The Sugar Quill
Author: Alchemilla (Professors' Bookshelf)  Story: The Test of Time  Chapter: Onions and a Redhead
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Chapter 2: Onions and a Redhead

 

Author's note: If you haven't read the prologue Midnight Musings by now, you should, or you won't understand the 'codenames'. Thanks.

Oh Harry, I’m afraid I have to rush home,” exclaimed Hermione, shoving thick texts and parchment into a leather satchel. “If I’d known you were coming to the lab this afternoon, I would have saved you the trouble of going through Security.”

It was a Thursday afternoon in late May, and Harry had unexpectedly dropped by The New Institute for Experimental Magic - where Hermione studied, scribbled, and waved her wand with her brainy co-workers (almost exclusively Ravenclaws), pushing the boundaries of magic to sublime and uncharted extremes. Harry had said he wanted to speak to her about something personal (!) - a rare statement from him.

That’s okay,” he said distractedly, as he stood at the spell-proof glass window, watching her colleagues move about in the testing room.

 

What exactly are they doing in there?” he asked her slowly, his mouth twitching at the corners. They did look rather silly: a group of otherwise distinguished men and women jumping and waving their arms in the air while a levitating handbag moved rapidly just out of their reach. One young woman weaved rapidly through the others, and the handbag seemed to follow her.

“They are testing the rrresilency of the spell,” replied an imperious voice, with a pretentious rolling of his ‘r’. Rrrrrreally, thought Hermione wearily.

They turned to face Hermione’s colleague, Nigel Sidethorne, and Hermione watched as his eyes raked disapprovingly over Harry’s combat fatigues and dusty boots, but settling on the glowing “C” on Harry’s Visitor badge (indicating ‘clearance’ through Security) and then beadily checking the date.

Hermione opened her mouth to make introductions, but Nigel was already speaking again. “The sequor responsae spell is my improvement on the old sequor res, enabling the caster to transport an object a few feet behind him or her, without the former difficulties. Similarly to an Accio charm, the object will now dodge obstructions such as other wizards, trees or lamposts."

 

“The old ‘puppy dog’ spell,” she explained to Harry. “Remember Ron tried it once? You could make your bookbag follow you around, but it was useless, because it bumped into everyone in the corridors.”

Harry nodded, grinning broadly. “He whacked Marcus Flint on the back of the head and we had to run for it."

 

"AS I WAS SAYING," continued Nigel, "the object will trail its caster for as long as four days. And, as a theft deterrent, only the caster can access the object, by calling it to him - or her" he bowed slightly at Hermione, acknowledging that yes, even a woman could execute this spell, "with a simple whistle."

 

In the testing room, the six or so technicians were now puckered up and whistling at the handbag. Finally, the young woman stopped her pacing, turned to face the bag, and whistled. It flew dutifully into her arms.

“Brilliant,” murmured Harry, earning a self-satisfied smile from Nigel.

Hermione tapped her fingers discreetly on the leather buckle of her satchel - we’ve got to go - she indicated to Harry with her eyes, but he held up a finger: Just a minute.

He turned to Nigel, his face alight with interest. “Will the object follow you at any speed? Say, you were doing seventy-five, eighty miles an hour on your broomstick, and ... even going through a densely treed forest, with a heavy rucksack following you. Would that be possible?”

Nigel’s smile faded slightly. “Well,” he said, bristling, “we haven’t tested it under such extreme conditions. Why would anyone be foolish enough to attempt such a feat anyway? Those sorts of speeds are illegal outside a sporting pitch."

Hermione caught a flash of mischief in Harry's expression.

“Well,” he responded, copying Nigel’s tone exactly, “if one were trying to escape from something or someone, say-- a Death Eater?-- one might endeavor to move one’s arse at eighty miles per hour.”

Hermione suppressed a smile. What was up with him today? So cheeky...

