CT: Chapter Ten: The Missing Muggle-Born

The information that the task force received regarding the supposed attack on Buckingham Palace was false, that had become clear the minute they discovered the Dark Mark in the Ministry. This had given the task force the jurisdiction to take on the investigation of its appearance on the memorial. On Saturday Harry had been fool enough to think that finally he might be allowed to do more than listen to what the others were doing. When Moody contacted him the following morning and told him they had everything under control and didn’t need him it had been very near impossible to keep his temper. Why did they still have him doing nothing? He intended to speak with Moody about it Monday morning. If he wasn’t going to be afforded the opportunity to do anything there was hardly a reason for him to remain part of the task force.

“Ah, Potter, just the person I’ve been looking for,” Moody called the minute Harry stepped off the lifts. He’d just been to visit Hermione and see how she was handling Justin’s disappearance. “Brazill tells me she wants to run a few things by you on the Finch-Fletchley disappearance. She’s been looking all over for you.”

“I was just down on that floor. Could she not have approached me down there?” Harry asked irritably.

“Not when she’s in the briefing room waiting for you.”

“Oh.” Immediately feeling sheepish about his outburst Harry started to offer apologies but Moody was already stumping away, grumbling about how he was never going to do a favor for Kingsley again.

Brazill held up a tiny phial the minute he stepped in the door.

“You ever seen anything like this?” she asked. Harry came closer and saw the phial contained about a quarter inch of a sickly yellow substance. Taking the phial from Brazill, Harry examined it.

“No,” he said truthfully, though he felt there was something odd about this substance. Harry tilted it back and forth. Whatever it was, the yellowish liquid was very thick and gloopy, and moved slowly. Harry felt the strangest sense of déjà vu. Where had he seen this in his past?

Then it hit him. Once before he’d seen a memory that was very reluctant to part company with its phial: Slughorn’s modified Horcrux memory. The sickly yellow hue proved this wasn’t a memory, but unless he was completely off base, this substance was gathered most unwillingly.

“Where’d you get this?”

“Schultz and I found it near Justin Finch-Fletchley’s desk last night.” Brazill was quiet for a minute. “We’re guessing its his. I’ve never seen anyone secrete anything like this from any orifice even with all the ghastly diseases that witches and wizards contract. No, we think this was extracted from him by force. If so, we can completely rule out his leaving voluntarily.”

“Any guesses at all as to what it is?” The look Brazill gave him made Harry sure she knew what he had just been thinking.

“Seems like some sort of memory, doesn’t it? We wanted to check with everyone on the task force before we went outside the department for confirmation. You’ve seen some pretty strange things in your time, Potter. I admit that you were my best hope. Since you don’t know we’re probably going to have to go outside the department for confirmation.” She took the phial back and put it in her pocket. When it was safely tucked away she looked at Harry again and did the familiar flick up to his scar. “How’re you doing?”

“Fine. Just hoping to do something today rather than read reports,” he replied quickly, not willing to let the conversation get any nearer his scar or its amazing bleeding trick.

“We’ve all been there,” Brazill said sympathetically. “It’s always so much harder on a big case like this to sit back and do nothing while the others get all the apparent glory. I’ll see what I can do, shall I?”

Harry thanked her but didn’t get his hopes up. Tougas would love to see him stuck in a cubicle all the time, and Moody had been the one who ordered him not to come in yesterday. With such reactions from his supervisor and the head of the department Harry knew Brazill’s chances of getting him out of report hell were minimal at best.

The other members of the team strolled in slowly over the next few minutes, the only absent member being Dawlish. A new edict had been passed down over the weekend. All Muggle-borns were to be guarded at all times, even at the Ministry. Though it was a little late to save Justin, Harry was glad the policy had been changed. Due to the change though, Dawlish would not be attending many meetings. Just when they needed all hands on deck they were down a member. The irony was not lost on Harry.

One thing to be said for the events of Friday evening was that there was plenty to go over in the meeting. Brazill passed around the phial but, as she had predicted, no one had any better idea of what they were looking at with, perhaps, the exception of Briony. When the phial was handed to her so she could pass it over to Tougas she stared down at it for several seconds. Harry was almost positive he saw comprehension in her expression.

“Briony?” Tougas was holding out his hand and watching her with concern, not the impatience he would have had for anyone else. She handed it to him with a sheepish smile. She caught Harry’s eye before returning to her copious note taking. The look she gave him showed no recognition at all. How could she really know anything more than anyone else? His suspicion must have come from Ginny, Harry realized.

“The Ministry wasn’t empty. Someone had to notice something,” Moody stated, passing the phial to Schultz. “Keep on with your interviews Brazil, while Schultz gets this phial analyzed.”

“Yes, sir,” Brazill paused, winked at Harry and then added one last thing before Moody could move on to Tougas who was partnering with Tressa Hyde, trying to find out who had cast the Dark Mark and any connection it had to Justin’s disappearance. “I’d like to have Potter along with me if that’s all right, Mad-Eye.”

This request raised some eyebrows, but Togas was the most vociferous about it.

“We haven’t ruled out his involvement — excuse me — connection to this case and you want to have him with you as you question potential witnesses? Doesn’t that seem unorthodox, and potentially damaging to our case?”

“I had nothing to do with the Dark Mark’s appearance, or Justin’s disappearance,” Harry stated vehemently.

“Don’t worry, Potter. Tougas is the only person who thinks you do,” Moody stated, fixing his real eye on Tougas. “You don’t have any pressing work, do you Potter?”

“No, sir.”

