Chapter 25 : Crash and Burn
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Andromeda made Harry so welcome, and Teddy was such a delight, that Harry was genuinely disappointed when the time came to head back to London. But Andromeda had made plans to visit friends for New Year’s Eve, and although she insisted Harry would be welcome, he didn’t feel that he could impose. He had no idea what he was going to do for New Year, and the thought of seeing in 2001 on his own was very depressing. He didn’t have time to dwell on it, though. As soon as he set foot inside Grimmauld Place, he was ambushed by Ron and Hermione. They informed him that he was invited to spend the evening with the Weasley family, who were throwing a party at The Burrow.
To say that Harry was initially reluctant to attend was something of an understatement, fearing his welcome might be frostier than he could bear. Ron misunderstood why Harry hadn’t leapt at the chance to return to the fold, and explained that Ginny wouldn’t be there, “...so you don’t need to worry about that, mate. She has a match on New Year’s Day, away at Wimbourne, and all the players have to be there the night before. Something about team bonding, I think.”
Well-meaning as Ron’s reassurances had been, they had exactly the opposite effect. Without the prospect of engineering some time alone with Ginny, and perhaps finally beginning the process of breaking the ice between them, Harry was even more skeptical about attending.
Ron, meanwhile, started to turn the pressure up. “Look, Mum’s adamant you have to be there,” he explained. “If you don’t turn up, she’ll probably come and get you herself, and trust me, that isn’t something you want to happen.” Ron shivered at the thought.
The thought of letting down Mrs Weasley, the woman who had acted as a surrogate mother to him, shook his resolve. Hermione, shrewd as ever, must have seen the indecision on his face, and went in for the kill. “Yes, Harry - Molly will be so disappointed if you’re not there. She’s got her heart set on seeing you tonight. She’d be distraught if you stayed away.” Hermione paused before delivering the final, merciless blow. “You wouldn’t want to spoil her night, would you?”
So, under the weight of emotional blackmail, Harry finally caved. Checking his watch, he realised he didn’t have much time to get ready, so he quickly showered and shaved. Kreacher located some clean, relatively crease-free robes for the occasion and once Harry was dressed, Hermione spent a fruitless five minutes trying to tame his hair. Harry felt like he had barely had time to breathe since arriving home from Kent. Even so, by the time the three of them left the house, he was so nervous that he thought his heart might beat right out of his chest.
The party was already in full swing by the time Harry, Ron and Hermione arrived. The Burrow was packed with many old friends and acquaintances, and Harry soon felt his worries fading away. The greeting he received from a few of the Weasleys were a bit forced, but no more than that. Charlie threw him a couple of curious glances, and George and Bill seemed to want to keep their distance, but Molly, Arthur and Percy all went out of their way to make Harry feel welcome.
Of the other guests, Dedalus Diggle was amongst the first people to acost Harry, shaking his hand delightedly. He enquired after Hestia, and chuckled as he recalled the time the pair of them spent hiding the Dursleys from the Death Eaters. Then, Amos and Eunice Diggory wandered past, and while Eunice’s smile was warm and genuine, Amos still seemed to find Harry’s company a little awkward. Harry was relieved when they didn’t linger.
The next person Harry bumped into was Xenophilius Lovegood, who pressed something into Harry’s hand that he swore was a ‘lucky Blatherskite bone’. On closer inspection, Harry thought it just appeared to be a particularly gnarly stick.
“Have you heard from Luna recently, Mr Lovegood?” asked Harry, keen to move the conversation away from Blatherskites. It had been over a year since Luna and Neville had left on their travels, and he often wondered how they were getting on.
“Oh yes. She’s having a very successful trip. Last time we spoke, she was in French Polynesia.”
“I didn’t realise you could make floo-calls that far away,” wondered Harry.
“Oh, no - we don’t use floo-calls,” clarified Mr Lovegood. “I catch up with her while we’re dreaming. We meet once a week, when we’re asleep. Dreams are an excellent medium for conversation. Very time efficient.” Giving a perplexed Harry a beatific smile, he turned and headed towards the punch bowl.
