The Gathering Storm
Albus Dumbledore felt freer and lighter on his toes that morning than he had in many, many decades. It was still early yet, but there was a slight lilt in his step as he climbed the stairs to his office for a quiet pre-breakfast cup of tea. He squeezed a bit of lemon into his steaming cup of Earl Grey and stirred in a single spoon of honey. He sighed with some contentment after taking a sip.
Soon Albus was swirling dregs in his cup and chuckling as he imagined what Sybil Trelawny would see in his tea-leaves. Albus set his cup gently in the saucer and opened his desk drawer, touching the glass on the sepia picture of his sister Ariana with a bittersweet sigh. Picking up the cool gold ring inset with the cracked Resurrection Stone, he turned it over and over again in the palm of his hand.
He had no need of it anymore.
Last night Albus had finally been brave enough to use it. Ariana had forgiven Albus, and assured him that it was Gellert’s wand which had killed her when she had taken a killing curse aimed at her brother. Now Albus’s biggest regret was that he had let Gellert live.
Albus considered what he should do with the ring. If anyone deserved it, it was Harry Potter. Harry, who had grown up without his parents would surely want to speak with them, if only to meet with them and say goodbye properly - putting the ghosts of his past to rest.
The only question was the timing. There was so much uncertainty - the future shrouded in mystery like never before.
It was early Sunday morning, shortly after breakfast; Hermione huffed and puffed as she hauled the heavy pile of books and dumped them on the library table. Harry looked up from the book he was reading, startled by her sudden appearance. He boggled at the sight of all the books.
“Blimey Hermione! What are all those?”
Hermione grinned at the shocked look on Harry’s face.
“Research for the Third Task of course,” she responded breezily. “Here, this lot are for you... I’ll start on these others.”
Harry peered at the first book on the top of his pile, which looked like a book chock-full of Greek symbols. Then he glanced at the second book which featured Ancient Egyptian Hieroglyphs. It suddenly struck him what they were for.
“Er...” he began. Seeing his hesitation, Hermione jumped right in excitedly, her words spilling out in a hot rush.
“You’re the best calligrapher by far Harry! ... These won’t work half as well in the hands of others. Don’t worry, I’ll help with the translating and choosing the most useful ones of course, but I thought you should get a head-start on those and practice drawing and painting in those styles while I look through these other books.
“They’re quite different from Norse Runes, so you’ll need all the practice you can get. Meanwhile I’ll be researching to see which ones might work against some of the creatures you might be facing...”
Hermione trailed off when she saw Harry grinning at her.
“That’s brilliant Hermione! I knew I married you for a good reason...”
“Oh shut up!” she said, blushing as she turned around and marched off to look for more books.
Lucius staggered as he strolled along the roadside, the hot sun beating down on him - even as early in the morning as it was. He had bound his arm as best he could, but he had still lost a lot of blood. And he had been slowly making his way south, mostly at night.
If he could only make it to Salisbury, he knew that there was a wizard pub there with a public floo port. But it was at least still five kilometres due south, if the muggle road signs were any indication.
Several muggles in passing vehicles had offered him assistance, but Lucius scowled and waved them on. It was bad enough that he had been forced by circumstances to utilise the muggle roadways and maps, he was hardly going to accept help from inferior beings.
He sighed when he spotted several people approaching, wondering if he should cross the road so that he didn’t have to pass by the muggles so closely. Lucius stiffened, his nostrils flaring when one of them pointed at him. Gritting his teeth and narrowing his eyes, he wished that he had his wand so he could teach them some manners.
But as a wave of dizziness came over him, Lucius could hear one of them calling his name. Why would a muggle be calling his name? As he began to black out and topple over, he could just make out one of the muggles saying, “Warlock Malfoy, are you alright?”
When Lucius finally came to, he saw pink. Pink everywhere. Pink curtains, pink bedcovers, pink shag carpets, and pink pinstriped walls. When he spied some pink kitten plates on a Welsh dresser, it finally occurred to him that he must be in Dolores’s home. He groaned and his head spun as he tried to sit up.
“Ah, Lucius you’re awake - splendid! Don’t get up,” said Dolores. “Your arm has been healed, but you still lost a lot of blood, and the blood replenishing potion still has some work to do yet. I’ll get you a pot of tea - sorry I don’t have any house-elves, so I’ll have to get it myself...”
“Completely gone... Fiendfyre. You won’t be able to rebuild it with magic I’m afraid.”
