have had to go back to some rather old records to prepare myself for certain contingencies.” Yi let his eye pointedly stare at a narrow tall file cabinet. It was dark and ancient looking, strange carvings and oddly …..secure. “Special records of past students -like James' uncles- are in those. A few are quite old -some of them medieval and hand-illuminated. I have to admit, there might even be one with me and Xeno at the title bar.”

Yi thought that might help to show he was one of them. That fell pretty flat, from the unhappy faces of the Potters. He tried again, ”And up into even your era, the notes were kept on ….”

“Small index cards. Entered in by date,” Potter finished Yi's sentence.

Yi nodded. He was reasonably sure Harry at least knew these. “I've been doing some reading. Professor ….later Headmaster Snape had these special ones placed in these drawers, for 'safe keeping'.” Ginny looked curiously at the dark wood box and questioningly back at Harry.

“Some of those records are my father's and his friends, ...the 'Marauders'.”

Yi again nodded. “Remus Lupin, Sirius Black and the senior James Potter. And Peter Pettigrew, too. Before he fell into Voldemort's orbit. And there are a few later entries of your own, Harry. Usually jointly with a young Ronald, and at least a few surprisingly exciting entries by a certain Hermione Granger.” Yi smiled, but happily added “Oh, but lets not forget a few cards with Ginevra in the starring role.”

Mrs. Potter made a half shrug, not really too fussed at being reminded of her minor past transgressions. Her husband reacted somewhat differently. He disliked Yi and found the man's burrowing in their past offensive. Harry's face grew red and he growled, “We don't appreciate being reminded of our faults, Master Yi! Nor do I like my time being wasted. Get to your point. Are you saying my son is caused by just my bad parenting? Or he was doomed by the company I or his grandfather kept? If the later, I'm happy to say that's completely the way I like it. Come on Ginny, we have to be looking at other schools.”

“Please, Harry, don't overreact. He is making a point that the fruit doesn't fall very far from the tree.” Ginny kept a tight grip on Harry's forearm.

He could have shrugged her off, but he wouldn't do that. This place always caused high emotion in him. Too much had happened here, within these old stone walls.

But he was keeping his mouth shut. He didn't like Yi , anymore than Bill Weasley did either.

But Ginny wasn't being soft on Master Yi either. “Was there a real point to all that? None of that was funny.”

Yi hadn't meant anything at all offensive or humorous. He wasn't good with people, and maybe that was made him a great administrator who didn't need to deal with students as people. Just order - intimidate - scare them into obedience. Yi was an honest wizard. Maybe too honest. He was fully aware that the Lupin-Potter-Weasley-Longbottom's were a house-on-fire, train wreck of a family who were always causing upset and/or upheaval, without meaning to try. He and others within the school were tired of the Potter worship, that they felt had gone entirely too long.

But Yi wasn't their enemy.

“My mistake in making light of this. I am sorry. Not Hogwarts' fault. But the main point I was trying to make is James and some of the others coming after him are going to run into that cabinet themselves and add to the drawers, if not get expelled. If I and the other teachers here don't get help at home. Teddy wasn't like that at all. A bit like his father, to be honest. I knew him, briefly. Young Edward got Remus's cool intellect, but it contains a volcano of a temper. I think he keeps in control because he's used you as an example.”

Harry seemed a bit chastened. He was proud of his god-son. And Harry honestly didn't think he had much to do with how well Ted turned out. “His grandfather Arthur and his uncle William were his best examples.”

“I don't think that is entirely the case. Edward didn't reach here a neglected child, and neither did James. But perhaps James is not following down his father's footpath, like his foster-brother. Unfortunately, rather more like his uncles Fred and George.”

“Or my father James.” Harry tried to be constructive about this. It was true, too.

“So we are back to weekly visits and facing his imminent dismissal for his entire school career.” Ginny said tightly. She didn't like Yi , either, but Harry was not going to storm out of here and let her be the one to plead-wheedle-yell like the monster she felt burning somewhere within her chest.

At least not alone, she wasn't. Potter was going to be there. Come Hell or High Water!

“Maybe we are destined to be meeting a lot. We work on this together. And when the time comes, maybe some of your brothers will be joining us for these little sessions. Give these young wizards and witches constructive things to channel that irrepressible Weasley-Potter energy. Otherwise, we fail these kids. The wizard who could do that ...in his First Year....” Yi pointed at the armor, which still had a few specks of orange at the joints. “ ...is brilliant. One who does something like this every week, or every day even, for the rest of his life is a menace.”

Yi now had his turn of feeling like he had a burden he did not want to reveal, but felt he must. “Filius or Xeno ever tell you some of our classmates were the Death-Eaters first eager recruits?”

The Potters shook their heads. They understood it, but Xeno hadn't wanted to talk about Hogwarts way back then.

Yi nodded, “The practical jokers that never really got caught or stopped. The ones that couldn't be disciplined, because Mummy or Daddy were too important in the Ministry. Or took advantage of a kindly wizard like Dippet. Felt an entitlement that they shouldn't have but weren't treated the same as common duffers like me or Filius or Xeno.” Yi figured the Potters got the point.

They did.

Ginny said in dread, “And you see that future for James?”

“I lived that past, Mrs. Potter. They were all just boys and girls, along with the rest of us. Sure, some were naturally extra wicked or cruel. But they didn't have to be that way as adults. Hogwarts as it was then failed them. If I leave nothing else, I want to make sure this damn place doesn't repeat that same mistake while I'm on watch.”

He got up. “I have my observatory rounds about the castle coming up in a few minutes. Please stay for lunch at the teacher's table. But if you don't, make sure you are seen by him, certainly by his mates, but above all James needs to know you are here whenever you choose. The past few weeks, he has become to think he wasn't going home and this was a free fire zone. That has to end.”

To Harry, the end of Yi's words coincided with a quick and sudden feeling of being displaced. As if for a brief moment, he was seeing the same room and Ginny and Yi, but from a slightly different point of view.

Like he was standing by the window, seeing them both from a different angle.

The feeling was gone as quickly as Harry felt it. Nothing was actually different in the room. He shook his head faintly and wondered why in the world he would imagine himself out of chair.

Both Deputy headmaster Yi and Ginny looked at him blankly. Nobody said anything.

A faint knock tapped on the office door. Yi too looked a little dazed but was rather looking forward to ending this here and grateful for the interruption. The Hogwarts' Deputy stood up to gesture at the lock with his magic wand to release it's spell. “Yes?”

The door cracked to reveal a glimpse of Headmaster Filius. The little wizard smiled distractedly at Ginny and Harry, but made rapid come-hither motions with his hands to Yi, not speaking.

The two men engaged in a fierce little whispered conversation and Yi turned back to the Potters. “School business, I am afraid. My sincere apologies. Do let's keep in touch?. Please keep in mind we can make this work. If you'll excuse me.” And Yi darted out of this own office to follow Flitwick, leaving the Potters alone.

Rather deflated, still in their chairs.

“He wasn't quite what I expected.” Harry finally said. Harry in far away look on his face. The feeling of deja vu he'd just experienced had been weird.

“Being parents suck!” Ginny whispered.

Harry's hand found hers. The out of body experience was gone as quickly as it had come and he was here at Hogwarts, being unpleasantly reminded he was a weak father and his children were thought of as out of control and tainted by being Potters.

It was just strangeness of being back at the castle, he told himself. The 'moment' had nothing with this disaster so he said nothing about it. Staring at the ceiling, all he could think of saying was “I don't like him much.”

“No, me neither, honey. I have never in my life wanted to punch someone in the face as much as I did a few moments ago. Bill was so right about him.”

Harry stirred uneasily. He had not felt happy but not that angry. Harry found others always overreacted to anything he said if it was louder than a whisper and or didn't involve sobbing. Even his wife felt that way about him. In a patient, even tone of voice, Potter said, “I don't feel any real malice in the man. Don't think Flitwick or Lovegood would have been such mates with Yi, if he meant harm. What he says comes out differently than his thoughts. Sort of like your brother Percy.”

“Wonderful comparison.” Ginny sounded more normal to him, but made a sniffing sound and turned her head away to attempt covering up wiping her eye.

“What's wrong, honey?” Harry got to his feet, and pulled her up off the chair to embrace her.

She was never a weepy or emotional person. Ginny was a sensitive woman – deep down – but usually kept it tightly contained. Except for him. But Harry had no idea she was reacting to Yi's conversation like this!

It made him completely forget about a few moments ago. Now he was mad at Yi again!

“Nothing, Harry. Just being ….stupid.” But she held onto him tighter, her face pressed against his chest.

To keep her talking, Harry said, “Think its unintentionally insensitive and brusk. He wants to help and makes people want to slap him.”

“Never wanted to beg Bill's forgiveness for doubting him.”

“Do you think he is right? About James.”

Ginny looked up to Harry. And she forgot her own smoldering anger a few moments ago and worried Harry was backsliding into self doubt. “He is wrong. James is not some monster in the making. You are a good father. A great husband.” Ginny gently caressed Harry's downturned cheek.

“That's a mother talking. Yi was right to worry. My father was an arrogant, cruel bully That's what some remember him as.”

Ginny knew Harry referred to Snape's memories of Harry's father. “Those tiny snippets we saw? Over how many days and months did we not see the other side of that. I remember the memories you showed me. He had cause to be a bastard to Snape. Severus was a Death-eater sympathizer and your parents were right to be distrustful. Your mother begged Snape and he betrayed her anyway.”

“I know all that. We weren't there but for moments. Different times. This is about our boy. Now.”

“He's not your dad. You never knew your father, and you only saw him from Snape's eyes. You were orphaned when you were one, and raised by a fat pompous sadist and your hypocritical aunt. Do you think I would love you and help you rear a new crop of monsters, if you were anything like that.”

“No, course not.”

“Bloody well not. James was provoked. No, they tried to provoke him. Because he defended a weaker boy and then Rose. Exactly something his father would do. Exactly how we want them all to act...”

“Okay, Ginny. I agree. I'm over my self pity.” Harry pointed his chin back over at the empty 'creamsicle' stained armor suit behind her. “What are we doing about that?”

“Don't know he did it. Do we? Master Ying-yang ….”

“Yi” he corrected.

“Whoever. ...was just guessing and I think the armor stunt is pretty amateurish. James could do better in a heartbeat.”

“Hmmm, judging practical jokes? How come I never saw your name in those cards?”

She looked at him with a sudden smile and a twinkle in her eye. “Didn't get caught. Did I?”

“Do you feel better now?”

Ginny patted his face lightly, kissed him, and nodded. “Let us practice what we preach. Stop and see James. Master Yi is right …... “ Ginny words trailed off, briefly, then she straightened up by the door, her old-self. “ About this. We can't hide away, Harry. All part of that normal life you want so much. Come start your new life as 'James' Dad'.”

He took her hand and opened the office door and let in the din of murmured conversation and shuffled footsteps from the students moving about the hall. And for all the curious that saw them or actually knew who they were, the Potters just looked like parents that knew what they were doing.

Not the scared bewildered old people of a few seconds ago.





 [Hogwarts castle, main entrance]

The tweedy, rail-thin wizard walked to the entrance of the Main Hall. As if he would enter in but allowed several groups of students all gossiping together to pass by. Then he slipped out the Front Doors, hurried across the Entrance Plaza and strode onto the Chasm Bridge.

Leaving Hogwarts.

He did not notice that his exit was marked by several watching wizards. Filius Flitwick and Yi Chen allowed themselves from opposite sides of the gallery walkway around the courtyard. Despite stares from students skylarking about the door or exiting out of the Main Hall from lunch. Neither man deigned to explain themselves, watching the figure of Twittingham dart away over the bridge from the Front Door courtyard.

“Happened again.” Flitwick fingers nervously entwined. “Did you notice it again?”

“Certainly did, Filius. Just before you knocked. Could have sworn I was sitting at the counter of my father's store, making change for someone's purchase like I had as a child.” Yi gave a shiver. “Hated that old laundry. Never want to see the inside of that place, again.”

Flitwick nodded, but he did not recount what he had encountered. “Suspicious it happens when he does a disappearance. Or a weekend morning, when Twittingham has no classes.”

“Nor can we dismiss this as random. Both of us, several times now, have been afflicted by experiences only we can know of. Not memories but like we had just briefly witnessed out lives that could have been.”

“Yes. I'd like to bet everyone felt that, if we made a poll of opinions about the castle. Question is what does it mean and what do we do about it?”

“Until now, I was doubtful, Filius.” Flitwick's old friend fingered his narrow chin. “But I tried to find him before breakfast. And before the Potters arrived. Both times …. nothing! Like he wasn't in the castle.”

Flitwick turned to look up at Yi. “Clinches it, for me, Chen. Somehow, Twittingham is connected to whatever just happened.”

“I agree, Headmaster. We should have stopped and questioned him, here.”

“But we'd not get where he is going. One of us is going to have to follow him if Longbottom doesn't get his behind out here …....oh, he's here.” Flitwick looked over his shoulder to see Neville skip several steps at a time to hurry down the steps to his seniors.

Neville came quickly to them and would have launched immediately into his story. But Flitwick ushered the two men outside the Doors and away from the curious onlookers about the courtyard. Signaling Longbottom to continue, Neville said in a rush, “Followed him out from the Dark Arts tower, Headmaster. I could not get in, once he left.”

Yi grunted, nodding to Flitwick. “Locked the classroom? I understand his office, but that's damn peculiar.”

Flitwick agreed. “Not against regulations, but gives me grounds to investigate. There's a reason to it! Whatever he doesn't want us to know about his personal life ….. fine. But the castle is mine.” The little wizard tapped his palm with his fist, considering the now-vacant bridge, over the main avenue of approach into and out of Hogwarts. “Neville, if he should come back without us, meet him at the Front Door and order him to await us. We are going after him, now. You are in charge. You speak with my authority.”

“Yes, sir.” Neville nodded vigorously. The two older men charged off across the bridge, without another word. Longbottom nervously looked around, seeing the older kids watching him look away, feigning disinterest.

But that was unlikely. The headmaster and his deputy didn't commonly run out the castle and that being ignored was absurd.

What could happen? Even with Neville's propensity towards calamitous accidents, there were other adults. Weasley would have been the one Flitwick chose to take over, but given her obvious weakness, Longbottom could manage.

Not a few minutes after they were gone, Hermione Weasley came out from the Door, walking carefully. She had awakened from her nap, that the others carefully allowed her to take in her office after lunch. That always made her a bit groggy, especially getting a summons by the Headmaster to come to the castle main entrance at once. The House Elf that had assisted her up out of her chair had not explained, if he knew the reason.

But it had been an unusual day, all around.

“Glad to see you. Flitwick and Yi have left the Castle,” Neville spoke as she neared him by the fountain in the courtyard. He took her arm, and was a little surprised at how quickly she needed his support to stand up.

“What? Why?” Hermione felt more disoriented than usual. As if her head had been stuffed with cotton.

“Put you in charge, till he came back ...”

Hermione thought that pure bull-shit. Taking his arm, finding she needed him more for support than she would have thought, she shook her head. “If he did, he'll be disappointed in me, Nev. I feel like extra crap, today. You are the man he needs. Do we know what's going on?”

Before he could explain, they were joined by more adults. And the Potters were still here! They came out from the Main Hall. Groups of chattering students passed in and out behind them as they approached. They were followed by two men from the Ministry of Magic. The fat one, Neville did not know. The other one, Dunston, Longbottom knew as a fierce critic of Flitwick and a constant irritant to the headmaster.

“We were having lunch, with Rose and James. Didn't want to bother you.”Ginny looked concerned at Hermione so obviously putting her weight on Neville's arm. “Are you okay?”

“Tired. Especially mid-day, for Merlin-knows-what reason. I'm fine.” Hermione did not look 'fine.' She'd get better, as the time lengthened from her nap. But at the moment, she looked like she'd totter over into the fountain without Neville to cling to.

“What is this, Neville?” Harry demanded.

Behind him, Elgar Dunston also spoke up. “The Ministry is here to see the Headmaster. Not be passed off on lesser flunkies.” Dunston's words made Harry glower, not facing the ministry official but keeping his back to him, facing away looking out over the courtyard.

Harry seemed to know him. He was normally not that rude.

Patiently, Neville responded as disarmingly as he could. “I'm sure he's eager to meet with you, Mr Dunston. But at the moment, we have a minor emergency.”

“Well, I am sure I'm required to know, Longbottom.”

“However, 'Professor Longbottom' has greater responsibilities, at the moment, than you being informed.” Ginny Potter rounded on Dunston with a baleful eye. The thin man, with vague, uncertain covering of hair that threatened to become a comb-over, retreated involuntarily a few steps back.

The famous Mrs. Potter was a fiery woman with many friends. Many who were important in government and therefore important to Dunston. Far more so than her even more famous husband. And few crossed purposes with her without good reason and reinforcement.

Dunston did not have either. He and his flunky, Barnes Ennui, were here for mundane reasons. It certainly didn't give either of them real grounds for assuming Ministerial powers.

“We can wait.” Dunston mumbled, as if he really had a choice in the matter. He inspected his fingernails, making a show of finding something of real concern and drifting away toward water fountain.

As if it had something of interest he hadn't noticed several hundred times before.

Ginny's stare-down made Neville, Hermione and Harry all smile to themselves. But Harry returned to looking seriously. “Something's happened?”

Neville vaguely shrugged his shoulders. “Don't really know. Twittingham, that Dark Arts bloke, has been acting more and more secretive, lately. Filius wanted us all to keep an eye out, for what he does. I caught him, dodging out of his classroom, with a line of Fourth Years waiting to enter in as the next scheduled class. No explanation, to them, at all. But when he was gone, they couldn't even enter into the classroom and wait. Wouldn't open for me, either.”

“Maybe something dangerous, left on display.” Ennui half-heartedly mumbled. He famously was not a brave man. Neither did the rotund wizard rarely offer many strong opinions, with Dunston around. A lazy man of enormous appetites, he vastly preferred it that his grasping 'nominal' superior voice all of the arguments and therefore garner most of the hostility.

“Of course that is it!” Dunston snapped, proving he wasn't really 'not listening'.

“But the Dark Art's professor has gone and left the castle, without a word to either Yi or the Headmaster.” Hermione was sounding stronger and more awake, with each second passing. “And that ….thing that happened all over the castle, this morning ….”

“What ...thing?” Dunston demanded.

“I'm sure the Headmaster will be happy to inform you, Mr. Dunston, as soon as he returns. Or not, as he sees fit.” Neville sounded a little more authoritative, reinforced by the presence of his friends. Dunston looked contemptuously at Longbottom, but he had little real important reason to demand anyone's time or attention.

Beside him, Ennui just looked bored. “I am getting something to eat then, Dunston. Don't waste their time.”

And despite Dunston's angry glower at him, Ennui just walked back into the castle and to the Main Hall for what was really important to him. “Blast you, B.E.!” Dunston muttered but Ennui didn't care to stay to argue. He had more important things on his mind.

Lunch.

The teachers and the Potters just stared blankly back at Dunston, and having lost his one large supporting side-kick, Dunston was without any real support. He just huffed and stalked back into the castle.

“Useless turd!”

That was from the famously generous Longbottom, who rarely had a bad word (in public) about anyone. Not that Potter disagreed – hugely – with such cutting Nevillism. He just smiled and watched, being a little bemused at Neville's sudden vehemence.

Hermione loudly sighed. “Let's not get bogged down with that ass, Neville. I am awake and more or less functional. I'll stay here by the Front Door. How many other teachers are on duty?”

“Actually, some have already left. Sybil …..probably Vector …....are within. Not many others, till tomorrow evening. Flitwick had already given several leave to take personal time, since last night.” Neville said. “I mean ….even if it is a weekend. Not much going on …....... shouldn't have left.”

Neville – as nice a man as one could find – had a fault in not understanding how everyone else could not be as 'gung-ho' about Hogwarts and school in general. He loved it here.

Hermione was fairly sure he'd sleep here, if Luna hadn't put her foot down.

“Well, Neville, we don't all live a stone's throw from Hogwarts, now do we?” It was Hermione's turn to sound peevish. That's exactly what Hermione would have done - leaving like a bat out of hell - had she not had that late Friday class and mounds of paperwork this morning to attend to. Not to mention the Potters and James thing ….and also Jen's problem … and her own weakness causing Hermione to zonk-out snoring in her office for several hours.

Face it Hermione! Too many pots on the boil and less fire in the oven.

Hermione had a life. Or had one, until this damn sickness was robbing her of energy and mobility. Hogwarts was just a school! A location for magic to happen. A place with the best library in the world! Despite all those things, she was a lot less enthusiastic than Neville about being here constantly.

She wondered to herself how Luna put up with it!

Ginny could sense the two would degenerate into sniping, so she jogged Neville's elbow, to change the subject. “Why don't you see if you can help Flitwick, Neville. We'll stay here, to help, till you get back.”

Longbottom looked uncertain if he should leave, but he thought it important too that Flitwick get support. Besides, his friends were all here.

Harry said nothing, but philosophically shrugged shoulders to Neville, indicating he was being a passive servant to others wishes for the moment. But after Neville left, Harry looked around. “Where's Charlie in all this?”

“Ah, shit!” Hermione irascibly snapped, wanting to slap her forehead. “The old magic creatures room! Harry and Ginny, come on.”






[Waiting in the Hogwarts woodland, an hour earlier]

Astrid (a.k.a Veronica) Weasley sat on the gate bench.

The witch sat perfectly still on the bench. Unnervingly still. Rather disturbing if one had to be frank.
But Veronica was perfectly content being lonely like this. Which was why she had disillusioned herself when the others had left over an hour ago. To avoid the complication of conversation with the one or two passersby, since the others had departed up toward the castle, Veronica was invisible and sitting on the park bench, staring at nothing.

And not breathing.

In the past, she had done this for weeks at a time. Vampires had less need to feed if they expended little or no energy. Veronica could react in an instant if danger threatened but otherwise nothing but falling dust or snow would reveal her presence to an observer.

It was more of a trance than sleep, but once she was in it, the vampire found she could stay that way for days at a time. Oblivious.

One time in the deep past, she had awakened to find she had been sharing her little mountain cave with a grizzly sow. Which apparently hadn't been concerned with an unmoving statue-like woman that hadn't smelt like anything at all. And had curled up asleep next to Veronica for its own winter's hibernation.

Digging out of the ten feet of snow blocking the den as silently as possible had not been as simple as it sounded. That had been a Rocky Mountain camp out to remember! And she never fully went to 'sleep' again without being completely shut in.

No thing and no magic she knew of could detect her. Or if it had ever been discovered by wizards, no other vampire had ever reported it. And the ones that could do magic had strove mightily to deny any possibility of happening. Hide and survive. Vampires had learned the hard way.

Smell was another matter. Maybe the reason dogs and cats especially were never her favorite acquaintances. But then again, she thought, weren't bears supposed to be hypersensitive to smell and all that? Maybe Veronica had smelt good to the massive thing, like a comforting old toy!

She shuddered, not bothering with stillness. The idea of awakening with a quarter-ton omnivore chewing away at one's innards was disturbing even to her.

Why she normally avoided smelly perfume. Out of old careful habit and just plain obstinate suspicion of everyone and everything.

One didn't live to be a thousand without an abiding committed sense of paranoia.

Well! Now that she was 'awake', Veronica determined from the angle of sun through the wind blown clouds it had been over an hour. Maybe two. The others weren't back yet, not really a surprise to Charlie's wife.

Those three had a steaming plateful of goodness to savor! That was what you got for having children. That made Veronica smile to herself.

Veronica decided getting to her feet. Her sudden activity attracted the attention of Hogwarts enchanted suit of armor, standing perpetual guard in the little shack by the winged-hog pillars that marked the gate. The armor suit kept glancing in her direction, but could not sense her. Just hear her footsteps as she lightly strode up the path.

She ignored it, walking Hogwarts' soil for the first time in over two years. Veronica might as well visit the groundskeeper for Harry. But no farther than that. She'd at least go to Hagrid's. The half-giant was one she had no fears of revealing her true identity. The great lummox had known for years, already.

Veronica went up the hill to where the paths branched off to Hagrid's Hut, and took that one. She had been there many times. In her long ago school time, several 'grounds-keepers' had lived in much more squalid conditions in this very place. A much bigger staff of servants and grooms for the magicians horses had been needed. Hagrid the Half-giant was the lonely occupant of that forgotten village site.

Except he wasn't in. She knocked and called. The only response had been from Fang, sleeping placidly within the entrance to a doghouse the size of just next to Hagrid's front door.

And he growled at her when she approached. The old beast was elderly and frail, but Veronica did not tempt fate by pushing herself in Fang's immediate vicinity. Many dogs and cats had similar reactions to her.

“Easy boy. Just saying 'Hi'!” Veronica backed immediately away, still invisible. And the big old dog returned to his afternoon nap. With the little glimpse of a barely opened eyelid to show he was not really asleep. But watchful for the strange presence that had tried to enter his master's home.

She didn't want to harm the old rascal. It wasn't his fault. Fang's companion, Hagrid, of course, knew immediately what she was. How or why, Veronica hadn't bothered to fathom. The giant had a natural knack with magical creatures, and vampires were just one more 'interesting' kind. Far more adept than he generally let on. Often playing the fool.

Well, in hindsight, maybe not always playing at it. The long running 'skrewt' experiment seemed to indicated Hagrid's judgment was not always ….sound.

But he had been a friend to Charlie and herself when the couple had to just get away from sometimes smothering Weasley family.

And Charlie's tedious job.

Now that made her feel guilty. As Veronica walked back towards the guard shack to await the return of her husband and the Potters, she wished she could do something about that. The 'magical' museum wasn't a bad place. But a man of Charlie's experience and drive found it …...boring, beyond tears.

But there were many careers he couldn't just switch to. Not just yet! He was a man who could turn himself into a dragon. And that tended to bother people.

The couple had only the last three years to find what that had meant, but had carefully done as little as possible to attract attention. So far, it was relatively as easy as her disguising herself had been. Except Charlie had to hide different things. From his family, as much as any coworker. He could eat vast quantities of different things. All of the time. Healed, unnaturally fast from even serious wounds that should have required a hospital's attention.

And he didn't age. She didn't either, but a vampire seemed to have vast powers of illusion. No one could detect it. She had been many ages from 15 to 90 in her long thousand years of existence. Charlie didn't seem to have that gift. Dragons seem to be some alien race that took over a creature's natural body. Leaving them the ability to maintain that appearance – with some minor complications – or transform into something that appeared capable of enduring fearsome environments.

Mostly, he appeared as a man. Clothed or naked, Charlie Weasley maintained a life as a regular wizard. Or he could change into a large, scarlet red creature with wings and teeth the length of her forearm. That tended to scare people,and be noticed. Which was bad, all around!

Their devotion to each other was to keep from being noticed.

One of the new complications hadn't been known by either man or wife till this morning. Veronica could almost kick herself for ignoring the change in Charlie's eyes. The tiny gold flecks weren't obvious, unless you looked closely. Damn Harry's power of observation. Now she would have to watch to see if that became worse or more obvious to people.

Charlie might have to go to contact lenses, that kept his eyes looking in a similar state. As long as his immediate family remained alive, he would have to look always like an aging older brother. He couldn't go back to what he had been. And the other Weasleys couldn't know about dragons, more than what most wizards assumed the rare and reclusive creatures were. Deadly but endangered magical creatures.

It was when she had nearly rejoined the main path back towards Hogsmeade and the gate fence that Veronica got sensed someone walking past on the main path. Wizard magic about disillusioning was good enough to fool average, unobservant people.

Vampires could detect it like a ...well, any number of obvious comparisons. Honey to a bear. Naked flesh to a mosquito, etc......

Point was, vampires were as natural at camouflage as an octopus and very little human wizards did wasn't detectable, in that regard. Veronica could sense someone coming down the path, see the rather obvious blur around the human figure …..and she just faded away into the background of the Hogwarts woodland.

Maybe a wolf, could sense her. If he was really trying. And she let him get that close. Maybe Harry, with his not-so-secret cloak, would have more luck hiding from her kind. But only on a good evening, or at night.

And Potter was more careful than this idiot. Veronica was almost tempted to sneak up behind and say 'boo'.

She was still invisible. A handy habit that had helped her avoid unpleasant situations often. Her own body masked all about her, including her own shadow and clothes, to an extent that only another vampire or maybe a werewolf would have been able to detect her.

If his intention was just to fool human wizards, he wasn't very accomplished at that. But against a vampire, he had no chance, in any case. Their senses were such that few creatures could escape their notice, if the vampire was hunting. In terms of tracking another animal, only a werewolf came close in her natural ability.

But this wizard was barely invisible to a competent witch. Almost as if he wasn't really trying. This man was not a werewolf, that was for sure. Veronica could tell he was below average height, thin, not especially stealthy and not extraordinarily good. Or even good enough for a average wizard. But in broad daylight, like this early afternoon, Veronica thought this guy was hopeless.

Or not very aware of his own shadow. Light might bend around him, but the ground still showed his imprints and the faint darkness of his body against the ground.

He'd be easy 'blood' for her. An adult, from his size, at least. If that was what she wanted. Veronica did not need that, and would not do that here. There was no need for combat that she could sense. But he was acting peculiarly, plodding on down toward the Hogwarts' gate, weaving occasionally, almost as if drunk or intoxicated. Alternating from side to side of the path, an exaggerated zig-zag on down the now gentle sloping path that might not be intentional.

She watched him, clearly seeing his outline as another would see him in clear vision.

Veronica debated what she should do. He was no wizard she knew. Was this some part of the school? A class in disillusion, maybe? Which they had not taught in her long distant school career. It was puzzling, but not really her job any longer. Her career as an auror had ended rather spectacularly over three years before.

He was breaking no law enforced by the Ministry of Magic, that she knew of. If he wanted to, he could blunder about invisible all day.

On the other hand, 'Mr. Invisible' was also prowling near a school full of children, trying to be hidden from plain sight. That made her old senses for 'danger' prickle, like they hadn't for years.

Veronica as a vampire understood not wanting to be seen better than most and this just bothered her.

A man with something to hide!

*

 


Chapter 11: Discontinuities
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Charlie Weasley waited in the empty First Years classroom. There was a knock at the door.

To give his hands something to do, he'd unthinkingly picked up an eraser from the chalkboard tray up front. And was mindlessly turning it over in his hands as he stood by the window. At the sound of the door opening, Charlie dropped it out the window as if it were suddenly molten hot.

Out to a long fall on the sharp rocks and heather outside at the base of this outer wall of the castle.

“Ahhh, come in.” Charlie nervously called. He felt incredibly stupid. Charlie was more concerned as his lightning loss of self confidence, making him behave as if he had something to hide. Well, now he did! Now he had just brilliantly lost – be it very old and obsolete – school property.

Charlie felt like such an idiot.

The man that the girl saw awkwardly stood instead of sit, putting his hands back in this pockets. As if he was briefly doing something he shouldn't have. The wizard looked mad, then threw up his hands in disgust.

To Charlie, the door groaned faintly as it opened inwards a little wider. And …..Angelique Cortez looked in timidly!

No, it wasn't that witch. Probably if it had been, there would be balls of fire and lightning bolts, preceding her.

A girl with long black hair came in, not looking up at him. But she was not Angelique. She was the living image of her mother. Beautiful. Tentative. Vulnerable.

All he could think was - Thank Merlin! She didn't look like him!

“Hello. …..” His voice unintentionally squeaked at the first work, and he grimaced and tried again in a more manly, “Hello.”

She smiled at him being nervous, and he just pulled out his hands and gave a helpless shrug. “Umm, hi!” Jennifer said in little voice.

“Hi, yourself! I ….ahh, accidentally dropped the eraser out the window, when you knocked.”

Jen was only aware of what it was because some of the old classrooms she assisted in still used the ridiculous things. “I'm sure that is alright.”

Her father uncertainly pointed the way of the errant eraser had taken. “Probably ….several decades worth of stuff has fallen out.”

She nodded vigorously, in serious agreement. “Deputy probably has a bin, somewhere. Stuff getting dropped.”

Charlie gravely decided that had to be right. “Err, yes. Doesn't matter much. Does it?”

“Mr. Filch can get it. He does that crazy thing with a rope about his waist and a old garden hoe, picking things up down there every few months.”

Charlie had to laugh. “That's probably because he likes doing it. The old fossil!”

Jen was still too much a student of Hogwarts to not be a little afraid of the grumpy, snarling handyman. She just smiled uncertainly.

Charlie thought he should explain. “Filch is a miserable old snitch. Has been for most of the last century. He could have left – decades ago – if he truly hated Hogwarts so much. Probably like the abuse we heap on him. Harmless old tosser.”

“Uh, okay. Probably”

Charlie shook his head. “He's irrelevant – to us, I mean! Hermione arranged it for me to see you, you know.”

Jen hadn't known this had been done just for her. Victoire and Aunt Hermione had made it sound as if this was completely unplanned. Probably fully knowing Jennifer would have hidden herself somewhere, otherwise.

They had probably been right!

“Oh, I thought you were here on school business.”

Charlie ducked his head a little, “Well, sure. There is something with the First Years and the museum, later in the term. Thought we'd work in a school outing. The Deputy Headmaster and me …..”

“Master Yi?”

“Yeah. Forget his name” Charlie wiggled his fingers, at his head. “Getting old. Plus, I never liked my old teachers that much to want to remember them. Dumbledore was cool, McGonagal. Hagrid, they were good, too. Some few others ...... the rest were forgettable.”

That seemed incredible to Jen. To have known those people and not really care! She also couldn't tell where this was all going. She again smiled vacantly.

“Never did much outside of Hogwarts in my day. Deputy then was a miserable old bugger. Why I never thought to ask the reason.” In explanation he clarified, “The deputy before McGonagal was sort of like a mountain troll, with slightly less hair and a voice like a bass drum.”

“Good Lord!” Jen exclaimed.

“Think he went on to a successful career as a corrupt small town sheriff in the U.S., somewhere.”

“No?” Jen asked with wonder in her voice.

The girl seemed to taking what he said too seriously. “Well, not really. Don't know for sure. McGonagal took over my second year. She was a lot less scary.”

Jen gave an empathetic shrug. “Know her only by reputation. Didn't meet her myself. I'm sorry for her family.”

“Yes, we are, too. A good friend, through thick and thin. But she lived a good life.”

Carefully watching where she put her feet, afraid of stumbling flat on her face, she was so nervous. Jennifer was dying to straighten her blouse and run her fingers through her hair. And correct all the thousand little things she knew he must think about her imperfections.

Charlie Weasley stood again to close the window back, as if nervous about falling himself out into the three-story drop to the rocks. Her father's face wasn't a surprise to her. As she had come to expect, he looked at first glance a lot like Victoire's father. The brothers had all looked similar, but the bodies stretched tall or broadened variations of Arthur Weasley. Red-haired and fair skin, they shared. But Charlie and the one uncle – William – were broad and muscular, the opposite of tall and reedy Percy and George.

Hard to believe Arthur Weasley had raised them all in the same house. Ron was more like Bill and Charlie. George ….well, brother George was a house-on-fire, explosion immanent kind of guy. Percy was like a confused alien mistakenly given red hair and an English accent. Jen reflected that Aunt Ginny hadn't been like any of these men.

What a family!


But where Bill face seemed harsh, grimly grizzled, scarred by some large animal. Charlie's skin was
less rough around the edges. He was handsome where Bill Weasley was wicked looking. The shoulders and the chest were just as bulky. Dressed in average wizards cloak and buttoned shirt. No tie – which fit his general appearance. A man more used to being outdoors – again like William Weasley – than fighting bureaucracy and trivial interoffice warfare like Percival. But with a red and iron-gray haired pony tail and his father's eyes, a hint of a cavalier.

Charles looked every inch the 'lady-killer' his reputation said he'd been.

Well, maybe, a trifle aged and a bit ruffled lady's man. Her father had the same stricken look as the First Years students at the end of their first week at Hogwarts. No longer looking like they had all the answers. Afraid they had slept the night away and just woke up to find they were late for a test without studying.

To get some conversation going, Jen spoke first. “Yeah. I …..ah. Professor Weasley said you wanted to see me?”

That look of a surprised deer – not something Jen could ever imagine on Victoire's dad's face – revealed Charles wasn't also at touchy and grouchy as his brother. He nodded jerkily, “Yes. Well, not really urgent. I don't want to take you away from anything important.”

“No. Oh ….no, not a bother. I don't have class …..I mean, I don't have classes on a Saturday.”

Shut up, you moron! Of course he knew she didn't. What was she saying?

“No class is best.” Then he looked cross-eyed at the sound of his own words. Shaking his head, eager to agree with her, that being free from her schedule was best, Charlie burst out. “That sounded stupid. I mean …....Me neither. I mean to say, I was just here to the school for the museum, and ….thought ….I'd say hello.”

“Hello,” she nodded, dumbly. Agreeing, that was a great idea. God, do I sound like a moron!

“Yes,” Charlie agreed. There was some silence. Then he just burst out in a nervous chuckle. “I'm not sure what to say. Both Dad and Veronica were kind of insistent. Hermione and Ginny, too. Feel like I am intruding.”

“No!” Jennifer said a little too loudly, suddenly afraid he was going to leave. “No, I very much want to talk.” Could this be anymore awkward, she wondered?.The dark-haired girl shuffled her feet, and stared around the room. “Ummm, should we sit?” Indicating the students chairs and tables.

The room was a normal school classroom. Scattered bits of discarded notes. Broken quills and a lost glove left in the bin by the door. The thirty odd wood student desks and chairs in the middle of the room haphazardly spaced, in no apparent order. The only thing out of place was an empty picture frame, off in a odd corner.

Jen had imagined this day a thousand ways, through the last three years. The fantasies had ranged from fields of flowers and her father a happy combination of Father Christmas and a fairy godmother. When she had learned the truth, there was a dark period indeed, when some of her own wishes for him involved great violence and messy endings.

But Jen had grown up a lot in these two years and none of those things were going to happen.

In her heart, she very much wanted this meeting. And had also dreaded it happening. It was both reassuring he was as reluctant and desiring to meet with her as she had been with him, and irrationally irritating. Charles Weasley was a grown man, made a career, been a hero in the late war with Voldemort. Apparently one of the sole British experts on the arcane knowledge of dragons. She was both afraid to say something wrong and a faint wish she could pick the neighboring chair and whack him about the head and shoulders with it.

And he had the gall to be nervous about her?

“Yes. Great. Let's …...sit.” Charlie nodded, greatly agreeing as if that was the most profound thing he heard, at least that morning. They made a great show of turning two chairs to facing one another, pushing their companion desks out of the way.

Charlie spoke first. “Can't remember the last time I was in here. This classroom, I mean. If ever. Maybe late Nineteen Eighties ...abouts. There are so many in the castle, some never seem to have been used in decades.”

“Yes. I've found a few rooms like that. Sometimes like the castle is showing you something rare, a classroom full of odd antiques and ancient clothing. Then you can't find it again.”

“Bloody marvelous place this! Not hard to see why some never want to leave. Neville – for one – you know, my brother's friend.” Charles smiled. It made him look suddenly much younger. He had beautiful green eyes. They were striking, almost glittering at some angles.

Jen could suddenly see why her mother had fallen for him.

“Does it look much different?' She asked, tentatively “Hogwarts, I mean?”

To Charles, Jen had her mother's face and voice. She was so smart, from the sound of things. He was so proud of her. He probably ought to tell her that. Just couldn't think of how that wouldn't sound fake.

Instead he said, “Well, the biggest thing is how small everything is.”

“Small?”

He nodded his head. “Things inside the castle, I mean. Not the whole building. I mean the kids being in my old place. Probably, everyone who comes back thinks something like that. It is just ….walking the halls. I know parts of Hogwarts were rebuilt. Practically the whole of the new Great Hall. Just seems like my memories of it were so much …..larger. The kids now ….tiny. Too young.” He smiled to hear himself. “Do I sound daft?”

“No. Not really.” Jennifer actually chuckled in return. Again, making her look exactly like her mother. “As a prefect, last year, I heard just about every group of parents that I took on a tour through the castle say the same exact thing. You know ….” and Jen hunched her shoulders, and lowered her voice to a gruff Yorkshire twang. 'I remembers this doorway to the Astronomy tower being twenty feet tall, and the Library to the right. Don't tell me nought, young lady! It's always been that way'.”

They both laughed together. “Honestly,” Jen continued. “Nothing I would say would change some of their minds. As if I had conspired to change the castle on them, as a joke.”

“My biggest thing is how small the students are.” Charlie spoke earnestly. “I mean, I look at them, and they are little kids.”

“Just eleven to seventeen year olds!” Jen surprised, still smiling.

“It's more than that, Jennifer. They seem too young and squeaky new to be given wands and adult witches robes.”

Jen made a half smile at a memory. “I remember Uncle Ron, …..well, before I knew him as that. Just Auror Weasley .. arguing with a prefect after he came out of a boy's restroom. Furious that someone had made the stalls narrower, and that he couldn't get his shoulders to fit comfortably and some prankster was going to pay.”

Charlie out right guffawed. “That's Ron. All over. Takes his bathroom breaks very seriously. And can't seem to fathom he has packed on about forty more pounds, most of it muscle on his arms, since he was here, in school.” Jen politely laughed, and Charlie smiled again. “ 'Course, a good chunk of the extra weight is also between his ears. Great Fat-head.”

Jen really laughed then, shaking her head. “He's always nice. To me and Robert.”

“That's good. Glad. ….” Charlie smiled, worriedly. Now what conversation could he dredge up. Almost unbidden, his mouth said, “You look a lot like your mother.”

Jen didn't know how to react to that. People, for the past few month, had been pointing out her 'Weasley-like' attributes.

Charlie added, before she could speak, “I'm glad. Better than looking like me.”

“Everyone says they see you in me.”

Charlie shook his head. “I could have sworn it was your mother, opening the door, just now.”

“Gods, I hope not.”

“Well, ...No! Not lately.” Charlie grimly frowned. “A bit angry. With me, especially, but there seems to be a permanent scowl on her face, the last few times I've talked to Angelique. Maybe it is just me, she does that for …”

It was Jen's turn, to shake her head. “No. That is Mom. Pretty much all day, all week. Everyone is against her. She never did any wrong. It's all a plot to make her look bad or cheat her or ….you name it.”

“Should have heard her the first night we couldn't find you. Thought she and Ginny would just get down and have a duel to the death. Right there on her front lawn.” Charlie frowned at the memory. “I wonder where she learned language like that.”

“Aunt Ginny?”

“Oh, no. She had six brothers to teach her stuff like that. Turns out, Angelique's got a mouth like a sailor or an auror. Heck of a change. Your mom was pretty tame and sweet, when we first met …. about umm …..”

“Seventeen - eighteen years ago?”

“Yeah, about exactly then. Yeah.” Charlie agreed. That is almost exactly when Charlie had first met Jen's mother. For almost a month. Then he hadn't heard or talked to her afterward, having gone back to his job in Romania without a care in the world.

How to explain that to your newly introduced seventeen-year old daughter. Probably best to keep silent, about that.

In the moment of silence between father and daughter, Charlie couldn't help be profoundly reminded of that first evening in the Cauldron's bar. Not with the living copy of her mother sitting in front of him. He wasn't really sure – thinking on it – exactly how long Angelique Cortez and him …..

On further reflection, Charlie thought it might have been only a few days. Merlin, It might have only been one weekend!

There was the faint sound of people moving in the hallway, and then the Great Clock chimed the hour. It was habitually late - or early – depending upon the clock's mood. Wizards setting their watches by Hogwarts clock had best beware.

“Getting married? I understand?” Charlie ventured.

Jen nodded, seriously. “Oh, yes. Small thing, next summer. Robert doesn't have much family. Just his mum.” Jennifer's face almost comically twisted into a nervous grin, “I didn't either ….well, till quite recently. You know …....”

Charlie nodded his understanding.

She continued, “So, ….. was going to keep it small. Just me and Rob ….you know. Justice of the Peace. Some ancient pensioner, grinding away on a squeaky clapped-out church organ. Maybe 'Tori as a witness. Kind of …...umm.”

“Inexpensive.” Charlie supplied.

“Economical.” Jennifer fought to keep the defensive tone out of her voice. Yes, it did sound rather pathetic.

“Well. Not anymore. There is a number of places I've got in mind. Of course, there is always The Burrow ….”

Jen blinked, a little taken-aback. “Think ….. that's rather our business.”

“No daughter of mine is getting married in little town mayor's office.” Charlie felt a twinge of a fight brewing. It didn't help that Jen's face tightened into a grim copy of her harpy of a mother.

“Daughter of yours?” Jen ground out. “Till five minutes ago, you couldn't deign to be in my presence. Where were you on my first broom flight. Hmmm?”

“Didn't know you existed! Not till you were five. My mother pointed you out, in a crowd.”

“She did?” Jen said, slightly shocked. That she could have been in the same place as her grandmother, and never know it …..!”

“Your mother ….. rather blatantly …. guess stridently is better word, didn't want me to help. Or see you. Or communicate.”

“Could it have been the other dozen half-brothers and half-sisters I have!”

That left Charlie without a quick rebuttal. Lips twisting about his teeth, he begrudgingly nodded, “Maybe. Most don't know about each other. Your mother ...probably, doesn't know of them ….”

“Oh, Merlin! You are a right man, aren't you?”

That made him sit up. He could have sworn he just heard his mother's voice. Oddly enough, suddenly Jen said that exactly how Molly Weasley would have.

Defensively, he tried to answer, “That's not ….fair. ...exactly! You know ....... as an adult. It is a bit different. Angelique was more than interested.... at the time. Your mother said not a word about you, afterward ...”

“Did you even love her? Was it a quick vacation boink? Then off back to bloody Romania!”

His eyes darted about his face, as if seeking a better answer than the only one that came to his lips. “I …. eeee, not sure, Jen. It was a long time ago.”

He thought to himself, Might have been exactly that scenario!

“What a pill! And left me thinkin' you were dead in a military grave. Took me to somebody else's, when I was six and cried for a week, because my mate's mum took her to her's. And I was jealous.”

Charlie winced and shook his head.“Oh, jeezus, Jennifer. I had no idea.”

“No friggin' idea! Daddy Dear! And now you breeze in, telling me how to live my life ...” She had trouble keeping 'the shriek' out of her voice. Exactly like Mom, wasn't she!

Her tone brought back instant memories to Charlie. Why his interest in her pretty mother had vanished within a few days. The needy, nervous craving for his constant complements. The snarling sound of a hag-in-training Charlie could hear in Angelique's voice.

With great effort, he fought back the urge to shout back. “I did no such thing, young lady. Exactly this …..problem, is why I stayed away, in the first place. You were cared for and a good home. Loving mother …...sort of...”

“Uncle Bill, snarling at people in the shadows!” Jen archly supplied.

He pointed a big finger at her, shaking it affirmatively and having to rethink the swear words he was about to snarl back. The 'talk' was spiraling out of his control. And responding to the child the same way would only make things worse.

“Yes, quite probably. I suppose.” Charlie lamely agreed. “Not more than just a handful of us knew the truth, Jen. There is a considerable number of witches and wizards – out there – that don't like Weasleys or Potters. Or Longbottoms, Tonks, Lupins or Lovegoods. You are going to find it as much a burden. We have to be careful and a bit circumspect. Some people - at least every few months – randomly send Harry a hate note in an owl, or your Aunt Ginny gets the odd jinx sent her way. Sometimes, a Holy Head Harpies banner occasionally stabbed into the front of George's store. The odd ...smoke bomb, left on Percy's chair …....”

Charlie thought that might just actually be people disliking Percy, as an individual. “Better for the lot of you kids.” He finished, “….that weren't official. Really!”

Jen slapped a hand to one knee and stood up. “Just marvelous. Always thought I'd be hated for being my mother's daughter. Now I get to have it for being your blow-by.”

Charlie stood, himself. Now he was angry. “Life gives you lemons. Young witch. Deal with it!”

“Sorry you conceived me, then, Daddy?” Jen shot back.

“Increasingly, by the minute!” Oh, Merlin! He didn't actually say that! Did he?

Her face crumpled in sudden tears. “Oh, ….damn, you!” And she ran out of the classroom.

He stood, repeating his words, over and over again, to himself. Wishing he could suck them back from the ether of the ancient gloomy castle. “I am such an ass!”

“Actually, quite agree, old boy,” a small portrait of a grim-faced witch, incongruously dressed in a very old fashioned man's suite and smoking a cigar, spoke up from an spot high above the doorway. Charlie had never noticed her presence. Or the picture.

Bloody Hogwarts pictures! Wandering in where they weren't invited!

“Oh, shut up!” He growled back at it, storming out.

To find the hallway empty. And Jennifer not in sight, in either direction. Except Hermione, Ginny and Harry all expectantly watching him walk toward them.

And glancing down a connecting corridor, to the door to the outside. Evidently where his tearful daughter had shot past them, crying her heart out after the right-bastard her worthless father was. Who just declared he wished she never been born.

He was a loathsome thing. Charlie should crawl back to a proper sewer. He was fervently glad his mother was not alive to see this.

Ginny seemed to agree, grimly tapped her toe of one boot, arms folded.

Harry brightened the hall by declaring hopefully, “That went well!” He immediately shut up at the scalding looks from his wife and sister-in-law.

Charlie went off without another word. “See you three later. Have to find …....just goodbye.”





