"The hard part about being a bartender is figuring out who is drunk and who is just stupid".

Richard Braunstein

Chapter 8

Of Billywigs and Butterbeer

"Al? Alex, wake up. Can you hear me? This isn't funny, you bint. Now wake up . . ."

Alexandrea McKay had been carried into the boys' tent and was now lying soundlessly on Ron's mattress. She wasn't dead – they could see her chest rise and fall with each deep breath. Nevertheless, the five boys circled around the bed, each of their minds whirling madly for ideas of what to do next. The fire-haired Weasley twin had been doing most of the talking. He leaned over the bed, wiping his face with a dirty sleeve, and spewed out a delicate combination of swears and pleas.

"This isn't your fault, Fred," George muttered, clamping a hand on his twin's shoulder. It looked as though Fred was in need of that extra word of encouragement. "Tell us again what happened."

Fred took in a shaky breath and then slowly exhaled. "We were jogging up by that group of caves – up on top of that hill in back of us, you know. Thought we saw Ron and Harry around there." His eyes closed tightly, as if he was trying to paint the picture in his mind. "Started joking about how much Mum would kill us if we lost them – but Al stopped. Went pale as a ghost, she did. Said something bit her and then she just . . . fainted."

"Something bit her?" Lee raised a suspicious eyebrow.

"Er . . . yeah." Fred absentmindedly wiped away a stream of sweat which had begun to collect above his right eyebrow. "A little blue bug crawled out of one of her boots. Spinning like a little tornado, it was. Never seen anything like that before."

"Hagrid hasn't brought anything like that to class," Ron mused. "It's probably not dangerous, then."

"Doesn't sound much like anything from around here," George commented. "Unless one of Glasgow's nuclear plants have been letting out a bit more radiation than usual. That would certainly make things bright blue and spin like a tornado."

"I wish I was blue."

Five sets of eyes snapped towards the bed, taking in the sight of Alexandrea McKay sitting straight up on the mattress. She had a wild, wolf-like grin smeared across her face, her missing eye tooth bared proudly. She was swaying softly, as if she held some sort of inner ear problem which threw off her balance. Evidence of trouble, however, sprouted from her eyes – usually dark and lively, they were now rendered grey and completely misted over.

"Alex?" Fred took a step away from his friend with a mix of shock and acute fear. "Are you . . . alright?"

Alexandrea blinked her cloudy eyes, staring at Fred with interest. After what felt like several minutes of intense concentration, the girl's face suddenly contorted into a frozen wince. She then threw her head back in hysteric laughter, each cackle echoing through the tent.

"Maybe you should . . . lie down for a bit, Alex," Harry suggested, though he truly doubted that would help at this point.

As if jolted to life by an electrical current, Alexandrea jumped to her feet and thrust her fist into the air. "Freedom!" she squealed with exuberance. Without any words from the boys, the young witch leaped out of the tent and bolted into the darkness.

"Suffering from brain damage, I reckon," George said bluntly.

"She did hit the ground pretty damn hard." Fred scratched the back of his head, completely nonplussed. "Might've knocked a few screws loose."

"The good news is," George continued knowingly, taking a seat on Ron's mattress, "I doubt anyone will notice the difference."

"Piss off, the both of you." Lee crossed his arms. "Al's not crazy."

There was a pause just long enough to hear Alexandrea wail and howl like a spider monkey in heat.

Ron delicately finished Lee's train of thought. "No, not crazy," he said, and then turned towards his brothers. "She's bloody stark raving mad."

"It has to be that bug," Harry remarked. "That's the only real explanation, isn't it? I just wish we knew what it was."

"Tis' a Billywig, you silly little fruit."

Deciding to grace the boys with her presence once again, Alexandrea threw the tent flaps open with absolute flourish. Mud caked her hands, looking very much like a gravedigger after a hard night on the job. To complete the ensemble, a branch of a local elm was strung through her short hair, giving her two leafy antlers.

"Alex," Ron said very slowly, taking a step backwards. He had never dealt with the insane before. Though, he had lived with Fred and George for all sixteen years of his life. That should count for something. "You really know what kind of bug that was?"

