CT: Chapter Five: Joining The Hunt

Over the years the inhabitants of that small flat in London had fallen into certain patterns. One of those just happened to be the rule that those who cook are exempt from doing the dishes. Ordinarily Harry would not have minded in the least. Tonight though, he had that report for Moody and after the day he’d just had, Harry wanted to make sure he had it finished. Making a good impression had become key. The problem was how to address this with Ginny. She’d been in a good mood ever since he’d agreed to let Dudley stay, but given her frequent mood swings lately he could never be sure of her reaction. Ginny took the decision upon herself though.

“Don’t you have a report to finish?” she asked, getting up and levitating the dishes to the sink.

“Yeah,” Harry replied, wondering how it was she was always able to read his mind.

“Shouldn’t you get busy on it? I don’t think it would be a good idea for you to be up all night again.”

“Are you sure? I can do this -”

“I am perfectly capable of doing the dishes, Harry,” she responded, a warning in her voice.

It was better not to argue. Harry collected his things and began to work.

For the most part Harry loved his flat, but there were certain things that he wished were different. One of them was the constant cold in the winter that necessitated use of the fire. While it seemed cozy, it was a little inconvenient to work so near it. His desk was frequently coated in ash, and it was all-too-common to have one bit of parchment or another end up in the fire, particularly when the owls were flying around. This had desisted somewhat when Ron moved out and took Pigwidgeon with him.

As he unfurled the scroll he was writing his report on, Harry noticed Dudley slink into the kitchen where Ginny was setting to dishes to wash. She was more than a match for Dudley (there wasn’t a witch or wizard alive who wasn’t), but that did not mean that Harry was going to stand idly by and watch his cousin slobber all over her. He might be over here working, but he had his wand with him. If Dudley tried anything . . .

It took much longer for Harry to complete his report than it ought to have done. More than once he had to rewrite the same paragraph because he had been inattentive, instead keeping his ear tuned to Ginny and Dudley’s conversation. Thankfully there was little of it, and Dudley was behaving himself.

“And he’d better continue to do so,” Harry thought, gritting his teeth as Dudley let out a loud laugh that made him drop a large ink blot onto his report.

It was nearly midnight when Harry finally wrote his last line. His hand was aching given he’d filled a whole parchment (Hermione would be proud) and had to rewrite more than was usual because of the errors he’d made.

Both Ginny and Dudley were still awake. As Harry moved from his desk, they both came to stand by him.

“I was just thinking . . . ” Ginny started, making both Harry and Dudley look at her. “The first match is coming up in a few weeks. Maybe you should bring Dudley with you, Harry.”

“Quidditch?” Dudley asked sounding interested.

“Yes. I can’t imagine that you’ve had a chance to see much of it. I think you’d enjoy it.”

“Yeah . . . I’d love to go,” Dudley replied at once.

“What do you think?” Ginny had turned to look at Harry.

“Yeah, sure,” he replied, trying to smile, but he was sure it looked more like a grimace.

“Good. Well, as it’s getting on and we’ve both got to work tomorrow, I think we should be getting to bed.”

“I guess I’m staying in there, am I?” Dudley asked, gesturing toward the room that had once been Ron’s.

“No,” Harry said automatically. Even though Ron had been living in Hogsmeade for nearly a month, Harry still considered this room his. The very last thing he wanted was for Dudley to stay in there. “I mean, yeah, you can sleep there,” he corrected rapidly before Dudley could start to whine again or Ginny could glower at him. He got out some clean sheets and handed them to Dudley.

“Thanks,” Dudley replied, taking them. After an uncomfortable moment of silence he disappeared into his new room. When Harry and Ginny peered in, he was busy making the bed. It was probably the first time he’d ever done that in his life.

“I think this is going to be good for both of you,” Ginny said, looking at Harry.

“Its only been one evening, don’t get too excited.”

“One day at a time,” she replied happily. “Come on, let’s go to bed.”

They did so, but it was much later when they finally fell asleep. As a consequence it was later than usual when Harry stumbled out of bed.

He had forgotten that Dudley was staying there. The door to Ron’s former room was closed, but Harry didn’t notice this significant change as he walked past it in his drowsy state. It was not until he entered the kitchen that he was harshly reminded that he’d agreed to let his cousin stay.

Everything had been pristine when he and Ginny had gone to sleep the evening before. Now it looked as though a tornado had swept through the kitchen. Empty foot wrappings, dirty plates and what looked like the entire contents of the refrigerator littered every surface.

“Damn it, Dudley,” Harry said angrily as he started to put things away. It had been mere hours since they’d gone to bed. How could one person accumulate such a mess in that short a time span? With each item he found, Harry’s temper rose. When Ginny finally entered the kitchen and expressed her displeasure, Harry could not help but say I told you so.

