CT: Chapter Eight: The Pink Toad

One of the things Ginny liked least about playing professional Quidditch was the time she had to spend away from home. Her preference was to spend a night in a familiar bed, whether it was her own or Harry’s. She had never been able to wrap her head around Jordana and Gwenog’s illogical need to have the team travel together when Portkeys and Apparition could have them anywhere in the world in a matter of minutes.

When she woke up this Sunday morning it was to thoughts of the delicious pancake breakfast that her mother was no doubt making, or, even more appetizing, what she and Harry might be doing if she wasn’t stuck here training for a game they would be playing against the Tornadoes. There were only a few glorious moments when Ginny could remain in bed and thing about such things. All too soon Jordana or Gwenog would be rousing them to get up and start training.

“Weasley?”

And there it was: the wake-up call.

“Yeah?”

“You awake?” It wasn’t Jordana or Gwenog who pulled open the hangings around her bed, but Keddle. She had her blonde hair tied back in a loose bun. She’d been awake for some time then. Ginny bit back the sarcastic comment she felt like making, saying simply “hmm.”

She turned to watch her teammate for a minute. It was most unlike Keddle to disturb anyone. There had to be a good reason she was here.

“Sorry to give you such a rude awakening, but we all thought you should see this.” She handed Ginny a folded copy of The Daily Prophet.

Ginny eyed it warily. She’d been diligently avoiding the rag ever since the conversation she’d had with her father. The Prophet didn’t have the best track record when it came to accuracy and she didn’t yet trust herself not to take whatever rubbish that was written in there out on Harry. He’d been tolerant enough with her already.

Not wanting Keddle to get the wrong idea, Ginny took the paper and glanced at it. Sure enough there was a picture of Harry there. She stared at it just long enough to realize that she needed some time to think things over in private.

“Thanks, Ked. I’ll be out shortly.”

The crestfallen look that Keddle wore did nothing to brighten Ginny’s mood. Keddle was one of the worst offenders for constantly making eyes at Harry whenever he came to team functions. She was extremely lucky she hadn’t been hexed, Ginny thought.

It looked bad this picture. There was Harry In some sort of club — Muggle by the looks of it, and there was some floozy with her hand —

Wait. He’d gone to a Muggle club? That wasn’t like Harry.

Ginny scanned the picture. She could see people in the background dancing. None of them looked familiar at all, except for yet another blonde who was getting a little too cozy with his partner.

Ginny folded the paper and snorted. Harry had gone out with Dudley? That explained everything! The lone surviving Dursley wasn’t known for his stellar choice in acquaintances. Hadn’t he been the one who befriended Draco Malfoy way back before Voldemort . . .

Ginny picked up the paper again and watched Harry. His expression didn’t change in the slightest even though everyone else was moving around normally. This was a reaction she knew all too well. He was in shock.

A small smile started to form on her lips. This was nothing. Before she and Harry had smartened up there had been plenty of those types of photos in the papers. This picture was tame in comparison! What was amusing Ginny now was Harry’s reaction. He’d probably have a barrage of apologies for her when she got home on Friday. It was unnecessary but he’d do it anyway.

Ginny could hear the others starting to move around but she did not do the same. The smile slipped from her lips as she looked at the photo more closely. There was more to this photo than she had realized on first inspection. Harry didn’t just look stunned he looked upset. She couldn’t be sure in the picture but it almost seemed like he was in pain; he could have been struggling with those old demons again.

A bright flash blinded Ginny, almost making the paper fall out of her hands.

“Ha — I told you I’d get you.”

“Damn it, Colin, I’ve told you before not to do that.” Ginny could fell her heartbeat start to return to its normal pace after the shock of Colin’s appearance.

“Fair’s fair,” he replied jovially. “Don’t worry Ginny these pictures won’t fall into the wrong hands. Harry’ll make —“ Colin stopped talking abruptly and looked from Ginny to the paper, seeming to register that something was wrong for the first time. He raised an eyebrow and waited for an explanation. Ginny handed him the paper. If there was anyone who would know if she was seeing things in this picture it was Colin Creevey. He was the Harpies resident photographer after all and spent his life examining photos.

Colin looked at the picture for a minute and then sighed.

“You’re not on about this again, are you? I thought you said that the two of you —“

“No. Not the girl, I could care less about her. Look at Harry. Does he look . . . upset to you?”

