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Chapter 8 : Complications
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The vampire had hideous strength. Nothing Maddie did bothered the tall red-head one fraction, so Maddie bit down on the forearm close wrapped around her shoulders with all her might. That loosened the vise-like grip on her ankles and Maddie whipped her sudden free feet in the air, kicking the vampire in the face and flinging herself free, back flipping in the air but landing clumsily against the far wall, and a old, dust covered couch left there by some past tenant.
Astrid didn't seem alarmed at her prize's sudden freedom, nor bothered at all by the hunk of forearm missing from left arm, or the impact the bare foot had on her face. “Not very nice, young Maddie. You should be more respectful to your elders.”
There was no exit, at least none she could see. Maddie frantically tried to take in the room in her periphery, while not leaving Astrid's face from her focus for an instant. The vampire blocked the shut door. The shaded shop windows to the front street were behind the vampire, and partially boarded up for good measure, so only a fraction of the brilliant daylight outside came in, and were probably too thick for Maddie to break, even if she had a running start.
“Peace!” Astrid held up her hands, and reached over to grab a knocked over wood chair. She turned the chair backwards, and sat astride it, looking at the young disheveled, barefoot witch. The vampire-witch worked her jaw and massaged the forearm. It didn't bleed!
Plucking the one in her thigh, Astrid looked at the slim blade like a professional would examine an amateur's artwork, “These are handy, but you need to dull the edges. Makes them fly improperly if too sharp.”
“Why did you stop me. He was going to hurt Harry. Mother-Fucker!”
“Him or me? You disarmed him, beat his friends to a pulp and was going to slit the shit-head's throat. That would be murder. It had gone far enough.”
The day had started out brilliant and sunny, no shit-head's in sight. One of those rare winter days with no wind, and the low sun feeling hot on your skin. It shown down Diagon Alley on the throng gathered in front of 'Borgin and Blotts' bookstore. Some were there to meet the authors of the latest History of Magic, Hermione Weasley and Luna Longbottom. Their three volume set (heavier than Hermione's Yorkshire pudding, Ron confided, for Astrid's ears alone) of the magical history since the end of old Batilda Bagshot's famous series, which cut-off approximately a hundred years ago.
The books had actually been published a month before and in circulation prior to the just ended Christmas holiday. The book signing was to cash in on the huge popularity, which had surprised everyone, including the publisher. Astrid had read most of it, and quite enjoying the prose style. The two witches complemented each other well, and it was dead on about some of the witches and wizards Astrid had known in the flesh.
It had created a huge stir, already, and despite hardly any still living through the era covered by the history, a hue and cry arose from several prominent families whose fortunes, not surprisingly, had suddenly blossomed just prior to the rise of Grindelwald. They didn't welcome a spotlight shone on the errors in popular myths that had made their families important and rich. Many didn't have a sense of humor of a herring.
The authors had forged ahead, irregardless. Some reputations were going to be smeared, others elevated who had been smeared, and Hermione and Luna had added new names to the legions of people who loved/hated the Weasleys, Potters and Longbottoms.
Ron's attendance in support of his famous author-educator-wife was required, of course, and Astrid carefully circulated on her own around the crowd and toward 'Wizarding Wheezes' joke shop. There were another pair of aurors present, but no one expected any kind of trouble. Not in public.
The day in Diagon Alley had turned into an impromptu street fair, as other merchants were out to capitalize on the mass of people out to see the authors and crowd into the bookstore.
Just as she was wondering where the other Weasley's were, out came George and his new wife Madeleine, sort of pushing/herding a seemingly reluctant Harry Potter outside from the Wheezes main entrance. Astrid had come to understand the others in the family went to great lengths to prod him out of his shell. He wasn't as grumpy as he let on, most of the time, but seemed to want to be coxed into company.
“.......I do want to see them, I am happy for them, and I don't want to create a scene.” Harry said peevishly, and upon sighting Astrid, said “Astrid, tell them.”
“Of course he's happy to see them, he's deliriously happy for them, and he wants to skulk in his office with his door shut.”
George grinning as always, like he hadn't believed Harry, either. “Right you are, Astrid. Harry is famously well known for skulking and malingering. Had to practically drag him to the altar for his marriage.”
“A bold faced lie. And I don't want to upstage Hermione and Luna. ….see, some are turning away to stare at you.”
“You mean notice your sun-shiny visage. Luna requested you, in any case. Neville couldn't make it from Hogwarts.” George waved a hand at the authors, and Luna waved back, Hermione laughing to see Harry's grumpy face.
“Not everyone is here to get their book signed, or shake our writers' hands, Harry.” Astrid made room for the three next to the building corner she had stopped at. “Lots were just taking advantage of the nice weather, and plenty of the stores are making some coin out the deal.”
“Not everyone cares about you Harry.”
“That's even nicer than calling me a malingerer, George.”
“Shut it, Misters Weasley and Potter, I can't hear what's being said.” Maddie was a tad cross, but the men would do that to anyone. Seeing the authors wasn't much of a problem, as she was very tall, and could easily see over the heads of most, except Astrid.
Astrid wasn't so sure about people in the crowd not caring about Potter. Her hearing was exquisite, and she picked up a number of whispered “Potter” phrases in the thickest group between them and the bookstore. Not all of them laudatory.
Apparently, they had missed most of what was said by the two authors because the loud-voiced gentleman seeming to be running the event, could be heard, “.....thank you for that, Professor Granger-Weasley. I am sure everyone will enjoy the extra tid-bits in the appendices...”
Harry said, “What are appendices?”
Maddie said, “If you'd read something thicker than a magazine, you'd know.”
It was Astrid's turn to ask for silence. “Shut up you three, I'm missing the entertainment.”
What Astrid meant was it was Luna's turn to say something, and she was famous for bizarre statements. It may have only lasted a minute or two, but it was enough for some in the crowd to begin to give each other uneasy looks.
“What are 'plimpies' and what do they have to do...”, Maddie trailed off, as Astrid stiffled a chuckle.
“Don't worry about it. 'spect she's nervous. Luna talks normally most of the time now, but does that when strangers are about.” Harry grinned.
“Most of the readible stuff in the books is her, by the way. Hermione handled most of the boring facts, and Luna translated that into conversational English.” George smiled back. “Believe it or not.”
