I really appreciate Ancient and Forever's comment (I share your opinion about readers' expectations) and Jediprankster's review. The point about Fidelius had been an error on my side and you're correct about the untrustworthiness of the "address on a slip of paper" idea. I would prefer the regulation: someone who knows the address has to accompany you on your first visit personally. The idea about Moody is interesting. I have to think about that.
Hogsmeade – 19th of November
"Perhaps this decision had been a mistake." Headmaster Dumbledore sighed dejectedly and leaned back, crunching one of his infamous lemon drops while his eyes, with a distinct lack of twinkles at the moment, rested on his guest.
"No, I don't think so," his guest responded, confidently and a bit grumpily. "Naturally we can't expect him to win in the end, but I'm sure that he'll do quite well. And it will be interesting to see how he'll fare in comparison to the other Champions, especially Mister Diggory. The three years of age difference is too much for him to win, but the opportunity to see him undergoing serious tests is simply too great to pass."
Dumbledore drummed his fingers on the table, not looking completely convinced. "But he's spending the day in Hogsmeade instead of preparing for the first task. I've spoken with Minerva and Filius about his spell arsenal and I don't see a convincing way for him to be able to complete the task successfully."
His guest suppressed his urge to roll his eyes. There was a suitable tactic but with Dumbledore's concentrating on spells only and not the whole Potter-package it was no surprise that he didn't see the simple solution.
"He still has five days for preparation. This night he'll learn about the specifics of the task. I spoke with Hagrid about our 'guests' and he'll take Harry to the dragon area. I'm positive that he'll be able to find a way. And he always has Miss Granger at his side as an advisor."
Dumbledore nodded: "Miss Granger is exceptionally good at finding solutions. But Harry simple hasn't the arsenal of spells I expect from the older Champions. If only he was a year older or two."
His guest breathed deeply a few times, struggling to suppress his annoyance. For someone who was planning to send this boy into a battle with the Dark Lord, the Headmaster was awfully afraid to risk Potter's life against a simple dragon. Perhaps the rumours were correct about Dumbledore planning to use Potter as a sacrificial lamb at the right moment. What else could be the reason that nobody – aside from Lupin last year – was willing to teach Potter how to develop his obvious talent?
"We have a last trump card," he responded. "Ludo Bagman… he's very interested in Harry's victory. He knows about the task and after his arrival in two days he'll speak with him about potential tactics."
Dumbledore nodded with relief. The thought that Bagman, as part of the committee, wasn't allowed to speak with the Champions about the nature of the tasks, much less about possible tactics, never crossed his mind. "Why is he interested in Harry's victory?"
"He lost quite an amount of money at the Quidditch Finals and now he's highly indebted. As a last way out he made a bet on Harry's victory. Without a victory Bagman will be broken."
A happy smile played around Dumbledore's lips. Nothing was better than a motivated ally.
As his guest left his seat Dumbledore stopped him with a last question: "Are you certain that nobody…"
"Nobody," his guest interrupted him. "My meddling with the goblet is not traceable and while there is a rumour about you being part of this, nobody seems to expect my hand doing your work. I avoid speaking with Harry about the matter since I planted the idea in his mind that some Deatheater wanted him in the tournament to kill him." Not a hint of a smile was visible despite his exhilaration about the whole matter. He certainly wanted to kill Harry, but not in the expected way. "With his traditional enmity with Snape it wasn't even required to call a name. No, Albus, Harry has no idea what's going on." And neither do you, he smiled inwardly.
"Drink this," Agatha pushed a small vial into Sirius' hand, while the rest of the group prepared to leave the room. They had decided to spend the next hour shopping before they went to 'Gladrag's Wizardwear'.
Sirius, who had intended to turn into his Animagus form again, stared at the vial with a puzzled look. "It is Polyjuice Potion. You'll appear as one of my co-workers. Please don't do anything stupid, I really don't want to get him into trouble."
