Harry stared as the many turrets and towers of Hogwarts came into view, but he didn’t really see them, instead lost in thoughts of the night before. The images of Ginny and Dudley had faded somewhat, to be replaced by a sense of unreality.
He’d spent the last hour trying to find an alternate explanation for what he saw. It could have been Polyjuice potion. But why would someone put Ginny in that situation? And even so, Harry was very well acquainted with her expressions to know that the one she had been wearing was not an easy one to fake. He couldn’t rule out something like the Imperius Curse, but who would have cast it? Dudley magic might have improved but he wasn’t good enough to cast the Unforgivables yet.
When he could take the theorizing no more, Harry grabbed his trainers, tiptoed out of the room and down the stairs. His intent was to leave without disturbing Ron or Hermione but they were both sitting at the table.
“Morning,” Hermione said, jumping to her feet, a nervous eagerness to her movements. “D’you want something for breakfast? Coffee? Tea? Toast?”
“I’m fine,” Harry replied, sitting down and slipping his shoes on. He kept his head down purposefully, trying to stave off the questions. He attempted a smile, hoping that it would help his situation, but Hermione and Ron both frowned so he looked down again quickly.
Hermione reached out and touched his arm, making Harry stop tying his shoes.
“Did something happen between you and Ginny?”
Just hearing her name made Harry flinch. He tried to cover it up by pulling his arm away from Hermione but he could see she didn’t buy it. Quickly as he could he finished with his shoes and stood up.
“Thanks for the house room. I appreciate it.” He ignored Hermione’s splutters as he left the house. He waved at Dawlish and Tougas who were on the lookout for the two Aurors who were going to take their place in Hogsmeade while they took part in the raid.
It was so early that Harry was the first member of the task force to arrive. He didn’t go into the briefing room, instead preferring the much quieter area of his cubicle. The briefing room was situated very near the lifts and the Apparition area, making it a high traffic zone. He regretted his decision almost at once as his eyes landed on the three pictures he’d put up months ago. Even now he could see himself standing away from everyone else in the photos. For the few seconds he could stand to look at her, Harry saw that Ginny was hiding her face. As she should, he thought savagely.
He continued to stare at the photo until he heard someone calling his name. He looked up to see Briony standing before him, looking pale and a little sickly.
“Everyone’s waiting,” she said, fixing him with an even more concerned look than Hermione had. “Are you OK, Harry?”
“I’m fine,” he said yet again, giving the Quidditch photo one last glance. “Let’s go.”
Harry kept his head up as they entered the briefing room. He sat next to Brazill who frowned as she looked at him. She wasn’t afforded an opportunity to ask how he was because Dawlish started talking right away.
“So we know what to do. We’ll surround the building. Kitson and Tougas will come in from the roof while the rest of us will take the remaining entrance. We’re sure there’s just the one apart from the roof, right?”
“Yes,” Tougas answered.
“Good. Let’s go get those two doxy-brained Death Eaters.”
With the sound of scraping chairs everyone stood and began to pile out of the room. Brazill held Harry back.
“You sure you’re up to this?” she asked, genuinely concerned. “You look like you’ve seen a ghost.”
“I’m fine,” he said once more, feeling it was less and less true each time he said it. “Let’s just get this over with.”
He didn’t wait for Brazill, but marched directly to the Apparition area and concentrated on Manchester.
The sun had just crept over the horizon when the six Aurors made their appearance, Tougas and Kitson clutching brooms.
“Right. They’ve only been here a few hours and are probably still on high alert so we’ve got to move quick,” Dawlish said. “No need for stealth.”
They’d landed at the very edge of the protective charms Yaxley had set up. For all they knew Malfoy and Lestrange could have already extended the wards meaning they’d already breeched them, therefore everyone set off at once. Within seconds they were breaking down the door and entering the building. It was another abandoned warehouse. Unlike the building in Leeds, this one was completely empty but for a large tent that had been erected in the centre.
Dawlish mouthed for them to approach quietly. They did, while checking above and behind them for any traps. Nothing and no one jumped out at them. The most exciting thing that happened was Tougas and Kitson busting through the door from the roof. As they made their way down to the ground, Brazill slid into the tent. They held open the flap for her as she quickly checked around the inside of what looked like a luxurious one bedroom flat.