Colin sat down on the edge of the bed and looked closer at the picture. “I dunno, Gin. Its really bad lighting and the reflection — did they even set up the shot at all? Such a poor angle, too.”

“Its for the Prophet, Colin, not National Geographic.”

“Showing off your Muggle Studies, are you?” he asked, smirking as he looked at her again.

“Yeah. Now what’s your verdict on that photo?” Ginny did not smile. Colin looked back at it for a fraction of a second before he sighed again.

“I’ve told you before Ginny, I don’t think you have anything to worry about. But I’m a photographer not a psychologist. If you think that he looks troubled why don’t you try talking to him?”

Ginny was saved from having to answer that question by Jordana’s arrival. There was a very good reason that she didn’t do exactly as Colin suggested. Harry would never tell her if something was bothering him, especially in a letter or through a Floo connection. This was one conversation they needed to have face to face. It would lead to another argument, Ginny was quite sure of that.

* * *

Harry fully expected to get the Howler Ron prophesized, but it didn’t come. No form of communication did. This bothered him more than he wanted to admit. Much as he didn’t love falling prey to that legendary Weasley temper, the stony silences were always worse. It had been his experience that those silences meant that Ginny herself realized how angry she was, a sign that she was very near exploding. Harry would have contacted her himself but he’d also learned that when Ginny was in a towering temper it was unwise in the extreme to approach her. Such was his Sunday though that he almost welcomed Monday and the return to work.

Almost.

Harry hadn’t given any serious thought to potential reactions from his coworkers over that article. Hard as it might be for an outsider to understand, he still found it difficult to believe that people took an interest in such blatant lies. Fate was to intervene and remind him though. He’d barely taken half a dozen steps out of the Apparition area when a loud wolf whistle rapidly followed by a “way to go Potter” met his ears.

Romeo de Rossi was standing at the entrance to the archives wearing a broad grin. Harry inwardly suppressed a groan. He really wasn’t in the mood to listen to another of Rossi’s stories, but from the expression on his face, that’s exactly what Harry was going to be subjected to.

“I have to say I was worried you didn’t have it in you to take advantage of our many opportunities. I’m glad that I was wrong about that. Good man.” Rossi clapped Harry on the back, wearing an even bigger smile.

“Yeah?” Harry asked tonelessly. “Glad I was able to impress you.” He owed Rossi no explanation and he wasn’t going to give him one at all. This drought of details made Rossi’s face fall.

“Well at least she was good-looking.” He winked at Briony as she emerged from the archives and handed him three scrolls. She didn’t blush this time, just looked at Harry, scowled and then headed back into the dimly lit room. When she had disappeared from view entirely Rossi turned to look at Harry with a raised eyebrow.

“Lover’s quarrel?” There was just a slight trace of mockery in his question. He chuckled as he walked away.

Harry peeked into the room one more time to see if he could spot Briony, but he could not. Shaking his head he made his way to his cubicle to prepare for yet another task force meeting.

Why they were still having daily task force meetings was a mystery. Over the last few weeks there had been no new information gathered and none of their leads were panning out. There was nothing that Brazill could find that linked Lestrange or Malfoy to the Thompson and Greer murders. The most frustrating part of this whole situation was that the abductions had all the earmarks of previous crimes committed by the pair. While the charges that the Auror office had against Bellatrix and Lucius were enough to put them both away for several lifetimes having unsolved kidnapping (and probably murder) cases was unacceptable. If only they could get a break, Harry thought as he sat down. They didn’t even know what the motive was for kidnapping those particular Muggle-borns. Yes it was well known that both Malfoy and Lestrange were Muggle-born haters. But if it were just a simple matter of wanting to cleanse the wizarding bloodlines why go to all the effort of kidnapping? Why not just murder them? Harry had a feeling that once they found out the answer to that question everything would fall into place, including his biggest question: why had Malfoy and Lestrange teamed up at all?

No one looked happy as they sat down in the meeting that morning. When Moody stumped in and asked if there was anything new it was Brazil who spoke up.

“As usual I have nothing. I doubt anyone else does either, especially when instead of working some of us are out gallivanting all night.” She was looking at Harry as she said this, wearing an expression just like Briony’s. Harry opened his mouth to comment on this but Moody silenced him with a look, and did the same with Brazill.

“Blaming colleagues will accomplish nothing. I take it your leads didn’t pan out then?” Moody asked. Fixing him with a mutinous stare Brazill shook her head. “Anyone else?”

