Author's Note: This was written for the LiveJournal HP Traditions fest, and as it is July, I can finally publish the story under my own name! So here it goes, and I hope all readers enjoy it... Implied smut and some elements of BDSM near the end, as a warning.
"You wanted to see me, Mad-Eye?"
"Yes, Nymphadora, come in –" the scarred Auror began, but at the sight of his protégé's face, he smiled and corrected himself. "I'm sorry; Tonks, please come in."
"Thank you," Tonks said with a grin herself. Almost immediately, the grin vanished, and she was all business. She knew, more than anyone, that Alastor Moody did not tolerate humour – at least in his section of the Auror Office. He'd taken on a job in an advisory position in the office, giving Scrimgeour assistance when necessary – and also making sure that no Death Eaters infiltrated the organization and could subsequently get information on the Order of the Phoenix.
"We've got a problem."
"What's new about that?" Tonks replied tiredly. "I've just been to the West County – you won't believe the damage there. It has to be giants, it just has to be. I don't know how Voldemort got them over here, but –"
"What's happening in the West County is not the issue, Tonks," Moody cut her off sternly, "nor is the murder of Emmeline Vance or the Brockdale bridge collapse. As of right now, they aren't our problem."
"Then what is?" Tonks asked, her confusion evident. "Now that Voldemort's in the open, we need to address at least one of the major problems."
"There are more problems than you're aware of, Tonks, and one of them surrounds our 'Chosen One', as the blasted Prophet is dubbing him."
Tonks' eyes narrowed, and her bubblegum-pink hair darkened slightly. "Is there a problem with Harry? Is he in danger?"
"When is there not? But to answer your question, he's in more danger now than he ever has been in before," Moody said with a grim expression. "The attack on the Department of Mysteries thwarted only part of Voldemort's plan. We need to take action to thwart other aspects."
"I didn't know Voldemort had more of a plan," Tonks spoke warily, almost as if she was suspicious about what was going through Moody's mind.
"He does. Even now, Potter is dying – through he doesn't know it yet. From what Dumbledore communicated to me, Potter's mental contact with Voldemort introduced what some have called a psychic poison into his system. It'll kill him if he doesn't do something to stop it."
"Why didn't Dumbledore tell Harry about this when he had a chance at the end of the year?" Tonks asked, real anger creeping into her voice. She liked Harry, despite everything, and she had felt his pain when Sirius had been killed. "He would have had the perfect opportunity."
"Dumbledore is making less sense to me now than he ever has," Moody growled, thumping his staff on the floor, "but that doesn't matter. Potter had to deal with Black's death and with some sort of prophecy between him and Voldemort – and I'll be damned if that prophecy was any good. Besides, Dumbledore didn't know himself about the psychic poison."
"Does Voldemort know?"
"To some degree," Moody said carefully – he knew he was walking a fine line here, "but that's not the point. The point is that we have to get rid of the poison. Now, I've been doing research in the Department of Mysteries – what's left of it – and I've found a few books that have given me some information in the right direction, but I'm going to need your help. Grief and pain only speed the poison – we need to bring some light back into Potter's life."
"And how do you suppose I help with that?" Tonks asked, her natural curiosity getting the better of her. "I mean, I can be funny at times, but I don't think that'll be enough."
Moody shook his head. "No, sheer humour won't do it. What Potter needs is a deep-set, intimate, ecstatic experience, one that will permanently drive away the poison. And it needs to be ritualized, in a specific manner."
Tonks' eyes went wide. "You can't mean –"
"As much as I don't like mentioning it, it needs to happen," Moody said heavily. "Potter must, to be frank, make love with a woman. And it must be mutual and consenting on both sides."
Tonks knew that she didn't have a lot of great wisdom at points, but immediately she saw what Moody was implying. "No."
"You don't even know what I'm asking yet."
"Oh, I know what you're going to ask, Alastor, and the answer is no," Tonks snarled. "I'm not going to be Harry's sex toy!"
Moody gave an exasperated sigh. "That's not what I was asking. Anyway, it would have to be consensual from both partners. Your term doesn't imply that."
"You can't be serious. Does the rest of the office know about this?"
"No, but the Order – at least the senior members – do. They know it would be your duty, Tonks, nothing more, nothing less."
"That still doesn't take away the problem," Tonks growled. "Harry's sixteen!"
"And if you behave in the right way, he will be completely within the age of consent," Moody growled back. "I need you for this, Nymphadora. I'm not suggesting Potter know that it's you – we can arrange disguises and the appropriate situations before he goes back to Hogwarts – but I'm suggesting that it should be you."
"And what reason did you give to Dumbledore to 'volunteer' me?" Tonks asked furiously.
"Actually, surprisingly, Dumbledore suggested it. Considering you are a Metamorphmagus and a fully trained Auror, he thought you'd likely have the wiles and guts to pull it off."
Tonks immediately consigned Dumbledore to the deepest hells in her mind. "Well, let me ask you this, Alastor: do I have a choice? Who'd do it if I backed out?"
Moody was silent, and Tonks swore despite herself. She didn't want to do this in the slightest. To her, every aspect of what Moody was asking just sounded wrong. She and Harry might be closer in age, but still…
Finally, after a few seconds, Tonks sighed. "How much time do I have?"
"For what? You need to be specific –"
"Damn it, Moody, don't be stupid!" Tonks snapped, her temper frayed. The ex-Auror raised his eyebrows, but Tonks didn't even try to reign in her temper. "How much time do I have before I have to sleep with Harry?"
"It's more than just sleeping."
Tonks threw the older Auror a baleful stare, one that Moody returned with full force. "You know what I mean, Mad-Eye. How much time?"
The ex-Auror pulled a musty tome from a pile on his desk and flipped it open. To Tonks, it seemed to emit an odour of ashes and sweet perfume, and she automatically suspected that it held all the information that would be crucial to breaking the psychic poison.
Moody flipped a few pages to a chart and scanned the columns with his finger. Tonks tried to read it, but the symbols were beyond her comprehension. Most looked Celtic – and a few looked like nothing that she had ever seen before.
"According to this chart, the ritual to break the poison can be done during the sabbat of Lughnasadh – in other words, August 1st. That is the earliest possible time we can break the poison. It won't kill him until some time during the Hogwarts year, but it will debilitate him, make him unstable and dangerous to be around. Psychic poisons do not affect the mind; they affect the soul."
Tonks did some quick mental calculations in his head. "That's not a lot of time, Mad-Eye. Just over two weeks. Do you honestly think I can pull this off? I can only assume that any sort of love potion is right out."
Tonks silently swore. So much for the easy way. "When will Harry get back into the wizarding world? It could be awkward if I approach Privet Drive, even in disguise."
Moody's eyebrows contracted. "Are you saying that you are going to wait until Dumbledore delivers him to the Burrow?"
Tonks shrugged. "It will give me time to prepare for this on my own."
"Dumbledore won't be happy to see little progress."
"Of course he won't, but right now I don't give a rat's ass about what he wants. This'll be a first time experience for both of us – did you realize that, Mad-Eye?"
Moody winced. That's uncharacteristic of him, Tonks thought, even as her mind already began contemplating the disguises she might use. Obviously somebody close to his age, he won't go for someone my age – at least not without some degree of coaxing…
Suddenly, almost like magic, an idea popped into her head, and she broke into an unexpected grin. It was if the entire plan had tumbled straight into her lap – and only a Metamorphmagus could pull it off, she thought.
"What? Why are you so happy all of a sudden?" Moody growled.
"Forget what I said before about waiting," Tonks said, getting to her feet. "I can make moves while he's at Privet Drive. He just needs to see them. Where are you planning to have this ritual to get the psychic poison out of him?"
"There's a grove close to the Burrow that we could use, if you're ready on time. Remember, Tonks, this has to be consensual from both sides. He needs to be completely willing, and so must you. And you can't seduce him by potions or charms – it has to be as natural as possible."
Tonks shook her head, her smile broadening every second. "Don't worry, Mad-Eye – I've got it all under control." And with that, she strode straight out of the ex-Auror's office.
Despite his own conditioning, Alastor Moody put his face in his hands. Why do I have such a bad feeling about this?
A knock resounded on the wooden door, and Harry Potter didn't move to respond.
