Looking Glass Chessboard
A fluttering of wings caught the lunchers at the Mingling Table by surprise. An owl which Harry didn’t recognise dropped something off for Dumbledore at the staff-table before depositing a large envelope in front of him while he was in mid-bite.
“Bit late aren’t you?” he chuckled, giving the obviously tired bird a kipper.
“Who’s it from?” asked Hermione as the others looked on with interest.
“It’s from Moody,” Harry replied, his eyebrows perking in surprise. “He’s been watching the BBC and reading the muggle papers, and they say that the Muggle Prime Minister is blaming the Old Trafford Stadium attack on a recalcitrant faction of the IRA trying to blow up the peace process, and... and,” Harry gasped, “...and Sirius Black?”
Hermione nearly snorted her tea out through her nose. Everyone else at the table looked stunned, except for Jennifer who just looked puzzled as she wasn’t sure who Sirius Black was.
“Bloody Fucking Hell!” Harry swore angrily. “They’re claiming that Sirius is a dangerous criminal with ties to international terrorists.”
“What? ... but how... why?” sputtered Dora. “That doesn’t make any bloody sense...”
“It might,” said Hermione, frowning thoughtfully. “Sirius told us that he’s been avoiding being seen in public because of his association with Remus. And don’t forget, Sirius was targeted in the muggle press before as a criminal in our third year when everyone still thought he was a mass murderer.
“What if Minister Umbridge told the Muggle Prime Minister about Sirius because she knows he’s your godfather Harry? What if they’re colluding? I think she might be trying to undermine your support system...”
Harry nodded as he continued to read Moody’s letter. “Yeah... I’d say you’re right Hermione, Moody seems to think this proves that Minister Umbridge and the muggle PM are in cahoots too... And he says that I should avoid being seen in the muggle world because he thinks that the Minister may have also informed the PM that I’m Sirius’s godson...”
“A conclusion with which I quite agree,” said Dumbledore, causing everyone at the Mingling Table to lurch in their seats. They had been so preoccupied that they hadn’t seen the headmaster approaching.
“I too have just received a communication from Alastor informing me of this alarming turn of events,” Dumbledore continued. “I believe that it would be wise to follow Alastor’s advice Harry. It would be best for you not to be seen in public...
“However, if it should be at all necessary for you to walk for a time in the non-magic world, I trust that your... special talents shall keep you unnoticed,” Dumbledore concluded with a wink before strolling back to the staff-table.
“Special talents?” asked Jennifer. And she wasn’t the only one who looked bewildered. Only Dora seemed to know what Dumbledore was on about.
“Er...” said Harry, suddenly feeling a bit guilty with all eyes upon him. It occurred to Hermione that Harry might be feeling badly about not telling their friends about his rare ability.
“Harry’s a metamorphmagus,” Hermione said quietly.
“Like me...” Dora added.
“He is?” Ginny gasped. “Really?”
“Er... yeah,” said Harry. “It was supposed to be a secret. But you’re our friends and I suppose I could’ve told you. Sorry I didn’t let you all in on it...”
“It’s alright Harry. You don’t have to apologise,” said Luna. “Of course it’s something you’d want to keep secret. If too many people know, even your friends, someone might let something slip accidentally.”
“Er... what is a metamorphmagus?” asked Jennifer, still looking puzzled.
“Someone who can alter their appearance to look like someone else at will, without the use of a wand,” Hermione answered. “Only someone born with the ability can do it without a wand...”
After lunch Hermione took Harry aside and spoke quietly to him, a big grin on her face.
“Speaking of being a metamorphmagus,” she said, “I think it’s time for a proper ‘first date’ with Harriet tonight.”
“Oh... er... yeah, alright,” said Harry, blushing and grinning back at Hermione. “I’ve been looking forward to this for a while - I’ve always... er... I dunno... I guess I always wanted to experience what it was like to be a girl - at least sometimes anyway...” he muttered, peering around to make sure no-one was listening and turning even redder. “I’m not sure why really...”
“I know,” said Hermione. “I finally understood why you were so interested after you read that Oz book to me. Well, you’ll definitely get to find out tonight.” Hermione smirked and leaned in close for a giggly whisper in Harry’s ear. “And I have a little surprise for you - I ordered a... er... well, I ordered a toy to play with...”
Harry’s jaw dropped in immediate understanding and he swallowed nervously; he hadn’t even considered that. Harry couldn’t stop thinking about it the rest of the afternoon and all through dinner. He couldn’t concentrate and fidgeted the entire time he was supposed to be helping Hermione tutor Jennifer, and his palms kept sweating.
After dinner Harry said goodnight to their friends rather absentmindedly and nearly tripped over his own feet as he departed the Great Hall with Hermione.
Harry stared at himself in the bathroom mirror while he cleaned his teeth and wondered what the hell he was doing. He felt as anxious as if he really were going on a first date. He had no idea what he was supposed to do.
Should he morph now or after joining Hermione in bed? Put on makeup? What was he supposed to wear? Pyjamas? Nothing?
Sighing, Harry undressed and reached for his pyjamas only to discover that they were gone. In their place was a nightgown, a sheer slip, and a pair of silky white knickers. He shook his head and chortled. At least now he knew what Hermione expected.
Harry looked at his body in the mirror and began to morph. His jaw diminished and his face rounded, lips puffing and pouting slightly. The only feature on his now heart-shaped face which remained wholly unaltered were his eyes. His hair lengthened until it curled over his shoulders and his black fringe flopped in his face. Harry flicked his now long fringe back and continued.
