Pieces in Place
As always, thanks to all readers, followers, favouriteers and the reviewers: alix33 (whose many corrections keep the story readable), Harriverse, jkarr, flame55, Rori Potter, DarkRavie, Calebros (who reminded me of the time when I was fond of awkward sentence constructions – even more so than I am now), Yana5, Son of Whitebeard, mwinter1 (who always awaits more, even incidentally, on my previous, finished storyJ), FotoDi, glenn1970, RRW, and jadely1.
This Chapter did not originally exist in my plans, but the chapter that was the final confrontation ballooned quite a bit, so I have cut this part and made a new chapter.
In the days to come, when, upon the Headmaster's express direction, Harry wrote and reminisced about the sequence of events that the culmination of the face-off between Sirius, Harry, and Dumbledore on one hand, and Lucius Malfoy, with the latter supported in the early stages by his close associates since his days as a Death Eater, on the other, he came to realise that the most difficult part was getting all the people to be at the right place at the right time; all the pieces in position, all moving parts synchronised, so to speak.
Dumbledore himself had directed the ruse regarding the rendering of the Basilisk, thereby creating a central theme around which they could now build up through veiled comments, unclear actions and a completely unrelated exposure. After all, they only had their most immediate targets in the loop. But they still needed some degree of legitimacy for the behind-closed-doors not-trial of Lucius Malfoy. And they needed leverage on all the participants in the little drama.
The order in which each of these parties arrived at the table, too, was important. And it was that exact order they were following. The leverage had to come onto the scene at the last moment. And since part of the leverage was such that it had been hidden even from Dumbledore, Sirius and Remus, just like the guardianship matter had been given a twist at the last moment, it was crucial that the timing would be just perfect. Politics is theatre after all, and one misplaced scene destroys any play.
The next target, therefore, was a man who had become conspicuous by his absence in the matters between the Blacks and the Malfoys – one of the latter's greatest investments; the man who held the highest publically elected position in the Ministry, and who was malleable to a certain degree in the interest of both sides, but chiefly his own.
Cornelius Fudge, riding on the crest of the greater public acceptance on the back of Dumbledore's open support, and tempered by the scepticism he had experienced firsthand through his forays in disguise, had chosen to let both sides slug it out, while still humouring Malfoy as best as he could. But he had withdrawn from that particular battle. The way he saw it, his allegiance was going to be with the winner, but he had hoped to have that decision not rest on him. He would get is wish. And he would also learn to be careful for what he'd wish, thereafter.
"The Minister and the Head of the Department of Magical Games and Sports are at the school gates, Headmaster. Hagrid has just let them in," the portrait of Armando Dippet informed his successor. "Both seem very...perturbed."
"I would be surprised if they weren't," Dumbledore replied simply. He stood and floo-called Sirius. "It is time. Cornelius is here."
Just as Sirius had become the face of Dumbledore's plan to temporarily encroach upon any allegiance that Malfoy's allies held towards him, Dumbledore was returning the favour by becoming the lightning rod for the ire that Sirius' two-pronged line-of-attack – one of which benefitted Dumbledore, the Headmaster, as it benefitted Hogwarts – on the Minister. He had to commend the method too. Sirius had used the Ministry's mouthpiece to target it. Barnabas Cuffe regretted ever following through on the vendetta Lucius Malfoy had asked him to pursue against Black.
Dumbledore was also impressed by the progress Sirius made – borne out of sheer determination to help. And even though the former prisoner still routinely underestimated his contribution, he was always likely to get a sudden burst of inspiration and get something like subverting the Daily Prophet done. He shook his head. There was a lot to do, and he needed to portray being in control as he habitually did.
Presently, Sirius' unfolded from his fireplace. "Did he blow his head off? Is he angry enough to spontaneously combust?" he asked excitedly.
Dumbledore only chuckled as Dippet gave the pair an odd look, then turned a pitying gaze upon Dumbledore and said, "Better you than me. I doubt I could muster the patience to deal with this lot."
"I do not know," Dumbledore answered. "I daresay we shall know within minutes."
Cornelius was certainly in far more hurry than that. The door had barely opened before he stormed in, waving the morning's edition of the Prophet. A vein throbbed in his forehead dangerously, and Dumbledore mentally cursed Sirius both for the imagery of the combusting Cornelius, as well as for putting him in a position where he wished to do nothing better than to snort, and posterity demanded he not do so. A glance at the man, who sat to the side ignored by the new entrants, gave the Headmaster the reassurance that his choice of the tutor for Harry in mind magic was certainly a capable one.
"What," snarled the Minister, leaning over the table at the Headmaster, "is the meaning of this?"
Dumbledore stared back calmly at Fudge, gave him a considering glance, and then took a sip from a conveniently placed cup from the tea service, before – even more calmly than he looked – offered, "Good morning, Cornelius. Would you join us for tea?"
"No, I bloody well won't! You have ruined me!" the Minister cried.
Dumbledore's implacable expression veered ever so slightly towards a scowl. "If I remember well, I have been speaking in your defence, Cornelius, especially, even when you were recently accused of financial malpractices. Consider that before making unfounded accusations."
While that didn't completely throw Cornelius off track, it certainly reduced him to bluster. Sitting down heavily into one of the visitors' chairs uninvited, he glare balefully at Dumbledore. "Why?" he complained.
"I doubt you're so remiss in your manners as to not greet my other guest after barging in such an unseemly fashion, or to demand answers from me for some imagined slight to your person," chastised Dumbledore. "Now, I see you have Mr. Bagman with you. If I were to hazard a guess, is this regarding the security detailing for the World Cup final that was forwarded, admittedly on my insistence, to me for additional assessment and which I have returned with some recommendations?"