“Very well. Brazill you can have him. You should take notes though, Potter. Brazill is one of our best interrogators. You could learn a thing or two from her.”

“Thank you. I will.” It had been such a long shot that even though he knew she was going to try, the fact Brazill had succeeded in getting him out of another torturous day of paperwork made Harry want to kiss her.

They all had work to do so there was no tarrying in the briefing room, as had become standard of late. Brazill, indeed, was in such a hurry that Harry had a hard time keeping up with her. In his haste to remain by her side he did not have an opportunity to speak with Briony about her reaction to that phial. There would be time later . . . hopefully.

“We’re going to be questioning the members of Finch-Fletchley’s department. I think it best you only observe when I talk with Hermione Granger.”

“Of course.”

As they rode down to the sixth floor, Brazill quizzed Harry on the sort of questions they should ask.

“Do you think that knowing what they were doing Friday night is really going to help when they were all gone?” she challenged.

“They supposedly left. We already know that Justin was here when he was supposed to be gone. Then there was the group that was leaving when the Dark Mark was discovered. Who’s to say one of them wasn’t involved?”

Brazill was nodding, with a small smile on her face. “I like the way you think, Potter.”

As they walked onto the sixth floor Harry was immediately struck by the wall of silence that met them. He hadn’t noticed it earlier, but coming from his floor where it was more hectic than he’d ever seen it the change was quite perceptible. It was like they were already at Justin’s wake, that they already assumed he was dead. As Harry and Brazill walked through the halls people would glance at them and then quickly look away.

“We’ll start with your friend, Hermione, shall we?” Brazill asked. Harry had no objections to this suggestion and so he returned with Brazill to an office he’d left not so long ago.

“Harry?” Hermione asked, looking up from her work as he and Brazill stepped into her office. “I didn’t expect to see you here again.”

“He’s just here as an observer, Miss Granger. Do you mind if I ask you some questions about your colleague, Justin Finch-Fletchley?”

Hermione, who had been watching Brazill as she spoke, turned to look at Harry, her eyes wide with apprehension.

“Of — of course,” she stammered. “Anything I can do to help find him . . . “

An uncomfortable silence met Hermione’s words. He wasn’t sure what the others were thinking, but Harry felt that only a miracle would allow them to find Justin alive. From the slight frown she wore, Brazill seemed to think the same thing but she put on a brave face.

“Thank you, Miss Granger. Do you recall when you last saw Mr. Finch-Fletchley?” Suddenly Brazill was all business. She had pulled a quill and parchment from the inside pocket of her robes and set it to float in the air as it waited for Hermione to start talking.

“It was just before I left for the day,” Hermione said, sitting up in her chair and trying to look confident. “I remember it specifically because Dawlish an I were just leaving when we saw Justin sneaking back in. I asked him what he was doing and he looked at me like I was a traitor for leaving. He darted into his office and wouldn’t come out. Both Dawlish and I pleaded with him until Rossi appeared and said he would take over. We assumed he’d be more successful.”

“How did he look to you? Worried? Scared? Otherwise Upset? Ill?”

“He looked annoyed, to be honest,” Hermione admitted. “We have a lot to do in this latest campaign against —“ she looked down at her desk for a second, wearing a frown. She had grown to loathe Dolores Umbridge even more since working to undo all the wrongs that had been perpetrated at that woman’s hand. This was certainly not the time to get into that discussion. Hermione glossed over the distraction and continued. “We’ve been working really hard. Justin wasn’t impressed with Kingsley’s order to leave for the night. If I’d have known what was going to happen I would have . . . “

“I’m sure you did your best to get him to leave,” Brazill said sympathetically. She waited until Hermione looked up and then asked another question. “Have you noticed any changes in Justin’s behaviour? Was it common for him to be so annoyed?”

“He’s been stressed lately, but so have we all. I don’t know if I’d say he was acting unduly aggravated though.”

Harry looked from Hermione to Brazill, not really shocked at what he was hearing. Hermione had volunteered the information when he had first come to see her that morning. Admittedly he couldn’t recall Justin’s scholarly pursuits at Hogwarts, so Harry couldn’t attest to whether he was always obsessed with his work, but Hermione said he was, and she would know best.

“Has he been ill recently?” Brazill questioned, frowning at her parchment. “Been away from the Ministry? Spent any time at St. Mungo’s? Had any ill relatives that you know of?”

“I — I don’t know. What could this possibly have to do with Justin’s disappearance? He was certainly in good enough health when I left him here Friday evening. I thought that you had already concluded that Justin didn’t leave on his own.” She turned to fix an accusing glare on Harry, who was following Moody’s orders and merely observing. He, of course, knew Brazill was trying to find an explanation for that mysterious substance they believed belonged to Justin. Rather than chance revealing something he shouldn’t, Harry gave her an encouraging nod.

“Well, you’re not likely to find any explanation for his disappearance other than kidnap. He was bound and determined to remain here for the entire weekend to finish his report. If he left, it was not by choice.” Hermione was trying to keep her voice even, but it was shaking just a little, whether out of temper or emotion was anyone’s guess.

“We’re just making sure that we don’t miss anything. One last question for you, Miss. Granger, if you wouldn’t mind?” Without waiting for Hermione to answer, Brazill asked, “What was the nature of the report that Mr. Finch-Fletchley was working on?”

“We’re working to repeal the laws put in place by Dolores Umbridge that prevent werewolves from gaining fruitful employment. Its hardly a law worth kidnapping or killing over.”