The next person to seek Harry out was Fleur Weasley. She kissed him on both cheeks before hugging him tightly. They spoke for a little while, mostly about Gabrielle, Victoire and Teddy, before Fleur fixed him with a very shrewd look. “‘As Bill spoken to you yet, ‘Arry?” she asked.
“No, not really,” he admitted.
Fleur nodded sagely. “I thought as much. ‘E finds it difficult, ‘is brothers too. But we French understand so much better about passion and ‘ow consuming it is! It can be like a madness in ze blood! But you are a good friend and zey respect you. Bill will come round, and George and Charlie will too, I am sure of it.”
In the end, it was Charlie who finally crossed the Rubicon to come and talk to Harry, although not, Harry noted, without a little push from his mother. The second eldest Weasley brother ambled over looking amiable enough, but Harry still felt some of his earlier anxiety return as Charlie approached.
“So what have you got to say for yourself?” he asked, after they exchanged greetings. Charlie’s tone was light and jovial, and his body-language non-threatening. An outsider might easily have thought they were sharing a joke, but Harry wasn’t fooled. He didn’t miss the accusatory nature of the question, or the hardness in Charlie’s eyes. Harry imagined this was how Charlie might approach a recalcitrant juvenile dragon. He took a deep breath. He was never comfortable talking about himself, or his feelings. But he knew that if he was ever going to repair his relationship with the Weasley family, he had no choice other than to be completely honest.
“There’s not much I can say really. I made the worst mistake of my life, and it cost me everything that ever mattered to me*. Ginny was my world, and I blew it. I don’t blame her for wanting nothing more to do with me, but it still feels like there’s a piece of me missing.”
Charlie was still skeptical. “Maybe if it meant that much to you, you should have tried to fix it?”
“I did. I managed to get her to meet me, but she just told me to move on and I haven’t seen her since then. She hasn’t answered any of the letters I’ve sent her. I was hoping she would be here tonight but...” he trailed off, and shrugged. “I don’t know what else to do.”
As Harry spoke, Charlie’s expression softened. “Ginny’s always been a stubborn little thing. You can’t bully her, or push her about, or persuade her to do anything that she really doesn’t want to. God knows we all tried often enough when we were kids! All you can do is wait it out, and hope she comes around in the end. For what it’s worth, I hope she does. I always thought you two were made for each other.”
“Thanks, Charlie. I hope you’re right.”
The pair spoke for a while longer, with Charlie sharing stories about some of his more hair-raising dragon encounters, and Harry regaling Charlie with a selection of his and Ron’s exploits in the field as Aurors. At some point during the conversation, they were joined first by George and then by Bill, and by eleven thirty, the four of them were laughing and joking as though there had never been any distance between them. Harry thought that the night couldn’t get any better, until the door flew open just before midnight, and and Hagrid strode in, full of apologies about a herd of Aethonon that had wandered through the grounds at Hogwarts, leaving a trail of devastation in their wake. When he caught sight of Harry, Ron and Hermione, he pulled all three of them into a massive hug.
“I was hopin’ yeh’d be here!” he boomed. “Hogwarts just isn’t the same without yeh.”
As the Wizarding Wireless Network cut to the chimes of Big Ben at midnight, Harry decided that there wasn’t anywhere else in the world he would rather be.
By the time Harry finally returned to work in January, he was feeling better than he had for weeks. He wasn’t sure he would admit it to his boss, but his enforced holiday over the festive period had been sorely needed. He felt confident, energised and ready to take on the world again. He almost bounced through the Department of Magical Law Enforcement such was his enthusiasm. Ron, never at his best in the morning, had to trot to keep up.
As Harry pushed open the door to the Auror office, there was a very welcome surprise, waiting for him: Justin Finch-Fletchley was back at work. There was already a small group of Aurors gathered around his desk, including Justin’s close friend Terry Boot and Hestia Jones, who was Justin’s mentor. Even Gawain had pulled up a chair, and was chatting away to Justin as he sipped at a steaming mug of coffee.
“Justin!” Harry called, greeting his friend warmly. “It’s great to see you! I didn’t know you were coming back today.”