"Tis' a Billywig! Wait a moment." Alexandrea furrowed her brow in confusion. "Didn't I just say that?"

"They're not poisonous, are they?" Fred asked.

"Deadly poisonous. Filled to the eyes with neurotoxins," Alexandrea replied cheerfully as she stumbled into the tent. "You're dead in ten minutes and purifying in thirteen. Were you bitten?"

"No." Fred shook his head furiously. "Alex, you were bitten."

"Bitten?" Alexandrea gasped with horror. "Bitten by what?"

"A Billywig!"

"Oh." Alexandrea gave Fred a little indigent shove. "I thought you said it was something poisonous. Worst thing a Billywig can do is make you levitate, eh?"

"So," Lee started again, trying to straighten things up a bit, "you're sure that Billywigs aren't poisonous?"

Alexandrea gave Lee a blank stare. "What's a Billywig?"

"Right then. That's enough of that." George rubbed the side of his face in exhaustion, not wanting to continue the endless strain. Even Abbot and Costello would spontaneously combust with this sort of nonsense floating around. "Al, you just need to sit down for a while. Let your head settle before I settle it for you."

With her manic grin growing nastier, Alexandrea pounced onto the mattress next to George. She moved in closer, edging her way onto the blue-haired Weasley's lap. "Well, aren't you a nasty bit of crumpet," the young witch cooed while pinching George's cheek. "Buy me a drink and I'm all yours."

Ron snorted out loud, quite amused with the whole spectacle. "A whole lot of blackmail could come of this," he commented.

"A bit too much, if you ask me," George replied flatly as Alexandrea began to nuzzle his ear with her crooked nose. "Oh sweet Lord. Would you piss off?"

With a disgusted shove, Alexandrea tumbled off the bed and rolled to the ground. She lay there on her back for several moments, looking up at the tent's ceiling as all five boys peered down at her with equal interest. She didn't blink. Not once. This was not without lack of effort, however – her eyelids were twitching madly in a sort of open-eyed REM, desperately trying to close themselves.

"Blow this for a lark," She said suddenly, jumping back to her feet. "There's pissing good times elsewhere, lads. I'm off."

And indeed she was (In both a metaphysical and physical sense). The boys watched as Alexandrea battled the tent flaps once more and, barely winning the fight, marched out underneath the stars.

"Well then." Ron blinked, eyes glued to the place where Alexandrea last stood. "This is an interesting turn of events."

"Ten quid says she's dead by morning," Lee provided.

"We should follow her," Harry said, his hand moving into his wand pocket. "For all we know, the poison might make her explode. Or worse."

"Worse than exploding? You've got a bugger of an imagination on you, Harry." George tossed on a cloak, giving his twin a little nudge. "Where d'you reckon she'll be off to, Fred?"

"The way she's acting?" The fire-haired Weasley raised his eyebrows, giving off a knowing look. "Off some place to grab a good drought, I 'spect."

"A pub?" Lee gave a nervous little chuckle as he followed his companions outside. "Make it twenty quid. Two to one odds."

The Three Broomsticks wasn't one of England's most rowdy of pubs. Fights never broke out, and the chance of someone getting smacked up-side the head with a chair was less then slim. Of course, if getting bludgeoned over the head with something heavy is your idea of entertainment, you could certainly find better amusement at The Hog's Head, The Bucket, or The Queen's Arrow.

Indeed, Madam Rosmerta ran a respectable little pub which attracted family, friends and Hogwartians alike. The Madam made sure that her cliental were as well rounded as her drinks; the soused who only sought to turn 'Happy Hour' into a 'Tanked One Hundred and Eighty Minutes' would quickly receive the pointy end of Madam Rosmerta's high-heeled boots.

She hated leaving the Three Broomsticks. She even refused to take vacations off – the last time she did, the Madam returned to find her pub overrun by livestock (apparently a shepherd had stayed for a couple rounds, forgetting that he was still on the clock). She felt most comfortable when the Broomsticks was safely under her thumb, but family emergencies always seemed to pop up now and again. That night, she was attending the second funeral of her grandmother (It turned out that Nanny Rosemetra wasn't quite dead the first time), leaving her two apprentice barmen to watch the place.