Bagman cowered a bit as he became the cynosure of a narrow-eyed intimidating stare, as Dumbledore added, "While the publicity and camping logistics were adequately handled, the little menaces called security and crowd-management were ignored, presumably because of the inconvenience they cause during planning. Any random miscreant would have taken advantage of the extraneous additions which I have recommended the avoidance of."
That was obviously not what had brought Cornelius to Hogwarts, which obviously Dumbledore knew. The confusion which etched itself on the Minister's face was amusing to watch. "You changed the plans?"
"It was an open invitation for anyone to try and bring down the greatest event that Britain has organised after the fall of Voldemort. I gathered that it was designed to prove to the world that we are as safe as safe can be. I have been a friend of Alastor Moody for too long to not be paranoid enough. Do you object to my insistence on security changes for the Final, Cornelius?" Dumbledore demanded in a faintly agitated and very disappointed tone, ignoring the customary flinch at the name. "I was of the belief that a secure arrangement and a riveting game of Quidditch with both the players and the spectators all safe and sound would reflect well on us all. I fail to see any capital being gained by humouring a four-member committee, two of whom have written back to indicate their support to the proposed changes."
By now, Cornelius had regained enough of his bearing to realise that completely different topics were being addressed. Having also realised that his immediate reaction was highly childish, he set about rectifying that first. Very contritely, he gave Dumbledore a slight nod before responding. "I am afraid that we got off on the wrong note, there Dumbledore, and I apologise, because my agitation was the reason. Whatever changes you may have made, I am sure will be for the best. I have not had a chance to review them yet, but I am sure that you must have addressed the issues that we all overlooked and we could perhaps discuss them later in detail. In fact, your personal intervention serves only to relieve me and bolster my confidence that we can successfully host the final."
It was left unstated that Cornelius had not even known of such changes, and both Sirius and Dumbledore let him have the moment. All three of them knew it and refrained from addressing it any further.
Dumbledore nodded and spread his hands wide in as close to a shrug as would be dignified for a man of his stature, before pouring Cornelius a cup of tea, with a dash of milk and a sugar. "You need your frayed nerves calmed, Cornelius. Your tastes are a mystery to me, though, Ludo. Observing the breakfast habits of my students, without Poppy's expressed concerns, is not one of my habits, and I daresay, even if I knew the way you take your tea, it might have changed since."
"I always prefer something stronger in the morning before work than tea, Albus," Ludo Bagman grandly declared, with what he considered to be a conspiratorial smile.
While the man himself did not recognise the silent, judgmental look Dumbledore levelled at him, Fudge and Sirius did and unconsciously edged away from him, even as Dumbledore asked an elf for two fingers from the bottle of Gammel Dansk, a peculiar variety of Danish breakfast liquor, he had left unopened. Choosing to ignore the man thereafter, the Headmaster focussed his attention on the Minister.
"Perhaps you could enlighten me regarding the matters which made you accuse me of leading you to ruination, now?"
Cornelius' face turned red in both anger and embarrassment. "This!" he hissed, waving the newspaper like a protest banner at a rally.
"May I?" Dumbledore asked for politeness' sake, before unfurling the newspaper to read the article on the first page which continued onto the fifth.
The article was well done. It lambasted the Ministry, Dumbledore (he'd known of course, and therefore it was worded to ensure that it was only token criticism), the French and the Bulgarian Ministries and the Beauxbatons Headmistress and the Durmstrang Headmaster regarding the TriWizard Tournament. Sirius had not been directly quoted, of course, but a concerned source had wondered about the regression into planned underage violence and allowing potentially dangerous creatures around Hogwarts for the second year in a row after the Dementors. The Prophet had then compiled a lengthy and gruesome of injuries and deaths that occurred over the TriWizard Tournaments in the past.
The fifth page had then gone on to ask some hard-hitting questions about Dumbledore himself, after quoting a "source close to the aging Hogwarts Headmaster, who should perhaps consider stepping down". Why has the most powerful wizard in Britain, in spite of having reservations against the tournament, allowed it to take place? Why is he shirking responsibility and withdrawing from the decision-making process? Why is he allowing the Ministry to harm his students again and again? Is it the onset of senility? Will the tournament mirror an aging Headmaster with a last hurrah?
"I hardly see any of these questions being aimed at you, Cornelius," Dumbledore remarked conversationally as he snatched up a quill from his table and happily started off with the crossword puzzle.
"Really now, Dumbledore," Cornelius burst out angrily. "A source close to you gave a quote..."
"And how many years have you been in the Ministry to know – or not know, for that matter – how close these sources really are?"
Cornelius only grumbled. He was adroit enough to know that Dumbledore was neither accepting nor denying anything. "But it was meant to be an official secret," he nearly whined.
"That it was. But I see no reason why that accursed tournament should be reinstituted in its known form, and so, even if I have not spoken to or asked for the matter to be spoken about to the offices of the Prophet, a newspaper, which even you must readily accept does not believe enough in my admittedly demonstrated faculties enough to allow me to go through a week without reading about a reference to my resignation from Hogwarts, and still wishes for me to take all the responsibilities associated with the Wizengamot, I am unable to either sympathise with your plight with the premature divulgence, nor feel any regret for the same."
It took the Minister a minute to work through that sentence.
"Nobody wants you to resign from either of those posts, Albus, least of all me," Cornelius declared stoutly. "That you are here at Hogwarts while we host the resuscitated tournament addresses the worries of many parents."
"You give me too much credit, Cornelius," Dumbledore cut through the buttering ritual like a hot knife, with an uncharacteristically blunt tone. "But my objections remain. I do not want that tournament here. I do not want those dangers here, at my school. At least afford me the courtesy of hearing me out."
"If I may, Minister, Headmaster," Sirius interrupted as he carefully set his cup on the saucer, "I had come here to discuss this precise situation. Having some idea about the tournament and its history, I had intended to discuss these matters with the Headmaster, before advising my cousin regarding her decision to withdraw Harry from Hogwarts, at least for the duration of the tournament."
