Chapter 131 - Getting Back to Normal

Wednesday, December 3rd, 1997

"How did your experiment go?" asked Ron, non-verbally accepting the neatly sliced sausages from his wife. Although never having needed this level of help where food was concerned; even the very next day after receiving his injuries, she had nevertheless felt compelled to collect and prepare his food to the point of being fork ready.

"That depends on your point of view," replied Hermione, in a dark tone. The question hadn't been directed at her, but she had the strongest opinions on the subject.

"It went fine," answered Harry, hoping to assert his status as the official spokesperson on the topic. "Everyone was cured and I didn't have nearly as much pain as usual."

"So what's the other point of view?" asked Ginny. She and Neville were sitting next to each other, as usual, but hadn't yet engaged in a conversation of their own.

"Harry didn't have nearly as much pain as he should have," answered Hermione, grimly. "That, and virtually everyone he cured ended up unconscious." She glanced meaningfully back at Harry before stabbing at her omelette with her fork.

"What's the problem with Harry having less pain?" asked Honey, beginning in on her own breakfast while keeping a sharp eye on Ron's, taking care to make sure that he remained satisfied. "That was the whole point of the change, wasn't it?"

"Just a second," replied Hermione, looking around for any overly-attentive eavesdroppers. Waving her wand in the usual manner to prevent any such occurrences in the near future, she resumed, "The whole point of this experiment, as Ron put it, was to see if Harry could reduce his pain by using up a tiny part of his life force. There's an inverse correlation between the two; less pain means more life used up. I initially agreed to all of this with the understanding that it would remain difficult for Harry, but less so than without any help. Last night, he seemed to breeze right through those ten werewolves and didn't even work up a sweat."

"So he's using up more of his life than he needs to," summed up Ginny. "I guess I can see why that would upset you." Turning to Luna, she added, "I thought you were going to talk with Hermione about that subject. You made it sound like it would be a bad idea."

"I still think it's a bad idea," replied Luna, looking at Harry before turning her severe gaze at Hermione. "I'm surprised you went along with it since you seem to understand the ramifications."

"I wasn't very happy about it," returned Hermione, defending herself. "Like I said, Harry claims that he's only using a tiny amount of his life force. Considering how many werewolves there are left to do, I agreed to a test run. I'm no expert, of course, but I think he might have used more than the minimum amount necessary." She reflected Luna's expression back to Harry.

"Well, it's hard not to do," explained Harry. "I mean, I'm dealing with the transfer of the blood, and curing myself, and curing the werewolf; it takes a lot of concentration. To try to adjust how bad it hurts is just one more thing to think about."

"How much do you think you're using, Harry?" asked Ron. "I mean relatively." It might be useful to quantify just how much of his life he might be using up.

"Well," said Harry, thinking, "I suppose that I had it turned up all the way when we were attacked last weekend. Probably about the same when I had to change into a dragon in the volcano. Using that as a benchmark, I think that I'm only at about a tenth of that level."

"A tenth of maximum?" exclaimed Hermione, dropping her fork and taking his arm. "That's not what you said last night."

"Did I say a tenth?" asked Harry, quickly falling back. "I meant a twentieth; maybe less."

"That's still a lot," said Luna. "Personally, I'm also with Hermione on this. You have no way of knowing how many days, months or even years you're losing. Maybe you should go back to the old way."

Harry, trying to plead his case, thought a moment before positing, "Suppose you had to do something horrible; something you'd have to do over and over for weeks or months, but which was nearly unbearable. I don't know; something like walking over hot coals or eating worms or listening to rap. Wouldn't you be willing to trade a bit of the back end of your life, perhaps as little as a few days or so, if it would make things easier?"

"I don't know," admitted Ginny, trying to see things from Harry's point of view. "I can see where you'd be tempted, at least. Then, again, you might start to regret it once you're over a hundred."

"I might not make it to a hundred," countered Harry. "If you think about it, I'm only using up part of my life if I die of natural causes. If I died somehow before that, I wouldn't be out anything."

"What a happy thought," whined Hermione.

"I'm serious," said Harry. "A million things could happen to me. How many people actually get to live until they wear out?"