With a smile he accepted the vial and seconds later, after Agatha customized his clothes, a bald man around forty left the room with the group.
"Wolfsbane, now Polyjuice," Hermione wondered, her questions directed at Agatha, "Where did you get those potions?"
"Has Harry never told you what I do for a living?"
"No," Hermione shook her head, "I always assumed you would…" The girl blundered for a moment and blushed.
"You assumed I spend my days as a lady without any real purpose," Agatha smiled softly. "Sipping my tea and hawking around while I lash my house elves from time to time." Her grin broadened. "HerDo you really think I could exist without something to occupy my mind?"
Hermione stared thoughtfully at the elder woman: "No, not really. You're too similar to Professor McGonagall."
For a moment the girl feared that she said something wrong as Agatha tensed for a second. But then the woman relaxed again: "I'll take that as a compliment. But back to your question: I'm one of the three owners of a small enterprise. A Muggle would call us a research laboratory, I assume. We have three branches – Charms, Transfigurations and Potions – and our focus is on healing matters. Potion selling isn't a standard part of our business but possible in a small amount."
"And you're responsible for Transfiguration I assume?" On Agatha's short nod Hermione asked: "And what about Roxanne? Is she working there too?"
"No, to my regret she isn't interested in the occupation of a researcher. At the moment she's mostly lady and mother," Agatha smirked shortly "but I hope she'll return to her real vocation in a few years, after the graduation of Daphne and Astoria." Hermione still looked a bit puzzled and Agatha explained: "She's really awesome at the healing arts. The early birth of Daphne denied her the chance to finish her apprenticeship but I hope that she'll go on. Did you know that she's spending part of her time working through a distance learning class of Muggle medicine? Without the practical parts she'll never reach any degree but Roxanne is very interested in the theoretical part."
"You seem on edge, Harry," Hermione asked her friend after they left the inn. The information she just got about Roxanne was another proof of the differences between Roxanne and Cyrus Greengrass. Hermione felt totally clueless how Roxanne was able to endure a marriage with this kind of a man. Pure physical avoidance could be the only reason, the pure size of Pinegrew Manor working in her favour.
"Didn't you see them?" Harry asked back a bit grumbling. "Rita Skeeter was there in the taproom, sitting with some students." He sighed and was irritated obviously. "Ron and Ginny were at her table. This can't be good. Do you remember the last article she wrote about me?"
Hermione looked horrified. Yes, she remembered how Rita Skeeter had used the small interview after the Champions' selection to diffuse lies about Harry and his 'cheating'. Back then she had felt the urge to hit the woman with some nasty curses and that urge hadn't diminished since then. Luckily for her she was out of sight now. "Perhaps she's writing about me this time," she tried to joke.
Harry shook his head, but at least a small smile crept on his face: "I hope not."
The group of Slytherins spelled trouble. To Hermione's relief the presence of the accompanying adults caused Draco and his cronies to act not too openly insulting but still…
Crabbe and Goyle were at his side, Theodore Nott glared at them, especially Hermione – his expression proving a bit the point Daphne had made about him an hour ago. And then there were Astoria, hiding a bit behind her fiancé but at least smiling a small smile at her mother and Grandma, and Pansy Parkinson with Millicent Bulstrode at her side.
Every boy wore one of those awful badges spelling 'support Cedric' that changed into 'Potter stinks' with a finger's tap. Naturally they did just that now, smirking broadly, apparently content with their intellectual achievement. Astoria had the dignity to hide her badge behind the collar of her robe while Pansy and Millicent seemed to be no part of this harassing. Millicent even snipped away some invisible dust from her robe to prove that there wasn't any badge hidden and smiled shortly at Daphne. The black-haired beauty reciprocated the smile and curtly nodded towards Pansy before she followed her mother again.
"I heard from Padma that he paid some Ravenclaws to fabricate those badges," Neville whispered. "A few of her housemates refused the idea but apparently he found someone who was willing to sell himself to that snake-git."