"Boy! I want a word! Are you decent?" the deep voice of Uncle Vernon bellowed through the door.
"As much as I'll ever be," Harry muttered dully. A second later, the handle turned and the beefy man let himself into Harry's tiny room, his eyes surveying the general unkemptness of the surroundings. He frowned with disgust and disapproval, but Harry didn't care – like usual.
"What do you want now?" Harry asked, barely stifling a yawn. "I was trying to sleep." A lie, but a harmless one – it was the time that the Dursleys liked Harry the best.
Uncle Vernon scowled. "We – as in myself, my wife and my son, not you – are going out. Dudley needs to be registered for the Southern-England Heavy-Weight Championships. I still don't imagine why Petunia and I need to be there, but that's the way it is."
"Fine," Harry replied dully, turning away. "Are you sure this isn't the Suburban Lawn Competition again?"
"Quite," Uncle Vernon growled, remembering clearly the letter that had led to a prize-giving ceremony that had never existed. "And the same rules apply. I'm not going to lock the door, in case you need the bathroom – God only knows how long this registration could last. We'll be back before ten." And with that, he slammed the door shut.
Harry sighed and scratched the back of his neck idly. He could hear Uncle Vernon's car speed away, but a few seconds later, all was quiet. Just the way Harry liked it.
He had been through too much recently. The Department of Mysteries, losing Sirius, the Prophecy… he felt like a marked man. Even letters of consolation from Hagrid, Ron, Hermione, and Lupin could not make him feel any better. All he had done since returning to Privet Drive was stay in his room and lie on his bed, staring at the ceiling. He had only been back a week, and already his depression was growing on him, like the confounded mists that seemed to be swelling all across Surrey.
Even as Harry stared blankly upwards as he lay on the bed, his thoughts wandered. Neither can live while the other survives… so now any reasons I had to get rid of Voldemort earlier are magically set in stone… I don't stand a chance against him, though – Dumbledore barely survived the duel. How can I be the one who has the power to bring him down…
He blinked, his eyes suddenly watering. He squinted painfully and slid back his glasses.
The sunset, rarely seen in the bad weather, was sending red bolts of light directly onto Harry's face. With a disgruntled sigh, Harry got up to shut the blinds…
He froze as his vision scanned the Dursleys' impeccable garden. Above the bushes, somebody was sitting on the wooden fence. And not just anybody, from Harry's view. She had long, curly, strawberry-blonde hair and a pert nose. Harry was reminded very strongly of a tigress, lazily watching for prey.
Picking up his wand, he left his room. It could be a Death Eater trick, he thought, but even the possibility of action caused adrenaline to surge. He had been cooped up for too long, and he knew it.
He opened the side door and approached the girl. He knew she was a witch – how else could she get on top of the fence without damaging her outfit or getting slivers in her hands – but she looked like nobody that Harry had ever seen before. To his great surprise, she seemed about his age – and she was wearing Hogwarts robes, embossed with the Gryffindor crest. Yet Harry could see a lacy white blouse that was cut immoderately deep behind her robes, and he could only wonder how short her skirt was.
He winced suddenly. What if she noticed he was watching her? What was she doing here anyway? And why the hell was he feeling so… attracted to her?
In a single, sinuous motion, she turned towards Harry and smiled. "Am I interrupted something, Mr. Harry Potter?" Even as she casually spun her wand around a finger, she motioned for Harry to come closer.
Harry flushed with embarrassment. He had never been approached by a girl like this before! Typically he had heard about such advances happening in the fifth year, but he had spent more time trying to fight against Umbridge than seeking female attention. Even any experiences with Cho that he had had were lack-lustre compared to this.
He cleared his throat awkwardly. "Well, not really. I have to ask why you're sitting on my fence, though."
She laughed, and Harry thought he detected something familiar in that musical laugh. Who does she remind me of? he thought wildly – he knew he had heard that laugh before.
"I'm sitting on your fence," the girl said slowly, as she slid her wand into a robe pocket and cast her gaze upwards, "because it is comfortable. Do you know that the top is practically smooth?"
Harry frowned. "I can't see how – my Uncle Vernon isn't tall enough to sand the wood down up there, and I know that Dudley or I haven't done it. But that still doesn't really answer my questions."
"So far, I only heard one question."
Harry flushed scarlet as she bent closer, giving Harry a startling view of her exposed cleavage. Harry had to strain himself to keep his breathing moderate. "Who… who are you? And why are you even here?"
She leaned back again and tapped the side of the fence next to her. "Come up here and find out. There's a ladder on the side of the house." Harry turned automatically and saw the rusted iron ladder. In what seemed like no time at all, he had set it against the fence and hoisted himself next to the girl.
"See? Isn't that more comfortable?" she asked with a wide smile.
"I can't see why you want to sit on the top of a fence," Harry muttered, already feeling splinters dig into his old jeans. "Why don't you and I just come down by the garden bench?"
"I'm quite comfortable up here," the girl replied vapidly, staring straight upwards, not even meeting Harry's gaze. "And besides, a sunset is rare in these times, and this is the best place to see it."
"So you are a witch, then?" Harry guessed.
"Of course I am."
"Then why haven't I seen you at Hogwarts?" Harry asked, his eyes narrowing. "How do I know this isn't some Death Eater trick?"
The girl laughed openly at this, and by the time she had recovered, Harry was brick-red with indignation.
"Don't make fun of me for asking! If you are somehow connected to Voldemort, I need to know!"
"And even if I was, which I'm not, why would it matter?" the girl shot back. "If I somehow had some sort of connection to You-Know-Who, what would you do to me? Kill me? Torture me? Tie me up and stash me in your closet until you can call in the Order of the Phoenix?"
Harry turned away with a scowl. "I get the point. But since you obviously don't attend Hogwarts, where did you get the robes from?"
"Old friends," the girl replied mysteriously. "Old friends who used to be in Gryffindor. Unfortunately, I'm finding these stuffy robes rather uncomfortable. Would you mind any if I took them off?"
Harry's eyes went huge with shock. "I don't think the best place to be disrobing would be on top of a fence! The neighbours –"
"Probably wouldn't care, considering you already have a reputation as a delinquent. It only makes sense that you hold scandalous company." The girl winked at him. "Not that I'd do anything too naughty on the fence. We can save that for the bedroom."
Harry slid a few centimetres away from the girl on the fence. "I don't like your insinuations," he said firmly, "and I would prefer it if you left."
"Sorry, it's not in my time-table," the girl replied with a smirk. "Wouldn't you prefer it that I answered your questions?"
"You haven't bothered to earlier," Harry replied scathingly. "I gave up, and given your own sexual preferences, I didn't think your company would be anything I'd likely pursue."
Harry was expecting anger, or disdain, or even tears from the girl when he uttered those words, but to his shock, the girl laughed even harder. Harry, despite himself, rolled his eyes. Perfect – the next girl I meet after Cho who's even interested in me turns out to be a total lunatic. And I've been told I have phenomenally good luck.
"Harry, Harry, Harry," the girl finally said after she finished laughing, "I wouldn't do anything to you. I was just… testing you, if you will, to see how you responded to that sort of innuendo. It's a witch thing."
"I've never heard of it, and I'm sure I would have, from my friends," Harry replied warily. "Who are you, anyways?"
She chuckled. "I can't believe I forgot to give you my name. I'm Isabelle – Isabelle Vuneren. I am a witch, but I never attended Hogwarts."
"Why?" Harry asked, baffled. He couldn't imagine meeting a witch from England who hadn't attended Hogwarts.
She shrugged. "Family tradition – the Vunerens have all been personally tutored at home for eight centuries. We're one of the oldest wizarding families in England."
Harry sighed. "Perfect. Another stuck-up pureblood family. I've already had to deal with enough of those, thank you very much."
Isabelle looked offended. "What gave you the impression I was stuck-up?"
"You were personally tutored, you belong to one of the oldest wizarding families in England, and you act as if you own my fence." Harry crossed his arms over his chest. "And you've also been making sexual innuendos towards me ever since I arrived here, as if you were sure I would fall for you. Sorrry, Isabelle Vuneren, I'm not that easy to get."
"And that's one of the reasons why I found you!" Isabelle said triumphantly. "Most wizards your age I've met fall head-over-heels when I throw sexual comments at them. But not you… you're different."