Harry wasn’t sure he agreed with Hermione. There were plenty of witches and wizards who would be more than happy to leave the law exactly as it was. There was an unfortunate number of people in the magical world, whether Death Eater or not, who would be more than willing to kill to protect their purity of wizarding blood, and to keep werewolves in their place. Lucius Malfoy and Bellatrix Lestrange were two of the likeliest candidates.

“He didn’t mention anything about people sending in complaints about his work, or threats to his person, or otherwise?”

When Hermione shook her head Brazill rolled up her parchment, thanked her for the time and started to leave. Hermione asked Harry to stay for a minute. He didn’t move, unsure of whether Brazill would wait. She subtly tapped her watch, telling him to make it quick, and then left the office.

“You don’t really think that he could have left on his own, do you?” Hermione asked the minute the door swung shut. “I swear to you that it would have taken God himself to get Justin to leave.”

She seemed quite desperate for Harry to believe her. If he had any doubts about what Hermione knew before she spoke they had certainly been nullified. The pleading expression that she was wearing made him want to tell her everything they knew. There was still that mysterious person leaking information though. Harry didn’t really think it telling Hermione would be a danger, but the more people who knew about their investigation, the less confidential their investigation became. Instead of telling her everything, he said:

“Brazill’s just being thorough, Hermione. We’re exploring every possibility. We’ll — have more answers as soon as we can.” He’ wanted to say we’ll find him, but he wasn’t sure they would. If they were right and the Dark Mark and Justin’s disappearance were the work of Malfoy and Lestrange he doubted they would ever find Justin. It certainly wouldn’t be the first time the Death Eaters had been responsible for the disappearance of a person.

“Please do your best,” Hermione said, coming around her desk and hugging Harry. “I don’t think anyone here will be able to rest until we know what’s happened to him.”

Hermione’s words were repeated over and over again as Harry and Brazill questioned Justin’s coworkers. For all the good it did them they might as well have stopped after talking to Hermione. Everyone agreed that Justin Finch-Fletchley was a man obsessed. Perhaps he had a bad experience with Umbridge and was using this campaign to take his vengeance. The fact he was a Muggle-born could not have endeared Justin to her when she was teaching at Hogwarts. Other than this random theory, they could find no connection, questionable or not, to the hard work Justin was putting in and his disappearance.

They returned to their own floor several hours later, feeling beleaguered and despondent over their lack of success. Schultz met them in the briefing room, bouncing on the balls of her feet.

“You’ve found something?” Brazill asked, throwing her quill and parchment on the table, all signs of weariness gone. Schultz pulled her own sheaf of parchment out and set it down on the table next to the phial of yellow liquid.

“According to my source this is fear,” she said.

“Fear?” both Harry and Brazill asked.

“Yes. Apparently the Department of Mysteries has been having a right old time researching the manipulation of emotions. This —“ Schultz held up the phial “ — is what fear looks like outside the body.”

“I didn’t know that humans secreted a substance when they’re frightened. Why’ve we never seen it before?” Brazill questioned.

“We don’t secrete it. This was forcibly removed. The girl I talked with from the D.O.M. emphasized that withdrawal of this substance in their tests lead to irreparable mental and psychological damage. This, she said —“ again Schultz shook the phial “ — very likely came from our missing Muggle-born. If it did, she said he’d be best off dead.”

“Damned monsters,” Brazill growled, shuffling her parchment. “Why the bloody hell would anyone want to extract fear from someone else? If they want to control them they’ve got the Unforgivable Curses.”

“They need it for a potion is my guess,” Harry said when both women looked at him for his input. It seemed like an ingredient in some dark potions.

“What sort of potion would require a measure of fear?” Schultz asked.

“A dark one,” Brazill replied. “Did that D.O.M. contact have any theories as to possible usage?”

Schultz shook her head. “She would only say that they’ve very recently started studying emotions. They’ve not yet determined any possible uses.”

“I don’t know if we’d even want to know. Perhaps it was better we didn’t know what they got up to,” Brazill said. “This research is a little too like dark magic for me.”

Harry agreed wholeheartedly. He hadn’t given a great deal of thought to the research Briony had been doing. If he had, he knew he would have been more concerned about the implications of such experiments. With the effects of extracting fear that he had heard Schultz talk about, Harry knew that this was precisely the type of information they didn’t want Death Eaters to have.

The task force had split up after their meeting that morning. Before anyone left for the day they got together again to discuss any new developments. When Schultz revealed what she had learned the room seemed to freeze. Everyone remained deadly silent; the only movement was the shifting of heads as they turned to examine the shocked and incredulous looks on their neighbor’s faces. The only person not displaying emotion was Briony. She was sitting still as a statue, her skin about the same colour as granite.

“What about you?” Moody asked eventually, his scar-covered face had hardened into an angry expression as he turned to face Tougas. “Any news on who cast that Dark Mark?”

Not surprisingly Tougas and Hyde were as successful in collecting useful information as Harry and Brazill had been.

“We see one of two possibilities,” Tougas said. “The mark was cast by Malfoy and Lestrange, who also abducted Finch-Fletchley and cast it to send us a message. If that’s the case we need to tighten security even more. Finch-Fletchley’s abduction was merely one of opportunity. Alternatively, this could have been an inside job.”

The exact reverse reaction occurred as when Schultz made her announcement. The room erupted in protest. Like the others, Harry didn’t want to think about either possibility. Death Eaters had been in the Ministry before, but there were supposed to be better security measures in place now. Even more troubling though was the idea that someone within the Ministry had cast the mark. It would make it that much harder to catch them. It would also lead the investigation of the task force in a whole other direction, one that was thoroughly unpleasant to contemplate.