[Hogwarts Front Door Bridge, the path to Hogsmeade]

Charlie Weasley marched across the bridge from the Hogwarts Front Gate courtyard. The one or two students on the way that he met kept a wide birth from him. Even a gaggle of girls near the end of the bridge, light-heartedly skylarking about the day and boys and such, clammed up at his scowl as he glowered at them trying to identify if any was Jennifer.

Of course, none could be, and it was just as well. The girls all timidly retreated around the angry wizard and walked hurriedly back across the bridge toward the castle, whispering amongst each other. Charlie shared a lot in common in appearance with his brother Bill. One of which was looking like a walking volcano.

Charlie was surprised to find Neville Longbottom standing a few paces away, staring down the path that led down the hill towards Hogwarts' fence gate and the path to Hogsmeade. Neville glanced back to see whose heavy tread was walking towards him, saw Charlie's face and slumped his shoulders slightly in sympathy.

It obviously hadn't gone well.

“Nev.” Charlie grunted.

“It didn't ….......not a success, then?”

“No.” Charlie hadn't really come to talk to Flitwick. He had come here today because the women in his family nagged, cajoled and-or badgered him incessantly the past few weeks that he should meet his daughter and make some effort at reconciliation.

Well, that effort had been made. Rather poorly.

“I am ….probably the worst father to stand here in front of Hogwarts, ever. In recorded history.”

Neville and Charlie had turned out to have a lot in common, surprisingly. One of them was Neville's non-judgmental attitude towards Charlie's past. “No, Charlie. You were an absent father. Being here today at least puts you head and shoulders above the rotten pack that are a whole lot worse.”

“I find that hard to believe, Neville.”

Neville shook his head. “The worse ones are all convinced they are the best. Usually domineering bullies. I deal with one or two every year. I have to fight myself to keep from drop-kicking them into that chasm behind us.”

Charlie closed his eyes and tried to let his temper evaporate.

“Lose tempers, did you both?”

“Not on purpose, mind you. I never once meant to ….... But, I basically let slip that maybe I wished she'd never been born.”

“Well …..” Neville considered for a moment. “I guess that puts you back amongst the lower tier of scum.”

“Thanks, Neville.”

“Are you sorry?”

“Very!” Charlie nodded numbly.

Longbottom gave Charlie a severe look but relented. He said, “Luna actually predicted exactly this outcome. She and Hermione are having a little snit about it, last few days. She said there was no possible way this wouldn't turn into a shouting match or hurt feelings by somebody.”

“Wish - with all my heart - she'd been listened to.”Charlie's hands rose upward in frustration and flopped back down to his sides. “Such a fucking disaster. I felt exactly that this was wrong. Couldn't convince any of them this was a mistake. Wished she talked to the wife or Ginny.”

“We try not to take sides in something like this, mate. Not really our business.”

Charlie nodded. “I know. I don't blame you. My job to make it right, Neville. As much as I can.” He glanced about, “I guess Jennifer didn't come past you, inconsolably sobbing.”

Longbottom said, “No, been here for about a minute or two. Looking for Flitwick and Yi.”

“Hmm?” Charlie grunted questioningly.

“That Dark Arts character. Twittingham. Acting strange the past few weeks.”

“Twittingham?” Charlie looked vacantly ahead, then shook his head. “Don't really know him.”

“Not many do, apparently.” Both men continued watching the empty path down the hill.

“Why are you watching the path?” Charlie asked?

“Wasn't. I mean ….not really. Was hoping to see the Headmaster or the Master Yi. Now can't decide if I should follow them or stay here, looking stupid.”

Charlie grunted. “It is a strange course of study. Dark Arts, I mean. Attracts people with squirmy attitudes.”

Neville agreed. “I don't think we've had one in the sixteen years I've been teaching that I'd like to share a pint with. Well, that one lady wasn't so bad. Though, she only lasted a year. Sort of had a creepy obsession with Infieri and Muggle zombie movies.”

Charlie made a disgusted face. “That is weird.”

“Me and a few others occasionally argue we should drop the study. Mostly just gives lessons to the trouble-makers. But the 'traditionalists' put a lot of pressure on poor Filius.”

“I never could be a teacher, Neville.”

“Has it's disappointing aspect moments.” Neville pointed his chin back towards the Castle and then back to Weasley. “You going back to find her?”

Charlie gave Neville an incredulous look, but then wearily shook his head. “Maybe I should just leave instead. I have so made things worse. I just wanted her to know she is beautiful and I love her and want the best for her. Then I open my mouth.”

Neville gripped Charlie on the shoulder. “Maybe this is enough for today. Come on. I've got to give you back those books you loaned me. They are at the house.”

With that the two wizards walked down the Hogsmeade path, never noticing that a dark-haired girl reappearing to one side behind a boulder near where the men talked. She made a half-lurching start to call after the big, thick set man walking away with Professor Longbottom. But Jen had heard what they had said, and thought maybe Longbottom's advice was the best, for today.

And she and Charlie Weasley should tell everyone else to bugger off, next time. And that she would leave her little girl tantrums back in her dorm room.

And she walked back to the Hogwarts bridge and returned to the castle.





[Hogsmeade path from the castle]

She still hadn't decided what to do when two more disillusioned wizards walked past her silent pondering at the paths crossroads. These two, in high contrast to the first man, were very good.

If it wasn't for one just tripping on a newly made root in the path (made especially by the Hogwarts trees, because they liked to play tricks on travelers!) Veronica might not have caught his faint, irritable catching of his breath, as he stumbled slightly. The other made a faint tsking sound, and then they both continued

Two more, in pursuit of the first! From the castle, no less. Adults, obviously.

That cinched it for her. She crept on after the second two men, more naturally silent and certain in her invisibility than even these two could comprehend. They did not talk to one another, keeping careful distance from the first lone man.

She'd follow as far as school fence, Veronica decided. Neither of these three were Charlie, Ginny or Harry. Beyond Hogwarts, it was not her business what these men did, regardless of her curiosity. And she did not want to miss hearing how things went up at the school. James was certainly not being tossed out. That would be a stunning record, for any First Year Wizard.

Of course, might not make it past Year Two or Three. But there you have it.

And she had more faith in Charlie than she let on. He, like most men, thought sternness and voice volume equaled good parenting. But there was a lot of Arthur Weasley in his troublesome son, and Charlie would have made as good a dad as Bill or Harry or Ron.

If he hadn't missed all this previous illegitimate children but one in the act of growing up! She'd call him a no good dog, if she was angry enough, but that would be insulting his brother Bill.

She wished, faintly, that she could give him another chance at being a father. The one he could have been. But that wasn't in the cards. For either of them. They'd just have to experience it vicariously.

Just not at zoo's. With man-eating animals. And George's girls chained to her wrist.

The very-good-at-hiding vampire crept down the hill, following at a distance the two better at hiding wizards following still a third, more incompetent one.

The hidden vampire followed the new two disillusioned individuals down to Fence Gate of Hogwarts. There they stopped, confused. One appeared to be as small as a young child. But few children the vampire was aware of, even any of the ever growing Potter-Weasley brood, were this accomplished at dissillusion.

It must be Flitwick, himself. Why hide himself?

The suit of armor, empty as always, in the long tradition of Hogwarts armory, snapped to attention, with its hand to the brow in severely asynchronous precision. It confirmed her suspicions.

“Oh , Bugger it , Yi! Those damn things make a mockery of us yet.” Filius Flitwick, the short wizard, returned to normal sight at the end of his exclamation. He gave a negligent wave back at the empty armor figure, which slumped back to a sloppy slouch.

The vampire froze in the middle of the path, still hidden from normal human sight, then crouched to stay near some low-hanging pine boughs to listen.

“We lost him minutes ago, Filius. And I was watching the suit well ahead of us. It never moved. They always pay attention to living beings. Even invisible ones.” Yi Chen also returned to sight, standing besides his friend.

Flitwick rubbed his hands, unsure. “No, not always, Yi. Sometimes, an especially powerful Cloak might do it.” While she listened, the vampire listened as far ahead as she could on the path. There were no footsteps. Not even suppressed breathing.

Their quarry had indeed somehow eluded them.

Eluded her too! But how?

Yi cast about. The day was sunny and largely rain free. There was not a lot of mud for foot steps to leave trace of anyone passing. “Not many of those cloaks lying around, Filius. Supposedly, your old student Potter had something like it. Again, supposedly, helped him avoid Death-Eater patrols several times.”

“Don't know anything about that Yi. I've heard the stories. Who knows.” Filius looked nervous about speculating about Potter. “But this wasn't him. Not today, Yi. And those things wear out after time. It's been eighteen some years since Harry was known to have that cloak. No way it would be still that good. Nor would Harry share it with a miserable crab like Twittingham.”

“I am not casting aspersions about your former student, Filius. Just wondering if that might not have given Twittingham an edge on us, today. A Third Year student could have dissilusioned themselves better than Twittingham was doing, then suddenly he is gone. Something stinks about this. He knew or suspected we are on to him.”

“Covering his tracks. But why out here?”

Yi looked back at Hogwarts, standing higher up on the slope against the overcast skies. “Maybe wants us out of the castle.”

“Maybe. Or he has or wanted something more, out here, that he could not avoid leaving Hogwarts, even knowing we were curious about him.” Flitwick frowned at the ground by the guard shack. “Yes, Yi. I quite agree its unlikely he doesn't know. But what can he do about it now. He must know questions will be asked and his time as a teacher here is done. How he got away from us so easily, that's what I want to know. The bloody ground is too hard to leave footprints, unfortunately.”

At that moment, Neville and Charlie appeared coming down from the castle. Yi and Flitwick watched them walk up, and the four stood in a huddle by the pillared gate. Neville said, “Hermione has the castle, Headmaster. The entrances are warded and if Professor Twittingham returns, she'd find and hold him.” Longbottom reported.

Flitwick was pleased. “Very good, Neville. Very good indeed. And good to see you, Mr. Weasley. ”
 

The little man smiled up a the broad-shouldered wizard. “Your daughter, then....?”

Charlie sighed. “Yes, Headmaster. Doing my best.”

Filius smiled with satisfaction. “Commendable. Will talk further with you, on another day. Young Jennifer is an exceptional witch.” Yi nodded his agreement and Flitwick darkly resumed looking down the forest lane towards distant Hogsmeade. “Talents like hers would be wasted anywhere else but Hogwarts.”

Charlie looked uncomfortable. “Don't think I'd be a very good salesman, right now, Professor. She's rather ….unhappy with me.”

“Capital. Excellent.” Flitwick wasn't interested in Weasley's whinging. He'd come around, eventually. But now there were more important things to consider. “But now, my absent Dark Arts professor.”

“Yes, sir.”

Veronica shrank back amongst the pine trees near the Fence. She had almost involuntarily called out to Charlie. But held back, because of the presence of the others.

Neville wasn't a problem, but the other two had no idea about her. Besides, how to explain to Yi and Flitwick her hiding there.

At that second, the visored helmet of Agincourt-era armor plate turned to regard Veronica, as if an invisible head within was considering her. It couldn't possibly see her, but then it returned to the four men quietly talking amongst themselves.

Flitwick signaled he wanted their attention, and then gestured for the men to gather around him. He quietly said, “Alright, this is what we do. He is either past the Fence or is still within the grounds. The armor hasn't noticed him, so it's no help to us. But no one could walk past it without Hogwarts knowing. I thought. But two or four can play at this game. Yi and I are going onto town, as if still tracking. You two follow us in about ten minutes.”

“Dissillusioned as well, Headmaster?'

“No, Charles. Too suspicious. Let's work under the assumption he is watching and waiting for us to make way. And I want to attract him to follow you. Speak normally as you go, and be sure to include speculation about him. You've had no contact before with him....?"

Weasley shook his head.

“If he is curious, he will want to know more about you. There is too much magic about the Fence, he will be reluctant to stay in vicinity.

“My guess is that he might follow at a distance,” Yi picked up on Flitwick's plan. “And if he is following these two,.....”

“He may not notice us.” Flitwick nodded. “Worse come to worse, he is still on the school grounds. Or in the woodland here. And this is not a safe area, for a man to be blundering about in the trees.”

“Either way, he will have some explaining to do, come nightfall.”

“Yes. And I want to see what's in his office, Yi. This has gone on entirely too long. Albus ...even Minerva, liked this sort of cloak and wand, sort of thing, entirely too much. Would spend months laying out elaborate plans and have conversations to beat the topic dead for the rest of the school year. I'm putting an end to it today."

Pulling out an oversized watch on a chain, Flitwick tapped it with the crystal face with his wand, and the watch lit us like a fancy computer. Flitwick - for one – was not wedded to Nineteenth century, at least not in functionality.

“Give us five …..no, ten minutes head-start, you two. For the possibility he may follow, we will let you pass, on the chance we see him. Go on up to the edge of town, and wait us there. This is pure fishing, on my part. May come to nothing.”

“Why should he follow us?” Neville didn't quite follow.

Veronica wondered the same thing, but had to keep silent.

Yi Chen coolly replied, “Maybe won't. Chances are slim he knows Mr. Weasley. He may be curious enough to wonder what Charles has to do with aiding the school in searching for him. You both are known by us to be more than capable of defending yourselves. Otherwise, Twittingham will be in for a surprise if he returns to Hogwarts. His access into his office and classroom is now restricted till we get answers.”

Neither scholar seemed free with providing reasons why. After a short pause, Charlie and Neville nodded agreement, and the other two left after disappearing from normal human vision.

Flitwick and Yi were much better, thought Veronica, than the other man named Twittingham. But the thought that he might have some other invisibility magic sort of mollified her sense of being bested at illusion. Maybe she shouldn't feel so smug!

At least it made her feel slightly better that she hadn't lost her touch, spending these last years as human as possible.

But invisibility magic that foiled even a vampire was profoundly disturbing.

She waited to one side as Neville and Charlie muttered to themselves. When the Yi and Flitwick were safely far enough away, Veronica lightly reached to touch Charlie's shoulder, “Charlie! Fellas, I'm here.” She quietly whispered. “Don't turn to look at me. Keep mumbling to each other.

Neville jumped a little, at her touch to his arm, but Charlie just looked relieved. “Wondered where you were. Afraid something about this mystery wizard was connected to you not still being on the bench.” Charlie poked a thumb in the direction of the the park bench beside the guard shack. The armor suit beside it was pantomiming a great impression of a bewildered man unable to find who Weasley was talking to.

“Went to Hagrid's, for Harry. Remember?” Charlie made an understanding nod, still looking down the path towards town. She asked, “Who is this intruder you are all following?”

“Name's Twittingham. Been Dark Arts teacher for the past year and starting this one. Not very friendly, but seemed competent. But several times, he has all but disappeared on Flitwick.” Neville reported. “We have no idea what he's up to. Filius thinks there may be something in the Dark Arts tower he is accessing, without the rest of us knowing.

Hogwarts was one of the oldest sites of organized human magic. No one person or entity fully knew what secrets were hidden away in forgotten corners and sealed off chambers of the castle.

"What House is he?"

Neville looked vaguely pained. "The rotter is Slytherin. But you know Harry doesn't like us classifying people from some arbitrary school moniker."

Veronica's voice came softly out of the air, her face hidden from their sight. "Harry isn't here, is he? And its not entirely arbitrary. He should know, better than anyone!” Veronica made a small dissenting sniff, conscious neither man could see her face. "Harry has ideals that are fine on the face of them. I am more literally practical. If this Twittingham is a threat, I want you two to jinx first and as get philosophical afterward."

"Ginny has rubbed off on you." Charlie snorted.

"Or I ...her." Veronica countered. She explained she saw Twittingham on the walk back from Hagrid's. Veronica finished, “I saw first this Twittingham and then the headmasters following him. All disillusioned but the lead guy was pretty poor.” The near invisible figure of Veronica quietly spoke.

“Then how did Flitwick lose him?”

“Don't know. I lost sight of him, too!”

“I ….thought that couldn't happen to you.” Charlie was puzzled.

“Me neither. That's why I am still playing Invisible Woman. I am going to remain here. This just reeks of Dark Magic.”

“Yeah. We are getting that feeling, too.” Neville agreed. “Flitwick wants us to follow him about now. You heard his plan?”

“Think that is reasonable. Our mystery walker, if he is watching, should only see you, two. Stick to the plan. If nothing happens for about …..maybe a half hour, I'll walk up and join you at the Longbottom's house.”

Privately, Veronica reckoned the unknown wizard would return to her. She was more than equipped to meet any magician, if it came to magic. But she wanted the men out of the way. She was risking no one else, if it could be arranged.

Old habits died hard.

“Hmm.” Her husband seemed to suspect her motives, but Neville tugged at his sleeve. “Let's get this over with. I left Luna up at the castle and I am feeling more and more unhappy about that.”

Charlie gave a half shrug to the teasing ripple of suggestion of his wife, standing against the pine trees. She was very good at vanishing. It was natural for a vampire. “Alright. We will be up there. Tell Ginny and Harry if they come to come along with you.”

“They still up there?” The vampire from her tone was undoubtedly referring to the old castle back above her shoulder. “How did it go with Jennifer?”

Charlie did not immediately reply, just giving a guilty avoidance of looking at her directly.

“Awwww, Charlie …..”

He didn't know where to look, so as to not look like he was talking to empty air. Charlie leaned over, his big hand knocking dust from one boot. “I made a hash of it. Let's get this over with and we can talk about it later,”

On an impulse, she leaned over and planted a kiss on his cheek. “You've got time to make this right. Don't give up. Don't do what she probably expects you to do and stop trying.”

Their fingers briefly tangled and let go after a quick squeeze. “You have more faith in me than I do.” Charlie aimed his words at the armor suit, whose arms moved into a surprised open hand shrug, unable to figure out who the wizard was talking to.

They moved off at a casual stroll.

They hadn't even moved out of sight when something happened. That was a stranger suddenly appeared walking the other way toward Hogwarts. But that was rather anti-climatic, as it was Neville and Harry's friend Dean Thomas. Veronica could see the men talking amongst themselves.

Probably about any number of things men found instantly engrossing. Sports and sex. Or both of them.

That caused them not to notice the object of the past half hour suddenly appearing between Veronica at the Fence and where the unobservant were describing the last goal from the previous month's Quidditch International.

He was a thin, African man, slighter than Percival Weasley or Dean Thomas, with long dread locks, a close-cropped beard and rather old fashioned suit and cloak. And he did not just undisillusion himself. Veronica would have noticed that.

He just appeared! As if instantly not there and then, present.

He had not been hidden at all. He came from somewhere else back to where he had lost his pursuers. Filius was wrong. Twittingham was not superbly camouflaged. He had left the scene entirely, somehow. But Both the scholar wizards and the secretly observing vampire should have noticed him apparating. One did not suddenly vanish, but were actually whipped suddenly away.

A subtle difference. Legions of wizards and their vomiting progeny would undoubtedly agree Twittingham's manner was better.

Now what to do. If she called out to the men, Twittingham might vanish again.

But all was not well with Mr. Twittingham. He lurched and staggered back in the direction of Veronica and Hogwarts. Her eyesight was superb and could see things humans could not. The wanted man appeared to be having trouble with his balance and he was not too far away for the vampire to see his bodily temperature was widely fluctuating.

He also slapped at the air about himself, and dodged about as if pursued by something. Veronica could not make it out. But these were Hogwarts Woods. They were not the Forbidden Forest proper, but marshy and boggy, giving way to the open ground and stone walls farther across the valley to Hogsmeade. But they were never 'safe'.

The irritating pests from the watery lands nearby were sometimes were not simple black flies. Sometimes, not even flies.

Then her sharp eyes noticed the ball in his one hand. He cradled it like a precious thing, glancing back at the three men who still hadn't noticed Twittingham. Then Twittingham made a sudden motion as if he was going to be sick. Shaking and holding his mouth, he seemed to contain himself and tried to more steadily to move faster back toward Hogwarts.

What should she do? She wasn't an auror anymore. She had no idea what he had done and had no more authority than a regular citizen. Twittingham had no weapon at hand, that she could see. Except what looked like a steel ball, about the size of a 12-pound cannonball.

He got closer and Veronica could now see the single most outstanding difference in the man.

His eyes were like mirrors!

Something unusual was up, and that was all Veronica needed. He wasn't bringing back to the school full of children whatever it was that was making him sick to his stomach. And people with eyes like reflecting glass tended to be extraordinarily prone to evil. Or at least in the comic books the Potter boys left in Harry's office, they were 'iffy'.

Veronica allowed her body to reappear. As if she was undisillusioning. Right in the center of the path before the Gate.

He stopped dead still. Well not really motionless, weaving and drunkenly unable to keep his head steady.

“Who are …..you?” He called woodenly.

“A parent.” She called out loudly. It was enough for the three buffoons to notice – finally – that something was happening behind them.

The 'ball' shook in his hand. Not his hand shaking. The ball quivered on its own with a surprising elasticity. It could not be normal steel. In fact, Veronica thought it couldn't be solid metal at all. Few normal men could 'one-hand' a steel ball that size.

Of course, few women could literally see themselves in the reflection of a man's eyes. There was nothing normal about this.

He barked, “Out of my way. School business. I'm conducting an important experiment.” He had a deeper voice, than his figure would suggest.

“Think you'll find that might be changing soon. Professor. My husband and his friends are coming to see to it you wait for the Headmaster.” She could restrain this man blindfolded and with her smallest toe. But that would lead to unwanted questions and if Veronica just kept him talking long enough, Neville would be here and with real authority.

Twittingham looked alarmed back at the path and noticed the three men coming back at a quick trot. “Don't interfere. If you know what's good for you.”

“Guess I don't. I am stubborn that way. Some of my family is up in the old castle. And I want to know what you have there and why you have 'steelies' for peepers.”

“Stupid cow!”

That got Veronica angry enough now to want to punch him. But he was now still just too far beyond normal woman reach, and Charlie, followed by Dean and Neville seemed to be walking back her way as slow as if they had their shoes tied together.

She debated doing a quick 'vampire' punch and kick, just for the pleasure of all the stupid cows that waited in sweet revenge for comments like that from a man. But if she was a little more patient, her man would get off his ….....

Whatever it was she would have done, it was decided for her by the sudden spasm in size of the steel ball in Twittingham's hand.

And a flash.

Veronica jumped backwards, over the line of the Fence, still between the Flying Pig Pillars.

Twittingham reacted by dropping the mirrored ball as if it were a live thing and it plopped with a very nonmetallic, near silent thud on the ground between them. Rolling to a stop just inside the line that was made by the now open metal Gates of Hogwarts.

She blinked. Something about her was different. It was like suddenly waking up, from having dreamed she was awake already. Veronica took in her hands and clothes, she looked no different …..

There was an odd black scar on the palm of her hand! It was the shape ….of her family pin she'd kept for centuries! Almost forgotten. Like the image had been burned into her flesh.

She'd never had a mark like that. Ever!

He was different now, too. His eyes were normal. Except severely bloodshot and desperate. He looked variously petrified and furious at being stymied, but nothing kept him from walking back to Hogwarts except this witch.

These annoying strangers were obstructing him from reaching his goal. But the new 'englobement' was obviously unstable. He felt he had to return it within environs of the castle.

“Must get inside. The Fence will shield us.” Twittingham rambled in a monotone. He was very weary from his trip 'beyond' and desperately wanted to rest. That was what he wanted most. If he held the Castle gate, no one could interfere with his plan.

As if that pronouncement was enough for Veronica to instantly stand aside.

“From bloody what? Your cannonball?” She'd had it with his vacuous belligerence. Charlie had evidently picked up a good head of steam, as she could now see he was running full tilt toward Twittingham's back and a decent blind side tackle that would do a rugby game proud.

Things happened fast after that. The odd ball in his hand quivered. And Twittingham nervously dropped it, not ready to act and caught off guard. The witch heard him make an inarticulate sound in alarm and he leaped forward to get inside the opened metal gate of Hogwarts

He moved solely for self preservation, though he had misjudged it badly, diving forward to fling himself through Hogwarts magical outer defenses.

About a head too far forward a length. Or the rest of his body too short.

Veronica was faster at diving forward, too. But not to stop him. She scooped the flexing ball up with one hand and flung it forward, out toward the trees from inside the gate.

And then time stopped.

*
 


Chapter 12: Exciting New Job Opportunities
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Hermione and Ginny were standing by the Front Door, just chatting about the clumsy failure of brother Charles to behave like a decent man. Harry was patiently and silently nodding at their points, when they glanced at him, but carefully keeping silent.

The women didn't value his opinion. About things like this. Got angry when he offered it. Harry stubbornly thought they should all butt out and leave Charlie and his nearly grown child alone. He wouldn't like it – if he was in Charlie's shoes, which he wasn't – and he suspected the two women closest to him in his life would be very offended.

Would this day ever end? He just wanted to go home.

They were interrupted by a flash. It wasn't as if an explosion, but more like simply the whole world blindingly glared and then was the same.

Except for the faint after images they kept having to blink from their eyes. He had that same sensation he had in Yi's office. Harry was somewhere else but almost in the same exact place. But this was more intense and more 'real'. He was on the low landing just before the Front Door of Hogwarts, instead of by the wall of the courtyard fountain.

Only, it was all ruins. And had been for quite a long time. And Harry was alone.

Then he was back, as before.

“What was that?” Ginny grasped the stone edge of the fountain wall as she sank to a crouch on stone ledge. Hermione and some other nearby students tottered slightly, as if from sudden loss of balance.

Harry moved to them, steadying Hermione by grasping her elbow. “Alright?” She nodded, and he looked about to see if something was changed. The Front Door courtyard and fountain looked exactly the same, and the older Hogwarts students skylarking about seemed no different than before.

There was one big difference.

“What is wrong with the sky?” Hermione pointed up in the air.

The world above was now gray. There was no horizon of mountains, covered in the grays and browns of autumn. It was just an intensely blank gray, with a faint hint of a metallic shimmer. As if the sky about Hogwarts had been replaced with a giant bowl. It was not dark, exactly, but dimmer, as if on a cloudy day.

“Is there some new protection or shield, about the castle grounds?” Harry asked.

Hermione just shook her head, “Not ….not that I know of.” The rumbling of faint children voices awoke her to the fact that the three adults were surrounded now by young ladies and boys timidly backing toward the Door or the dubious protection value of the three older witches and wizard.

Back in charge, Hermione! “Everyone, please all return to the Main Hall. This is a school emergency. The prefects all need to be called to here, at once. After they have secured the classrooms.” She emphasized that to the one girl prefect standing by them, and she waved the kids back in through the doorway.

Harry considered the oddly close seeming horizon. “Seems as if this ends at the Fence.” Turning to Hermione, he said. “Ginny and I will go forward. Find Flitwick. Tell him what we are about.”

“Don't know myself what you are about? And I think Neville and Charles went ahead of you. Remember?”

Harry smiled. This seemed dangerous and that made him feel oddly comfortable. “Just to see if this does go down to the castle grounds boundary. And send anyone I find back to you. Get them all to concentrate here in the Hall. If we have to evacuate, that would be best to have all together, instead of running to the four winds.”

Unthinking concern caused her to grasp either Potter by their elbows. “Don't do something stupid and alone. Don't be a cowboy!”

“When have I done that?” Harry asked innocently.

“Please!” Ginny snorted and patted Hermione's hand. “Be back in a few minutes.”

Hermione helplessly watched them walk to the Front Door Bridge, and after they both returned a shrug to the now distant Weasley watching them from the castle. Then Ginny and Harry walked into the gloom of the covered, not-quite straight and level wooden bridge and disappeared from her view as its support pillars blocked her line of sight.

Hermione now noticed a growing rumble of masses of children, streaming past from the upper floors of the castle, and into the Main Hall. After some final stragglers and one or two teachers walked past her, looking to her for answers, Luna Longbottom came to her.

“All in our part of the castle are out. I think there was a Quidditch practice. Don't know about the greenhouses and the outer towers.” Luna nervously fretted with her hands. “Haven't seen Neville, have you?”

“A little while ago. Right here. Think he and Charles were headed after Flitwick. On the path to Hogsmeade. And not too many adults, in fact, seem to be in the school. More parents than teachers.” She watched Filch approach, the thin ancient squib muttering to himself, and gesturing to a group of Quidditch uniformed players to go on past him. Some still clutching their broomsticks.

One was her daughter, Rose. Hermione breathed a mental sigh of relief and nudged her chin a little in the direction of the castle door.

Not that being inside could be 'safer'! Hermione just wanted to know where her little girl was.

“I'm going after him.” Luna flatly stated. Mrs. Longbottom said that with nervous determination and stepped to go around Weasley toward the bridge to Hogsmeade.

Hermione grasped her friend's hand. “Don't! Stay with me. I'm all alone …...” Weasley looked about, at the students milling into the Main Hall through the still open Front Door. “ ….... here, at the moment. Go when the Potters come back – report on what they see. Or we get one of the others who won't fall on her knees any second.”

Luna looked at Hermione, still seeming a little dazed. As if trying to be sure she was seeing her friend, correctly. But Luna nodded agreement and they waited together as most Hogwarts students were finally inside the Hall.

Hermione noted an alarming lack of adults. She had seen Trelawnee - clutching several scrolls and a teacup like her life depended on them – some other visiting parents.

But the rest had been children.

“Luna, stay up at the teachers table. Look like you know what you are doing. Till we find some real adults to be in charge.” Hermione quietly said in Luna's ear.

“We are the adults in charge, now, 'Mione.” Luna nervously looked about her, and just walked into the growing roar of the mob of children milling about the tables in the Main Hall.”

Filch waited till the players joined the others in the Hall. “Nought others from the playing pitch, Madame Weasley.” Filch grumpily addressed Hermione.

“That's …..that's fine. Who is in charge?”

Filch seemed taken aback by that. “Why ….the Master, ain't he?”

Hermione pointed out the direction the Potters had gone. “No. At least I don't think so. Both he and Yi went out to the Front Fence Guardshack, to follow Mr. Twittingham.”

“Follow Twittingham?” Filch peered evilly back at her in sudden keen interest.

“Never mind, about that.” She snapped impatiently. She hadn't time or interest in verbally jousting with this miserable old man or feed his callow desire for gossip. “Find any other stragglers, from the rest of the castle. Send them ........ well, send them to the Main Hall.” And overhead, from the Great Clock's tower, there suddenly 'bonged' the class bell.

But it wasn't on the hour or at any recognizable time!

“What does that mean?” Hermione quizzically asked the air.

As in answer, a ghost, dressed similarly to Nearly Headless Nick, drifted close to her and said in a breathless, whispery voice – as if from the bottom of a well, “Means the castle has lost its Master, Madame Weasley. Happened occasionally in the past …..”

“What do you mean …..?” Hermione caught herself. She knew she sounded daft, constantly moaning 'wha' or 'how'. Before she could sound more grown up and reasonable, Harry and Ginny appeared. With Hagrid and some of his students of his Magical Creatures class.

The ghost faded back from them, disappearing into a wall, without saying goodbye or why it suddenly left her.

Ginny gestured the kids on into the castle. “Met them on the path back up the hill.”

Hermione was relieved. “Is this all, Hagrid?”

Hagrid nodded. “Tis almost all of me group, Hermione. We were just in the Forest, by my groundskeeper hut. Then the Wall went up...”

“What wall? What do you mean 'almost all'?”

“Ri' past my hut. Some of the older boys were skylarking farther in. Just inside the first few trees into the Forest, like. Told to keep in sight of me cabin, but they are on the other side o' that when I looked again.” Hagrid pulled on his vast bushy beard. “Rather interesting bit o' magic, but kind of startlin', …...if you follow me.” Hagrid looked about at Harry, Ginny and Filch, all staring at him. “I had almost taken the kids back into the trees. There was no warnin'. School is not supposed to do that.”

“Do what, Hagrid?”

“Shut itself off, like tha'. You know!”

The Potters and Hermione all just looked blankly back up at the enormous man. Filch just scowled at no one in particular, rubbing his chin.

“Protections! Filius and Minerva had more added to the school perimeter, since the war. Ya know....” Hagrid told them.

“Not supposed to last permanently,” Filch muttered, lowly.

“Well, no. 'Spose na'. But that must be the Gray Wall about us.” Hagrid seemed to recover his old, blindingly overconfident self. “It'll end in moments. You'll see. No trouble at 'tall.”

“Great Boob!” Filch said under his breath.

“Alright, if you please, Mr. Filch. Professor Hagrid.” Hermione sought to avert the two from snapping. “Mr. Filch, if you would see to the far towers. Hagrid, go about the exterior portions and the greenhouses. Look for any wanderers and send them here, straight away.” The two gave one another unpleasant scowls and moved off in opposite directions.

To the Potters, Hermione asked, “What else did you two find?”

“Went as far as the path beginning to branch out to the Quidditch field and the paths to Hagrid's and the Lake.” Ginny said, looking with interest at Hermione.

“I went a little father on. Towards the Hogsmeade Gate.” Harry said in a distant tone. “Nothing noticeable …...really.”

“Anything out of place?”

“There are no birds! Or insects. The world was silent. In fact, it was the sound of the Castle Bell that called me back from going all the way to the Perimeter Fence.”

All of the three just silently considered each other for a moment. “I have ….no clue what that means,” Ginny Potter said.

“Neither do I.”

Ginny Potter reexamined Hermione's face. “You sound so much better than when we left. You must be feeling better.”

Hermione took a mental inventory of herself and had to agree that apart from the disagreeable disorientation she had felt at the 'flash', she felt fine.

No, she felt great! Completely opposite of minutes ago. She even found herself patting the 'dragon' amulet, resting from the necklace about her neck over her heart, under her blouse.

The thing that kept her human.

Cursed thing was still there. But just felt like what it looked to be. A funny rock.

Hermione decided they were getting little new out here, and the sound of growing noise in the Main Hall returned her to attention that there were six hundred students between eleven and seventeen causing a small riot. “Let's find something to calm them down. It is probably too early for dinner. I haven't a watch ….”

“It's just past Two …..” Harry glanced at his.

“Find something for them to snack on then. And somebody to tell me what to do. Come on.”




[Hogwarts, loud room crowded with annoying people]


Actually, 'snack time' wasn't all that much more restful for Hermione, either.

The kids actually seemed to be happily more-than-satisfied that the grown-ups had all in hand and a low key riot had simmered for several hours now. Sort of like the minutes before some school-wide event or just before mealtime.

Except now it had lasted several hours now without resulting entertainment. Noise levels had risen to intolerable levels every half-hour or so, needing to be shouted down by stressed-out adults who kept looking to Hermione for answers.

As if she had any!

After the novelty of being herded inside wore-off, teasing and name-calling between individuals and small rival groups turned into brief showers of crisps, paper-airplanes and somebody's shoe. Tempers were getting short.

If it wasn't for the prefects' aid, Weasley would have run and hid in her Seventh Year tower.

As like the sea – seeking to enter in any fracture or hole in the crippled vessel of authority, the students seem to sense it was decidedly the 'second-team' in charge. The more bold and adventuresome barely hesitated to tweak authority.

The Ravenclaws – in particular – seemed to have a developed talent for rude limericks, sung to various popular tunes, about each of the other three Houses. They won any impromptu contest and eventually had to be ordered into silence by the more prudish parents that hovered about.

Hermione hadn't cared, herself. Except for being little surprised to see her daughter shouting heartily away at one point like an old veteran. Even her Aunt Ginny – a worldly visitor to sports stadiums full of drunken, obnoxious fans – had to intervene at one point. Shaking her fist at one table of kids, reminiscent of a magical world-famous scene Ginny Potter had starred-in at her last Quidditch game.

If the kids were smart, Hermione thought, they'd shut up now.

Most of the Hogwarts teachers were little help to Hermione. Luna and Hagrid was about the only regulars she could rely on. Particularly worrying, among the missing included Firenze the centaur. Who seemed not to be anywhere within the castle. Vector and Trelawnee seemed to happily accept Hermione being the one out in front, both retreating to the teacher's lounge and its relative refuge from responsibility.

The other less than helpful included Bins – Hogwarts' resident ghost teacher – who Hermione generally dismissed as no more useful than some of the more dense school portraits. The ghost seemed more annoyed he had to remain with the others here in the Hall, and mostly spent time reading to himself in a corner from a similarly ghostly book.

The other ghosts flitted in and out from the walls. Some were helpful to Hermione – reporting after investigating far off sections of the castle. Others were like the Bloody Baron, who spent most of his time shouting at Peeves or others, and engaging in ghostly sword fights in and out of the Main Hall's stone walls.

Alarmingly, apart from Hermione, Sybill Trelawnee and a few others, there were few regular teachers present in Hogwarts. Almost all of these were long-term, rather elderly residents within the castle. And none were what anyone could generously label as dynamic or 'take-charge.'

Hermione included herself in that number. Or normally would. She felt great, apart from the growing headache. Not short of breath. Not weak or tottering in her shoes.

Even her skin felt and looked younger. She kept her hands stuffed in her cloak pockets, to prevent her desire to gaze at them in wonder.

They looked like a Thirty-Five year-old woman's should! Not gnarled and paper-dry.

What was happening to her?

She had little time to ponder her problem. People kept coming to her for direction. It was Saturday. Many – like Hermione – with real homes in real towns had made long term plans that seemed to coincide with a sudden mass exodus of adults. Twittingham had been the subject of interest in the morning, causing both the Headmaster and his deputy to be missing from the castle.

Longbottom apparently was also missing, much to Luna's distress. He had last been seen chatting with Charles Weasley and both walking towards town.

About a dozen sets of parents of Hogwarts students. Somebodies granddad. Two self-important officials from the Ministry, one of whom kept contradicting what Hermione ordered.

She passively let that go on, wishing fervently that Flitwick would suddenly pop into existence at their feet. And tell Dunston – the pompous bore from the Ministry – to shove his wand where the sun didn't shine.

Completing the inventory, there were some of the older students – as well – had gone home due to family emergencies. Or for a family wedding. Only a few though.

This had been one of the weeks before a 'Hogsmeade Weekend'. Most of the students had been within the castle, apart from those practicing Quidditch for the second series of school games.

And people kept coming to Hermione for answers. It was fast growing beyond annoying, to a low level sense of panic in her gut.

And then, there was a House Elf by her knee, tugging on her cloak hem. “Madame Weasley, if I could bother you for a moment?”

Not one she recognized. There were little variation amongst elves, mostly in features or their sex, male or female. Annoyingly, that too didn't always seem apparent. In jaunty green outfits, with the emblem of Hogwarts blazoned on their chests. Little else seemed to be different to Hermione. There was an odd agelessness among them and Hermione had long since given up trying to decipher a true age to them.

Only the Potter's now long missing Kreacher had seemed truly old.

“Umm, of course, ….is something wrong?” Hermione distantly looked to the elf.

“No, this is for you. You seem to need it.” The elf handed her a frosty mug of something dark. And Hermione just drank from it, without asking what it was.

Iced tea. Or something like it. With something …...'fortifying' it.

Exactly what, Hermione didn't bother to ask. “Thank you. Bit right about that. Can we feed the children?”

“Oh, that shouldn't be a problem.” The elf considered the packed House tables. “Bit early, though.”

“Yes, stick to light snacks at the moment …..guess you are right, ummm....” Hermione peered at the elf, questing her memory for a possible name.

“Dizzy, mum.” The elf suggested it's name.

“Ah, thank you, Miss ….umm. Mr.? …..Dizzy. Really?” The elf unhelpfully just smiled back at Hermione, not offering if it was male, female or even if 'Dizzy' was really close to it's true name! “Just keeping them cooped up in here is going to get a bit old.”

“If I could suggest a normal Saturday routine, Madame Weasley. Keep things …..normal, for them.” The elf confidently assured her. “It's the parents and the grownup that look to need some reassuring. Maybe if you showed them all to the Teachers Room, keep some of the shouting to a reduced level …..” The elf waved to the doorway behind the Head table.

Hermione gave the door an irritated glance. “Mostly all already there.”

Some of the parents had already invited themselves into the Teacher's private sanctum. After both Dunston and Ennui had rather preemptively lead the way, as if already in some vague sense of being in charge.

There had already been some shouting between adults. The grandfather had insisted on sending an owl to the Ministry, and had been loudly disappointed no bird could be found to be anywhere within the castle.

The elf confidently lowered it's voice, as if in conspiracy. “We'll keep thems plied with vittles and drink, for the moment. Let you bees in control out here.”

“Not in control of anything, Dizzy.”

The elf patted her hand, up at the level of 'Dizzy's' head. “Doin' fine, miss. And you've got help”

The Potters and Luna, along with the school prefects, were drifting about the Main Hall, talking with the students. Hagrid were also doing his best to keep things normal, lingering by the door. Her daughter Rose appeared to be bubbling engaged with an animated House of Ravenclaws, all arguing about what could be causing this and everyone else's theory rotted. Her niece Victoire was with her nephew and the other Gryffindors. James and the newly identified cousin, Jennifer, keeping spirits up by loudly describing Cortez's summer adventure as a grand extended story of danger amid sewage.

James was already the prime School non-ghost entertainer.

Ginny had all the older Quidditch players, from all four Houses, clustered in a corner, animatedly discussing this year's rather dismal International Cup results.

Luna and Harry were distractedly distant. Pacing up and down the aisles, not being terribly a comfort to anyone. Neither wanted to be in the Teacher's room with the growing noise of impatient adults.

Where the hell was Firenze? Hermione realized she hadn't seen him in hours. Just when she could use his calm advice.

Must ask Sybill, when I get a chance, Hermione thought. The old fraud usually knows where her main competitor is.

Hermione realized the elf had gone as suddenly as 'Dizzy' had appeared. In its place, was that ghost from the Front Door, a medieval man in a merchant or clerk's outfit. Looking to Hermione in some urgency.

“You must come to the Headmasters' Tower, Madame Weasley. As soon as possible.”

Everyone who came to her, lately, had used the words 'must' or 'she had to -' and Hermione was getting a tad irritable about it. “What the hell! Fine! Is something the matter. I've got my hands-full here.”

The ghost just repeated, “You must come, now.” He nervously looked about, not deigning to say why.

Hermione woodenly stared at the ghost and the wall it had appeared from, then at Harry, Ginny, Luna and now Trelawnee, approaching her expectantly.

“It wants me at the Master's Tower. Suppose there is some news. Can you four keep things on hold here?”

Sybill looked tremulously through her incredibly thick eyeglasses, patting her shoulder with indulgent confidence. “Doing fabulously, dear. I predict grand things for you.”

Hermione eyed Ginny and Luna with some un-vocalized irony, not saying anything except nodding. “Thanks, for that, Sybill. That's terribly helpful. I'll return shortly.” Hermione turned to leave, but rounded back to Trelawnee. “Sybill? Still nothing about Firenze?”

The now old faux-clairvoyant nervously clasped her hands together, her blinking eyes magnified tremendously behind the ever-present thick spectacles. Trelawnee stuffily straightened up, offended she would be repeatedly asked the same question by just about everyone.

Because it was usually true!

But Trelawnee truly had no idea. “Why ….no. I ….. can't say that I know. 'The Horse' was helping some Fifth Years with O.W.L.S. Test preparation.” The easily distracted old witch was sincerely put out that her being repeatedly tasked with her competitor's whereabouts. In a little offended voice, she hissed, “Though why they would get anything useful from him ….I can't imagine ...”

“Please, Sybill. Not right now.” Hermione rubbed the bridge of her nose and forehead.

“He should be here.” Trelawnee nervously shook her head.

Hermione had bigger fish to catch, right at the moment. “Fine, Sybill. Very helpful. Do what you can till I come back. Wherever Firenze is …....”

She said that a little too loudly, as the Ministry officials present chose that moment to come out of the lounge, as if attracted to some sudden change that needed their vacuous and bellicose presence. “What this? News?” Dunston loudly declared from the Teacher's Room doorway. He marched up and said, “What's this about?” Like dutiful meek deer, a couple of the parents followed him in a row.

“Professor Weasley was asked to see …...report to the Headmaster's office.” Luna stepped in, between the Potters and self-important hack from the Ministry of Magic. She had already detected a growing animosity between Harry and Dunston, and that was usually sufficient to bring out the belligerence in Ginny Potter, as well.

“All the more reason I should be informed, at once. I am the senior official here ….....”

“In what way?” Harry growled. With surprising contempt, he added,“You are in charge of grocery bags and keeping the bins empty at King's Cross. She's been a witch teaching at Hogwarts for about a dozen years and her right pinky finger knows more magic than your sorry ass ….”

Ennui, standing behind him, rolled his eyes, ceiling-ward.

“That's Under-secretary for Transport and Provisioning, Potter!” Dunston swelled in outrage. “I am not in the habit of having to defend myself from a 'private dick' without a decent office or pair of shoes ….”

Ginny helpfully shoved her way between the now shouting wizards, waving her fist under Dunston's nose, “How'd you like my 'private' fist up you nose, shithead!”

That got the now-listening kids to chuckle in amusement, and Hermione found the Hall completely silent, all six hundred kids watching in blissful eagerness as the nominal 'adults' engaged in tribal warfare for their entertainment. Some of the younger boys with James Potter, jostling for better views up front.

No doubt taking bets for how quickly Ginny Potter could beat the crap out of Morris Dunston with her one hand.

“Shut up! Everyone!” Hermione thundered, and was surprised at the instant response of silence.

To Dunston and the Potters, Hermione snapped. “Grow up, the three of you. Or take it outside.” And to Special Sub-under secretary for Refuse and Logistics, she turned and said, “I will sent word at once, for you and any others that wish to converse in more adult conversation in the Master's tower. Better there than in here. Satisfied?”

Dunston muttered under his breath but said nothing, more. He truly had no authority, here.

“Prefects!” Hermione loudly called for them to come to her, and instructed them to remain in charge of the Main Hall, and not to allow any Hogswart student to wander away from there or the nearest restrooms.

Then she swept out the Hall doors. With the vaporous shade of the ancient ghost nervously floating in her wake.



[Hogwarts Headmaster's Office]

The first thing that struck Hermione Weasley as different on this very strange afternoon was that the Tower Guardian, a stone, slightly greater-than-life size gargoyle of a half man-half lion, was already out of the way, indicating the already spiraling stone stair within the tower with one outstretched stone hand-like paw.

She stopped to look at it. It did not move or speak back to her. In that itself, that was something new. Hermione had known the gargoyle since she was eleven. It had been typically gruff and stern at her approach, as with any other student daring approach then-Headmaster Dumbledore's demesne. When she had graduated, a grown witch and one of the heroes of the overthrow and defeat of Voldemort, the gargoyle had switched to being more conversational. And - to be candid - slightly lewdly suggestive.

It wasn't something she discussed with anyone. Certainly not her husband, Ron. It was difficult to bring herself to tell anyone she had been propositioned – as a grown woman, of course – by a three-ton granite sculpture. And what was the always jealous Ron Weasley to do with Hogwarts stone gargoyle that out-massed him by twenty times.

“Anything the matter, Gargoyle?”

This afternoon, it said nothing. Just rolling its chin briefly toward the moving stairs and returning to its vigil down the hallway.

“Hmmm,” Hermione said softly, and entered the stairwell. In Hogwarts, she had learned long ago that it did little good to ask whether something was dangerous or alarming.

It just was.

And as a good witch, she had better learn to deal with it.

Thing 'Two' that was extremely different today was her entrance into the tower office proper. That door too was open and shut gently of its own accord once she had entered.

All the portraits, of famous headmasters and headmistresses, plus some notable magical personalities down the centuries, were awake, at attention in their seats-thrones-stools and apparently waiting for her. For some eighteen odd years now, she and her writing partner Luna Lovegood Longbottom, had been in this very room and begged, pleaded, and yelled at some of the these pictures for some response, if any, to their questions.

More than half routinely ignored ignored the witches. Some didn't talk at all.

They had never done this – waited in silence – patiently! For her!

In previous visits, some only sang to her in verse. A few cursed at her. One made suggestive proposals to her that would make the gargoyle downstairs blush. The crazed highland sorcerer had simply glared at them and called them rude names in Old Gaelic. If it hadn't been for the fact that hardly anyone in the thousand years of Hogwarts been given such access to note and copy down and discuss with these fabled magical pictures, Luna and Hermione would have long ago given up bothering.

Only Dippet, Dumbledore and a handful of others were routinely polite and conversational. Black and Snape were always belittling and snide.

Today, something else was different. Some of the pictures were empty of personages. Dumbledore was one of these. In her new picture, beside Snape's, Minerva McGonagal slumbered, as if having just plopped in her chair after a long and exhaustive journey.

All eyes of those present were upon Hermione. She already felt she should turn and run.

“Ah, Hermione, my dear. If you would be so good as to take a seat.” Armando Dippet's picture kindly indicated a simple wood chair, set in the middle of the room. All other furniture, including Flitwick's desk and the other chairs, were gone. Even the table of rattling and puffing odd mechanical oddments, that had been Dumbledore's once and rescued and returned to view by Headmaster Flitwick, was missing.

It had all the aspect of a tribunal. Of the 'landed' elders, sitting in vast and weighty magical judgment of the feeble witch. Again, Hermione wanted to flee down the stairs, as she sat in the chair numbly.

She had a feeling the door was locked against her.

“Was' wrong?” Hermione mumbled.

“Hmmm?” Armando looked confusingly at her.

A dozen questions came to Hermione's mind. “I mean, what is happening? Is the school in danger?. Should I be getting the children away? Somewhere?”

Several pictures laughed. One slatternly dressed witch smiled knowingly and called down to Dippet, “Told you. Think of the kids first. Exactly what we need, Armie.”

