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Ninja Wizard Book 4

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Harry came down for breakfast the next morning and glanced pointedly as Sirius' empty seat.

"He still passed out?"

"I haven't checked on him yet. I had Oddment take his breakfast to the dungeon…his very, very greasy breakfast. Once he's good an nauseated I'll consider letting him out. I mean, really, what the hell was the man thinking?"

"I haven't the foggiest. I'd still like to know how he got from the front lawn of the castle to a party in such a short time."

"We'd both like to know that."

As though summoned by their conversation, Sirius suddenly peeked his head into the doorway, wincing at the bright sunlight filling the room.
Adeline stiffened at the sight of him and her eyes narrowed.

"I still had my wand on me." Sirius croaked in explanation.

"You smell like a brewery." Adeline replied before going back to her breakfast.

"I'll just get cleaned up then, shall I?"

"It would be appreciated."

Sirius eyed the stiff set of her shoulders and winced, before shuffling off to go get cleaned up.

Sirius returned a half hour later looking far more alive that he had earlier--washed, freshly shaven, and having downed a hangover cure scrounged from the potions lab before he'd made his escape from the lowest levels of the house. Harry and Adeline were in the parlor, and there was breakfast waiting for him in the now empty dining room. He headed to where there was food, deciding he'd face the firing squad better on a full stomach.
When he finished up, he headed off to meet his doom.

"It's nearly ten thirty. Take Harry to the train. Afterwards, I expect you to return promptly, without getting lost in any random parties along the way and forcing me to retrieve your alcohol sodden, passed-out body from who knows where, and we will talk."

Sirius gave his wife a sickly smile and said the only thing he could under the circumstances. "Yes, dear."

Harry said his goodbyes to Adeline, and then he and Sirius headed outside. Harry grinned at him as he grasped his arm to apparate them both to the platform.

"Man, you are so screwed."

 

They arrived on the platform and stepped away from the apparation point, and found themselves an empty spot amidst the crowd that was already forming.

"So what the hell happened yesterday? And what happened to Tom?"

"We got into a duel, and your minions at the castle came and hustled us inside to undo the hexes. They broke out some beer while they were lecturing us about talking about our feelings or something. Last I saw what's his face he was passed out face-down on the table. I don't know what happened to him after that."

Harry just shook his head and decided to let the subject drop--Sirius still had to deal with Adeline after they were done here.

"Whatever. Good luck with your wife, I have a feeling you're going to need it."

"Yeah, thanks for the vote of confidence."

"You realize, next time we see each other, the baby should be here and we'll be in the new world."

"Wow. That's kind of mind-blowing, isn't it?"

"Yeah. It really is."

"Well, have a good term, and good luck on your OWLs…man, the time goes by fast, doesn't it? Just the other day you were a wee bit of a thing coming by to visit me at the hospital…and look at us now."

"Yeah, time flies."

Sirius pulled him in for the one-armed hug and hair ruffle and then let him go.

"I guess I'd best go face my doom and get it over with."

"I'm sure she'll forgive you by the time the baby gets here."

"Yeah, thanks kid, really, you're a great help."

Harry snickered and boarded the train.

 

He wandered down the hall looking for familiar faces and slowed upon spotting Hermione Granger ensconced alone in a compartment staring at the wall, not a book in sight, and surrounded by a startling amount of luggage.

"Hey, Hermione, what's with all the luggage?"

Hermione jumped when he spoke, obviously so lost in thought she hadn't heard him enter. "W-what?"

"The luggage?" he repeated, only to blanch when her eyes filled with tears. Unlike her usual hysterical waterworks, where tears bloomed from her eyes like water from a fountain, this time her tears simply slid silently down her face one after another.

"It's all my stuff from home. I cleared out my room. It was awful…not at first. I didn't really notice at first how different things feel on the muggle side now. It was a gradual thing. I started to notice the absence of magic and it started making me antsy, and my parents started getting weird, and my little sister hates me. She kept screaming every time I tried to pick her up or"

"Little sister?"

"She was born last year. She's a muggle. My parents wrote to professor McGonagall and she wasn't on the list. They were quite relieved. Oh, they tried to downplay it, but it was pretty obvious. All the plans they used to have for me they're making for her now. Her name's Desdemona and she wants nothing to do with me, and by the time I left my parents were looking at me suspiciously like I had done something to her…and I realized that, even if I was willing to give up magic, everything would be all messed up. I dropped out of muggle school when I was eleven, and it would take time to try to catch up on everything I missed and I'd be out of step with everyone and it would be ten times worse than when I was in muggle school the first time around. I tried watching the telly with my parents and I didn't get most of the jokes because I have no idea what's been going on in the muggle world recently, and I don't know the music or the shows or the movies--I'm completely out of touch with pop culture and it would be difficult to try to explain just what I'd been doing the last few years….and I didn't want to. I'm not a muggle, I'm a witch, and I realized I couldn't have both and I was going to have to choose, and so I did, but my parents were so angry, even though I still think they're somewhat relieved to not have to deal with the strangeness anymore, and here I am and I'm never going to see them again and…and…"

At that point she started sobbing in earnest, and covered her face with her hands as her shoulders shook.
Harry sank down next to her and patted her shoulder, only to get an armful of sobbing Hermione a moment later. He didn't know what to say--he couldn't tell her it was alright, because really, it wasn't--she had just lost her whole family in one fell swoop because she chose to follow magic where it led. So, Harry said nothing, and let her cry.

 

Neville arrived about twenty minutes later. He opened the door and stopped dead upon seeing the piles of luggage and Hermione stretched out upon one of the seats asleep, her eyes still swollen and red from crying. He looked at Harry questioningly, so Harry put up a barrier so their voices wouldn't disturb the sleeping girl, and then explained their earlier conversation.

Neville looked rather horrified when he was done. Having just gotten his own parents back, and having lived without them most of his life, he understood all too well what a sacrifice Hermione had made, and couldn't honestly say whether he thought it was worth it. One the one hand, living without magic forever…he honestly couldn't imagine it. He figured it must be doable--muggles did it all the time, but they were muggles, not wizards. Magic was a part of them, and the idea of voluntarily getting rid of that part of oneself was unthinkable…and yet, to give up your family like that. What's worse, Hermione wasn't the only muggleborn at the school, or who was part of their world. How many more had made a similar sacrifice, and how many would spend their lives regretting it? Their trip to the new world had seemed a grand adventure when he first heard what was going on, but now, he couldn't say it seemed very grand at all…and yet, what other choice did they really have?

"Is it going to be worth it? All this? Is the new world going to be enough better to justify these kinds of sacrifices?"

"We're going to have to make it be."

"Can we?"

"Yes, we can…will we? That's another question altogether. We each have to do our part to make sure it's worth it."

At five minutes to eleven the Weasleys erupted onto the platform, and managed to scramble onto the train just as the final warning whistle was sounding.
A few minutes later Ron and Ginny arrived at the compartment. Ron glanced at Hermione oddly and then proceeded to put up his trunk, already sounding a litany of complaints about everything from the Canons latest game, to the stuff he'd wanted for Christmas that he didn't get, to how short the holiday was. Ginny lingered in the doorway glowering at Harry, before finally flouncing off, slamming the door behind her. The slamming door woke Hermione who startled and sat up to look around blearily.

"Budge over, would you." Ron ordered, before flopping down in the empty space left when Hermione sat up. "Anyone got anything to eat?"
The other three just looked at him.

 

Neville, Harry and Ron got a carriage together when they reached Hogsmeade. Hermione had been unable to deal with Ron being Ron when she was in such fragile condition emotionally and had blown up at the redhead about an hour into the trip, and stormed off. Another battle had almost erupted about halfway through the trip when the twins had caught Ginny once again snogging Michael Corner, but they were stunned by several bystanders before they could do much--a lot of them were still annoyed about the trip home and weren't going to stand for it happening again.

In spite of everything, it was good to be back at Hogwarts. The great hall had been stripped bare of its holiday finery, there was a low roar of conversation as the students got one another caught up on what they'd missed out on since last they'd seen one another.

They took their seats at the table, and saw Dean was in much the same state as Hermione was, fragile and subdued. Looking out over the hall, Harry could see many others in the same state peppered amongst the cheerful children with no muggle relations that they'd never be seeing again.

Up at the head table, professor McGonagal rapped her fork against her glass to get the students attention as Headmaster Dumbledore stood to welcome everyone back for the new term. Dumbledore had just raised his hands for quiet when Colin Creevey staggered into the hall looking wild eyed and tearing at his hear only to fall to his knees just beyond the doorway.

"WE'VE BEEN ROBBED! IT'S ALL GONE! ALL OF IT!"

Morag MacDougal, who was right behind him, turned tearful, pleading eyes on the frozen teachers. "CALL THE AURORS! WE WILL HAVE VENGEANCE!"

"What on earth?"

"The pictures" Harry realized. "Rita Skeeter stole the pictures they took at the Yule Ball and published them in Witch Weekly as her own work…oh no… Colin!" Harry called urgently across the pandemonium that had spread through the room at the dramatic entrance. "The film? Do we still have the film?"

Colin turned stricken eyes on Harry and shook his head. "It's all gone! The film, the photos we developed, the order forms, even our petty cash fund! She cleaned us out!"

"SON OF A BITCH!" Harry cursed loudly.

"Mr. Potter!" McGonagall hissed in shock from the head table.

"If everyone would quiet down?" Dumbledore huffed from where he still stood poised to address the students. The students kept talking though, as more and more realized what the theft meant for their club activities.

"But…if we don't have the film or any of the pictures…"
"We have to give back all the money we collected, and we'll be left with hundreds of decorative frames we can't get rid of…"
"This is a disaster!"

Dumbledore, who was looking quite irritated by now, held up his wand and fired off a loud bang. "Students, please take your seats. Now." he added when Colin and Morag looked ready to argue.

Colin and Morag shuffled to their seats and sat down, concerned friends and curious bystanders who leaned in to question them gulped, quieted down and settled back in their seats when the headmaster's annoyed gaze passed over them. When silence finally reigned Dumbledore began to speak. "Welcome to another new term at Hogwarts…"

Once Dumbledore finished speaking and sat back down, Harry leaned in to talk to Dean.

"Spread the word to the other club heads, emergency meeting tomorrow after classes in the Melting Pot, make sure everyone checks over their clubhouse and petty cash fund, we don't know how far the theft went."

Dean nodded and dug out his phone, and started calling the other club heads in between bites of dinner. Harry pulled his own phone and called the head of the accounting department.

"Hey, Kevin, it's me Harry. Tomorrow, there's an emergency meeting with all the heads. Make sure all of the general fund and all your books are both in order and accounted for and be ready to make a report." After talking with Kevin, he put in another call to Tracey Davis, head archivist.
"Hey Tracey, it's me, Harry. There's going to be an emergency meeting of all the heads tomorrow after classes. I need you to check and see if the archive copies of whatever photos Colin and Megan developed before leaving are in place. If they are, make copies of all of them and bring them with you, along with copies of the order forms and any other relevant paperwork. If all goes well, we should have aurors coming by to speak with us, and we need to be able to prove a theft happened." When he was done talking to her he called down Colin, who was still looking distraught.

"Yeah, Harry?"

"Have all of you been following procedure?"

"Huh? Oh, the checklists and stuff? Yeah, why?"

"You have, good. You made a note of the numbers of all the film right?"

"Yeah, I told you, we've been doing all that stuff, but it doesn't matter! The clipboard is gone, so is the checklist! That's what I was trying to tell you! She cleaned us out! We have no proof that any of the stuff was ever in our possession!"

"Wrong. Each time you fill out your checklists a copy is made down in archives. The clipboard copy was for you guys. If everything worked as it was supposed to, we do in fact have proof, and we'll use it to nail Rita Skeeter to the wall. We're having an emergency meeting tomorrow after classes, and I'll try to make sure some aurors are there for it. Do you know how much was in your petty cash fund?"

"A hundred galleons, it should have been."

"Buck up. We'll get her."

"That's all well and good, but unless we get back the film too, we're screwed."

"Don't borrow trouble. Alright, let me go see if we can have some aurors come talk to us tomorrow at the meeting."

Harry finished off his dinner, wiped his mouth and marched up to the head table to plant himself between Dumbledore and McGonagall's seats.

"I'd like to request some aurors come here tomorrow before dinner so we can report a theft."

"Really, Mr. Potter, thefts at Hogwarts, while unfortunate, do not require intervention by aurors."

"I beg to differ, headmaster, as this particular theft was committed by an adult who is unaffiliated with Hogwarts."

"Oh? Very well, we can discuss matters in my office." Dumbledore sighed dismissively.

"Why? It's a fairly straightforward request, headmaster."

"Mr. Potter, that is quite enough. Run along, I will speak to you later."

 

"Well?"

"He wants to talk about it in his office."

"Why?"

"Because he's a control freak."

"Harry! Don't disrespect the headmaster like that!" Hermione hissed indignantly.

"It's ridiculous. There's no reason he couldn't have just heard me out and got on with things. Now, I have to put off going to bed and go trekking off to his office. It's very annoying."

"Even so, you shouldn't disrespect him like that."

"Whatever."

 

When dinner was over, Harry made the long trek to the headmaster's office. He knocked perfunctorily on the wooden door at the top of the winding staircase and stepped inside. Dumbledore looked a bit disgruntled that he entered the room before he could tell him to, and sat back with his hands folded in front of him on the desk and glowered with mild reproof over his half-moon glasses. Harry ignored the glower and flopped down in the uncomfortable seat facing the headmaster's desk. They sat in silence--Harry guessed the headmaster was trying to make him feel uncomfortable and cowed--he could wait him out. He wasn't leaving this office without a firm agreement to call the aurors, and if the man reneged after, he also wasn't afraid to go over his head.

