Chapter 138 - Voldemort's Secret Weapon

December 14th, 1997

Around 1 AM, in the living quarters at Ninebanks

Jerry Knight stepped into his room and plunked his swag bag from the trade show unceremoniously onto his side chair. He wasn't entirely happy, despite having just spent a fair amount of quality time with his new girlfriend. The fact that his bag was almost instantly picked up and dropped on the floor was not unrelated to his current mood.

"So," said Geordie, sitting down on the newly empty chair, "you're back rather late. Did the broom show run past its schedule?" He smirked while Tom, Fred and Barry all found spots to sit or lean while waiting for the details.

"It's only a bit past midnight," replied Jerry, swatting Barry over a bit so he could sit on the side of his bed to remove his boots. He looked at his wall clock and amended, "Well, more than a bit, I guess."

"Just a tad," agreed Fred. "So, tell us all about it." He had found a fairly sturdy table that held his weight quite comfortably.

"What?" asked Jerry. "The whole day?" He looked meaningfully at his watch.

"Just the good bits, then," countered Barry. He took two steps over to the built-in cupboard and withdrew three bottles of ale along with two of mead. Passing them around to the appropriate recipients, he gestured for Jerry to begin.

"All right," agreed Jerry, dropping his second boot to the floor and accepting the bottle of his own ale. "Just a few of the highlights, then." Taking a swig of his bottle, he said, "Let's see. We all met up at the Leaky Caldron and flooed from there to the expo."

"By we I assume you mean you and your new best mate, Harry Potter," clarified Tom.

"Yes," agreed Jerry, "along with Ron and the girls."

"Ah, yes," responded Geordie, suggestively. "The girls. I would think they'd feature prominently in the good bits." The others chuckled, knowingly.

"True enough," agreed Jerry, smiling. "Julie and I had a great time once the group broke up after dinner. Spent a few hours at her place, and all."

"Ooo," cooed everyone, quite loudly. "Do tell," added Tom.

It was at this moment that Snape, having been given orders to debrief Knight upon his return, came up to the still open door. He had nearly walked right in, but after hearing the boisterous conversation, decided to listen first, quietly taking a seat on the bench that was conveniently located just outside the door. Unguarded comments among friends might reveal a lot more than a report given to a superior.

"Well," said Jerry after a few moments of thought, "I won't deny that Julie and I had a good time this evening, but it isn't what you're all thinking." At their confused looks, he added, "Not entirely what you're thinking, at least."

"That doesn't help," said Geordie. "What have you been doing for hours that isn't what we were thinking?"

"Working on an article for the Prophet," replied Jerry. "She wants to be a reporter of sorts, you see. She's writing an article about our day out."

"An article?" asked Barry, still not up to speed.

"It's to be the first part of a series," explained Jerry. "A look into the life of an average Death Eater."

"You're hardly an average Death Eater," rebutted Tom. "She might as well do a profile on Dinky."

"I might not be a front line player," agreed Jerry, "but I'm still a Death Eater. I'm also all she's got." They all laughed. Outside the door, Snape quietly listened.

A while later.

"I still don't get it," admitted Geordie. He, along with Tom, Barry and Fred, sat in Jerry's more than slightly crowded room as he recounted the day's highlights. "He actually offered to help?" He took another sip from his second bottle of ale.

"That's right," replied Jerry. "I already told you that, earlier, I think. To be honest, I didn't exactly catch on right at first, either. We both thought it would be an interesting project and didn't think it through. It wasn't until we met up with the girls after the expo and Harry and I were comparing schedules at dinner that Hermione knocked some sense into the both of us. Pity, really. I'd have enjoyed an afternoon of time trials with Harry."

"Too bad the mudblood had to ruin things," kidded Tom.

"Don't call her that," requested Jerry. "She's really quite nice."

"I've heard she's a bit on the bossy side," noted Fred. "Sort of a predominant theme in most of the reports from Hogwarts." The others nodded their heads in agreement.

