magitech: The ritual didn't need the Enemy to be a permanent one; when she prepared to strike back at Voldie and Barty, she considered them her enemies at the time. Stunning her kept her "stuck" in that state.

Thanks go to chaosglory626 for today's disclaimer.

Disclaimer: Did anyone try to fight off the Dementor that kissed Crouch Jr., thus destroying irreplaceable evidence? If not, I don't own the Harry Potter franchise; it belongs to J.K. Rowling, Scholastic Press, Warner Bros., and whoever else she sold the rights to.

Chapter 35
A Year Ends, A War Begins

Jen drifted awake to the smell of bleach and the sound of soft voices. A small smile appeared as she identified her visitors.

"How long do you think she's going to be out?"

"Well, Madam Pomfrey did say she's magically exhausted," Morag said, interrupting Susan's fretting. "It could be hours, could be days. There's no way to tell."

A third person cut through the girls' discussion. "All things considered, we might not want her to come to just yet."

"I'm touched by your concern, Tracey," she murmured. The rest of her friends gathered around her bedside started in surprise. "I'm in the hospital wing, aren't I?"

"Yeah." The Slytherin leaned over to whisper into her ear, "Do Patil and MacDougal know about…?" At Jen's shaking head, she continued, "Pomfrey had to rewrap your eyes, and it's too wide to fit under your fringe, so you might not want to go pulling your normal 'seeing without seeing' stunt." She sat back in her chair against the wall and ignored the curiosity wafting off the fourth-year Ravenclaws. "Don't worry, I'm sure she'll take the bandages off when she comes back in. She was just worried about where all the blood around your eyes had come from. How are you feeling?"

"Not too bad, honestly, which is a bit of a surprise. I distinctly recall being hit with a Cruciatus." That was quite strange all on its own; she had not been able to flush her body with dark magic prior to passing out, so she should still be in agony. Why, then, wasn't she?

Luna nodded from the right side of the bed where she was tightly grasping Jen's hand, lips quivering as if she had been holding back tears. "Madam Pomfrey said she found remnants of the Curse in you, but that they were mostly gone. It normally takes several days to get over it, and you've only been unconscious for an hour or two."

Add in my lack of innate resistance, and it would probably be more like weeks left on its own. She shook her head; providential as this was, she did not trust miracles. They always came at a price. "Anything else happen?"

"Let's see," Jen's bitter best friend said as she started ticking off points on her fingers, "first, you and Diggory took the Triwizard Cup to win the Tournament; congratulations on that, by the way. When you did that, you two disappeared for several minutes, and then he comes back alone and yelling about a dark wizard trying to kill you. Maybe an hour later, you show up in the obstacle course, hysterical, blood-stained, and twitching like someone on doxy dust."

"I must have looked quite the fright," she commented irreverently. Stretching out her sonar to its full range, she felt around the large room and asked, "Where is Pomfrey? I'd have expected her to hear us by now. Surely she didn't let you seven have free rein of her domain."

Kenneth cleared his throat sheepishly. "There might be a few people outside. It's a bit of a circus."

"A few people meaning?" The doors to the infirmary flew open as if at her command, and she was shocked at the flood of cores pouring inside. Dumbledore, McGonagall, Flitwick, Snape… all we need is Sprout to have the whole set. Sirius, Cissy, Andi, Dora, Ted, present and accounted for. Moody, Pomfrey, and one I don't recognize.

It was that last individual who strode imperiously towards her bedside. "Miss Black, I see you're finally awake. Perhaps you can clear up this mystery we seem to have."

"I'll try, but, forgive for being rude, who exactly are you?"

The stout little man puffed himself up, and Jen had to work hard to suppress the sigh of annoyance welling up inside her. A government bureaucrat, I bet; that Weasley boy who stood in for Crouch – Crouch Junior, I should say – during the Yule Ball acted the exact same way. Wonderful. "I, Miss Black, am Cornelius Fudge, the Minister of Magic."

Oh, even better.

Unaware of her less than respectful thoughts, he continued, "Mr. Diggory has recently told us a most unusual story, that you two were dragged to a graveyard and then almost murdered. I was hoping you could give us your recollection of what happened for that hour you were missing."

She grinned wickedly in the safety of her mind, carefully keeping her vengeful glee off her face. Oh, Voldemort, you're going to regret cursing me. Maybe if you let had me go when I tried to escape, I'd do a fellow black mage the courtesy of keeping his resurrection a secret, but instead you just had to threaten me, torture me, and try to kill me. I don't like that. I don't like that one little bit.