His entire form slimmed and curved until there wasn’t a single sharp angle on his body. Harry peered between his legs swallowing anxiously and completed the transformation. It still felt really weird to watch his dangly bits shrink into his body and see girly bits form. At this point she was Harriet, she reminded herself.
Finally satisfied that everything was right - that she was now completely feminine and presentable - Harriet slipped into the nightclothes Hermione had left for her. She tingled at the sensation of the silky fabric clinging to her skin. Harriet took a deep breath to steady herself, and exited the bathroom.
“You’re beautiful!” Hermione gasped when Harriet entered the bedroom. On the previous occasion when Harry had completely transformed into a girl, she had looked much like Hermione as Hermione had been Harry’s model.
“Th...thanks,” Harriet stammered nervously.
Hermione took Harriet’s glasses off so that she could get the complete effect.
“Gorgeous Harry... I mean Harriet. You can put your glasses back on again in a minute. I just want to see all of you without them for a bit. Here let me help you...”
Harriet got goosebumps when Hermione helped her slip out of the long nightgown. She gasped with a thrill of pleasure when Hermione copped a feel.
“Oh, they’re the same size as mine Harriet!” Hermione gasped again, melting into Harriet’s green eyes. “You really meant it when you said you thought I was perfect...”
“Of course I did Hermione!” squeaked Harriet.
“But mine aren’t very big,” Hermione replied mournfully.
“I love them,” Harriet responded earnestly, “...They fit in my hands perfectly. I know they’ve grown a bit, but so have my hands...”
Hermione purred and threw her arms around Harriet, giving her a big kiss. Feeling Hermione pressed against her, inhaling her calming minty scent, Harriet relaxed.
“How did you change your voice?” Hermione asked after separating her lips from Harriet’s. “I mean, I can tell it’s still you, but it’s in the right register, and I can tell you’re not putting it on...”
“I...er... I’m not sure really. I didn’t try to on purpose. I... I think my vocal cords just shrank slightly when I was adjusting my neck to look like a girl’s.”
“Hmmm... that makes sense,” Hermione trailed her fingers along Harriet’s delicately sculpted throat, “It must have altered when the muscles changed shape.” Hermione replaced her fingers with her lips; Harriet trembled slightly and her heart began to race.
“This really is amazing Harriet...” Hermione murmured, “all the little details are perfect - even better than last time.”
“Because I had the perfect model Hermione,” Harriet whispered as she put her hands around Hermione’s waist and began tenderly returning Hermione’s kisses. Hermione melted again as she pulled Harriet onto the bed.
New sensations tingled in Harriet’s body, as Hermione slid her hands across Harriet’s taut, smooth abdomen, and drew her fingers across trembling skin. Tentatively at first, Hermione's touch roamed Harriet's figure as she gained more confidence and felt Harriet responding.
Harriet shuddered, a ripple of pleasure sweeping through her from head to toe at Hermione's ministrations. She was many times more sensitive than she recalled ever being before. As the waves of euphoria crested, Harriet squealed and arched ecstatically.
“Mmmm... you’re much more vocal as a girl Harriet,” giggled Hermione.
“I... I never realised...” gasped Harriet, still in the throes of passion, “...so sensitive...”
When the fog of ardour in Harriet’s brain cleared somewhat, she saw that Hermione had stripped off her own chemise and knickers. Hermione straddled Harriet’s waist, and with a gleam in her eyes she gestured towards the toy she had bought.
Harriet’s eyes widened and she gulped, shivering slightly in anticipation.
“Are you ready for this Harriet?” Hermione asked, her eyes softening with concern. She needn’t have worried. Harriet grinned.
“Be gentle Hermione... it’s my First Time!”
“Prat!” Hermione stuck her tongue out and swatted Harriet playfully, giggling.
Harriet was utterly blown away by the rapturous sensations engulfing her as Hermione built up a steady rhythm. She wrapped her legs and arms around Hermione’s backside and undulated beneath her. Another wave of elation surged and the magic crackled and arced from the squirming pair of naked witches. The bed rocked and the walls of the Potters’ bedchamber shook as the tempest of bliss took them both, the room echoing with the sounds of ecstasy.
As the storm of delight ebbed, Hermione peppered Harriet with little kisses.
“Well?” said Hermione, grinning. “What do you think? Was it as nice as you expected?”
“That was fantastic Hermione!” Harriet gushed, her green eyes shining gleefully. “What about you...? Technically it was your first time with a girl too...”
“It was lovely!” Hermione bit her lip, fluttering her lashes, her cheeks turning pink. “You’re so pretty as a girl - you felt so nice... and... and it was fun pretending to be the ‘boy’...”
“Brilliant!” said Harriet. “Let’s have another go then shall we?”
“Only if I get to be the girl again after...” Hermione giggled.
Summer seemed to be flying by. Snape appeared to be pleased with the Potters’ progress in Advanced Potions (though as usual, it was hard from his expressions to be entirely certain). Training and practice in the Room of Requirement with the others was going well, and Jennifer was exceeding everyone’s expectations.
All the professors were doing their utmost to help Jennifer catch up enough to be placed among the fifth year students at the start of term. Even Lupin had taken up his role as professor of Defence Against the Dark Arts to help her advance as quickly as possible.
Although it was clear that she didn’t have time to learn four years worth of magical theory, and four years of Potions or Herbology, Jennifer’s spellwork was exceptional. She was already learning second year spells by the time Harry and Neville’s birthday arrived, and nobody doubted that she would at the very least be able to perform most of the spells required for beginning fifth year students.
