"So you're not gonna need your wand then Harry?" Ashley asked as she cautiously peered over said wand.
"Probably not but I'll keep it with me in case. Besides, I may have got my magic back, but I still have to learn how to adjust the power I put into spells."
"Adjusting your power will come with practise." Michael said. "Though, I don't think it'll take you long."
Harry just grinned.
Chapter Twenty-Five: Growing Problems
"We've got a problem." Steve stated later that evening.
"Brilliant. What now?" Natalie muttered.
Harry hushed her with a grin. His right hand had been healed by Steve earlier but since the skin was still raw it was wrapped up firmly in a bandage.
"Ashley's enrolled to start Hogwarts on the first of September."
Harry frowned as he realised the problem immediately, "Dumbledore and the Order."
Steve nodded. "They could be a problem. They never actually saw Ashley but it wouldn't be too difficult for them to dig around and find out that she's with us."
"And I'm not pulling out either." A voice from behind the couch said defiantly.
Steve looked resigned as Natalie snickered into Harry's shoulder who just smirked.
"Ashley, get out here now. Shouldn't you be sleeping, not eavesdropping?" Jade admonished.
Ashley cautiously made her way around the couch and sat next to Harry's feet on the floor. "But this is about me. Shouldn't I be allowed to have my say!?"
"Of course hun but it doesn't excuse you from listening to conversations you shouldn't be." Jade replied.
"Sorry mom." Ashley looked gloomily at her feet.
Harry grimaced and ruffled Ashley's hair affectionately as he remembered what it felt like to be constantly kept out of the loop by Dumbledore and the Order when he was younger.
"The Order hasn't made any other move against us despite knowing that we're here with Harry" Natalie pointed out. "I mean, you and Dad haven't had any trouble with the meetings you have in the Ministry. That means Dumbledore hasn't said anything about us to them."
"What's he playing at?" Harry murmured.
"Who knows? All we do know if that Dumbledore has information that he could use to make our lives that little bit more difficult but he hasn't done anything with it." Natalie continued.
"Unless he's waiting for a more effective time to reveal that we're here." Harry countered.
"Dumbledore won't say anything." A gruff voice said from the doorway.
"Dad?" Natalie asked as Michael Hawkins joined the conversation.
"He won't say anything because it'd tip off Serpentine and her lot. By keeping quiet, he's got the upper hand in all these skirmishes. Almost like Harry's the ace up his sleeve."
Harry looked affronted at the thought of being Dumbledore's 'weapon' again.
Michael offered a small smile as an apology.
"So Dumbledore won't say anything because the Ministry is likely to have leaks?" Steve mused.
"Yeah, that'd be it." Michael agreed as he settled himself onto an armchair. "Another problem with revealing Harry to the Ministry would mean admitting to kidnapping foreign diplomats which Dumbledore can't just sweep under the rug. He's a crafty old bugger but he's not stupid. Not even Dumbledore would risk admitting to starting an international incident."
Harry whistled lowly. "Forgot about that. Why aren't you pressing charges?"
"What's the point?" Michael shrugged. "If we bring it up with Fudge, it means revealing you're here with us – now don't go looking guilty! Fudge would kick up a fuss and probably order a manhunt for you. Serpentine would copy, then you got three different groups on your as – backside." Michael hastily corrected, seeing Ashley's grinning expression.
"And there's no point complaining directly to the Auror's here." Jade added. "They'd go to Fudge or be one Dumbledore's men. Worst case scenario, Serpentine was managed to corrupt the DMLE"
"What about the American Embassy? Or even contact the Ministry back home?" Harry could feel the guilt well up inside, despite Michael pre-emptive warning.
"That means creating an international incident which is the last thing we want to do. 'Cos, like it or not Harry, even our government back home would want to get their claws into you. It's best we just keep our heads down, get our job done and get out without ruffling too many feathers." Michael concluded.
"How long does the job keep you here?" Harry asked, trying to work out how they could all get out as soon as possible.
"We're contracted in." Michael sighed. "AS long as they've still got a war brewing we're stuck here-"
"Shit." Harry breathed, getting slapped lightly by Natalie because Ashley was still there.