As predicted there was no new information. Harry wondered why they even continued to have daily meetings like this when in the last few weeks their greatest accomplishment was not hexing each other out of frustration. Privately he thought his time could be better served reading the final few reports that would catch him up. Once he had everything read maybe he could get out of the cubicle he’d been stuck in and be an active participant in the investigation.

Moody kept them there for another ten minutes, asking them to recount what they’d been doing, and offering suggestions to further their investigation. He alone seemed indefatigable; no matter how many times he was told that his suggestion had already been attempted he didn’t seem deterred. The other members of the team became increasingly ill tempered with each question. Such was the mood that Harry was quite glad to finally get out of that conference room.

Several members of the task force joined Tougas in fixing Harry with angry stares as they made their way to their various employments. Another day he might have been upset by such behaviour but today his own bad mood made Harry glower right back. He trudged off to finish the last of his reading. Not that I should be in that great a rush, he thought bitterly. It didn’t sound like there was anything for him to do. Without any new leads the other members of the task force were doing exactly what Harry was now: combing the files for patterns or clues they may have missed. It seemed like another fruitless pastime.

After an hour of trying and failing to read his report, Harry gave it up and decided to track down Briony. She’d always been eager to offer her help everyday, but other than when he arrived this morning and at the meeting he hadn’t seen her at all. For some reason this absence bothered him more than the cold behaviour of his fellow task force members.

Hoping she wasn’t with Tougas (the very last person Harry felt like dealing with at the moment) Harry set off to find Briony. She wasn’t that hard to locate despite her diminutive stature. She was in her usual haunt: the archives. When Harry found her she was absorbed in a scroll longer than she was tall. He saw that it was once again inscribed with the Department of Mysteries logo. He’d completely forgotten that she was secretly researching the use of fear.

“Find anything interesting?” Harry’s question made Briony jump and drop the scroll. She turned to face him, looking panicked. Her expression changed when she saw who it was.

“What do you want?” she asked with more bite in her voice than Harry had ever heard before. His voice failed him for a minute as he stared down at her angry face.

“I wanted to ask you what this is all about,” he said finally, gesturing to indicate he was talking about her treatment of him.

“You’re an Auror and you can’t even figure that out?”

This was a low blow. Harry was taken aback for just a second before he replied, “I’m trained to catch dark wizards not figure out the ridiculous mood swings of women.”

Briony rolled her eyes and turned away. It looked like she was getting ready to leave. She hesitated for a minute, on the verge of taking a step. She obviously decided she had more to say for she spun around as she said, “You know, I would have expected that behaviour from Rossi, or even Bredan . . . but I thought you were different. Your girlfriend is away one week and —“

“Whoa, wait!” Harry held up his hand to stop her from going on, feeling stupid he hadn’t worked out the reason for her behaviour before. Remembering Keelie he had a sudden urge to laugh. “You think I was out cheating on Ginny?”

“You think its funny, do you?” Her voice was getting louder and she reached in her pocket to pull out her wand. “I’d — I’d — love to Transfigure — But I think Ginny’d —“ Briony stopped, going red in the face. Harry couldn’t help but laugh harden even though he knew it wasn’t the wisest thing to do.

“You think this is funny?” she repeated, raising her wand to face level, which barely came to Harry’s elbow.

“Come on.” He laughed as he plucked the wand from out of her hand. “I didn’t think you would believe something written in the Daily Prophet. I thought you knew me better than that.”

Briony shuffled her feet and looked at the ground. She stepped on the corner of her parchment and, apparently remembering it for the first time, bent down to pick it up. It looked to Harry as though she was buying herself some time because it took far longer than necessary for her to be satisfied that the scroll was secure.

“So what about that photo then? You and that girl looked pretty cozy.”

“Sure, about as cozy as I’d get with a Blast-Ended Skrewt. Don’t ask.” Harry said in answer to her confusion. He proceeded to explain about Dudley and his companions.

“And you didn’t do anything?” Harry couldn’t read her expression. Was it doubt or envy?

“I swear. I’d never do that to Ginny.” As he handed her back her wand, Harry decided not to tell Briony that he’d had too much time to observe Ginny’s hexing abilities to wish to anger her in such a way. “C’mon, why don’t we take a break from this place and get a tea?”

