A sleek black car sped by, betrayed only by the quick glint of a streetlamp against its polished finish. It was obvious that its occupant cared nothing for the speed limit. Out here, where there was nothing but wilderness on either side of the two-lane road, it was relatively high – seventy or so. But the black coupe seemed to be going almost double that. The car left a cloud of dry dust and dead grass lingering in the Indian-summer air behind it.
The volume of the stereo within was such that it would cause an immediate complaint from anyone over the age of thirty-five. The choice of music was, to say the least, eclectic. But all in all, the car – its speed, color, volume, and intimidation factor – seemed to mesh well with the driver.
She was skinny but full, muscled but not so much as to seem masculine. Her skin was flawless and tinged with bronze, thanks both to genetics and a good amount of time in the sun. Her features were pleasing in an Eastern European sort of way; angled, dark, half-exotic. Generally, though, what captivated people most was her hair – it was the deepest, darkest black, so black it seemed blue under the right lighting, and thick, curling very slightly in all the right places. Right now, it was pulled back into a loose, sloppy, and thoroughly attractive braid that sat over her right shoulder like a length of rope. She was enchanting, or so her ex-boyfriend had always told her.
He wasn't far from the truth, in a literal sense. But Russia certainly had enough problems, and she needn't create more by drawing attention to herself.
Of course, being who she was, she would never settle for anonymity. Not in both worlds, anyway. So here, in the hot, humid, war-torn recesses of a collapsed country, she embraced her Mother's half.
She was a bartender, reputed to be the best south of Moscow. So good, in fact, that she really only worked on holidays and during the summer. She'd read magazine articles about herself – all of them cited her 'sixth sense', her ability to give a person exactly what they wanted the most within the confines of a glass. And, of course, her mystery ingredient; it had at one time aroused suspicion, but now that everyone saw that it was harmless, it was her legacy. It was simple, really. The mystery ingredient was what made each drink taste exactly how the consumer liked it. Though the Russians were not difficult to figure out; for most of them, plain vodka was fine. She chuckled to herself, not even hearing the small expression of mirth over the stereo. Every bartender could use a good lesson in Potions.
It wasn't her talent with alcohol that made the people love her so much, though. It was her generosity with money. She could easily wind up with a thousand dollars stuffed in her bra in the course of one night, if the right people were present and properly inebriated. But she took only what she needed to pay her bills; she lived in the same dingy, run down flats that everyone else did. The only luxuries she'd afforded herself were this car and her cell phone. She gave all the excess to the hospitals or schools. They needed it much more than she did.
She was a star of sorts. People always eyed her with awe and reverence when she stood in the lines with them, waiting for whatever the authorities had been able to secure a large shipment of. And often, even then, after two hours in the line in heat so thick that not even the mosquitoes ventured out, she wound up giving that commodity away to the single mother with six children to care for, or the old man who was utterly alone and too crippled to get out to do proper shopping. They always wanted her to keep it, but she turned them down gently, knowing that their need was greater. Besides, if she really needed it, she had a wand.
Admittedly, this selfless behavior generated a bit more attention than she was comfortable with. Cameras were often catching her at very unflattering moments, and the tabloid headlines became more and more outrageous. She remembered once laughing out loud at a particularly bawdy cover – a fuzzy picture of her staring into space with a pair of white wings very obviously pasted to it, the headline screaming: 'GALINA DMITROV, ANGEL IN DISGUISE!!!' And then the next week, the same tabloid, declaring boldly on its cover: 'GALINA – SPY FOR THE KGB!!!' Ah yes, and nothing topped the offer extended to her by a rather reputable, if not sleazy American magazine – twelve pages of her nude, and a centerfold featuring her doing some blushworthy things with a hammer and sickle.
She had actually considered it, simply because she knew it would annoy the piss out of her brother. But in the end she'd turned them down, not entirely comfortable with the thought of thousands of men staring wantonly at her naked body. She'd done smaller jobs though, modeling for cosmetics or hair-care companies. Even those brief appearances, once they reached him, earned her a few of the quietest, deadliest, and by far most amusing Howlers she'd ever received.
She knew she shouldn't taunt him like that, but she hated when he was so overprotective. She was the older of the two, albeit only by a few minutes, but that still made her the one in charge. She had always been the protector, and she wasn't about to burden her brother with worry over yet another person. No, if there was one thing he didn't need, it was to be preoccupied with stress over his sister's safety. Still, he always made her prove herself. And every time she went to visit, she kicked his ass. In the most loving way possible, of course. Although, lately, she was getting the feeling that he was letting her win.