Nigel eyes moved sharply to Harry’s face, and then widened in astonishment (and slight trepidation) as he comprehended, for the first time, to whom he was speaking. However, he recovered impressively to his predictable self. “The New Institute for Experimental Magic,” in the most patronizing voice he could muster, “does not cater solely to the military or--” he scanned Harry’s attire again “-- their imitators, the paramilitary. We are here to improve the daily lives of witches and wizards the world over.”

Imitators! It was a direct swipe at the Underground Auror League, and Hermione felt the urge to jump into the fray. I suppose eliminating You-Know-Who from the earth doesn’t count toward improving the lives of witches and wizards? I’d like to see you crawl down the abandoned shafts of Nenthead Mine in hunt for the most evil being of our time, Nigel. But she held her tongue; there was no time. “Please, Harry, we’ve got to go! I’m expecting a delivery at the flat. Apparate home with me?”

Harry seemed entirely unruffled - indeed, he now had a dangerous Ron-like twinkle in his eye, and his mouth twitched at the corners. Hermione tugged at his arm before he could bait her colleague any further. Nigel stared indignantly as Harry executed an exaggerated military salute and “Sir!” in Nigel’s direction before Hermione pulled him through the door.

*****

Harry stepped out of his invisibility cloak as soon the delivery men had closed the door behind them. "So,” he said, “ we rushed over here because you're having a mattress delivered?" Harry made no effort to hide his grin. "A larger mattress," he noted pointedly, glancing into the bedroom. “Is that a queen-sized? A king?” He looked over at Hermione, biting his lip to keep from laughing.

"Well," began Hermione, feeling her face burn. It was king-sized. Her single bed just hadn't sufficient room for 'a good romp', as Ron would say, nor room for comfortable sleeping. Not that Ron had ever slept an entire night at the flat - he would fall asleep though, afterwards, and she would usually charm the alarm clock so he could be back at The Burrow by one or two a.m..

She regarded with satisfaction the antique wrought iron bedframe that they had picked out together last week - a slightly distressed paint finish, simple lines, not too Victorian or fussy. Perfect. It suited the decor of Hermione's small Regency-era flat: a mix of old architecture, scrubbed wood floors, a few well-chosen pieces of comfortable furniture, and very modern textiles of cream and khaki linen, chenille and coir. And books, of course. Shelves and shelves of Hermione's books, from prized ancient treatises on spell theory to modern editions of wizard poetry.

"Well," she repeated, while Harry tortured her, waiting for an explanation. She shook her head indignantly, and walked into the kitchen. "Don't just stand there," she called finally. "Come and make yourself useful while we talk."

Harry came into the kitchen, chuckling throatily, as Hermione got out the ingredients for dinner. She passed Harry a bunch of cilantro. "De-stem these," she ordered.

"Is this a potion you're making?" Harry asked, bringing the distinctive-smelling leaves to his nose.

"No, dinner. Chicken with a cilantro and cumin paste. It’s like a pesto."

"What the hell is pesto?"

"Oh, Harry. You have got to get out more often. Eat out a a decent restaurant." She refrained from saying 'take a girl out once in a while',
although she wanted to. Besides, she was beginning to hope that there was a girl. He had missed their past two weekly pub meals, citing 'other plans.' And there was an unmistakable animation in him today that she hadn't seen in ages.

He didn't answer, but only smiled and set to his assignment. Hermione pulled out her wand, and set a mortar and pestle grinding the cumin seeds.

She could contain her curiosity no longer. "So. Anything new in your life? What exactly are you so chipper about today?"

Harry looked slightly startled. "Oh. Is that so unusual?"

"Yes and no. You' ve seemed rather down lately."

"Yeah, well," he sighed, "last month was a strange one. Katie wasn't the only friend killed in that mass hex.. An Auror friend of mine was at the same restaurant. He was in Polyjuice disguise at the time, and so we didn't find out until later." He frowned. "An Auror wants to go down fighting, not twirling pasta on his fork."

They worked in silence for a few minutes, and Hermione's mind wandered back to the awkward conversation about Katie Bell that night at the Three Broomsticks. And what was in that letter? "Harry," she said suddenly. "You said you wanted to talk to me about something personal."