"I wouldn't say she's bossy," countered Jerry. After a moment, he added, "Well, not overly so, at least. I'd describe her as more of a shepherd watching over her flock. In Harry's case, that might be a good thing. He'd get sheared every other day without her." They all laughed.

"Still," said Geordie, "it sounds like she keeps a tighter leash on him than I'd like."

"I suppose so," agreed Jerry. "Still, Harry knows how to get around her when the mood strikes. Take lunch, for example..."

"She didn't try to tell him what to eat, did she?" asked Fred, indignantly.

"Of course not," rebuffed Jerry, chuckling. "It was after we'd finished eating, actually, but before we left the café. A woman and her son passed by the window." He stopped talking, but maintained an introspective expression on his face.

"Well?" asked Tom, after waiting a few seconds.

"Oh, I don't know," replied a more guarded Jerry. "Harry... did something. I'm not sure what." He paused, again. "I need to think about what happened a bit more before discussing it."

"Sounds like whatever it was, it caught you off guard," observed Geordie.

"It did," agreed Jerry. Wishing to change the subject, he asked, "So, since Harry won't be allowed to help, who wants to lend a hand with the broom tests?"

"Well," said Barry, "I guess I'm in. I take it this coating or whatever might actually be worth using?"

"It's a little thicker than a coating; more of a paste," corrected Jerry. "If it actually does use a poly-dilaticap remissiate variant, it could give some sort of a speed boost."

"A poly dingo what-zit?" asked Geordie in total confusion.

"A poly-diaticap remissiate," repeated Jerry. "Hermione brought up that if it was used in the standard mono-dilaticap form, that the release sequence wouldn't give the required results."

"Potter's wife told you this?" asked Barry. "Was this after she told Harry not to help you out?"

"No," replied Jerry. "That was when we were talking with the owner of the company." Leaning in, he added, "I can't say for sure, but I doubt he knew half as much about his own product as she did. Grasping at straws, he was, at the end." Smiling, he finished draining his bottle.

"I know the feeling," commented Tom. Leaning back, he waxed philosophical for a moment and said, "Sort of a two-edged sword, isn't it? Cluelessness, that is. I mean it wouldn't do for all the time, of course. Sometimes, though, once you've thoroughly lost the thread of a conversation, you can just nod and smile. Gives you a bit of time to yourself, you see."

Everyone stared blankly at Tom for a couple of seconds before they all, with Geordie leading the way, smiled at him and nodded. Jerry finally laughed; inciting the rest to do the same. Walking over to his cupboard, he said "I think we need to either take a break to clear our heads or muddle them up a bit more." He pulled out two bottles to start.

"One vote for muddling," said Barry, holding up his hand.

"Make it two," said Geordie and Fred, simultaneously.

"It's unanimous, then," finished Jerry. Setting three more bottles on the table, he tapped them all to chill them before passing them out.

Snape, deciding correctly that he had all the information that he was going to get, at least for the night, folded up his parchment and returned to his rooms.

Breakfast time, in the Dursley Flat

Harry and Hermione, along with Reggie, were invited to join the Dursleys for breakfast so that the status of their respective projects could be discussed. It was Petunia's problem that brought along with it the need to include Reggie on the guest list.

"I'll have to admit, Aunt Petunia," said Harry, wiping his lips with his napkin, "you've seemed to have mastered the use of a magical kitchen quite well." He had polished off about three times the amount of food that he would have been allowed at the muggle kitchen on Privet Drive.

"Thank you," replied Petunia, graciously. "Winky had to fix some of the controls so that they'd work for me, but it is nice to be able to cook our own food, again."

"Harry hasn't had that pleasure with me, yet," said Hermione. "If I'm smart, perhaps he never will." She smiled sweetly, inviting him to comment.

"I'm not sure if the need would ever come up," suggested Harry. "Winky makes the odd meal for us when necessary. Her niece, Slinky; I think you've met her?" Petunia and Vernon both nodded. "Well, she's been doing better back at the house in London, from what I've heard."

"Still," added Hermione, "It's something I might need to look into, someday."

"Perhaps we could make a meal or two together, sometime," offered Petunia. "Speaking of meals," she continued, "I suppose it's time I explain why I asked you to bring your pet snake."