"What he said sounds right; the Cup was a Portkey that took us away, and he saw a wizard behind me when we stood up to get our bearings. The man cast the Killing Curse, we both dropped to the ground, and Cedric hit the Cup with his arm and was carried away." She paused momentarily, trying to decide how to phrase her meeting with Voldemort in a way that did not reveal her far-too-extensive knowledge of the Dark Arts. Fudge apparently took her hesitation as timidity, for he nodded encouragingly despite the obvious blindfold. "I was told that if I stopped hiding, the wizard who was waiting for us wouldn't curse me again, but if I didn't, he'd come after me and would definitely kill me. I didn't have much of a choice, so I showed myself and kept an eye on him. That was when someone else hit me with a stunner."

"What did this first man look like?" the Minister prompted.

She shrugged. "I don't know. It was dark, and while I could make out his outline, I couldn't distinguish any details. When I woke up later, he was wearing a hooded robe and a mask. Besides, at that point my attention was elsewhere."

"What could have more important than the man who tried to kill you?" Sirius asked incredulously.

"It was the other guy. He said he was You-Know-Who."

Predictably, the room exploded at that declaration. Fudge squawked; her friends, even the two boys, shrieked; Tonks felt like she was about to faint while her father laid a shaking hand on her shoulder. The other Blacks, rather than panicking where everyone could see them, simply grew incredibly tense, though Cissy trembled nearly imperceptibly. Not that I can blame her. After all, with Lucius a Death Eater, her life is about to get very complicated. Maybe it wouldn't be a bad idea for her to stay with us for a while…

To her consternation, and in an extreme contrast to the rest of his staff, Dumbledore radiated only smug satisfaction. "Are you quite sure of that, my dear?"

Why are you acting so chummy now, you wrinkled old goat? What's your angle? The headmaster had done little to earn her trust and much to lose it; with him so pleased at her words, she began to wonder if it would not have been better to keep her mouth shut. Focus on one enemy at a time, Jen. Throw a spanner in the Dark Lord's plans before you start worrying about how to derail the Light bastard. "That's what he said. He said he had been in a homunculus, which is how he hexed me, and that he needed blood, my blood, to be fully resurrected."

"Preposterous!" All heads turned toward the Minister, who ignored them in favor of vigorously shaking his own in disbelief. "Really, You-Know-Who back to life? That's absurd!"

Dumbledore briefly stroked his beard. "Not necessarily, Cornelius. I have personally long wondered about Voldemort's"—a shudder ran through the room, sparing only Sirius, Moody, her, and himself—"fate; after all, there was no body found after Danny defeated him, just an empty cloak. His wand disappearing from the Ministry's possession this past Christmas lends further credence to her claim."

"He can't be back," Fudge protested again. The fear flowing off him was understandable, but to Jen's consternation, a fierce anger was growing and threatened to soon overtake it. "No one has seen even a hint of him in thirteen years; excuse me if I doubt he was simply drinking tea and doing the crossword to entertain himself! Miss Black, you say You-Know-Who has returned, but Madam Pomfrey tells me that you are also suffering from Cruciatus exposure. Wouldn't you agree that it is possible – likely, even – that this was nothing more than a hallucination brought on from being hit by that curse?"

The room was quiet at that for several moments, and then a low, rumbling growl broke the silence. Everyone looked at Sirius as he softly uttered, "Minister, I do hope you were not just casting aspersions on my heiress's sanity. If she says she saw him return, that's what she saw."

"That's not what I was saying at all, Lord Black," Fudge replied instantly, verbally backpedalling for all he was worth. "It's just… well, look at the Longbottoms! A few minutes under the Cruciatus, and they are now long-term residents of St. Mungo's Spell Damage Ward. Your scion is clearly lucid, and 'hallucination' was a bit strong, I'll admit, but I was just pointing out that she might well be misremembering things as a result of being tortured. Perfectly understandable, could happen to the best of us. Why else would she think that You-Know-Who is alive?"

He is one scared little man, she thought with a small shake of her head. It's clear that he's not going to believe anything I say on this subject. His fear turns into denial, and every time someone tries to counter that denial, he just gets more and more enraged. I can't say I totally blame him, though; with the way people react at just hearing Voldemort's name, there would be riots in the street upon news of his resurrection. I wouldn't want to try to govern that mess, either.

Thankfully, there are other options. "Minister, if I may interrupt? You seem to have misunderstood me. I did not say that You-Know-Who is definitely back."

Fudge swung back to her in shock. "You didn't?"

"You didn't?" Sirius and Andi echoed.

Dumbledore's entire body shifted in unmistakeable frustration. She had, after all, just completely changed her story and thereby undercut his position, as well. "You didn't?"

"I didn't," she agreed. "What I said was that the second man called himself You-Know-Who. Whether he actually was, I cannot say."