Dumbledore's eyes suddenly narrowed just a tiny bit and his glance flicked to the door just a firm knock sounded and the door opened revealing professor McGonagall.

"I haven't missed anything, have I?" she asked, taking the second seat. "You said something about a theft earlier, and needing aurors, didn't you Mr. Potter?"

Dumbledore huffed just a bit and then leaned back in his seat, now thoroughly annoyed at both their refusal to behave.

"So he did." he agreed.

"You also mentioned something about an adult unaffiliated with Hogwarts. What was stolen?"

"Film, photographs and the petty cash fund for the photography club among other things."

"That is unfortunate, but again, such a minor theft doesn't"

"Minor? MINOR? There was a hundred galleons in the petty cash fund, and the theft of the film and the few photographs that were developed represents a loss of upwards of five hundred galleons more, headmaster. We're not talking about the loss of a few shillings of pocket change. This could well crash our whole economy, and definitely means we're not going to be able to afford to replace the school brooms like we were hoping."

"Six hundred galleons?" McGonagall repeated, utterly gobsmacked. "Where on earth did you children get so much money?"

"Hello? We've been selling stuff at our end of year fairs, and we sold souvenirs at the first task, which is where most of the clubs petty cash funds came from. That money more or less just gets traded back and forth amongst the clubs for services rendered. The five hundred is the proceeds we collected from everyone who ordered photographs of the ball, money we're going to have to return if we can't produce the photographs everyone ordered. We know who the thief is, and when the theft likely occurred. We need some aurors to go and get her and return our property! If they could come by about an hour after classes, that would be ideal. We're going to be having a meeting and compiling our evidence after classes let out tomorrow, and that would give us enough time to do so."

"I'll put in the call, Mr. Potter. I'll let you know the time and place once I've found out." McGonagall assured him. "Run along now, it's nearly curfew."

 

Harry found most of the first through fifth years waiting in the common room when he got back, and the sixth and seventh years milling around the edges of the room uncertainly, wondering just what the heck was going on.

"Well? What did he say?" Lavender demanded as soon as he'd stepped through the portrait hole.

"McGonagall said she'd put in the call personally and let me know as soon as she had a time and place."

"So Rita Skeeter really did rob the place?"

"Seems that way, yeah. She cleaned the place out, thinking there'd be no proof she stole anything, is what I'm guessing. Shame for her we put in redundancy systems and kept careful records. Don't worry, if everything worked like it should have we can nail that bitch to the wall."

"I'm more concerned with getting our film back. It'll be a nightmare otherwise."

"I can't believe she'd do something like this."

"I know, right? What an idiot."

"What a bitch, you mean."

"Since we'll be able to prove a theft did in fact take place, we may be able to get back the money, not just the film. We might even be able to get whatever she was paid for the pictures she used. If we play things right, we might even come out ahead of the game. I'll shoot off word to Gringott's in the morning and ask about that."

The kids cheered.

"Alright, you lot, we'd best be getting to bed. Classes start bright and early tomorrow morning."

There was some grumbling, but the students began climbing to their feet to head up to the dorms. Before heading up, Harry saw one of the seventh year girls give him a filthy look before storming upstairs.

"Man, what's her problem?"

"She's head girl this year, remember? She was trying to shoo everyone off before you arrived and no one listened to her."

Harry snickered, feeling rather pleased by that knowledge in spite of his best effort not to.

 

"Hey, everyone. We're all here, good. Tell me our redundancy systems worked as planned." Harry opened the meeting.

"Everything worked, what's more, we have direct proof that Rita Skeeter was on the premises…there's a small problem though. She went in with Colin and Dennis." Mike replied.

"What? No she didn't! The only person with me was Dennis, no one else!" Colin protested.

"Morag came in about fifteen minutes later. The four of them were inside for an hour, and then Colin, Dennis and Morag left, and twenty minutes later Rita Skeeter did." Mike repeated, waving the log from the wards.

"She wasn't there, I tell you! I wouldn't have just let her in to our darkroom, and I certainly wouldn't have left her there alone after we'd closed up for the night!"

"Everyone settle down. She could have been invisible or something, that would explain why no one spotted her anywhere on the grounds." Dean interjected.

"Yeah, and she probably was, but all we have here is the log with names, and the timing of things makes it look like we're pulling a fast one." Mike agreed.

"Hmm…would you two be willing to submit a copy of a memory to be viewed? We might be able to spot her lurking around, or at least prove that neither of you saw her or knew she was there." Harry asked.

"Um, sure, I guess…how do you give a copy of a memory?"

"It's not hard, I've done it before. Happily, I even have a pensieve handy." Harry explained as he dug around in his pouch and withdrew the pensieve he'd gotten from Lestrange Castle--his own was at home on his desk.

"Wow, what's that thing?"

"It lets you view memories. You'll get to see it in action when the aurors get here. How about the rest of you? Do we have what we need?"

"Yeah, we have the archive copies of the photos that were developed, we have the archive copy of the checklist with all the film listed, the list of all the orders made for pictures." Tracey agreed.

"We also have the accounting entries for all the orders, and the last accounting of the photo club's petty cash fund." Kevin added.

"Was anything else missing?"

One by one the other club presidents shook their heads. "Nope, door was locked, petty cash was all accounted for and everything was just as we left it."

"Same here."
"Us too."

"Well, there's that at least."

"We should look at the memories before the aurors get here, just so if we know if we even have a case." Mike suggested.

The others around the table nodded.

"I already told you she wasn't there!"

"Look, I believe you, but I'm head of security, I need to ask the tough questions."

"Alright, if we're agreed, Colin, just relax, and think about that night, after you left the ball and went to the darkroom." Harry ordered.

"Okay, now just think about wanting to give me the memory…there we go."

The other kids grimaced as they saw a long string of glowing silver being pulled from Colin's head.

"That feels really weird"

"I know…there we go." Harry dropped the strand into the bowl and motioned for everyone to gather around. "There's not enough room for everyone to stick their head over, so we'll watch like this. It's not as detailed, but it should be enough for the moment."

Harry stirred the bowl and a ghostly image of Colin and Dennis rose up out of the bowl and started moving around.

"Hey! What was that?"

"I saw it too. A little dot popped off his back."

"Hmm…this bears further investigating. Back up a sec." Harry leaned his face over the bowl and entered the memory fully. A few minutes passed and he stood, smiling in triumph.

"There was a beetle on Colin's back, half-hidden under his collar. It flew off and hid on top of the doorframe once they came inside. It looks like it's wearing glasses."

"She's an animagus? A beetle animagus?"

"Do we have anything to detect animagi?" Hannah wondered.

"No, we weren't able to find anything specific to either detect or deter them, and we didn't think it was really something to worry about, they're so rare." Mike replied.

"Fair enough. But, yeah, I think that's our answer. She did come in with them, as a bug and hid in the room and watched them going about their business and then cleaned out the joint once they were gone. That's how she knew what all to take to cover the theft and knew about the lockbox."

"We've got her!" Cho cheered.

"You've got who?"

The kids turned to see a pair of Aurors framed in the doorway--familiar aurors at that. Kingsley Shaklebolt and Dora Crouch, to be exact.

"Rita Skeeter. She was roaming the grounds and robbed us in her illegal animagus form, a jeweled beetle, and we can prove it."

"Let's see what you've got."

 

"Auror Crouch, what have you got for me?" Rufus Scrimgeour asked.

"I just came back from Witch Weekly. Kingsley and Dawlish went out to try to find Rita Skeeter."

"I thought you and Shaklebolt went to take a complaint at Hogwarts."

"We did. Rita Skeeter is an illegal animagus, a beetle. She was sneaking around Hogwarts during the Yule Ball and robbed the place. Too bad for her, the kids she robbed were able to prove she did it, and even supplied a memory showing Skeeter in her animagus form. After we left Hogwarts, I went to Witch Weekly to see if I could track down the film she stole. Her photographer, Bozo had it, which was a lucky break it seems. He said she brings him film a lot of times to develop, he only goes out with her for scheduled interviews. She apparently has a small camera that she keeps with her just in case a photo opportunity arises. He said usually when she brings him film to develop, she keeps the film and the negatives and any photos that don't get used for articles." She pulled a jar filled with silvery liquid and placed it on his desk with a thump. "And then he removes the memory of what he developed and puts it in here. I'm both afraid and intrigued to see what's in here. He said there were some things that once you knew them you couldn't unknow them and he didn't want any of it in his head."

"That does sound intriguing. So you were able to recover the stolen goods?"

"The film. We think Skeeter either still has the other stuff or vanished it."

"What else was taken?"

"A clipboard with a checklist that noted all the film numbers, photos that had already been developed, order forms for photos, and a hundred galleons."

"Will we be able to recover the money?"

"Yep and then some. The kids contacted Gringotts and told them what was going on. She made a deposit of a hundred galleons on the night in question, and then received payment for the stolen photos three days later, which was deposited in her account by Witch Weekly. Gringott's feels that as the kids have ample proof to show the money was stolen that they have grounds to seize it, as well as what was gained from the sale of the stolen goods."

"No word yet on Ms. Skeeter's whereabouts?"

"Not till Shak and Dawlish get back."

"Alright, we can worry about her later. Go get me a pensieve and we'll see what we've got here. I think Amelia has it in her office."

"Sure thing."

 

It was about a half hour later when someone returned to Scrimgeour's office, bearing a pensieve--it was not, however, Auror Crouch, it was the Minister of Magic, Cornelius Fudge. Fudge was pale and shaken, his hands were wet and covered in soap and he was splattered with flecks of blood and gore.

"Minister? What on earth? Where's Auror Crouch?"

"I don't know! I don't know anything! I didn't do anything! I was washing my hands and he just came in and he exploded!"

"Who exploded?"

"Ludo Bagman! He came into the bathroom looking ill, and pulled his wand and exploded. Some pink haired girl gave me this thing and told me to come tell you what happened while she secured the scene. I didn't do anything! I swear!"

"Okay, calm down now. Why don't you give me that, there's a good lad. Why don't you go have a lie down? You don't look so good. Wait, give me your memory of what happened first."

"Take it! Please! I don't want to remember it!"

Scrimgeour took the memory and sent Fudge on his way with an escort to see he made it back to his office without passing out, and then headed down the hall to see what the hell had happened with Bagman.

 

Dora Crouch blanched when she saw him coming, and held up her hands in front of her looking apologetic.

"I didn't think there was any harm sir, I swear! I didn't tell him any details! He asked what the pensieve was for and I told him we were investigating Rita Skeeter and needed it to view memories of all the photos she had taken. He looked sick and said he had to go and the next thing I know I hear this high, girlish scream and Minister Fudge comes stumbling out of the bathroom. I had no idea he was going to kill himself, and I didn't think the little I said was enough to be a problem."

Scrimgeour sighed and wiped a hand down his face. This little investigation into theft from some school kids looked to be set to spiral into something much bigger.
A knot of babbling voices coming down the hall drew both their attention. It was a group of secretaries and clerks who had been on their break and were returning.

"Oh, hello head Auror Scrimgeour. Say, you haven't seen Amos Diggory about, have you? He really needs to send someone down to the cantina."

"Oh? Why's that?"

"It's the house elves, sir. I don't know what's wrong with the little buggers, but they've all gone mad. Rather unseemly, really."�"I know! How is anyone supposed to enjoy their tea with them all carrying on like that!"

"I don't know if they need to be put down or what, but really someone should do something."

"What are they doing, exactly?"

"Crying, bashing their heads against walls, twisting their ears."

"I think one of them was saying something about a bad man."

"A bad man…or Bagman?"

"Bagman? Old Ludo? What would he have to do with anything?"

"Oh, look, there's Amos now. Amos! You need to go put down some feral house elves, old boy."

"Hold up, no one is being put down. Crouch, go grab some people and go interview the elves."

"Is this one of those unknowable things, do you think?"

"Looks like. Get moving."

"Uh, sir? We've got a problem!"

"What now?" Scrimgeour sighed.

"There's a goblin war party forming up to storm the Ministry unless we hand over Ludo Bagman!"

"Sweet Merlin on a stick! What the hell has that man been doing and why didn't anyone know about it!"

"Sir?"

"Head back to Gringott's, tell them Ludo Bagman is dead, and we'd like a statement, if they'd care to make one, about why they wanted him."

"Ludo's dead? Was it goblins, sir?"

"No, you ninny, he killed himself an hour ago."

"Oh, I see. I'll get right on that sir."

"You do that."

 

"Back to the grind." Dean sighed.

"I know. The holidays didn't last near long enough." Seamus agreed.

"Oh well, we've got a Hogsmeade weekend coming up in a few weeks, and then the second task of the tournament." Neville offered, hoping to cheer them.

"Yeah, that's right, innit?" Ron said, cheered.

"I wonder what sort of barbaric contest they're going to have this time?" Hermione grumbled.

"Who knows. Say, when can we expect our film back anyway?" Colin asked from nearby.

"I dunno. They just said they'll be in touch. If we haven't heard anything by the end of the week I'll give Dora a call and see if there's been any developments."

"Oh my god! Have you heard?" Lavender said breathlessly as she, Parvati, Padma and Pansy approached.

"Heard what?"

"You know Ludo Bagman?"