Sirius and Remus insisted on throwing a birthday party for Harry and Neville in the Shrieking Shack, and it was being catered by Dobby and the other house-elves. On the way to the Whomping Willow, Jennifer chatted about some of her latest schoolwork.
“I still can’t believe that things like Mummies, Vampires and Werewolves are real,” said Jennifer, a little shiver running up her spine.
“They’re just like other people really. They aren’t all evil,” Hermione reassured Jennifer. “At least not all Werewolves and Vampires are - I don’t really know about Mummies. Professor Lupin is a Werewolf.”
“Really?” Jennifer’s eyes widened. “He’s so kind - I never would have guessed.”
“Yeah... Remus... er... Professor Lupin’s really nice,” Harry nodded. “He was one of my dad’s best friends - he and Sirius both were...” Harry couldn’t help feeling a flare of anger as he thought about Wormtail again, but he did his best to put it aside and just enjoy the celebration.
Soon the party was underway. Everyone had butterbeers in hand or set on the table next to plates of hors d’oeuvres and bottles of Elf-wine. Neville was beaming, thrilled to have a cake with his own name on it sitting next to Harry’s.
Dora had brought her acoustic guitar, and Jennifer joined in on the old piano in the sitting room of the Shack after Lupin used a magic spell to tune it up. Everybody danced when Dora and Jennifer played a few bouncy tunes. Then a record player was turned on; Fleur and Dora continued dancing for a bit while Luna and Ginny snogged in a corner and Neville and Viktor took turns dancing with Jennifer.
Harry and Hermione took a breather and joined Remus and Sirius in comfy seats at the edge of the room. Sirius took a large swig from a crystal goblet full of wine before grinning at Harry.
“Well Harry, looks like I’m a mass-murdering fugitive again,” he chuckled tipsily. “I just can’t seem to shake my reputation.”
“Of course, being a known associate of a fugitive Werewolf probably didn’t help matters,” said Remus half-jokingly with a wry smile.
“According to Moody it’s probably my fault for being your godson,” Harry muttered darkly. “The Prime Minister’s only going after you because of me...”
“Don’t be silly Harry,” said Hermione sharply, frowning at Sirius. “Moody didn’t say anything of the sort. It’s not your fault at all.”
“Hermione’s right, Harry,” said Remus. “The blame is not yours to bear. The Minister is just trying to rattle all of our cages...”
“That hag would out Dumbledore to the muggle media too, if she thought she could get away with it,” Sirius added. “The only reason she probably hasn’t is because it would raise too many eyebrows at the ICW... The Minister wouldn’t want to be called to account by an International Tribunal for violating the Statute of Secrecy...”
“Thank goodness for small favours!” sighed Remus. “Anyway Sirius, lets not dwell on that. This is supposed to be a party.”
“Quite right Remus!” Sirius looked crestfallen when he realised what he’d done. He peered apologetically at Hermione and Harry. “I’m sorry Harry... I shouldn’t have even mentioned it. Come on then... time for presents...”
When the party was over, everyone helped Harry and Neville carry their presents back to the castle. Two others were quite surprised to have received presents of their own.
“Thanks for the broom Harry!” gushed Jennifer tearily, giving him a hug. “I’ll pay you back when I get a chance to transfer some of my inheritance to a wizard bank...”
“No, please,” interjected Harry, blushing. “It’s a present...”
“Cheers Harry!” said Dora, looking more than a bit teary herself as she carried her own brand spanking new Firebolt. “Really, you shouldn’ ‘ave... these must‘ve cost a fortune.”
“And we’re supposed to give you presents for your birthday, not the other way around,” Jennifer responded. “You should have told me your birthday was coming...”
“It’s alright... really! I’ve got way more than I need already,” retorted Harry, his blush deepening. “Sirius’s family was filthy rich, and he just up and gave me a whole vault - and I’ve already got a vault of my own. I just want to share what I have with people I care about.”
Jennifer bit her lip, not sure what else to say, once again feeling a bit overwhelmed that people she’d only known a few weeks actually cared enough about her to treat her like family.
After dinner, Hermione helped Jennifer study for a Charms exam. Then Jennifer spent some time perusing magazines and catalogues with Luna and Ginny, Fleur and Dora.
“I can’t believe it. Do wizards really dress like this every day?” Jennifer giggled when Ginny showed her a British wizard-wear catalogue.
“Mostly only older wizards and witches,” snorted Ginny. “Even my mum and dad wear robes at home, but they both dress like muggles a lot - especially Dad, because Ministry employees are usually around muggles all the time. Most younger wizards - except for a few Purebloods - tend to follow modern muggle fashion trends...”
“My daddy only wears robes unless he absolutely has to change,” said Luna with an amused look. “You should see some of the silly outfits he wears when he has to be around muggles to follow a story for his paper.”
“Ze Continental wizard world, it ees much more with ze times,” tittered Fleur, passing Jennifer a French magazine full of alluring men and women in sleek, elegant clothes which Jennifer could easily imagine seeing in posh muggle nightclubs.
“I can’t picture my mum and dad in anything but muggle clothes,” said Dora, peering at the French magazine with great interest. “Mum gave up wizard clothes when she married my dad apparently. They only wear robes for formal events.”
Nearby, Hermione was sitting on Harry’s lap with her arms around him as they read The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe together. She had bought Harry a complete set of The Chronicles of Narnia with full colour illustrations for his birthday.
