Chapter 139 - Santa's Helpers

December 16th, 1997

Shortly after the arrival of the owl post

"Who?" asked Harry. He, Hermione and Ron had all been summoned to a spot just off the instructor's dais to discuss the letter just received by the headmistress. Harry had heard some fairly uncommon names since entering the magical world, but a new plateau had apparently been reached.

"Hogrin Finwither," repeated McGonagall. "He's the; oh, what do they call them; front man for the Cretins." She indicated one of the posters populating the walls of the Great Hall. They announced, with more than a little breathlessness, the upcoming performance by The Cretins of the Magical Decline.

"The band?" asked Harry. "Why did he write you a letter about Fenrir?"

McGonagall failed to completely hide her continuing misgivings about the arrangements, but replied, "He'd like to have Mr. Greyback join his group for some planning, and perhaps a rehearsal or two."

"I thought they'd be working independently," commented Hermione.

"For the most part, yes," agreed Minerva. "I'd assume that most of the area up for discussion would concern the proposed entrance for Greyback and his combo."

"Combo?" asked Ron.

"That was Rufus' idea," replied Hermione. "He suggested we hire a few professional musicians to accompany Fenrir rather than having him play kareoke trumpet. It'll sound better."

"I'm sure it will," replied Minerva, dryly. "Don't forget that the Yule Ball is only three days away. Greyback is your prisoner, so you'll have to decide how to handle this request." She handed the letter to Hermione.

"Quickly, I suppose," deduced Hermione. She glanced through the letter as she reviewed their schedules for the day. "Thanks, Minerva. I think we can work something out. The group we hired to play with Greyback was scheduled to arrive around noon on Friday to run through the songs, but they sounded fairly flexible." She turned to lead her group back to their table, but was interrupted by the Headmistress.

"Just one more thing," said McGonagall. "Rufus mentioned that he'd talked with Tonks about participating, somehow. I'm not sure in what capacity, but you might want to check with her, as well."

"Tonks?" asked Harry, surprised. "Uh, sure. Thanks." He was more confused than ever, but followed behind as his group finally returned to their breakfasts.

"I wonder what Tonks has to do with this?" asked Ron, albeit without wasting any time in the refilling of his plate.

"Probably something to do with security," replied Hermione. "I mean we know he won't get into any mischief, but that isn't particularly widespread information. We'll have to at least make it look like he's well tended." She set the letter down and began to advance the cause of her own breakfast.

"Speaking of handling things quickly," began Luna, "have you heard anything back from that Death Eater couple concerning the Christmas presents?"

"Not yet," replied Harry, taking a bite out of a waffle. Swallowing, he added, "I only spoke to Julie yesterday, though. She'll have to talk with Jerry before we'll know anything for certain."

"Do you think Voldemort will go along with this?" asked Ron. He hadn't been at the meeting with Martha, but had heard about it, of course.

"I've been wondering that, myself," answered Hermione. "We should have thought it through. You know; through the prism of Voldemort's view of things."

"Why should he object to children getting Christmas presents?" asked Honey. "It's not like he's paying for them." She began the process of refilling her plate for the third time. She was only eating for two, but one of the two was a growing Weasley.

"I think the main potential problem," replied Hermione, "is who is. Paying for them, that is. Harry and Voldemort are mortal enemies, after all."

"He isn't mort..." began Harry.

"Figuratively speaking," corrected Hermione as she rolled her eyes. "He might not like the idea of Harry doing something nice for his men, even if it is just for the sake of the children."

"He can pay for them if that would make him feel any better," replied Harry. "Sort of a joint project. That way he wouldn't be the bad guy."

"I think he'd still be ..." began Luna.

"Just in this instance," corrected Hermione. She was seriously thinking of declaring her breakfast done so that her Christmasy demeanor wouldn't entirely evaporate.

"Maybe there won't be any trouble," suggested Ron. "In the grand scheme of things, a few presents for the children of some of his captured men; even if provided by Harry, is small potatoes." With that small bit of inspiration, he reached for the hash browns.

"Why am I not reassured?" asked Hermione, rhetorically. With no clear solution until the specifics, if any, of the problem were known, she joined the rest of her group in finishing their interrupted meal.

At the same time, in the main dining hall of Nine Banks

With a fairly sunny and moderate day seeming a distinct possibility, given that it was almost officially winter, Jerry and his crew had ambled down for breakfast along with the majority of the Death Eaters in their wing. Having seen that the mail cart had already been positioned in its accustomed location near the main kitchen door, they had veered off from their earlier trajectory and summoned their mail before gathering up their meals. Jerry had recognized the unusually shaped envelope of choice from his girlfriend and opened that up first.