"Whoever fabricated them," Daphne said with a smirk, "should be careful. Idiocy is contagious." The smirk left her face as she looked back, her eyes searching for her sister.
"She's only wearing that badge to support her fiancé," Harry tried to soothe her inner turmoil. "Astoria showed her true colours very clearly in the Great Hall."
Daphne nodded weakly, the glimmer of tears in her eyes troubling Harry greatly. "I want my sweet sister back, without all those stupid Malfoy-ish ideas in her mind."
"I'll help you," Harry reassured her, his arm shortly slipping around Daphne's shoulders.
The groups had parted with the girls bending their steps towards the local bookshop while the boys hoped to find something worthwhile in the Quidditch shop. Tonks, according to her task to protect Harry, was accompanying the boys and it was her face that was the target of Narcissa Malfoys' pondering stare.
Narcissa had just left the shop where she had been looking for another Christmas present as she nearly tumbled over the incoming customers. Her hands manicured, the blond hair in perfect order, the heavy cloak protecting her from the weather, the lady with a skin like a porcelain doll stared at her niece without the usual expression of someone biting a lemon. Harry had seen that look at the Quidditch finals and while he knew that she was a friend of Roxanne – not a very close friend but still a friend – he felt himself unable to separate Narcissa Malfoy from the rest of her family. Lucius had nearly killed Ginny two years ago and Draco was the greatest prat at school. How could Narcissa be bearable with those men in her family?
"Hello Mrs. Malfoy, happy to meet you," Neville greeted her, trying to break the uncomfortable silence with some polite words.
With a start Narcissa turned around and showed a polite smile: "Hello Mr. Longbottom. I hope your Grandmother is feeling well."
"She's sprightly as usual, thank you for your concern," Neville bowed slightly.
Narcissa responded with a small nod: "Please present her my compliments." Shortly she glared at Harry: "Mr. Potter" before she walked away, not without staring at Tonks again. For a short moment Harry was amazed to see a hint of sorrow and grief in her eyes but certainly he was wrong about that. Malfoys didn't grief.
"She's you're Aunt, isn't she?" Harry asked, trying to grasp the emotions emitted by the haughty lady.
"She is," Tonks whispered her tone a mix of anger and regret. "She and mother… they were immensely close at school until mother's last year. Bellatrix had always been a bitch but mother had hoped…" Her voice lost all strength.
"If Tonks' mother had been disowned," Harry asked the bald Sirius, "can't you change that back, bring her back into the family?"
Sirius thoughtfully rubbed his chin: "Basically yes. With my brother dead as well as my parents and the parents of the Black sisters I'm the last male member of my family. But I would have to claim my title as Lord Black and I can't do that without presenting me to the Wizengamot. Sorry, Harry… Tonks, I can't do that before clearing my name."
Tonks sighed: "And that we can't do without proof. We really need Pettigrew, preferably alive."
"I can't understand how a family with members like both of you and Tonks' mother can produce other children like Bellatrix and Narcissa," Harry muttered.
"Narcissa isn't bad," Sirius objected. "In reality she had been my favourite cousin back at school. That only changed after Andro and I left the family. I'm certain she's still missing her sister. Narcissa had been reared to always follow the commands of her parents and is incredible loyal to her family. At seventeen she simply wasn't strong enough to go against their will. And don't forget: Andro had at least Ted at her side, Narcissa would have been alone. And while the marriage with Lucius certainly could be happier, she apparently adores her son. That makes her a person with a horrid taste but not a bad person per se."
In the meantime Agatha, Roxanne, Daphne and Hermione had reached the bookshop and within minutes had lost all sense of time, immerging themselves into all kind of books. While the adults had started to speak about some Transfiguration books, Daphne had detected a tome about Arithmancy and presented it to Hermione. For a while they exchanged their opinions in whispered sentences, when Daphne noticed that her friend was apparently thinking about something else.
