A/N: Many thanks to my incredibly patient beta Haggridd; to Miss Cora, Fiat Incantatum, and all the Muses for putting up with my ramblings; and to Nadia Rose, with whom I share several fandoms and at least half a brain.
That Skeeter Woman
Two weeks after Rory and Jim had stopped speaking to each other, an owl swooped over the Gryffindor table during breakfast and dropped three letters, one in front of each of the Chang-Potters. No one recognized the owl, which should have been their first clue that something was amiss.
Their second, rather more obvious clue was the wax seal affixed to the back of the heavy, cream-colored envelopes. When Jim noticed it, he abandoned his porridge and frowned down the table at Lily, who was busy keeping Tim Jordan and Annika Weasley from stealing her letter. "It's from the Prophet," he called.
Both Tim and Annika stopped trying to snatch the letter, which gave Lily time to hold it at arm's length and peer at it. "It's that Skeeter woman again. I'd bet my broom on it."
"What do you mean 'again'?" Maureen asked as she extracted herself from Tony Rodriguez's lap. Further down the table, Rory and Brian both looked up from last-minute homework. They had obviously overheard from whence the letters came.
Jim did his best to ignore them. He just stuffed his letter into his bookbag and shrugged. "That Skeeter woman tries to interview us once or twice each year. This is just the first time she's sent an owl to us during school."
"Mum and Dad told us to ignore her," Cedric said as he passed his unopened letter over to Lily. She clutched both letters in one hand and gleefully used a few Severing Charms to shred them into confetti.
"What if they were important?" Ife asked. She looked quite disapproving, as if destroying the post was a high crime.
Jim shrugged. "They weren't. They never are."
"There's a first time for everything," Ife began, but before she could say anything else she was silenced by Rory, who cleared her throat and frowned. It wasn't the Malfoy Look, but it was close. Confronted with that glare, Ife slouched down and tried to hide behind an oblivious Hunter Thomas, who was busy exchanging doting glances with Sorcha Finnigan over at the Ravenclaw table.
Jim couldn't have cared less what Ife did. He was too busy watching Rory, who had bound her hair up in a loose ponytail, fastened with a long scarlet ribbon that just brushed the nape of her neck. That in itself wasn't unusual, since she had been trying to tame her hair for at least as long as the other Musketeers had known her, but for some reason it fascinated Jim. He wondered if Rory knew how nice she looked with a ribbon in her hair.
"Jim? Earth owling Jim!"
"Huh?" He looked up just in time to avoid a swat from Maureen's rolled-up issue of Quidditch Weekly. All thoughts of ribbons and Rory's hair flew out of his head. "What was that for?"
Maureen scowled at him. She was leaning all the way across the table and had put her hand squarely in the jam, but she didn't seem to notice. "I was asking if you wanted to go to Quidditch practice early today, but if you're too busy mooning over Rory -- "
"I wasn't mooning!" Jim squawked, and was immediately sorry he had raised his voice when everyone in the Great Hall turned to stare. When he saw that Rory was raising an eyebrow at him, he quickly returned his attention to Maureen. He could feel his cheeks getting very hot. "I wasn't mooning!" he repeated, this time in a whisper.
"And I'm Godric Gryffindor's long-lost Aunt Tilly." Maureen attempted to hit him with her magazine again. When he ducked again, she planted her other hand in the butter to catch her balance. "Are you coming to practice early or not?"
"I don't know," Jim muttered, stalling for time. He liked Quidditch, but he also knew from experience that practicing alone with Maureen was a trial to be avoided at all costs. She inevitably made him play Keeper while she rocketed the Quaffle at him, and Jim was always left feeling clumsy and inept -- not to mention bruised.
Maureen was undeterred. She pointed down the table to their captain, who was in the middle of a deep discussion with his older brother, Jason the pompous Head Boy. "Anderson's going to work us to death anyway. We might as well get some practice in without him breathing down our necks."
It was obvious that she wasn't going to drop the subject, so Jim sighed and nodded. "I guess I'll go."
If Maureen noticed his lack of enthusiasm, she gave no sign. "That's the spirit!" she crowed, and promptly slipped in the butter and landed in the fruit plate.
Rory was just as hassled as Gryffindor's hapless House team, although what she was studying had nothing to do with Quaffles and Snitches. Instead she had spent all of her free time in the library, pouring over modern history texts and the rosters Brian had acquired for her. While her fellow Musketeer plowed through books with titles like How Muggles Invented Magimechanics and Manipulating Space and Time for Fun and Profit, Rory attempted to hunt down any mention of her father and his family.
