Hermione’s bushy hair spread out over Ron’s bare chest as the two lay in front of the grate at their flat, staring into the flames. Ron’s head was propped up on some cushions that had been knocked off the sofa during their rather intense session of lovemaking. Hermione’s head rested comfortably on his shoulder. Their clothing was strewn all over the sitting room.
Ron sighed, heavily. “We just need to get through the next two weeks. Once we spring the trap everything will be fine. So will he.”
Hermione shifted, looking up into Ron’s deep blue eyes as the fire cast ominous shadows on the walls. “We spent four hours today talking about the wand problem. He’s obsessing over it.”
“Obsessing is kind of a strong word,” Ron said, absent-mindedly running a hand through Hermione’s hair. “Wand-lock is becoming far too common. Too many wands out there with cores from the same source. He’s just concerned, is all.”
At Harry’s request, Hermione had been trying to suss out why nearly every recent encounter with the Death Eaters seemed to result in at least one Auror’s wand locking with a dark wizard’s. Months ago, not long after the problem had arisen, she’d shared with them what her research disclosed. Wand-locks would never be as severe as Harry’s had been with Riddle because the connection they shared was so unique. However, if the timing was right with the exchange of curses, twin cores would still result in locked wands. The only wand that was immune to the problem was Harry’s; there was only one wand in the realm that had at its core a feather from Fawkes.
All of her research helped lead to her discovery of the value of crossed-wand spells. But what she’d found out more recently, through investigation as opposed to research, was much more helpful and more disheartening. “He should be worried. It’s not just bad luck that this has been happening. You were right.”
Ron cringed at the comment. “As much as I love hearing you say that I’m right, I was hoping you’d prove me wrong.” He’d been the first to suggest that it was likely the Death Eaters had used one of their sources inside the Ministry to find out the make-up of each Auror’s wand’s core and then to have duplicates made. As a matter of strategy it made infinite sense. In mass combat, a wizard with a locked wand was an easy target. As the Death Eaters still outnumbered the Aurors, such an advantage would easily shift the balance in their favor. “Still, Harry’s been drilling the teams repeatedly for months about spell-timing to avoid wand-lock. He’s almost…” Ron trailed off.
“You were about to say obsessing, weren’t you?”
Ron mentally kicked himself. That’s what you get for proposing to the brightest witch of the age. “Can’t blame him, especially after what happened to Alicia Spinnet last night.” Her wand had locked with a Death Eater; she was blind-sided by a Confringo hex before she could break free. She would recover, but she’d have a very long stay at St. Mungo’s first.
Hermione continued. “As bad as that was, there’s still more that’s bothering him. He all but grilled me over wand lore this morning.” Hermione left unsaid the hours of research she’d put into the subject once Bellatrix’s wand had claimed her shortly after her death.
Ron contemplated whether this was the right time to ask about his fiancé’s choice of wands, then thought better of it. “Look, he just needs this over…We all do.” He broke eye contact as he finished, staring off into the fire.
She gently traced his jaw with her fingertips. “I know it’s been weighing on you, too. I’m not blind.”
Ron looked down at his fiancée; he was about to protest and deny the obvious, but one look at her beautiful face drenched with worry broke down his defenses. “Hermione…I’d be lying to you if I said it’s been easy.”
“And I’d hex your bits off if you did.” She let a small smile spread across her face as she snuggled back into his shoulder. “Just keep an eye on him. You’re still planning on practicing with him tomorrow at the Burrow?”
“Yeah, just the two of us, bright and early. He’s cooked up something new he wants to work on.” Ron caressed her back. “I’ll take care of him. Don’t worry.” Then a devilish smile covered his face. “Now, can we go back to skiving off work for awhile?”
“You sure you can take it, Auror Weasley?” she asked, seductively.
“Try me, Madam Undersecretary.” He rolled over on top of her as she giggled.
A shout from the fireplace broke the romantic moment. “Oi!! Can’t you two use a bedroom like normal people?”
“Sweet Merlin!” Ron screamed as Hermione squeaked, pulling a blanket over them. Then they both peered into the flames to see Ginny’s face grimacing back at them.
Ron shook his head. “Normal people usually don’t call at this hour!”
“Fair enough; but you know our family’s not normal. Besides, this is important.”
Hermione gathered the blanket up around her. “What’s wrong?”
“It’s Harry. What else?” she said.
Hermione nodded knowingly.
“He’s not home yet.” Ginny shook her head. “Told me he’d be working late. I didn’t want to pry into his thoughts, but I know something’s eating at him.”
Ron furrowed his brow. “We were just talking about it. I hadn’t seen him much today, some kind of project about the wand-lock. He grilled Hermione for awhile about it. Probably best to leave him be, Gin. I’m gonna see him tomorrow.”
It was Ginny’s turn to frown. “Ron, he’s…” she trailed off as her eyes slid out of focus. Ron and Hermione kept their silence. They knew the telltale signs of when Harry and Ginny were in the middle of one of their internal conversations through their bond.