“This is quite disgusting,” she admitted, grimacing as she pulled the milk bottle out from under a greasy meat skin. “But -”

“Why are you defending him?” he demanded, turning to look at Ginny. “This place is a pig sty!”

“I’m not. I already said this was disgusting, didn’t I? I just think that rather than jumping to rash decisions you should talk to him first.”

“That won’t do any good, Ginny. He’s been doing stuff like this -” Harry held up an empty crisp packet “- for years. That’s just the way he is.”

“All the more reason that you should talk to him. His parents let him get away with that stuff, right? He probably doesn’t realize . . . I’m sure that if you talk to him he’ll correct it.”

A thousand sarcastic comments came to mind as Harry watched Ginny. Not for the first time in recent weeks, he couldn’t help wondering about her behaviour. Ginny wasn’t typically this emotionally volatile. Yes, she had a temper, but she usually had better control over it than as of late. For the first time in weeks, Harry thought he should get to the bottom of Ginny’s problems. He opened his mouth to ask her all the questions he’d been putting off, but at that moment a soft tapping on the window made him turn around. Hedwig had just returned from a night of hunting.

“Don’t you have a report to hand in?” Ginny asked pushing past Harry to open the window.

The mention of his return to work made Harry’s stomach clench just a little. He was going to find out today what fate had in store for him. He’d been fortunate in the past to have bad situations turn out his way. He crossed his fingers hoping that this luck would be with him, but somehow getting out of trouble for incidents at Hogwarts was a lot different than it was at the Ministry of Magic.

“Yeah.” Harry looked down at his watch. He was running late again. If he didn’t leave right this second, he was likely to be late. And I’ve got to go.”

“Go, I’ll take care of this.” Ginny waved at the nearly clean kitchen as she returned Hedwig to her perch. Harry, busy gathering up his papers now, did not miss the exasperation in her voice.

“If you want me to —“

“No. You’ll be late if you don’t leave now. It would be stupid even for you to be late.”

Harry was about to say thanks to her, but stopped. He didn’t like the emphasis she had put on ‘you.’

“What’s that supposed to mean?” he asked angrily.

“We’ll talk about it after work,” Ginny said, not turning to look at him. “I’ll see you later.”

The finality in her tone, and the fact he should have left ten minutes earlier hastened his departure.

Harry had worried about what would happen when he returned to work, but he hadn’t thought through what would actually happen. After the unpleasantness in his exchange with Ginny, his sense of unease was even higher than it otherwise would have been. He hurried through the atrium, brushing soot off his robes as he did so. Waiting for the lifts, Harry recalled standing here with Arthur Weasley on his first day. That had been almost two months ago now. He’d been nervous then too. Those nerves seemed laughable now.

Unlike that day seven weeks before, Arthur was not on the same lift as Harry. He kept his head down, trying to remain as inconspicuous as possible, but that helped very little. As the lift trundled upwards several people greeted him, and offered their congratulations on the apprehension of Yaxley. Harry mumbled a reply and hastily looked away. Yesterday at this time he’d been chasing down the Death Eater. His first success as an Auror might be his only one.

“Potter,” Moody’s gruff voice called as soon as Harry stepped off the lift, “in here.”

Harry entered Moody’s office ahead of the man, and his spirits sunk even lower. Sitting in a chair just in front of Moody’s desk was Tougas. He glared at Harry, but it looked as if he was trying to hide his sense of satisfaction. Harry glared back, but said nothing. Getting into a second shouting match was the very last thing he wanted to do.

“So,” Moody said, moving to sit behind his desk, “you know why you’re here, I trust?”

“Yes, sir.” Harry flicked the edge of the parchment containing his report.

“I’ll take that.” Harry handed the roll to Moody, who placed it on the side of his desk. He seemed to have no interest in it. “Explain what happened yesterday.”

After very briefly wondering why Moody didn’t just read the report Harry recounted the events of the previous day. He talked for nearly twenty-five minutes, explaining everything that had led up to, and then what had transpired in capturing Yaxley. Several times he chanced a glance at Tougas. Harry noticed that as he talked the expression on his supervisor’s face was becoming angrier and angrier. Moody wasn’t looking impressed either, particularly when Harry began to recount the Muggle involvement. In contrast to Moody, Tougas seemed to be showing more pleasure as Harry continued to talk.

“So that’s what happened, is it?” Moody asked shortly when Harry finally finished talking.

“Yes, sir,” Harry said defiantly in advance of Tougas’s contradictions.

“I see.” Moody wasn’t looking at Harry. He had at last turned his attention to the scroll of parchment he had set aside earlier. After unfurling it, he began to read.

Harry could do nothing but stare. Why now, after already hearing Harry’s entire report, did Moody feel the need to read it? Did he not realize the agony this behaviour was causing? Was it actually possible that he was readying himself to tell Harry he was no longer an Auror? Was he using that report as a diversion so he could postpone the inevitable bad news?