“Hi, Harry, hi, Ron,” said Justin, standing and extending his hand towards Harry. Harry hesitated just a moment before he took the hand and shook it, slightly gingerly. Wasn’t this Justin’s bad arm? Justin simply grinned, gripped Harry’s hand tightly, and pumped it up and down in a much more enthusiastic handshake. “Don’t worry,” he said, “it’s absolutely fine. I’m 100% fit and cleared for duty.”
“And it’s great to have you back,” commented Hestia, as Ron also shook Justin’s hand. “Having another pair of hands available will make a massive difference.”
“So, what have I missed?” asked Justin. “Any progress on the Jugson case?”
“We’ll head into the Nexus in a minute and I’ll give you a proper briefing on the current caseload,” Hestia told him. “But as for Jugson, there haven’t been any more robberies since September. We think they must still be regrouping after the raid on the pub.”
The group of Aurors fell silent for a moment, thinking about the events of that awful night. Harry watched as Justin absentmindedly rubbed at his arm. “I heard he killed another Muggle,” he said.
“Yes, that’s unfortunately true,” replied Gawin, sadly. “He got to Constantino Papadakis as soon as he was released by the Muggle police. We tried to get him into protective custody, but we were too late. And it was only Ron’s alertness that prevented him getting to Harry as well.”
“What?” Justin looked shocked.
Harry cringed. “When me and Ron went to pick up Papadakis, Jugson was still there. He got off a few potshots before I could react,” he admitted. The shock of his close call with Jugson had been bad enough, but the memory of Gawain’s stinging debrief afterwards was still painfully fresh in his mind.
“Bloody hell!” exclaimed Justin. “And you’re still here to tell me about it?”
Harry shrugged. “It was a good job that Ron was there to give me some cover. We exchanged a few curses, then Jugson made a run for it.”
“You know, I’ve been thinking about that,” said Ron. “I can’t believe Jugson gave up, just like that. I mean, considering he’s supposed to be such a nut job, he didn’t try very hard to kill us, did he?” he observed.
Harry rolled his eyes. “Don’t sound so disappointed, Ron.”
“It’s easy enough to understand, really,” said Gawain, looking philosophical. “Jugson’s a bully. Like all bullies, without the rest of his gang around him, he’s a coward.” Harry thought back to his experiences with certain of his schoolmates, and reflected on just how true that was. “Facing two Aurors at the same time, especially the legendary Harry Potter and Ron Weasley, I don’t suppose he fancied his chances.”
“Legendary?” Ron looked surprised and pleased.
“Don’t for one minute think that Jugson didn’t know exactly who you were. Your names and your faces are a blessing as well as a curse. As much as they make you a target, you have a reputation for taking down dark wizards that will make them think twice about going after you without the advantage of numbers,”
“I never thought about it like that,” pondered Harry.
“Just don’t get cocky about it,” concluded Gawain, standing up and walking across the room to his office. “He missed his chance to take the scalps of Britain’s most famous wizards, and that has to rankle. I doubt he’d make the same mistake twice.”
January seemed to crawl past, made lethargic by a thick blanket of damp fog and drizzle. The Auror team settled quickly back into their routine after the Christmas period, grateful for the small lightening of the workload made possible by Justin’s return.
Harry spent several weeks tracking down a couple of rogue witches who had been running an illegal Redcap fighting ring. He was delighted when, at the end of the month, his hard work paid off with a clean capture. Jeremy, who led the operation, was delighted with him, and gave Harry the honour of delivering the pair back to the Ministry. By the time he had dropped them off at the cells, it was getting late. The corridors of the Ministry were noticeably empty as he made his way to the exit, satisfied with a good day’s work. His stomach started to rumble, and Harry realised that he hadn’t eaten all day. He wondered what Kreacher was preparing for dinner that evening, hoping it might involve sausages.
As Harry passed an open doorway on level five, a familiar voice hailed him. “Ah! Harry! This is fortunate. I was worried I might have missed you,” called Percy Weasley, emerging from the open office. “I’ve got something here for you.”