"Oh. Well, that's much better." Fudge smiled faintly and pulled a silk handkerchief from his pocket to wipe his face. "You had me worried for a moment. It's just someone, probably some no-name foreign dark wizard, trying to create a panic by calling himself that and cashing in on You-Know-Who's infamy. Don't you worry about a thing, Miss Black; now that you've told us, I'm sure the Aurors will find him in short order."

Jen had to work hard to suppress the sneer that wanted to appear on her face. I wasn't the one about to wet myself. Still, it's a good start; at least he isn't outright rejecting my claims or implying that I'm mentally disturbed now. A few more soft nudges should see the DMLE at least somewhat prepared.

She shivered minutely. It was a terrifying prospect, but with Voldemort reincorporated and itching to get back to his rebellion, a second war was inevitable. The last one had lasted over ten years and claimed almost a thousand lives; though not a large number by Muggle standards, Britain had had only 80,000 witches and wizards living within its borders at the time, making that a noticeable drop in their population. She would much rather not experience an encore of those times.

"My dear, if I may ask, why would you say Voldemort"—another group shudder—"had been resurrected if that is not what happened?" Dumbledore's ploy was obvious; if he could force her to admit she tried to hide the truth with a more comfortable lie, he could smear her, and thereby the rest of the Blacks', name.

One of these days, I would dearly love to find out just what his problem is with me. I know that he's friends with the Potters, but his grudge seems too deep for it to be just that. Something else to think about. "I was getting to that part, but then you interrupted me. Don't blame me if you make assumptions without letting me finish."

"She has us there, Dumbledore. We certainly did cast before the signal. Can you give us a description of this impostor, Miss Black?"

"He… he wasn't human. No hair; no nose; long, thin fingers." She reached out with a mental probe to Cissy's mind, and her aunt helpfully provided her with an image of the Dark Lord. Wow, he's even uglier than I expected. "White, white skin and red eyes, too. He also had a rather high-pitched voice, though his accent certainly sounded English."

The short politician's face grew cold as the blood in his cheeks drained away. "That… could have been a glamour. After all, he attacked Diagon Alley enough that many people know what he looks like. Yes, I'm sure that's it."


"Dumbledore, there's no point in making this a bigger mess than it has to be. Did you see just the copy-cat and the man who tried to curse you and Mr. Diggory, then?"

"When he woke me up, yes. Shortly after that, several more people in cowls and masks like the first man appeared. He referred to them as Death Eaters and talked for a bit about how they were going to resume their work in taking over Britain." Fudge gasped faintly at that and fiddled with the bowler cap clutched tightly in his hands. "While he was doing that, I managed to slip out of the ropes he used to tie me to a headstone. He noticed and hit me with the Cruciatus right before I could use the Portkey necklace Bagman gave me, and then I was back in the Task."

Andi came to stand beside her, Tracey and Justin scooting out of the woman's way, and laid a hand on her shoulder. "Minister, I believe she has told you all she can right now. She's had a busy day, and that's ignoring the fact that I'm sure Madam Pomfrey would like to finish treating her. If you or Madam Bones needs to question her at a later date, it can be arranged then."

"Ah, yes, you're quite right." He chuckled sheepishly and returned the hat to his head. "Thank you for telling me all this, Miss Black; you've done a great service to your country." Pulling a charmed bag out of his pocket and setting it on her bedside table, he added, "Your winnings. Normally there'd be an award ceremony for you and Mr. Diggory, but I really need to get back to the Ministry and let Amelia know about this. I'll ask Ludo to give the formal announcement tomorrow morning."

"Cornelius, surely you can see that this is bigger than just a few dark wizards…" Dumbledore followed the Minister out of the hospital wing, McGonagall and Moody hot on his heels.

Flitwick sighed and straightened his robes. "Well, this has been more than enough excitement for today. Students, it's getting close to curfew for you all, so let's leave Madam Pomfrey to her work. Miss Black, I know that the Express leaves the day after tomorrow and you will no longer have to do as I say, but please take it easy for the next few days."

"Don't worry, Professor. I plan to do nothing more strenuous than lying on a couch and reading." At least not for the first week or so. I'm just glad school's ending now rather than on Wednesday. Luna squeezed her hand again before finally letting go, and while Tracey furrowed her forehead as she stared at the younger girl, she stepped close enough to gently pat Jen's knee before departing with the rest of the group. Feeling Snape standing in the middle of the room, the Black heiress asked, "Madam Pomfrey? Could you give us a little privacy? Just for a few minutes."

The older witch glanced over the seven people and nodded. When the matron departed, Sirius turned to Snape. "What are you still here for?"

"She did not ask me to leave. Perhaps your heiress simply has a better choice in confidants than you do."

"Yes, because a slimy dungeon bat is exactly who she wants to deal with right now."