She hadn't found much she didn't already know. The Malfoys had once been a large, sprawling clan, but thanks to a stubborn refusal to marry anyone who couldn't trace their magical lineage back several hundred years, they had steadily dwindled. Of course, the upside of all this was that the surviving Malfoys got progressively richer as fewer and fewer relatives were left to split the wealth, and no one in her family had held a real job in over three hundred years. Being of an ambitious mindset, those relatives had taken it upon themselves to prune the family tree a little more than was strictly necessary. As a result, Rory was the last heiress to the only remaining Malfoy line. All this made her wonder how on Earth her grandfather was getting his Galleons, but it told her nothing about her father.
Not that there weren't tantalizing bits and pieces scattered here and there. Draco Malfoy had been a decent enough student, since the rosters listed him as a prefect, and he must have been a good Quidditch player if he had risen to team captain. But there was nothing about him in any of the history texts, even the more traditional sort that read less like books and more like the bragging rights of the pureblooded families. The only mention she had found of him was the tiny obituary squeezed into a corner of an old copy of The Daily Prophet, and that hadn't even listed his date of death, much less the exact circumstances.
Jim's father would know how he died, a little part of her whispered. She shoved the thought away before it could make her ill.
"No luck?" Brian asked when she slammed A Concise History of Modern Dark Wars shut and shoved it away. He had a giant roll of parchment beside him, filled with equations and diagrams she couldn't even begin to understand. Brian's course load was as large as he could make it without resorting to a Time Turner, and he was working on independent projects with a few professors as well. Some of the material he was studying made her head spin.
She pushed the giant parchment back to his side of the table and frowned at her clasped hands. "No," she said softly. "No luck."
"He has to be in there somewhere. You're just not looking in the right place." Brian propped his chin on his ink-stained hand and drummed his fingers on the table, earning a nasty look from Madam Pince. "Let's try this a different way," he said, sounding for all the world like his mother tutoring a first year. "What do you remember about your father?"
For a moment Rory considered throwing a book at him, but she decided against it. That would be a waste of good reading material. Besides, all four of the Musketeers were on permanent probation with Pince after one too many incidents last year, and she had no desire to get thrown out of the library in September. "You know I don't remember a lot," she hissed. "I was two years old when he died. I just remember that he was nice and sad."
Brian frowned. "Nothing else?"
Rory squeezed her eyes shut, trying to bully her brain into revealing some new piece of information. Nothing useful was forthcoming, so she just shrugged. "I remember two people arguing with my grandfather, and I think I remember someone singing."
"Singing? Malfoys sing?" Brian looked as if the concept pained him.
"Of course Malfoys don't sing," Rory muttered, batting away the very disturbing mental image of her grandparents doing a duet.
"Then who was it, if it wasn't your dad?"
"How should I know? I just remember a few lines from a song." Rory slumped in her chair, arms folded across her chest. "And don't get any funny ideas. I'm not singing it. I don't even remember most of the words."
Brian just narrowed his eyes, set his jaw, and acquired the expression that meant he had made up his mind and nothing short of a typhoon would drag him from his position. "You're only half Malfoy," he pointed out, "and I need to know what the song is. It might have an important clue in it. Just sing it quietly."
"You're insane. No."
"I'll sing if you don't. I'll do it loudly, too."
"That's blackmail." When he just kept glaring determinedly, Rory's stomach started to flip-flop. There were some fates worse than death. Hearing Brian mangle a tune was one of them. "You wouldn't."
Brian answered by humming a few notes that might, with some imagination, have been the first bars of "Bury My Heart At Good Old Zonko's." Hardened Dark wizards would have run for the hills.
"All right! All right! Stop it!" Rory threw up her hands in surrender. "I'll do it! Just don't sing!"
Brian didn't bother to look hurt. It was a well-known fact that he was completely tone-deaf. "Well?" he prompted.
"I can't believe I'm doing this." Rory hunched in her chair and threw a quick glance around the library, which thankfully was almost deserted. She dropped her voice to the barest whisper and forced out the fragment she remembered before her nerve could fail her.
"I think that it will be all right,
Yes the worst is over now,
The morning sun is shining
Like a red rubber ball."
She would have dived under the table after that, except Malfoys didn't get embarrassed. "There," she mumbled instead. "Are you happy?"
Clearly Brian wasn't. He just looked bewildered. "I've never heard that before."
"Wonderful. I did that for nothing." Rory cupped her hands so she could shield her face from the rest of the library. She was sure that she could feel someone staring at her now. "If you can get something useful out of that song, you deserve the Order of Merlin."
"Point taken." Brian ran his fingers through his messy hair. Ink caught on his bangs and clumped a few strands together, but he didn't seem to notice. "Well, don't give up yet. You'll find something if you keep looking. Chin up and all that." When Rory started to reach for her wand, ready to test a few choice hexes on him, he yelped and hid behind a giant tome. His brown eyes peered over the top of it. "Or maybe you should take a break?" he squeaked.
"And do what? I finished most of my homework and tomorrow's Saturday."
Brian lowered the tome slightly. "You could help me with Mum's surprise party. I don't want Darius and Albus to take over, but they're going to if we don't make some plans soon."