"Yeah – I think with my brain, not with my hormones," Harry replied caustically. "So let me guess – you're also probably fabulously rich, have a private manor house, have acres of private gardens and ornamental fountains, and attend all the parties that the rest of the pureblood community throws periodically."
Isabelle's smile only grew. "My, you are good at guessing. You're all right except for the last part. The Vunerens are famously – some would say infamously – reclusive. We prefer to enjoy learning the lost secrets of magic in the comfort of our homes while the massive interest on our Gringotts accounts and funds piles up." She shrugged. "It's a win-win situation, if you will – we get powerful and wealthy at the same time."
Harry scowled. "Pretty proud of your family, aren't you?" He gestured down at Number 4, Privet Drive. "This is probably far off from what you're used to."
"It's not your home, Harry," Isabelle said quietly. "Your home is magic, and if the Potters weren't forced to go into hiding, you'd be living the same way."
"And probably just as arrogant to boot," Harry retorted with disgust. "No thanks, Miss Isabelle. You don't even know me – and don't waste your time pursuing me. It won't work."
She sighed. "I'm inclined to say that it's your loss, Harry, but you wouldn't understand that now. As long as you continue to wallow in your grief, headway won't be made here. Sorry to disturb your little sympathy act." And, with a slight sudden twist, she vanished with a pop.
Harry started for a second, and then sighed deeply. Now why had he been rude – it had been pointless! She was trying to help, and he had treated her like dirt.
Stuck-up witch like that wouldn't go for somebody with my destiny and plans, he thought darkly, the prophecy rising prominently to mind.
But you didn't have to behave like that, and she does have a point, the little voice in his mind that reminded him of Hermione said. You've got to pull yourself together. Sirius would never want you to behave like this.
There was a screech of wheels on pavement, and Harry looked down to see the very angry face of Vernon Dursley.
"What the hell are you doing on the fence?" Uncle Vernon roared.
Harry shrugged. "What, you didn't want me to sit up here? It's smooth and everything." He slid down easily. "In any case, it's getting dark. I'll be in my room, pretending I don't exist, just like you want me to." And with that, he walked away from his sputtering uncle and straight into the house.
"Well, how did it go?" Moody asked urgently as a strawberry-blonde girl shoved her way into Moody's office.
Isabelle shook out her strawberry blonde hair as it Metamorphosed back to bubble-gum pink. "It was, to be frank, a disaster. So much for sexual innuendo."
Moody snorted. "You aren't exactly subtle, Tonks."
"We had to try the blunt approach at some point – and don't forget, that it was your idea." Tonks sighed. "But there was some degree of success. There's a physical attraction there – don't even get me started into how awkward that felt – and I think he might be intrigued by me. And if he can look past his self-pity, he might be able to pull himself together. The seeds are there, at least."
"We'll need more than seeds, Tonks – we need growth."
Tonks, who was about to leave the office, turned back to her mentor. "I'm doing the best I can. Let's see you take my place. The ball's in Harry's court now. Let's see how he responds."
Dear Miss Vuneren,
I think I might owe you an apology. I treated you like dirt yesterday, and I don't even know you. You don't deserve that, and I hope you accept my sincerest apologies.
It's just… I feel so alone, so lost. Dumbledore – you do know who Albus Dumbledore is, I presume – told me something terrible before I left Hogwarts. I can't tell you what it really is, but coupled with the incident in the Department of Mysteries (which you HAD to have seen, considering it's been splashed all over the papers), things haven't just been the same. Sure, my friends try to offer me some degree of consolation, but considering that I can't tell them anything, it doesn't really help. But in my own way, I don't want to tell them what Dumbledore told me. They shouldn't have to bear that burden – and nor should you.
Looking back at this letter, it appears I'm rambling more than I should be. Excuse that. Hopefully you can forgive me for what happened earlier, and maybe… maybe we can see each other again. But even if we do, we shouldn't take this too fast; I don't exactly trust you – yet.
Apologies accepted. If anything, I feel like I'm the one who should owe YOU an apology. I was pushy – can't really deny that – and it really came off badly. It really isn't me, and I hope you can come to realize that.
It sounds like you carry a heavy burden. I wish I could you, I really do. I think you should tell your friends, though. If they are really true friends, they'll stay with you, no matter what Dumbledore told you. And if your friends were with you in the Ministry, they probably even know more than you'd expect!
And yes, even though I was tutored, I do know Albus Dumbledore. Great man – although sometimes I question his mental stability – and actually a personal friend of the family. He and I get along splendidly. He even helped us create this beautiful garden just outside our manor – I'd love to show you sometime if I get a chance.
In fact, consider yourself invited. How does the 21st sound?
I just arrived at the Burrow – the Weasley residence, but considering you're a pureblood, you probably already know that. Dumbledore came and escorted me there. It's a bit annoying that he's still so protective, but it's certainly an improvement over last summer. As a matter of fact, I got a chance to ask about you, and it was the queerest thing! He paused for a second, and then broke into this great big smile. When I asked why he looked so happy, he just turned to me and said, "You and Isabelle would be wonderful for each other."
THAT came as a bit of a shocker. Dumbledore think you and I would be 'good together'? Talk about the last thing that I expected from the Hogwarts Headmaster – relationship advice. Although I could probably use some counselling – my last romance, if you could call it that, didn't work out so well, to be blunt.
I took some of your advice, too, and with Dumbledore's permission, I did talk to Ron and Hermione. And you were right! I never would have expected it, but they're even willing to help me. Do you ever get that glowing feeling in your gut when you're wrong, but in the best possible way – a surprise that you'd never see coming? It felt like that. I owe you thanks for that.
I am curious to see what Dumbledore did to help you in your gardens. I'll have to check it over with the Weasleys, but it's a fair likelihood that I should be able to go. Maybe we can actually have a conversation in person, if you know what I mean.
Well, I don't mean to be frank, but I do tend to be right when it comes to relationships. Even despite extreme seclusion, the Vuneren family does tend to be rather socially perceptive. It's rather strange, and I can't really give a definite reason behind it, but I think the best way to explain it is that our arcane obsession channels over into the complexities of personal relationships. A friend of mine who used to be close to the family said that arcane secrets and relationships are nearly the same thing – complex, volatile, and exceptionally difficult to manage.
The estate isn't far from the Burrow – you could probably walk there if you want. Meet me two miles north-east of Ottery St. Catchpole on the twenty-first around four, by the large, split white boulder in a grove of pines.
Your last comment was perplexing, Harry. Speaking from somebody who HAS used sexual innuendo, I am intrigued. What are we planning to do? You did make the comment that we shouldn't move too fast in this relationship.
Interested and excited, but with love just the same,
Harry felt very nervous as he hiked towards the stand of pines. He knew that the Order was watching him circumspectly – after all, it could be a trap – but he was comforted by the fact that any observation would be from afar. Having spoken directly to Lupin and Moody, he knew that Tonks was assigned to guard him, albeit circumspectly. She wasn't to come out unless there were signs of trouble, and even then, she'd be striking from a position of surprise.
In Harry's opinion, he liked that Tonks was the one guarding him. She was also knowledgeable enough about relationships that she would keep her mouth shut if anything did develop between Isabelle and himself. He had only told Dumbledore about the peculiar witch, and after seeing his reaction, he thought that it would probably be better if he kept any information secret. The last thing I need now, he thought, is Hermione, Ron, or Ginny finding out that I met some rich pureblood teenage witch over the summer who is interested in me – and especially considering both of their attitudes; they'd likely have a problem with her.
There was a rustle amongst the nearby pines, and Harry froze. His wand was in his hand in a second – even though he wasn't technically allowed to use magic, he still carried it with him everywhere. He didn't want a repeat of what happened last year over the summer.
"Harry? Are you there? It's me, Isabelle," a shy whisper emerged from inside the tree branches. "You're late."
Harry automatically glanced down at his watch. "I am not. It's four o'clock right now, according to –"
"Yes, but you should realize that I always arrive for things ten minutes early." Isabelle replied sternly, a hint of faked disdain in her voice. Harry chuckled as he peered through the pine branches, trying to spot the girl.
"I can't see you. Are you hiding or invisible?"
"Neither. I used a Disillusionment Charm before I left the manor."