"He's not our pet!" exclaimed Harry and Hermione, together.

'I most certainly am not!' agreed Reggie, indignantly.

'It's a common mistake,' replied Hermione. 'Just calm down and we'll see what she has to say.'

"He's fairly upset with the use of the 'P' word," explained Harry to Petunia. "Just call him Reggie and everything will be fine." After a moment, he added, "Oh, and you can speak to him directly. He understands English quite well. Either Hermione or I will tell you whatever he replies."

"I see," said a rattled Petunia. "Well, let me think. I suppose I should just get to the point. There are some mice in my greenhouse, you see, and I'd just as soon they weren't there. Perhaps he... I mean you wouldn't mind taking care of that for me." She had started the exchange talking to Harry, but remembered his advice and switched to Reggie by the end.

"What do you think?" asked Harry when Reggie didn't immediately comment.

'Eating a confined supply of juicy mice?' replied Reggie. 'Oh, stop twisting my arm.' After a few more moments of reflection, he declared, 'I like the idea. After all, I haven't found all that many mice in the part of the castle I'm capable of visiting. How would I get to this greenhouse?'

"I think I know a spell for that," said Hermione. "It's the same one that they use at King's Cross Station to get to Platform 9 3/4. I'd just need to make a spot on the wall in both our suite and the greenhouse. You'd be able to come and go as you please."

'I think I could go along with that,' agreed Reggie. 'Done.' At this point, he adjusted his tail to hover over the table near Petunia.

Petunia, not knowing what was happening, stared at the tail for a few seconds before adjusting her confused gaze to Harry.

"He's agreed," explained Harry. "He's offering his tail so that you can shake on the deal." He pantomimed shaking hands so she would get the hint.

"Oh," said Petunia, not really wanting to shake hands with a snake, but remembering how easily offended he was. Quickly taking and releasing the offered tail, she said, "Thanks, uh, Reggie."

'My pleasure,' responded Reggie, politely.

"Will you require anything to help?" asked Petunia. "Some water, perhaps?" She addressed her question to Reggie; currently returned to his sprawled position on the top of the chair opposite her.

'It's hard to drink while you're crushing a mouse in your esophagus, Petunia,' replied Reggie. 'A warm spot to rest during the process would be nice, though.'

"He said a warm, out of the way spot would be all that he requires," paraphrased Hermione.

"Excellent," replied Petunia. "I suppose we'll find a suitable location once Hermione has the... whatever sorted out."

"That shouldn't take long," said Hermione. "Now, I believe you mentioned some sort of a problem, Uncle Vernon?"

"Just a bit of a delay," replied Vernon. "That chap, Remus, stopped by while you were out, yesterday. He told me that he'd heard of a problem with getting the pendulum until after the new year. Too many people on holiday or something. It sounded like it would still happen, but as I said, there will be a delay."

"That's too bad," said Harry. "Not a big deal, though. We'll survive."

"It'll give you some time off, too," noted Hermione, "unless you've got a lot to do in that workshop place."

"I'm pretty much caught up," replied Vernon. "George and his missus just got back Friday. I was thinking of having a go at getting in a round or two."

"This time of year?" asked Harry. "I'm no expert, of course, but isn't golf played outside?"

"Usually," replied Vernon, chuckling. "I didn't say it'd be easy."

"Probably not," agreed Hermione, "at least in England." She thought about the problem for a moment before recounting, "I remember once when I was little, my parents took me on a Christmas holiday to Barcelona. The weather was wonderful and I seem to remember seeing quite a few golf courses."

"Barcelona?" asked Vernon. "In Spain?"

"That's where it was the last time I saw it," replied Hermione. "You know, you've done quite a bit of work for us. Why don't we repay you with an all expenses vacation in Barcelona until next year?"

"Three weeks in Barcelona?" asked Vernon, shocked at the offer.

"Or wherever else you might want," amended Harry. "Hermione's right. You've done a lot for us. It would be the least we could do."

"Barcelona," mumbled Vernon. "Which side of Spain is that on?"

