The message came just before dawn, but Walden Macnair was alert and listening within seconds.
"The Dark Lord has a new task for you, Macnair," Nicholas Avery's face said from within the shimmering grey cloud that was hovering above the fire. Macnair knew it was some form of Floo enhancement, but even he was a bit surprised that the mountain cave the massive Death Eater had been granted could be reached.
"I'm sorry that we could not speak face-to-face –"
"Get to the point, Avery," Macnair growled. "I can recognize the Dark Lord's magic as well as anyone. You're just lucky that the giants aren't seeing it right now, I'm meeting with them first thing this morning."
"That meeting will have to be…postponed," Avery replied stiffly. "You are to head to Warsaw immediately and complete your task – the giants will have to wait."
Macnair could hardly believe his ears. "Are you insane, Avery? They plan to raid the caves today, and I promised I would use my magic to guide them to the Order's little sanctum –"
"There's no time for that," Avery replied curtly. "You are one of the most qualified Death Eaters in that region, and the only one with the skills to neutralize our target in the way the Dark Lord requires…"
A twisted smile spread across Macnair's face. "He wants him in pieces?"
"As soon as possible," Avery replied tersely, "and it is a 'her' you are to remove. She is taking a series of Portkeys back to London from Moscow, and she has an extended layover in Warsaw – one 'lengthened' by a 'gift' to the Polish Department of Magical Transportation. They'll be inclined to look the other way, but expect Order interference – rumor has it that Dumbledore has an agent in Romania he may activate."
"And how long am I to extend this, ah, layover?"
"Make sure she makes her next Portkey to Berlin, and make it look like a transportation accident," Avery ordered briskly. "Do whatever you'd like to Dumbledore's man – he's all yours if he interferes. But remember that you can't abandon your mission to the giants for long – the Dark Lord still requires them for his plans. Do you understand?"
"I need a name, Avery," Macnair said, his eyes gleaming in the smoky grey light, all thoughts of the giants nearly forgotten.
"An ambassador to Russia from England, and a Hogwarts school governor. Her name is Gertrude Marchbanks."
Macnair nodded and picked up his axe, carefully running his calloused finger down the edge of the blade, drawing a thin line of blood across the meticulously polished steel.
"Inform the Dark Lord that it will be done."
"Thank Merlin it's the weekend," Harry groaned as he let himself into the abandoned classroom where he and Tonks had chosen to work that day. "I didn't expect the O.W.L. workload to be this bad."
"N.E.W.T.s are worse, depend on it," Tonks muttered, leaning over the massive book spread across the table. The table was already covered with books, with pages of writing and calculations spread all over the place and sliding off the table. "A lot worse."
"It looks like you're making progress," Harry replied tentatively, pulling Consciousness Conjunctions out of his bag and placing it on the chair. "I mean, all those calculations have got to mean we're getting close –"
"Harry, my hair would be a much prettier colour if we were close," Tonks interrupted with an irritated glance up from the book.
"What, the sodden, puke colour doesn't work for you?"
"We're nowhere near close to ready to try simulamancy," Tonks replied with a frustrated groan as she pulled out another fresh piece of paper and scribbled something. "And cross-referencing from these books is a bloody nightmare. Merlin forbid any of these wizards of old giving any damned instructions on the proper way to proceed with this kind of magic…"
Harry winced. "That bad?"
"Even if we can find a usable corpse – one that's only a few days gone – the number of diagnostic spells required to be cast is staggering," Tonks snapped, tossing a crumpled piece of paper at Harry. "That's about half of them – and all of them are high level charms that even Flitwick would have problems with on his bad days!"
Harry's eyes widened as he unfolded the page. "There's about fifty spells here! And I've never heard of most of them…"
"And that doesn't even count the potions we need to prepare the body, enhance the connection, and make sure your consciousness doesn't fizzle halfway in between the ritual, 'cause neither of us want that." Tonks shuddered. "From the warnings in the notes, such a 'fizzling' would likely be explosive – very explosive."
"What kind of potions do we need?" Harry asked nervously. "Can we, I dunno, buy them or something? Through an owl order?"
"And how exactly do you think we'll be able to get them into the school?" Tonks replied with another frustrated groan as she scribbled another line down on the paper. "Umbridge is petitioning to have all mail searched going in and out of Hogwarts, and odds are she'll get it–"
"What?" Harry could hardly believe his ears. "She can't do that! How on earth did she justify it?"
Tonks snorted. "Harry, it's gotten to the point where Umbridge doesn't need to justify what she's doing. She can just go to Fudge and ask politely. Eventually, it's going to click for her that she's got virtually no accountability and when that happens… well, you're certainly screwed, let me tell you that. Nah, basically the justification she gave to Fudge was that she suspected that 'anti-government elements within the students may be communicating with dangerous outside elements.' A load of bullshit, but Fudge is getting more paranoid than you are, so he bought it." Setting down her quill, Tonks took a heavy swallow from her goblet, which was precariously placed on the edge of her chair. "And you know what the bad part of all this is?"
"Other than the fact that Umbridge is going to be reading my mail?" Harry asked furiously.
"More like the fact that she's going to be using H.A.I.T. to do it," Tonks said heavily. "As if we don't have enough to do! Hell, she's finding plenty of work for Larshall, and he's not even assigned to H.A.I.T.!"