"Yes," he said , clearing his throat, and pushing aside a pile of cilantro leaves.

Hermione held up a hand to interrupt. "Listen, if it's about Katie Bell, you don't have to tell me. It's none of my business, really."

Harry stared at her, a sudden look of apprehension on his face. "No, no. It's a personal question for you and Ron actually - regarding the War." He cocked his head slightly to one side. "What makes you think this is about Katie Bell? Have you... heard something further?"

"No," Hermione answered hurriedly. "I would not ask Ron to betray your confidence - I thought I made that clear at The Three Broomsticks. But I realized he was covering for you."

"Covering for me??" Harry snorted with amusement, the worried expression disappearing. "Oh - ho, that's rich. Covering for himself would be more likely." He picked up one of the peppers and a knife. "Shall I chop these up?"

Hermione nodded wordlessly, her mind digesting Harry's response: Ron, covering for himself ? Wasn't it both boys that had met up with Katie that night? Or just Ron?

“Hey, Hermione,” he said softly, reading her expression. He placed a hand on her forearm. “Don't worry about the Katie Bell incident. Ron and I were so young, and we thought you were, well... dead."

Was he implying that their immaturity and her death would have made this undivulgable 'incident' more acceptable? "So this happened in seventh year at Hogwarts," she cried, "when I was hostage to the Death Eaters! But Katie had left school two years prior--"

 

"Hermione," he said with mild exasperation. "It’s no big deal, really. Not now, anyway.” He waved the pepper dismissively at her.

Hermione turned to the sink to separate and wash lettuce for the salad. A deep frown collected on her brow as she sorted these new comments from Harry. Ron had grown into a totally gorgeous specimen of a male by their seventh year: tall and broad-shouldered, with a Quidditch-honed body and a beautiful smile. Any girl, any woman for that matter, would have been attracted to him. Katie was no wilting flower herself - a professional Qudditch player by then, a confident and athletic strawberry blonde.

Hermione dried her hands and reached up absently to touch her own super-short, stylish brown hair. She had worn it that way ever since the kidnapping. The Death Eaters had shaved off all her hair, and when it started to grow back, she found she actually preferred the unencumbrance of short hair. Ron liked it, or so he said. He had always made her feel attractive, even though she liked to deny that it held any importance for her.

Surely, surely, Ron and Katie hadn’t... no. When she had finally consented to let Ron into her bed last year, he had come to her as a virgin. (Hadn’t he?) They had certainly fumbled about ignorantly the first time. After all, one of his (many) nicknames for her was “my first and only”. He wouldn't have lied to her; he wouldn't. She was overreacting. Hermione washed her hands again and summoned mushrooms and cucumbers from the larder. With a nauseous mix of burning curiosity and guilt at her doubts, she wondered if she should coax more information out of Harry.

"You are staying for dinner, aren't you?" she asked him, as casually as possible, handing him two massive onions, produce from the local wizard market.

"Should I?" Harry was grinning at her again. "It looks like you and Ron have a big evening ahead: first a fashion show"-- he waved the knife vaguely over at the couch, which was draped out with neat piles of feminine Muggle clothing-- "and then you've got to christen the...ahem...new acquisition." He nodded toward the bedroom, and she could see one eyebrow cocked mischievously behind the rim of his glasses.

"Oh stop! Enough." Hermione rolled her eyes and pushed aside her anxiety with great mental effort. Ron loves me. Whatever happened , it was over four years ago now and therefore irrelevant. "Those Muggle clothes are out because I am lending Ginny some outfits for their trip to the south of France next week."

The chopping slowed. "Their ...trip to...?"

"Ginny and Colin." Hermione patted the chicken dry and began rubbing a clove of garlic all over the skin. "Colin is photographing the lavender fields in bloom and the olive trees and whatever objects catch his eye. He's quite the artist, you know; he creates these sepia-toned, vintage style prints.