“Thank you, Elspeth, but if you please. Lets have a little order to the proceedings.” The old bearded wizard, so similar to how her old friend Albus looked, peered upwards over his odd pentagonal spectacles. “Thank you, my dear. Let's proceed.”

“With what? Where is Albus? And why is Minerva still asleep in her picture?” Hermione rapidly asked these, as they were all at the tip of her tongue. And sometimes, more than one picture would answer, and sometimes one of the multiple answers had a chance of being the true one.

“Proceeding with your acceptability into the position - in question.” Snape slowly pounded out. As if every word was worthy of long consideration.

“What position?”

“Headmistress, of course.”

“What?”

“Told you, she'd be in hysterics.” Drawled Nigelius Black.

“Nothing of the sort. Will the rest of you kindly shut up!” Dippet yelled back. This, naturally, got the opposite effect, in most of the pictures mumbling and arguing amongst themselves.

It was some minute in useless badgering by Dippet, when the old wizard just sat back in his chair and gave up. Hermione herself got them all to shut up, by rapping her wand handle on the wood arm of the simple chair she sat on.

“Errr, thank you, my dear. They seldom listen to me.”

“Well some of us are more gifted with their hands, Armie, than with their words.” Purred Headmistress Elspeth, giving the white-haired wizard a loving glance and a little wiggle of her considerably visible bodice.

“Umm, as I was saying.” Dippet's picture was now red-faced and stammered a bit, shuffling papers at his painted desk nonsensically. “Where was I ….”

“How can I be Headmistress? We already have ….....” Hermione gasped, searching around the pictures for the small man she had been the student of all of her life. “Filius! I don't see his anywhere. Tell me nothing bad has happened …..”

“Not that we can ascertain, at this time. Hermione.” Said Dylys soothingly. The ever unconventional witch - in a dark old-fashioned suit including a key chain fob and starched collar - and sometimes smoked a cigar, rapped on her desk as if trying to gain Hermione's attention. “But we seemed to have suffered his loss. As well as a loss of some of our brother portraits.” She pointed to Dumbledore's ominously silent picture, and one or two others.

“Hogwarts cannot continue unguided. The next must take her rightful place.” Snape slowly intoned.

The brown and gray haired witch worriedly looked about her for someone to be reasonable about this. “I have no qualifications. I didn't sign up for this ...”

“Yes, you did,” Everard said, consulting pile of papers infront of him.

“When? Where?”

“When you were hired as teacher.” Everard perched his painted spectacles further down on his long nose to consult tiny print on the page before him. “ …..yes, let's see …..witch, eighteen, sound character …...blah, blah ….able to command when called upon ...”

“I most certainly never read that!”

Everard wearily lifted up his reading glasses, “Why we write it in very tiny print, young miss.”

Hermione did an unconscious imitation of Sybill Trelawnee, stammering, “Well …I...well ….it certainly should not be me!”

“Why not?” Snape challenged.

“I don't know what I am doing?”

“When has that stopped you?”

“Umm, …...not sure that is relevant.”

“All of it is relevant!”

Professor Weasley sat silent for a moment. Then said in a calm voice, “I am not well.”

“Looks incredibly well to me.” stated one picture.

“In the pink, from my point of view,” chortled another.

“True, after all. We are dead.” That got several pictures guffawing.

Dylys shuffled papers about her desk, consulting one, “Of the candidates reviewed, Ms. Weasley is the most fit.”

“Of who others?” Hermione demanded.

“You are the only one, actually,” Dylys smiled. “Doesn't matter the rest.”

Weasley made a disgusted sound, but that was largely lost among the clapping and voices all clamoring now to be heard.

But they all quieted when Snape raised his thin pale hand for attention. As the most recent deceased Master, he temporarily held the chair. “My brilliant deduction, hours ago. You have wasted precious time ….”

Hermione sat forward in her wood chair. “What utter shit! You are not still my teacher, you pompous ass ….!”

“Feisty, she be!” Said the bloody-handed McManus, pounding his breast plate with one of his armored fists. “I like tha'”

“Me, too!”

“Seconded!”

“This is boring, I'd like to know who has my playing cards …...”

“Could this get anymore chaotic?” Mumbled Dippet.

“I don't understand, Armando.” Hermione over spoke the myriad of mumbled conversations.

The white-haired old man looked benevolently down on her from his portrait. “Well, normally, succession is a long process mostly dealt with by boring School Board and Ministry politics. And we have very little say in the matter.”

“Thank God, for that!” Black's picture noisily moaned.

“But in case of castle emergencies - and this appears one of no little consequence - we are empowered to seek out a new leader and establish him or her as soon as possible for the good of all.” Dippet leaned closer in his picture, as if to whisper when the magic oil and parchment in fact couldn't really do that. “Normally handled by the predecessor, if the portrait is available. Since we are sadly lacking in either Albus or Minerva's presence …..” Dippet nodded his head toward the new picture of the still-sleeping McGonagal's picture. “ ….and you have some history with …..um the other available candidate ...”

Snape's straightened and simmered in silence.

Hermione looked gratefully at Dippet for taking over the duties. If Snape had handled it all, she might have dived headfirst out the tower windows. “Thankful for that. But I'm not the best person for the job. You all know that. Harry is here. He should be the one.”

“His time and talents are of another kind.” Everard said officiously.

“Yours are of more reasoned and nurturing abilities, dear.” Elspeth said, inspecting imaginary lint on her brocade. “Noble Harry's are more of action and weighty deciding. You know ...like Francis Drake. Robin Hood ...”

“Mary Poppins!” Suggested one of a pair of 19th century attired madams.

“Well, yes, I suppose. Less snooty ….”

“Back to the point ...” Armando despairingly whined.

“He is blessed, some say ...cursed, with the ability to make the crucial choice. Man of action! The do-or-die decision.” Elspeth, the medieval witch said, “Not all the time, are the choices cost free. And he needs to be independent, to help you. And he is not a …..err …..”

“People person?” Suggested Hermione.

“No. Bit of a crab, really.” Dippet smiled helpfully. The picture turned a bit in its chair, called out to the Tower's ceiling, “Oh, Bartholomew. If you could come here to the office?”

Out of a stone wall, the bookish ghost once more appeared. “Yes, Master Dippet?”

“If you would summon the other adults. And have the House Elves serve the students a good meal. It's Saturday night. And some of that chocolate cake, too. My favorite. There will be time later for worry and so-forth. Let's make the day end as normally as possible. Given the circumstances. Oh ….....and tell the gargoyle to mind his manners to the ladies. He is getting rather vulgar in his proposals.” The ghost at once melted back into stone.

“Well, …....” Elspeth sighed. “The gargoyle's not so bad.”

“This is not a bordello. But a place of learning.” Black called up from his picture.

“Well, your Hogwarts was a lot more staid and 'bookish' than mine, Dear Nigelius. No dancing or music, either......”

“Most would say boring,” Dylys opined, examining her cigar.

“No blood duels or bedroom chasing, either, you catty slut!” Black shot back.

“Don't start, please, ladies and gentlemen.” Dylys tapped on her desk.

“You have got the wrong witch.” Hermione patiently insisted, still seated in her chair in the middle of the room.

“If we have, it is a tad late, in us finding out, Hermione.”

“What do you mean?”

“You are sitting........ in ….......The Chair.” Snape pounded out sonorously, as if giving a obvious lesson to a simpleton.

“This one?”

“Exactly!”

Hermione looked concernedly at her seat and to one side. But it seemed an ordinary wooden chair.
“It's …..just …..a chair. Not Filius's.....”

“Of ….course, It is. Can be any shape or size. You are now Headmistress. At your whim ...be …. it!” Snape drew out that last sentence.

Weasley looked at Snape with some hostility. She hated the sound of his voice.

But long experience told her it was useless to yell at the pictures. Hermione sagged in the chair. At her thought, it shifted form to be a fancy reclining leather easy chair, all modern and styled with a matching footrest. After a moment, it went back to a strait-backed wood chair with arm rests.

What it had seemed before Hermione had placed her butt fatefully upon the seat, without thinking.

“Sweet Merlin!” she breathed out.

“Told her. Never understand why they don't believe us.” Dylys puffed a smoke ring out of her cigar.

“This is dumb way to choose a leader.” She informed the portraits. “Tricking them into sitting in some disguised chair. What if I was a perfect ass.”

Everard's picture waved dismissively, “They don't fit in it, as well.”

Dippet twiddled his finger tips, “Well, there was that one, after Dylys. You remember …...”

“Oh, yes. The village idiot. He didn't last long, in any case.”

“Like that oaf after McGonagal!” Said Elspeth.

“You don't see their pictures up here, do you.”

“Praise Merlin, for that.”

Ignoring all their asynchronous back chatter, Dippet smiled at the still-incredulous Hermione Granger Weasley. “And after all, you'll have all our help, twenty-four – seven, as I think the kids say, now a days.”

“How wonderful!”

A soundless voice told her, not so much with words but still clear as a bell to Hermione,

You'll need us.




[An hour later]

“What do you mean? She's already the Master?” Under-secretary Dunston said in outrage. “I'm an official of the government!”

“Counts for beans, up here. Dylys's portrait puffed away at the cigar, putting up her feet on the table and she seemed perfectly at ease, without concern. “Not too sure you've got any beans where it counts.”

Dunston looked at her like she was an apparition. Which, technically, was true. “I don't know where you come off, madam. But in our time, we decide things a little more by rules. And those clearly state, that in a school emergency ….”

Ennui, beside him, monotonously intoned, “ …..in an emergency, due to incapacity of the Hogwarts school leadership infirmity or incompetency of senior officials of the government …..”

“That's us. Me at any rate.” Dunston interrupted. Then he thought about the last statement. “Hold on …..”

“....The resident authorities within the castle shall take charge in till such time as a sufficiently qualified candidate can be chosen.” Ennui finished with trace of irritation.

“There, you see?” Dunston fanned out his hands, to emphasize his point. To Ennui, Dunston whispered, “You are supposed to back me up!”

Ennui just flopped a hand back at the pictures, as if he had just given his 'all' and was now exhausted.

“No one is more qualified in this castle.” Luna Longbottom said, stoutly. “We've bypassed your moment by finding the most excellent candidate immediately.”

Dunston snarled. “You are just the librarian.”

“Try finding a book without me, then.” Luna replied, sweetly.

Ennui, next to Dunston smirked. Dunston ignored him and said, “The Ministry will think otherwise. In a few days, when they've realized the castle in not responding to correspondence, senior officials will come calling for answers and I will be the one expected to give them.”

“But you are a ponce, and a lackluster toady.” Harry said, under his breath, which nevertheless, the whole room heard.

“That's not necessarily a disqualification.” Everard's picture pointed out, helpfully.

“Dunston's more than ready for his assignment then.” Elspeth's picture gleefully called out.

That got the Potters and most in the room to chuckling. Before Dunston could bore them with more diatribe, Hermione interrupted. “I'm sure, Under-secretary, when they rescue us from this spell on the castle defenses, this will be resolved quickly and efficiently by the true Headmaster of Hogwarts. Let's worry about the children. First and foremost.”

“Well, …....yes, quite, rightly. True, true …...” Dunston mumbled, but he had lost a lot of his bluster and whatever brief momentum there might have been among the dozen parents and smattering of teachers to object to the power grab by the school portraits in Hermione's favor, he'd lost by his lack of charm.

In a mollifying spirit, Hermione pressed on. “I need all of your assistance in the coming days, if we are to get by with the minimum of interference to their schedules.” Turning back to Dunston, Hermione asked, “I believe you passed as a NEWTS student for Potions before Professor Slughorn retired.”

“Well, that is true …...”

“Then we require you to take up the Potions assignment, as an interim basis. Mr. Ennui, as well, the Charms portion of the schedule. And both of you will have to cover as Head of House for your respective students, Slytherin and Hufflepuff. Do you think that will be too much?”

Hermione craftily made it seem they would be doing her a tremendous favor. Also, in truth, it would be a tremendous burden on the Men from the Ministry that should keep them out of her hair for the most part.

Teaching was a lot harder than it looked.

Not prepared for this public offer of such a prominent position, Dunston had lost most of the bluster of his disgruntled shock at learning Hermione Weasley had been declared the interim Headmistress of the school.

“I will require all of you to help. We will worry about other assignments tomorrow. Except for Madame Longbottom, if you would take care of Ravenclaw, tonight. And Mrs. Potter, …... Gryffindor?”

They muttered their acceptance.

“Harry, if you could help out, back in the Main Hall, for the moment. I need a word with Ginny.”

Harry nodded, and he and Luna herded the others out.

The door closed on its own, again.

Ginny grinned, with relish. “Making Dunston crawl, that was truly lovely.”

Hermione permitted herself a quick answering smile. “Well, that wasn't all that hard. To be honest. He is a prat.”

“I think you will do smashingly.” Ginny nodded up at the smiling or sneering portraits. Most agreed with her, she could see that. “You were born to sit in this tower. You belong here.”

Hermione felt a chill crawl up her spine, hearing those words. How many a horrid tyrant had begun by a best friend's kind pep talk to quell jitters. Hermione was just certain she'd become too used to this power.

Hermione's chair remained the simple wood arm chair that she had first sat in. The difference was it had been returned to sit behind a simple, plain table. She wasn't one for ostentatious decoration and ornamentation. And it was subtle move, at the moment, to assuage Dunston and the others that undoubtedly thought like he did

She wouldn't be here all that long, in any case.

A day! Week, at most.

More important was her choice of supporting staff. Hermione carefully, “I need your help.”

Ginny nodded agreeably. “Of course. Anything you need.”

Hermione smiled. “Excellent.” Tilting her face up to the ceiling, she said with quiet triumph, “Madame Potter will act as my deputy. Is that acceptable?”

“What?” Ginny too late remembered her last 'anything' statement.

“Excellent!” Dippet beamed. “My first choice, as well.”

“Kick ass!” Dylys endorsed her as well, relighting her cigar, smiling around the stogie.

“Appalling! Blatant conspiracy.” Black grumped. “All Gryffindors, again.”

“Oh, lump it, Blackie-wackie!” Mistress Elspeth smiled sweetly, several portrait levels above Black.

Who just scowled in answer. “I hate you!”

“I know,” the sixteenth century's most powerful witch smiled, delighted.

“I'm not a teacher.” Ginny marshaled many immediate objections that came to mind. That was one that she assumed meant the most to her bookish friend.

She was wrong. “Don't need to be. Counting the parents and assholes from the Ministry, I have enough bodies to occupy the minimum classrooms. What I need most, at the moment, in fact, is your ability to tell people to 'go to hell' and the means to do it.”

“Well, thank you very much.”

“The men and boys are all scared of you. Dunston flinches when you look at him. The rest will crawl or leap, if you say 'frog'.”

“A useful talent!” One monkishly dressed Headmaster's portrait, one with several animals filtering about in his ancient painted version of the same office. Some of them frogs.

Hermione grinned in agreement.

“So I get to be your mean 'bitch'?”

“I wouldn't say it like that.” Hermione said, dismissively.

“Nothing wrong with that, personally!” Dylys and several of the womens pictures nodded along in agreement.

“Charming.”

Hermione persisted, “You are one of my best friends. Someone I trust completely. Who else could I ask? Luna?”

Ginny rolled her eyes, and sat glaring back at Hermione, with her arms crossed tightly over her chest. But she relented, after a few seconds. “No! That would be rather disastrous. She'd have them painting the hallways in rainbows. Put spangles on the statues. And start the school day with the kids singing at breakfast.”

“Oh ......Merlin save us!” Snape picture said.

Hermione nodded vigorously. “Don't give her more ideas, I warn you. I guarantee she'll be coming to you, sometime this week. With her renewed proposal to repaint the Library interior all many shades of yellow.”

Ginny made a narrow-eyed, wincing smile, but shook her head, denying herself a futile if briefly enjoyable rant about how impossible it was that Hermione was asking her. “Anything, else?”

“Yes. Because if you accept, I get leverage for someone else. One of the few who is only more stubborn than a Weasley.” New Headmistress Weasley smiled wickedly.

“Oh!” Ginny said in sudden astonishment.

“I have a special job in mind for Harry.”

*
 

 


Chapter 13: Treasures
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[Sirius's Cave]

Charlie Weasley looked out from the mouth of a cave in a mountain overlooking Hogwarts Valley.

He stared at the unbelievable sight, of a giant ball of seeming liquid metal covering over the castle school off on the other valley side. It remained, seemingly intact and resistant.

Nothing else about the world they were in seemed to be the same.

None of the three wizards knew what it was.

They hid in a cave in the mountains that overlooked Hogwarts. It had not been a universal choice, nor their initial place to run. When the globe had first appeared – slamming into appearance in their faces just as the three men were about to reach the gate of Hogwarts school grounds – the wizards had skidded to a halt, on either side of a headless body. To find several hundred feet of sheer frictionless surface disappearing skyward and their shocked reflections.

Charlie had dived to reach for his wife's hands and stopped with cold metal in his hands. He wasn't going to let go.

Her perfect likeness, emerged half out of the giant ball of metal that now enclosed Hogwarts. Reaching to him, almost like an accusation of his further failure. Except not all of Veronica had been perfect. The palm of the hand he gripped had been marred by a rough marking.

He'd only caught a glimpse of it. Charlie could barely think about it, even now. He did not recall exactly what he said or did. Maybe just frantically pulling at the metal hands or pounding on the strange unyielding surface. If Neville and his friend Dean – who had joined them just minutes before – hadn't pulled him away and apparated Charlie to small height in the woods, Charlie never would have seen the similar blindingly reflective surface sweeping towards them from the direction of Hogsmeade.

There had been violent lights and fierce winds, and they could see little from the debris of trees and rocks flying in the air. The center of that tempest seemed to be where the 'bubble' from the town met Hogwarts but they could not be sure. And spent a few fearful hours huddled in shelter of fallen trees, unable to see what happened below them.

Then it was gone. Silence.

The three men looked to find the land changed before them. The second 'bubble' of silver from the magical village was completely gone. The first about the castle remained. But the lands about Hogwarts and out from what had been the town were swept clean. Just rocks and moss, as though the Forest and Hogsmeade had never existed.

That had been a bad moment for Neville. They had apparated to where his house once stood, to find no buildings, no woods, no old stone walls, no ancient village just beyond it. He was beside himself, until he was reminded that his children were not within but back in London with his grandmother. And his wife Luna back inside the new dome about Hogwarts.

The mention of London seemed to spark sudden concern in Dean, and he apparated straight away from the two gaping at the ground erased of all sign of human habitation.

Dean reappeared just a few seconds later. He had gone to the town outside of London where his mother still lived and barely survived emerging, to find a shrieking hurricane of wind and bits of buildings and things. He had come back, but disheveled and mumbling about everything all 'gone'.

Those moments they all stood and stared at one another didn't last long. Another violent wall of light an d sound came over the horizon to the south and the wizards had to flee again. Neville had not wanted to leave and had to be forcefully taken away to another mountain top overlook.

This time they saw the even greater bubble of light sweep to the meet Hogwarts and again another tremendous storm.

Then the land was back as they knew it, covered in dark, tall, gloomy trees. As if it was again another place.

But no Hogsmeade. And Hogwarts remained covered in its own unmoving shield.

They waited for another change and that's when a seemingly stupified Longbottom rambled about the cave he knew of. Where others before – friends and allies – had sheltered.

So they were now in Sirius's old cave in a hillside, able to see the shining glint of the sun off the silver about Hogwarts. Neville had known where this cave was. Supposedly safe. Nevetheless, it was always Charlie's philosophy to take extreme care about entering caves.

One never knew who lived within. Or was coming back.

No creature lived within. In fact the men saw no other animal, though they had heard alarmed sounds deeper within the trees, and the sounds of frantic movement deeper into the Forest. If that hadn't proved something was amiss, nothing did. The wizards would have expected at least curiosity from Forest inhabitants.

The men had taken turns, watching the tense Forest below, and the distant 'bubble' for any change.

Or Dean and Charlie had. Neville seemed barely able to speak. Once when Thomas had worried again about the cave's former or current occupant, Longbottom grumbled that there were repellant charms around the cave. And just stumbled in the first time without a word to the other two and just curled up on old cot. His cloak about his head to shut the world out.

Charlie had looked around, in any case, not entirely trusting Neville's state of mind. There was leftover bones of large animals, an old school trunk, and several Daily Prophet newspapers from twenty years ago. Dean explained this might be the very cave Potter's god-father, Sirius Black, had hidden from the Ministry. Along with the hippogriff named Buck-Beak.

It all made some sense. Neville would not talk. Dean – at least – recovered enough wits to talk to Weasley.

Charlie tossed a thigh bone of something that must have been as large as an elephant. “Explains the cracked bones, then.”

“Yeah. Still, this is the Forbidden Forest. There are things in here that don't give a shit about wizard spells.”

“Looks like they got serious problems, elsewhere, at the moment, Dean!” Neither wizard spoke, for awhile after that. Relieved that no 'current' aggrieved resident was close about.

Not sure if it mattered if it were.

There were strange distant rumbles of thunder. Flashes of light that weren't light. Made one feel …..different. Once, Charlie could have sworn he was sitting about five feet to the right of where he was now.

The weather seemed to be chaotic as well. Streaming due south, which in itself was an odd direction. Everything seemed in motion, about in the Forest below them. Scurrying of furtive feet. Alarmed animal cries and occasional crashing through brush and undergrowth of things with some size and weight to them.

Charlie had little fear he couldn't handle it. He had been a dragon-tamer, and one didn't excel at that without some confidence with large animals.

Plus, of course, he was a dragon himself, now. He had no doubt, if pressed to it, he could paw at the stones and snort a little flame, and ownership of the Cave would be uncontested.

It was the humans he was unsure of. Neville barely said two words together. Dean seemed unharmed, dazedly exploring through the trunk to see if anything useful for survival was within. As if there could possibly be something in an abandoned box that would help them now.

So far, Dean had produced out from the bottom of the chest a pile of antique school books. A can of truly ancient salted fish. A scrap of paper with the name 'Marauders' penciled in a corner - marking one chapter in a book on cauldron care.

The rest of the inventory was rather dire for survival concerns: Neville's blanket, the cot, a cold, well- rusted, miniature 'Franklin' stove.

And dog biscuits.

There had been a brief debate to go elsewhere. Mostly it had been Dean, still wanting to do something. Neville said bluntly 'No!' and sat back down. Charlie just shaking his head, and mouthing to leave Longbottom alone, turned to resume his stare back a the bubble that had been a castle.

None could tell if this was temporary. There had been no flurry of urgently appearing aurors. Or frantic Ministry officials, as Charlie had at first predicted. Apart from meeting Dean on the road from town, they had not seen nor heard of another single human being since the blinding flash that had briefly obscured Charlie's view of Veronica and the tottering man she had confronted at Hogwarts' Fence.

Then the man had dived to leap past the Winged-Pigs Pillars. Only he ran head first into a mirrored wall. Or rather, from the spectacular back splash of blood, Charlie guessed the man – dressed as a Hogwarts professor – had not successfully kept his head.

Charlie hadn't really cared. At the time, all he could see was the unmoving hand of his wife, as if trapped forever in metal. As if hurling something away. But the rest of her was hidden by the grayish metallic side of the sphere she emerged from.

Her hand was all he could see in his mind now. Warning him back.

Or reaching to him?

That had been when Charlie remembered the curious mark frozen on Veronica's outstretched palm.

Because it was on a gold galleon coin Dean was nervously tossing and flipping, absently.

Charlie reached out and caught the coin. “Where did you get this, Dean?”

Dean took it from Weasley's fingers. Shaking his head, he said, “Dunno. In my pocket. Never noticed this mark.” Taking it back and looking at both sides, Thomas said, “One side is completely normal, but the other is …...just blank. Smooth, except for this odd, horse-like shape.”

Charlie said nothing. He had seen that mark before. Twice, now. He walked back to the open trunk, pawing at the old books within, and pulling one out.

There! On the heavy leather cover. In the corner. That same crude, four-footed shape. Like an 'A' with two extra legs.

“Well, we can't stay here.” Dean looked to the two others. He appreciated their grief, but someone had to get them back together, functioning like thinking wizards. Doing …..something.

Neville still said nothing. Not in a trance, but seeming – not there.

Charlie waited a space of time, then said, mostly to himself, “I got an idea. This might be the stupidest plan.” Charlie came to the cave entrance, alongside Dean watching the returned but darkly silent Forest that again covered the land about where the castle used to be.

Hogsmeade still ceased to be.

Back still on the cot, Neville sat in back, with his head slumped to his chest. Neither of the two others felt they could summon enough cheer for themselves, besides trying to get Neville to join them.

Now Charlie could think of nothing else but the four-footed 'A' on the coin.

But the damn symbol, now on the book left abandoned over twenty years ago. Dean's coin. And sketched out on her palm, that Astrid's dying effort had outstretched arm to him.

Her silver pin. Left in her treasure box in her old hideaway. Her family's? How could this be possible?

The secret symbol only she was the one ….alive......to know. He remembered her taking him to her special islet. Showing him her treasure (he had kidded her it was her 'Precious!', which she hadn't thought funny!)


“Okay, Dean. I have this crazy idea. But you are a wizard enough to know coincidences happen around magic. That burn mark on her palm, Astrid …...(he slipped, forgetting his usual carefulness about her hidden name!) …...Veronica showed me ...”

“I can figure out who she was, Charlie. I am not dense.”

And if Charlie wasn't actually a transformed monster himself, masquerading as human, they couldn't be having this conversation. Or maybe, even the old protections don't matter anymore. Can one talk about 'very' dead vampires, now? That made the imaginary knife in his gut twist a little more. “No, Dean. But it …..was a secret most important to me..... for us to keep.” He'd thought he could talk about her, but the very thought made vision blurry.

Dean impatiently put a hand to Charlie's shoulder. He prompted, “I understand Charlie. She was trying to do something.”

“Yeah. But what? Not to block the creepy guy. I missed it if she was throwing something.” In fact, it should have smacked Charlie in the face, now that he thought on it. “And the symbol on the coin. The same branded on the palm of her hand. It is the same as on the cover of that forgotten school textbook, back in there.” Charlie waved into the cave. “There is no possibility that I can mistake that. Nor is there a possibility it could be on an old Hogwarts' textbook on history of ….of ….”

Flying Pigs -In subtropical offshore Indo-chinese atolls of the greater and lesser Sunda archipelago.” Neville said, dropping the book to the cave floor with a light thud.

To Dean, he looked even worse than Charlie, who had a manic gleam in his eyes as if holding on to a crazy idea that was too impossible to explain to Dean. Neville didn't look crazy, but beat-up …..overwhelmed. Hopeless!

As if waking from a bad dream, to find daylight wasn't much better. But at least he was talking again.

Charlie walked back and forth across the cave entrance, pounding one fist in his other hand. “Her palm was completely unmarked, as of this morning. I swear to that as her husband. I held her hand not a few hours before. The same symbol on the coin as a metal pin. Astrid's only remaining family possession. Only I have seen it in maybe a century or longer, according to her. How could that shape be happening three times in a row, within the space of a few hours?”

“A century?” Dean said in measured disbelief. He slowly said, “Your wife was maybe ….thirty some years old?”

Charlie sighed. “She was …..a bit different than that, Dean. Just accept that for the moment.”

Dean had half glimpsed the frozen hand, the witch's dying effort to present her tattooed palm, and the book. Dean had thought the 'squiggle' just his imagination. But he looked hard at the coin in his hand. There was no mistake. But it did seem impossible. “Some sort of repetitive signal, maybe. What can that tell us?”

Charlie looked to the frazzled Neville. Who looked back equally blank. Charlie said, “I …..I don't know. She never said it was special, or magical. Or something that was a key to something else. Why not tell me earlier?”

Dean had no answer.

Charlie looked to the two other wizards. They were a sad looking trio, that was the truth. But, wizarding fact one: Coincidences happen, just not usually and mostly magic was accidental, benign or otherwise. Fact number two: bugger the chance it was coincidence. Somehow, this just felt like the right thing …. “We got to go to her island.”

“What island?” Both Neville and Dean asked simultaneously.

“A secret place. Maybe better shelter than this. Either way, we need food and water. Unless you were thinking of paying a call on the Centaurs?”

“No, thank you.” Said Dean, at once. “Why did she have an island?”

“To be apart, Dean. To stay alone.” Charlie fixed Thomas a steady stare. “Better if she wasn't with humans, Dean.”

“O....kay.” Thomas said doubtfully.

“What can it have to do with this, Charlie. I'm not leaving my Luna.” Neville shook his head, “Just not ...”

“Neville, do you think we can go back to that thing about the castle? Do you know what it is?”

Nobody spoke.

Charlie said, “I think ….. okay, I hope ….. it is protection about the castle. But the symbol, I think this is something telling me to find my wife. To keep looking.” He felt more certain of this, by the second.

Neville slumped back on the cot. “Go on, then.”

“No, …..I need you too. Don't ask me to explain.”

Before Longbottom could dredge up another objection, Dean piped in, “Come on Neville. We don't give up, right?”

Neville looked at Dean. “I ...I don't want to leave Luna,” he repeated.

Dean nodded to Neville, but gave Charlie a worried glance. “And I didn't want to leave my Mum. But staying there another second was just death. And this might be the very chance, Nev. I don't know what else to do, at the moment.” Thomas reached out a hand to grasp Neville's shoulder. “Might be our only one.”

Neville stared back. And just nodded with no strength left to argue.




[Astrid's island, Northeast Scotland]

They apparated to a drenching downpour. The roar of the nearby ocean was nearly deafening and they had to shout to each other to be heard. Rain coming down so heavily, it was hard to keep ones eyes open. Weather all over the world was seemingly in equal chaos. Why should this place be any different?

Hold on, Charlie remembered. This was the usual.

“Tremendous, fucking improvement, Charlie!” Dean snarled. He had on only a sweater – with a decorative 'H' emblem in Gryffindor colors on his chest – and was now thoroughly soaked.

Charlie merely gave an apologetic shrug. Not much he could do about the weather.

The three wizards seemed alone in the gray sheets of water, drenching the standing stones that littered this cliff top like some many giant childrens' toys. With a little irritation, Charlie snapped, “So its raining. It's Scotland. Sue me.”

As if in answer, there was a tearing rumble sound from over the horizon. The three looked to one another, but nobody had to answer that.

“Okay, Dean. One of us has to stay up here. I can only take one other.”

Thomas had to make an impromptu visor with his hand as the rainwater splashed in his eyes .“Uhh, Charlie, where can you take Neville?”

Weasley pointed out into the dark cove over the edge of the clifftop. “Move a little closer to the cliff edge, Dean. Down in the cove, between the cliffs. There is an islet.”

“Okay, …........see it. Interesting ….” Dean bobbed back and forward a little, apparently on the edge of a tremendously good disillusion.

“Dean, you are making me ill.” Neville said thickly.

“Well, you should see this.”

“I'm soaking wet and getting pneumonia And on the edge of a thousand foot drop.”

“Don't exaggerate. Maybe a hundred. We are all going to die, sucked into black holes, anyway.”

“Oh, looking on the bright side.”

Weasley admonished, “Boys! Focus.”

“What exactly are we doing, Charlie.” Neville didn't sound like he had a lot of 'umph' left in him.

“That is the island where my wife, the vampire, lived on and off, for several hundred years.”

Dean looked back at Weasley. “Vampire?”

Charlie knew this was hard to take in a few minutes in the pouring rain. He could talk about her, because he was no longer human himself.

But let's keep it in small doses for everyone. This whole nightmare was bad enough. “Long story short. She was special, Dean. Neville already knows. We'll explain when we get back. Can I continue? We might not have much time.”

“Sorry.”

“Nev, you are with me? You were better in school at runes.”

That seemed to spark some reaction out of Longbottom. He frowned and made a thoughtful look, “What do you mean? You have the N.E.W.T.S record ...”

Charlie decided time was of the essence. “Cheated. Never get to dragon tamer if I hadn't. Not easy to do.”

“Cheated?”

“Yes, damn it! Can we get on with this?”

Dean was impressed.

So was Neville. “Wow. Really not easy to do, Charlie. Fooled the Ministry guardians. You should have gotten an award just for that.”

“Or Azkaban!” Dean pointed out.

Charlie tried really hard at not punching either man in the face. Now was really ...really not the moment. Of all the two wizards he had to be stuck with, at the end of the world!

“Runes. Now!” He grasped Neville's arm, but before apparating, he turned to Dean. “Be prepared for a welcoming committee. I have absolutely no idea if this brings on nothing or a whole legion of the undead?”

“Is that a joke.”

“No. Do something loud and explosive. Otherwise, we can't tell from down there.”

Dean whipped out his magic wand, fearfully craning his head about, looking to the shadows about the odd standing stones about the cliff they were on. Now he was serious.

Charlie apparated he and Neville immediately to the one flat-ish place on the wet islet. The two wizards balanced precariously on the squarish rock, set like a natural seat, before the door of a small stone hut.

The island's seaward side was protected by a upward curl of rock. The rest of the islet was completely surrounded by walls of water flowing into the cove. It was like being inside a giant washing machine, balanced on the tip of the agitator.

Charlie did not let go of Longbottom's arm.

“What are we waiting for?” Neville stepped off, and immediately his shoe touching the stone began to melt.

Charlie beat it off Neville's foot, flinging away the soggy dissolving leather shoe out into the rain swept sea rolling past the rock edge behind them.

“That's what. I have to announce us.” Charlie balanced against Neville wobbling weight. The rock was not very big. They couldn't stay.

In a loud but hesitant voice, Charlie Weasley shouted “I come for Astrid Olafsdotter, I …..... Karl ...Artursson....a.... 'La oss gå ut”

“No, no no! 'La oss dra', .......'let us pass', Norwegian.” Neville calmly announced, to Charlie's stunned amazement. There immediately sounded a gravelly rumble, and the stone shook under their feet, forcing them to hop....

Onto solid rock. The door of the hut swung open slightly ajar, the blackness inside almost liquid.

“Okay, um, what did I say?”

“ 'Let us pass out' or 'let us all go out'. Something like that. Unless you are planning a group drinking party, I don't think we have the time.” Neville said with a trace of smugness.

Breathless, Charlie looked as surprised as Neville. It had stopped raining, too. “Yeah, guess that wasn't what I wanted to announce. Thank you. I wasn't too good with languages.”

“Why you brought me, cheater!” Neville may look beaten, but there was still life in him.

Charlie looked up to the cliff top, getting a face full of water from a wave's splash against the rocks. He swore it was dryer in the sea water rolling past to crash against the nearby cliff. “Look around the hut. And the island. We are looking for the symbol.”

“Why, Charlie?”

“I don't know.”

Longbottom gave Weasley a severe look, then shook his head. Neville seemed drawn to enter the hut. Charlie grabbed his arm, before Neville could duck his head into the low door.

“There is one more thing.”

“It doesn't matter anymore to me, Charlie. So what if it's booby-trapped. I've lost them.”

“I'm not giving up without a fight.”

Neville looked incredulous, his head shake spraying Charlie's face with tiny droplets of water.

“Neville, I'm a dragon.”

“Oh, piss off!”

To save time with words, Charlie stuck his forearm in through the still pitch black doorway, changing his forearm into the red scaled miniature version of his now normal self. The magically invoked guillotine blade clanged off his red scaled arm, with an audible metal sound, and fell to the side, shredding Charlie's cloak sleeve in the process.

“Ohhhhh,.....” Was all Neville said.

“There might be more. My sweetheart had some paranoid ideas that people hated vampires.”

“Not so paranoid, Charlie. But I understand. Maybe I should just stay here....”

“The main spell for the rock is disabled. The in-the-hut stuff may take some doing. Don't come in if you find nothing.”

“Why are you any safer?” Neville kicked off his other shoe, but Charlie made it come back, with a flick of his wand, and recreated a mate to match it.

“Can't go barefoot where we are.” Charlie muttered, handing them to Neville. He nudged the door open a little wider with his toe, but was rewarded with no better view inside. “I'm finding it takes a lot to really hurt me. But more possibly, she set up the inside the same way as out here. My voice should be enough. I hope.”

“She was good friend. Luna loved her…...” He had been doing well, since the cave, but any mention of her name made him loose control.

Charlie so knew exactly how he felt. Raw and ready to crumble. He just squeezed Neville's shoulder and nudged him to look around the hut. He didn't really think there was anything, but they couldn't afford to not look.

Charlie entered the dark one room hut. It was cold, but surprisingly dry. The droplets of water off his body struggling to not be absorbed by the thick dust on the floor. There was a small cold fireplace, and a simple chair and table in a corner. Not even a primitive cot, just a mass pile of furs.

But there was a piece of paper on the table. He looked to see if the 'four-footed A' was on it, but it was dusty and long untouched. The writing small and neat. Not Astrid's. But it looked …...a lot like his sister's hand. Tiny, precise.

He didn't read it. Not now. As intriguing as that was, the symbol was not on it. Charlie had a nagging suspicion it wasn't actually hers and thought it best not to look.

Too many mysteries already on his mind. But then again, maybe he should ….

But he was interrupted by faint caterwauling, ghostly chains rattling and a seeming drop in the already chill air temperature. Out of the corner of his eye he realized a ghostly image of a woman stood next to him. Seemingly soaking wet but no drops of water touched the cold floor. Long loose old fashion dress and robes clinging to her body, as if just dragged from the very bottom of the cove. But the jagged cut across the throat marred the ghost of his wife come back to visit Charlie.

The sounds were Hollywood standard stuff to scare off any Muggles that came this far. That wasn't what caught Charlie's breath short. He was a wizard, forty-five years old. He'd had cared for dragons, and fought Death-eaters, and wasn't at all afraid of ghosts. But her face …..

He was on his knees, crying, unable to speak. Charlie made to grasp her about the knees, but of course just waved through empty air. The effort caused even more grief. The ghost, or maybe just a wizardly projection, just stood looking at him, waiting dispassionately, with a gaping-non bleeding wound that nearly separated her head from her shoulders.

“Oh.....baby. I would do anything …..to have you back.” he finally managed to whisper, afraid Neville would ignore his warning if her heard Charlie carry on so. He tried to get to his feet.

But his voice seem to do the trick, once again. The ghost smiled, and said in a clear, if hollow sounding voice, “Where is my only scar? Gridunger..”

Charlie whispered, “On the inside of your thigh. No other man alive will ever know exactly where.”

“I hope you are alone. That's a bit embarrassing.” The ghost laughed, just the way she did.

Then vanished.

The word 'no' almost exploded out of him. But a growling, stony rasp sounded from the hearth of the little fireplace, and a stone lifted up, and a small wooden cask floated up, to enter his grasp.

Charlie did not hesitate but lifted up the curved lid. And out wafted the wonderful scent of cedar.

And her smell! Seaweed and mountain meadow. And cold steel.

When he came back to his senses, he was on his knees again, but alone.

He cursed. Long and hard. And bitterly.

When he had no more words or tears, Charlie looked into the little box. There were oddments any girl at least a millennium old would keep: half sets of earrings, antique coins, a gold ring with Turkish-looking writing, a little dagger magically still stained deep vivid red, a ribbon that looked suspiciously like Hufflepuff colors …..

That had been her House! No wonder she'd kept that secret. The Gryffindor dominated family would never have let her forget it!...

And a silver broach, of the same damn symbol they'd kept seeing since the world began to fucking end.


The black, oxidized marking deep in the surprisingly still-silver metal. A jagged, rough-looking 'A'. With two little extra feet.





Charlie came out the little stone building blinking into almost solid sea fog. The drastic change in the weather had him momentarily afraid another weird transition had occurred, leaving him even more alone.

But before he could call out Neville's name, a new driving sheet of rain deluged him. And again ended as quickly as it came before.

“Can't believe she liked it here!” Charlie grumbled.

The hut's interior dimness now seemed entirely reasonable, and the nearly conical little islet's outside now blazing bright. The sea still rolled on in, to crash into the cove behind the islet, contributing a share to the continual shower of spray that hadn't been falling from the sky.

But not to worry. This was just a tiny break in the storm. It was surely going to rain again, in a minute.

Where was Neville? “Nev? Found it. Where are you?” Charlie was suddenly afraid his declaration that the rest of the island was safe was complete bullshit.

But a movement above him caught his eye. Through the pine trees that shrouded all but this little hut, there was Neville Longbottom, standing before a little notch at the top of a spiraling narrow path to the islet's peak.

After a quick climb, he stood beside Neville after scrambling up the path, that in spots was barely more than a lip around the spire of the rock. Charlie had to jostle Longbottom aside a little just to fit. Neville position was in the one flat space. It was still barely big enough for two full grown men.

The tops of the twisted, scraggly pine trees that clung to the island were just barely below their faces. The jagged tip of the island was only a few meters higher. Below them in the mist, the sea surged about on all sides of the island and forever crashed on the rocks and face of the inlet inland. But the little platform they stood on as well as the path leading up here had obviously never been natural features.

This place had been made.

Facing the two wizards was an irregular-shape, smoothed in the rock, about the width of someone's shoulders if it had been a hole in the island's peak. As if a chamber had been created and then sealed with a roughly made concrete. A series of runes were etched into the face.

Even Charlie could read these symbols. “Is this a joke?”

Neville shook his head. “Tolkien. Book three, appendix E and F.”

“How is that possible? It says …

“ 'Here lies' …. - my body, mind you - ...blah, blah, blah .... 'Last Headmaster of Hogwarts'.”

“This is trollshit!”

“Actually, granite and feldspar, very durable crypt material.”

“Why are you being so flippant?”

“What else do you want me to say, Charlie? A wizard stands before his own tomb, name carved in fake Elvish, ….and finds it occupied.” Neville, dirty, soaking wet, just laughed a little hysterically.

“Let's see about that ….” Charlie made to cast a spell to lift the obvious tomb opening, a slightly lighter gray square in the little spire of the peak.

But Neville stayed his hand. And pointed.

In the middle of the crypt face. There was Astrid's symbol, as if freshly etched into the rock just seconds before.

He'd been sure nothing was there when he came up there.

“Is that it then?” Neville breathed.

Charlie hefted Astrid's pin, of the same shape and design, handing it to Neville. “How can we see this in these places?”

Neville was bewildered, too. “Dunno. Unless we are changing things by just us being here.”

Weasley grasped Longbottom's elbow. “Then we left Dean up there alone. We need to leave, now.”

Then there was a flash of lightning, and several large chunks of rock rained down from up on Dean's lonely clifftop lookout.

“Visitors,” Charlie gasped.




[Top of the surrounding cliff, by the field of standing stones]

Neville apparated separately from Charlie, unconsciously thinking they had to outflank who ever or what ever was attacking Dean. And so he was the one to find Dean's body, impaled by a metal pole, wedged impossibly deep into a half-tilted stone of rock.

A tall, dark-skinned woman held the butt-end of the spear, as if she had only needed to use one hand to drive it through Dean into the rock.

Her other hand was at Thomas's throat. Examining her victim.

It whipped around to glare at Neville, just out of arm's reach. It looked like an South Asian woman, in ordinary Muggle clothing. Medium height. With her back turned to Neville, he wouldn't have noticed a thing.

There was nothing ordinary about her face. Or the eyes! They were vertically slitted, like a snake's. And seemed almost unnaturally bright in the foggy air, as if lit by their own faint light.

“My friend.” Longbottom raised his magic wand to point at the creatures face.

“You trespass.” She said in accented English. She stalked Neville, who retreated backwards, fortunately away from the precipice edge.

There had been some alarm, as Charlie had feared. Unpleasant fellow creatures to Veronica were called to defend it's discovery. This was indeed a very bad day for Neville.

“Why you here?” She said in halting English. Her face turned slightly as if taking in the surrounding area of the human. But her frighting eyes never left his face.

“We meant you no harm. Leave now.”

“Think you is must fear, little man.” When she spoke, it was with a lisp but revealing a mouthful of pointed teeth. She could not account for all that seemed to have disturbed this old vampire's hide. One still seemed missing.

It was of no matter. This second one would be dispatched, swiftly.

The actual 'second' victim had no intention of being dispatched. But he surely would be if he had been alone, without help. Neville didn't have a witty answer to mind. Just backing away, keeping his wand hand clear of his cloak. He waved his wand vaguely away. “If you know what is good for you, you'll leave this place.”

That didn't seem to intimidate her. Not one bit. Sharp fingernails of her one hand pointed at Astrid's island. “Fools to dare our sister's house. Your magic avail you not, little man.”

“We are just trying to seek help.”

She just stared unblinking at him.

Neville had a strong feeling as if he were a mouse in its last moments, frozen before approaching jaws. “We mean neither you or Astrid harm ..”

She moved fast, leaping straight at Neville. Had he not been prepared, she would have driven him head first into a standing rock just behind him. Probably breaking his neck. But instead he just apparated to few feet to one side.

The vampire tried for him again, just missing him and snarling at Neville when he appeared a second later to her one side.

She tried it again, but this time throwing something sharp that just missed Neville's face as he traveled to a spot just slightly different than the creature had guessed.

Neville now had little respite, having to repeatedly jump almost immediately. Only a fool would not have run as far away as possible. Longbottom was just that sort of fool. The vampire was wickedly fast and seemed to have an unlimited supply of sharpish things that she was flinging out at likely places he'd move to. Longbottom led her further away from where Dean lay, hoping to lead her someplace he could get farther away from the enraged vampire's reach.

The damned stones littered the ground of the clifftop made it difficult for him to guess without taking his eyes off her. And that was almost lethal when he did, after landing awkwardly on top of a slanted stone.

Longbottom just tottered out of the way of a spray of sharp-edged stone flakes, and apparated to a new spot.

This couldn't last much longer. He'd have to travel much father the next time or never get the chance.

He almost didn't get that chance. She had guessed correctly this time and was in the act of grabbing the human when he appeared by her side when an immense red tail flicked in between them and knocked both vampire and wizard in opposite directions.

Neville rolled off his back to his knees and just stared up in open-mouthed awe as a scarlet red dragon about the size of Longbottom's house alighted on the rocky ground next to him and between the man and the vampire.

The immense head turned one jeweled eye at Neville and winked and lashed out at the vampire with giant cat-like paws.

If it wasn't for transformed Charlie Weasley, now a scarlet red dragon in healthy glory, Neville would have had no chance. But the focus of the battle devolved away from the wizard, as he crawled back to beside Dean's body, trying to stem the wound.

Like an immense house cat, batting at a circling fly, the dragon and the vampire dueled about the tangle of immense stones. But in this case, the vampire was out matched, and reckless herself for not fleeing. Charlie caught her in a taloned paw, finally, and without hesitation bashed her into a boulder, and kept pummeling the pieces until they were too small to hold on to.

Then he was standing in the rain. Cold, wet and naked. Covered in vampire gore.

Charlie called out, “Neville, what is his wounds …...?”

Longbottom closed Dean Thomas's still open eyes. “Gone, Charlie. All he said was ….'got her!' ”

Neville rubbed at his face, ignoring that he smeared some of Dean's blood on his wet cheek. “I killed him, too ...”

“Shut it, Neville. She killed him. Then I got her. We don't have much time.” Charlie shivered and looked about his feet, trying to find his now shredded clothing.

But now he was so cold. Weasley shook from the cold rain and sea spray that covered everything. Charlie had to fight the gnawing temptation to turn back into what was now his natural form.

Whether Longbottom agreed or not, he just sat on his knees, with head bowed over his friend's corpse. Too numb to think.

At least he could be naked, and no one would laugh.

“Neville, we can't stay around. Might be others at any second.” He ran, buck naked back to where he had first apparated to around some rocks, to rifle through the shredded rags of his clothes. To find the specially protected pocket.

“What …?”

Charlie actually blushed, despite the cold raindrops. Between chattering teeth, he said, “She thought it immensely funny. I was still sensitive to cold. Taught me to make one of those super-expandable pockets, like Hermione's purse. For extra clothes. Said she learned it from a werewolf. Astrid was always a bullshitter!”

He grabbed the broach, his wand and wadded up the draw-stringed purse in his fist. And held out his other hand to Neville. “Let's go.”

“I'm not holding a naked man's hand ...”

“Oh, grow up!” Charlie seized Neville's arm and they apparated, back to Sirius's Cave.




[back at Sirius's cave, Hogwarts valley]

Then they were out of the rain, back to cool silence of the Forbidden Forest falling away down the slope. Over the tops of the trees, the humans could still see the still present silver ball that was about the castle.

The cave had not changed. It seemed like only minutes ago, they'd been in here. Squabbling with Dean. Making new plans. Not giving up.

But now Dean was gone, too.

And what did they have?

“Can they follow?”

“Mean the vampires? Don't know.” Charlie just pulled on anything he could reach from the bottomless little purse, regardless if he was dry. “I'd bet not. But let's be ready to flee with extra rapidity, if I'm wrong.”

While Charlie dressed, Neville set about rifling the book pages for any other example of the Astrid's symbol. Then all of the other ancient books. He wasn't surprised to find none. The first book must have been printed sometime in the mid-Nineteenth century, at least.

But Astrid's symbol looked new.

But it did not seem added. As if the symbol had always been on the cover, meaning absolutely nothing to whoever was interested in flying pigs. Longbottom walked to the cave entrance and looked out back towards what had been Hogwarts and Hogsmeade down in the valley.

“Charlie?”

Weasley was closely peering at the 'marked' book cover, hoping to uncover some other clue.


“Not now Neville. Somehow this damn symbol keeps appearing, now on the tomb. How?”

“Might not be our main problem,” Neville said in a small voice.