It was a little early for the lunch hour so there were few people in the Ministry’s cafe. Harry was glad of this. That stupid article was likely to attract him all sorts of unwanted attention. If they could avoid the bulk of the traffic he would have less to complain about.

“So . . . “ he started when they sat down. “Have you found out anything interesting from those reports you’ve been reading?” He’d decided to get right to the point. They hadn’t talked about this topic in weeks, which meant she had probably found out loads of information on the effects of fear.

Briony didn’t answer. She was staring right through Harry as though he was not there.

“Hello?” he asked, waving a hand to try and get her attention, but all she did was stare at a point just over his shoulder. Perplexed, Harry turned to see what was so captivating. It only took him a second to spot a swatch of violently pink robe among a mass of more conservative blacks, dark blues, grays and browns. He groaned.

Dolores Umbridge had seen them and was headed over.

Thankfully the Ministry was a large place so Harry’s sightings of Umbridge had been few and far between. He’d been fortunate to always spy her while he was on his way somewhere. Now though, he had no hope of escaping. He clenched both his hands and teeth as he spotted those words that the horrid woman had forced him to cut into his hand. It was this very one that Briony rested her much smaller hand on, causing Harry to look at her.

“I’ll handle her, just try to keep quiet, OK?”

Harry didn’t think he wanted to chance speaking so he simply nodded and turned his head, watching Umbridge’s approach out of the corner of his eye.

“Hello Aunt Dolores,” Briony said brightly. Harry looked up at her words, anxious to see the reaction of the pink toad.

Umbridge did not answer immediately. She used that time to glance from Briony to Harry, her eyes narrowed in harsh disapproval. When she finally spoke though it was in her usual sugary voice.

“Hello Briony, dear. I must say I’m surprised to see you here. Your mother tells me you’ve been very busy with your work these days.”

“Does she?” Briony asked coldly. Harry looked up to see a frown cross her face. “She’s quite right. We have been extremely busy in the Auror office. Haven’t we Harry?”

“Oh . . . er . . . yeah.” It took a minute for him to realize why Briony had brought this up. But, of course, it had been Dolores Umbridge who had said that Harry would never work at the Ministry.

Umbridge’s lips pursed. She looked like she was struggling with the desire to shout. It was an urge she was able to control in the end. Instead she smiled sweetly.

“I hope all that work you’re putting in yields some results, dear. I don’t think your mother can stand you missing another holiday due to work, even if it is to help capture two of . . . “ Umbridge stopped, forced another simpering smile and added, “Well, I suppose we must rely on the evidence that’s been gathered . . . although I don’t know if it can be considered as reliable as it once was.”

“I wouldn’t expect you to, Auntie, seeing as how you spend all your time trying to undermine what Magical Law Enforcement does. I guess that’s the drawback to sheltering yourself in your office all day and letting your paranoia flourish. You know I’m shocked you even lowered yourself to come down here. Why is that?” Briony responded as sweetly as her aunt. It was rather frightening.

Harry realized his mouth was open and closed it quickly. Not only had he never heard Briony speak with so much venom (albeit disguised well), he’d ever even imagined it was something she was capable of.

After staring at Briony open-mouthed for a full ten seconds, Umbridge seemed to realize that she was doing it. She reapplied the smile to her face, though her eyes were narrowed dangerously. Harry had a feeling that a line had just been crossed, one that had likely never been crossed before. He was sure he was right when Umbridge addressed him, keeping her eyes on her niece. “Mr. Potter if you’ll excuse us, we have a family matter to discuss privately.”

Harry turned to look at Briony. If she wanted him to leave he would, but he wasn’t going anywhere because Dolores Umbridge asked him to. Briony nodded in a resigned sort of way so Harry left.

He’d barely had time to think about where he was going to sit when Harry heard his name. He reluctantly turned, wondering if he wanted to know whom it was, but it was Hermione. She was sitting at a table just a few down from where Harry had been sitting with Briony. Feeling both grateful she was there and a little guilty about not noticing her before, he quickly made his way over to where Hermione was sitting with Justin Finch-Fletcheley.

“Sorry I didn’t see you before,” he said, sitting down.

“Oh that’s OK. We just got here ourselves,” Hermione replied. “Harry you remember Justin, right?”

“Of course. How are you, Justin?” Harry asked, taking the proffered hand.