“Damn!” Lucius groaned. “I expected as much. But I had hoped...”
Dolores nodded, a sympathetic expression on her face. She exited the room and was back moments later with a pot of tea, two teacups, a small jug of cream, and a bowl of sugarcubes.
“One lump or two?” Dolores asked.
“Sugarcubes...” Dolores replied. “I usually have three or four, but most don’t have as much of a sweet tooth as myself. I can also add a splash of brandy if you’d like.”
“I think I’ll just take the brandy, no sugarcubes,” Lucius said with a hint of a wry smile.
Dolores smiled broadly. “Of course, Lucius.”
As Lucius sipped his brandy, Dolores’s features hardened, and her voice took on a steely tone.
“We have much to discuss Lucius,” she began. “When you’re feeling a bit better, you should make a public appearance at the Ministry before people begin asking too many questions. But in the meantime, you ought to know two things. For one, we have Avery...”
Lucius’s eyebrows popped up, “That is some good news! Any actionable intelligence?”
“Not much I’m afraid,” sighed Dolores. “It would appear that Voldemort is keeping his location very close to the vest. It seems that only Wormtail bears the responsibility of Secret Keeping...”
Lucius snorted, nearly shooting his brandy out through his nose at the irony of the situation. He couldn’t help but chuckle and shake his head.
“Quite!” remarked Dolores dryly, “In any case, we were able to extract the knowledge from Avery that Crabbe and Goyle are seeking out giants, and that MacNair is building up an army of mountain trolls. But that really isn’t the most important news... I’m afraid that your son is in Azkaban...”
“WHAT?” Lucius bolted right up into a sitting position, nearly spilling his brandy all over the bedclothes. “How the hell did that happen?”
“He kidnapped and more or less raped Astoria Greengrass, and was caught in the act by Harry Potter... Amelia Bones had Draco convicted and sent to Azkaban before I even learned of the occurrence.”
Lucius groaned and drained his brandy snifter. He grabbed the bottle of brandy, refilled the goblet and drained it again.
“I suppose it could have been worse - you are most fortunate that Mr Potter shares Dumbledore’s soft touch and reticence for killing...” said Dolores. “He only took Draco’s hand.”
Lucius nodded, sighing. He knew that he was very lucky that Draco was still alive. Lucius would have murdered anyone who touched so much as a single hair on Draco’s head. Still... it was only a girl, and Greengrass’s girl at that. Draco’s only mistake was not paying Warlock Greengrass for the girl. Not that the blood-traitor deserved payment, but Greengrass had a lot of friends.
It did surprise him though that Potter - a Gryffindor through and through - had been the one to come to a Slytherins’ rescue.
Dolores waited a moment for Lucius to process the information before continuing.
“Unfortunately, Draco was parted too long from his hand for it to be reattached. But the DoM’s Research and Development division is working on something right now that could suffice, should it become operational. And not to worry Lucius, I shall have Draco released as soon as possible of course... but it shall have to be done surreptitiously while Amelia is still in charge of the DMLE.
“And when I do release him, Draco will have to remain isolated for the time-being lest anyone discover that he is missing from Azkaban... But only until I have removed Amelia from office, and solidified our faction in the Wizengamot - which as we have discussed, we should be able to manage by the end of the summer...”
“Yes... yes I quite agree, Dolores.” Lucius nodded; what Dolores suggested only made sense while the politics of the situation were still unsettled.
“In the meantime,” Dolores went on, “I insist that you and Draco remain here until we can find you more suitable lodgings for a man of your station. Despite the lack of house-elves, it is quite comfortable here, I assure you.”
“Thank you Dolores,” Lucius nodded again. “That is most generous of you. I accept your kind offer...”
Dipping his quill in the inkwell, Harry began to cheerfully and meticulously practice copying the sets of symbols he found in the books Hermione had given him, while she continued to research, sitting right beside him. They had been at it for several hours when someone else entered the library - which was highly unusual on Sunday mornings.
Hermione looked up when she heard the door open and bit her lip when she saw that it was Parvati with Daphne in tow. Harry noticed that Hermione was distracted, not having heard the door open himself as focused as he had been.
The moment Daphne saw the Potters she flung herself on both of them and burst into tears. Harry barely managed to put his quill down before the ink could go flying everywhere. Thankfully, Madam Pince was napping in her office as she knew that Sundays were usually slow.
