CT: Chapter Sixteen: Rise Of The Muggle-Born

The weather was taunting them, Harry thought, looking up at the cloudless blue sky. It seemed very wrong for the day to be so perfect when they were taking part in something that had been so terrible.

Placing an arm around Ginny, Harry turned his attention back to the Muggle Minister, his eyes landing on the photo of Colin that stood on a temporary pedestal (to be replaced with a memorial). Harry, Ginny, Ron and Hermione were standing back in the small crowd and weren’t able to clearly hear the minister, but they could hear Mr. Creevey’s dry sobs.

“That poor man,” Hermione said, looking up at the front sympathetically. “Losing his wife, and now his son.”

Ron shot Harry a hopeful glance, which Harry shook his head to deny. This was definitely the wrong time to bring up the move to Grimmauld Place, even if Hermione might be more disposed to listen to them.

“Dennis told me he’s been holed up in his bedroom for days and won’t eat or drink,” Ginny informed them.

Harry couldn’t really say he was surprised. He’d overheard Tougas and Briony talking the day after they’d made the discovery of Colin’s camera. Briony had been reassuring Tougas that they had to tell Mr. Creevey the details of his son’s death. Knowing what Colin had suffered in the last days of his life would be enough to turn off most people’s appetites.

When the Minister finished talking everyone stood up. Harry saw, through the crowds, that Mr. Creevey stood only with heavy support from Dennis and his sister, Maria.

“Should we start making our way over?” Ron asked, looking around at the other mourners. “To offer our condolences, I mean.”

They’d arrived late and thus hadn’t been able to speak with the Creeveys before the service. They apparently weren’t the only ones either. A line had formed in front of Mr. Creevey.

“Isn’t that Tougas?” Ginny asked, pointing to the man standing directly behind Mr. Creevey.

“Yeah, it is,” Harry replied, shocked that he hadn’t seen him before. What was Tougas doing there, acting like he was part of the family? Why was he so nice to this man when he practiced various forms of sarcasm with everyone else? Harry spotted Briony standing about ten feet to Tougas’s right. She would have answers to these questions. He caught her attention and waived her over.

“What are you doing?” Ginny asked sharply when she noticed who was approaching. “Why’d you invite her over here?”

“Because I have some questions for her. Be nice,” he told her. Ginny gave him an annoyed look and turned to talk to Ron and Hermione.

“Hi,” Briony said uncertainly when she noticed that Ginny was ignoring her.

“Hey. Listen, I just wanted to ask you — what’s up with Tougas and Mr. Creevey? I’ve never seen him like that with anyone its almost like he has a heart.”

The corners of Briony’s mouth turned up ever so slightly. Before she said anything she watched Harry appraisingly for a moment. Harry wondered if she was going to say anything at all.

“Don’t tell Bredan I’m telling you this,” she said quietly, coming a little closer. “But he lost his parents and sister to You-Know-Who when he was just a child. He took it hard and I don’t think he’s fully accepted it. Mr. Creevey reminds him of what he went through.”

“What?” Harry asked, stunned.

He’d assumed that Tougas had been born grouchy, not that he had at least a partial reason for why he was the way he was.

“Yeah.” Briony looked over at Tougas, who was standing behind Mr. Creevey as though he was his bodyguard. “He was away the night they were killed, otherwise he would have been done in as well.”

Harry watched Tougas for a moment, digesting what Briony had said. This explained a lot. Harry had a new understanding of why he’d become an Auror, why he was as protective of Briony, and his attraction to Mr. Creevey.

“What are you thinking?” Briony asked in a voice laced with the tiniest hint of panic. “You’re not going to say anything, are you? Because —“

“I won’t say anything,” Harry told her. “I was just . . . this is surprising.”

“What is?” Ron asked, as he, Hermione and Ginny turned their attention to Harry and Briony.

“Nothing. We were just talking about Tougas. I was commenting on how odd it was to see his reaction to Mr. Creevey.”

“Yes,” Hermione replied. “You know, I haven’t had many dealings with him myself, but he sure does have a lot of similar reactions to you, Harry, as Snape did.”

“Except for the fact that Snape could be funny,” Ron stated. When they all looked at him in shock he continued, a little defensively. “He could. We usually didn’t like what he said but . . . “

It took some time for them to reach Mr. Creevey, his sister and his son. Harry felt a little uneasy about the meeting. He had been there the day they discovered the camera after all. Mr. Creevey didn’t seem to bear him any ill will for it. He thanked Harry for his condolences in an empty voice. When Ginny approached him, he hugged her.

“Thank you for being such a good friend to my son, I know he appreciated your relationship.”

“He was a great friend to me, too,” she replied. “I’m sorry he had to go through all this.”

Mr. Creevey blinked rapidly and said thank you again. Then his sister chivvied them along.

“D’you think it’s too early to leave?” Ron asked, pulling at his necktie. “Its hot as hell out here.”

Harry was more than ready to go, but he looked at Ginny. Colin had been her friend and therefore she got to decide when they were going to leave.

“Yeah, let’s go. I think all this heat has made me tired,” she said. She did look like she could use a nap.

Harry, Ginny, Ron and Hermione returned to the nearby copse where Moody had been stationed, waiting for them. They hadn’t thought it a good idea for him to come all the way to the ceremony with them, given how little he was able to blend in. Moody only relented when Harry said that Hermione would be mere feet away from him all the time.

“Nothing at all suspicious,” Moody said, sounding even more alert for that very fact.

