Chapter 1 : Holiday Plans
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One morning in late October as Harry, Ron and Hermione were leaving the Great Hall after breakfast, they were intercepted by Professor McGonagall.
'Weasley, come with me,' she said. 'The Headmaster needs to speak with you.'
'What about?' said Ron with a trace of apprehension.
'You'll find out when you see him,' said Professor McGonagall, but not sharply as she normally would have done. 'Now come along.'
Ron followed her up the marble staircase and out of sight. Harry and Hermione stared after him curiously.
'What d'you think Dumbledore wants with Ron?' said Harry. 'You don't reckon he's in any trouble, do you?'
He couldn't imagine what Ron might have been getting up to that would earn him a visit to the Headmaster's office, or why he would have kept it secret from Harry and Hermione.
'No, I don't think so,' said Hermione slowly. 'If Ron had done something wrong Professor McGonagall would have been angry, and she wasn't. She -- it was almost as though she was being kind.'
Ron didn't show up for any of their morning classes. This left Dean Thomas without a partner in Charms, when the students were called to the front in pairs to cast Strengthening Spells on each other and attempt lifting Professor Flitwick's desk above their heads.
When it came Dean's turn, Professor Flitwick said, 'Why don't you try your spell on Mr Longbottom's toad?'
Dean waved his wand, then prodded Trevor with it to make him hop. Trevor sailed majestically across the room, nearly grazing the ceiling at the top of an approximately thirty-foot leap.
'Oh, very good!' cried Professor Flitwick.
'Still, I would've liked to have had a go at that desk,' said Dean regretfully as they trooped out the classroom.
'Me too,' sighed Seamus Finnegan. His partner had been Neville, whose feeble Strengthening Spell had done little more than make Seamus slightly dizzy.
'Where's Ron?' Dean asked Harry.
'Professor McGonagall took him off to Dumbledore's office after breakfast,' said Harry. 'She wouldn't say what it was about.'
'That's funny,' said Lavender Brown. 'She came to the table and got Ginny as well, after you three had gone.'
'I don't remember seeing Fred and George at breakfast, either,' frowned Parvati Patil. 'I do hope there's nothing wrong at home.'
An uncomfortable silence fell. If something had happened to the Weasley family, they all had a fair idea who was responsible. But Voldemort had no reason to attack the Weasleys, Harry told himself firmly ... except Mr Weasley was working against Voldemort at the Ministry ... and Ron was Harry's friend ...
'Out of my way, Mudblood!'
As he pushed through the Gryffindors, Malfoy gave Hermione a hard shove -- and was flung halfway down the passage when she automatically shoved back. Crabbe and Goyle gaped and skirted carefully around her before jogging over to help Malfoy up. Harry, who had partnered Hermione in Charms, was pleased to see that his Strengthening Spell had been a good, long-lasting one.
On their way to Gryffindor Tower, Harry and Hermione craned their necks trying to spot Ron amongst the throngs of students in the corridors, but saw no sign of him. Once they reached the common room, they had to duck past Dean and Seamus, who had put Strengthening Spells on one another and were tossing an armchair back and forth, and dodge Neville's futile attempts to catch Trevor, who was bounding from one end of the room to the other. Ron was slumped in a chair near the fire, looking both miserable and shocked.
'Ron, what is it?' said Hermione.
'It's Percy,' said Ron in a stunned voice. 'He's been arrested for murder. They brought him to Azkaban yesterday afternoon.'
Harry and Hermione gazed at Ron, speechless. Harry found his voice first.
'Murder? But he couldn't have. I mean, this is Percy we're talking about.'
'Who was murdered and why do they think Percy did it?' Hermione asked practically.
She and Harry listened while Ron explained. Two weeks ago, a Hit Wizard named Gideon Watchett had been found dead in his office. In the course of the investigation, it had come out that Watchett had eaten lunch with Penelope Clearwater in the Ministry canteen on several occasions and had once been observed going into her office.
This in itself would not have been particularly damning, but a witness had stepped forward claiming he had seen Percy leave the Ministry on the night before the body was discovered, from a door near the Department of Magical Law Enforcement instead of the one he normally used. The prevailing theory was that Percy had learnt Penelope and Watchett were having an affair, and killed him out of jealousy.