"A letter with breakfast," noted Tom, shuffling through his own mail before tucking the lot into an inside pocket of his robes. "How romantic."

"Not as romantic as a conversation over breakfast," added Barry, suggestively. The rest of them chuckled satyrically.

"Give me time," replied Jerry. "Give me time." He was thinking more about his friend's innuendo than the actual contents of the letter. When the latter finally started to sink in, his smile faded away.

"What's the matter?" asked Fred, noticing the change in attitude.

"Uh, I'm not sure," answered Jerry. "They want me to do them a favor."

"They?" asked Tom. With the faraway look seemingly fixed on Jerry's face, he snatched the letter and read it for himself. Looking up at Jerry, he also wasn't quite sure what to make of it.

By the time the letter had worked its way around to Geordie, Jerry had noticed that it was no longer in his hands. With the secret out, he turned to the current owner and asked, "Well? What do you think?"

"Better you than me, mate," was Geordie's honest judgement of the predicament in which Jerry had suddenly found himself.

"Thanks for your support," replied Jerry. Taking back his letter, he reread the contents. There was no mistaking it; he'd be having a very uncomfortable conversation; if not with the Dark Lord, himself, at least with one of his lieutenants. Given the time sensitive nature of the requested favor, he'd have to bring it up fairly soon. Well, he certainly wouldn't be making things worse by interrupting the Dark Lord's breakfast. The most favorable time would be just after an enjoyable meal, but before any other business was brought up. That would be a tricky path to navigate, but it was his best hope. With a sigh, he changed his chair to have a better view of his Master's table and took in some nourishment. He was going to need it.

A short time later, in the Defense Against the Dark Arts classroom

"Are you sure this is the right building? I can't find any sign of them."

"You're in the right greenhouse. Listen; I can't help you, right now. Just look around."

"Naturally, you'd try to avoid being in such a situation in the first place," explained Professor Coldiron, "but things don't always work out the way you want." He took his pointer and indicated the upper left portion of the drawing on the chalk board.

"That's similar to what we ran into in the prophecy room," noted Ron, using his quill to gesture towards the front of the room.

"The way she was talking, you'd think you couldn't take three steps without hearing a squeak."

"Now," continued Coldiron, "there is a trick... No. Not so much a trick as..."

"I think I've found out how they get in and out. There's a small hole over here that smells of..."

"Not now! I'm in class."

"A few dozen shelves of exploding glass did a pretty good job, too," noted Harry with a grin.

"Once you've managed to get behind them," finished Coldiron, "you'd just use the flare-out or even the rotating serpentine maneuvers that we studied last week."

"I think I'll try from a bit higher."

"You do that."

"Sir," said Harry, raising his hand. After receiving a nod from the professor, he asked, "In the situation you just described, you recommended..."

"I think I see one of them! Not too much to look at, but I suppose that if I caught enough like him, it would provide a fair meal."

"Go and get him, then."

" once you did manage to get directly underneath...", continued Harry.

"That's odd. I don't think I've ever heard mice doing that, before."

"You've found a mouse. Enjoy your breakfast and leave me alone."

"What would you suggest if you were only partially successful?" asked Ron. "For instance..."

"That's sort of a catchy tune. Cinderelly, Cinderelly, night and day it's..."

"A fair point, Mr. Weasley," replied Coldiron. "What do you think, Mrs..."

"Oops. I hope that wasn't important."

"What did you do?"

"Ah... nothing. I didn't break anything."

"Hermione?" asked Harry.

"Is it going to get worse if we leave it, or can it wait un..."

"Hermione!" repeated Harry.

"What?" snapped Hermione, turning towards Harry in annoyance.

"Professor Coldiron asked you to comment on my question," replied Harry, indicating the equally impatient wizard standing at the head of the, by now, silent class.

"What?" repeated Hermione. "Oh. I'm sorry. I was... What was the question, again, Professor?"

"I don't think it will matter too much if you wait, as long as..."

"Shut up!" shouted Hermione, forgetting to switch modes. The shocked looks on the faces of nearly everyone else in the room didn't even register when compared to Hermione's ashen faced expression, now seemingly fixed as if chiseled in marble.