“Good.” Harry had given up trying to predict what Malfoy and Lestrange’s next move would be. The probability of them showing up was about as equal as their absence. They’d maintained a total silence since bringing Colin’s camera to his flat. The tips on reported sightings seemed more far-fetched lately as well.

“Even so, we can’t risk it again,” Moody said, looking directly at Hermione. It had been she who insisted on coming to Colin’s memorial. “We’ve already been bending the rules of protection. If we keep doing it there will be hell to pay, you mark my words.”

“Really!” Hermione said angrily. Harry could see she was gearing up to say more. He interrupted her build-up.

“I’m sure she realizes that, Mad-Eye,” he said. “Which is why they are going to go home now.”

Ron took his meaning at once, but he had always been on the Ministry’s side when it came to Hermione’s safety. It was Ron who said, yes they would leave at once.

“Don’t you have a lot of work to do anyway?” he asked her.

“Yeah,” she replied in a reluctant voice before fixing Harry and Ginny with a significant look. “Yeah, I guess I do.”

For the first time a tiny look of satisfaction appeared on Moody’s face. He readied himself and Hermione to Disapparate.

“I guess we’ll see you at the Burrow tomorrow then,” Hermione replied just as they were about to leave.

“Yes.” This time it was Ginny who spoke this time. “Mum told me she wants us all there for four o’clock.”

“We’ll be there,” Hermione called at the last second before she, Ron and Moody twisted and disappeared. Once they were safely away Harry turned to Ginny.

“Are you ready to go?”

Ginny didn’t answer right away. She was staring at the precise spot where Hermione had been moments before. Harry was sure he saw the same thoughtful look on her face as he had seen on Hermione’s when she was trying to work out what was wrong with Ginny.

“What are you thinking about?”

“Huh?” she asked distractedly, looking at him, but obviously still thinking about something else. “Oh, nothing. Let’s go.”

They Disapparated and seconds later were once more exiting from the alley, unseen by any Muggles.

“Gin, what was all that about?” Harry asked the minute they were in the door of the flat. “Why are you and Hermione both looking like you have some great secret?”

“What?” From the tone of her voice he knew she had heard him perfectly but was avoiding answering his question. He repeated it.

“Oh. I think she suspects —“

“You’re back?”

Dudley’s appearance could not have been more ill timed. In the same way that he knew she had been lying to him about not knowing what he said, Harry knew she had something important that she wanted to tell him. It didn’t seem like something she would say in front of his cousin.

“Dudley, go away for a minute,” he said without looking at him.

“Wha — “ Dudley started to say.

“No, don’t bother. We’ll talk later.” With that Ginny walked toward the bedroom, careful to give Dudley a wide berth. She kept her head down during the few seconds it took to close the distance between where she had been standing with Harry and the bedroom.

Dudley did the exact opposite.

Though he tried to pretend that he wasn’t watching her, Dudley had never been great at subtlety. He even turned his head ever so slightly to watch Ginny pass.

“What d’you think you’re doing?”

Dudley snapped his head back, wearing an expression like a child caught with his hand in the cookie jar.

“Wasn’t doing anything,” he mumbled.

“I saw you,” Harry started, torn between his anger at Dudley’s relapse and amusement at the blatant lie that he had just told.

The anger won out when Harry gave it a second’s thought. It had been over a month since Ginny had told him about Dudley’s behaviour in the loo. He’d made it a top priority to speak with his cousin at the first opportunity. With all the crazy hours he’d been working lately it had taken a hundred times longer than he thought it would have done.

“What the hell is up with you and Ginny lately?”

“Whaddaya mean?” Dudley made his own inquiry. He shuffled his feet, completely destroying the innocence his words were meant to portray.

“Don’t play this game with me. Ginny told me about what you did, and I have eyes.”

“What I did?” Dudley feigned confusion. He scratched his head as though trying to recall what Harry was talking about.

“Don’t act like you’ve forgotten. You’re rubbish at it.” Harry took a few steps, closing the distance. He was trying to maintain his temper. Dudley had been so different from his old self lately that Harry wanted to give him the benefit of the doubt, but it was hard when he thought back to what his actions had made Ginny recall.

“I’m not. I honestly don’t — I thought that she and I were getting on fine,” Dudley looked over at the closed bedroom door. “I didn’t realize she had a — oh . . . the bath . . . “

“Yeah, that,” Harry replied sarcastically. “Why? What else have you not been doing?”

“Nothing. I swear! That whole thing . . . I swear that was just an accident. She kind of flew off the handle. Understandable, but . . . “

“You’re right it’s understandable. Haven’t you ever heard of knocking?”

“Yeah.”

“Maybe you should try it some time then.” Harry was watching Dudley closely. He was still digesting what had been said. It didn’t take a genius to know there was something that Dudley wasn’t owning up to. Only now did Harry realize he should have acted on this sooner. Ginny wasn’t known for overreacting. Certain behaviours she’d exhibited over the last month now made sense. Dudley had been behaving like this for the last month.

“I — I will.”

“And you’ll stop whatever else you’re doing that’s making her uncomfortable. If I hear of anything else . . . “ Harry let that hang for a minute. Dudley didn’t nod right away. Harry was sure he was considering what could happen to him if he didn’t comply. Finally he did give a quick nod.

After that Dudley seemed most anxious to get out of the flat. Harry let him go, but vowed to keep a closer eye on Dudley than he’d been doing at present. His cousin’s behaviour tonight, and those little shudders or angry expressions Ginny had been not quite successfully hiding told him he hadn’t been paying enough attention to what was going on at home. All of that was going to change.