"Well, that's not terrible," Harry said reasonably. "Hell, if you're doing the reading, it shouldn't be difficult to sneak some of the potions through!"
"No guarantee that it'll be me doing the investigating, though," Tonks replied, rubbing her eyes as she slumped back in her chair and took another drink. "It's too risky, Harry."
"We'll just have to sneak them up the secret passages, then," Harry replied doggedly. "I mean, there's at least a few that Umbridge doesn't know about. Hell, there's a few that only Fred, George, and I know about! If we can get the potions into Hogsmeade, then it shouldn't be difficult sneaking them into the school."
"Speaking of Hogsmeade, Dumbledore asked me to give you this," Tonks said suddenly, pulling a small note out of her robes and tossing it to Harry, who carefully unfolded it and began to read it carefully.
Suddenly, he stopped, and clenched his fist over the note. "Tonks, what have you been telling him?"
"I've been telling him nothing," Tonks replied defensively as she raised her eyebrows in surprise. "Honestly, you think I'd be telling Dumbledore this sort of thing?"
"It's like he knows exactly what I'm doing with the school governors!" Harry growled. "Down to the ones that we need!"
"Harry, you've got to remember that a victory for him is a victory for us too," Tonks reasoned tiredly. "And you should almost be thanking him, really. Setting up that meeting with Moon is a godsend, because I wasn't even sure if I would be able to contact him. And the fact that he was able to get Marchbanks travelling back this early is phenomenal. Cassane will be the real one to convince, and believe me, you'll need his support if you want to get the counter-measure through."
"What counter-measure?" Harry asked suspiciously. "Tonks, I haven't heard about this…"
"It's okay, it's okay, it was Dumbledore's idea," Tonks hastily reassured him. "Basically, this decision to have the H.A.I.T. members interrogate you on Hogwarts property was written up in a measure, to be debated and argued by the school governors. Everything was formalized, primarily because it sets precedent – and because Dumbledore knew it would slow things down."
"Go on," Harry said, although the skepticism was still in his voice.
"Well, Dumbledore proposed to Doge that he should present a counter-measure to yours with certain conditions to limit the interrogation. Don't forget, we aren't blocking the interrogation, but we're trying to make it less public – and more under the control of responsible parties."
"Right. Well, a formalized counter-measure would have much more strength than just an informal debate, and more governors would be inclined to agree with it, thus the counter-measure. Follow me so far?"
"I think so," Harry muttered as he scanned the paper. He looked up a few seconds later, panic spreading across his face. "Of course, you didn't tell me that the meeting was in a few hours!"
"We've got time, don't worry," Tonks replied with a sigh. "Dumbledore gave you a pretty big window there, primarily because he used the excuse of you 'looking for legal counsel' as one to get you out of the school."
"And Umbridge agreed to that?" Harry asked incredulously.
"Not easily, but she consented as long as a member of H.A.I.T. comes with you." Tonks finally smiled. "Guess who that is – and the first two guesses don't count."
"Yep. The good thing is that Umbridge doesn't suspect any connection between us yet, so we still have some time."
"Not enough," Harry muttered, looking at some of the papers strewn around the table. "Not nearly enough, considering the date when the school governors are meeting."
"We've got two weeks, Harry – and that's a long time, considering the governors and their positions," Tonks replied bracingly, scribbling down another line on the paper before sliding it aside and returning to the book.
"Enough to get the simulamancy working?" Harry asked, swallowing hard.
"If I go without sleep, then we might have time," Tonks grumbled, "and if you manage to stay caught up on your reading and don't end up in detention or something. This experiment's already going to be dangerous enough, and you're going to need to be sharp on your end." She yawned heavily and slumped back in her chair again. "It's not like I could sleep much even if I want to, though."
"Not sleeping well?"
"Well, I'm not the only one," Tonks said, peering closely at Harry's face. "You look terrible."
"Haven't slept," Harry muttered. "And when I have, I've been having dreams that don't make the slightest bit of sense. Don't think I'm the only one, though – Malfoy looks worse than Death, and he's getting worse every day."
"You ran into him on the way here, didn't you?"
"Tried to give me a detention for being up early in the morning. I called him a tosser, told him I don't bother going to Umbridge's classes, much less her detentions, so why the hell would I go to any detention Malfoy assigned?"
Tonks gave a very unladylike grunt as she turned back to her pages. "It's going to be tight though, Harry. We won't have a lot of time – and the tiny little fact that we're still missing our key ingredient makes things even worse. Harry, we're going to need a corpse, and we're going to need it fast."
"Don't you think I don't know that?" Harry snapped, rubbing his head as he sat next to Tonks. "But I honestly don't know how we can get one. I mean, it's not like we can just get one from the Ministry –"
"Yeah, have fun going through that paperwork," Tonks said with a snort. "Hell, I've seen it, when the Unspeakables request deceased victims or volunteers for the Department of Mysteries. Ugly stuff."
"But, of course, we can always get around the paperwork," Harry said, giving Tonks a penetrating gaze. "You've done it before."
Tonks steadily met his gaze. "If you're referring to the motorbike, I didn't get it out of evidence storage, if that's what you mean."