Percy fumbled about in the depths of his robe for a few moments, and then handed over a heavy cream envelope, beaming as he did so. It had Harry’s name inscribed in it in gold foil. Percy waited as Harry opened the envelope and pulled out the matching cream card inside. At first, he thought it was blank, and looked up at Percy, puzzled. Had there been a mistake? Then, streaks of gold began to melt out of the paper in front of him, swirling and tumbling together as they grew out to form letters.
Mr Harry James Potter
at the marriage of their son
Miss Audrey Elizabeth Cluelow
3 pm on Saturday 25th March 2001
at The Burrow, Ottery St Catchpole
As Harry congratulated Percy and assured him that yes, of course he would attend, it occurred to him that this could be his chance to finally try and repair things with Ginny. The wedding wasn’t for another couple of months, but he had waited for this long already. Another few weeks wouldn’t matter.
“Ginny will be there, I suppose?” he asked, trying to sound nonchalant.
“Yes. Yes she will. But don’t worry, I don’t want you to feel awkward. I’ve asked Audrey to make sure you’re seated well away from her and Viktor.”
“Viktor? Who’s Viktor?” Harry was confused.
“Well, Viktor Krum, of course.”
“Why is Ginny taking Viktor Krum to your wedding?” Even as Harry asked the question, the pieces of the mental jigsaw began to fall into place with a horrible inevitability. He tried to brace himself for Percy’s reply, but it was too little, too late.
“Well, he’s her boyfriend now, isn’t he?” replied Percy. He carried on chatting genially, oblivious to the way his words had scythed through Harry, mercilessly cutting down the hopes he had been nurturing. “Of course, it’s only been a few weeks, but she was adamant she wanted to invite him. Mum and Dad weren’t keen at first, but you know Ginny!” Then Percy seemed to notice Harry’s stricken expression for the first time. “Crikey, Harry - You didn’t know?”
“No. No, I didn’t.”
“Wow. How tactless of me. I’m really sorry, Harry.”
Harry, though, just turned away from Percy and began to walk down the corridor. He had no idea where he was going, he just knew he needed to get away from Percy, find some space to process what he had just learned.
“Harry? Harry! Are you alright?” called Percy from behind him, but he sounded so faint and distant. Harry just blocked him out. His feet were on autopilot as he wandered the corridors of the Ministry. Ginny had a boyfriend? She was seeing someone else! And Viktor Krum, of all people! Someone that Harry considered to be a friend, of sorts. It didn’t seem to make any sort of sense. The thought of Ginny with someone else was so alien, so wrong, that it felt as though someone had taken the universe and turned it slightly on an angle.
Eventually, Harry realised he was in the Ministry canteen. The witch behind the counter glared at him, daring him to try ordering something this close to closing time, but Harry didn’t notice. He slumped down at a nearby table and put his head in his hands. He had only been there a moment when a hand clapped him on the shoulder.
“Harry! Wow, how long has it been? It’s really good to see you!”
Harry didn’t look up. He didn’t need to. Even in his state of shock, he recognised the familiar Irish brogue.
“Hi, Seamus,” he replied, dully.
“Are you okay, mate?” asked Seamus, sounding concerned.
“Yeah, I’m fine,” said Harry. Inside, every inch of him was screaming I’m not fine! I’m not! I’m never going to be fine again!
“You know, Harry, you don’t look okay to me. You look like someone’s just hit you with a bubotuber. And a mouldy one at that.”
“Just... had some bad news, that’s all.”
“Ah, I’m sorry to hear that,” sympathised Seamus. “Listen, me and Dean are off out for a few jars tonight. Why don’t you come with us? I’m sure you’ll feel better for blowing off a bit of steam.”
As Seamus turned, something happened in Harry’s brain. It was as though a switch had been flipped. The shock he had felt when he learned about Ginny and Viktor dissolved, to be replaced with cold, hard anger. It began to bubble through his veins, spreading through his body as he lifted his head to look at Seamus. So Ginny was seeing someone else, was she? If she had moved on, then why shouldn’t he? She didn’t care, so he wouldn’t either. He was going to get on with his life, starting right now. “You know, Seamus, I think that’s a fantastic idea. What time?”