With an obvious exercise of great control, Professor Coldiron walked back to the row of seats occupied by Harry, Ron and, most importantly, Hermione, and said, using a quiet, yet piercing voice, "Please see me after class, Mrs. Potter, so that we can discuss your detention." He returned to the front of the class as Hermione slunk as low in her seat as the doomed snake.

Back at Ninebanks

Jerry sat on the bench just outside the small conference room currently occupied by Snape, Airins, Nott, Rookwood and the Dark Lord. The meeting had been going on for well over an hour; a fact that didn't particularly ease the feelings of unease, if not outright dread, that had been rising within the would-be, albeit conscripted Santa's helper. His logical mind seized on the mitigating factor that Augie Rookwood had returned late the previous night from his mission in northern Europe and that a large portion of the time might very likely have been spent discussing the success or failure of his project. Naturally, he couldn't hear anything from behind the doors due to the standard practice of using a silencing charm on any room in which a high-level meeting; even those with low-level subject matter, took place. The pair of burly guards standing on either side of the doorway also tended to discourage eavesdropping.

Finally, at around 11:30 A.M., everyone began to casually exit the room. The Dark Lord was the third one out, followed closely by Snape, but neither showed any signs of speaking with Knight. Jake Airins left last and closed the door behind him. He, also, seemed prepared to head off on his own when he noticed Knight sitting on the bench.

"Oh," said Jake, while snapping his fingers to jump-start his memory. "Jerry. Didn't anyone stop to talk to you?"

"No, sir," replied Jerry.

"We spent most of the time talking about trolls and giants," continued Jake, "so I guess it must have slipped their minds. I don't suppose there's any harm in letting you know that your plan has been approved. Everyone seemed to think the request an odd one, but harmless. You may use one of the interrogation rooms to store the presents until Christmas."

"Thank you, sir," replied a relieved Jerry. "It isn't my plan, you know. My girlfriend..."

"I'm sorry," interrupted Jake. "That was mentioned. I guess I was just thinking that from our end, you're the one in charge."

"Yes, sir," agreed Jerry. "I suppose I am." He shrugged. Looking at his watch, he said, "I guess I'll go tell Julie. Be a good reason to take her out to lunch."

"Do you need a reason?" asked Jake, suggestively.

"Not so much," answered Jerry with a smile. "I'll be off, then." He left for his room to put on his traveling robes.

Jake watched as he left. He had been chosen to speak to Knight since he was deemed the most likely to pull off the deception without arousing undue suspicion or concern. He was apparently successful. He sighed. In their few social encounters, he had liked Jerry well enough. He did fairly competent and thorough work and seemed a decent chap. If things went as planned, however, sooner or later, Jerry wouldn't be coming back. Although not mentioning his thoughts to his boss, Jake felt that there was probably more than one reason that that might happen.

Around 11:00 P.M. in the Head's Suite

"It's about time you got back," said Harry, standing disapprovingly with his hands on his hips. He hadn't had many opportunities to chastise his wife about a detention and didn't want to miss this rare exception. Within a quarter of a second, though, he changed his tune. In fact, he put on an entirely different record. "I mean, sit down, dear; you look exhausted. Can I get you something to drink?"

Hermione stared at her husband for another two seconds before resheathing her wand. Unwrapping Reggie from around her neck, she set him on the floor. He was wearing what seemed to be a large, fuzzy and extremely filthy sock of some sort. As Hermione was currently only wearing one, it would be reasonable to assume the other had been transfigured into the auxiliary snake skin.

"Winky," snapped Hermione, crisply.

"What is Mistress being needing?" asked Winky a moment later.

"Remove the sock from the snake," ordered Hermione, "and burn it."

"She means the sock," hissed Reggie, worriedly. He tried to back away until he was confident the order was clear.

As Hermione didn't speak further on the subject, but instead began to remove her own, equally filthy clothes, Harry said, "Burn the sock, Winky; not Reggie."

"Yes, Master," replied Winky. With a little trepidation on both of their parts, Winky and Reggie began to work on removing his outer layer.

"Don't the bloody elves ever clean the Jefferies tubes in this place?" asked Hermione, rhetorically. Having removed all of her contaminated outer layers, she bent over and, using just her hands, vigorously brushed out her hair for a few seconds. Whipping the bushy mane back into place, she plopped down next to her husband.

Harry put his arm comfortingly around her shoulders and gave her a quick kiss on the cheek. "Well," he began, trying to think of something soothing, "at least you're done in one night. As mad as Coldiron looked in class, you might have been taking over for Filtch."