"Spill," she whispered. "You've been thinking about something since we left the Inn."
Hermione slowly nodded but stayed silent for a while, trying to make up some sensible sentences instead of babbling incoherently what troubled her: "Your mother said something about Pansy, about 'buying her out' to get the marriage contract. Is this usual – to pay for the right to arrange a marriage?"
"It depends," Daphne responded with a sweet smile. "As far as I know in the Muggle world you have the system of giving a dowry, too, am I correct? With the Pureblood families it is similar but more… legitimized and formalized. Depending on the family status of groom and bride the families arrange the welfare of the pair. In families with more than one children it is important too, whether you're the first-born or not. Draco is the first-born and single child of the Malfoys, a political very important and filthy rich family. His inheritance will be extensive so his father – I suppose – only had to offer an appropriate Manor and a yearly allowance.
"Astoria on the other side is the second born. Normally her bride price would have to be enormous, especially with several other families offering too. In most cases the second born only gets a small inheritance, so the bride's father had to endorse with a large sum upfront. A part would be paid at the date of the engagement, the greater rest one week before the marriage."
"You said 'in most cases'," Hermione interjected. "Is Astoria a special case somehow?"
"Yes, she is," Daphne nodded. "My parents altered the original marriage contract. While my father hasn't much to say about my decisions regarding marriage or career, the reverse can be said about my sister. And while I'll still receive a larger part of the inheritance, my sister will get around one third of the whole sum, much more than usual. I assume that my father showed Lucius that contract to lower the sum he had to offer."
"About what kind of money are we speaking?"
"The engagement sum had been 30,000 Galleons and he'll have to pay additional 100,000 Galleons at their marriage."
"I have to admit that I was astonished to hear that Lucius was content with these sums. I had expected them to be higher. My father must be closer to him than we thought. And I was amazed that the Parkinsons weren't able or willing to outbid father. Perhaps they aren't as wealthy as they pretend to be."
For a while they sat in silence, before another thought crossed Hermione's mind: "If this inheritance splitting is so unusual, why was your mother willing to do this?"
"You have to understand that the magical matrimonial law is very patriarchal. It is very unusual to allow a mother complete right of determination about a child and even more it is unusual to allow a girl free choice about career and husband in our society. She had to offer him something substantial to get his consent to this contract.
"This is one of the reasons I was as against your Weasel-crush. He would have expected that you turn into a second Molly Weasley; he would have expected for you to stay at home. No job, no career, no further learning, only home sweet home." As Hermione tried to say something against this, Daphne interrupted her: "You don't understand, do you? You wouldn't have a say in the matter. The usual marriage contracts allow a husband to determine where they'll live and he has the right to cancel any job of his wife he doesn't approve."
"… medieval? Yes, it is. But it is the usual. I had this discussion with Tracey too a year ago. It is irresponsible by the school administration not to inform the Muggleborn and Halfblood witches about this important part of our law. Most witches don't even think about writing down a special marriage contract and with divorce being very complicated…"
"So, I'll have to be really careful."
"Absolutely. I'm quite certain that Neville would be willing to divert from those regulations but with his Grandma in the background…"
"Hohoho," Hermione stopped her friend, her cheeks blushing. "We're not even dating. He has not even invited me to the ball and you're already speaking about marriage."
"Only in theory, Hermione, only in theory" Daphne responded, but her all-too sweet smile told Hermione something quite different.
"Who'll be your date at the Ball," Neville asked while he was forced to stay still and allow the tailor to do some last minute adjustments to his formal robe. They had all met at 'Gladrag's Wizardwear' to buy robes and dresses for the upcoming ball. Agatha and Tonks went with the girls into the next room while Sirius and Roxanne did their best to find something passable for the young gentlemen. Now they were unobtrusively listening to their banter, struggling to hide their smiles.