“Well, thank you. Although I’d be a lot better if we didn’t have to keep looking over our shoulders for Death Eaters.” Justin was smiling, but Harry could see dark circles under his eyes. “It makes it rather hard to be getting on with our duties when we have to check in and out as though we were library books. Don’t you agree?”

“I do,” Hermione said. “I just thank goodness that we don’t have Aurors following our every move when we’re at work, too. No offence, Harry.”

Hermione had obviously mistaken the reason for the frown on his face. He wasn’t pleased with the Ministry’s decision to leave the Muggle-borns unguarded while they were in the building. There were protective spells, that was true, but that hadn’t prevented Voldemort and the Death Eaters from getting in once before. Wards weren’t foolproof; Privet Drive had proven that to him above all else. Harry realized that his fellow Aurors had other duties that took up their time, but he had a feeling that this decision to leave any Muggle-born unprotected, even in the Ministry, would be another they regretted. He just hoped he would turn out to be wrong.

“You wouldn’t complain if they save your life though, would you?” he asked.

Justin and Hermione exchanged exasperated looks.

“What?” Harry asked impatiently.

“You just sounded like an Auror, that’s what,” Hermione replied. “A lot like Moody in fact. The only thing that was missing was ‘constant vigilance.’”

“Take this seriously, will you? Both of you. You’re gambling with your lives here,” Harry replied angrily, wiping the smirks off their faces. He hadn’t meant to be as harsh as he had been, but the fact they were being flippant about a real danger had caused him to overreact. He felt he might apologize for his tone, but when he saw that they looked like they’d lost their smiles he decided against it. If a scare was what they needed to take caution then it was worth it.

“I . . . uh . . . think I didn’t finish that report on — I’ll see you upstairs later Hermione,” Justin said, not making any real attempt to disguise his desire to leave. Hermione and Harry both watched him do so before she spoke furiously.

“I can’t believe you, Harry. I thought you, of al people, would understand how frustrating this is. Its no picnic having someone follow you everywhere.”

“Why would I -”

“You spent two years of your life being tailed, remember? And we certainly had to hear enough about it for the memory to be stuck in our minds.” Hermione said all this with an annoyed expression on her face. If she thought this would win Harry over to her way of thinking though she was sorely mistaken. He would only concede one point. Leaning in and putting his elbows on the table he chose his words before speaking.

“I’m sorry I snapped at you, but I just want to make sure you’re not trying to lose your guard or anything stupid. Bellatrix Lestrange and Lucius Malfoy would love the opportunity to snatch you. I, for one, wouldn’t want to have to give that news to your parents, or Ron.”

Hermione was watching him shrewdly as he spoke.

“I’d never think of doing that. No matter how much we hate this protective detail we know you’re all doing your best. I just wish you’d hurry up and catch those two nutters already.”

“You and me both,” Harry admitted. Hermione cocked an eyebrow, forcing Harry into more speech. “I wouldn’t mind all the hard work so much if it seemed like it was leading anywhere. But ever since the Thompson and Greer — “ he stopped abruptly realizing he was saying too much. “They’ve been pretty quiet lately and we haven’t been able to find any clues at the previous crime scenes to actually link them with the crimes.”

Contrary to her usual nature, Hermione remained silent, obviously at as much of a loss as everyone on the task force.

In the silence that fell, Harry looked over at Briony and wasn’t at all pleased to see Umbridge was still there. Their exchange looked like it was becoming heated. Now he wasn’t engrossed in his own conversation with Hermione he could just make out their words.

“ . . . Any respect for your family at all? How can you possibly show such contempt for your parents? I know my sister raised you better than this.” A cacophony of noise prevented Harry hearing the next few seconds of Umbridge’s tirade, but he did hear both his and Tougas’s names mentioned with contempt.

“They’re friends of mine,” Briony replied loudly, causing more than one person to look at the two women.

Umbridge who had been leaning down and talking in a quieter voice than was usual (though it still carried) stood straight and smiled widely at everyone until they looked away. Once she thought they could not be overheard she bent down again and started speaking rapidly, but at a volume Harry could not hear. He had no trouble with Briony’s next statement though.

After about thirty seconds she stood up, towering about a head over her aunt and said in a ringing tone, “There’s nothing respectable about hypocrisy. You can tell my mother that and that I look forward to her Howler. Good day Aunt Dolores.”

Briony stormed out of the cafe without a backward glance at any of the staring faces.

“What was that all about?” Hermione asked, also watching the scene with a confused expression.