"Ginny serves as a model sometimes, much to Ron's disapproval of course," she chuckled. "Colin doesn't take nude photographs or anything; it's usually just her hand or her hair, but Ron doesn't want any part of Ginny on some art gallery wall."

Hermione paused; Harry had stopped chopping altogether and he was staring at her, all color drained from his face, the knife poised above the chopping board.

"What's wrong?" she asked quickly. "Are you all right?"

Harry swallowed hard and started up his chopping again. "Nothing. Nothing."

She continued after a moment, watching Harry carefully, "Anyway, Ginny can hardly afford this trip, much less a bunch of Muggle clothes, so I offered to lend her some." She washed and dried her hands and then walked to the couch to pick up a strappy turquoise dress. "Can't you just see this color on Ginny?"

He looked up. "Yes," he said, but his voice came out in a croaky sort of whisper. "Perfect."

Hermione stared at him with a piercing scrutiny. He colored then, a deep red, and looked away. He picked up the other onion. Chop, chop, chop he went again.

Why should this news of Ginny and Colin unsettle Harry so much? Is it possible - could it be - that Harry cared for Ginny again after all this time? Hmm, she thought, tidying the pile of clothing; it should be an interesting evening.

"Harry," she said quietly. "You wanted to talk to me about the War."

"Yes...wait." He seemed to struggle. "I thought...I thought they were just friends." Chop, chop, chop he continued. He wouldn't look
at her.

Hermione leaned forward, her elbows on the counter. "That is what Ginny has said. Maybe that's what she tells Ron, because he doesn't particularly like Colin." She smiled. "Not that he likes anyone that takes a fancy to Ginny."

Harry looked up. His face still burned red, and his eyes were starting to water. "And what do you think?"

"Are you all right, Harry?" she asked again.

"Yes!" he said impatiently, "it's the damn onions making my eyes burn." He took off his glasses and tried to wipe his eyes on his sleeve.

“Why aren’t you using magic to chop those?”

“Because!” he shot back irritably, “I can handle a knife better with my hands. And WHAT DO YOU THINK, Hermione?" he repeated, almost desperately.

She handed him a tissue, answering gently. "I honestly don't know. Colin dotes on Ginny, but that may not mean anything. Anyway, you can decide for yourself when they get here."

"WHAT!" He leapt backwards off his stool. Sometimes, Hermione could almost swear he could fly without a broomstick.

"They're coming here? TONIGHT?" His eyes were streaming now, and he felt blindly for the board of onions and pushed them violently away. "WHEN?"

"Any moment now-- "


Harry swore. He looked really quite pitiful, his eyes screwed up, and a look of panic on his face. Our invincible Harry, undone by onions and a redhead. Hermione would have smiled at this thought, if she hadn’t been still reeling from his reactions.

He opened one eye, and shoved his glasses back on. "I've got to go. Sorry, Hermione. I've got to go."

"But Harry, you haven’t even seen Ron yet, much less had a chance to talk. You wanted to discuss something about the war."

"Later, Hermione. I'll owl you later." He threw on his rucksack, grabbed his broom and headed toward the door. He paused, the doorknob in his hand, and put his ear to the door. Hermione watched in disbelief. He was truly desperate NOT to see her. He turned briefly to Hermione, and blushed crimson again. All was clear to her, and he knew it.

"Hermione..." He almost pleaded.

"I won't say a word to her. I promise." She wasn't for a second going to promise not to speak to Ron about this. It was too startling. A long, detailed discussion with Ron would be necessary - late tonight. After Ginny and Colin were gone, and after Hermione and Ron tested out the mattress.

*****

“Get me a martini, girl!” barked Draco from his leather chair. This flat was just too big sometimes - had she heard him? Then: Blaise’s quick footsteps on the marble floor in the hallway. That’s better.

“Really, Draco, you could ask the house elf,” she spoke huffily as she sloshed the liquid into the crystal glass and handed it to him.

Draco ignored her.