"You cannot be serious!" blurted out Bagman and Fudge simultaneously.
"I assure you, gentlemen, I am. Forgive me for such a boast, but among the many factors that the Goblet of Fire considers among its candidates, Harry does seem to fulfil more than a few. We do not wish to see him risked."
"But he is underage! He wouldn't be eligible anyway!" countered Fudge.
"Ah...I was unaware of that. That certainly reassures me to a great degree." He picked a biscuit off the tray, bit and chewed it sedately before asking, "However, I assume that the format of the tournament is to remain the same?"
"Yes," answered Bagman excitedly. "The new generation of adult witches and wizards, the very best of them, will be pitted against the dangers that shall separate them from the rest. It will be a test of their mettle!"
"Dangers, you say," Sirius hissed dangerously. "And what dangers, do you expect a seventeen year old school kid to face, Ludo? Your judgment has not proven to ever be sound or sane in the past!"
"Look here now," blustered Bagman, "Crouch had made a perfectly good..." he trailed off as the three others in the room gave him incredulous looks.
"Are you talking about the corrupt terrorist co-conspirator, the recently executed Bartemius Crouch making a plan, Bagman, and you following it?"
"When you put it that way..." muttered Bagman defensively.
"How else is there to put it?"
"You don't see the spectacle, Black! We will be providing tickets for people to watch our new young Wizards battle dragons and..." Bagman started heatedly, but was stopped by a very dangerous look in Sirius' eyes.
"Now I know why Dumbledore doesn't want this thing happening. And thank you for describing what passes for "plans" as far as you're concerned, Bagman."
Sirius dismissed the man completely as he turned his attention towards the Minister. For the first time, Fudge saw the man who had injured Voldemort himself. He was prone to sudden tempers, and Azkaban had exacerbated that greatly. However, his regained position within society, the historical significance of his family's contribution to society, and the fact that he also was appreciably a powerful adult wizard in his own right, meant that his high-handed responses would work in ways that Harry's or even Dumbledore's (in spite of his personally achieved status) would not.
"I will not indulge in politics over this; at all. Consider this a threat, or a warning or whatever else you may want to think of this as. Scrap this. Scrap this idiocy, this dangerous, murderous idiocy that you are foisting on Hogwarts, or I shall go public, with my name, with a memory of this meeting, and accuse you both of conspiring with Barty Crouch Sr. Even if you manage to bring the competition here, I will personally ensure its failure as nobody from Hogwarts, and if I can manage it, even Beauxbatons, will participate in this farce. And at the end of it, I will personally pursue a no-confidence motion against you.
"Do not forget that many of your trusted advisers are my allies first and foremost, and you will potentially be putting the children and young relatives of several of them, as well as many others across the spectrum in harm's way. And forget about politics and allies. If you move against the school or anywhere else for such addle-brained ideas for self-glorification, I will oppose you, publically."
Another reason why Sirius' intimidation would work was something Harry would never gain. Sirius, with his regained health, was physically imposing and exuded a kind of charismatic presence that some are born with. And people naturally do get scared of a person who towers over them, on an instinctual level. Nature has ingrained us all with the larger predator, smaller prey stereotype. And especially so if the person is genuinely in some form of authority or wields even a little power, and does not need to raise his or her voice to get the point across.
So, when an angry Sirius stood and towered over Fudge (who was a head shorter even when standing), it was designed to scare. And to accentuate his image as the "Gryffindor Black" for those who set store by that inanity. That it helped to establish the idea that he would fight for what was right would further bolster his credibility.
"Correct this. Now," Sirius growled, so much like Padfoot. "Or I will end your career."
"Sirius," Dumbledore cautioned. "Do not threaten the Minister for something that can be both easily corrected, and just as easily can be argued to not be his planning. Do not take the normal public response of a metonymy, not when you know better."
Those words did not calm Cornelius much. What Sirius had pulled was (and never would be) just not done in politics. The response, more in line with that of a people's person, which is what most politicians with good intentions tend to portray themselves as in their early days, before eventually being pulled into the vortex of muck, had shocked the Minister a lot.
And that was the exact reaction they wanted. Coming from Dumbledore, whom many tended to see only as the powerful but benign wizard – as just a Headmaster – when it was convenient to do so, such a threat would have seen Fudge digging his heels and going on the defensive. Coming from someone who had the means to hurt the Ministry and his reign by realigning his confidants' allegiances had Fudge on shaky ground.
Sirius had heated and softened the iron piece. And now it was Dumbledore's turn to shape it.
"Cornelius," Dumbledore gently addressed the Minister. Fudge turned his attention, only very, very gradually regaining his bluster, back to Dumbledore. "I confess myself very disappointed that you are letting people who are answerable to you run amok. I knew the young, hard-working Cornelius Fudge as a student, as a rising member of the Ministry, and as the man who chose to take tough decisions as the Minister. Quite contrary to your accusation that I am ruining you, it is your lack of control over such people with little touch with reality, which shall ruin you. I find myself wondering what your criteria for choosing people around you are, considering this is the second person we find in your people who is only incompetent at best."
"I am..." started Bagman indignantly.
"A partially inebriated man with stunted morals, who, upon being given a position of responsibility has chosen to shirk from his duties, both with the World Cup and this Tournament," scolded Dumbledore severely. "You are answerable to the public, Cornelius. This Tournament will hold you responsible, as will the public, for better or for worse. You have to have better control than this."
"I cannot be everywhere, Dumbledore!" Fudge replied in frustration. "I cannot personally get involved in every committee that is tasked with the minutiae! This job was given to the Department of Magical Games and Sports for a reason!"
"Then the Department either has a failed hierarchy or has not done the job, I am afraid. Now that Ludo has divulged a part of the plan to people not in the know, I find myself not bound to the secrecy in present company. There has been no planning for the tournament that was to be resumed after two hundred and two years, Cornelius. The entire plan has been copied, task for task, from the Tournament in 1786, the last one held in Beauxbatons. Not even a single change has been included. The age line was your idea, not Ludo's. Your admirable precedent has not been followed."