“No idea.” Harry was focusing on Briony. He’d never heard her react to strongly to anything before. He felt his stomach twisting. The very last thing he wanted was to be responsible for any rift in her family.

“Listen, Hermione. I’m going to go talk to her, d’you mind?” Harry was already halfway out of his seat before she began to shake her head. He barely registered the return of her shrewd expression. “Thanks. I’ll talk to you later. Don’t forget what I told you about being cautious.”

It didn’t take more than a minute for Harry to catch up with Briony who was waiting for the lifts. She was seething. It was an expression he was more used to seeing on Ginny’s face.

“Want to talk about it?”

“No,” she said curtly, turning back to face the lifts. Harry saw her hands were clenched into fists.

They stood there in silence for some time before Harry said, “I’m sorry.”

“For what?” she snapped, causing Harry to recoil. He wondered whether he dared to continue but he had already started down this path, so he had to complete his thought.

“I don’t want to be the cause of problems with your family. If —“

“Don’t flatter yourself, Harry,” Briony said still sounding just as angry. The lifts still held most of her attention. Harry thought she was done talking and given her obvious heightened state of emotionality he couldn’t say he was disappointed.

“Its not about you, well not directly about you anyway,” she said eventually. “Well, maybe for my Aunt Dolores it is. She hates you.”

“The feeling’s mutual, I assure you.” Harry spoke quickly when she looked at him apologetically. This made her smile.

“Well, as I’m sure you can guess by my Aunt’s fit just now, my family has strong views . . . I should say most of my family has strong views on blood status. You probably figured that much out by her fear of half-bloods. They frown on the fact I’ve befriended Bredan, but most especially you. My parents though — “ She stopped talking when a bright flash of pink announced Umbridge was coming. The arrival of the lift saved them from another encounter. “Thank goodness. I think I might have Crucio’d her if I had to have another conversation today.”

Umbridge and her group of cronies deliberately held back from entering the lift. As the gates closed Harry saw her watching Briony and himself with her eyes narrowed again. This, combined with Briony’s latest comment, made him feel a little impish. He put his arm around Briony’s shoulder and squeezed. This achieved the desired result. It looked like the woman’s eyes were going to bulge right out of her head. Just before the lift began to ascend, Harry shot her a wide grin.

Once their lift reached the next floor Harry removed his arm.

“Sorry. I couldn’t help myself,” he said, only now thinking about what Briony might have thought of this action. Hopefully she didn’t read too much into it.

“Sorry?” she asked, smiling broadly. “Did you see her face? I really thought her head might explode. I’ve never seen her that mad. You just made my week.”

“Glad I could oblige. I do have a special ability to get under her skin.”

“That you do.” Briony’s smile faltered. “Oh, I’m going to hear about this. If I wasn’t getting a Howler before I definitely am now.” She grimaced.

“Sorry.” Harry also grimaced. He really shouldn’t be getting in the middle of her family problems. He spent a lot of time making himself forget in the beginning that Briony was related to Umbridge. Apparently he’d been just a little too successful at that task.

“You should be. The last time my mother sent me a Howler it destroyed my favorite quill and two weeks worth of work. Luckily I was still working for Arthur Weasley then. If that were to happen with Moody . . . “ She looked horror-stricken. “If that happens . . . “

“I’ll explain to Moody for you. But try to open it in a non-flammable area, yeah?”

“And you’re buying me a new quill. The one I have now cost me two days salary.”

“Two days?” Harry asked incredulously. Briony looked at him warningly. “Howler. Right. Yeah, OK, you’ve got yourself a deal.” This agreement was reached as they exited the lift on their floor.

* * *

Briony got her Howler after work Monday night so, thankfully, her quill was spared but it came at the expense of her hearing she told Harry on Tuesday morning. She said she’d gone to bed that night wondering if the Ministry had any hearing trumpets on hand. It had been a relief to find her auditory capabilities in perfect working order when she woke up the next morning.

The rest of the week passed in a much more pleasant atmosphere than Monday had. It was quite as unproductive as the start of the week had been, but at least everyone was in a better mood. Everyone, it was, except Tougas.

Friday finally came, leaving Harry with only one worry: the continued silence from Ginny. She hadn’t so much as sent a letter to say they’d talk about that photo when she got back or telling him to sod off. In the past no matter how busy she’d been in training she’d always found time to scribble something.

