Yes, we're back. This is not a drill! Sorry for the wait.

AN: This chapter continues right where the last one left the story hanging about two years ago (geez, I'm so sorry). For this reason, I recommend at least a brief glance at the last chapter so you'll be able to make sense of the events unfolding.
Special shout-out to the Black Luminary Discord server.


Tug of War: Round II or Round and round it goes …


'I said,' repeated Harry with forced calm, 'I don't want to discuss it!' He pointedly turned away from Leo, Draco, and Tracey, who had made use of dinner to corner Harry and grill him about his apparent apprenticeship. Harry usually appreciated openness and discourse. But right now, after half an hour of ceaseless nagging, their inquiries, questions, and - more often than not - complaints were getting a tad tedious.

'Harry, you signed away your liberty for a lousy apprenticeship!' said Leo in the slow tones of a charitable person addressing the mentally disabled. 'Do you realise what you've done? You do, don't you?!'

Harry shut his eyes and began counting in silence. He didn't get to three.

'You're barking, man,' said Draco. 'That was stupid! Daft! Slug-brained, really!'

'I don't want to talk about it,' repeated Harry, shaking with repressed anger as he shoved a spoonful of dessert in his mouth.

'Harry … why?' asked Daphne. 'Is something … is something wrong?'

'No!' said Harry hotly, holding one hand in front of his mouth. He swallowed a huge bite of ice cream that made his eyes water and temple throb painfully. 'Of course it isn't! It's not that. It's got nothing to do with you or –'

'Then what is it?'

'Let it be already,' said Amy, idly inspecting her spoon laden with pudding.

'Oh, come on!' said Tracey heatedly. 'This is serious! Do you want us to just sit here and pretend like it's nothing? That he didn't just offer himself to that tart on a silver platter?!'

'Yeah, and for what exactly?!' added Draco. 'For a research agreement!' He snorted derisively. 'Barmy! Completely off his rocker! If you'd at least get to give her a poke –'

Daphne was about to snarl something at Draco, but one glance from Amy made her sit back down again. 'Draco,' said Amy, putting down her spoon. 'Better belt up now.'

'Oh, yeah. Of course. Silly me! Harry selling himself into near slavery isn't a big deal at all. But me calling him out on it crosses the line, does it?!'

Amy rose, her eyes glinting dangerously. 'He hasn't sung despite you all pestering him all day, so just shut it! Now stop being a bloody nuisance and give it a rest – you're getting on my nerves!'

'Oh, bleeding hell!' swore Draco. 'Stop pretending like this is some freaking prank or whatever! If Harry wasn't such a bell-end about it –'

Amy was halfway over the table before Harry managed to grab her sleeve. She stumbled back, stepping into a big bowl of pudding before she regained her balance. 'No!' said Harry. 'Come on, let's just … go.'

Amy allowed Harry to pull her off the table before she shrugged off his hand. 'Fine. Whatever. These guys are pissing me off anyway.'

Amy stomped off, and Harry had to jog to keep up with her angry stride. He wasn't sad to leave; Professors McGonagall and Snape did not look amused. They were only halfway towards the ancient portal when Daphne caught up.

'One word, Daphne,' growled Amy as she shoved a fifth year twice her weight out of the way. 'Seriously, one word about –'

Daphne shook her head. 'No, I … I'm sorry. I didn't mean to …' She looked away even as her voice grew faint. 'Sorry. I shouldn't have … Sorry …'

Harry sighed, rubbing his eyes. 'I don't know what I expected but this …' He looked at Daphne, who was avoiding his eyes. 'Come on,' he said, taking her hand and dragging her along. 'Let's get back to the common room. For all the good that will do.'

Daphne nodded towards the floor, squeezing his hand.

'Forget it,' said Amy curtly. 'They'll calm down.'

'And what if they don't?' Harry asked.

'Then you'll either have to ignore them until they do or not get in the way of my corrective method. But I will not,' she muttered, grimacing and pointing at her soiled robes, 'take another pudding for you.'

'Yes, sorry about that.' Harry offered an apologetic smile.

Amy shrugged, ramming her hands into the pockets of her robes. 'Whatever. Forget it.'

'So what are you going to do now, Harry?' asked Daphne. 'Generally speaking, I mean.'

'As soon as things calm down a bit? There's still Sirius and everyone's favourite mangy cur.'
'Good cur, bad cur?' Amy snorted. 'Your life's really in the doghouse, Harry.'

Harry knew better than to rise to this. 'I hope their letters will arrive soon. And then … Hermione's Occlumency and her teachers, I suppose.' Harry's thoughts flickered to his assortment of memories. 'And some independent research.'

'Where is Hermione by the way?' asked Daphne, ostensibly ignoring Amy's scowl at the Muggleborn's name, though Harry felt her hand give an angry twitch. 'Isn't she back from Hogsmeade yet?'

'I don't know.' Harry came to a sudden halt. Both girls turned towards him, quizzical.

'What is it?' demanded Amy.

'Daphne … about your grandmother. I'm really sorry.'

'What are you sorry for?' asked Daphne slowly. 'It's … okay, I guess. I don't know. It still feels kind of unreal.'

'Do you intend to go?' Seeing her blank expression, Harry added, 'To the funeral. They're laying her to rest with full honours, aren't they?'

'Hmm … all those big-shots from the Ministry will be there, won't they?' asked Daphne hesitantly.

Harry nodded. 'I expect they will.'

'I …' Daphne twirled a loose strand of her hair around her finger. 'I would've gone – I think – if it'd been a private ceremony. But like that … I don't want you to mix with the Minister and his cronies.'

'Daphne, this is your grandmother's funeral.'

'Yes,' said Daphne, looking up and smiling. 'But you would've come along regardless. It's all right, really. I'll visit the grave some other time. When there isn't so much bustle.'

Behind Daphne, Harry spotted Amy rolling her eyes and mimicking a gagging motion, but since she didn't scoff, Harry considered her behaviour remarkably tactful by any Lestrange-standard.

Hermione, it turned out, was already back. Most of the Slytherins who'd either skipped dinner or finished early were standing awkwardly in front of the hidden entrance, whispering to one another or sharing significant glances. Hermione came running when she saw them approach.

'Harry! Harry, there you are,' she said, still wearing her cloak from her outing to the village.

'What's up?!' said Daphne, looking around. 'What's the hold-up?'

'Entrance broken?' asked Amy. 'Or trouble?'

'Er, no, nothing like that,' spluttered Hermione, glancing warily at Amy's wand. 'It's, er … well … a visitor.'

'A visitor?' repeated Daphne. 'What sort of visitor causes such a crowd?'

'Yes, well, it's not your average visitor. I think you had better have a look yourself, Harry.'

Sharing a look with Daphne and Amy, Harry shrugged. 'Okay.'

Wand in hand, he entered the common room, followed by Daphne and Amy. They found it almost deserted. Only the Head Girl and Warrington lurked near the entrance, looking as awkwardly out of place as Hagrid in a crowd of first-years. When they saw Harry enter, Warrington nodded with something almost like deference towards the suite in front of the fireplace.

A figure wrapped in a heavy travelling cloak was casting long shadows across the common room, gazing into the flames and resting on its dark walking cane.

Harry did a double-take. 'Grandfather?!'

Lord Black didn't turn around. 'Your friends may stay if you wish, Harry. The rest – leave!'

The other Slytherins fled the room with as much dignity as they could muster.

'Sit.'

Harry exchanged a short puzzled glance with Daphne and Amy before they all took a seat on the big sofa.

'Before we begin,' said Arcturus gravely, 'I'm sorry for your loss, Daphne. I had my disagreements with Esmerelle – and so did you – but she was your grandmother all the same.'

'I, er,' mumbled Daphne, 'thank you. I don't know what to think right now, to be honest.'

'I imagine as much,' replied Arcturus. 'These things take time. I hope you're fine, these aggravating circumstances notwithstanding?'

Daphne bobbed her head at Arcturus' back.

'And you, Amadina? We haven't spoken in some time, but I trust you're well?'

'Sure.'

Arcturus nodded, satisfied with this bare-bone take on civility. 'Harry.'

'Yes, Grandfather?'

'Explain.'

Harry stared at the lordly back of his grandfather. His mouth felt rather dry all of a sudden.