Rory had completely forgotten about the twentieth-anniversary party she and Brian were supposed to be planning for Professor Weasley, but she didn't say so. That would just hurt Brian's feelings. He was under the impression that his family had all but adopted her, and although she personally thought they just knew a charity case when they saw one, she wasn't about to disillusion him. She cared about him too much to do that.
"Fine," she muttered, and dug through her bookbag for a blank piece of parchment. Planning a party was the last thing she felt like doing, but it would hurt Brian if she told him that. Also, she was most certainly not letting Percy Weasley's two oldest sons plan anything of any kind. Darius and Albus Weasley were at least twice as annoying as their father, whom they strongly resembled. "Did you have any ideas?" she asked Brian as her hand finally closed around a stray scrap.
Her friend nodded and flourished a long, numbered list. "I learned a neat trick from my cousin Mol -- you know, Uncle Bill and Aunt Lora's oldest, the one with that big camera -- and I was thinking that if I can get a hold of some old photographs over the holiday, I could use a Projecting Charm to..." He trailed off, because Rory was no longer paying any attention to him. "What's the matter?"
Rory pushed the scrap of parchment across the table. It wasn't blank. She had accidentally grabbed the Modern Magical History assignment Claude had so painstakingly copied for her.
"This is due soon," Brian said reproachfully as he scanned the due date. He ignored Rory's frown and peered at the list instead. "Do you know any of these terms?"
"Of course I do." Rory attempted to snatch the scrap back, but it was too late, but he just absently held it out of her reach and kept reading it. "Give it back, Brian!"
He didn't seem to hear her. "Some of these are really easy. I don't know what Professor Delacour was thinking. Who wouldn't know about the Third Task and the Siege?" Brian sounded genuinely insulted. He also sounded intrigued, which was even worse. "I've never heard of some of these terms, though. You'd think they'd be in textbooks, wouldn't you?" he asked, his voice growing rushed as he got more and more excited. "I mean, obviously I've heard of Polyjuice Prolongation, Mum invented that, but what's Operation Prongs? That's a stupid name if you ask me -- and look! There's a spell in here!"
Rory blinked. "A spell?" she echoed.
"It's a strange one, too. I've never heard of Cognatus Commisceo, but it sounds like it's derived from...but that's Dark, it couldn't possibly be..." He trailed off, gaze locked on the scrap.
Rory had long since stopped being mad at Brian for stealing her homework, especially for a class in which the professor studiously pretended she didn't exist. Her friend looked worried -- not annoyed, worried. That didn't bode well at all. "It couldn't possibly be what?" she asked impatiently.
"I'm not sure." Brian sighed and glanced up at her as he handed the scrap back. "I've never seen a spell like that before, but I think part of it has something to do with purifying or altering blood." He shook his head. "It's Dark, Rory. Or it comes from Dark spells. I'm positive."
"Then why does Delacour want us to know what it is?"
Brian shrugged. "Because it's part of history, I guess. Even if it is Dark. It's like knowing about the Unforgivables." He pointed at the stack of modern history books Rory had been digging through. "See if you can find it in there."
"Don't give me orders," Rory growled, but she began flipping through Spells, Portents and Potions in Modern Magical History. She couldn't quite shake the feeling that someone besides Brian and Pince was watching her, and the sensation was making her jumpy. "Anyway, how do you know it's a Dark spell?"
"Because it sounds like one. I thought it was obvious."
"To you, maybe." Rory finished scanning the index and began to flip through the book. She doubted there was anything hidden in the extremely dull text, but it was worth a try. If truth be told, she didn't know of any Dark spells except for the three Unforgivables and she wouldn't know Dark components if they bit her. Not that she was surprised that Brian could pick out facets of different spells so easily. He was a very advanced student, bordering on genius in her admittedly biased opinion.
Brian just made a face and stared at his own textbook for a moment. A long, thoughtful silence passed before he spoke again. "Rory?"
"If that really is a weird Dark spell, how does Professor Delacour know about it?"
That hadn't even occurred to her. "Because lots of professors know about it?"
"No, they don't. And this doesn't make sense anyway. Most of the stuff in that assignment does, but that spell..." Brian wrinkled his nose, as if he had just smelled something unpleasant. "Who else is taking this course with you? Maybe they'll recognize that spell from somewhere."
"Ife's the only Gryffindor besides Jim and me, and I heard her complaining about how hard the assignment is just yesterday. Besides," she added firmly, "she's not a Musketeer."
Brian rolled his eyes. "You're not talking to the only other Musketeer in that course. You don't have a lot of choices, Rory."
He had a point. Rory drummed her fingers on one of Brian's books -- earning herself another baleful look from Pince -- and tried to puzzle her way around that particular problem. Talking to Jim would mean accepting his apology for whatever it was he thought he had done. She didn't want to do that. In her heart, Rory knew that she was the one who had been unreasonable, and at that moment she missed talking to Jim so much that it hurt. She couldn't admit that she had been wrong, though. Malfoys never did that.