"The Mediterranean side," replied Hermione. "A nice villa at a resort would be just the ticket to get away from winter in Scotland."

"I have to tend my greenhouse," countered Petunia. She wasn't exactly enthused at the prospect of missing out on such a nice vacation, but it was true, nevertheless.

"Winky, or even Kr... I mean Karl could bring you back as often as you needed," replied Hermione. "Look, I'm not a travel agent after a commission or anything. I just thought..."

"We'll accept," said Vernon before Petunia could think up another reason not to go.

"I agree," agreed Petunia, smiling at her husband. "It's just so unexpected. We'll have a million things to do. Deciding when to leave. Picking a resort. Sorting out what clothes to take. Arranging things back here with Winky."

"Checking out golf courses," added Vernon. "I suppose that'll have to be done first."

"Whatever you want," said Harry. He then turned to his least favorite elf and said, "Karl."

"Yes, master," replied Kreacher. He still had some attitude attached to the response, but not as much as in the past.

"I expect you to help out with making the arrangements," explained Harry. "Talk to Winky about any money that's needed. When everything else is paid for, give them each... I don't know, a couple thousand pounds for pocket money."

"Yes, master," replied Kreacher.

"This is very generous of you," restated Petunia.

"Don't mention it," replied Hermione. "We're planning on a trip to Sicily, ourselves, so don't feel sorry for leaving us here to freeze. Even Reggie would get a bit of a holiday. It's quite warm in the greenhouse and he'd be able to get a start on the mice without a lot of disturbance."

"Sounds wonderful," said Vernon. "I like a bit of snow for the holidays, but after a while, enough is enough."

"You've got that right," agreed Harry. "Well, I suppose we'd best leave you to it."

"Don't forget to send a postcard or two," said Hermione. With that, she, Reggie and Harry popped back to their suite.

Shortly after lunch, at Ninebanks

"The Dark Lord will see you, now." Jake Airins, despite being a favorite of Lord Voldemort, was still a very junior member of the inner circle, and as such, was more likely than not to be picked to perform some of the more pedestrian tasks required by his master. Summoning subordinates fit that category.

"Yes, sir," replied Jerry, gathering up his notes. He had only worked on this project for a few days, due mostly to its fairly simple nature, but it had already had more than a little influence on his overall career as a Death Eater. The gathering of the background information had led to yet another lengthy interrogation/meeting with his master and his top lieutenants, much in the same way the initial visit to the Daily Prophet had done. The reason had been nearly the same, with the substitution a muggle library for the newspaper and Hermione Potter in place of her husband. Nevertheless, he felt he had the best solution available for the Dark Lord, given the parameters that were set at the onset of the assignment.

Stepping into the makeshift conference room, he took two steps forward to allow the guards to shut the door and then waited for acknowledgment of his presence. Despite having apparently informing Airins that he was ready to speak to him, Jerry noticed that the Dark Lord seemed quite interested in a parchment held at arms length in his left hand. After a few more seconds, Voldemort set the untitled document on the sideboard behind him and said, "Have a seat, Knight."

"Yes, Master," replied Jerry, taking a seat across the table from his boss. He set the folder containing his notes and recommendations onto the table top next to him. "I think that I've come up with a reasonable solution to the problem you've presented," he began. "A balrog is..."

"I've just been reading a report," interrupted Voldemort. "It seems something odd occurred during your outing, yesterday. Tell me about it."

Jerry, not expecting this change of subject, and also truly not aware, at the spur of the moment, at least, what specific part of the day was in question, muttered, "I don't know what..." He stopped as his master's eyes glowed red.

The Dark Lord, already suspicious due to the content of the parchment, and further upset by the perceived attempt at deflecting the question, was seriously considering inflicting some immediate punishment. However, he had also registered the feeling that Jerry had not been untruthful in his answer. Deciding to give a hint, he said, "After lunch. The woman and her child."

"Oh," replied Jerry, bringing the incident to the front of his mind. "It wasn't important."

"I'll decide what is and isn't important," declared Lord Voldemort, standing as he pulled his wand. "Now speak!" The last sentence was more of an order, and a magically infused one, at that.