Hermione had to actually consider this. "You might have a point, there," she conceded. "Depending on just how much you're using up, it might not even come into play." She went back to her breakfast with a more thoughtful expression on her face.

"I think you're onto something, Harry," chimed in Neville, uncharacteristically joining in. "I doubt you'll retire after you kill You-Know-Who. How many other wizards are out there that might want to take you on?"

"It doesn't even have be a wizard," said Ron. "Accidents happen. He might catch a disease. Who knows?"

"You can all stop cheering me up, now," said Hermione.

"Oh, sorry," said Ron. "I just think we all feel a little better about it, though. Harry would actually be pretty lucky to live long enough to die at one-hundred-and-forty-five instead of one-hundred-and-fifty."

"If it comes to it," said Luna, tending to agree, "you might be right. As Ginny mentioned, I've been concerned for quite a while about this general topic and had planned to discuss it with Hermione once she felt a little better. After all, Harry hasn't been using this ability just to cure werewolves. I think you have a point, though. As long as Harry limits himself to doing it as little as possible, there's a very good chance that, in the end, it won't really matter."

"Then there's the tactical advantages to be considered," added Harry. At the questioning, and in Hermione's case, suspicious looks, he explained. "Well, I'd been acting pretty much instinctively until the attack. A burst here and there, but nothing extended. I was beginning to be able to recognize it when it happened, but that was about it. Just before Mad-eye saved us, however, I had several seconds where I just let it flow. I was able to learn how to control and direct it. That's how I was able to use it on the werewolves."

"I think I felt that when I was hugging you," said Luna. It turned out to be a poor choice of words.

"Hugging?" asked Hermione, pivoting to face Harry, who instinctively scooted closer to the end of the bench, the better to be in a position to make a run for it.

"I... I... don... don't remember..." began Harry, wracking his memory for the incident.

Luna jumped in. "It wasn't a real hug," she explained. "I just had my arms around Harry."

Hermione turned towards Luna, allowing Harry the opportunity to swing his right leg over the top of the bench. Hermione, however, had reached out to grab his arm.

"When the Slytherins were going to fight the Gryffindors," explained Luna, "Harry popped back from your hospital room to protect me." She stopped when she saw the recognition, and with it, the subsiding of anger from Hermione.

"Oh, that," said Hermione. "You've mentioned that you could feel the extra power, now that I think of it." She let go of Harry who returned to his place, as well.

"I did," agreed Luna, "but I didn't fully understand it until just now. This control that Harry has; the ability to turn it on and off was the new part." Turning to Harry, she said, "You're right. If you don't have to be in the mood, so to speak, to enhance your powers; if you can do it at will, then using part of your life at the right time might just save the rest of it."

"Hmm," confirmed Harry, nodding. With nothing to add, he returned to his breakfast.

Later that morning

Jerry Knight retraced his journey from just two days earlier and approached the Daily Prophet. He wasn't quite as relaxed as before, probably due to the constant glances he was sending in all directions as he imagined himself being under surveillance by unseen eyes. He had good reason for his fears, of course. Being a relatively unknown Death Eater with an average build and common features, and wearing civilian clothing, he had nevertheless found himself sitting next to Harry Potter within minutes of his arrival and had apparently had over an hour of his memories erased. How this had come to pass had, for the time being, eluded him.

This time, however, things might go a bit differently. One of the newer lieutenants, Jake Airins, after informing him that he, Knight, would be both arranging and giving the interview, had pondered on if there were any means by which they could discern both if he were captured, again, and what might have been revealed if he were. Since a broad knowledge base was essential to Knight's job as researcher, he suggested a muggle device he had heard of which was known as a voice recorder. A pair of the muggle-born wives had been sent to make the purchase. They had returned after a few hours with several more than the expected one bag, but they had managed to find a model that was, according to the packaging, tapeless. Small and easy to operate, it could record continuously for several hours, if necessary. He had activated it just before flooing to Diagon Alley.