When they realized the conversation was over, Hermione asked, “Everything okay?”
Ginny nodded, “I think so. But he’s in full-blown obsessive mode. At least he’s talking to me. I better go.”
Hermione nodded. “Floo us back if you need us.”
Harry’s boots made hollow echoing noises through the dank corridors of Azkaban. Behind him, in silence, Warden Richard Campbell-Shaw followed. The Warden had gotten to know the Golden Quartet fairly well over the years. In fact, he knew Harry well enough to realize that he was deeply troubled. It was for that reason the warden had not been overly inquisitive when the young Auror had arrived alone at the prison well after midnight, asking to interview a prisoner.
Years before, the dreaded jail had been filled with the moans of the condemned and the horrible chill of Dementors patrolling the halls. The new Minister had changed all that. With the removal of the Dementors following the Battle of Hogwarts, only the occasional muffled sob of an inmate or the clanging of metal doors broke the evening quiet.
Even with the Dementors’ removal, Azkaban was far from pleasant. The sharp, salty sting of the sea air forever would lend a dreadful quality to the fortress. Poorly lit, the shadows from the few torches that illuminated the cellblocks cast a deathly pall over all who were doomed to be its residents.
From their cells, the prisoners cast glares at the Auror and the Warden as they passed them by. The emotions conveyed by the inmates’ stares were as varied as the prisoners themselves. A look of abject loathing from one cell would quickly be replaced with one of fearful resignation from the next. More than a third of the inmates were here due to the de facto Head Auror, in one way or another.
Here was a Ministry functionary convicted of bribery, there, a wizard who’d murdered his entire family and later claimed to be Imperiused. Harry kept his eyes forward, completely focused on the task at hand. His interest was in the high security cells, where Death Eaters and collaborators were kept.
The two wizards continued on until the corridor dead-ended. The Warden hefted his wand and with a non-verbal spell, the wall vanished. Before he continued through the newly-conjured entrance, a firm grasp on his elbow stopped him.
“I’m going in alone.”
Campbell-Shaw’s head snapped around. “Auror Potter, you know the protocols. You can’t go in by yourself. Someone else has to…”
“Warden, you don’t need to quote me chapter and verse.”
He sighed, heavily. “Harry, please. You know I can’t let you do that. If the information’s that sensitive, why didn’t you bring Ron with you as your second?”
“Rich, he hasn’t seen ‘Mione away from the Ministry for weeks. This is the first night they’ve both had off at the same time since they got engaged.”
“And what about you and Ginevra? I’ll bet you haven’t seen her more than in passing since you put that ring on her finger. Tell me I’m wrong.”
Harry didn’t answer.
The warden just shook his head. “I’ll stay out of earshot. You won’t even know I’m there.”
Harry fixed the Warden with an impassive, stubborn gaze.
Campbell-Shaw met his eyes for a moment, then took off his pince-nez glasses, shaking his head in resignation. “Fifteen minutes. That’s all.”
Harry nodded and passed through the entrance. The cell he wanted was secluded at the end of the hall. He cast a non-verbal Muffliato before conjuring a chair and sitting facing the bars.
The prisoner lying on his bunk stirred only slightly, lifting his head to get a better look at his visitor. “You?”
Harry didn’t acknowledge the question, but continued to stare intently into the eyes of the man he should’ve killed for his treachery. Slowly, he began to twirl his Phoenix-Feather wand between his fingers.
“Potter, why’d you come? You’ve already gotten everything out of me you’re going to. Just leave me be.”
Veritaserum hadn’t worked nearly as well as Harry had hoped when he’d first questioned the traitor almost two years earlier after the Battle of the Pitch. Sterner measures, such as Legilimency or, as Ron had repeatedly suggested, Crucio, had been ruled off limits by Kingsley.
“Have I, Zack? Or is there something you’ve been keeping from me?” Harry asked, coldly. He continued to twirl his wand in his right hand; Zacharias Smith’s eyes nervously locked on the movement.
There was a note of fear in Smith’s voice. “Where’s Weasley?”
“He’s got the night off.” Harry’s wand began to twirl faster.
“Can’t touch me, Potter. You know that you can’t!” Smith began to push himself farther into the corner of his cell.
Harry’s only reply was to cease twirling his wand. When he did, it was pointed directly at Smith.
“Can’t!” He shouted, again, his eyes never leaving Harry’s wand.
Harry began to slowly twirl his wand again. “Mesmerizing, isn’t it?”
Smith began to shake.
“It has a twin. I think you’ve seen it before, haven’t you?”
Slowly, the inmate nodded.
When Harry again stopped twirling his wand, Smith cringed.
Harry let out a breath. “You’ve still got 20 years to do in this place. It should’ve been more…But I can make it less. That is, if you finally pick the right side for a change.”
For the first time, Zacharias’ eyes left the wand and fixed on the wizard, instead. “R-really?”
“Tell me what I want to know and I’ll get your sentence reduced by five.”
“T-ten,” the inmate stammered.