This long silence was even more troubling for the fact that it was going to be the first weekend off they’d had together in months. Harry had big plans for their time even some outside the flat (a rare treat these days) and he didn’t want them spoiled by a huge row over Dudley’s libidinal needs and those who fulfilled them.

It was only on Friday morning as he rolled over and awoke to the faded scent of her hair on his pillow that Harry thought again of contacting Ginny. Surely she could not be that angry with him now that he would be in any danger of contacting her. He’d waited too long though. Game day was always her busiest day. She definitely wouldn’t have time to answer him before the match. It would be quicker to see her after the game like he already planned to.

The prospect of a weekend without work, possibly one spent entirely in Ginny’s company buoyed Harry up so much that he knew he’d even be able to tolerate Tougas.

“Big plans for your weekend?” Briony asked as they entered the task force meeting together.

“Ginny’s home tonight so . . . yeah.”

“Really? What d’you — oh.” Briony blushed furiously and looked away. Harry couldn’t help but chuckle.

“Maybe that, but I actually do have some things planned; assuming she’s not too hacked off at me anyway.”

They separated after that. Harry took his usual seat beside Dawlish, who was snoring lightly, dark circles under his eyes. Unlike Harry, he wouldn’t be enjoying time off. He still had Hermione to watch.

How Dawlish was managing it all was a mystery to Harry. He spent his days here like everyone else, but then at night he was at Ron and Hermione’s. Recalling this, Harry felt a little of his jubilation ebb away to be replaced with guilt. Dawlish had been working on the team since its inception and yet he was doing more, not less.

Such was Harry’s guilt that he would have gone to Moody that very day and offered to guard Hermione himself if he hadn’t been told time and time again never to make things personal. Besides that fact, Dawlish was a brilliant Auror. Other than Moody, Tonks, or Kingsley, there was no one else he’d rather have keeping an eye on Hermione. Even in his current state of exhaustion Harry was sure Dawlish would be able to hold anyone off long enough to call for reinforcements. That was, as long as Hermione didn’t do anything stupid.

“Dawlish?” Harry said quietly, surreptitiously nudging him, realizing this was not the first time he’d had to do this.

Dawlish jerked awaken and looked around quickly, getting his bearings. Spotting Harry he looked away almost at once as he gruffly said, “Thanks again, Potter.”

“No problem.” Harry smiled a little because he saw a little humor in the situation. He wasn’t sure if Moody would though, and he could hear him barking something just outside the door. Harry therefore asked, “So how’s Hermione? Is she behaving herself?”

“Very much so, why? Do you suspect she might not?”

“Well . . . “ Harry hesitated for a fraction of a minute, battling with his desire to keep his friend safe and his own memories of what it had felt like to be followed and unable to protect himself. “I don’t think so.”

There wasn’t time for Harry to say more because Moody entered just then with Brazill and Tougas. It was immediately apparent that something had changed. He sat up straight in his chair and waited impatiently for the three late arrivals to take theirs. Everyone else was doing the same thing.

“You’ve obviously realized that we have news for you. Tougas, tell them.”

Harry expected to see a look of triumph on his supervisor’s face at being asked to tell everyone what was going on. Instead he was looking more serious than Harry could recall. Tougas looked around at them all to make sure they were all watching. His eyes seemed to linger a second longer on Briony than anyone else.

“We’ve received several reports that the Death Eaters are planning an attack on Buckingham Palace.”

The room was so quiet that they could have heard a pin drop. Everyone glanced around at each other with worried looks on their faces.

“We don’t know when or where this attack is going to take place. The people who contacted us reported only that there was suspicious activity in their area. We need to find out more particulars. These reports gave us the area we have to investigate. It’s a big area as I’m, sure you’re all aware. So we’ve got a lot of work cut out fro us. I don’t think I need to tell you this could be a huge breech of the Statute of Secrecy if they’re allowed to get away with anything.”

Harry could see by the expressions on his colleague’s faces that they were thinking the same things he was: this was very nearly an impossible task. If Bellatrix and Lucius decided to show up themselves a duel was inevitable. There were always visitors surrounding the castle, not to mention the guards. Even if they Disillusioned themselves their movements were unlikely to go unnoticed. He brought up this point.

“Good thinking Potter. So how do we combat that?” Moody asked.

No one answered for a long time.

“Unless we took the place of some of them,” Harry said slowly. “How many of us are going to be there?”