"What about Peony?" Brian asked suddenly. "Is she in your class?"
Rory blinked. Asking Peony Longbottom hadn't even occurred to her. "I guess I could do that."
"Of course you can. She'll probably be at the Quidditch match tomorrow. You can talk to her then."
"I suppose." Rory closed her book and returned it to the stack. Brian was going into what the other Musketeers called his research mode, which meant he wouldn't leave the library until Pince forcibly evicted him. "I'm going to go to bed," she said as she gathered her bookbag and stood up.
When Brian nodded around a yawn, nose buried in a book, she slipped out of the library and began to make her way to Gryffindor Tower. She wasn't very tired, but Maureen would be waking everyone up far too early tomorrow and she needed some sleep before she faced the insane mass known as the Gryffindor Quidditch team.
She glanced over her shoulder in time to see Claude approaching her. He looked rather rumpled, as if he had been sleeping in a chair. He was also holding out a very familiar scrap of paper. "You left this behind," he said with a sheepish grin. "Brian didn't seem to notice and I didn't want you to lose it."
"Thank you," Rory said slowly, tucking the scrap into her pocket. "Were you in the library?"
Claude nodded. "Getting my Charms homework done. Berkoare will skin me alive if I don't finish my essay." He grinned again, a bit more confidently this time. "Have you done any of Delacour's assignment yet? I'm having trouble figuring out some stuff and I thought...you know, maybe we could work on it together."
"I was going to talk to Peony Longbottom," Rory said, shifting uneasily. She didn't doubt for a moment that Claude had been the one watching her in the library. The fact that he was making her so uncomfortable disturbed her. He was just another prefect, for Founders' sakes!
Far from deterring Claude, this bit of information just seemed to make his face light up. "That's perfect! The three of us can work together. We'll get the entire thing done in no time." He dipped into that goofy bow she had seen before -- the one that might, in another time and place, have been very refined. "I'll see you at the Quidditch match tomorrow. Good night!"
Rory stood alone in the corridor long after he had run off, trying and failing to make sense of her jumbled thoughts.
Saturday's Quidditch match -- the first of the year -- pitted Gryffindor against Slytherin. Although the teams were far too disparate for it to be a real contest, the traditional rivalry between the two Houses drew the entire school out to the stands to enjoy the show. If anything, the way the spectators were behaving was even more entertaining than the match itself. Before a single player had left the locker rooms, Professor Weasley had already hauled Lily, Tim and Annika off two hulking Slytherin fifth-years. The venomous looks Brian's mother had exchanged with Professor Snape were even better than the aborted fistfight. In the end a long-suffering Professor Sprout was forced to separate the two adults and to threaten them both with a visit to the Headmistress.
"Mum's sure in a bad mood," Brian muttered as he and Rory found seats near the Gryffindor goals, giving Professor Weasley a wide berth. "She's been like this for weeks. Dad sent me a letter and told me and my sisters to stay out of her way."
Rory nodded absently, glancing at Brian's little sisters, Casey and Wendy, to make sure that they weren't destroying anything. Her friend's parents owned a house in Hogsmeade, but they rarely spent any time there; Brian's father was always on the road with the Chudley Cannons, while his mother was busy with her Transfiguration classes. In the summer the entire family bounced around the country on scouting or research trips. Rory had seen Brian's parents in the same room exactly once, and had concluded that it was just as well that they were rarely in the same town, much less in the same building. They seemed to communicate by yelling at the top of their impressive lungs.
Privately, she suspected that she knew exactly what was bothering Brian's mother -- and many of the other professors, for that matter. The conversation she had overheard in the Astronomy Tower several weeks back was still preying on her mind, but she had no desire to discuss it with either Paula Diggory or Claude. The idea that Professor Weasley had known her when she was little was completely implausible. Powerful and respected though she was, Brian's mother was Muggleborn. Rory's lip curled. Her grandparents being the bigots they were, they would never have allowed her to spend any time in Professor Weasley's presence.
And there was the matter of the star chart...
"Brian?" she asked, knotting her hair up into a bun to keep it out of her face. "Do you know anything about astrology?"
"Some. Most of it's a load of rubbish." Brian had a roll of parchment and two books in his lap, apparently so he could get some work done before the match started.
Rory waved her hand impatiently, brushing aside her friend's tendency to dismiss anything he couldn't tinker with. "If the planets are positioned so they mean the same thing as they did at the end of the Third Task, how important is that?"
The answer was an immediate headshake. "It's not important. They're planets. They're bound to come back to the same position sooner or later. That's like saying something bad happens every time the sun sets."