It was now Ludo Bagman's turn to cower under the incredulous stare of the irate Minister.
Fudge had quickly become very visibly angry. And he was also trying to rein that anger in, just as visibly. "What is the meaning of this?" he demanded.
"Now, Cornelius, really!" blustered Ludo. "Who is going to know or remember that tournament? All those people are dead anyway!"
Deciding that perhaps calling the man an idiot would lead to an angry outburst, Fudge only chose to tersely ask, "And did it escape your notice that all schools have a record of the events of each of the tournament?"
Bagman seethed and refused to answer. It reduced Cornelius back to the situation he was in back in 1990. "Please leave. Convene a departmental meeting, I will be addressing it. And for Merlin's sake, please do not breathe a word. I might have to get into this myself." Bagman grumbled and left, before Cornelius turned to Dumbledore naturally. "This is a Merlin damned disaster!" he harshly exclaimed. "We don't even have time to change the logistics and come up with a new plan, at least not one that I can have approved as quickly! Damn these fools! Copying the French plans, I ask you?"
Sirius and Dumbledore allowed the Minister his venting till he calmed down about a minute later – at least enough to listen to sense. Both noted, however, that it was not the idea of barely adult students facing dragons, but that of copying French plans which perturbed Fudge the most.
"If it does not bother you and if, indeed I may be so forward, Cornelius, I envisaged this very situation since I found out about the full plans three weeks ago. The situation is still salvageable, if indeed you may find it not as damaging to your ministry to undertake an assignment at my direction."
"I am at your immediate disposal," Cornelius desperately replied.
Dumbledore drew a sheaf of parchments from a drawer in his desk. "I was a bit proactive in this matter and contacted Madame Maxime and Headmaster Karkaroff immediately after the plans were sent over to the three Heads of Schools, and intimated the idea that it might have been a bureaucratic miscommunication and that the wrong documents might have been sent. From people like Sirius, Minerva and others that I believe I can trust, I have discreetly drawn ideas and compiled them. It is my belief, that instead of a gladiatorial competition, the Goblet of Fire should only choose the leader of each school's contingent. The contingent itself will comprise of students of all ages, and the competitions shall include Quidditch, Academic competitions and such, which shall all work towards the contingent leader's sole participation in tasks.
"For example, you very well know that the Snitch can be used to store small things. Each team shall play two games and the winning team will get a set of clues, as will the one that catches the snitch, if the two sides are not the same. I have detailed it in the document. Based on these clues, the leader will work out the actual task and prepare accordingly. Greater participation will allow a true competition between schools. While the tasks themselves will be difficult, they won't comprise of such brutality as facing dragons. I was thinking more on the lines of 3-X or 4-X creatures and not beyond, which will not prove as difficult to import for the duration of the tournament."
His face showing the palpable relief that he felt, the Minister took the documents. "What do you need me to do?"
"I shall readily admit that I have not taken into account several logistics related factors. You need to streamline the plans, which I have based upon the muggle Olympiads. Then you need to be the one who will personally convince the other two countries of the change in plans, while stating that the final plan was the plan all along, and support the claim of bureaucratic miscommunication."
"I will personally look into this. Thank you, Headmaster," Cornelius agreed, almost giddy with relief. "I will get back to you on this within three days at the latest."
"I would have said take your time, but it is not a luxury we have."
The Minister nodded jerkily. He then turned to implore to Sirius. "I request you as well, for some time, Mr. Black. Such a disastrous case of ineptness and mismanagement was not the situation I was led to believe. I agree that we should not be endangering our own children. I just need time to rectify this mess."
"You were a victim of the bureaucracy yourself, Minister. I apologise for my harsh words which did not truly reflect my intent. However, knowing what I know now, I rashly misjudged your role. I do not like people who endanger or attack children."
Cornelius took the apology gracefully.
"That however, brings us neatly to a point which we agree upon. We should not endanger our children. And we have some grim news on that account; good news, but grim news," Sirius reported, unsubtly dragging the subject to his part in the plan.
Cornelius did not show anything more than exasperated resignation, to his credit, but in reality he would have whimpered. Really, sitting there in a place where several variables for the equations he had known all along were often redefined was not where he wanted to understand the true meaning of the proverb, "no news is good news".
"I think I will judge it once I hear it."
Sirius shrugged in a manner that quite plainly said suit yourself. "Do you want to tell this to him, or do you want me to tell it?" he asked Dumbledore.
"I am sure that since you are in contact with those in question, it would be better if it came from you."
"That's fair. Minister, do you remember what happened last year?"
"Which part of it, exactly?" Fudge asked apprehensively.
"Let me rephrase the question. Do you remember what happened exactly in the previous school year here at Hogwarts?"
"You told me the Chamber of Secrets matter was resolved!" Cornelius reminded Dumbledore.
"So it was. You may not have noticed the first information report that the Wizengamot has filed on a suo motu basis regarding..."
"The rendering of a 5-X beast!" completed Fudge. "It was that beast?"
"That is an astute inference," Sirius commended Obviously it was that beast. Dumbledore's ill-judged attempt at providing superlative security to the Philosopher's Stone aside, the Hogwarts building itself was not exactly a haven for dangerous beasts. Anyone with half a brain would realise it. But to make a man in someone else's pocket compliant to them, they had to bend him till he nearly broke, before throwing him a bone to make him feel better.
"Do you mean to tell me that Harry has tackled a 5-X beast and killed it?"
"Yes. I mean exactly that."
"What was it?" Fudge demanded suspiciously. "I do not know the full details, so please, entertain these questions. What was it? How did he find out what it was, and how to combat it? How did he reach it? How was it released upon the targets? Who was the murderous criminal?"