"Well," replied Hermione, "he was a bit put out. However, since he's a member of our support staff, I was able to explain how the snake factored into all of this. He saw the humor in it, such as it was, and allowed Reggie to help out."

"That was nice of him," agreed Harry.

"I wasn't allowed to help," responded Reggie, "I was Shanghaied."

"A little bit, perhaps," replied Hermione who had been sent the sentiment through their mental connection simultaneously with the verbal component.

"Teamwork makes most jobs easier," noted Harry.

"Yes, it does, I suppose," agreed Hermione. "I did the main runs and Reggie hit the smaller ones that split off from either side to the rooms."

"At least that worked out to your favor," commented Harry with a bit of a smirk.

"What do you mean?" asked Hermione, too tired to be sufficiently leery of her husband.

"Well," said Harry, his smirk transforming into a full fledged grin, "at least you had all of your ducts in a row."

Both Hermione and Reggie groaned.

"I may throw up," added Reggie. Both Harry and Hermione then watched as Reggie slithered over towards the spot designated to take him to Petunia's green house.

"Where're you going?" asked Harry. He wondered if Reggie had been serious a few seconds earlier.

"I need a quick bath," replied Reggie. "There's a soaking tub against the north wall that should work out fairly well."

"Good idea," replied Harry, slipping into Parceltongue, himself. Hermione looked like she was going to ask what had been said by both parties, as Reggie hadn't bothered with the dual mode communication this time, but changed her mind at the last moment.

"So," asked Hermione, once Reggie had left and she had finished using her wand to clean herself off, now that that restriction had been lifted, "what sort of mischief have you been getting into this evening while unsupervised?"

"Nothing much," replied Harry. "I dropped into the office and had a chat with Martha about a couple of things that are coming up."

"Like what?" prompted Hermione. She put her feet up on the ottoman and cast a cooling charm over her aching knees.

"Christmas break, for one thing," answered Harry. "She'd like some time off to visit with family and friends over the holidays, just like us."

"Seems reasonable," agreed Hermione. "Did the two of you work anything out?"

"Three of us," corrected Harry. "Luna was with us. Yes. It seems that a couple of the conscripted Death Eaters have been a bit fidgety and have been asking for something to do. She said she'd talk to them tomorrow."

"Do you think it's a good idea?" asked Hermione. "I mean, having more people aware of our operation."

"It depends on who it is," replied Harry. "According to Martha, the ones she's mentioned are a little more afraid of Voldemort than the rest and don't intend to leave until he's gone. From what I understand, the majority of the rest of them would just as soon take the chance and go home."

"Hmm," pondered Hermione. "You know, that might not be a bad idea. It's been a few months, now. Maybe we could let a few try that, with elf surveillance, of course, and see if they're noticed."

"Personally," agreed Harry, "I think What's-His-Name has probably forgotten all about them. He only really wanted them to bulk up his forces for that big raid back in..."

"October," finished Hermione, once Harry's pause reached its third second. "The first, I think, or close to it. You're probably right. Of course, his memory might be jogged if the returns are mentioned in the papers."

"True enough," agreed Harry. "Well, Linus is in charge of both the Prophet and the Quibbler. I'm sure he'd agree to keep quiet about it if it would keep people safe."

"I'm sure he would," agreed Hermione. "Speaking of Linus, what was Luna doing in the Fortress?"

"Luna?" asked Harry. "Oh, she'd come down to talk to Martha about getting some lists of toys for the Death Eater's children, once they're ready. She said that she and her dad weren't leaving for Spain with Kurt until next Monday, so she'd like to help track down some presents over the weekend."

"Please come here, Monty," requested Hermione.

"Good evening, Mrs. Potter," replied Monty a few seconds later. "What could I do for you, tonight?"

"We were just talking about someone taking a few trips to pick up some Christmas presents we've decided to provide to the children of some of our prisoners," explained Hermione, "and I wanted to alert you to have adequate protection available. Also, we might be having a trial program of sending a few of the people that were forced to join Voldemort's ranks back home and would need to have them watched over for a while, as well."

"We've had this discussion before, Mrs. Potter," replied Monty. "The house elves will be allowed to provide protection to a few of the higher level members of your organization, such as the two of you or Ronald and Honey Weasley, while any of you leave the protection of Hogwarts, but as to generally accompanying anyone out on errands, you'll need to use your hired guards."

"We're just talking about this weekend," countered Harry. "It's only for a few trips. Can't you make an exception?"

"There might be times," replied Monty, "when exceptions could be made, but I don't think something as unimportant as this would qualify. I'm sure that Mr. Tutela will be able to accommodate your needs."