That was where she was headed now. She didn't know what had possessed her to drive all the way to the border. An airplane – hell, Apparating – would get her there much faster. But she loved her car, and it rarely got a good workout. And it would give her time to think.
She sighed, glancing at her gas gauge. She'd have to stop soon and fill it up. The fluorescent green of a faded sign caught her eye, and she hit the brake for the exit. There might not be another for miles, so she was inclined to take advantage of this sudden arrival of civilization.
Galina sighed as she pulled into a badly lit gas station. A turbaned Sikh man smiled lazily at her, waving his hand to indicate that it was self-serve. She smiled back, staggering a little as she unfolded herself from the driver's seat. A good stretch was in order, and by the time she was finished, the Sikh had ambled over and engaged her in conversation.
"This is a very nice car," he said in the local dialect, a random concoction of Russian and Arabic.
"Da," she answered. "The object of my affections."
"Pity for all the men out there."
She laughed, tossing her braid behind her and bending to pump the gas.
"Perhaps there is room for one of them in here, too," she replied, tapping just under her left collarbone. The man smiled and chuckled, folding his arms, yet another victim to Galina Dmitrov's charm.
"Do you need anything else?" he asked. "Windshield wash, oil, air, cigarettes?"
"No, thank you," she said, replacing the gas pump and then tending to the car. "But I do appreciate it."
"Any time," he nodded.
"Here you go," she said, handing over a crumpled handful of money. She slipped back into the car and started it, gunning the engine briefly and smiling to herself as she noticed the man's shocked reaction in the rearview mirror. She had given him about ten times what she owed.
She put it in drive and pulled away, waiting patiently in the driveway for a creaky, plodding truck to go by. She was about to slam her foot onto the accelerator when there was a flash of unmistakable green light and two words that chilled her blood reached her ears.
She tilted the rearview mirror, her heart pounding. The Sikh man was on the ground, supine and unmoving. She knew she should just drive away. But, as it had many times before in such circumstances, her anger got the better of her.
Galina slammed the car into park and turned it off. She kicked open the door, procuring her wand seemingly out of thin air. The scowl on her face made her look decidedly menacing as she made her way to the dead man. She bent at the knee, taking his pulse without looking at him. Nothing. Her hand clenched around her wand.
"Come out, Death Eater!" she called acidly, standing. "Or are you afraid to show yourself without your Master?"
"No," the answer came from behind her. "But I must regain my Master's good graces, and you, dear Selena, are my trump card."
She whirled, and instantly her anger inflated another notch.
"Karkaroff, you bloody coward!" she practically screamed. "That is not my name out here, and I will thank you not to use it."
"Ashamed?" he sneered.
"No. In one world I have one name, and in the other, a different one."
"Why do you hide in the world of Muggles, Selena?"
"I do not hide. I simply make use of my abilities in the most constructive place. Don't press me, Karkaroff," she warned darkly. "You know why I do what I do. Don't pretend otherwise."
"I pretend nothing, Selena. Did you think we wouldn't find you out here?"
"Karkaroff, you FOOL! Voldemort won't forgive you, no matter what you do. Frankly, I'm amazed you're still alive!"
"How dare you use the Master's name with such impudence!" the Death Eater roared.
"How dare you kill innocent men for sport!" she returned.
They raised their wands at the exact same moment.
"This is pointless, Karkaroff. Snap out of it. Unless you get help, you're a dead man."
The Death Eater growled, his eyes becoming wilder.
"You know I'm right!" she continued. Her heart was beating wildly, hammering against her ribcage. If she could just talk him out of this…
"You speak poison, just like your brother!" he snarled. "I know what he is, Selena, and what he's doing."
"Voldemort will not believe a word you say. This campaign for revenge will gain you nothing but a more painful death!"
"If I must die," Karkaroff said, brandishing his wand, "then I will at least have the pleasure of destroying your bloodline first!"
And, with that, the battle of spells began.
But she had already Apparated by the time the white bolt reached the place where she had been standing.
Karkaroff spent only a moment cursing fluently in as many languages as he knew. In mid-sentence an idea came to him, a perfectly ingenious plan that would not involve him sticking his neck out at all. In a second he, too, Apparated, leaving the dreary gas station and its deceased owner in an uneasy peace.