Millie watched as the young Death Eater entered the Daily Prophet. Being one of two Hogwarts Free Elves currently under invisibility cloaks, she made her way to the bottom of the steps to wait for a ride inside. Stomper, the other hidden member of the team, took up a position across the alley behind a display of winter cloaks that were set outside Madam Malkin's Dress Shop. Keeping a sharp eye out for other undesirables, he checked in with base.

"Good morning," said Jerry to the receptionist. "Would it be possible to speak for a moment with Mr. Lovegood?" He smiled genuinely as the witch wrote for a few seconds more on a parchment before returning his smile.

"I believe he isn't with anyone at the moment," she replied, "but give me a minute to check. This would be regarding...?"

"I've come to set up an appointment for an interview," stated Jerry. "I'm Jerry Knight and my mas... boss has agreed to allow one, so I just came to arrange the time and location."

"I see," nodded the receptionist, whose name, as has been mentioned before was Julie Joplin. "I'll just be a moment, Mr. Knight." Julie left the reception area and headed down a hallway.

Knight watched the shapely woman as she walked before noticing a brief, cold chill on his neck. Turning around, he didn't notice anyone who had just entered and the door was closed, but he felt uneasy, nevertheless. Unseen by him, Millie stepped quietly to a position just behind the rubbish bin near the display cases.

After the promised minute, Julie returned and said, "Mr. Lovegood happens to have a couple of openings this afternoon. Would you be able to come back after lunch?"

Knight looked at his watch. It was a quarter hour before noon. "Around one o'clock?" he asked. At her nod, he replied, "I could do that. It might be better to have a light meal before an interview." Steeling his nerves as he seized the moment, he lied, "I'm not too familiar with this area. Would you care to be my guide and join me for lunch?" He smiled, again, hopefully.

Julie appraised the young man. He wasn't bad looking, but neither was he up to her usual standards for dates, but this wasn't really a date. Taking the opportunity for what it was; a free meal, she smiled and said, "I'd love to." Turning around the "Please Wait For The Receptionist" sign to show the "Out To Lunch" side, she grabbed her outer cloak from the hook and proceeded out the door being held open by Jerry. Neither of them noticed when the door reopened slightly behind them before closing, again.

Slightly after three o'clock, in the office of the Fortress of Solitude

"The department of Aurors?" asked Sassy. "That's a bit surprising. Not really. Without law enforcement of some kind, the whole world would be in chaos. Naturally, some of the laws they'd be enforcing would have to be modified. I see. Do you think that the same aurors we have now would be left in place; assuming that your side wins? That won't be my decision. I realize that, but I'd like your opinion."

There was a pause in the narration as Jerry Knight apparently had to consider his answer. The quill that had been magically taking dictation, also paused for a moment before the interview continued to be transcribed. Hermione, using the infamous green quill of Rita Skeeter as inspiration, had enchanted it to record every word said for later review. Approximately two minutes into the eavesdropped interview, Sassy had told them, in a much nicer manner, of course, to shut the bloody hell up. It was difficult enough to listen to Millie repeat, with the Voice, everything that anyone said. Having Harry, Hermione and Ron asking questions and making comments as she went along didn't help.

After Jerry, having chosen to not give out specific names of favored aurors, and had instead given the types of operations that would be necessary regardless of who was in power, the next rather odd question was posed. "I suppose you've been wondering when I'd ask this, Mr. Knight," continued Sassy. "What exactly is your opinion of Harry Potter? Hmm. That's an interesting question. Hmm. I suppose I'd first have to say that, on a personal level, he seems like a nice enough chap. When we spoke a couple of days ago, he was polite and all. He was also nice enough to make my arms a matched pair, again. Why did he need to do that? I've no idea. He had noticed that the one was different than... I meant why was it different in the first place. Oh, I...well..."

While Knight stammered out a quick, albeit inaccurate reply mentioning an unfortunate accident before changing the thrust of his answer, Hermione leaned over and whispered to Harry, "I'll bet he wasn't supposed to mention that."

"I think," replied Harry, also in a whisper, "that he might have overstepped the bounds that Voldemort would have set on a number of occasions. The constant moving from place to place, for instance."

"Well," said Ron, "It's not like we didn't know that already." They had tracked Death Eater movements for months, now.