Arcturus turned around, his eyes homing in on Harry's.

'Harry,' said Arcturus, 'did you indeed take the oath as Professor Rose's apprentice?'

There was no way around this one. 'I did,' he said curtly, his eyes jumping between Arcturus', hating himself for having to offer this sham of an answer.

'And you came to this decision knowing full well of all its consequences and repercussions?'

'Yes.'

No reaction. If anything, Arcturus' eyes seemed to harden further.

'Including those that would come of such a bond – with this person especially?' asked Arcturus, lowering his voice to the angry rumble of the sky just before the first lightning could be seen.

That was an odd question in Harry's opinion. 'I know what kind of person she is but –'

'No, you don't!' said Arcturus icily. 'Do you know her family?'

'Well, I admit I –'

'You don't! Do you know what she's doing in Britain?!'

'Admittedly, we haven't really –'

'Again – you don't! Do you have any kind of security that she won't abuse this bond, disregarding any agreements or measures you might have taken?'

Harry didn't reply.

'The oath Narcissa forced her to take can be terminated at any given time by Aenor Rose herself. She knows this. You should know this! You do not know who she is, what her motives are, why she's here, or what she wants with you. Anything she might or might not have told you is meaningless. Kind words are cheap, Harry. You'll know it's the truth only when the words hurt. But that can't ever happen because you hold no leverage over Aenor Rose, and no exchange can ever be of equal footing between you two! Why didn't you just come to me if there was something you wanted from her?!'

'It's not that simple!'

'Then please, by all means – enlighten me!'

'There are … larger issues here.'

'Such as?'

'Are we supposed to leave?' asked Daphne in a small voice, but Arcturus idly waved her concern aside without breaking eye contact with Harry.

Harry licked his lips, thinking fast. 'I find myself … recalling our latest discussion and all the difficulties it encompassed. In the context of that very talk, I should say that I came to the decision I reached knowing full well what it might or might not mean insofar as it concerned the subject of your … exemplifications.'

Arcturus' face shut down. His expression and everything that could have given away what the man thought didn't so much retreat as erase themselves from existence. His eyes, though, remained on Harry's – clear, piercing, and in more ways than one reminded Harry of solid concrete.

'In fact,' continued Harry reluctantly, 'even if there was more to discuss, I have to admit that – with the course of history in mind – I would be hesitant to lay bare all my cards. Even, well …' His voice trailed away awkwardly.

'Even with me,' finished Arcturus softly.

Harry nodded, feeling wretched.

There was a tense moment of silence, but then, Arcturus took a deep breath. 'I see. I have to admit I cannot fault your reasoning, even if I could never see your apprenticeship as anything but foolishness at best. This … is not what I had anticipated. I want to be completely frank here, Harry, this is something I'd never allow and would have never allowed to happen. I would have fought it tooth and nail, would have prevented you from seeing her, withdrawn you from Hogwarts if necessary. Still, your other line of reasoning is not … entirely unwarranted. Regardless, I invite you to consider that the edge of your argument cuts both ways. In any event, what I previously broke to you holds true even now, Harry. Especially now! You cannot do this by yourself. I advise you to stick close to those you can trust – even if you may not always be able to confide or divulge your motivations.'

Harry bolted from his seat when Amy sharply poked his cheek. 'He's always been like that. You tend to ignore his tedious tendency for martyrdom after a spell.'

'I'm glad you do,' said Arcturus, and Harry didn't fail to pick up on the undertone that carried a definite reprimand. 'The both of you,' he said, turning to Amy and Daphne, 'know Harry and his circumstances better than most. I hope I can rely on you to keep an eye on him where I cannot.'

Amy nodded.

'I'm not going anywhere – no matter what Harry says,' said Daphne, crossing her arms. 'We've had that discussion before.'

For the first time this evening, Arcturus' expression eased a bit. 'Good. We shall need to discuss the events unfolding insofar as they concern the ICW more privately, Harry. But that can wait until summer. You may also be interested to hear that Madame Bones has taken an interest in the activities of several of her most senior Aurors. She isn't happy about their independent streak. I hear she had a major argument with the Minister. She was facing enquiry.'

'How?'

'I paid Bartemius a visit before arriving here.' Arcturus gave a mirthless smirk. 'I made it so.'

'Grandfather?'

'Yes, Harry?'

'Which …' Harry didn't want to talk about Aenor right now, but since Arcturus' comment proved he was informed of the failed arrest earlier today, Harry would be able to broach the subject without – as it were – mentioning it at all. 'Which Aurors did Bones call in?'

'Longbottom, Shacklebolt, and a man named Lazarus.'

Harry sat bolt upright. 'Do you know anything about this Lazarus fellow?'

'Lazarus?' said Daphne. 'Isn't that who Uncle S–'

Harry elbowed her into silence. Coughing awkwardly and ignoring his grandfather's raised eyebrow, he said, 'Excuse the interruption. Please continue, Grandfather.'

'I'm afraid there isn't much to continue with. As you're aware, Madame Bones is not only intimately familiar with pure-blood politics but also an ardent defender of her office's independence. She recently sacked a junior Auror rumoured to have traded favours. She was right, of course, but I doubt she had conclusive proof. I have reason to believe that Lazarus is one of her senior Aurors, as proven by his investigation into the Azkaban incidents. He seems to be on good terms with both of his superiors. I believe that – until recently – he was involved with internal affairs, which is why he was somewhat absent from the public.'

'What – with Moody?!' said Amy, who seemed a little impressed despite herself. 'Must be tough then.'

'As any of Alastor's protégés would have to be, yes,' said Arcturus. 'You might have seen him, as a matter of fact.'

Harry was floored. 'I have?!'

'Indeed. He was in the paper the day of the breakout. A well-trained man with dark hair.'

Harry did remember. The photography had been excellent – in a distinctly morbid way that stuck to the memory. 'Oh – that was him?'

'Apparently. Other than that, the only other thing I seem to recall is that he refused to deal with Cornfoot as we all do.'

'The Head Gaoler?' said Amy. 'I hear he's a real bastard.'

Arcturus looked vaguely amused. 'Cornfoot is not a violent person by any means or even particularly cruel, but he can be somewhat tricky to deal with. Most families have learned to settle matters with him the old way.'

'The old way?' asked Daphne.

'Dough,' said Amy with a smirk.

Daphne grimaced. 'What – bribes?!'

'Mr Cornfoot is very fond of his family and the respectable life he appears to lead,' explained Arcturus. 'As such, he looks favourably upon tokens of esteem that let him indulge his wife and daughter beyond the relatively modest wage his position offers.'

'Why not just say yes,' mumbled Daphne.

Arcturus flashed a lightning-fast smile. 'Yes, Daphne. Bribes. Are you interested in this particular Auror, Harry?'

'His name came up. I–' Harry hesitated, reaching into his robes and quickly scribbled Hermione's birth name on a little slip of paper. 'Could you pull all the official records for this one, please?'

Arcturus glanced at the paper and raised one eyebrow. 'Naturally. Well, if there isn't anything else right now …? I doubt Albus will tolerate my presence indefinitely.'

'One more thing, Grandfather!'

'Just the one?' said Arcturus. 'What is it?'

'What sort of people did James Potter associate with? As an Auror, I mean.'

'I'm not entirely sure – besides Sirius, I mean. Lily Potter could be very … assertive at times. She never protested him being an Auror, as far as I know, but she and Madame Bones talked James Potter into taking more responsibilities at the office to keep him out of harm's way once you were born.'

'A desk job for James Potter?!' said Daphne, baffled. 'That's not how I pictured him …'

'I dare say neither did he, Daphne,' agreed Arcturus. 'But he, too, was very fond of his budding family. And I seriously doubt it was to his detriment. There always were rumours that he would succeed Madame Bones once things had settled down a bit.'

'What about Longbottom?' asked Amy. 'Shouldn't he have had seniority?'

'He should have, but the Head Auror has always been very attached to his current position. He has – on multiple occasions – publicly stated that he has no interest in pursuing a higher office. Personally, I think Bartemius and Madame Bones are perfectly happy not to push the issue. It wouldn't do for one family, even one as popular as the Longbottoms, to hold too many offices within the Ministry.