“There were people in and out of the atrium all night. There wouldn’t have been an opportunity to cast it,” Brazill said angrily.

“Yet it was cast. Explain that, “ Tougas retorted. He looked around the table, as if waiting for challenges to his theory. Eventually he turned to look at Harry, his expression accusatory. “Of course there was one person who was gone from our sight long enough to cast the mark. How hard would it have been for someone with an invisibility cloak to avoid detection?”

A thousand thoughts ran through Harry’s mind as Tougas was speaking. No one would believe that he had cast the Dark Mark. Tougas was just trying to goad him.

“You know that I went home. You Flooed me there, remember? I didn’t even set foot in the atrium until you told me to come back.” He was grinning at the ludicrousness of Tougas’s theory.

“Disapparation can’t be tracked. There is no way for us to tell if you went straight home or not.”

“Tougas get over it,” Brazill snapped. “What type of dragon dung have you been smelling that would allow you to consider the idea that Harry Potter would cast the Dark Mark? What would his motive possibly be?”

“I don’t know. Why don’t you ask him?”

Brazill huffed, threw down her quill, sat back in her chair and, in a thickly sarcastic tone, turned to Harry. “All right, Potter, explain to us why you, the person who rid the world of You-Know-Who, would cast the Dark Mark on a memorial honoring his victims.”

“I didn’t. You know I wouldn’t do that,” he said, feeling a trifle amused at Brazill’s annoyance, but annoyed as well at Tougas’s insistence he was involved. They were using time that could be better spent on actual leads. “I went home and then came straight back when Tougas Flooed me. Besides that, I shouldn’t have to spend time explaining why I wouldn’t cast the Dark Mark.”

“You shouldn’t,” Brazill agreed. “We’re wasting time talking about this, Tougas. We should —“

“Who else had the opportunity?” Tougas interrupted.

“I did.”

Her voice was so low that more than one person looked around before landing on Briony. She, however, was looking at Tougas. “I was out filing those reports for ten minutes before Goodwin came running up here. I had more than enough time to get down to the atrium and cast it. Are you going to question me now?”

Tougas’s mouth opened slightly. He was shocked but trying to hide it. Everyone waited to see what he was going to say.

“Well, do you suspect me?” Briony asked again, sounding cross.

“I . . . no, I don’t,” Tougas admitted quietly and in a sulky voice, looking down at his parchment.

“We have a resolution, then?” Moody asked, not betraying any emotion. He dismissed them all, telling them to go home and get some rest, they were likely going to need it over the coming weeks. As he got up to leave Harry thought he heard Moody tell Tougas to see him first thing in the morning. With the clamoring of the others as they began to file out of the room he couldn’t be sure though. Tougas hurried past him and disappeared after Briony — probably to berate her for what she said. Harry shook his head at Tougas’s behaviour.

“You seem in an awful hurry,” Brazill said, following Harry back to his cubicle. As he pulled his jacket off the back of his chair and put it on she asked, “big plans with Ginny this evening?”

“No,” Harry said abruptly. He had no intentions of telling anyone what he was up to. This would involve revealing things that he would rather not become general knowledge. Brazill smiled weakly, looking tired, but she didn’t press Harry for details.

“Enjoy whatever it is you’re doing. Don’t give Tougas any more reason to suspect you.” She turned and started to go, saying only, “Good work today, Potter.”

Harry waited for her to disappear before he rapidly made his way to the Apparition area and twisted into compression and darkness.

When he was next able to draw breath, Harry was standing in a dark alley that smelled strongly of urine. Trying hard not to breathe too deeply, Harry made his way to the street cursing the fact he was in Muggle London and couldn’t light his wand.

Exiting the alley, Harry stood on the very street that he had Dudley had come down together not so long ago. He walked past people who were lined up, waiting for admittance. He searched for Dudley among the line, but wasn’t surprised at his absence. He’d got the impression that Dudley was not a patron who waited in line at this club. He had set his hopes higher when it came to finding Keelie or Brenna. He wasn’t particularly anxious to speak with either of them again, but they seemed to spend a lot of time with Dudley. Harry wanted to confirm his suspicions that Dudley hadn’t actually been with the two girls this weekend. It was as good a starting point as any.

Neither girl was in the line either, meaning that Harry was going to have to go in, something that he was even less enthusiastic about, not only because he might have to use magic to do it. He berated himself for forgetting his invisibility cloak at home.

“Can I help you?” A burly doorman asked, eyeing Harry as though suspecting him of some wrongdoing. Harry decided to try with a straightforward request first.

“Yes. I was hoping to get in and speak with —“

The guard let out a noise the likes of which Harry had never heard before. He growled but the expression he wore was that of amusement as though he had heard a good joke.

“D’you see that line there?” The guard pointed to all the people Harry had just walked past. “They were here first. You can go in after they do.” He held his arm out, pointing to the end of the line.

Harry applied what he hoped was a convincing look of acceptance to his face and turned slightly away. Out of the corner of his eye he saw the guard watching, but the other was busy with a couple of very insistent girls and hadn’t heard any of the exchange.

“Confundo,” Harry whispered under his breath, stealthily pointing his wand at the guard. His spell hit right on target and he saw the guard blink and look around in confusion. He seized the moment, walking confidently past the large man, and patted him on the arm, saying, “thanks. You’ve no idea how much I appreciate this.”

“You’re welcome,” the guard said, sounding confused. Harry didn’t want to press his luck so he walked into the building as quickly as he could without actually running.