"Of course we do. He used to be a beater for the Winbourne Wasps. My dad's friends with him--he got us some sweet tickets to the World Cup this summer." Ron explained.

Lavender looked at him with a strange look on her face, while Pansy who was standing next to her said "EWWW!" very loudly.

"What?"

"He's a freaky house elf molestor, that's what!" Pansy said, aghast.

"Uh, come again?"

"It's true. Apparently all the house elves that work at the Ministry started freaking out yesterday after he killed himself." Lavender agreed.

"Ludo Bagman is dead?"

"Try to keep up, would you? I heard he found out they were investigating Rita Skeeter and offed himself." Padma sighed.

"It wasn't just the elves at the Ministry either. Mother took a couple of our house elves to St. Mungo's yesterday because they all went mad. She thought they were ill. It turns out that weirdo Bagman assaulted them and then obliviated them afterwards while he was at our house a couple of times." Draco added, joining them.

"I heard the goblins were all set to storm the Ministry to get him." Millicent offered, joining the crowd as well.

"He was molesting goblins as well? What a freak!" Seamus sputtered.

"The cart drivers, I heard it was. The man was a certified scumbag." Parvati agreed.

"Sweet Merlin!"
"Bloody hell."

"So, what? They all just started remembering?" Harry asked warily.

"Yeah, after he offed himself all the obliviates he did started unravelling." Lavender nodded.

"That happens?" Katie Bell demanded.

"Apparently."

"Good Lord, and this is what we've been depending on for secrecy? We're lucky we weren't overrun by angry muggles years ago if that's the case." Draco gasped.

"Geez, you're right. Man…maybe it really is a good thing we're leaving." Neville nodded.

"Surely someone must have realized what shaky ground secrecy was resting on?" Hermione demanded.

"They must have."

"What about the elves? Are they alright?" Luna asked.

"Well, they're upset. Whether they'll be alright eventually is anyone's guess." Lavender shrugged.

"That's so disgusting." Pansy shivered.

"The poor little elves." Hermione added.

"The goblins too. Man." Dean said.

"So, hey…you said he found out they were investigating Skeeter and offed himself. Was she blackmailing him or something?" Neville asked.

"You know, that's a good point." Ron realized.

"Hey, does this mean he killed himself because we reported her for robbing us?" Colin wondered.

"I guess it does, from a certain point of view." Neville agreed.

"Huh. Go us." was Hannah's thoughts on the matter.

"Hey, is this going to impact the tournament? Wasn't Bagman involved in it?" Lavender wondered.

"Yeah, he was. I don't know. They can't just call it off, the champions are under a magically binding contract." Padma reminded her.

"I guess whoever takes over the department will just step in to run the rest of the tournament." Draco offered.

"Well, it's not till next month, so they've got time to work out the details."

 

"Man, time sure is flying. I can't believe it's already Hogsmeade weekend." Seamus laughed.

"Hey, what happened with the film and stuff anyway? Didn't you say you were going to call and ask about it? It's been nearly two weeks." Ron wondered.

"Yeah, I know, I did call. It seems Rita Skeeter was blackmailing a lot of people besides Bagman. They're still looking for her, and they've been rounding up everyone she had dirt on, so they got a bit distracted from our case. Dora said she'd try to come out soon with the film and stuff so they could close out our case, but I don't know when that's going to be exactly."

"What's happened with the elves and the goblins that Bagman…bothered. It doesn't seem fair none of them will get justice." Hermione wondered.

"From what I've heard, knowing he's dead and can never bother them again has been a great comfort to them."

"The poor little things. I couldn't even imagine."

"What's the big deal? They'll just dose them up with memory modifying potion. No more problem." Ron shrugged.

"Memory modifying potion doesn't get rid of bad memories, you know. All it does is push it down and make it seem like it happened a long time ago. If it's something really bad, it doesn't help, it just pushes it down and leaves it to fester. What's worse, if you get reminded of the incident it just comes bubbling back up to the surface." Harry disagreed.

"That doesn't sound good."

"Well, it's not. It's okay though, they're getting help."

"It's true. My dads worked as camp counselors in a camp for troubled kids when they were teens, Dave and Steve worked a suicide hotline, and Elanna worked for a rape crisis center. They've been running group therapy sessions for the elves." Katie Bell interjected.

"Yeah, it seems the elves at Lestrange Castle were among those that Bagman hurt. When they all freaked out they sat them down to find out what was wrong. Their sessions were helpful, so the other elves started showing up to take part." Harry added.

"My dads think we should make them cards or something so they know that people are behind them and want them to get better."

"That's not a bad idea. Spread the word everyone. Katie, do you know the names of all the elves that are taking part?"

"I'll send dad an e-mail and get a list."

"Yeah, we can personalize the cards…maybe Susan and Hannah would agree to make little cakes for each of them."

"Oh, yeah, that would be really nice."

"I'll make dream catchers. I'm sure they've been having bad dreams since this all started." Luna added from nearby.

Lavender shivered in disgust and rubbed her arms. "I wouldn't doubt it. I'll help you."

"We should do something for the goblins too. There was some of them…"

"They all committed suicide." Harry interjected quietly. "They live by rather strict codes of honor, and they consider themselves warriors first and foremost. The knowledge that they had been repeatedly victimized and made to forget shamed them."

"That's positively medieval." Hermione whispered in horror.

"It was their choice, and it’s a deeply felt cultural thing…so far as the goblins are concerned, they acted properly and rid themselves of their shame and regained whatever honor was lost through the whole mess, and their friends and families can remember them with pride. It's not really our place to judge."

"It's awful, the poor little goblins!"

"No, no no. If you value your life you will never ever repeat those words where the goblins can hear you, they'll tear you apart…and frankly they wouldn't be wrong to do so. They were made into victims and they did what they could to not be victims but honorable warriors who faced death without flinching. Getting all weepy about the poor little goblins just makes them into victims again, and they won't have it."

"That's ridiculous!"

"That's how they feel about it, and in this case it's their feelings about it that count. It's done, and not a goblin alive or dead will appreciate you spitting on their memory like that."

Hermione muttered angrily under her breath as they made their way towards the carriages to head down to Hogsmeade.

"Say, where's Ginny anyway?" Neville wondered.

Ron scowled and gestured with his head to the crowd ahead of them. "She's spending the day with that berk, Michael Corner."

"Geez, the guy must be a masochist or something."

"What's that supposed to mean?"

"I mean, he's been hexed like four times now for spending time with Ginny. Cho ran for the hills when she started getting hexed for spending time with me, but he's still there. Either he's stupidly crazy about your sister or he's a masochist."

"No, I meant what is a masochist?"

"Someone who enjoys pain."

"They have a word for that? That's barmy."

The milling group split up across several carriages and began making the slow journey down to the wizarding village.

 

"Hey, isn't that Lucius Malfoy?" Ron asked.

"And Narcissa." Harry agreed.

"I wonder what they're doing here?"

"Lucius is going to be leaving for an extended stay in America soon. They're probably just having a bit of family time before he leaves."

"Why though?"

"Because he's going to be gone for a while, and the next time they see each other they'll have a new baby in the family and will probably be cranky from sleepless nights? I don't know. Why are you so worried about it?"

"I'm not worried, I just wondered." Ron protested. "So, where's everyone want to go first? Eh, mate? Mate?" Ron turned to see Harry not paying attention to him, as he was staring intently at a couple standing a distance away.

"Who's that with Katie Bell? Boyfriend? I don't remember seeing him around Hogwarts…though he does look sort of familiar…"

"Yes, he does, doesn't he? How odd. I could swear I know him from somewhere." Hermione agreed.

"Hey, Harry, isn't that your godfather?"

"Huh? Where? Hey it is. Sirius!"

"Your godmother too. What is this? Parents day?" Ron complained as he peered around nervously to see if his parents were in evidence. He hoped not.

"Hey, Katie's boyfriend is coming this way." Ron pointed out, only to blanch when Harry gave him a dirty look. "What? What did I say?" He called after Harry's retreating back.

Tom, Sirius and Adeline all reached Harry at the same time. Harry looked between the two men and glared at them. "If either of you tries using me for tug of war again, I'm leaving."

"I'm sure everyone will be on their best behavior." Adeline interjected, taking Harry's arm. "It's been awhile since I've been to Hogsmeade. I guess we should head for the Three Broomsticks?"

"Or Madame Puddifoots."

"Oh? I don't recall it. I don't think it was here while we were in school."

"It's a tea shop. Tom and I went there last Hogsmeade weekend."

"Oh?" Sirius asked pseudo-casually.

"Sounds lovely. Let's go." Adeline set off, still holding Harry's arm. Sirius and Tom were left little choice but to follow them.

"Was this little get-together your idea?" Harry asked Adeline quietly.

"No, pure coincidence. I didn't realize he was going to be here. We came to visit since Sirius will be heading out with the delegation to the Americas soon. I and the other ladies decided to sit out this last leg of things since we'll all be giving birth in just a few more weeks."

It was still early, so Madame Puddifoots only had a few patrons--teenage couples from Hogwarts staring into each other's eyes mostly.

"Oh, this place is adorable!" Adeline commented as they entered. "I love the lamps."

"How many in your party?"

"Four…"

"Oi! Don't forget about us mate. Eight." Ron spoke up from behind. Harry turned and found that Ron, Hermione, Neville and Luna had all followed them.

"Oh, goodness…well, no matter. It will be simple enough to push a couple of the tables together. This way." Madame Puddifoot directed before bustling off.

A couple of flicks of her wand had four of the tables in the center of the room moving together while the chairs rearranged themselves around them.
Sirius stepped forward to get Adeline's chair for her, so Harry moved to get Luna's, before taking his seat. Hermione looked at Ron expectantly, but he had already sat down to peer at the menu. Neville stepped forward instead, before she had a chance to get angry and start yelling at him for it.
Harry found himself in the middle of the table, with Luna and Adeline to either side of him, Tom across, with Sirius and Neville to either side of him, and Ron and Hermione at the end of the table.

"Do you want the same thing we got last time?" Harry asked Tom.

"Yes, that should be fine."

"What did you get?" Adeline asked.

"Tea for two."

"Let's see…oh, yes, that sounds nice. I'm in the mood for a nice Darjeeling, how does that sound?"

"Whatever you want. All tea tastes the same to me." Sirius shrugged.

Madame Puddifoot returned and took everyone's orders, leaving the odd company staring at one another as they tried to think of what to talk about.

"So…we were thinking of making cards, little cakes and dream catchers for the house elves. Alex and Graham and the rest are running a house elf counseling center out of the castle, have you heard?" Harry said.

"No, but I can't say it surprises me. Those guys are real big on people talking about their feelings." Sirius snorted.

"I just hope they're not getting the elves drunk. They'll make them sick. They can't metabolize alcohol well at all. Even butterbeer is too much for them." Tom added.

"I still can't believe that. What a freak, huh? Sick bastard. Apparently Crouch sr. knew about it. He told Winky to stay out of sight if he came by. Mr. Law and Order indeed." Sirius interject, disgusted.

"I don't know if there's actually any laws against it." Adeline sighed.

"There has to be something that qualifies, and if there isn't there should be." Hermione spoke up firmly.

"His weren't the only dirty deeds uncovered. From what we've been hearing there's a whole slew of folks wanted for questioning about different things." Sirius added.

"Yeah, Dora told me. She said our theft case had kind of been put on a back burner for the time being." Harry nodded. "From what I heard they recovered the film and the money, even if none of the rest of the stuff, so all they really have to do is make time to swing by."

"Yeah, it's finding time that's apparently the problem." Sirius nodded.

Madame Puddifoot returned with their orders, and there was silence while everyone fixed their tea to their liking or sampled the array of little pastries that were brought along with it.

"So…how long have you and Katie been dating…I'm sorry, what was your name again? I don't believe I caught it." Hermione asked.

Tom glanced up and realized Hermione, Ron and Neville were all staring at him.

"I beg your pardon?"

"Katie? How long have you two been dating?"

"I'm not dating Miss Bell, I only just met her a few weeks ago. Her fathers got me drunk."

Hermione looked rather nonplussed by his answer. "Why would they do that?"

"They were trying to get me and Mr. Black to work out our differences after we got into a duel."

"I see."

"Hey, I know who you look like! It's been bugging me! You look like the Dread Warlord's son Tom!" Ron interjected excitedly.

"Hey, you know, he does." Neville realized. "What did you say your name was again?"

"I should think that was obvious, silly. He's Tom Riddle." Luna spoke up before popping a crème puff into her mouth. "Mmm. Yummy."

"Tom Riddle? He can't be…Tom Riddle was you-know-who." Ron scoffed.

"Honestly Ron, of course he can't be him. He's far too young. He's obviously a relative of his." Hermione snapped irritably. "I understand now why you didn't want us to meet him, although your fears were unfounded. I'm hardly going to hold an infamous relative against him, and shame on you for thinking I would." Hermione sniffed, darting a glance towards Tom before hiding behind her tea cup to take a sip. Harry's eyes narrowed in irritation when he saw her cheeks were rather pink.

"That's not why. I didn't want you and Ginny chattering at him non-stop, and I told you both as much when you were complaining about it."

"Harry said you were going to America?" Neville interjected, glancing at Sirius. "What are you going there for?"

"The move. A group of us has been travelling between quarters to spread the word and make sure everyone understands what's happening. We're all hoping things will go a bit quicker this time around, even though there's so much ground to cover. Word had started to spread eastward last time, so we didn't have to do nearly as much explaining as we thought we would, we were able to just jump into the details and what people needed to do to prepare. This is the last one, so hopefully enough info has spread that we'll be able to just jump right into the dancing."