'One last thing, Harry. A word of warning. People – that is to say, people of consequence – were displeased that it was our name that came up again this afternoon. More specifically …'

'Mine,' thought Harry. He nodded.

'Well, I'm relieved this exchange was somewhat fruitful. I realise you must do as you see fit, my son, but it might also behove you to consider approval a … resource, especially in your case. Not everyone might react as enlightened, empathic, or informed as I do. Do not squander the goodwill you have built over the past few years.' With a sigh, he grabbed a dark bowler. 'And now, if you three would excuse me, there are other matters I must attend to.'

Harry, Daphne, and Amy bowed when Arcturus offered them a familiar greeting, watching him stride towards Slytherin's secret entrance.

'Grandfather?'

Arcturus Black turned around once more. 'Yes, Harry?'

'I know about Emeric.'

For a second, Arcturus faltered. 'I see.' For just a moment, the ancient man gazed into the forlorn common room as if seeing times long past. Barely a few seconds later, he turned away again. 'Then it appears we have something else to discuss this summer. But I gather you see the wisdom in my long-standing advice?'

'Study Occlumency?' thought Harry. 'Bloody hell, yes!'

'Yes, Grandfather,' he said.

'Very well. Now, if you'll excuse me …?'

Harry nodded, watching his grandfather leave.

Amy sniggered when they heard a few yelps of shock and nervously offered apologies from the other side of the entrance. The Slytherins, they saw briefly through the closing door, were silently parting like minnows before the shark to allow Lord Black passage.

'Say, Harry,' said Daphne.

'Hmm?'

'What is it with your talks with Uncle Arcturus?! They're so … dated!'

Yeah,' agreed Amy, yawning hugely. 'I'm glad it's not like that at our home. Granted, I'm not entirely sure Father would be able to follow but …'

'Must be Uncle Arcturus' influence, then,' said Daphne. 'It's never been that bad at my home either. Ever!'

Harry shrugged. 'I don't think I picked that up from the Blacks, to be honest.'

'Wherever else could you have?!'

Harry frowned, leaning back and staring at the ceiling. 'You learn to choose your words carefully if you're a prisoner of your own servants.'

Memory Lane

The first clue that something was going to happen, Hermione thought in hindsight, was Amadina and Harry both missing breakfast. It was Tuesday, and both of them – Hermione was certain – had classes to attend to in the early morning. Either one of them missing wouldn't have raised an eyebrow considering Harry's dreadful tendency to oversleep and Amadina's refusal to acquiesce to mundane rules such as timetables. More urgently though, she had felt a little shaken since Lord Black's visit, something she didn't like to think about. She had been hovering near the secret entrance with what felt like the majority of Slytherin house when Lord Black emerged from within. He didn't acknowledge – far less return – any of the deferential or mumbled greetings the other pure-bloods offered. Lord Black walked in a world of his own – a world that was completely devoid of anything below his station and, consequently, notice.

Almost.

For one terrifying, shocking moment, his eyes had snapped to hers, running her through like a hunter might impale a boar. He hadn't frowned. As far as Hermione could tell, he hadn't moved a muscle at all. It had been far worse than that. Those eyes, those eyes that looked so startlingly like the siblings', had been dissecting her with such ferocious ruthlessness that Hermione felt as helpless as a slice of raw meat.

Even now, days and days later, the memory never failed to make Hermione shudder.

The third clue Hermione should have regarded with more urgency had been how every Slytherin pure-blood had avoided her like the plague all morning. Pure-bloods, especially those subject to the stigma associated with Slytherin, Hermione thought bitterly, had a knack for avoiding trouble, and some animal or – rather wizarding – instinct born of millennia of more or less honourable feuds and unsophisticated schemes to hasten the tediousness of coming into your inheritance always made them steer clear of trouble, not unlike fretting animals before an earthquake. Even Daphne had been stiff and rather twitchy, glancing at the huge portal to the Great Hall every so often as if she worried a horde of barbarians with wicked axes might rampage through any moment.

The last thing that should finally have dropped the penny was Amadina turning up minutes before classes, all smiles and innocence – which in itself was alarming enough – asking her if she could borrow her quill for a second in the bathroom. Hermione, rattled by this sudden offensive of congeniality of nature, had produced her quill, followed Amadina inside the bathroom and … fallen asleep.

More or less.

That was, broadly, how Hermione put the pieces together as she awoke groggily some indeterminable amount of time later to the sound of someone pouring tea with all the unnecessary fuss pure-bloods were enamoured of.

'Good morning, Hermione,' said a polite little voice. It was the voice of someone playing an amusing game with people blissfully unaware they were participating – and losing.

Hermione groaned. 'Harry?'

'I apologise for the shocking tea service, but I had to make do. I trust you find green jasmine agreeable enough? I'm reasonably certain Cranky would flog any elf who dared serve the dreadful breakfast tar Draco seems to cherish so, but you're welcome to it if you don't value your gustatory cells. Scone?'

Hermione groaned again, opening her eyes. Sure enough, sitting at a small table laden with a generous second breakfast, sat Harry Black, smiling politely as he offered her a deliciously smelling, freshly-baked scone. Hermione, who was still a few seconds behind the events unfolding – not to mention the sheer surrealism of it all – accepted it automatically. 'Thanks,' she mumbled groggily. Then wheels began to spin. 'What happened? Where am I?!'

'In a little classroom I had the elves tidy up on the third floor,' said Harry with a patient little smile. 'Jam?'

The shock of understanding slammed into her, and she crushed the hot scone in her hand. 'OH MY GOD! I'm late for –

'Devilled kidneys?' asked Harry with the air of someone trying to be helpful. 'Not to worry, I saved you some. As well as a poached egg and – ah, yes, there they are – kippers, fried bread, and bacon.'

Hermione stared at him, wondering if the boy had gone insane.

Harry, meanwhile, watched her with apparent concern. 'Napkin?'

'Harry, I have classes!' said Hermione shrilly, feeling faint. 'I missed classes! You abducted me!' After a second, she added reproachfully, 'Again!'

Harry's smile widened. 'Don't worry. You're excused.'

'Excused?!'

'Yes, a bout of transient diaphragmatic spasm. And it must have been a particularly bad one since you had to be carried in by a schoolmate.'

'That was me,' supplied Amadina's voice helpfully from behind Hermione. 'Both the carrying and the transient wossname! Anyway, I hexed you.'

Hermione cast a glare over her shoulder at the other girl, who stood brazen and smirking in front of the door, twirling her wand.

Harry waved a dismissive hand. 'Suffice it to say, the nurse prescribed a hearty meal and relaxation for the day.'

'Madame Pomfrey did?' demanded Hermione suspiciously.

'Her stand-in nurse, as a matter of fact.'

'In other words – you?!'

Harry smiled disarmingly. 'It was my considered medical opinion. But let's not waste any more time on trifles. And you haven't tasted your tea yet.'

'Harry, you are insufferable!' She stood up, wiping the crumbs from her robes. 'I'm leaving!'

She stomped towards the door. It was only when she was so close to the elder Lestrange that it was a matter of either stopping or serious harassment that she realised the girl had two wands. One of them was painfully familiar.

'Do as the nurse instructs you, Your Mudblood Highness.'

Hermione glowered, turning halfway around and folding her arms defensively. 'What is this?!' she demanded.

'An acceptable second breakfast,' said Harry with tormenting serenity as he picked a scone for himself. He seemed to recognise her mounting anger though and offered a brief smile. 'Please sit, Hermione. This isn't anything nefarious, you have my word. But I need to have a few moments in relative private to discuss a matter of importance to both myself and yourself.'

'And you couldn't have just asked?!'

'No.' He hesitated. 'Well, obviously I could have,' he admitted grudgingly, 'but I doubt you would have appreciated the seriousness of the situation without these somewhat,' he gestured towards Amadina and Hermione's stolen wand, 'theatrical gestures. For what it's worth, I apologise for putting you in this situation, and if you wish to make a complaint to Professor Snape, I shall do nothing to dissuade you. But for now,' he gently pushed the saucer and teacup towards her discarded seat, 'please be seated.'

Grumbling, Hermione let herself drop into the chair. 'If this isn't extremely important, Harry, I'll …'

'You'll ...?' he repeated mildly.

