As usual, aside from the three new characters, everyone else is owned by either Jo Rowling or Thomas Harris. Enjoy! CC)
His guitar slung across his back, Bruce Blake climbed into the side door of the old VW van with the unsteady gait of someone whose kidneys were busily processing a pitcher's worth of Guinness. His head was reeling, but he was at peace with the world on this calm night in late July. His band, The Blake-Smiths, were the up-and-coming rage of the old-time music circuit in America, and so far they bid fair to do equally well in the British Isles.
There had initially been some jealous whispering behind the scenes that Blake's success had been helped in no small part by his being the son of Donald Blake, the fiddling United States Senator from West Virginia, but the Senator's son had quickly put paid to those insinuations with a display of sheer, unadulterated talent. If anything, his father's fame was an annoyance to Bruce; it was why he chose to play guitar instead of fiddle, though anyone who heard him pick up a bow swore that he was, if anything, more talented on the violin than on the six-string.
"How much did we get tonight?", he asked Bonnie Smith, his banjo player, band manager, driver and fiancé -- not necessarily in that order.
Bonnie pushed a strand of straw-colored hair away from her face with one hand; the other was holding like grim death onto the steering wheel. "About fifteen hundred pounds," she said proudly.
"Wow! Half of that had to be the CDs."
"It was," Candy Rowley interposed. Candy was their fiddler, who was known for her long black hair as much for her excellent command of cross-tuned Ed Haley pieces. "We sold all but five of our CDs and most of our tapes. Tomorrow we'll have to put an order in with Richard over at Insti-Dupes to burn us a few hundred more."
"Can he get them to us in time for Cropredy?" 'Cropredy' was the annual August reunion concert festival of the great British folk band Fairport Convention; it was a sign of the rising status of The Blake-Smiths that the Fairporters had invited them to play there as one of the guest bands from America.
"I think so. I'll make sure he knows to overnight them."
"Good." Bruce looked out the window of the van. "Look at that," he said, pointing at a cluster of oddly-dressed people at the side of the road. "Kinda early for Halloween, don't you think?"
"Hey, wait, one of them looks hurt," Bonnie said, slowing the van down to get a better look. And in fact the black-garbed crowd did look somewhat agitated, standing around another of their number who was lying on the roadside. "They might need help."
"Pull over, then," said Bruce.
But before Bonnie could do so, there were four loud pops, one after the other. All four tires of the van had somehow been blown out.
"What the hell!?", said Bonnie, who lost her grip on the wheel as the blowouts shook up the van.
Then suddenly, the van stopped. Just died.
And shortly thereafter, after the black-garbed group stormed into the van, so did the members of The Blake-Smiths.
Their mangled bodies were found, inside the wreckage of the van, the next morning.
It was Harry's fifteenth birthday, and he was happier than he had ever been on any of his previous fourteen birthdays.
Not only was he free of the Dursleys forever, not only was he living with the most supremely fascinating, not to mention cool, people he could imagine, but he was, for the first time in his life, the guest of honor at a genuine, honest-to-goodness, do-it-up-brown birthday party, and nearly all the people he cared about were in attendance -- and that was a great many. Best of all, they were all now friends of Dr. Reader and Lucy as well.
Resplendent in white tie, champagne flute in hand, he weaved through the throng on the grounds of Offhand Manor with a smile on his face, nodding and smiling to everyone. He saw Hermione waltzing with Dr. Reader while the Weird Sisters played a slow number. Ron was being towed graciously about the lawn by Lucy, who didn't seem to mind it when Ron stepped on her toes, which he did about every sixth step. Even Professor McGonagall, who looked quite striking in an off-the-shoulder black velvet gown she had picked out in a shopping trip with Miss Stellanova, was present; she was being spun about the dance floor by Dumbledore himself, smiling gaily and laughing at some witticism of his.
Word of Dr. Reader's miraculous curing of the Longbottoms had spread like wildfire through the wizarding world. He was the hero of the hour, and if there were some wizarding factions -- such as that led by the Malfoys -- that sought to undermine his status by pointing out his Muggleness, their voices were drowned out by those of the Longbottoms' friends, of which there were many, and of the Longbottoms themselves.
