Chapter 33: Plans and Schemes

A/N: Yes, in the books Rita Skeeter is described as being ugly (as is everyone that Harry and his friends don't like), but here she looks like she does in the movie, as portrayed by Miranda Richardson. And now, on with our story …

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"Don't worry about it," Captain Clark said as he sat down at the table. "We don't need to know about your past. It's none of our business."

Biscuit passed him a cup of coffee. "Actually, we saw something about you in The Daily Prophet," he confessed, "and it said you were a big hero. It said you were a master spy, you died a heroic death, and they couldn't have won that war without you. They even gave you a medal."

"There was nothing heroic about spying," Severus said. "I lied to everyone, all of the time, year after year. And I'm still lying. I'm lying about who I am. I must, if I hope to leave my past behind. But I'm sick of lying and I don't want to lie to you. Not any more."

"And now you're not, so there's no problem," Clark said, reaching for the sugar. "Any time you want to talk about your past, we'll be happy to listen, but if you don't want to, then that's okay, too."

"We're cool with it," Kat agreed.

"Good," Severus said. "But I want you to understand that I was not a hero. I was a fool who got involved in something I shouldn't have, and I caused some … terrible harm. No matter what I do, I can never make up for that."

He looked across the mess to where some passengers were feeding marzipan to Fawkes.

"There was nothing heroic about my 'death' either," he added. "The whole thing was quite stupid, actually, and I'm only alive today because of that overgrown budgie."

Fawkes looked back at him and chirped happily.

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Rita Skeeter put on the dark green trench coat and picked up the badge. Her muggleborn friend Gertie had given them to her along with a plain leather shoulder bag, and assured her that they would help her pass as a muggle police detective. The badge was very impressive looking and she wondered what spell had been used to create it.

She looked at herself in the mirror. "Pretty sharp," she said, although she thought the low-heeled black pumps were rather boring. "Now all I have to do it find that Privet Drive place. I'm sure Potter's aunt wouldn't talk to a witch, but I'm betting she'll talk to a police detective.''

She left her flat and went out into Diagon Alley where she got quite a few strange looks from passing witches and wizards. It works, she thought. I must look like a muggle. Or at least I don't look like a witch. Then she strolled through the Leaky Cauldron and out into muggle London to find a taxi.

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Minerva McGonagall called the staff meeting to order. "Now I want someone to tell me what happened," she said.

"It was another of those fights between former Gryffindors and former Slytherins," Pomona said. "It started off as a shouting match. A Gryffie said it was all Slytherin's fault that all the old Houses had been abolished. A Slythy said some nasty things about the Gryffie, his ancestors, and his broom, and soon a crowd was gathering. A prefect – who was a former Hufflepuff, I might add – tried to calm them down but she got hit in the head when someone threw a shoe at her. Then everyone started hurling spells and nine people ended up in the infirmary."

"Someone threw a shoe at her?" Horace said. "What an uncouth, muggle-like thing to do!"

"Everything is always Slytherin's fault, of course," the portrait of Phineas Black sneered.

"You just stay out of this, Phineas!" Minerva scolded. "And that goes for the rest of you portraits, too!"

Black shrugged and left his frame. The others were nowhere in sight, except for Albus Dumbledore who was snoozing and didn't notice.

"It looks like our plan to end this sort of thing by closing the old Houses isn't working very well," Filius observed.

"It will," Minerva said. "We just have to give it time. Without sorting, in six years there will be no more former Gryffindors, Slytherins, Ravenclaws or Hufflepuffs at this school, and then things will settle down."

"I hope you're right," Filius said, but he had his doubts.

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"Hey Bentley," Urquhart called from his infirmary bed. "It's McGonagall who ran us off and used us as an excuse to shut down the Houses. She's the one who wants to change everything. Your quarrel is with her, not us. We don't like the new regime either."

"Go 'way," Bentley mumbled. His nose had been smashed by a flying textbook and he was in no mood to talk. If it had happened in a Quidditch match it, if it had been a Bludger, that would have been different. That would have been an injury to be proud of, but this wasn't and it just hurt. A lot.

"If we work together, maybe we can change things," Urquhart mused. "We could get together with Ravenclaw and Hufflepuff and, I don't know, maybe go on strike or something."

"That's not a bad idea, you know" Melody Nowak called from her bed. "We should talk about that." Melody was the prefect who had tried to prevent the brawl. Nurse Pomfrey had bandaged her head and insisted that she remain in the infirmary for further observation.

As usual, no one paid any attention to Melody.

