Chapter 1 : The Bug
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It was a bright, warm summer's afternoon in Privet Drive. Four teenage boys sat on the garden wall of number four, watching the men who were rebuilding the shattered front half of the house. The smallest boy, a skinny, rat-faced specimen named Piers Polkiss, was leaning towards the others and speaking in a low, excited tone.
'Everyone's saying it was a freak ground subsidence, but it wasn't, it was terrorists. They've been after Dudley's family for ages and finally found out where they live. Dudley called me last night -- luckily he and his parents were in Majorca when the bomb went off. Now they're lying low while the government arranges protection ...'
His three friends gawped at him. Piers sat up very straight, thoroughly pleased with the interest he'd created. The beetle that had been perched on his shoulder took flight. Malcolm, who was sitting on the wall beside Piers, snatched it out of the air and idly ripped off one of its wings.
Arthur Weasley checked his watch -- almost time. He turned the Ministry Portkey (appropriately enough, a large bronze key) over in his hands. It had been delivered by owl that morning along with a request for his assistance from Morpheus Quitch, whom Mr Weasley vaguely recalled as a rather earnest young wizard with the Accidental Magic Reversal Squad.
This was something of a turnabout of standard procedure. As Head of the Misuse of Muggle Artefacts Office, it was normally Mr Weasley who sent for an Obliviator, not the other way around. Quitch hadn't said what it was he needed assistance with, either. Just as Mr Weasley was wondering for the dozenth time what Quitch could possibly want, the Portkey went off.
When the wind had died and the swirling colours faded, Mr Weasley was left in total darkness. Drawing his wand, he muttered, 'Lumos.'
He found himself inside a cupboard, surrounded by mops and brooms, but Muggle brooms, not wizarding ones. Taking his right foot out of the bucket it had landed in, Mr Weasley seized the nearest one and flipped it over. He gazed avidly at the long, flattened, rag-covered end, Quitch and his mysterious task utterly forgotten.
A sudden bright light filled the cupboard as the door was pulled open.
'Arthur Weasley?' said a nervous voice.
'Ah -- yes,' Mr Weasley replied, hastily setting the broom down.
He stepped out of the cupboard into a blindingly white hallway. White-clad Muggles scurried along it on unknown errands, paying no attention to the two Ministry wizards.
'You had a -- a Muggle artefact you wanted me to have a look at?' he asked.
'No,' said Quitch. 'I wanted you to have a look at Rita Skeeter.'
'Rita Skeeter?' said Mr Weasley blankly.
'You've not heard what happened to her?' said Quitch.
'Er -- well -- I knew she'd been injured ...'
In fact Mr Weasley knew quite a bit more than this. Rita Skeeter had been found unconscious and gravely wounded by a group of Muggle labourers in the rubble of Harry Potter's aunt and uncle's house, nearly four weeks after it had been blown up -- by You-Know-Who, although Cornelius Fudge refused to admit it. The Dursleys hadn't been there at the time; unfortunately, Harry apparently had, and had been missing ever since.
What had caused Rita's injuries was a complete mystery to everyone. The Muggles said she'd appeared out of nowhere, and that was exactly where the Magical Law Enforcement Patrol's investigation had got. Because of the connection with Harry's disappearance, Mr Weasley had kept fairly close tabs on their efforts, but he didn't want word of his interest getting back to Fudge.
The Minister for Magic was desperate to keep the whole thing quiet from the wizarding public. Mr Weasley had only learnt of what had befallen Harry because he and his wife had been planning to have him visit over the summer. If Fudge discovered the full extent of Mr Weasley's nosing around, he'd probably arrange to have his memory wiped.
'She's here,' said Quitch tensely. 'This is a Muggle hospital. She's been here for five days and they still haven't mended her back, and -- and -- Arthur, they've stuck needles into her! Come and see!'
He pulled Mr Weasley up the white corridor, past a number of white doors and into an equally white room. Lying face down on the bed, eyes half-shut, was Rita Skeeter. Her face looked shockingly pale without its usual thick application of makeup; her normally rigidly curled hair lay flat and straggling; her heavy jaw hung slack.