"Better someone who can keep a secret than a pig-headed, self-aggrandizing, reckless braggart."

"Boys." Both men turned to her in surprise. "Much as I hate to interrupt your little willy-waving contest, other matters are more ser—" she stopped before she made the mistake of giving Sirius an opportunity for one of his ill-timed puns "—important at this exact moment." Snatching her blank wand from the table, she rolled her professor's left sleeve up to expose the cold mark he bore on his forearm. The Head of House Black snarled much like his animal form would have at the sight. "There were two Death Eaters Voldemort mentioned who were absent from his little birthday party. One he called a coward and said would soon realize his mistake; the other he thought had 'left him forever' and would experience a fate so terrible that it would still be a horror story when my grandchildren's grandchildren are around. I don't know which one was supposed to be you, but either way, I recommend you be very careful."

For all that Snape could be an egotistical bastard, she did not want him dead. She had been in his mind, examined his thoughts when they were initially feeling each other out. Just as he knew she was blind, hence his brewing of the scar-reducing potion she had been using to regain her sight, she knew that he had been accepted into the Death Eaters due to his unappreciated spell-crafting skills. It had been a memory tinged with no little regret; apparently, he had initially believed he was joining a band of revolutionaries rather than terrorists. She doubted he would enjoy reentering the fold.

Besides, he was one of the few members of faculty who realized she was a Snake at heart, and his behavior towards her in class, which had improved immediately once he discovered she was not Sirius's daughter, became even better following the second Task. To hear Tracey talk, her treatment was on par with that of the Slytherins'.

The Potions Master had frozen the moment she uttered the Dark Lord's name, but her advice shook him back to mobility. He tugged his sleeve back down and stared at her. "So he did return; I thought as much when my Dark Mark burned for the first time in over a decade. Thank you for warning me of this." She nodded. "That said, why would you water down your story like you did if you are so sure on what happened?"

"On one hand, I could maintain a strong stance that Fudge would obviously rebuff; on the other, I could change to a weaker one that would be accepted without hesitation. In the end, which was the right choice?"

Astonishment made itself known throughout his frame. After a moment, he muttered, "I see. Preparing the Ministry even a little is better than doing nothing at all. Still, lying to the Minister of Magic?"

"Professor Snape, how could you say something like that?" She held her left hand to her heart in mock hurt. "You wound me, truly. Not once during our discussion did I speak a falsehood."

He harrumphed, though she could sense the amusement behind his action. "Do not take too much pride from deceiving him; no one has ever accused Fudge of being the brightest wand in the room." The normally dour man strode off, murmuring, "I need to have a chat with the Sorting Hat about putting people where they really belong next year…"

She smiled briefly before turning to her cousin. "Dora, Madam Bones is your boss, right?"

"Well, technically Rufus Scrimgeour is my boss and she's his, but considering she's a former Auror herself, we're welcome in her office anytime. You want me to tell her about this, I'm guessing?"

"If it wouldn't be too much trouble. I'll probably have a chat with Susan, as well, just to be absolutely sure she hears about it." Jen tossed her blank next to the bag of galleons and laid down. "Baron preserve me, I'm tired."

Sirius smirked. "Well, it isn't as if you were leading Fudge around by the nose and arranging a war effort after you won the Triwizard Tournament, to say nothing of escaping a Dark Lord's clutches. Any other orders you want to give while you're at it, Lady Black?"

"Sure. First, abdicate your position as our Head of House so that can be my official title, and second, everyone get out so I can get some rest."

"As you command. You heard her, away with you all." The other members of their family shook their heads fondly and exited. Levity leaving his face, he came to the side of her bed before gently picking up her left hand. "Now, in all honesty and seriousness, are you okay?"

She opened her mouth to dismiss his concern, but all that came out was a soft choking sound. Trying again had tears slowly streaming out of her eyes and being absorbed by the blindfold. "He was standing over me, Sirius; I was on the ground, and his wand was aimed right at my heart. He was going to kill me. If I had used the Portkey during the Task like I was supposed to, I wouldn't have been able to get away." Sirius, her family Head – her godfather, she really considered for the first time – sat next to her and pulled her into a loose hug. The reality of her narrow escape finally hitting her, she reluctantly admitted, "I'm scared."

"I know you are, Jen; I am, too. Did you know I faced off against Voldemort once during the War?" She shook her head, and he continued, "If it hadn't been for Marlene McKinnon creating a distraction and disillusioning me after he took me apart and banished me through a wall, I wouldn't be standing here today. I can't even imagine how things must have been for you."