'They arrested Percy because he left from a different exit than usual and the dead man spoke to his girlfriend a couple of times?' said Hermione in amazement. 'Ron, that's very flimsy circumstantial evidence.'
'It's more than they've got on anyone else,' said Ron bleakly. 'Fred and George reckon the Ministry had to pull in someone, what with the Quidditch World Cup and not being able to recapture Sirius Black. A bunch of other embarrassing stuff was leaked to the Daily Prophet recently, too. Fudge is under a lot of pressure -- worried about a vote of no confidence. And Percy's been in the Ministry's bad books since Crouch was killed. He was sent to the Centaur Office back in July ...'
'Oh, dear,' said Hermione sympathetically.
Harry made a mental note to ask her what was so awful about the Centaur Office at some future time when Ron was less distraught.
'Why did Percy go out that door, anyway?' said Harry.
'He says he didn't,' said Ron. 'He says whoever it was must have mistaken him for someone else.'
'And Penelope, what does she have to say about this Gideon Watchett?' said Hermione. 'She wasn't actually -- interested in him, was she?'
'No,' said Ron. 'She told Magical Law Enforcement that Watchett stopped by her table once or twice to discuss Ministry business, but never visited her in her office. She didn't think enough of it to mention him to Percy, and Percy didn't ask. It makes no difference, though,' he went on gloomily. 'Percy could've heard about Watchett and Penelope from someone, or seen them together himself and decided they were -- you know. But the Ministry's still investigating,' Ron added with a note of forced confidence in his voice. 'They're sure to find another suspect. They've got to ...'
But the week went by and the Ministry didn't find another suspect. The obvious culprit -- Voldemort -- wasn't even being considered. Fudge continued to insist he had not returned. Mr Weasley and his Ministry allies were unable to press the Minister on this point, as they could think of no reason why Voldemort would have wanted Gideon Watchett dead. Watchett had been a very junior Hit Wizard, assigned none but the most routine cases.
Word of Percy's arrest spread rapidly through the school. Malfoy made snide remarks about people from poor families being apt to turn to crime; Harry suspected he was mainly responsible for the speed with which the news had travelled around Hogwarts.
All of the Weasleys were showing the strain. Ginny became almost as depressed and withdrawn as she had been the year the Chamber of Secrets was opened. Fred and George grew sullen and morose. Fred especially was given to unexpected outbursts of temper. He had a nasty quarrel with Lee Jordan over nothing in particular, after which Lee started sitting with Katie Bell and Angelina Johnson at meals. Poor Ron seemed hardest hit, probably because he had seen first-hand the effect that Azkaban had had on Sirius Black.
The worst part of it all was that there was nothing any of them could do -- they could scarcely help investigate a murder at the Ministry of Magic from Hogwarts.
Hermione consulted a number of books on wizarding law. She thought the arrest might have been illegal, but, as she told Harry and Ron dispiritedly, 'The Dark Force Defence Emergency Powers Acts of 1977 have never been revoked. The Minister for Magic can send anyone he likes to Azkaban for as long as he likes. He doesn't even need to have a reason ...'
November stretched agonisingly into December. One night at dinner, as Malfoy was loudly regaling his fellow Slytherins with descriptions of the terrible state of the prisoners his father had seen in Azkaban, Ron abruptly left the Gryffindor table. He had particularly bad nightmares that evening, twice waking Harry up with his flailing and shouting. Next morning, he refused to go down to breakfast with Harry and Hermione, saying that he wasn't hungry.
'They've got to find some evidence to clear Percy soon,' said Hermione. 'He couldn't have actually murdered someone.'
She had cast a Greaseproof Charm on a Zonko's bag and was surreptitiously shovelling in bacon and eggs to take up to Ron.
'I could murder Malfoy,' said Harry darkly, scowling across the Great Hall at the Slytherin table. 'I could murder Malfoy,' he repeated in a thoughtful tone. 'Don't expect he knows the counter for the Curse of the Slithering Death.'
'No, Harry, you mustn't!' said Hermione in a terrified whisper. The Zonko's bag fell to the floor with a squelch as she clutched at his arm. 'I can't stand it if you get sent to Azkaban too!'