"So where did you get it?"
"Knockturn Alley," Tonks replied with a shrug. "The Aurors gave it back to Hagrid after they had finished examining it, and he sold it to a black-market dealer down there. There hadn't been any buyers for it, but I managed to take it off his hands." She winced. "And believe me, it wasn't cheap."
"You didn't buy it as yourself, did you?" Harry asked, aghast. "They could track you through the dealer!"
"Don't worry, I Obliviated the dealer after I took the bike, and given how Knockturn Alley works, I doubt the Ministry will ever find him." She sighed contentedly. "It is fun sending Sanders on a wild goose chase, though, trying to find that bike. He'll never be able to find it."
"And why is that?"
"Because it's sitting back at Grimmauld Place with Sirius," Tonks finished with another swig from her goblet. "The dealer put a Reversible Shrinking Charm on it, for easy storage – only practical, considering how those people operate – so I just stuck it in my pocket, went up to Dumbledore's office, and tossed it through his fireplace with a quick confirmation to Sirius." She smiled. "Damn, I'm good. Not gonna be able to do it again, what with Umbridge watching the Floo Network –"'
Tonks sighed. "You're not supposed to know about that, but Umbridge has friends in the Department of Magical Transportation – a lot of them. She's got Katherine Edgecombe watching the fireplaces here – everyone's except her own, of course."
"I've heard that name before," Harry murmured, thinking hard. "Where have I heard it –"
"Her daughter's a year above you," Tonks replied, rubbing her eyes again. "Ravenclaw."
"With Cho Chang?"
"Your crush?" Tonks asked wryly as Harry went red. "Don't worry, Sirius told me all about that."
"I didn't know he knew," Harry asked suspiciously. "I don't remember telling him –"
"Probably heard it from Ron or the twins," Tonks said with a shrug. "He was interrogating them about girls a few days after they moved into Grimmauld Place – it was actually pretty entertaining to watch George try to explain to his irate mother what he did with one Alicia Spinnet at the top of the Astronomy Tower."
Harry groaned. "I don't even want to know."
"Figures. So what's the deal with you and Cho?" Tonks asked with a suggestive wink.
"Stop that, would you? She's not my girlfriend… and given the way things are, she probably wouldn't be good for me," Harry replied with a frustrated breath. "I mean, it's not like I can confide in her, particularly with everything that's going on. Hell, I've talked more to you than I have to her."
"Harry," Tonks asked in a sultry tone, "are you asking me out now? I'm flattered –"
Harry put his face in his hands. "I should just learn to stop talking while I'm ahead."
Tonks chuckled. "All right, change of subject then: how are we going to get a corpse? The Ministry's out, and I'm guessing you probably don't want to be exhuming bodies from the Hogsmeade graveyard –"
"That's… that's just wrong," Harry said, disgust spreading across his face. "I'm not going to go dig up dead bodies."
"It would have been the perfect midnight date –"
"Oh, just fuck off."
Harry glared at Tonks, who was smirking again. "That was revenge for my line in the library, wasn't it?"
"What, did you actually think you were going to get a free one off on me?" Tonks asked mockingly. "Anyways, since you ruled out grave-robbing, our only real options are getting a fresh body out of St. Mungo's – an option I don't really like, considering the likely condition of those corpses would make diagnostic spells a nightmare – or killing somebody."
Harry went pale. "I'm not… Tonks, we can't just kill somebody! If we got caught –"
"You knew when we started this that finding a body would be the main hitch in the plan," Tonks said grimly. "You knew this question would eventually come up."
"But couldn't we just transfigure something nonliving and organic into a human corpse?" Harry asked desperately. "I mean, the theory supports it!"
"Harry, that sort of transfiguration is unbelievably complicated," Tonks said with frustration. "Even if I could do it – and I doubt I could – the number of diagnostic spells would increase exponentially."
"You keep going on about these spells, Tonks," Harry said impatiently. "Do we really need all of them?"
Tonks gave him an incredulous look. "Harry, you don't want a major organ to fail when your consciousness takes root in the body, or your skin to slough off. You need these diagnostic spells; otherwise you could suffer some serious problems here! I mean, from the few accounts of the wizards that actually tried simulamancy, they had some pretty nasty problems with it! Take a look at this – one wizard skipped an internal organs diagnostic, and then died because his stomach lining dissolved."
Harry swallowed hard. "Didn't need that image. But aren't there… I don't know, better diagnostic spells? More exact, more precise, more likely not to blow up in our faces?"
"That would require more research than we have time for," Tonks replied heavily. "I'll try and keep things as concise as we can, but we'll need to find this body soon – otherwise we'll have to rule simulamancy out for the time being, and if we want to have any hope of convincing Cassane to side with us – and we need him, considering the power and authority he has right now – we'll need this magic."
Harry didn't say anything as he looked at the heap of papers in front of him.
"We could pray for the Death Eaters to be more active, but even I doubt that's going to help," Tonks continued. "Odds are they'd clean up after their mess, particularly considering that they're still in hiding."
"I don't want to have to kill, Tonks, there's enough blood on my hands already," Harry whispered.