He was in an exceedingly bad mood. His favorite spy had informed him this afternoon that it was none other than Ronald Weasley(!) who was the owner of the homegrown manufacturing company that Draco wanted to buy. That ridiculous, red-headed idiot had become a successful entrepreneur, following the steps of the twin idiots and their owl-order joke catalogue. Bloody carrot-headed bastard - and Draco had offered him such generous terms. What irked him most was the patronizing tone of the rejection letter - he could almost hear Weasley’s pedestrian humor in it. Had Weasley discovered who had made the offer? Draco had been very careful to conduct all communication through an anonymous agent.

That little company had sold a Terrormeter to every wizard household in Britain. An itty bitty gadget that had changed the war, really. No longer could Death Eaters enjoy the slow and repeated torture of a Cruciatus victim. The Terrormeter, worn around the neck, or placed in any home or building, could detect traces of fear in its inhabitants. When it reached a certain threshold, a level of terror that only Crucio could elicit, then it alerted the authorities. No, actually, it alerted that rogue group of Aurors - Potter’s group, thought Draco bitterly - and they Apparated immediately to the rescue. The Aurors had arrested over twenty Death Eaters with the aid of that gadget (Father was lucky not to have been one of them). Draco had read in Wizard’s Small Business Weekly that it was supposed to be inspired by some Muggle product: ‘help help, I’ve fallen and I can’t get up’, Draco recalled. Whatever that meant.

 

Weasley had signed the letter with a fake name of course, of course: Ikan Makitrite. (Was that supposed to be funny?) The Dark Side had recently listed the unknown creator of the Terrormeter as a high priority target. Hah! Draco’s personal spy network was more informed than his father’s! A fine bit of information, it was too. He could dangle it in front of his father, perhaps, in exchange for some greater control of the (dwindling) Malfoy fortune. Hmmm... dare he play such a dangerous game? Draco could certainly outwit his father with words or schemes, but he wasn't so confident that he could escape bodily injury.

He shuddered and smoothed his already flawless coif with his hand. Disfigurement, maiming, painful hexes - these were the pleasures of his father's companions. No, he would keep Weasley's secret for now.

Father had "dropped by" Draco's elegant London flat by just yesterday, accompanied by his ever-present bodyguards: six terrifying Russian-trained wizards - they glowered threateningly at Draco before being dismissed to the next room. Draco had experienced his usual mix of thrilling fear and arrogant disdain during their little father-son chat. Slowly, round the room they had circled each other as they exchanged barbs: how nervous you must feel sometimes, Draco, having refused to pledge your allegiance to the leader of the Dark Forces - your own father after all; and what a shame, Father, that the Stone Circle scheme did not come to fruition. Yes, I read all about it in the papers, Draco had said with a condescending sympathy. It is fortunate the Daily Prophet did not mention your presence there, Father. We must uphold the family name, mustn't we? Score: Draco 1/ Father nil.

Father is a fool, thought Draco smugly. He longs for the Dark Lord's power - yet he will never achieve it. He hasn't the...charisma. He hasn't the intelligence! Draco conceded that Father had maintained an army of violent Death Eaters, recruited from the four corners of the earth. But the genuinely evil wizarding families of the original Death Eaters were now dead or in jail, no thanks to Potter and his jailbird godfather. And sooner or later, the authorities will shatter Father's respectable facade with convincing, unbribeable proof of his dark deeds, and he will spend the rest of his days in Azkaban. Hee! thought Draco, draining his martini.

No, he would never pledge his loyalty to such a fool. If only the true Dark Lord were still alive, he thought wistfully. Anyway, Draco had his own illegal and malicious projects to think about...

 

His thoughts returned to Weasley, and he smiled slowly into his empty glass. He would contact his spy at Gringotts first. There must be some piece of intelligence about Weasley that Draco could use to his benefit. Truly, blackmail, fraud and manipulation were the only activities that gave him any joy these days. (Since the crash of the wizard stock market, and the loss of half the Malfoy fortune, Draco had actually had to restrain his spending. Imagine! A budget really takes the fun out of life.) Among Draco’s spies was his hideous half-human, half-goblin friend at Gringotts, who supplied him with highly useful information: the personal records of deposits, withdrawals and purchases of any wizard or witch that Draco wanted to squeeze for money.