Harry sighed. "I need to learn how to cast that." He frowned, as a disturbing new thought occurred to him. "Hang on – since when are you allowed to cast spells outside of school? You're underage!"
Isabella's light laugh resounded through the trees. "Harry, Harry, the Vunerens are exempt from that regulation – and not just because of pureblood privilege. Considering all the magical experimentation that the family does, we need to be able to cast spells if something goes wrong."
"That doesn't sound fair," Harry muttered as he walked into the stand of pines. "So how can we get to these gardens, then?"
"Remember that rock I told you about?"
"Yes – the white boulder split down the middle. What about it?"
"It's really a magically concealed passageway to the gardens. It goes underground a little, but it is quite comfortable."
"So why don't you just Disillusion yourself so I can follow you?" Harry asked as his eyes scanning through the underbrush, trying to pinpoint what Isabelle's exact location was.
Isabelle's musical laugh drifted through the trees, and there was a faint rustling along with it. "I don't think that would be fun, Harry… no, not at all. Why don't you just follow the rustle?"
Harry's hand clenched on his wand. Tonks wouldn't be able to follow him well underground, and if it truly was a trap…
But all of a sudden, another voice in Harry's mind clicked in. This girl doesn't mean harm, Harry, and you know it. Trust her. Follow her. Who knows, you might find something worthwhile?
Harry smiled, despite himself, and headed through the deep-green pines. It seemed very… peaceful in the forest, and even despite the overcast skies, Harry didn't feel depressed or morose. A feeling of deep calm and peace filled him instead – as if he was approaching something on his own pace, and savouring the journey.
It seemed almost no time at all before the great white boulder came into sight. Harry was astounded at its size – it easily was three times his height, and three times as wide. A narrow black crack split the boulder exactly in two pieces.
The rustling sound that Harry had been following suddenly vanished. Harry froze, but then Isabelle's musical, playful voice emerged from what seemed to be inside the stone. "Come on, Harry, don't be shy!"
"You know, this would be much better if I could just see you," Harry grumbled, pacing around the boulder. Like he expected, there was no visible tunnel behind it. Magic – of course. He walked around in front of the boulder and stared closely at the crack. Hesitantly, he stretched out his hand to feel the edges of the rock.
He couldn't feel the sharp edges – indeed, as soon as his hand brushed the stone, a well-lit, stone-lined tunnel opened up, complete with oil lamps and rose petals on the floor. Harry, more perplexed than ever, stepped down into the passage.
"You got in – that's the first step," Isabelle's voice echoed in the narrow hallway. "And if anything, that's the hard part. Now just follow the hall to the gardens. I'll be waiting for you there."
With slow hesitant steps, Harry began to walk, his eyes sweeping the finely cut walls. He hadn't seen before, but there were portraits hanging on the walls. Finely painted ones, too. Almost as real as a wizard photograph…
He paused, and turned towards a large, gold-framed painting… or was it even a painting? There were three people in the picture, two men and a woman. The men were both wearing finely cut dress robes, while the woman was wearing a beautiful bridal gown. They looked familiar, somehow… Harry had seen their faces before…
His knees trembled as he saw their eyes. Hazel and glinting with merriment. Dark and gleaming with pride. Emerald-green and shining with happiness.
Harry felt tears fill his eyes as he placed his hand against the canvas. "Sirius… Dad… Mum…"
There was a hurried rustling coming down the passage, and Harry could feel a hand on his shoulder. He couldn't see it for his own tears, but he could hear Isabelle's voice.
"You know them, don't you?"
"Of course I do," Harry murmured, choking back a sob. "It's my parents and my godfather. How… how did you get this? When was this made?"
There was a faint sigh from Isabelle. "I don't know, Harry. I honestly don't know. Your parents' wedding was attended by many wizarding families, including my own. They must have had that picture made and then they donated it to us…"
Harry blinked back tears as he looked into Sirius' dark eyes. So bright, so light, so happy – an expression that Harry had rarely seen grace his godfather's face. "I wish I hadn't lost him… it's been nearly a month after he died, and seeing this…"
"I understand how you feel, Harry," Isabelle murmured softly, and Harry felt a soft, gloved hand slip into his. "Believe me, I do. Every family has lost members to You-Know-Who's dark forces, including the Vunerens. If you come down the passage, I'll show you our memorial."
Led by Isabelle, he took leaden steps through the passage, and in what seemed like no time, Harry had emerged into one of the most beautiful wizard gardens he had ever seen. A rough circle, lined with marble benches and cracked fountains spread before him, and surrounding it were plants like Harry had never seen before. The wild bushes of the Burrow or the greenhouses at Hogwarts couldn't compare to the majesty of the trees and hedges, or the sinuous beauty of the vines and flowers. Harry had never been spectacular at Herbology, but he knew beautiful gardening when he saw it.
In the very center of the circle was a single, sinuous, white marble pillar, so elegantly perfect that Harry knew it had to have been crafted by magic. On it were five names etched in flowing, magical script. Despite himself, Harry squinted – he couldn't read the writing at all. It almost looked like it was in another language.
"Isabelle, I can't read the names."
"I can… most of them, at least." The rustling grew close to him, and Harry felt Isabelle's warm hand leave his palm. "I've been working on deciphering the script – it's a code that only the Vunerens can understand, and only with years of training in magic. Would you like to take a closer look?"
Harry didn't move, only stared at the pillar from a distance. "You know, it's funny, really… I've never been to my parents' grave. Hell, I don't even know where to look. It's something that I've never really considered, and since we never recovered Sirius' body, I wish I could see their graves someday…"
Harry turned towards where he thought Isabelle might be – he heard her voice come from that general direction. "Pardon?"
"Your parents' graves. They're in Godric's Hollow. I honestly thought you knew, Harry. Nearly every other witch or wizard knows that your parents were buried there. They died there, and they were buried in the churchyard, with many other families torn apart. I'm surprised Dumbledore didn't ever tell you."
"Dumbledore doesn't tell me a lot of things, but I've gotten past that," Harry said softly, turning back to the pillar. "So, this is your garden. It's breathtaking, you know. I've never seen beauty quite like it."
"This was one that I helped make. My father was grieving for the loss of his brother, and I wanted to help him. So we made the monument here and we planted flowers. The trees we left standing – they're ancient, and infused with powerful magic, so we incorporated them into our design. The rest we did ourselves. What do you think?"
Harry, despite his own grief, allowed himself a small smile as he turned back towards her voice. "I think I'd like to tell you my opinion in person, where we can both see each other. Are you up to that?"
There was a rustling, and a whoosh that Harry knew was made by a wand, and, standing a few steps in front of him, he saw her.
She was not wearing Muggle garb or Hogwarts robes this time, but a dress like nothing Harry had ever seen before. A high, lace collar surrounded her lithe neck, leading down to a very tightly fitted bodice and well-corseted waist. The dress bulged slightly at the hips and expanded outwards, trailing with many skirts upon the ground, and Harry knew instantly where the rustling sound had come from. Her entire dress was in an emerald green, with white lace trim, and a white lacy veil hung in front of her face. Her strawberry-blonde curls had been twisted into an intricate knot behind her head, yet letting a few strands hang tantalizingly loose.
In Harry's mind, she looked nothing short of magnificent. Even despite the fact that she was wearing far more clothing than before, Harry felt his attraction grow.
She slowly took two steps towards him. "So what indeed is your opinion?" she asked shyly.
Harry smiled. "You know how I said a few minutes ago that I've never seen beauty like your garden?"
Isabelle drew up her veil as she moved closer. "Yes?"
"I think I was wrong," Harry said softly. "I think your beauty just eclipsed it." Her perfume filled his nostrils as she moved into his arms and…
He kissed her. In his mind, he couldn't believe he was doing this, and he was praying that Tonks couldn't see it. It felt so strange, but at the same time, it felt so right…
When they finally broke away, Isabelle looked up into his eyes and smiled. "Well, you've come a long way from when we sat on your fence, I'd say."
Harry laughed. "I guess I have. You put so much effort into getting ready, though – putting on that dress must have taken hours. I feel woefully underdressed." He gestured to his T-shirt and jeans. "This prince isn't ready for the princess any time soon."