"Where's this coming from?" Tonks demanded, her eyebrows shooting up. "You didn't have a problem before –"
"This is different, Tonks!" Harry said with frustration. "I wasn't directly responsible for those deaths – they chose to chase me. But this… this is at Voldemort's level."
Tonks blew out a breath with frustration. "Harry, let me ask you a little question here: why didn't you run?"
"Why did you choose to come back to Hogwarts in the first place? You had to have known this mess was going to happen? Why didn't you… hell, I don't know, run for it or hide out in Grimmauld Place until this all blew over?"
"You're kidding, right?" Harry asked incredulously. "I'm not going to run from this! Hell, I'm innocent – well, as innocent as I can reasonably be considered. And I'm not going to sacrifice my life to live in fear of wild accusations! And with Dumbledore here, this is one of the few places I know that Voldemort won't be able to penetrate."
"Those accusations aren't exactly wild, and you're in more danger now than ever," Tonks said quietly. "Harry, I'm not disagreeing with what you're doing – close proximity to your greatest allies isn't something to be discarded lightly – but if you can't handle simulamancy, you've got to consider your other options. And you don't have many of those."
"So I have to run…"
"Or you have to kill," Tonks finished. "We probably won't have any choice with this, Harry, and if the opportunity presents itself, we can't back down. So, what's it going to be?"
Harry was silent for a long few seconds before grimacing. "We'll burn that bridge when we come to it. We still have some time. And if all else fails…" A slow, cold grin crept onto Harry's face. "Well, I can always kill Snape."
"Probably better not to do that just yet," Tonks said nervously, a little unnerved by the wistful look on Harry's face and by the thought of what would happen if Dumbledore found out. "And before you even ask, you can't kill Malfoy either – the body you're possessing needs to be a minimum of five years older than you and one the Metamorphmagus is compatible with. That's one of the main limitations to simulamancy, as a matter of fact."
"Might explain why Voldemort never tried it," Harry muttered. "He wouldn't want to possess a body potentially more decrepit than his own."
"And as far as I know, he never had the services of a Metamorphmagus," Tonks finished. "You're lucky I'm here."
"That's true," Harry said darkly as he turned back to Dumbledore's note. "So you wouldn't happen to be able to explain why exactly Dumbledore's not coming with us?"
"He felt that you wouldn't want him there –"
Harry didn't know how to answer that remark, but Tonks drove the conflicting feelings out of his mind with her next words.
"- And besides, he's busy this afternoon."
"You wouldn't happen to know what with, would you?"
"Knowing Dumbledore, something complicated," Tonks muttered as she began shoving papers and books into her bag. "Come on, let's go get some lunch – you'll need a full stomach if you're cutting these kinds of deals."
"I thought H.A.I.T. members weren't allowed to eat with students."
"So I'll transform into a cute Hufflepuff sixth year who idolizes the Boy-Who-Lived enough to ignore the Prophet and fantasize about his cute ass."
Harry went scarlet, and Tonks burst out laughing.
"And you're sure about this?" Kemester growled. "Umbridge is actually letting him leave the school?"
"I've already told you that," Larshall replied, wiping the sheen of sweat off his wide forehead. "He's being escorted by that Tonks girl to meet with legal counsel – which, mind you, is allowed."
"I thought Umbridge was going to have the Ministry provide some," Kemester asked suspiciously, closing the heavy book on his desk and looking up at Larshall. "You know, the kind who is more expensive than helpful."
"Potter's allowed his own counsel, and by all indications, he can afford it," Larshall said with a heavy shrug. "Rumor has it he has a fair bit of money."
Kemester clenched his fist. "Putting aside Potter's money for a second, are you planning on making an arrest?"
"In Hogsmeade?" Larshall asked, his eyebrows shooting into his hair. "Dmitri, have you lost your mind? It's not illegal, per say, but if Dumbledore finds out –"
"Potter will already be in your grasp, and then he'll have little choice but to have a proper Ministry interrogation," Kemester interrupted, his eyes lighting up. "And Dumbledore, according to the briefing, is having that meeting while Potter's out, so this could be our perfect opportunity! Potter would never see it coming!" He got to his feet. "Come on, I'll operate as H.A.I.T.'s representative, and I'll get you past the patrols –"
"Dmitri, what the – Dmitri, you can't do this! Bones will eat you alive!"
"Only if she finds out, and only if our interrogation doesn't turn up the results we need," Kemester replied succinctly, dropping his books into a tiny bag that Larshall knew had an Undetectable Extension Charm. "And I'll get what I want."
"Damn it, Dmitri, you're going to put both our jobs on the line again! You aren't even authorized for this investigation, and Umbridge will skin you alive if she finds out!"
Kemester shrugged as he pulled out his hip flask and took a long drag from it. "Trust me, Larshall, this'll work –"
"You said that the last time and the time before that! Damn it, Kemester, are you trying to destroy our reputations? And how the hell are you supposed to avoid Umbridge? Somebody's bound to report you!"
Kemester snorted. "Yeah, and the only one who has the balls to do that is Shacklebolt, and he's so far in Dumbledore's pocket that he won't inform Umbridge, and considering Dumbledore's occupied… we've got a clean shot." He drew his wand and gave it an experimental twirl.
"And what about Tonks?" Larshall asked uncertainly. "Can we –"
"She's not an issue," Kemester cut him off smoothly, a cold, triumphant smile crossing his face.