"I certainly hope so. I'm getting very tired of making speeches." Tom sighed.

"It's your own fault for being so good at it." Harry teased.

"You're going as well?" Hermione asked curiously.

"Yes, and I'm very grateful this is the last hurdle."

"Hard to believe, isn't it? Just a few more months."

Hermione's shoulders slumped just a bit.

"I don't know what I'm going to do when we get there. Thank goodness for my college fund, or I wouldn't be able to finish school…though I don't know how I'm going to live the rest of the time."

"Don't worry about it. Plans are in place to help folks in your situation."

"What kind of plans?"

"Several different ones to give you a few options. They'll be announced at the end of the year, so don't fret about it overmuch."

"So, Tom…why don't you tell us a bit about yourself?" Luna spoke up.

"Like what?"

"What's your favorite color?"

"Gre…" he started to say, until he caught Harry's challenging smirk. They indulged in a brief staring contest and Tom sighed "Red."

Sirius blinked and turned to look at Tom in surprise. "Seriously?"

"Yes, so what."

"Hee hee. Gryffindor rules."

"Your godson's favorite color is green."

"Gryffindor still rules."

"Why were you going to lie about it? Who does that?" Hermione demanded, looking at Tom askance.

"My relatives were all Slytherins, it's not the done thing."

"Favorite food?" Luna interjected.

"I couldn't really say. I like spicy food."

"Not me. Spices give me gas."

"We know." Harry and Neville said together. Ron's farts were infamous for their toxicity.

"Too much information, boys." Adeline snickered.

"Favorite subject?"

Harry smiled expectantly at him and raised an eyebrow.

Tom sighed, and mumbled "divination."

"Oh. How nice." Hermione said with obvious disdain, not to mention disappointment.

"I like divination as well, though my favorite subject is charms." Luna replied cheerfully.

"No one ever seems to say herbology." Neville said sadly.

"Bah, herbology. I hate plants. Plants mean garden gnomes. I hate those little buggers. I've got a scar on my ankle where one of them bit me, you know. It never seems to matter how far you throw them or how dizzy you make them, they always wander back. Ginny thinks we should just hex them, but mum won't let us. She said they're good for the garden, it's just a problem when there's too many."

Tom stared at Ron, who went back to stuffing pastries in his mouth as soon as he was done talking, and then turned back to Luna to continue as though they'd never been interrupted.

"I like all branches of magic. Divination is my favorite because it's the least understood branch of magic available for study. My particular interest has always been seeking out the far reaches of what is possible. Divination, being the least understood, offers the most possibilities for such research."

"You don't have to convince me. You'll find that's how most Ravenclaws see it." Luna assured him.

Hermione looked slightly offended by that. She'd always worn her disdain of divination as a badge of pride.

"What are your hobbies?"

"Reading, researching the historical basis behind legends, searching for lost artifacts."

"Do you like sports?"

"I've never been much of an athlete, though I did take up tai chi and sword fighting a while ago."

"Whu abow quidditsh?" Ron asked.

"I beg your pardon?" Tom asked, his lip curling just a bit. People who spoke while their mouths were full were a pet peeve of his.

"Quidditch, man, quidditch!" Ron repeated once he'd swallowed.

"What can I say, I've never really been much of a fan."

Ron looked him up and down like he was some sort of bizarre alien, huffed disdainfully and turned back to his food, muttering under his breath.

"Favorite animal?"

"Snakes. I can talk to them."

"He also likes kittens and puffskeins, but he never mentions it when anyone asks about favorite animals." Harry added with a grin.

"I like kittens and puffskeins too!" Luna chirped. "My favorite animal is the crumple-horned snorkack though."

"Speaking of snakes, how's Nagini been?"

"She's fine. I'll be taking her with me to America. She doesn't like how much I've left her behind recently. I'm sure Lucius will be relieved, she keeps trying to eat his house elves, and his peacocks…she's been trying to eat a lot of things, actually."

"What sort of snake is she?" Neville wondered.

"Reticulated Burmese python. She's about fourteen feet long, last I checked."

Ron's complexion went pasty and Hermione shivered.

"She's a bit of a prima donna, but she's sweet once you get to know her." Harry assured everyone.

"We'll take your word for it." Neville chuckled uneasily.

"You seem a to be a very interesting person, Tom Riddle. You should meet my father someday. I think you two would have a lot to talk about. You're both seekers for truth. Harry is as well, though his focus has always been more on the personal as it pertains to himself, rather than in general like it seems to be with you." Luna commented.

"Thank you?"

"You're quite welcome."

 

Everyone finished up the last of their tea and pastries. Neville reached for his moneybag. "How much do I owe you?"

"Don't worry about it, kids, my treat."

Ron's eyes lit up and he reached for the menu to get something to tide him over till lunch, but Hermione kicked him sharply and glared at him. They drifted out to the sidewalk and began making their way back towards main street. A couple of Beauxbatons students wandered by, wearing their school cloaks, which had a pair of crossed sparkly wands on the chest.

"Oh, hey, I totally forgot about that!"

"About what?"
"What are you talking about?"

"I got this thing that makes stuff sparkly." Harry explained.

"Why'd you want to go around making things sparkly. Sounds barmy to me, mate."

"I don't know what it was originally for, but I've got it now. I thought you might like it, Luna."

"Oooh! Present!"

Harry dug out the rod, which was six inches long and about a half inch in diameter, made up of rotating sections so you could personalize your sparkles for every occasion. Luna took the thing eagerly and began studying the symbols etched down its length, twisting and turning it as they walked.

"I wonder if it works?"

"I don't know, I never tried it."

"Tee hee." Luna snickered as she casually brushed past yet another Beauxbatons student, a boy, and tapped him with it as she passed.

"Oooh, pretty!"

"Edward, you are all sparkly!"
"Sacre bleu!"
"Mon dieu!"

Luna began giggling to herself and started skipping down the center of the street, looking for other things to prettify with her new toy.

"Hey, what's going on up there?" Neville wondered as they slipped past the Beauxbatons kids, who were all staring at the sparkly kid and poking him while babbling at one another high speed in French.

"Is that Colin? Who's the guy dragging him down the street?" Harry asked.

"Looks like Dung Fletcher, dirty thief." Sirius snorted.

"He's a thief?"

"Yeah, a real lowlife. He'd steal your granny's nightgown while she was still sleeping in it if he thought it would get him a few sickles."

"And he's robbing Colin? We need to stop him!"

"Looks like Morag is doing that right now." Hermione pointed.

Morag darted out of the crowd, grabbed Colin about the waist and pulled, just as Dung, who was fighting for possession of a jingling bag with Colin, disapparated.

"Ouch. That has to hurt." Adeline muttered.

A flailing arm was left hanging in mid-air, still clutching at the bag. Colin and Morag peeled the clutching fingers away and backed off, holding the recovered bag protectively between them.

"Security detail! Form up! Let's get them to the castle!" Michael Corner shouted in a stentorian voice from within the crowd. He, Vince, Greg, and Ernie pushed their way forward, formed up around Colin and Megan and started glaring suspiciously at the surrounding people. "Move Aside! Coming Through!" Michael shouted next, clearing and path for all of them.

"Hey, Neville, hi everyone!"

"Hey Hannah. What's going on, do you know?"

Nearby the door of the Three Broomsticks banged open, and Dora stomped out, followed by a couple of kids. She stormed over to the flailing arm and hit it with several stinging hexes.

"I don't believe you, you dirty bastard! I just gave that stuff to those kids not five minutes ago! Damn thief! You are so going to regret interrupting my lunch hour you bastard! I'm eating for two here!"

She sent one final stinging hex at Dung's hand and then drew an orange square on the ground surrounding the area, and then pulled some items out of her pocket and used them to make a placard and a quill to write with. She made a sign saying "Do not help this man, he is being held for arrest" and affixed it to the hand with a sticking charm.

"You can just bloody well stay like that till I'm done my lunch, you hear?"

"That lady auror brought back our film and stuff and then that smelly guy tried to steal it." Hannah explained as Dora stomped back into the inn.

"Wow, I had no idea our Yule ball pictures were such a hot commodity." Neville said in surprise.

"I think he was after the money." Tom pointed out.

"That actually makes much more sense."

"Why did Luna get a present and none of the rest of us did?" Hermione demanded suddenly.

"Huh?"

"Not you, him" she told Hannah before turning expectantly to Harry.

"It was just something I thought she'd like…and judging by how damn sparkly the village is looking, I'd say I was right."

"It's just rather rude, don't you think? Giving presents to some of your friends but not others?"

"Isn't it kind of rude to go around demanding presents from people?" Hannah asked Neville in a stage whisper.

"I wasn't talking to you."

"She's right though." Neville sighed.

"It just doesn't seem very fair."

"Geez, you are unbelievable. Here, have a frickin hair brush!"

"What does it do?"

"According to Barty it prettys up your hair. I've never tested it."

"Oi! What about me?"

"Sorry Ron, Barty took the pain-inducing nipple clamps, so I guess you're out of luck."

Ron's twisted up and he stared blankly into the distance.

"Alright there, Ron?" Neville asked.

"Well, it's just, it's a conundrum, innit?"

"What is?"

"All this. One the one hand, I'm not getting a present…on the other hand…"

"YOU! DEFILIER OF PETS!" a tearful wail interrupted.

They turned to see Tom staring down at a flailing Draco Malfoy, who seemed rather distraught.

"What did you do to his pet? You're not another Ludo Bagman, are you?" Hermione gasped, glancing at Tom askance.

Tom glowered at her and then pushed Draco back; his flailing arms had nearly clipped him in the ear a couple of times.

"What the hell is your problem?"

"MR. CUDDLESWORTH IS DEAD!"

"Who the bloody hell is Mr. Cuddlesworth?"

"Did someone kill him?" Harry asked.

Tom's face sudden alit with understanding.

"Oh…right…this is about that pink thing Nagini ate. Look, I didn't know it was a bloody puffskein, they're supposed to be custard colored, not pink!"

"You had a pet pink puffskein?" Conversation stopped for a moment as Ron fell down laughing.

"Why was it pink?" Harry wondered.

"Strawberries. He was a darling little thing, and he absolutely adored strawberries. He ate so many of them he changed color." Narcissa explained as she approached.

"The first year I had him, he ate every strawberry on the grounds, and I didn't get a single one. He was greedy, but that's a trait I can respect. It showed he was a suitable pet for the Malfoy family." Draco sniffled. "I had to wait ages until the replacements came. Those bloody dwarves took forever!"

"Dwarves?" Hermione sputtered "What dwarves?"

"The ones that deliver them from France. They carry the ice-packed chests on their backs. A lot of them tend to die along the way, it's a perilous journey…well, not so much now, what with the Chunnel and all." Lucius explained.

"You ordered strawberries from France and had dwarves carry them on their backs to deliver them to you and some of them died?" Hermione shrieked. "You couldn't just take a jaunt down the road to the farmer's market like a normal person?"

"First of all, it is the strawberry people that send them by dwarf. Honestly, we'd have preferred they just use owl service, they would have gotten here a lot quicker. Secondly, the only farmers in the area are muggles."

"I don't believe you! You're so prejudiced against muggles, you would go to such lengths rather than buy strawberries from them?"

"Of course not, you silly twit. Muggles cover all their food in pesticides! Chemicals! Such things react badly amongst magic, as I would think you of all people would know! You are the brain fungus girl, right?" Lucius drawled while looking down his nose at Hermione.

"The what?!"

"They're called wrackspurts." Luna interjected.

"Whatever. I don't see why I can't just call them brain fungus. At least then you know what's being spoken about."

"That's what it means, brain fungus."

"In what language?"

"Gobbledygook. The goblins found the first strains of mutated bundimums, so we kept the name in their language." Luna explained.

"Oh. I only know one phrase in gobbledygook "Arhk-gla-manuk-shlungshlun" I use it every time I go to the bank."

Harry and Neville blinked as they tried to work out what Lucius had just said. Harry bit his lip, and Neville's face went red.

"Um…you tell the bankers that your penis is thick and juicy every time you go there?"

"I do what now?"

"In light of the whole Ludo Bagman thing…I wouldn't suggest doing that anymore." Neville added.

"Dear lord, I could have been killed!"

"I want to know more about the enslaved dwarves!"

"What is it with you and the bloody dwarves?" Tom demanded. "And for your information, they're not even delivering strawberries anymore. They never went back to France after they dropped off their cargo. They set up a colony in Lucius' back yard."

"What? I have a colony of French strawberry dwarves living in my backyard?"

"You must have seen them. They're always running around doing yardwork!" Tom huffed.

"I thought they were garden gnomes."

"They don't look anything like garden gnomes!"

"I thought they evolved to fit better with their surroundings. I mean really, you must admit, lumpy potato men aren't exactly stylish!"

"Well, yes, you're right about that."

"How do you know about the dwarves?" Harry wondered.

"I was in the garden one day and saw them and asked them how they came to be there and they told me their story. They were tricked into a contract by a French strawberry farmer and were stuck working for him for generations. However, the contract isn't valid here and they realized they were free, and what's more, there was a cave on your land, so they decided to stay."

"What happened to the garden gnomes then?" Narcissa asked.

"They conquered them and made them their butlers."

"WE ARE GETTING OFF THE SUBJECT!" Draco shrieked, tired of being ignored. "The point is…the point…what was the point…Oh, right! The point is that Mr. Cuddlesworth is dead!"