"It's not that bad Harry." Michael soothed. "Six months tops for us, and then we rotate out with another pair. That way we get a break."
"So as long as Serpentine is running around and Fudge declares a move to war, then you guys are locked in here?"
"Yes, that's just how it goes Harry." Jade answered. "Fudge is running scared; he doesn't want another Voldemort situation. In good faith, America locked itself into a magical and binding contract to make Fudge feel better in a way."
"Why would they do that?!" Harry was outraged at the insanity of entering a binding contract with Fudge.
"They've offered to open a direct channel between their Department of Mysteries and our own Department of Mysteries – " Michael said.
"Wow, that's huge!" Natalie exclaimed.
"Yes it is. This'll be the first of its kind in the world. Every magical nation keeps their respective 'mysteries' to themselves. The idea of combining and working together has been bandied about in the past but no one has been willing to commit."
"But America wants this enough to enter a binding contract with Fudge?"
"With the information we received before, this was seen as a low-risk contract. The benefits far outweighed the risks. Remember, we never promised to send help or get involved, we only promised to assess the situation and step in if we thought it necessary. Dumbledore is a bit of a blind side but nothing we can't deal with as we are." Michael leaned back in his armchair and got into a more comfortable position.
Harry wasn't happy with the situation. The only thing that seemed to stop his friends and family from getting back to safety and out of the whole mess was he himself. Harry growled and rubbed his head wearily.
As Harry was still in a mode of self-recrimination, the others were still discussing the situation.
Natalie rubbed his arm softly, trying to comfort her conflicted fiancé. Harry smiled sadly at her and held her hand in his own before turning back into the ongoing conversation.
Ashley finally chirped up in the debate her parents were having. "So can I go to Hogwarts or not?"
Jade and Steve both exchanged worried glances and seemed to have an entire conversation made up of small facial expressions.
Steve frowned and shook his head before Jade seemed to have enough. She huffed softly then glared at her husband. Steve sighed and rubbed his chin warily.
"Against my better judgement, your mother" Steve put a heavy emphasis on 'mother;' "is still open to the idea of you going to Hogwarts-"
Ashley began to grin but Steve's hand forestalled any major celebration.
"We're only open to the idea. We can still say no Ashley."
"Yes Dad." Ashley nodded, trying to stifle her grin but failing.
"As it stands, there'd be no issue of her going because Dumbledore won't risk anything by involving Ashley. But he's still an unknown factor to us. It's probably best to talk to Sirius, Remus and Severus. They've got a better grasp on the situation regarding Dumbledore." Michael added.
"Planning to." Jade nodded.
The next morning Sirius and Remus took the worried parents' questions calmly. It ended up being agreed that Ashley would go to Hogwarts but under various conditions. She was to carry a communication mirror with her constantly, disguised as a convenient locket. No owls were to be sent in case of them being tracked. She was never to be alone with any of the teachers who worked for the Order and be on alert if she was alone with other teachers.
The clincher for the argument of letting Ashley go was the knowledge that Luna Lovegood was the new librarian and Neville Longbottom was the current (and latest) Defence Against the Dark Arts professor.
"Neville?!" Harry asked incredulously while trying not to sound disbelieving.
"Yeah," Sirius laughed. "Remember that old student army you were building back in your fifth year? Well, it did him a world of good. I worked with him on a few missions as an Auror. He's a top bloke that one."
"Was he..?" Harry hesitated as he tried to ask whether Neville was a part of the Order.
Sirius seemed to get what Harry was trying to ask. "Worked for the Order for a few months but he left when he realised that Dumbledore wasn't actively sending members into battle, just gathering intelligence instead."
"I can barely place him with the shy and scared third year I taught now." Remus stated with a wry grin. "He's not scared of Severus anymore."
Harry laughed. "There's a story in that isn't there?"
Remus gave an almost wolfish grin. "Neville finally had enough in his seventh year in Defence. Severus taught Defence in '97. Dumbledore brought in our old potions professor as Severus' replacement. The '96 Defence professor got eaten by a manticore in the summer break and Severus was the only replacement on hand."
"That curse still around?" Harry asked grinning.