“What do you mean?” Charlie had a bad feeling about what could be a worse problem than they already had. He got up to go to look out the cave entrance.

And swiftly grabbed Neville's arm and they started running from the cave. All they left was the pile of old Sirius's reading material.

At the moment, they could not really care to know more about flying pigs.

Over the horizon, to the south loomed an even bigger all consuming dome of light and dark. That was growing.

“Just doesn't matter.” Neville stated, stopped in his tracks, causing Charlie to go sprawling inelegantly flat on this face, when he tripped on a tree root looking back.

“I'm done with it. Charlie. I've lost Luna in the castle. The kids are lost someplace in that thing down south. We are not going to outrun that. That's London. Isn't it?”

Charlie looked over Neville's shoulder. It was subtly growing even as they watched. Lightning flicked as atmosphere of the planet was drawn in a swirl of contact. And severe weather was erupting away from the surface. That was so high it now was penetrating the skin of Earth' atmosphere.

Over an increasing gale of wind rushing past them toward the wall of the bubble of annihilation, Neville tiredly said, “That's it. The end. I won't go on. Not that we will have much of a choice. But I am going back up to the cave. I don't know how you wish it, but I'm not going to waste time. We can't outrun...”

Charlie struck Neville on the back of the head. With the smallest, lightest rock he could find. Put the fatalistic professor over his shoulder and …

Okay. Thought better of it.

Got undressed, put the things in the 'special miniature' wallet, stuck them in Neville cloak pocket. Then he repeated his former step of slinging the still unconscious Longbottom over his shoulder and transformed into the scarlet dragon, once again.

Leaped up into the air, through and out over the immense trees of the inner Forbidden Forest.

And the dragon and the man clutched in the crook of its forearm, flew north out away from doomed Hogwarts valley.

Not ever seeing the wall of the massive giant sphere stopped dead in it's advance with contact of Hogwarts' sphere. The wizard's missed a fantastic light show, then the massive dome vanished. And the land about the castle changing from pine forest to tropical.





[Iceland]

Neville came to awareness lying on his side on a relatively warm beach. His one open eye focused on the surface just in front of his nose. It was made of little black stones, but not softly round but jagged and sharp.

Relatively warm, considering the boiling water in the stream just out of arm's length reach. And the freezing air, when he inhaled deep breathe. Neville raised his head, to see he was right beside a streamlet of hot water issuing from higher up the mountainside. There were no trees or even bushes. And the cold wind blowing more than compensated for the heat steaming off the hot spring water.

When the wind didn't blow, the place had a pervasive, sulfurous smell. Lovely!

He was confused. It was not how he remembered the cave, or lying down to take a nap.

That was vivid blue sky above him!

Wait a minute. They'd been running.

He looked up, to see a white peak of snow off on the horizon. With steam rising from it.

“Where the bloody hell am I?”

Charlie's voice, from back behind his line of vision. “Iceland. Not exactly sure …...where ...”

Neville rolled onto his stomach, rubbing the back of his head with one hand. Not bothering to face Weasley, he groused, “Could have been a little more gentle. Knocked me out, did you?”

“Yeah, Nev. You weren't going to come. And we had to get out.”

“For what? To look at snow?” Neville said peevishly. Then he looked back up at the smoking mountain in the distance. “We were in Hogwarts valley. The edge of a sphere of ….something was coming over the horizon. Same kind of thing ...”

“Only bigger!” Charlie helpfully supplied.

“Same kind of god-awful hemisphere of total death that took our wives. And the lives of our friends.”

“Well, yeah. Possibly. …...maybe.”

“Exactly what possibility was there? We saw it absorb people. Cut your ….......” Neville stopped himself. He could not be that cruel. Not even when he was furiously mad at the man. “I wanted to just die, Charlie.”

“I know, ...Neville. Just had this overwhelming feeling, we had to do this. Had to do this together. It doesn't matter now. Sorry ....”

Neville still faced away from Charlie, behind him. He screwed his eyes shut. But he was not going to give in now. Not to the total despair that was creeping up on him. He was going to get up. But then again, why ….

“Where are we?” Neville asked.

“Iceland, like I said. Someplace with twenty j's, k's and one vowel. One of those volcano-glacier park places, I think.”

“Wow. Really. Always wanted to go there.” Neville tried to remember why, then … “Oh, yeah, supposed to have some surprising lichen. That grow only along certain volcanic vents. Can be phosphoric ….you know, glow”

Charlie accepted Neville had had a confusing wake-up. So he tried to keep his sarcasm to a minimum. “Yeah, that does sound interesting and useful.”

“But that's not the only bit. They can make you fly, if you smear a bit on yourself. Luna thought it mad, but secretly, she wanted to go, too.” Neville smiled at the memory. “My theory is the stuff is really hallucinogenic. It would be okay if it were just us as a couple....”

“Stop. Neville, ….please. I did wrong. I didn't want to stop fighting.”

“She got the kids to badger me. Alice …..she couldn't say it correctly. Kept saying 'lee-chin'. Think she was confused that we would see Lee Jordan's family or something. Henry thought that hilarious …...hilar......Henry …...” Neville couldn't speak anymore and just curled up in ball in tears.

That didn't matter. Because he could hear the sounds of Charles Weasley also sniffling. And they sat on the black, warm volcanic sand beach, along the hot spring fed volcanic stream in Iceland.

Crying.

After awhile, they both stopped. Then Neville inevitably stuck his hand too close to the bubbling water. “Ouch! Shit! Damn idiot. You couldn't have stuck us in a snow bank, Charlie?”

Charlie sniffed. Enormously loudly, but Neville wasn't going to make fun of him. They both hurt, emotionally. Just too exhausted from this day. Charlie huskily said, “Look to our west. That's a glacier. About forty yards away. Is that close enough to the fricking snow for you.” And now they both caught the case of giggles, then couldn't stop laughing.

It didn't matter, now. It really didn't matter.

“Charlie, you don't happen to have any left of those kippers, do …...” Neville rolled back the other way, to avoid rolling directly into the scalding water, and beheld Charlie in all his red dragon glory.

After a pause to consider his words, “You just like ….hanging out like that?” Neville asked.

Charlie gave a dragon equivalent of a sigh. That involved a brief jet of fire, but mostly bad, volcanic-smelling gas. He was starving. He'd eaten a cow, waiting for Neville to wake up. And all of the tiny salted fish, long before that.

That hadn't nearly been enough, and he had serious acid indigestion.

“No, not really. To be honest, this itches, the volcanic sand on my scales. Just don't have an alternative.”

“We looking for fine tailoring? At the end of the world?”

“Well, actually, that was sort of my thought, when I realized …...”

“Realized they don't have pant sizes in 'dragon'?”

Charlie-the-Dragon irritably spat out between his great fangs. “Lost my wallet. With my extra clothes. Over the water. Happy?”

“No clothes.....?”

“Yes, dropped it in the bloody fucking ocean. No magic wand, now, either. Alright!”

This was enormously funny. Neville could barely speak again for another five minutes. What was even more butt-thumping hilarious was that Neville could see the wallet, stuck in a crevice along Charlie's spectacular spine ridge.

He really was a good looking dragon. Neville could see why all the women in a room, whatever species always made a bee-line for Charles Weasley.

Neville finally made it to a point he only giggled. And didn't look higher up at Charlie than his disconsolate large red skull, and sad jewel-like eyes. Neville thought he was being apologetic about laughing at Charlie's plight of being stuck a dragon at the eventual annihilation of life as they knew it.

Neville weighed numerous possibilities of extending the torture a little longer. But finally gave up, levered himself up on his feet, walked up to tip-toe and snagged the wallet, a big long floppy leather bag, that felt like it had Charlie's wand also inside it. And tossing it to the ground below Weasley's eye.

“What ….how ….wh, wh, where.....?” Charlie stuttered, impressive in dragon form.

“Stuck on scale, Dragon-breath. Get dressed, so I we can walk someplace that has a restaurant.”

*

Putting his shoes on, Charles took it out on himself. So many things he could have done better.
“This is my last set of clothing. Guess I have to find a better way to hold tight to things like this. I thought maybe a belt, but that would look kind of poofy, don't you think?”

“Charlie......”

“But then. The other dragons' would make fun of me. With a bandolier and floppy wallet. Look like Zoro the Gay Blade. With dental problems.”

“Stop it, Charlie.”

“Haven't met many, since I accepted that I was this way, you know.” Charles got up and trudged strait away, toward where he'd seen a paved highway near the hot-spring fed stream. “Except that pudgy purple female, at the Dragon Exhibit. We took Harry's and Hermione's and George's kids, too, a few weeks back. She - the Peruvian Purple - talked with a lisp .......”

Neville went through flashes of wanting to bean the back of Weasley's skull with a boulder, and just wrap him up in a big man hug. Anything to shut him up.

“The twins climbed into the cage somehow. The female mumbled that the girls were in there. Pretended to be asleep. But then Astrid …...Veronica flipped out, when she saw the girls counting the teeth. Something Al and James put them up to.”

“I heard about it, Charlie. It was okay.”

“Astrid... hell with it, that's her name …..dove in through the fence. It was weak there, anyway. Plus the Dragon thing was all run by the department for the school kids. She had a wand so made it look broken by magic, not by using her hand and her knee.”

Neville let Charlie ramble on with reminiscences, just once-a-while responding with an interested grunt. He was now feeling a lot better. Maybe ….back to his old, obstinate self.

They walked away from the hot spring and found a rough-made foot path down the hillside to what looked like a car park. After a trudge down hill from that, they found a two-lane highway. Rolling dirty black and gray hillsides in the near distance. Various shades of ash seemed the predominant coloration. Some even still with snow on them.

Completely deserted.

“Shit!” Neville declared, to no one in particular.

“No restaurants, here!” Charlie pointed off to the south. “Some farms, toward the sea, when I flew over. As remote as I could find, considering I was a giant, flying red lizard or a stark naked man and didn't want attention.”

“Well no one here would have noticed that!” Neville flung his hands helplessly up to the sky. “Which way, now?”

“Your turn to pick.” Charlie said in a defeated voice and just meekly followed the grumpy Longbottom when he walked away toward the western horizon.

Off at the edge of a short rise, they saw was a lone highway sign, in a language neither could read. Icelandic! The air was already cold, near to freezing. so they did some magic to their clothes that made them extra insulating.

And just kept walking.

After some time, Charlie resumed his monolog, apparently hating the windy silence Neville was leaving. “Anyway, …... she's in the enclosure, see. Screaming her head off at the girls. Jamming a fence post in the Peruvian's teeth to keep the dragon from closing her mouth. The dragon was laughing the whole time, trying to keep pretending she was still asleep. The boys were busting up laughing. James was messing up the girls' count. Rose was also yelling counter instructions. I was trying to keep the other four from piling inside the cage, while Astrid …., I mean , Veronica ...”

“It's Okay, Charlie. I know most of the story.”

Weasley wasn't listening. “Dad was tempted to actually spank the two Potter boys. First official spanking in the Burrow since the memorable Fred and George episode. Ginny actually had to intervene. My fault, really. If I'd known better than to think the kids would just meekly follow us around. The twins ….”

“Boy, don't I know about them, Charlie. Say no more.”

“Well, the wife wasn't too much more happy, with me, either. She wouldn't talk to me for two days. She was so mad. Thought I'd encouraged the little monsters. Like I'd do that to either the poor girls. The dragon and Astrid, I mean.”

“Yeah. I mean, no! You wouldn't do that.”

“So I had to make it up to her. Astrid, I mean. Force her to go on a vacation. Told her to write a note, paste it to the front door. Close her eyes, and I took her to an island.”

“Sounds good.”

“Not much bigger than your back lawn. To be honest. But totally secluded. No Muggles. And no annoying bugs or animals, except song birds and bats. And we could …...well, clothing wasn't a big problem.”

“Umm, yeah, get that part of the vacation, Charlie.”

“And we had no worries about annoying neighbors. Totally peaceful. Little hut. Tropical breezes. And while she snoozed in a hammock, I'd pop over to the mainland. Get something to eat. There are some terrific steak houses in Sao Paolo, Nev!”

The thought of food at this juncture was not the most opportune. Neville tried to ignore the angry growl from his stomach. “Okay, Charles. Let it go, for now.”

“Cause she didn't need …....any for herself, anymore, Nev. All …..she seemed to need anymore was a little blood from me. Once every few months. I'm immune ….to everything …..lucky me.”

“Stop it, Charlie!”

“Can't hurt me …... fucking invulnerable …...my girl.” And Charlie just folded up, into a pile on the cold wind swept volcanic plain they were walking across. At the sound of Weasley's knees hitting the gravel, Longbottom stopped and turned around and walked back to his friend.

Blubbering on cold highway to nowhere.

Neville weakly patted him on the shoulder, to let him know once in awhile he was not alone. And Longbottom just stood by him, for some period of time.

Apart from acute hunger …....and the nagging thirst, there seemed no pressing need to go on.

*

 


Chapter 14: Succession
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[Hogwart's fence gateway]

Now Headmistress (temporary) Hermione Granger Weasley headed a small group of adults down to see for herself the edge of the 'zone.' Hagrid stumped alongside the Potters, Dunston and Ennui followed close behind.

She did not know what the two Ministry representatives thought they would need both of them to witness. Later, in a calmer frame of mind, she realized they trusted each other about as much as they trusted her. In the present, Hermione was trying to think of ways to command the grounds to open suddenly up to swallow both wizards and leave no trace.

Without audible words, the castle informed her that function had been removed from Hogwart's abilities in 1561.

“Well, son of bitch!” Hermione snapped. Harry jumped and looked at her funny.

Hermione shook her head, circling a spiraling finger about her temple indicating her outburst had nothing to do with Potter. She still was not used to that mental voice and still not able to 'think' rejoinders back at the castle as a routine thing.

Was this why Dumbledore always looked so distracted?

“Not you, Harry. Thinking of the several hundred things that have gone wrong, today.” Harry and Hagrid looked at her with concern but relaxed. Ginny smirked and laughed. Hermione still had no idea if the 'deputy' got the full castle-is-alive-in-your-head treatment, too.

Partially, the castle dutifully said. That was initially removed in 1573, then restored by Walsingham in 1574 ….

Trying unsuccessfully to drown out the voice now ever-present in her thoughts, Hermione blurted, “Okay then! We should only look. Not touch. Do you understand me Hagrid?”

“Well, shor', Headmistress. Always careful, ain't I?” Hagrid gave her a jolly chuckle.

As he undoubtedly intended, Hermione couldn't help but smile. Maybe the first time she felt herself do that in two days. “Actually, I think you have gone a bit downhill since you tried adopting a baby dragon from an unknown stranger.”

“Well, not exactly wrong wi' tha'. None o' me friends had one?” Hagrid looked with charming innocence.

Dunston sucked in his teeth. Ennui looked with real alarm. Both were veterans of Hagrid's later Magical Animals lectures. Dunston apparently had met one of Hagrid's 'improved' skrewts.

Harry pointed to between the 'flying hog'-headed pillared gate posts. “There is a body lying on the path.”

All slowly walked forward. The air was deathly still. No breath of wind. Not different than from up outside the Castle's front door. The light looked no different either when looking back at the castle itself, but Hermione know noticed the surface of the 'grayness' just seemed more pronounced.

Not pearly translucent, as if one was able to see into it's depths. There was a hard, impenetrable permanence to it, like a surface of a gray mirror.

As if light just ended and begun, within the surface, with no source or beginning. It just was ….. from everywhere.

Like a cloudy day.

Ennui queasily mumbled, from somewhere behind her, “More ….of someone, over to this side of the shed.”

From beside Hermione, Ginny noted, “The armor did not salute you or move, Hermione.” She referred to the empty armor suit, standing by the pillar closest to the old ground's keepers storage shed. This one was some sort of armor from the post-Norman conquest, early Crusader period, if Hermione was a judge. A mish-mash of chain mail and crudely made half-plate armor.

It did not budge. Unlike the ghostly armor about the castle, this one seemed inanimate.

“Always gave me the 'Finger',” Dunston dryly noted.

Harry nodded. “Me, too, with variations of slouching, posing, and one or more of the appendages falling off.”

“Means the castle likes you both.” Ginny sunnily smiled to either man. They did not look convinced. Both glared at each other, and walked pointedly away from one another.

Ginny gave Hermione a helpless shrug, and rolled her eyes.

Hagrid knelt at the ground by the feet of the body. It was suspended in midair, as if stuck diving into a wall of gray plastic and gotten stuck, frozen. The torso ended above the waist, just at the point the edge of the surface of the sphere that surrounded 'everything'. The chest, shoulders and head were cutoff at the line just above the lower ribs.

“A woman.” The half-giant noted, carefully not touching the body, or the clothing. He was silent for few seconds. Then Hagrid gruffly stated, “Looks to be Mrs. Weasley. Charlie's wife. Sorry, Ginny.”

Ginny gave an involuntary gasp, and turned away. She had not remembered the clothing, nor was there anything distinctive about the legs or shoes to her. It was as if the person was flying forward, frozen in place, mid-air across the line of the gate.

Hermione had had an inkling. She had known Veronica waited for Charlie down here by the fence and had worriedly wondered about both.

And Neville. And Filius. Where were they?

The dead woman's pants were plain and ordinary. Not remarkable. Just the way Veronica (not Astrid, as her husband occasionally forgot in conversation!) preferred it. But the woman's hiking boots were not unremarkable. Business-like efficient. Not extremely clean but not worn out and useless. Something a woman used to several hundred years of outdoor life would wear. Not flimsy high heels or trainers.

Her one flaw in disguise. If Hermione had to admit that. The vampire couldn't completely hide all that she was.

Hermione wanted to cry.

She did not. She was now profoundly never alone, probably as long as she stood within Hogwarts. Hermione was conscious of all that this thing - whatever it was - now jabbering occasionally in her head was and what it signified. She was head of this magical castle. In charge of this school. Heir to Dumbledore and McGonagal. And now, maybe Flitwick.

Hermione Weasley could no longer afford luxuries of sniffling or wringing her hands.

Okay. Maybe wringing her hands was stupid. And it was too late to turn off the tears. Ginny Potter had already started, so Hermione wasn't going to hide that, either. Best carry on. Leave the vampire's body for Hagrid and Harry.

To hell if the men saw her cry. The Ministry hacks were too pathetic to even care about.

No, wait! “Don't touch her!” As the half-giant indeed was about to pull away the woman's corpse.

“ 'Mione?” Hagrid barely whispered, questioningly looking through the bushy long hair as he was halted bent over Veronica....Astrid's body.

“Headmistress, he needs to attend to her.” Harry said in his long familiar, stiff, I-is-male-I-don't-cry-in-public voice.

“We don't know what any of this is. Pulling her away may be certain death. Do you notice the tree's?” There was no lack of light, so all five of the others could crane around. Oak and maple, with the other half being a mix of dark pines, some whose branches were cut mid-way from the trunk to the tip of the bough.

“No debris. No fallen branches. No Charlie or Filius, though!” Hagrid observed.

Ginny nervously looked about for more bodies, sighing a mental one of relief. “But where? Are we trapped? Maybe she was trying to escape?”

“Or trying to keep someone outside from coming back within the Fence.”

“No evidence of either.” Dunston sourly mused.

“But the Fence is the Castle's outer defense. That might explain the …..well, 'shield' if you call it that.”

“Why wouldn't it be down now?” Ennui said worriedly. “If it is still sealing us off ...”

“Or whatever is outside from coming in.” Harry gloomily finished for him.

As if just halted in the moment on a cloudy day. No movement. No wind or breeze.

No moving air!

“Nothing broken or snapped. Not like a physical wall just cut everything off. Just everything stopped, as if time itself isn't moving ….”

“What complete rubbish?” Dunston helpfully suggested. “How am I expending air, wasting my breath telling you what a complete idiot you are. Hmmm? Why are we all not stuck fast in gray glue like this poor woman?”

“There are times, when its helpful to remind people, I am a half-giant. And we are out amongst the Hogwarts woodlands. Where no one would find you, Dunston.” Hagrid growled, before Ginny could belligerently react. And Hagrid was waving her to back off with one ham-fist, while surreptitiously holding onto Harry's belt effortlessly with the other. Harry gave up trying to stride at the suddenly less-pugnacious Dunston and pushed off from Hagrid and walked away back to the storage shed.

Hermione squeaked at a sudden thought, making all of them jump in nervousness. “I just wondered now if we have enough air?”

The others all halted in stillness, as if taking another breath would make a difference.

Hermione loudly called out to the air. “Castle. Extinguish all non-essential flame, torches, fires, etc.... immediately. All exceptions have to be cleared by me or the Deputy.”

Headmistress, you can do that by just thinking, the voiceless entity of Hogwarts whispered.

“Oh, shut-up!” Hermione said crossly.

The others all looked at her frankly as if trying to decide if Weasley was losing her mind. “Hogwarts is more annoying in my head than you can imagine,” Hermione tried to explain. “We need to buy time. If there is a possibility this is some sort of …..bubble or shield.”

“I don't understand?” Ennui was at least honest, if fearful.

“We could boil ourselves up, in our own heat and smoke. If we aren't careful about our own magic.”

“Magic?” queried the fat man, nervously. “Like this is …..an enormous ball?”

“Undoubtedly. But if it is part of Hogwarts, it is not telling me. But if there is no new air incoming into our side, the inside of the ball, we need to buy time for the rescuers trying to get to us. That means using up as little oxygen as possible.”

Harry was chewing on his lips, trying not to look at Hagrid or Ginny to share his disbelief or skepticism. But Ginny was reinforcing with every second that passed Hermione's decision to make her the Deputy. She knew this woman now for twenty-four years, and she didn't believe a word of the Granger-Weasley's idea. Hermione could see it in her eye. But the face she put on, nodding to Hagrid, Ennui and the more distant Dunston as if this must be the explanation and Ginevra Potter had complete faith.

If she'd been in range, Hermione would bet that Ginny would be kicking Harry in the shin.

“Someone said they saw another body?” Hermione asked.

Dunston looked distastefully back over by the foot of the immobile armor. Dryly, he said, “Someone's head …... Professor Weas....”

“Headmistress Weasley!” Ginny barked. If Harry hadn't been looking right at her, he'd have sworn that was Minerva McGonagal providing the correction.

Dunston looked like he'd rather chew on pine needles under his feet, but then said, “...Headmistress ....temporarily. There is an individual's head.”

Nobody rushed over to look at it. There was a frozen moment when Hermione thought she'd have to do it.

But Hagrid gave a disgusted snort and stumped away from Veronica Weasley's partial body and to see closer the head, rudely shouldering Dunston out of the way.

“Hmmmm, Professor Twittingham. Headmistress. Plenty of blood. Afraid it looks like this is a decap'tation, al'ri'.”

Harry and Ginny looked about their feet. “Spots of blood, directly in line from the gate. As if he'd been running from outside back inwards, and that part of him past his neck didn't join the rest of him diving forward. The head just kept ….rolling on to the shed.”

Well that certainly didn't bode well for Veronica, Hermione couldn't help think.

Harry was thinking the same thing. But he noticed there was a difference “No pool of blood, around her torso. Almost no disturbance what-so-ever.” Harry mused aloud. “As if halted in time, like the trees along the fence.”

Or it could be because she's an undead vampire! With no heartbeat or pulse, damn you, Potter! Hermione thought disgustedly. Just when I was feeling good about this.

But no …


“Something completely different about her. She was going out. He may have been coming in …. HAGRID! FOR THE LOVE OF MERLIN, STOP LEANING AGAINST THE BARRIER!”

“Huh, wha?” The half-giant had returned, unconcernedly with the loose head grasped by the dreadlocks in one hand, and kneeling by one knee next to Veronica, resting a hand against the ….shield?

“Well, I'd say it's safe to touch.” Harry himself rapped his knuckles now on the mist gray barrier. No sound.

Hermione rubbed her face with both hands. Patience, Hermione!

“You are both idiots.” Ginny pronounced verdict. “But now have proven the 'Barrier' is relatively safe to approach ….”

“We do …. not need to worry about that portion of the problem. That is for sure. Professor Hagrid, if you would resume your duties as Groundskeeper, for the moment. Could you see to a more proper treatment of Professor Twittingham's remains?”

“Hmmm?” Hagrid only now seemed to think his one handed burden slightly macabre, and he unconvincingly thrust his hand back behind his back. Weakly smiling through his beard.

“Un ….believeable!” Ennui weakly gasped out and retreated away back up the path.

Harry rolled his eyes, but was not that put off by Hagrid's insensitivity. The big man wasn't cruel, just ...limitedly focused on his immediate tasks. Potter turned to face Veronica's body and said aloud 'Maximum Protego hemispherus'. And a faint glowing partial hemisphere now shown around Veronica.

It should be safe. Nothing could penetrate it. Not unless he was dead, too.

Ginny flicked a finger against his forehead. “Harry! How did you know magic might be compatible in contact with this thing?”

“Owww! Don't do that again! If Hagrid and I can touch it, and so does half the bloody Forest ….”

“What part of 'widow' don't you appreciate ...”

“Enough!” Hermione had had about the limit she could take. At this second, she just needed ….air!
 

“I'm going back to the castle. If the Potters would please follow the Barrier line to the Lake, and Hagrid down into the Forest proper, we will look for further victims or ...unusual incidents.” After a brief pause, she added “Without touching the 'Wall', if you please. Assistant secretary …...no, Professor Dunston, if you will return with me ….”

Dunston gave a good impression of a contemptuous rat and looked with loathing at Hagrid.

That reminded the distracted Hermione. “And Hagrid, …please, for the love of Merlin, place Twittingham's ….remains in some container and preserve it. For his family.”

“Oh, aye.”

Ennui didn't wait around, just walking away as swiftly as his portly legs could trundle him onward.

Ginny and Harry stalked off into the woods opposite of Hagrid. Bickering.

Hermione had such a headache.





[Once back at the Castle]

Many things like this greeted Hermione as she made the unpleasant walk back up the hill to the Bridge Moat and to the Front Door courtyard. Ennui and Dunston indeed showed they did not trust each other and suspected the other was somehow behind preventing their departure.

Hermione carefully withheld what her conclusions were from the Barrier inspection, though both men attempted to privately wheedle her opinion when they met again in the next several hours after returning into the castle.

Meetings were interminable. And repeated. And yielded no answers.

Malcolm Ennui almost immediately had gone off pouting towards his Hufflepuff common rooms and his old familiar sanctuary. Hogwarts, as ever accommodated as many guests as needed. Hermione did not know exactly how ….

No, Hogwarts I do not want to know! She was getting better at mentally snapping.

Dunston went on up to tax Vector and even dotty Sybill Trelawney, for ideas and opinions he valued more than Hermione's. He of course didn't value their opinions more than his. It was just something he made plain to people he stalked away from.

Good luck to him! She sincerely did not care.

Her attention was almost immediately taken by a distraught Luna at the Front Door, not even pretending to keep a brave face on it for the watching children, but rushing to Hermione and clutching her hand.

“All the fires went out. We had to give the kids just cold sandwiches and fruit.”

Hermione pointed to herself, to indicate the cause. She said, “Turned out the fires, for the moment. And the torches. Get them back to their dormitories, for now. Have the children use Lumnos or teach them, till we can check the castle, proper. No flame, unless needed for heat, and that won't be the problem if my main worry is true.”

Her blonde hair framed Luna's stressed face, “It's not dark. Why? What other problems do we have?

“We generate so much heat we self bake ourselves in here!”

“Sweet Merlin's mother!” Luna really didn't sound good. From her eyes, tears were already starting. “Please tell me you didn't find Neville. …...” the rest was muffled by Hermione just hugging her.

It might not be 'cool' for teachers to cry and hug, but this would be traumatic news.

Hermione pulled back, grasping Luna's shoulders. “No.” She found her voice a little uncertain. She whispered, “No, we didn't find him. Hold together for me, cause it is still hard news.”

Guilty relief flooded Luna' face, and she nodded back wiping her checks with her palms.

“Found ….Veronica's body half in-half out of the Barrier ...whatever it is. As if she had been trying to rush outward at the moment and got caught. Twittingham seems to also have done something similar, but from the other direction. We found his head ….only his head. Hagrid is seeing to it now. Harry and Ginny are following the inside of the Fence to the Lake. The Barrier ….

Luna cringed upon herself, but straightened up. Tears leaking from her eyes at the loss of their friend. “What is the gray wall?”

“No idea. Like a the magical shield. Follows the exact line of the inside of the school's fence line. Or rather, the magical protection around the castle, parallels the fence. Maybe it some part of the castle defending itself, from something outside.”

“Poor Veronica. Charlie will be devastated.” Luna shook her blonde head distractedly. “I don't know where he and Neville could have gone.”

“He went to find Flitwick. Or Yi Chen. Left me in charge at the Front Gate. Maybe he went on to Hogsmeade. Or your house.” Hermione forced hopeful reassurance into her voice. She didn't want to speak aloud her worry that the 'shield' was still up because something outside was attacking the castle.
“No earthly way that I can know, at the moment. So all we have are is a seemingly impassable wall or force of some kind. Completely sealing us off from the outside. And at least two dead …..”

Luna vigorously shook her head. “No, 'Mione. Only the one for certain. I didn't know Twittingham very well.”

Hermione agreed. “Neither did I. Kind of standoffish. Always thought it was the Slytherin-Griffyndor thing, but he didn't seem to have a whole lot of chums amongst the others, either. And I am afraid I don't have much hope about Veronica. Only her lower half, waist down, is ….on our side, if you will. As if caught immediately and frozen in space in the act of diving forward.”

“No! Not going to accept that.” There was an unusual edge of hysteria creeping into Mrs. Longbottom's voice.

The new Headmistress worried the woman was going to start screaming in a few seconds.

Hermione had to prevent that. For all the kids sakes. A crowd of them watched Hermione and Luna, staring open-mouthed at the two older witches from the silent Main Hall. And sitting on upwards the first flight of the Grand Stairs. “Luna, stop. Not here at the Front Door. We have a crowd, watching you fall apart. Should I take you to Poppy?”

Mention of the school nurse seemed to be enough to still the panic attack. But Luna didn't trust her voice. Just nodded and Hermione mindlessly patted her friend's shoulder, for something to do with her hands.

She was the one that really wanted to have nervous breakdown.

But then Luna said, in a steadier voice, “But where is the body? Why haven't you and Ginny brought her back? I won't stand it for an instant her being put in Hagrid's vegetable patch.....”

“Slow down. We kept her ….or the part of her we see. .. in the Barrier. Harry put up a protective shield around her. There is at least no way for us to touch or handle …...her corpse..”

“That's not what it is.” Luna's pleasant face got quietly dark. And vaguely angry. She shouted out, “She's not gone! I mean, really gone. Harry confirmed that. He's got a feeling not to mess with anything. You know it. His gut instinct ...”

“Madame Longbottom. I am going to have to ask you to calm down. Or come with me to my office.” Hermione found herself talking in a quiet stern voice that even surprised herself. A voice of someone that expected to be obeyed.

The shock seemed to catch both women by surprise. But Hermione reacted first, taking Luna by the elbow and leading her away from the listening throng. She was determined to be her old self. “Please, please, ...sweetheart. You and Ginny are my oldest girlfriends and I need you to help Harry figure this out.”

She thought Luna was silent because of restrained fury or only just holding back her wild rant. But they got up the first flight of steps and away from the now murmuring students. And Luna nodded, squeezing Hermione's hand back. “Sorry. Almost lost it. Just ….for a second. Thinking about ….....them all dead and the kids cut-off from us.”

“We have several parents in the castle in the same boat. And Harry and Ginny have Albus and Lily out there, too. And I have Ron and Hugo. You are definitely not alone. We are strong and will ….”

“Win out against this. Arthur always says that.” Luna puffed out her cheeks in a forced sigh. Furious at her display of hysteria. Never thought she'd be like that. “Okay, I'll back to the Library, then. Everything normal?”

“As normal as we can. That's the plan for now. I do need you to look for plans of the castle and the immediate grounds. I want some way to calculate the volume of ….space we have within the Barrier, if it indeed completely surrounds us.”

“Shit!” Luna muttered.

“Exactly! That's err ,..... a completely different problem. Though I am more worried about air, at the moment.” Hermione said to herself.

Luna was gone.

What should she do now? What was the top ten crises that needed her most, at this minute.

Hermione strode on past the Gargoyle, onto the moving stone staircase. Damn! The dead Dark Arts professor. What had Twittingham been up to?

The previous Headmaster could not determine that, the ghostly 'not-voice' of Hogwarts told her. Investigation was begun just prior to this emergency.

The castle seemed to be able to determine she was not talking to anyone present and not also speaking to one of the portraits above her, as she walked into Filius's office.

No! Her office, now! She pulled the door closed with a negligent hand. Hermione wanted five minutes of peace.

Hermione glanced at the pictures randomly spaced about the tall walls of the tower. Who all seemed occupied in silent' picture discussions, absent, or ignoring her completely.

“Then what had Filius been suspicious of, in the beginning?” Hermione asked aloud in the room empty of people.

Unexplained absences and evasive responses to the Headmaster's inquiries, mostly.

“Couldn't have Flitwick just known, by your telling him?” Hermione was a bit perplexed at this annoyingly invasive and not satisfyingly all-knowing presence in her head.

There is no knowledge of events in the Dark Arts tower.

“What does that mean?”

There is no knowledge of events in the Dark Arts tower. Hogwarts repeated.

That didn't make sense to Hermione at all. When it wanted to, the castle's 'voice' seemed annoyingly fussy about answering only exact questions, framed in ways the 'presence' could not evade. What was the use of a Merlin-be-damned all-knowing presence in her head that couldn't tell her all she wanted to know?

Merely, an aid to the Master of Hogwarts, not a spying network. Hogwarts answered her rhetorical question.

“Just …..dammit!” Hermione had figured that much out. A place this big, the 'authority' figure up here needed more help than just the Deputy and Filch!

“I need to find the Professors Potter,” she muttered.

At the Front Door, Headmistress. Just returning.

That made her remember the Dark Arts tower was holding some mystery they had not learned of yet.





[Dark's Arts Tower entrance. An hour later]

Harry gestured at the so-far sealed Dark Arts classroom, and it opened and swung clear with a slight wooden groan. They had tried just using the latch and it seemed physically locked.

“You are too good at that, Harry.” Headmistress Weasley smiled.

“At breaking and entering?” Dunston said, snidely.

“I've found most people - with secrets to hide – rarely helpfully leave them upon upon the kitchen table, with the door open and a brightly flagged note saying 'find me', Mr. Dunston.” Harry said in a stiff tone.

“Hmmph!” Dunston snorted, standing beside Hermione. Somehow, both he and Ennui had gotten wind of her rushing to Twittingham's locked classroom. There was also a silent but growing audience of students watching, muttering from farther in the hallway.

“Useful, Mr. Dunston. Wizards hide many things, in places and behind doors that we are paid to try to unlock. We are completely licensed to operate as such by the British government and the Ministry of Magic.” Ginny Potter, to Hermione's right, spoke up, before Harry could say something rude.

That would not help, at the moment.

“We quite understand, Deputy-Headmistress.” Ennui smoothly injected. With oily blandishment, aware he had an audience behind them, the large wizard prompted “Though, Mr. Potter does have a reputation .... for being in people's private affairs?”

“Not everything you hear is true, Mr. Ennui.” Ginny said with tired resignation. Seemed the Potters spent a large portion of their day debunking myths and downright lies. Harry was much better at getting past magical protections than she was. One of his many talents.

“I'm sure you are right, Deputy-Headmistress.” Ennui smiled.

Something about him vaguely revolted her. There was nothing specific, but he when he looked at her, she felt naked and dirty.

Dunston eyed Ennui with similar distaste and made an impatient noise. “We need to get to the bottom of this! Why are we wasting time sucking up to celebrities when we should be charging in there, getting answers ….?”

Hermione spoke, before either Potter could say anything to make relations worse. “They are the best professionals, for this matter, that wizards could hope for, Mr. Dunston. But, by all means, please lead the way! I am sure you are better at entering a magically protected door better than the man that found the Chamber of Secrets and Defeated Voldemort!”

Hermione Weasley made a show of dusting off a ledge next to a suite of armor, sat primly and folded her arms across her chest. As if expecting a show.

Imitating her, the armor beside her similarly copied her arm motions, insolently reclining on one hip, in eager if skeptical anticipation.

Harry fought to keep bursting out loud in laughter.

Dunston made some incoherent noise, turned on his heel and stalked off. The armor suit fired off a rude hand signal that needed no translation.

“Let's get this done with.” Hermione sighed heavily. The man was as charming as a burnt finger, and she had to put up with his presence. He represented the government, and barring some sort of flagrant interference or malfeasance, Dunston had every right to voice his opinion.

Belittling Harry or questioning his actions seemed to be Dunston's primary focus.

She decided he was a big boy. He could take it. As long as the two kept it from being juvenile in front of the students, Hermione chose to ignore it.

What bothered her more was the frisson of disgust she felt from Ginny's subtle motion away from Ennui and putting Harry and Hermione between the fat man and herself.

Just great! What more did she need to deal with?

She thought it best to not rile tempers more by saying something to Harry. “Let's proceed with it ...Harry? Ginny? Is there some reason we shouldn't go inside?”

Harry considered the open door, which none had wisely not tried to 'charge' into. “No, it just seems a simple lock spell. If Dunston would just have waited a moment, he could criticize this ...” Harry crumpled a sheet of paper and made a motion with his wand, sending the wad through the doorway, and the faint sparks showered down from the overhead lintel and the paper clunked down to the stone flagged floor with a metallic lead sound.

“All clear, now.” Ginny strode through.

With no ill effects.

“But I didn't see Mr. Potter do anything to nullify the charm ….” Ennui said uneasily.

“You weren't watching the right Potter, for once.” Harry said offhandedly and walked into the Dark Arts classroom with no apparent care.

The two Seventh-Year students that had come to assist, snickered and walked past Ennui with contempt. Hermione followed them, silently sharing their opinion but more adult

Maybe she didn't need to interfere in that matter, either. Harry had that under control, too.

“Coming, Mr. Ennui?” She called.

Ennui entered last after the Headmistress. Walking uneasily around the now 'leaded' paper ball and involuntarily ducking his head passing through the door.

There was nothing about the classroom that seemed changed. To the Potters, especially, this was a place fraught with memory. It looked no different than it had twenty years before.

“Touch nothing, just look about. He wouldn't have locked it and put the 'lead' charm on the door just to inconvenience us.” Harry instructed the watching crowd. “And that trunk is full of pixies, Mr. Ennui ...” at the big man's half-frozen motion to flip open a trunk's lid. “ ...unless you want to get bit on the nose. That's not a problem for us.”

They spent the next fifteen minutes wandering around, detecting nothing but the usual classroom spells needed to teach students about the Dark Arts.

That left the Twittingham's office. Up the short half-spiral stairs at the front of the classroom.

Leaving Ennui and the students to prowl about the junk and classroom objects to find anymore traps, the Potters and Hermione walked up the stair, and Ginny unlocked the office door. Once again with the simple 'door-knocker' spell charm.

“Not terribly harmful, really.” Harry commented, hefting a new chunk of lead that would have fallen on a luckless individual's head had they not triggered the trap. “I don't think he meant to kill any intruders. Just hinder them. Or scare them off, students or people not very comfortable with protection magic.” Harry gave a sideways glance toward Ennui, opening an old vertically opening desktop with one finger and his wand ready to attack the books and paper lurking within.

Ennui saw them watching him, got self-conscious and walked back to the opposite corner of the classroom.

“Not much of a threat, is he?” Hermione mumbled, referring to Ennui.

“Hope he is worth something for us. Still gives me the creeps.” Ginny quietly but crisply whispered, looking at the bookshelf loaded with old textbooks and bounded student essays.

“Can I beat him to a pulp, now, honey?” Harry said hopefully, cracking a few stray knuckles.

Hermione turned to Harry, making a despairing silent plea for no violence, then turned to Ginny.

There seemed nothing untoward in here either. Harry was right. The protection was mild, seeming to keep curious children at bay. Not serious wizards. “Has he said anything untoward or made advances at you, Ginny?”

“No. Not out loud. Just mentally undressing me with his little piggy eyes. Just leave it alone, you two.” Ginny stooped to look at the collection of personal pictures on a bookshelf behind Twittingham's desk. “Don't get all macho on me Harry, or challenge him to a duel. I can handle perv's like Ennui. With my own little fist.”

She held up her small fist as an example. It was tiny but mighty. “Those damn Holy Head Harpy publicity photos. The swimsuits! Get weirdos all the time still panting over them.”

“You do?”

“Those were twenty years ago, husband. I am a fat old witch with three children, now.

“Not even close. I'm fatter by far.” Harry stated, then seemed to find something intensely interesting in in the top drawer of the desk. “Number of broken pencils, somebody's water pistol, ….”

“So romantic, isn't he?” Hermione couldn't help say, with laughter in her voice.

“Notice he didn't say I wasn't fat, just that he was bigger.”

Harry grumbled, under his breath. “I love you. Please, Get off my back.”

Trying to divert Harry's perturbed irritability, Hermione said, “Look about the office, then. But it might well be further down in the lower chambers of the tower. Twittingham had something he was trying to hide. This is why I need you Harry.”

“I am not a teacher, Hermione. I don't do well with people.”

“Your wife is happily helping the cause. Would you stand idly by while we ….?”

Harry could hear how this was going and decided they had no time for Hermione's full power sales pitch. He'd do it - anyway – in the end. “Okay. Fine. Be prepared at how much I suck at it.”

“I won't lie. The older teens will challenge you. Make you madder than you were out in the hallway. But I have a population of scared young wizards big enough to fill that Quidditch stadium and little help. Except 'Fatso' and Mr. Happy.” Ginny and Hermione expectantly watched Potter.

He looked evasively about, glancing out the windows. Finally, he muttered, “Not enough pigeons. And I want to the move the desk.”

“Not asking for much, is he?” Ginny Potter resumed looking at Twittingham's pictures.

“He works cheap.” Hermione smiled, satisfied. “Sorry, no birds available. No insects either. Don't know what that means. I'll get Hagrid to look for other missing creatures.” What she didn't put into words, after she disturbed a nick-nack, was a metallic gob-ball that rolled free and she grabbed it. Nor the surprise on her face turned away from the Potters as her hand recognized the feel of the ball, and she shoved it deep into a pocket.

She swept out towards the office door. One impossible task done, today. Several others awaited her. “I'll leave you to it, Professors.”

There was silence for awhile as the couple resumed their search. Eventually, Ginny went out into the classroom and told the others to leave the rest of the search to the Potters and help out other teachers.
Ennui responded with an ingratiating grin and a bow.

She did not respond, other than an involuntary look of revulsion. But she nodded to the door to the four teens poking amid boxes and drawers. Assistant Secretary for Magical Public Relations Ennui turned not to have departed, as if afraid of not being somewhere in the vicinity of 'things going on'. The fat man scurried out, ahead of Hermione. And Ginny didn't bother looking back when one Seventh Year boy made some sarcastic remark.

Time later to enforce a little discipline and respect of the students. Ginny actually agreed with Jacob Pimm. And given a chance, she'd break every tooth loose in Ennui's oily grin.

Ginny rejoined Harry's search in the Dark Arts office.

“We been hired?” Harry had several small pictures in his hands, most magical and the figures waving or laughing back at him.

She smiled at him. He was lovably obtuse! Airily, Ginny said, “No! She ordered us off school grounds immediately.”

“Damn! Always was inconsistent, was Mrs. Weasley. I thought she liked our presentation.”

Ginny gave a wry grin, and took one of the pictures from Harry. “Let me see this, Harry.”

“Funny, Twittingham doesn't seem to have any family pictures.” Harry said distractedly.

Ginny looked at one in her fingers. It made no sounds, but showed three smiling people, at what must have been a little boy's birthday. The two men – one being a shorter-haired Twittingham - mugged for the camera, and each giving the boy a smooch on either cheek. The boy dissolved in giggles and muffed the blow out of the birthday candles.

The scene repeated itself.

“Of course Twittingham does, Harry! A very happy family.” Ginny patiently held the picture to Harry's view.

There was a brief silence, then what she was saying finally dawned on Harry. “Oh, well. Of course. Dammit, Gin. I didn't mean that. I'm not homophobic. Of course, there is a family …... bloody hell, woman!” Potter stumped out of the office.

“Starting well, we are.” Ginny placed the pictures back on the desk, not noticing she dislodged a small silver ball, that rolled across the desk and dropped onto the floor, into a crack in the boards.




[Saturday night, late]

The tower office wasn't a refuge for long.

She had been unable to avoid another public rehashing of what they had 'not' found and how much they did not know. All the parents, most of the Hogwarts staff and herself mainly sat tiredly listening to the 'Man from the Ministry' pacing back and forth

Dunston, true to form, managed to make it sound as her failure. His fellow 'observer' just sat in the back and watched.

In one way, it was helpful. Dunston's monologue allowed her to daydream about her situation.

Of course, the non-magical parents panicked, on the sight of Gargoyle at the foot of the stair and it took both Harry and Joe Robinson – the lone single father of the group – fifteen minutes to convince, cajole and finally confuse the Jones' into stepping around the swearing statue and into the improbably spinning stone staircase.

While the adults stood around, arguing with each other, or staring in mixed horror-fascination at the animated portraits, Hermione mentally jotted up what she had to work with.

Yes, the Muggle parents were the 'Jones'. The magical parents were the 'Smiths'. Oh, sorry, Ssssmmmmmyyyyyytttthhhhhhhes!

Unbelievable!

So, Hermione, counting my assets. Potters, Joe Robinson, the Waistecoates, herself, elves, Luna and Hagrid. She could count on Harry and Ginny in any pinch. The elves were her 'backup' secret weapon, So secret, she didn't even know if they responded to any command given by her.

Robinson seemed a solid bloke. He, Hagrid and Harry were her main force.

Cancel that, Ginny was the main force! The men were her minions.

As the Seventh Years were Hermione's. She'd use them, as her academic storm troopers. If push came to shove.

The others - the Wastecoates - were nice and mostly benevolent non-complainers. Among them she include Vector and Trelawny. Probably not huge helps but at least not in the way.

Okay, debit side of the ledger. Top of the list has to be Thelonius Dunston, followed closely by the 'Smythes' (already sick of that drawl). Following up, in inebriated rear guard was Grandpa Crocker. He was bound to be a colossal liability, almost immediately upon him reviving from his liquor induced stupor.

He was passed out in the corner of the teacher's lounge. Snoring. Useless!

The Smythes were viperous and grating on the nerves. Just in the last five minutes.

The Jones …....gods, what a time for Muggles to pick a visit! They were going to need constant supervision and a drain on assets. It was supposed to be on a quiet Saturday, without people flying on brooms and a portion of the older students who caused a large portion of the in school phenomenon to be outside or at Hogsmeade. Hermione couldn't think what a horror this must seem to these people. She had brought her own parents her, once upon a time, and it had been a full day with hand-wringing and nightmares to follow.

And they had been warned and she'd escorted them everywhere personally. Well, mostly ...

Ennui, the fat man who seemed content to be Dunston's very large shadow, was nominally a problem. But one never knew. Hermione had reasonably good memories of the boy he had been. Thought he'd be at least competent to help. The rather massive black mark against Ennui was his rather large lifestyle and the predatory way he seemed to size up each and every woman in the room was disturbing. And keeping 'Fibs' Ennui firmly in the 'trouble' column.

Goodhands was an unknown. The lone parent of a Griffyndor Fourth Year. She was quietly worried, off in a corner near the fireplace. Hermione had no idea of her.

Oh, she forgot Filch!

Best left forgotten.


Out loud, she looked up from her wool-gathering, “Does anyone know where Argus Filch is?” Dunston had actually stopped talking, when it was obvious no one was listening. Those in the room were mostly quietly hissing back and forth between each other. There was a pause in the conversation din, and most everyone shrugged.

Then the unseen voice of Hogwarts 'said' Down in Herbology, searching the outer greenhouses and the Astronomy tower.

Hermione was getting better at mentally saying 'thank you' but it was still unnerving. She shook her head, and said, “Probably in Herbology. The Deputy can tell him our needs, later.”

Ginny gave a 'thanks a lot' shrug with a disgruntled but thankfully silent sigh of resignation.

She was ending this. Hermione decided. What's the use of being in-charge, anyway. “We are done here. That's it for tonight. The castle seems secure. The children safe. We …...ah, reasonably organized.”

Dunston and Mrs. Smythe both huffed. But, tonight, at any rate, neither seemed to have saved up anymore objections they hadn't already used.

Everyone was tired.

Hermione stood, signaling the meeting was adjourned. “Lets find ourselves our accommodations for the evening. The elves ….”

“Elves?” Mrs. Jones stammered.

Hermione fought not to rub her face with her hand. It would look undignified. “ ….yes. You can be shown to towers set aside for visitors. For the moment, Hogwarts will be your home.” Turning to the Jones. “If you both would stay a moment. I know you have many questions....”

Everyone filed out. Ginny gave her a consoling look, but Hermione really needed her to take care of everyone else, for the moment.

It was oddly now that the 'silence' of the tower office became more apparent. It was not silent. The little odd machines kept on the table in back tooted or clicked or whirled, with seeming random perpetuity. And there was a shuffle of painted pages being turned by the portrait occupants – bored with the living – returned to reading or crocheting or a dozen other silent pursuits.