"Don't tell that to the centaurs," Peony said as she squeezed in beside Brian. Claude was a half-step behind her, looking out of place among the Gryffindors. Most of the Slytherins were sitting at the other end of the pitch, so he was the only student by the Gryffindor goals who sported a green and silver scarf.
Brian just rolled his eyes. "The centaurs would do a waltz in the Great Hall if they thought the stars and planets were telling them to. My mum and dad don't like most of them, you know. Something about them trying to kill my mum once. Nasty people, centaurs." He stopped his rant long enough to scowl at Claude, who had decided to sit next to Rory.
"I thought the centaurs were always right," Peony said as she leaned to one side, allowing the trio of Lily, Tim and Annika to edge past her and fill the seats just below them. "That's what they're famous for, after all."
Lily looked over her shoulder and gave them all a despairing look. "We're getting ready to watch a Quidditch match and you're talking about centaurs?"
"And planets," Peony added before folding her hands in her lap and looking back at Brian. "My dad says centaurs are very good at figuring out what's going to happen, and in all the books I've read they do seem to know what's going on." She stopped long enough to frown at Lily, Tim and Annika, who were making disparaging remarks under their breath. "Well, they do," she finished sullenly.
Brian clutched his books in a way that made Rory lean away from him; he tended to use his prized possessions as weapons if he got frustrated with other people, and the books in his lap looked rather heavy. Fortunately he was glaring at Peony and not at her. "Don't be daft," he muttered. "The centaurs don't have a clue what's going on. They don't get stuff right half the time."
This seemed to be news to Peony -- and to Claude, who leaned across Rory to join the conversation. "They don't? Since when?"
Brian glared at him. "Since they said the stars told them that Jim's dad wouldn't be the one to defeat You-Know-Who."
Claude blinked, nonplussed. "That's insane. Of course Jim's dad defeated You-Know-Who. Everyone saw the body."
"And he testified for the Wizengamot under Veritaserum," Brian added. "My mum and dad told me. See? That just proves that stars can't always be trusted."
"Or that the centaurs are off their rockers," Claude added cheerfully.
Peony didn't look convinced at all. "Maybe the centaurs know something we don't. Wizards don't know everything."
"I know that they were wrong about You-Know-Who," Brian muttered, but before a full-fledged argument could start, the two Quidditch teams flew onto the pitch and the roar of the crowd drowned out any attempts at conversation.
The Gryffindor team flashed across the pitch with practiced ease, escorting Robert Anderson to the goals and then splitting into Beaters, Seeker and Chasers. Maureen did a casual barrel roll as she soared past. She didn't seem to be riding the broom so much as towing it along with her. From the stands, it looked as if she wasn't even bothering to steer.
"Showoff," Lily muttered as the Chasers began circling under Madam Hammond. Annika swatted her.
Once Hammond dropped the Quaffle into the crowd, any pretense of leisurely flight vanished. Rory could barely follow the Chasers flying up and down the pitch, deftly tossing the Quaffle to each other as they zipped around Bludgers, opponents, and their own teammates. The magically amplified voice of the announcer, a Slytherin named Margaret Chittock, boomed through the stands.
"And it's Li with the Quaffle! Harris! Pucey! Bole! Wood! Li! Wood again! Someone get the bloody Quaffle! Get the bloody Quaffle! Knock her off her -- "
Rory grinned as the familiar voice of the Headmistress joined Margaret's. It was a fine Hogwarts tradition to have the most biased commentators available, and half the fun was listening to McGonagall trying not to throw a fit. The other adults looked torn between disapproval and amusement -- with the usual exception of Old Biddy, who was laughing. Tessa Macnair, the Slytherin Seeker, seemed to be shouting the same kind of invective at the Gryffindor Chasers. Unsurprisingly, Jim was just grinning. For all his impressive Quidditch lineage, he had never taken the House rivalries very seriously and played the game because he genuinely liked it.
"40-30 Gryffin -- watch the Bludger Pucey! She dodged! Quaffle to Capper! Bole! Pucey! Ca -- somebody get Wood!"
Gryffindor's supporters erupted in cheers as Maureen burst out of nowhere and snatched the Quaffle in midflight, flipping upside-down and steering with her knees as she dodged around both Slytherin Beaters. The Quaffle flew to Joseph Li, who flung it past the Slytherin Keeper and did a celebratory loop-de-loop. Rory clapped politely and attempted to avoid Lily, who had started to jump up and down and was swearing inventively at the Slytherins.
"She's a little excited, isn't she?" Claude clapped his hands over his ears and scooted away from Lily, allowing Rory to put some distance between herself and her housemate as well. She was just in time, too. Apparently fed up with Lily's antics, Brian had pulled out his book and was attempting to thwap her with it. The ensuing scuffle almost knocked both of them into the hapless second-years sitting in front of them.
Rory paused to cheer when Maureen did an impressive feint, then glanced back at Claude. "This is good behavior for Lily."