“Gods, she's the funniest witch I can remember in two or three centuries.” Astrid was trying to keep from guffawing out loud, and went back to watching the mass of people with a smile on her face. This made her entire day.
That was the end of the official event, apparently, and the people in Diagon Alley began to mill about, making it more chaotic than before. There was still a considerable number gathered in front of Borgins, but plenty were standing about, talking, eating snack foods, going in and out of the adjoining shops. This was going to be a banner day for business. The was a considerable buzz of noise from the unusual crowd outside, and there was some squeals from from children playing across the Alley.
There was a veritable cloud of magical balloons hanging over the Alley. An elderly wizard was passing them out to the small children, and the balloons, of course, didn't need a Muggle string to stay attached to the tikes, as they magically began following the child that touched them.
That some of the children had already figured out how to release them free into the air was obvious, because many of the large, multi-hued spheres were drifting about above the adults heads, bumping confusedly into each other, and giving the air in the Alley a cartoon-like appearance.
That the enterprising balloon man had only seized the opportunity for quick sales was obvious from the haphazard and unrelated nature of the wording on some of the balloons: 'Good Luck at the Fineman Bar Mitzvah' and 'Condolences for Your Loss', for examples. At least he was only taking donations.
The old man handing out balloons was passing in front of them, forcing the three men directly between Harry and the bookstore to bump into them. The largest one gave the Weasleys a dirty look, and muttered something to his ferrety companion. “....should wipe the smirks of the Fuckers faces....” Astrid heard him say. The 'Big One' had a Slytherin pin on his cloak.
She tried to reach Harry's hand, who was standing next to her, but he was shorter than her, and all she could do was tap his forearm. Chance were slim he understood battle-sign language.
Events prevented any further intervention. Just then, the little girl's jacket caught fire at the chestnut dispensing machine, across the street, from the quick burst of flame from the hatch she was reaching into.
Like a hart, Astrid leapt across the intervening space of the Alley, completely through a slight gap of the crowd of people in between, whipped away the child and snuffed the flame with her auror cloak. Faster than most people could register anything had happened, the girl hadn't even begun to scream. She held the bewildered girl at arms length. Gods these things stink!
Handing the child to her parents, who only now were moving to close the distance, Astrid gestured at the spout of flame still jetting out of the chestnut dispenser and extinguished it with a freeze charm. The auror bent down to peer through the glass into the smoke filled interior, and the gleaming eyes and fire lit grin of the tiny animated dragon inside gave her an evil wink.
Damn things were a menace. She wasn't so sure the tiny 'faux' dragons inside were all that 'faux'. That one in Flagley before Christmas had nearly burned down the store it was outside of. 'Magical Enchantments' was going to have to shut these deathtraps down, and Astrid magically sealed off the coin slot and the chestnut dispenser, and waved to Ron, who was only now coming out of the bookstore to see what was happening.
Astrid only heard the sound of popping balloons, the old man collapsing on the three Slytherins, and tiny, very high pitched tinkles like little metal pins hitting stones. That's why she missed the attack.
She hadn't missed Maddie's reaction to the bumpkins punching Harry and George in the faces.
“What do you mean enough? Those bastards were trying to hurt Harry and George, I let them too close.....” Maddie uncontrollably sobbed and sank back down on the dusty couch, shivering from the cold room on her now bare feet.
“Opportunists. They weren't the main threat. The men are big enough to take a few punches. One of the assailants is a Slytherin. A dull slug like most of the last few decades product. Not very bright or inventive.”
Maddie wiped away her eyes with a sleeve, “Well... yeah...figured him and his blokes weren't much after the first few seconds.”
“Which was sufficient. You overreacted, and aren't in position or condition to enact more.”
“What you mean. Son-a-bitch had a knife....and a wand...
“Which you conveniently snapped on his face. Nice elbow, by the way. The middle sized one won't be doing any romancing, anytime soon, either.”
“Couldn't seem to kick straight. Must be coming down with a cold or something. Feel wobbly.”
Astrid nodded, “Center of balance is off. You are not used to the changes.”
“Damn tits. They're a Fucking nuisance.”
“No need to swear. They are you. Your reason for being. Pretty useful in a few months.”
“You are carrying a child. Violent calisthenics are not very advisable, incidentally. You're body is changing as we speak. Get a grip, grow up, and act like a responsible adult and a mother-to-be.”
“I am vampire. My senses are more acute than humans. See things. Also, my mother trained me to be a healer and mid-wife, as was her role as the clan witch. I've seen more knock-upped girls than you could shake a stick at.”
Maddie was silent for a few seconds. Then finally, “Yes, I know, just didn't think it was noticeable, yet.”
Astrid nodded. “George will be properly pleased. We will be very happy to welcome your daughter to our clan.”
“Wha...I keep babbling. What do you mean 'our'?”
It was Astrid's turn to pause. She must be slipping. Talking to a young woman about babies made her fall back in memory. Forget this wasn't the village witches hut. Astrid had a suddenly wistful pang of memory, her mother's patient hand not waiting to reassure her unsure daughter at diagnosis. Had it been so long?
“Fine. I keep babbling as well. If you can keep this to yourself, I will tell you. I am very old. When I was born, Britain was covered in forests, and the King of the English ruled just part of the island from a crude earthwork fort. The young wife of the Viking chieftain that raided this area, probably feet from where we stand, was my youngest sister. Settled down close by, probably because there is lots of ancient magic, and had a bevy of babies. Weasley's are their descendents. The little girl in your tummy is my great, great, great.......etc, grand niece. The babe will be blood kin to me, now, and obligated to obey my commandments, as matriarch.”
Maddie was speechless, and sitting forward, on the edge of the couch. Finally, she uttered, “Yes, mam.”
“Progress. Haven't got all day, you know, must get back to my day-job.” Astrid got up to leave.
“Daughter, you said. I...how...you....”
“Old magic. Probably some of the first invented, by the Old Ones. Hundreds of years before me, they were discovering magic. Here, you do this......” and Astrid gestured, and like a patronus, a ghostly mist swirled forth from below Maddie's navel, and swirled into a vaporous image of a sleeping infant.
“Oh...God.....how beautiful (sniff)”
“Knowing more gets more complicated. Muggles have their ways, now, of doing the same thing. Now, behave, or I will come back and spank you. And I do not get tired.” And with a swirl of the gray auror cloak, Astrid swept to the door, only looking back briefly to see the rumpled Madeleine cradling the vaporous image of her to-be little girl.