“Thanks loads for this Hermione. I haven’t read these in ages,” said Harry, giving her a kiss, “And I’ll have to thank your mum for the set of Roald Dahl books. I only ever read Charlie and the Chocolate Factory...”
Distracted by the sound of giggling, they looked up to see the others huddled around the magazines.
“That was really kind of you to order those brooms for Dora and Jennifer Harry,” Hermione beamed.
“Er... Yeah, I suppose,” said Harry awkwardly. “I just wanted to do something nice for them both. Dora’s family, and Jennifer... well... she deserves to be treated nicely - she doesn’t have anyone else but us now.
“Anyway, Jennifer needed her own broom - she's great at flying!” Harry suddenly grinned. “She took to it jolly quick after she got used to it riding with Luna...”
Harry peered closely and listened attentively as Hermione turned the page and pointed at the Chinese symbols next to the illustrations.
“...So...” Hermione continued from where she had left off, “these are some of the symbols which should provide the same physical protection as practicing Iron Shirt and Iron Skull techniques. They protect bones and internal organs from damage, and also supposedly prevent serious wounds from edged and piercing weapons.”
“I thought that sort of thing usually took years of practice,” said Harry.
“Yes... for muggles,” Hermione nodded in agreement. “But being wizards, we can use a shortcut, and get similar effects by tattooing these symbols on ourselves... It’s not perfect - they won’t make us completely invulnerable - we could still be injured if the Force behind a physical attack is strong enough.
“I doubt they would protect us from bullets for example, but for most common circumstances they should protect us from serious injuries.”
“That’s brilliant Hermione!” Harry said excitedly. “It’s a shame I didn’t know about this in second year! Dobby’s rogue bludger wouldn’t have broken my arm.”
“I know... I was just thinking the same thing myself,” sighed Hermione. “Still, you had no idea that you’d be good at calligraphy in second year, and there’s no guarantee that you could have drawn them well enough to stop your arm from being broken back then.
“And in any case, these symbols aren’t at all common or even really known in European Wizarding usage Harry,” Hermione continued. “I expect that normally you would only learn them if you went to a Chinese wizarding school, or had a Chinese teacher.
“We got very lucky to find this book, probably because when you asked the Room of Requirement to conjure up a place to practice fighting you envisioned the Kwoons and Dojos from some of the martial arts films that Sirius and Remus took us to see. It’s all your doing really, Harry,” Hermione concluded, beaming proudly at her husband.
Even from his dank dungeon cell, fetid water dripping from the rocky ceiling, he could hear the waves crashing against the craggy cliffs of the Scottish headlands. Cassius Nott sighed at the sound of freedom, so near, and yet so far away. But if anything could be said for his lack of freedom - and the torture that he had endured - it had at least given him the time and the motivation to rethink things.
During his time in captivity, Cassius had examined the wreckage of his life and found it wanting. He set his jaw in determination as he regarded his shivering son huddled in the corner. There were only two ways out: dead, or alive in the service of the Dark Lord. And Cassius knew he would do anything to see his son live - even if it meant his own death.
“Theo... Theo, listen to me...”
His son looked up with sunken eyes at his father but said nothing.
“You know what I have to do...” said Cassius Nott. “What you must do if you wish to leave these walls... alive!”
A distraught expression crossed Theodore Nott’s features as he continued to eye his father.
“Please, Dad... don’t do it! He’ll kill you anyway sooner or later - you know he will. I don’t want you to leave me.”
“I have to do it...” Cassius replied. “...for you - for your mother. If I do this, and he accepts me, the Dark Lord will give you a chance to prove yourself to him as well.
“I just want you to promise me one thing... if you see an opportunity to get away, take it! ... Get your mother and run... run as far away as you can. And promise that you will do better than me if you survive...”
“Dad... please...” Theo interjected.
Cassius shook his head and went on, “This life we’ve led - everything I ever taught you... it means nothing! It’s brought us nothing but misery... and pain to those we’ve harmed - it’s a dead end! What bloody use is blood purity... or great wealth if we fritter it away on selfish acts? Dumbledore is right... he’s always been right!
“It’s too late for me... I’ve done too many horrible things - unspeakable things - and I might have to do some more if the Dark Lord will take me back. But you... you still have a chance for a better future if you can stay alive. Promise me that you’ll stay alive and do better... Promise me!”
Theo hesitated, tears running down his cheeks. He swallowed and slowly nodded. “Al...alright Dad. I will... I’ll do better... I swear!”
“Good... That’s good then. They’ll be coming for me in a moment... Just sit tight, and whenever you get your chance, you go!”
The approaching sound of footsteps and jangling keys echoed in the dungeon passage beyond the iron bars of the cell. A tall wizard, his chiseled features framed by grizzled hair and stubble, halted and peered through the bars. Theo shrank back when Rabastan Lestrange’s glacial gaze settled upon him. Those frozen eyes returned to Cassius.
“Nott... On your feet.” Rabastan’s voice was as icy as his demeanor. “The Dark Lord deigns to hear your pleas.”
Theo tried to stifle his sobs as his father was hauled out of the cell and led away through the dungeon halls, certain that he’d never see him again.
“I promise Dad...” he muttered to himself between sobs. “I’ll be a better person... I promise...”
Cassius Nott was roughly shoved through the entrance of one of the refurbished castle’s large halls and thrown to the ground in front of the Dark Lord. The seat which held Voldemort was probably the most opulent chair in the ancient muggle residence, an intricately carved mahogany armchair befitting a lord. It had clearly been chosen to be the Dark Lord’s “throne.”