Everything was dark when Harry entered and it took a moment for him to adjust. He didn’t’ want to spend more time here than necessary, so at once set off to find Dudley, or Keelie and Brenna.

The club was packed with more people than Harry remembered from the last time. As he squeezed through the crowds he couldn’t help but marvel at how many people were here on a weeknight. These were likely people like Dudley who didn’t have jobs or other commitments. After several minutes and more than one apology for knocking into someone, it was Keelie who called out to Harry.

“What are you doing here?” she asked an excited gleam in her eyes. “We thought that you wouldn’t be back after the way you flew out last time.”

“Yeah, well . . . “ Harry looked over her, straining for a sight of Dudley’s blonde head. If he were to believe his cousin, Dudley would not be far away from anywhere Keelie and Brenna were.

Someone knocked into Harry as they passed and didn’t even stop to apologize. In fact, not only did he not acknowledge his clumsiness, the man turned back. “Watch where you’re going, mate.”

“I’m more surprised than you are,” Harry admitted, watching the man stumble up to the bar. “I’m just here to find Dudley. I have something I need to talk to him about. D’you know where he is?”

“He told us he was with you.” Keelie’s expression changed from a smile to a scowl. “We asked him to come meet us here tonight but he said you both had plans and he couldn’t make it.”

It was hardly surprising that Dudley had lied. What did shock Harry was that he had been used as the excuse. This very news was so unexpected that it took Harry just a little too long to recover himself.

“Is that what this is about? For weeks he’s been pulling this disappearing act on us and now you show up? Have you two set this whole scheme up to mess with our minds? Is it? IS IT?”

Harry tried to protest but Keelie had got into her stride and wasn’t about to let a little trifle like an explanation stop her.

“Oh, Brenna is going to love this, she is. We give up our time to spend with the two of you and —“

“Whatever Dudley is doing I have no part in it. Where exactly did he say we were going to be tonight?” Harry cut across her when Keelie seemed like she was going to continue indefinitely.

“He didn’t. He just told us he’d be with you. How many other times has he lied? I bet he wasn’t with you this weekend, was he?”

Over his shock at having his suspicions so quickly confirmed, Harry felt a sense of triumph that what he had said to Ginny was right. Keelie’s scowl increased even more.

“If you see that two-faced prat, you tell him not to show his face around here again unless he wants it severely altered.” With that threat she stormed off.

Harry let out a small chuckle as he turned to leave, but his good humor was short-lived. Having now confirmed his suspicions he had other problems. He still had to find out where Dudley was going, and why had he lied? His cousin as far as Harry knew, had never lied to him. No, Dudley had always gone to the other extreme: painful and cruel truths and taunts. The fact he was lying about something that Harry could care less about added to the troubling aspects of Dudley’s behaviour. What was it he was actually doing? He decided to return home as quickly as he could. Maybe Dudley hadn’t left for the night and Harry could follow him and end this mystery altogether.

* * *

Jordana and Gwenog seemed to think that having two days away from training meant they had to pack three days worth of drills into that Monday’s training. After three hours of talking tactics and then another eight hours of hard practice, Ginny literally dragged herself home. She was so exhausted that she couldn’t bear to think about Apparating and climbing all those stairs to Harry’s flat so she used the Floo network. She stumbled as she stepped out of the fireplace, dragged herself over to the sofa and flopped onto it, not even bothering to brush the soot off her clothes.

If she actually fell asleep or just dozed, Ginny wasn’t sure, but before she had regained any energy, there was movement from the area of the bedrooms.

“Hello?” she called, not bothering to look up, her voice muffled a little by the cushions. There were a few heavy footsteps and then Dudley started talking.

“What happened to you?” he asked, coming even closer. Ginny sat up, brushing a strand of hair from her face. “Why are you covered in soot?”

“Floo powder,” she replied, backing away when he appeared to reach out and touch her. At the last minute though he grabbed a sweater that had been flung over the back of the couch.

“You look wiped,” he said. “Long day?”

“You might say that,” she replied, rubbing her eyes. “It feels like three days to be honest.”

Dudley stood there for a minute as if uncertain how to talk. He bounced the sweater up and down in his hand for a while, chewing his bottom lip. In the intervening time Ginny stood, pulled out her wand and cleaned the soot that had followed her from the hearth.

“You work too hard,” he said finally, sounding genuinely concerned.

Ginny shrugged.

“You can’t improve without a lot of hard work,” she said.

Dudley imitated her by also shrugging. “I suppose you’re right. But . . . well, there’s only so much you can do before it starts to drag your performance down.”

What did Dudley Dursley know about hard work? Ginny wasn’t sure how to respond. She wanted to make some snide comment about how Dudley wouldn’t know what hard work was if it was tattooed on his face. She refrained for two reasons: he looked like he was trying to be sincere, and she was always telling Harry he needed to give his cousin a chance. She needed to practice what she preached.

“Thanks for your concern, Dudley, but I’m fine. Things are only this crazy half the year. The rest of the time I can be a lazy lay-about.”

“I can’t believe that Harry lets you do this to yourself. If you were my girlfriend — “

“Lets me?” Ginny asked, standing at full height, alert. “He doesn’t let me do anything. I am the one who wanted to play Quidditch. And I’m not your girlfriend. Don’t start with those what-ifs. I don’t want to hear it.”

Ginny was happy to note that Dudley appeared ashamed at his comment. Perhaps he had changed, she thought. The Dudley she’d known back before Voldemort’s downfall wouldn’t have let up, let alone shown regret.

“I just meant that he hasn’t been around much, that’s all.”