Far, far away, Lucius Malfoy nearly fell out of his chair when Karkaroff appeared on his desk.
Galina – well, she supposed she could properly call herself Selena now, as she was far from the world of Muggles – appeared in a soggy moor, shivering instantly. She was not at all dressed for the cooler climate of Great Britain. Stupid, bloody Karkaroff.
Putting him out of her mind for the moment, she raised her wand and performed a directional spell. Hmm…she was about two hours south of Hogwarts. Two hours easily covered in a drastically different form.
Where there had been a woman, there was now a panther. Black, sleek, beautiful, with stunningly blue eyes. It had been a long time since she had indulged this area of her abilities, and it felt positively wonderful to open up to a full sprint on the soggy grasslands that stretched before her.
As she emerged from the Forbidden Forest, she reclaimed her human form. She did not notice the cool air now, as her body was warmed by the long run. She walked casually, a smile curling her lips as she thought of the incredible food and drink that would be waiting in the Great Hall. It had been nearly eight hours since she last ate…
There was a barely audible rustle. It snapped her out of her thoughts and her muscles tensed automatically. Christ, had Karkaroff followed her here? It was a very stupid thing to do…
She caught a movement with the corner of her eye. She nearly forgot to breathe. Something was out here. Her pace doubled, becoming a run. If she reached the doors, she would be fine. The doors…
A black, man-sized obstacle sprung into her path, so suddenly that she lost her footing when she tried to avoid it. She tried to get up, but bony hands held her down by her shoulders. She tried kicking but couldn't seem to hit anything, and as she struggled, her eyes caught sight of the hands that pressed her so painfully to the dewy grass. Grey. Slimy. Scabby. Rotten skin stretched thinly over bone.
She could not help but scream as it pushed back its hood. It leaned low, ignoring her struggling, its hole of a mouth opening…
At the last second, she became a panther again. She clawed at it savagely, knocking off its head and darting away as fast as she could. But not fast enough to avoid the claws of the beheaded Dementor, which sunk deeply into her flank before she escaped its grasp.
She didn't even feel it. There were more of them now, swooping down onto the wide lawn, coming at her from all sides. She ran as fast as she could, darting around, under, or even through the monsters. The doors were in sight, oh gods, the doors!!!
The black streak covered the rest of the lawn, the Dementors following like a flood of decay. Up the stairs, to the great wooden doors…! She clawed frantically at the wood, leaving deep score marks.
Someone, someone help! Open the door!
The panther tilted its head up and let out a roar, and unmistakable sound somewhere between the deep rumble of a lion and the screech of a wolverine.
"I'm sooo hungry…" Ron whined, staring pathetically at his plate.
"I hope Dumbledore has no exciting announcements to spring on us this year," Harry said, frowning. "I couldn't stand it if I had to go another year without Quidditch."
"We'll be lucky if we have Quidditch at all this year, what with You-Know-Who," Fred Weasley said miserably.
Harry frowned intensely, tuning himself out of the conversation. He never could help the feeling that this was all his fault, regardless of whether his friends said it out loud or not. He knew Fred hadn't meant anything, but the stab of guilt flared up anyway. He sighed, turning his gaze to Hermione. Strangely enough, she was staring up at the Teacher's table, her brows slightly drawn. He thought for a moment that she was trying to find the new Defense Against the Dark Arts teacher, but after following her gaze, he realized that she was staring at Professor Snape. Severus Snape, the least popular man at Hogwarts, if you didn't include the Slytherins in the polling.
"He looks tired, doesn't he," she said, aware of Harry's appraisal. "Like a gust of wind could knock him over."
"If only," Harry muttered. Hermione gave him a sharp look.
"You know what he's been doing since June," she said. "It can't be easy."
"No, but that doesn't make me feel sorry for him. And I'm willing to bet that it won't make him go any easier on us."
Hermione shook her head, her posture slumping slightly.
"I wonder what made him become a Death Eater in the first place."
"I don't know, but it's his own fault."
"You don't know that," she said.
"Since when do you care about Snape's welfare?" Harry asked, giving in to his annoyance. "Don't you remember what he said to you last year, when Malfoy hit you with that hex before Potions?!"
"Of course I do," she said, her tone equally as annoyed. "But look at him, Harry."