"All of these are very good questions," agreed Sirius. "I shall answer a few, and I beg that you hear me out before passing judgment of any sort. Please understand that I have been asked and have given the same answers to the satisfaction of quite a few of my peers, including the likes of Demetrius Nott as well as Augusta Longbottom."
The only response was a short, curt nod. The breadth of the political spectrum, stated so bluntly, was not lost on the Minister.
"The beast was a Basilisk; Salazar Slytherin's own Basilisk, to be precise. You may not know this, but Harry is a parselmouth, a fact known to the entire student populace at this point, and indeed for much of the previous year. Since several messages about the Heir of Slytherin and what-not were scribbled upon the walls, as you may know, Harry faced a lot of persecution. However, it also allowed him to hear the intent of the snake as it travelled through the plumbing."
"May I add that we have since conducted a thorough check of the plumbing to ensure that there are no untoward surprises," Dumbledore added.
Both could see that Fudge was already having doubts about Harry's involvement in the matter.
"It was actually Hermione Granger who worked out what the creature was – a few minutes before she herself was petrified."
"Hermione has been one of Harry's best friends since their first year. She is widely considered to be one of the cleverest witches of her generation."
"Any relation to the Dagworth-Grangers?" prodded Fudge.
"She is muggle-born."
"Ah..." responded Fudge uncomfortably.
"To cut a long story short, after the attack on her, Ron Weasley..."
"Arthur's son?" asked the Minister for clarification.
"Yes. Ron and Harry worked to trace this creature, both in a fit of childish vengeance and also to end the persecution. They found the Chamber and Harry, being the only one who could hear and understand the basilisk, entered its innermost sanctum and killed it."
"How did he kill?"
"I will be a blunt about this, but are you feeling a bit suspicious towards Harry?" Sirius questioned severely.
Cornelius felt a bit uncomfortable as he could not actually say one way or the other.
Sirius sighed exaggeratedly. "I can understand. I do not like it, but I understand. I know for a fact that Harry killed it, but was not the one setting it upon Hogwarts, for sure. And there are two reasons. For one, I was sceptical at the outset as well." That was a bald lie. "I did not suspect him, obviously, but I thought that he may have found out, and led a professor to it. So I probed a bit, at which point, he grew angry as most teenagers seem to do at the drop of a hat. And he asked me bluntly – you know how blunt he can be," Cornelius nodded, knowing exactly how blunt Harry could be first-hand. "So he asked me whether I thought he was lying. I was in a similar position as you are in now, I couldn't actually say yes."
The Minister relaxed a bit as he realised that he would not face Black's wrath for not believing Harry. And knowing the boy as well as he did – and having interacted with him more than many could claim – he was also sure that Harry would give proof of his innocence.
"I asked him to prove it. I don't know where he found out about it, but he asked me whether an Unbreakable Vow to prove the truth of his memory regarding the incident and regarding his own innocence would suffice. He was willing to give it then and there."
"A...an Unbreakable Vow?" gasped the Minister. This was serious. This was dangerous if wrongly done, and Harry was tremendous political capital personified which he would not see harmed. "He is that willing to prove?"
"I was naturally shocked, as you are. I confess I did not take the Vow from him then, nor did I do so when he further claimed to know the true perpetrator of the crime, a fact he is willing to back up with another clause within the same Vow."
"He has come to understand, after I explained myself to him contritely enough, that since nobody else – at least no light witch or wizard that we know of – understands Parseltongue, the onus lies on him to prove his word. He accepts it. And he is going to do so when the Wizengamot inspection panel comes on the ninth of June. He is willing to prove his word."
"Sirius, this is insanity! He is a child!"
"I have seen the basilisk, Cornelius. I cannot call him one. And if you doubt the legality, then the Vow is binding irrespective of age."
"I don't doubt Harry at all, but if the clause is worded..."
"He has the document written, for which I have the consent of all my allies." He showed the piece of parchment to the Minister. In essence, it stated that his claim that he had killed the basilisk was true, that he had not attacked anyone was true, and that he would name only the true perpetrator or perpetrators and would also never name anyone else after making the claim.
"He...he is sure about it?"
"Yes. He is," Sirius stressed. "This, again, I shall say, as I told my allies. It does not give anyone leeway to demand it. It does not fall on him to prove his valour, but on the perpetrator to prove his innocence. His willingness should not be translated as mine or Andromeda's permission."
"But of course," Cornelius replied immediately, in a rare burst of brilliance. "I would never stoop so low as to demand a Vow from a boy not even an adult. Harry has the right of refusal of course, and if you ask me, he needs the protection too."
Sirius gave him an approving nod. This made things difficult regarding pinning Fudge down from the fence he sat on, but at least the Minister had neatly washed his hands of any demands.
"Do you know who did this?" Fudge prompted.
"I asked. He told me who. It is for that very reason that the clause about the perpetrator or perpetrators has been added."
"Who was it?"
"I would advise that you wait till then."
"Would it not be wise to have people witness it?"
"You will remember all my allies being signatories for the Vow, should Harry choose to be so coerced into proving his word, because I stand steadfastly against this? They have all been invited as observers on my behalf regarding the case. The Board of Governors need to be there. We would appreciate some secrecy on the matter." Cornelius' trusted advisors were, not accidentally at all, among the same people. So the one caveat, regarding alerting his advisors, never was in question. "However, we are arresting a terrorist, and a very reliable team of Aurors to ensure that this remains strictly legal will be appreciated. It will be better if these Aurors are neither known to be in anyway related to my allies, nor muggle-born. The identity is sensitive in that regard. In fact, if Madam Bones and Professor Dumbledore were to select Aurors, they would be best."
"I will see what I can do," Cornelius promised. "Can you not divulge...?"
"I have promised Harry. If he is willing to give the ultimate proof, which indeed is proof enough for me, I can hardly break this one promise, can I?"