"It was just a muggle woman, Master," gasped out Jerry, frightened at unexpectedly incurring the wrath of his boss. "She walked by the window of the restaurant where we were all eating. Harry cured her son."

"Cured him of what?" asked Lord Voldemort, still speaking with great authority.

"I don't know," replied Jerry, both fearfully and honestly. "He couldn't walk, at least not very well. I don't know why. He used crutches and wore braces on his knees. His legs swung as a pair while they moved down the sidewalk."

"And Potter just cured him?" asked Voldemort. "Right then and there in front of everybody?"

"Yes, Master," spurted out Jerry. "I mean no, Master. He... He..."

"What did he do?" asked an increasingly impatient Dark Lord.

"He... didn't do or say anything right away," replied Jerry, trying to remember everything in detail. "At least about the woman and her son. Shortly after they passed, though, he excused himself and went to the restroom."

"Now you've lost me," replied Voldemort, sitting back down.

"I don't think he needed to go, Master," offered Jerry, beginning to calm down. "It was just to give him a moment to put on an invisibility cloak, I think. I didn't notice anything unusually and wasn't paying attention. After just a few seconds, however, the door to the restaurant opened and closed. I didn't see anyone there, so it must have been Harry. After a minute or so, the boy; he was down the street by now, sitting with his mother while waiting at a bus stop; well, he started to have some sort of an attack. He was..."

"What sort of an attack?" demanded Voldemort.

"He was shaking and seemed faint, Master," replied Jerry. "I couldn't see very well, but his mother became quite frightened. She called over a muggle auror to help."

"I see," replied Voldemort. "And you think that Potter was involved."

"Yes, Master," answered Jerry. "The attack, or whatever it was, soon ended. While the mother and auror examined the boy, the door to the restaurant opened and closed, again. I didn't see anyone this time, either. It wasn't long until Harry returned to the table.

"And that was it?" asked the Dark Lord.

"After Harry returned," continued Jerry, "I watched the boy for a bit. When he was helped back to his feet... Something had changed. I'm no healer, but it looked like he'd be able to walk properly, now; with a bit of practice."

"Potter's fixed people's legs and arms before," noted Voldemort. "What makes this time any different?"

"I don't know, Master," replied Jerry. "It didn't look like the boy had ever been able to walk, or at the least, never would again. Neither the mother nor the son seemed to give his condition a second thought as they went down the street. It was just the way it was, you know?"

"I understand," replied Voldemort. "Why did this affect you so much?"

"It didn't, Master," replied Jerry, understanding where this conversation was probably heading and panicking into his first lie.

"It did!" bellowed Voldemort, returning to his feet. "Tell me why!"

"Harry didn't tell anyone!" cried out Jerry, feeling the force of the command. "No one knew what he'd done. The boy was nothing to him. He just fixed him up because he's..."

"He's what?" demanded Voldemort.

"He's Harry!" blurted out Jerry. "He's a good man. He helped that boy simply because he could. He didn't need another reason." Jerry could sense the ire rising in his boss.

"And that changed your opinion of him?" asked Voldemort, still unsure of what had been so important about the incident.

"Yes, Master," replied Jerry. "Actually, it clarified my opinion. I knew he was a good man, already, but this just made it so clear." He seemed to want to add something, but couldn't find the right words and just let it go at that.

Voldemort didn't say anything, either. Staring at Knight, he went over everything he had heard. He also added in the comments made by Snape which were listed on the parchment behind him. When he had finished, he had only one question for Knight. "Are you still loyal to me," he asked, "or to Potter?"

Jerry, his skin turning the same shade of white as the snow blowing into drifts outside, knew better than to answer. While never posing that question to himself, he knew the answer. Using his remaining time wisely, he did his best to prepare himself.

Voldemort, having received his answer in any event, raised his wand slightly before incanting, "Crucio!"

Jerry's back arched to the breaking point as he let out an uncontrollable shriek of pain. Every nerve in his body was on fire. In the back of his mind, he wondered if he'd be one of the lucky ones who died from this particular punishment or if he'd lose his mind, instead.