To one side of Voldemort stood Wormtail, and to the other, Bellatrix Lestrange. A small number of Death Eaters - most of them liberated when Voldemort had taken Azkaban - stood at attention in short rows on either side of Nott. With glinting red eyes, the Dark Lord looked down upon Nott from where he sat.
“Speak your piece, Cassius,” said Bellatrix, her voice razor sharp. “Tell us why you believe you deserve a reprieve from the Dark Lord’s righteous wrath.”
Cassius Nott swallowed nervously, steeling himself to make his case, and addressed Voldemort directly. “I... I was wrong to support Minister Umbridge. I know now that you are the only one who truly deserves my fealty. I beg your forgiveness my Lord, and ask to be reinstated as one of your soldiers.”
“But how can the Dark Lord trust you Cassius?” Bellatrix narrowed her eyes in suspicion at the wizard prostrating himself before Voldemort. “How do you intend to prove your worth after your betrayal?”
“I... I’ll do anything... anything you ask of me my Lord!” Cassius replied. “Anything... Just give me one task. And if... if I fail... my life is yours.”
The Dark Lord shifted slightly in his seat, his red slitted eyes piercing Nott’s. To everyone’s surprise, a thin smile crept to the Dark Lord’s lips.
“Yesss!” hissed Voldemort. “You will indeed, won’t you! You will do anything as long as I let your son live...” said the Dark Lord, his high, cold voice devoid of mirth, belying the sarcastic smile on his face. “Tut tut, it would appear that your true loyalty extends only to your family... How Noble of you Cassius!
“No matter... As long as your boy is in my possession, you will obey my every command. Very well... Nott, I do have a task for you. You will serve me as a Snatcher, and I shall have your son as a foot-soldier as well.
“Rabastan will oversee your first mission... and should you disappoint me again, he will return with your dead body as an example to your son of the price of disloyalty and failure...”
Nearly a week had passed since Harry’s birthday. When Hermione returned from the library one afternoon, she found him sitting in their quarters in front of the mirror, shirtless. Her breath caught as she eyed his chiseled torso, wondering if Harry was preparing for a bit of fun. Harry looked around when he heard Hermione entering the room.
“What are you doing Harry?” Hermione asked eagerly with a golden flash in her eyes. “Something I can help you with perhaps?”
“Actually... yeah!” Harry grinned, knowing what Hermione was thinking. “I think I’m ready to test out these Chinese symbols now...” Harry waved one of his ink-brushes at Hermione and raised his eyebrows, smirking.
“Oh!” said Hermione, almost sounding disappointed. But she recovered herself quickly and began unbuttoning her blouse.
Harry looked puzzled for a moment, wondering what Hermione was up to as he had made his intentions quite plain. Hermione caught his questioning look.
“You were planning to use me as a guinea pig for the Chinese tattoos, weren’t you?” Hermione responded breezily to Harry’s expression.
“Oh... er... Yeah - of course!” Harry reddened and reached for his bottle of ink.
In fact Harry hadn’t been planning anything of the sort. He had been planning on tattooing himself and having Hermione throw things at him and try to knock him out. But he had learned not to refuse Hermione anything when she had that determined gleam in her eyes.
Harry started by painting the symbols on himself while Hermione waited patiently for her turn. He had to steel his nerves to ink Hermione; he had discovered before the Third Task that it required all of his concentration to focus on the runes and symbols and ignore the distraction of her enticing figure.
“Mmm...” Hermione purred a bit and quivered at the delightful sensation of Harry’s ink-brushes dancing across her skin. Harry smiled to himself, unable to entirely block out the intoxicating effects of Hermione’s unclothed presence
It had taken some time before Harry and Hermione managed to test the symbols, as they had both lingered over-long before dressing after the tattoo ink dried. But after Harry and Hermione concluded their playful little romp, they dressed and made their way to the Room of Requirement.
The Chinese symbols were a rousing success.
After some cajoling, Harry finally managed to convince Hermione to test his symbols first before he tried anything on her. First he had Hermione throw heavier and heavier objects at him with Banishing charms. Then, when he felt brave enough, Harry encouraged Hermione to use Bombardas of increasing intensity on statues very close to him - which Hermione finally did with great reluctance.
Harry was thrilled with the efficacy of the symbols. Not only did every object which Hermione conjured and hurled at Harry bounce right off him with minimal pain - if any at all - but the symbols also appeared to protect him from the worst of the concussive effects of blasting spells as well.
But Hermione drew the line and refused point blank to try and cut him with one of the bladed weapons on the wall when Harry begged her to. Finally, when it was obvious that Hermione was having none of it, Harry took a dagger and placed it against the palm of his hand, swallowing nervously.
“Harry... don’t!” she moaned. “What if it goes wrong?”
“It won’t Hermione. I’m sure of it...”
Hermione winced and closed her eyes when Harry drew the blade across his palm.
“Amazing!” Harry muttered, peering at the unbroken skin.
Hermione eyed Harry with great anxiety when he tentatively poked the knife at his ribs. Surely he wouldn’t dare. Hoping that Harry would be sensible and just give himself little jabs, Hermione braced herself.
Gulping, Harry squeezed his eyes shut and plunged the dagger with all his might. Hermione screamed loud enough to wake the dead.
Harry grunted from the exertion and a pinching sensation, and the blade bent in half, leaving nothing but a single drop of blood oozing from a pinprick. The only real pain he felt was in his throbbing eardrums, still ringing with the echoes of Hermione’s shriek of terror.