“I’m meant to be meeting Dean at the Leaky in...” Seamus checked his watch and looked a bit guilty. “Actually, about ten minutes ago. I’m running a bit late because some bloody stupid wizard in Keighley tried to get his pot-bellied stove to produce more heat with a modified engorgement charm. I had to go and rescue him from what was left of his chimney pot, and authorise a squad of Obliviators to see to all his neighbours, the whole thing took ages and I’ve only just got back. Anyway, I’m heading straight there now.”
“Excellent.” Harry climbed to his feet, “It’s lucky I bumped into you, Seamus.”
“Luck of the Irish, Harry. Come on, let’s go.”
When Harry opened his eyes the following morning, he was mildly surprised to find he was in his own bed. Examining that thought a little more closely, he wasn’t entirely sure why he should have thought he was elsewhere. Perhaps it was because he had no idea at all how he had got there. He rolled his head to the left to look at his alarm clock and immediately regretted it. His head pounded, as though a thousand Cornish Pixies armed with tiny pixie-sized Bludger bats had taken up residence inside his skull. His mouth tasted as though something had died in there and his stomach lurched alarmingly.
Lying entirely still, he began to piece together the events of the previous evening. It started innocuously enough, as ‘a few quiet drinks’ usually do. He and Seamus had gone to the Leaky Cauldron, where they found Dean waiting for them impatiently. There had definitely been beer, and then firewhisky. Then someone (Harry had a horrible feeling it had been him) had decided that what they really needed was tequila. Seamus, the only one among them raised in a magical household, had never tried it, so all three of them had headed out of the pub and up Charing Cross Road to a nearby Muggle bar called the Lucky Six. And that was where everything started to go wrong.
Harry had flashes of recollection from the bar, really nothing more than a few increasingly blurry snapshots. There was definitely tequila, lots of it. He remembered how funny he and Dean had found the expression on Seamus’s face when he was first presented with a salt cellar and a wedge of lime with his drink. He remembered a group of Muggle girls who had been so impressed with Harry’s incredible ability to make beer mats, ice cubes and even shot glasses disappear into thin air. He remembered one particularly pretty girl who had batted her eyelashes at him and written a string of numbers on a paper napkin before pressing it coquettishly into his pocket. After that, he could remember no more. He certainly couldn’t remember getting home or putting himself to bed. Glancing about the room, he saw his clothes in a neat pile on the chair in the corner, his boots lined up smartly beneath and freshly polished to a high shine. It was the only hint of order in the entire room, and at least explained who had put him to bed; only Kreacher would have taken the trouble to do that. Then a horrible thought hit him, and he whipped his hand beneath the blankets, but was relieved to discover he was still wearing his boxer shorts. At least he would be able to look the house-elf in the eye when he finally made it downstairs.
Swallowing hard, Harry grimaced, reminded of the dreadful taste in his mouth. He groped on the bedside cabinet for the glass of water that was usually there, but found it was empty. He sighed, then slowly hauled himself to his feet, wincing as the pixies in his head redoubled their efforts to crack his skull from the inside, and shuffled along the corridor to his bathroom. There was faint tang of vomit in the air, which explained why his mouth now tasted so utterly vile. Setting the glass down, he leaned against the sink and examined his face in the mirror. Yep, he looked utterly dreadful. Grey skin, bloodshot eyes and too much stubble. I probably looked better when I was dead, he thought to himself, sending a silent prayer of thanks to whatever deities might be listening that he was on the late shift tonight, and wasn’t expected in the office until late afternoon.
He downed two glasses of water, then ran some more, icy cold, into the basin and splashed it ineffectually at his face, hoping in vain that it might revive him. As he did so, Hermione passed the open door on her way downstairs, and stopped short when she caught sight of him.
“Harry! What have you done to your shoulder!” she asked in alarm.
“What are you talking about?” he mumbled, giving her a baleful glance. Her eyes widened in shock as she took in his poor appearance. Then she seemed to steel herself and spoke briskly.
“It looks like you’ve hurt yourself, Harry. There, on the back of your shoulder.”