"Fine," said Hermione, tersely. "I'll check with Luna to see if she could schedule some specific times so that..."

"Excuse me," interrupted Monty. "I didn't realize that the extra security was for Miss Lovegood. There won't be a problem with providing protection for her. Let's see; just have her call for Stomper whenever she's ready. His team will make themselves available."

"Really?" asked Harry, surprised at the sudden turnaround. "Why is that?"

"I'm not at liberty to answer that, Harry Potter," answered Monty.

"Is this something to do with The Others?" asked Hermione, actually taking the time to do the finger quotes.

"I, ah..." stuttered Monty, still unpracticed with dealing with the reasoning powers of this particular witch. "Let's just say that she is of interest to them."

"And they want her safe," finished Hermione. "Fair enough. We want her safe, too. That will be fine, Monty. Good night."

"Good night, Mistress Potter," replied Monty. He popped off, hoping that The Others wouldn't be too upset with him.

Just Before Noon, in the Offices of the Daily Prophet

December 17th, 1997

"I'm sorry, Harry. I just don't have that kind of room in my flat." Julie Joplin, receptionist and budding special features writer for the Daily Prophet, wasn't trying to get out of a little extra work; especially when it was to help out some unfortunate children at Christmastime, but she had a valid point. Her bachelorette apartment was sufficient to meet her needs. A downtown two-bedroom unit with a galley kitchen and a cozy sitting room, she had all the room she needed, plus a little extra for company. Her spare bedroom, however, had succumbed to the same fate as had so many others. In a word, it was stuffed full. So much so, in fact, that several of the less used corners of the rest of her flat had also been pressed into service to store her ever increasing supply of useless artifacts.

"Well, that poses a dilemma," said Harry. "Jerry's the one who'll be taking everything to Voldemort's current headquarters. He can't come to Hogwarts and, although we have plenty of room, I don't think it would be a good idea to let him into my house, either."

"I'm sure you'll figure something out," replied Julie, trying to let Harry know that he'd have to figure something out that didn't involve her place. Harry, of course, didn't get the hint. What he did know, however, was how to stumble on a solution that others might not see.

"How about if I make your place bigger?" asked Harry.

"I live in a flat," replied Julie. "I have neighbors on either..."

"That wouldn't matter," interrupted Harry. "I could make your place bigger on the inside and it would still stay the same on the outside."

"Really," replied Julie; not as a question, but as an unanticipated opportunity. "So, how big are we talking about?" Her smile, batting eyelashes and figure; especially her figure, combined to make Harry feel very uncomfortable. Uncomfortable, yet accommodating.

"Ah," he stammered, "as big as you want, I suppose."

"Great," said Julie, jumping up and grabbing her purse and cloak. Calling out, "Boss. I'm taking off for lunch," she grabbed an addled Harry by the lapel and pulled him out the door.

Later that day, just after classes, in the office of the Fortress.

"This list looks shorter than I would have expected," noted Ron. He turned the parchment containing eighteen names of their prisoners with the names of their children towards the other members of their group before continuing his review.

"There are almost thirty children, there," commented Martha, "though I know what you mean. A lot more prisoners than that have kids, but once we started to sort out the ones who were too old to make the list, we lost quite a few."

"What did you consider to be too old?" asked Harry. He remembered saying something about young children, but hadn't given any specifics on what that meant.

"Ten," replied Martha. "Over ten, I suppose. I figured that it might be awkward if any of the children attending Hogwarts received Christmas presents from you while you were holding one of their parents prisoner."

"I'm not so sure about that," replied Hermione. "Why exclude the older kids just because it would make us uncomfortable?" She looked to Harry for comment.

"It wouldn't have bothered me, either way," said Harry. "Put them back."

"I thought you might say that," replied Martha, pulling out another, somewhat longer list from her bag. "I don't think it will take too long to collect the presents once we have the shopping list." She paused for a moment before continuing with, "Along those lines, there's something that I've been meaning to bring up. One of the prisoners; Jordy Krillian, had asked to be able to help out. Not necessarily with this, but in general. He'd seen that a few of the conscripted former Death Eaters had been doing so and wanted to do the same. If it's okay with you, I was thinking it might be possible for him to lend a hand with talking to the prisoners about their kids and figuring out what might be an appropriate present for them. Olivia will probably help if he does."

"Olivia?" asked Harry. He remembered Jordy as the Death Eater he had interrogated after the capture of Minerva, but hadn't heard the name of Olivia, as far as he could recall.