“They’re not here,” she said in a defeated voice, bending down to pick up a piece of fabric that was lying on the ground. “Look.” She emerged from the tent clutching a small black flag bearing the Dark Mark. The emerald skull sparkled maliciously as the serpent spoke.
“Sssssssorry we misssssssed you.” It’s hiss went on longer than it should have.
“It’s new,” Brazill said, examining it. “These types of spells don’t last more than a few hours.”
After all the work, they had put in yesterday they had once again allowed Malfoy and Lestrange to slip by them. Harry watched everyone exchange furious and exhausted looks. He was holding his wand in both hands, trying simultaneously not to break it and to keep his hands busy so he didn’t punch something.
“The Minister wanted to know what happened straightaway. Wait here,” Dawlish said. He jogged to just outside the door and Disapparated. As soon as he was gone the five remaining people put some distance between the tent and each other. Tougas was pacing back and forth.
“I knew it,” he said loudly, his voice echoing in the empty building. “I knew this would get us nowhere. They’ve been playing us for fools.” He kicked one of the tent pegs, which was stuck into the concrete floor.
“I want to know what happened,” Schultz said. “No one apart from the six of us knew we were even coming here.”
“Seven,” Harry corrected flatly. “Briony knew as well.”
“Are you saying it’s her fault?” Tougas demanded, taking several rapid strides and coming face to face with Harry, who did nothing but glare.
“That’s not what he —“ Schultz started.
“She’s got less to do with this case than you do, Potter.”
“You’d say that, even if her guilt was staring you in the face,” Harry replied, drawing himself to his full height. He knew he was pushing it, but he didn’t care. Tougas had had it in for him for months; they were going to deal with this once and for all.
Tougas had his wand out and cast a spell that sent Harry reeling backwards, landing hard on the concrete floor. He jumped up, already thinking of retaliation. The spell was on the tip of his tongue but shot out of his wand before he uttered it. Sometimes non-verbal spells worked for him, but not often.
Tougas cast a shield charm to block Harry’s spell. He tried to conjure ropes but Harry blocked that with his own shield.
“Stop it you two,” Brazill called, casting another spell to try and separate them, but they avoided it and continued. Each foiled or blocked spell increased Harry’s anger and he could see it was the same with Tougas. They were not always successful though, and they were getting closer together in the hopes of increasing the number of times they could hit each other. Finally, mere inches away, Tougas did the unexpected. He forgot about magic and punched Harry in the face, just missing his glasses. Immediately Harry could feel a bruise forming, and a trickle of blood coming from his nose. He responded in kind, hitting Tougas in the jaw.
All thoughts of magic gone, they attacked each other several more times, struggling out of the hands of those who tried to separate them. Harry knew he must be as covered in cuts and bruises as Tougas, but he didn’t care. He channeled his anger into every punch he threw.
Several loud bangs caused them to freeze mid-punch. Two sets of hands seized their opportunity and reached out, pulling Harry and Tougas apart.
“What do you mean by this?” Kingsley yelled, his deep voice bouncing around the building. He came over and started at each of them. Explain to me why I should have to separate two adults so they don’t kill each other?”
Harry, breathing hard, said nothing. His only regret was not having hit Tougas harder. His supervisor wasn’t saying anything either.
“Let them go,” Kingsley ordered Kitson and Brazill. He paced in front of them for a minute before speaking. “You’ve achieved nothing except getting yourselves written up.”
“But —“ Tougas started furiously.
“Quiet. You’re lucky I don’t sack you both straightaway.” Kingsley looked from one to the other as though he was trying to make a decision. Finally, he looked at Harry. “I don’t want either of you within each other’s sight for the rest of the day. Potter, get out of here. Go home. Go to the Ministry. I don’t care, just go.”
Harry didn’t object. Without a backwards glance he walked out of the building. He hesitated for a second, on the verge of going home, when he remembered why he didn’t want to go there, so instead he decided to return to the Ministry.
Everything was still eerily silent, like the whole department had decided to take the day off. He marched back to his desk and slumped in the chair, putting his head in his hands, attempting to calm himself down. As had been the case last night, every time he stopped moving that reel of images began to play. Not wanting to relive that nauseating experience, he stood up again, knocking down one of the photos. Bending down to pick it up he found it was the one taken after Ginny’s first Quidditch game. He stared at it for a full minute, tracing her photographic hair. An image of that hair spread over Dudley’s pillow flashed in front of his eyes. Harry crumpled the picture into a tiny ball and threw it at the rubbish bin. It bounced off and landed under his desk. He left it there, feeling the anger growing inside him again.