After what felt like an eternity Moody looked up again. Harry tried to predict what words were coming, but he really had no clue. He always had been hopeless at divination.

“Well, Potter, I can’t pretend that you handled the situation properly. It was downright stupid, if I’m being honest,” Moody spoke in his usual gruff voice. “You realize that, don’t you? That Muggle girl would have been killed had Tougas not been there to back you up.”

“That’s what I said, sir,” Tougas said sycophantically.

Moody shot a warning glance at him, and Tougas sat back in his chair. He said nothing further, but he was looking quite triumphant. Swallowing the lump in his throat, and looking away from his supervisor quickly, Harry turned back to face the gnarled face of Alastor Moody.

“Be that as it may, I want to make sure you realize your errors, Potter. Do you?”

“Yes, of course. But I was following him —“ Harry started. He felt incensed that he was being reprimanded for his suspect’s actions. Moody held up his hand again.

“We all know that, Potter. You have to think about those things though — and try to prevent them if possible. Not only did you risk her life, but also the exposure of our world. That capture is going to mean a hell of a lot of paperwork. Did you know that we narrowly missed one of those Muggle reporters?”

“What?” Harry asked, “We couldn’t have been more than a few minutes? How -?”

“One of those Muggles had a mobile phone,” Tougas said. “Luckily he had a big mouth, too. We wouldn’t have caught him otherwise.”

Harry felt the lump in his throat sink all the way down into his stomach where it settled like a boulder. If what Tougas was saying was true, he was in for it for sure.

“Damned Muggles and their electronics . . . making it harder to maintain the statute of secrecy,” Moody murmured. He seemed to have forgotten himself for a minute because he looked up at Harry, and cleared his throat before continuing.

“A nice mess, Potter. A real fiasco. You agree?”

“Yes,” Harry mumbled, looking at his feet. It was only a matter of time until Moody would send him packing. He was already thinking of how he was going to break the news to Ginny when —

“All the same, it was a brilliant catch. This isn’t the first time he’s tried that escape.”

Harry looked up so fast he cricked his neck. Moody let out a gruff laugh.

“Leave it to you to make such a mess, but to pull off one of the best captures I’ve seen in years.”

“Er . . . “ Harry felt confused. Was he being fired, or not?

“Relax, Potter. That was the last of the lecture,” Moody said, laughing again. “I think after an evening’s agony you’ve learned your lesson, no?”

“I suppose,” Harry stated slowly, still unsure how to deal with the abrupt change in tone.

“It’s a rookie mistake, we all make them. Right, Tougas?” Moody looked to his left; Harry followed his gaze.

Tougas was looking as angry as he had the day before when he had yanked Harry out of his seat. Rather than alarming Harry as it had the day before, this expression was rather amusing. It could not have been plainer that this meeting had taken a turn for the worse as far as Tougas was concerned. Moody’s jab about blunders he had made caused his scowl to increase.

“Calm down. Tougas,” Moody said, a trace of amusement in his voice. “So, Potter. Now you’ve learned your lesson, I have a proposition for you.”

“Yes, sir?” Harry couldn’t help the uncertainty in his question. The rapidity with which this meeting had changed left him feeling a little woozy. He didn’t have the slightest idea what Moody was going to propose. Would it be good or bad?

“The task force has an opening I think you could fill.”

“What?” This time it was not Harry, but Tougas who spoke up. From the volume and surprise in his question, it was clear he had known nothing about this offer.

“You heard me right, Tougas,” Moody replied, warning once again evident in his words. “I think we could all use a fresh head on this case.”

“But, sir . . . “ Tougas glared at Harry. “After what happened yesterday, I would think —“

“ — that this is a wise decision? Thank you, Tougas. You can wait outside while I talk to Potter.” Moody spoke with such force and finality that Tougas was rendered speechless. He opened and closed his mouth several times but said nothing more. After a few seconds he stood up and walked out of the office.

Moody said nothing for a full minute, his magical eye fixed on the door. He was probably making sure that Tougas wasn’t standing there listening, Harry thought. He was feeling his own sense of triumph now. Finally, Tougas was called out for his own temper!

“So, Potter, what do you think about becoming the seventh member of the task force?” Moody asked, turning his magical eye away from the door.

“Er . . . “ Despite the reasons he had for not wanting to join, now he was actually faced with the offer, Harry couldn’t help considering it. Much as he did not want to get involved in the search for Sirius’s killer, he might help capture them. That would feel damn good.

“I’ve talked it over with the other members and they agree with me that we need fresh blood. With your instinct, you’d probably bring a lot in. Then maybe we can recapture those two vermin.”

“Er . . . I — I guess so,” Harry said slowly. He had no idea what he was getting himself into. He didn’t know the other Aurors on the task force, aside from Tougas and Dawlish. Harry was not looking forward to working with Tougas again, especially after this meeting.