"She was one of the forced Death Eaters," explained Martha. "They've become quite friendly towards each other. Just through the walls of his cell, of course."

"Whether he's trustworthy or not," countered Ron, "I'm not sure if I'd let him have too much unsupervised access to the other prisoners."

"We could arrange for an elf to always be with him," noted Hermione. "We'd know if he was up to no good."

"Besides," added Luna, "he's given up on Voldemort."

"How do you know that?" asked Harry, not really thinking it through.

"I came down to visit with Martha a while ago," answered Luna. "We took a walk through the corridors and ran into the Olivia that Martha just mentioned. We happened to be going in the same direction, so we ended up at Jordy's cell and the four of us spoke briefly. You know; just the usual greeting banter. We only talked for a short time, but that's the impression I got. If you'd like, I could check him out a bit better."

"Oh," replied Harry. "Please do. If you clear him, I guess he could help out at times when Martha thinks it would be safe. I think Hermione's right, though. Make sure that you tell an elf whenever he's going to be out of his cell."

"Will do," replied Martha. "We're a bit short on time, now, but after the holidays, there are a few other Death Eaters in similar situations. We can figure out what to do with them."

"Right," agreed Harry. "Let's leave that for later, okay? Moving on, I told Julie that we'd probably have all of the shopping done and the presents at her flat by Sunday night. Does anyone have a problem with that?"

"We'd better not have a problem," replied Martha. "I think everyone has plans of their own for the majority of next week. Oliver and I certainly do, at least."

"What do you have planned?" asked Ron, out of curiosity.

"His next day off is Monday," explained Martha. "We're going to see Jekyll and Hyde at the Lyceum."

"Oh, I've heard that's pretty good," replied Hermione, enviously. "I hope you enjoy it."

"I do, too," agreed Harry, "although I hope you have more planned than that for your week off."

"A little," replied Martha. "We have to work around Oliver's schedule for anything else, but we're piling as much into Monday as we can. There's the play, of course. Dinner before and dancing after, as well. Maybe breakfast, if he's lucky." She grinned mischievously.

"Lucky?" asked Ron. "I don't think it'd be all that lucky to be dancing so late that you'd be able to stop and have breakfast, somewhere." He paused, suddenly perceiving that everyone was staring at him. "What?"

"Think about it, Ron," suggested Hermione. She also paused a second to make her assessment as to whether or not he would 'get it'. With a shake to clear her head, she added, "I'd probably be able to find some time to help with the presents over the weekend. Maybe the three of us, or maybe..." She paused, again, before asking Ron, "Do you think Honey would be up to go on a shopping trip or two?"

Ron, who had attended this less that high level meeting alone, admitted, "To tell you the truth, she might like to try, but I probably wouldn't even mention it to her. She's a bit frustrated at being cooped up all the time, but she also seems to be spending a lot of time face down in the W.C."

"That's probably a good point," agreed Luna. "I've noticed that the ginger hasn't been quite as effective as it used to be."

"No," confirmed Ron, "it hasn't. Then again, she does have some good days. When are you planning on having these trips?"

"Saturday afternoon, for starters," answered Hermione. "I need to get a few presents for Greta, anyway. We'd be in the general area of Diagon Alley right after the Hogwarts Express gets back to King's Cross."

"Bloody hell," exclaimed Ron. "I'd forgotten all about that."

"What?" asked Harry. "You knew that everyone was going home for Christmas this weekend."

"Yes," confirmed Ron, "but I'd wanted to see if we could get some extra protection for the trip." He looked at his watch.

"What sort of protection?" asked Martha.

"Dragon protection," replied Ron. "It occurred to me when I read in the Prophet about how the train had been repaired and updated." He looked at Harry. "Do you think there's enough time to set something up with the herd for Saturday?"

"Probably," replied Harry. "It's not like they're terribly busy, or anything. I'll check on the return trip, as well."

"You do that," agreed Hermione. "Excellent idea, Ron. It might take a little thought as to how to keep them out of sight of any muggles."

"True enough," replied Harry. "Maybe have them just stationed along the route, somehow. You know; out of sight but handy."

"Good idea," agreed Ron. "Let's see. If they each had an elf or two with them, they could be summoned in a second." He thought a bit further and added, "Harry. You could do a permanent fly-over, as well. In your cloak, you're hard enough to see. If you had a co-pilot, as well, you could be Johnny-on-the-spot if there was any trouble and the elf could have the nearest dragons come in for back-up."