Tom glowered at him for a moment and then sighed and summoned a rock, which he transfigured into a pink puffskein and handed over.

Draco pouted at the thing and turned mournful puppy dog eyes on the former dark lord. "It's really not the same."

Tom sighed and jabbed the thing with his wand. It began purring.

Draco sniffled a bit and rubbed the thing on his cheek. "Come on fake Mr. Cuddlesworth. We need cake. Lots and lots of cake."

Ron fell down laughing again, as Lucius and Narcissa ran off to find a good Goblin-English dictionary.

"Oh, I forgot to ask while they were here; did Narcissa want Bellatrix's old dresses?"

"No, she didn't. She's a few inches taller than Bellatrix, and their coloring is very different. She thought it would take too much trouble to alter them for her use. The trunks are still in the ballroom." Sirius replied.

"Oddment."
"Yes, young master?"
"Could you bring me the trunks from the ballroom?"
"Certainly."
Oddment disappeared and reappeared a few minutes later with several trunks surrounding him.
"Thanks, Oddment, that'll be all."
When Oddment disappeared he called "Itsy."
"Yes, master Harry? You is calling?"
"Yeah, could you take these and find some garment racks and hang the dresses on them and put them in the back upstairs room of the Melting Pot for me?"
"Is being no problem."

"What are you going to do with a bunch of dresses?" Hannah asked.

"Tonight after dinner I'll let the ladies of the Melting Pot have a gander at them. Anything that's left over I'll sell or donate to any of the clubs that think they can make use of them."

"Yeah? What kind of dresses are we talking about here?"

"All kinds--day robes, dress robes, duelling gear, ball gowns, you name it. There's tons of stuff packed in those trunks."

"Sweet. I could use some new clothes." Hannah chortled, rubbing her hands.

"Uh…"

"Oh, Nev, relax. Dresses aren't evil, only people are evil. Besides…your parents are better now, and they're still in Azkaban."

"Well, yeah, there is that."

"Let's get moving; I'm getting cold standing around out here. I do have shopping to do."

"Huh, isn't that Pam Diggory?" Sirius asked curiously.

"Who?"

"Pamela Diggory, she's married to Amos Diggory from the Department for Regulation and Control of Magical Creatures." Adeline explained.

"Cedric's mum." Hannah added, watching the distant figure, who seemed to be quite distraught. "I hope everything is alright."

Mrs. Diggory spotted Cedric coming out of Honeydukes with some of his friends, and hurried to meet him, flinging herself on him when she got close enough and weeping, much to her son's surprise and alarm. Cedric wrapped an arm around her shoulders and led her off towards the Three Broomsticks, his friends hurrying along behind, all of them looking concerned.

"I wonder if something happened to Amos?" Adeline fretted.

"If it has, I'm sure we'll hear about it before long." Sirius replied.

"Oh, there's Dora, I guess she finally finished her lunch." Harry noted.

The pink-haired auror was slowly making her way through the crowd, licking her lips and rubbing her tummy, looking quite content, and a bit sleepy.

"Ah" she exclaimed as she came even with them "that really hit the spot. I just saw Pam Diggory, any clue what's wrong with her?"

"No, we just saw her a moment ago ourselves, not a clue."

"I hope Amos is alright. He seemed in fine health last I saw him."

"Yeah, me too."

"Oh, well, I guess I'll hear about it when I get back to the office. I swear, we've been run ragged since we started investigating Rita Skeeter. It should die down soon, I hope. I'd heard the last of the warrants was issued today to bring folks in for questioning. It'll be up to the courts after this--good thing too, I'm getting sick of chasing around after all the creepy lowlifes Skeeter has dirt on."

"Yeah? What kind of lowlifes?" Sirius asked curiously.

"You wouldn't believe some of the…"

"CRACK"

"What was…sonofa! Mundungus Fletcher you bastard!" Dora suddenly cursed. "Damn it, I shouldn't have stopped to talk! Now I'm going to have to go dig that rat out of whatever hole he went and crawled into! I'd better go…see you around."

"See you."
"Bye."

Dora did a plotting charm and disappeared with a 'crack' to hunt down Dung and haul him in for attempted robbery.

"Wow, there's a lot going on around here today."

 

 

"Food! I'm starving!" Ron cheered.

"You're always starving. How you manage to stay so skinny, I'll never know."

Breakfast at Hogwarts was, as always, a boisterous affair, made only more chaotic by the arrival of the morning mail owls. An owl bearing the Daily Prophet landed in front of him, as well as Neville and Hermione and many others at the table. On the front page was a blazing headline with a largish photograph of Rita Skeeter.
"Skeeter Scandals Rock Britain!"

"Amos Diggory" Hermione whispered. "That's Cedric's father. I guess this is why his mum was so upset yesterday."

"What? Where?"

"About halfway down the page. Amos Diggory, long of the Department for Regulation and Control of Magical Creatures, was brought in for questioning yesterday regarding several blackmail photos in Skeeter's possession…"

"It says here he's been killing magical beings--goblins, veela, vampires, hags…and he's been part of a group that's been disrupting rights groups. He disrupted talks on goblin rights, and troll rights, and his interference led to the groups rampaging and hurting innocent bystanders and ended all talk of rights for said groups."

"When asked why he had done such a thing, he defended himself saying 'Someone needed to put those things in their place, and show them they don't get to go around pretending that they're people. I stand by what I did. I'm a hero!" Lavender continued.

"Weasley…" Neville said.

"Huh?"

"There' s a bunch of Weasleys in here too… Cletus, Carrackatus and Rutger."

"Hey, those are the bastards that tried to steal my house and got all shirty with me when I told them to get lost. Where are they listed?"

"Towards the bottom. It seems your house wasn't the only one. They stole fifty magical houses and all the contents. The houses they rented out to muggles, the magical items they either de-magified and sold to muggles, or they sold them to folks in the magical world if they couldn't."

"How could they just steal houses? Surely someone noticed?" Parvati wondered.

"They were all houses where the families had been killed during the war. The house and contents passed to relatives, but they usually were already living elsewhere and figured they could give the house to their kids when they were grown, but they cleaned the place out and rented it to muggles. When families complained about muggles being in their house they were told they just had to accept it, because they weren't allowed to kick the muggles out."

"It seems they made a small fortune doing this. Skeeter kept her mouth shut about what they were doing and never reported the thefts because they were paying her a bit each month to keep her mouth shut…so was Diggory, so was everyone on this list….smugglers, black market traders, corrupt Ministry workers, prostitution rings…the list goes on and on. She could have singlehandedly helped clean up crime and been a hero to the masses if she'd ever used what she'd learned, but instead she covered it up for profit while ruining the lives of law-abiding people in her nasty gossip column." Harry said, disgusted.

"Poor Cedric. They have a big spread about him beside the more in depth article about his father further in." Lavender noted.

Across the hall there was a commotion as Cho suddenly paled, and had to be helped from the great hall by her friends.

"There's a picure of Cho and Cedric together in there as well." Parvati explained.

"Poor Cho. Nobody better send her anything nasty, or they're going to answer to me."

"What about me? Cletus is my uncle, and Carrackatus and Rutger are my cousins!" Ron complained.

"I doubt you have to worry too much, I mean, your family doesn't have the best reputation…not your immediate family, I mean the rest of them. Most folks will probably just shrug and not be surprised." Neville replied.

"That helps a lot, thanks." Ron growled back before glowering at the paper.

"There's also the fact that there's like 50 million of you. I don't think anyone's going to chance bringing down the wrath of the red-headed horde on their heads."

"I wonder where Cedric is, he didn't come to breakfast." Seamus noted.

"If you knew it was going to be all over the papers that your dad had been off killing fairies in his spare time, would you have shown up?"

"This is terrible. The second task is in just a few days. How is he supposed to concentrate?" Hermione fretted.

"He might actually welcome the task. When you've got stuff on your mind that you don't want to think about, having something that takes up your attention can be a relief." Harry sighed.

"He doesn't really have a choice. He's under a magically binding contract. He has to compete." Neville reminded them.

 

Cedric stayed out of sight the remainder of the weekend, though he had to return and face the public come Monday when classes were back in session. He had only bought himself a short bit of time, not escaped altogether. The paper continued carrying articles about the various misdeeds Skeeter had been covering up as those questioned were slated for trial. Rita Skeeter herself was still at large, but most figured it was only a matter of time before she was found.

The days passed, and before they knew it, it was the day of the second task. After lunch was over, everyone bundled up and went trooping down to the lake.

Bleachers had been set up on both sides of the lake, while a floating barge had been installed at one end, and at the other were four large view screens set up in a square

"I wonder if this task will be as exciting as the last one. I had nightmares about snarling dragons for weeks!" Hannah shivered.

"I don't like to speak ill of the dead…but Ludo Bagman really did the world a favor when he offed himself." Susan Bones commented as they took their seats.

"I don't disagree, but why do you think that specifically?" Harry asked.

"My aunt told me that they discovered he'd been embezzling tournament funds left and right. He told the Ministry that the foreign schools refused to allow them to use dragons from Britain for the first task, and insisted they be brought in from elsewhere, and then told them it was so expensive to import them that they were short on funds for the remainder of the tournament and couldn't do everything they'd planned--like have seeing eyes follow the champions and project images up onto view screens. If he hadn't of killed himself, we'd have been stuck watching the top of the lake for an hour while the champions were under water completing their tasks!"

"What a tool." Dean snorted. "Geez, it's a bit nippy out here."

The three champions stepped out onto the barge in swimsuits and lined up by the edge of the water.

"I don't envy the champions having to take a swim in this weather." Harry said

"Yeah…you can't even appreciate the sight of Cedric in swimwear--he's blue and his skin is all goosebumpy." Hannah agreed.

"He looks tired…and like he's recently lost weight." Lavender sighed.

"He has. All that business with his dad has really taken a toll on him." Susan agreed.

"Attention! Our champions will now set out to complete the second task of the Triwizard Tournament. Earlier, persons of import to our champions were taken to a hidden spot beneath the lake. The champions have one hour to retrieve their loved ones! Champions, are you ready?"

The three shivering teens nodded and leapt into the lake when the signal was given.

"Bubblehead charms…they should have gone with gillyweed." Neville shook his head.

"What's that then?" Ron wondered.

"It's a plant from the Mediterranean. If you eat it, it gives you gills and flippers and lets you swim like a fish and breath underwater till it wears off. It's popular with pearl divers down there." Neville replied.

"Oh wow, Viktor Krum just gave himself a shark head. He looks really scary." Hannah noted.

"Look at the hostages." Dean pointed to one of the view screens that had been set up alongside the lake. "They look like they're dead!"

"Hermione! What's she doing down there?" Ron gasped.

"I had wondered where she was. It's been rather quiet without her huffing about how barbaric it all is." Harry said with some surprise.

"Bloody Krum!"

"Gabrielle Delacour and Cho are down there too." Luna noted.

"Cedric said the clue song said what was taken would be lost forever if they couldn't retrieve it…" Susan said worriedly.

"You don't really think they'll leave them down there?" Hannah objected.

"I dunno, would they? I mean, the tournament was outlawed for a reason--high death tolls." Ron worried.

"Wow, this really is barbaric." Susan shivered.

The view on the screens was creepy in the extreme. Each of the champions seemed to hover alone in the midst of darkness, from which unexpected dangers would suddenly appear without warning.
The swimmers dodged entangling seaweed, schools of fish with sharp teeth, eels and jellyfish and jutting rocks that loomed out suddenly from the murk as they made their way through the frigid waters.

"Oh! What are those?"

"Grindylows…water demons, a whole swarm of them. She can't get rid of them fast enough." Luna explained.

As they watched, breathless with tension, Fleur Delacour writhed in the grip of the small pests, who pulled her down to the lake bed while she struggled. Although she was obviously terrified, and was beginning to sprout small bruises and cuts all over herself, many of the boys in the audience watched entranced while shifting uncomfortably in their seats.

"That's…hot." Seamus muttered.

"You creep! They're hurting her!" Susan hissed.

"Give me a break, she's a veela in a bathing suit, and she keeps twisting and writhing and throwing out her chest…just like that. I'm only human!."

"Ugh! Boys!"

"Viktor's found them! Where's Cedric?" Hannah fretted.

"Dodging creepy eels. Hermione's free. Go Cedric."

"What about the little girl? Fleur is still captured. Oh! We can't let her be drowned!" Susan gasped.

"They look like they're dead, so they're probably under draught of living death. They're not even breathing. Unless they really underestimated how much to give them they should be fine. If they let the little girl die, it will probably start a war, and I doubt anyone wants that." Harry tried to reassure her.

"There's Cedric! He got Cho!" Hannah cheered.

"Hey, veela girl just went limp! Did they drown her?" Dean asked.

"She's got a bubblehead on, she won't drown unless it wears off. Grindylows have venom that paralyzes their prey." Luna assured him.

"Merfolk!" Susan pointed.

As they watched, a duo of mermen came and scattered the grindylows, retrieved Fleur from their clutches and began swimming her towards the surface.

"Viktor just surfaced! Four minutes before the hour, not bad." Lavender said.

"There's Fleur, they're hauling her out now…looks like their giving her an anti-venin." Luna noted.

Fleur struggled to her feet, white faced and tried to throw herself back in the lake, but the judges wouldn't let her. She started crying, but she was still weak from the grindylow venom and couldn't get past them.

"It just hit the hour mark…where's Cedric?" Hannah worried.

"One minute past…wait, there he is!"