“Good. We meet first thing in the morning. You know that already though, I’d wager. I had you to deal with this morning though, so we’ve moved the meeting to this afternoon. In the meantime you can get busy. We have years of documents you’re going to have to go through. It’s going to be a hell of a lot of work. You’d better get started.”

Moody got out of his seat, and Harry followed suit.

“Welcome to the team, Potter.” Moody clapped him on the shoulder. “Good luck, you’re going to need it.”

“Thanks . . . I think.” Harry followed Moody to the office door.

“The only case that’s had more paperwork is the one we were building on You-Know-Who. We’ve got three shelves devoted to this damned case, and a girl who does nothing but organize them for us. Need anything — ask her. Wright, come here,” Moody barked.

At first Harry had no idea who Moody was calling as he opened his office door, but a second later the short girl with mousy hair that Tougas was always talking to came hurrying over.

“Yes, sir?” she asked breathlessly, not looking directly at Moody. She was clearly intimidated by him.

“Potter has just joined the task force. I need you to bring him the files. He needs to be brought up to speed as soon as possible.”

“All right.” She had looked at Harry briefly when Moody had mentioned his name, but she was back to staring at her feet. Harry wished she wouldn’t do that. Not for the first time he felt there was something oddly familiar about her, something related to Hogwarts, something unpleasant that he couldn’t quite put his finger on. She looked like she could have gone to the school around the same time as he had. Maybe she had been one of those idiots who wore those Support Cedric Diggory badges.

“I’ve got work to do, and you’ve got reading to do. We’d best get to it,” Moody said. He turned and made his way back into his office, leaving Harry alone with this girl, who could not seem to look at him. It was making him feel very uncomfortable.

“Hi,” he said after a minute.

“Hi.” She looked up at him quickly and then down at her feet.

“I guess we’re going to be working together.” Harry was unsure of what to say. The longer she stared at her feet, the more awkward he was starting to feel.

“Yes.”

“Can you show me where to get started then? I haven’t got a clue.”

“Of course.” Boy was she talkative!

“Thanks. Miss. Wright, was it?”

“Oh . . . yes.” She looked at him again, but this time didn’t look away. “But please don’t call me that, Mr. Potter. M — my name’s Briony.” She managed a small smile.

“OK then, Briony. Then I’m Harry. I insist,” he added when she looked like she was going to protest.

“O — OK, Harry,” she said slowly, as though she were testing it out. It seemed like her test worked because she visibly relaxed just a little. “I’ll — I’ll go and get those files for you. You might want to make some room at your desk.”

Unlike some of his neighbours, Harry’s cubicle remained remarkably bare. Currently the only adornment was three pictures he’d put up over the first few weeks. One picture was from the most recent Christmas at the Burrow, the second a picture of himself, Ginny, Ron and Hermione taken the night the latter two announced their engagement. The third picture was of Ginny on the night she’d won her first Quidditch match with the Harpies. It was this picture Harry watched as he waited for Briony to appear. Ginny looked so happy then. No — she had been so happy then. Who wouldn’t have been after that spectacular win? She’d scored six of the Harpies thirteen goals. They’d slaughtered their competition that night.

It was a fabulous start to an extraordinary season. Ginny had a lot to be happy about when it came to Quidditch. But it seemed that as her game got better, she got moodier. It was an odd relationship. Most people would have been happier if their career was going so well. When Harry had tried to talk to her on numerous occasions about her behaviour, Ginny had been evasive. Eventually he just gave up. Given her strange behaviour over the last months though, he was coming to regret that decision more and more. The longer they let things fester, the bigger the problem. The last thing he needed now, especially with Dudley around, was yet another problem.

Harry had moved on to possible conversation starters when Briony finally made her appearance, laden with a tower of parchment. She dumped them all on Harry’s desk, causing some to fall on the floor.

“Oh no, no, no, no,” she said frantically, bending down to pick them up.

“Its OK. Here, let me help.”

“Thanks,” she said, taking the scrolls Harry handed her, her hand trembling. She tried to smile weakly but couldn’t seem able to manage it. As she blushed and looked down again Harry had a strange sense of déjà vu.

“Have we met before?” he asked. “I mean — I’ve seen you around here with Tougas, but . . . before that?”

Her hands trembled so much that the half-dozen scrolls she was still holding threatened to spill onto the floor again. Clutching them tightly, she nodded.

“The day you came to get your Apparition test.”

“What?” Harry asked. He strained his memory for the details of that day. That had been over four years ago. So many things had happened since then. He remembered they had come with Mr. Weasley. Scrimgeour, the idiot, had shot himself in the foot with that stupid dedication to Sirius ruse. He’d got his Apparition license . . . but couldn’t recall meeting her that day.