'Squeal to Daphne,' said Hermione with a vindictive smirk. 'And tell her how mean you were, mistreating a poor defenceless Muggle-born friend of yours. And how traumatised the ordeal has left me. At length!'

Harry's smug face distorted for just a second. 'Fair enough.' He produced his wand and – with exaggerated care – put it in front of him with the tip pointing his way. Harry also spotted her tense the moment he'd reached inside his sleeve.

'Please, Hermione,' he said with a frown. 'Who do you think I am? We're friends!'

'You abducted me!'

'I'm offering you breakfast.'

'You hexed me!' Hermione insisted sullenly.

'No, that was Amy. I asked her to bring you here,' said Harry with a glance at the other girl behind Hermione, 'but I suppose some responsibility falls to me for not being more specific with my request.'

'I did get her here,' said Amadina. 'Eventually. Sorry about the bumps.'

'What bumps?' asked Hermione, frowning as she ran her hand over the back of her head.

'Anyway,' said Harry with an air of finality, reaching into his robes again. 'I'm facing a little conundrum, Hermione, and only you can help me solve it.'

'What bumps?!' insisted Hermione.

'You have two options,' continued Harry smoothly. 'The first would involve a potion for sale in Knockturn Alley.' He carefully slid a tiny phial inches across the table. It was corked, but even through the stopper, a curiously curly glitter rose from the milky substance within.

'Knockturn Alley?' Hermione made a face. 'No, I'd rather not!'

'Or,' Harry went on as if he hadn't expected anything else, 'you subject yourself to an examination.'

'What kind of examination? And by whom?'

'An examination, my poor defenceless Muggle-born friend, to determine if someone has tampered with your memory.'

'Tampered with my memory? Who has?!'

'That's what I intend to find out. And I assume you share my vested interest?'

'What?! Yes, of course, don't be ridiculous!' Hermione frowned, looking at the workmanlike china. 'Are you serious, Harry? This isn't a … prank, is it?'

'I'm afraid not.' Harry sighed heavily. 'I have well-founded reason to believe that your memory has been tampered with – repeatedly. Memory spells, I'm sure you know, are no first-year jinx. No student remotely our age should succeed casting such complex spells even with step-by-step instructions. Even among the NEWT students, I doubt many – if any – could do so neat a job that you wouldn't notice anything.'

'But, but,' stammered Hermione, her thoughts racing, 'the Hogwarts teachers wouldn't cast a memory spell on students.'

'No,' said Harry heavily. 'They wouldn't.'

'Most of them,' interrupted Amadina once more.

'What?!' demanded Hermione.

'Not helping, Amy! It's nothing to do with you, Hermione. I promise.'

'But – memory charms? How do you know?' demanded Hermione, watching Harry closely.

'This … is the tricky bit. If at all possible, I would prefer not to divulge the how and why but –' Here he raised his hand to forestall her furious outrage, 'I realise that is an unreasonable request.'

'Try ridiculous,' muttered Hermione.

Harry smacked his lips, putting down his teacup. 'You have been … busy, Hermione. In the library.'

'Well, obviously, yes. We are assigned homework, you know?'

He waved an impatient hand. 'No, you were researching something else. Something entirely unrelated to homework or Hogwarts in general. And I don't mean the Grindelwald trials either.'

Hermione's eyes widened. 'How do you know?!' she whispered.

Harry gave a humourless smile. 'I believe the question rather is, what don't you know?'

'Nonsense! I would remem-' She stopped. 'I mean, I wouldn't remember whether I did anything or didn't!'

'True,' chuckled Harry. 'But that isn't the issue. The issue is the legality of your past enterprise.'

Hermione snorted. 'You are kidding, aren't you? Harry, let me put this bluntly, I'm – not – like – you!'

'Oh, you aren't, are you? I doubt you were aware of the legal standing of the matter if that's any help. But can you tell me in all honesty that, if presented with some nagging detail you were completely unfamiliar with, no matter how obscure the reference, you wouldn't do your best to get to the bottom of it if? That you wouldn't obsess over it in the library? That you wouldn't leave any stone unturned to solve this mystery? Because that, Hermione, is exactly the kind of person I am. And that, I believe, is also exactly the kind of person you are.'

Hermione made a face as if she had been forced to suck a particularly sour lemon. He wasn't wrong. 'How … illegal are we talking?'

'Not illegal as such – not in the strictest sense. There is no … law involved. But it simply is not done. It is undoubtedly suspicious, especially for someone in your shoes, and – depending on who you ask – incriminating.'

'In my shoes? Do you mean it's not common knowledge for any Muggle-born? So it involves pure-bloods … or politics?'

'Ah,' said Harry, smiling. 'See? There is that inquisitive mind of yours that I respect so much. But, to be perfectly honest here, most pure-bloods aren't any better off regarding this particular matter.'

'How bad is this … subject? I assume it's banned?'

'Bad? The word doesn't apply here, I'm afraid. It has been decided that the matter shouldn't be spoken of. There exists no formal law or ban as – indeed – such a thing would require documentation. It was simply … decided.'

Hermione smiled nervously. 'You make it sound like a government conspiracy, Harry.' Neither Harry nor Amadina returned any semblance of a smile, which finally really let it sink in. 'Oh. How much trouble am I in?'

Harry seemed to consider this at length.

After twenty seconds, Hermione interrupted. 'On a scale from one to ten.'

Harry bobbed his head. 'About … seven and a half, I wager.'

'Where one is ...?' asked Hermione.

'One point from Slytherin.'

'And ten? I mean, I suppose ten points from Slytherin would be –'

'Lying face-down in the gutter.'

Cold sweat ran down Hermione's neck. Her breath caught. 'Oh. So seven and a half is pretty serious then, yes?'

Harry nodded.

'Bad enough that it's not a matter of school discipline, I take it?'

Again, Harry nodded wordlessly.

'I, er, I see.'

The world seemed to expand as Hermione's perception of Harry, the room, and time twisted themselves around the dreadful images her mind helpfully conjured up. Imagination could be gruesome – much, much more gruesome than reality. Hermione had a very vivid imagination.

'I wouldn't have told you any of this,' said Harry eventually, his voice a little kinder. 'But I doubt you would have let me rummage around your mind otherwise.'

'But … am I not better off not knowing, then?' demanded Hermione, grasping for a lifeline.

'You are.' Seeing her failing to understand, Harry added, 'The problem is, not the right sort of people did you this … courtesy. I know you weren't summoned to the Ministry. You've never officially met an Auror, much less any other official from the DMLE, in your entire life.'

'How do you know?!'

'I know.'

'Yes, but how?' Hermione insisted.

Harry didn't answer.

'Harry!'

He shrugged. 'What do you want me to tell you? I know because I asked. That is all I can say on the matter.'

Nervously, Hermione bit her lip until she remembered all her lessons and stopped abruptly, looking down sheepishly. 'How come you know so much?'

'As I said, I have been making enquiries.'

'Yes, but how did you know I was involved in whatever it is? And you obviously know what it is. And Amadina?'

'Some families know,' admitted Harry. 'But even we don't go peddling with this kind of knowledge.'

'Ah,' muttered Hermione, nodding to herself. 'Right. The Lestranges sit on the Wizengamot, too, I sometimes forget. But how did you find out about me … about me sticking my neck into this sling?'

She caught Harry's eye, but he seemed hesitant to answer. She was about to press him again when Amadina called out from behind her.

'Because of me. Because I saw you sitting in the library, brazen as anything, sticking your ink-smeared nose right into the devil's jaw. Gutsy, I'll give you that. But stupid. Really, really stupid.'

'And you just happened to find me there, right?'

Amadina shrugged. 'No, I was following you, stupid.'

'And why is it that I need to be followed?' demanded Hermione angrily.

Harry interrupted Amadina before she could reply. 'Please, Hermione. The issue at hand?'

Hermione scowled. 'Fine! So … you want to find out who wiped my memory, is that it?'

'You are correct. But first, the examination to verify if any tampering has been done at all or if you're still under the influence of some mind-affecting spell or such. It's not at all dangerous, but – to tell you the truth – it's not exactly every day this sort of examination is done either. I've succeeded before, though, and I don't see why I shouldn't again.'

'So I'm not your lab rat, am I?'

'No,' said Harry reassuringly.