Mr Weasley had little reason to like Rita Skeeter, but he couldn't help feeling a twinge of pity. The Muggles had indeed stuck needles into her, needles that were attached to some sort of elaborate potion-brewing apparatus. Mr Weasley suppressed a shudder. As fascinating as he ordinarily found Muggle ways of getting by without magic, this was one occasion on which he was extremely grateful to be a wizard. Nonetheless, he tried not to let it show in his voice when he spoke to Quitch.
'Yes, that's how Muggles treat injuries like this. I realise it looks -- er -- very bad, but the -- the needles will keep her alive until you can move her to St Mungo's.'
Mr Weasley frowned. He was surprised Rita Skeeter hadn't already been moved to St Mungo's. It was Friday afternoon, and the Ministry had located the Muggle hospital she'd been taken to on Tuesday morning.
'She's not going to St Mungo's,' said Quitch.
'Not going to St Mungo's?' repeated Mr Weasley. 'Why on earth not?'
'Minister's orders,' said Quitch, not quite meeting Mr Weasley's eyes. 'Can't risk exposing the other patients to dangerous Dark Magic.'
Mr Weasley stared at him in disbelief. He'd never heard of anyone not being brought to St Mungo's after suffering such a severe magical injury, nor of any curse that might remain harmful to others five days after it was cast.
Was Fudge doing this to punish Rita Skeeter for the many times she'd criticised the Ministry in the Daily Prophet? No, of course not -- Fudge wasn't that vindictive ... or that cunning. But there were plenty at the Ministry who were. Any one of them could've put this notion into Fudge's head; he'd be panicky enough not to question it.
'... so she has to stay here, and I have to stay with her, to stop the Muggles asking questions,' Quitch was going on. 'I didn't think it would take this long ... You know Muggles, Arthur, you talk to them. There must be something more they could be doing for her ...'
Feeling slightly out of his depth, Mr Weasley stepped out the room, looked up and down the corridor and intercepted a passing Muggle nurse.
'Excuse me, Madam ... May I speak to the, um, medimuggle in charge of the Skeeter case?'
The nurse gave him a look of deepest suspicion. It was good that Mr Weasley had an Obliviator with him. Quitch had to modify the memories of three nurses and a burly orderly before Mr Weasley hit on the unsavoury but effective tactic of pretending to be Rita Skeeter's husband, who had just learnt of her whereabouts from Quitch, a family friend. The pair of them were quickly ushered into the office of Dr Balaghat Bhandara, a tall, distinguished-looking Muggle whose outstandingly neat hair and clothing strongly reminded Mr Weasley of the late Bartemius Crouch.
'So you're the husband of our mystery woman, Mr --?'
'Weasley, Arthur Weasley,' said Mr Weasley.
'And your wife's name?' said Dr Bhandara, pen poised above a chart.
'Mo -- Rita Skeeter. She's a reporter -- goes by her maiden name professionally,' Mr Weasley explained. 'How -- how is she? Is she going to be all right?'
'She's in no immediate danger of dying,' said Dr Bhandara. 'Her condition, however, is quite serious, and there's still the possibility of infection setting in. The reattachment is taking as well as can be expected, but even with intensive physiotherapy, I anticipate major loss of function in the left arm and some impairment of the left leg.'
Mr Weasley made an appalled noise. Doctor Bhandara gazed at him soberly.
'You said your wife was a reporter. Have you any idea what stories she might have been working on recently? Because the nature of her wounds -- did the nurses explain to you exactly what happened to her?'
'Ah -- no, not really,' said Mr Weasley.
'I don't mean to distress you, but -- you need to understand the urgency of the situation. Your wife was, literally, skinned alive. From left buttock to left shoulder, from the centre of her spine to the left edge of her body, almost a square foot of skin was removed from her back, and a fair-sized piece of muscle torn from her shoulder. This could not have come about accidentally. The absolute precision with which it was done -- I myself, a trained surgeon, using the most advanced modern hospital equipment, would have great difficulty duplicating it. Considerable skill was required on the part of the perpetrator, skill that could only have been gained through extensive practice. Needless to say, the police are taking this matter very seriously. Had your wife ever done investigations of Satanists, serial killers, that type of thing?'
'Er -- well, I --' floundered Mr Weasley.