Downey Trinket and James Folsom, general grammar school graduates and all-around scum bags, held high one credo whenever the Madam had disappeared from their sights: 'Where there be drinks, there be high-paying drunks'.

Smalls and Doughnut Jimmy (as they were called by the local patrons) wasted no time moulding the Madam's precious pub after their own soggy hearts. The Three Broomsticks soon became a haven for anyone whose ears couldn't help but perk up when someone uttered the sacred words of 'Quidditch' and 'Ale'. That night, the Broomsticks was stuffed to the brim with streamers, pendants, and pints. Smalls had bewitched the entire wall, from the edge of the bar to the men's loos, to receive feedback from the International Quidditch Cup game. Pub goers could watch the game as they sat and drank till their hearts' content. All eyes stayed glued to the Goblins and the Meteorites players as they flew across walls, over mugs, and (if some bloke left the door to the loo open for too long) around the toilets.

The yells and whoops of the Broomstick's enthusiastic Quidditch fans acted as a glowing beacon, feeding Alexandrea McKay's moth-like tendencies. Harry, Lee, and the three Weasley siblings watched from the doorway as Alexandrea shuffled through the crowd inside of the Three Broomsticks. She stopped suddenly, her dilated pupils catching sight of the magic hologram of a Meteorite Chaser zooming past with a Quaffle under his arm. Giving a little squeal of unadulterated joy, Alexandrea plopped down at a free table, the five boys following suit behind her.

"I 'spose a couple of butterbeers won't hurt the situation any," Fred mused, his glance travelling around to the far wall. "And at least we get to see the Quidditch game. Nice choice, Al."

Alexandrea, however, had her attention set straight forward on the game in front of him. She absentmindedly pulled the branch out of her hair and, with the precision of a well-seasoned beaver, began to gnaw on the end of it.

Ron bit his lower lip. "I don't know," he said slowly. "Maybe, you know, we should take Alex to an apothecary – just in case."

"She's not exploding." George gave a shrug, his eyes caught by two Goblins' Beaters in hot pursuit of a Meteorite Chaser. "She doesn't seem to mind, does she?"

"And she's not," Fred yanked the branch out of Alexandrea's mouth, "doing anything horribly strange, eh?"

Harry motioned towards the witch in the seat next to his own. "She's levitating, Fred."

"Oh. Right then."

And indeed, Alexandrea was hovering a good ten centimetres above her seat. She seemed too busy to notice, however. Her branch forgotten, she took to examining the mystery of her hands.

"Look," she said, her dark eyes greying with fog. "They can touch everything . . . but themselves."

There was silence at the table. Harry looked around, making sure that no one else was paying attention to the levitating witch, then tugged down on the mystified Alexandrea's robes, helping her take a seat back on earth.

"Erm . . . yes," Fred said finally as he began to get out of his seat. "Medical professionalism sounds spot on, actually. Where d'you reckon –"

"'S a pub, gents," crowed a voice behind them. "Yez order a pint or get yer sorry arses outta here."

Doughnut Jimmy was never one for customer courtesy. Nor was he one for patience. Or a comb, for that matter.

Harry bit his lower lip. His eyes glanced around the table, then stuck on Alexandrea. With her hands under the table and forgotten, her stare was picked up by a pint of red ale which sat on the table next to them. The witch's already wide eyes grew even wider, as if she was a small child taking in the inventory of a sweet shop. Harry knew that if they left now without a drink, Alexandrea make sure that the next few hours were a living hell for the boys. And, with her current state of mind factoring in, that could potentially be dangerous.

"A round of butterbeers, then." George picked up, apparently thinking along the same lines as Harry. It was better to let Alexandrea have her fun than suffer her wrath.

Doughnut Jimmy squinted his beady eyes, as if he was uncertain of what he had just heard. The prospect ran around his head for a while. He then burst into a fit of laughter, the nostrils of his long and freckled nose flaring with each guffaw.