“I used to work for Arthur Weasley,” she said, a little louder than before, but blushing an even darker colour. “I was the one who asked you about Scrimegeour. You know . . . we all thought that you’d agreed to help the Ministry.”

Harry squinted, trying hard to recall more details of that day. After a few seconds he remembered that they’d stopped at Mr. Weasley’s office. It had been a wholly uncomfortable twenty minutes. The dozen or so employees had all stopped what they were doing to come and greet Arthur, Ron and Harry. There had been one witch in particular who . . . who had reminded Harry of Delores Umbridge.

Now that day had come back to mind, Harry grimaced. He looked down at Briony and was shocked that he hadn’t recognized her before. Moreover, he could now see why she had reminded him of Umbridge. Fortunately for the girl, she didn’t have any of the features that made the foul witch look like a toad. It was more in the colour of her hair (which had been much closer to Umbridge’s style four years earlier) and her stature. If one glanced at her fleetingly the resemblance was more striking than it was if looking at Briony properly. All the same, it was most unfortunate that she could remind anyone of that evil woman.

Briony gave Harry a faltering smile.

“I see you recall our last meeting. I must have made quite the impression on you.” She was still speaking in little more than a whisper, but at least she had stopped staring at her feet. Harry wasn’t sure he was impressed with this now.

“Yeah,” he said shortly. The weak smile Briony wore slipped from her face and she returned to looking at the ground. “Sorry, I, just . . . you remind me of someone.”

“Ah . . . I get that a lot.” Briony said. “I must carry the unfortunate burden of looking a little too much like my aunt.”

“What?” Harry asked, rather louder than he had intended. He was sure she must have mistook the individual he was speaking about. Despite the slight resemblance, there was no way that Briony could be related to such an evil hag.

“Delores Umbridge is my aunt,” Briony said, making her meaning plain. She smiled at the look of disgust Harry knew he must be wearing. “I know how you feel.”

“Y — your aunt?” Harry spluttered.

“I was not blessed at birth, I can tell you,” Briony said. She spoke with a little more confidence and force than she had yet done in Harry’s presence. “Please don’t hold my family relations against me. If I could change it I would.”

Harry said nothing for a minute. The shock of learning that this meek little thing was related to such an evil woman gave him a chilling feeling. Several times in his life he had been in the presence of people he thought were helping him, only to find out they were working for the Dark side. He thought he was much better at spotting it now than he was when he was a kid. But anyone associated with that old hag was worthy of caution.

“I can’t imagine how this news has affected you, H — Harry,” Briony began. “I know my aunt treated you in the most horrific ways when you were at Hogwarts. I was absolutely appalled and I told her as much.” Briony frowned, clearly remembering something. “Stupid old bat,” she burst out angrily. “Harry, that woman is evil to her frilly pink core!”

Harry burst out laughing, amused both by Briony’s words, and her. He was also pleased to note that talking about Umbridge had relieved some of the awkwardness in their interactions.

“I couldn’t agree with you more.”

Never would he have thought he’d even remotely enjoy anything associated with Umbridge, but Harry found Briony to be quite delightful. She was still painfully shy, the antithesis of her aunt, but quite knowledgeable about the case. It was apparently her job to keep track of the files on the Malfoy-Lestrange case, as well as take notes at the meeting, which meant she was quite well versed on the case. The end result of this was that Harry was much farther ahead than he would have thought he’d be when he joined his first task force meeting.

Feeling almost as nervous as the first day he joined the department, Harry took a seat beside Dawlish, who gave him a quick acknowledging nod before turning back to the piece of parchment he was reading. Harry was glad he did this as it gave him a chance to look around the room. Almost every bit of wall was covered with some scrap of paper. There were maps that showed the suspected locations of the two Death Eaters, news reports on their alleged crimes, family trees, and pictures of the two suspects and their victims.

A familiar face caught Harry’s attention and, feeling that familiar jolt, he stood up to get a closer look. Each of the known victims was plastered on a wall. Below a piece of parchment that looked like it contained the Black Family Tree was Sirius’s face.

It was a photo of Sirius that Harry had — the one taken at his parent’s wedding. Beside it was Sirius’s name and manner of death. Surprisingly Harry didn’t feel the strong reaction he had thought he would. Yes, he felt his blood start to heat up at the thought that his godfather’s killer was still on the loose, but with any luck she’d be captured very soon and a horrible injustice would finally be rectified.

“Let’s get started,” Moody said as he entered the room. Harry quickly regained his seat. “First things first. In case you hadn’t noticed, we have a new member joining us: Potter.” Moody waved one of his gnarled hands in Harry’s direction. “As you may or may not have heard, Potter here made a stupid but brilliant capture of Damien Yaxley.”

Everyone but Tougas and Moody clapped and cheered. A dark-haired, olive-skinned woman sitting diagonally across the table from Harry spoke up.