Harry twisted to the left to try and see what she was talking about, his stomach heaving in protest at the movement. There, reflected in the mirror, he could see a large, white pad of dressing towards the top of his left shoulder blade, held in place with surgical tape. It looked a bit grubby, and he could see where some very small spots of blood had soaked through. He searched his brain for any sort of memory that might explain it, but the evening remained a stubborn blank from the moment he downed his third shot of tequila.
“I have no idea what that is. No idea at all.”
“Well,” said Hermione, marching into the bathroom, “I think we should take a look, don’t you?” She took hold of the corner of the dressing and began to peel it back. Harry winced. “Oh come on, Harry! It can’t possibly hurt that m…” Hermione stopped mid-sentence as the dressing came away. Her hand flew to her mouth. “Oh, Harry! What on earth is that?”
Harry took a moment to focus on the reflection in the mirror, a darkened patch on his shoulder that was outlined with clots of blood.
“I think, Hermione, that it’s a Hungarian Horntail,” he said, slowly.
“You got a tattoo? Of a dragon?”
“Oh Harry! Why on earth did you get a tattoo?”
“I have no idea.”
“You can’t remember getting it?” Hermione sounded incredulous. Harry didn’t blame her. He was having a hard time processing the fact too, despite the evidence being all too visible.
“No. Last night is a complete blank.” He thought for a moment. “Do you think you can get rid of it?”
Hermione wrinkled her nose. “I don’t know, but I’ll have a go.” She reached inside her jacket and drew her wand, then began an odd incantation that sounded only vaguely familiar to Harry. But then, Healing spells had never really been his forte.
Hermione chatted as she worked. “So, it was a big night last night, then?”
“It wasn’t meant to be. It was just me, Dean and Seamus having a few quiet drinks at the Leaky Cauldron.” Harry shivered involuntarily, as one of Hermione’s spells made the skin on his shoulder icy cold.
“Ha! I could have told you it wouldn’t turn out that way if those two reprobates were involved.”
The next spell that Hermione tried made his shoulder burn as though she had branded it. Harry yelped in pain. “Sorry!” she said. The burning stopped immediately. “It wasn’t working anyway.”
Over the next few minutes, Harry felt the skin on his shoulder tingle, rub, wrinkle and pinch, but finally, Hermione had to admit defeat. “I’m sorry, Harry,” she told him. “I’ve been able to clean it up and heal the sores, but that’s all. If it was a magical tattoo, I think I could probably help more, but I’m pretty sure you must have got this in a Muggle place. How on earth did you get a Muggle to accurately tattoo a Hungarian Horntail?” Harry pulled a face. “Oh yes, that’s right. You don’t remember. To be honest, it’s probably for the best.”
Harry regarded his newly decorated shoulder blade in the mirror. He sighed. “Oh well. At least I chose well. I’m sure someone once told me a Hungarian Horntail was the macho option.”
Hermione put her hand on his forearm. “Ginny? You really miss her, don’t you?”
“More than she misses me,” he said ruefully. “Did you know she’s starting going out with Viktor Krum?”
Hermione looked surprised. “They’re going out? She mentioned at Christmas that he’d asked her on a date, but I never heard anything more. I assumed nothing came of it.”
“Well, apparently, it did. Percy told me about it yesterday. They’re going to the wedding together.”
“Oh Harry, I’m sorry. I know you were still hoping she would change her mind. We all were.” At that moment, Harry thought that Hermione looked impossibly sad. It occurred to him that he wasn’t the only one affected by his split from Ginny.
“Hoping doesn’t get you anywhere, though, does it?” he said, trying not to sound as bitter as he felt. “I need to get on with the rest of my life now. I don’t really have much choice about that anymore.”
Hermione gave him that familiar look that was a mixture of concern and reproach. “Harry, are you sure you’re okay? It isn’t like you to drink so much or... Well, you know.” She indicated his tattoo. “I’m worried about you.”
“Thanks. But you don’t need to be.” Harry’s voice was gruff. “I’m fine. Really. Or at least, I will be when I’ve had a bit more sleep.”
Hermione paused, and Harry could tell she was wondering if she should say more. Instead, she just folded her friend into a hug, and then turned and left for work.