Ah, mission accomplished, only had to spill a little secrets. My job to tell the girls, anyway. Must...
Astrid heard the creak of the wood floor, outside the door, even as she pulled open on the handle, …..and looked into the gathered faces of several Weasleys. George, his missing ear skillfully hidden by a swirl of red hair, looked gob-smacked and in wonder at Astrid standing in the doorway. Bill Weasley leaned up against the wall, behind his younger brother, grinning like.....well, a wolf.
“Repeat that, and I'll spank you next, William.”
Slumping her shoulders, rolling her eyes to a unsympathetic ceiling, Astrid stood aside and motioned with her head for George to go inside. He might as well meet his daughter. Astrid closed the door behind him. How unbelievably lax of her.
Bill and George weren't her only eavesdroppers. Sitting on the first steps, at the foot of the stairs leading up to the detective agency, was a even greater stupified Percy Weasley, staring at the knife embedded in Astrid breast.
Plucking out the tiny blade, and handing it to Bill, she said, “Percy, good to see you, we've lots to talk about. Let me find what trouble Ronald's gotten into. I don't want to repeat this story more than once.”
And looking up to the top of the stairs, past the shuffling Percy, was a blood spattered Harry Potter sitting at upper steps. He too gave a knowing smile, holding what looked like green steak to his eye.
Triple damn golden shit of the gods. This was going to be a long afternoon.
“Does this mean you can give Muriel orders.”
“Shut it, Harry.”
[a week later]
“I didn't say fat.” Ginny Potter waved the casserole pot over back to the stove with her wand and sat down to eat.
“No, you said you've got to take my pants in to the dirigible factory to let them out again.” Harry's face had healed up pretty well, over the past week, and he only had a black eye, just fading away. Remember to thank Hagrid, Dragon steak really did do miracles.
“Exactly right. I never uttered the word fat, corpulent, tubby, large...”
“Fine distinctions. If I had said something like that about you, in front of the children, you would have put that butter knife through my ear.”
Ginny eyes narrowed, and her jaw worked back and forth, as if she was chewing a rebuttal. “I take your point, Harry. Teddy, please take your cousins up into the playroom, and close the door.”
“Are you and Harry going to have a fight.”
“No, we are having a discussion.”
“You can watch some of the Muggle TV.” Harry gestured with his wand. He didn't really want to have a 'discussion', but couldn't see a way out of the dining room, short of apparating.
“Sounds more like a fight.”
“Edward Remus Lupin!”
“Going.” No one questioned that tone of voice. Ginny had inherited that straight from her mother, Molly. Harry fancied it could cut through steel, if need be.
Albus compliantly reached up to be picked up by Teddy, after he was helped down from his high chair. James was a little more resistant, flinging his spoonful of apple sauce with glee, erupting with laughter when blobs caught Teddy in the ear and Harry in the eye.
For a nearly ten-year old, Teddy was remarkably unphased by the toddler's antics. He whispered something in James' ear, and all resistance vanished, and Teddy had to quicken to keep pace with the speeding elder Potter boy.
“Wish I could get that response. James constantly argues almost every little thing I tell him. Like his father.”
“I have better hearing, he promised James he'd talk us into giving them ice cream. And I don't argue every little thing.”
“Smooth little wizard, that one.”
“Teddy is very mature for his age. He has Remus's ability to finesse the situation. Talk people into doing things they didn't want to, beforehand. More of his dad than his mother, I think.”
“Some of his god-father, too. Ability to worm his way out of a trap.”
“I haven't run away, you notice. Why do we have to talk about this?”
“Because I am your wife and worry about your health. I am entitled. It says so in the fine print on the parchment scroll of our wedding registry.”
Harry couldn't help but laugh. “Does not. I checked for key phases like that. Along with picking up dirty clothes and putting up with gnomes in the garden. I think you must be confused with the part of serving me happily and dutifully.”
“Which wedding was that in? Wasn't mine” Ginny laughed in return. “Stop changing the subject, or you'll be sleeping out in the old horse stable or, better yet, with the gnomes.”
“Alright, alright,.... Merlin, I promise to go for a walk each day.”
“Not enough. You've got to do more than that. Fish and chips and a beer for lunch each day cancels out walking from our front door to your office. Probably about a hundred times.”
“Aw, for the love of ..., Ginny, okay, what exactly do you have planned for me? And don't deny it. I've known you sixteen years.”
“Excellent. You've finally been trained. What I have in mind is exercise.”
“I'm a wizard. Why do I need muscles for ......”
“It's not for strength. Though that doesn't hurt. And its a lot more sexy than 'Doughy the Chosen Boy', Slayer of Horcruxes and Cheese-blintzes.”
“That's way out of line, Mrs. Potter. I only had one of those blintz-things and that was because your Great-Aunt Muriel insisted.” Ginny could tell that she had hit home, because Harry was losing the bantering tone, and sounding a little peeved.
“She's hardly a competent dietician, Mr. Potter. She mostly stuffed our Uncle into an early grave with meat and potatoes every day.”
“The nagging alone probably shaved ten years off.”
“Yes, well, she was supposed to be very good looking in her day. Hope that was consolation, early on, because he died in his forties, almost too big to walk through that doorway.” Ginny stood up, seeing she really had to beat her husband to a logical pulp. “This is an example of what I talking about.”
Ginny picked up some clothes lying on the counter. They were a ragged pair of denim pants.
“Here, these are a pair of your old jeans, think you could get those on?”
It was Harry's turn to grind his teeth together on his words. “You know full well these were pants I outgrew ten years ago.”
“Yes, I know, sweetheart. Several Death-eaters, a dark wizard and unknown numbers of nameless terrors, ago. The matching jeans I have to those are equally too small, that girl is long gone. Two babies and several sessions of ice cream, gone. I'd die to get that flat stomach back, but nevertheless, you are a good twenty pounds more than on our wedding night......please listen.”
Harry had angrily tossed the offending pants back to the counter and made a move to walk out the kitchen, but came back to the table, rubbed his jaw and pointedly sat back down with his back to reminder of his former glory. “'Bout for...y. Nds.” he mumbled.
“Did you say forty?” Ginny sounded truly surprised, sending the old pants aloft and then flying back to the attic with a negligent flick of her wand.