Cornelius conceded the point – not because he agreed with it, but because pressing it would be unseemly. "You said there were two reasons. What was the other?" He did not expect the rather jubilant expressions on the faces of Sirius and Dumbledore, nor the long velvety box the latter retrieved from behind the portrait of Armando Dippet.
"Ah...that, Cornelius, would be my pleasure to announce. I want your sacred word – both as a Wizard and the Minister – that you will never speak of this, ever, until Harry decides to let the world know, in his own time. It is especially important if you don't want a Goblin revolt."
"You have it," the Minister fervently replied, his face pale at the prospect of a Goblin revolt.
"Magic, it seems, likes symmetry through the course of history. It was Godric Gryffindor who defeated Salazar Slytherin, as history claims. And to defeat the beast of Slytherin, Harry used," Dumbledore explained, dramatically pulling off the velvety cover to reveal the glass case within, holding the gleaming, "the Sword of Gryffindor!"
"Dear Merlin!" gasped the Minister, as the biggest "proof" of Harry's light-oriented tendencies was revealed, just as Harry had argued it would when they were fine-tuning this pre-planned scene. "Is he then the Heir of...?"
"No. The Gryffindor family is dead. But few exemplify the qualities prized by Great Godric the way Harry does, and especially, in the face of danger, for that was when the custodian revealed itself after hiding in plain sight for all these years. Not quite of the Arthurian legends, but the custodian deemed Harry worthy."
"And who or what was the custodian?"
"It was me, Minister," the Sorting Hat spoke.
Cornelius stood shakily in response as his hands inched towards the case, before he abruptly drew it back. "Great Merlin!" he breathed, and the note of reverent admiration was ever so audible, even as he peripherally heard some cautioning words.
With that, Dumbledore and Sirius knew that they had their quarry, as Cornelius in an awed voice declared, "Who'd doubt this proof?"
"You are the second coming since Merlin. You are the next Dumbledore. You are Godric Gryffindor reincarnated," Sirius drolly told Harry at the end of the day's classes. "Once they see the damn basilisk, you are going to be deified." Then as an afterthought he added, "Oh, you are Arthur too."
"That won't happen," Harry stated simply. "If we religiously pursue the plan, there will be punishment. You know that the plan intends to expose many of them and set them all against one another, unable to trust anyone at all truly, isolated by their own paranoia. Do you think nobody will recognise my role in it all then?"
"But won't it be better to be seen as a golden wizard?" wondered Remus, consistently countering Harry, if only to temper his activities.
"I would rather never be seen at all. And no, I am not as powerful, or as accomplished as the Professor is, to be called his successor, or even considered a lowly apprentice."
"You are as powerful as you believe yourself to be, Harry. Modesty through understatement and modesty that denies the truth are two very different things. Do not mistake one for the other. Magic is as much as one can imagine and then beyond; as much as one believes, and then beyond that as well. Never deny being powerful – rather use it to build an image. The image is always more powerful than the person, often."
"Something like the Wizard of Oz?" remarked Remus.
"A truly delightful tale indeed, but one finds life to rarely be so accommodating as to have good things happen by chance."
"Even if I were," Harry responded, not responding at that instant to the exchange, but taking on board that gem of advice, "I would hate to be considered as golden as you, Headmaster."
"And why would that be?"
"Your image has always seemed like a restriction to me. People always seem to take you for granted. Oh, something's going wrong? That's alright, Dumbledore's there to help. Oh this didn't work out? Why didn't Dumbledore do anything? In a way, you are deified, and in that you are dehumanised. If you take a strong stance, then it is a sure sign that you are out to seize power."
"You feel strongly about this."
Harry just shrugged and nodded uncomfortably.
"It is not untrue, and in my most uncharitable moments, I am perturbed as well. But this comes with the territory of being a visible public figure, or a teacher for so many of them as I am. Perhaps my being a teacher at the time of my final duel with Grindelwald has contributed to the problem, I do not know, but I have never set out to cultivate that image. It happened, and I had to react. And I truly doubt you can escape that – the boy-who-lived, after all, is part of the modern day lore."
"That is a definition I want to break away from."
"Then you have to choose your destination in life early. I can say that you have chosen the subjects that give the widest scope, but have you decided what you want to do after Hogwarts?"
Harry shrugged again, and then reached out to the dish of sherbet lemons on the table. "May I?"
"By all means," allowed the Headmaster.
"It seems to change every day, but I definitely won't be an Auror. Some days I want to be the Defence Against the Dark Arts teacher here; some days it is professional Quidditch or duelling; some days it is some form of magical technology; often it is economy and sometimes a healer or independent researcher. I have thought of curse-breaking too, but I have no intention of becoming a magical Indiana Jones."
"Interesting choices," Dumbledore remarked. "The Ministry is not among your choices then?"
"That would be an underpaying prison!"
Dumbledore chuckled as he realised just how similar their disposition towards the Ministry was. "I have a question then, Harry. If you so truly wish to be discreet, why then did you insist that we reveal the Sword to the Minister?"
"We already know that they will demand to know how the Basilisk was killed. It won't remain a secret for long. Those that could..."
"Put you on a pedestal," prompted Sirius.
"Yes; such people would do it anyway. But this will ensure that when I attempt to do something constructive and new, this Vow that I volunteer for, and the way that people's perception of me shall change once they know I wield the Sword, much of the red tapes will be cut."
"That is a bit selfish."
"I cannot deny that. But I have no plans to be a spiritual leader or something, the only people who are suited to true altruism. Anyway, each of my planned professions, barring Quidditch and duelling, has end results that benefit the people."
"Do you honestly believe that people will leave you alone? Forget about others; there is still the problem of Voldemort."
"Well, I have people to guide me."