Hermione glared at Harry angrily and stormed out of the Room of Requirement.
She gave Harry the silent treatment the rest of the afternoon, only grudgingly following him up to the Room of Requirement after dinner when it was time to meet the others. Hermione glowered at Harry the entire time while he painted the symbols on everyone else.
One by one they all lifted their shirts and blouses, baring their midriffs for Harry’s ink-brushes. Not being ones for modesty, Fleur and Luna removed their tops completely, much to Neville’s dismay. Viktor chuckled when Neville turned beet red and averted his eyes.
Dora just grinned, feeling a little tingle of excitement at the sight of her topless partner. Ginny and Jennifer both blushed furiously when it came time for each of them to lift their shirts.
“That tickles...” Ginny giggled as Harry delicately inked her belly.
“Oui, zat it does!” said Fleur with a dreamy smile, recalling the sensuous touch of Harry’s ink-brushes before the Third Task.
“Now remember,” Harry admonished when everyone was inked and dressed, “This is no substitute for a Shield Charm, but it should protect you from physical blows or a long fall even if you don’t have your wand and can’t cast a Protego or a cushioning charm in time...”
“Got it Harry,” Dora nodded earnestly.
“...and it’ll even protect you from getting stabbed or cut.” Harry continued, glancing guiltily at Hermione who was still angrily scowling at him at intervals.
“Prat!” Hermione muttered. But Hermione could never stay cross with Harry for too long, especially not when his face was as stricken with guilt as it was. “Don’t scare me like that ever again!” she snapped.
“I’m really sorry Hermione... you were looking right at me,” Harry responded, his green eyes as big as saucers. “I just thought it was obvious - I thought you... er... I thought you knew what I was going to do. I was terrified too...”
“I know...” Hermione sighed, finally deflating and looking at Harry sheepishly. “I’m sorry too Harry - I just wasn’t quite ready to watch you stab yourself with a knife - especially not without having Madam Pomfrey at-the-ready just in case... I didn’t think you were really going to do it... Not as vigorously as that anyway. I’m just thrilled these symbols work like they’re supposed to!”
“You and me both!” said Harry, still looking very apologetic.
“Wait... what are you doing Harry?” Hermione asked, her face flushing when Harry lifted her blouse a bit, exposing part of her abdomen. Neville gulped and looked the other way again.
“I’m just adding a couple of basic Norse Runes. I just reckoned we should practice with a full slate of Protection Runes and Symbols for the next few sessions. The tattoos won’t wear off...”
Finally everyone was inked and eager to practice being attacked after Harry and Hermione demonstrated the effectiveness of the symbols.
Unfortunately, nobody was eager to take up the role of the attacker. It was one thing to practice stunning spells on each other, and basic holds, joint-locks and throws - which they had all gradually become used to, but everyone was too afraid of hurting each other with strikes and blows if something went wrong.
Harry was as reluctant as anybody to clobber someone. He sighed, remembering how he himself had been berated by Mad Eye for being too soft on Hermione during training for the Triwizard Tournament.
Fleur attempted to cajole Dora into whacking her with a Beater’s Bat to get things going, but Dora was having none of it. She just couldn’t bring herself to thump Fleur. Dora still couldn’t get the horrifying picture out of her mind of Fleur lying in the Hospital Wing in agony with two broken legs after the Third Task.
Finally, Luna suggested a game of Rock-Parchment-Scissors; the loser would have to be the assailant. Luna lost. Groaning and wishing that she hadn’t suggested the game, Luna picked up the Beater’s bat, closed her eyes, and swung it at Fleur.
“C’est Magnifique!” exclaimed Fleur when the bat shattered against her arm. All she had felt was a sting as if she had been on the receiving end of a strong slap, and the bat lay in pieces on the floor.
“Oh thank goodness...” Luna opened her eyes and let out a huge sigh of relief.
“Merlin!” Dora’s jaw dropped.
“That’s incredible,” gasped Ginny, goggling in amazement as she examined the splinters of the bat.
“Yes it is,” Hermione agreed, “But we should still be careful... we can still be injured or even killed. This just makes it loads harder...”
In no time, everyone was giggling and having fun breaking Beater’s Bats over each other’s heads and using Banishing Charms to chuck heavy objects at each other with no ill effects except for a few red marks, and a couple of scratches. Dora and Fleur were even brave enough to have a little knife fight.
Only Jennifer had yet to join in. Hermione spied Jennifer trembling and nudged Harry who was watching the others and chortling.
“I’m sorry,” said Harry. “I didn’t think... If you want, you can sit this out. I know the symbols will work... and honestly, I’m not comfortable with all the violence either.”
“It’s alright,” Jennifer shook her head. “I want to join in... Really! I know I ought to for my own good. I just keep freezing up.”
“Oh, I know,” Hermione said, brightening, “Cheering Charms... we haven’t done any today Harry.”
“Of course,” Harry smacked his forehead. “We should have started out with that... saved ourselves a bit of time. I forgot.”
One Cheering Charm later and Jennifer was gleefully cracking Beater’s Bats across shins and ribs with the rest of them.
“Oh... well done, Rufus! Well done indeed!” said Minister Umbridge in her breathiest, girliest voice. “This exceeds all expectations. However did you manage it?”