Harry sat back down and laid his head onto his arms on the kitchen table. His dark, unruly hair hid his features and his old forehead scar. “Maddie left a foot scale by the passageway to 'Wheezes'. I popped on for a quick look.” He spoke to the table top, “Figured it was one of George's jokes.”
“No, we put it there exactly to get you to try it, when the rest of us weren't around. Tested it with some 'potions' weights for accuracy.” Ginny Potter walked to his chair and wrapped her arms around Harry and snuggled her face against the back of his head, kissing the nape of his neck.
“I surrender, Ginny, you win. Can't deny I am tubby and slow.”
“Aged and careful, I think is more accurate. Not too terrible for father of two.”
“You speak with forked tongue, woman, and besides, I can look in a mirror. There is a bit more of me than before?”
She sat back down. It was going well. “A wee bit, yes. Fine, we begin tomorrow. No more 'lunch' at the Cauldron, or any of its Muggle counterparts. Maddie has a list of things you can snack on, and I will make your lunch for now on.”
“Is she my secretary or my jailor?”
“Your sister-in-law, and a damn good gatekeeper. Between her and Bill, they've foiled about a half dozen attempts on your life.”
“Just one, ….what to you mean? There were more? This is incredible.....”
“Shut Up, dearest. Now, part two of the program is a little toning up. I'll do my part, too, but I've been doing that on my own since you so kindly blessed my body with children. Still vain enough to want to sit on my Quidditch broom.” She was all business again, ruffling through some papers on the kitchen counter. “Ah, here it is. Ron has agreed to take you to the 'Auror's Gym'. I'm told there's a number of mechanical doohickies that you can bang around with. See what works best, and we'll get some for our own house. Hide them in the family dungeon, hopefully.”
“Will agree. He's finding that out about now, actually, so everything will be on tap for tomorrow or next day.”
Harry was completely flummoxed. There seemed no avenue of escape, and she had already coopted most of his not-so-secret guardians into forcing his unwilling compliance. “Guess it will have to be Friday. I've got that stolen shrunken head to take to that widow (he gave a shudder), and then testify at the Wizengamoot hearing on those illegal magical creature trophies that keep turning up. But that was supposed to be 'movie night'...
“Canceled. Don't whine about it. A week or two of good behavior and you'll be allowed out to grunt with the other cave men.... you promised to do this....”
“Okay, you have my full and fearful cooperation. Your children are lurking outside in the hall, by the way....” Harry gestured with his wand towards the kitchen wall, and the sounds of James whispering, “...Teddy, I want ice cream.”
“Okay, just keep your voice down. It got all quiet. They might be kissing again.”
[a week later]
Mechanical clatter met Harry's ears as he wound his way into the maze of passages in the Auror department sub-mezzanine storage room slash exercise room. Naturally, being the frontline magical office against threats both foreign and domestic, Aurors rated the absolute worst spaces in the entire Ministry of Magic. Crammed into inadequate corners and labyrinthine hallways, most of the working Auror Department was at street level, to facilitate easy access in emergencies and to double as security for the building in the event it was needed. Just the administration and squad room was still on the sixth floor. This was easily accommodated by the other departments, since status in an entirely underground, magically hidden office complex meant the important people were located on the deepest floors, including the Minister of Magic and his sundry minions and staffers.
Aurors, being those wizards and witches who most needed to get in and out quickly, naturally rated the spaces no one else wanted, close to the streets and even in the upper floors of the Muggle warehouses and blighted city block that disguised the Ministry's location. The only ones considered lower in need of proximity to the mighty minds of the Ministry's upper echelons was the owlry and those cranks in 'Muggle-Relations'.
The floors and ceiling shuddered as Harry followed the sounds in the dark hallway, lit only by an occasional stingy torch. They must be close to a Muggle 'Tube' subway line, as the rattle and rush of noise familiar to Harry could be easily heard through the walls. Naturally, no one else would rate spaces like this, except men and women who mixed with the Muggle world as a matter of course. Wouldn't want 'Wizarding Resources' or 'Plans and Potions' to be disturbed by a little rattle and dust.
“Hey, Harry, already started, mate.” Ron called from ancient bench press, crammed into the hallway crowded with crates and dust covered tarps. Sounds of metal and people straining in effort came from the nearby doorway. Harry could also smell sweat and the humidity from several years of the room being used as an impromptu gymnasium. “Had to get going. Astrid and me on duty in a little while.”
“Yeah, sorry, got held up by my client not showing up on time.” Ron, muscular and lean, rolled up and sat wearily astride the ancient pitted metal stand, its well worn and cracked seat padding. Harry suspected if it wasn't for the Muggle duct tape and the 'spell-o-twine' wrapped heavily at the things joints and seams, the bench press would have collapse in a cloud of rust and debris years ago.
“Nothing but the finest for our magical servants.” Harry smiled, gesturing to the battered metal.
“Yeah, well, wouldn't want to spend extravagantly. Not like we do anything important that Accounting would notice.”
“Don't think its much different in the Muggle police stations. Ancient facilities, turn of the century furniture .......”
“If it worked in Queen Victoria's era, it must still work now, eh?” The two men laughed and walked into the Auror's 'work-out' room.
It was a converted basement storage room of the dilapidated Muggle building, above them. No other department wanted it, obviously, because actual sunlight weakly burned its way through tiny chinks in the grimy, dirt-caked window high up in a wall's corner. No Muggle could see in through the enchantments, of course, but self respecting witches and wizards in the 'upper' levels of government would never tolerate actual real daylight and fresh air. But craved the magical window portals that the important upper managers and under-secretaries battled and fought over, attached to odd, random high-rise locations scattered throughout London. Mainly odd-ball hallway or decorative windows in Muggle establishments, but most of them had actual views and a person could see weather, magically. Nothing as vulgar as a real glass window to the street.
The room was littered with half-collapsed exercise equipment. Most of them must have been the very first contraptions of their like ever invented, Harry mused.
“Potter, how's it going? Nice shiner.”
The calls came from a couple of other aurors, in sweat stained and rumpled T-shirts and sweatpants, standing near another bench press that someone was working at. One of the many surprises, and a secret relief to Harry, was the warm and welcome reception he had had when Ron first brought him here a week ago. Harry had feared he'd get the usual 'Potter Stinks' crowd, and disdain from more practiced athletes. But the aurors who fought their way through the accumulated magical debris of centuries were regular 'blokes and witches', who'd all been anti-Death-eater and generally supportive of the Order of the Phoenix. There had been almost no sarcasm or humor directed at his way, other than friendly bantering as Harry had fumbled his way through the tangle of well-abused exercise equipment.