'Of course not,' said Harry, startled at the vehemence of her reaction. 'That was just talk. I didn't mean I'd really do it.'
'Swear you won't,' said Hermione, gripping his arm more tightly still. 'Swear to me you won't use Dark Magic to kill Draco Malfoy!'
Harry duly swore. This seemed to satisfy Hermione; she let go of Harry's arm and began buttering a couple of pieces of toast.
'The Slithering Death ... is that something Professor Millarca is teaching you?' she asked disapprovingly as she picked up the Zonko's bag and dropped the toast into it.
'Only to defend against,' said Harry quickly.
'Well, I wish she'd teach the rest of us,' said Hermione grumpily.
Professor Millarca was the newest Defence Against the Dark Arts teacher. It was widely agreed that in hiring her, Dumbledore had scraped the very bottom of the barrel. Barely older than many of her students, not only was this Professor Millarca's first teaching position, but her first job of any sort. She mostly taught straight from the set books, with occasional stabs at duplicating the lessons of previous masters (including, according to Dennis Creevey, Lockhart's infamous Pixie class, although she at least had the sense to release the Pixies one at a time, and managed to correctly perform the Peskipiksi charm on her third go.)
She was, however, developing lessons of her own and had chosen Harry to test them out on, having somehow got it into her head that he was the school's top Dark Arts student. Hermione, who considered the regular classes to be less than challenging, had asked to join them. To her great annoyance, Professor Millarca had determinedly put her off, even after Harry pointed out that Hermione had always got better marks than him and volunteered to let her take his place. Harry didn't exactly dislike Professor Millarca, but it was difficult not to compare her unfavourably to Professor Lupin or even the fake Moody, and he hadn't been keen to spend an extra evening on lessons each week.
They had been interesting lessons, though, on curses and counter-curses. Harry had thought he'd got a fair grounding in hexes preparing for the Triwizard Tournament, but Professor Millarca knew a few he'd never run across in the Hogwarts library (with good reason, Harry suspected, as they all seemed to involve death in one form or another). And while he didn't truly wish to kill Malfoy, Harry couldn't help thinking how pleasant it would be if Malfoy was sent to the hospital wing for a few weeks, just long enough for Percy to be released from Azkaban. He resolved to ask Professor Millarca next lesson about curses that merely caused lingering minor injuries.
As Harry and Hermione made their way back to Gryffindor Tower with Ron's breakfast, Fred came hurrying up to them.
'I want a word with you about Quidditch practice,' he said to Harry. 'You go on, Hermione, Ron'll need time to eat that lot before classes start.'
Harry was a bit surprised at this. Fred and George had stopped attending the team's training sessions since receiving news of Percy's arrest. Angelina hadn't even been certain they'd bother turning up for the first match of the season. They had, but it soon became obvious, only for the opportunity to pay Malfoy back for the things he'd been saying about Percy.
Fred and George had marked the Slytherin Seeker ferociously, sending Bludger after Bludger pelting in his direction. Despite -- or perhaps because of -- their Beaters' not-so-hidden agenda, Gryffindor had won handily. Most of Slytherin's highly trained players of two years ago had left Hogwarts. The new Beaters, Crabbe and Millicent Bulstrode, didn't have the experience to stand up to the Weasley twins, nor were the three Slytherin Chasers a match for Angelina and Katie. With Malfoy effectively out of the game, Harry had had a clear field to catch the Snitch. Neither Fred nor George, however, had shown the slightest scrap of interest in Quidditch since then ...
Fred watched Hermione climb the stairs, then flicked his eyes up and down the corridor. Seeing no one around, he leant over and murmured, so softly that Harry could scarcely hear him, 'Meet me behind the mirror on the fourth floor after classes. Don't ask questions now and don't tell anyone where you're going, not even Ron or Hermione. It's life or death that nobody know about this.' In a normal tone he said, 'You'll be there, right?'
It was hard for Harry not to ask questions, as there were about a thousand of them flitting through his brain. But heeding the warning look on Fred's face, after a brief pause, he simply said, 'Right.'
Harry had considerable trouble keeping his mind on lessons that afternoon, wondering what Fred and George could possibly be up to. Under ordinary circumstances he would have assumed they wanted his assistance with one of their jokes, but after Percy's arrest they had apparently given up on that sort of thing.