Hermione was exceedingly grateful. For the pictures passivity. Maybe it was a silent mental plea for them not to play the fools or cavort or sing or insult the poor Muggle parents of Olivia Jones.

“You both ….” Hermione began, “…...must have many questions.” Understatement of the year!

“You have no idea, Madame Weas …....I mean, Professor Weasley.” husband said, taking his wife's hand in his. “Or should we say some other title.”

“I am Hermione.” The woman in the sparkly robe, behind the big desk said. “I know, old fashioned name. Professor, if you rather. That's the only title I ever wanted.”

“Same with me.” The missus said, weakly.

Hermione blinked, looking vacant for a moment, then said, “Really!”

He nodded, “Yes, city college. And then secondary school, Lower Watts on Bodkin, where we met. I used to teach a class, too, but switched to mostly sports, now.” He held up his hands apologetically. “You know, rugby, football, some others ….”

Hermione turned to his wife, “And you......a, umm, …..?”

“Jane.” she supplied.

Hermione nodded, and Jane continued, “English, in the beginning. But you know. Budgets and cutbacks. Had to do others, History, mostly. Then, …..well, our girl ….” Jane looked to her husband to supply the right words.

“Special” He said proudly. With no reservations. And pointed to himself. “Richard.”

“You both have no idea what a god-send you are, Jane and Richard, this night.”

“We rather feel like 'Alice'. You know …...the 'Looking Glass' girl.”

Hermione had to laugh. “Oh, I know exactly what you two feel like, Jane and Richard. Boy, do I ever.”

“We want to help.” Richard said. “We know we are …........odd, amongst you lot!” Richard paused at the fervent nodding of one ragged looking portrait. “Must be some …..non-magicky things around ...”

“Yes. For Livy.” Jane asserted, and said, “But right just this moment. I'd really like a quiet room, with no moving pictures.”

Portrait Dylys made a face at Hermione, over Mrs. Jone's shoulder without the Muggle woman seeing.

“I think there is a lot you two can do to help. And there is guest room right next to this. I'll take you myself.” Hermione got to her feet, and then said, “We'll find a more permanent place tomorrow. And that feeling of wanting solitude goes for me as well, quite a bit today.”

The portraits couldn't contain themselves, at that comment. And all hooted and shouted out their objections to the living, as Weasley ushered the beleaguered Jones fast out from the office.




[Sunday afternoon]

Harry walked into the Dark Arts classroom alone. Harry had not been in this room with no one else present in over a decade. When the others were present didn't count. Maybe the first time he had done so in the eighteen years since that fight that overthrew Voldemort. The big tower classroom looked the same as he remembered. Odd exhibits, dusty books crammed into side shelves, some girl's forgotten purse. The dusty dragon's skeleton hovering overhead, suspended by wires from the rafters in the vaulted ceiling.

It even smelled the same to him, as he walked through the desks, towards the front. A faint dry dustiness and ozone. Of strange, powerful things pronounced and spells cast. If that old skeleton could talk, what would it tell him. Of people now long grandparents or even passed away, budding witches and wizards with the same anxieties and fears.

Of plots hatched and schemed. Some of them, his own.

His own parents.

Their friends.

Their enemies.

Tom Riddle.

Snagging up the purse from the chair. Harry looked inside but could find nothing but cheap cosmetics and a love note from someone named 'Harvey'.

Harry sniggered but didn't read past the name. How embarrassing! Apparently from someone in the last full class. Harry guessed about three days, ago. He put the purse down on the front table, sitting up on the table like he was not supposed to do, to look out over the empty classroom.

How many people before him had done this exact thing. Look at the tables and chairs and remember their own last words to their friends in here. Five ...ten ...maybe twenty years before. His own recollection was maybe the day before Dumbledore died. The last Dark Arts teacher Harry had had was Snape, and he had seemed distant and not really attentive to the students. Facing the end of the year and the promise Harry now knew he had made to Albus the summer before.

So many different faces, in the Main Hall. Kids looking at Muggle handheld devices and excitedly babbling about stuff at home Harry had never heard of, even from his own kids. The Potter children were all so much younger, except James now, of course. Teddy was now already graduated. Just Victoire was here, and she and Ted had always seemed so much older and mature for their age. Already full fledged members of the family, practically.

The room reminded him most of Ted's father. He had been a beleaguered man, chased almost into hiding because of what he was. A werewolf. Remus could have remained hidden away. But Dumbledore needed him, and Harry had needed him. And that was what mattered.

What had Remus thought, walking in here? Sneered at by others because of his affliction, being a werewolf. A desperate man taking a hopeless, potentially life-ending job that had spit out a new teacher each year for the past decade.

Friendless, seemingly, or so it appeared at the time. His only apparent ally among the other teachers was Snape. His old childhood enemy. Remus surely stared out at the same empty classroom, just like Harry did now.

Soft footsteps came just to the partly shut door, and Hermione Granger peeked around the door's edge. No! Headmistress Weasley! She quietly watched him watch her, and he broke out in a silly grin.

She looked up at him, tired and distracted by a thousand different things. Harry figured she'd been just about everywhere in the castle today, fretting about what the first day of class with this disaster of a team, cobbled together would be like.

The woman waited silently till he reacted to her presence. She said, “Professor Potter, I presume.”

Harry saw her but waited a few more moments for saying anything. “I can almost hear their voices. People who were in this room when I was a kid. Who would have believed someone would call me that?” He still looked incredulous, at the sound of the title. But had to chuckle. “I half expect Ron to be coming around the corner. Desperate to have you finish a homework for him.”

She craftily looked off to the side of the room, hearing some inner voice, then wagging her eyebrows. “He is still late for one, that Sixth Year, in fact. One for Snape he never finished.”

“Dark Arts?”

Hermione ruefully nodded back.

Harry chuckled and said, “I may then do some digging in the files, on my off time. See what it is and maybe have a little exam for Mr. Weasley, come Christmas time.”

“That is supposed to be secret from you. Don't rat me out?”

“I'm looking for a number of improvements in my working conditions. And I will tell him his charming wife told me.”

“You are a naughty man, Harry Potter.”

“Only occasionally. He is no slouch, either.” Harry waited as she came to a desk and sat down facing him. He said, “Funny, how weird this all seems. The smell of the books. The sound walking on the wood floor ….”

“You are having your initial 'teacher-student' flashback moment.” Hermione said with off-hand casualness.

“Ever happen to you?”

“Daily. Sometimes hourly, at a beginning of a school term. The place gets under one's skin. But I think that happens to everyone, in every school they revisit. The decent ones, anyway. The ones like Snape, who 'know' they were superior and born to lord it over children, those are the ones who are worthless.


They looked forward to each moment they have students under their control.” Hermione looked a little grim in remembrance. “Not teachers, in my opinion.”

“I don't use him as my example. Or Lockhart. Only Remus and the real Mad-Eye, and maybe Hagrid.”

“Well there is a trio! That's a relief that it is not Snape. ” Then Hermione peremptorily snapped. “And no skrewts!”

Harry pounded fist to the table. “Damn, there goes my lesson plan for the Second Years. What fun would that be with harmless pixies.”

They both laughed, but Hermione did so with a nervous shake of the head. Not every time, with Harry, was the obviously crazy not part of his plan. “Don't even joke about that. Reminds me to find Hagrid.”

Whether he really agreed with that, he did not say, but just gave a wicked smile. “When are you finally come to examine my teaching for fitness?”

“After a couple of days. Well, hopefully, this is just a couple of days, at the most. But if it is prolonged, I should probably have to write something up. Think you passed, though.”

“Ah, bureaucracy! Don't be hasty. I am pretty rusty at thinking about this stuff. Maybe Dunston and Ennui were right.”

“No. They weren't. Think it's just personal pettiness. You might enlighten me as to why you two spit at each other like alley cats?”

“Doesn't like me. Go figure?” Harry evaded her question and he just chuckled at her frown. He noncommittally shrugged. “Don't worry about it. You've never been entirely impartial. Don't rush to whitewash it if I do a crappy job.”

The new headmistress shook her head vehemently. “You are always too hard on yourself. I wouldn't be standing here, in several hundred different ways, if you hadn't overcome things too impossible for you. You have the gift to teach. I did it 'cause you showed me the way. You did it before.”

He had to agree to that. “Stakes were different. Lives on the line. It all seemed too daring not to try.”

Hermione smiled. She was beautiful, again. Her sick pale face hadn't looked so healthy to Harry in months. She practically was a new woman, this past day. Despite the worry and their grief at the apparent death of their friend Veronica, whom they had known in another identity as a lonely ancient woman. Hermione indeed seemed a whole lot more energetic. This is what she should be doing. She'd passed the teaching stage a long time ago.

Harry said out loud, “Minerva would be proud of you. So will your parents.

“Wish I could tell them. And Ron.” It was her turn to admit her massive shortcomings. “I didn't really think I'd sit up there in the Tower, myself. This is just some accident. It is a miracle of luck I can't have shrieking parents and arse-hole bureaucrats ….. okay, got two of them. But fresh new ones, every day. Can you imagine what it's like for poor Filius? A hundred things depend on him, every day, and to have 'those' people show up to plague him.”

Harry shook his head. “I know I can't do that. Don't know why that tosser – Dunston – was so eager. He is already loathed after a day by the kids in Slytherin. And all he has got to do is Potions. Most of the others are passable, in the short term. You'll see. Ennui, on the other hand ….....”

“Actually, there you are wrong, I think. I just came from Hufflepuff's common room. They seem completely behind him. He is a charmer. Probably explains his apparent success with women, in fact. And I have to say, not that bad at Charms, actually, which probably explains his success. I had to look up my old class records of him. He wasn't memorably accomplished in any of my classes, when I taught. Just sometimes …..” She then noticed Harry's cold silence. “What?”

“Nothing.” Potter's face kind of tightened up. That old familiar shutting his feelings off from people, when he was determined he was right and all others were wrong.

For a moment she had Harry all happy and she'd gone and soured the mood.

“You wouldn't think of it, to look at him. But he is very popular with a certain set. I don't get it, myself. I can promise you Ginny doesn't, either. I think you'll know the moment he tried something from Ennui's missing eyeball.”

Harry breathed out noisily from his nose, but nodded acquiescence. “Yeah. Okay. Just stupid jealous man stuff.” The more he thought about it, the more ridiculous he felt. Potter dismissively waved his fingers, “Course I know there is nothing there. I am glad he's not useless like Dunston.”

“If he turns out to be, I have access to real dungeons. Him and Dunston and any other I wish.”

She said that in an odd tone of voice. Harry had thought it just himself. The sounds and smells of the classroom making him think back to evil plots. Sometime there was a steely grimness …...a cruelly hard calculation to his old friend that scared him. Hermione Granger Weasley possessed a will to be ruthless, if she chose. “So we each possess secret alter ego urges”

“My urges are real, Harry.” Hermione's face didn't look so friendly now. “I keep a tight grip on them. More so now, than ever. Just like yours. I expect you to do the same.”

“Ginny and I know you are ill.” Harry had a horrible thought. A memory of his own burning desire, to keep everyone he loved safe. Bring them back. That magical stone, lost somewhere in the Forbidden Forest.

“I don't want to talk about that with you, Harry.”

He looked a little hurt.

“Medical things pretty much always have escaped you. Nothing you could do anything about, Harry. We are living out our lives. I am a woman like every other one. We each have our time and then we move on.”

“For Ron ….....why don't you want me to help?”

“You think you have that ability?”

Harry looked in her eyes. “You are as the only sister I've ever known. There isn't anything I wouldn't do.”

“If you still had that Stone, Harry. The Hallow to resurrect the dead. Would you use it, even if I begged you not to?”

Harry sullenly stared back. This was a very private thing, only his two oldest friends knew about. Not even his wife Ginny. That he had in his possession – briefly – a magical stone that could bring the dead back. What he had craved beyond all other things. To bring back his his dead friends. His parents. His god-father. His murdered mentor.

Defeat Death.

And he had let it go. Lost forever to him, buried in wet dirt, in some thick stand of ancient woods. In the feared creature-infested Forbidden Forest. Because he was afraid he'd be exactly this weak. That he wouldn't be that strong, now.

“No. It just brought their ghosts.” Potter shook his head. “I couldn't do that.”

She nodded in understanding. “But you know the trap. You cannot bring them back as they were. Only you had the strength to lose it again. That was the best thing for the world. For us. For you. We all must pass on. It is for the very best.”

Still expectation awaited. Potter finally stirred, shrugging as if that was of no consequence now. As if he didn't think of that every day of his life. Whether or not he agreed with her words, Harry did not say.

“You have the strangest way of trying to talk someone into doing something.”

“Do you believe I am honest with you?”

“Are you sick? And it makes me furious when you answer my question with another question.”

“Yes. But that isn't important right now. I need your help in doing this.”

“This? This is so unimportant.”

“That's not what you hear in the hallways. I haven't heard the name 'Potter' whispered so much since we were kids. They are simply electric about you being here. I've even had three Sixth Years come and beg me to set aside last years O.W.L.S. test scores, so that they could return to Dark Arts”

“It's only going to be this week. What in the world do they think I would tell them in a couple of days?”

Hermione smiled fondly. “Nothing, dear wizard. And maybe everything.”

“Women are weird.”

“Possibly” She said cryptically.

“Dunston wouldn't ask me to do this.”

She rolled her eyes, “No, in fact, I believe he would try to teach each subject himself, if he could. And have all he available parents just sit around and watch. Because he believes it will be used somehow against him if he doesn't in some stupid contest for attention among politicians.”

“He is an ass.”

Hermione smirked, but worriedly rubbed the back of her neck. “I know. But unlike Dunston, I am for using everyone, to help. Even Grandfather Crocker, to help out with Hagrid.” She rolled her eyes. “Gets him out of the castle, at any rate. Can't stand him shouting at everyone.”

Harry tapped the side of his head. “Hard of hearing.”

“Maybe,” Hermione answered with a frown. “He supposedly was good at Animal Husbandry, back about fifty years ago. Think the only potion he touches regularly now is served at a pub. Hagrid will keep an eye on him and unless the sot brought a distillery with him, Crocker will be dried out in a week.”

Harry was always a little in awe of Hermione's deep thinking. He was also a trifle annoyed that he too would be subject to her weighty thought, all to get him to do what she determined he should. “Glad I don't have vices that bad, then.”

“Please. An old drunk is nothing compared to the Harry Potter's problem.”

“.....problems …..,” Harry softly repeated.

“I got you to do this,” she smiled sweetly.

Fine. She wanted to use the 'you'll break my heart, otherwise' strategy on him. “I …..can't really say no, to you, so alright. You'll be sorry and 'Dung-breath' – the stupid bugger – will use this as proof of your unfitness.”

“He's not that persuasive.” Hermione said in thoughtful consideration. “In fact, he probably has his day job because he is a rotter and a busybody and full of himself in spite of that. Just to get rid of him, out of London.” And she smiled, fluttering her eyes. “Besides, I don't believe he can bat his eyelashes. At anyone. Like all weak, small minded men, he is intensely jealous of all those better than him. And I think he just fears your reputation, for exposing frauds like him.”

Harry made a disgusted face and a half-shrug. As if that was a given.

“And I more than suspect it's just blinding ambition – on Professor 'Dunston's' part - rather than real skill or desire to run this school. He hasn't even the skill to run the one class topic he has. I've had a talk with the three Seventh Years – including our newly acquired niece – who are to help him. They are already coming up with unflattering nicknames to teach Peeves to plague him.” Hermione looked severely at Potter, “No names. Don't encourage them. He is your temporary peer.”

“Fine. We are buddies now.” Harry said sarcastically.

“More miracles I have performed, this day.” She considered her regrowing fingernails. At this rate, in another week she'd be perfectly normal again. Was this something she wanted to stop?

“Out of people to help, in any case. I just don't own many alternatives for other available adults and I can't teach one more subject. Neither can you. I already have two full ones.” She waited a few heartbeats, “Unless you think you might be up to ...”

Potter shook his head, sitting at one chair in the front, after turning to face Hermione in the back. “He already hates me. What do you think it will be like, I walk in and take that from him? And he's free to write up his bile and vitriol in nice notes for the School Board once this is all done.” Harry said grimly. “In fact, I almost think he'd fight me.”

“He'd lose. And WE don't need that, at all. You have to be the grown-up one. In fact, I was coming to talk to you about maybe …..trying to help him without him knowing.”

“How?”

“I was remembering Remus. Doing more than maybe he should for Third Years. He didn't dare try to do Potions work. Snape would have been on him in a second.”

“That's for sure.”

“But think about the rest. Even tackling the boggart was ambitious for thirteen year olds. There are grownups who can't deal with them. Ron runs into them all the time.”

“If all life was delousing boggarts from our closets, it'd be rather boring.”

“Exactly. I would ask that you try to incorporate showing the various age groups stuff they are supposed to learn in Dunston's class. Make it seem part of yours, but get past his poor attempts at teaching the same thing to them in Potions.”

Potter breathed a few sighs, thinking heavily on it. “Might mean I have to do some late night Potions work. Without Dunston knowing.”

Hermione seemed to be briefly hearing a conversation that she alone was attuned to, then looked back up into his eyes. “Done. Actually, don't think you'll be too surprised to know there is a pretty complete Potions dungeon set up in one of the first levels below this tower. I can keep him from investigating, and out of your hair. If you make using the Potions part of the class, show the kids the proper ways they are useful, and just forget about them making do chemistry and alchemy on their own for moment. We get through this. Then he's gone and a proper Potions master comes back the rest of the school year.”

“Boy, you are a sneaky witch!”

She had to bashfully smile, then tapped her forehead. “Castle has a lot of ways of keeping the master informed. There is a lot to Hogwarts that most warlocks and witches never even dream about. I have a lot more control over things - within the castle - than you can imagine. Explains a little. How Minerva or Albus ran this place, with no secretary, minimal staffing.”

“Really?” That did surprise Harry. He had never even thought on it. “Seems funny that we got away with so much.”

“Did we really? Get away with much. Or maybe that was Albus's plan. Intentionally not knowing to avoid influencing your choices. You shouldn't underestimate your own power of sneakiness, Mr. Potter.”

“Oh, well, I feel so little now. Fred and George got to do whatever they felt like”

She smiled slyly, getting up and walking out the classroom. “Did they?”

*
 

 

 


Chapter 15: Job Uncertainty
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[Hogwarts castle]

Hermione primped her hair and outfit all the way down the stairs. There was nothing wrong with how she looked, just nerves. But her answers were decidedly vague to the waiting prefects as they gathered at strategic intersections within the Keep's staircase. She seemed distracted, as if listening to another voice.

She was met by her daughter Rose and her always dependable best student Jennifer at the grand floor lobby, before the entrance to the Great Hall and the Front Door of the castle. Rose smiled grandly, her beautiful little face reminding Hermione of her father. Hermione reached them, and took the girls hands.

“Okay?” Rose whispered.

Fine was something Hermione decidedly was not feeling. Never mind! “Threw up, twice. Other than that, fine! All here?”

Jen nodded assertively, “Dying …..sorry, poor choice of words. Eager, to see ….”

“The bizarre? The freak show I trot out for their light entertainment?” Hermione let her guard slip.

Rose was made of sterner stuff. She lightly punched the headmistress in the gut. “No. Stop it! Most waiting for breakfast. The usual sluggards won't show till just before classes start.”

“Oww! And why I always avoided 8:00 AM classes, if I could help it. They are a plague upon the world of scholarship, in my opinion.”

“Wish those views were a little more widely held, Mum.” Rose reached up and tugged on Hermione's cloak hem, to encourage her mother to bend over closer. Her mother mistook that for a need for a kiss on the cheek, which Rose accepted anyway. Her real purpose was to pin on a flower in Hermione's upper cloak button hole.

“How beautiful? A rose! Thank you, sweetheart.”

Rose looked pleased. “Last all day long. Won't fade till you take it off. The real thing is that it will invigorate you, whenever you take a whiff. Won't stop till midnight. Bit tricky to make …...” Rose glanced up sheepishly at Jennifer, who looked on pleasantly non-committal. “Jen made it ...”

“Did not.” Jennifer interrupted immediately. “She had it all done. Just the ending wasn't finished.”

Rose blushed. Really, all Rose did was clip the flower from the stems the House Elves brought to Ravenclaw's house entrance. Actually, all the flowers were sacrificed in her attempts to make them permanent. Jen provided needed triage, but the result was a success. “Well, wasn't like I was asking James' help.”

“Ha!” Good point. The aunt could be realistic about her nephew. Hermione looked about her. “Where is our family's latest hero?”

“Probably still in bed. Prime sluggard! Usually one of the last in for breakfast.” Rose informed her mother. Jennifer nodded in agreement.

Hermione shrugged. “Yes, excellent. All that matters is his behind present at his class.”

“I'll make sure he's there, Mum.” Rose solemnly promised. Jen carefully refrained from smirking.

“I'm pleased he has such persistent goad.” Hermione smirked herself.

“Lazy fart!” Rose just humphed.

Both Hermione and Jen laughed. “Well, His father was fairly similar. Speaking of which, is the famous Harry …...?”

Both girls shook their heads. “But Aunt Ginny's already in, and waiting for you.” Rose reported.

Hermione sighed. This wasn't a good beginning for Potter, but she had the rest of Hogwarts to get rolling this morning. “Work in progress. Carry on, shall we? I need something to eat.”

The headmistress walked to the doorway, to be seen and noticed. She murmured somethings to a few students waiting near the door, as an expectant rustle of noise as the other students saw her. On this first day, it was important she seem calm and unconcerned.

The girls lingered a little back by the stairs. “That was beautiful Rose. I think that was exactly what she needs.” Jen whispered.

“Not overkill? Didn't want it to appear silly. You know …... the name-thing …..the flower. Seems stupid, now.” The eleven year old sounded a dozen years older, sometimes.

Jen shook her head. “No. The Professor …., I mean, the Headmistress needed something to pick her up. She looks like she didn't sleep well. And a little …...distant.”

“I noticed that yesterday. Too many people, whispering in her ears.” Rose nodded. “But she looks and sounds ten times better than just last week. I think this is good for her.”

The older girl just tilted her head in vague agreement. She didn't want to voice her opinion too rashly. Just last week, this girl's mother seeming deathly ill. It had been a subject she had never wanted to voice to the daughter. And Victoire Weasley, the one with real medical knowledge of the group was herself buried under her own covers, absent as usual from breakfast.

Lazy fart, Two. Jen thought.

The three witches proceeded into the open Great Hall doors and the girls fell behind the headmistress at the sound of Ginny's calling the room to notice that the school's day had begun with the arrival of the castle's new master.



[Great Hall, first breakfast for new Master of the Castle]

The Main Hall at breakfast time was a noisy place. All the more noisier as almost all of the students for a change had made it bright and early. A few laggards, like James Potter, were inevitable. But an incredible showing, none the less. As much as to see who would be sitting at the front table, as to get their remorseless fill from the never ending buffet laid on by the Elves.

The anonymous workforce seemed to want the students well fed. Hogwarts was isolated and cut-off but that didn't seem to bother the keepers of the larder. Hermione sincerely hoped they knew what they were about.

Ginny had just been introduced as the new Deputy. There was twitter of excitement, particularly from the Quidditch crowd. It was only then that Hermione, Hagrid or Ginny had recalled that Hooch was not present either and that no one of the other available parents were much adept at flying on broomsticks. Apart from Harry Potter and he wasn't interested.

A little irritated at her husband, Ginny cleared her throat, called up the four House Captains and had a hurried conference on the spot.

Quidditch would be put on hold for the time being. Apart from circling the grounds as far as they could go, no one had the faintest idea how high within the 'dome' one could fly. Particularly as the pitch and stadium was on the edge of the school closest to the encircling mountains. Something would have to be figured out, but right now, just getting the school functioning with nervous parents drafted as teachers would be enough of a wizarding miracle.

James did show, at the end, within a few minutes before the start of morning classes. To grab a sausage and a roll and scan about at the adults. James Potter, grasping a carelessly bound notebook, was obviously searching for his father. He made a slightly disappointed look at Ginny. But his mother was prepared, as she whipped out a napkin covered bundle of toast, made a puffed-out cheek face of being nauseous and pointed at the empty Dark Arts seat. But she finished the pantomime with two thumbs up, and James brightened immediately, returning an encouraging thumb and he and his friends trooped out to do battle with the school.

They all knew this would be a tough one for Harry Potter. He didn't do well with crowds of people.

Ginny herself quite forgot her nervousness earlier. She couldn't eat much more than toast, before being introduced by Hermione, and now rather regretted missing out on the omelets. She darted a hand back to Hagrid's place, who was still eating all of the teacher's leftovers, and snagged some sausages, too,

“ 'Ere now. I 'aven't finished meself …..”

“For Harry, Hagrid. Feeling a bit of the nerves, know what I mean?”

“Oh, Aye!” The big Half-giant gave a chuckle and winked an eye hard enough to crack a Brazil nut. “No trouble, Gin. Take these apples, too. Get 'im through the day, till lunch. He'll be right as rain.”

“Hope so Hagrid, it was a iffy morning.”

Hermione came back from seeing the kids off at the entrance Hall, to either the courtyard outside, dungeons or the Great Staircase. She took an apple herself. “Bloody hope so. He should have been here.”

“You know what this is going to be like.”

“Course I do. I was a bundle of nerves, my own first day.”

Hagrid had to laugh. “More like just the first hour. Should have seen her, Ginny. Like an old campaigner by lunch time. She, Vector and Sprout cuttin' up the lunch table like they was here fifty years. Well, for Vector …....”

“That might be right. Which reminds me, talking about the day and night. How come there wasn't any? Of the later?”

“You askin' me, fo?” Hagrid shrugged massive shoulders. “No bloody idea. I've got to go check on the paddock and the owlry. See what I can salvage for my own classes. Might have to do some …..theoretical work, for the time bein'”

“I don't know how I can further emphasize the need for …... sensible examples, Hagrid! No skrewts! Nothing carnivorous.”

“ 'Mione, I'm deeply hurt.” The huge man slapped a dinner plate sized fist to his chest. “Wounded, I am, to think I'd take advantage of Filius not being around. I wouldn't think of it …....”

Ginny spoke up. “I already checked. All animal life seems to have vanished, except what was in the castle. And Buckbeak's and Firenze's paddock.”

“Odd, he aint' about.” Hagrid shook his head. “Can't fathom he'd take a walk, not without saying so. Not that he wouldna be alright in the Forest, on his own, like. But he's still not welcome. I can't think anywhere else he'd be?”

“Me neither. Luckily, Sybill has graciously offered herself to take up the class load.” Hermione rolled her eyes at Divination. But, if Flitwick saw fit to continue it, she'd not buck the trend.

She wasn't really in charge. Right? For long.

Merlin, hope not!

“Harry should have been here.” Hermione couldn't help a vocalizing her disappointment. This was so hard for her. Would it have hurt Harry to summon up some courage if she had?

The Deputy and the Magical Creatures professor weakly shrugged. Distracted, Hermione muttered goodbye to the two, and Ginny and Hagrid watched her walk out of the Main Hall.

“No skrewts, Hagrid. You heard her.”

Naturally, Hagrid had indeed been hoping to reintroduce his star attractions. “Ginny, on my word of honor. These are improved. I was waiting till next year, but they might do champion under the circumstance. I have completely bred out the poison darts and the tendency to scream like a banshee.”

“Good God!”

“Mostly.” Hagrid finished in a mumble.

“No! Not with my son. He's likely introduce them to George and Maddie's twins. And then we'd have an abominable mess.”

Hagrid did roll his eyes, at that. But wasn't giving up, so easily.

He'd talk with Harry, about it. Afters....




[Residence Tower, Potters']


Ginny came up the spiral stair, and found Harry sitting on the bed. Fully dressed.

“Brought you some toast. And an apple.”

“Really not up for food, right now, hon.” Harry did in fact look still green. Well, all green, in fact, as the bright green velvet jacket he lopsidedly had on simply screamed out at Ginny's eyes.

She brushed at his shoulders, tamping down from the always unruly hair from his head. “Merlin, what I wouldn't do for a camera.”

Harry muttered, “Not wearing the Yellow one. Not ever. Don't know how Luna had got to the Elves, like this, but it's not funny.”

“All velvet, are we?”

“Every last one of my jackets. Plum, orange and an exciting shade of yellow. Like some child cartoon show. Your stuff looks incredible. Even a little black dress ….”

Ginny took a half step back and look at him incredulously. “How on Earth am I going to fit my big fat butt in that?”

Her husband unconvincingly kept his sly grin decently restrained. “I'm actually disappointed we won't be around till Christmas Ball, to see. I'm taking it with us, when we go.”

“An active fantasy life is good for the husband.” Ginny smiled, “Look forward to your fashion show.”

Potter considered the half-opened wardrobe and the techno-colored suits waiting him. But if he could do it ….? “We'll find out, won't we?”

“Right. Dream on. Only if you wear the Purple Dress Robes. With the matching shoes, with their tips tied to the ankles.”

“Hah!” Potter had to admit that would be a hard bargain to keep.

“Forgot about the day, haven't you?”

Harry looked at her narrowly, and pursed his lips. “You are fiendish woman.”

“Witch!” Ginny agreed. “Eat a toast.” She shoved a piece to his mouth. “Go ahead and take off the jacket.”

“Thank, God! …..” Harry got up to shrug out of the electrifying spring-green coat.

“No, you'll still have to wear it. Just don't want you to get any toast crumbs on it.” She did a double take and looked suspiciously at his upper lip. “Are you trying to grow a mustache?”

Harry blinked several times. Of course, he never thought Ginny wouldn't notice. Yet! “Seemed a rather, umm, opportune moment. My being here as a …...um, adult.”

“Oh, my God! I married to Mr. Chips.” Ginny said with delight.

Potter just clammed up. Pouting and taking a bite from his toast.

Ginny stood circling around him, getting the shirt corrected while Harry resignedly munched. She straightened his collar buttons out. He managed to do them incorrectly, and might not have noticed or cared about it all day. Once even having the lapel button instead fastened to a regular button hole, throwing out of whack his entire shirt and not notice or care that the Minister himself saw him.

Sometimes she wondered if Harry did that deliberately. To make people think he was an eccentric nut and not take him seriously.

She kissed him on the ear. Well, not today. Professor Potter was stepping out into the fire. For all to see and judge.

At least he would not look a clown. Not on his first day. She liked green.

“I'm fine, it looks good.” He whispered.

“You are now.” She patted imaginary dust from his shoulders and pulled off a long red thread of a hair from his jacket. One of hers, nicely still all red. Not a hint of gray, thank you very much.

“Fancy having a whole closet that fits us.”

“I fancy the House Elves spent all night organizing it up.”

Harry rolled his eyes. “Merlin, don't tell Hermione.”

“She'd guess successfully, in any case. But I'm not wearing the same thing, all week long, and all you wore was a shirt and pants. How we organize our home is our affair. Besides, they did it for us without asking.”

“Really miss Kreacher.” Harry muttered.

“Me, too.” Ginny also breathed.

“She can't possibly run this place without their help. Elves! Let's just let her pretend not to see them while they save our lives from endless toil or starvation rations.”

“You have my full support.”

“Thought so.”

Ginny glanced at the clock by the bedside. “It's 7:30, but you should get going. Be seen. Joke with the older ones. Kiss your nieces if you see them. Be a man of the people and not a walking thundercloud, with fuzz on his upper lip.”

Harry mumbled under his breath, but grasped the cloak off the chair back and headed for the spiral stairs to descent for his first day of class.

“Do you want me to go along?” Ginny brightly asked.

“No. It would look like I was being escorted by my Mommy.”

“Very funny. But I suppose you are right. Just remember this ….” She reached up and gave him a long kiss. “I love you.”

“I love you, too.”

“So stop looking like you are making your final walk to the gallows.”

“I'm not good with people, Ginny. They all look at me, asking me to give them more. Always a little bit more. It is the same old thing.”

His wife understood. “Not like we had choices then. Not now. So go on.” Ginny nodded to the stair. “Spent too long, doing this detective thing. Wondered if that was a mistake.”

“No, not at all. I love still being able to solve things.”

“Not talking to people. By yourself, for long stretches. Solving it with one or two sentences and walking out the door.”

“They never want a lot of blather. Maddie talks enough for all four of us.”

“You don't know how many people come up to me, afterward, and whisper they were frightened of you, or don't know what they did to deserve your ire.”

“I hate nobody. That's a bunch of shit!”

“I know that, honey. But it's your attitude, again. Like the old man from Hogsmeade. All they know of you is mostly myth. These ones in the castle …..weren't even babies then. Remember the good bits of school. Be the little Harry, sitting out there, not the sad Potter. Remember being one of them, seeing a new teacher. It's all miraculous. Just the younger ones today …?”

“Yes, Three, First and Second Years, with a break in between them. Something in that order.”

“Training wheels, my hero.”

“If I do well, maybe you could model the black dress for me?” Harry asked, hopefully.

“Hah!” What his mind seemed to be on this morning, she thought, seemed rather off subject. Ginny grinned, “Well, that's a possibility. I'd have to see it first. If I'd look like a balloon wearing a rubber band, there is no way.”

“Or I was thinking maybe the nightie. Next to it.”

Ginny did a confused double-take motion. “Why on earth would the House Elves make something like that?”

“ 'Cause I asked them to.” Harry cleared his throat and looked unconvincingly hapless with a weak shrug of his shoulders, turned half-way looking back up down the spiral stair.

“Oh!” Ginny Potter looked back at him with an expression he couldn't quite read. “I see. Thinking priorities, are we?”

“Uh, well, I was sitting there and the one with a fist full of bobbins and a swatches of clothe over his shoulder asked if there was anything else …....”

Ginny frowned a little, looking to one side off in the distance. “Astrid once told me a man should go into battle properly motivated.”

Harry didn't know how to answer that. If it was a yes or no or maybe …..?

“Go on, Harry. You'll be alright. We can do it.”

He nodded, and walked on down, and she closed the door to the tower and leaned back against it. A few minutes to herself, was all she had, and then Ginny remembered the 'Quidditch Fanatics' and that she told them to meet in her new office.

Which she still had to get into!

It was going to be a full day.



[former private chamber of Minerva McGonagal, new Deputy's office]

It had taken Filch a half-hour of fumbling with an immense ring - the diameter of a car tire - of old Hogwarts door keys, for the wizened maintenance man to get the odd school door open. Magic spells had done nothing to the lock, so the women had had to find help from the miserable housekeeper of Hogwarts.

Following him inside, Luna and Ginny were greeted by a wave of pent up odor. Redolent of old cigarette smoke and perhaps other things that weren't tobacco.

The room was filled with crates and old cardboard boxes. Filch grunted at the sight and and wound his way to the one lone window. He opened it a crack but opposite was just another gray stone wall and a little slip of a crack of the now always still silver-gray sky.

“Forgot that. No wind to ….....er, air out the room.”

“Sure that will be fine, Mr. Filch. Thank you.”

He sniffed loudly at the window. “Haven't been able the smell anytin' for years. Autumn leaves and pumpkins is all rubbish on me. But you two shouldn't be bothered by the dust, much, after a time.”

His lopsided grin must have been meant encouraging. The two women looked at him in disbelief. But it made some sense. Filch had certainly never caught them at anything when they were kids due to his sense of smell.

He couldn't have, in here, at any rate.

“Just these two chairs.” Luna fingered one's ancient top rail. “Maybe if there are some more spares ….., Mr. Filch?”

“Oh, aye. Shouldn't be a problem.” Filch grimaced as if with severe pain from just having his foot cut off. Actually, he was making an attempt at smiling. Both witches recognized that and vacuously smiled back. And the old squib shuffled back out the door into the school hall in search of some more chairs.

“Think you've made his day.” Luna said secretively, picking up some small milk crates filled with Minerva's old junk and discovering they had sat on a dust-cover over the shape of a sofa.

Ginny was clearing off the top of McGonagal's old desk. “That's always a disturbing idea.”

“Respects you. He imagines you are going to bring some new order and discipline to Hogwarts.”

Ginny snorted derisively. “Sorry I forgot my fire whiskey and dancing hall girls.” She coughed. “I think you mean 'fear', which he seems to worship. This is just for a few days till they figure me out for a cream puff. Not like I'm walking around with a cudgel.”

“Let him dream, Ginny dear. He'd much more cooperative at that moment.”

Ginny grunted, pushing away a stack of boxes to allow her old wood desk chair some space to be pulled back, and she sat down.

Luna smiled again, to see her friend sitting at a teacher's desk. “You belong there.”

“Not going to happen, long. Luna. Wipe that smile from your face. Just …..temporary.”

Luna pawed at the sofa's dust cover and learned her mistake quickly, producing a cloud of dust that she had to wait settle back about her before breathing again. Luna carefully pulled the rest of the cover off, revealing a big cushioned over-stuffed sofa, long enough for both witches to lie stretched out. It was an odd …

“ ….....Brown, gray, red, furry ….plaid.” Luna peered at the fabric with wonder. She was forgetting to comment on the sofa's feet.

Bear paws!

“It was the Seventies. We should be grateful it is not neon green or something.” Ginny opened various drawers of the desk.

“What I was hoping for, actually.” Luna flopped onto a cushion close to the arm rest.

Discovering the sofa's springs were badly weakened through severe use and the witch sank farther and deeper than she had planned.

“A tad......infirm, I'd say.” Ginny laughed to see Luna's blue-jeaned knees stuck up almost as high as her shoulders.

Luna shifted slightly to a middle cushion and a better seating position. “Just needs some love and care. We'll get the House Elves to sort it out. You'll see.”

“Maybe I'll have them move it to Neville's office, if you love it so much.”

A greedy light entered Luna's eyes and she grinned.

“All yours.” Ginny shook her head, and opening one lower drawer, discovered a row of small plastic boxes. “Ah, music!” Mrs. Potter said, delightedly. She knew exactly what these were, cassette tapes. The late McGonagal's husband – Luna's father – loved these old things, having a vast collection of them at his home.

Many had only hand-written slips of paper in them. The original liners must have long crumbled or been folded or bent to destruction. Ginny randomly pulled one cassette box out. She was in the process of opening it up and looking about for a tape player, when the cassette drifted up into the air and floated all by itself to the seeming blank wood face a adjacent file cabinet.

Which transformed itself into the face of an old Muggle music tape player, taking the plastic box gently in its animated mouth and accepting it like food to a bashful lamb.

“Love this. I wonder now why she didn't take this all away with her.” Ginny sat back and a song by someone she didn't recognize began from hidden speakers about the room. A slow, dreamy, guitar and a plodding steady gentle bass note. The lone scrap of paper in the plastic carrier box – the scrawl familiar to Ginny as Minerva's writing - unhelpfully just said 'Hits'.

Not that Ginny would have cared or known much about the antique music. The sounds enveloped the witches and they sat silently for awhile, just fondly remembering McGonagal.

Eventually, both witches got to their feet, the music playing languidly about them. And the women began clearing things about them, discovering most of the boxes contained old, obsolete books. Or school papers of a young Minerva McGonagal.

Luna laughed, producing a Charms term paper dated from 1961

Ginny opened the Hogwarts castle window wider, which looked out upon more gray stone and flying buttresses and other ancient stonework. There still was no air movement, but the old office hadn't been opened in a long time and needed something fresh.

“We'll have to …...um, de-scent-i-fy the air in the room.”

“I don't notice it anymore.” Luna idly paging through a file folder.

“We are probably already under some chemical effects, by now.”

“Doubt it be harmful. You look like a lovely talking radish, by the way.”

“Very funny, Miss Mushroom.”

Minerva McGonagal's old office hadn't been used in a long time. Eighteen years, in fact. But, quite apart for the nostalgia value for Ginny had for her old teacher, it was close to Luna and the Library …..as well as a short cut immediately to Gryffindor tower and James. If the need arose.

The best of both worlds, in Ginny's opinion.

Luna just camped out in Neville's chamber at Hogwarts. Where he saw his Herbology students when not going home to the Longbottom's house in Hogsmeade. Neville had his school office close to Luna's library and as the nominal head of Gryffindor House, ceded to him by then Headmistress McGonagal, Professor Longbottom had felt no burning need to move or take over her old digs.

This had never been her school business office. This is where Minerva retreated to. Where she kept her hidden life.

Ginny idly opened and closed a desk drawer. She hoped and prayed with all her might that Neville was okay. For her brother Charlie, too. But he always seemed to be able to take care of himself. Ginny patted the table top, and sat back in the wood office chair. Its ancient spring creaking faintly as she reclined back.

“Like she's back with us again.” The blonde school librarian said from the old couch in the corner, seeing her red-headed friend looking like she belonged in that seat.

“You need your eyes checked, Luna. All that squinting at tiny print has damaged them severely. No one is going to mistake me for her.” Ginny sat back in the office chair, leaning back to put rest her feet on the corner. “A hell of a lot prettier than me. You remember, from the Portrait.”

Luna smiled, again. Ginny noted Luna's mood had vastly turned around, in the past few hours. Another reason for this to be a permanent thing. Luna had scared them all, initially shutting herself in Neville's office and not willing to come out.

“She was younger than we are, when she moved her stuff in here. Can you imagine? Dippet the Headmaster, Albus Dumbledore just that know-it-all guy, down the hall. Riddle just a scary memory from his school days, a crank wandering about in a black robe with losers cravenly crawling after him....”

“Tied-dye shirts, bell-bottom jeans,.......”

“Mini-skirts, no-bras, …..”

“Am I talking to Mrs. Longbottom or Seamus Finnegan?”

Luna blushed prettily, laughing, “Just think it must have been so liberating! New ideas. Women finally coming into their own....”

“If that couch you are sitting-on could talk, I bet it would sing some pretty torrid tales …..”

Luna made a choking sound and slunk off of the old couch as if it had been on covered in putrid slime. “Eeeeeeww!”

Ginny merely smiled. “Liberating!”

Instead of returning to the sofa, Luna sat on the one other chair available, in front of now-Ginny's desk. “Furniture can't talk in here, can it?” She asked nervously.

Ginny made an uncertain face, looked nervously at the silent desk and the now abandoned sofa. Scared to think that maybe it was more like the haunted old desk in her husband's office back in Diagon Alley. “Not so far....” her voice trailed off in uncertainty.

Luna patted the desk and gave a head tilt back at the couch. “Let's find some new things. Sure the School Elves can have something from other rooms. There are chambers all over the castle that have been sitting unused for decades.”

Ginny nodded and the two sat back down, looking at the other things McGonagal had left from her old office. Ginny fingered the dark wood of the desk. It was Minerva's old one. She had kept Dumbledore's furniture, when she had moved up to the lonely tower. “Think it was a lot harder than that sounds, being a teacher here.”

“What do you mean?”

“Old men were in charge, at Hogwarts. For over a century. Some of the later ones were open minded, like Albus. Others never gave her a break. The funeral proved it. The old ones never forgave her proving them wrong. You remember her talking about it when we found the picture at your house. Think it was an uphill fight, against the establishment and the old-fogies in the school. And not always a happy one.”

Stubbornly, Luna shook her head. “Change happened. There were other women, after her. Minerva was part of it!”

“Or she inadvertently helped bring on people that supported a homicide like Riddle. People so unsettled by her and young people like her turning their world upside down that they clung to maniacs like Voldemort. Latched onto the 'Muggles-are-the-root-of-all-our-problems' bit. Frightened of the 'Sixties Changers'. Scared the hell out of them.”

“Wasn't her fault. Lot more complicated than that. That conservatism is part of being human. Always happens, no matter what the era ...”

“Now I am going to be sorry. Arguing with a librarian!”

“......that change is happening.” Luna asserted, emphasizing with a finger pointed at Ginny. “Minerva was the first woman teacher at Hogwarts in over a century. Can you imagine? That's a hundred years of denying women professorships because of our sex. Okay for us to be librarians or nurses. But a girl! Daring to teach witchcraft!”

“Does seem rather stupid. Doesn't it? There were Muggle women in universities, decades before.”

“Who do they think made magic, in the first place? Back in Ice Age caves and savanna tree-houses, when all people wore were fur and gnawed on old mammoth bones.”

“That's a lovely picture. I had no idea all I had to do to get you out of your sulk was muse about women in power.”

Luna frowned and folded her arms in to her chest.

“That's more like what we've been living with. Don't do that because of me.” Ginny made a conciliatory face, “We are all worried. And scared.”

Luna fretted with the ends of her hair between her fingers. “Three days. Longest Neville and I have been apart since we had the babies.”

“I know. I'm scared, too. But we have Harry and Hermione on our side. That means a lot. We'll be out of here before the week is out. You wait and see.”

“Too optimistic, Ginny. Something tells me this is going to last longer than that. Not unless they figure out what's wrong with us.”

Ginny shook her head. “Hagrid and Harry seem certain it is outside the castle, that's the problem. The castle is protecting us ….”

“That's not making me feel better!” Luna's worried look matched her voice. An 'un-Luna-like' hysteria just held in check.

Ginny winced and said, “Sorry. I say the wrong things. That's why I've always need you. Put me in charge of a sinking ship, and I am likely to criticize the crew trying the fix the holes.”

“You are doing wonders for my morale.” The librarian sank her head back on the narrow top rail of the old wood chair.

Some silence ensued. Both witches staring grimly at the old stone walls and ceilings. Ginny Potter tapped her finger nail on the desk. “You know that's not a bad idea, actually...”

“Have everyone given an inspirational pep-talk by you?” Luna closed her eyes. “Not unless we are encouraging jumpers to leap off the battlements.”

“No. You are put in charge as 'morale-builder' Luna.....”

Luna made a sour face. “I don't feel like being very happy,” in a slightly petulant voice.

“Why you need it, most of all. I'm hopeless at it, and just create suicides.” Thinking back on the conversation when it was Ginny - just the day before - being cajoled into this job by Hermione. “Castle is too bleak and gray. Needs color.”

Luna blinked. She had never imagined for a second she'd hear those words out of Ginny Potter. “Really?”

Ginny nodded. “Nothing permanent. Or large! Mind you. Flitwick and Yi will be back here, before you know it, and no sense in making hallways psychedelic orange and pink.”

Luna's eyes kindled with the bright light of ideas. “Well, now that you've brought this idea up ….”

“No, to the Library being all-yellow.”

Luna made a coughing sound of exasperation.

“Little bits of the trim-work. Okay?”

“She got to you, before I did. Didn't she.”

“Doesn't matter. Running of the building and staff is my job. Hermione and Harry have got the school and maybe our existence in their hands, so their time is fully occupied. So …..give it a week. Let's get the kids back on their routine, as normal as we can, then hit me with your redecorating.” Ginny blew a strand of her long red hair out from over her eyes. “Little things. Tasteful ideas, only!”

Luna sat up, and that coincided with a knock at the door and Jennifer Cortez peering in from around the door jamb.

Jen said, wonderingly looking at the stuff still in boxes by the door. Old posters, of music concerts and events from fifty years ago. “Wow! I thought this was a school book storage room.” The girl stepped further inside to the middle of the floor space. Her nose wrinkling a little at a faint but distinct odor now that seemed to pervade. Jen knew what that 'might' be, but she was determined to keep her mouth shut about it.

Jen coughed. Trying to hold her breath was fast becoming futile.

“It was the lair of a witch.” Ginny smiled a naughty smile.

“THE witch!” Luna stood up. This whole enterprise had completely changed her mood, in a few minutes, from the bleak despair she had when she had shuffled in behind Ginny in their getting the lock open with Flich's keys. “I have things to do, Deputy-headmistress. One thing I can think of already ….”

“What?”

“Plan on the Hallow's Eve Feast. As normal.”

“Well, …..I mean, is that going to be necessary?”

Luna gave the teenager a quick glance and said, “Maybe.” And the school's now less gloomy librarian walked out.

Jen eyes were as wide as saucers in her well-tanned face. “Am I interrupting, Deputy-Headm....?”

Ginny lifted a eyebrow, archly.

“....Aunt Ginny?”

“Better. No, just us old women, fretting over nonsense.”

Jen looked seriously concerned, then gave her head a shake. “You people never say what you really mean. I am too lacking in a sense of humor to understand.”

“Nothing for you to worry about. Just youth. Give it a few decades. What can I do for you?”

Jen breathed a big sigh and gestured if she should sit down in the chair. Ginny shook her head and got up and pointed Jen to sit with her on the dilapidated couch.

Heck with it's probable sinful history!

Ginny patted Jen's shoulder, almost giddily happy. Perhaps it was the air in the room. “What's going on with you? We haven't had a chance to talk.”

“You've been very busy. Bigger things than my problems.” Jennifer looked mystified at a plastic crate full of foot-wide cardboard squares, beside her side of the sofa. “Why are you in this old room? With this junk?”

“My old professor's private office. You and I wouldn't be here without people like her. Seemed appropriate.” Ginny made her voice as gentle as she could manage. “How did things go with your father?”

“Bloody awful.” Jen closed her eyes and rubbed her face in her hands.

Ginny made a consoling murmur in her throat and rubbed Jen's shoulder. “Not the best idea we've had. So sorry about that. If we hadn't been so full of this …..” Ginny pointed out the window, and the gray bland light that came out reflected on the opposite castle wall from Minerva's old office.

“All my fault. Not him. I don't know what I expected out of him.”

“Men aren't very bright.”

Jen looked wryly back at her aunt. “Well, maybe. But I lost my temper first. Called him things.”

Ginny nodded. “He deserves every name you can think of, and then some. And maybe you are more like him than you knew. He could have a temper tantrum like a dragon - when I was real little - if he didn't get his way. Mum and Dad didn't fight back and put him in his place, as they should have.”