“Heard you were being tortured up here. The wife and you been doin' some boxin' now?” The shorter auror helpfully pointed to Potter's still bruised face.
“No, courtesy of a passer-by on Diagon Alley. Guess I need to learn to duck.”
“Liftin' today, 'Arry?” Big-Tom Milton crushed Harry's hand in a meaty fist the size of a football.
“No, just the bike, Tom. Too much to do. Though I might try that tread-mill thing.”
“Don't. Spare yourself the injury.” Tom's little partner, Jim Miller, piped up from beside the hugh auror. “Thing has been malfunctioning worse than usual, nearly ran away with Judy Finch-Twittering trotting on it, flung her into the cinderblock wall.”
“You guys really need some better contraptions, these things aren't safe.”
Tom shook, in a mirthless chuckle sort of like a bear having the hiccups.
Jim said disgustedly, “Try for that, every few years. Accounting says it is an 'unnecessary expense'. We can do that in Muggle places, on our own dime, they say”
“Must be paid better'n me, those ledger bastards.” Ron grumped.
“Not hardly, young Weasley, just mean and spiteful bastards who get a charge out denying our petition. I've been here thirty-odd years. Still sitting on the half chewed up chair my grand-dad used, down in the squad room.”
“Thought you just senti-mental for your gran's bum” Tom rumbled jokingly. “Those bite marks were where from the manticore that was tryin' to chomp off the other half of his keester.”
“Don't you say a word against my grand-dad, Tom Milton, he was trying to save his partner from the monster with the only thing at hand. That chair literally saved the rest of their asses.”
The group erupted in laughter at the irony of 'One-Ass' Miller's famous deed, and Harry joined in happily. He didn't often get to enjoy the company of others. Being a detective was a lonely job.
“What are you watching.” Harry couldn't see around the mountain of flesh that was Milton.
“Oh, our young Ron's tame titan. Miss Vortigern the Mighty.” said Jim, unnecessarily moving to open up the view. With his small stature, it hardly made a difference.
Beyond the watching aurors was Astrid, Ron's auror partner, effortlessly pushing up a stack of metal weights attached to a cable to one of the few functioning modern exercise machines. With her broad shoulders, you could see how a man her size could push up the handlebars so easily, but the rest of her was tall and lean, like those Muggle female models who looked like a strong wind would break them in half. The lowest weight, being on the bottom of the stack, had a half worn-away 200 kg barely visible.
Merlin, 440 pounds!. Harry felt very frail and puny.
He must have uttered something, because Tom said “Yeah, beautiful” and Jim made a sad whimper.
“'Nough, Astrid, that's twenty reps.” Big Tom easily caught the handlebar as she relaxed. “You is goin' to wear out another cable.”
“Don't know how you do it, little miss.” Jim said. “Half the department, together, couldn't push up that stack.”
“Chopping wood at my grandpa Sven's cabin.” Astrid rolled up, puffing and sagged wearily at rest on the bench. “When it's twenty below and you need fire wood, you have plenty of motivation.”
“Make 'em Norwegian beauties tough.” Tom chuckled.
“How else did we get those soft pudgy Saxons to do our bidding.” Astrid batted her eyes at the humungous man, who just shook with more laughter. Tom Milton was hopelessly besotted with her.
“Shift change, in a half hour, you two. When your done making us look soft and pudgy, that is.” old Jim was one of the few veteran aurors left. “You two young people need to listen up, tonight. There's been funny things going on down by the river, the past few days. Sarge has been having kittens.”
“We won't be late, Senior Officer Miller,”
“Just love that, Milt, d'ja hear that? I want some of that love and respect from you now on.”
“You'll be waitn' a few years after youf retired, you old bugger. 'Bout a dozen years too late.”
Everyone laughed, and Harry felt enormously happy, to be part of a group of adults that didn't call him names, or look at him like some sort of circus freak.
That all ended about five seconds later.
“What a wonderfully happy gang, we all are. ….Gods, what filth.....the rust! There are scrapyards with tidier facilities. This is part of my department?” The Secretary for Magical Security strode in through the door, looking blonde and beautiful. Decked out in some designer dress, glamorous and fabulous. That was till her knee whacked the half-broken rowing machine stacked at the entrance, snagging the sheer hose, then a heel from the probably expensive shoes she wore stuck in a crack by the door, breaking off.”
“Damn, ….Augh!....if I get lock jaw....and my Tyroleans. Those were one of a kind. I'll murder the bugger that leaves this room in this condition.”
“Er, always, has been, mam. Since I joined the force in '75.” Jim, as senior present, felt obligated to be the one to speak.
“What? That's ridiculous. Accounting has one you could eat off the floor. All the latest Muggle stuff. Even a hot tub and a juice bar.” She grabbed her knee, wincing at the scrape and hobbled to a seat on a delapidated bicycle that Harry was about to take for a stationary ride. She gave Potter a burning look, but secretly winked, and he briefly felt relief at being spared a new tirade. He wasn't responsible for this.
Milton muttered something unflattering about accountants and Jim Miller echoed with a half heard reference to where Accounting kept their privates.
“Amen to that, Mr. Miller. Fuckers, I'll have their peckers nailed up on my wall. Mark my words. This space is closed. All aurors will be using the 'Magical Accountants' gym from this second forth.”
“Ah,....not allowed down...” Big Tom began
“Let them try to stop me, Mr. Milton. I haven't slept with half the cabinet officials in this government for nothing. God dammit, my shoes.”
There was a stunned silence to answer that. The three non-vampire aurors present looked at pains whether to laugh or maintain a respectful non-committal obliviousness.
The pained countenances of her overwhelmed employees, Astrid and Harry excluded, brought the woman the wizarding world knew as Penelope Stonington, Magical Cabinet official for the Auror department back to the present. She didn't care that they repeated what she said. The world (magical) knew her as a wealthy libertine with extravagant appetites. It was her cover. Hide in plain sight was her motto.
Nell took a deep breath, and said, “Let's try this again, my lady and gentlemen. Are we having a satisfying afternoon, 'pumping iron' as the Muggles say?”