When their last class let out, Harry told Ron and Hermione he'd forgotten a book in the library and headed for mirror on the fourth floor. Although the passageway to Hogsmeade it concealed was caved in, the space behind the mirror made for an ideal secret meeting place. Harry tapped the glass with his wand and stepped inside.
A box of Dungbombs stood by the entrance, dust-covered and forlorn. Some wooden crates from Honeydukes had been placed in the middle of the stone-lined tunnel. On one of them was a candle stuck in an empty pumpkin juice bottle. Fred and George were seated on two others, looking more serious than Harry had ever seen them. Harry drew another crate up to the makeshift table and sat down.
'We want to talk to you about Percy,' said Fred abruptly. 'It's been six weeks with no new evidence uncovered, and we don't expect there ever will be. Whoever murdered Watchett just didn't leave any clues behind.'
Harry felt a cold sensation in the pit of his stomach. In spite of all the time that had passed, he'd never actually let himself believe that Percy wouldn't eventually get out of Azkaban.
'Could he really be found guilty on what little they've got? Hermione said it was very flimsy ...'
'If Percy's left in Azkaban much longer, it won't matter,' said George flatly. 'There've been all kinds of delays -- Dad thinks Lucius Malfoy's behind most of them. He may be able to pull enough strings to get a conviction when the case finally does come to trial. The Ministry needs someone to pin the blame on ...'
'We can't afford to wait any more,' said Fred. 'It'll do Percy no good to be acquitted if he's gone mad or lost his powers in the meantime. This is killing our dad, he knows what it's like in Azkaban. Charlie says he looks fifty years older, and Mum's not much better off.'
'But what can we do?' said Harry desperately.
'We have a plan to break Percy out of prison,' said George, 'but we need your help.'
It took a moment for Harry's brain to accept what his ears had heard.
'Us break Percy out of Azkaban?' he said in a strangled sort of voice.
He would have been certain this was a bad joke, except not even Fred and George would joke about something so serious.
'It's not as barmy as it sounds,' said George. 'Azkaban hasn't had human warders for almost three months. The Dementors have been getting more and more aggressive, ever since they were sent back there from Hogwarts. Around the middle of last summer, something happened to really set them off. No one's sure what, but they somehow managed to overpower the governor and his staff --'
'Fed off them for nearly a month before it was discovered,' Fred confirmed. 'All evacuated, of course, and for some reason the Ministry's had a tough job finding anyone to replace them.'
'Could the Dementors have gone over to Voldemort?' said Harry tensely. 'Dumbledore thought they might.'
'No, I don't reckon it was anything like that,' said George. 'I mean, the Ministry's been sending teams of Hit Wizards to inspect the place every fortnight, and the Dementors haven't interfered with them.'
'The Ministry's set up spells to warn them of unauthorised visitors and damage to the fortress, but they haven't quite got the bugs worked out yet,' said Fred. 'They've had a fair few false alarms. Fudge tried giving the Dementors a Signalling Spell, but they just used it continually for no reason.'
'We think we've found a way around the spell that detects intruders,' said George. 'Even if it doesn't work, between the false alarms and the way the Dementors have been acting, the Ministry won't be too quick to investigate.'
'With your Firebolt, we could fly out there, get Percy and be gone before anyone showed up to check on things,' said Fred. 'But we must have a Patronus to keep the Dementors at bay while we're doing it. George and I've been practising for over a month, but neither of us can work the charm properly. That's why we need you to come with us.'
'You won't have to set foot on the island,' said George. 'You can conjure the Patronus from the air. We wouldn't be asking you if there was any other way --'
'Of course I'll go with you,' said Harry.
'Excellent!' said Fred and George, beaming at him. It was the first time in six weeks Harry could remember either of them smiling. 'Now here's what we've got to do ...'
Next day in Transfiguration, Professor McGonagall began the lesson by making a list of the people who were spending the holidays at Hogwarts.
'You'll be staying, of course, Potter,' she said, dipping her quill in a bottle of ink.
'Er -- no,' said Harry. 'This Christmas I'll be going back to the Dursleys ...'
Disclaimer: All characters and concepts from the Harry Potter series copyright J K Rowling.