He spared the Potions Master another glance. Hermione was right; he did look sickly, moreso than usual. Paler, thinner, hollow-eyed…and perhaps a bit more vacant. Like he hadn't slept in a month. Like he'd seen things that had permanently driven the color from his cheeks. There was not even a hint of his telltale glare circulating the room. Snape seemed to be lost in his own thoughts, which was a state that one almost never caught him in, especially not in public.
"Hermione," he said, after a minute's contemplation of the head of Slytherin House, "sure, he looks terrible. But he's Snape. He's mean for a reason, and that reason is probably a lot worse than anything he's seen lately."
"I suppose you're right," she conceded. "I just…didn't expect it to change him. I…thought his skin was thick enough."
"Your skin is never thick enough with Voldemort," Harry replied, and both of them knew there was no truer statement.
They sat in silence for the remainder of the sorting, listening to Fred, George, and Ron prattle on about Quidditch and food. When the hat was finally done, Dumbledore stood and raised a hand to quiet the immediate blossom of voices.
"I would like to welcome you all to Hogwarts for yet another year. As I am sure you are all hungry, I will not prolong your starvation with too many announcements. I wish only to say that the first Quidditch match of the season will be on September 27, Ravenclaw versus Slytherin. And also, fourteen more items have been added to the list of Banned---"
The entire hall rippled with whispers as Dumbledore stopped abruptly. It quickly became clear why he had halted when a great pounding sounded from the Main Hall, followed closely by a muffled roar.
The tense silence was broken by a loud crash. Severus Snape had shot out of his chair so quickly that he knocked it over. He exchanged a long glance with Dumbledore.
The pounding sounded again. This time it was accompanied by a shrill scream that evoked a shiver in every person in the Hall.
At that Snape vaulted over the table and jumped the five or so feet that raised the Teacher's table from the rest of the Hall. He set off down the middle aisle, between the Gryffindor and Hufflepuff tables, at a dead sprint - faster than anyone in the Hall would believe an isolated slip of a man like Snape capable of. They were even more shocked when Dumbledore followed on his heels, blowing by as fast as Snape had, completely unheeding of his age.
Hermione rocketed to her feet, obviously intent on seeing what was happening. Harry and Ron followed suit, as did many others, only to be halted by Professor McGonagall's authoritative voice.
"Stay where you are! You will remain seated until the Headmaster returns!"
They didn't dare disobey her, not when she used that tone of voice. Harry, Ron, and Hermione reluctantly returned to their seats, each of them fervently wishing for the Invisibility Cloak that had made them an audience to so many secretive happenings at Hogwarts in the past few years. Their curiosity was sated, however, by the boom of Dumbledore's voice.
"The Patronus spell!" Harry hissed to Ron and Hermione. "There are Dementors out there!"
"I thought they weren't allowed on school grounds!" Hermione shot back in a fervent whisper. "How could they have gotten past the safeguards?!"
A second later, the boom of the doors closing announced the end of the conflict. Dumbledore strode quickly back into the Hall, Snape just behind him. He had his arm around the waist of an unknown woman, his shoulder bent so her arm could curl around him. He was supporting her almost entirely, partly because her right thigh looked as though it had been clawed to shreds, and partly because she was crying hysterically, her face buried in Snape's neck. For the second time in one night, his expression stunned the trio that was so intent on hating him.
It was as if his features couldn't decide between uncontrollable rage, paralyzing fear, and absolute relief.
"Poppy," Dumbledore said needlessly. Madame Pomfrey was already halfway down the aisle. The school nurse tried to put a levitation spell on the woman so she would not have to put any weight on the bad leg, but no matter what Madame Pomfrey did, she would not let go of Snape. And, not unexpectedly, Snape's cold glare told the well-meaning witch to back off. Instead, he bent slightly and picked the woman up, gesturing to Madame Pomfrey with a nod of his head. Before anyone had a moment to process all this, the three of them were gone.
"Never a dull moment," Ron said dryly, and most of the Gryffindors nodded. They watched as Dumbledore made his way back up to his usual spot on the table. Harry could barely quell the combination of curiosity and annoyance that rose in him as Dumbledore continued his speech where he'd left off, not saying a single word about what had just happened.
"Ten o'clock," Hermione whispered in his ear. "We'll meet in the Common Room."
Harry nodded and leaned over to tell Ron.