Needing some sort of outlet for his anger, Harry kicked his chair, which fell over with a loud bang, and skidded to a halt, three desks away.
He looked round to see Briony standing at the end of his aisle, looking concerned.
“Are you all right?” she asked, slowly coming nearer.
Harry started to say he was fine, but suddenly he shook his head, leaning against his desk.
“D’you want to talk about it?” She returned his chair and gestured for him to sit. He did, not entirely sure he wanted to say anything to Briony at all. He sat forward in the chair and put his hands on his knees. He kept his head down but watched as she took a chair from another desk and pulled it close. As she did this, Harry ran a hand through his hair, wondering how much he was going to tell her.
“It’s Ginny, isn’t it?” she asked, putting a comforting hand on his arm.
“Yeah. She —“ he stopped, took a deep, steadying breath, and then suddenly found himself confessing the whole story, fighting to keep his voice steady and his breathing even. When he was done she didn’t say anything at first, just merely continued rubbing his arm.
“Maybe it wasn’t what you thought it was,” she said gently. “I mean, maybe it was —“
“I’ve thought of all that,” he replied. “I’m sure it was exactly what it looked like.” Though he still kept his head down, Harry looked up at Briony. She was wearing the same expression of shocked disgust that he had felt on first seeing them, and what he felt now every time he got an image of Ginny and Dudley together.
“I’m so sorry,” she whispered, running her fingers lightly through his hair. Harry returned his attention to the ground as he rubbed his tired and itching eyes.
A soft throat clearing caused Briony to jump. Harry merely opened his eyes and looked in the direction Briony had just come from.
Ginny was standing at the end of his aisle, a large Visitor badge pinned to her shirt.
With only the slightest glance at Harry to see if that was what he wanted her to do, Briony stood up and hurried away. She skirted around Ginny and rushed out of sight. Harry focused on her for as long as he could before at last turning to stare at Ginny. She didn’t look physically different than she had yesterday, yet she didn’t look the same to him. She looked like she was suffering from some stress, probably because realized her game was up.
“What do you want?” he asked coldly.
“You didn’t come home last night,” she said, walking slowly down the aisle. “I was worried. Hermione told me you stayed there last night and that you looked . . . and so I got dad to bring me here.”
“So, what do you want?” he asked again.
“Why didn’t you come home?” She took Briony’s empty chair, searching him for an explanation. He watched her as she took inventory of the various cuts and scrapes on his face. She reached out to touch his cheek. “What happened?”
“I did come home last night,” he said, pushing her hand away. There was no mistaking the change in her expression. Harry knew at once that she wasn’t going to deny being with Dudley. “Quite the performance, I’d say.”
Ginny recoiled as if he’d slapped her. He saw she was trying to control her breathing. She closed her eyes and swallowed. He looked away, unable to stand the sight.
“Harry,” she said quietly, after a minute, reaching out to take his hand again. Once more he pulled away. She paused, but pressed on almost at once. “I can’t explain it, but I swear to you that I thought it was you.”
Harry let out a hollow laugh.
“You couldn’t come up with anything better than that? D’you really expect me to believe that story when I saw you two together?”
“I’m telling you,” she said. “He must have put something in my drink or used some sort of spell because one minute I was fine and the next I was all . . . I saw you. It was you, Harry, but it felt different. Everything did. It didn’t feel like your kiss . . . he didn’t even call me Gin. I —“
“Stop.” Harry put up his hand as he stood up. He paced back and forth for a minute. She didn’t really think he was going to fall for her story, the most ridiculous one she could have come up with. His anger reaching boiling point he spoke exactly what was on his mind.
“How many other times have there been, Ginny? How many other guys?”
“None,” she said, standing up too. “You’re the only —“
“You know, I always thought those stories in the papers were complete rubbish,” he interrupted, keeping his tone as indifferent as he could. “I actually thought you’d never do that.” He bent down and picked up the crumpled photo. Pushing it into her hand he said: “Congratulations on bringing the Prophet’s reliability up.”
Harry quickly walked past Ginny and down the aisle, swallowing a painful lump in his throat. He ignored her pleas for him to come back, and successfully made it to the Apparition area by chanting one thing: Don’t look back.