With everything else that was going on at the moment the last thing Ginny needed was to put up with Dudley. She was more than a match for him Harry wasn’t worried about that (even Dudley’s new and improved magic-wielding couldn’t hold a candle to a fully trained witch) but she shouldn’t have to be on guard all the time. No, it was time to have another talk with Kreacher about getting Dudley into Grimmauld Place.

Despite wanting to talk to Ginny and worrying that she might be asleep if he waited to long, Harry stayed in the sitting room until Dudley left for the evening. He was just getting up to go and check on her when the door opened and Ginny came out.

“Good, you’re awake,” he said. “I was just coming to talk to you.”

“About what?” she asked a little too casually, skirting around Harry and stepping into the kitchen.

“You were in the middle of telling me something that seemed important when Dudley came out.”

“Oh that,” she said, beginning to pull vegetables out of the refrigerator. “It was nothing really. I was just overreacting, is all.”

Harry could tell she wanted to avoid the subject because she was concentrating on emptying several shelves of food onto the counter.

“Why don’t you tell me and then we can decide if you were overreacting together?”

Ginny shrugged off this question too and pulled out half a squash.

“What are you going to do with that?”

Another shrug as Ginny immediately turned to pull out a bowl of grapes that had been in the back of the refrigerator since around the time Harry had moved into the flat.

“Gin?”

“What?” she demanded angrily, slamming the grapes on the counter. They spilled all over the floor. This made her even angrier. She bent down and started to throw the grapes back in the bowl.

“Here,” Harry said, using his wand to clean up the remaining grapes on the floor. Rather than thanking him, Ginny stood up again and slammed the bowl for a second time, causing a few more grapes to escape. Harry couldn’t help chuckling.

“I don’t need you following behind me to clean up, you know,” Ginny snapped. “Especially when you do such a lousy job of it.”

“What’s that supposed to mean?”

Ginny’s answer was to roll her eyes in exasperation. She went back to cleaning up the repeatedly spilled fruit.

“You’re talking about Dudley?” he asked after a minute.

“Now why ever would I be mad about that?” she asked sarcastically, turning for the first time to face Harry directly. “It wouldn’t have anything to do with the fact that you accepted his whiny story without question now would it?”

“I didn’t —“

“A story,” she interrupted, talking over Harry, “that was so obviously a lie even Luna Lovegood wouldn’t believe it.”

“Gin, I don’t believe him, so I’m going to get him moved into Grimmauld Place.”

She rolled her eyes again and once more returned to making a pile of produce on the counter.

“What are you doing?” he asked, determined to get at least one answer from her this evening.

“Looking for something to make for dinner,” she said shortly, pulling out a blackened item that had been a banana in a former life.

“Stop.” Harry grabbed the banana from her and threw it in the rubbish bin. “You don’t have to cook again. Why don’t we just go out?”

Ginny looked vaguely intrigued for a moment but then her face fell and she returned to what she was doing.

“No. I’d better get used to cooking. I’m going to be doing it for the rest of my life seeing as how I can’t play Quidditch.”

“Why? Did you hear something from Jordana?” Harry asked suddenly feeling alarmed.

“No, no, nothing like that,” she said, fixing him with one of those meaningful expressions like she’d been doing quite often lately.

“Did you finally go see a healer then? What is it?”

“No. I’ve told you I don’t need to see a healer. Its — about Hermione’s suspicions. I think she knows . . . “ Ginny looked down for a second. Harry leaned in closer as though he was about to hear a huge confession, which it felt like he was. “She’s pretty perceptive. She knew things weren’t going well a while back, before the . . . shower . . . and I think she knows that he’s started again. Dudley, I mean.”

“Tell me.” Harry thought he already knew based on what she’d been alluding to before, but he wanted to hear her actually say it.

“Nothing really, just certain things . . . like tonight for instance.” She was starting to look really uncomfortable now and looked up at Harry. “I can usually handle him, you know that, but lately . . . “

“Lately what?” Harry asked slowly, trying to keep his voice calm, but just from her reaction he was already making plans on how best to track down Dudley.

Ginny shrugged again. She was looking more and more doubtful as this conversation went on. Though he had no basis for it, Harry wondered if some of her doubts stemmed from the fact that she had been the one who had pressed to have Dudley stay here. Even though it was the case it didn’t mean that she had to put up with Dudley’s relapse.

“One way or another he’s gone,” he replied. “I should have done it straightaway like I was going to. I’m sorry.”

“Yeah, I guess you should have,” she stated. “Just . . . if he tries anything else . . . I promise there will be bodily harm.”

Harry winched involuntarily. This was not an idle threat from Ginny, especially when it was in relation to Dudley.

“Got it,” he said, chancing a smile. He reached out to touch her cheek; Ginny returned his smile weakly and removed his hand before turning back to what had formerly been a clean counter.

“Exactly how many people are you expecting for dinner, Gin?”

“Two. I just don’t know what I want.” She looked slightly frustrated at this statement. She stared at all the food, including the quarter full bowl of decomposing grapes, looking completely lost.

“This isn’t just about food or Dudley, is it?” Harry asked, realizing how obvious the question was once he asked it. When Ginny said nothing he pulled her away from all the food and had them both sit down at the table. “Gin, what’s going on? You’ve not been yourself since the Quidditch match.”

“I’ve told you I’m fine. I just —“ she stopped abruptly and stared at him thoughtfully again.

“See,” Harry stated after a minute. “You’ve been doing that a lot lately. What d’you want to tell me?”

Ginny seemed taken aback at how direct he was, but she almost seemed relieved.