'Is your wife connected with some sort of -- of New Age religious group?' asked Dr Bhandara. 'Only she -- well, she's been claiming to be a witch. We weren't certain whether it was an effect of the anaesthesia -- we've had to keep her rather heavily sedated to stop her trying to leave the hospital ...'
Mr Weasley opened his mouth and then closed it.
'If you have reason to suspect that your wife knew her attacker I would strongly suggest you say so,' said Dr Bhandara sternly. 'If she wasn't the random victim a murderous lunatic -- if this was some -- some ritual sacrifice or punishment for disloyalty ... then the person or persons responsible may well attempt to come back and finish her off.'
As Mr Weasley was struggling to frame his reply, he was distracted by a loud thumping sound: Quitch had slid from his chair in a dead faint.
Dr Bhandara stared down at Quitch with an alarmed expression. He reached for the fellytone on his desk --
'Obliviate!' said Mr Weasley sharply.
The medimuggle watched on in a state of dazed placidity as Mr Weasley brought Quitch around with a series of sharp taps to his face, hauled him onto his feet and hustled him out of the office.
'Have a nice day,' Dr Bhandara called vaguely after them.
Mr Weasley dragged Quitch into the first empty bedroom they came to. The young Obliviator sat on the bed, white-faced and trembling, barely able to speak.
'Morpheus, calm down,' said Mr Weasley. 'What's the matter?'
'People with bits torn out of them, you heard him ...' gasped Quitch. 'My God, it's like Tighernan O'Doyle all over again!'
Mr Weasley winced. The O'Doyle case had been, if not the largest, then arguably the most gruesome mass killing of You-Know-Who's era.
'Morpheus, this is nothing like Tighernan O'Doyle,' he said reasonably. 'He didn't live five hours, never mind five days ... and you didn't run across any Death Adders slithering around the scene, did you?'
Mentioning Death Adders was definitely a mistake. Quitch let out a moan of terror and pressed his fists against his mouth.
'That house is cursed,' he whimpered.
'Oh, now surely --' Mr Weasley began.
'The Grim was there! It howled and howled ... our Spirit Levellers had no effect! The Minister had to send for Dumbledore to get rid of it! Then, a week later ...' Quitch gave a shudder. 'She's doomed to die, Arthur. You heard that Muggle, they'll be coming back for her. I'm an Obliviator, not an Auror, I can't fight Dark Magic ...'
'Morpheus ...' Mr Weasley trailed off.
Quitch was thoroughly panic-stricken and there wasn't much he could say to reassure him. As Dumbledore had explained to Fudge, the reason the Spirit Levelling Charms hadn't worked on the Grim was because it wasn't a Grim, but a real dog. Practically no one else at the Ministry believed this story, though; they all thought it was part of Fudge's attempts to keep the incident at Harry's house covered up.
Nobody was certain what sort of Dark Magic had been used on Rita Skeeter. Most Flaying Curses removed the whole skin, and of the ones that took off pieces, none could be aimed with sufficient accuracy to have caused her wounds. Moreover, the Improper Use of Magic Office had no record of any spell whatsoever being performed in the area on the day she'd been found.
Mr Weasley's sources in Magical Law Enforcement told him that they suspected the actual attack had occurred at a separate location -- that it was an unconnected act of revenge, and that Rita Skeeter had been dumped near Harry's house in order to obfuscate the ensuing investigation. They had not, however, managed to find any definite proof of this.
According to her editor at the Daily Prophet, she'd got a lot of hate mail after her last story on Harry Potter (and deserved every piece of it in Mr Weasley's opinion). That in itself was not unusual, yet she'd apparently been sufficiently upset to start publishing her articles under a different name.
Those letters the Ministry was able to trace had all turned out to be the work of harmless (for the most part) cranks, and considering the lengths to which the culprits had gone to cover their tracks, it hardly seemed likely they'd have risked giving themselves away beforehand by sending a threatening letter. What was more, in order to have known what happened at Harry's house, Rita's attacker had to have been either a Ministry member or a Death Eater -- or worse, both.
Now there was a thought that would really send Quitch into hysterics. Mr Weasley eyed the petrified young wizard with concern. He couldn't leave Quitch on his own in the Muggle world in his current condition. Nor could he abandon Rita Skeeter to the horrors of Muggle medicine, no matter what she'd written about anyone. Then inspiration struck.
'You say the Minister had to send for Dumbledore ...'