"Oi'm wearing a dress, am Oi?" he choked out, wiping fake tears from his eyes.

Harry, Lee, and the Weasley siblings shook their heads quickly. The idea of a dress hanging off of Doughnut Jimmy's gawky frame wasn't the most attractive of ideas.

"Then yez know Oi'm not Rosmerta," Doughnut Jimmy continued. "'S like Oi seys before, this here's a pub. Least it is when Rosey's gone. Smalls 'n' Oi cleared out all the butterbeer nonsense so we could make room fer the extra ales and lagers. 'S Quidditch season, mates. 'N yer a wee bit young, Oi fink, fer what Smalls has behind the bar."

Harry glanced behind him at the till. Smalls, he decided, was quite an ironic nickname for the barman. Mr. Trinket was a behemoth, his shoulders spanning the entire length of the bar. He was meticulously cleaning a mug, cheese cloth scrubbing harshly in his meaty hands.

"Smalls don't serve kiddies," Doughnut repeated, though he looked barely over the drinking age himself. "D'ya, Smalls?"

The large black man let out a growl. Harry took that as a no.

Alexandrea, who had apparently decided to join the realm of the sane for a bit, stood up suddenly, grabbing a hold of the front of Doughnut Jimmy robes and pulling him down to her height. "What about you?" she asked, her teeth bared.

Doughnut Jimmy's mouth hung open a bit. Harry doubted that his face had ever been that close to a representative of the female species. "Wha?"

"D'you serve kiddies?" Alexandrea pulled the young barman closer. His long nose tangoed with her crooked one. "Because this kiddie is damn thirsty."

"Yer . . . yer soused already," Doughnut Jimmy stuttered. He was either deathly afraid or couldn't believe his luck. The latter was most likely. He'd have to tell Smalls that the boyish charm he claimed to always have was finally kicking in.

Alexandrea raised an eyebrow. Her feet began to hover a couple of centimetres off the ground.

"Bitten by a Billywig," Lee corrected quickly.

"Oi fink 's just as bad." Doughnut Jimmy mumbled.

"Reckon it is," Alexandrea growled.

"If you get drink in ya," the young barman swallowed a lump forming at the back of his throat, "than 'bloody soused' would be a bleeding understatement."

"The more drinks I have in me," Alexandrea warned, letting go of the barman's collar, "the more attractive you'll seem to be. Am I right?"

Doughnut Jimmy blinked. Twice. His mouth fluttered to find the right words, but settled instead for the ever-charming expression of, "Er . . ."

And, before Harry knew it, young James "Doughnut" Folsom, let the better part of his hormones lead him forward and bolted to the back of the till. Soon afterwards, in what may have been the quickest bar service in the history of England, six pints of golden lager sat foaming on the table.

"Gotta admit." Lee pulled a mug towards him. "This place has spirit. Cheers, Al."

But Alexandrea had apparently slipped into her own Billywig-induced world again. She held her hands in front of her as if she had paused in mid-clap. "Everything," she repeated. "Everything but themselves."

Ron and Harry carefully watched as the three older boys quickly started through their pints, ignoring the apparent lack of sanity the table had gained.

"Mum wouldn't like this one," Ron murmured.

Fred rolled his eyes, foam sitting delicately on the end of his nose. "Thanks for the advice, Percy," he scathed. "Sweet Jesus, Ronnikins, take a bloody pisser."

"We're not doing anything horrible, are we?" George asked rhetorically. "Never ordered these drinks, did we?"

"No." Ron glanced at the mug in front of him. "But –"

"Bit of fun, that's all," Lee said. "We've got to wait for Alex to settle down, anyways. Why waste the free brew until then?"

"You only have a couple more days until you're stuck under Hogwarts' thumb." Fred gave the two younger Hogwartians a large grin. "Taste the world while you can, lads."

Ron and Harry exchanged looks with one another, then slowly let their collective glace slip back to Alexandrea. The young levitating witch had her already empty mug balanced on her head as she began to thumb wrestle herself, two hands locked in an epic battle.