"What's bad behavior?" Claude asked rather incredulously. A moment later he shook his head. "Never mind. I don't think I want to know."
"You're not scared of a fourth-year, are you?"
Claude grinned. "Of course I am. I'm an Avery. Cowardice runs in the family."
Rory stopped mid-cheer and frowned at him. She had heard plenty of Slytherins boast about their lineage, but this was something new. "That's nothing to be proud of."
Her answer was a shrug. "It keeps us alive, doesn't it?" He winced as Pandora Pucey took a Bludger in the arm, seemingly more concerned with the Quidditch match than his absurd heritage.
She couldn't let it drop so easily. "What do you mean, it keeps you alive? How can being a coward keep anyone alive?"
Claude's grin finally faded. He shifted and seemed to adjust his weight. At the same time he tilted his head to one side and leaned away from her, as if being in her presence troubled him. His expression changed ever so slightly, although she could not have said just how. The entire transformation only took a moment, but she was left facing someone who was almost the same, but not quite. This was a boy she could break if she chose to, who would obey her if she willed it, and who would never dream of crossing her or betraying her.
Then he moved again and the illusion was gone. He was just Claude, resting his chin on his hand as a smile tugged at the corner of his mouth. The beaten, hunched boy had vanished as if he had never existed -- which, of course, he never had.
"You're a very good actor," Rory finally managed to say.
Claude's smile widened. "You think so?"
She nodded. "Yes. You were very convincing." A thought occurred to her, and she leaned closer to peer at him. "Are you acting now?"
"I always act," he said, and flashed her a good-natured grin as he turned back to the Quidditch game. Rory frowned at him, but he didn't look back at her.
Claude's unsettling comments aside, the Quidditch game was quite enjoyable. Gryffindor walked away with a tidy victory, thanks in no small part to a last-minute dive by Jim. He clasped the Snitch tightly and beamed from ear to ear as he did a lap around the pitch with the rest of Gryffindor's team. Rory smiled as he flew by and clapped, forgetting for the moment that she was supposed to be annoyed with him. No matter how well he played, and no matter how many times he caught the Snitch, Jim always seemed surprised that people thought he had done a good job.
"You had questions about Delacour's assignment, right?" Peony tapped her shoulder, pulling her attention back to her friends in the stands. The cheerful Hufflepuff had already gathered up her scarf and cloak and was dodging Lily, who was making rather rude faces at the Slytherins sitting at the other end of the pitch.
Rory nodded. "That's right. Brian and I don't recognize half the terms."
"If Brian doesn't know, I doubt I will." Despite this, Peony dug through her pockets until she produced a neatly folded piece of parchment. "I'm going to be even less help than I thought," she said as she scanned the scribbled notes that ran all around the assignment. "If I didn't know any better, I'd think Delacour made most of these up."
"She probably did," Claude said, falling into step beside Rory. "Operation Prongs sounds like a bad Auror Adventures ripoff, if you ask me."
"No one asked you." A disgruntled-looking Brian squeezed in between Rory and Peony, giving Claude a very strange look. Rory had the distinct impression that her friend was trying to be protective, although why she couldn't imagine. Claude was a Slytherin, but he didn't strike her as a terribly dangerous one. On the contrary, he seemed rather -- well, friendly.
In any event, she would have to set Brian straight. Or possibly hit him repeatedly with his own books.
Claude didn't seem fazed by the hostility. "We can start with what we do know," he said. "The Third Task is when You-Know-Who got his body back and killed Cedric Diggory, and the Siege is when Hogwarts was surrounded for a couple months before Harry Potter saved the day."
"Or didn't save the day, as the case may be." Peony smiled at Brian, who muttered something impolite about centaurs and astrology. He took his disdain for divination rather personally.
"That, too," Claude added amiably. Then his face lit up, as if a brilliant idea had occurred to him. "I think we should start an Operation Prongs comic."
Brian gave him a withering look. "That's crazy," he said, only to add very conscientiously, "It would make a much better book."
Peony's face scrunched up. "Books are boring," she said. Then her eyes went very wide and she ducked behind Claude, who took the full brunt of Brian's tomes with a pained yelp. In moments a few other Hufflepuffs had leapt to their housemate's defense, and a good-natured but very spirited scuffle had broken out.
Rory fell back and glanced over at the pitch, where the Gryffindor team was only now making its way to the locker rooms. Her good mood vanished. She didn't believe what Brian and Peony had been speculating about, because it was ridiculous. Harry Potter had defeated You-Know-Who. Everyone knew that. At the end of May he and a few of his allies had disappeared into the Forbidden Forest while the rest of the students held off an army of Dark creatures. A few hours later it had all been over, or at least as over as it could be with Death Eaters and other Dark wizards running amok. Actually cleaning up everything had taken years, and plenty of people had died after the war had supposedly ended for good.