Harry and Hermione both held on to Daphne quietly, just letting her cry while Parvati sat nearby and kept watch, her own eyes brimming with tears. After Daphne’s sobs subsided, she hiccuped and sat herself down in a library chair. She dabbed at the tears on her cheeks with a hanky and smiled wanly at the Potters.
“Sorry about that!” said Daphne shyly. “I didn’t mean to cry all over you.”
“It’s alright Daphne...” Hermione smiled sympathetically. “We quite understand.”
Harry nodded. “You can cry all over us any time you like Daphne.”
“It... it’s just... I don’t know what I’d do without Astoria.” Daphne bit her lip, trying hard not to cry again. “She’s my best friend... or was until I came to Hogwarts. It was really hard, missing her so much until she finally came to Hogwarts too...
“I’m going to miss her all over again, now that Mum and Dad are going to look after her at home - she’s still really fragile, and might be for a long time - But at least I got a chance to be with her for a few days... Th...thank you both so much for rescuing her.”
“Why don’t we all go back to our quarters for Tea,” Hermione suggested when she saw that Daphne looked like she might start crying again,
“Oh... ta Hermione,” Daphne nodded gratefully.
“You coming too Parvati?” asked Harry.
“Er... Yeah... That would be lovely,” said Parvati awkwardly, biting her lip as she regarded Daphne sadly. Parvati couldn’t imagine how awful she would feel if something that dreadful had happened to Padma.
Once back in the Potters’ chambers, Dobby brought them all a Teatime spread with finger sandwiches, mini-cakes, and a pot of tea. Daphne picked at her food while the rest of them ate.
Hermione rather thought that perhaps Daphne needed something a bit more cheering than tea. She went to the little kitchen to make some cocoa, but she slipped out of their quarters and didn’t return until five minutes later.
“I just spoke to Moody,” Hermione said quietly as she passed everyone steaming mugs of cocoa upon her return, “He said it’s alright if we skip training today.”
Harry looked at Hermione gratefully and visibly relaxed. Parvati and the Potters spent the rest of the afternoon comforting Daphne on the settee in front of the fireplace until she finally dozed off peacefully.
The Dark Lord cursed that he should have so many incompetents among his followers... First Crouch, now Avery. Wormtail was the only one the Dark Lord trusted to not fail him.
Avery was a dead loss. The Dark Witch could have the fool - she would no doubt dole out the punishment that Avery so richly deserved. Voldemort was only displeased that he could not be the one to torture Avery himself. Still, the Dark Lord had Nott. He would have to suffer in Avery’s stead.
Voldemort stroked his chin pensively as he pondered his plans while Wormtail enjoyed a well-deserved respite in the basement toying with the captive daughter of the dead muggle bank manager who had owned the opulent manor they now resided in.
The ranks of the Snatchers were growing. MacNair had captured and enslaved more than enough Mountain Trolls for the moment - he could be the one to oversee the recruitment efforts now. And Fenrir Greyback had convinced another Lycan clan to join them.
Crabbe and Goyle had sent back messages that their efforts recruiting Giants was proceeding even more successfully than they had hoped. It would take some time to travel undercover, but they should be back soon enough.
The Dark Lord considered seeking out some Vampires, but decided against it. The majority of Vampires remained aloof and were entirely too self-serving to serve Voldemort. They believed highly in their own superiority over wizards.
The only real question was who the Dementors would serve. The Dark Witch had as much to offer them as the Dark Lord did himself. Their loyalties could be divided. Voldemort could at best hope to sway half their numbers to join him. He supposed that would have to suffice.
In any case, the Trolls and Giants were impervious to the effects of Dementors. If Voldemort could not win enough Dementors over to his own cause, then the Creatures under the Dark Lord’s command would prove far more efficacious than lesser-wizards and werewolves in the assault upon Azkaban.
The Dark Lord was satisfied that everything was proceeding according to plan. By the first day of summer, Azkaban would belong to Voldemort, and with Bellatrix at his side - whose skills at necromancy were unsurpassed - the Dark Lord could raise his Army of the Dead.
What to do next was the Dark Lord’s biggest quandary. Should he seek to raid the Ministry first and locate the recording of the Prophecy? Or would his resources be better spent taking Hogwarts as a base from which to operate, during the summer when it would be empty?
It seemed a desperate chance to seek out the Prophecy, merely to hear the second part which had eluded him. If the incursion into the Ministry failed, it would be resources wasted. And what did it truly matter? The Dark Lord instinctively knew that he had to be the one to defeat Potter or die trying - he and the boy were linked by Destiny - and the Dark Lord’s own death was an impossibility...