Rita Skeeter sat in the Weasley's kitchen, her right hand shaking slightly as she held her cup of tea. Her left arm rested limply on the scrubbed wooden table -- in spite of Madam Pomfrey's best efforts, she still had some trouble using it.
Mr Weasley had Apparated back to the Ministry with Quitch for just long enough to send Dumbledore an owl. Dumbledore had turned up at the hospital a couple of hours later, the Hogwarts matron in tow. With a few well-chosen words, Dumbledore soon had Quitch settled down. It took Madam Pomfrey rather longer to heal Rita Skeeter's back.
Afterwards Rita had still been somewhat groggy from the Muggle potions; Mr Weasley hadn't felt she ought to be wandering about. Although Mrs Weasley was putting a good face on it, she'd been as little pleased to discover that her husband had invited Rita Skeeter to spend the night as he'd been to invite her. But Rita should be fit to travel by next morning and then they'd be well shot of her.
The kitchen door flew open and Mr Weasley's youngest son Ron came hurtling in.
'Mum, where've you put --'
At the sight of Rita Skeeter, his voice cut off abruptly. His face went deep red, twisting into an expression of such hatred and fury that he was scarcely recognisable.
'What's she doing here?' he spat.
'Rita is -- is recovering -- from a -- from a very serious injury ...' Mr Weasley stammered.
He hadn't imagined that Ron would be particularly happy to see Rita either, but the fierce, unchildlike rage in his son's eyes shocked him deeply. He glanced towards his wife, expecting that at any moment she'd begin telling Ron off for being rude to a guest, but she seemed just as stunned at their son's reaction as he was.
'It's her fault Fudge didn't believe Harry, it's her fault he's dead!' Ron exploded. 'The Ministry would've been protecting him, if she hadn't written that article!'
Ron's fists clenched. Then his eyes fell upon the long poker by the fireplace. He snatched it up and advanced on Rita Skeeter, who gave him a single terrified look, scrambled from her seat and Disapparated.
'I HOPE YOU-KN-- I HOPE VOLDEMORT GETS YOU!' Ron shouted after her.
This broke Mrs Weasley out of her trance. 'Ronald Weasley, I'm going to wash your mouth out with soap!' she shrieked.
'It's your fault too!' snarled Ron, rounding on her. 'If you'd let Harry come here at the start of summer, he'd still be alive!'
Throwing the poker aside with a clatter, he wheeled and stormed out the kitchen, slamming the door behind him with such force that the whole house shook. Mrs Weasley swelled with anger, drew a number of heaving breaths -- and burst into tears. Mr Weasley hurried over to her.
'Molly, don't -- he didn't mean it -- don't cry ...'
Mrs Weasley buried her face in his robes and cried all the harder.
'That boy -- when I get hold of him -- he's not too big for a broomstick across his backside ...'
But that wasn't strictly true. Ron was almost as tall as his father now. If he'd actually tried to -- to beat Rita Skeeter with the poker, Mr Weasley would've had a job stopping him without magic. With five older boys, this wasn't the first time Mr Weasley had had it forcibly brought home to him that one of his children was no longer a child, but it was definitely the most disquieting.
'Molly ...' he said again, hugging his wife closer.
'It is my fault,' sobbed Mrs Weasley. 'I let him go back there, to those horrible Muggles. It wasn't You-Know-Who that broke Dumbledore's spell, it was them! They went off and left him!'
Ron Weasley ran, through the yard, past the hedges, up the hill and into the orchard. He collapsed against a gnarled apple tree and leant there gasping for breath. After several of minutes, when the painful thumping of his heart had subsided, he reached in his pocket and took out a wrinkled bit of Muggle parchment -- his last letter from Harry, delivered on the very morning that Harry's house had been destroyed. Ron smoothed the parchment out against the tree and began to reread it, as he had done every day for the past month:
How are you? I'm all right, the Dursleys have left me with Mrs Figg for the holidays. Remember how your mum said I might be able to come and stay with you later in the summer? Only Mrs Figg's back's been hurting her, and I'm not sure how long she'll be able to keep me on ...
You will find out what happened to Harry in
"The Serpent of Lord Voldemort".
Disclaimer: All characters and concepts from the Harry Potter series copyright J K Rowling.