Unfortunately, his ultimate target, Potter, led an extremely boring financial life. He took out modest sums of cash to pay for living expenses. No money came in - the Underground Auror League were a volunteer group - and Potter hadn’t bothered to invest his fortune, so no money had been lost in the stock market crash. The money grew, slowly, conservatively, on interest in the vaults at Gringotts. There were no women, no illicit potions, no extravagances of living. How annoyingly ascetic. Potter’s only splurges were broomsticks: custom built, the very best, a new one each year. Not much to exploit there.

Well, Weasley was almost as good. Draco would devise something, something, to ruin him and take over his little goldmine of a company. Oh, what irony: Draco owning the manufacturing rights to the gadget despised by Death Eaters. A thrillingly powerful bargaining chip with Father. He laughed. He let loose an evil menacing laugh, just to hear the sound of it, prompting Blaise to cower behind her magazine. Who needs Crucio for entertainment?

*****

“Bludger next!” called out Padfoot, holding aloft a sheet of parchment.

Bludger stepped forward to take her assignment, and moved aside. “Rubbish,” she muttered, scanning the paper. “Bloody rubbish.”

She turned back to Padfoot, now bending down to discuss an assignment with a Goblin Auror.

“What is this?” she demanded, shaking the paper in front of Padfoot’s face. “This is a job for those nancy-boys at the Dark Force Defense League! I’m not wasting my time escorting a shipment of Boomslang skin--”

“Now hold on! This is an unusual case; read the intelligence repor...”

“I don’t give a flying fairy-- YOU’ve taken me off Malfoy Manor surveillance.” She folded her arms and glared at his handsome face, her eyes shooting daggers. “Why?” she demanded.

Padfoot black eyes glinted dangerously in return-- then he pointedly ignored her, turning back to the Goblin.

Fine, she thought, tapping her foot loudly on the floor. I’ll wait.

New laws had made Boomslang Skin a highly controlled substance, in an effort to prevent Death Eaters from using it in Polyjuice Potions. (Indeed, Polyjuice Potion itself was now illegal, and only the Underground Auror League and the Dark Force Defense League had permission to brew it.) But I’ll be damned if I’m going to spend my time defending Boomslang couriers from black marketeers and pirates. She knew there was no way Lucius Malfoy would involve himself in such a petty crime, and therefore she wanted nothing to do with it.

Padfoot finished with the Goblin, and Bludger could see, in the corner of her vision, another Auror moving forward. She stepped assertively in front of him. “WHY, Padfoot? I want to know why.”

Padfoot sighed wearily. “Bludger, Lucius Malfoy has been laying low, licking his wounds, ever since you and Greenhorn screwed up his world domination plan at Castlerigg Stone Circle. I need your skills elsewhere right now.”

“So who’s watching him?”

“Besides the usual Intelligence Aurors at his club, his favorite restaurant, etcetera, I’ve got Huffle and Puff at the Manor this week. Now wait a minute...” He silenced her next outburst with a raised hand. “They’re keen observers. Hard working, patient--they’re Hogwart’s educated--”

“No, duh.” She dropped her jaw in mock stupidity. “They couldn’t curse a loaf of bread. Such clever codenames, too.”

“Mind your insubordination, Auror,” he growled at her.

Bludger changed tack. “Please,” she pleaded, “let me stay on Malfoy. I’ve studied the man; I’m getting a good feel for his habits, his schedule. If you’d just let me requisition an I-cloak--” already Padfoot was shaking his head--” I could sneak in the Manor and find out what he’s up to next.”

Padfoot lowered his voice, though probably not enough to exclude the ears of the Auror behind her . “I know how you feel about Lucius Malfoy, Bludger. Your need for vengeance makes you emotionally unsuitable for such an assignment. You’ll lose your head and then your life.”