Half-mumbled agreement and murmurs of satisfaction came from the three male aurors. Astrid said nothing, just gave a secret smile. Harry also said nothing. He had learned that keeping silent in her presence was the best defense, both for himself and to prevent them from entering in a verbal joust that could unfortunately reveal too many secrets.
Something about the witch/secret vampire and himself set their mutual teeth on edge, and they were famous for several encounters over the past few months in which threats and dire promises were exchanged that neither could afford to pay. It was an uneasy truce.
“If you'd excuse us, Aurors Milton and Miller, I would like to talk to Ms. Vortigern and her partner about tonight's patrol. The Docks have been on edge lately, and I am attempting to work with my Scotland Yard counterpart without having our presence exploding upon the morning papers. And, yes, just mentioning exploding, Mr. Potter remain where you are. I feel safer just knowing where you stand, in my jurisdiction.”
Harry bit back a cutting reply and made an obedient, “Yes, Mam.”, and forced a happy smile on his face, that none in the room mistook for good nature. He knew he was foremost in her thoughts, even while she pretending nonchalant hostility. He had just about had it with her laughing condescension. but also knew she did it to provoke him. Someday, he told himself, Someday.
Jim and Big Tom beat a swift and sure retreat. This story was going to be all over the squad room in minutes.
“Shit,” uttered Nell after the sounds of their footfalls faded, and gestured to the doorway to silence any unintended eavesdropping, and sat back down on the bench. Uneasily, as it gave a brief groan of weakening metal.
“Fuck,” she again reminded them, hurling her one heel-less shoe against a stone wall. It stuck in the wall after a sharp crack. “Those were Italian, custom made, had to have the master himself fit my feet. He was nearly blind, in a little Alpine village shoe shop no less.....lovely gnocchi and vino. ….Lucifer, what a beautiful place.”
“Well, maybe, he is still in business.” Ron said weakly.
“That was 1946, Ron. Master Luigi has been dead and buried for about five decades.” Astrid helpfully supplied. She also had stopped pretending to be tired and exhausted from her lifting a fifth of a ton. It had actually been no effort, at all.
“In Argentina, no less. He turned out to have been a Nazi sympathizer, as well as supporting Grindelwald. Wizard or not, he decided the wisest thing was to beat feet for parts unknown.” Nell reflected on the past. “Bit of a groper, too, for an old geezer. Made it plain he didn't want money, in payment.” She turned her beautiful face back to them. “I have my standards, after all.”
“Yes, I am sure you said a firm no, and slapped his hands away from anything sensitive.” Astrid gave her a knowing smile, and the two chuckled.
“I have to be going, unless there is something you needed to yell at me, that I am not aware.” Harry interrupted.
Nell looked instantly furious, then relaxed just as quickly. Astrid looked alarmed and gave Ron a warning eye that they should be ready to intervene.
“You fill my day with sunshine, Harry. Please, let's be civil to one another, at least in private. The public bickering helps keep alive the illusion I'd like your head on a spit.”
“Is that why you ordered those extra spits made by Engineering? Haven't been to a good head roasting in a number of centuries.”
“Astrid, you are not helping nor is it funny.”
“Here, you two need to see this, as well as Harry. I didn't come to enjoy the ambiance of this lovely little forgotten corner of my mighty empire. Nor fling my precious one of a kind shoe at the wall. Didn't know they could do that, by the way. Beware of angry women in high heels.” Nell tossed Ron what looked like a small bottle.
“Angry vampires, at least. Wot's this then?” Ron held up to the weak light of the one torch to let Astrid and Harry see. It was a small capped vile, with what looked like a needle with its point imbedded in a small orange ball.
“A poisoned needle. One of several that were hurled at Harry and any unlucky to be close to him. Used magic if not an air gun. That's what popped that small cloud of balloons at the book-signing slash riot you gloriously invited us all to participate at Diagon Alley, last month. One of the few I could recover. I have policed the area, undercover by the way, to make sure no little tots find any remaining on the ground, or that people pick them up on their shoes.”
“Poisoned, you said.” Harry asked, weighing the small vile in his palm. It was incredibly thin and barely perceptible, if not impaled on the little orange ball.
“What killed the old gentleman, not a heart attack. You would almost not even feel the sting, and walk about two steps,and your internal organs would begin to melt. His collapse knocked the people over against Harry, not some assassination attempt. How is our little wildcat, by the way?”
“A little bruised, but she and I talked it over, afterwards. She's a little hot-tempered when it comes to Harry.”
“A feeling many of us heartily enjoy.” Nell turned back to Ron, “Congratulations by the way, I understand she is also your new sister-in-law. And already a mother to be. My, you Weasleys get right down to it.”
“Er, thank you, it's great news.” Ron said uneasily.
“Smart on your part. As a mother, the hostile faction of my clan will not touch her. As amoral as we tend to be, there are some rules. Will you please assure your brothers of her safety. Bill in particular. We understand the attachment the wolf feels for a cub.”
Nell looked significantly at Astrid, who now held the tiny vile in her long fingered palm.
“She was not a target, nor would any have tolerated it. Harry, and perhaps George, were the focus. Bill and any others standing nearby would have been pure bonuses.”
“You're sure these were from the hostile vampires?” Harry said evenly, not permitting himself to raise his voice in the anger he felt. They had done nothing to deserve this. Now they had murdered a bystander next to Harry.
“From above and outside the Alley.”
“How can that be. There aren't any high rises next to Diagon Alley.” Ron rubbed his chin.
“Yes, there are Ronald.” Nell corrected him. “Several, all Muggle.”
“Then that means the assailants were magicians, could see Diagon Alley from the outside, and have a significant hostility to Potter and any close to him.” Astrid nodded.
“Yes. There are several groups that mean to do ill to Harry. There are uncounted multitudes that would dance a little salsa at valiant Potter's demise. This smacks of an attempt to do the deed at a distance, and clumsiness. Their attempt on him was foiled by distance, the balloons in the air, and the unfortunate gentleman. Perhaps this is one of Dumbledore's manifestations of the Unbreakable Vow. Impossible accidents and coincidences. Irregardless, it is in my interest to keep you all breathing and intact, and the matter quiet. Harry has become the focus, unreasoned I feel, for the frustration and anger these vampires feel. If they succeed, it means our extinction.” Nell looked at them, and met Ron Weasley in the eye. She maintained her 'normal' human appearance, but it felt like being carefully considered by a dragon. He flinched.