Jen looked unhappy. “So I get from both my mother and father. Great! Poor Robbie.”

“Make a special effort, then. Always. Use them as examples of how you don't want your marriage to end up like. That's what your grandmother told me.”

“She did?”

Ginny grimaced. “Our early years as a couple had its ups and downs. Harry and I had some …..unique problems.” Ginny waved her hands. “Water under the bridge. I wanted to tell you we have all your things from your mother's house.”

Jen made a grim chuckle. “Bet that was fun! Thank you. Sorry to have put you through that.”

Her aunt sighed. “Victoire's mum and my dad, actually. They talked Bill and me out of going there and beating the shit out of the hard bitch.”

Jen surprised herself with a quick frisson of irritation of her mother being labeled such. But quickly remembered.

Those were her own last words to the same woman!

Ginny rolled her head about her neck, looking to her hands on her lap. “Glad that didn't happen. Wouldn't have solved anything. Your regular stuff is with Fleur. Dad has the rest of your things at the Burrow. The wedding dress, you have. We can work on making all the alterations on our copious days off.” She sincerely hoped that wasn't just inane cheerful dribble.

Ginny really wanted that to be true, however.

“You didn't have to do any of that.” Jen got to her feet and walked to the office window, forgetfully looking up to find a patch of blue sky and remembering there hadn't been any in three days. “Was going to start things completely from scratch.”

Ginny understood. “Don't worry about your mother. As for your father - my brother - make it clear you are in charge. Then go part way to what it was he wants for you.”

“A God-awful wedding extravaganza with a parade and one thousand guests!”

“He doesn't have a thousand friends. Not that we or his rather innocent wife want to meet. But it doesn't have to be all your way or the highway, either. Maybe things don't have to go all to one extreme. Compromise a little. A little of what you want and what undoubtedly your father wanted. Probably your future mother-in-law, too, but I have no idea of her.”

Jen turned about to face her aunt. “How did you guess that was the argument?”

“What's most important to both of you, right now? And you father feels profoundly guilty about his past. That's all good, in my opinion, but then again, maybe I'm too much of a bitch, as well.”

Jen sniffed a little, some of her frustration of her day leaking into her voice. “I ….just want something for ourselves. Suddenly there seems twenty new people when I turn a corner. Cousins I never dreamed of. Stuck inside this stone hut with them. Makes me want to punch somebody.”

“It will get better,” Ginny smiled. “We all have a little or more of that desire to claw peoples eyes out. Just some are better at hiding it. Even really nice people, like my friends, the Longbottoms. None of this will matter ….. much. Years down the road, and you and Robert are more worried about the mortgage and mid-night feedings. All this will be so much crap.”

“You have to have that written as a greeting card.” Jen smiled and wiped a tear from her eye.

“We'll have that on your wedding cupcake.” Ginny smiled. “Real tiny one, though”

They came together in a big hug. Jen nodded. She profoundly wished it had been her mother, able to stand here and give her wisdom like that. But, Jen wasn't waiting for that to happen, now.

She had in the span of two months and some bizarre twists and turns, what she wanted more than her mother's approval.

A family.

They stood up together. Jen had many things to do and couldn't spend too much time in idle conversation. Besides, just in the brief time she had been in the pungent office, her vision of her aunt had become weirdly distorted.

“James is doing fine, by the way. I know that is why you and your husband were here in the first place. It isn't all just him, being the merry prankster.” Jen pursed her lips into a tight line. “He really does have enemies, but because of his parents. James is holding his own.”

“That's a relief, coming from you.” Ginny indicated she had to head the opposite direction than Jen. “I am very glad he has both you and Victoire, to watch over him. Keep him on a short leash.”

Jen smiled. “More 'Tori's thing. She has more of a ….guard dog-like authority than I do. I'm just another annoying cousin.”

“No.” Ginny faintly frowned. “Think it might be important that you are here, too.”

They walked together out the office, pulling the door closed. Ginny would come back after dinner to straighten things up a little. It didn't look like she needed to worry about rain coming in through the open window.

Then she remembered she hadn't turned off the music. Ginny walked back in and looked for a stop button in vain. “Stop! Halt! Turn off! Dammit!” She commanded the file cabinet that had 'eaten' the first music tape.

It just ignored her.

“Fine.” Ginny briefly fumed at the arrogant furniture. “I'll be back in an hour or two and the tape had better be sitting on the desk top, when I get back,” Ginny addressed the cabinet.

Despite no response back, and the music still playing on, Ginny had a feeling it perfectly well heard every word she said and she confidently walked back out the office. Shutting the door, that now had magically placed a gold plaque engraved with 'Deputy' on it's old surface.

Ginny patted it - as it were a pet dog - and walked smiling out her new place.





[Headmistress's Office]

Hermione hurried in to the Tower, making a beeline for her materials. She was continuing with History of Magic. Bins the Ghost Teacher would continue on in his shut-off room, as if nothing had happened.

Probably happier that way.

She had a pile of loose papers in her hands. From a dozen different classes. Hermione had no idea of when or even how she was going to look at them.

It took her a few minutes to register that she wasn't alone. A thin, ethereal woman calmly stood in the center of the room. She wore a long, flowing dress, parts rested on the floor of the tower, spilling decoratively like flowing water. But bare feet.

Older or not really 'old' but uncertainly youngish-very grown-up.

Her ears were pointed!

“Umm, sorry, I wasn't expecting any …..not too sure if we were introduced …..” She didn't look like one of the mothers stuck in the castle, now gone insane. Nor did she look like anyone Hermione had ever seen.

The portraits were of no help. Several were empty from this morning, the ones still present looked shocked.

“The House Elves need to speak to the Headmistress.” The woman said.

Well, that would her, dammit! “Umm, that is ….. sure, of course.” Hermione looked confusingly at the woman …....possibly she-elf, her one hand making an involuntary gesture in the air, as if trying to show out the average height she expected. “Ah, …..wasn't quite expecting … ….. umm, you are?”

“The one in charge.”

Hermione stood with a pole-axed expression. But she could accept that answer, for the moment.

Hogwarts was a place of magic, after all.

The 'one-in-charge' spoke first. “You feared for our resources. The kitchens seem to suffer no material loss, and are able to function normally.”

Hermione Weasley looked at 'In-Charge' owlishly, then shook her head. “I ….I am not so sure, my calculations ...” She shook the pile in her had at elvishly looking woman as if those would convince on their own. She quickly stopped, knowing those to be the students work from something else, turning to shuffle through the litter on her desk. “No, of course these aren't. Must be here. I was doing that last night …..”

“You are magic, Hermione. You need have no fears.”

“I was a tad concerned. Especially after seeing the feast laid on this morning ….”

“For reassurance. Not the usual thing. We felt it incumbent to show the students there was nothing untoward in their coming day, except for a few new faces leading them.”

“I appreciate that. Immensely.”

“You are most welcome.”

“You are not what I expected.” Hermione couldn't keep from blurting that out.

“We seldom are.” The 'tall' she-elf's smile was like pure joy, given form. Like a child opening a door and meeting a pile of birthday presents and an immense cake.

“I have so many questions ...” Hermione said, breathlessly.

“Sure you do. It is what makes you one of the great women to sit as Master of the school. You will ask them till your dying breath, at great old age.”

Haw! Hermione hadn't thought of her terminal illness in at least twelve hours. But it seemed funny. She was almost tempted to prick the seemingly all-knowing arrogance of the beautiful goddess standing in her office by informing 'Ms. Elf!' Hermione was probably dead within the year. Instead, she asked, “You are not going to answer my questions, are you?”

Her visitor laughed, like music. “There would be no ending to them.”

“We can't survive completely sealed off …..”

“No one can.”

The elliptical answers were beginning to grate on Hermione's nerves. “No. No, I mean the castle ...”

The she-elf gave the merest shake of her head. “This is a place of great power. A citadel of enormous might well beyond what humans understand. You and your children are quite self sufficient.”

Hermione had real concerns about this. If her fears were really true …...“We are biological creatures. We make heat and waste. In a closed space, one can't take energy indefinitely out of a system and return it …..indefinitely. ...without compensatory …..”

“Magic.” The elf said sweetly, as if that was the only answer needed. “Shall I summon the head of Sanitation, Headmistress? He can be more elucidating to the outflow ….”

Hermione made a face of distaste. “No, I'm sure it would be most ….accurate and I'll take your word for it.”

“That is wise. He can be most exact. Hogwarts will continue on in that regard, with no interruption.”

“No one really explains that part of …..the operation …..”

“No one ever does.”

Hermione just sat on one of the simple guest chairs, placed in front of her desk. She hadn't the time nor the inclination to decorate or change anything about them. Probably wouldn't, in truth. She wasn't that worried about appearances and this would hopefully be very temporary. “That is a huge relief. I have to tell you.”

“It was quite insightful. Others in your position might have gone days without questioning. For our part, that caused us great consternation till we were reassured. But Hogwarts indeed is cut-off. Make no mistake. From without. The physical isolation seems rather ...complete.”

“By what.”

“I have no answer for you. I believe you are right in thinking it part of the castle itself. Protecting it from something external. We will support you fully in whatever you need in seeking solutions. The answer must be found.”

“So you don't know, either.”

The elf shook her beautiful head. It was like the air about her face and body sparkled faintly. “No.”

The temporary leader of humans looked blank for a few seconds, then remembered what she'd been dying to say to an elf or even better a titular leader of elves for some twenty -two years.

“I won't stand for your followers to be abject servants, here. Though, I ….we, desperately need your help ….”

The elf gently shook her head with a smile, “All your efforts are heartfelt and rather unnecessary. The castle comes first, for all of us.”

“Hmm.” That seemed a vague, if gentle rejection of her unstinting efforts for the last twenty odd years as part of and literally organizing S.P.E.W., to prevent and fight against human exploitation of elves. Against some considerable opposition by some rather thick and stubborn members of her magical family.

As if reading her thoughts, the beautiful visitor smiled again. “Thank you, Hermione Weasley. We know.”

Hermione just nodded. Okay, well, she met with elves.

Finally!


They still made no sense to her.

“Well, I have things to do. We can talk longer this afternoon …..”

“You and I will not meet again.”

Hermione couldn't help letting the disappointment show on her face. “What can I do to change that? Please.”

“Some mysteries are better left to challenge. Even great minds like yours.”

And with that she was gone. Just not there. No sound of departure, as with the other elfs Hermione had encountered. Just a single slender leaf, of some unknown tree, left in the place the she-elf had stood, as if in some token.

Hermione stooped to pick it up. It was broad, like a maple but of no recognizable shape or species she knew of. Darkest green, but almost a faintly ghostly hint of gold at certain angles she held it.

“Well, that was certainly unusual!” One picture exclaimed.

“Most …...startling.” Said Snape.

“None of you, saw that ever before?” Pocketing the leaf, Hermione craned her neck about the chamber, but none of the three to four dozen pictures did more than shrug.

Hermione tapped a toe, but decided she wouldn't get to the bottom of this one. Today! Sweeping up her papers from the desk in a random pile in her arms. “I have places to go. Just one question I want to pose, on the way out.” She headed for the door.

“Just one?” called out Elsapeth's portrait.

“Why isn't there a picture of any of the founders to ask this question. And maybe a second one …..why don't any of you know that was the Elf Queen? Hmmm?” Hermione gave a sweetly nasty smile and was on her way down the stairs.

That ought to put the fox in their damn barnyard for the day!

There was silence in the room, except for some faint ticking and clicking of the odd mechanical devices of Flitwick's - and previous to him – Dumbledore's display table. The pictures eyed each other.

“Fascinating!”

“Oh, shut up!”



[Hogwarts staircase]

Ginny Potter came out to Central Keep staircase and laid her hand on the carved stone railing of the gallery. She quietly watched the shifting staircases move about in their strange enchanted dance, connecting and disconnected across the gulf of the Keep.

The witch contentedly patted the rail and was satisfied things seemed in order here. That was very important. She wanted nothing to give her friend and their leader extra heartburn on that score.

“Professor Potter! Professor Potter!” A strongly built older girl came to her quickly from the next lower landing. Another of representative of the Quidditch teams, seeming constantly waiting to bend Ginny's ear about letting them fly.

Ginny knew what this was about and made an extra effort not to sigh out loud. “Felicity, I told your friends, this morning. I have not bothered the headmistress with that, and I am not going to. This week. We are still in crisis mode and broomsticks are not the priority right now.”

Felicity looked like that was an incredible statement. “Surely, she is concerned about our …..um, physical development?”

Ginny wasn't buying that one. The big girl could probably beat most boys in the castle at wrestling, if necessary. Almost all Quidditch players were some of the most physically fit people among the magical population. “If your physical development included a Quaffle or a Snitch, probably the answer right now is 'no'!”

The girl looked a bit confused at that. It never occurred to her that anyone wouldn't consider this matter the single most important thing in life. Quidditch was life!

“You can't be serious?”

Ginny loved the game, too, but found the fanaticism of Quidditch fans wearing. “Keeping everyone safe and intact, till your parents can get to you, is our main goal right now, Felicity.”

“We're breathing. It's not storming outside. What else do we need?” Felicity looked sincerely baffled.

“Certain you Slytherins have the best team this year?” Ginny smiled.

The girl, the captain of the Slytherin team, appeared at once both stunned and pleased that the great 'Ginny Potter' would know of her success in molding - in Felicity's mind – was the most ass-kickingest school team ever. Felicity grinned, “Worked on this all summer. Now that I can make changes I think …..” Felicity corrected herself. “... We think is important, Slytherin has it all sown up.”

The Deputy Headmistress inhaled carefully and said in a quiet voice. “You know, Hamburg tried what you are doing - last year - and had a big bunch of bruisers who could only fly in a straight line. Really fast. Failed, quite spectacularly, in the quarter finals.”

“All seen to.” Felicity almost squeaked in her enthusiasm to talk about this with her childhood hero. “Better brooms, light-weight clothing and we can turn faster ….”

Ginny had heard of this kind of thing before. Every year, people were certain if they could only be put in charge, they had the personal recipe for the perfect Quidditch team. Felicity was no different. “Stop, Felicity. You can't be telling me all this. I've got my boy on one team and possibly my niece on another. I can have no opinion on what you are doing.”

“We don't know about Rose, either!” Felicity whispered emphatically. “We can't get anywhere close to finding out what Ravenclaw is up to.”

“I know nothing. Absolutely nothing, Felicity!” Ginny had to shake her head ruefully. “You know, I'm supposed to be neutral about all this. And I'm not Madame Hooch.”

“You are four times most valuable Quidditch player, in the world. Single most qualified woman to stand here at Hogwarts in generations. Absolutely! Most certainly, you are her replacement!” Felicity eyes almost glowed with that incandescent light of fan worship Ginny had come to despair.

The girl didn't hear a single word of her objections.

Ginny held out her hand, to stop Felicity's built up stream of Quidditch lore she so desperately wanted to discuss with Ginny. They all did, “If you and the other three captains will stop pestering me, by the hour, on this, the Headmistress and I will most certainly allow something to be done next week.” Ginny inhaled carefully and firmly said. “Not today. Soon. You and the other three will be the first to know.”

“Outstanding!” Felicity beamed. The only word that probably registered in the big girl's head was 'soon', Ginny forlornly was certain.

The Sixth Year practically vaulted up three steps each time, so eager to share with her cohort her news.

Hermione Weasley crept out from the shadow of the doorway opening out to the gallery.

“I didn't know you were there.” Ginny said.

“Thank gods, for that. They won't give me a moment of peace.” Hermione said, resting her backside on the railing. The drop behind her looked precipitous. It was. But there were so many protections enchanted on the stairs and the space behind her to keep people from falling that it was probably safer than resting against the thick stone walls.

Who knows what nasty magic lurked there!

“My tower gargoyle is threatening to sit on them.” Hermione muttered.

“Going well. So far. Apart from our legion of Quidditch.” Ginny nodded.

“Think it may be the only reason some wake up in the morning.”

“I enjoyed it.”

Hermione rolled her eyes. “Before more leap at us, is everything going well?”

“Outstanding.” Ginny corrected herself, at Hermione's dubious glance. “Okay, passable.” The Smythes were most certainly not outstanding. From what Ginny had seen. Neither was Dunston, in his Potions dungeon.

But Hermione didn't need to hear all that.

Her friend and sister-in-law seem willing to not want all the details of 'passable'.

“You need to make some ruling. On the broom flying thing.”

Hermione looked aghast. “You'd think Tom Abbott getting a concussion by flying into our new ceiling would be 'ruling' enough.”

Ginny fluttered her fingers in the air, dismissively. “That's just …..hazards.”

“You people are nuts.”

“Thank you.”

“Apart from the fanatics, are the other lunatics doing well?”

Ginny emphatically nodded. “All quiet. Everything in order. Well, no, not perfect. But work in progress.” Deputy Potter beamed with what she hoped was a convincing smile.

“No spectacles. Exploding quills. Stretching ears.....?”

Ginny shook her head. “Nothing. Had some heart to heart sessions with each house. Everybody charming and cheerful.”

“Hmmm.” Hermione weakly sounded her frank disbelief, but did not want to undermine Ginny's towering confidence in her powers of persuasion.

“Absolutely! They are all on board and …..” Ginny abruptly leaned out and shouted at full volume to some boys several landings below on the opposite side of the Keep. “TIM ANDREWS! TOUCH THAT GIRL'S PIGTAIL WITH THAT SCORPION, AND I WILL HAVE YOUR GUTS FOR MY GARTERS!” Without skipping a beat, Ginny resumed her confidential whisper with Hermione “…....... things going smoothly. All things considered. Don't you think?”

The boys, almost too far away for Hermione to identify, hopped in their shoes, alarmed at that Argus-eyed Mrs. Potter was on to them, even from another side of the castle. They scurried back away from their stalking of innocent victims and vanished back into a portraits hidden doorway.

Weasley was a little shocked and speechless at the abrupt changes to Ginny. In the span of a few sentences, her friend switched from consoling adult to vengeful goddess of fury, back to calm, meek old Ginny.

Well, she was never all that meek, actually.

“Yeah. I mean ….so far.” Hermione said slowly and unconvincingly, to her own ears, “Smooth”

That seemed to reinforce Ginny's confidence. Not that it needed reinforcing. “Fabulous! We've got the whole creaking edifice on a smooth slide down the road. Filius will be gratified to see ...”

At that moment, came from some far away place, down below the witches, the faint cackle of Peeves the Poltergeist.

Ginny didn't skip a beat, just leaning over the rail and bellowing at top voice. “PEEVES! YOU MANGEY FART OF A PHANTOM. YOUR VAPOROUS BUTT IS MINE!”

Peeves merely answered with more laughter, fading away as if fleeing fast away into an unseen part of the castle.

Ginny looked back at Hermione. Brightly smiling. “Got to run. Peeves up to something. Must dash.” And with that, Ginny ran off down the nearby steps, eagerly in pursuit of her quarry.

Hermione felt a bit run-over. And a little alarmed at Ginny's zeal.

Her open desire for fleeing game!

Not Hermione's personal style. That was a fact. But why Hermione needed people like Ginny Potter. If this was keeping everything running, for a week or so, till Flitwick and/or somebody came to save her from this nightmare, who was Weasley to complain.

She hurried away toward her tower office. Before someone else could find her.

*


Chapter 16: Detour
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[Somewhere in Iceland]

They walked in silence. For several hours. There was nothing Neville felt like talking about. He was feeling more assertive again, or just plain obstinate in his refusal to let Weasley just give up. They were going 'somewhere' and that was an end to it.

But that was easy part of his solution. After the first half hour, their trek had brought them to a fork of a road and more ugly rocky hillsides. No trees. No people. A few uninterpretable road signs.

Weasley – for his part – compliantly trudged in Neville's footsteps. Silent. Morose. He had no idea why his burst of inspiration had led them them here. Seemingly a barren wasteland

What had seemed a higher purpose only an hour ago was lost to his memory. His brilliant plan of uncovering the mystery of his wife's pin – same as a newly branded mark on her hand as he had last glimpsed it – only led to the death of one of their party.

And their flight to what seemed essentially a empty glacial valley of rocks and tiny patches of windblown snow.

Lovely vacation spot! Why doesn't the end of the world stick to places like this?

“This is all god-damn ash!” Charlie finally commented, stumbling over a large blackish lump of rock on the road.

“I didn't bring us here, you remember!”

Charlie glowered at the back of Neville's neck, marching in front of him. But had to admit he was right about that. “Yeah, I know.”

“Why here, by the way?”

“Don't really know.” Charlie had been ruminating about this since he had stopped blubbering. “Just …..just seemed where we had to go. I can't possibly make sense of that.”

“There isn't anything magical about the area we are in. None that I can sense. If we had a map ….”

“Ah, yeah, must have left my atlas back at my dragon's lair.” Charlie muttered sarcastically.

Neville finished, “ …. we might see something we can use. Until we find civilization, we got to stick to the road.”

“For how long?”

Longbottom shrugged. “Or till we find a drink of water. I'm thirsty and cold. And lost in fucking Iceland.”

That about summed up the day's travels!

Charlie said later on, “There's no sign of those 'bubbles' wiping out the land, like back in Britain.”

Neville nodded. “Or they haven't come here, yet.”

“Well, there is that cheerful possibility, also. Or maybe this place is free of that magic.”

“Or if you could explain what made you think this was a good idea.”

Charlie looked back at Neville without a ready reply. He didn't know. Just in those frantic moments of taking flight …...here seemed the most important place to be.

The sun was going down in a blaze of red to the far southwest. This time of year, it was probably about mid-afternoon but Charlie couldn't say for sure. He'd never traveled here.

The walk down the windy, cold, but surprisingly good highway yielded nothing. There seemed to be no towns. Not even a lonely homestead, nearby. This must be some park, preserving the ice glacier and the volcano.

What ended the day was the growing rush of wind, and then off on the horizon …

A dome of dappled darkness rose over the western horizon, slowly gaining size as it expanded higher up over the crest of the distant ridge line.

“Holy shit!”

“I'm not running anymore, Neville. Sorry, I did the first time.”

Then Neville noticed at their side was a door. Or rather more correctly, a Doorway. Just like the kind that Kreacher, the Potter's House Elf, had used, over a decade ago. There had been no sound. No indication of its appearance.

Just suddenly was.

“What the hell? ….” Charlie began to say.

Neville's eyes widened. As if he had just had an 'Ah, Ha!' moment. “Charlie, do you trust me?”

Charles Weasley looked at him sideways.

“That's a way out of here.” Neville sounded more confident than he felt. It was just gray within the the knife sharp edge of the door. No jamb, no wall it was mounted into. Just a gray rectangle. Right beside them. “Why you had that feeling that this was the place. We were meant to come to this spot, now.”

Given the general desolation about them, even Charlie had trouble thinking of this as rescue.

“Where does ….how do you …....”

“Do you want to argue or wait for that?” Neville pointed. The new bubble from the west was over topping the ridge, sweeping down upon them. It would be there in seconds.

“Go!” and the two men dove through the door.






[Possible alternate Hogwarts woods]

They landed face first in soft wet dirt, in deep woods. The door was gone the second they looked back. Just dark, late afternoon dappled leaves in the background.

A rough dirt path

With plenty of horse hoof prints in it.

They just sat on some nearby rocks, for a while, waiting to get some bearings or to be visited again by the gray doorway. Nothing happened, and the two wizards again began a tentative stroll along the quiet path. It was pleasant temperature, with no rain.

A heck of a lot nicer than hard rock and ice they had been tramping in just moments ago.

But was not sundown, here in the woodland. There was an overwhelming sense that they had not just traveled in distance but in time. The men could not figure out where they were.

After some time, an uneasy feeling about the rough track caused both men to mutually head off in a tangent, out into the trees. They stopped and waited. But no one came along the trail. And the woods were silent, with only brief sigh of a breeze in the far off tops.

They found a rocky hollow, when sunset neared. Hard to approach, if they were beset by some woodland creature. Not a cave. None of Neville's attempts at lighting a fire worked. They both tried various spells.

Rather worryingly, neither could find a reason, like broken wands or poorly thought out spells. Their magic ability seemed lost.

They just could not do spells competently. 'Fire' was beyond either of them. Charlie had to bash rocks together, to get a little spark, which went out with a tiny sputter. Then Neville numbly produced a folded booklet of cardboard matches and Weasley silently took them from him with ill grace.

Hardly anything but old, broken twigs would burn. Water – fortunately - was not an immediate problem. In fact, it was too wet. Their fire was tiny and mostly produced smoke.

It was dark. Cool but not exactly cold. But the woodland was silent. Watchful.

The little fire in the hollow dug at their sides mostly smoked, but did at least give them a notion of heat.
Charlie vacantly tended the little flame amidst the rocks. “The Forest, again. Do you think?”

“Or something very like it. Air smells the same, you know. Really old trees.”

“Yeah,” Charlie poked his little fire, feeding it occasional twigs, mostly just to keep it going. It wasn't doing much else in the damp.

“You know, something like this. What we are doing, in the old Forest …..”

“Yeah, Neville. I've been thinking the same thing for a while. Attract all sorts of attention. Not too safe. But this place is a bit different.”

Longbottom was good with plants, though. “Trees look the same. Really old and long established.”

Charlie had to take his word for it. He mostly thought of a tree as shade and something you needed for firewood.

Conversation lagged for a bit. Finally, Charlie whispered, “Where are the animals?”

“That's been bothering me, too.” It was now too dark to see much of anything. “Maybe we should try to find a cave or such.”

“I can see really well, Nev. Even in the dark. There is nothing out there.”

Neville had to wonder at that. Waving his hand in front of his nose, he could barely see his own fingers. “Could it be …....the, uh, dragon thing? Keeps them away?”

“It's not like bad 'B.O' or my breath, Neville.”

“Animals have senses way beyond humans. How some can tell poisonous plants or avoid predators.”

“Maybe.” Charlie shrugged. “Maybe it works like that. I do scare away dogs and cats, back in 'normal' land.”

Neville thoughtfully made a small sound in his throat. “Hmm. Do you mind my asking? Apart from the seeming total destruction of our universe, hurling us into possible parallel realms, attacks by vampires and our total isolation in what looks should be a monster-infested Forbidden Forest, your being a dragon has actually only been a side show in comparison.”

Charlie mumbled, “Well, yeah, guess if you put it like that. Ask away.”

“Your wife know?”

Charlie sagged a little. Finally he said, “Yes. Couldn't keep that a secret, Neville. But this was from most everyone else. Hermione and my father, one or two others. That's it.”

“Dragons intelligent creatures, that are practically invulnerable, …...that is really quite amazing stuff.”

Weasley sighed in the dark murk. “Not a secret from you, anymore, Neville. Let's just try to keep it among a small circle of friends.”

Neville had to agree that it was unlikely he'd find a newspaper reporter or even so much as another friend to talk to. Anytime soon. “Do you think …...if we found some others …... they'd be willing to help?”

“Ughhhh. I don't know, Neville. I've been doing a lot of a …...'what-iffing', tonight. Even if they exist here, - I got to tell you, just as a former dragon keeper - they are mean and nasty beings. I don't exactly shack up with a reformed vampire because the dragons ejected me out of their social club. I try to avoid contact unless absolutely necessary.”

Longbottom blew out a breath. “Boy, there is a whole new category list of questions we could ask you about the whole home arrangement.”

There was silence, and eventually, Charlie said, barely audible. “Can't talk about her, right now, Neville. Please. I loved her.”

“Love her.” Neville corrected. “Present tense. We are getting out of this, someway, somehow. If my name isn't Longbottom.”

That got a soft chuckle from Weasley. “Okay, Sorry. Glad you are here, to keep me going. Dragon's honor, I won't give in to total despair again unless absolutely necessary.”

“Yes.” Longbottom arranged his seat so he faced out from Charlie. Not that it would give them much more protection. “Yes, I will alert you when the moment happens to panic.”

“That's a good plan.” Charlie said.





They both awoke at dawn. Feeling extra stupid. Neither had kept watch.

Upon the impression that the sun had arisen on the far tree tops, they mutually did not move to refuel the near burnt-out flame. Letting it fade to brief glowing coals.

“I didn't sleep much.” Neville carefully muttered. “Or, rather, very well.”

“Me neither.”

“Let's not stay here.”

“Good plan.”

They again walked close enough that they could see the forest track through the trees, but only near enough they could parallel it. On occasion, the men went down to the path to see what they could find.

Nothing new.

“Big horses, maybe. Looks regularly used.” Charlie suddenly felt like a movie actor, examining ground sign for wild animals. In truth, he could barely pitch a tent. “Or maybe Centaurs.”

Longbottom fingered a dirty chin, “Wondered why we haven't run into people or centaurs, then. One way or another, tramping about the Forest usually brings us to their attention. If that's where we are again.”

Charlie straightened up and tried to get a sense of the area about them. But nothing. Not even a badger or a fox. “Not altogether upset at that, Neville.”

Neville agreed. “I'd like to avoid that, too. But that still doesn't explain why the Forest is all back intact again. We were fleeing for our lives from the sphere of total annihilation swallowing the same Forest, a few lives ago.”

Through gaps in the trees, the men could see familiar mountains. It sure looked a lot like Hogwarts valley

“Just yesterday! If it is the same place. Or the same time.” Neither man knew what to think about that idea.

Charlie suddenly laughed out loud. An unsettling sound in the woodland stillness. “If I turn around and there is a tyrannosaurus charging at us, I'll be sure to remind you of that as bits of Neville travel down its throat.”

“Very funny.” Longbottom grunted. “Besides, Hogwarts didn't exit in the Cretaceous.”

“I'll be sure to mention that, as I fly away to safety.”

After that conversation, they decided they did not like the trail, feeling too exposed to unwelcome eyes. They returned to a distance within the trees, paralleling the path as much as possible. Charlie tramped silently on for a few minutes. Till they came to a steep ravine amidst the trees. Through branches and leaves, a seeming tiny trickle of water could be glimpsed about some jagged rocks.

Weasley kicked a loose stone out into the gap. “There seems no way down.”

Neville sighed. “Maybe its back to the trail again.”

“Yeah, guess so. Let's not stay too long on it, though.”

“Any burning reason why?”

Charlie shook his head. “Bad feeling, Neville. It's been needling me, again. Like there are eyes on us.”

They both waited a few moments, listening to woodland sounds. An occasional bird in the distance. Morning breeze gently brushing the tops of the very, very tall trees, but hardly a breath of it down where they were.

“No animals.” Longbottom looked up to the nearest tree limbs, high above. “ 'Cept maybe squirrels.”

“Not the Forest I grew up with.” Charlie nodded.

Neville agreed. “I sure could use a drink of water.” He tapped the now empty small flask they had liberated from Sirius's Cave, holding it out with the lid open to emphasize its emptiness.

“Yes. That would be good. But lets find the crossing, and then track up this ravine to where we find the stream or spring that feeds that down there.”

“Not really dressed for a tramp in the woods,” Longbottom pointed out.

“No. Me neither. But this all stinks. We are watched.” Charlie turned about but saw nothing but trunks of very tall trees all about them. “I'd like a little more anonymity. We aren't where we thought we were, Neville. That door didn't just open for us out of coincidence, and plop us back here.”

“Deliberately?”

“Don't know.” Charlie looked at Neville quizzically. “Most people don't randomly leap into strange entrances to distant lands at a whim, Nev. How did you know it was safe?”

Neville began walking back the way they came. “Long story, Charlie. But this wasn't what I expected. I was kind of hoping for an elf operating the doorway.”

He didn't explain further. Charlie glared at the back of Neville's head for a while, but soon enough had plenty to occupy his curiosity, stumbling and trying to follow Neville's footsteps amid the massive tree roots and underbrush.

Carefully, they found a negotiable way down through the trees back to the used 'road'.

“That was a whole lot harder than it should have been.”

“Was it just me, or had it seemed like the trees had moved. Our original path back up in the trees was not this hard.”

“Trees moved!” Neville gave Weasley a skeptical look. “Please, Charlie. That is kind of my thing, you know. Think Sprout and I would have had a few examples in the hothouses, if that was possible.”

Charlie glanced about behind them. In a tiny voice, he said, “ …..just saying.”

Neville had the same exact misgivings, but stepped onto the track and they moved a whole lot more quickly onward.

They came to a well made wood bridge, over the ravine.

“If that doesn't prove some sort of civilization. Stout enough for centaurs. Maybe even wagons.” The bridge was strictly the wooden planks of the floor, held up by ropes stretched to either side. Charlie looked over the sudden drop. It was farther than they had guessed in the woods. Rather critically, Weasley eyed the distance they'd have to cross. “Wished they believed in railings.”

Neville felt an urgency to keep moving. “Let's cross.”

Halfway over, there was a shout and a sudden stirring of several dozen figures out of the foliage lining both sides of the gorge. Centaurs with bows and arrows.

All aimed at the humans.

Any thought of retreating quickly vanished with a quick look behind them.

There was no longer a path from the footbridge. A very large tree seemed planted in way. As if it had always been there.






[A few hours later, and a long march]

The centaur guards lances pointed unwavering at the two wizards. Charlie chanced a breath and whispered, “Neville. Don't argue anymore.”

“Well, no shit!” Longbottom whispered back, working his jaw a little from where it had been whacked by a stout haft of a lance. “Didn't exactly expect speeches and candy, but he should have recognized my robes.”

“Shouting 'Hogwarts', several times louder, only gets 'Mr. Happy Welcome' more angry.”

Longbottom had to agree. Either this party of twenty some centaurs were playing dumb, or none seemed to know human language. Certainly, not the biggest one. With arm muscles like small boulders.

The centaur unit's commander.

At his command was a patrol of two dozen centaurs. Shouting at the humans. With very sharp pointy sticks aimed at their middles.

“Could be worse.” Neville mumbled.

Weasley eyed the unsmiling guards. “That's always a really, really bad thing to bring up. In a situation like this. Shut-up”

The evident 'head' centaur in charge, moved closer to the two men – who were holding their hands high in the air – and whacked Charlie hard on the face. Strong enough to knock Weasley to the ground.

Charlie lay slightly stunned. It would have been worse, had he been actually a normal human like Neville. He had gotten used to play acting and trying to act as if he was a weak and frail, compared to a centaur, as any other man.

It still hurt.

“Don't fight them, Neville.” Charlie warned, as Neville foolishly moved to stand between the punching centaur, and Weasley lying on the ground, holding his chin.

“Not going to talk back to 'Mr. Welcome', no sirree.” Neville answered, staring up at the looming centaur

'Mr. Welcome' grinned, with his large bulky human face and all the size and weight advantage over Longbottom as a full-grown horse with weigh-lifters arms over a frail scholar. The centaur bunched up his fist for another punch. This time it would be Neville the target, but just then another centaur came galloping up, and after a sneering look at the two wizards, aimed his head toward strange distant fortress where Hogwarts should have been.

The 'sergeant' punched Neville in the stomach, anyway. Just not as hard as he was going to. Well, if the troop commander had to send his useless flunky of a son to uselessly order about a veteran of five campaigns, he'd get in at least one 'love tap' on these verminous humans.

Neville lay still on the ground beside Charlie. Weasley moved to support Longbottom's head off the hard stone, but Neville brushed Charlie's helping hand aside and rolled over to his knees , holding his gut. “Wow,” he whispered.

Charlie nodded, dragging them both backwards up against the bole of a tree, keeping out away from the centaurs as much as possible. Their last assailant barked at his soldiers, now having backed away with young puppy adjutant standing importantly in the way.

“Think, if he wants to, he could punch a hole in steel. Or break my jaw.”

“Don't like us. Much.” Neville managed to sit up.

“Alternate universes haven't improved their hospitality. But let's not let that stand in the way of survival. Cooperate, first, then...... we probably get put in a cage or cell. Then we get a break to take in wherever the hell we are. And we go on from there.”

“Then what?”

“I'm inviting Sergeant Buttercup, over there, to a half-horse barbecue.” Charlie grimly promised.

“I'll bring the sauce.” Neville agreed.

More picnic planning would have to wait, as the new, apparently younger but more important centaur – some sort of junior officer – babbled out some speech to the grim faced men the small unit that had captured, Charlie and Neville. The 'lieutenant' squalled something at the two men, but neither understood, shrugging bewilderingly.

The officer stamped a hoof, giving a good impression of one of the little Weasley kids having a brief snit over not getting what they wanted. Then the 'man-in-charge' waved an arm, almost as thin as one of Charlie's in the direction of the fortress and pointed to the 'real' man-in-charge, the Sergeant, to get things done.

The 'Sergeant' barked his willing compliance and made a growling sound at one of his platoon. Who in turn, waved a lance at Neville's nose and pointed it onward.

“Guess that's where we are heading, too.” Charlie said agreeably.

That earned him a sharp rap on the back of the head, from another horse-soldier.




 [Holding cell of the Red Guards]

The sergeant centaur had several long discussions with various centaurs that they met, and all of them as the day progressed seemed more and more actively unhappy to see the humans.

It was meeting a small group of 'red-coated' centaurs the real change was apparent. Even Neville caught this trend. “Our newer friends seem less and less friendly than the first.”

“And he has been a barrel of laughs, so far. ” Most of their original party of captors moved off without them as the men were prodded or pushed over to control of the 'reds'.

“I am not going to miss him, much. Wish they could tell us what the special problem they have with us is.”

A thinner, less muscular centaur walked up to them. From the way the others seemed to become more tense, Neville got the distinct impression this one was 'really' in charge. The new commander centaur was accompanied by another. That one had a bundle of oddments, one was what for the all the world looked like a ripped wizard's cloak.

Charlie has long since lost his. The assistant centaur gabbed Neville's cloak out of his hand, and compared the two garments. The centaur's copy had a 'Maulkins' tag at the collar, but no other name. So did Neville's. But his garment had a fancy 'Professor Longbottom' engraved in silver spidery embroidery letters on the front.

“Is this all a little weird?” Charlie whispered.

“I hope they don't want to compare any other garments.” Neville nodded.

The 'red-coat' said things in a mild voice, and when neither man responded, got a trifle annoyed, and grabbed a paper out of the hands of his subordinate. And shoved it under the nose of Longbottom and then Weasley.

On it was a tourist picture, of a happy human couple and their similarly ecstatic children, all pointing and gesturing at the towering masts and black and white stripped hull of an ancient wooden warship. Prominent on the Muggle photograph was a brilliantly gilt centaur figurehead, complete with a spear and a war hammer, seeming to gallop right out of the very fabric of the hull.

'H.M.S Centaur' – read the caption. 'Come see the magic!'

“Okay. That's ironic!” Charlie mumbled.

One centaur 'red' barked a stern command. Still unintelligible, but obviously something about 'humans, keep silent'. One of the last of their original 'woodland' captors actually gave Charlie a worried look, shaking his head briefly before he left them at the last hand-over. And a furtive glance up at the great fortresses high ramparts, before disappearing.

But not back to his 'sergeant'.

The humans were prodded forward and then passed between several groups of horse-men guards. Then they walked along a path to a familiar spot.

Or it should have been familiar. It should have been the top of the gentle hill down toward the long stone-fence lined path toward Hogwarts. The trees about Neville's house should have been there on the right hand.

But only dingy shacks and immense boles of the forest sat there, now.

Also there were the first and so far – only - humans the two wizards had seen. They were not much help, as the villagers had looked fearfully out from half-shuttered windows at the party that passed by on the road.

Not terribly encouraging.

That wasn't the only difference. Rising like an artificial mountain, at a spot close to the edge of the lake Hogwarts stood by, was an immense stone ramp sloping all the way down the Lake. Further angled faces, slightly smaller than the one closest to the lake, were spaced back from the big one, incorporating the natural crevasses that the human castle had stood by.

“That's just not right.”

“Shhhh. Nev.” Charlie didn't think so either. Obviously, they weren't where they should be and arguing with their captors was going to be cause for great sadness.

They marched to a side portion of the fortress. The portal into it was naturally centaur proportioned. The humans were as little children under its arch. It felt very oppressive as they were swallowed up by the darkness.

And the portal closed with a woody thud, with a beam worthy of a house's rafter for a door latch.

Several passages wound their way, and the men both got the idea this was all improvised. Even the next door had the look more of a storage closet, than the prison cell Charlie had expected.

But the inside looked a lot more cliché. Iron barred cells, bars driven deep into the stonework.

A makeshift jail.

The jail guards, red horse cloaks fluttering behind them, clanged shut the cell door. One said something derisive about Longbottom and Weasley. But like all the other centaur speech – so far – neither man was able to understand.

Neville rubbed his shoulder, where one of the 'red cloak's' had added a helpful additional bruise to the collection he'd been gathering. “Somehow, I am getting the hint that our first bunch of horsies handed us over to a different bunch.”

Charlie nodded. “Yeah. Got that from the change of uniform.”

Their initial welcome committee had no clothing at all, except the weapons roughly three times larger than any human device of similar function. Weasley also got the impression the 'Sergeant' had passed them off on to people the officer hadn't directed him to. Especially the furtive glancing about, then barking at the humans to divert onto a slightly different road. They had passed through an obviously not 'main gate' of the immense fortress, towering high over them. And the red draped centaurs, with burning interest in the two men and a lot more apparel and accoutrements, actually smiled at the soldiers handing over the 'special' prisoners.

The 'Sergeant' had grinned wickedly, as the men had been marched away. Charlie would remember that one's face.

Before Longbottom spoke up, Charlie preempted him, “This might not be a good change of venue, Nev. Keep silent for a few moments. And just look.”

Neville and Charlie spent some of the next few minutes silently exploring the extent of the 'human' cell. It was dank, dark, cold but thankfully smelled of long disuse. There were no former or current occupants, human or otherwise. Though there was ominously some ring bolts in the stone walls, for chains.

Neville every so often bubbled up with questions, but Charlie waved him silent. He had a passion for ancient human history and both were into the medieval-sword and fantasy thing. To the despair of their wives. But nevertheless, it prepared both for recognizing a listening hole at the ceiling, and to the fact that sound seem to carry down from the hall.

There was every indication that they were spied upon and/or watched. The one other human prisoner, several cells down, kept a wary eye on them. If Charlie had never read this trick, he'd be an idiot not to recognize one of the oldest ploys in the prison book. Their fellow dungeon mate was certain to be a planted informant to repeat whatever Charlie or Neville said.

Please! Don't these people watch movies?

Charlie seemed more at ease than Neville. He could break out of this, in an instant and take Neville out of here …...but to where? They needed to know more about this place. Without functioning wands, they couldn't do magic. Neville's futile attempts previously showed that their familiar spells and charms didn't work as expected.

Or it just didn't work the way their minds interpreted it. Didn't mean they couldn't eventually figure it out. Obviously, the centaurs seemed able to do magic. The lances they all carried seemed to be their equivalent of human wands. And the lack of magic wands on the few humans the men had seen indicated that was a forbidden or restricted item.

“Okay, think we are relatively safe,” Charlie rapped a knuckle on the door's bars.

It was Neville's turn to feel responsible for their plight. “My fault for this part of the journey. If I hadn't barged on through the door ...”

Charlie disagreed, for some reason. “No. No …..not really, Neville. We are fine.”

Longbottom made a disbelieving gagging sound and shook his head. “Dragons are strange people.

“More than you could ever know,” Weasley whispered.

“And they didn't search us.” Neville startled, feeling around at his inner pockets, surprised at Charlie's non-concern at their imprisonment. “Don't we have to worry about ...” He vaguely and ridiculously gestured his chin toward the listening hole in the ceiling and at the watching other human prisoner across the jailhouse corridor.

“Don't give any watcher ideas we still have our magic wands.” Weasley grasped Neville's hand to keep him from pulling out his wand from under his shirt. Charlie said amusingly, “No, at the moment. I think we can talk all we want. Did you notice something fundamental?”

“No!”

“Centaurs don't speak English, Nev. Not yet. Plus, we don't have a clue about what they are all bothered with us about. We are complete strangers, in a strange land.”

“Boy, why does that sound ominous?”

Charlie nodded. “Not going to be here that long, if I am any judge. I'm guessing within an hour, the inquisition will be getting impatient.” He tentatively knocked a knuckle at the stone walls.

As a dragon, he could punch out of this at any time.

“I …... suspect you are right.” Neville said with a smile. He looked up at the bared window and the oddly placed bore hole in the ceiling. The window was inconveniently too high for the humans to see easily out of. “This is intelligence gathering. 'Joe Vaguely' - across the way there - is watching us since we came in. Soon as they figure out he can't understand us, we are going to be moved to someplace ….more uncomfortable.”

Charlie smiled, “What makes you think he is listening?”

Neville raised an eyebrow, but then shouted, not looking at the other prisoner. “Joe, there is an acromantula in your cell.”

The other prisoner looked baffled, but vaguely smiled, saying some words that sounded like complete gibberish, but still smiling.

“See?”

“He could just be stupid? Or not understand your nasally London accent.”

“Weasleys are all rotters.” Neville grumbled.

“You're not as barmy as I once thought.”

“Thank you. What is your immediate plan?”

“If the bully boys are coming through the door, I am going dragon-sized, and popping a hole out the window wall. Crouch or lie low, and I just snag you on my way out ….”

“How do you know we aren't below ground …?”

“The smell of the air from the window ….never mind. Trust me as a part-time flying magical creature. It's some sort of drop, outside the window. This is just a cell in the curtain wall, possibly a covert one. I have a feeling we are seeing factions within the horse-men. We weren't marched nearly far enough inside to be within the main walls of the fortress. Those were seriously angled, to deflect enemy shot.”

“It's classic Vauban architecture ….or the centaur equivalent. Wonder who or what they are defending against. And who is shooting at them big enough to need this.”

“You have been studying. Good. No idea, and I don't want to find out. This can't possibly be the main dungeon. Which we won't be visiting in any case.”

“Why you so confident?”

“I got the distinct feeling that the red guys with the pointy sticks at our throats were a minority, and seemed not to want us seen by the general public. But some did. One of our original 'woodland patrol' fellows didn't like it. I saw several messengers running …..er, trotting to others on the walls, and they were sending other news about us inside the fortress. There is change in the air. It is all going to happen rather quickly, I think.”

They sat down, with backs towards the opposites sides of the stone walled cell. Looking about them.

The 'other' human prisoner occasionally asked them things. But just like with the centaurs, neither Charlie nor Neville understood a word. Eventually, he too sat unhappily in his cell, watching the two newcomers with exasperation.

Neville said, “Don't get it. This is some alternate place, with centaurs in charge and us humans as annoying things under their hooves.”

Charlie had to agree. “But what does it have to do with us? I can't tell you the last time I ever talked or had anything to do with centaurs . And I haven't been into the Forest …..well, in some three years.”

“There might be a connection. The pamphlet. And the cloak ...”

Charlie nodded, “Yeah, the guy in charge. I'm guessing he is at least 'Intelligence' horse-man. Maybe head jailor, too.”

“And it was something we are connected to, at least indirectly.”

“I …...I haven't been to that old sailing ship since maybe a little boy, Neville.”

“Me, neither. And we can't now.”

Charlie nodded, saying vaguely, “Burnt down, a few weeks back.”

“Guess who was there when the fire started. Ron and Harry were taking George's kids on an impromptu walk about.”

Charlie leaned his head back against the stone of the cell's wall. “So there is a connection. Okay. We know Harry and Ron, not these centaurs. But there is still no direct link to 'them' and where we are. It certainly doesn't explain all this …” Weasley gestured about the iron-barred door.

“Doesn't seem to. But there was more to the old Centaur's burning down to ashes than just an accident. Ministry people were about, afterward. Asking about both Ron and Harry. Because they were there, people naturally assume its their fault. I only know because Hermione said, afterward. And because some blokes from Department of Mysteries had Flitwick cornered in his office for awhile.”

Charlie looked still mystified.

“The old ship burnt down completely. Not a stick, spar or deck plank wasn't complete ash by sunset. Even the iron cannon melted into puddles.”

“Ah, …..... oh!” Charlie was now getting the interest from the shadowy Ministry agency.

“If the concrete could have burned, I'd bet the fire would still be going. 'Fiend Fire'!”

“Please tell me they didn't start the fire?” Weasley weakly asked.

Neville shrugged. “Don't know. Hermione didn't either, but we kept our mouths shut. Almost certain that was what the Ministry was nosing about. They blame almost anything on Harry, if it is flagrant, bizarre or violently embarrassing.”

“Might be right.”

“They are not vandals!” Neville said with a trace of annoyance.

“Still doesn't explain us. Or our friendly abode?”

“I didn't give you the whole list of coincidences. Harry and I bought cloaks at the same time, a few months back. The ladies think he dresses like a slob ….”

“He does dress like a slob.”

“ …..so talked him into going when I had to get some new duds. The cloaks we ordered were the same material. That torn one looked a lot like mine.”

“Coincidence number …...I've lost count. But can you say it was Harry's?”

“No,” Neville shook his head.

“There you have it then. Let's just focus on surviving. Now.”

They spent awhile just snoozing. They were exhausted and this ironically was the safest place they had sat in over three days. They were so boring, the other 'prisoner' lost his concentration also and was asleep, too, by the time Longbottom woke up.

Neville sense of time was a little off. They had marched through the night and he was thinking this was back to morning. The sun did not help, as it didn't reach down to their prison window. He nudged Charlie, who woke with a start. “I hope they feed us, soon.”

“Nothing, so far. In fact, I haven't noticed a single jailor come in and check on us.”