"You know who got your kid brother home safe, Bentley?" Urquhart called. "Slytherins, that's who. After McGonagall ran us all off, we got dumped at the Hogs Head with all our little Firsties and everything. The town was crawling with Death Eaters and Snatchers and all sorts of creeps who were hoping to get in on some looting, and then all the little kids from the other Houses started pouring in, too. What were they supposed to do? They were too young to apparate, and it wasn't safe for them to stay there. There's only one floo in that crummy old pub and the bartender told us it didn't always work right."

"Oo cares?" Bentley mumbled, mopping at his bloody nose.

Urquhart ignored him. "There were some older ones from the other Houses too, but most of 'em apparated away pretty quickly. They were scared, otherwise they would have stayed to fight. A few of 'em had the presence of mind to take some younger ones along, but most of 'em just lit out right away.

"Sharrup," Bentley mumbled and threw a bloody handkerchief at him.

"Most of the older ones from the other Houses helped, too. You know that," Melody interjected.

Urquhart continued unfazed. "So the old bartender stood guard and all of us who knew how to apparate started taking the kids out, one by one. We took 'em to the Bletchley place – we all knew how to get there – and they were safe there while Mr Bletchley worked on contacting their parents. Mrs Bletchley served them cocoa and reassured them while they waited."

In the background they could hear the sound of gagging as Poppy gave someone Skele-Grow.

"Then a bunch of us went back to fight. Most of us were no fans of Lord Moldy Shorts, you know." They were no fans of Albus Dumbledore or Minerva McGonagall, either, but there was no point in bringing that up. "But when we got back to the Hogs Head," he continued, "the tunnel was filled with fire and the bartender was trying to hold it back. So we went outside and …"

Poppy interrupted them. "Oh, Mr Urquhart, you've got elf-ears!" she said, trying not to laugh. "I haven't seen that spell before. It must be a new one. I'll get to you in a minute.

"And you, Mr Bentley, need the Nosey-Growsey spell." She readied her wand. "This will only hurt a little bit."

"Arrgh!" Bentley gasped as the spell hit him.

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Mavis, the captain's parrot, looked admiringly at Fawkes. "It sounds like it was quite a harrowing adventure," she squawked. "I'm so glad all those horrid things were stopped and you were able to rescue your wizard."

"Yes," Fawkes chirped, "there are all sorts of dangerous things in the world, and we can't leave wizards to deal with all of them alone." He fluffed his feathers. "A bird's work is never done."

"You've done such a fine job, looking after him," Mavis squawked. "Your wizard was so bedraggled when he first got here."

Fawkes beamed with pride. "Yes, the poor creature had a really rough time of it. My previous wizard, Albus, was horribly cursed and even my tears couldn't save him. He had to be put down, and poor Severus had to do it. Everyone hated him for that. And then he was almost killed by a possessed serpent. It was terrible for him but he's coming along quite well now. Much better than I originally expected."

Biscuit looked across at the two birds. "I wonder what our feathered friends are chattering about," he remarked to Severus, who was helping him clear the dishes. Captain Clark and Kat had gone back on duty.

"I'm sure the term 'bird brain' covers it," Severus said.

"While you were away, the Captain and I got to thinking," the cook said, changing the subject. "You were some kind of potions expert, weren't you?

Severus nodded. "One of the best," he said proudly.

"Well, we've been doing pretty well selling the phoenix droppings, and with your knowledge of potion ingredients and my haggling skills, we could go a step farther."

"My haggling skills are second to none," Severus said, scowling at the cook.

"Of course," Biscuit said, refusing to be drawn into an argument. "So why don't we start buying up potion ingredients where they're plentiful and cheap," he said, "and selling them at a mark-up where they're rare. We're travelling around all the time anyway, and as long as we keep to small quantities, the bosses at Knight Lines will never notice."

Severus thought for a moment, and then he smiled. "That could be … interesting," he replied.

"We thought you'd like it," Biscuit said.

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"Mrs Dursley?" Rita asked when Petunia opened the door. "I'm with the mug .. er, metropolitan police." She brought the badge out of her pocket, showed it quickly, and tucked it away again. "We're investigating your nephew, Harry Potter. May I come in for a moment?"

"Harry Potter?" Petunia said, hustling Rita inside before the neighbors could notice anything. "What has that awful boy done now? You can't begin to imagine the horrors that he put us through. We were frightened to death. We were forced to go into hiding. Forced! By those vicious friends of his. Someone ought to put a stop to it!"

"That's why we're investigating," Rita said. "We'd like to stop them, but we don't have enough information. We need to know what's been going on. Anything you can tell me will be helpful."

"Well, you just sit down, then," Petunia said, "because this is going to take a while. Would you care for some tea while we talk?"

"That would be very nice," Rita said. "Time is no problem. We need to know everything." She smiled sweetly. "I hope you don't mind if I take some notes."