“Well, there is something. I’ve been trying to find a way to tell you for a while now.” She bit her bottom lip, looking more nervous than Harry had seen her in a long time. He also thought she looked guilty. What could she possibly feel guilty about? He remained silent and waited for her to work up the courage to say what she wanted to say. Eventually she took a deep breath. “Harry, I’m —“

She stopped and peered over his shoulder in the direction of the fireplace. Harry turned to see what she was looking at.

Brazill’s head was floating in the flames. Knowing that her sudden appearance could mean nothing good, Harry swore under his breath and looked hopelessly at Ginny, who was doing the same. Why did people have such impeccable timing?

“I’m very sorry to interrupt,” Brazill said as Harry walked over to the fireplace. She glanced from Harry to Ginny with a question in her eyes. “I know this was supposed to be your day off, but we might have found something. Can you make it in?”

“Er . . . “ He turned back to look at Ginny. These things always happened at the worst times and Ginny was frequently the one who got the short end of the stick. She nodded ever so slightly. Knowing he had a lot to make up for Harry said, “Yeah. I’ll be there in fifteen minutes.”

“I’m so sorry about this, Miss. Weasley,” Brazill stated.

“Sure,” Ginny replied, shrugging and smiling understandingly. Harry watched her for a minute after Brazill disappeared, looking for any trace of disappointment. She showed none.

“Ever feel like we’re not allowed to talk?”

“Yes.” She paused. “D’you think maybe they’ve found out something about Colin?”

“Possibly,” he replied, not sure if she was asking purely out of concern for her friend, or to steer clear of the confession she had been about to make. “D’you still want to tell me what you were about to before we were interrupted.”

“I do, but now’s not the time. We’ll talk later, I promise. You’ve got to go deal with this. Maybe you’ll find out those photos are fake or something.”

It was not the first time Ginny had voiced this opinion. Harry knew that she wanted to believe this because it was hard for her to accept Colin’s death. It was a fair point though. A slight possibility had existed that the pictures were fakes. Excellent fakes, but fakes nonetheless. He’d gone to work the day after the photos were found and brought this theory up. Schultz said they’d done all those tests overnight and unfortunately the photos were real. Harry told Ginny that, but she said she was going to keep hope that they had been duped.

“I’ll see you later.” With a quick kiss on the cheek (because Ginny turned her head at the last minute) Harry grabbed a pinch of Floo powder and stepped into the fireplace.

Unlike usual, Harry was one of the first to arrive. When he stepped into the briefing room only Brazill and Briony were there.

“Thanks for getting here so quickly,” Brazill said, looking up. She had dark circles under her eyes and was looking sad. “Sorry to have interrupted your evening. Looked like you were having an important coversation.”

“Forget it. What’s going on?” he asked.

“I’ll let Briony tell you since she was the one who got the report.”

Harry turned, waiting for Briony to start talking exuberantly as was usually the case when she obtained information like this. She, however, said nothing, instead continuing to watch her parchment.

“Briony?” Brazill asked with a hint of impatience in her tone.

“Huh — oh, yes, the report.” Smiling sheepishly, Briony shuffled her papers. “I was here finishing the categorizing of the Creevey file when a large owl came shooting in with yet another sighting, or so I thought. It was a rather insistent owl and wouldn’t leave until I opened the letter.” She spoke in a monotone, as though she’d already said the same thing a dozen times. She shuffled frantically through her papers, looking for one that she couldn’t seem to find.

Briony was an obsessively organized person. This behaviour was most unlike her.

“It was right here,” she said to herself, shuffling through more papers.

“Don’t worry about it. We can discuss the observation when everyone else gets here,” Brazill replied.

This didn’t appease Briony. Having ravaged her papers thoroughly, Briony made a hasty announcement that she’d be back and all but ran from the room.

“What’s up with her?” Harry asked, grabbing the papers and starting to sort through them.

“She claims overwork,” Brazill said, “but we’ve heard that one before, haven’t we?”

“Yeah.” Was this the catchall phrase that women used to avoid the truth? He looked down at the papers and saw an unfurled piece of parchment that had not come from his department. He read it quickly, taking in the information that there had been some strange things happening somewhere in Leeds. The reported sightings were consistent with how Colin would have died.

“I think its legitimate,” Brazill said before Harry could ask. “We’re just waiting for everyone else and then we’re going to go — what’s that?”

In the papers Briony had left was another report from the Department of Mysteries. Harry had been trying to slip it in among the other papers. He didn’t feel much like answering questions about it.

“Extracurricular project, I think,” he said as Brazill reached out for the report. He’d kept to his word not to say anything to anyone about what Briony was doing, but he wasn’t going to lie about it.

“What is Briony Wright doing with a report like this?” Brazill asked, sounding angry. How much of her anger was directed at the report versus Briony wasn’t immediately apparent. She scanned further down the report, her lips thinning and her grip so tight the parchment was crinkling under her fingers.

“Listen to this,” she said. “ . . . Research indicates that the substance can be useful in the darkest magic. Our findings confirmed that the substances have no greater effect in necromancy rituals than other experiments attempted to date . . . Can you believe this? One of our own damned departments is researching dark magic.’

Harry snapped his head up. This wasn’t the first time someone had brought up resurrecting the dead recently. Had Ron actually been right about what Bellatrix and Lucius were up to? He started to tell Brazill but Briony returned with Schultz and Kitson. He started again but decided to wait until everyone was there.

Once the last person, Tougas, had arrived and been updated on why they had been called in so suddenly, Brazill turned the floor over to Harry.

“I don’t know if I’m right or not, but this report —“ he held it up, noticing Briony turn even paler than she already was, “ — talks about the use of the fear substance in necromancy. It says their attempts yielded negative results, but Bellatrix Lestrange is unbalanced enough to try and resurrect Voldemort, isn’t she?”