"We landed in a cemetery…" The whole story soon came pouring out, even her conversation with the Dark Lord about his homunculus and her use of the Imperius Curse, both of which she previously planned to keep to herself. Trailing off as she recounted taking the Portkey back to the obstacle course, she slumped into the arms that had not moved even once during the grisly tale. It surprised her that she would actually trust him this much; her knowledge of black magic she had expected to take with her to the grave.

After several long moments, he sighed. "Life was simpler before Azkaban. Back then, Light was Light and Dark was Dark, I despised my family and everything it stood for, and if someone asked me whether dark magic could ever be used for anything but evil, I'd have kept a wary eye on them just in case. Now?" Fingers raked gently through her hair. "I hate that you ever had a reason to learn how to cast an Unforgivable Curse, let alone practice it enough that you could hold a Death Eater under your thrall, yet it was only that spell that let you get to safety. That isn't the only bit of dark magic you know, is it?"

Her silence was answer enough.

"I thought not." Another sigh escaped him. "You want to hear the saddest part? I can't even bring myself to care. Dark witch you may be, but you're still my heiress and my goddaughter, and that's far more important."

She slowly pulled herself away, a small smile playing on her lips. "So you're not going to make me spend the rest of my life in your old cell?"

"You'd have to share with Wormtail, and I wouldn't wish that fate on anybody." He stopped and thought for a moment. "Well, maybe Snivellus, but he's an exception."

"Thanks, Sirius." Grateful for the thick cotton winding about her head, she brushed away the few tears that had escaped to her cheeks and forced her melancholy to the back of her mind where it belonged. She had indulged herself with her brief cry, but now was not the time for a breakdown.

"You need to promise me something, though." She cocked her head at the sudden sternness of his voice. "I should tell you that the books on the Black Arts we have are off-limits entirely, but I already know that you wouldn't listen to me, and throwing them out would only delay the inevitable. You'd just convince Narcissa to take you to Knockturn Alley so you could buy replacements that you'd make sure I never found out about. Instead of causing us both ultimately pointless grief, I want your word that no matter how much you read about it, you won't ever practice necromancy. Ever, do you understand?"

"I understand. I promise I'll never practice necromancy." She would not have to, for Voodoo already had large elements of that discipline incorporated into it. A tiny shred of guilt tried to slip into her mind, but she crushed it with the ease of long practice. Much as he would hate to hear it, black magic was a part of her; she could no more give it up than she could turn back the hands of time and protect her younger, innocent self. I'm sorry, Sirius. I'll follow the letter of that vow, but nothing more. Deciding now was as good a time as any, she told him, "I'm signed up to take the ICW's Competency exam in the Dark Arts next summer."

"Knowing you, you've already made arrangements for Portkey, food, and lodging, and now just need the galleons to pay for it all." He shook his head and stood. "All right, then. If you're sure that's what you want, you have my permission, not that you really need it. Get some sleep, Jen; you've earned it."

Alone again, she allowed her smile to shine brightly. They could try her patience, they could make her want to pull her hair out, but at the end of the day, she loved her family.

Soft knocking dragged Jen's attention from her task. Sliding the chess board back in its place on the shelf, she yelled, "Come in!" The door creaked open to reveal someone she had not expected. "Viktor? Whatever are you doing here?"

"I could ask you de same ding," he replied with a short laugh. "Your friend – Tracey, vasn't it? – said I could find you here. I didn't know Hogvarts had a game room."

"Not Hogwarts, per se; I set this up to force the first year Ravenclaws and Slytherins to spend time together. We're similar enough in a number of ways that making friends with each other isn't much of a stretch."

He hummed in thought. "I von't pretend to understand all de details about dis little house var you haff at dis school, but dat makes sense enough. Vhy are you here, dough, if none of your jildren are vith you?"

"Cleaning up after the end-of-the-year party they decided to throw themselves." She jerked a thumb at the remains of the giant cake sitting in the middle of one table. "I think there was some house-elf bribery going on, but I can't blame the little brats. Help yourself if you want a slice."

"I'm tempted, but I'm afraid I don't haff de time. Ve are returning to de main campus in a short vhile." The Bulgarian athlete hesitated for a moment before pulling a flat box, long and wide as his hand, from the pocket of his robes. "I vanted to give you dese."

"Oh?" Her mouth dropped open when he removed the lid, allowing her to feel the contents. "Oh."

A smile gracing his features at her reaction, he moved next to her and delicately slipped the earrings in her ears. Three rectangular sapphires, each as large as her thumbnail and set in slim silver frames connected by short chains of the same metal, dangled in a line almost to her collarbone. Magic swirled in the jewelry to prevent them from being tarnished, broken, or stolen. She drew her blank wand and conjured a small hand mirror, cursing in her mind that she could not cancel the numbing charm on her eyes to actually see them without feeling the burn as the scar-reducing potion worked. It wasn't the Cruciatus, but it was still quite uncomfortable.