"Buggrit," Alexandrea muttered to herself. "Damn the twigger f'r'a bang at the fusel, and shrimp, 'cas the worm's on the other boot. Yep, see if he don't . . ."

At that point, Doughnut Jimmy would be looking extremely attractive to her.

Harry shrugged, lifting the mug which had been set in front of him. "Cheers," he said with a grin.

She sat underneath an aging oak tree, musing over the world which had darkened around her.

Of course, the world had been rendered static in the realm of darkness for a long time now. Little had changed between the era of the Dark Arts and the present. There was still an underground group of restless Death Eaters waiting for the next set of plans from the Dark Lord. And there was still a select few brave souls who risked their lives everyday to push back the shadows. If the mortal world stood in the balance, then Evil and Good were most certainly on the opposite ends of the see-saw.

The only difference between then and now? She had no one by her side this time around.

And Evil was beginning to let its feet drag in the sand, letting Good dangle helplessly on its end of the see-saw.

Wind blowing strains of hair into her dry eyes, she got to her feet and started down the path towards Hogsmeade. The last time she had visited this town, it had been a battlefield. The screams of terror still echoed in the back of her mind. She had killed here, erasing lives with out a second thought.

The ghosts of darkness haunted her now more than ever before.

Now time had started to repeat itself. The oracle, Fudge claimed, had gained contact with others. Two more of her kind. She thought she would be the last – prayed that she would be the last.

God might as well have flipped her The Bird.

The first building she happened across was the smutty pub, the Hog's Head. Even though the atmosphere was less then pleasant, she remembered that she rather enjoyed spending many chaotic nights here with her companions over a pint or two. Or three.

Of course, she had killed two of her companions.

One had troubles of his own to deal with, let alone drag around her tribulations with him.

Another had joined the shadows.

The last . . . he was dead to her.

They were all dead to her, but he . . . he wounded her the most. She supposed she loved him at one brief point in her life, but that all was long forgotten. The feeling was never to be pondered over again. No matter what she said or did, he was gone.

Down the dark street, cloak swirling around her like a swarm of ravens, she made her way through town. The only noise came from the family pub at the end of the path. The Three Broomsticks was the only building that dared to cause a joyous racket at this dark hour. It was sad how naïve they were.

They had no idea what was coming.

She entered the Three Broomsticks, not seeing who she was searching for right away. The place was a cesspool of Quidditch and its admirers. Apparently, it was a wonderful day to be a Goblins fan. The team captain, clad in red and white, was making his rounds of the pitch while hoisting a large golden cup incrusted with raw emeralds. The roar of the crowd echoed around the small pub, muffling all other conversations. There was one voice, however, which rose above them all.

She snapped to attention, her head jerking towards the sound of the familiar voice. There they were . . . six children who didn't seem to have a care in the world. Her eyes narrowed and a small growl of anger crackling down her throat.

They shouldn't be here. Something was amiss outside, and they were all in grave danger.

Of course, now that she had them in her sight, they were in even more danger.

Her black robes sweeping the floor with a dark shadow, she made her way across the pub and stood behind the children's table. They were all tanked, glancing dizzily around the room as their minds spun out of control. Only one even bothered to make eye contact. He stared at her with aloof interest. She met his glance with narrow eyes. The boy winced suddenly, clamping a hand over his forehead in abrupt pain.

Then she remembered that she had to watch her temper with this one. His head could explode if she let her powers get the best of her.

She took the first boy by the arm, pulling him to his feet. "You've got to go now," she called to the rest of the table.

Surprisingly, the six didn't put up much of a fight. They were much too tired and their minds were too deeply dipped in fog to reject her direction. She led them out of the pub and herded them down the road to their campsite. They each crawled into their tents, each one saying a special round of curse words to their pounding headaches.

She waited outside for a while after the children were safely to bed. There, like a gothic gargoyle, she sat perched on a moulding log. There were so many questions she needed to ask them. So many warnings she could give. But now all she could do was take out her wand and cast a protective circle which would help them through the night. It would save them now, but tomorrow would be different.

Tomorrow was a full moon.

Tomorrow their world would begin to crumble.