"Yeah, and it's driving Dumbledore around the bend." Sirius laughed.
"So, Neville?" Harry prompted.
"I think Severus pushed him too far in one lesson. From what Severus said, Neville exploded. Had almost seven years of built up anger that he took out on Severus in one go. Yelled at him for a bit, then let lose a few curses...almost destroyed the classroom. Severus was put in the infirmary." Harry's eyes widened. "Then Neville quit Defence and self taught."
"Go Neville." Harry breathed.
"Most backbone Longbottom ever showed." Severus drawled as he entered the kitchen where the group were talking. "And then he had to go off and have a go at Dumbledore."
"What!?" Harry exclaimed. Sirius and Remus looked similarly surprised.
"Wow, would've paid to see that." Sirius grinned.
"What was Neville thinking? Dumbledore may be a bastard, but he's still a formidable wizard." Remus said with a worried frown.
Severus started fixing himself a cup of tea and continued to talk. "You two didn't stay long enough with the Order to see the explosion that occurred after Harry defeated Voldemort."
"We were kind of pissed off..." Sirius murmured into his own tea.
Severus' eyes gleamed as his recalled the memory. "Longbottom calls Dumbledore some interesting names, insults his parentage, then – I'll cherish the look on Dumbledore's face forever at this – calls him a goat-buggering, senile old coot."
Harry spluttered at Neville's audacity as Sirius hooted in laughter.
"Longbottom was one of your fan-club members." Severus told Harry. "Those who wanted to dig deeper into your trial and case."
Harry looked at Severus to try and gauge the honesty of the man's statement. When Severus inclined his head softly, Harry felt emotion well up inside when he realised that he had not been as entirely deserted as he had thought.
"There were others who didn't think I did it? That I didn't kill Ginny and Hagrid?"
"Yes. Apparently a lot of people didn't believe it but many were too afraid to speak up." Severus agreed.
"Especially not when the Ministry was pushing for the Dementor's Kiss, and Dumbledore wasn't helping you." Remus added.
("Bastard." Sirius grumbled.)
"Neville brought it up with you Sirius, didn't he?" Remus asked Sirius.
"Hmm? Oh yeah. When I was working with him about a week after he left the Order, he turns around in the middle of a training drill and tells me that you didn't do it." Sirius said with a proud smile. "Brave kid. He wanted to look into it but his superiors were putting pressure on him to stop so I figured that he did."
"He didn't." Severus spoke up. "He approached me a month after he left the Order and demanded he be tested with veritaserum. He wanted to test whether or not someone who can resist the imperious curse can lie under veritaserum. I don't know what happened to him after that but I believe someone found what he was trying to do and silenced him."
Harry cursed under his breath. "Someone tampered with his memory? Or did they just convince him not to pursue investigating?"
"I believe his memory was modified." Severus said grimly. "Longbottom was too concerned with freeing you to worry about personal risk."
"Dumbledore?" Sirius growled.
Harry shook his head. "What would he have gained in keeping me in Azkaban? He's a manipulative git, but I don't think he'd try and keep me in Azkaban. He knew the prophecy better than anyone so there was no point in keeping me there when he needed me to fulfil the damn thing."
"Dumbledore only left you in Azkaban because he still believed in you becoming Dark." Severus said.
Harry nodded. "He would have been more concerned with me becoming another Tom Riddle."
"So someone else would've benefitted from you being in Azkaban? And this person was obviously close enough to Neville to be able to catch him off guard to obliviate him." Remus thought aloud.
"Not to mention, fairly good at memory charms for it to still affect Neville now." Sirius added.
Harry sighed. "Another problem to add to the growing list then?"
Author's Notes: Phew, another chapter done and dusted. I'm on a roll!!! Woohoo.
Thanks for reading and reviewing. Much appreciated.
Also; big thanks to my reviewer (you know who you are you brilliant person) who pointed out the faults that I had in the story. Your review is helping me to fix those errors and hopefully make this story just that little bit better. Also, thanks for not reviewing anonymously, like some others would. It's much better to receive constructive criticisms from a reviewer who isn't afraid to admit who they are *hugs*.