Murmurs went around the table. Everyone looked like they at least thought this a plausible idea. The only one who wasn’t reacting to Harry’s speech was the one he was sure would reject it out of hand. Tougas’s whole attention was focused on Briony and he was frowning. She was completely ignoring him. The only thing that held Briony’s attention was the report.

“We can rest assured that her plan won’t come to fruition,” Schultz said. “There’s no spell that can —“

“That doesn’t mean she won’t keep trying though,” Brazill said. “Which makes her more dangerous. It means that we have to capture them or no Muggle-born will ever be safe.”

“Why Muggle-borns?” Dawlish asked. It was a question that had been asked infinite times. “It can’t be a matter of simple prejudice. There has to be another reason why they’re targeted. Does that report say anything else, Potter?”

“Er . . . “ Harry looked to Brazill.

“They did say that fear isn’t a substance that’s readily available in the human body. It has to be produced based on a fearful stimulus. It would be a fairly safe assumption that Muggle-borns have more to fear from a Death Eater than everyone else,” Brazill replied.

“Those smarmy bastards never mentioned anything to me about this research when I was down there,” Schultz said.

“They are Unspeakables.” This came from Briony. This was one of the few times she had ever spoke up in a meeting and certainly the first time she’d ever been anything but timid. Harry suspected it was one of the first times she’d ever used this tone outside of her family, judging by Tougas’s reaction.

“What’s up with you?” he asked Briony.

“A good question, but more importantly, how do you think this new information relates to your theory about Potter’s involvement?” Dawlish asked.

Tougas tore his eyes away from Briony and moved from Dawlish to Harry and back. He had none of his usual angry reaction, which made Harry suspect that he hadn’t been listening.

“I’ll have to get back to you on that,” he said after a few seconds. Dawlish wasn’t going to let it go that easily.

“But do you still think he’s connected to the case though?” he asked.

“Yes.”

“Any theories pop into your head? I don’t think the fear one applies to Potter.”

One of Tougas’s usual sneers made its appearance but he still said nothing.

“Get back to us as soon as you can. In the meantime let’s go have a look at this building from that letter.”

Harry had a strange sense of déjà vu. The area they appeared in looked very like the one he and Tougas had spent three weeks at back in January. Did Death Eaters have an affinity for waterfront locales?

As stealthily as they could the seven Aurors approached the building. It was unspoken but they all hoped that not only would they find Colin or Justin, but also maybe some luck would come their way and they would find Malfoy and Lestrange.

Once they were near enough to have a good chance of foiling any escape plans that might be hatched by their suspects they opened the door. The minute it opened they were met with an unneeded rush of heat and a strong fetid smell that caused them all to stumble back, coughing and covering their mouths.

“That’s not a false lead,” Brazill said, turning away and trying to breathe so she didn’t get sick. Harry was doing the same thing. He was immensely thankful that Ginny hadn’t cooked dinner before he left.

None of them were anxious to enter a building that smelled so foul at the entrance. Harry had a sudden thought though. He used his wand to cast the Bubble-head charm. Seeing what he had done the others quickly followed suit.

“Good thinking, Potter,” Brazill said, looking a little less green.

They reluctantly entered a warehouse piled high with boxes of all shapes and sizes. The seven of them split into two groups, Harry with Tougas and Brazill. They stayed together, but each peered around different sides of the large boxes forming labyrinthine passages. After about ten minutes they knew they were getting close to their query, not because they were being inundated by the foul stench, but because of the increase in flies.

Harry rounded a corner of boxes and saw a wide clearing bathed in a sickly green light. He knew at once what he would find but looked up anyway. He wasn’t shocked when an emerald green serpent hovered in midair.

“Here,” he called to Tougas and Brazill, slowly advancing on the clearing, directing his wand at the large shadow below the Dark Mark. It looked very much like it could be bodies piled on a funeral pyre.

“Damn it,” Tougas said, pushing past Harry and getting to the clearing first, with Harry and Brazill approaching cautiously, looking for evidence.

“Looks like the case of the Missing Muggle-borns has been solved,” Tougas said. “Creevey and Finch-Fletchley are here for sure. And if I’m not much mistaken we have the Thompsons and Greer as well.”

Harry and Brazill moved closer. The topmost body was unmistakably Colin. He had on the same shirt as the last time they’d seen him in life, the same tattered Harpies jersey that he’d also had on in the photos. There was also a tuft of straw-coloured hair, but beyond that the body was unrecognizable. His skin was bloated in certain areas and sunken and leathery in others.

Harry looked away quickly, swallowing hard. He absent-mindedly reached up to brush away what he thought was a bead of sweat that had landed in his eye and was causing it to sting but realized he couldn’t because of the charm.

Harry had to force himself to look back at the bodies. Three of the four were only skeletons. The last one piled just below Colin’s body was only partially skeletonized. The teeth were fully exposed, but that was about all Harry was able to determine before he had to look away again.

“How d’you know its them for sure?” he asked, wanting to rub his stinging eye but not daring to remove the charm for even a second.

Tougas turned to look at him.

“We don’t know for sure, but it would be a hell of a coincidence for Creevey to be found with anyone else, don’t you think? Or do you suspect that there are scores of missing Muggle-borns?”

“Of course not.”

“Your scars bleeding again, Potter,” Brazill advised.

“Is it?” Harry reached up for a second time before he again remembered that he could not touch his scar. Tougas, who had just leaned over the bodies to get a closer look, straightened up and scrutinized Harry.