“Good job, Potter. Yaxley’s slimer than a slug. I know that Tougas here —“

“Enough, Schultz. We’re not here to discuss people’s resumes,” Moody said shortly. “We have more important information to get out. Dawlish, Brazill, you had a report?”

The two people to Harry’s right shuffled their papers and then Dawlish began to speak in his gritty voice.

“We’ve been able to confirm that both Greer and the Thompsons were Muggle-borns.” Harry was the only one who did not groan at this news. Moody muttered some colourul expletives under his breath.

“I suppose we shouldn’t have been surprised,” said the witch on Dawlish’s right. “I mean we are talking about two of You-Know-Who’s biggest supporters.”

Harry was trying to remember everything he’d read and that Briony had told him throughout the day. He couldn’t remember those two names, or any mention of Muggle-borns.

“I’m sorry, but who are Thompson and Greer, and what does their being Muggle-born have to do with anything?” Harry asked.

“You kept Briony tied up all day, and you don’t even know this?” Tougas asked fiercely. He was glaring at Harry with more contempt than ever. It was quite clear that he loathed being in the same room. “What exactly did you do all day, Potter?”

“Tougas,” Moody said in a warning tone.

“You can’t really expect him to have caught up on everything. He’s only been part of the team for six hours,” said the witch who had spoken before. “Not everyone can read a thousand words a minute, Tougas.”

“Right, Brazill, you fill Potter in then,” Moody replied.

“All right.” The witch leaned back in her chair, brushing a wisp of blonde hair from her face. “It’s like this, Potter. We’ve been getting reports off and on for months about strange things happening to Muggle-borns. You know, people calling in reports of intruders and stalkers. They’re paranoid because of all the Dark activity lately. At least that’s what we thought until three weeks ago. A witch by the name of Ashley Greer disappeared on her way home from work. When Magical Law Enforcement was called out to investigate they found some suspicious circumstances — evidence of Dark Magic, you know. That’s when we got involved. I think Savage and Proudfoot were on that case. Then we got a report last week that there was some strange happenings at Gringotts.” Brazill stopped here and frowned. “Ruddy goblins. Trying to get information out of them is as bad as trying to get it out of a centaur. As far as we were able to get from them, one of their curse breakers — a bloke named Eric Thompson and his wife didn’t show up for his mission in Romania. Same thing, when we showed up there was evidence of Dark Magic — the same signature too. To make a long story short, I happen to be friends with Williamson, who had started to investigate. We got to talking, and it seems like this might be the work of our lovelies up there.” She pointed at the large pictures of Lucius and Bellatrix.

“They’re targeting Muggle-borns?” Harry asked.

“I think this evidence speaks for itself. There aren’t really that many of them around. To have three disappear so close together, under the same circumstances . . . “ Brazill said.

“The Minister agrees,” Moody stated. “As a few of you already know he has asked that in addition to our other duties we keep watch on the Muggle-borns that are currently in Ministry employ. Whether you have been assigned to guard a particular individual or not, I need not say that we should all be practicing constant vigilance. If you know of any Muggle-born not currently in the Ministry’s employ — tell them straight away to at least go careful.”

Everyone, including Tougas, was looking somber as they nodded in agreement with Moody’s request. Harry’s thoughts immediately strayed to Hermione. If what Brazill said was true, she could be a target. In most situations Hermione was more than capable of handling herself, but Bellatrix Lestrange was sadistic and had no limits when it came to her cruelty. He really hoped that someone good had been assigned to guard Hermione. He shuddered to think that someone like Mannix O’Hara could be assigned the job. Mannix was a decent bloke . . . but he could barely remember which was the dangerous side of his wand some days. How he had ever become an Auror . . . If anything happened to Hermione because of her guard, Harry would have more than a few things to say. He decided to talk to Moody about it after the meeting.

“Any other developments I have not been made aware of?” Moody asked, breaking the silent vigil that had commenced after his request. Everyone shook their head. “We’re just about done here then. I have one last thing to request of you all. Miss. Wright has been doing an excellent job today but as Potter is new to this investigation, and to the department, I ask you help him out wherever possible.” He looked around at each of them, his gaze seemed to linger on Tougas a second longer than anyone else. “Remember, we’re all a team here. We all want the same thing — to catch those no-good scum that think it’s their right to torture and murder people. Keep up the good work. We’ll meet back here first thing Monday morning.”

Desperate times call for desperate measures, Harry thought to himself as the other members of the task force began to leave. If he had to pull out his trump card to make sure Hermione got the best protection he was going to do it. Being Harry Potter meant that he had a lot of influence. He’d never used it before, at least not intentionally, because he didn’t want it in the first place. But when it came to Hermione’s safety . . . well, that was more important.

Before he left that evening Harry stopped by Moody’s office.