Everyone gave the impromptu plan some thought before Hermione said, "I like it. It's definitely better than nothing, at least."

"Loads better," added Ron. "There'll be a few aurors on board, as well, so we should probably be good."

"Excellent," stated Harry. "Well... I think we've pretty much got everything under control; at least through the end of Christmas break." With no objections, the little group broke up for the evening.

For the most of the rest of the week, it seemed as if Harry's optimistic declaration of having everything covered was coming true. The Dursleys finished packing and headed off to Spain; never once finding it necessary to complain about the nearly instantaneous magical travel arrangements.

Luna spoke with Jordy and Olivia and cleared him for essentially trustee status. They all then had a fairly lengthy and enjoyable conversation in which it was revealed that the two of them had dated during the last two years of their time at Hogwarts, but had drifted apart afterwards for reasons that neither of them could adequately explain. In any event, and despite the currently much greater odds against them, they both intended to not let that happen again.

Harry and Hermione made an unscheduled and quick trip to Muck and received the agreement of the herd to provide added security during the trip of the Hogwarts Express.

Greyback's group arrived early enough Friday morning for them to have a short rehearsal before lunch and a more extensive one after. The latter concluded with a joint jam session with the Magical Decline during which the segues between the bands were worked out.

Once the half day of classes on Friday had concluded and she was no longer mandated to stay in her office, Martha headed into Hogsmeade to begin the shopping for the children of her prisoners. She didn't want to have to rush things as she neared Oliver's day off. As it turned out, this was the point where things became less than optimal.

Martha had just set a large box of enchanted tinker toys on top of a small table. It had no less than four half-sized toy brooms leaning against it with an assortment of board games on the adjacent side. The table had been summoned for that purpose by Pierre Nowell, the manager of Hornsby's Toy Shop. Upon hearing exactly how many purchases the young lady had intended to make, he had become her chief sherpa; guiding her from one section of the story to another as they worked their way down her list. Oddly, the bargain corner never seemed to be the necessary destination.

"How well do these hold up to transfiguration?" asked Martha, examining the selection of princess costumes. "I never thought to get anybody's size."

"All of these are guaranteed to be adjustable for children up to five feet tall," explained Mr. Nowell. "They can also be cleaned either normally or by muggle methods."

Martha looked the selection over briefly before saying, "Fine, then. I'll take... Let's see. It looks like there're five different costumes. Give me one of each."

"Of course," replied Nowell, taking the costumes off the rack. "You wouldn't want the little ladies to have the same gown, would you?"

"No," replied Martha, distractedly. She had moved on to the boy's section. "I suppose we'd better have a few of these, as well." She indicated the knight costumes; in both mail and shining armor.

"Naturally," replied the ever enthusiastic Mr. Nowell as he handed off the dresses to an assistant. "What's the point of being a damsel if you can't be rescued by a handsome knight?" He took off a few of the boy's costumes before commenting, "Swords are sold separately, you know." He indicated the veritable armory on the opposite side of the aisle.

"Sure," replied Martha, gesturing for him to take some while she moved on.

"I'm not sure she's old enough," said a witch in the next row over. She and her husband were examining a magic wand. It wasn't the regular kind, of course, but was enchanted to write letters in thin air. The warning on the box, however, stated it was for children five and up.

"She's pretty careful, Jenny," replied the wizard next to her. They were apparently married and had a young daughter. "It says that you wouldn't have a problem unless you pointed it directly into your eyes. You know how good she is at following directions. Besides, she'll be five in April, anyway." He looked through the boxes to determine the available colors.

"Those are fairly safe and a lot of fun," interjected Martha, walking past them to pick up five or six assorted boxes for herself. "My nephew got one a few..." She had turned to look at the couple while making her unsolicited endorsement and had been hit with a sense of recognition.

The husband, a wizard by the name of Stanley DeWalt, smiled as he, too, recognized Martha, but couldn't place where. "I'm sorry," he said. "Have we met?"

Martha, however, suddenly realized where she had seen this man. He was one of the guards outside the room where she had been imprisoned. He was a Death Eater.

"Get away from me!" she screamed, turning and running straight into the wall forming the end of the row of toys. Feeling trapped, Martha screamed "Help! Help!" as she began beating on DeWalt's chest due to his inadvertently stepping into the middle of the aisle. "Help me!" Panicking a bit himself, Stanley grabbed Martha's arms and tried to restrain her.