“Get out. Go deal with that bleeding.” He pointed in the direction they had just come from.

“I’m fine. I can deal with this,” Harry said firmly. He didn’t want to be here, but he’d dealt with far worse in his life than a little bit of blood. He wasn’t going to let that drive him away.

“It wasn’t a request.”

Harry debated arguing but knew it wouldn’t do any good, not with Tougas. He turned and left, thinking of several nasty things he would love to say to his supervisor.

At the entrance he met up with Schultz.

“The place is clean. There’s no one else here. What’d you —“ She stopped talking when she zeroed in on Harry’s scar.

“We found what appears to be all five of the missing Muggle-borns,” Harry told her to avoid answering questions about his scar. “I’d say they need help.”

Harry stepped outside, not allowing Schultz to say anything else. Once he was a safe distance from the building he removed the Bubble-head charm. He breathed the night air but he could still smell death and decay. It seemed to have seeped into his very pores. Wrinkling his nose he rubbed his scar to confirm that it was bleeding again. When he looked at his fingers they were smeared with blood. His scar seemed to be bleeding worse than it had the previous two times he’d been around when the Dark Mark was cast.

From his previous experiences, Harry knew the only thing that caused his scar to stop bleeding was time so he leaned against a pile of wood and waited for it to cease, or everyone to come out. He tried to think of something other than the image that had been seared into his mind of those five corpses but his thoughts were not cooperating.

His scar had almost stopped bleeding when the others came out. Half an hour after Tougas kicked Harry out the six Aurors made their way out levitating the pyre and bodies, intact, between them.

“We’re going to examine this back at the office under better conditions,” Dawlish explained. “I don’t know what’s happened to the Muggles who use this facility, but we can’t risk them returning.”

The hour was late but in their line o work it didn’t matter. Dawlish called in one of the Ministry’s experts on experimental charms. They didn’t have much more than theories at this point. If there was anything that they could detect in the way of evidence for those theories they were going to take it. This use of fear was new and thus they had no information as to how it was detected, whether in a living person or a dead one.

The woman, a willowy, middle-aged witch was not impressed with the state of the bodies.

“In these advanced states of decomposition there won’t be anything to find. Very rarely does magic store itself in the bones. With the other two . . . “ she grimaced. “Too much has already been lost. The odds of finding anything that would be of use to you is so small that it’s hardly worth the time.”

“I’ll decide what’s worth the time. I’d like you to get straight to work please. How long do you expect this will take?”

“An hour for preliminary work. I’ll let you know after that,” she said shortly; keen to get them out of her way.

“We’ll be back then.”

Dawlish led the team to the briefing room.

“Something’s been bothering me,” Brazill said before they were all seated. “Malfoy and Lestrange have been so careful for so long, yet now we’re getting more and more information about their whereabouts and their activities.”

“They want us to know,” Tougas stated. Everyone looked at him like he was crazy. “They’re getting cocky because we haven’t caught them. They want to rub it in our faces . . . Or they’re doing this to distract us from their real purpose.”

“Hermione,” Harry said at once, sitting up in his chair.

Not everyone had such a visceral reaction but Dawlish had spent several months protecting Hermione. He didn’t question Harry but was on his feet in a heartbeat. Harry was next to jump up and was shortly followed by everyone else.

As they sped down the corridor to the safe Apparition area the witch who had been examining the five bodies reappeared.

“Ah, good,” she said in an annoyed voice. “Your bodies contain no physical indications as to the cause of death, none non-magical either which —“

“Yes, thank you. We’ll talk another time,” Dawlish replied as he raced past. The woman gave an exasperated sigh and stepped out of the corridor.

They dispensed with avoiding Moody’s precautionary spells and Apparated just outside Ron and Hermione’s. All the lights were on, in the house but outside all was quiet. There did not seem to be Death Eaters lurking which meant they had got lucky, but that luck would likely not last.

Harry took only enough time to send up his patronus before he gave the house and garden a good inspection.

“What do you mean by it?” Moody yelled, barging out of his tent as quickly as he could.

“Malfoy and Lestrange,” Harry said before anyone else. He quickly told Moody what they suspected. Before he finished, Moody was packing his tent. By the time Harry stopped talking he had it all packed away in a rucksack.

“We’re moving her tonight, forcefully if we have to,” he stated. “C’mon, Potter. The rest of you — maintain a patrol.”

Moody rapped on the door.

“Good thinking, coming here straightaway. Impeccable instincts.”

“Thanks,” Harry couldn’t say more. Such blatant praise from Moody was a rare thing indeed.

“You do what’s necessary to protect people. That’s what makes a great Auror. Keep the personal feelings out of it.”

“Yeah.” Harry didn’t want to tell Moody that almost every decision he’d made since joining the task force had been motivated by personal feelings. He studied the door, willing it to swing open

“Don’t you ever visit during normal hours?” Ron asked when he opened the door a moment later. The joke died on his lips when he saw the serious expressions on their faces. He looked past them and caught a glimpse of the six other Aurors. “They’re coming?”

“Yes,” Harry said, deciding to save the details for when they were safe.

Ron nodded and turned, leading Harry and Moody into the sitting room where Harry was startled to see Hermione sitting with Ginny. They were both pouring over wedding plans.

“Who was at the — Harry?” Hermione asked, looking up. Ginny turned to face him. She must have read something in his expression because she was on her feet in an instant, dragging Hermione with her. The neatly organized wedding plans fell to the floor.

“Ginny what are you doing?” Hermione demanded, trying to wrench her grip free, but Ginny held tight.

“We’ll talk later, but we’ve got to get you out of here. Come on.”