"What about the little girl?" Susan demanded.

Fleur collapsed sobbing to the ground as the screens all went black.

"Oh god!"

Fleur looked up, crazed, desperate and sobbing and suddenly seemed to glow as she purred in an unearthly voice that seemed to carry to every corner "Save her. Save Gabrielle". Almost instantly, nearly every male in the vicinity surged to their feet and tried to fling themselves in the lake. Dumbledore stunned Fleur in the back and her glow winked out, leaving quite a few men and boys shrieking as they desperately tried to get back out of the icy water.

"He stunned her!" Hannah gasped.

"Desperate men throwing themselves in the lake is a bad idea. She could have drowned everyone." Lavender realized.

"Wait! Look, merfolk…and they've got Gabrielle!" Luna said in relief.

"She saved! Oh thank goodness!" Susan gasped.

"Ah geez, accio Colin!"

Everyone leaned down to see Colin pulled from the lake to land on the shore with a skid.

"His damned camera was pulling him under."

Colin coughed up some lake water and stumbled to his feet, giving Harry a cheerful thumbs up, before waddling off towards the castle, wringing out his robes as he did so.

"So…Viktor now has a solid lead, Cedric is second place and Fleur third." Neville recounted.

"There's still one more task, Cedric can still win." Hannah said cheerfully.

"Let's hope so, it'd be nice to have a win like that for Hufflepuff…maybe people will stop saying we're all a bunch of duffers." Susan agreed.

"Whether Cedric wins or loses, he was still chosen as the best representative of our school. Hufflepuff gets the glory regardless. Anyway, only idiots think Hufflepuffs are duffers. We all know you're cool, that should be plenty." Neville assured them.

They passed the medical tent on their way back to the castle. Cedric's mom was there hugging him. He looked pretty woebegone. A shaken, worse for wear Fleur was heading towards her carriage with a death grip on her little sister. The only one who seemed to be in good spirits was Viktor--he had won the task, and was currently first place in the tournament, he had no family scandals gracing the papers, and he and Hermione seemed to be getting rather cozy.

 

"I'm going to go see how the booths did."

"We'll come with you."

The souvenir booths set up by the different clubs once again seemed to be doing a booming business.

"Hey, Harry!" Dennis waved. "You just missed the press. Some girl from Witch Weekly was down here interviewing all of us. We might have our pictures in the next issue."

"Oh? What were they interviewing you about?"

"The clubs, Rita Skeeter robbing us, the souvenir booths, what we plan to do after school, all kinds of stuff."

"Well, they say any publicity is good publicity, though I guess we'll find out when the article comes out. Hopefully this girl isn't another Rita Skeeter; I'd be rather afraid of what sort of scandal she'd try to make from a bunch of school clubs."

"Yeah…let's hope it's not like that. I don't want to get hexed mail."

"How'd the take go anyway?"

"Pretty good--the posters with the dragons from the first task were all big sellers, so were the limited edition statuettes of the champions and their dragons, we sold a few more programs…and we managed to sell off most of the decorative photo frames that didn't get sold when we were selling Yule Ball photos."

"Excellent. That's what I like to hear."

"These tournament events are kind of anti-climactic, aren't they?" Hannah mused as they trooped back up to the castle. We wait months, and then it's over in an hour, and then it's back to afternoon classes."

"Yeah, it might have been better had it all been done at once over a week or something, maybe at the end of the year. Of course, if the real point was not only for the schools to compete against each other, but also to give students nearing marriageable age a chance to mingle with those outside their normal pool of prospects, it makes sense they do it this way. Of course, if that's what the point is, they really should have socials for the sixth and seventh years so they have an actual chance to mingle. They don't really have a chance to with classes, and the foreign students are staying on their ship and in their carriages, so they don't even get to hang out with them afterwards either."

"Well…maybe we should organize something, since the staff don't seem to be doing so." Parvati suggested.

"Or, we could mention it to some of the older kids and let them organize something. The twins are sixth years. I'm sure they'd be up for organizing a party." Ron shrugged.

"The twins are fun, but their idea of a great party will probably involve a lot of explosions and people turning into things or changing colors." Hannah laughed.

"Okay, then we can just speculate about what a loss it is to all of them to not be having socials where they can mingle and get to know the foreign students in front of them, and see if any of the sixth or seventh years runs with the idea." Harry suggested.

"Or we can just go and talk to Professor Sprout and she'll assign someone to do so. It would probably be simpler." Susan objected.

"Whatever works."

"Well, back to the grind we go." Neville sighed as they entered the castle. "I hate to say it, but I'm almost afraid of what next year is going to be like. They're really laying on the work this year."

"From what Cho told me, fifth year is actually a lot easier under the new curriculum. One through four are now tougher, because they're cramming a lot more in to less time. Fifth through seventh are a little simpler because they're cramming a bit more into more time, since you now have three years to do NEWT level studies. She said the work is more complex, but you get a bit more time to understand it, so it seems to work out alright." Luna explained.

"I'm glad to hear that."

"Me too. I've been wondering if I'd be forced to drop out before NEWTs because I couldn't cut it anymore. I think my hands are going to be permanently disfigured from writing essays at this rate." Seamus laughed.

"Invest in a dicta-quill. It helps." Harry suggested.

"I might just do that."

"Mmm. Lunch smells good. I'm starving."

"Ron, you're always starving. Hey, what's going on there?"

"Oh, Colin and Morag must have finished developing the pictures. Good. I know everyone was beginning to get irritated by how long it was taking." Lavender realized.

Colin and Morag were indeed handing out packages to the different tables, as were several other kids that had been recruited to help.

"Hey, guys!" Morag greeted them cheerfully. I've got yours and yours right here."

"Oooh, let's see!" Hannah squealed as Neville took the package.

"Okay, okay, give me a second. They turned out nice. You look great."

"Thanks…you look pretty good yourself."

Harry pulled out two frames and six photos. He put one of the frames back, and half the photos and handed the package to Ron to give to Ginny.

"What are you going to do with yours?"

"Shrink the lot and send it to Sirius and Adeline, I guess. We're not dating, so it's not like I'm going to stick it up on my bedside table or anything."

"Good. That would be weird." Ron said with some relief. "I still can't believe mum got her a dress like that. And she tries to say she doesn't show favoritism. You saw what she sent me for dress robes! Typical."

Harry just smiled and nodded. He didn't bother to correct him. Hedwig flew into the hall just as Harry finished shrinking the framed photos.

"Hello, clever girl. Let me write a little note to go with it, and then it's all yours, alright?"

"Oh, the pictures are ready? Where's Viktor? He probably has ours." Hermione said rather breathlessly.

"Weren't you just with him?"

"I had to go get changed. They took me last night, and I was wearing one of those Bellatrix dresses. It was the strangest thing, really. Headmaster Dumbledore looked me up and down and made a face at me and started lecturing me about being ashamed of my muggle heritage. He said that while I looked nice, I really should stick to what I usually wear, although he was glad to see I had forgone trousers as he thought women shouldn't wear them. Can you imagine? But anyway, I did a drying charm on myself but I was still feeling a bit clammy--I'm not used to all the layers. My crinolines were still a bit damp. I had to get changed in any case, since I wasn't in my uniform."

"You've been using that hairbrush, haven't you?"

Hermione patted her hair self-consciously. "So what if I have?"

"Nothing, I was just saying is all."

"It's marvelous, isn't it? I had to use a whole bottle of sleakeazy for the ball to get my hair smooth, and it took me over an hour to do it. Since I've gotten that brush, I just have to go over it a few times every morning and evening to get it like this."

Hermione's hair, usually a big bushy mess of tight curls around her head was now hanging in smooth waves down her back and around her face. Her hair was surprisingly long, something one didn't normally realize given how tightly curled it was, hanging to her hips almost.

"It really is the nicest present I've ever gotten. I wish I'd had it years ago. I'm sure my years in primary school would have been much more pleasant."

"Where did you get that brush from anyway? I want one." Lavender asked.

"I got it from Harry."

"I got it from Bellatrix Lestrange's house. I have no idea where she got it."

"Do you know where I could find out?"

"Haven't a clue."

Lavender sat back looking sulky, but then brightened once more. "If I took that brush to the cunning artificers, do you think they could make more? We could probably make a mint on them at the end of year fair."

"I don't want them to break it though! It's the best brush I've ever had!"

"I'm sure they won't break it."

"I'm sure I could analyze it just fine and recreate what was done." Hermione objected. "It's my brush. If anyone's going to make money off of it, it's going to be me."

"Finally found your capitalist spirit, did you Hermione? Too bad it only came up now. If Bellatrix bought that brush somewhere, someone else probably already owns the patents on whatever charm combination was used."

Hermione just sniffed, looked disappointed and put her nose in the air, before running off in search of Viktor to get her pictures.

 

As they were heading in to potions class, Harry remembered his conversation with Hannah and Susan about the sixth and seventh years not having a chance to socialize with the foreign students. "Hey, professor?"

"Yes, Harry my dear boy, something you needed?"

"Just a question to sooth my curiosity."

"Ask away, dear boy."

"Why haven't the staff organized any socials for the upper years and the foreign students…other than the Yule Ball, I mean? It seems a wasted opportunity, don't you think, to build strong personal ties amongst the populace in our little corner of the world?"

"I myself have actually hosted a few small get-togethers for a few of the more exceptional upper years, but you're right, it is rather a travesty that nothing more was done. I was going to hold a little Christmas soiree, but I'm afraid the Yule Ball made that quite impossible."

"Well, the Easter holidays are coming up."

"So they are. I shall have to think more on this. Goodness…look at this, five minutes past when class should have begun, you naughty boy, no more trying to get out of working!" Slughorn scolded playfully. "Alright everyone, turn your textbooks to page three hundred and ninety. Over the next few weeks, we'll be covering some of the more complicated potions that sometimes make their appearance on the OWLs…"

 

It was the weekend again, and the lower year students were in the Melting Pot as they usually were when not in class.

"You know, we really are crowded down here anymore. Do you think it's maybe time to look for new quarters again?" Harry realized.

"What, add a few more rooms?" Neville wondered.

"Maybe just move the whole operation somewhere else. I mean, yeah, this location has worked for us so far, but back in the very beginning we were hiding. We're established enough that we don't really have to hide anymore. Maybe it's time to look for someplace more central."

"Like where?"

"Actually, I may know just the place. It's still rather off the beaten path, even though it's actually right at the heart of the castle."

"Where?"

"Apparently the staff used to be able to bring their families to live with them, once upon a time. I don't know when exactly that stopped being the case, but there it is. There's a hidden passage that gives you access to the area, and there's even a courtyard in the center--you can't get onto the grounds from there, as it was intended as a play area for any children too young for Hogwarts so they could go outside, but not mix with the older kids who were going to school here. The whole place will need to be cleaned pretty thoroughly, but I think it really will be perfect for our needs. There's a large room that serves as a gateway to the whole section that could serve as the new Melting Pot, or maybe the new party room…we'll have to see once we make a complete survey of the place. We'll be able to go outside without going too far from the clubhouses, what do you think?"

"It's certainly worth looking into…though it will be odd to move out of the dungeons after we've all spent so much time down here." Millicent shrugged.

"I want in on the moving committee!" Hermione announced suddenly as she stood, hands on her hips.

"Geez, calm down. You can be on the committee, relax."

Hermione sat down, a trifle embarrassed at her outburst, especially since a lot of people were looking at her oddly.

"Stop looking at me like that. All the committees were always being set up when I wasn't around. I didn't want to get left out again!"

"It's not really that big a deal." Goyle told her.

"Right, that's why there are photos of all the committees lining the walls in the entryway. Don't patronize me. I want in."

"If I appoint you to be on a committee, wouldn't that make me your patron? Learn to speak English." Harry quipped.

"You want to get hexed, don't you?"
"Bring it on!"

"Guys! Geez, calm down. No hexing!" Hannah scolded, glaring at Harry and Hermione both until they settled back in their seats. "Who else wants to be on the relocation committee?"

A few hands went up around the room.

"Alright, come on. We can go do the initial survey and some preliminary cleaning right now." Harry said, standing.

Hermione jumped to her feet, eager to be off.

"Oi, Colin, why don't you or Morag come too. You can take photos for The Melting Pot: A History--the Final Move"

"How do we know it's the final move though? Something might happen that makes the clubs have to be relocated someday." Neville wondered.

"It sounds better than 'one move among many in the years to come."

"Well, yes, there is that."

They ran into a few fifth years entering the room as they got ready to leave.

"You're all in high spirits, what's going on?"

"Apparently they're going to have a party for all the fifth, sixth and seventh years along with the foreign students."

"Nice. What kind of activities are they going to have?"

"Um, I don't know. The teachers just told us about it in class earlier."

"You don't think they're just going to stick us in a room with a buffet table, do you?"

"Probably. That's most people's definition of a party--a group of people and food. Maybe music."

"You know, he's right. Maybe we should do something to make the party more fun."

"Yeah, otherwise we'll probably all just end up standing around talking to all the people we usually do."

The fifth years wandered off deep in discussion about what sort of party games and mingling strategies they could come up with to make the planned party more fun, while the new relocation committee headed out to survey their future quarters.

 

"It's just through here." Harry pointed, before ducking around a standing statue of a faun playing pan pipes. There was a short passage accessible behind the statue that led into another, much dustier corridor.

"How'd you even know about this place?" Hermione wondered.

"The house elves, how else? They know pretty much everything there is to know about the castle. They're the ones who told me all that stuff about families once living here too."