Pop! Pop! Pop! Three red robed house-elves appeared next to Martha. Pop! Pop! Pop! Pop! Pop! Five more apparated behind the DeWalt's. Raising one hand, Stomper threw Stanley into the shelving as Millie grabbed Martha and returned them both immediately to the safety of Hogwarts. A moment later, both Stanley and Jenny were also gone.

Three O'clock, in the Northern Fortress

"I'm a little confused," admitted Hermione. She was talking with both Stanley and Jenny DeWalt, but clearly only questioning Stanley, for the moment. "The woman in the toy store claims that you're a Death Eater and that you attacked her. She was fighting for her life when help arrived and she was saved. You, on the other hand, claim that you and your wife were shopping for toys and the attack was initiated by this woman and that you'd barely begun to defend yourself before it was over and you woke up here." She gestured with her hands to indicate the current location of 'here'; namely the northern Fortress.

"That's right," answered Jenny for her husband. "We weren't doing anything to her and she just went crazy." She waved her hands frenetically over her head in the internationally recognized gesture for 'crazy'.

"I see," replied Hermione. "Now, we both know that at least part of her story is accurate. You are a Death Eater. That silver arm is sort of a give-a-way. It also means that you've been one long enough to have had the old Dark Mark."

Stanley didn't immediately respond; hoping, perhaps, that Jenny would continue her role as spokeswoman. When this didn't happen, he merely nodded his head and whispered, "That's right."

"So tell me," replied Hermione, "just how did Mar... This woman recognize you? I take it you remember her, as well." Although Martha, herself, had publically admitted working for Harry at his memorial service, Hermione wasn't going repeat that mistake.

"Yes," replied Stanley. "I had a few shifts as a guard. She was a prisoner for awhile."

"More than a prisoner," said Harry, finally taking over the interview. "She was... well, more than a prisoner. Tell me; did you know her as more than a prisoner? Tell the truth. I'll know if you're lying and I have a pretty short temper with that sort of thing."

"I was only a guard," blurted out Stanley, looking more at his wife than at Harry. "I'm married, you see, and... and... well, I was only a guard." He hung his head, trying his best not to look at anyone.

"Care to go on?" asked Hermione. She sensed that there was more to the story than he had been telling.

"Not really," replied Stanley. When everyone, including Jenny, gave him stern looks, he admitted, "I looked, once or twice. Maybe more than that." After a moment, he quickly added, "I meant I looked at the girls. Not while the others were... well. I didn't care to see or hear as much as I did, if it came to that. What I meant was that when no one was in there with them, I didn't mind having a good look. They were all pretty enough, you see, and..." He decided it would be best to just stop talking.

"I see," said Harry. He stood up and walked over to a table with a pitcher of assorted drinks. Pouring a glass of water, he quietly asked, "Well?"

From under an invisibility cloak, Luna whispered back, "He's not the nicest man in the world, Harry, but he hasn't been lying. He didn't do anything to Martha, but I sort of think he wanted to. That's about as good as I can get from over here."

"Thanks," replied Harry as he turned to return to his prisoners. Walking over and retaking his seat, he said, "Well, we're sort of busy today. I suppose we can resume this conversation tomorrow, sometime."

"But we can't stay here," replied Jenny, a much more concerned expression on her face than had already been displayed.

"I'm afraid that you won't..." began Hermione before being cut off.

"Our daughter, Alice, is back in the play room with the other children," explained Jenny. "Once that closes for the evening, she won't have anywhere to go. We didn't make arrangements with anyone since we'd expected to be back by then." She began to understand while explaining the situation that neither she, nor her husband were calling many of the shots, but hoped that some sort of understanding could be reached.

Harry and Hermione looked at each other before Hermione asked, "How old is your daughter?"

"Alice is four," replied Jenny, quickly. "She'll be five on the 9th of April." As it turned out, Alice shared a birthday with Stomper.

Hermione looked back at Harry and shrugged; wondering what to do. Harry, however, wasn't paying attention to her. He just studied the couple in front of him for about ten seconds before saying, "Millie."

"Yes, Harry Potter," replied Millie, who had been standing quietly off to the side.

"Please return Mr. and Mrs. DeWalt to Diagon Alley," ordered Harry.

"Yes, Harry Potter," replied Millie, summoning one of the other guards to assist her.

Harry rose from his chair. Hermione, a bit stunned by the outcome, nevertheless said nothing and joined her husband by the icon board.

Just before the elves took the stunned couple back to England, Harry said, "Happy Christmas."