None of these things changed the core fact. Harry Potter had defeated You-Know-Who at the end of his seventh year -- and, Rory realized belatedly, no one knew how he had done it.
No one even knew if he had done it.
The sheer idiocy of that thought almost made her laugh. No one else had been powerful enough to defeat You-Know-Who, and he certainly wasn't still terrorizing England. Obviously Harry Potter had done something.
Her gaze locked on Jim, laughing and dodging Maureen's good-natured tackle, and a shiver went through her. He had family secrets, just like she did. The only difference between them was that at least she knew her secrets existed.
Monday morning dawned bright and cold. Thanks to Maureen's snoring, it also dawned much earlier than Rory would have liked. She had been up far too late Sunday night trying to finish her homework, and felt she was exercising considerable restraint in only throwing one of her shoes at her fellow Musketeer.
As it was, she walked into the Great Hall groggy and in a foul temper. It was promising to be an unpleasant day, so she felt she was absolutely justified in glaring at anyone who looked at her wrong. This included the owls delivering the morning post, and most especially the little barn owl who was unfortunate enough to drop its copy of the Daily Prophet in her eggs.
"Lovely." Cursing everything that had anything to do with owls, she picked the Prophet out of her breakfast with two fingers and gingerly turned it over in search of a name. Somehow the stupid bird had mistaken her for Fatima al-Mannai, a seventh-year Ravenclaw who looked nothing like Rory and was no doubt wondering where her newspaper had disappeared to. She would have it back sooner or later, as soon as Rory finished skimming the important articles. It never hurt to be informed, after all.
She scanned the front page, and then scanned it again in case she had read it wrong. Then, quietly and inventively, she started to swear.
Splashed across the top of the Daily Prophetwas an enormous headline: POTTER FAMILY SCANDAL!!! Below that, in smaller but no less garish print, it read, INTERNATIONAL HERO IN PATERNITY SHOCKER!!! There were a number of smaller headlines somehow connected to the Chang-Potters, a picture, and a long-winded note proclaiming that the editor was stunned and dismayed. He said so several times, with multiple exclamation points and bold print.
Rory didn't need to see who wrote the articles, but she did anyway. She was going to kill that Skeeter woman.
So were half of Gryffindor, by the sound of things. The other half were staring at Jim, Lily, and Cedric as if they had all sprouted wings. The three siblings were clustered around one newspaper, which Jim was reading from in a low, tightly controlled voice. Instinctively Rory hunted for the other two Musketeers. Maureen was on her feet, so angry that her face had turned beet-red, and Brian was slowly wadding someone's copy of the Prophet into a ball.
She looked back at Jim, who was clutching the newspaper tightly, his face pale and his mouth pressed into a bloodless line. She had never seen him this furious before, not even when the other Musketeers' antics got him in trouble. It made her stomach twist into a knot. There was something fundamentally wrong with Jim being like this. What seemed to be most important at the moment wasn't getting to the bottom of this or making that Skeeter woman pay for whatever lies she had cooked up; it was making Jim be the way he was supposed to be.
Although she was supposed to be mad at him, she reached out and rested her hand on his arm.
The feather-light touch seemed to jerk him back to reality. He lowered the newspaper and looked down at her, and the anger was gone. "Why do people do this to us?" he asked softly. "Dad saved everybody." He trailed off with a helpless headshake. His voice quavered a little, as if he was trying very hard not to cry.
"They're all bastards," Maureen muttered, and hugged Jim tightly. Since her own newspaper had long since been snatched up, Rory took the opportunity to pluck Jim's copy from his grasp and get a better look at the picture on the front page.
The boy fidgeting awkwardly on the front page was two or three years older than the Musketeers, with black hair and features who might, with a little squinting, have resembled Jim's father's. He certainly had the same lanky, long-legged build. There was an older, dark-skinned man standing next to him, looking just as unsettled as the boy. There was no resemblence between the two. The caption identified the boy as eighteen-year-old Hector Crawford and the man as his foster father, Hank.
"This is ridiculous," Rory muttered as she skimmed the articles. They were pieces of sensationalist rubbish, covering the supposed affair between Jim's father and Brian's long-dead Aunt Ginny in what she felt was unnecessarily lurid detail. By the time she was halfway through it, she was becoming aware of the fact that her hands were shaking, and that she was too angry to read further. She wasn't sure she could come up with a punishment horrible enough for Rita Skeeter.
She lowered the Prophet and glanced at the circle of students assembled around her. Most of them were people like the Weasleys and the Chang-Potters -- people she would expect to be as upset as she was about this. To her surprise, there were a few others. Peony was peering at Darius Weasley's copy of the newspaper, and Claude was standing near the Gryffindor table, watching the proceedings with a sort of intense interest. Rory didn't bother to shoo them away. There would be time for that later.
"I thought Mum taught that cow a lesson," Lily muttered. She had folded her arms across her chest and was glaring at the floor. Annika squeezed her shoulder and offered her a sympathetic smile.