The corridor they found themselves in was a little narrower than the ones elsewhere, though not by much. It was obvious it had been some time since anyone was back there as there was not only dust, but cobwebs draping the hallway. He led them down to a set of large double doors, which he opened wide before striding inside. Inside was a large chamber with a vaulted ceiling, with another set of large double doors at the other end.

"It's chilly in here." Colin shivered.

"Those doors over there lead out to the courtyard, and there's no fire lit in here--hasn't been for a while, remember."

They headed for the outer doors and found themselves in a courtyard overlooked by the inner parts of the castle. It was a fairly decent sized place, with large round planters with benches around the outer edges placed strategically throughout the space, while the rest was open--perfect for small children to run around and play small games in. There were a number of doors opening onto the space that they could see from there.

"Those were private quarters for the families. There's another big room over there. From what the elves told me, one was a group classroom for the little kids, the other was a group dining room with a small kitchen behind it. Some of the folks brought their own house elves with them, so they worked just this area, while the Hogwarts elves looked after the rest of the school. That's why it's so dirty down here, there's been no one looking after it since they stopped letting families live here."

"I wonder why they stopped?"

"I guess with the invention of the floo it wasn't seen as being necessary; the professors can floo home on weekends if they want to. I don't know really."

"Well, it works out to our benefit. Let's take a look around."

There were twelve separate quarters, plus the two large rooms. Each had a couple of large rooms on the bottom floor and four smaller rooms on the upper. Each had its own bathroom, complete with tub and sink, and stone window boxes beneath the windows on the upper floor which looked out over the courtyard. The large room they'd first come through was the only way to access the rest of the area, as none of the quarters had doors leading into the castle proper, just to the courtyard.

"I was thinking the big clubs that have a lot of stuff get a whole section to themselves. All the smaller clubs that just have people sitting around talking and what have you, we can split up individual quarters to give them their own space within it. We'll have to get some numbers for those so we can apportion the space fairly."

"I think we should put the cunning artificers close to where the kitchen is; some of them were talking about trying their hands at smelting." Draco suggested.

"Some of the art folks were talking about pottery. With a little finagling those big ovens in there could serve both their purposes." Dean added.

Okay, so the artificers and the artists get the quarters on either side of the dining room. I guess we'll make the big room between them the party room so it won't be in use most of the time when they want access to the kitchens for projects. The gateway room will be the Melting Pot. I guess we put the puppeteers and the printing club to either side of that."

"Photography club on one of the sides, The accounting office and archives should get the others nearby…who gets the last one?" Morag suggested.

"The fashion club. They were talking about making some of their designs and having shows at some point. They'll need the space." Harry realized.

"So the ones left on the other side will be the small clubs then. That should work."

"We should probably move all the bathrooms downstairs and put them close to the doors so they're easy to access." Hermione noted.

"How about just in the area holding the small clubs? We'll leave the large clubs with theirs upstairs, so it's just for them. The multi-use quarters will be public bathrooms."

"What about the saunas?" Morag asked.

"Uh…have them open off the party room. Maybe we should just make it the 'general purpose room' instead--parties, tai chi, sword practice, saunas, etc."

"That'll work."

"So, are we agreed? This place is a good place to move to?"

"Yeah, it seems perfect. It should be nice during the warmer weather especially." Colin agreed.

"Alright. I guess we'll spread the word that we're having a general meeting then. Have everybody go the same place where we had the rebellion meeting tonight after dinner and we'll announce the move then."

"You know…we've accumulated a lot of stuff in the time we've been in the dungeons. We might have to set up a logistics committee to make sure the move goes smoothly." Dean realized.

"I want to be on it!" Hermione replied immediately.

"Sure, whatever. Do you know who the organized people are in the clubs?" Harry sighed.

"Um, yes…I believe so."

"Great. Get them together and go to town."

Hermione's eyes blazed and her back straightened with purpose. "I'll go do that right now." she assured everyone before marching off.

"You made her head of the logistics committee?" Draco asked.

"Sure. She wants to prove herself and get her picture on the wall, she also likes bossing people around, and she's very organized. I'm sure it'll be fine."

"And if it's not, the committee will just expel her. No problem." Neville shrugged.

"Alright, let's spread out and start cleaning. We've got a lot of ground to cover."

They were about halfway done with the rooms, when the Grey Lady came drifting through a wall and into the courtyard. She slowed to a stop as she took notice of them.

"Oh…what are all of you doing here?"

"Good evening, milady. We're tidying up the place so we can move in."

"Oh? Are you staff? No…you're in uniform, you're all still students. Are you related to some of the professors then? Why are you moving in so late? It's winter" she realized, glancing around at the snow covered courtyard. "Term started months ago."

"You know our clubhouse in the dungeons?"

"Yes, what of it?"

"We're getting crowded down there so we're going to move the location. We figured there was only so many times we could add doors and make a maze down there before it started becoming a problem. This place hasn't been used in a while, and it offers more than enough room for our needs, so we thought we'd move here."

"It will be strange having people in here again…I must admit it will be nice to not see everything so derelict anymore. I grew up in these quarters you know. Right over there in fact." The Bloody Baron drifted through the wall and slowed to a stop when he spotted all of them. "Godric and his family were over there. Salazar's family was there. The rest were all Helga and her brood."

"Uh…"

"She had a lot of children. They and their families pretty much ran the place until she tamed the house elves and set them to doing some of the tasks as her descendants began moving away to live and work elsewhere. This whole place used to be full of life…then everyone started growing up and moving off, Salazar and his family left… It was always rather disheartening to come through here and see everything so barren and empty. It will be nice to see this old place in use once more. What are your plans exactly?"

They told her how they had decided to portion the areas up, and some of their ideas for the kitchens nearby.

"You could easily use the ovens there for pottery with little trouble, I'd think…you'd be better off just using the smithy for the rest."

"We have a smithy?"

"Yes, out on the grounds somewhere. I can't imagine it isn't still there."

"Do you know where on the grounds?"

"The Baron will show you. He knows where it is."

The ghosts lost interest in them at that point and wandered off again, the Baron following in the Grey Lady's wake.

"Um, Baron?" Neville called after him.

The Baron slowed, watched the Grey Lady disappear and then sighed before drifting back to hover by Neville.

"I can't go through walls. How about I meet you in the entry hall and we go from there?"

"After dinner then, fine idea!" the Baron assured him before hurrying after the Grey Lady.

 

By the time all of them returned to the Melting Pot, they'd found Hermione had already gotten the Logistics Committee together, and had founded a few other committees as well--all with her as the head.

"I realized there might need to be some adjustments made to the ovens to use them for smelting. We're going to research and…"

"Nope. The Grey Lady stopped by after you left. She said the ovens were fine for pottery, but not smelting, however there's already a smithy of some sorts on the grounds somewhere. The Baron is supposed to show Neville where it is after dinner, so the kitchen research committee is hereby declared defunct. What's the other committee for?"

"A committee to make adjustments that we researched for the kitchens."

"Also defunct…although the smithy might need some work and adjustments made"

Hermione's face glowed in triumph

"However, as it is members of the Cunning Artificers who will likely be working there, I'll let them set up the committee to get it in working order as it will be a learning experience for them."

Hermione's face fell.

"But, if they need any research done, I'll let them know to give you a call." Harry smiled, patted her on the head and wandered off.

"See, this is why you didn't get put on any committees--you start getting delusions of grandeur and try to take over everything." Draco sniffed.

"Yeah, see if you get put on any more. You're not the only person down here you know." Morag agreed.

Hermione glowered at all of them indignantly and stomped off to stand in a corner, pouting and sulking.

The rest of the relocation committee watched this, shook their heads and wandered off as well, leaving her to her indignation.
Shortly after they'd left, Ron wandered past and slowed to a stop.

"Oi, Hermione…why are you standing in the corner? Are you being punished or something? Tough break that."
Hermione scowled at him.

 

The next several days were rather busy for all of them; there was a lot to do to get the new location up and running. The security team went in first to get everything up to snuff and set up the failsafes and backups that had been so instrumental in proving they'd been robbed. Once they were done, the actual move was able to progress. While the logistics team got everything packed and transferred, the relocation committee scoured the halls of Hogwarts for seating and decorations for the smaller club spaces, and the signage committee got to work putting up signs to designate the new spaces. Once everything was cleared out of the old space, the security and relocation team got to work restoring the dungeons to their former state.

While this was going on, the Witch Weekly article about the clubs came out, alongside coverage of the tournament. Viktor Krum, and the clubs were the only ones who fared well--Cedric's mention was peppered with references to his father's misdeeds and upcoming trial, Fleur was lambasted for recklessly endangering the men of Britain and being unable to complete the task. Viktor's report was a grudgingly approving recounting of his performance in the task, peppered with references to his performance at the World Cup the summer previous.

The Melting Pot and associated clubs got a three page spread about how awesome they all were, complete with a report of their 'non-violent protest', the arts programs that had flourished since the Melting Pot's inception, their work selling souvenirs to gather money for club activities--which the wretched Rita Skeeter stole. The article came complete with photos of several of the students manning the booths, Colin and Morag roaming with their cameras, and a photograph of Harry, Cho, Neville, Hannah, Vince and Millicent from Hogsmeade, which had been used previously in a Skeeter article--the very one that garnered so much hate mail for poor Cho. In the section where the photo appeared was a glowing report of Harry himself and his quest to bring unity to the school and improve the state of education, with brief mention of the new and improved Board of Governors who had helped make it all possible.

"Wow, it's so amazing. Who knew when we had that first meeting back in first year that we'd be getting written up someday!" Lavender squealed.

"Only Harry gets mentioned by name though." Ron groused rather sourly before handing the magazine back to Ginny. "Harry Potter's so awesome, blah, blah, blah. Where's my glory, huh? It's always Harry, Harry, Harry."

"Of course he's mentioned by name, he started everything! Geez! Instead of complaining, do something worth writing about!" Parvati scolded.

Ron just scowled at Harry and hunkered down over his breakfast looking sulky.

Harry ignored him--he'd had enough of that kind of brattiness growing up with Dudley; unlike there, he didn't have to put up with it here.

"It was a rather nice article wasn't it? A lot better than the last couple I was mentioned in."

 

The article in Witch Weekly had much further repercussions than just being good publicity, as Harry found out a few days later, just before the next Hogsmeade weekend took place. A Gringott's owl bearing a letter landed in front of him at breakfast. Harry took the letter and fed the owl some bacon, before opening it. He read through the letter once, then again, unable to quite believe his eyes.

"Oh. My. God."

"What? What is it?!" Hermione demanded, trying to take the letter. Harry moved the letter out of her reach and smacked her reaching hand before digging out his phone. Dean, help me out here. Club presidents meeting, now."

Dean shrugged and dug out his own phone and started making calls himself. Once all the club heads were notified, Harry stood and headed for the entryway. Hermione bit her lip, eaten alive with curiosity, and then scrambled out of her seat to follow, but when she reached the entryway they were nowhere to be seen. Stamping her foot in irritation she stalked back into the great hall, only to discover that breakfast was ending and everyone was headed her way to go to Hogsmeade for the weekend. She saw Viktor headed her way, so went to meet him instead, pulling her cloak and scarf from the bottomless pouch she'd recently made herself.

"Oi! Hermione! There you are. Where'd you run off to? Nevermind, I don't actually care. Come on, Hogsmeade is awaiting. Where's Harry?" Ron asked.

"I don't know where Harry is; he and the others ran off."

"Oi, Vicky, you can run along. You're not wanted here." Ron scoffed to Viktor, before taking Hermione's arm to steer her away. He was rather flabbergasted when Hermione pulled her arm away, looking apologetic.

"Um, Ron…I'm going to Hogsmeade with Viktor." She shrugged and started for the door. Viktor, who hadn't appreciated him trying to butt in on his date, smacked him in the back of the head as he passed, and then slung a possessive arm over Hermione's shoulders.

A vague unsettled rage swamped through his body. He wasn't sure exactly why he was so pissed off--well, he hadn't like that bastard Krum smacking him--he just knew he was. He stomped around kicking the walls and cursing a blue streak under his breath; the other students coming out of the great hall took a wide detour around him. He got tired of everyone pointing and staring, so he wandered back towards the kitchens to get a snack, and got distracted by the sound of people cheering in excitement. He followed the sound to an abandoned classroom and opened it, only to find Harry and the various club heads doing a happy dance in the middle of the room.

"Um…is this a private party or can anyone join in?"

"It's amazing, mate! Witches everywhere sent us money because of that article! They all thought Skeeter robbing us was rotten. We're rolling in it!" Dean laughed.

"Yeah? Wow…what kind of money are we talking about here?"

"Thousands man, thousands."

"You're barking!"

"No, it's true. I got a letter from Gringott's earlier. A whole lot of witches read Witch Weekly, and it looks like almost all of them each sent in a galleon or two and it added up."

"We can not only replace the shoddy school brooms, we can actually afford a few things on every club's wish list"

"And we can get a goblin in to replace the parts of the smithy we can't restore."

"We have got it made!"

"We're in the money! We're in the money!" the kids started singing as they once again began dancing around the room.

"I should write back to Gringott's and see when they can send someone out. I've already been quoted a price, and we can more than afford it." Draco decided.

"We should write to the broom companies and see if we can get a discount on a large order."

"We'll be able to get in a video camera and start doing live action and not just still photography!"

"We're in the money!"

"What on earth is going on back here!"