The Minister entered the Department of Mysteries, satisfied that all would be well with Lucius Malfoy and his son. She knew that she would have to act fast to recover Draco, before Voldemort took Azkaban for himself. As far as she was concerned, he could have it. It would be a waste of resources to try and defend Azkaban.
The Minister was certain that she would be able to persuade enough Dementors to remain in the Ministry’s employ, as long as they were offered greater access to human souls. No doubt many Dementors would also flock to Voldemort’s side, but it seemed likely that the split would be more or less even.
In any case, it was far more important to shore up the defences of the Ministry and develop weapons which would be effective in the war that she knew was coming. She at least needed to be able to match Voldemort’s efforts. She wouldn’t have giants of course, but they were unruly and unpredictable anyway. But one thing that Voldemort would be sure to employ was necromancy.
Inferi were difficult to create, but easy to control by those who had created them. And Voldemort could be depended upon to create an Army of the Dead - he was all too predictable. But that gave her an idea - a deliciously splendid idea. And the Third Task of the Triwizard Tournament could prove to be the perfect testing ground.
An Unspeakable nodded at the Minister as she entered Operations Headquarters. “Afternoon, Chief...”
“I’ll be in my office,” the Chief replied, taking off her Minister Hat. “I am not to be disturbed. The Senior Undersecretary has the Ministry well in hand.”
“Yes, Ma’am... got it!”
As she settled behind the desk in her office, the Chief wondered what to do about the end of the Third Task if Potter survived. She had yet to come up with a satisfactory plan. Still, it seemed unlikely that Potter would be able to deploy Dumbledore’s secret weapon again; even assuming that Potter managed to sneak the weapon into the maze, the boy would no doubt be in a weakened state and have too much else to contend with.
She sighed, hoping that this time - if she had enough units and Voldemort hadn’t taken them already - they would be successful. And if not, there were always more direct methods - the Chief was simply reticent to openly show her hand just yet...
Percy Weasley chortled gleefully as he sat behind his new desk, not caring that he was in the office Sunday afternoon. It was his office now. He ran his fingers over the embossed surface of the golden name-plate on the desk and reveled in his new title. Senior Undersecretary Weasley still had such a nice ring to it, even after repeating it like a mantra to himself for the thousandth time since he’d been promoted.
He was now only one step away from the top job itself. Percy knew that most Ministers were promoted out of the DMLE, but Fudge hadn’t been, and Percy knew that he would make a far better Minister than Fudge. And Minister Umbridge had all but promised that one day he would take her place.
Senior Undersecretary Weasley considered how he had made it this far. It had been more than apparent when he had first arrived at the Ministry under the employ of Crouch, that the Weasley name was Mud. And Percy had quickly come to understand why. It was his father’s obsession with promoting the welfare of muggles and muggleborn that had kept him from advancing in the Ministry.
And it was abundantly clear from the start that many of the people who mattered at the Ministry deemed the Weasleys far too close to Dumbledore and Potter, who were also champions of lesser wizards and muggles. Minister Umbridge herself - a delightful and dedicated woman - had made her feelings on the topic quite clear.
So Percy had taken great pains to gradually distance himself from his family in order to move ahead - though he felt a pang at leaving his sister and youngest brother behind - they weren’t Fred and George after all.
Leaning back in his office armchair, Percy sighed happily as a pleasant thought popped into his head. Percy couldn’t wait to see the looks on Dumbledore’s and Potter’s faces when he judged the last task of the Triwizard Tournament as the youngest Senior Undersecretary in history.
As the weeks continued to pass and draw nearer to the Third Task, Harry and Hermione managed to keep up on their studies while researching and training for the Third Task with the others. Ron was a bit disappointed that Harry was too busy to hang out, but he understood why, and resigned himself to the situation; he had Seamus, and at least he could see Harry at most mealtimes.
Harry and Hermione also continued to practice their Patronus Charms whenever they could find the time. Hermione had finally worked out how to send messages with them, but beyond that, their Patronuses appeared to be growing ever stronger. Harry and Hermione were almost overwhelmed to the point of passing out by the radiant pulses of magical energy flooding the Room of Requirement.
And as the weeks progressed under Moody’s tutelage, Harry noticed that Hermione was going all out, putting everything she had into practicing her spellwork and her physical combat training, and he began to feel a bit worried.