"And how did you jump to that conclusion?"
"Because I know, Reed," Kemester replied calmly, grim certainty settling in his voice. "I recently received the information I need, and she's exactly where I want her to be."
"And you're sure?"
"Yes, I'm sure, Draco, I wouldn't be telling you this if I wasn't!" Theodore Nott snapped, his dark eyes gleaming as he leaned close to Malfoy – far closer than Malfoy typically allowed any male, but Nott didn't care. "I saw them leave."
"So Potter's out of the school?" Malfoy demanded. "Why?"
"Heard that he's interviewing legal counsel," Nott replied with a snicker. "As if that fool could find somebody stupid enough to represent him."
"Money goes a long way, Nott, and don't be so quick to disparage it just because your family doesn't have any," Malfoy said smoothly as Nott went red. Blaise Zabini just rolled his eyes, as if his 'friend's' petty insults were beneath him.
"And given that Dumbledore's occupied this afternoon with something in his office, we've got time now," Nott said quickly, stepping back to face the two of them.
"Wait a moment… occupied with who?" Malfoy asked sharply. "And how did you find out about this?"
"Saw Umbridge heading towards the old bastard's office while I was on my way here, snapping about Dumbledore's 'insouciant temerity'."
"Big words from a little witch," Zabini drawled.
"And if she catches you saying that, she'll have you in detention for weeks, and Snape will eviscerate you," Malfoy snapped. "Careful, Blaise."
"She's incompetent and unworthy of any notice."
"Say that to her face and you'll be lucky not to become the next fly for her maw."
"That's irrelevant, Draco," Nott said, a disturbingly intense expression spreading across his face. "All that matters is that Dumbledore's out of the way – at least for now – and so is Potter. Now's our chance."
"And what about Snape?" Zabini asked coolly.
"He won't bother us," Malfoy replied. "Even if he finds us – which he won't – he won't interfere."
"Good," Zabini said, smoothly rising to his feet. "Let's get this over with –"
"And make Hogwarts ours at last," Nott growled.
Dumbledore did not consider Barnabus Cuffe to be an imposing figure. The famous (or somewhat infamous, depending on the opinion) editor for the Daily Prophet was hardly prepossessing, with disproportionately short arms and legs. Coupled with the ample beginnings of a sagging gut and the thick neck, Dumbledore thought the man looked unfortunately bloated. His face, surprisingly, was rather handsome, and his dark blonde hair was exceptionally neatly groomed to Dumbledore's eye.
But it only took one look into the man's eyes to see the truth – any handsomeness was a tool, and immediately blunted by the pure avariciousness set in the man's face, coupled with the arrogance of too much success and manipulation for most men to handle.
Horace Slughorn hadn't made a mistake when he had prophesied that Barnabus Cuffe would go far in life – he had just failed to specify how he would attain his glories.
There was a flicker of green light from behind Dumbledore's desk, but he did not need to turn to recognize the roar of the Floo connection activating – and from the disgusted look crossing Professor McGonagall's face, he knew exactly who had entered the room.
"I'm pleased to see you again, Miss Skeeter. Thank you for coming on such short notice to our little conference."
Turning, he saw the distinctly harassed Rita Skeeter brush her high-collared turquoise robes free of soot and give Cuffe a perfunctory nod. Dumbledore knew that she hadn't been writing, but it hadn't seen like unemployment had hurt her much in the intervening time, and other than a few jewels missing from her spectacles, she looked as if she was at the height of her career.
"Professor Dumbledore, it is a great pleasure to be called on such short notice," Rita Skeeter said smoothly, offering her hand to Dumbledore. "Albeit an unexpected one, but I wasn't about to turn down this… opportunity."
Professor McGonagall's lip was slowly curling, but Dumbledore only gave the reporter a pleasant nod before motioning for her to sit down next to Cuffe.
"Is there any other reporters coming, Dumbledore?" Cuffe asked suddenly, his grin not disguising the irritation in his vaguely nasal voice. "Because I'm a very busy man, you know –"
"Well, if it isn't Barnabus Cuffe!" Umbridge exclaimed with a wide smile. She looked distinctly out of breath, as if she had run up the spiral staircase to Dumbledore's office. "Dear Albus never told me that you were going to be meeting with him today!"
"Until yesterday, I didn't know I was going to be meeting with Dumbledore," Cuffe replied amicably. "So you're representing the Ministry's interests in this case, I would assume?"
"Actually," McGonagall said tightly, "she wasn't invited."
"Now, Minerva, it would only be considered proper to allow me to experience the company of an old friend!" Umbridge said reprovingly. "I'm sure that Albus would allow that –"
"My dear Dolores, I fear that Minerva is right," Dumbledore said pleasantly. "I would hardly be so callous to deny one the company of an old friend, but Mr. Cuffe and I have important business to discuss, and I would be exceptionally grateful if you would allow us to conduct said business."
Umbridge's eyes instantly hardened as she turned back to Cuffe. "Well, Barnabus, I'm sure you wouldn't mind if I sit back and observe your masterful negotiating skills at work –"
Rita Skeeter let out a snort, and Umbridge's attention finally turned to the reporter. To Dumbledore's surprise, both women wore expressions of pure loathing as they saw each other.