Isabelle laughed again. "I'll take you as you are, Harry. Even in an old T-shirt and baggy jeans, you're still Harry Potter. And besides, it was no hassle at all. Costuming is a passion of mine – and considering how reclusive the family is, nobody cares enough if I wear these clothes all the time. Far better than some set of robes that look more like a garbage bag than anything else."
Harry raised a finger mockingly. "Don't mock the garbage bags."
"Or what? You'll stutter hopelessly at me or become Mr. Depressed and Morbid again?"
"Hey! I'm not depressed or morbid. And I don't stutter either."
"Sure, sure." Isabelle drew herself up with a feigned sniff. "Pureblood ladies are never to stutter or act without possessing appropriate grace in public, you know."
"Oh, so sitting on my fence had so much appropriate grace?"
"You're a naughty boy, Harry," Isabelle wagged a finger at him. "You should have greater respect for decorum and manners – if there's one good thing about pureblood society, it's that niceties and proper behaviour are enforced."
"So basically, you're telling me that it's a polite way to kill each other," Harry surmised, and Isabelle laughed.
"I think you need some persuasion. Why don't you come with me to the side cottage over there? I want to try a little experiment with you."
Harry shrugged. "Lead the way – I wouldn't mind seeing more of the property."
What Isabelle deemed a 'cottage' turned out to be a finely built white-washed house the size of Privet Drive. Harry entered slowly, watching as Isabelle turned on the oil lamps, bathing the house in light.
"Come on, Harry! In here!" Isabelle motioned. Harry, amazed at how fast she could move in her voluminous dress, followed her into a circular parlour, lined with tall, arched windows.
"And you call this a cottage," Harry remarked with a smirk.
Isabelle blushed. "Well, technically it is, compared to the manor. If anything, it's my little private residence when I want to get away from my parents and design new gowns." She gestured with her wand and a door popped over, revealing a plethora of colourful gowns and cloaks. "Those are all the costumes I've created – all the fashions since the 15th century. With magic and patience, I can usually create one every two days. Then I wear it for a while until I get bored and make another one. Do you like them?"
"I'm impressed how you can find the time," Harry admitted. "With private tutoring, you still have time to make dresses? There must be a thousand of them in there!"
"Just over a thousand, actually," Isabelle clarified with a deeper blush. "And I've burned the midnight oil many a time to finish. Now, care to see a few?"
Harry winced, and his hands shook slightly – whether from nervousness or exhilaration, he couldn't tell. "You don't have to bother getting ready all over again for me! You must have had maids and such to help and you really don't –"
Isabelle shook her head kindly, with a smile laced with mischief. "I think you might have misunderstood the point, Harry. Would you like to put one on?"
Harry's mouth fell open. "You mean, like a costume? I guess I could do that…"
"No, silly, I mean a dress," Isabelle replied warmly. When Harry saw she wasn't kidding, he backed up a step and shook his head wildly.
"I really don't think I'm that kind of guy, Isabelle –"
"What, are you not comfortable enough with your masculinity to wear a dress?" Isabelle asked, putting her hands on her corseted waist. "Besides," she added, her expression lightening, "with the right spells, nobody would even know it's you! You'd be a pretty young woman, and I could introduce you to my family, and nobody would ever know! Wouldn't that be some trick?"
Harry flushed scarlet. "Please tell me you're kidding me. You d-don't honestly want to do that, do you?"
Isabelle grinned. "Well, I'd have to admit, it would be a damned fine spectacle, if I ever did convince you to do something like that. And besides, nobody would ever know it was you."
"Yeah, well, how about we don't do that instead of doing it?" Harry remarked with a smile that he assured himself was winning and charming. Isabelle was not amused.
"Come here, Harry. I want you to try this. Do you need additional incentive?"
"Uh, I don't know if you have enough incentive to make me do something like this!" Harry replied, cocking an eyebrow. "If you do, I'd sure like to know."
"Very well, then," Isabelle said calmly, a grin spreading across her face. "I have a secret – one that centrally concerns you – and I will only divulge it if you agree to have this little costume party with me. If you don't, I'll carry this secret to the grave."
For a second, Harry's mind scattered. What could Isabelle possibly know –
His mind jumped instantly to the prophecy. Could she have figured it out, somehow? He hadn't let it slip – the only four people who knew the entire contents of the prophecy were Ron, Hermione, Dumbledore, and himself – but the Vunerens were masters of strange and extraordinary magic. Yet it didn't seem like a trap. What was Isabelle hiding that concerned him? What was the secret? Harry's curiosity, mostly stagnant after his godfather's death, took a steep upward turn. All he would have to do is play the little game with Isabelle and he would know. Surely it wouldn't be that bad, wearing a dress…
But deep inside, his gut churned at the very thought of himself in the same type of outfit that Isabelle was wearing. She might be good at disguise, he thought, but nobody's that good. I haven't seen any Polyjuice Potion, and that's the most fool-proof method besides Metamorphmagi that I've seen. Hell, I doubt even Tonks could pull off a deception that big…
"Harry," Isabelle said quietly, appearing at his side near-instantaneously, "it really doesn't matter to me what your choice is, but it will matter to you – or at least it should. If I tell you, there's a duty that goes along with the secret – you understand that, don't you?"
Harry's gut roiled. "How bad is it?" he whispered. "Your secret, I mean."
"It's important," she replied, "important enough that I shouldn't even know about it, and that I'll have to tell you on a later date, but in all fairness to you, it is a secret you deserve to know. But I need you to promise me that if you do learn the secret, you'll do your duty – and when I mean promise, I mean make a vow that's binding by magic. Similar to the Goblet of Fire – a binding magical contract."
Harry felt his skin crawl. "W-will I regret this duty? Will it force me to do something that I wouldn't do otherwise?"
Isabelle seemed to have difficulty answering this question, but finally she replied, "It really depends, Harry. I really can't say more until you promise me. If you want to know the secret, you have to wear the gown and visit Vuneren Manor tonight disguised, and I will tell you on a later date. If you don't, then the matter is closed and we won't speak anymore of it. What's your choice, Harry?"
Harry took several deep breaths, while Isabelle held her own breath in anticipation. Finally, he sighed. "I'm sorry, Isabelle. Even though your secret is driving me insane, I really just can't, uh, dress like a woman. It just wouldn't seem right. If anything, it would feel kind of creepy."
"How so?" Isabelle asked, her voice abruptly cold. Harry inwardly swore – there's no way I could have botched this one up!
"It's just that, well, I like you, and if I was dressed as a girl, we would look, well…" Harry searched for a word that could potentially be politically correct and non-offensive, but the search was halted by Isabelle throwing her arms around his neck.
"You like me? Really?" she asked in an excited voice.
"I wouldn't have kissed you otherwise," Harry replied, rolling his eyes.
"I talked him through phase two of the plan."
Moody reeled back in his seat – how the hell did she manage that? "How?" he could only ask.
"That's between me and Harry. In any case, make sure to have the ritual site ready by July 31st. We'll both be arriving there at around nine. Be prepared, Alastor." With that, the small mirror in his hand flickered and went dead.
Moody sighed and got up from his desk. He had a lot of work to do.
Harry stared out the window at the overgrown Weasley garden, lost in thought. The melancholy that he had felt back with the Dursleys seemed to have dissipated, but it still felt like a heavy weight rested on his soul. Over and over, the prophecy's words repeated themselves in his head, like the toll of a heavy iron bell. Even the sky outside – thickly overcast and dreary – seemed to mimic his mood.
"Harry?" There was a knock on his door, and Hermione hesitantly opened it, peering in through the crack. "Are you decent?"
"When am I ever, Hermione? It hasn't stopped you before," Harry replied, a slow grin growing across his face. "I clearly recall you letting yourself into our dormitories at earlier hours than usual."
Hermione flushed as she let herself into the room where Harry has sleeping – ironically, Ron's room. "It's just that I think we need to talk about some issues…"
Harry groaned. "For the last time, Hermione, I'm not going to go over Defense theory with you – you got an 'E' on your bloody O.W.L.! If we have to go over the spatial mechanics of the Reductor Curse one more time –"
"It's not that, Harry," Hermione interrupted with exasperation. "I want to talk about you and Cho."
Harry's mouth fell open. Hermione had obviously noticed the letters coming in for Harry – did she think that they were from Cho? "Trust me, Hermione, that relationship is over with."