Harry filled his glass from the tap, and then went back to his bedroom. As he crawled back into bed, he spotted something on the bedside table. Picking it up, he realised it was the napkin that the girl from the bar had given to him, complete with a smear of bright pink lipstick. Suddenly feeling sick with guilt, he dropped the napkin into the waste bin. Then he picked it out again, reminding himself firmly that he had no reason to feel guilty, and the sick feeling in his stomach was probably just the remnants of the tequila. He stared at the napkin for a long time, trying to decide what it meant to be accepting phone numbers from women that clearly weren’t Ginny Weasley, the love of his life. Then he sighed, and threw the napkin away for the final time. What could he possibly do with it? After all, he didn’t actually have a telephone. Then, he crawled back into bed, closed his eyes and prepared to let the Cornish Pixies do their worst for a little while longer.
Late that afternoon, Harry finally made it into the office. Checking his watch as he dropped into his chair, he was mildly surprised to see he was actually on time. He still felt like death.
Ron, who had been on the day shift, turned in his seat to welcome him, but any greeting died on his lips as he looked at Harry. “Bloody hell, mate! You look rough! What happened to you last night?”
“Seamus Finnegan happened to me.”
Ron tapped the side of his nose conspiratorially. “Ah. Say no more.”
Harry spent the next half an hour ineffectually moving paper from one side of his desk to the other. He was aware he had the report from the previous day’s capture to complete, but he was worried that, in his current state, he would do such a poor job that he would only have to do it again the following day. Instead, he looked for something else he could do that he couldn’t possibly screw up. As he rearranged his quill and inkpot for the fourth time, the door to the Nexus suddenly turned blue and was thrown open with such force that it hit the filing cabinet next to it with a loud clang. Everyone in the room jumped, except Harry, who winced at the noise.
Gawain leaned out of the Nexus onto the main office. “Team meeting, please. Everyone get in here now.” He turned and disappeared back into the room. The other Aurors leapt up and hurried after him, with the exception of Harry, who climbed lethargically to his feet and followed several paces behind.
There were no seats left by the time Harry closed the door behind him, so he leaned against the wall at the back of the room. Gawain was standing by the large fireplace, and behind him floated a disembodied head, part way through a floo call. Harry recognised the head as belonging to Ariadne Smythe, the Senior Auror in charge of the Penrith Office. There was an air of excitement in the room, something that Harry hadn’t really felt since Ben’s death. Even in his rather delicate state, he could appreciate it.
Gawain waited patiently for the hubbub to die away, like a showman controlling his audience. “It’s about time this office got a lucky break,” he began, “and I think I have it here. I received word from Ariadne today. Finally, we have a solid lead on the whereabouts of Rabastan Lestrange!”
Harry raised his eyebrows and stood up a little taller, despite his throbbing head. This was news worth hearing, no matter how dreadful he felt. Clearly the rest of the office agreed with him, as excited murmurs spread through the room.
Meanwhile, Gawain drew his wand and tapped the planning table. “Finguntia Skirtgill Cottage.” The Aurors seated at the table leaned back a little as the surface began to swirl and grow, eventually rising to show a sizeable stone cottage, with moorland to one side and trees to the other. “Those of you familiar with the Lestrange file may recognise this building.”
“It’s the one that belonged to Lestrange’s aunt, isn’t it?” asked Marcus. “But we checked it out ages ago. No one had been there.”
“No one had been there then.” corrected Gawain. “Ariadne made a routine stop to check up on it when she was in the area on another case. The signs were subtle, but someone has definitely been there recently. Ariadne, please tell the others what you just told me.”
The disembodied head bobbed up and down as Ariadne nodded. “It wasn’t much, but it was unmistakable. The hairline boundary spell we cast on the door had been broken, the ashes in the grate appeared be fresh, and the although the bed was still made, it had been done rather clumsily, as though someone left in a hurry.”
Harry thought the news was interesting, but even with his hangover, he could see a massive flaw in the logic. He raised his hand and Gawain nodded at him, inviting Harry to speak. “Why are we so sure it’s Lestrange? None of the evidence that Ariadne found categorically ties him to the place, does it?”