Jim sighed. He didn't look as angry as Lily did. "We would know if we had an older brother. Dad would've told us."
Lily's eyes were narrowed to green slits. "He wouldn't have done that to Mum."
"Let's think about this rationally," Brian said. He elbowed Maureen out of the way and snatched the newspaper from Rory, absently hauling a quill and a bottle of ink out of his bookbag. Rory settled herself across from him and watched Maureen flank him. A piece of parchment had joined the quill and ink bottle on the table. He was already making notes and muttering as he worked. "All we need to do is collect enough information on this Hector person to prove that Skeeter woman wrong."
"What if we can't?" Peony asked. She stopped short when everyone turned and stared at her, but then took a deep breath and plowed on. "Think about it. Rita Skeeter must have come up with something fairly believable if the Prophet ran this article. My mum and dad said that the editor doesn't have the best history with her."
"So why print this if it's easy to disprove, huh?" Lily snarled at the newspaper. "I'm going to kill that stupid cow. I'm going to..." She trailed off, apparently unable to come up with a suitable punishment.
"I'm going to owl Dad," Cedric said before his sister could get any ideas.
Lily made a face at him. "He and Mum probably know already, but it's a good idea anyway. You should talk to your mum too, Brian."
Brian shook his head, glancing up at the professors. His mother was sitting rigidly in her chair, clutching her newspaper and saying something to the Headmistress. Rory could understand her friend's reluctance. The idea of even speaking to Professor Weasley when she was in that mood was too terrible to contemplate.
"Well, I'll talk to my parents," Annika said. "Grandma Molly must be having fits. She doesn't like anybody saying anything bad about Aunt Ginny."
"I think I'd rather face Mum than Grandma," Brian muttered. Then he looked up from his scribbled notes and glanced around the Great Hall. "Where did Jim go?"
Belatedly Rory tore her attention away from the growing crowd and hunted for Jim. He was nowhere to be found, of course. He must have slipped off when they were paying attention to Brian.
"I'll get him," she said quickly as she slipped over the bench. "Don't wait for us if we're late." When Brian and Maureen nodded, she snatched up her bag and hurried out of the Great Hall, trying to guess where Jim would have run off to. Trust him to disappear at a time like this. It wasn't as if anyone believed that ridiculous story.
Well, no one important, anyway. No one who mattered.
She certainly didn't.
Jim wasn't terribly imaginative. Rory found him in one of the squashy armchairs in the Gryffindor Common Room, staring at his Charms textbook in a way that suggested he wasn't really reading it. Without bothering to announce her presence, she marched over and snatched it right out from under his nose.
"Hey!" he protested, and then stopped when he saw who it was. His hand dropped and he sank back in the chair. "You didn't have to chase after me."
"Of course I did. I know you. You always run off by yourself to be an idiot." Rory tossed the Charms textbook onto a sofa and stood in front of Jim with her arms crossed, scowling down at him. "I need to talk to you."
"I kind of figured you would." He peered at the floor for a moment, worrying his lower lip as he always did when he was collecting his thoughts. "About what happened in Delacour's class -- "
"What about that? Do you have any sense of priorities at all? This is about that article!"
Jim looked up at her. "I really don't want to talk about that."
"I don't care what you want to talk about! Wanting isn't important here!"
"It was important for you."
That stopped her mid-rant. She stared at him, newest argument dying half-formed, and then looked away quickly. There was absolutely no way to refute that.
"I'm not a hypocrite," she said softly.
"I know." He meant it, because he was Jim and he couldn't lie or dissemble to save his life. "I just don't want to talk about it, Rory. Please?"
She stared at the fireplace, and then sighed and nodded. As she did, a great weight seemed to lift off her shoulders, and she found that she could look up at him again without feeling something twist inside her. It was as if they were back on equal footing, or maybe as if they hadn't fought at all.
"I missed talking to you," he said suddenly.
So did I, she thought. It remained unsaid, but she did allow herself a smile. "You're going to regret letting me talk to you. I'm going to get to the bottom of all this." Jim tilted his head to one side, all innocent concern. "I thought you were trying to find out about your mum and dad."
"They're dead. You're not. You're more important." She snatched his Charms textbook off the sofa and thrust it at him, feeling uncharacteristically flustered. It had become almost normal for her to act like this around Claude, but Jim should have been different.
He took the textbook without a word and tucked it into his bookbag. "Rory?"
She was already halfway to the portrait hole, but turned anyway. "What now?"
"Thanks," he said, and smiled at her.
Rory stared at him, hunted for something dismissive -- but all she managed was a quiet, "You're welcome." Then she rallied. "Would you move faster? We're going to be late and I am not going through another detention because some people drag their feet! And stop laughing!"
Jim didn't, of course. But that was the way it was supposed to be, and she didn't complain.