"I don't know," Harry sighed. "I wanted to ask Cho but she already said yes to Cedric. And I assume she would have said no nonetheless."
"She's still angry about your participation in the tournament?" Neville asked with a frown. He felt it hard to understand that anyone could believe Harry would willingly risk his life in this tournament. If Cho belonged to those crazy birds, then Harry was far better off without the Ravenclaw girl.
"Yes," Harry sighed again and grimaced. "I really tried to calm them, even announced my support of Cedric and said that in my eyes he is the real Hogwart's Champion, but still…" Harry punched the wall at his side and shrugged apologetically as he noticed Roxanne's frown. He was allowed to lose his temper from time to time, wasn't he?
"You should ask Daphne," Neville suggested. Harry's reaction was the same as with Daphne two hours ago but this time Neville was prepared and able to sound total at ease as he continued: "You could go as friends. And with the Champions doing the opening dance you'll need someone at your side able to hide your lack of talent."
He was even able to grin and for a second Harry wondered where to the shy boy had vanished he had known the last three years. "I'm quite able to dance without someone to cover up, thank you very much."
Neville only continued to grin. After a minute of silence he asked: "So? When will you ask her?"
"Argh, don't push me," Harry groaned. With narrowed eyes he tried to drill holes into his friend's head with his death-glare. Suddenly he relaxed and his sweet smile troubled Neville: "And when will you ask Hermione? You know that she even refused Viktor Krum's invitation? I think she is waiting for something… or rather someone better."
If Harry had expected his friend to back down he was in for a surprise. With a serious face Neville announced: "Today, I'll ask her today… if you ask Daphne too."
Why did he have this feeling of being trapped, Harry wondered. Because I am trapped, Harry answered his own question with a groan. "Alright, I will ask her – only as friends and only under the condition that you ask Hermione too."
"Certainly," Neville smirked. "Today," he said emphasized.
"Today," Harry groaned.
"Roxanne?" Harry was sitting beside her, a cup of tea in his hand and quite exhausted after endless hours of tailoring.
"Yes?" She responded, apparently relaxed and happy that this ordeal was nearing its end. Harry and Neville were well supplied with formal robes; Hermione had found a wonderful dress and even Daphne only needed a few last touches to the pearl-colored evening gown she had chosen. Her daughter had chosen well. The gown allowed her enough legroom for dancing and the colour suited her eyes and contrasted wonderful to her hair. It was a strapless one with only a single strip of cloth around her neck. Silvery shoes and long gloves complemented the outfit. Harry hadn't seen it and Roxanne smiled inwardly about his expected reaction at the ball.
"I have a little request. I want to buy some presents but…" Harry hesitated. Should he really ask her?
"Would you lend me some money? I'll repay the sum in the next months from my allowance."
Roxanne shortly frowned but nodded. "Why not? I'm only a bit surprised that your Christmas allowance isn't enough. I hope you don't plan something too extravagant," she grinned.
Harry looked a bit puzzled: "Christmas allowance? What are you speaking about?"
Now it was Roxanne's turn to be confused: "Christmas allowance… as in allowance for Christmas… extra money to buy Christmas presents. That kind of Christmas allowance I speak about."
"Beg your pardon? I'm sorry; I really don't know what you mean. You lost me completely."
"Harry," Roxanne started to explain, speaking slowly and clearly. "You get a monthly allowance from your tutoring account, correct? And a part…"
"Wait a second," Harry interrupted her. "What tutoring account do you mean? I only get a monthly allowance of 10 Galleons from Minerva and I'm quite sure it is her personal income she uses to pay me the money. She started to do that after I told her last year that the Dursley don't give me anything."
Roxanne shortly stared at Sirius before she responded in a determined manner: "This… you must be wrong. I was there. I visited Gringotts with your Mom, two months after Daphne's birth. We both opened the usual tutoring accounts to pay for Hogwarts and your school equipment. Part of the account is an arrangement for an allowance. You should have – like Daphne – a monthly allowance of 50 Galleons. Additionally you should receive 200 Galleons on the first of November for Christmas presents. You've never heard about that?"