“We don’t know. That’s one of the particulars we need to work out,” Tougas snapped. “We need to have a plan in place. Our sources tell us it’s going to happen after dark. We should be there and in place by sundown at the latest. I think by eight. What do you think, sir?”

“Anyone have anything to add to Potter’s plan yet?” Moody asked. Everyone shook their heads. He turned his attention to Tougas. “Make it seven. I want all our concentration on the palace. As an added measure I’m going to talk to the Minister and get him to clear everyone out of the Ministry tonight. If those two vermin are active again we need to take all precautions. Let’s get to work.”

Moody disappeared to talk with Kingsley without another word and left and everyone else to get busy. Schematics of Buckingham Palace were pulled out and studied. They had rather lengthy discussions on how they were going to situate themselves amongst the guards without blowing their cover. This latest part was the trickiest because of the obvious public setting.

“The absolute worst place they could have picked,” Schultz said around lunchtime as she returned from a scouting mission. The only way I can see this working is if we Confund everyone around us.”

“No one said it was going to be easy,” Togas replied irritably.

Their eventual plan was to lurk around the palace until dark when they could hopefully steal some hairs from a few guards and make the change without anyone noticing. It was a shoddy plan, they knew, but it was the only one that had a hope of working. Four of them would have a chance to stand in and look around while the other two (probably Harry and Moody) covered the remaining area by foot and above the castle.

This news had driven everything from Harry’s mind for many hours. As they took a short break Briony came up to him.

“This is rather exciting, isn’t it? The idea we might actually get them tonight.”

“Yeah,” Harry said. He wasn’t feeling the sense of excitement he had when apprehending Yaxley, nor what he thought he would feel when they finally moved in to get Malfoy and Lestrange. No, he felt uneasy. They’d been quiet for moths. To all of a sudden let it be known they were active again, and at such a monument? Something seemed wrong, but Harry couldn’t quite put his finger on what it was.

“I hope this doesn’t ruin all of your plans with Ginny.”

Harry stopped walking. Thoughts of Ginny had been driven from his mind with the information that there might be a Death Eater attack on a place far more crowded than any Harry had experience with. Now Briony had reminded him about his plans that added a worry: how was he going to get a message to Ginny?

Such an opportunity came late that afternoon.

Having finalized their preparations with some time left, Harry decided to quickly dart home, grab his invisibility cloak, leave a note for Dudley, and send Hedwig to Ginny with a letter explaining why he wasn’t able to make her game. She couldn’t get mad at him for it, he hoped.

He was just tying the roll to Hedwig’s leg when there was a popping noise. He turned to see Tougas’s head sitting in the fire.

Harry was about to ask what was going on. He’d been gone five minutes. Nothing could have changed that much in that short amount of time. He didn’t get a chance to say anything though.

“Potter, we need you back here to the atrium. Now!”

Before Harry could so much as form the word ‘what’ Tougas was gone again. Harry might have thought his supervisor touched in the head for such a reaction, but there was something in his tone that made Harry hastily send Hedwig off and use the Floo Network to get back to the Ministry. He felt even queasier than was usual with a Floo journey as he ran though every possible scenario that could have happened in the five minutes he’d been gone.

Harry stopped mid-brush as he stepped out of the fireplace. The atrium was far more crowded than it should have been at seven o’clock on a Friday evening, and there were all manner of loud shouts. It was impossible to determine whether they were cheering or crying. Given Tougas’s demeanor though, Harry was confident in saying the news was bad. Drawing his wand he rapidly moved through the crowd looking for the source of the trouble or at least someone who might know.

He walked past scores of embracing people, many of whom where openly sobbing into their companion’s shoulder. They all seemed to be staring at the new war memorial.

Briony appeared quite suddenly at Harry’s side. He started to ask her what was going on but all she would say was ‘not here’ as she pulled him through the crowd.

They finally broke through the milling people who were stopped about ten feet back from the structure, watching all the members of Harry’s team (except Dawlish) and Kingsley.

“What’s going on?” he asked, looking at each of them in turn.

Kingsley pointed wordlessly at the memorial. The side currently hidden from the crowd had drawn the attention of the half dozen people Harry worked with. He slowly turned, not wanting to see. He stared blankly at the new addition for a full minute without comprehending what the glittering emerald shape was. Then, as though it had suddenly struck him with a club, Harry felt a wave of memories rush into his pounding head.

The Dark Mark!

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