At least she had vanished her slim blindfold to the desk in her dorm before he came close enough to see it. That would have raised awkward questions.

She was not oblivious to the motivation behind his extravagant present. As she was only fourteen, nearly fifteen, she was not yet of marriageable age, but it wouldn't be too much longer before she was. Despite living twice as long as Muggles, magicals married extremely young, often within five years of their graduation. In addition, the sixteenth birthday was when it became legal to file betrothal contracts; though some Houses entered into negotiations before that time, for most people in the wizarding world, it was on that day that they began the serious search for their future spouse.

Considering there was more than a year before she started receiving proposals – or more accurately, before Sirius started receiving them in her stead as her Head of House – Viktor probably felt like he needed to do something to ensure that he would not be overlooked if or when the Animagus's joking premonition became reality and he submitted his own offer for her hand. From what Cissy and Andi had told her during lunch on the day of the Final Task when they gave her an overview of the entire process, costly gifts were the unofficial opening move in this societal game, the only one that was considered acceptable before that fateful anniversary of birth. The more desirable the young noblewoman in question, the more people would be vying for her attention, and the more presents she would receive as they tried to curry her favor. Spectacular beauties were expected and even encouraged to play the field a little, spending additional time with one suitor so that others would increase the value of their bribes, all of which were added to her dowry.

As an heiress, a dragon-slayer, and a girl with above-average looks, she was a rare prize, indeed.

Hence the price tag of the earrings she now wore. She had done a bit of digging into the life of the man before her, and she had found – much to her expectations – that the House of Krum, while Pureblood, was neither noble nor exceptionally wealthy. He was an international celebrity and therefore had money, but that was of lesser importance should his father and Sirius ever have a meeting concerning his desire for her; most Houses would only care about the reputation of the other family, not the individual. By being the first suitor to 'impress' her, however, he was giving himself a not-insignificant advantage over any future competitors. Even if she received another gift later today, he would still have the oldest claim.

As appreciative as she was of his intentions, she felt he was overlooking an incredibly important detail, not that she'd ever tell him. She was the future Head of an Ancient and Most Noble House, so it was expected that she bear children, sons especially, who could continue the line; they could not legally do that if they possessed a different surname. A betrothal contract with any noble family would eventually contain a clause that permitted her to give a daughter or a second son the name Black, but getting that would entail additional bargaining, not to mention that if she didn't produce more than one child, the wealth that her child would inherit from her would be absorbed by the family she joined. It was a dangerous gamble that she, Susan, and Tracey would all potentially have to make as the heiresses to their Houses.

Viktor, however, was again not from a noble family, and even if he were, he had an older brother to sire the next generation of Krums. He would therefore be much less adverse to taking her name as his own. Should Sirius's prediction come to pass and she did choose him as her husband, the Black line would then be safe from being absorbed into another.

Of course, this was over a year in the future, and she had no guarantee that that was, in fact, his intention. For all she knew, these earrings could be nothing more than a bribe for her silence concerning their illegal dalliance; his international fame would do little to counter accusations of 'violating' an underage girl. Returning her attention to the outside world, she said, "Thank you, they are magnificent. The colors, though, make me the slightest bit curious. Are you trying to appeal to my Ravenclaw pride?"

"No." His mouth twisted as he reconsidered his answer. "Vell, maybe a little. I cared more dat dey suited you: captivating, elegant—"

"Expensive," she added with a smile.

He shrugged. "I am Kvidditch star." A large, rough finger rose to stroke her cheek lightly, causing her to blush the slightest amount. "Spending a hundred galleons on someding beautiful is not beyond my means."

Never mind. This present is definitely to keep me interested in him over the coming year. She rose to the tips of her toes and wrapped her arms about his neck. "I'm afraid I didn't get you anything in return, but I can probably be convinced to give you a kiss if you really want it."

"Dat sounds vonderful, but dere is someding else I vant." Jen cocked her head curiously. "Your eyes. I haff yet to see dem."

"You haven't? What about when we slept together?"

"Ne, you kept dem shut vhen ve vere resting, and de rest of de time… I had odder dings on my mind." Moving slowly to give her ample opportunity to deny him, he brushed her hair from in front of her face to reveal her closed eyelids. She grinned at his playful groan and finally opened them. "Prekrasni," he muttered before bending down to steal a small peck. "Vhy do you hide dem? I vould dink you vould vant de whole vorld to see your beauty."

"Let's just say it will cause some trouble that I wanted to avoid this year." She brushed her fringe back in place. A shrill whistle pierced the air, causing him to sigh. "It's time for you to leave, isn't it?"

"Da. I vill see you again, dough, yes?"