'Lucky you,' muttered Amadina darkly. 'And I still think you made me do those stupid things just because you could, Harry!'

'I resent the very accusation!' said Harry in a very honest-sounding voice.

'But,' said Amadina, 'at least I'll get to see you bossing Granger around for a few hours.'

'For a few hours?!' asked Hermione, now rather worried. 'The potion was an option, wasn't it? You are certain it works?'

'Yes, fairly certain. It is what they administer at St. Mungo's in such cases, and we have a useful contact who doesn't mind brewing less reputable potions, provided they are offered enough compensation.'

'So, the potion is restricted, too?' asked Hermione, eyeing the brew sceptically. 'No wonder I haven't heard of it …'

'Yes, but only technically. It's not illegal to brew it – merely to sell it. The effect can be … unpleasant from what I understand. And with amazingly dire consequences if brewed inexpertly.'

'What does it do?'

'It tries to restore wiped memories. While it's not always successful, it's always rather unpleasant a sensation, from what I'm told. I'm no expert at Potions, as I'm sure you're aware, but in Daphne's words, "it can knock you off your feet as good as dead for days and days".'

'Ah,' said Hermione, her enthusiasm waning fast. 'And the examination?'

'Is a lot easier and less drastic because I don't want to restore any memories at all. Its primary purpose is just to ascertain whether memories have been tampered with or not.'

'Are there any possible side effects at all?'

Harry shrugged. 'At worst, it might addle your senses for a few hours. I've read that someone suffering a particularly ham-fisted examination felt that all the water she drank for two days tasted like cod-liver oil.'

'Ew!'

'You didn't mention that,' snapped Amadina from the back again. 'You said hardly anything ever went wrong with it.'

'Yes, well,' said Harry with that tiny little smile playing about his lips again, 'you would have to be very careless.'

'So,' muttered Hermione over the grumbling of Amadina in the background, 'it's either cod-liver oil or the infirmary – possibly for weeks?'

'In the worst case, yes.' After a second, he tilted his head just a touch to the side. 'Of course, since the potion might restore your memories, we might then have to look for a trustworthy person – that is to say a person both you and I can put our faith in – to helpfully rid you of anything overly incriminating again – at least until you're able to fully close your mind.'

'I see,' said Hermione dejectedly. 'So it's only a choice between your examination and a lot more trouble, isn't it?'

'A choice nevertheless. I'm sure with more time or expertise on our hands, we could find other solutions, but we are somewhat pressed for time. You need to know. I need to know.' After a second, he added, 'I don't want someone strutting about obliviating my friends.'

'And it might shed some light on who did the same to me,' growled Amadina. 'I intend to get even!'

But Hermione was still hesitant. 'You won't be able to discern my memory, will you?'

'No,' replied Harry – and it was a very direct answer. 'Truthfully, I couldn't even if I wanted to. This is magic well beyond OWLs. Well beyond NEWTs, as a matter of fact. As … vexing as it is to admit, inspecting your memories in such a manner would be truly and completely beyond my current abilities and knowledge. It's difficult enough to spot damage, scars, or insertions in the weave of your thoughts without the distraction of admiring the tapestry. I could teach you to do it yourself – any sufficiently proficient Occlumens with the medical knowledge can, in theory, do this himself – but you're not quite there yet. Not at all, I'm afraid.'

Hermione knew from her lessons with Draco, Tracey, and Leo that people studied Legilimency for years and years before they could claim any sort of proficiency, but the thought of someone rummaging about in her mind wasn't tempting.

'You swear you won't try to? In any way? Or deceive, trick, cajole, or manipulate me in any way during the examination?' She frowned. 'Or immediately afterwards when I might still be confused?'

Harry grinned. 'Well done. But yes; I swear, Hermione. On my family honour.'

Hermione didn't dare remark that Harry's family was well known for being cold-hearted schemers, dangerously unhinged egomaniacs, and the sort of boogeymen even criminals stayed clear of or – at most – politely tipped their hat to. Then again, now that she thought about it, she couldn't recall any book or story about the Blacks reneging on a vow or – indeed – on any vow still upheld in good faith by both parties.

'All right,' she said heavily. 'All right, I suppose I don't really have much of a choice, do I?'

'You could try a hospital or a licensed healer,' Harry pointed out.

'And be arrested shortly thereafter?'

'A choice nevertheless.'

'Yes,' mumbled Hermione. 'I feel like I'm making lots of great decisions recently. What harm could one more possibly do?!'

Even as the words left her mouth, she considered, it was a very stupid thing to say.

Memory Lane

'No, I'm sorry,' said Frank Longbottom with a tone that effectively ended the debate. 'Amelia was clear. Very clear. I might go so far as to say painfully clear. And, just for your information, I don't disagree with her.'

'It's a bit unusual for her to put her foot down with you, isn't it?' grumbled Rendall. He had tossed his tie, and his hair looked exactly like that of a man who had repeatedly tussled it in anger and frustration. 'I mean, I know she's your boss on paper but …'

'She is the director. On paper and otherwise,' said Frank stubbornly. 'And in the extremely unlikely case that she could be persuaded to let things slide, it wouldn't change anything. The directive came from the Minister himself, and neither Amelia nor I am willing to open a front there for something like this.' He hesitated, scowling at the official papers in his hands. Next to an impressive seal and several signatures, the words 'call to order' could be read. 'Whatever this is supposed to be in the first place because I'll be damned if I know.'

'It's about the Ministry. You know it is,' whined Rendall in the tone of someone trying to convince a reluctant resident that what they needed to brighten up their day was a brand-new washing machine. Or several. 'The break-in, the murders, the Blood Magic. It's about all of that!'

'Is it?' repeated Frank, clearly irritated and definitely not interested in any metaphorical travelling hawker's tray. 'Is it really? Because I'm not so sure. Isn't this all because of a bit of gossip Harry spread about you? Isn't it because he was simply out of bounds at school but you insist on your version of events in which he miraculously appears at and escapes from the Ministry, battling professional Aurors and monsters alike, without anyone the wiser – mind you – only to reappear at the castle slightly tipsy?

'I know Harry better than anyone here. Yes, I meant anyone!' Frank repeated hotly when there was an angry growl from one end of the room. 'I taught him every day for years and years. Every single day. I know better than anyone how bright Harry is.' He sighed, closing his eyes. With a look of frustration, he gripped his brow like a tired man after fourteen hours at the office – which incidentally was exactly how long he had been that day. 'But he's sixteen, Rendall. Sixteen! No sixteen-year-old could fight Aurors from the ICW. I know that better than anyone. Even Albus at that age couldn't have, he admitted so himself.

'That Russian on their squad. Heard of him? He once took two stunners to the chest and several in the back while charging a corrupt judge in the duelling ring, and he still had enough strength left to throw the man bodily out of the ring. The judge weighed at least a dozen stones and he tossed him fifteen yards! I was there; I saw him do it. Frankly, it was … beyond belief! All those people Antonius has, they are tough, they are terrific!'

Rendall made a dismissive snort.

But Frank Longbottom had had enough. 'And what do you know?!' He was seething, and it was quite obvious that he was barely controlling himself. 'I know those people; they are professionals. And, for your information, Rendall, they are all in the force because they were hand-picked from thousands of applicants. Not because of family names or recommendations like in the old days. I'm sure you know what I'm referring to.'

'I earned my place back then,' roared Rendall, red in the face.

'That Adebayo kid that got killed in London,' shouted Frank. 'She was only twenty-four, but do you know her FUSE score? Do any of you?!'

'I don't care about any fitness for use suitability exams,' said Rendall thickly. 'I only meant–'

'Two hundred thirty-one!'

There was a moment of silence, interrupted by whistling from the far corner of the room. 'No kidding?' Lazarus burst out. 'I think someone told me Kingsley scraped a hundred sixty and everyone's still going on and on about that.'

'Two hundred thirty-one,' repeated Frank. 'And she got torn to shreds. These people, I know them. You know Antonius, Rendall. They're good at what they do. Frankly, they're a lot better than anything I could ever offer you. Even some of the old street monsters in my department might only just compare to their rawest recruits. And, need I remind you, Antonius mostly took senior members with him.'

There was a moment of embarrassed silence that nobody seemed willing to fill.