“I thought you’d have been long gone, Potter,” Moody said when Harry entered. “Don’t you have a pretty red-head waiting for you at home?”

“Not tonight. Late Quidditch practice,” Harry said, waving away Moody’s comment. “I wanted to talk to you about Hermione actually.”

“Miss. Granger? What about her?”

“She’s a Muggle-born,” Harry said quickly. “And if Brazill and Dawlish are right about Malfoy and Lestrange . . . “

“I’m way ahead of you Potter,” Moody said. “Miss. Granger, so we’re told, is of vital importance in her department. We were advised not to stick some new trainee with her as soon as we announced that we were going to send out guards for Muggle-born employees.” Moody was frowning. It was common knowledge that he hated interference in the running of his department. “So Tonks is guarding her.”

“Oh.” Harry felt as if a great weight had been lifted from his shoulders. Tonks was an excellent Auror, and highly amusing. Hermione would be in very safe hands. “I guess that’s all then. Good night, sir.”

“Say hello to Miss. Weasley for me, Potter,” Moody called as Harry exited the office.

The events of that morning had been pushed to the back of Harry’s mind given everything else that had happened to him. When he returned home and saw Dudley sprawled on the sofa everything came flooding back. Now though, it was just a slight twinge of annoyance. Perhaps it was a good thing that he hadn’t talked to Dudley in the morning. At least now he’d be able to keep his head somewhat.

“Hi,” Dudley said, sitting up and looking tense.

“What’re you watching?” Harry asked, dropping his bag by the desk and then flopping down onto the other side of the couch. Perhaps he’d try to smooth things over.

“The news,” Dudley said, still watching Harry nervously.

“The news? Since when did you watch the news?”

“Since – wait, what do you care?” Dudley questioned suspiciously.

“I’ve just never seen you watch the news before, OK. I was just trying to be nice. I won’t do it again.” Feeling irked, Harry stood up and walked back over to his desk. As he sat down he felt it was appropriate to add, “make sure you clean up the kitchen next time, eh. Gin and I aren’t your servants.”

“Oh, yeah, sorry about that,” Dudley said casually, not really sounding sorry at all, before turning his attention back to the news.

Vintage Dudley, Harry thought as he laid a scroll out on his desk and started to read. He had stacks and stacks of files to go through and wanted to get through as much of it as he could before Ginny got back. He had tuned out the television by the end of the first scroll and therefore did not notice when Dudley shut it off.

Harry felt like he was back at Hogwarts with Hermione’s stupid homework planner as he consulted the list Briony had given him. She said it was best to get the most boring stuff out of the way first because he would be more alert, and able to retain it better. The more exciting documents would retain his attention of their own accord so they could be read later. She seemed like Hermione in miniature. Well, in terms of how smart she was. Hermione’s bossiness was completely lacking in Briony, something Harry could live quite well without.

After experiencing a roller coaster of fear, anger, excitement, uncertainty, disgust and a host of other emotions he could not recall, Harry was feeling a little drowsy. Though he did not question Briony’s order of readings he was finding the Malfoy lineage worse than legalese. Somewhere around the nineteenth century he fell asleep. Reading about Malfoy’s great-grandfather, who had campaigned successfully for a law that made mixed blood-status marriages illegal (a law repealed two years later) wasn’t even disgusting enough to hold his attention.

It was the sound of breaking glass that made Harry wake with a start. He jumped to his feet knocking his papers everywhere in the process. He had his wand at the ready, and was scanning the flat quickly for an intruder.

“You’re wound a little tight, aren’t you?” Dudley asked nervously, holding the bottom half of a broken glass in his hand.

“Reparo,” Harry said, pointing his wand at the glass; the shards in the sink flew back together and reformed in Dudley’s hand. He watched with his mouth agape. When the glass was whole again, Dudley held it up and inspected it.

“How’d you do that?” he asked, awe in his tone.

“Magic,” Harry said as he bent down to pick up his scattered papers.

“Here,” Dudley said after a minute. He set down the glass, came over and started picking up the papers too. This action caused Harry to stop what he was doing and look at his cousin.

“What are you doing?” he asked before he could stop himself.

“Helping you pick these up.” Dudley turned a paper over and glanced at it. “What is all this anyway?”

“Stuff for work. Information on a case I’m working on.”

“The Cruciatus Curse,” Dudley read slowly. “The Killing Curse?” He looked up in alarm. “You can actually kill someone using magic?”

“Course you can. That’s how your mum and dad died, isn’t it?”

“Yeah,” Dudley said quietly. He remained crouched on the floor for a minute, in silence, apparently recalling the death of his parents. The parchment he still held in his hand crunched a little as his grip tightened on it. “So what’s the Cruciatus Curse then?” he asked as he handed the parchment to Harry.

“Torture Curse.”

“You’re kidding?”