"Then who is it? Dumbledore?"
Harry's eyes narrowed. "That's a pretty far jump from Cho, Hermione. Besides, I don't think he floats that way…"
Hermione flushed. "Nothing like that! Has he been giving more information about the Prophecy and Voldemort?"
"He's probably saving it for his private lessons at Hogwarts. The letters are from… somebody else."
Hermione smiled widely and a bit too knowingly for Harry's tastes. "So?" she asked, dragging out the word. "Who is this young lady?"
"What – who told – who said it was a lady?" Harry sputtered.
"Harry, please. I know better than anybody that you don't float that way either. So who is this girl? Is she a witch or Muggle?"
"Witch," Harry admitted. "Her name is Isabelle Vuneren, and I met her over the summer. She showed up at the Dursleys' place while they were out, and we, um, got to know each other. Since then we've been owling back and forth, and I went to go see her a few days ago."
"So that's who you were out with," Hermione mused. "Vuneren… I've heard that name before in Hogwarts: A History. Is she from a pureblood family?"
"So she says, but I haven't met any of them besides her," Harry admitted. "They don't float in the same circles – not like that, Hermione, so stop laughing – at least by my reckoning. They're friendly with Dumbledore, but I don't think they were in the same groups as the Potters or the Weasleys."
"So what do you think of this 'Isabelle?'" Hermione asked, sincerely curious.
Harry's face reddened. "I like her, if that's what you mean. And she likes me. Hell, she even asked me to visit her on my birthday at around nine at night." He brandished the parchment. "What do you think that implies?"
"It implies that you're already getting in over your head, Harry," Hermione remarked sternly. "Do you know what night your birthday represents? Old tradition labels that night as roughly corresponding with Lughnasadh – an ancient Celtic celebration that is loaded with potent magic. It's a ceremony of death and rebirth in some traditions, and in others it's a fertility rite, with all the implications that go along with that! How do you know that Isabelle isn't leading you straight into a trap?"
Harry shook his head adamantly. "Impossible. I know her, Hermione. There are things that she's told me that… well, she's not a Death Eater. She's not an enemy!"
"Just because she's not an enemy doesn't mean she has your best interests at heart, Harry," Hermione said gently. "I'm not telling you to go or not, but I am telling you to be careful. I don't want to see your heart broken like it was with Cho. And from the sounds of things, if Isabelle did break your heart, it could be worse."
Harry took a deep breath. "Look, Hermione, I appreciate your concern, but don't worry about me. Even if Isabelle is a little… odd…I think everything will be all right. If I learn any new magic related to whatever that festival was called, I'll be sure to tell you, okay?"
Hermione rolled her eyes in exasperation. "I don't want you to get hurt, Harry. I think you're rushing into this too fast."
Harry, despite himself, smirked. "According to everyone, I'm the Chosen One and am destined to take down Voldemort or die trying. There's no day like today, Hermione. No day like today."
The night was surprisingly warm, and already the ritual site was cleared and ready. The fires were stoked, the symbols were traced… everything was perfect.
"And not a moment too soon," Moody grumbled, wiping sweat and soot off his scarred face. "Tonks, I'm going to need your help with the central pit in a second… Tonks? Dear Merlin, Nymphadora, don't just stand there! Harry's going to be here any minute!"
Tonks didn't move. She simply stood, staring into the fire. She wasn't even in her 'costume' yet, but she didn't care. From one look at her, Moody knew that she was in low spirits. With a roll of his electric blue eye, he stumped up next to her.
"Look, Tonks, you signed up for this. You volunteered."
"I didn't have a choice, Alastor. That doesn't really count as 'volunteering.' And besides, if it wasn't me, who else would you bring in?" Tonks sighed and wiped soot away from her eyes. The grime was irritating her eyes, and they watered as she rubbed it away.
"The fact remains, Tonks, is that you did sign up for this. I thought everything was going swimmingly. Did something go wrong?"
"I just don't how I can put Harry through this," Tonks admitted. "I know I have to do it, but I don't like the means much. I don't want to hurt him."
Moody was silent for a few seconds as a new thought finally clicked in his mind. "So it's more than just the mission now, isn't it?"
"Too much, too fast, Alastor," Tonks murmured, staring straight into the fire. "I went in hoping that we could get this done quickly and quietly. But I got a glimpse into Harry's world, and I saw the same grief and darkness that's filling our lives. Voldemort is getting stronger and stronger, and even now the night is coming. Harry's been through hell, and it's not fair for us to take anything more from him that he doesn't want to give."
"You will still do the ritual, though?" Moody persisted. "We need to get the psychic poison out of his system before it kills him."
"I'm not sure, Alastor. I want his consent first."
"Consent doesn't fall into this!" Moody snarled. "You know the roles that Potter must play – if he is the one to take down Voldemort, we need him alive. I hate to say this, Nymphadora, but your 'feelings' don't really factor into this! It's our duty to ensure that he stays alive, and we need to follow that duty, no matter what it takes.
"It's funny, really," Moody continued, beginning to walk away from Tonks. "When you went into this, you were a different person. Have you actually developed deeper feelings for Potter? Or – by Merlin's beard – are you actually in love with Potter?"
"So what if I am?" Tonks asked, her temper flaring. "Harry's a good person, a smart and sensitive young man that I would love to be with. A month of prolonged contact only proved that to me. For once, I care about what's best for him as a person, not him as Dumbledore or the Ministry view him. I'll complete the ritual, but only with his consent. Otherwise…"
Moody shook his head silently. "You're making a big mistake, Tonks. Falling in love was never part of your contract. And loving Harry is dangerous too – any day a Death Eater could bring him down, and where would that leave you?"
"Not much worse than I am now, Alastor," Tonks shot back. "Now he's going to be coming soon, and I need to get ready for this whole farce. And you won't be watching us, Alastor," she added dangerously, drawing her wand. "We'll be fine, don't worry."
Moody sighed. "Against all my better judgment – and I have plenty of that – I'll leave you alone, but remember what I said: be careful." And with that, he Disapparated into the darkness, leaving Tonks alone by the fire.
It was a surprisingly bright evening as Harry walked towards the meeting site Isabelle had designated. It was not far – only a few miles into secluded woodland. He was wearing loose, comfortable robes – hopefully they would better match whatever gown Isabelle managed to pull out of her closet.
Outwardly, Harry felt excited. He didn't know what was going to happen, but he knew it was going to be good. There was something about Isabelle that seemed simply… magical, and he loved it. He loved her, despite all his better judgment.
But inwardly, he still felt despondent and depressed. The prophecy would not fade away either – and he knew that any involvement with Isabelle was bound to drag her into the mess.
Voldemort won't touch her, he thought savagely. None of his Death Eaters will either. If I have to beat all of them myself, they won't come near Isabelle.
It came almost suddenly, as he stepped into the clearing. He hadn't been paying much attention to where he was walking, but it did come as a shock when he saw the roaring fires, the glistening silver lines traced upon the ground, and the overgrown trees covered in pale ivy. It almost looked like a site for some sort of magical ritual.
In a second, Harry knew that Hermione had been right.
"Isabelle?" he called out hesitantly, drawing his wand. "Are you here?"
The same musical laugh came from behind one of the overgrown trees, although to Harry's ears, it sounded a bit forced. "Of course I'm here, Harry. You're late again, you know."
Harry sighed. "I'm here fifteen minutes early."
"Yes, but you of all people should know that on ritual days, I arrive a half-hour early. A paltry fifteen minutes just won't do." There was a rustling in the grass, and Harry felt a gloved hand slip into his own. Of course, he couldn't see it.
"Of course. You're starting to know me quite well, Harry."
"Not really," Harry grumbled. "I mean, I know some aspects of you, but the details seem a little sketchy at times. And you've got more secrets than I would prefer."
"As do you, Harry, but hopefully, we'll find a way to avoid such problems," Isabelle remarked. "Have you ever heard of Lughnasadh?"
"I have, but not much," Harry admitted, flushing slightly. "I was never very attentive in History of Magic, sorry."
"Well, you wouldn't have heard about this in your History class anyway – this is ritual magic, and it's banned at Hogwarts."
"Why?" Harry asked. "I mean, from what I've seen, it looks harmless." He gestured around the clearing. "It looks… beautiful."