“Am I not right? Your wife, Ronald, has the will, means and intelligence to destroy me and every other magician-vampire.”
“Hermione wouldn't stop. Nor would I.”
“Clumsily done. Those three blokes Maddie bashed about had a better chance.” Harry said.
“Probably our portrait's manifestation of the Vow. Random accidents, …..absurd derailments. Circumscribed by our desire to keep out of sight, Harry. A party of blood-thirsty vampires flying about like movie ninja's would be noticed, even by the Ministry of Magic. That's why we are allies. Believe it or not, what Ronald and Astrid do, working together, has won several back to the side of peace. We must convince the remainder.”
“But not all, is that right? Nell. They won't stop to protect an innocent man just happening to walk in front of me. There are a few that will not stop till I die.” Harry confronted the blonde woman.
“Not yet, Harry Potter. I am sorry killing Voldemort didn't end the peril you face in life. For better or worse, you seemed destined to be in a battle for your existence. Every man is, in a big or small way. None of it was your choosing. All I can do is fight with you to prevent it.”
“I, too, Harry Potter.” Astrid, the daughter of true Vikings. It made the blonde woman smile.
Ron seemed unconvinced. “Assure them that I nor my family would rest, do you understand me? He is my brother.”
Nell nodded. “I do, Mr. Weasley. I had a little brother, once. I remember the feeling.” She kicked away the useless one remaining high heel shoe, and flexed her gorgeously slim feet playfully. Harry wondered if being trim and beautiful was natural for a witch over 400 years old. Or was it part of the magic of being a vampire?
She seemed to know what he was thinking. “I can look like any woman I meet or see a picture of, Harry. Fat, tall, African, Muggle or Witch. Yes, even those close to you.” and just briefly, the faces of Ginny, then Hermione, Luna and Fleur flashed amidst her long blonde hair. “They could look like any person you know or half remember, and would never stop. Your vigilence would eventually relax, and the person next to would suddenly be something like me. Physical force will not prevail. We have to defeat this idea they have of you. You scare them and intimidate others, especially me. They must be won to the idea to a peace between us.”
“I doubt anything scares you, Nell.”
She looked at him for a few seconds, then, “You'd be surprised, Harry. Vampire nightmares are very dark.” Nell gestured to the door, and the faint sound of distant ventilation and an elevator ding could be heard. “Astrid and Ron need to get going. Our ten minutes are up. And I feel the need to shop.”
Ron and Harry left the room, glad to depart from her presence. She might be their ally, but there was nothing warm and cuddly about Penelope Stonington (a.k.a. Nell). She was a vampire, and they would always be potential prey.
Astrid waited briefly at the door, and when she thought they were out of earshot, lowly murmured, “the poison is Incan, isn't it?”
“Yes, very old, probably Quechuan, predating the later empire. Has a mouth-full of a name I can't pronounce. Their wizards stopped making it three hundred years ago. Only one person among the undead would know how to make it.”
“Marta is a stubborn vampire, and was an ambitious, ruthless woman. I've crossed her purposes too many times. Not your fault, Rodt, just fate. Just hope we can all survive her bile.”
Cho Chang packed up the her books and closed the classroom door for the night. There was to be more standardized testing next week, just in the few weeks that classes had resumed from the holidays. The school administrators in their towers or fancy offices somewhere assumed this would give over-worked teachers a 'break', letting catch up on work not done during the holidays. The reverse seemed to be true. The children seemed to get group amnesia since about late November. That had been the same each of the five years Cho had been teaching, and wasn't getting better. She was beginning to hate coming to work.
Cho was an elementary school teacher, in a Muggle school in an area she had not grown up in as a child. That part was necessary to preclude too many Muggles recognizing her from when she had been a child, and asking unwanted questions. Such as: where had she been in the last decade? What university had she gone to get an education degree? Why didn't she participate in after school programs with the other teachers and why was Cho such a cantankerous unfriendly bitch?
As she locked up her room, she reminded herself not to be overly hard on her fate. Teaching was a tough job. At least she didn't have Hermione's or Neville's job. Ugh....teenagers.
Of course, she was a teacher with a slight twist. As a witch, she had to be in secret from the other staff. And unlike her Muggle compatriots, Cho had some advantages that they could only dream of. Firstly, she was well paid by wealthy Magical families who concentrated their children in schools like Cho's, because they had good reputations and that a witch like Cho was able to be on hand. Their precious progeny were conveniently channeled through Cho's classroom, especially the 10-year olds, which was her grade level.
It was an awkward age, Cho reflected, just beginning to be old enough to notice there were differences between boys and girls, and the magical ones just beginning to feel their power, though they were carefully enjoined not to reveal it to the Muggles. There were no wands here, other than hers. The compensation for being able to use magic (at home) to help with her schoolwork was having to smooth over inevitable breaches in revealing magic to the other Muggle children.
Cho waved through the hall window to the head office secretary, but kept moving swiftly out the front doors. Cho had already checked her mailbox, and wasn't eager to be trapped into another conversation with the bombastic woman. She seemed to think Cho was pining for a man, and eagerly and aggressively tried to fix Cho up with a series of uncomfortable and disappointing dates with nephews and various younger sons of her friends. Muggles, all of them, and though one or two weren't all that bad, Cho was definitely not looking for that complication.
It was a nice spring evening, and she decided to walk a ways farther than she normally did. Cho had to pretend to head to the Muggle train station, to explain why she had no car in the school parking lot. The route through the small English town had lots of convenient, sheltered spots to apparate from. But sometimes she just kept on and took the train. It was mindless motion, and she could get off when she felt like it, at any stop and still magically travel home.
Home was a plain Glasgow flat, in a working class neighborhood, where the neighbors asked few questions and she had mercifully been left alone. The sounds of their speech were comfortably like her Newcastle birthplace, but nobody knew who she was or bothered her. And it was far from her father, may he rot in his shabby little store, and chew on his hateful conspiracy delusions. She was free of him, as was Cho's battered mother.
Cho understood her less than her father. How could someone stay with a man like him, and raise a child in that home? Did love do that to you? She was gone from Cho's life, too, back to the land of her birth, probably, but Cho didn't want to know.
So Cho was by herself. And that's why she was surprised to see Bill Weasley waiting on a bench at a Muggle bus stop.