“Our friend is still with us.” At the sound of their voices, the other prisoner roused, blearily shaking his head, and sourly watching them. “Don't think he likes his job too well.”

“That just breaks my heart.” Charlie agreed, glancing back to their fellow human behind bars. Who had basic 'medieval peasant' attire.

Eventually, Neville said, “I was doing some thinking, during my snooze. I am thinking we may very well need to depart this place, soon.”

Charlie looked to Neville with a questioning look. “Something changed for the worse while I was asleep?'

“As a teacher, I've been around Firenze at school. The Hogwarts teachers probably have had more face time with a real centaur than any humans in centuries”

Charlie wasn't sure where this was going. “Guess that makes you a sort of expert.”

“Firenze hates water, Charlie. Boats. Avoids the Lake religiously.”

“Well ….lots of people are that way ...”

“If you weigh a ton and a half, and walk on four hooves, do you like slippery wood boats and rope climbing?”

Now Charlie saw the problem. “Centaurs – as a group - don't like deep water or water craft.”

“Exactly! Don't know that for a fact. But I'd say from the reaction of the ones with the red table-clothes, they were more upset about the old ship and that 'we' were connected to it.”

“But we aren't.” Charles was trying not to be annoyed with Neville. He thought they had already hashed this over.

But his companion obviously had thought on this while they slept. “But we are, they just don't know it yet. We know Harry, he was at a magical destruction of a ship named 'Centaur', the door appeared at our side – out of nowhere.....”

“Don't think they could read the pamphlet.” Charlie pointed out.

“Don't need to. They can see the ship's figurehead on the picture. Looking a lot like a centaur prisoner tied to boat, pointed at by laughing humans, who they seem to hate ...

Charlie could see Neville's train of thought, now. “Okay. But that is still pretty tenuous.”

“A magical portal – connected with Harry, again. Brings us here.......” Neville pointed to the cell bars and the still watching other prisoner. “....and to our new friends.”

“Why do we need to run? If we just explain …..”

“So far, I am getting a fast impression of hostility.” Neville rubbed the scabbed over cut on his cheek, from the Forest guards attention. “People - they don't care who – dressed like us, laughing at the centaur stuck on an old sailing ship. One that just went up in a magical fire. I think I'd like to continue our talks with a dragon standing beside me. And not in a dungeon.”

“Yeah, I am beginning to see your point. And I am really looking forward to some food.”

There was the sound of distant yelling and shouting, and possible fighting. From somewhere distant from the window. It was too high up for humans to see out of.

“Here, get on my shoulders. I can just get your head up to the window.” Charlie helped Neville up, and eventually, Longbottom was able to just see over the lower lip of the barred window out, balanced on his tip toes and against the back wall.

Charlie was fine with the weight at first, but after an overly long extended lookout by Longbottom, began to feel the weight. “Uhh....jeez …......eating a little …..too often at the ….....pastry table. …...Nev!”

Grasping the barred window, Neville could just pull his eyes up over the bottom edge of the window. “I can see the lake, and a ways down the shore. There is some sort of fight. Centaurs and somethings against other things in the lake. Holy cow, I think those are trees moving around like …..”

“Don't know ….don't care ….you got to come down....!”

Charlie unceremoniously began to sag to his knees and Neville staggered to a rolling fall on his behind on the straw strewn dungeon floor. “Too tired. And haven't eaten …..”

“Next time, turn red and scaly so I can just ride your shoulders ….”

Weasley looked annoyed. “What do you think I am? An amusement park ride? No, not yet. Don't want to give away to 'Chuckles' that I got 'huge lizard' issues.”

The other prisoner from the other cell again smiled, and laughed, trying to sound disarming and friendly.

Neville bounced his eyebrows, but nodded. “No, suppose not. But you wouldn't believe what I saw. The trees are fighting creatures from the lake. The water, Charlie! That is where the 'enemy' is coming from.”

Charlie rubbed his neck and shoulders, “Fits. The fortress seems to be oriented to the lake, not the landward side. What do you mean trees ….?”

“I mean the Forbidden Forest here is alive and foot soldiers for the centaurs.”

“If you say the trees have eyes, I'm going to punch you.”

“If they didn't, they were sure convincingly tearing several whales and octopi to gooey shreds, all by touch. I don't find that all much more comforting.”

“Suppose not. No more walks in the woodland, then.”

Almost on queue, the hall door clanged open and centaurs with white and gray-colored livery and actual armor plate about their horse half came bursting through and taking positions about the dungeon. One, apparently yet another sergeant-centaur, angrily pointed to the bars, and one of the 'hoof-soldiers' pointed his lance at iron door and the bars just melted into twisted tangle.

The other human prisoner was also freed, but he looked a little uncertain as to the rescue and kept watching to see what happened to the 'red' jailors.

They didn't appear.

“Now that's the cavalry arriving on time.” Longbottom cheerfully noted.

“Let's be careful. This other side might not be anymore happy to see us than our first hosts.”

“Think you will find that is partially true, Master Human.”

The familiar sounding voice that spoke was from a centaur walking in through the very tall dungeon lobby archway.

Firenze!

*

 


Chapter 17: Royal Audience
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[Leaving the dungeon of the 'Red-centaurs']

The 'white' centaurs fanned out protectively, as the group moved back up out from dungeons.

Firenze explained, as they walked at human pace, up broad ramps, stairs of course being a human convention horse-like beings could not negotiate with ease. “These cells were not known to the Captain of the Citadel. We went to the wrong place, and almost had to engage in combat. These are highly combative clans. You must accept our apologies for not rescuing you sooner, but there has to be a much long-winded discussion and bluster when opposing camps meet.” The centaur indicated the nervous guards closed about the three in a tight circle, “Sudden movements of weapons or warriors are not lightly considered. We must leave.”

“It's alright, Firenze. We were just settled down in our nice jail.” Charlie muttered.

The centaur looked at him askance, but decided it was just more 'human' dark-humor. Not worth questioning.

The humans were still moving at faster than their normal pace, just to keep up. Both were busily munching on the one food stuff Firenze had handy, while jogging along at Firenze's side. Anything the centaurs had to eat was welcome, but not altogether tasty. Sort of granola bars hard enough to resist a hammer.

But they were not complaining.

Charlie noted the other human prisoner had melted away amidst the various passageways on the route up here. “We've lost the other human. He is probably in the employ of the ….'reds', is that right?”

Firenze glanced wryly back at the end of the hall they'd just traversed. “Not a surprise. Probably a long paid informant. I am aware the 'whites' have them, as well. There is much upheaval here, Master Weasley. You're appearance along with Master Longbottom has disrupted the plans of some who thought they were ascendant. All of the garrison was talking about you. How we heard of you to come to your rescue.”

Charlie spat out something a lot like grass stems and said, “Sounds dramatic.”

“What do you mean?” Neville, beside them, whispered. “How long have you been here ….?”

Firenze motioned Longbottom to keep silent. “Not here. There is no time, and I have been careful about not displaying to much knowledge about ….. 'alternatives'.

“That's us.” Charlie nodded to himself.

Firenze gave Weasley a look, too, with a sharp glance at the nearest guard escorting them. Conversation lagged until the group passed several check points, and they entered a much more decorated passage. Firenze visibly relaxed, “We are safely within the royal guard. Now we can talk. Yes. I came here much earlier than yourselves. I suspect by the same means …...a doorway?”

Both men nodded.

“Blending a bit better than you can into this civilization, but you must be prepared to encounter sharp differences. But paramount concern is enemy action at this place ….”

“We get the military preparations. Is something happening?”

“An expected assault. Possibly in the next few days at the latest, though an exploratory attack was forestalled this morning.”

“We saw a little, from the cell. Thank you, for getting us out of there, by the way.”

“Not a certain thing, friend Weasley. There are divisions between the clans, more so than in our time ...”

“We did not know that was a problem?” Neville frowned.

“Kept as much from human knowledge as possible, friend Longbottom. But we are about to reach the audience chamber. Silence for now, unless you are spoken to. I will translate.”

“Who are we being brought to ….”

The white-coated centaur sergeant, even more burly and massive up close, hissed at them. His dark face as unfriendly as the Forest 'sergeant' had been.

They entered what was probably the greatest enclosed place Neville had ever entered. Charlie himself had been to sports stadiums, in the United States, which were as big.

But none of them were full of real centaurs!

“Oh, my, …......wow!” Longbottom breathed out but stopped at a sharp glance from Charlie.

In the middle of one side of the great floor was a sloping mound. Part of the floor raised - it seemed - to aid hoofed locomotion. But its purpose as a dais was obvious, from the central couch-like chair which dominated the center.

On it sat - or lay - the queen. Or her equivalent, among the centaurs.

She gazed at them with welcoming curiosity and signaled for Firenze and the humans to approach.

The escort sergeant rumbled some disapproval in centaur-language at the men, but he was not as important here as elsewhere. This was obvious from the two female centaur guards, brandishing halberds and half-armor, that blocked his further approach.

“Holy cow ….!” Neville muttered.

Charlie gave his fellow former captive a warning nudge. “Really, not an appropriate description, just now, Nev.”

“The shoulder armor, I get. But why don't they consider the human chest part vulnerable. Or at least … some modesty.”

“I am not going to ask, right now and would you stop staring!”

Neville thoughtfully grasped his chin, striking a pose. “Heroic, I think George would say.”

“Great. Taking lessons from him now, are you? The soul of Weasley tact and courtesy.”

“All of the queen's guards are female.” Neville looked around.

“Umm, yeah, I kind of remember my basic biology.”

Indeed, all of them, except for a number of bearded or elderly-looking male centaurs, seemed to be white-blue-liveried females, all armed and armored to the teeth. Longbottom mused, “We got no indication it's like this in Firenze's home, from the castle …..”

Firenze shushed the two men and lead them to one side. “Enough. For now, Friend Longbottom. There will be a place - and perhaps time - for answers later. You will be able to speak to them through me.”

The women centaurs ('mares' wondered Neville?) seemed much less hostile to the humans than the stallions. They actually spent most of their attention on the males, that were noticeably self-conscious and 'weapon-free', at least the ones on the royal 'mound'.

There was only one male centaur that seemed to have a place of prominence. A youth, by the look of his lack of beard, and slender upper human body. As a mark of rank, of some kind, he had a light circlet of metal about his forehead, and some of his very long hair braided down his back, much like a horse's mane in the Muggle world.

He - very noticeably - was the sole one draped in a red.

An even younger female lay on a couch on the queen's other side, but noticeably slightly farther back. She too had light armor, but a much lighter, ceremonial halberd sheathed at her horse's body side in an elaborate belt.

The younger princess, it seemed.

In the background, were some other creatures that were not centaurs. Hippogriffs, eagles and what looked like a minotaur. But no other humans.

'Prince' was distinctly unhappy. The bitter expression as he watched the humans, as all the royal party did, made Charlie immensely grateful the mares were in charge, today.

The queen was clad only in an embroidered coat, covering her horse's back and sides. Her age was difficult to judge. But from the quick glance the two men shared, both were thinking similar thoughts along the lines that she was an extremely attractive woman.

The human portion, that is.

There seemed no shyness about the forward upper human half, nor did that part seem anymore ancient than a good looking middle-aged witch. Neville assumed that was not considered something that needed to be covered. That seemed confirmed by the amazonian guards similar lack of 'covering', except for a few that bore crossbows and had extra-leather covering on part of their chests as protection.

The queen did not seem all that elderly, at least below her neck.

“I am trying - really hard - to only look her in the eyes. Is that really bad, Firenze?” Charlie said to one side of his mouth.

Firenze smirked with amusement. “It is expected. You humans do seem to have a breast fetish. They are important for life, and not objects for embarrassment.”

“Wish that sentiment was a little more widely known, back home.” Neville observed.

“Neville, shut it, will you!” Charlie whispered with some annoyance.

“Just can't help wonder what is taboo, among centaurs.”

Firenze seemed surprised that wasn't obvious, “The neck, of course.”

That being said, now it was obvious, even among all the mares that had their hair long and loose, armored collars covered every neck. Some, especially the apparently numerous 'mares-in-waiting' with elaborate bouffants or short hair, had heavily decorated collars and-or jewelry.

'Princess', for one, was a mini-amazon. Her 'collar' was of pure shiny metal and not marred by elaborate decorations. The prince, in fact, seemed more decorated than his sister.

He even seemed to indulge in eye shadow and lipstick.

“He's a pretty one,” Neville whispered.

“Live and learn.” Charlie breathed.

The queen interrupted further social moire discussions, beginning with an obvious greeting to the two wizards, and welcoming to her court. The speech was beautiful, but utterly alien to the two men. Firenze politely listened and translated at her pauses. She seemed familiar that this would be a slow process, and patiently waited as Firenze finished several sentences at a time.

“Greetings! What brings you amongst us, at this troubled time?” The queen asked, through Firenze. She did not waste time

Neville, nudged forward by Charlie as the 'diplomatic one', tentatively explained, “Like our friend centaur, Firenze, we had come through from an ….. very different place, than this. Not by choice, but by dire need. We meant no intrusion.”

“You are wizards come to aid us?”

All centaurs within hearing shifted uncomfortably. Neville looked at Weasley questioningly. Charlie thought it best to vaguely agree with the queen. “If we can. There is no knowledge of your land from ours. Firenze has had no chance to explain, and we find some here less ...welcoming, than yourself, Your Majesty.”

The prince interrupted, preemptively bursting in before his mother could respond. The queen raised a finger at her guards and ladies angry growls at such manners, letting the youth speak his mind.

It was long, drawn out, and evidently immensely hostile to the humans. Neville got that from the blade fingering, grimacing stallions and male-soldiers, quarantined off the royal platform.

“Don't like us much, do they?” Neville murmured when the prince ran out of bile.

“Should I translate that, Friend Neville?” Firenze wryly asked.

“Don't think that is necessary, Firenze. We are obviously completely blank about what is the major court intrigue. Charlie and I need time with you to get caught up, and to find a way back to where ….”

“Or when we came!” Charlie inserted

“Or both” Firenze nodded in understanding. “It is not easy to fathom. Nor do I think we will find an easy solution. But pay heed!”

The queen patiently waited for the human's attention. Neville made apologetic faces and said, “There was no war pending, where we came from, your Majesty.”

At the end of Firenze's translation from Neville, it was the princesses turn, brightly piping away in the same incomprehensible language. The queen made a very familiar look of parental exasperation, but let her daughter have her say. The prince tried to interrupt, scornful of his little sister. That earned him deathly looks from a few female guards.

The prince looked like he'd blow a vein in his forehead. But the female guards, including the evident general that waited at the queens summons, all smiled indulgently and warmly agreed with the young lass.

The queen gave a 'go ahead' hand gesture to Firenze, who seemed a little relieved. “The princess is very smart ...and a bit impulsive. The short translation is - She is fully on the Queen's side in this and you'll find her an ally. Not going to attempt to translate the 'Heir's' statement ...”

“Not entirely laudatory, was it?” said Charlie.

The royal trio looked expectantly at Firenze to translate. Neville gave Weasley an annoyed elbow, and waved to Firenze to interpret his words instead. “Still nice to have some willing to overlook our many short-comings. We will do all we can.”

The Queen and her daughter gave smug looks to the surly son. Charlie sincerely wished they hadn't, at the same moment wondering what he had just promised.

And that was the moment that Charlie noticed one of the many rings the 'Queen-Empress' wore. The royal centaurs seem to be loaded up with much more jewelry and adornment than Weasley had heard of in his own world. The ring on her finger was small and unimportant – compared to some of the gaudy rings on other fingers. What caught his eye was the simple shape. Silver -and in the same form of a crude four-footed creature as was on Astrid's familial pin in Charlie's pocket.

He could barely keep from blurting that out. And somehow, he just knew he should keep that secret. Charlie wondered if Neville noticed.

Probably not. His eyes were busy ogling naked centaur flesh!

To get back to the crucial here and now, Charlie asked Firenze, “Was there something positive from 'Prince Valiant' and that's just his grumpy nature meeting strangers for the first time.”

The Queen and some of her advisers were engaged in a quick discussion, so Firenze motioned to the two men to come close for the three to talk.

Firenze considered the Heir for a seconds, who was watching the three of them with a face that could curdle milk. Firenze smiled insincerely back at the prince, and then chuckled, “Doesn't like me much, either. His men adorn them themselves in red. You met some. Beware of them. I shall attempt a quick summation of the situation, later. For the moment, the young princess - as you would term her - welcomes your aid, and declares this a sign that humans of magic power will soon join the cause, as full and equal allies.”

Neville didn't need to ask what her brother felt about humans. More in hope, he asked nervously, “The mares rule things here, don't they?”

“Through history, unto the last few generations. Many of the royal family have been lost in prior battles. The present queen's grandmother reigned, and her late husband was one of the first ruling stallions in many generations. He was an only foal.” Firenze frowned. “Yes. Even in our time and place, the females usually rule at home. There are significant and strong calls for that to change in the kingdom here. As I can guess you both can appreciate, from the hostility between Red and White guards.”

“Not too many humans, in the big chamber, Firenze.” Something that had been bothering Charlie.

“Ummm, no.”

“Magic is not normally allowed us humans, here. Is it, Firenze?”

'Their' centaur nodded. “Humans are viewed with suspicion and kept heavily restricted, Friend Weasley. The enemy has made some inroads into recruiting your tribes in some far away continents and islands, far to the south. Your world history never existed in this place. Human magic is a rare ...powerful ...but rare occurrence in this world. Do not display your abilities. Yet.”

“Gotcha. Though that hasn't been too hard.” Neville murmured. “How about English?”

“Until the moment I walked into your cell, I did not believe it was uttered on this planet.”

“That's fine ….for us. Something to hope for. Till some learn it.”

“You are wise to be careful, Professor Longbottom. Speak only quietly amongst yourselves. But do not be terribly surprised if some pick it up, quickly.”

Charlie got it. “Yeah, Firenze. We get it. Sooner or later, our novelty act will wear off, and our friends in the red blankets will be hoping to invite us for conversation.”

“We will do our utmost, in the meantime, to keep you whole. You are under the Queen's personal protection. But do not count on it lasting longer than the next few days, without something significant happening.”

Neville tried to smile and appear happy, despite his words. “I haven't been so happy in the last few days, Firenze, till I saw your smiling face. Now you are beginning to depress me.”

The royal mother and daughter patiently waited while the humans talked with Firenze. Both had tremendous hopes at this turn of events, they could not jeopardize the Heir interfering in anyway. The queen's personal guard would protect the hapless humans from this second forward.

The dark-haired human – 'Neville?' - seemed particularly weary. The queen seemed well able to understand from the incredulous expressions on Charlie and Neville that this was all a near overwhelming shock. She began an obvious gracious invitation to the men to a place of rest, and indicated that Firenze would be at their disposal for information. The Captain of the Guard snapped to attention, understanding the humans survival was entirely on her hoofs from this moment forward.

“She says we can go.” Firenze just summed up.

As they attempted to exit with all total lack of horse-like grace, the two men bowed and retreated. A sharp comment from the 'Heir' got many of the male soldiers sniggering and nodding grimly.

He wasn't their greatest fan.




It was the mare-guards that escorted Charlie and Neville out through different passages. The main force within the fortress seemed actually to be a equal mix of male and female centaurs. There were multiple color groupings, with few other that the 'white-light blues' mixed with the others. Only a few were openly hostile. It was obviously the small portion of red-draped centaurs that vehemently did not like nor encouraged human presence. Most others were merely confused at the sight of humans among them.

The wizards seemed rather overwhelmed and kept their thoughts to themselves, until shown to what seemed an almost human-like luxury apartment. After an exhausting walk through very high ceiling-ed hallways.

Everything had to be for the stature of the centaurs. Humans were just the little menial servants.

Sort of made Charlie feel like a house-elf.

A mare-guard, the female version of their previous sergeant, looked at the two men with long-practiced contempt. But not real hostility like her male contemporaries. She made a cursory look about the chamber and some murmured comments to Firenze. Who laughed gently, and seemed to assure her he was staying on, for the moment.

That wasn't all that set her apart. Apart from her stature, the old blade cut scar across her cheek and gnarled wrestler-worthy muscular arms the thickness of small tree trunks, her face could have been Ginny's.

The door closed, and the two men collapsed into the chairs obvious designed for humans. There were several beds and other furniture that was more their size.

But not used a great deal. From the closed smell of the room and the layer of dust.

“Are we still prisoners, Firenze. This seems a lot nicer than our previous apartment.” Neville must be regaining his sense of humor. He almost sounded playful. Meeting the centaurs had vastly turned around his depression from the day before.

“Essentially, yes. But more for your own safety. There are parties within the Queen's court that would like nothing more than that both of you not live out the hour. Your appearance - completely unlooked for - has stirred new hope into the 'traditionalists'. And thrown the Heir and his 'progressive' minions into a bit of a crisis. Go nowhere without one of the White Guard.”

“The soldiers in white or bluish-white colors?”

“Yes. The Royal Guard. It is almost inconceivable that there will be any mixing of colors. The citizens of this realm are highly partisan.” Firenze checked about in the closets and tapped along the walls. He was nervous about hidden doors. “I will get you concealable weapons, but that will have to wait. There may be a moment when weapons or wands will not have to be concealed, and you will have to do the best you can.”

“We still have our wands.” Charlies said quietly.

“Say nothing about them. Do not expose their use till the Queen asks. She may not even do that. It is a highly-charged subject.”

“That's good, because so far, we had difficulty even making a small fire.”

“What! Where was that?” Firenze said with alarm.

Neville and Charlie gave each other uncertain looks. “Not exactly sure. Close enough to the edge of this version of the Forbidden Forest that we easily walked to the fortress perimeter. About a half day away.”

Firenze looked a relieved. “Away from the regiments brought forward to the Lake. Never do that again amid the central Forest. Not all that seem just trees are. They do not look kindly on fire, whoever uses it.”

In the relieved silence that followed, the centaur said, “As you may have found, the magic from our world does not seem to manifest in the same fashion. Even I have difficulty, but I am valued more for my expertise. Magic-wielding humans here are considered outlaws. Your lives are already in peril. Use your powers only as last resort.”

“If we can at all. But why do you keep looking at me as if I was a stranger?” Charlie wondered.

“A puzzle that perplexes me. You are much like your brother William and as your sister was at your age.” Firenze walked with a clip-clop sound to glance about the back bedroom, to ensure they were alone. These rooms had been vacant before the Hogwart's centaur had come here. “Contrary to what I told the Queen, I do not believe we have ever met, Charles Weasley.”

Both Neville and Charlie looked confusedly at Firenze and at each other. The half-man – half horse looked exactly like the exiled Hogwarts centaur both humans had known, from before. “That's …..just not true, Firenze.”

“But it seems has to be. You were known to me only from your sister's pictures. As far as my world was concerned, you died.” There seemed even more about Weasley that Firenze sensed different. But that might be just the shock of seeing people from his own land, once again.

The two men sat awhile, digesting that information. Firenze inventoried the chests and wardrobes in the room, noting that they were all empty.

More suitable human clothing would have to be obtained. And baths! But that would have to wait the coming battle.

Firenze finally spoke. “Choices between 'doorways' seem to be larger than just 'here' – this world, or 'mine.' It suggests a third possibility, at very least. Your world was still a third reality. Maybe there are still more. It paints a task of getting anywhere close to 'back home' even more complex.”

“If not impossible.”

“Let's not think on it tonight. Just survival tomorrow might be still more daunting.” Firenze frowned, but shook his head. This was no time for needless mental anxiety. “We will have to make time, if that is our lot, to tell stories. Even you, my friends, can feel the storm about to blow upon us. These were the apartments for the old human advisers to the old king. Upon his death, in battle, his eldest and only remaining wife - the present queen - was forced to close them when the humans were restricted …..”

“Can I guess, Firenze. The old king was lost in some fight that humans were involved in the outcome.” Charlie rested his eyes.

“You have the long and short of it, I think, Friend Charles. Humans on this world were always in the margins, not encouraged magic but allowed their own places. The renewed offensive by the enemy has caused great retreat and even a threat to this northern citadel. A party among the southern humans turned sides in a battle on what you'd term the coast of Spain.” Firenze grimly remembered. “It was key in the string of disastrous fights up to this day.”

“Who are the enemy, Firenze.”

“The creatures of the sea, Friend Neville. Aqualond ............., the merpeople, and their allies.”

“Wow!”

“You grasp the problem. The empires were largely out of each others reach, until some antagonism beyond my knowledge led to perpetual war. A change happened, many years ago. My people ….or these centaurs - if you will - have been retreating slowly for years. Creatures of the air and land have mostly allied, to combat the enemy from the sea. But the foe have infiltrated the very small streams and even into the lakes. This was once entirely pacified territory, a ….preserve, around an ancient site of magical power. Not a settlement. Centaurs have no great need for human-like cities. The great forest of our Britain still hold sway, to the south, and the surrounding Forest here is just a special fraction of it. And this and the Centaur nations on the continent existed with little mutual conflict. Humans live in tiny, isolated communities, more for their own protection.”

Firenze frowned, but decided anymore would be extraneous to the urgent need of the now. “But this place cannot be surrendered. What you call Hogwarts is a sacred place of power, to my kind. Even in our universe, but here as well.”

“How did you come to be here?”

Firenze frowned. “I did not intentionally do so. We were involved in a great enterprise, and I took what I thought was a doorway to another part of Hogwarts castle. I ended up in a seemingly identical passage of this fortress. By the time I comprehended my mistake, I could not go back.”

Neville felt this was very familiar. “We think we came through a similar door, but in the Forest. How we predict or find a way back ….....?” Longbottom let his hands fall uselessly to the bed he had collapsed on.

Firenze nodded, “You see the dilemma I have faced. I have communicated much of my circumstance to the Queen. And to her alone. She has granted me much resources to investigate the problem, but there has been limited time to do that. War consumes us all. To allow myself some limited ability to research my own dilemma, I have aided them in someways to continue the fight. I fear the war would have been over otherwise.”

Both wizards looked to one another, but neither were deeply bothered by his helping them. “Can't blame you Firenze. They are your own people.”

“No, not really. But thank you for understanding. I am not deeply trusted because I speak favorably of Man. And make no bones about despising the factionalism of this kingdom. Centaurs in our world – yours and mine – would have been extinct long ago, given this level of mutual hostility.” Firenze seemed sadden to think on it, but grimly pressed on. “I have been allowed access to the royal family's advisers, and aided them much with my knowledge of our world's way of fighting.”

“I sincerely hope, not everything, Firenze.” Charlie wearily wondered. “We've destroyed more than our share, amongst us. I hope it hasn't happened here.”

“Only recently, Friend Charles. Maybe too late. No explosives. My contribution had been physical defenses as this fortress, some limited works with tactics in defense and the generals have been happy with that. They had been without serious enemies – on land – that there seems to never been the innovation so prevalent of humans.”

“Hasn't been a great benefit to mankind, Firenze.”

“I would have agreed humans are a faulty race, Master Weasley. Till I have seen how bad my own people can be. I do not feel so noble now. We are not so different.”

Both men made helpless gestures of agreement. “What happens now, Firenze?”

“The fortress is generally complete, as far as they need. Great engineering works were a human thing and avoided unless necessary. To this empire's woe. They have obviously enough armament without Man's.”

“Thank Merlin.” Neville breathed out.

“But it may not matter. A great force of merpeople and their kin had infiltrated to the lake, seizing a distant islet to act as a base from which to attack the Citadel. Much of their magic equals the centaurs, and both sides are roughly reduced to what you might view as almost a human medieval era of warfare. Much of these centaurs ...strongholds were little better than wood palisades. They had no need for better. The merpeople have employed enormous kraken as marine artillery, devastating the old coastal forts. This stone creation was at my urging.”

“Ah, hence the immense stone glacis, facing the lake. It faces the enemy attack.”

Firenze nodded. “Some durability, together with Centaur power you might term magic. Supported by the woodland silvani. You must have noticed them, Friend Neville. They are very like what you always dreamed of meeting.”

Longbottom smiled guiltily. Charlie had to admit to that, too. Trees that talked!

Firenze continued, “The taking of much of the far shore of the Lake was a surprise. The Queen's forces are unprepared. We still hold near hills and this portion of the Lake, but the enemy is now in strength in the deep places. This new citadel was only just completed in time. Had we need to worry about landward attack, there would have been no hope. Even now it is not encouraging, but maybe with both of you now, it revives morale.”

Neville never imagined himself imposing and clearly couldn't understand why. “I'm not a warrior, Firenze.”

“You underestimate yourself, Neville. And Man – despite physical limitations – is the most dangerous foe on the planet. The wise among the Queens party remember that and are gambling much on that.”

He grunted at his own words. “Among the intelligent, anyway. Not all were happy about the humans banishment. Especially with your rather creative human imagination, my limited efforts can be made to work. Stopping the sea creatures further will show this defense can succeed, and your people are vital. Whether it can be used elsewhere …...” Firenze trailed off, leaving the obvious unsaid.

“Why does Prince Charming wish us dead where we stand? Or sit?”

“The Heir?” Firenze looked confused, but then understood. He rubbed his face with his hands. Firenze was tired as well and it had been a stunning day, all around. “Charming, he is not. I forget human desire to make humor in dark situations. If not dealing with me, forgo that as much as possible.” The centaur patted a hand on a stone pillar. “I have credited this place appropriately. This construct is Man's thinking and ingenuity. The Prince is a deadly opponent of Man. Our only solace can be it that he is malicious without much creativity. The Matriarch was immensely pleased with my design. And you saw her daughter and the bulk of the advisers welcome this as proof not all humans have forsaken them. A victory will promote the human return as our allies.”

Charlie nodded. “Let's hope we can meet expectations. Great. No pressure. What if it doesn't turn the tide?”

Firenze did not look happy at that choice. “We are a long-lived race, with great sense of hierarchy and bloodlines. The succession should have gone, as normal, to the eldest capable mare. She fell, defending her father. The son - with the mother as temporary regent - is the only other foal of proper age. Easily swayed and not the stallion his father was. The daughter you saw is much too young, and could not be expected to take power. She is an obvious champion of you both, and the human cause. The son is …..”

“....would like us spitted on stakes, preferably in little pieces.”

“Hostile,” Firenze nodded. “A small portion of some loyal to just the Heir, parrot those attitudes, hoping for places of prominence under his reign. This is probably in expectation for a rare change in royal families, if the son fails in anyway. It's …..complicated.”

“And?” Neville prompted.

“He has espoused a pogrom amongst your kind. Centaur territory has shrunk to the central landed portions on the continent, and here on Britain. Portions reached by the sea have largely fallen. We are on a remnant outpost of a once great empire. The humans in what is left will be subject to dire circumstances, if and when he becomes King.”

Firenze waited, half expecting them to demand more. But both men looked worn out. With some apologetic gestures, he said. “Tonight you are safe. We face tomorrow with its own new challenges. It seems grim. But something speaks to me. This seems fateful. Your being here has changed destiny.”

Firenze left them in silence. There seemed little better to add, at the moment.

Neville and Charlie sat in the quiet dark for awhile. They had had a full day.

“Maybe I am a bit confused.” Neville finally said. “Did we basically volunteer our services as mercenaries to save their bacon in a seeming hopeless battle?”

“In a nut shell.” Charlie agreed.

“I'm not Beowolf, Charlie! I'm a soft wimp who reads about this stuff. That's all. Biggest blade I've ever wielded was my Gran's carving knife at Christmas.”

Charlie had to admit they were a tad unqualified.

“Will this get us home?” Neville simply asked.

Charlie shook his head. “I don't know, Nev. But something about Firenze being here helps us. Without him, we'd still be in jail .…...” His voice trailed off, as what the alternatives was either going to be a cold night in a stone cell, a cold night on the run in an enchanted Forest.

Or worse.

Neville held out his hands in expectation for the rest of Charlie's alternatives.

“ ...think we are about as good as we could get. In fact, I think we had to do this. Did you see the smallest of the Queen's rings?” Charlie quietly asked. At Neville's head shake, Weasley produced his wife's old pin from his pocket.

Charlie eyed the walls and the door. He did not trust to speak out loud. Saying nothing but pointing to the pin with his other hand, in case there were unseen listeners.

Longbottom eyes widened.

Charlie nodded. “They were quite …...something. Maybe, a repeat of what we saw before.” Longbottom nodded he understood. And Charlie began to put away the pin back in his pocket, then thought better of it and handed Neville the pin and Weasley's little bag with Extension charm to make it infinitely large inside. “Hold on to these. Things may move fast, tomorrow, and ...ah, I may not need pockets.”

“Does this …... what the hell, Charlie!” Neville demanded.

“No idea, and let's worry about it tomorrow. I am a little run out of brilliant ideas. Just ….quiet, for a while.” Charlie unceremoniously flopped backwards onto his bed.

Neville did a matching dive, on his stomach, on his bed. “No way to get home. Don't know if we want to, either. Stuck helping creatures that don't like us very much. And maybe held responsible for the slaughter of our kind in this place if this falls. Which we barely understand.” Neville groaned from the bed. “And, oh yes, we don't have any magic.”

“Great.” Charlie could think of nothing better to say. “Just great.”

*
 

 


Chapter 18: Whispers and Mutters
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[Last week of October, Hogwarts castle corridor]

Ginny Potter waited down at the end of the hall from the Dark Arts tower. She did not want to look like she was waiting, so she found things to find fault with some of the housekeeping about the nearby corridors.

It wasn't egregious. Mostly some cloaks and books left lying about on window sills or in alcoves that kids found convenient to 'hang out' or loiter with their friends. But it did look sloppy and no matter how many times they were told to pick up their things, belongings were left in nooks like this all over the castle.

The House Elves had even taken to setting aside unused store rooms. For things left about, identifiable to at least the individuals school house. Most were quietly reclaimed. But a few never moved, some being truly ancient clothes and school materials, a layer of ever thickening dust on things as old or older than her parents

For seriously forbidden lost objects, Ginny had discovered there was even a new 'Room of Requirement'. Not in the old place, that old magically hidden room for items lost or badly needing secretive hiding had been destroyed in the Fiend Fire in the final Battle against Voldemort. A new Room – one she that was in an innocuous place she found by accident – walking along, lost in thought, thinking of twenty years before.

Ginny told no one. Maybe it had been just happenstance. Or the castle showing her something, because she was the Deputy Headmistress now. Whatever it was, it was important to Ginny something like this place existed. For people with something terrible or precious to hide. It was personal.

It must not have been open long. The pile in the room was small, when she finally succeeded in getting through the magically hidden door. Not the massive, eclectic collection she had seen in the old one, but certainly not 'allowed' stuff.

There was even a box of old 'Weasley Wizarding Wheezes' joke supplies. It couldn't have been placed there by Fred and George in their time here. It most probably being one of many hidden about the castle that some other trouble-maker had found and secreted.

Ginny had left it. Untouched. And told none of the others – not even Hermione – of her discovery. It was a needed thing - in Ginny's opinion – for a place like this. For some to hide their mistakes. Or just to hide themselves. The old one had sheltered her and her friends, often enough.

This was the start of the third week of revamped classes. Ten days – not including this one - in which both the new headmistress and her deputy had carefully avoided coming too close to Harry's classroom. To keep from seeming anxious, which they were.

But rumors had already reached both women. Harry's teaching career was not an instant success.

The school's great clock chimed, softly distant yet always audible anywhere within the 'normal' levels of the castle. It sounded the hour – not always accurately – but generally acceptable for most teachers to use as the beginning or end of class time.

All over the school, there was a sudden rustle of movement and sound came to Ginny of others down the hall. She moved more into the shadow of a statue, more to be out of the way of the hall than any real concealment. Ginny wanted to seem to have some reason for really being there, so had allowed herself to catch the attention of Aldis the Clepto. The Dark Arts hallway ghost, who could bore the ears off anyone foolishly stupid to stay within proximity to the statue of Gnome of Misfortune.

All the while the ghost futilely tried to pick her pocket.

That should look like a burden the Deputy would have to endure, Ginny thought. So she nodded dully, losing track of Aldis' cloying Ginny wanted only to appear to be listening in seeming engrossed fascination to the resident ghost's long-winded recounting of his doings, when he had been a student in 1830.

This was a 'scheduled' meeting place for her informant. It wouldn't 'do' to be seen publicly getting or giving reports to the school's disciplinarian.

Not for this student!

First Years in normal excited chatter hurried past, most seeing the Deputy Headmistress and smiling back. These were still too new to be more leery of Ginny than any other witch or wizard teaching at Hogwarts.

That phenomenon was already apparent among the older students. Ginny had already noticed that those that had something to hide seemed to practically radiate 'don't-look-at-me' or 'don't-notice-that-I-am-not-looking-you-in-the-eyes' attitudes. It was enough to make Ginny laugh, and cause Luna and Hermione to laugh in return at their quick evening 'impromptu' evening meetings in her new office. Her friends had been teaching or back at the school for years and found Ginny's observations 'old hat'.

Luckily, so far it had not been awful things Ginny needed to deal with. Mostly getting the adults to cooperate and do the wretched minimum the veteran teachers could expect to find when they got back.

In a few days. A week, more? This had been the longest three weeks in Ginny's life.

Today, she was snooping on her husband. Something she had sworn she would avoid unless disaster seemed immanent. Rumor had filtered to Hermione's tower – via the portraits, ghost and other magical means – that all was not well in Dark Arts.

In fact, all was not well in most of the other 'temporary' teachers classrooms. Those didn't matter worth a gnome's shit! In Ginny's opinion. The most important was the Dark Arts teacher. His stubborn, relentless self-centered mental self-flagellation, when maybe all their lived depended upon him uncovering what the dead former teacher had been up to.

When most were gone, Ginny backed further into the shadowed alcove behind the statue and most of the trailing bunch of First Years never saw that she'd been there. Ginny didn't bother Dissillusioning herself. Eventually, the boy she arranged to met, in this silly manner, came out with several of his friends.

James came by the statue and bent to look at his feet. Her son, seeming to innocently stop to retie his shoes. He was always good at improvised playacting. James was one of her sole reliable 'snitches'. Her niece Rose was another, but already Ginny had noticed a – zealous, faintly judgmental tone in the eleven-year old girls reports. Too much like her mother, Ginny felt. Too smart, combined with a single-minded Weasley temper from her father, made Rose a lot like the younger Hermione.

Not soft and cute and sweet. Like most of the other girls in her age group.

Volatile. Combative. Too editorial for her years.

Sanctimonious! And thinking her Uncle Harry should stop whinging and get on with being the man and the leader he naturally should be.

Well not her son, James. James put his books on the stone floor, bending over his sloppily slipped on shoe, and looked up to his waiting friends. “Go on ahead, guys. Got to run to my room, anyway, to get my notebook for Charms.”

When they had moved on, and all but a few stragglers from class had passed by, James pressed himself backwards till his backside was fitted into the space between the castle wall and alcove that was occupied.

“Mum?” James muttered out one side of his mouth.

“Here, James. This is so ridiculous.” Ginny turned to the frustrated ghost. “Bugger off! Aldis, I am back to work.”

The ghost looked affronted. But couldn't deny the castle Deputy's commands, so it evaporated with an audible snort.

“Don't want Dad to catch us. He's almost certain to get mad at us whispering about him, in dark corners.” James looked around either side of the statue, to be sure there were no other listeners.

“We are! Whispering about him, in the shadows. Let's get on with this.” Ginny fought from growling. “Any better, today?”

Her boy sighed. Her heart sank.

James finally said, “Not really, Mum.”

Ginny sighed in return. With her back to the cold stone wall, she weakly thumped the back of her head against the wall. “Come on, Harry. What is the matter with you?”

James fumblingly miss-tied his shoe and undid the knot to appear to try again. He shook his head, though his mother could not see that. “Dunno, Mum. Think he is …....hoping he doesn't have to try too hard. Bores the pants off of us, reading …..word-for-word from this stupid text book....”

James rapped his knuckles on his Dark Arts tome. Written – in his newly twelve-year old wizardly opinion – at a six-year old's reading level. “This thing rots. What's worse. Dad knows it, and confusingly then tries to explain, using terms only somebody like Mr. Xeno or Professor Filius would understand.”

“Well …...” Ginny mumbled, dissembling. “Maybe, that's the only way he sees …...”

James again shook his head. “No. He just doesn't want to get involved in the whole school-thing. You know.......... like he does when he pretends he hasn't dressed up for company or doing something like chores about the house you want him to do.”

“Oh, you mean, like you do?” Ginny couldn't keep the humor out of her whisper.

“Ah, well …..no. Not at all.” James muttered. Ginny could only see his head and shoulders, but he did that same 'stiffening-up- his neck and back, just like his father.


Fruit doesn't fall far from the tree!

She smiled, anyway. All alike, her lovely boys. “Never mind. The book is something I can work on. Anything else?”

“He gets bogged down in minutia...”

“Minutia?”

“Classroom details …....where we left off in the stupid book in the last class. Who he didn't call on, last time, that sort of thing.” James clarified. “We aren't the issue, though Second Years are getting restless. I hear things in the older kids' classes are a little more chaotic.”

“What you mean?” Ginny quietly asked.

“Third Years argue back with him. The older ones apparently are ignoring him and using his class as study time or just to doodle in their notes. I've seen some of them. And the Third Years …..well, I've got my own reasons to keep tabs on what goes on with them.”

“So I've heard. And I've met Misters DeZitterrini and McGloughie on my own, already. On other matters. That girl and the big ox-like boy, I haven't had the pleasure.”

“I'd keep my hand on my wallet, my magic wand and my back to the wall, when I see any of them. In the halls.”

“Have they done anything?” His mother's voice was getting louder and fiercer. Any second she would barrel over him and start demanding – loudly – fuller reportage out of him.

And that wouldn't do!

“No!” He whispered back over his shoulder. “Got it all figured out, Mum. Don't have kittens or baby dragons, about this. Sheesh!”

“You are not too old for me to spank, young man ….....”

“Mum! Dad, remember?” Sometimes you had to talk back – quickly – to Mother or things degenerated quickly. She had her brothers' explosive temper, when one let it boil up, too long.

Ginny rolled her eyes, completely wasted on the back of her black-haired boy's thick skull. But got it.

Harry!

“Okay. Sorry. What do I do about the older kids in his class? I can't sit there in back? Except yell at them when they walk past me going out.”

James fortunately enough had his back to his mom, so she couldn't get angry at the expression on his face. But he was smart enough not to express his first thought. “Dad needs help, in there. Where is his class assistants? Twittingham's haven't shown up, all three weeks!”

“Your father claimed he didn't need them.” Ginny knew this was a problem. “Ordered them off, first thing. Your aunt and I argued with him. The other new teachers all have them …..”

James interrupted, “Last thing - Dad needs – is to be compared with Dunderhead Dunston, or the others.”

Ginny smiled, knowing she shouldn't. “Don't call the Under-secretary for Bluster and Codswallop that, please. Leave the names to me and your father, alright?” Her nails beat a light tattoo on the stone at her back. “Okay, I got work to do. Merlin, I hope this all ends soon!”

James shrugged his shoulders. “Seems to be limping along okay, Mum. Actually, some of the old teachers were just as bad.”

Ginny blew out a breath. “Don't need to know, more. Leave that to Flitwick, when he is back. Your aunt and I are just trying to keep this shipwreck afloat. And I love you, by the way.”

“Mum!” James stopped pretending to tie his shoe. It hadn't been tied, in the first place. He liked his shoes loose! James got up and put a few more inches from the statue, It was time to get going to his next class.

And he was afraid she was going to reach out and hug him or kiss him on the cheek.

Like a little kid!

She just lightly patted his shoulder, her hand innocuously visible, out from the dark shadows. If anyone else had been present to see. “Well done, my little sneak. Kisses to Rose and 'Tori, for me.”

“Mum! Yuck! Like I'm going to do that.” James whipped his head back and forth, briefly worried his mom had 'blown' her concealment. Overly paranoid! No one was about. His twelve-year old face screwed up with disgust.

Ginny slipped out and walked past him, and quickly kissed him on the back of the neck. Getting him to squirm quickly out of the way, out of her reach for more.

So much for concealment!

“Get going then, And thank you.” Ginny walked away with a thoughtful look on face. And she added, “And tie your shoes, young man.”

Her son wisely kept his words mumbled, for his own benefit, as he tossed his book back down and returned to tying his shoes.



[All Hallows eve feast, end of three weeks]

The 'new' teachers table was stuffed full of all the normal delicious treats, as were the full and raucously loud students' tables. No one was going hungry tonight – that wanted or needed – within the castle. Despite new Headmistress Weasley's vocal desire to keep some restraint on public spectacles, the castle's elves seemingly completely ignored any restraint on the normal 'first' big school meal.

Whether that was to comfort the worried about Hogwart's continued isolation, or something the elves were trying to say who really ran things. Hermione chose not to argue but sit and with as much quiet dignity she could muster.

Maybe the elves were right, she thought. The kids didn't seem too chuffed by the sealing off from the rest of the world. Beyond the castle. The adults were more affected by it, certainly. Most had gotten used to being able to leave, at night or on weekends. Something no ordinary student did for about eleven months in the year, except for Winter Holiday and Spring break.

Perhaps morale will be more affected come Christmas, Hermione reflected! Not a pleasant prospect.

Nearby, Deputy Headmistress Potter was fighting her own inner demons. One of them was pie.

The Hogwarts pumpkin pie was delicious. As always, dammit!

Ginny guiltily tasted a second piece and then pushed it away from her. Hallow's eve was always a difficult time of the year because she so desperately craved Hogwart's Castle Pumpkin Pie.

And more than a few bites of that and she could say goodbye to fitting in those pants she liked.

But glancing at her companions at the Teachers Table, she saw she wasn't alone. Mrs. Waistcoate, who probably should have refused some of the pies years ago, also primly pushed hers back after seeing Ginny so so.

“I love the school's pie, too much,” Nicky Waistcoate weakly explained.

“Me, too.” Ginny said with some regretful looks.

“Wish I was sixteen again and could eat anything I want.” Sub-secretary Ennui on the other side of Waistcoate, also said with deep sadness.

“Don't we all.” Waistcoate agreed. “Well, make that about year fifteen for me. Really.”

All listening politely refrained from saying aloud that was probably 'year eight' for the large Mrs. Waistcoate, but it was holiday so the adults were making great efforts to be nice.

That's when the ravenous sounds of slavering and crumbs faintly tinkling off the scattered dishes caught their attention. Harry Potter, on Ginny's left hand seat, was shoveling in the last remnants, and he looked up now aware the three were watching him tip the last bits of the tart he had just consumed past his lips.

Harry noticed his wife was staring at him. “Wha?”

“That's the third treacle tart.” Ginny whispered. “Enough!”

Harry indignantly finished swallowing his dessert, “Haven't …..um, had any from here in quite some time.”

“It's mostly sugar. I can hear your heart straining from my seat. And your teeth falling from your skull.”

“Once a year ….... I'm a grown man.” Harry muttered. He tried a defense he just thought of. “Don't be a scold. I had a salad!

“Your colon thanks you. I would like your heart to last long enough we can graduate our third child.”

“Okay. Fine. I won't have any pie either.” He pushed his empty plate away and folded his arms across his chest, like an unhappy child.

Ginny winced, stopping herself from returning back at him some of his 'attitude'. The day had been long and neither she nor Harry seemed to be in the best of moods. She'd have to be the strong one here. “Yes, I know its hard.”

“I think we should have a Christmas Ball.” Librarian Luna jarringly announced sitting at the other side of Hermione.

Her statement was greeted by silence. As far as Hermione Weasley was concerned, Luna's idea – not carried to extremes – was the first positive thing uttered by any of the adults, all week.

There was faint clinking of utensils and a tap of a glass. As sullen initial response to Luna.

But Hermione was conscious that her well known personal friendship with the sometimes bizarre Luna was the cause of jealousy.

No matter how good an idea it might be, somebody else needed to endorse Luna.

Hermione waited for her supportive in-laws to leap in with cheerful blather in support of Mrs. Longbottom.

And was disappointed. Harry stolidly munched away on a bread stick and Ginny sat next to him in burning silence. Apparently they were on each others nerves. Or Harry was being untypically male instead of his usual understanding patience. Maybe in a jealous snit over the attentions of Malcolm Ennui over his wife.

The Potters were on the other side, along with Hagrid, Sybil Trelawnyee and the others of the old guard. The other temporary teachers were beside Luna, Vector and the other end of the table. The non-magical couple, the Jones were together with Robinson and having a rather grand conversation about
Muggle politics.

Something Hermione knew little about.

The Smythes and Dunston sat in unhappy exile at the far end. They did not like the Muggles being present.

Fortunately, that was counter-balanced with almost no one liking any of them.

People had sat as they chose and the internal divisions that naturally occurred sorted them into these groups. She had never forced it. Hermione didn't have much patience with the old tradition of fixed places for certain teaching positions at something as basic as a dining table. Filius could reconstitute that and more ancient relics from the old stuffy days of private school Hogwarts.

When he came back. Hermione prayed that would be tomorrow.

Luna's comment about wanting a Christmas party wasn't loud, but there wasn't a lot of cross table chat. Hermione had found that a bit ominous. She wanted collective unity in making a confident 'face' to the students, who were bound to be uneasy at this prolonged isolation of the castle. There seemed a natural gravitation, of one camp and the other.

Not to mention Harry and Dunston's completely transparent loathing of one another. That didn't worry Hermione or Ginny so much, as no one else seemed to like 'the Ministry Man', either!