"It is, and ritual magic is often used for healing purposes, but some… aspects… of it, Hogwarts would have a difficult time teaching and explaining."
Harry paused, his mind blazing. "Healing purposes? What for? Is that what this ritual is set for?"
"Not exactly. Lughnasadh is more of a rebirth ceremony, implying a descent into darkness and then a return to the light. It's a redemption ceremony. And I," Isabelle added, "would like you to participate."
Harry frowned. "Why, by Merlin's beard, would you want me to participate with you in a rebirth ceremony?"
"Harry, what you have to understand is that when you experienced contact with You-Know-Who in the Ministry, it was soul-to-soul contact. The purity of your soul connected with the ineffable blackness of his. Neither of you escaped unscarred, but you came out the worse of the bargain. You were infected with some of that darkness, which manifested itself as something called a psychic poison."
Harry felt a chill go down his spine. "Tell me you're kidding."
"Not in the slightest. Haven't you noticed how your entire world seemed to be gradually tainted with darkness, how you feel a weight on your soul?"
"But that's just the –" Harry cut himself off before he could reveal his secret. Damn, that was too close. "It's not any psychic poison, Isabelle."
"It is," Isabelle replied, an edge of fear in her voice, "and it was plain to Dumbledore the second he saw you. Through an intermediary, he told me everything. He told me about the possession. He told me about the psychic poison. And," she added, "he told me a way to get rid of it. Hence the ritual. But even before tonight, I've already begun the process of activating the healing magic."
Harry's eyes narrowed. "How? I never saw you cast any spells when you were with me?"
"Magic doesn't only come in spells, Harry, as you well know. It comes from here." Harry felt Isabelle's warm hand on his chest, and despite himself, he felt a thrill edge up his spine. "I began the process the first time we made eye contact. When I felt the spark of attraction form, I knew I still had a chance to save you. Then I continued the ritual. I led you through the stone of indifference to the garden. I confronted you with your loss when you saw the painting. I returned to you an image of beauty. You even retained your masculinity when I offered you a chance to change forms and become a woman."
"So I was supposed to refuse?" Harry asked, a sardonic tinge in his voice. "It did seem bizarre, that whole sequence. I knew something was strange in that whole scene – you wanted me to dress as a girl after I had kissed you. It made me wonder whether you were leading me on."
"It was intentional, Harry. I wanted to lead you on, offering you a secret. The secret is real, but I plan to reveal it tonight. It, if anything, is one of your most difficult trials left. But now the final trials are upon you, Harry. You must be willing to purge the poison from your soul and accept a spiritual rebirth. Otherwise…"
Harry felt the same chill go down his spine. "Or else what? What will the poison do to me?"
He heard Isabelle sigh as she moved closer, and Harry could feel the fabric of her gown as she pressed herself closer to him. "It will destroy you, Harry, from the inside out. It will corrupt you, and twist your soul and your sanity. Eventually, you will become as broken and evil as what You-Know-Who wanted you to be. And then you will die a painful death, and because your life will have been irreparably damaged, nobody will mourn at your passing. And we… we will lose each other."
Harry reached out and felt where Isabelle's shoulders should be. He held her and looked into her invisible face. "I will never lose you, Isabelle. And you won't lose me. I'll do this ritual and I'll get the poison out of my system. And then we can be together."
"Are you sure, Harry? Are you absolutely sure of what you're doing here? You can turn back at any time, but all our progress will be lost. Are you sure you want to do this?"
Harry nodded fiercely. "I won't lose your love, Isabelle, not to some filth that Voldemort left on me."
The Disillusionment Charm faded, and Isabelle appeared before him. She was dressed simply today, in a tightly fitted white gown lined with lace. Her hair was left free, cascading down her back.
"I'm glad to hear that," she whispered, as they kissed again, drinking in each others' love.
Moody stood deep in the shadows, watching as the two embraced. Despite himself, he felt a stab of agony in his heart. He didn't want to have to do this, but he had no choice.
Drawing his wand, he prepared himself to take aim at the appropriate time.
"Don't step on the silver lines," Isabelle warned, carefully stepping over the traced glyphs on the ground. A central altar had been erected next to the fire, and Harry's first test was getting to it.
"I wasn't planning on it," Harry muttered, carefully jumping from spot to spot, easily vaulting over the lines. Isabelle, despite herself, looked impressed as he reached the altar at the exact same time as she did.
"Place your left hand on the top of the altar," she instructed, as she placed her right hand on the cold white marble. She winced as the flames roared even higher at her touch.
Harry did not hesitate. He pressed his palm on the altar and closed his eyes for the prepared rush of flames.
There was no rush, and in a second, all the flames seemed to change. Instead of the natural red-orange colour, they turned a cool green shade, bathing the entire glade in emerald highlights. The silver lines seemed to rise out of the ground and become solid, shimmering walls of glistening silver, surrounding them.
Despite herself, Isabelle gasped. It was beautiful – and what's more, it proved that the first step of the ritual had worked. She took two deep breaths, steadying herself for what would come next.
"All right," she began, trying to keep the tremor from her voice, "you now need to take my left hand with your right and place them on the symbol on the center of the altar. Whatever you do, don't let go of my hand until I say. Understand?"
Harry nodded, carefully taking her hand. He could feel her sweaty palm – somehow she had shed the gloves she was wearing. Then, ever so slowly, he pressed their hands down on the symbol.
At once there were echoing screams of pain, and Harry was immediately reminded of that night in the graveyard, just over a year earlier. His own hand trembled as he saw black mist begin to rise from the symbols on the altar, forming a monstrous cylinder of darkness.
"What is it?" Harry whispered, his arms shaking with fear. He knew now that he was in magic that went far beyond the ken of his understanding.
"It's the poison," Isabelle replied quietly, her own hand shaking badly. "It's a trace of Voldemort's dark magic. It becomes the key to the ritual – you need to control it if you want to banish it."
Suddenly, without warning, the darkness stretched out a tendril, and, ever so slowly, touched Harry's chest. He wanted to pull himself away, but he remembered Isabelle's warning.
He felt the darkness touch him, and almost like he was sucking a drink out of a straw, blackness flowed into him. He screamed in pain as it flowed though every vein of his body, but he did not move his hand. He thought he would go mad with the pain – it felt as if every cell in his body was frozen and on fire at the same time, like white-hot knives were roiling in his soul…
Almost as sudden as it had began, the pain stopped. Harry's eyes refocused and he stared down at the altar. His knuckles were white, a stark contrast to the blackness he had absorbed. The flames had reignited, and now roared higher and higher, streaked with emerald fire.
"You can let go now," Isabelle said quietly. Harry did, and slowly stepped back away from the altar. He felt somehow… different, as if a ghastly part of his soul had broken away, had become detached.
"What now?" Harry asked, and he was disturbed how harsh and deep his voice sounded. What has happened to me?
Isabelle only pointed at the altar, where a long black coil of rope lay.
"You must sever the connection," she said simply, and then she did something unexpected – her hands moved to the clasp of her gown. With a simple twist, she unfastened it and let the dress fall on the grass – grass that appeared charred and black to Harry's eyes. But the grass attracted none of Harry's fleeting interest – Isabelle's garb now dominated it. She was wearing an ivory-coloured corset as before, but this one was laced even tighter, and Harry could see her breasts rise and fall as she struggled for breath. Her legs were covered by tall white stockings, tied enticingly to her lacy white knickers. White, high-heeled leather boots went up to her knees. Her shoulders were now bare, but Harry could see a fine platinum chain hung around her neck. Isabelle looked utterly breath-taking in the outfit, but for some bizarre reason that he couldn't really explain, Harry's attraction was somehow muted.
"Now, you've segregated the poison from your soul, but you must break its power entirely," Isabelle gasped, her hair falling across her face as she struggled for air. "It's had a taste of you, and it knows what must be done, even if you do not. It's affected me as well – it knows the pain that I must go through to break you from this curse."
"I understand," Harry said calmly, even though in the most rational sections of his mind, he didn't understand in the slightest. "What must be done?"
Isabelle gestured at the altar, where the rope lay in a coil. In a second, dark understanding flooded through Harry. He knew.
He pointed at the altar. "You know as well."