"We did," agreed Hermione, "but the general public didn't. It might make him look weak."

"I suppose," allowed Ron. "He wouldn't want it to look like he was doing it to hide from Harry."

"I don't think it would," concluded Harry. "You'd have to have a lot more background information to come to that conclusion. He covered himself pretty well by just explaining it away as 'standard procedure'. Most people won't give it a second thought."

"Shh," shushed Hermione. "I think he's finishing up."

"... just doing whatever they want," reported Sassy. "It just isn't reasonable to expect that everything will work out all the time when so many people are pulling in so many directions. In the end, the Dark Lord is offering order. I think that that, above all else, is what drew me into contemplating joining up. Well, it's certainly worked out for you. It sounds like you've found your new duties to be much more interesting and varied than at your previous occupation as broom maker. That is quite true. Thank you, Mr. Knight. I think my readers will be quite intrigued by the new light you've shed on the world of a Death Eater. I hope so. When do you think this will be coming out? I'd originally planned on Friday's edition, but I might move it to Sunday. More readers, you see. Not too sure, just yet. I see. Do you anticipate doing more interviews? I might. It depends on how this one is received, of course. I might also try for an opposing view from either the Ministry or Harry Potter. Give some balance, you know. I'd like to see that. If you do wish for more Death Eater interviews, just mention it to Julie. Julie? Yes. If things go as I hope, I'll be seeing her on a regular basis. She's quite the nice young witch. We had lunch together, you see, while I was waiting for this interview and we got along fairly well. She must have had a good time since she's already agreed to have dinner on Saturday night. I see. Well, I suppose I should wish you good luck, then. Thank you. Goodbye."

"He sounds like a nice enough chap," said Ron.

"He is," confirmed Harry, "although I'm not sure I like having a Death Eater, even a nice one, starting a relationship with someone so close to Linus. He might try to take advantage of her."

"You don't have to be a Death Eater to try to take advantage of a pretty girl," commented Hermione, sagely. After a moment to contemplate the slight shift of paradigm, the boys at the table nodded in reluctant agreement.

Friday , December 5th

"If we can ever be of help to you, just ask." Richard Kent shook Harry's hand as they stood in front of their house in Birmingham. It had been a week since the rescue of Cathy Diben, which had ended up including the three younger prisoners. With no Death Eater sightings near any of their residences, it was determined that they could, with the continued security contracted by Harry, of course, return to their homes to attempt to start getting their lives back to some semblance of normalcy. Although making for a long day, Friday evening was chosen for the trips so as to not interfere with the weekend duties of Neville, Ginny and Luna as well as whatever activities that the Potters and Weasleys might be able to achieve; given the continued recuperation of Hermione. Normally, Ron and Honey would have accompanied the group, but as three of the four stops would be made in muggle locations, it was decided that Ron and his flying carpet would stay home. Filling in for the Weasleys would be Luna. She, of course, had planned to make this trip in any event, seeing it for what it was; an opportunity to spend some time with Kurt and learn a bit more about him and how he lived.

As the opportunity for Pietro and Francesca to cook Harry's authentic Italian meal had not presented itself, they cheerfully offered to host the lot of them at a restaurant just around the corner from their modest house in Lodi; a smallish city in the Lombardi region of Italy. After the nearly two hour feeding frenzy; the well sated remaining travelers bade the Giordano family goodbye and headed to the small, two flights up apartment of Cindy and Nicole Parks.

Barrow was perhaps the quintessential working class town in England. Once an industrial powerhouse, due mostly to its shipyards and steelworks, it was now on the decline with many of the younger folk moving on to other, more thriving areas in search of more varied opportunities while the older residents settled back to a life of semi-retirement. Nicole held a steady, although unremarkable job in one of the remaining factories while Cindy had formerly plied her trade as a hygienist for one of the local dentists. That job had, by necessity of her absence, been filled, so Hermione had promised to check with her parents on their current needs in that regard. Neither would have to return to work immediately due to Harry's generous endowment, but eventually such matters would need to be addressed.