In stunned silence Harry was only able to shake his head.
After a long silence Roxanne harrumphed and decided: "You'll get the money you need and around Christmas we'll visit Gringotts. I have the foreboding that there is something badly amiss."
"Neville, that wand of yours," Roxanne asked the boy who sat across of her at the table in the 'Three Broomsticks Inn', "am I right about this being the wand of your father? I think I remember the shape and colour."
The day was nearing its end. All the shopping was done; feet heavy and purses empty, now it was time for a last small snack before they parted ways. Sirius would go into hiding again, Tonks would return to her duty, Roxanne would apparate to Pinegrew Manor and Agatha already told them that she would accompany them back to Hogwarts to have 'a small chat with an old friend'.
"Yes, it is," Neville responded, his hand caressing the old wand. "My Grandma wanted me to use it as a token of respect to my father. Perhaps she hoped that through the wand I would somehow inherit his talents too." His expression was bitter now and Hermione remembered how often Augusta Longbottom had criticized her grandson because of his low marks. It was very unfair in her mind. Neville was talented, he only needed more self-confidence and his Grandma was certainly not helpful in that regard.
Roxanne's thoughts ran in another direction. Often family members were able to use the wands of relatives; the closer they were in blood and character the better it worked. But still the best solution was a wand chosen individually. Daphne and Hermione had told her about Neville's problems at school and now she wondered what part this wand had in this.
But before she had a chance to speak about it, the door opened. Narcissa Malfoy and her son in tow entered the inn, stopping instantly as they noticed the group around Harry. Again this weird look crept onto Narcissa's face, this mix of sorrow and regret, her eyes fixated on Tonks. Roxanne pondered about this reaction and the odd behaviour Narcissa had shown since the summer break. Something was really troubling her but until now Roxanne hadn't been able to talk about it with her friend. She really liked the youngest Black sister, her humour and intelligence. If only she could get rid of her asshole of a husband, Roxanne mused.
"They really allow all kinds of riff raff into Hogsmeade nowadays," Draco drawled, "Mudbloods, Blood traitors and other scum."
He smirked broadly, his expression turning into confusion when his mother scolded him: "Behave, Draco, this kind of languages is not appropriate. And don't use this word again. You don't have to imitate your father in every way."
"But Mom," his mood didn't really improve as he noticed the grins of Harry and Hermione. Narcissa only glared icily at her son and waved him to take a seat at a free table at the rear of the inn. With Draco gone, mumbling insults on his way, Narcissa didn't follow him instantly. Instead she stared in turns at Roxanne, Agatha and Tonks. Her former expression of regret returned and with the smallest of sighs she turned away as Roxanne called her: "Cissy, may I introduce to you Miss Nymphadora Tonks? She is a very talented Auror and ordered to watch over Harry as one of the four Champions at the tournament."
React, say anything, Sirius prayed. With his mask he was unable to act and he wasn't really expecting Narcissa to say anything nice. Yes, she had scolded Draco but certainly that was only because it was impolite to speak like that in publicity. Even without having Bellatrix' insanity or Druella's stubbornness, Narcissa at least seemed to share their opinions about blood purity. According to Andro the sisters hadn't spoken with each other since twenty years. How could Roxanne hope that…
"Nice to meet you," Narcissa's voice was coarse, the words shocking everyone apart from Roxanne who looked quite pleased and smiled an approving smile at Narcissa. Lady Malfoy again started to go away, stopping after two steps. Without turning towards Tonks she added: "Please give Mrs. Tonks my best wishes." Her words nearly caused Tonks to faint and Sirius paled, completely unable to comment what just happened. Without waiting for a response Narcissa walked away, leaving the group to their own thoughts.