“’Fraid not.” Harry stood up and piled the parchment on his desk again. “Magic isn’t all fun and games you know. There’s some really horrible things that can be done with it.”

“I know.” Dudley had regained his full height too, but he wasn’t looking at Harry. He was staring at the pile of parchment, his eyes out of focus. After a minute he came back to himself. “I’ve got to go.”

As Dudley disappeared into his room Harry sat down at his desk once more and dug out the parchment he had been reading. Within seconds he was back in a stupor.

So many people thought they knew Harry. They thought that he lived some glamorous life. Vanquisher of the Dark Lord, Auror, dating the prettiest Quidditch player out there . . . but that wasn’t true at all. Well, OK the Auror and the prettiest Quidditch player were, but a glamorous life that did not make, Harry thought as he again pulled himself out of a doze and wiped a tiny drop of drool from his mouth. How many glamorous people sat at home working on a Friday night?

When Dudley made his second appearance of the night Harry decided to take a break from reading. He hadn’t taken in anything on the last half a scroll he’d read anyway. He watched Dudley putting on his watch, and checking his reflection in the mirror that hung by the door.

“I’m going out,” Dudley said. “Want to come?”

“No, thanks,” Harry replied. He knew Dudley was just asking to be nice, in itself an odd occurrence, because he seemed relieved when Harry refused.

“Suit yourself.” Dudley disappeared again. When he returned a second later he was shoving his wallet and keys into his pocket. He smiled cheekily as he said, “don’t wait up.”

Shaking his head, Harry turned back to his parchment.

. . . suspects are considered purebloods with anti-Muggle-born leanings

“Dudley, wait,” Harry called as he heard the door open. “Come back here for a minute.”

He was feeling a little stupid and guilty. They’d talked just this afternoon about protecting Muggle-borns. Harry had immediately thought of Hermione and his own cousin hadn’t even come to mind. Dudley was so obviously Muggle-born that he would be the first target if he had the unfortunate luck to come across Malfoy or Lestrange.

“There’s something I want to talk to you about before you leave,” Harry said. Dudley looked at him questioningly as he returned to the living room. “I think you should take your wand with you tonight.”

“Why?” Dudley asked, sounding honestly curious.

“Because there’s an awful lot of Dark Magic being performed out there. You haven’t got a chance of protecting yourself against it if you don’t have your wand.”

“I don’t think that’s going to matter much. I haven’t got much of a chance even with a wand. You know how bad I am at magic.” Dudley’s honesty must have shocked even him. He was shifting from one foot to the other, and spending an awful lot of time examining his fingernails.

“You’ve had some of the best tutors out there. Moody, McGonagall, Kingsley, Lupin. You never know what might come to mind if necessary.”

“OK,” Dudley said slowly.

“For the foreseeable future I would recommend having your wand on you at all times. As you’re obviously a Muggle-born you could be at greater risk.”

“At greater risk of what? And what’s a Muggle-born?” Dudley asked. He was now looking at Harry as though waiting for the punch line to a lame joke.

“You’re a Muggle-born. You — you do know what that is, don’t you?” Harry asked sure that Dudley was being thickheaded. He sighed when Dudley shook his head and launched into the explanation of blood status. Dudley watched him, looking confused.

“So . . . because mum and dad couldn’t perform magic, I might be in more danger?” Dudley asked fifteen minutes later, and for the fourth time.

“Yes,” Harry said exasperatedly. “Which is why it is imperative that you have your wand with you going forward.”

Dudley didn’t say another word. He disappeared into his room again. This time he didn’t return immediately. Harry waited for a minute and when his cousin did not reappear he settled himself down and began to read once more. If he was lucky he’d be able to finish reading everything and still have some of his weekend left to enjoy.

Several minutes later Dudley reappeared, looking a little disheveled.

“I was beginning to worry that I’d lost it,” he said, holding up his oak and dragon heartstring wand to show Harry. He tucked it into his pocket. “I wish Hermione hadn’t made my holster disappear. It’ll come in handy if I have to carry this thing around all the time.”

“She does tend to react rashly when she gets annoyed,” Harry stated. Hermione had vanished the holster when Dudley’s sword unsheathing act became unbearable to herself, Ron, Harry and Ginny.

“Well . . . I guess I’ll be off now,” Dudley said though he stood rooted to the spot. He was watching Harry with a weird expression on his face. It looked like he wanted to say something but had forgot how to work his mouth.

“Bye, Big D.,” Harry replied and turned back to his papers to avoid the awkwardness. It was only after he heard the door close that he looked up from his work. Seeing that Dudley had finally left he sighed and leaned back in his chair. This morning he was ready to kick Dudley out and now he was insisting that Dudley be careful out there? Was it actually possible that he, Harry, could care about what happened to Dudley Dursley?

Impossible!

Harry shook his head to clear it and returned to his work, the one thing that made sense.

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