“He’s got an important job,” Ginny replied, feeling more annoyed than she had with his previous comments. “They’re trying to capture some really dangerous dark wizards. Its not something you can do on a nine to five schedule, or in a day.”

“How’s that going though? I don’t think that they’re making any progress despite the long hours. Doesn’t that bother you?” Dudley asked. He was smiling in a way that disconcerted Ginny. She opened her mouth to throw an angry retort at his smugness, but when she looked again he was wearing a grim expression, leaving her doubting what she saw.

* * *

It was later than he had hoped it would be when Harry finally returned home. Unluckily Dudley had already left for the evening and Ginny was fast asleep. She must have had a rigorous training practice, that always tired her out, he thought as he warmed up some dinner. With all the training they were doing and their success this season, the Harpies were bound to end up in the finals. This season it appeared that the Harpies and Puddlemere were the teams to watch. Having them in the finals would be worth watching for sure. If the Harpies won Ginny might feel less insecure about her identity and would agree to move in permanently. She’d been staying here every night for months now, but Harry had learned from his mistakes. He was not going to broach the topic until he was sure she would agree to move in. The day that happened he’d have to push a little harder to get Dudley over to Grimmauld Place.

It was of his cousin that Harry thought as he chewed on a chicken leg. Dudley was lying to Harry, Keelie and Brenna about where he was going. While the girls might care that Dudley wasn’t spending time with them, Harry didn’t. They’d spent some time together with pleasant results, but that didn’t automatically mean that Harry wanted to spend every waking moment with him. In fact it was quite the contrary. No, there was something else going on. He would find out what it was before week’s en

Harry had no idea how true that thought would become. He was trapped at work so late for the next three days that Dudley was already gone by the time he returned so there was no hope of following him. It was only Friday that he got out of long meetings before nine. He was in the door of his flat by six-thirty.

Ginny hadn’t returned from the Burrow yet. She had promised to visit her parents after training that day. Harry was especially glad as it afforded him the option of talking to Dudley without making excuses. As he closed the door, Harry could hear the familiar sounds of Dudley bustling about, getting ready for another night out. He had a plan to get the information out of his cousin, one way or another.

“Going out again tonight?” he asked when Dudley came around the corner. Dudley jumped and looked around for a second before his eyes landed on Harry. “Sorry. I didn’t mean to startle you.”

“What are you doing here? I thought you’d be hours again.” Now he had got over the shock of seeing Harry, it was apparent that Dudley was not pleased. He was nervously twisting his wristwatch and frequently looking away from Harry. This behaviour did nothing to alleviate the suspicion that Harry felt for Dudley’s lies. What had he got up to that made him so nervous to have Harry around? Hopefully tonight would tell.

“I happen to live here and it’s the weekend.”

“Oh? I was just recently told that you don’t have a nine-to-five job. The way Ginny speaks, and the fact you haven’t been here all week would suggest that you don’t get a weekend.” Harry didn’t respond to this comment. He could detect traces of Dudley’s old behaviour coming through, the nervousness abating somewhat. “Keelie told me you were at the club Monday night. What work could have possibly brought you there? Do Aurors really spend time in Muggle Clubs chatting up women?”

“I wasn’t chatting her up,” Harry said before he could stop himself. He didn’t like the implication that Dudley was making. It was time to turn the tables back around. “I might ask you why you weren’t there when you told Keelie and Brenna you would be. Seems like you’re hiding something. What’s the secret, Big D?”

Harry didn’t expect Dudley to spill all of his secrets but he watched him closely for any signs of fidgeting or nervousness. Apart from a momentary twitch towards his watch Harry noticed no signs that his question had caused Dudley any unease. Yet there was still a nagging feeling that the truth was very near the surface.

“My business. I don’t recall agreeing that my staying here meant I had to tell you the goings on of every minute of my life. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have two girls that are waiting for me.” With what Harry considered to be a false sense of bravado, Dudley turned on his heel and marched back to his bedroom. He hit the corer of the wall and stumbled a little; the only concrete sign that he wasn’t as cool and collected as he tried to portray.

Harry acted as though he saw nothing and that Dudley’s stupid speech had convinced him to drop the entire matter. When the door closed behind Dudley, Harry raced to his room, extracted his invisibility cloak and set to following his cousin.

Under cover of twilight and the noise of London, it was easy for Harry to follow Dudley without notice. What was more difficult was getting onto the underground. As he hopped over one of the gates his foot caught in the hem of the cloak and he fell hard on his right knee, letting out a grunt of pain, and an automatic curse word or two. Thankfully there was a group of rowdy teenagers standing nearby whose volume hid his outburst.

After carefully getting to his feet, Harry hastened to catch up with Dudley, who was already walking onto a train. With the pain caused by his fall, Harry was much slower going than he would otherwise have been and thus had to resort to magic to keep the train doors open. Fortune was again with him because no one commented on why the doors remained open longer than necessary. Once he was in the car Harry was able to sit down and keep an eye on Dudley — there were enough empty seats that he was in little danger of being sat on.

The train, Harry only noticed after riding for several minutes, wasn’t heading into the downtown where Dudley was a frequenter of the nighttime scene, but south to where Harry knew not until they reached Paddington station. It was almost as if Dudley were heading to Little Whinging. Hadn’t he said he didn’t go there the night he had first arrived at Harry’s asking for a place to stay? Then again, Dudley had already demonstrated that he wasn’t averse to lying, learning he hadn’t been telling the truth about this either shouldn’t come as a surprise.