“Hello, Cho. Just wanted to see how you are? We don't see or hear much about you.” As always, he feigned an air of ease and carelessness. But his eyes were never still, scanning the terrain. Watching.
Cho looked at him, 'hanging out' nonchalantly on a small town public bench. Hundreds of miles from his home. Well after dinner time.
“Checking up on me, William.” (She didn't know him all that well. Cho preferred to stay formal).
As if understanding that, he laughed, a pleasant one, like a big happy Irish Setter would make if it could talk. “Er, well, not exactly. Others hadn't heard from you in while. Just ...making sure.”
She decided to let him off the hook, smiling, “Yeah, sure. Want to walk me to the train. I have to keep moving or miss the next one.” In fact she wanted to keep moving, to avoid an awkward silence they were doomed to suffer if just standing still.
The Weasley's and Potter's didn't know where Cho lived. By her choice. As a concession to her friend Luna's concern, the Longbottom's knew but promised not to tell the others. Neville was a good man. He might not agree, but he kept his promises. But Cho realized it didn't include where she worked. Couldn't have kept that a secret, much less from a person like Bill Weasley.
There still was silence. Neither one was very articulate. She didn't know him very well, he had graduated years ahead of Cho and the others. But she knew his secret, and why he was a loner, too.
But he beat her too it with, “School going okay? Muggles no problem?”
“Yeah, everything top shape. Just the usual headaches with testing in a few weeks. Same stuff Neville and Hermione go through. Well.... she used to go through. Guess she's free.”
“Suspect that won't last. She misses it. You mind me walking with you? The buses keep stopping when they see me here, and I didn't want to spring out of a bush.”
Cho laughed, and she realised it was an unusual sound from her. “Sure. Don't get much adult conversation. Everything alright with you.”
“Oh, sure. Same old stuff, you know. George nearly torched his shop, one of his new inventions gone crazy again. He called it 'The Hot Seat'. Maddie and Harry won't let him do anymore at the store. Lee is trying to arrange someplace out of town. Hopefully in a deserted quarry.”
“She's a saint. I like her. Hope she isn't left a widow.”
“We all do.” Bill matched her stride, and they set off toward the train station. He was a big man, broad in the shoulders, though not as tall as Ron or George, who she knew better. His scarred, grizzled face was solidly incurious, but she was smart enough to know his mind was searching for clues for conversation, and why she kept herself from them.
Cho decided to help him out. “And how is Fleur?”
“Oh, same as always. She's been tutoring Victorie and Teddy and some other families older kids, getting them ready for Hogwarts.”
“Is that certain? I'd have thought she'd be pushing Beauxbatons.”
Bill chuckled roughly. Again, a happy sound. She couldn't help smiling at the thought of him wagging a tail, and her hand was itching to pat his head. Bill Weasley was a werewolf, but that was not common knowledge, and she probably wasn't supposed to comment on it. The stigma against them in the 'normal' human magic community, especially after some had sided with Voldemort in the recent Wizard civil war, was such that being one was a dangerous thing.
“You'd be right. But we can see how things are between Ted and Victorie. Fleur has exerted herself hugely to be part of the Weasley family, and stay on Mum's good side. She's not about to mess that up by stridently advocating a school in France, no matter how good it is. And there are somethings a man wisely stays clear of, especially when women and marriages are involved.”
He glanced at Cho, but his eyes kept moving to their surroundings. Always on alert. Always aware of his surroundings. “There has been an attempt on Harry. Clumsily done and probably foiled by the side-effects of the Vow. But worrisome. Ginny worries about you. Luna, too.”
“I'm fine. Just don't need to be together like the rest of you.”
“Does that surprise you?”
“Don't have pleasant memories of home, Bill. Unlike your family. Suppose I'm like Harry in that respect, but run from it instead of seek it. Can't imagine how a woman can be so blind to my father's faults. I am determined not to repeat her mistake. Tell the girls I am fine.”
Bill rumbled his chuckling sound again. “Well, only Ginny said anything clearly to me. Luna worries, but what she says is sometimes so ….”
“Out of the blue? Hard to follow? Ambiguous but disturbingly accurate? Painfully honest?”
Cho smiled and walked on. They were getting close to a good place to apparate.
“Thank Ginny then. She is a good woman. Wish I could be so understanding.”
“Are we talking about the same sister. The 'Bat bogey' hex one? The Quidditch seeker that made the Chuddley Cannons cry when she made that come from behind snatch in the playoffs?”
“Ruined their first and apparently only chance to go into post season. Yeah, she's a witch.” That was high praise, in magical circles. “She's a good match for Harry.” Cho nodded to her own words. “He made a good choice. Harry always seems to do that.”
“Don't blame him for that. He has an instinct about the right thing to do. Not that he always does it.”
Bill stopped by the alley that was a good spot to 'disappear'. He seemed to have a innate sense for the lay of the land. “She kept him with us. He was heading for a dark place.” He seemed to consider his words, then said, “The same kind of place I see you heading.”
She stopped, too, wanting to say 'what do you mean' and 'what business is it of yours'. But she didn't. And she wondered if he knew she had gone to the vampire leader 'Nell'. Because curiosity and … something else was driving her.
“I am ...dealing with it. Bill.”
“I understand loneliness. Rejection. Where it can take you. I have an ….out. Fleur helps me...”
“Don't say anything more. I know. A Ravenclaw, remember? We aren't thick like Griffindors.”
“Oh, yes, well it's a continuing miracle we can tie our shoes in the morning.” Bill seemed to accept her deflection of the topic at hand, but as he walked a little farther into the alley and turned. “Don't go to that dark place alone, without telling them. Even if it's something..... we might not accept …. initially. This is your life. You aren't condemned because of the past. I think we make our own future.”
Cho couldn't think of what to say. She whispered, “ 'kay, thank you.”
Bill took a deep breath. He was obviously fighting hard to argue against what she was thinking of doing, but too good a man to impose himself. “Well, must be off. See if my brother has destroyed the neighborhood while I was gone. Or if my brother-in-law hasn't walked himself into a deadly trap this afternoon. It helps my condition, you see.”
“See you.” That seemed fateful. Somehow, Cho knew this. She would not talk to this man again.
“Be seein' you, Cho.” And then he was gone.
Was that a message? Would he tell the others? Cho didn't think so. Bill Weasley inhabited his own struggle with identity. She hoped he was recognizing it in others.
Cho needed to think. She was going to ride the train tonight.
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