Lord Voldemort was pondering just that question when another thought came to mind. Ending the Crucio spell, he immediately cast a pain reducer on the traitor. Repeated twice more, he judged Knight as capable of hearing and understanding him, again.

"I think you might still be of use to me, Knight," stated the Dark Lord. "In fact, I believe that your change of heart might make you able to serve me very well, indeed."

Jerry, not having any particular guesses on why he was still alive, much less why his Master had suddenly ceased with the expected torture, remained silent.

"You're not only best mates with Potter," continued Voldemort with a slight curl of a smile on his thin lips, "but also on quite friendly terms with his mudblood, as well." Voldemort turned and placed his hand to his mouth before continuing with, "Oh, that's right. You don't like that term, do you? So much the better. Once you've completed your mission, no one will call her that, again. In fact, no one will call her anything, again."

"I won't hurt Hermione," stated Jerry, knowing that even if he did complete this implied assignment, his status as a traitor wouldn't change. His own death was in the books, but he didn't have to take Hermione with him.

Standing directly in front of Jerry as he pulled his wand, Voldemort softly replied, "Oh, I think you will. Imperio!"

December 15th, 1997, at Breakfast in the Great Hall

"What do you have there, Luna?" asked Ginny. Luna was clutching a folded over piece of muggle paper, albeit a fairly thick and embossed one, that had arrived with the morning owls.

"What?" asked Luna, coming out of her daze. Glancing at the piece of stationery in her hand, she replied, "Oh, this is from Kurt. He's invited me to spend Christmas with him."

"Christmas?" asked Ginny.

"Yes," replied Luna. "It's a holiday coming up in a little over a week that celebrates..."

"I know what Christmas is," snapped back Ginny, rolling her eyes. "I'm just surprised he's inviting you to spend it with him. It's usually a time for family and all."

"Oh," said Luna, "that wouldn't be a problem. Daddy's invited, too. Kurt's got a boat, you see. He said we could sail south until it got warm."

"That seems to be a popular destination," noted Hermione. Taking a moment to first make a note of some kind in her paper, she added, "Someplace warm, that is."

"I'm not complaining," agreed Luna. "I hope that Daddy agrees. I've never been on a boat. Well, not a proper one, at least."

"That sounds nice," added Harry. "We're going back to Sicily, ourselves. Do you think you might get that far?"

"That would be a pretty long sail," replied Hermione, still absentmindedly scratching away with her quill. "They'd have to go past Spain and come in through the Strait of Gibraltar." Grimacing, she wrote something else.

"I wouldn't mind a long cruise," said Luna. Bouncing her invitation on the table as she mused, she added, "That might not be possible, though. We'd have to get there and back again in only two weeks. We'll probably just go to Spain and take in some of the sights, this time." She sighed.

"I feel so sorry for you, I could cry," stated Ginny, unconvincingly. Her only hope of finding someplace warm over Christmas break involved sneaking off for a bit of cuddling with Neville.

"When did he suggest you leave?" asked Honey. "Kurt, that is." She had already finished with her breakfast and was helping Ron load up his plate for thirds.

"Next Monday," replied Luna. "That reminds me." Standing, she left to have a word with the Headmistress.

"What a bloody joke," whined Hermione as she tossed the Daily Prophet onto the table.

"What is?" asked Harry. He had finished breakfast, but was still pondering whether or not he fancied another species of dessert.

"The crossword puzzle," replied Hermione. "Laughably easy, today. Virtually no point in taking the time to do it, if all of the answers are so obvious."

"I suppose not," replied Harry, finally making his decision and reaching for a custard tart.

"You've had dessert," commented Hermione, but as more of an order. "Come on, then. We have a half hour before classes. Let's go see what Martha needs."

"What makes you think she needs anything?" asked Ron. Defying the usual odds, he was not currently eating anything and had no food in transit.

"She sent a messenger elf," replied Hermione. "Last night; just after we got back from visiting the herd. Said she'd like to talk to one of us when the opportunity arose. Some sort of a request from some prisoners."