Privet Drive was indeed Dudley’s destination. As Harry followed him up the unpleasantly familiar street he tried to guess why his cousin was here. If it was really as painful as Dudley made out there could be no benefits to coming here, could there? It wasn’t as if Dudley had never seen the house his parents had lived in and was coming to see it for the first time as had been the case with Harry and the Potter’s house in Godric’s Hollow.

Harry lurked unseen on the garden path as Dudley unlocked the door and disappeared inside. He was not in any rush to go back into that house. Aside from spending many unpleasant years here, the last time he had left he and Lupin had narrowly escaped Voldemort and a group of Death Eaters. He wasn’t sure he wanted to go into a house where he had such a terrible departure.

A light turned on in the sitting room, snapping Harry out of his indecision. He saw a tattered curtain move and Dudley’s face appeared in the window. Harry shrunk farther back into the shadows before he remembered that Dudley couldn’t see him anyway. Dudley looked up and down the street as though he was waiting for someone.

“Aha,” Harry said under his breath. He had been right to follow Dudley. Perhaps he would have an answer to his questions within mere moments or hours. He retreated to the other side of the door and crouched down among the long dead begonias.

Time passed at a snail’s pace as Harry hid among the shrubbery. His knee was throbbing worse than ever but he dared not move lest he miss the sound or sight of someone approaching. He began to lose patience after the ache in his knee became even more persistent. He stood up and prepared to leave, thinking that he’d just have to come back another time. He made to step over the begonia but his cloak got tangled on one of the branches and Harry, a little unsteady and stiff after remaining crouched for so long, banged his injured knee on the brick house. A sharp burst of pain caused him to dip into his lexicon of colorful words again.

“Hello?”

Harry spun to see Dudley peeking his head out of the door and looking around warily. Three times he looked right past Harry. This, given his rising temper, annoyed Harry. Without removing his cloak or making any other announcement of his presence he walked up to Dudley and with one forceful shove pushed him back into the house and stepped in himself. This happened so fast that Harry didn’t take the time to register his cousin’s reaction. Dudley was white as a ghost.

“Its me,” he said irritably, removing his cloak. As he became visible, Harry stowed the cloak in his pocket and looked around the house for the first time in nearly five years.

Everyone had been right, the damage the Death Eaters had done was momentous. Outside, the house looked completely normal, but the minute you stepped inside the sense of order vanished. Aunt Petunia’s spotlessly clean house was caked with dirt and grime. The furniture, once rigidly aligned, was turned over, or sat haphazardly in the centre of the room. The banister on the stairs was smashed and so were several of the risers. From his limited vantage point, Harry could see the rest of the house had fared little better. Seeing as Voldemort had also been here that night it was really a miracle the house was standing at all.

“You followed me?” Dudley asked, recovering himself finally. “What right did you have to do that?”

He sounded genuinely indignant but Harry couldn’t shake the feeling that Dudley was as uncomfortable being here as he was. Dudley kept looking anywhere but at Harry, yet he wouldn’t focus on a fixed point either. His eyes would land on a broken or damaged fixture in his family home and almost as quickly move on to some other point.

“What gives me the right is the fact you’re lying about something. I won’t have people living with me who aren’t honest,” Harry replied, leaning against the wall to take the weight off his injured knee. The last time they hadn’t kept tabs on Dudley they learned far too late that he’d been supplying Draco Malfoy with information. His history was working against him.

“I’d move into that monstrous house of yours if that creature didn’t keep threatening to throttle me. Is it my fault you don’t keep your word and talk to him?”

Harry growled quietly. He had indeed talked to Kreacher about his insistence that Dudley was not welcome at Grimmauld Place. The house-elf was adamant that he didn’t want someone like Dudley living in his mistress’s house. Harry wasn’t sure if Kreacher meant Dudley’s blood status or other annoying qualities. He could have ordered him to let Dudley stay, but he’d been trying to appease Hermione and thus was keeping a more civil tone with Kreacher. There were times, like now, where Harry wanted to ignore the complaints that would be leveled at him from both Dudley and Kreacher and let the two of them battle it out amongst themselves.

“You could try being nicer to him, you know.”

“He’s your servant!” Dudley replied with enough disdain to make Draco Malfoy proud. “Shouldn’t he do what you tell him?”

“I can’t force him to like you, Dudley. You have to do that yourself. It’s going to require that you regard him as something more than an unintelligent oaf.” Harry took a second to marvel at how much he sounded like Hermione. When Dudley looked like he might be sick at the very idea of being nice to Kreacher, Harry steered the conversation back to the matter at hand. “So . . . you going to tell me why you’re here?”

“I can’t come to my parent’s house?” Dudley returned to his apparently angry state, but he was fidgeting worse than ever.

“It seems odd that you would come on a Friday night and when you were so certain you were never going to come back here again. Wasn’t that the very reason you gave for moving in with me?”

Dudley relinquished his place by the wall and slowly strayed down the hall, navigating his way over a broken mirror and smashed pictures.

“Look at this place,” he said from the entrance near the kitchen. “Its unfit for anyone to live in, even if I —“ He stopped abruptly and stared at his feet.

“If you – what?”

“Why aren’t you living in Godric’s Hollow?” Dudley challenged.

Harry pondered Dudley’s question. There were innumerable reasons why Harry chose to live in London rather than at his parent’s home. It was structurally unsound, had become a tourist spot for witches and wizards who wanted to satisfy their morbid curiosity about how Voldemort fell — not exactly ideal for someone who wanted to live a quiet life, where he’d witnessed the murder of Henry Clark, the innocent Muggle who was in the wrong place at the wrong time, it was where his connection with Voldemort started and ended, and where his parents had been killed . . .