Frank sighed, shaking his head. 'I apologise. I didn't mean to shout. But that's the way it is, Rendall. I'm sorry, but I'm out. We have enough to do right now as is. The Unspeakables are still investigating the raid, but I'll send you a copy of their report once they finish.' Turning towards Lazarus, he added, 'You can stay if you like. I'll keep your name out of the paperwork as a personal favour. But that's the best I can do.' He grimaced, addressing the only woman of the group for the first time. 'Sorry.'

'It's okay, I understand; you have your principles.'

Frank smiled crookedly. 'If this really is such a big deal for you, Rendall, I can only suggest moving through the appropriate channels – even if that means going through the elder council.'

'… and basically slapping the Blacks with the fact that we're investigating their heir,' muttered Rendall. 'Like that would ever fly. You know I can't do that! That evil fossil knows the statutes by heart. He wrote dozens of them! That thought gives me shivers to this day. Not to mention that he knows practically half the council back from his school days!'

'If you're adamant, maybe you could get a majority with Crouch's and Selwyn's help,' said Frank. 'The law is what it is; only the elder council can decide whenever heads of Wizengamot clans or their heirs are concerned. Our majority in the Wizengamot is worthless here. You know that!'

'For now, anyway,' the woman said ruminatively. 'By the way, I thought Selwyn would burst with smugness now that he's secured the Rosiers' money, but he didn't even turn up for yesterday's session. Is he up to something already?'

'No idea. I have other things on my mind.' Frank shrugged one more time as he turned to leave. 'Sorry, you're on your own. But if you want my advice, hurry like the blazes; this ship has more rats than the London Underground.'

The other three watched him leave.

'Well, that's a bummer,' said Lazarus. 'Amelia really must've slated him.'

'No, it's a matter of principle for him,' said the woman. 'Not to mention the fiasco with that Rose woman. I suspect bearing Harry's loathing couldn't have been easy either.'

'So we're back to square one?' demanded Rendall, thumping a table with the palm of his hand.

'Well,' said Lazarus, chuckling darkly, 'it can't get any worse, can it?'

'Don't!' The woman shook her head. 'Don't ever say that.'

Memory Lane

'Ah, welcome at last,' said Lord Black as a plump, crooked figure approached their gloomy circle of chairs. 'I trust the journey went well?'

The veiled figure nodded as it sank into the only empty chair, presenting a crystal phial that shone softly with a plethora of wards in the saturnine room. The minuscule label read: 'Ravn.'

'Oh, how dreadful!' exclaimed the one figure excluding Arcturus who wasn't veiled by spell or cloth. 'The Ravn variant, a truly dreadful pathogen closely related to the better known Marburg virus. Often asymptomatic and devilishly tricky to diagnose correctly. High fatality rate, oh yes, very high. Tricky to treat even with high maintenance professional care – and Muggles can't treat it properly at all. Not something I should like to see every day.'

'Thank you, Professor Spleen,' said Arcturus evenly, and the little man glowed with pride, simpering stupidly. 'But other business first. Please be so kind and stop listening until I address you directly again, Professor.'

'Happily, my lord!' The man sank back in his chair, stared blissfully at the ceiling, and began humming to himself.

'Have there been any problems with the Greengrass seat?'

'No,' croaked another voice that sounded slightly sick. 'I have been approached by Madame Bones and Minister Crouch already, who offered their condolences. I said I would have to read up on the duties expected of me, but that I'd be delighted to hear their insights into current political affairs in a few weeks. Madame Umbridge has also invited me round to tea with a few other senior Ministry employees, to help me get acquainted with "the right sort of people".'

'Very good,' said Lord Black.

'Only … only the family solicitor came by yesterday and informed me that all accounts at Gringotts were closed. I'm not sure what happened there. I've been trying to find any documentation that might explain it all but–'

'There was a secret deal with Selwyn,' explained the messenger of maladies, who was busying herself with a foul-smelling pipe. 'Veritaserum was very useful with that one. The old hag bequeathed him the contents of all Greengrass accounts should anything unfortunate happen to her. But Selwyn himself has no documents of this – except the conditional magical deed of gift which tragically lit up when he laid it on a rack too close to the hearth and an ill-fated gust blew it down. The goblins are already auditing the transaction. I'd say two to three days at most until the money is transferred back and the record cleared.'

'I … I see. Thank you.'

'Excellent,' murmured Arcturus, nodding at both figures. 'How about the report regarding the attack on the Department of Mysteries?'

Another, more delicate-looking figure leant forward, causing the sick-sounding woman to inch closer – as if to inspect her as closely as possible. The speaker, however, was undeterred and appeared not to notice this. 'Most of the information's been gathered,' she said, flipping through a stack of papers. 'Bode and Rookwood are currently working their way through this, but Rookwood is being his usual nasty self and pulled seniority to have me step in for him. I've erased a few possible avenues of linking Harry and his friends to the events that transpired there, though I have done nothing to keep Rose uninvolved. I should like to point out, however, that Rose did a very respectable job of leaving no evidence at the scene and what little evidence she left was connected to Harry, so I had to get rid of it. She might have banked on that, of course.

'Since she didn't even use her own wand during the incursion, it's virtually impossible to find conclusive proof unless those two Aurors Harry obliviated miraculously regain their memories. In any case, she is one possible candidate from among roughly a dozen possible suspects based on divining rituals – and they make notoriously poor evidence. Bode seems dismissive of her because she's a foreigner, and Rookwood seems almost appalled at the idea that a woman could have killed half a dozen special Aurors. She's near the bottom of the list currently.'

'Who pays them?' asked a male voice who hadn't spoken until now.

'It's hard to say with Rookwood. He acts like a thirteen-year-old most of the time, but I suppose tawdry jokes wouldn't have got him entirely Outstanding NEWTs, so I wouldn't underestimate him. Last week, I would've thought he was on Selwyn's payroll but …'

There was a pause in the busy rustling with tobacco. 'Not the case. Selwyn admitted he was still working on getting an insider in there.'

'That's what I gathered.' The woman sighed, folding her slender hands neatly. She appeared completely oblivious to how her neighbour had been staring at her for minutes. 'It would be anyone's guess at this point. If it's neither Selwyn nor us, I can't see him anywhere but with Nott, and yet –'

'With Nott?!' demanded yet another podgy figure, shaking his head. There was a sheen of sweat visible on the small bits of skin that weren't covered. 'You can't be serious! Who'd work with him?!'

'It does seem unlikely,' said a polite female voice, joining the discussion. 'Rookwood is a half-blood, is he not? Would Nott even speak to him?'

'Actually, we don't know much about his family. We all assume he's half-blood because his mother was a foreigner, but Karkaroff obviously thought his ancestry was sufficient for Durmstrang, and sniffing out Muggle-borns and half-bloods is pretty much his only gift, as I'm sure we all agree on…'

'Interesting,' said Arcturus.

'And Bode?' demanded the initial inquirer.

'Bode's family has secretly been in debt for close to two-hundred years, owing to a very slick cantrip and some dodgy documents – weaselled out of their money by, in fact, a Weasley. They, in turn, have lost the documentation in the meanwhile. The bonds, through a tricky bit of conniving and backroom dealing, have fallen into the hands of Travers senior in the recent decades. He's offering full release, conditional on Bode's goodwill.

'Croaker and the rest of them, before you ask, are as stoically insouciant as ever. They have very little patience or interest for anything that can't explode, maim, or at the very least seriously disturb normal people. There is … one other bit of news from the Department though.'

'Go on,' said Arcturus politely.

'Monkstanley is back.'

This caused a bit of a murmur.

'Back, you say?' repeated Arcturus. 'You mean she's alive?'

'Yes. We stumbled across her yesterday evening in the library, flipping through the tomes. There was a bit of a … situation brewing because she was assumed dead and her clearance revoked.'

'Please correct me if I'm wrong,' said Arcturus, 'but didn't she go missing almost fifty years ago?'

'Close to sixty – as far as I can tell. As you can imagine, we were a bit sceptical and had her jump through all the hoops. But it all came back negative. Of course, it's a little awkward – politically speaking.'

'How do you mean? I don't know much about the Department of Mysteries, truth be told,' added the sniffly-sounding female who was gazing transfixed into the depths of the hood of the designated expert on Unspeakables.