A sudden horrible thought occurred to Harry, slamming him in the gut. After everyone else had departed the Room of Requirement he shut the door and gave Hermione a look, a vein throbbing in his temple.
“Er... what’s wrong Harry?” Hermione asked anxiously. She could tell that she had done something to really upset him, but she had no idea what.
“Stay out of that maze Hermione,” Harry warned hoarsely, “I don’t want you in there... you could get killed.”
Hermione flushed. So that was it. Harry had correctly discerned the reason for her increasing intensity during training sessions.
“And what about you?” Hermione retorted heatedly, quivering crossly, “You could get killed too...”
“That’s just it... I don’t want you to die as well... I couldn’t bear the thought of losing you in there. You’ve still got your mum...”
“And what makes you think I can bear it any better, Harry James Potter?” Hermione suddenly screamed, hot angry tears streaming down her blazing cheeks. “I’m not letting you face death alone! I can’t live without you! Don’t you understand?”
Harry was taken aback. He hadn’t realised how much he was hurting Hermione. He faltered, and tried another tack.
“I... look... you won’t even be able to get in there...”
“The wards will only be keyed to Professors and Headmasters,” Hermione snapped, burning tears still dripping. “The Commission won’t be expecting any students to enter of their own volition. We’re in this together Harry, and that’s final!” Hermione finished vehemently.
Harry discovered his own face wet with tears; he felt on the verge of a panic attack. His chest was tight - the walls began to close in on him - he couldn’t breathe and he began to shake. Hermione could die and it would be all his fault.
Hermione broke. Her features softened and she flung her arms around Harry, sobbing. Harry returned Hermione’s embrace and clutched her tightly, her warmth filling him, her scent calming. He kissed her bushy head as he began to settle.
“I’m sorry Hermione... I’m so sorry... I didn’t mean to hurt you. I just want you to live.”
“Whatever happens in there is whatever happens Harry,” Hermione sniffled quietly into his chest. “You don’t have to do it all alone Harry... ”
“Look at me Hermione... please!?”
Hermione lifted her head and Harry cupped her chin, wiping her tears away gently with the forefinger of his other hand.
“I love you Hermione,” Harry uttered softly; she melted in his eyes. “I don’t know what I’d do without you. You’re right... I promised you that whatever happened, we’d always be in it together. I’m really, really sorry for letting my stupid old feelings get the better of me...”
Hermione shut Harry up with a tender, wet kiss, pulled back and gazed into Harry’s pooling green eyes, biting her lip in consternation, feeling bad for screaming at him.
“Don’t be sorry Harry... They’re not stupid feelings - I know how hard it is for you to not feel guilty when you think that you’re putting other people in danger... I can’t expect you to stop having them altogether. I... I just want you to know that no matter what, I’m never letting them come between us.
“And I’m the one who’s sorry Harry! I’m so sorry that I shouted at you... Please, let me make it up to you,” she finished; a golden glimmer flashed in her eyes.
“Er...” Harry was bewildered by Hermione’s sudden change in demeanor.
“Come on then...” Hermione grabbed his hand and led him out of the Room of Requirement. She paced back and forth several times, and when she opened the door again, he spied the Fairy Grotto jacuzzi which he had first conjured up months ago.
“Er...” he said again. “Are you sure about this Hermione?”
“Why not? Nothing awful happened last time!” she answered. “...Just a bit of shaking.”
Harry grinned as Hermione yanked him through the door and shut it behind them.
Dinner was in full swing. Everyone was too busy feasting to notice that Harry and Hermione weren’t at the Mingling Table tonight. The Great Hall trembled slightly.
“Bloody Hell!” Ron gasped. “There it is again... What's going on?” Ron dropped his forkful of mashed potatoes as the Great Hall fell into darkness when the floating candles flickered and went out.
“Dunno mate,” said Seamus, equally perplexed.
The candles flared up again moments later, brighter than before, and a buzz of bewilderment filled the Hall. The other professors glanced at Dumbledore questioningly. Dumbledore shrugged, a twinkle in his eye, apparently unconcerned.
The walls shook twice more during dinner, and each time the candles flickered, the intensity of their luminosity grew stronger when they relit. Professor McGonagall narrowed her eyes in suspicion at Dumbledore when he continued to behave so nonchalantly. Dumbledore caught her eye and winked.
If she didn’t know better, McGonagall would have thought he was smirking underneath those whiskers.
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