Ron added his assistance by grabbing Hermione’s other hand. Harry followed behind while Moody took up the front guard.

Everything was still quiet when they stepped outside.

“Good, they’re not here. Let’s get you to Grimmauld Place,” Harry said. “Here.”

He handed Hermione the Invisibility Cloak. She started to protest but seeing that she was outnumbered ten to one she sighed and threw it on.

“This thing stinks,” she said. “Where were you?”

“Later.” Harry ran around, telling the other Aurors where they were going. He stopped at Ginny last. “I know you probably want to come too but Gin I really need you to —“

She put a finger on his lips to silence him.

“I’ll go home. I’ll see you later.” She gave him a peck on the cheek, wrinkling her nose. “You stink, too.”

“Yeah.” Harry was distracted by the way she was looking at him. She didn’t just look worried she looked genuinely scared. This strong a reaction was unusual for Ginny, regardless of the situation. Harry was momentarily delayed by it.

“Be careful,” she said at last, leaning up and giving him one more kiss before she disappeared into the house. At first Harry thought she forgot something but it was still quiet enough for him to hear the whoosh of the Floo network. It was odd for Ginny to go use the fireplace when she could have just Apparated. Harry assumed that she must have wanted to get home quickly. He put that out of his mind and turned to the task at hand.

“OK. We’re going to Grimmauld Place. You’re coming with me, Hermione, and Ron’s going to go with Moody. The others are leaving just ahead of us to make sure there’s protection. D’you have your wand with you?”

“Yes,” Hermione said, from his right.

“Keep it at the ready. Hopefully you won’t need it. Grab my arm.” Harry put his own hand over Hermione’s to make sure she didn’t let go. “One . . . Two . . . Three . . . “

They got away without incident and were greeted with the usual foul smell when they appeared on the stoop of number twelve, Grimmauld Place. After the other odors he’d experienced that evening this stench was nothing.

Harry looked around, counting heads. Eight. He saw Moody at the head of a V formation, telling Ron to get to the house. The others were holding their wands in front of them, scanning the area for any signs of movement.

“See,” Hermione said angrily, beginning to shrug the cloak off. Harry stopped her. She growled. “You dragged me all the way here and there’s nothing. Harry I think you’re getting as bad as Mood —“

A blinding green flash lit the whole square.

“Get down,” Harry yelled. He grabbed what he thought was Hermione’s sleeve but turned out to be only the cloak. It fell off and exposed her head. Cursing, Harry grabbed her arm and yanked her down beside him. “I want you to get in the house and stay there. Don’t come out under any circumstances.”

“OK,” she said weakly. “Where’s Ron? We’ll go in together.”

“He was with Moody,” Harry said, moving out of his crouching position so he could get a better idea of his surroundings. His colleagues were searching for the source of the spell but they kept glancing back to one spot. Harry looked there as well.

There were two shapes lying on the ground, perfectly still. One was clearly Moody, who was identified because his cloak was drawn up, exposing his wooden leg. The second was even more easily distinguishable because of his flaming red hair.

Harry felt like he’d been hit in the chest with a Bludger. Without knowing what he was doing, he regained his full height and stepped off the stoop. A total silence settled over him. As though he was looking through a tunnel the only thing he could see was Ron’s motionless form on the ground.

“Harry?” Hermione called, sounding much farther away than she was.

“Go inside, Hermione,” he said, not turning to look at her. He took a few more steps.

A jet of red light came out of nowhere. It was only at the last second that Harry saw it and ducked.

Sound came rushing back with a vengeance. He fired his own stunner in the direction where the one aimed at him had come from and quickly reassessed the situation.

The V-shape that the task force had formed to protect Hermione had disappeared. Everyone had scattered to find cover. Spells were volleying back and forth in rapid succession but it was hard to tell how many people were on either side. In the middle of the chaos lay the two bodies: Ron and Moody. Harry saw a Death Eater emerging from the darkness and head toward the two bodies.

“Ron, no,” Hermione cried loud enough for a brief five second pause in spell casting. Brazill and Schultz emerged from the shadows of the house and set themselves up in front of her. After glancing briefly back, Harry started to creep towards the two bodies, staying away from the light as much as he could. He wanted to overtake the approaching Death Eater.

As he raised his wand to cast a stunning spell two-dozen dark shapes emerged from across the square and quickly blocked the approaching Death Eater from Harry. This was matched by the Aurors who ran out, spells flying and hid Harry from view.

Both Harry and the Death Eater’s approaches were impeded as sets of duelers crossed their paths, preventing either of them from jinxing each other. The Death Eater had the cleaner path though and was making up distance far quicker than Harry was. He was mere feet from Ron and Moody.

Forgetting any stealth Harry stopped ducking and once more. He ran full out, dodging around Tougas, who was busy trying to stun three Death Eaters, around Dawlish who was conjuring ropes to wrap around an already stunned Death Eater while ducking a barrage of spells aimed at him, and past Brazill who was narrowly avoiding stunners of her own.

Harry made it to Ron and Moody at the same time as the Death Eater. He raised his wand to stun at the same time that his counterpart pointed his wand at Ron.

“Ava —“

“Stupefy,” Harry yelled. His spell missed but a second jet of red light caught the Death eater around the knees and he toppled over backwards.

Ron jumped to his feet.

“Take that, you bastard,” he said.

Before Harry had a chance to absorb that Ron was not only alive, but also perfectly fine and great at playing dead, a second jet of green light flew from the other side of the fence that led out of the square. It sailed over all the duelers and hit a tree nearby which burst into flames.