"Professor McGonagall! It's good you're here. I'll be sending out a letter today. Sometime during the week a goblin or two will be coming by to finish restoring the smithy. You'll need to let them in and direct them when they get here. I'll give you an exact time as soon as I know more."

"What? I don't recall the headmaster mentioning anything…"

"No, we're restoring it, but there's some parts that we can't make because we don't have a working smithy. Don't worry, we can pay for it."

"Say, how many school brooms do we need if we're going to replace them?"

"Do you think Madame Rosmerta has enough butterbeer on hand to supply a 'hooray we're stinking rich party'?"

"Say, do you know if the third task will be watcher friendly? I don't want to waste our first live action film on crap!"

McGonagall rubbed her temples as all the kids began talking at once.

"Start at the beginning…one at a time, please!"

 

While the students were down in Hogsmeade, many of the teachers were enjoying the quiet and spending a few hours kicking back in the teacher's lounge. Sprout was the first to note McGonagall's entrance.

"Minerva! Has something happened?" Flitwick asked.

McGonagall took a seat and shook her head bemusedly as she threw back the shot of scotch Slughorn was kind enough to supply her with. "Relax, nothing bad has happened, I'm just a little shocked."

"What is it then?"

"You know that article about the children's little clubs that was in Witch Weekly a little while ago?"

"Yes?"

"Apparently the readership was so outraged at Skeeter's theft and the difficulties it made for them that a good number of them sent in donations. Oh, here, Rolanda, this is for you. The children were going to write to the broom companies, but I told them it would probably be better if you did it." She tossed a jingling bag that landed with a thump in front of Madame Hooch, the flying instructor. Hooch opened the bag and whistled at the pile of galleons inside. "What's all this?"

"Four hundred and fifty galleons. It's your budget to replace the school brooms, courtesy of the Melting Pot. Apparently we'll be getting visited by goblins sometime this week so the smithy can be restored, of all things. I told them it was a daft thing to waste money on, as we don't have a smith on the grounds, nor do we have instructors in the art available, but apparently the children have already taken care of it. The Bloody Baron has contacted a few friends of his--a smith, a potter and a glassmaker. They're ghosts, but are all apparently eager to pass on their expertise to another generation…though I'm told the glassmaker might take a while as he's in Italy at the moment. I didn't even know we had a smithy on the grounds, though being a castle, I suppose I shouldn't be surprised. It seems the children have been restoring the place in their free time. I swear, they're honestly the strangest bunch of children I've ever come across. Restoring the smithy and hiring ghosts, portrait lectures…what happened to pranks and broom closets?"

"Four hundred and fifty galleons for new brooms. I was beginning to think I'd never see the day. Most of the ones we have are antiques! In fact…I know a few collectors. I might be able to unload a few of the ones we have for a small profit."

"It would be nice if Hogwarts' general fund was as flush as the children's is." Snape grumbled.

"I should confiscate this windfall. I'm sure we could find better uses for it than restoring the smithy, of all things. It's a waste of resources. What use having a smithy? If we need metalwork, muggles have found far better ways to work metal than such outdated methods. It's a useless skill to revive." Dumbledore commented. He blinked owlishly around the table when he realized the other teachers were staring at him.

"Albus…I don't even have words for what a bad idea that is." Flitwick scoffed. "Something I would think you'd already realize yourself, given that the children received this money due to outrage over an adult stealing from them!"

"You wouldn't be able to in any case." McGonagall added.

"If it was donated to Hogwarts, it belongs to Hogwarts."

"It was donated to Harry Potter and the Melting Pot." McGonagall corrected him. "And it is intended for use by the clubs. As it stands, Hogwarts as a whole is benefitting as well, given the work being done on the smithy and the school brooms being replaced."

"And what do you mean learning to operate a smithy is useless? I say it's about bloody time. Yes, one can buy metal work from muggles, but that really doesn't benefit magical Britain in any way--it just bleeds magical wealth into the muggle world and creates jobs for muggles, not that most folks would have much choice, given that smithing is in fact an all but dead art among us, except among goblins, and their work doesn't come cheap, nor are they willing to make just any old thing." Professor Vector added.

"Exactly. These children and their activities will be a boon to magical Britain in coming years--reviving lost arts, manufacturing goods…that means jobs, something that have been in short supply lately." Slughorn nodded.

"And it means the wealth of magical Britain staying in magical Britain and benefiting witches and wizards rather than bleeding off into the muggle world." Sprout added.

"You should just stick to transfiguration, Albus, it's obvious you're no economist." Slughorn told him kindly as he patted his hand.

The others were distracted from Dumbledore's outraged spluttering by the entrance of Remus Lupin who smiled in greeting. "Did I miss something?"

"Nothing much, really. I must say, you're looking particularly dapper today, Remus." Sprout noted.

"Oh, thank you. I feel rather overdressed, to be honest."

"You look like Rabastan Lestrange" Snape said slowly.

"Not surprising, considering these are his clothes."

"What?! How on earth did you end up with his clothes?"

"Oh, well, Harry inherited the Lestrange holdings. He cleared out their house recently. Once he realized neither brother was his size, he went looking for somewhere to unload their clothing. Sirius' apparently told him I was the same size as Rabastan, so he sent them to me. He gave Rodolphus' things to a friend of his, and let the girls of Hogwarts loose on Bellatrix's wardrobe."

"Is that why all the girls seem to be so well-dressed lately?" Professor Vector laughed. "I had wondered about that."

"I'm rather surprised at you, Remus" Dumbledore spoke up, sounding disapproving "running around in the clothing of a muggle-hating, torture-happy death eater"

"He's in Azkaban for life; it's not like he needs them." Remus defended himself.

"Oh, bloody hell…do any of you happen to know where the smithy is? I forgot to ask. Oh, wait, nevermind…the Bloody Baron is supposed to know where it is. I'll just find him." McGonagall suddenly spoke up.

Remus stared after her bemusedly. "New hobby?" he asked the others.

 

The next few weeks saw a number of deliveries to Hogwarts--raw materials for a number of clubs, as well as equipment--a third printer for the printing club, an antenna and microphones to do wireless broadcasts, a couple of video cameras and equipment for recording, editing and copying video feeds, a few more pottery wheels--they'd found three very old ones buried in the room of requirement--bowls, pans and utensils for the culinary arts club, as well as few different board games for the folks that weren't chess or gobstones enthusiasts. Madame Hooch also received a shipment of new brooms. She did in fact get a discount for the large purchase; she was able to get two new sets of quiddtich balls with the money she saved.
The kids, and Madame Hooch were all in high spirits as spring drew ever closer.

 

The coming equinox was the last step needing to be completed before their transition to the new world come summer solstice. The seasonal magic was so heavy in the air, everyone swore they could actually feel the earth waking up beneath their feet. As the critical time approached, Harry began feeling so buzzed, he was twitchy and itchy and just about ready to leap out of his skin.

Hours before the equinox was due to arrive, he woke in his bed and climbed out of Gryffindor tower, all but vibrating from the feedback he was getting. Far to the east, the magical world was awake and dancing, and the gossamer tendrils of magic that bound them to the rest were twanging in response.

This last step would tie them all together and to Hogwarts. Harry knew he needed to be as close as possible to the heart of the magic for everything to come together as it should. In a euphoric daze, he wandered down the hall towards the room of requirement. His need was great enough that he didn't even need to pace, the castle simply had a door waiting for him. He wandered inside and then back out, deep beneath the castle in the caverns at the root of the mountain and made his way to the Chamber of Secrets, which lay directly over the wellspring of magic on which Hogwarts was built.

Hour by hour, the magic built as each time zone was crossed and more and more of the magical world added their power to the great work. It was too warm…he felt like he had a fever in his blood, though it wasn't unpleasant. He pulled off his clothing, piece by piece, unable to bear the restriction, and then lay down on the cool stone, languid and tingling and aching as the magic built in intensity. He could feel it when the sun broke the horizon and sent its life-giving rays across the land, warming it and readying it to produce life. He could feel everyone in the castle as they stirred and began to dance…everyone in Britain…and he could sense that a lot of women had just gone into labor.

Lost in the magic as he was, he understood--a great work required sacrifices.

Way back at the dawn of time, their ancestors had understood the power of such things, and had recognized the primal forces in their lives--blood, sex, death.

In modern times, such things were scorned or feared by the 'enlightened' masses after decades of crackdowns by Ministries worldwide. What the ministries didn't understand was that those things were part of the very fabric of magic, the pathways laid down and reinforced by countless generations.
Today, the laboring women gave their blood, sweat and tears as they brought forth new life into the world.

He could feel it building in increments, like waves slowly encroaching on the shore, building…building, and straining to reach across the boundless ocean to reach the other side.
Nearly dizzy with the power thrumming through his body, blood and soul, Harry rolled to his feet and began to dance, unconcerned with his nakedness, or the jutting erection he was sporting, he leapt and whirled through the chamber, straining alongside the magic to help it reach the crest. He threw back his head and gasped as he felt those seeking strands latch on to the easternmost magical enclaves across the ocean. He was trembling now as he danced, and a fine sheen of sweat began to break out across his body. Westward, ever westward with the path of the sun, all the scattered communities added their power and were gathered up. Further and further it traveled, and as it did, Harry burned and he trembled and he strained to gather up the last scattered remnants of their people. Westward again, another ocean…but the power was surging now and all was nearly complete…just a little more…just…

As the last citizens of the magical world were gathered up and tethered with the rest, the power crested and Harry came with a shout, spattering the surrounding area with a great, gushing river of semen, and then collapsed, wheezing and trembling to the ground, where he held himself up on shaking arms and thought about how very, very much he needed a nap. There were black spots dancing before his eyes, and he felt empty…though very, very sated.

As his brain began to clear, he realized he wasn't kneeling on hard stone, but on a carpet of velvety grass and flowers. The whole inside of the chamber looked like a paradise garden, and Salazar Slytherin's statue looked like a pagan god, strewn with vines. Harry let himself fall to his side and then rolled to his back and lay spread-eagle on the grass. He was tired, like he'd never been before. He couldn't keep his eyes open a moment longer. He fell asleep there, naked, grinning like a fool, and very thankful it was the weekend.

 

"Morning, all."

"Harry! Where were you all day yesterday?"

"I was busy."

"Busy doing what?"

"Stuff."

"What kind of stuff?"

"Move stuff, this equinox was the last piece needing to be complete. We're now all connected and ready to move come the solstice."

"What does any of that have to do with you? Last I checked, all that was being done in the Americas and Canada this time around."

"I'm the anchor. This last push took a lot out of me. I conked out afterwards and woke up just in time to crawl back to the tower for curfew, where I went immediately to bed and slept till morning."

"Why? What did you have to do?"

"Stuff. It's hard to explain."

"Well, try."

"No."

While Hermione sputtered indignantly, Harry watched for the morning mail.

"You expecting something?" Neville asked.

"Word from Adeline about the baby, it was born last night…all the babies were, actually--all the ones conceived last summer solstice, anyway."

"I find that very unlikely, and how would you even know that?" Hermione scoffed.

"Felt it last night while I was dancing. They were all born as the last of the magical communities were gathered in."

"Oh, Harry really, that's just ridiculous."

"You'll see." Harry replied indifferently as the mail owls started making their way into the hall. He spotted Errol, the Weasley's elderly owl, as well as the Malfoy's eagle owl among the crowd, he also spotted Hedwig whom he had sent home two days previously with a letter. She landed in front of him with a small thump and looked hopefully at his bacon. Harry untied the letter from her leg and handed some bacon over, leaving her to eat it in piece as he unrolled the missive she'd carried.

He read through and grinned and then held the letter up for Hermione's inspection. "Regulus Alphard Black, born last night. 19 inches long, seven pounds four ounces. Mother and son are doing fine."

"Lucky guess." Hermione sniffed, before getting distracted by the Weasleys carrying on further down the table.

"What's going on?"

"Mum had the babies! Twin girls, Elaine and Nimue…can you imagine? Twin Ginnys, it's a bloody nightmare! Ow!" Ron complained as Ginny smacked him in the back of the head.
"I wish they'd been born sooner. It would have been nice to have other girls around when I was growing up. Mum must be beside herself."

"When were they born?"

"Last night."

Harry smirked at Hermione who sniffed and muttered 'coincidence' under her breath before turning back to her book pointedly. Harry's phone rang, so he dug it out and answered, while still smirking at Hermione, who glanced up suspicious at his good mood.

"Oh, hey Draco, what's up? Oh, you've got a new little sister, you say? Born last night? Yeah? What's her name? Drusilla, huh. Drusilla Narcissa Malfoy. I like it. Oh? Greg, Vince, Millie and Daphne's mums had their babies too? Do tell. Last night as well? What are the odds?"

Hermione huffed irritably.

Another owl settled down in front of Harry and held out its leg.

"Hey, Barty and Dora had a little girl". He dug out some parchment and one of the handy ever-inking quills he'd gotten from the Lestranges' and started writing 'congratulations on your new son/daughter letters to everyone. "I'm glad I thought to get baby gifts last Hogsmeade weekend, or I'd be in trouble."

"Man, has anyone seen outside? Spring is here with a vengeance." Seamus asked.

"Why, what's going on?" Lavender wondered.

"You know how it is, we usually still have snow on the ground in spots until late June most years? I don't think that's gonna be the case this year. It looks like half the thaw has already happened. There's puddles of slush and thick, gloopy mud everywhere, and I'm pretty sure I saw buds on the trees. It's mad!"

"Cool." Harry commented calmly. Inside he was patting himself on the back.

It was obvious, he was the god of naked dancing.