Dumbledore started chuckling immoderately. "Such are the delusions of youth! Nobody will leave you alone, Harry. This will not and cannot remain quiet. Somehow, somewhere there will always be someone to pull you into a confrontation."
"We are assuming that such things shall ever come to pass sir, when in fact, the only thing that matters is destroying Lucius Malfoy; and he should be successfully exposed first. And I am a student, which is what I will be for the foreseeable future."
"Very good," commented Dumbledore. "Most lose the touch of reality in the grandeur of plans. You know well enough that I was guilty of it myself in your first year. It is quite like the Imperius Curse in that way. Unless the voice of reality holds us back, we lose control, and there starts the slippery slope that leads to a permanent downfall."
"I understand, sir."
"Good, now you are prepared, I take it?"
"Rehearse what you mean to say. Do that in front of a mirror if you must. They did it a bit too rigidly, but learn from our adversaries. Timing is everything."
"Yes sir. Perhaps this is a boast, but I will admit to learning from our adversaries on another. There is reason to believe that they may have some similar contingencies for us."
"In what way?" Remus questioned. "I thought that they have set aside any differences..."
"Lucius Malfoy is an opportunist of the first order – remember, this is the same man who chose the opportunity that was afforded by the Weasleys being in the Alley on the same day as he was to slip the diary to Ginny, never mind the opportunity afforded by the crowds for Lockhart," Harry explained. "What were the odds? It is obvious he was going to slip it to someone that day. The opportunity was in him using the daughter of the one person who was pursuing a fair persecution. We want him exposed to the others. That does not mean he will try something similar or that the rest won't suddenly support him."
"Even where matters of their children's lives stand?" wondered Remus.
"I am sure Alastor Moody would appreciate such an outlook," Dumbledore remarked. "Nonetheless, it is only prudent to prepare for such a scenario."
Sirius and Harry resolutely nodded, while Remus frowned.
"Talking of prudence," Sirius followed up, "it would be very prudent to pacify Andromeda. She is singularly unhappy with the Unbreakable Vow business. My attempts at explanations and pacification have fallen on ears that refuse to hear, and she has accused me of lying and manipulating Harry."
"I shall speak to her," Dumbledore offered, even as he chuckled internally at the singularly ridiculous idea of Sirius manipulating Harry. "It is understandable that she worries as the prospective guardian, but this decision to make the situation inescapable for Lucius establishes Harry's image as a righteous wizard of integrity and with the backdrop of the sword and the basilisk, one of great power also, as we were discussing. This cannot be passed up."
Hermione's insistence regarding keeping some time aside each evening to read the papers Harry did and to know more about what was going on, and to understand the implications of each event – after completing their academic assignments for the day – meant that the group now habitually reserved one of the study rooms where people could speak normally. It was a considerable distance they had come from the children they were only six months before. Over the course of time since they had been brought in on the machinations of their friend, all three teenagers had changed.
Neville recognised the responsibilities that he had to one day shoulder, and saw this phase as one of learning. He saw the role he had, and what he learnt by observation, one of his innate skills, as the training phase for when he would have to replace his grandmother. While there were many things that he did not truly know enough about to take up any position, he nevertheless saw himself supporting Harry long-term – not just because they were friends, but also because he felt he owed Harry for the justice he had brought to the Longbottoms. In it he had started to shed his tendency to hide, and had started to face things – starting from Potions classes.
Hermione had a bit of an activist streak, one which needed to be carefully handled, lest her activism become imbalanced, divorced from reality, too incognisant of all aspects of any matter that she chose to devote her attention to. She had to be protected from becoming the parody of activism that many so-called activists end up becoming – aimless, meaningless and protesting just for the sake of protesting, accusing, losing their minds, temper, apparent sanity, dignity, shouting out their opinions instead of resorting to sensible discourse, and refusing to recognise the simple idea that opinions of different people may, can, and do, differ, and that there is never a single, universal "right" or "truth".
An increased interaction with Neville – rooted in traditions, but not blinded by them – had made her question, and slowly starve, her own sapling of prejudice that she felt towards magicals in general along with that of the reactionary muggle superiority that many muggle-borns had. It was not completely unfounded as much as it was misplaced. Many muggle-borns had the tendency to generalise all pure-bloods as racist, forgetting people like Sirius and Neville for starters, and in the process, becoming racist themselves. They had broken that. It was still difficult for her to accept being wrong, so she was cultivating the habit of not taking a stand till she knew truly enough about as many sides of the story as she could.
But more than either of those two, it was Ron who was changing the most. Often overlooked for having nothing that distinguished him from others, Ron had his own way of learning things. Learning more from pictures, from positions on the chessboard however impossible, and from experiences, he had come to realise that he needed to grow up.
This was not a reflection on him as a person, but a reflection on the environment he grew up in; coming from a "progressive" family which broadly translated to indiscriminate shame about everything pure-blood, Mr. Weasley's enthusiastic but ignorant fascination with all things muggle, ingrained with Mrs. Weasley's personal prejudices since the death of her brothers, a deep sense of shame regarding the family's poverty as well as his own perceived unremarkable nature, and a childhood with no real responsibilities.
But incidents like Harry's defence of Mr. Weasley, the exoneration of Sirius Black, as well as being trusted enough to be given a role as he would be again, but most importantly, being explained things to, had led him to re-examine things. He had recognised the imbalanced view of things he took. He was still the immature teen he was, but he was making the effort to control his legendary temper, to always understand first before blindly reacting, and to take responsibility, especially regarding education within the scope of his abilities, as well as to cast aside his learnt prejudices. Truly, Ron was growing. Here he was seen as something important, and it motivated him enough to pitch in as much as he knew to do.
So when they now observed Slytherins, it was no longer with the perpetual Snape-worthy sneer that was evoked previously. Ron now saw them as chess pieces of no defined colour yet, which was great progress considering he once thought of the students as "baby Death Eaters" – not untrue where Malfoy went, but not universally true of all Slytherins either.