Bidding the more middle class and financially secure Kents their farewells, it only remained for Harry and Hermione to return Lord Cremshaw; more familiarly addressed by them all as Kurt, to his home of Whackydaft Manor.

"My gracious, I don't think I'll ever get used to that," exclaimed Kurt, upon arriving by the massive, yet mostly ornamental gate that would, if it had been closed, have spanned a cobblestone road leading into what appeared to be a well-manicured forest of huge beech trees. Looking around, he asked "Why didn't you bring us a bit closer to the house?"

Harry looked around. Spying the only dwelling within view; a small shepherd's hut about a half mile to the south which appeared to be occupied, if the smoke billowing from the chimney was any indication, but was definitely not a manor house, he decided that Kurt had a point. Turning to Stomper, he asked, "Where are we and why didn't you take us to Kurt's house?"

"We is being at the entrance to Master Lonnagan's house, Harry Potter," replied Stomper. "We is not being entering Master Lonnagan's property until we is being getting permission."

"Permission?" asked Kurt. "That normally isn't necessary, but if it will help things along, you have it."

"Hold it a moment, Stomper," interrupted Hermione. Turning to Kurt, she asked, "Do you have many servants?"

"No more than usual," replied Lord Cremshaw, fairly confused by the odd question.

"That's what I thought," said Hermione, sporting a somewhat upset expression. "We'd most likely be seen if we just popped in. It'd probably be safer if we just walked to the house."

"That's probably more than a little out of your range," remarked Luna, before Harry could make the proper connections. "Perhaps you and Harry should return to Hogwarts and I could escort Kurt home myself." She tried to maintain an innocent expression, but Hermione could see through the suggestion.

"We're not going to make it that easy for you," replied Hermione. She looked about for any alternatives that might present themselves.

"Why don't I just call for a ride?" asked Kurt. He had gathered enough from the women's subtle conversation to understand that the main point of difficulty lay in Hermione's current lack of stamina. With no reply from the others, he walked to the left pylon of the gate and pressed a hitherto unseen button on the side.

"Welcome to Whackydaft Manor," came a voice after a short wait. "Please state your name and business."

Kurt smiled. "Good afternoon, Phipps," he replied. "Cremshaw, here. We've just arrived at the north gate. Be a good chap and send a car out."

"Master Cremshaw," exclaimed Phipps. "Where in the world have you been? We've all been so worried."

"We'll be able to discuss that once we're back at the house," responded Kurt. "Listen; be sure to send the big car. It might be a bit crowded, otherwise, with the six of us." He had naturally included the two elf bodyguards, although if all went well, they wouldn't be seen by any of the muggle staff.

"Very good, sir," replied Phipps. There were no further sounds so it was assumed he left to make his way to the garage.

"It shouldn't be long," noted Kurt. He looked around. "Pity we've never thought to put a bench or two out here." He looked meaningfully at Hermione.

"I'll be fine," said Hermione. Looking around at the beautiful front lawn, she asked, "Where are we, anyway?"

"Whackydaft is about twenty-five miles or so west of Queen Bess' place," replied Kurt. "Windsor, that is. I suppose she has quite a few others, when it comes down to it. The local town is Checkendon. That's in, ah, West Berkshire." He stopped as Hermione turned away, apparently searching for something.

"That's a nice area," said Hermione, stepping over to a convenient tree that looked lean-worthy.

"I could summon..." began Harry.

"I'm fine," said Hermione, a bit more forcefully. Then, deciding to accept what everyone else saw; namely that this trip had been a major excursion for her still-recovering body, she admitted, "Perhaps you're right."

Harry immediately pulled his wand and summoned a Queen Anne love seat upholstered with red roses. Hermione didn't take any time to appreciate the craftsmanship, but just plopped her butt down in relief.

"This is such a lovely grove of beeches," commented Luna, despite the fact that the trees, with their bare branches towering over the carpet of colorful leaves, were obviously already slipping into their long, winter sleep. "It's too bad that it's so late in the day. Do you think I could visit sometime when we'd have enough time for you to properly show me around?" She looked up at Kurt with guileless eyes. Those months of studying Ginny were paying off.