"June thirtieth of next year," she promised. Another blast of sound came from the Durmstrang ship, and she, too, sighed before stepping away. "Until then, I guess."

Viktor nodded, then advanced another step and planted a burning kiss on her lips. "Until den," he echoed as he ran from the room.

Try as she might, she could not stop the laugh that escaped her. "That damn man just has to have the last word."

Albus looked over the swarm of students stuffing themselves silly at the yearly leaving feast, debating whether to announce the return of Voldemort before they all headed back to their homes and families the next day. Cornelius was being obstinate, but the short man was always going to resist anything that threatened to upset his comfortable view of the world. He would simply have to keep pushing the Minister.

Of course, my job wouldn't be half as difficult if she hadn't changed her story half-way through. He aimed a gimlet stare at the dark-haired brat sitting at the Ravenclaw table and acting as if she belonged among the other children. The girl had seemingly done everything she could to make his life difficult: reuniting the House of Black, converting Sirius to the Dark, creating a wedge in the Potter family, portraying Danny as a weakling. Turning the Minister against him was just one more hurdle she had set up, but sadly he could not convince himself that she had caused the last intentionally.

No, Jenny Potter had recanted her story at the first sign of trouble simply because she was a coward. Cornelius had expressed disbelief at her tale, and rather than soldier on, she had agreed with him and soothed his ruffled feathers. When faced with the choice between doing what was right and doing what was easy, she had taken the path of least resistance and least cost to herself.

It was more than clear to him now why, despite her heritage, the girl was not a Gryffindor. Godric would have been rolling in his grave had a craven, aspiring Dark Lady borne his emblem.

Danny wouldn't have crumbled like that; he would have told the truth no matter how much it might hurt him in the short term. Unfortunately, now she has cost us the lone advantage we were given. Tom wasn't prepared for us to already know he was back; he still has to rebuild his position among his followers and catch up on what changed during the years he was hiding in Albania. Oh, why couldn't it have been Danny facing Tom rather than his sister?

He sighed and shook his head. Dwelling on bygone possibilities would get him nowhere, not when he had to come up with some way to open Cornelius's eyes. Perhaps a speech to the entire Wizengamot informing them of the situation was in order? He would have to think on it.

"If you all will excuse me, I need to head to the lavatory. Jen, you mind coming along?"

The black witch huffed good-naturedly and shifted Luna away from her side where the younger girl had eventually settled before falling asleep much earlier in the trip. "I swear, you must have a bladder the size of a pea if you can't hold it for another half-hour."

Nevertheless, she followed her best friend out the door and down the train carriage. The pair slipped into the small room, and Jen pursed her lips as she felt Tracey lay down a multitude of privacy charms. "Sorry about that," the Snake said while turning back to the Ravenclaw, "but I needed to talk to you away from the others."

"Oh? Whatever about?" she asked, allowing the curse she had prepared to dissipate into empty air. Her encounter with Voldemort two days previously still had her on a bit of a hair-trigger.

Tracey licked her lips nervously. "It's about Lovegood. I think… I think she fancies you." Leaning against the wall, Jen waved her hand for the other girl to continue. "I noticed it when you were brought to the hospital wing after the Task; she immediately grabbed onto your hand and kept hold of it the whole time we were there. She acted like that after the other Tasks, too, in hindsight, but not nearly as dramatically. I would guess that you noticed her glaring at those giant earrings yesterday considering you took them out shortly afterwards, and then at the leaving feast, she was practically sitting in your lap. I wouldn't be surprised if she purposely stayed up all night just so she could cuddle next to you and fall asleep on the way here—"

"I doubt the last part; either of us might have done that had we been in her shoes, but it seems a tad too underhanded for her." Tracey frowned and nodded in agreement. "That said, I had noticed these things, along with a few others you aren't privy to, and reached the same conclusion. I'm curious why you felt the need to bring it up, however; do you have a problem with lesbians?"

The snarky girl shook her head emphatically at that. "No, no. I mean, I wouldn't want her lusting after me, but just the fact that she's fond of other girls? None of my business, really. As for why I brought it up, I didn't think you already knew, and there's no predicting what she'd do when she decided to tell you. She is Lovegood, after all."

"I would think after a year of knowing her as more than a face in the crowd you'd have realized that, contrary to popular belief, she's not crazy."

"Crazy, no, but socially inept?" Jen shrugged weakly at the rebuttal; much as she liked the quirky third-year, there was not much she could do to argue that point. "Not to mention, if you didn't know, you could have accidentally led her on, which would cause all sorts of drama I really don't want to have to watch." Her eyebrows furrowing, Tracey continued, "But you said you had already figured all that out. Are you encouraging her crush?"