"We are in the penultimate lap now," Harry gravely observed, as Neville, Ron and Hermione sat attentively, listening to the new developments in the matter. "All of you have contributed wonderfully according to Professor Dumbledore." That pleased the three children greatly. "But now, there is a role, till the day of the expose, for only one person. Are you ready, Ron?"
"Yes. Just tell me what to do."
"We are going to play on their house-based inanity. They know that all Gryffindors are stupid idiots who wear their agendas, hearts and brains on their sleeves. We might as well use that."
The simple course of action had Ron frowning at first, a bit irritated, and then, upon being reminded why, grinning.
8th June, 1994
It was usual for mixed classes to break into house-based groups once they left the classrooms. So it was completely unremarkable when, after the year's last Herbology lecture which included all four Houses for the specific plant, the rambunctious Gryffindors went their separate way from the carefully sedate Slytherins. If the Gryffindor boys, including Neville, Ron and Harry, were walking more closely to the Slytherins, it was...purely coincidental.
Neville ribbed Ron about something and got a headlock in response, before he pushed Ron into the Slytherins...accidentally, even as the rest laughed. This had the effect of knocking down Daphne Greengrass and Theo Nott, along with their bags, which lay strewn on the Ron. Scowling immediately and reaching for their wands as they anticipated a confrontation with the "idiots", knowing Weasley would never apologise, they were astounded to find Weasley gathering their things up carefully along with Longbottom and handing them their bags.
"Eh, sorry for that," Ron apologised. "We knocked you over accidentally, got a bit carried away."
"Yeah, we should've been a bit more careful," Neville added.
Nott and Greengrass dumbly nodded, but as was expected, the ever-confrontational Malfoy had to butt in. Standing in a way as to block them all, he growled at his housemates.
"What are you doing?" he snarled at the duo. "They pushed you down!"
"And?" asked Greengrass, regaining her vulnerable composure admirably fast. "They apologised and helped pick our things up."
"They must have stolen something!"
Ron didn't need to feign the anger at that.
"They haven't," Nott responded before that line of accusations could be further pursued.
"Well than they must have put something in to incriminate you for something."
"I am not a bastard like your father, Malfoy!" Ron retorted. "I am no child-murdering fiend like him! I don't slip stuff into someone else's hands or bags, or, you know, books."
"You take that back!" snapped Malfoy.
"Why?" snapped back Ron. "Does the truth hurt? Are you going to have something worse for us than you father had in store for us last year?" he very wonderfully needled the boy, throwing the words Draco himself had used a while before.
Typically, with no retort left, Draco turned to his stock response. "When my father hears of this..."
"Yeah, go on, tell him. What's he going to do?" asked Harry, jumping in, as planned. "That was a rhetorical question, by the way. I don't know whether you understand that. Even Sirius knows what your filthy father is now, Malfoy. How does it feel to be the stupid son of a filthy child-murderer?"
Draco growled and was about to send a curse their way, when Professor Sprout turned up. Sending the Gryffindors a last scathing look, Draco flounced off. The rest of the Slytherins traded speculative looks between themselves, the Gryffindors and the retreating back of Malfoy, before they left as well.
"Excellent!" Harry whispered to his friend, as they exchanged a clap.
Ron only grinned.
Sure enough, Dobby reported the letter being sent to his former master later that night. In reality, Malfoy had sent it off immediately after the altercation. Dobby had the technically unethical duty of withholding it till dinnertime. It was done. Now they had the big day to look forward to.
"You really think Malfoy will react to this?" Ron asked. "I thought he could treat it as something beneath his notice."
"It is like a wood splinter Ron. If we keep tightening the screw beyond a limit, the wood splinters. There was a reason why we got the story to his...allies...before he even knew this matter was there to cause a problem. He wanted Sirius to run from pillar-to-post dousing fires. Now his pillars and his posts are all on fire. He will break."
"If you say so," Ron agreed doubtfully.
"I do, Ron, I do; it is not just little-boy-Malfoy, but also Greengrass and Nott who have sent letters home. Malfoy senior has to be lured into the trap, and they are all it. We actually haven't invited him to the rendering. He needs to be motivated enough to come there."
"I won't even pretend to understand that, but I'll be happy if it works," Ron simply accepted.
Predictably, poor Lucius Malfoy was triggered. What Ron said had to be spoken in the presence of someone who could get that back to someone like Greengrass (a part of the so-called neutral faction; it was a myth) or Nott (a person still considered by the terrorist as an ally). And the addition of Draco's own very incriminating quote was a brilliant thing that Harry had not even remembered.
As such, Lucius called upon Obsidian Gardens to talk to Sirius, whom Harry had mentioned. The sight of the person who opened the door for him had him sneering.
"If you want to say something, say it fast, Lucius. I have no intention of standing here and waiting for you to stop sneering long enough to say anything that makes sense," Andromeda stated in a curt tone.
"Where is Black?" demanded Malfoy equally curtly.
"Sirius is at Hogwarts, as you very well must know. It is something to do with the rendering of the beast in the Chamber of Secrets. All the allies came in this morning with the Wizengamot warrant..." Then she trailed off, and a cold smile adorned her face as she reminded him, "Ah, I forgot. You are no longer on the Wizengamot, are you? No wonder you don't know about that."
Lucius' blood ran cold. Without even the courtesy of a farewell, he ran to the edge of the wards and apparated straight to Hogwarts.
This became a chapter because I lost control and had to wrestle it back. A note to self: never write when irritated by self-proclaimed liberals.
I took the Olympiads idea from "Put into Lifetime Detention by Death", our statistically flagship story, and the first one that the late and actual Harmonious Cannons wrote. It is also a story that seems irritating in many ways to many people, in spite of it clearly being a parody-through-imitation with the simple formula: "Take something outrageous and make it even more outrageous and unbelievable."