Harry began to twirl his wand again. “Three.”
Smith nervously licked his lips, his eyes once again drawn to Harry’s wand. He nodded.
“You’ll consent to Legilimency.” It wasn’t a question.
Again, Smith nodded and again Harry’s wand stopped twirling. He conjured a quill and parchment nonverbally and levitated it into the cell. “Sign it.”
Smith didn’t bother to read it before scribbling his name. The moment he did, it flew back through the bars into Harry’s hand and disappeared into his purple Auror’s robes.
Harry descended into Smith’s mind, memories washing past. It didn’t take long before he found what he was looking for. Two years ago, late August 2000, the Ministry…
Smith was sitting in the DMLE wardroom, playing cards with his partner, Guy Jansen, and the two other Troopers who had been unlucky enough to pull the night shift on a Friday.
“C’mon, Jansen. We don’t have all night!” Smith spat.
“I’m weighing my options,” he replied.
“Well, weigh them faster.”
Jansen scowled at Smith as he discarded. “Zack, you’re a real prize. D’you know that?”
“Then get a transfer.”
Jansen just shook his head. That’s when the Floo to their left erupted with a message: “There’s a fire in the Archives! Get there immediately!”
The four rose from their chairs and dashed out into the hall. Before they reached the stairs, they ran into Dennis Creevey, levitating several unconscious Death Eaters. “Fire’s under control, but it won’t stay that way unless you get there soon. Hurry!”
“Yessir!” Jansen answered, as the four made their way to the stairwell. They passed Harry and Ginny on their way down.
Jansen grabbed the door that was still warm to the touch. “Ready?” he asked.
The three Troopers nodded. Jansen forced it open, causing a huge gust of air to be sucked in. Immediately, water shot from their wands keeping the backdraft from consuming them. Once the air and the flames settled the four Troopers slowly moved into the room, dousing the flames.
“Zack, take the right side. Clive, you and Ian take the left.”
Smith bristled at the order, but he obeyed. Jansen was his senior by three months. Cautiously, Zack began to push through the debris when he caught something out of the corner of his eye. Accio. The wand leapt into his hand; he hid it in his robes as he continued to battle the fire. None of his team members noticed.
Harry broke the spell, eyeing Smith. “Flames never touched it?”
“N-no. I-it got doused with something that wouldn’t burn. Probably some kind of potion that was on the shelves when they collapsed.”
Harry closed his eyes. Dammit. “What else do you know, Smith?”
The former Trooper nervously shook his head. “No, Potter. I’ve given you enough. They can still get to me in here.”
“Zack, we have a deal.”
Smith just shook his head.
“Fine.” Harry hefted his wand and murmured the incantation. Smith was resisting, but Harry finally managed to force his way through his defenses. He skipped through Zack’s memories until he found what he was looking for. Early September 2000, Appleby…
Nervously, Smith shifted his weight from one foot to the other. Overhead, the Harpies and the Arrows buzzed around each other like angry wasps.
“Great day for it, yeah?” Jansen asked Smith as he took a moment from scanning the stands to just enjoy the Quidditch match.
“Yeah,” Smith replied uneasily. Then he checked his watch. With a less than steady hand, his wand rose to his partner.
“Zack, what are you…”
“Stop!” Smith moaned.
Harry ceased the spell. “Hurts seeing the partner you betrayed, does it?”
Smith nodded; his whole body was shaking.
“He had a family. You met his wife, didn’t you? Eighteen-month-old baby boy, too.” Harry added.
Zack couldn’t speak.
Harry was tempted to raise his wand and continue despite the risk and pain involved in a prolonged, forced Legilimens. Then he heard Ginny in his mind:
Harry! He’s had enough! It worked just like we planned. Now, let him talk. It’s safer for you both this way.
I want this war over, Gin. I need to be sure. And he deserves worse.
That may be so. But, I won’t let you lose yourself in the process of punishing the git. Let it go for now, love. Save it for the fight that’s coming. He’ll be honest from here out. Don’t become the thing you despise.
“Remorse, Zack,” Harry sighed. “It’s the only thing that can save you now. It’s also the last advice I gave Riddle. You would’ve known that if you stayed for the Battle of Hogwarts.”
Clutching his knees to his chest, Smith nodded. He’d begun to sob. “Just…just don’t make me relive it. I-I’ll tell you everything. Just don’t do that again!”
Harry’s stern frown softened only slightly. “Alright. But the first time I get the feeling you’re not telling me the truth, I’m gonna hold you to the letter of our agreement. It’ll be back to Legilimency.” Harry could feel Ginny frown at the warning, but he pressed on. “Understand?”
Smith nodded as he wiped his cheek on his sleeve.
AN: I owe an inspirational nod to Helen Jane Long and her wonderful album, “Embers,”(BLE Records, 2010) which I listened to exclusively while I wrote this tale. I always write to music and Ms. Long proved vital to my muse. I highly recommend her song “To Dust.” I do not own Harry Potter. The toys belong to JKR; she just lets us play with them.
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