What she didn't want - most of all - is a 'temple of gloom' atmosphere.

To keep conversation going, Hermione forced herself to smile and nod encouragingly that Luna should continue. The headmistress wanted it to seem she was being arm-twisted into a big party.

“We've all got the pouties. By December - at this rate – we will be crying in our crumpets and not talking to each other.” Luna seemed blissfully unaware that the Potters were already at that stage, tonight.

Or maybe she did. And this just her method of counter-intuitive psychological motivation?


Being here till Christmas was a sore subject for some of the parents. Now that she thought on it, maybe it was too much to ask. Maybe if Hermione was seen as the obstacle, that might stir some to support the hopeful librarian.

Hermione said, “Honestly, Luna. Don't you think we have enough on our plates. Nice and quiet would be how I would like the holidays.” She did her best to sound hesitant, not wanting to sound like this was rehearsed.

It was.

Luna seemed to have forgotten. Not expecting Hermione to be an opponent. “No, not really. I am imagining an eleven-year Hermione Granger, being told Christmas is canceled.”

“I am not canceling anything!” Hermione suddenly found herself defensive. “I just think we need some restraint.”

Now Ginny piled on. “If December should roll around and we can't step out from the castle, we simply can't just continue on with classes. Please, 'Mione.”

“I hate it when you use the 'little girl Hermione' thing on me.”

“Always works.”

Surprising them all, Mr. Smythe quietly said, “That'd be nice. Christmas time party.” He hopefully gave his domineering wife a glance and cringed when she frowned back at him.

Mrs. Smythe did not want to spend another minute longer here than necessary.

But that unleashed the floodgates. Bless Tim Smythe, the indecisive worm, thought Hermione.

And the contagion spread.

“I always liked the songs. People singing.” Sybil turned her incredibly thick glasses back and forth along the table, the light from the students tables curving to form an unintentional prism rainbow on her old cheek. “Being nice. At least on that one day of the year.”

The strange woman had few close friends, despite her legion of devoted followers. To Hermione, the wackiness that seem to draw parents to insist Trelawnee's Divination classes continue, also served to keep Sybil alone. Probably, Christmas with more than just the usual tiny handful that usually remained at the school was an event Trelawnee had never experienced.

“Of course. That would be good for morale.” Hermione said in a carefully neutral voice. Come on, people!

Surprising support came from Hermione's chief doubter among the group. “I think a Christmas 'do' would be expected, by the Ministry.” Dunston in a low voice, as if hoping no one heard it was actually him endorsing the idea.

“I predict you will allow it.” Sybil said in a low voice.

Every adult turned their head to look at the self-described 'seer' and then back at the famously skeptical Weasley.

Oh, alright. Dunston or Trelawnee weren't what she wanted. But to get this over with! “You are right, Sybil.” Hermione paused, and added, “And Professor Dunston. I am in fact leaning for the idea.”

Dunston smirked, as if somehow taking credit for it all. Ginny smirked, too, laughing with her eyes.

And an unlikely supporter came from the secret smile she caught flash across Harry Potter's face. So, the 'pouty Grump' was an act.

Oh, well. Small victories! “Are there any obstacles to making something self-contained within the castle. I am uncomfortable with the idea of any outside activities, with all of the students.”

“No danger apparent, Headmistress.” Hagrid stoutly asserted.

“That we can …...find.” Mr. Waistecoate pointed out.

Vector, happily at maybe the end of the second or third goblet of brandy, “My lovely dear, we just had one …..no, two years before!”

“That shouldna' be an problem. We are in an emergency, after all!” Grandpa Crocker made a surprisingly sober sounding endorsement. He emphasized that with a burp.

He'd been overjoyed at Vector's 'discovery' of the Halloween pumpkin brandy and now he and Vector were best friends.

Luna smiled, happy to have take Vector's idea and run with it. “I know Septimus, but it's just the feeling I'm getting from the kids in the library, the past few days. We need to boost up spirits, a little. The youngest are homesick anyway. There is an undercurrent of worry, among the older ones. The mid-age Years don't care. Glad to be free of home and parents …..”

“Possibly might not feel that way, come spring ...”

“It's been three weeks, now! Do you mean to say this is going to last that long?” Vivian Goodhands worriedly said. A trifle too loud. She wasn't a solid rock of reassurance to anyone. And overly worried about the small herd of corgies she bred at her estate.

As if the dogs couldn't exist without her.

One or two of the prefects, sitting nearby, gave the Teacher's table a concerned glance. Hermione said, smilingly, “Please, let's keep our voices down, or take this into the 'break room'. Or the Master's Tower.” The adults obligingly all pasted on false happy faces and the low rumble of contented chaos that usually came from the student tables more or less resumed as they polished up dessert.

Probably fooling no one.

“Okay, I've got to admit a 'Big Party' might a good idea, Luna. Though, I am …..... was not entirely happy about asking the House Elves to knock themselves out for an enormously extravagant pageant or feast. A limited resources kind of thing, like this tonight, would be what I have in mind. ….”

Luna immediately turned ten- years old again. Clapping gleefully, “Eeeeee!, we could hide presents in the suits of armor....”

Vector said wistfully, “Three feet of snow in the hallways ….”

“Bonfire in the central keep....!” Hagrid rumbled.

“Snow? Inside?” The non-magical Mrs. Jones whispered, in a worried voice to her husband.

It was like a pulling a light switch. And the stupid gas let out in the room!

To the Jones, she muttered, “Don't worry. Won't be extreme. I'll explain …...later.” Hermione fought to keep herself from shouting. So more loudly, for every adult's benefit. “People! I think we should show a little restraint. We should be acting like travelers stranded on an island. And absolutely no fires. I don't care what the elves tell us about not running out of air.”

“Magical. Isn't it all ….really?” Thelonius Dunston not too carefully said in a low voice to no one in particular. As if always prodding if he detected an argument he could stoke.

Harry did try not to fling his goblet in his hand at Dunston's snide nose. “It's not inexhaustible, in all things, you …....” His eye caught the warning lift of Hermione's eyebrow, “….Professor Dunston.” Harry corrected. “And there is a concern that whatever is causing the shield to stay up is having some effect within.”

“Well, that's a bit obvious. Isn't it.”

“Patience.” Ginny whispered at Harry between gritted teeth. He returned the goblet to the table with a loud thunk.

“This Hallow's Eve thing seems to be going swimmingly.” Ennui said oily. There simply wasn't enough seats to spare for just the old teachers on one side and the 'replacements' on the other. But he sat to the other side of Trelawnee, next to Hagrid. With Harry pointedly placed between him and Ginny.

The cocksure Ennui seemed unaffected by that. If he thought that interfered in anyway with his seductive charm, he made no outward sign of being discomfited by that. It certainly wasn't for the lack of companionship. Hermione had already heard whispers of rumors that Ennui and one of the temporarily trapped mothers of a student were 'getting along' better than just normal congeniality.

It took all types, to get the old world spinning around. Hermione ruefully reflected. As long as the adults kept it quiet and not flagrantly obvious. Certainly not to the poor Fourth Years son of the possibly way-ward mother. Hermione wouldn't tolerate that.

Maybe she'd better have a discussion with the suspects.

“It is a lot reduced, tonight. No blazing bonfires and the menu kept to a minimum.” Luna defended her Halloween party, tonight. As for the big holidays ….... “Christmas should be the same, but just that I think we might need something to brighten our time. Just more. Want the students thinking about the event and not the daily grind and possibly all that continuing into January.”

“May we be delivered well before then!”

“Amen.” Hermione heartily agreed.

“Bloody, ditto!” both Madames Smythe and Waistecoate both muttered in near unison.

“And that would be a time a lot of the students would be going home.” said Robinson. “We'd be home. I should be home. I find being stuck here rather claustrophobic.”

“We all do, Mr. Robinson.” Luna agreed. “That's kind of my idea. Counter that new winter bla's with some party anticipation. We can even still carry it out, if the Ministry gets through to us. Nothing says we can't have a Christmas party, this year, too.”

“No, I suppose not.” Hermione agreed.

“All of us should attempt to do unusual things, to keep minds active...”

“Luna!” Hermione whispered warningly, while attempting to send her mentally loud directives to shut the hell up!

But Luna had found fertile ground. Several of the parent-teachers were nodding in sickening agreement.

“Redecorate some small areas. Curtains, “

Sybil, too, saw this as an opening. “I was thinking of rather a group tea party, and divining the leaves afterward.”

“Ohhhhhh!” Mrs Smythe breathed out in dreamy anticipation. One of her personal hobbies, apparently.

That turned Hermione's stomach. But she wanted a 'group' project to unite the adults as well.

Be careful what you wish for, Hermione! Old girl!

Hermione made a not-so-silent gagging sound, which she covered up with a polite cough into her napkin.

Goodhands timidly ventured, “Even change little things about ourselves. Some of the older girls miss going to Hogsmeade to have their hair done.”

“Why not!” Luna pounded a palm, nodding excitedly. “Harry can grow a pretty mustache! Why not a barbershop-hair salon, for the elders. Make our own fashions.”

Ginny had to fight hard to keep from snorting out the mouthful of water she had just drunk. Harry rubbed his nose, eyes closed, with his hand covering up most of his 'pretty' facial hair.

Ennui startled her, speaking out, “And Quidditch. We should restart the games, too.” Something he and Dunston had campaigned for, almost as hard as the Quidditch faithful among the students. Of course, both of them had the strongest two teams at Hogwarts.

It was hard for Hermione not to roll her eyes.

“Only problem, Master Ennui,” Hagrid said lazily, “Is that there is a wee bit of lack of headroom above the Quidditch pitch out there.”

Ginny quietly affirmed that. “I've let the teams fly about, only within the stands. But there is no possible way we could let them fly unrestricted above at any altitude.”

Which had been completely on hold the past weeks. Due to obvious flying problems and the danger to all. And growing restlessness amongst the frustrated players.

“Perhaps if we make our own dome overhead, something innocuous over the auditorium ….”


“Stadium!” Ginny whispered.


Luna continued on, smoothly. “ ….the stadium, itself. Like flowers or leaves or something.” Luna brightly suggested. “That would be the ceiling limit, for everyone. And far prettier than the usual gray blahness out there.

Deputy Potter carefully watched Hermione for reaction and was gratified at the temporary Headmistress's lilting head wobble of approval. Ginny happened to love the countryside hues of fall about Hogwarts, especially this time of year. And Luna's idea had value and she didn't want to let her own prejudice interfere. Ginny had to just answer with a shrug – to feign some reluctance - and a glance back and forth between Ennui, Luna and Dunston, the other Heads of Houses who also were the temporary co-chairs of the Quidditch competition.

The other grown-ups all nodded – some more luke-warm than others - that it wasn't a bad idea.

“I'd need to have to some help. And I'm not a Quidditch fan. Not really.” Luna stated. It was very true. She relied completely on the blindingly overconfident substitute Ravenclaw captain of their Quidditch team. Who – at his first opportunity, last week - had been fool enough to fly full tilt against the nearly invisible silver-gray barrier that sealed off the sky.

Harry, in fact, had had to sit with the Ravenclaw team, and even went out with one of their practices, in the limited way they had found to just fly low within the stadium. And to tamp down some of that Ravenclaw enthusiasm for high speed formation flying. “I guess I can help Luna with her House duties, as far as Quidditch. Be a coach, at least for their practices.”

“As long as there is no Gryffindor – Ravenclaw collaboration.” Dunston just had to insert that. Implying that was going to happen unless he was there to detect it.

Potter had to simulate cooperation. At least as far as this dinner conversation was going.

He had his orders!

Harry's grasp on his fork was bending it's handle.

“Might be doable.” Ginny agreed, taking the injured fork out of her husband's grip. “Give the kids a sense things are going on, back to normal, as much as we can.”

The 'crazy' caravan was obviously going full tilt down the hill, Hermione reasoned. Might as well jump on board. “I still want the volleyball and football to continue.” Hermione pointed out, nodding to Phillip Jones and Joe Robinson, who'd taken over the sports department with some success. “Especially the latter, as they have to share the pitch. I know the three of you are nuts for the brooms, but Flitwick will be back in this chair - so help me God! - and Hogwarts is not returning back to the insular Quidditch only days.” She leaned forward to look down at Hagrid. “Do you think we can set up the stadium as normal, Hagrid?”

“No, problem, Headmistress.”

That made both Ennui and Ginny smile. And Dunston even made a ghost of one in his sour silence at the other end of the table.

Miracle of the evening. Something that made all three smile.

“We should commence planning out, then, Madame Longbottom, what your ideas are for the Christmas Ball, as well. If some of our other parent volunteers …....” Hermione leaned to look the other direction down the table, and got some happy nods and murmurs from the more 'party-minded' individuals.

And when dinner was over, and the adults were getting up to retire for the evening, Hermione couldn't help the feeling like the caravan had run over her, several times.

“See!” Whispered Luna, happily beaming next to Hermione, still eating at one more piece of pumpkin pie. “A little boost to the morale for us, too. Works on big kids, as well as the little ones.”

“Broom crazies and dances!” The Headmistress Hermione gave her friend a sardonic grimace. “Fine. Eat your pie.”




[Herbology grounds, Hogwarts castle]

The open fields of grassy lawn between the Herbology classrooms of the castle and the Quidditch pitch were usually full of older students, taking their breaks between classes out there when the weather was nice, or dutifully trooping to and from the Quidditch training rooms for those devoted to the sport.

Almost completely tumbled walls and barely glimpsed foundations lined in the mossy peat, showed all that remained of the former village that once clustered close to the Castle in ancient times. Now just a large enclosed lawn, out to a distant low curtain wall of the old fortification.

But now with the perpetual gray overcast, there wasn't as many students sunning themselves or skylarking. There were still kids out and the Quidditch fliers and football teams still were out playing, but everyone else still felt uncomfortable out in the open. Waiting for an appearance of the sun that never happened.

Why the grass remained green and not a leaf fallen from the trees within the Hogwarts perimeter, none could explain.

Jennifer came out from the castle doors, looking around the lawn for a familiar face and found one by a half-fallen stone wall. Her aunt waved back to her, and Jen came up to sit of the wall beside Ginny Potter.

“How's the day?” Ginny asked.

Jen glanced about, noting there were other kids within ear shot. So she answered in a formal tone. “Fine, Professor Potter. Busy. The usual.” Jen gestured to the broom. “All safe then?”

“For the moment.” Ginny tapped the handle on a flying broom, propped against the stone wall she was sitting atop of. “I have the Slytherins out on the field, in a moment, so can't take too long.” In a more confidential tone, Ginny quietly said, “I have to ask you a kind of a favor.”

Jen's olive-skinned face looked expectantly around, smiling vaguely. Nervous.

Ginny frowned but waved her hands about. “No, nothing going to leap out at you here. I was kind of wondering if you were interested in helping me.”

“Of course. I'm afraid I left the wedding dress with Aunt Madelene, if that's what ….”

“No. No, of course not. I couldn't fit in that again, if my life depended on it and it had a giant elasticism spell on it.” Ginny shook her head, patting her hip with one hand. “I actually meant giving up something of your free time.”

“What free time?” Jen couldn't help blurting out.

“Well, that's part of it. Hermione has you helping in all of the classes …..”

“Sort of have to. Mrs Smythe is absolutely terrible, at Charms.”

“Why Hermione put her there.” Ginny smiled.

Jen snorted an appreciative sound of understanding and went on, “Well, her husband is no help, either. If it wasn't for me and Tom Gogh, nothing would get done and the 'Fifth Years' would be an absolute mess come exam time.”

“That's great of you. Truly! Hermione is thinking maybe we might just forgo some of the time spent in our ….err, confinement. When it comes test time, those parts of the O.W.L.S. Might just be kind of written off.”

“Merlin, that would be a relief!”

“Not for general consumption, mind you. Some of these people are annoyingly important to the School Board and the Ministry. Even if they are idiots.” Ginny watched some students on the far side of the lawn, tossing small, soft object between them. Some game with all their hands and feet and a beanbag, she'd never seen or heard of. Looked fun. She made a face of tired resignation, “I keep hoping this ends tomorrow, and I can go home. But been hoping that for a few weeks now, and beginning to think we have to plan for maybe this going on till Christmas ...”

“Christmas!”

“Don't spread that around. In fact, say nothing of this to even Victoire. Not until we say something more to the school at large. We are going to let the fliers recommence the season, you see ...” Ginny pointed to the distant wood framework of the tall Quidditch viewing towers, still bare of their usual tapestry coverings. And sort of a vaguely half dome of distantly tumbling leaves or flowers sketching out limits for flying under.

Jen made a non-committal grunt of acknowledgment. “Guess that's good. Explains the kind of umbrella of leaves. No flier, myself.”

“No. I know. Mostly, I have just the boys in the family, for company during the season. Long since given up on Victoire. Though she can fly if she wants to. Rose on the other hand …..” Ginny wiggled her fingers and gave an actual cackle of mirth. “......shows great promise!”

This was the best three months to happen to the Weasley girls, in a decade! In Ginny's opinion.

“If you say so.” Jen wobbled her head, not really caring. But knew the silly game was like life or death to some people, so she didn't want to offend her aunt.

Aunt Ginny smiled craftily. As if reading Jen's mind, she said, “Don't worry. Half the family hates the game as much as you do. You'll have plenty of company.”

“I don't hate it.” Jen mumbled with some faint irritation. “Just, not the end of the world, frankly if I don't see the scores in the newspaper or meet some tedious bore, waffling on about how high and/or fast they flew themselves into the ground to get one point from a quibble ….”

“Quaffle.” Ginny gently corrected. “Don't worry. We'll leave you alone, about half the year. Just don't plan on any of us 'fliers' showing up at your wedding, if a league game is on.”

Jen's face was carefully wooden.

Ginny gave the young witch a secret smile, no doubt guessing that would be extremely attractive an idea. “Don't worry about wedding. Just you, Robert and an animated book, in a tree stand, if necessary.
Be as tiny and personal as you and the one you are planning a home and family. That is what's important.” Mrs. Potter nodded to herself, but gently poked Jen in the arm with a gloved finger. “Have a hellashious party afterward, however. That somebody calls the aurors to stop. We will find someplace.”

“Thank you. That's kind of a relief.”

“Not what this little conversation is about. I want you to help my husband by being his class assistant.”

Jen's face returned to the wooden mask. But her lips nervously moved as she gently chewed upon them. “You've got to be kidding, Aunt Ginny. I am the absolute worst human being alive at the 'Dark Arts'.”

“So I've been informed.”

“He doesn't want help in his class. He's turned down all of ones in our student assistants tower that have asked.”

“Yes, I know that, too. He can't stand 'boot-lickers', and our lives are constantly compromised by my having to fend off people that just want something from him. He used to be polite about it, but these weeks in the castle have somewhat …....... weakened his politeness.”

“He supposedly threatened Alex Jameson with pixies.”

Ginny laughed. She hadn't heard that one! “He is a dear. I love him. And my husband is an ungrateful pain-in-the-ass, and more stubborn than this old stone I am parking my fanny on.”

“Ahhhh, yeah?” Jen held out her hands in supplication.

“Harry is doing terrible in class. He want's to get it perfect, and he's boring and just plainly sucks. All the past month, he has been beating himself up about it. He has got such deep anxieties about Hogwarts, what went on here when we were your age, about being a disaster now to the kids…..that he's making it come true.”

“Well, ….....its just been a few weeks. And I can't possibly help. Maybe drive him to finally bonkers ….”

“I doubt that would be the problem. In fact, I think you'd give him something he needs.”

“What?”

“An insoluble problem. Something that seems unfixable. That's what he's a genius at.”

Jen shook her head. “I'm hopeless. I really am.”

Ginny wouldn't accept no. Wagging her finger, she said, “And he got Neville Longbottom to make a Patronus. And to apparate. How incredible is that?”

“Please, Aunt Ginny. Don't ask me this.”

Ginny patted her hand. “Maybe, you are bad, Jennifer. I'm not asking this of you, because I have so many other alternatives. I love him …...so, so much and want to beat him with this broom.” She made a face, and muttered, “Marriage is a complicated thing. For everybody, but ….well, I can't really explain. I didn't want to sound like I am begging.....”

Jen sighed and limply said, “Okay, I'll give it a try. I'm honest when I tell you I suck! And he ordered out 'Al' Jameson, not actually attacking him. Honest! Just because Alex wants to be able to say he was Harry Potter's student. Even if it was just holding the door open for him.”

“Lord, that is what he hates.” Ginny nodded, hopping down to her feet, and looking back up a Jen still sitting on the half ruined wall. “But he won't say no to you. I just know it.” Ginny looked soulfully up at young Cortez.

Jen shook her head in disbelief. “Now I know where 'Tori gets her 'sad-puppy-dog' eyes.”

“From your grandmother. It worked on Daddy from day One.” Ginny smiled, and got her broom. “You got it, too, Sunshine. Part of our magic.”

“How lucky.” Jen said, looking down from her perch.

“Maybe that, also.” Ginny said vaguely. “Don't know why, but seems ….this is important. The headmistress already approved. Your other classes will be on hold, for this. Or we'll reschedule around Dark Arts, if we have to. We need Harry to find a way out of this. I doubt any outside help is coming and Potter-be-damned-his-anxieties is the surest way out of a trap that I know of. I've bet my life on it, several times. I am asking this as good witch Ginny, just a scared mother wanting to see her kids. And a place completely free of teenagers!”

“Okay.”

“Thank you. We'll talk later about a good time for him.” Ginny waved goodbye and began to march away. “Preferably when he is most vulnerable.”

Jen just felt she'd been run over by a lorry and convinced afterword she should be grateful. “I really am beastly!” Jen called.

“Even better.” Ginny called from the path to the athletic field.

*
 

 


Chapter 19: Reconfiguring
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[Dark Arts Classroom]

“Professor Potter?” a girl's tentative voice asked from the classroom door.

The voice woke Harry up from his unhappy daydreaming. Harry was grimly staring at the Second Years papers and really beginning to hate life. He had thought the first couple were just the incoherent ramblings of several moronic twelve-year old slackers.

Yes, indeed, he had thought that very word, as he couldn't think of something more current to call them.

By the fifth test paper, he began to detect a pattern. Ah, ha!, he thought, the 'Great Harry' has found a cheating scandal, managed by idiots who could spell but not put together sentences coherently. All three together.

By the twenty-fifth one, Harry grappled with the ugly truth. None of them understood a single thing he had said, as it was truly as garbled as he had first feared. And his wife Ginny and friend Hermione had been lying through their teeth when they said he was good.

He was a bore. He hadn't communicated the first thing to these kids. He stuttered, mangled and confused himself. Well, maybe, the one girl, from Nigeria. Almost certainly, her correct answers were from the fact she understood the text book intent as good as maybe Hermione Granger had done twenty-four years ago.

Of course, Gilderoy Lockhart had been their teacher, back then. Everyone had floundered, regardless of their year, in Lockhart's classes. And maybe Harry was vastly superior to that fraud. Who was of course, still vastly wealthy and more or less recovered from the near permanent Oblivious spell he had tried to cast on them as children. Writing books on 'Adventures of a Mind' and 'the Inner Magic of the Soul'. Making gold galleons by the ship load, and financing a whole new wing of St. Mungo's Magical Hospital, devoted exclusively to self-inflicted magical traumatic injuries to the brain.

Harry realized he hadn't been reading anything for the last twenty minutes, just staring down a the Second Year's textbook, wondering if the author had been as stupid as he was. It was incoherent babble. Harry's attempts to translate it had been doomed from the start. An idiot, speaking for a confidence man, as surely as the writer had been that had convinced the School Board into accepting this book, could not possibly make this come right.

That had been a real reason he had found all the books stacked in the corner of Twittingham's former office, with a layer of dust on them.

He felt so stupid. He closed the useless textbook with a slap. Twittingham hadn't been a fraud, that was for sure. The author of this doxy book should pay the school for their disposal.

Oh yes, the girl! “Yes, umm, please come in. Only old frauds, present. Well, …. middle-aged ones. You aren't interrupting anything useful or intelligent, whatsoever.”

The dark-haired Jen Cortez peered around the corner, ducked back, but then seemed to think about what she heard and could not resist looking back to see who this 'fraud' was.

Harry had met and talked to her before. She seemed completely unlike her mother. Harry felt sorry for her but did not try to treat her any different than an ordinary student. Jennifer did not need being identified further for attention as being Harry's niece by marriage. Her life was complicated enough. One plus for her was that she did not take Dark Arts N.E.W.T.S classes.

He knew of course her recent history. Harry had helped (briefly) in the search for her two months ago. But he had kept his distance, since then. There was nothing substantive Potter could say that wouldn't earn him trouble. Or cause her harm.

He had kept mostly quiet in the matter of Charles Weasley and his illegitimate children, letting the women of the family dominate the conversations. Only nodding dully and mutely whenever they had looked at him, expecting opinions. He had wanted no part in the 'backroom' campaign that seemed to blame everything the poor girl had suffered on the hands of his philandering brother-in-law, her father.

It was not entirely Charlie's fault. Well, okay, fathering a baby and abandoning the mother almost immediately wasn't stellar. By in large, after meeting Ms. Angelique Cortez, the main feeling was (amongst the men in the Weasley family) that it had been a fortuitous escape by Charlie they were all grateful for.

Harry liked Charlie. He had incredible charm. That ability to say almost anything to people, and they'd take it as compliments, just because Charles Weasley spoke them. He also was reformed. Something of vast interest and keen envy, to Harry. Whereas there were people daily that expressed loathing for Potter, Charlie was able to turn it aside with a grin and a few innocuous comments about the weather or Quidditch or the clothes they were wearing. Charlie had behaved badly, as a youth, as a man and was almost completely forgiven.

Well, not entirely. Charlie had married (finally) and settled down, but was apparently always under permanent suspicion. Principally, by Charles' sister Ginny.

In dealing with the internal family drama, Harry took his queues directly from Ron. And that master of dissembling arts - George Weasley, himself. Say little! Look severely concerned when talked to! Support the wife in all things, and keep a low non-committal profile when they looked around for you, asking your opinion.

All quality things to remember!

The girl stood forward, and Harry made an encouraging wave to approach. Well, Charlie wasn't forgiven by everyone. Besides Jen's mother, there were four others who planned or enacted random acts of violence in Charles direction on at least a monthly basis. Harry and Bill devoted inordinate amounts of time diffusing those attacks, with no one the wiser.

Least of all Charlie. To be honest, Bill may have done it solely for concern about Charlie's wife. The saboteurs had no idea – absolutely none – about the shit that would come their way if they got a vampire mad at them.

Harry did it more because Charlie made real attempts now to make up for the mistakes of his youth. Okay, well, youth and middle age. Potter was not too judgmental, but if Charlie hadn't shown real devotion to change and making things better, Harry would just conveniently have nothing to do with him.

But that didn't happen.

Charlie was diligently making acts of contrition to the illegitimate children he'd fathered. Anonymously, to be sure, but he took care of them from afar. It had also opened Harry's eyes to the fact that Charlie took care of his awkward younger brother Percy. Kept him from being more of an eccentric crank than he was.

Harry and Ginny mostly ignored Percy. Not exactly shunning him, but he wasn't their favorite Weasley.

Well, he couldn't do that here, in the classroom. He was a teacher. Supposedly. Clearing his throat, Harry said, “Ummm, mm, ignore my mental wanderings, Jennifer. I am feeling extra sorry for myself. Please, come in. What can I do for you?”

Jen walked boldly in, feeling a whole lot like a tight rope walker, sent out by cutlass-pointing buccaneers to walk over a pit of hungry lions. Potter sat behind the big table, usually piled with this weeks examples for in-class lessons. Now given an extra layer of Harry's attempt at organizing piles of graded papers by class.

It wasn't pretty!

He sat back in his wood chair. He was in a rumpled buttoned shirt. Sleeves rolled up to the elbows. And his cloak and suit jacket carelessly piled in a lump over the curving railing into his office.

The jacket looked …... orange velvet?

Seeing her disbelieving glance at his elf-made outfit, Harry snorted. “I'm only wearing it if it's the end of the world and that is the guaranteed cure. Maybe!”

“I …..was ….wondering. ...if you had some spare moments, Professor. I am a bit rusty at some Dark Arts magic. Jinxes and stuff …..” Her voice trailed off.

To Jen, this seemed the height of presumption. She should expect no help here because Jen had been a terrible student in this magic. She hadn't been in the Dark Arts Tower after her futile Fifth Year. The most disastrous O.W.L test probably on record.

Okay, actually, she didn't know the exact grade. 'Troll' was pretty expressive of the general quality.


It had always looked odd, compared to the 'Outstanding' from all the others. Her mother had frequently remarked on it. Usually when she had wanted to prove her point about something, frequently if it involved a conspiracy against her by the establishment and-or the school.

Potter blinked. He was at the moment surprised anyone deserved being mislead by himself. “Oh, I see. Well, I'm sure you don't need my help. Can't seem to do much for these Second Years, myself. Sure you are well beyond that sort of thing. Maybe, the Headmistress. ...”

“Well, she's my Seventh Year adviser, too. So she suggested you ….”

“Better to see the Deputy Headmistress ...”

“She sent me to you, too.” Jen was quick to interrupt Potter. She had her instructions!

“Umm, well, yeah, she would be my next option. Ginny was superb. …..” He hadn't been listening, then realized Jen had two recommendations to him.

Why the ladies did this to him – admittedly not too often but usually when they were self-satisfied it would be good for him – was a constant irritation. But Harry did his best not to take that out on the girl. “Oh, sorry. I didn't hear that right. Well. I've got to tell you I've ruined these kids minds, pretty severely. Don't think I should mess with one of Hermione's star pupils.”

Jen literally blushed beet red. If nothing proved her Weasley heritage, even under her inherited Hispanic mother's contribution, that would do it for Harry.

He hadn't needed Maddie' triumphant smug face, talking up the Detective Agency's Frosted Door's approval, all the next week.

Of course this girl was her father's daughter.

“Can't do a Patronus spell worth a damn.” Jen just blurted it out.

“Oh, …..... I see.” Harry sat for a moment, twiddling a pencil in his hand. “Actually, you'd be surprised how many adults stink at it.”

Jen made a guilty smile. “Well, yes. I know. Just wanted to at least ….do that. Not look so pathetic next to Robbie, Victoire or Ted. They do it so easily. My Patronus seems to be a wren, but I can hardly ever get it to manifest. Usually lopsided or incapable of flight, and then the poor thing 'poof's' away and I got nothing.”

“Ron couldn't for month's.” Harry said suddenly. “Your uncle Ronald, I mean, during school. Hermione coached him, for weeks, on her own. Never let on that was what they were up to. Till I realized, I always assumed they were snogging!”

Jen made an 'alarmed-but-eager-to-hear-more-of that' face. Secrets like that about the equally famous Weasley couple's long stormy romance was valuable fodder in the common room.

“Really?” she almost whispered. Well, between herself and Victoire only. Well, maybe Rose, too!

Harry made a crafty grin. “Well, yes, some snogging. She'd never admit it, but I got this personally from the Hag's statue, down on the Third Floor corridor.” Harry smiled a secretive smirk. “And by 'The Lawn Bowlers' picture, on Fifth. And, I think by the Boat House. When no one was looking, of course. Relying on the words of picture and statues around this castle is pretty tenuous stuff. Half of it made up and the other half confused with things these things witnessed over the ten-plus centuries this school has been here.”

“I ….I just can't picture her doing that …..sort of thing.”

“Hermione? Making-out by the boat shed?” Harry smiled, “She is a secret rebel. When no was looking. She was actually pretty straight-laced, when she thinks people are watching. Always - usually – the one to read us the 'riot act' if we got out of hand. Ron, for one, often went through extreme cycles of wanting to play the rebel like his brothers Fred and George, with occasional guilty pangs of Percival.”

“Poor man.”

“Well, yes. You've met Percy. Not to be taken in long doses. All of them, a bit competitive. All the brothers are. Certainly, the sister is no slouch!”

Both giggled guiltily.

Harry considered for a moment. Then added, “All the brothers are stubborn, in their own unique ways. Including your father. But all six after him felt they had to meet or exceed Charlie, however they could. He'd been their parents 'golden boy'. Bill was head boy and still needs to be in charge. Percy almost perfect attendance ….”

Both student and teacher mutually rolled their eyes at that.

“…..a wonder in itself.” Harry finished. He smiled at the doodle he'd been unconsciously making on the paper in front of him.

It looked like a big 'W'.

“Fred and George were - and still are - accorded almost honorable criminal status by some in the Ministry. Ron was the strength I couldn't have survived without. Ginny is ….......the most wonderful witch in the world.” He heard the words come out of his mouth, and he couldn't help but blush at the mush he'd just uttered.

Jen stopped speaking, holding her breath when 'Harry Potter' – himself! - reminisced about his best friends. Her aunt and uncles! He was one of them! Potter hardly talked to anyone about them. He never talked about himself. She felt privileged and like a voyeur.

She knew he was suddenly embarrassed at revealing himself. Jen didn't want him to withdraw into the secretive shell that both Hermione and Aunt Ginny had carefully coached her about. That he'd do, as soon as he caught sense he was letting his guard down.

Talk about yourself, Jennifer. Before he shuts up! “Just for once, I wanted to be able to do one of those things, so that I'm not the only adult around incapable of jinxing a pixie. I'm not ever going to be good at boggarts or poltergeists or banshee's or …...”

“What did you say?” Harry asked.

“ Ummmm, ….... never good. Poltergeists …?”

“No, before that.”

“Boggarts?”

He snorted a laugh, “Why didn't I remember that. My professor, in this very room. Or actually, back in the office or one of the Tower lower levels, used a boggart to try to teach me how to do a Patronus. That is what you need.”

She did a nervous look about the classroom, peering at the closed cabinets and storage trunks stacked against the rooms sides, even up to the windows, as if they might all contain those dreadful beings. “Not really, ….no, that isn't what I need ….”

Potter frowned, now interested, despite himself. “You've met one or two?”

“Just that one time, here, in Forth Years. About ...almost had an accident ….” She trailed off.

He didn't understand. “You mean, one of the tower challenges failed or was going to drop you out back into the classroom ...”

“No, I mean a …...'personal accident.'” Jennifer looked mortified. “The monstrous thing was a werewolf. I almost ….. I was so scared ….” She closed her eyes and cringed.

Harry just understood what she meant. “Oh, Merlin! Jen. I'm sorry. Didn't mean ….I am such a fool. I had no idea of what I was prying into.” Just the few moments he felt he was making a connection with one of these students, and 'wham' - there goes 'Calamity Potter' once again. Embarrassing the hell out of the poor girl that came to him for help.

He was such an ass!


“I couldn't do it either.” He blurted out. “I kept ….fainting.”

Jen looked a bit puzzled. “Well, that isn't so bad ….”

“You aren't a boy. And I was cursed with this …...” Potter drew aside a lock of hair over his forehead, where the 'zig-zag' scar lay. “I wasn't allowed to forget either. Remus Lupin got me through it, used a boggart to get me to make my Patronus.”

“What was the thing that you most feared?” It was her turn to blurt out something most people found unforgivably rude.

Harry looked far away. Then back to Jen, nodding to himself. “I most feared a Dementor, Jennifer.”

“Oh, …...God!”

“I felt similarly stunned.”

Jen gave Harry a worried look, “You said tried ...”

“Well, there was some issues ….”

“Did it work?” The girl asked, a little more pointedly.

Potter looked back at her. Thinking about his answer. Eventually, he said, “In the classroom? No. Actually”





[Dark Arts classroom, second level]

A few days later, after the 'evening' meal - or what the Hogwarts clock judged the end of the school day - Jennifer came down into the empty chamber below the Dark Arts classroom. This was an empty wood-floored room, with high ceilings, and arched tall windows and magically provided blue skies.

All artificially created, of course. This was down below ground level, within Hogwarts castle.

The room was indeed bare. With only a lone tall wardrobe cabinet in the middle, by the waiting Harry Potter.

“All done with the day?” Harry asked.

Jen nodded, stepping to stand in the middle of the room, eying the ominous looking furniture. Her magic wand in her hand, tapped nervously against her knee. “Got to admit not looking forward to this, Professor.”

“I know you wouldn't. But you aren't alone. This isn't to make you a werewolf huntress or open up a dog kennel. We are just trying to get you past that initial fear stage.”

Jen couldn't help a slight peevish tone entering in her voice. “I still don't see what that has to do with making a Patronus. That was supposed to be remembering something good. This was something I just regularly suck at. And hate.”

“The correct feeling for a Patronus is …... 'Really good'. The best feeling you had in the world. This is just …..added concentration. Because - in the end, in here - this is just a boggart, not a real werewolf.” Potter looked a little distracted, as if he was remembering his own time in this room. The stakes had been somewhat different. “We've tried your normal effort upstairs.”

“Hard to be happy with what's going on.” The girl responded, sullenly.

“True. But that's not all that's going on. Is it?”

Jen face was grim. Eventually she said, “I …...ah, ummm, keep replaying in my mind my talk with my father. The day we were stuck in the castle. I didn't give him a chance. First thing he said that I could twist to something bad, I did.”

Harry looked at her. “And the whole affair makes you naturally unhappy. I know. What he did to you was wrong.”

“It's not just that,” the girl blew out a frustrated breath. “He reminded me of Uncle Bill. And …..for some reason, Bill reminds me of wolves and my fear and it just all collapses ...”

How had this girl subconsciously or otherwise known about Bill's alternative identity. The secret had become ridiculously widely held. Not as bad as that for Astrid the vampire, but too many still knew. It could only be a coincidence that Jennifer feared her uncle.

Was it because the two brothers physically resembled one another? Or was it simply that Charles Weasley was a pathetic excuse for a father?


To Jen, Harry seemed alarmed by the idea. But he mostly covered it up with a knowing nod. Potter looked like he had guessed exactly that, though Jen couldn't imagine how she was so transparent.

“My idea is …. to get you past that to feeling you know it is ridiculous. You'd be amazed at what a boost it is to your morale.”

She looked dubious. Jen wasn't very afraid of showing her skepticism.

Harry forged on. “Let's forget about what makes you happy. Think about what you find most ridiculous.”

Jen looked confused, but half-smiled an immediate answer. “Your son James, at next week's romantic poetry recital.”

Harry looked askance at that and said, “Now that's just silly and impossible.”

They laughed. If nothing else, even if just a little thing, Jen did feel better. Imagining the boy looking disgusted at himself, standing in front of a room of his chortling contemporaries. Spouting sonnets!

Potter turned and unbolted a catch on the cabinet. And it rocked slightly, as something within stirred to awareness that it could be free. In his memory, Harry was also recalling Remus's gentle instruction. How had he gotten Harry past that seeming impossible cliff of fear? “Remember, this is not really that thing. It is simulating it. And I am here.” He lifted the latch, and stepped away from the quivering furniture. “Let's start.”





[Two hours later]

The Werewolf loomed over the huddled girl, a bit of slaver dropped on Jen's hand covering her head as it's open jaws passed just a fraction over her. It snorted at her quivering hair, like a wild animal, and growled menacingly at her ear.

It could not really do more than scare her. Possibly, if a victim with weak heart, one could be scared to death. Boggarts were a nuisance to most competent magicians, but finding out how to handle them did not always come naturally. They adapted themselves to reflect the greatest fear of subject closest to them.

That was the extent of its magic and mostly all the boggart could do was growl at her, except slobber on her in mock rage.

Harry Potter stepped a foot in between the terrified girl and the boggart disguised as a werewolf. His presence forced it to change. Jen sometimes saw what happened, but these last few times, her eyes were screwed shut and she missed whatever it was that Harry found most ridiculous.

The boggart hadn't appeared always the same thing. It whipped away back into the cabinet almost in a blink of an eye, his command was so fast. Once, it was a legless, faceless figure, shrouded in rags and scraps of cloth.

Hovering close to a table playing a card game of solitaire and losing!

Jen braced herself back up to a sitting position, still on her knees. “I …...I am unable to hold it together.”

“But I saw you stand, make it decide, before it settled on the werewolf. You are getting there, Jen.”

“Doesn't feel like it at all.”

Harry nodded patiently. “You are tired. We've done enough to get the idea.”

Ginny Potter walked in through one of the doors from the corridor down from the main classroom. “Sorry, I was delayed helping the Headmistress.” Just in a blouse and denims, her boots clicking as she crossed the wood floor to a chair along the wall, which she sat at with what she hoped was cheerful optimism.

Jen looked pale and shaky. Ginny could see it had not been going well.

“We were just finishing up.” Harry said to his wife. He was very glad she had come, but privately wished it had been earlier. He feared he was failing miserably once again.. “I think six times are enough for an evening ….”

“I want to do it again!” Jen said stoutly, but still with a quavery sound in her voice.

“Yes, I want to see.” Ginny nodded encouragingly. Harry, too, looked depressed. He manfully covered it up in his words, but Ginny could see from long experience he was feeling he was harming more than helping. To the girl, the witch brightly said, “It is better with an audience, Jen. Harry all taught us in just a few sessions. Together, we just about fell over silly, laughing at what some people came up with.”

Jen looked a tad disbelieving. “Not all that funny to me.”

“I know, Jennifer. There is something that your body says is the greatest threat to you. Sooner or later, your mind will take over when it realizes it is something you can handle.”

That seemed to make the young witch think, but she faintly pointed a chin in Harry's direction. “He did it alone?”

“No. Surrounded by an army of dementors. He does lots of things the hardest way. He is a stupid man.”

“Thanks!” Harry sighed.

Jen felt her gloom slightly evaporate. Something about her aunt's presence made it seem once again just a classroom and she had no worries. “Professor Potter's done alright.

“ 'The Boy who Lived' is still pretty good!”

“A bit more than a boy, now.” Harry ruefully muttered, patting his tummy. “A bit tubby, too.”

“Love-Handles, darling. Just gives me more to hold on to,” Ginny gleefully cackled.

The witches laughed, with Harry standing still watching the cabinet, deciding it best not to say anything more, but just let the women giggle.

Jen glowed. This completely restored her good mood. “Not so tubby, Professor. You are in pretty good shape. Robbie is just skin and bones, and ticklish …,” Jen stopped herself, realizing what she was admitting to and just minutely inspected the back of her hand and the dusty sill of the nearest tall window, giving a guilty glance back at her aunt.

Who just grinned like a shark, and caught the quick glimmer of Harry's eye looking to her, biting the inside of his mouth to keep laughing himself. Harry Potter shook his head.

The women ignored his protest with a quick chuckle each.

That was when the boggart leaped out from the cabinet. Harry had not locked it down and it took the opportunity to surprise Potter.

Jen didn't catch all the shapes that happened. They flickered through many things repeatedly.

Again, some were the Dementor. In various sizes.

But some were other things. At least one was a young red-haired boy who looked a lot like a younger version of Uncle George. The boy laughed contemptuously at Potter, calling “You tosser!”. Then it shifting to a prone man and a witch crying over him before she was cursed down to fall across his body.

Potter moaned, “No.....” his wand dropping from his hand. But the boggart was not done with him, shifting to a scene of a laughing young boy, the spitting image of James Potter, holding another boy upside down and helpless.

Jen felt fired up, and emboldened. She put herself in between the boggart and the stricken Potter, and she shouted “Ridikulus!”

And the boggart involuntarily quivered and changed to …

A snarling puppy, tearing fiercely tearing a fluffy slipper to shred, growling and sending little puff balls of magical fabric flying. It made adorably cute, high pitched little barks, letting the magical phantom of destroyed garment fall to pant hopefully at Jen. Unable to control itself.

Jen said, “Hah!”

The boggart was mastered by its only available victim. It didn't even bother to try Ginny, but instead whirled into a brief gray mist that curled back into the cabinet.

Which shut back up with a thump.

Potter seemed to come alive all in that brief moment of time that the two witches understood the boggart was back in its container. Harry shouted something, maybe it sounded like 'Never!' to Jen and faster than she could really comprehend, he blew apart the cabinet into a brief shower of splintered wood and smoke.

Jen caught only a notion of the tenuous form of the wisp of smoke that was the boggart fleeing into another locked trunk as if vapor seeping into it through any available crack.

The trunk shook slightly, as if the being within was the scared one.

Jen didn't really see Harry just march straight out through a side door, further into one the many other passages into the Dark Arts Tower. She stood looking dumb and confused, unable to decide if she was supposed to follow him. Or maybe run for her life.

Jen became aware Ginny was next to her. Her aunt's slim hand entered her free one and gave it a reassuring squeeze. Jen awoke to the fact she was standing almost on her tip-toes, nervously prepared to cast some protective spell in case of attack by something.

But nothing happened. The boggart's new container wobbled and bumped, but it was not coming out anytime soon.

Ginny looked to the girl. “Okay, now we are done. He needs our help in this. I'd like you to be his Seventh-Year assistant, for the younger classes, if you'd like to try.”

Jen made a weakly frustrated attempt to argue some more. “But why? You saw! I'm terrible.”

“I don't think so. Got it, when it mattered. Gave up on yourself, Jen, is the big problem. You have multiple crises of confidence. We all do. He really does, right now. He needs us.”

She shakily nodded 'yes.' “I'll give it a go, if he wants. Professor didn't want any help ...”

“He sure is wrong a lot. Isn't he?” Ginny sagely responded and it made Jen smile. “Think he's understanding he can't do it all. Trying to do things by the book. For right now, this is my job, Jennifer. I'll see to him. Be upstairs, tomorrow morning. I'll get him sorted.”

“What happened? Did he harm it?” Jen asked.

“You can't really do anything to boggarts, but chase them from one hide to another. Trust me, we tried for years at Grimauld Place. When Victoire becomes the new mistress of the house, she is going to learn what it is really like to be saddled with a haunted house full of the ugly buggers.”

“I still don't understand. None of the things it turned into at Harry were really bad!”

“They weren't meant for you. What did you see?”

Jen pondered for a few seconds, “Well, two were of snotty boys. Rude - not very nice - but not monstrous.”

Ginny considered the shut door for a moment.“The red-haired one was my dead brother, Fred. The couple being murdered were Teddy's parents. All three killed at the last Battle of Hogwarts. Both those scenes were playing on Harry's long held fear and conviction he failed then and should henceforth protect everyone and anything for all harm, especially if he becomes emotionally attached to them.”

Jen shook her head. “Nobody could live like that. He'd never be able to stop everything bad happening.”

Ginny nodded. “Exactly what he's been told for years. He has come to accept it, mostly, but the nasty thing in the box must have got tired of the games, and went after where Harry is still weakest.”

“And the boy holding the other up in the air?”

“Did he look familiar to you?”

“Dark-haired. Similar features to James, but maybe a bit older.”

“An image preserved in another's memory of Harry's father. Also called James and unfortunately an arrogant bully and probably too clever for his own good. Both of us fear our James may become just like his grandfather.”

Jen shook her head. “I don't think he is like that. He thinks he is too clever for his age, but not tauntingly cruel. No, not like that.” She vaguely gestured to the still smoking remnants of the cabinet.

“I agree.” Ginny looked at the shut door Harry had stormed out through. “My job is now to remind Harry of that. My husband was a cruelly used little boy and needs a lot of patience, and careful handling.”

“I'll say goodnight now.” Ginny took a stride toward the door, seemed to consider something and turned to look at Jen. “Oh, …....and for the sake of my brothers – especially your father – you might keep a tight lid on saying anymore about holding onto Robert's skinny behind.”

Jen once again glowed under her tanned complexion. “Wasn't going to flout it, if that is what you mean. None of their business, really.”

“No. But the Weasleys' have an old-fashioned sense of right and wrong. Especially about pre-marital hanky-panky with one of their women folk.”

“Why should he care?”

Ginny made a sideways shrug. “Men!” As if that didn't explain it all, Ginny added, “Charlie cares a great deal about you, Jen. But he's sadly inept at showing it. The old Charlie would never have bothered enough to meet you. Learn from his mistakes, help him understand. We will be out of this trap-thingie in a ….well, short time, you'll see. When Robbie gets back, keep both him and your father on a short leash. Chiefly, Robert's hands to himself till the wedding – maybe have him meet Uncle Bill to get an idea of the risk - and Charlie suitably sorry for the rest of his life. We will show you the way.”

The girl blushed again, and muttered it wouldn't be happening again. She really thought, Not happening again if this weird entrapment of the castle didn't end soon! If this was really prolonged and delayed or post-poned the actual wedding, then Robbie had better watch out for her own wandering hands!

When she finally got a hold on him.

Ginny Potter said, fingering the old fashioned castle door latch of the tower door Harry had disappeared into. “And lock the classroom door this time, would you. We don't need casual visitors right now.”

Jen nodded understanding and Ginny waved goodnight and opened the door. And closed it upon her.

Jen had only turned to begin walking out to leave the classroom when Ginny appeared from the door from the regular classroom – the complete opposite side of the room - grumbling. “Don't tell me I have to pass the stupid test. God-dammit, I'm the effing Deputy Headmistress, you …....... Castle!”

She wasn't talking to Jen, but to the air?

Ginny Potter marched across the floor, ignoring the baffled Jennifer and once again opened and departed down into a new level of the Dark Arts tower.

This time, it may have been thirty seconds, but Ginny once more reappeared in the exit door, swearing some pretty graphic opinions about Hogwarts. “Don't tell what to do, simpleton!” Ginny snarled at the air, as if talking to an invisible teaser. Once again, she marched across the room, opened the offending chamber's door again, and slammed it shut behind her.

This time, there was ominous rumbling and grinding sounds, as