"I might be. To use a Quidditch analogy, I have been known to play both sides of the pitch when it suits me," she elaborated at her friend's curiosity.

"Huh. How did I not realize that?"

"Because I, unlike many other people, know how to keep my mouth shut. Also, I never made a pass at you." A sharp gesture tore down Tracey's avoidance charms and opened the door to the empty corridor. "It's a good thing that extra-marital partners are practically expected for those of us in arranged marriages, isn't it?"

Walking out of the lavatory, she smiled as she heard Tracey's whisper. "Merlin and Morgana, whoever you end up married to is going to be the happiest guy in the whole damn world."

Sirius barely restrained himself from pacing anxiously as the Hogwarts Express rolled to a stop, his self-control aided by the stern glare Narcissa pinned him with every time he fidgeted. Her coldness was excusable; with Voldemort resurrected and her husband one of his main lieutenants, her home life had rapidly become quite tense. I almost wish the snake bastard had chosen to move into her manor; at least then we would know where he was. Merlin, if Lucius would even confirm that he's back, we'd be in better shape! He's being cautious, though, and I can't say that that doesn't scare me more than if he was out raising hell. What could he be up to?

It did not help that while Jen twisting the truth ever so slightly had increased the DMLE presence on the platform, even gaining them a pair of Aurors slouched against the back wall, the change was minimal. Sirius did not know if Fudge had decided the 'Voldemort wannabe' wasn't as much as a threat as he initially thought, if Lucius had slipped enough gold into the corrupt Minister's pocket to make him 'forget', or if Amelia Bones had dismissed the claim entirely, but there was no sign that anyone was preparing for a conflict with even a rabble of dark wizards, let alone a Dark Lord.

"Andi, did Dora say anything to Bones?"

"She sent a memo yesterday and received a reply about an hour later, from what she told me," the brunette replied. "Apparently it was just a standard 'Thank you for bringing this to my attention' form letter. She hadn't heard anything more about it as of her lunch break today."

That's what I was afraid of. The phoenix feather he had found that morning on the kitchen table weighed heavily in his pocket. He knew what it meant; the Order was soon to be reactivated if it weren't already. Unfortunately, he was torn on whether he would rejoin the vigilante organization. As he knew from personal experience, war wasn't a game. Just a moment of inattention could mean losing everything, and this time, he had much more to lose than he once had. The other Blacks were counting on him to lead them, and while he knew that Voldemort taking over would spell their doom, he couldn't get the image of lifeless bodies – Jen's, Andi's, Ted's, Dora's, even Narcissa's – out of his mind. For the first time in his life, he respected the effort Arcturus had exerted to keep their House officially neutral.

The Death Eaters, the Order, and potentially the Ministry, all moving in secret and trying their hardest not to let anyone else know what they're doing. I can already tell that this is a recipe for disaster.

The Slytherin-like instincts he had been forced to develop over the past eighteen months of dealing with the Wizengamot chose that moment to rear their heads and raise yet another question in his mind. After Dumbledore's behavior over the past year towards the girl he could not love more were she his own flesh and blood, he had little trust left in the old man, but that wizard was the leader of the Order, of the Light that would stand against Voldemort. If I do decide to rejoin the Order, if I do stand by Dumbledore again, what will be the cost? And more importantly, who will have to pay it?

He was shaken from his thoughts when he finally spotted Jen exiting the train, her raven familiar perched on her shoulder and a blonde and brunette on her left and right. His raised hand caused her to nod in his direction before she turned to say something to the other Ravenclaw at her side.

A flash of red in his peripheral vision caught his attention, and turning to search for it found him staring directly into Lily's tearful green eyes as she stood some ten feet away. She held his gaze for a moment before glancing to Jen. When she looked back at him, the sorrow was gone, replaced by a tired kind of strength, the same appearance he had seen numerous times during the last war. Mouthing "Take care of her", she stepped backwards and melted into the bustling crowd.

I would have even if you hadn't asked me to, but I can't describe how glad I am that if I do ever fail in that regard, she can take care of herself just fine. Shaking himself from his morbid thoughts, he reached out and dragged Jen the last foot to his side. "You ready to head out?"

"Yeah," she said, readjusting her grip on her trunk. "Let's go home."

Prekrasni: Beautiful

Just so we're clear, Viktor/Jen is NOT the definite final pairing. Their scene was primarily to elaborate some of the cultural rules in the magical community regarding betrothal contracts, an institution we're all at least somewhat familiar with thanks to fanfiction. Jen, being both an heiress and more politically aware than her canon counterpart, has a much greater incentive to learn about this topic than Harry had.

After seventeen months, this book is finally done. That's not to say that the story is over, however; Jen's adventures will continue next month in Black Princess Ascendant. See you guys then!

Silently Watches out.