"I feel, Dolores, that you might have misunderstood Dumbledore's point," McGonagall said stiffly. "This is a private meeting between Mr. Cuffe and the Headmaster."
"I'm the Deputy Headmistress, and also responsible for much of Hogwarts' finance," McGonagall said curtly. "Positions that will allow me to contribute my expertise to this discussion. Now, if you'd please excuse us."
Umbridge glared daggers at the Transfiguration Professor. "The Minister," she began slowly, "would want me to represent the interests of his office –"
"But as of now, my dear Dolores, the affairs regarding Hogwarts and its financial matters remain under the authority of the Headmaster," Dumbledore said gravely. "Now, if you would be so kind –"
"You can just leave," Skeeter said sweetly.
Umbridge looked as if she was going to kill something. Wrenching the door open, she stormed out of the office, the door closing tightly behind her.
"You certainly have a flair for the dramatic, Dumbledore," Cuffe said finally, readjusting his position in the chair and smoothing his robes. "A pity such flair is rendered all but useless these days…"
"Then I can assume you have guessed the intent of this meeting?" Dumbledore asked with a trace of a grin.
"You want an article in the Daily Prophet," Skeeter said coolly, "and the only reason I'm here is because you want me to write it."
"Indeed," Dumbledore replied with a nod. "I feel that a series of exclusive interviews can shed some light on the turbulent political events of the past few months."
"The Prophet has covered said events in great detail," Cuffe said curtly.
"Although it always seems that my letters to you do not receive print," Dumbledore said, letting a note of disappointment slide into his voice. "I would really think, that given my… former positions, that such letters would be a boon to the Prophet."
"Times have changed, Dumbledore," Cuffe said briskly, "and more interests have to be considered."
"Like the interest on the Ministry gold that's piling up in your vault," Skeeter added with a smirk. "Don't think I don't know, Barnabus."
"Careful, Rita, you wouldn't want your reputation for honest journalism to be tarnished -"
"I've called Miss Skeeter here because she has an excellent reputation for finding out the truth, and sliding through the crannies that people wish to keep hidden," Dumbledore said, sitting down at his desk and folding his hands.
Skeeter suddenly went very pale. "I wouldn't go that far, Professor…"
"Regardless, Dumbledore, you know better than anybody that the public mood is against you, particularly given the attack in Diagon Alley and Sirius Black's recent activity," Cuffe said, his voice abruptly businesslike. "And as much as I would relish the views of a formerly prestigious wizard like you, I must take other things into consideration."
"Of course," Dumbledore said pleasantly. "Now, the series I have planned will cover three Monday editions, complete with photographs and exclusive interviews with myself, and Harry Potter."
Cuffe's eyebrows nearly shot into his well-coiffed hair. "You want to give Mr. Potter a voice to the press?"
"As he is justly allowed," Dumbledore replied. "Miss Skeeter has worked with Harry before, and I'm sure he'll be amicable to more interviews."
Professor McGonagall could barely resist a snort at that remark, while Skeeter suddenly looked very eager to hear what Dumbledore was saying.
"And what, exactly, will be discussed in these interviews?" Cuffe asked suspiciously. "Would it have anything to do with… with the 'return' of He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named?"
"Yes," Dumbledore replied firmly, "complete with an eyewitness account from Harry himself, and a concise discussion of recent events."
"Assume that I am interested, for a moment," Cuffe said carefully after a few seconds of silence. "You realize that such… accounts could put considerable pressure upon my business, particularly from some very powerful associates of mine who would not care to see fallacies and libel in print."
"That's understandable," Dumbledore replied reasonably. "After all, one must preserve the integrity of his business."
"Many would view your… allegations as fitting under those categories," Cuffe said with a trace of a grin. "Dire accusations indeed, and with little proof behind your words."
"Perhaps more proof than you realize, my friend," Dumbledore replied.
"Subsequently, to protect the integrity of the Prophet, I must have… insurance, so to speak," Cuffe said, a trace of a grin on his face. "Here's my price: one thousand Galleons flat as insurance, five thousand for each article, two thousand as commission for Miss Skeeter, and another two thousand to guarantee the front page."
McGonagall's eyes widened, and even Skeeter looked shocked at the outrageous figures that Cuffe had given. Dumbledore only kept his gaze fixed the man sitting across from him, betraying no emotion.
"So, for your first article, that'll be nine thousand Galleons upfront," Cuffe finished with an avaricious smile. "And, of course, as the editor, I will be screening your articles for anything that might be… damaging to the paper."
"This is extortion," McGonagall snarled.
"And you, Professor, are not the one negotiating," Cuffe replied back icily. "I'll direct my comments to Dumbledore."
"The prices you name are quite steep, Barnabus," Dumbledore said quietly, "and one might question their fairness."
"And if you want your articles published in any respectable paper, Dumbledore, you'll pay," Cuffe snapped. "You're in no position to negotiate, and those are my prices. Take them or leave them."
"Dumbledore, you can't –" McGonagall went silent at the raise of Dumbledore's hand, and after a few long seconds, the old wizard sighed.
"I'll take it."