"I thought she'd be able to handle that sort of thing herself," stated Honey, questioningly.

"She can," agreed Ron. "Usually. I suppose this is something out of the ordinary."

"Must be," concurred Harry. Rising, he said, "Well, as you've said, we've got almost a half hour until Charms. Let's go see what she needs." He was immediately joined by Hermione. Honey, with a half glance at Ron, also rose; her curiosity being piqued.

Ron, who had been reaching for a cinnamon roll of unusual girth, stopped midstream, and with a force of will that would embarrass a channel swimmer, pulled back. "I suppose I should come, too," he mumbled.

"Are you sure, Ron?" asked Hermione. "You've barely eaten enough for three grown men, you know."

"Well..." considered Ron, glancing at all of the food still taunting him from the serving trays. Honey sighed.

"That'll teach you to be facetious," commented Neville towards Hermione.

"I'm coming. I'm coming," grumped Ron, rising up on his carpet.

"What's happened?" asked Luna, returning from her chat with McGonagall.

"Nothing," replied Harry, distractedly. "Why do you ask?"

"You've been standing for almost a minute," replied Luna, "with first Hermione; then Honey; and finally Ron joining you. Usually, any discussions about who is leaving or where they're going is taken care of before anyone actually gets up."

"They'd determined all of that," replied Ginny, "but Hermione foolishly gave Ron an out so that he could stay and eat a few more pounds of food."

"I admit it wasn't the cleverest thing I've said," admitted Hermione. "Just out of curiosity, and if you don't mind my asking, what did your leaving for an extended trip next Monday have to do with anything involving Min... er, the Headmistress?"

"It wasn't about the trip," replied Luna. "I needed to ask her if it would be alright if Kurt was my date for the Yule Ball. She said that would be fine." She turned to face Ron at the end of her explanation as he had lowered his carpet back to the dining position.

"It looks like we've lost our window of opportunity," commented Honey, sitting down next to her husband. She gave him an understanding sideways hug of understanding. He was only human, after all.

"Where were you going?" asked Luna, retaking her own seat.

"Down to see Martha," replied Harry. "Some sort of a problem."

"Oh, I see," acknowledged Luna. "Would you mind if I come along? I haven't seen Martha for a few days. I'd like to wish her a Happy Christmas in case I don't get the chance before we all head home."

"Sure," replied Hermione. "See you in class," she said to Ron as the three of them left to begin the trip to the Fortress.

Also Breakfast time, at Number 14, Grimmauld Place

"I'll make you a deal," offered Tonks, pushing away the remains of her peach cobbler. "If you can finally make a decision; right here; right now; to choose a date within the next three months for our wedding, I'll give up France and agree to join you in Athens." For an adrenaline junkie like Tonks, giving up her yearly ski trip to Chamonix was a painful concession, but she wasn't getting any younger. Her fiancé really wasn't getting any younger, either, if it came to it.

Remus, who hadn't had the money, until recently, for any sort of a traveling vacation, decided to give her offer some serious consideration. "Within three months?" he asked. "From today?"

"Three months," confirmed Tonks. "If it makes it any easier, I'll give you up to any day during the first three months of next year."

"Well," replied Remus, quickly overclocking his brain to come up with the most distant, yet still believably reasonable date to finally have the shackles hammered into place, "I suppose... I... uh; how about... St. Patrick's Day?"

"St. Patrick's Day?" repeated Tonks in surprise. "Neither one of us is Irish."

"No," replied Remus, "but... but it will be a lucky day; for you, at least."

"What do you mean by..." snapped Tonks before Remus interrupted her.

"For both of us, I me+an," he spat out. "It'll be our lucky day."

"Why not make it our romantic day," countered Tonks. "What aboutValentine's Day? We'd still have a saint on our side."

"Uh, well... that..." sputtered Remus.

"Or even better," added Tonks, pulling Remus' chain a bit harder, "maybe New Year's Day, like you suggested a while ago. Being the start of the new year, it would also signify the beginning of our life together." She gave him a sweet smile and rubbed his arm, lovingly.