Suddenly Harry thought he understood. Even though the circumstances were different, Dudley must be reminded of his own parents when he came here. A quick glance confirmed what he was thinking. It was hardly surprising that Dudley didn’t want to stay in this house even if they could make it habitable again.

“Why do you come here then?” he asked curiously. Surely someone like Dudley wouldn’t have it in him to be so masochistic to come to a place that caused him so much pain.

Dudley shrugged and shoved his hands in his pockets. He didn’t deny anything, but hardly looked comfortable with the topic. Harry spent some time slowly making his way further through the house, vaguely recognizing the remains of pictures that had adorned the walls in precise rows. As he crunched the glass on a picture of Dudley as a toddler he wondered why no one had picked up any of these things before. They might not be able to fix everything, but surely the house could be made presentable. Then again, restoring the house to any level of its former pristine condition would take a lot of work, even with magic. Dudley didn’t have a lot of people around him who would be willing to help. Harry couldn’t imagine the likes of Keelie and Brenna in here with brooms and mops helping to clean up. Even if they did they would surely have a million questions about how the house had got into this state.

“D’you have your wand with you?” he asked, taking out his own and wondering if Dudley would have heeded his warning about always carrying it with him.

“Yeah, why?”

In response, Harry pointed his wand at the picture he’d just stepped on, muttered, “reparo,” and it flew back together. He picked it up and handed it to Dudley, whose downtrodden expression brightened ever so slightly.

“Have you ever learned how to repair anything using magic?”

“No.”

Harry didn’t give himself a chance to think about the other times he’d tried to teach Dudley magic, he jumped straight into the explanation of how the charm worked. He repaired a few other pictures to give Dudley the general idea then he let him try. The first few attempts were disastrous. Dudley managed to break three of the four pictures Harry had already fixed. Unlike the years previous though, he listened intently to what Harry said, and was making every effort to perform it properly. It took an hour before he was able to manage the spell — astounding by Dudley’s usual standards.

“There’s hope for you yet,” Harry said, putting a newly mended vase onto the recently repaired hall table.

“Maybe,” Dudley replied happily. “Reparo.”

So the work went on until the whole of the first floor looked as close to how it had in Harry’s memory. By that time it was eleven-thirty.

“Let’s call it a night,” he said, wanting to get home before Ginny fell asleep.

“What? It’s early,” Dudley said, sounding genuinely disappointed.

“Not so early when you’ve worked all day. Come on.” Dudley didn’t move as Harry started to leave. Not wanting to fight, he shrugged. “Suit yourself. It’s going to be a long ride back to town though.”

Just before he crossed the threshold that connected the sitting room with the hall Harry heard Dudley shout, “exsmelliairmus.” It was obvious what his intention was, but the fact he botched the incantation in such an amusing way made it uncertain what, if anything, would happen. Harry ducked behind the wall in the hall but no jet of light came from Dudley’s direction. When Harry chanced a glance into the sitting room, Dudley was frowning and examining his wand. Seeing nothing wrong with it he started shaking it like one might to dry glue. Harry couldn’t suppress his laughter, and continued even harder with Dudley’s repeated and increasingly emphatic cries of “exsmelliairmus.”

“I — uh — think you mean expelliarmus,” he said when he could speak once more. Dudley’s wand obediently flew out of its owner’s hand and Harry caught it. “Nice try though. Exsmelliairmus! You coming?”

“No.” Dudley took his wand back and studied it, still frowning. Harry thought he heard him muttering the proper incantation under his breath.

“See you later, then.” He corrected his path and headed for the back garden to Disapparate. As he opened the back door Harry felt as if he could have traveled back in time. If it hadn’t been for the much cooler air this night than that night in July he might have truly thought he was again fleeing Privet Drive with Voldemort close on his heels.

“Harry?” Dudley was standing silhouetted by the light of the sitting room.

“Yeah?”

“I . . . “ Dudley twisted his wand in his fingers. “Thanks . . . For helping tonight and . . . and showing me . . . “ Harry said nothing because he could see that Dudley had more he wanted to say. The silence was uncomfortable. “I know I’ve been pretty rotten to you — a real foul git . . . I don’t deserve — if you knew how I —“

“Its no big deal,” Harry said after a few seconds silence. He wasn’t sure he wanted Dudley to complete that last thought. This conversation had already gone too far. It was nice that Dudley was taking the time to say thank you, but acknowledging past wrongs? Harry felt it was time to get out of this house; it was making Dudley loopy. “What are cousin’s for, right?”

“Yeah.” Dudley spoke softly, digesting Harry’s words. When he spoke again it was in a stronger, but slightly bitter tone. “Yeah. What are cousins for?”

“You all right?” Harry was becoming genuinely worried. Reflective states were not natural for Dudley Dursley. Maybe being at Privet Drive wasn’t a good thing for him after all. He started to say so but Dudley waved his concern away and said, in a hurried voice, “”No, I’m fine. Just sorry for lying to you.”

“Th — anks?” Harry stumbled over his words when Dudley did the most unexpected thing and gave him a quick one-armed hug before shunting him out the door.

“You were leaving.”

“Yeah,” Harry replied. Dudley closed the door and disappeared deeper into the house. Harry stared in after him for a minute.

There was only so much strangeness he could take for one night. Dudley coming to number four, Privet Drive, being sentimental about his parents, actually mastering a spell, repairing things himself by using magic, thanking Harry for his help! Hugging him! And looking like he felt genuine regret for lying and his past behaviour. Dudley could actually be changing for the better.

And people thought magic was incredible.

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