Head Auror Rufus Scrimgeour hesitated momentarily, unmoved by the high praise, but he had to admit that the Aurors who had survived their encounter with Voldemort’s forces certainly deserved the accolades. They had managed to run down a small group of Voldemort’s Snatchers as they had attempted to burn down a Liverpool homeless shelter near St Luke’s Church Gardens and make off with its residents.
Among the Snatchers had been Cassius Nott and Rabastan Lestrange. Nott was now in recovery at St Mungo’s, grateful for his rescue - and Lestrange was in a Ministry holding cell with the Snatchers after undergoing a Veritaserum interrogation. Finally Scrimgeour responded to the Minister’s query.
“I cannot take the credit Minister - that belongs to the Magical Law Enforcement Patrol and the Auror on-site in Liverpool... and no small amount of luck. The attack on the homeless shelter was witnessed by local Patrol and the Auror assigned to liaise with their Unit... They happened upon the Snatchers quite by chance.
“The ensuing battle was fierce and the DMLE lost several of our finest,” Rufus sighed, “yet they still managed to subdue and apprehend the culprits.”
Minister Umbridge would have rubbed her hands together and cackled with glee, but she didn’t want to give Scrimgeour the wrong impression.
“Well Rufus, please be sure to send the Ministry’s regards to the families of the fallen. Those who were lost must receive the highest honours. Now... do we have any actionable intelligence yet regarding the location of Voldemort?”
“Unfortunately no...” Scrimgeour sighed again. “Warlock Nott has no recollection of where he was being held. And despite the Veritaserum interrogations, I regret to inform you that Rabastan Lestrange and the Snatchers have been unable to provide any details regarding the current whereabouts of Voldemort... perhaps a secret keeping spell?”
Dolores calculated her options. It was a shame that the location of Voldemort’s base of operations continued to elude the Ministry, but that wasn’t particularly important for the moment. The most important thing was that Dolores now had a sizable number of hooligans to punish - including those which Mr Fortescue had captured during the Diagon Alley attack - and someone of note that she could haul before the Wizengamot.
With Lestrange in hand, this was the moment which she had been waiting for - a decisive turn of affairs which would cement a majority on the Wizengamot. Minister Umbridge smiled sympathetically at Scrimgeour.
“Never mind that Rufus,” Dolores responded. “The Department of Mysteries shall take over from here. I have faith that the methods of the Unspeakable Office will yield some actionable information... and if we do indeed obtain anything of use, I shall inform you immediately so that we can bring the rest of these criminals to justice. In the meantime, again - Good Work!”
Head Auror Scrimgeour’s forehead creased in consternation as he watched the Minister depart his office through narrowed eyes, a sense of unease settling over him. He couldn’t put his finger on any one thing in particular, but doubts continued to niggle at the back of his mind.
His footsteps echoing through stone corridors and across marble halls, Wormtail anxiously scurried through the castle to the Dark Lord’s throne room, knowing that his Master would not be pleased. When Wormtail arrived, Voldemort scowled menacingly at him.
“What is the word Wormtail? What has become of Rabastan and the Snatchers?”
“My Lord,” Wormtail swallowed nervously, hoping that he would not be taken to account for Rabastan’s failures, “the Dark Witch has him, and the Snatchers who were with him. The word is that they have been turned over to the Department of Mysteries, and that Nott is once again in his Mistress’s hands, being cared for in St Mungo’s.”
“That is most unwelcome news.” Voldemort’s face darkened and his deadly gaze turned towards Bellatrix. “It is quite unfortunate that I cannot even rely upon those whom I had once counted as my most loyal Servants. I am wondering if the blame for Rabastan’s bumbling incompetence should be borne by him alone...”
“It matters little...” Bellatrix’s nostrils flared and she held her head high, pointedly looking in Rodolphus Lestrange’s direction. “Rabastan is not my blood, nor any longer my in-law,” she said haughtily, then with a shift of demeanor, speaking seductively she continued.
“Am I not the Dark Lord’s Consort? My loyalties lie with you and you alone my Lord - I am no longer beholden to the House of Lestrange. But in any case, it is not Rodolphus’s fault that he shares Rabastan’s blood. He has served you well, and should be judged on his own merits.
“Rabastan is undoubtedly already paying the price for his failures in the clutches of the Dark Witch. And Nott is no great loss - we already have what we need from him, and we have his son. And none who were taken were Secret Keeper...”
The Dark Lord carefully considered his Consort’s words. While they held much veracity, they belonged to someone of noteworthy guile, and the Dark Lord badly needed an outlet for the rage seething within. It took all of the Dark Lord’s effort not to strike everyone in the chamber dead; he would have to settle for killing some Snatchers in their stead.
“What of my Army of the Dead?” Voldemort hissed dangerously, trying to distract himself from his fury. “Where do our numbers stand?”
A smile crept to Bellatrix’s lips as she sensed the Dark Lord’s rage wavering.
“We are nearing completion... Master,” purred Bellatrix, batting her long dark lashes coquettishly. The Dark Lord began to relax. He knew that his Consort was just buttering him up, but he had to admit that it pleased him greatly when she called him ‘Master’ in such a subservient manner.
“Rabastan’s contribution to their numbers was minimal at best,” Bellatrix continued. She gestured towards the enormous television and library of video-tapes nearby. “And in any case, these muggle entertainments have given me an idea for a new breed of Inferi. With my latest modification, Inferi shall be able to pass on the Inferius Curse to the living through their bites... much as Werewolves pass on Lycanthropy.”
The Dark Lord’s features altered from an expression which promised danger, to one which indicated malevolent glee.