Isabelle looked at him, slow tears beginning to fall from his face, but mutely got up onto the altar. With terrifying efficiency – what the hell was wrong with him? - Harry picked up the rope and began tying Isabelle's wrists behind her back. With simple smooth motions that he knew couldn't be his, he cinched the knots tightly and, relentlessly crossing them over her chest, he began hogtying her.
Isabelle gasped with horrified pain, but Harry was deaf to any sound she made. He yanked the ropes tighter and tighter, making tears fall from her face. Finally, after five minutes of tying and knotting, Harry was finished. Isabelle was hogtied on the altar, her arms laced tightly behind her back to her legs bent backwards. Her head had been pulled forward in a vicious collar, and her hair hung over her tearful eyes.
But Harry, despite the particles in his soul aching to aid her, did not move. "What now?" he asked in the same expressionless voice.
Isabelle looked at him. "My magic is fading… you'll soon see the truth…" she gasped with a restrained sob. And she was right. Her hair was shortening and changing colour. Her face was changing to a heart-shaped face that he knew. In seconds, a person he knew very well laid on the altar, hogtied by Harry's relentless hand.
Nymphadora Tonks stared up at Harry, tears of pain and sorrow in her eyes.
Harry felt his hands tremble, and he nearly took a step back. All this time, he had been deceived – and yet it all seemed to make sense. Questions exploded into his mind, but he could only take several deep breaths, trying to steady his pounding heart. Finally, he asked, "How much of it was real?"
"Nearly all of it," Tonks whispered. "The psychic poison is real, and the ritual to get rid of it is all real too. The Vunerens are a real family – or I should say were a real family. Voldemort wiped them out in the first war. The old estate and cottages fell into disrepair, but Dumbledore and Moody helped me put them back together."
"You didn't answer my question," Harry interrupted calmly, yet with steel in his voice. "How much was real?"
Tonks looked up into Harry's green, but cold, eyes. "Harry… I couldn't have acted this role. The feelings were real. The words were real. The passion and l-love… they were real, Harry. I wasn't supposed to fall in love with you – it wasn't part of the mission – but it just h-happened. Moody warned me of the danger, but I didn't listen… and now it's come to this. There's two more trials left in the ritual." With a shift that brought to her a gasp of agony, Tonks gestured to a black-handled knife, similar to the one that Harry used for potions, that was on the altar.
In a second, Harry saw the fork in the road. He saw his choice. He could cut Tonks free, even despite the betrayal, or he could exact vengeance. It would be just, Harry thought, as he picked up the knife. She lied to me, messed with my feelings, stole my heart and broke it…
Did she really, Harry? a voice asked in Harry's mind. Did she really lie to you? Didn't you trust her beyond any doubt? You said she messed with your feelings – but aren't your feelings your own? Aren't they still your own? You said she stole your heart – didn't you give her your heart of your own free will? You could have shredded the letters. You could have ignored her presence. And did she really break your heart? Didn't you know, deep down inside, her true identity?
Harry thought for a second, tracing his memories back. He closed his eyes, remembering the sunset over Privet Drive. He remembered that familiar laugh – a laugh that he knew he had heard before. Tonks' laugh, musical and beautiful. He hadn't recognized it then, but he knew now.
What difference does the knowledge make? Isabelle Vuneren becomes Nymphadora Tonks… are they really so different? Are your feelings still the same?
Finally, after what seemed like an eternity, Harry lowered the knife. Moving with deliberate preciseness, he angled it towards Tonks' throat. She closed her tearful eyes, waiting for the strike…
A strike that did not come. Harry brought the knife down on the knot of the rope collar at Tonks' throat. With a twang of severed cord, the rope broke.
There was an agonized scream of pain, and the rope dissolved into blackened mist. Searing pain cut through Harry, and his knees buckled as pure ebon energy flowed out of his screaming mouth. It convulsed, shook, blazed with strained magic… and then, almost anti-climatically, it vanished, leaving a pristine white light behind.
Harry felt the coldness and harshness leave his soul. The corruption had been cleansed. He felt the knife drop from his hand, but he didn't care as he took Tonks into his arms, who was shaking and sobbing with relief.
"Tonks… shh… it's okay. It's over. We're safe. Nothing can hurt us now…"
"I'm so sorry, Harry," she whispered into his ear. "But it's not over yet. We need to do one more thing." She pointed with a trembling hand towards a large white object rimmed by silver glyphs. Harry hadn't noticed it, but he saw now that it was a bed, covered with pure white sheets.
"We need to… you know… to make sure the psychic poison doesn't come back," Tonks explained, wiping the tears from her face. "By… sharing… our love, it'll be banished with our combined magical powers. If Voldemort ever tries to get access to your mind again, he'll be thrown out on his nose-less face. Are you… comfortable with that, Harry? Are you ready? I… I know it would be your first time…"
"Tonks," Harry said softly, looking her in the eyes, "I know. This is something that I might be hesitant to do, but after everything you've done to help me, I want to make it up to you. And besides," he added with a hint of a grin, "I really can't deny my feelings this time. I love you, and you love me. Voldemort can't take that away from us, and if we have to make love to drive him away forever, then so be it."
"You… you want to?" Tonks asked, shocked. "I thought it would require more persuasion than that. And, you know, I'm not… well, in this form at least, I'm not as… sensual as Isabelle was."
Harry did laugh this time. "Tonks – Nymphadora – our love goes beyond that, and you know that. It's not just physical. And besides," he added, smiling widely, "you don't give yourself enough credit. You're a knockout on your own."
Tonks blushed as she put her hands to her chest. "If this damned corset weren't so bloody tight, I wouldn't mind wearing it so much, but for you…"
Harry laughed again as he picked up Tonks in his arms and carried her over the silver dust to the bed. It almost seemed to glow with a light of its own as he set her down on it. Peeling off his robes, Harry sat down next to Tonks and put his arms around her. She nuzzled against his bare chest, and Harry felt thrills go down his spine.
"You know Moody's going to try and Obliviate you after this. He doesn't want anyone else to know," Tonks whispered, her short hair rustling against Harry's chest and neck.
"Let him try. Strong feelings like this can't be blocked, and he should know that. You were right, though, when you said it would be my first time," Harry said with a wink. "So I… you know… might not be very good."
"Don't worry, Harry," Tonks replied with a wide smile as she returned the embrace with a long kiss. When they broke free, she added, "It's my first time too. I think we have a healthy case of beginner's luck."
"Then let's get started, then, so our luck doesn't run out," Harry murmured as he kissed Tonks again and began unlacing the back of her corset. She moaned with pleasure as Harry worked the laces loose, and when he finally peeled the garment away, she sighed with release.
"Thank you, Harry… I think I'll have to thank you for that sometime…"
"You really don't have to…"
"Oh, but I want to… let me give you a little taste of it…"
"Oh, Merlin. Nymphadora… that's spectacular… you're amazing…"
"And we haven't even gotten fully started yet…" Tonks settled next to Harry, who was already panting with pleasure.
"Well, what are we waiting for then?" he asked with a smile, and pulling a blanket back, they began to finish the ritual.
And unlike any other portion, there was no uncertainty involved.
The fires were out, and Moody walked slowly towards the bed, lined by silver powder. He set the wards so he could enter the ritual site, and in no time, he stood over the bed.
Both Harry and Tonks were asleep. Their arms were wrapped around each other, and expressions of peace and contentment were on their faces. Moody raised his wand. Two spells, and neither of them would remember what had happened. Harry would not remember that he had been with Nymphadora Tonks, who had masqueraded as Isabelle Vuneren. And Tonks would not remember that she had deceived Harry, only to find love for him in the end.
Moody looked down on the couple and took a steadying breath. He had no choice. It had to be done – if others found out, the consequences would be enormous…
He pointed his wand down and said the words. "Obliviate. Obliviate." No magic streaked from his wand, but Moody nodded with satisfaction. His work was done. He spun on his heel and Disapparated, certain that everything was perfect.
Once he was gone, Tonks' eyes flicked open, if only for a few seconds. "He's gone…"
"I know," Harry murmured sleepily. "Good job on the Dissipation Charms, though. Despite his efforts, this'll be a night we remember. Now," he shifted in his bed to face Tonks again, "where were we?"
She giggled, and they kissed again, under the silver gleam of runes, the white shine of the moon, and the twinkling of the stars.