"Hummina, hummina, hummina..." babbled Remus, desperately searching for the rip cord.

"I'm just kidding," admitted Tonks, before Remus had the chance to bolt from the room. "St. Patrick's Day it is." She pulled a pocket planner from her purse and flipped forward to the proper week. "That's on a Tuesday." She lowered the date book to see his reaction.

"Tuesday?" asked Remus, rhetorically. "Well, that won't do. Perhaps the weekend after..."

"Or before," cut in Tonks. "That Sunday afternoon would... wait. That would be the Ides of March. Okay. The weekend after, then." She made a quick note on the calendar before flipping to some blank pages near the back.

"Well, now that we've got that settled," began Remus, standing up, "I've got to go..."

"What do you mean 'Now that we have that settled'?" asked Tonks. "Nothing's settled. We have a million things to do. There's picking the wedding party; starting the guest list; reserving the church and banquet hall; choosing a band; talking with the dress designer; sending out invitations; buying our rings..." She was writing all the while as she enumerated the tasks.

"Sounds like fun," said Remus, smiling. "Just give me a second to go to the loo and we'll get started."

"Hurry back," acknowledged Tonks, absentmindedly as Remus quickly scurried off. If she hadn't been so busy, she might have noticed that the nearest bathroom was in the opposite direction.

A short time later, in the Fortress of Solitude

"Maybe we should just give them all a forty-eight hour pass," suggested Harry, sarcastically. After finding out that Martha's concerns were centered around an old promise to allow marginal Death Eater Bobbie Gindale an escorted trip to visit his mother for Christmas, the conversation quickly spread to include a few other prisoners with similar circumstances. Marc Haengin, for example, was a widower with two youngish children. Brad Bacoup's mother was hospitalized with spina riduculosus.

"Don't be silly," requested Hermione. "There's only seven or eight of them." She thought a moment before adding, "However, it is Christmas. Martha; about how many of the prisoners have children?"

"Hmm," replied Martha, thinking. "I've never counted, but it seems like at least half of them. Why do you ask?"

"I don't know," answered Hermione. "All this talk of taking a few of them to visit their families got me to thinking. I don't really like the idea of all of those children spending Christmas without their fathers. It's not like it's their fault their dads are locked up."

"You're not seriously thinking of taking them all for visits, are you?" Harry had made his earlier comment in jest, but he was getting the impression that Hermione was serious.

"Probably not visits," agreed Hermione. "It probably wouldn't be that hard to do presents, though."

"I'm sure they'd love that," said Luna. "The children, that is. Maybe a note, as well."

"Why not?" agreed Harry, throwing up his hands in defeat. "There isn't much time, you know. We'd have to start right away."

"True enough," said Martha. She thought a few moments before asking, "How are we going to deliver these presents, even if we can collect them?" It was a fair question.

"We'll think of something," stated Hermione, optimistically. "Look; it's about time for us to head off to class. Could you start asking the prisoners with children what they'd like to give them?" She addressed this to Martha, of course.

"Sure," replied Martha. "One present per child?"

"I think so," replied Harry. "Keep them in the neighborhood of ten galleons each, if you can. Maybe make that the limit instead of just one present. The younger kids won't necessarily need expensive toys, so maybe they could get two or three for that amount." He stood to leave and was joined by both Hermione and Luna.

"Fair enough," agreed Martha, writing down the guidelines. "I should have something to work with by the end of the day."

"What about that Death Eater friend of yours?" asked Luna as they headed for the door.

"Jerry?" asked Hermione. "We were thinking of getting Julie and him a couple's present."

"I meant that he might be able to deliver the gifts," clarified Luna.

"Oh," replied Hermione. "That's a good idea. We could probably drop them off with Julie and he could take them back with him after their next date."

"He'd have to make more than one trip with that many presents," commented Martha.

"I'm sure that making several trips wouldn't be an issue," countered Harry, "especially with a pretty girl waiting for him at one end. I'll pop down and clear it with Julie after Charms." With that, the three students used their rings to pop back to Hogwarts.