'Well, it's like this,' explained the soft-spoken expert evenly. 'The title of director is mostly an honorary title appointed for life. We all do our work, but the department as a whole and every individual only answers to the Minister, the special committee, and the elder council, and they know better than to ask. So there is no real authority in the department except seniority – and even this is only by custom and practice. Monkstanley simply vanished one day. Well, I don't believe we've ever had two directors at the same time, but I suppose we're at home with strange and unnatural phenomena, so I doubt it will make any waves.'

'Where did she say she was?' asked one chair in the dark.

'She's a bit confused about all the fuss. Taken aback, you might say. She seems just as puzzled about all the interest her return has evoked as we are about her reappearance. It's all very … curious.'

'Thank you for your findings and do keep us apprised. Does anyone else have anything to add?' asked Arcturus, eyeing the circle of figures.

'What about Selwyn? It will happen tonight, then?'

'Tomorrow morning. Selwyn is due for his annual examination at St Mungo's. Would it be unlikely for Mr Selwyn to be infected should a patient bearing the disease call upon St Mungo's tomorrow, Professor?'

'Not at all. The virus spreads very easily,' said Professor Spleen at once, struggling to sit as straight and attentive as humanly possible. 'The early aetiopathology is noteworthy only for its high fever and a largely non-distinctive clinical picture. Any run-of-the-mill healer pressed for time likely won't recognise it for what it is. Even when the first symptoms begin to emerge, it is commonly misidentified as malaria – which naturally ruins any chance of effective treatment.'

'I see. How fast does the disease spread?'

'Oh, quite rapidly. Quite rapidly, indeed, sir!' spluttered Professor Spleen excitedly. 'Much faster than the equally dreadful Nipah virus, of course – much faster. Mr Selwyn would probably be symptomatic after one week – possibly as fast as three days – though a competent healer might begin treatment even earlier if the infection is recognised through very careful screenings.'

'How long can it be treated effectively?'

'That would depend on the patient in question, sir. It always does. Elderly patients might be beyond help even before the haemorrhages develop, I'm afraid to say. It is truly a terrible disease.'

'I assume, seeing as you are the resident expert on viral infections, the case will fall into your responsibility?'

'Oh, yes, sir. We're a tad short of hands, right now. Very short of hands, to tell the truth. Fewer lads and lasses apply for training every year. It's truly exasperating.'

'That, my dear Professor, is sadly the case all-around.'

Turning towards the chair deep within clouds of acrid smoke, he said, 'Instruct Selwyn to call upon St Mungo's for his examination and come away as soon as permissible. He will then retreat to his office where he will carefully plan his next steps in the Wizengamot now that he has secured the Rosiers' influence and money. He will not suffer any interruptions or visitors, but he will write to his allies insofar as it seems prudent. If you haven't done so already, instruct him to slay the house-elf in a fit of rage the first time it interrupts him whilst working. He will continue to muse his plans even when showing first symptoms, considering them signs of mere overwork. When he can no longer work, he will retire to his bed and await betterment. He will call for help no sooner than three days after being bedridden.'

The addressee bit into her pipe, had a deep puff, and nodded curtly.

Lord Black turned towards Spleen again. 'When your mysterious patient with fever arrives tomorrow, you will falsely diagnose him with any disease you deem likely given the symptoms.'

'My pleasure, sir!'

'You will further tragically contaminate Selwyn's annual examination.'

'As you wish, my lord!'

'Unfortunately, you will also be infected.'

'Just as you say, my lord!'

'You will take a vacation the day after tomorrow and instruct a junior healer you deem unlikely to recognise the virus to care for the new patient, ordering him to treat it as malaria or whatever infectious virus you misdiagnosed it as. You will fail to call in or answer St Mungo's messages for a week before calling in sick.'

Professor Spleen grinned blissfully. 'I shall be looking forward to it, sir!'

Memory Lane

Hermione was having a bad day. Not only had she been not-at-all-abducted by Harry Black and treated to a singularly forceful (albeit quite delicious) second breakfast, she was also currently being bossed around in a vaguely nonsensical way while being smirked at by Amadina Lestrange, who seemed to take great pleasure from watching someone else suffer the humiliation she had undergone previously.

'Stick your left ring finger to your right nostril, please,' said Harry, managing to convey this ridiculous order with just enough authority that Hermione only suspected that he was pulling her leg.

'Good. And now flex your toes as hard as you can.'

'You're joking!' snapped Hermione, ignoring Amadina's snickers.

Harry, dressed in the lime green robe of Healer, looked up from the ponderous tome lying on his lap and gave her a brief look. 'The faster you cooperate, Hermione, the faster we can get this over with.'

'All right, all right,' mumbled Hermione, straining her toes. 'It just doesn't seem like a very … probable request – to flex your toes, I mean.'

Harry didn't look up again as he traced a few lines on the pages. 'I realise that.' Slowly, he brought his wand to her temple. 'This will be the uncomfortable bit. Ready?'

'I suppose so? Look, you know what you're doing, right? I won't wake with the taste of fish oil in my mouth, will I?'

'Probably not,' said Harry with a shrug.

'Probably not?!'

'I'd go so far as to say, very likely not. Ready yourself.'

Hermione's ear twitched. And then so did her nose. She had the sudden and extremely unpleasant sensation that her toes felt … sticky, and it was almost unbearable every time they touched. And just when Hermione began to wonder long she could spread her toes before she would get any cramps, her head filled with the buzzing of a hundred bees.

'Urgh!'

'Just bear it for a moment,' muttered Harry, a trickle of sweat running down his neck. 'Close your eyes and bring your ring fingers together in front of you – slowly.'

Hermione obliged, doing exactly as Harry instructed her despite her misgivings. They did have to restart the entire procedure once thirty minutes in because she had sneezed so loudly that Harry gave a jump and lost his concentration.

'Wish I could take pictures,' said Amadina.

'Silence now,' said Harry in a hoarse voice. 'I need to concentrate.'

And Amadina finally shut up, much to Hermione's relief. For several moments, there were no sounds but Harry's strangely laboured breathing. She heard him turn in his chair.

'Okay, it's over. You can relax now, Hermione.'

Hermione sighed, stretching her limbs. Harry was bent over a little glass bowl containing water swirling with eddies in muted colours. He was busily flicking through page after page, mumbling under his breath. He didn't spare her a glance, so she got up and looked over his shoulder. The text in his book had been written by hand in Latin, she was shocked to find, and entire segments had been redrawn or overwritten with runes, not to mention the dozens of little words or sentences in the margins.

Hermione was instantly reminded of ancient manuscripts produced in monasteries throughout medieval Europe. Staring over his shoulder with fascination, she spotted some illuminated initials when Harry turned the page. How old was this book?!

Harry ignored any attempts at inquisitiveness by her or Amadina, bowing over the book and turning pages at distressing speed with a grim expression. Hermione found herself wondering if his intense and focused expression could possibly be a good sign.

Finally, when she felt thoroughly rattled, Harry sighed, leaning back in his chair and gently closing the old codex.

'And?!' demanded Hermione anxiously.

'Well, there is good news and bad news.'

'I'd like some good news first, please!' said Hermione, feeling like she really could do with some.

'You are not currently under any kind of mind-affecting spell I can detect. I can't say much for potions, but I did test a few obvious ones, and they all came back negative.'

Hermione sighed. 'That's a relief.'

'Yes, it is. I can further conclude that you haven't been under any mind-altering charm or curse I know of for the last … well … few years at least. In summary, you are very sound of mind and health. Congratulations!'

Relief blossomed like dandelions in spring. 'All your drama had me a touch worried. I mean – thanks.'

'However,' continued Harry hesitantly. 'I'm sorry to say that I only failed to detect any spells affecting your mind.'

'And my memory?' demanded Hermione.

Harry sighed, looking down at the glass bowl. 'There have neem several instances of memory alteration in recent times. I'm sorry.'

Once more, silence seemed to spread like an epidemic of RAVN. Hermione clenched her fist. 'How many?'

He returned her gaze, and his green eyes – for once – reflected nothing but sympathy. 'Several. At least two dozen. And all very recent. Within the last year, I'd hazard a guess. I'm sorry.'

Hermione stared straight ahead, through Harry, through Hogwarts.

'Hermione!' called Harry suddenly, bringing her back to the here and now.