Cuffe's eyes widened for a second before narrowing in cool triumph. "I'll expect the transfers to my account to be done before any interviews are to begin, and I'm not available for supervision until next Wednesday, so we'll have to wait until then to begin."
"Excuse me, Barnabus, but I'm fully capable of interviewing Harry Potter on my own –"
"Rita, my dear, a free spirit is an asset for a writer, but a liability for an editor," Cuffe replied smoothly, getting to his feet and moving towards the fireplace. "We'll be in touch." There was a flash of green flame, and the editor for the Daily Prophet vanished from the room.
Rita Skeeter also got to her feet, a suspicious expression on her face.
"The Dumbledore I knew would have never allowed scum like him to manipulate him." She folded her arms across her chest. "I'd love to hear an explanation, Dumbledore."
"I never knew you were so antagonistic towards Barnabus, Rita," Dumbledore replied, raising an eyebrow. "You used to have unparalleled freedom –"
"Yeah, well… that was before he started playing with big money," Skeeter muttered, moving towards the fire. "And you don't even know the half of the truth."
There was another flash, and Rita Skeeter vanished into the fireplace.
"Albus…" McGonagall began slowly.
"I know, Minerva, but we have no choice," Dumbledore replied quietly.
"You and I both know we don't have that kind of money to be casually throwing around, unless you wish to dip into the Hogwarts vaults, and you know my opinion on that."
"It would be easier to begin training Mr. Potter now, if only to prepare him –"
"Minerva, I wish with all my heart that I could be helping Harry, but there is only so much I can do while Umbridge and H.A.I.T. are at the school, and my position grows more precarious every day – a position you know I cannot jeopardize for all our sakes. And Harry is proving far more capable than even I would have imagined." He sighed heavily, and to his eyes, he had never felt so tired, so old. "As of now, I can only circumspectly provide aid and protection – and with his potential and drive, that should be all he requires."
"There are things you could teach him that nobody else could, Albus" McGonagall said quietly.
"And I do plan to teach him… I just hope he'll be ready when that time comes."
"And what of Cuffe?"
Dumbledore smiled. "He'll receive everything he wants – and perhaps a little bit more."
"Well, that went well," Tonks said cheerfully as they walked back up towards Hogwarts. "That's one down, three more to go!"
"That was disturbingly easy, Tonks," Harry said, running his hand through his hair. "He was practically fawning on me, and that contract seemed to pop up a little too quickly."
"Hey, I read it over, and you're fine, Harry," Tonks reassured him. "It was just a little something to protect your identity and your royalties you'll be getting from the advertisement – which, might I add, are considerable in themselves."
"The photographs were weird, though, you can't deny that," Harry protested. "I mean, how many times and from how many different angles can they have me straddle a broomstick? It's ridiculous –"
Harry's hand shot to his wand, but Tonks had already drawn hers and was pointing it at the man standing in front of them – no, staggering in front of them –
"Harry… Harry! Oh god…"
And before Harry could even start moving, Charlie Weasley collapsed in the dirt.
"Damn it, Charlie!" Tonks cried, running over to where the second oldest Weasley son was lying on the road, coughing and sputtering. He was bleeding – badly – from dozens of cuts all over his body, and both of his eyes were swollen purple from bruising. His robes were soaked with blood, and Harry could hear a wet rattle from his every breath.
"Charlie, speak to me here!" Tonks said anxiously, drawing her wand and pointing it at the wounds on his face, which slowly began to close. "What the hell happened to you? I thought you were in Romania!"
"I was… this morning… Dumbledore gave me a mission, but everything… everything went to hell… she's dead, Tonks, she's dead…"
"Who's dead?" Tonks exclaimed, waving her wand frantically as she tried to heal the wounds on Charlie's neck, which were bleeding copiously.
"Marchbanks… he killed her, Tonks, and I couldn't… just couldn't stop him. Tonks, they're coming… they're coming!"
Harry's face went white. "We've got to get him to Hogwarts, he needs Madam Pomphrey. Here, let me give you a hand –"
"No, wait –"
But Harry had taken a firm hold of Charlie's right arm and pulled.
There was a wet, sodden crunch, a spray of blood, and screams from Tonks and Charlie, and Harry was suddenly holding onto Charlie's right arm…
And it was not connected to Charlie.
"That… that can't be good," Charlie whispered. Then his eyes rolled back in his skull, and he pitched over in a dead faint.
"I think I'm gonna be sick," Harry whispered, gingerly holding onto the severed limb. "Tonks, help me here…"
"His blood's not clotting!" Tonks cried, pointing her wand again and again at the bleeding stump below Charlie's shoulder. "We need a Healer, and we've got to move! Otherwise –"
"There he is!" a large, heavily muscled masked man yelled. "And he's with Potter! Kill them!"
Harry could only duck as three curses shot over his head. Swearing madly, he wrenched his wand free.
But the Death Eaters blocked the spell with a laugh and began moving forward. Very real panic began surging through Harry's veins, even as Charlie's blood was pumping out onto the road –
"Expulso!" Tonks screamed, pointing her wand at the ground in front of the Death Eaters. A second later, Harry could barely see through the cloud of dust and grit that had erupted in front of them. He could hear the Death Eaters swearing, and Tonks screaming more curses. He crouched low and began to take aim –
"Get Charlie under cover!" Tonks shouted. "Now! Hurry!"