"Oh, I'd love to," replied Kurt, quickly. "Anytime you want."

"Did you hear that?" asked Luna quietly of Stomper, all the while maintaining her smile.

"Yes, Mistress Luna," replied Stomper. Hermione just shook her head.

After a few more minutes, the sound of an expertly tuned engine could be heard in the distance. As the number of obscuring trees became reduced in number, the requested automobile came into view. It was, as Lord Cremshaw had put it, a big car. Most Rolls Royce Phantom limousines were, after all. Hermione stood and allowed Harry to return her chair to storage before they all moved to the side of the drive to allow the shimmering maroon vehicle to come to a stop just opposite them.

"Welcome home, sir," said the uniformed driver who exited the car on the right side. The footman copied his actions on the left. "We've been very concerned." He opened the front door of the main compartment just as the footman rounded the back of the automobile to do the same at the rear.

"Thank you, Alfred," replied Kurt. He took Luna's hand as she entered the back end of the automobile. Harry, noting his limited options, prepared to assist Hermione into the front seats. As they were rear-facing, he wasn't quite sure what to expect.

"Just a moment," said Hermione, making a show of adjusting her skirt, but in reality giving Stomper and Millie time to enter the limo. She then took her place in the middle of the bench seat, as had Luna on her end, leaving only Harry to board. If the chauffeur and footman found it unusual for the more comfortable window seats to be apparently abandoned, they didn't show it. Shutting the doors, they resumed their positions and turned the car around.

The trip to the manor house was a short one, as car rides go, but approached a full mile by the time they pulled in front of the ivy covered, red brick and granite walls of Whackydaft. Two more attendants could be seen standing by the massive front door as an older, more portly gentlemen descended the steps to greet them.

"Welcome back, sir," he said, waiting anxiously as the occupants exited the vehicle. "I've alerted Cook and the kitchen staff of your return. Your suite is being refreshed as we speak. Shall I also have rooms prepared for your guests?"

"That won't be necessary, Phipps," replied Lord Cremshaw as the car pulled away. "I'd expect my friends will be traveling back home, tonight."

"That's right," confirmed Hermione. "We really don't want to be a bother. We'll just give you and Luna time to say your goodbyes and then be on our way."

"Please," replied Kurt. "Allow me to extend at least a bit of the hospitality of my house." Turning to Phipps, he said, "A full dinner won't be necessary as we've recently had a fairly extensive meal in Italy. Perhaps a few hors d'oeuvres in the library, if it wouldn't be too much trouble. After that, I'm sure they'll all be eager to return to Scotland."

"Very good, sir," replied Phipps, wondering where they parked the Harrier.

"Really," said Hermione. "It's getting late and... Did you say 'library'?"

"It's on the west side of the manor," explained Kurt. "There's quite a view of the sunset from the upper level."

"That sounds lovely," commented Luna, taking Kurt's arm and leading him towards his front door. "Let's have a look."

Harry remained silent as he and his wife followed their host and his girl up the granite steps into the manor house. He had even more reason than had already been stated to make a quick departure; having ten more werewolves to cure in St. Mungo's, and all, but the anticipation shining in Hermione's eyes and eagerness in her step quickly overrode those minor issues. It was good to see her returning a bit to her old self; rejuvenated by the promise of exploring an undiscovered library.

Upon entering said library, some three minutes later; it was a fairly large house, after all; they began to enjoy the view. The View, of course, was different for each of them. For Hermione, it was limited to the nearly floor to ceiling series of bookshelves. As the domed ceiling was over twenty-five feet above the spectacular oval hand-tied Persian rug, that meant books, as in lots of them. Rolling ladders were strategically placed on both levels so that the entire library was easily accessible.

Luna, of course, could see little but Kurt as he gestured towards the two servants hovering near the refreshment carts; one comprised of small appetizers and one of an assortment of drinks.

Harry, alone among them all, gazed out over the countryside through the full height windows on the west wall. There were the trunks and lowest branches of two mighty oaks near the house, but beyond that flowed a full three acres of nearly flat, well-manicured lawn. The view was spectacular, especially since the setting sun had to compete with enough cloud cover to prevent it from becoming overpowering. Harry, however, didn't seem to be looking around so much as gazing into infinity.