There were a few low mutters in the room and Harry saw Tarquin thrown him an annoyed glance, but Gawain once again hushed the room. “Mr Potter is unfortunately correct,” he said. “There’s no evidence that our squatter was Lestrange. But since the cottage is charmed to conceal it from any passing Muggle, we do know that whoever was there, they were part of the magical community. Lestrange’s personal connection to the place means it’s too much of a coincidence to ignore. In addition, Lestrange’s sudden reappearance fits in with our theory regarding why we haven’t found him before. Hestia, can you explain please?”
Hestia nodded and stepped forward. “Yes. The few reliable sightings we’ve had of Lestrange have always felt so random and in such disparate locations, all over the country. I wondered whether he was rotating between safe-houses, not staying anywhere more than a few days. It’s the only thing I could think of that would explain it.”
“Okay, so let’s say that theory’s true,” reasoned Marcus. “Why didn’t we pick up any trace of him when we checked before?”
“There could be dozens of reasons,” countered Hestia. “Maybe one of his regular places became too exposed. Perhaps he just chose to shake his routine up. He might have thought that after all this time, we wouldn’t be watching the cottage anymore.”
“So what are we going to do?” asked Tarquin.
Gawain’s response was swift and determined. “We really don’t have a choice. There’s no way of knowing when Lestrange might return, so we stake out that cottage day and night until he shows himself again. If Hestia’s theory is correct, it’s only a matter of time before he’s back.” Gawain paused and surveyed his team. When he spoke again, his voice caught very slightly in the back of his throat. “Only Hestia and I had the privilege of serving in this office alongside Frank and Alice Longbottom, but you all know what it’s like to lose a friend and a comrade, and I know you all want Lestrange brought to justice. I want him in custody, whatever it takes. Now, I shouldn’t need to remind you that this must remain top secret. If any hint of this operation leaks out, we might lose Lestrange again. So, not a word please, to anyone - partners, children, friends. No-one. We don’t have enough people in Penrith to cover an operation like this, so the London office will share the workload. I’ll coordinate the surveillance myself. Ariadne and Hestia will take the first shift tonight, and subsequent assignments will be posted tomorrow, so please look out for them. That’s all for now, thank you.”
The rest of the Aurors began to file out of the room, but Gawain caught Harry’s eye.
“Harry, can I have a word please?” he asked
“Sure.” Harry was immediately apprehensive.
Gawain waited for the others to leave, then closed the door. “You look awful,” he told Harry, bluntly.
“Oh, well...” Harry searched for an excuse. “I think I ate a bad... erm...”
“Save it, Harry,” said Gawain, cutting him off. “I can still smell the alcohol on you.”
“Harry, what you do on your own time is your business not mine, but when you’re on shift, I expect you to be fit to be here. Make sure that you don’t turn up in this sort of state again.”
Harry felt his cheeks burn in mortification. “Umm. Of course. Sorry.”
Gawain sighed. “Your brush with Jugson aside, you’ve been doing very well recently, Harry. Please don’t let your standards slip.” He gave Harry a very astute look. “I suggest you find some filing to do for the rest of the shift. Nothing too important, please.”
And with that, he swept from the room, leaving Harry feeling very small indeed.
A/N - So, here's chapter 25! I hope you enjoyed it:-) Both Harry and Ginny have a journey to go on yet before things start looking up - and think of it this way: How much more will you enjoy it when things do start looking up!
*This sentance is taken from a chapter title from Harry Potter and the COnsipracy of Blood, by CambAngst. If you've read that story, you'll know why it's an apt choice! And if you're read this far into Evolution, you know the drill by now: CambAngst is my beta reader, and he's just THE BEST! His story, Harry Potter and the Conspiracy of Blood is nominated for multiple Dobbys, his short story, Marked, is also nominated, and he's just posted a brand new story, called Detox. It's great, especially if you like a bit of Draco Malfoy!
As for me, the real world continues to get in the way of writing - work has been busy and I'm planning my wedding! I am definitely still writing though, and I just finished the draft of another chapter, so there's plenty more to come:-). If you like Evoution, please do leave me a review. It would be great to know waht you think!
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