Spinning on her heel, she shot a silvery burst of light towards the castle, and Harry knew that she was sending for help. Gritting his teeth, he placed Charlie's arm upon his chest and, groaning with the effort, staggered towards the rocks –"
Harry instinctively ducked as something white and hot sliced past his face, and he stumbled, nearly dropping Charlie as the bolt howled past his cheek. Tonks had managed to deflect the attack, but the dust was clearing…
Harry heard muffled swearing as the Death Eater's attack went wide as the ground turned slick as ice beneath his feet. Struggling to carry Charlie with every step, he finally dropped behind a boulder and carefully slid the stocky young man to the ground –
Shards exploded outwards as Harry fell backwards, reeling from the spell that slammed into the rock only inches away from where he was. Swearing under his breath, he aimed down at the closest Death Eater.
The Death Eater didn't manage to block the spell this time, and the force of the red bolt sent him flat on his back. But the two cloaked figures remaining turned towards the rock…
Harry ducked behind the rock, as two green streaks of light screamed past, blasting smoking holes in the boulders behind him. A second later, Tonks appeared with a crack next to Harry, breathing hard and crouching as low as she could.
"How did they find us?" Harry shouted as two flashes of white-blue light erupted through the air, causing four boulders next to them to explode violently, peppering the scene with rubble and smoke. "How could they follow Charlie?"
"Tracking Charm!" Tonks yelled, reaching around the cover to shoot another spell at the Death Eater, who narrowly deflected the jet of white-hot light. "Probably never saw it coming –"
"Atrum chain levitas!"
Harry felt himself flying as the rock they were hiding behind exploded. The air stank of ozone, and his ears were ringing as he slammed against a nearby pine wedged between the rocks. He could feel the pain already starting as he slumped into the pine needles, his clothes smoking from the blast, his glasses shattered in their frames…
But then he heard a voice, echoing through the pain in his head…
"Black, he's yours."
A shadow fell over him. Harry looked up, barely able to comprehend what he was seeing. No, it's impossible… no, it can't be…
The man removed his Death Eater mask, to reveal a twisted face, hollowed by years in Azkaban… and a terrible smile on his face.
"It would be," Sirius Black whispered, "my pleasure, Macnair. Avada Kedavra!"
But Harry was already moving, grabbing for the ankles as the green light erupted from the wand and screamed towards the tree…
He landed hard on the gravel, the spot where Sirius Black had been empty. A wild cackle split the air, and Harry looked up to see his godfather standing on a nearby boulder, his eyes wild with glee.
"Just don't give up now, do you, Harry? Somes effrego!"
Harry was flat on the ground, he knew he didn't have a chance to dodge the orange ray streaking from the wand, and whatever the spell was, he knew he couldn't dodge this one –
The blast didn't come, and Harry looked up, only to see the grotesquely twisted arm of Charlie Weasley fall with a wet thud onto the straggly grass, blood spraying from every unhealed cut. Harry gaped with shock. How…
Harry could only watch in amazement as Sirius ducked under the slash of fire erupting from Tonks' wand. Her hair was charred black, her body covered with soot and dust, and her eyes blazed with fury as she slashed her wand down again, sending another white-hot flaming stroke through the air.
Sirius waved his wand lazily, and before Harry's astonished eyes, the fire winked out existence, leaving nothing behind but burnt air and smoking grass –
"Black, we've got to get out of here, there's somebody coming from the school!" the third Death Eater shouted, having been revived by the heavily muscled man that Harry recognized as Walden Macnair.
"Of course," Sirius said lightly, jumping down from the rock even as Tonks threw another curse at it. With a mocking bow towards Harry, he Disapparated with a crack, the other two Death Eaters vanishing a second later.
He heard running footsteps, and heard Tonks' voice, ragged from screaming curses.
"Harry? Harry, get up… speak to me, Harry, you've got to get up!"
"What the fuck happened here?" another voice shouted, shock and fury competing for prominence. "Damn it, Larshall, get a Patronus to the school and get H.A.I.T. over here, we've got a situation on our hands!"
"But Dmitri –"
"JUST DO IT!"
Harry slowly pulled himself to his feet, unsteadily leaning on Tonks as she helped him up.
"Where's Charlie?" he whispered.
"Unconscious, and bleeding out fast, we need to get him to the Hospital Wing," Tonks whispered back quickly. "Kemester, tell them to get a medical team down there, we've got a severely injured civilian here!"
Harry's eyes snapped wide open. He watched as Kemester yelled orders at Larshall as he approached, his ragged orange hair fluttering around his ears…
The two stared at each other for a long few seconds, their expressions unreadable.
Finally Kemester stepped forward and looked Harry in the eye. Tonks stepped back, her eyes wary. Harry just staggered slightly as his mind tried to process everything he'd seen…
"Harry Potter," Kemester said quietly, "I never thought I'd see you quite like this."
"Nor did I," Harry replied, breathing heavily against the pains in his chest.
He moved suddenly, slamming his hand onto Harry's shoulder. His entire body screamed with pain as Kemester sidestepped around him, yanking his arms behind his back and pinning them in a lock.
"And you're under arrest."