Eventually, the latest couple meandered near as Kurt was pointing out the interesting bits to his girl; in this case, the hedge maze towards the northwest end of the property. Their presence roused Harry from his musings enough to make a comment.

"Kurt," said Harry, "that's quite the field you have there. Nice and open."

Kurt, seemingly forgetting that others were nearby, was able to break away his gaze long enough to acknowledge Harry's comment. "Oh, yes," he agreed. "It's quite a good spot for hosting Afternoon Tea, when the weather cooperates."

"I suppose so," replied Harry. "I was just thinking that this would be a good location for a Quidditch pitch. We have a similar bit of land at our place. I'm thinking of putting one in, myself; just for the occasional pick-up game, you know."

Did he just say, 'our place?' wondered Hermione from her current location; hidden in the nook on the very end of the wall of shelves that butted against the full-height windows. She set down the three books in her hands as she headed for her delusional husband.

"Luna was telling me of that odd game," replied Kurt. "It sounds frightfully exciting."

"Oh, it is," agreed Harry, easily lured into his favorite subject. "I've played every year since I started school." Thinking, he amended, "Well, almost every year. It was cancelled one year due to another type of tournament. I'm not playing this year, either, since..."

"Excuse me," said Hermione, coming up behind him. "I must have bumped my head, somewhere. I thought I heard you telling Kurt about having a lawn like this at our place." She waited for Harry to give his reply.

"Oh, hi, dear," replied Harry, thinking quickly. "Did I say our place? What I meant was, uh..." He trailed off and turned away, despondently looking out the window.

Hermione was about to respond when, quite accidentally, she looked out the same window at the same view as Harry. The sun had just touched the horizon with its rays darting through the trunks and branches of the nearby woods. The undersides of the distant clouds shone in ever changing shades of orange and red as one of the remaining flocks of geese made its belated run to the south.

"What my husband fails to remember," said Hermione to Kurt, "is that we don't have a place like this..." She shut her eyes and finished with "yet." Turning to Harry, she added, "I'd like to see it in the springtime before we look into buying it."

Harry's huge grin and subsequent embrace startled Kurt, but warmed Hermione to the point of knowing she had made the right, albeit intrinsically unavoidable decision. However, one point popped into her mind and she decided to strike while the iron was hot.

"There's just one thing," she said, coyly. "If you get a quidditch pitch, then I want to be able to watch the matches from a library like this one."

Very early Saturday morning, on a ferry approaching the southeast corner of the Isle of Eigg.

"This is not what I expected when I signed on with this Lord Voldemort," said Camille, speaking in French to his brother. "The animals have it better on this boat that we do." He was right, surprisingly. While the few other humans aboard were able to stay warm and dry in the upper level observation deck, the brothers were unable to join them due to the dual needs of secrecy and reconnaissance.

"That isn't saying much," replied Michel. Indeed, they had been forced to take refuge on the rear loading ramp in order to have any relief at all from the constant pounding of the waves on the far side of the ferry. The enclosed area for live cargo had proven to be too dangerous a location due to the random and fairly spooked nature of the sheep. It would be fair to say that this first, and last, trip at sea was something to which they had never had the chance to become accustomed.

"We're nearly there," remarked Camille, after glancing over the starboard railing. "I hope they give these damned sheep some water when we reach land."

"We can only hope, my brother," agreed Michel. They needed to find a secure and consistent spot in which to administer the proper potions to the sheep before they were taken away to satisfy the appetites of the Hebridian Blacks. No such opportunity presented itself in the large town of Fort William, located in Lochaber, Scotland. The sheep were merely cut from a large group gathered in one of the local stockades and herded down to a ferry waiting at Mallaig. That had been nearly two hours ago. Surely, the beasts would get some sort of refreshment at the next port, on the Isle of Eigg.

"They must have to do so somewhere," muttered Camille. "On the bright side, we won't have to make this part of the trip, next time."

"That is true," agreed Michel. "Once we find out where they will drink, we have only to meet them there."