“Go to Hermione and get her into the house. Hurry,” Harry told Ron, looking in the direction the most recent killing curse had come from. For the briefest second he thought he saw a flash of blonde hair — Lucius Malfoy?

“Got it.” Ron bent down and grabbed Moody’s arm. There wasn’t time to be careful; he dragged him as quickly as he could through and around the duelers.

“Potter, watch out,” Dawlish called.

Harry jumped out of the way as two jets of red light flew at him. The two spells ricocheted off each other. One spell hit a Death Eater and the other hit Brazill who fell to the ground, hard.

A shrill cackle sounded in the darkness and a second later it’s owner showed herself — Bellatrix Lestrange.

“Stupefy,” Harry yelled.

She parried the spell and shot her own stunner at Tougas. He blocked it In the nick of time.

Harry once more ran through the group of duelers, stunning and disarming as he went. Nearing the house again he saw Hermione still struggling with the door. Ron had just arrived and was rushing to help her. Harry could see Tougas’s current position lined up perfectly with Hermione. If Bellatrix could get him out of the way she would have perfect access to Hermione.

“Get back to the house,” Harry yelled to the others. “Protect the stoop.”

They closed ranks, trying to form a half circle around Ron and Hermione but they were outnumbered two to one. They could little afford the time it took to drag their colleagues out of harm’s way. The Death Eaters were taking full advantage of their weakness.

Malfoy and Lestrange weren’t hiding in the shadows anymore. They were in the fray, dueling whoever came across their path. Harry was fighting to keep the Death Eaters as far back as possible. As soon as Ron and Hermione were in the house, it was over. They could all Disapparate knowing that Hermione would be safe.

“I can’t get it open,” Hermione called frantically.

“It’s stuck,” Ron shouted, too.

Sparing glances between spell casting, Harry saw that the others were as desperate as he was to get Ron and Hermione into the house. He racked his brains for something that would help and finally came up with a plan.

“Kreacher,” he called.

The house-elf appeared in the midst of the battle.

“Master call —“

“Get Ron and Hermione into the house,” Harry shouted, ducking what looked like a gouging hex. “Now, Kreacher.”

The elf dithered for a moment too long.

In the fraction of time that Kreacher used to give Harry his usual scathing look Bellatrix cast a spell that froze him in place.

“Take the elf,” she yelled at the nearest Death Eater, who snatched Kreacher up before Harry could grab him, and Disapparated. Bellatrix smiled triumphantly and entered the battle with renewed vigor. She was not interested in playing anymore; she wanted Hermione.

The Death Eaters had advanced so much that the remaining Aurors were battling right against the stoop. Out of the corner of his eye Harry saw that Ron was still trying to force the door open while Hermione provided what cover she could. It didn’t matter now. With Kreacher in Malfoy and Lestrange’s custody they couldn’t safely stay at the house.

“Forget it,” Harry yelled to Ron. Then he tried to battle over to Dawlish who was still standing but it was hard to tell for how long. “We’ve got to go.”

Hyde screamed in pain, clutching her side and fell to the ground. Kitson moved in to resume her battle with the Death Eater that had injured her but his own battle wasn’t over. Within seconds he was down too, not only leaving four Aurors to battle fifteen Death Eaters, but also causing a gap leading right to Hermione.

“Get her,” Bellatrix shrieked, running at full speed.

Before the words left her lips half a dozen spells flew at Hermione.

“Protego,” Harry yelled. Hermione had already sent off her own spell though, catching one Death Eater unaware and he fell. Another took his place at once.

“Get her,” Bellatrix cried again, drawing out her words. She was mere feet away. Harry could almost see the victory in her eyes. He ran to step in her path but Tougas beat him to it and immediately started forcing Bellatrix away from the house.

“Harry, look out.”

He hadn’t been paying attention to where he was as he ran at Bellatrix. Now he found himself standing before a group of three Death Eaters.

“Stupefy,” he muttered under his breath, and thankfully caught one with his spell. The other two both raised their wands and prepared to cast spells.

“Stupefy,” two voices called from behind Harry and the other two Death Eaters crumpled.

There wasn’t time to thank Ron or Hermione because the last dozen black-robed figures were approaching headed by Malfoy, who was heading straight for Hermione like Bellatrix had done, but from the other direction. She, Harry and Schultz tried to stun Malfoy but he had a dedicated guard to protect him.

“Take out the Death Eaters,” Harry called and started shooting spells at the three figures following Malfoy. They were good at evading spells though and had gained ten feet before Schultz succeeded in stunning one of them.

With less than twenty feet separating them from Harry, Dawlish, Schultz, Ron and Hermione, Lucius and Bellatrix united. The Death Eaters scattered to provide cover.

“Give up the Mudblood,” Bellatrix called, casting a spell that sent Tougas reeling back into Dawlish, almost knocking both of them over. “We will have her, whether we have to kill you all or not.”

“Don’t call her that,” Ron shouted angrily and shot a spell at Bellatrix that she deflected easily.

The third flash of bright green light flew as both Bellatrix and Lucius fired the killing curse at Ron. It missed by a narrow margin.

In the split second it took for Ron to duck, dragging down Hermione, she managed to get off a stunner, which connected with Lucius and he fell over.

“Nice one, Granger,” Schultz called, using the distraction to stun five waiting Death Eaters.

Bellatrix laughed. She attempted once more to make headway, but with no results.

“The Mudblood may be safe now, but she should fear the future.” She cackled maniacally and turned to Harry. “Our triumphs can be our defeats if we’re not careful, Potter.”

Quicker than should have been possible, she grabbed Lucius and Disapparated.

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