'I …'

'Your hand!'

She followed his eyes. She had clenched her fist so tightly that her nails had drawn blood. She stared at the blood as if it weren't hers.

'Do you have any idea?' said Harry in a low voice, gently holding her hand and tapping it with his wand.

Instantly, a dull throbbing she had barely been aware of faded. Strangely, it was this that lifted the dull fog of shock. 'I don't know. Several, you said? Dozens even? I mean, I haven't left Hogwarts this entire year! Not counting …' She stared from Harry to Amadina. Then, with energy that had nothing to do with muscles and all with righteous anger, she jumped up and stormed towards the door. 'Sorry, I've got to go.'

Memory Lane

The circle of shrouded figures had mostly cleared by now. When Arcturus Black had closed the meeting, hardly any had lingered for another word. Exchanging a few muttered words here and there, Lord Black too had excused himself, Professor Spleen shambling slightly behind him like a duckling with a beatific smile on his face.

The soft-spoken and petite expert on Unspeakables had remained behind because leaving would have involved physically walking over the witch with the cold. This was because the latter had been standing in front of the former, almost nose to nose, for the past few minutes, waiting impatiently for the others to finally leave.

When they alone remained in the gloam, the woman still sitting down looked up from her delicate hands. 'Well?'

The other figure wrenched back her own hood. She did, in point of fact, look vaguely sick, with greyish-blue circles around her eyes that spoke of several nights without peace or sleep. 'Don't play any games now!'

With a deep-drawn sigh, the smaller woman hesitantly removed her hood as well, looking up with a sad little smile.

'You've got some explaining to do, Amaryllis!' snarled Ophala Greengrass.

Black Luminary

'Well, there she goes,' said Harry matter-of-factly, watching Hermione vanish in the corridor beyond. With a flick of his wand, the door shut closed again, flashing for just a second.

'That was a dirty trick,' said Amy, eyeing him carefully. 'Congratulations!'

'For what?'

'Don't play stupid with me. You arranged this little circus performance!'

'I certainly did examine Hermione's memory,' said Harry. 'Her memory has been tampered with.'

'Of course it has. But are you telling me you were able to make out how often and at what intervals?'

Harry grinned. 'To a certain extent.'

'You're a conniving bastard, Harry James Black,' said Amy, and yet her eyes were cheering with delight.

'You think so?' He stood up from his chair, walked towards the table laden with the remains of their breakfast, and picked up the smoking potion that had been presented as an alternative.

Amy raised an eyebrow.

With a faraway look and the barest hint of a grin, he flicked his wand and the complicated glittery swirl, the milky colour, and the bubbly surface of the potion within shimmered and flickered for a second like the vision of an oasis in the desert – until nothing but a crystal phial filled with clear but very decidedly mundane water remained.

'So,' said Amy, snickering. 'I take it that's not a Memory Restoration Draught?'

'Did I say it was?' said Harry, looking surprised. 'I don't believe I did. In any case, had she insisted, I would have got her one. But I thought it best to hurry things along as fast as possible before the consequences of the events unfolding catch up to us. If I am any judge of Hermione's character, she's about to write one angry letter to her tutors before asking me for help finding a solicitor. Happily, I already have one in mind who is currently extremely available.'

'Wait a second – Rowle, right? You're talking about Rowle!' Amy put one arm around his shoulder, laughing wildly. 'You're so sneaky, Harry. Those buggers don't stand a chance. Let's give 'em a good arse-kicking for daring to mess with us!'

Memory Lane

Even though Hermione thought she was having a bad day, some other people discussing matters of intrigue – she would have been happy to know – were experiencing a day even worse.

'Didn't I tell you not to say it?!' hissed Mrs Monboglott.

She, Lazarus, and Rendall Prewett huddled around a letter an owl had brought a few minutes earlier.

'Dear Mrs Monboglott and Mr Lazarus,

I have reason to believe that either one or both of you have used illegal magic on me during the course of my tutoring. I just had a medical wizard examine my mind, so you can imagine I have some questions regarding this. I'm giving you three hours to explain yourself.

If you haven't or your explanation doesn't satisfy me, I'll ask my pure-blood friends to help me find a wizard to represent my legal interest in the matter regardless of any consequences that may have.

Yours furiously,
Hermione Granger'

'Her penmanship has made remarkable progress,' said Lazarus lightly, but his grin withered away from Mrs Momboglott's glare.

'Do you really think she had a medical wizard examine her memories? Surely Madam Pomfrey wouldn't without good reason, would she? And we'd know if she went to St Mungo's? Never mind that she's still at Hogwarts!'

'Does it matter?' said Monboglott. 'If she only suspects, we might be able to gloss over it, but if she knows and we lie, we may as well wrap things up tonight.'

'That's not an option!' said Rendall hotly.

'We're doing you a favour, Rendall,' said Lazarus, narrowing his eyes. 'Don't tell us what we can and what we can't do!'

'Well,' said the other man hastily, 'I only meant that –'

'Maybe it's not so bad,' said Monboglott ruminatively.

'What do you mean?!' asked Rendall eagerly.

'It's as I said: if we get caught lying, it's all over. So we should just admit it.'

'Are you nuts?!' exclaimed Lazarus. 'We can't do that! I've obliviated her again and again! With you sitting there right next to me!'

'I'm fully aware, thank you,' said Monboglott calmly. 'But what if we just up the ante.' She looked down at her desk, which featured an array of very impressive seals, instruments, and devices. 'As the Muggles say, in for a penny, in for a pound. Rendall? Bring me a batch of Polyjuice. We'll only need enough for one hour. And you,' she said, turning towards Lazarus, 'I seem to remember you were dangerously good with a pen back at school, yes?'

Memory Lane

Just one hour later, in the owlery where Hemione had retreated to grimly await a letter she thought unlikely to ever arrive, she now stared at the piece of parchment in her quivering hands, feeling her world derail.

'Dear Miss Granger,

We are sorry to hear that you have been understandably troubled by the news of the Memory Charm being applied to you, and we fully understand that you must be in a state of distress and possibly disappointment.

However, let us reassure you that we only used the Memory Charm in very specific cases outlined by the supplementary agreement you yourself sighed during our first lesson which, naturally, means that all applications of the charm from our side were entirely legitimate. We have enclosed a copy of this agreement for your personal perusal. Having anticipated this eventuality, you also volunteered to write a short letter addressed to yourself to assuage any concerns you might experience right this moment. We enclosed this sealed letter, too.

If you have any more questions or concerns, especially regarding possible other violations involving the Memory Charm on your person, please feel free to consult us any time.

Yours faithfully,
Audrea Monboglott'

Thoroughly bewildered, Hermione inspected the enclosed form regarding voluntary contractual obliviation. It was signed by herself, both of her teachers, as well two official witnesses of the Ministry, emblazoned with the seals of office.

Disbelievingly, Hermione opened the second letter that was still sealed.

'Hello Hermione,

I know this might come as a bit of a shock, but I'm writing this short note to you to confirm that I have agreed to obliviations in certain situations that might endanger either ongoing investigations of the DMLE or the personal identity of Mrs Monboglott or Mr Lazarus.

Yes, just like you must be thinking right now, I think it's total codswallop, but they assured me the problem in question might never arise at all, and it's all for the eventuality of our lessons branching out into slightly problematic topics.

Oh, and just so you know I'm really you: We think Rose is a snake, Dad's been a bit too friendly with Mrs next-door, and Draco looked good in Muggle clothes.

Keep up the fight!

Love,
Past Hermione'

Hermione dropped her hand still clutching the mess of parchment. That was her handwriting, there could be no question. And she did think Rose was a snake. Had she ever mentioned that to anyone? And surely she'd never told any living soul about Draco!

Or had she? She couldn't remember, but that was the entire root of the problem. How could she have ever agreed to this?!

'What's going on?!' she demanded of the world in general, shouting the words towards the Hogwarts grounds.

The world, however, remained resolutely uncaring.


AN2: My work being what it is, I don't think I'll be able to do more than 1-2 chapters a month currently, just so you know what to expect.

AN3: There is a lot going on at Hogwarts right now, and it's difficult to make it all fit. The next chapter will feature characters not mentioned in this one (Aenor, Antonius, etc), don't worry.

Cheers,