Frank Longbottom, working through Arthur Weasley, was able to persuade the Ministry of Magic to allow St. Mungo's to hire Dr. Reader as a visiting healer-teacher for one day a week. Frank's son Neville volunteered to assist Dr. Reader as his intern, and a more devoted and eager-to-learn intern could not be found; Neville worshipped the ground on which Dr. Reader walked. He spent nearly as much time at Offhand Manor as did Harry himself, in addition to frequently accompanying Reader and Stellanova to their Harley Street office. Dr. Reader had taken it upon himself to tackle Neville's problems with memory, and to show Neville, as he showed Neville's parents, how to construct a memory palace; he did so, and with such success that Neville was now able to commit virtually anything to memory. This won Dr. Reader even more supporters.
Had he been able, Cornelius Fudge would have protested, if not blocked, Dr. Reader's appointment. But shortly after the Longbottoms' recovery, Fudge was himself attacked and killed by, of all people, Duncan MacNair, keeper of the dementors at Azkaban. MacNair's attack, made in broad daylight in the presence of several shocked witnesses, was very closely followed by MacNair's own suicide -- but not before he paraded up and down Diagon Alley showing off the Dark Mark on his arm and boasting of the power of his master, Lord Voldemort.
With Fudge and MacNair gone -- and with MacNair's having openly boasted of Voldemort's return -- Dumbledore's hand within the Ministry was strengthened considerably.
Arthur Weasley, with the backing of Dumbledore and the Longbottoms, took over Fudge's position as Minister. His first move, as recommended by Dumbledore, was the removal of the dementors from Azkaban. His second, also recommended by Dumbledore, was the secret granting of the Ministry's official imprimatur to Hagrid's and Madame Maxime's diplomatic mission to the giants. His third act, taken with Dumbledore's blessing, was to put Auror surveillance teams to work on monitoring the activities of those persons and families who Harry had named as being allied with Voldemort. Mad-Eye Moody, who had returned from his retirement especially for this task, asked for and recieved permission to lead that particular group of Aurors.
All in all, despite the shocking loss of Fudge, things were looking better than they did a month earlier.
Which is why it was a great shock to everyone that night at his birthday party when Harry, right in the midst of a dance with Ron's mum, clapped his hand to his forehead and fainted.
Wormtail, once Peter Pettigrew, was shivering, though the cavern was quite warm. It had to be kept warm, because Nagini, Voldemort's snake, didn't like the cold. And Nagini was the only living thing for which Wormtail's master, Lord Voldemort, had anything resembling affection.
Voldemort was angry tonight, this last night of July, 1995.
Wormtail knew this because Voldemort was not speaking, except in the softest of tones. The tones he used only when he was about to fly into a murderous rage.
"Have my servants lost their wits in the long years of my exile?", Voldemort murmured, sitting upon the ivory-white throne which was not made of ivory; his spiderlike hands ran over the arms of the throne in slow, deliberate circles. "Have they totally lost the idea of restraint?" His snakelike nostrils flared, and his gaze fell upon Wormtail's cringing form. "Am I only to be served by cowards and fools?"
Wormtail realized that Lord Voldemort expected him to speak. "Perhaps they were too anxious, Master," he said, fighting to keep his voice level. "It has indeed been a long time since we could move openly against your foes, Master. Perhaps the strain of waiting was too much --"
"'The strain of waiting'?", mocked Voldemort incredulously. "'The strain of waiting'? My servants -- my oh-so-loyal servants -- all were forced to endure all this time INSIDE THEIR PHYSICAL BODIES!" Voldemort's deathly-white face had by now turned a purplish hue; he was in the throes of another rage fit, and there was no telling what he might do.
"Yes, Master," Wormtail cringed, surprising both himself and Voldemort by daring to continue speaking, "all of your Death Eaters that lived did so inside their physical bodies. But, as you well know, the worst torments do not touch the body, only the spirit. MacNair spent long years among the dementors, longer than anyone. Could it be that their mere presence had done to him over time -- w-w-what it did, what they did, to the prisoners of Azkaban?"
Voldemort considered this. "That is a possibility, Wormtail," he mused, his anger subsiding. "MacNair was our link to the dementors, and understood them better than any of us. I can see how even the strongest soul could crack in the constant presence of those for whom souls are food." His fingers drummed on the arms of his throne. "However, that does not explain, or excuse, the unauthorized killing tonight of those Muggles." He suddenly rose to his feet. "Bring me the ones who participated in the attack. They need to pay the penalty for insubordination."
Wormtail shivered as he scurried out of the chamber. At least it would be they, and not he, who would have to suffer the Cruciatus Curse tonight.