"For that I am truly thankful," added Camille. "This insanity of arising at three o'clock; it is for the birds."

"You mean it is for the sheep," corrected Michel. They both laughed. The last laugh, of course, would be on them. It would take a further hour and a half, but they would discover that the next time these particular sheep would have a drink of water would be when they lapped it up from the lake of the dragons.

Later that same Saturday morning, in the Great Hall

"Lean over," ordered Hermione, looking determinedly at the side of Harry's head. Harry complied. "Lumos," intoned Hermione, now holding the lit end of her wand mere inches from Harry's left ear.

"What are you doing?" asked Honey, also examining Harry closely, but without knowing why.

"I'm wondering..." began Harry before being interrupted by Hermione grabbing his jaw and turning his head back sideways.

"Now hold still," she commanded as she continued her secret search.

"You're not looking for gray hairs, are you?" asked Ginny. She gave the impression that she thought she was probably right.

"It's spelled with an 'e' in Great Britain," corrected Hermione before putting down her wand; unsuccessful in her search. "To answer your question, though; yes. After thirty cures in the past three days, I thought it a possibility."

"But," countered Ron, not out of a misguided attempt to protect Harry, but as a result of a rare deduction of a legitimate problem with Hermione's concerns, "even if it all turned grey, wouldn't it have to grow out before you could tell?"

"Not necessarily," answered Neville. "I've heard that a sudden shock can cause your hair to go grey overnight."

"The same is supposedly true for stress," added Hermione, "although both of those notions are most likely just old wive's tales. Harry's hair wouldn't all change overnight, but with his naturally dark color, any grey or white near the base of the follicles would be noticeable after just a few days."

"Mr. Knight's interview is on page five," said Luna, who had been reading the paper instead of worrying about Harry's chances of appearing to qualify for the senior citizen's discount. "It's in the LifeStyle section." Those who knew about the interview ceased their squabbling and opened their papers. Those who didn't turned to the article out of curiosity.

"It sounds a lot more fluid," commented Ron after a few lines. "You know; reading it rather than listening to it being dictated."

"That's to be expected," said Hermione. "While we were listening to it in real time, we only heard one voice without any inflection. Now, we're adding in the proper gender, pauses and tone for how we imagine it would all most likely be spoken."

"That makes it even worse," added Harry. "Jerry comes across as a sharp and thoughtful young man. Some people might be inclined to give his opinions a fair shot."

"He's still a Death Eater," noted Neville.

"True," agreed Ginny, perusing the article, "but by his very existence, he's showing that not all of them are crazed madmen intent on murder and destruction. It's sort of like the army. It's main purpose is to fight wars, when necessary. That's what people think of when you mention joining the army. Most of the time, though, they're off somewhere building bridges, distributing food and water, establishing order after a disaster or things like that."

"It really shouldn't come as a surprise to anyone," said Hermione, choosing to not finish the written version of the interview that she had already heard live. "We've met enough Death Eaters to know that there are only a few true nut jobs. Most of them have their own reasons for joining up. Mr. Knight's a very organized man. It isn't unreasonable for him to be drawn to the prospect of a well-managed England with just one group calling the shots instead of several political parties pulling in all different directions. In an abstract way, I sometimes feel the same way."

"Do you want me to ask for some literature?" asked Harry, wondering if his wife was serious.

"No, thank you," replied Hermione, politely. "If Voldemort were smart, though, he might consider printing something up. Some Royalists, for example, might be inclined to listen to what he has to say."

Pondering on the prospect of regular people being drawn to Voldemort's side by philosophical argument, they all went back to their breakfasts.

Author's note: Last time, I said I was going to try to jump ahead in time faster. I found out I can't do that very well. I guess we'll plod along like normal from here on out.

In other news, three days after buying a Buick (reputed to be an 'old man's car' in the US), I'm walking with a cane. Leg went out on me and hasn't fully come back, yet. Had the other usual fall delays; band concerts and Breakfast with Santa (second best year. $1000 each to the local food pantry and veteran's hospital volunteers). I have to write a story for my niece and nephews for Christmas but hope to get rolling again. See you soon.