“Good, good...” Voldemort nodded, a poisonous smile crossing his features as he stroked his chin and contemplated the possibilities such magically endowed Inferi presented, “That will do nicely indeed...”
Wormtail quietly let out a sigh of relief. The Dark Lord had been treating him very well indeed for some time now, and Wormtail much preferred to keep it that way.
Senior Undersecretary Percy Weasley was working late into the evening in mid-August when the reports of new Inferi attacks began to roll in. The first report was from Nottingham, and an hour later another assault was reported from Stoke-On-Trent.
The Senior Undersecretary was hopeful that this could be dealt with relatively quickly and easily as both muggle locations were in Central England, but his hopes were dashed when another report came in from a Bristol suburb which was home to a small wizarding neighbourhood.
Percy began to resignedly scribble a memo to send directly to Minister Umbridge but was interrupted by a scowling, disheveled Rufus Scrimgeour at his door.
“Senior Undersecretary, if that is a message for the Minister, I have some news to add...”
“Good or bad?” Percy asked in a voice which he hoped didn’t betray the panic he felt.
“A bit of both. A number of muggles and two wizards are dead, but we managed to contain the situation in all three cities. We were fortunate in that the numbers of Inferi in the attacks were small - no more than half a dozen at each location... to begin with.”
“To begin with? I don’t take your meaning, Scrimgeour...”
“Two of the muggles from the first attack.... they turned into Inferi within a half-hour of being mauled. Once we realised we were dealing with something new, I was forced to improvise a new protocol. All of the dead have been incinerated, not just the Inferi - muggle and wizard alike - just to be on the safe side.”
“The Clean-Up team certainly has their work cut out for them then...” Percy groaned. “This is terrible. I’m just glad we managed to contain this before it got out of hand. Thanks Scrimgeour. I’ll pass along the information to the Minister straight away.”
Rufus Scrimgeour nodded curtly and turned to leave. As he shut the door to the Deputy Minister’s office he overheard Percy Weasley muttering to himself. Rufus could just barely make out a few puzzling words of the Senior Undersecretary’s private rumination over the sound of the scratching quill, “...spin this... You-Know-Who or Dumbledore...?”
Rufus shook his head and wriggled a finger in his bad ear, wondering if he'd misheard.
The beginning of the school term was only a fortnight away. And when the Daily Prophet's and the Quibbler’s reports of muggle disappearances shifted to reports of random Inferi attacks the following morning, the headmaster of Hogwarts knew that an assault against Hogwarts by Voldemort’s forces was imminent.
Dumbledore and Professor McGonagall exchanged dark looks, then glanced down the staff-table at several professors too busily engaged in conversation to have read the papers yet.
“I must say Remus, it is simply splendid to see you with a professorship at long last,” said Professor Slughorn proudly. “You deserve so much more...”
“Really Horace?” Professor Lupin raised his eyebrows with a bemused expression. “My professorship was short-lived, and I am only temporarily serving as such again for Miss Watts’ sake. In any case, I was dreadful in Potions... ”
“Nonsense my dear fellow,” Horace responded, twitching his bushy walrus moustache. “I have no doubt that you shall be reinstated when term begins - as long as Albus is in charge at Hogwarts, none can touch you here - and I am certain that you will permanently regain your post when the current regime at the Ministry is brought to an end.
“As to Potions, you may not have been a match in Potions for Severus here...”
Professor Snape snorted and rolled his eyes, but Horace ignored him and soldiered on.
“...or a match for Lily Evans, but your work was always excellent. I expected great things from you, despite your... erm... condition. You were among the few students of your year to graduate Hogwarts with Honours after all.”
“That’s very kind of you Horace,” Lupin flushed slightly. “But if Voldemort’s curse on the DADA position is true, then there is some question as to whether I will still be here when term begins - I managed to finish out Lockhart’s year, and complete one of my own.
“Then Alastor took the position. But... well... we shall see soon enough I suppose. And I wouldn’t have been able to manage it at all if it weren’t for Severus’s Wolfsbane Potion. None can make it better than him,” Lupin concluded with a grateful glance at Snape.
Something almost like a smile flickered in Snape’s eyes, but he merely nodded curtly in response. Severus didn’t care for the personal direction of the conversation, and despite having gained a modicum of respect for one another, it wasn't as if he would ever be best mates with Remus Lupin or Sirius Black.
“Ah, that is another thing I have been meaning to discuss,” Slughorn carried on, paying no attention to Snape’s obvious discomfort, “I think it is simply marvelous that you two and Sirius Black have managed to put aside past enmities and buried the hatchet. However did that come about?”
Snape and Lupin regarded each other uncomfortably, then Severus sighed and raised his eyebrows.
“I had... an epiphany!” said Snape finally.
Horace was not to be put off so easily. He gazed shrewdly at Severus.
“And did this ‘epiphany’ have anything to do with Lily’s son?” Horace asked pointedly.
“I suppose... one might say that,” Severus stiffly replied.
Slughorn was about to press for the juicy details, but the headmaster thought this would be a good time to interrupt the conversation and come to Professor Snape’s rescue.
“Ahem...” Dumbledore passed the Daily Prophet and the Quibbler down the table, “have any of you seen the news this morning?”
Once he had everyone's attention, the headmaster began.
“I believe it is time. We must begin to make final preparations to secure the Castle immediately. I shall recall Kingsley, John, and Alastor - and as many members of the Order as we can spare to assist us in defending Hogwarts. However, I do not wish to leave the members of the school’s Board of Governors nor the publisher of the Quibbler unguarded...”
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