How dare he presume to know her feelings... she clenched her fists in fury. “That’s a load of--”

“Furthermore,” his voice was deadly quiet, “we want to catch and convict Malfoy. Not kill him.” He gripped her upper arm in his large hand. “Don’t forget, we are the GOOD guys.”

He released her. “What are you doing here?” he exclaimed, addressing the man behind her.

Bludger turned on them in anger, not yet willing to be dismissed - and halted. It was Greenhorn, clutching his sleek broomstick tightly, an agitated expression on his face.

His emerald eyes caught hers briefly, and she thought she saw a momentary flicker of understanding. Damn. He had been standing behind her the whole time, witnessing Padfoot’s half-sympathetic, half-patronizing assertion of his authority over her. She hadn’t seen Greenhorn since their last night at the Stone Circle, when all hell had broken loose, and he had saved her butt from capture and probably death.

Padfoot repeated, “What are you doing here? Didn’t you just come off your shift eight hours ago?”

“Yeah, well. I wanted to work tonight,” he answered grimly, running his hand through his hair. It stuck up every which way--Bludger thought it was beautiful.

“No,” Padfoot returned firmly. “I’ve already jacked the schedule around to accommodate your request for all weekends off,” he said perfunctorily, grimacing at the levitating clipboard in front of him. “Rest up, and I’ll see you at 07:00 hours sharp.”

“Surely there is something I could do for a few hours,” he entreated. His feet shifted restlessly. “I need to let off some steam. Please.”

Padfoot lowered his voice. “Everything all right, son?”

Greenhorn shrugged and looked away. “Yeah. Fine.”

Padfoot put his hand on Greenhorn’s shoulder, patting him in a fatherly way. “Go home, Greenhorn.”

“Don’t call me that,” he scowled. “It’s Quickie. I'm not the youngest Auror anymore.”

His godfather suppressed a smile. “Go home and have a shower, Quickie. You smell strongly of raw onions or something. And YOU...” he pointed at Bludger, “get your food rations and get going.”

“Hey,” said Greenhorn dully in greeting, and they trudged toward the Supply and Rations storeroom. Yikes! He did smell of onions.

“Are you flying tonight?” he asked, indicating the parchment in her hand.

“Bloody yes, I bloody am.” she mumbled, scanning her assignment again. “Over the North Sea, to Amsterdam and back.” Aurors always flew to the Continent, thus preventing the Apparation-Immigration Department from making any record of their visit. "One of the Boomslang couriers has been bribed by a Death Eater, Intelligence says here, and they're expecting a staged robbery tonight."

“Would you mind if I came with you?”

Bludger put her shoulders back. "I can handle it by myself."

"I know you can. How about I come along just half the way?"

******

Thirty minutes later, Bludger Apparated into their agreed meeting place, a desolate beach north of Robin Hood’s Bay. Greenhorn, now dressed in black waterproofs, sat on a high rock formation, his feet planted apart with his elbows on his knees, looking out to sea. Powerful waves crashed spectacularly just below him.

She had to stop and stare: the ceaseless wind blew his dark hair wildly about and whipped his cloak behind his long and lean body. Ah well, she sighed. Bludger once again suppressed a growing attraction to him. She approached hesitantly on her broomstick- he no longer looked angry, but some private turmoil seemed to play behind his eyes.

He turned his face slightly in her direction, his eyes still fixed on the sea. “What is an Auror’s first line of defense?” he tested her identity.

“Her brain,” she responded. “Describe the sheep that ate our rations one morning at the Stone Circle.”

“Big and black-faced, with curly horns.”

She put down her gear and sat down next to him, lifting her feet up and away from the spray of the repeating tide. His onion smell was gone, thank goodness. Bludger closed her eyes and breathed in the salty air. The cool May wind was lovely and damp, the stormy sky was beautiful in its ferocity. She smiled and turned to face him. Still, his brow was furrowed; he chewed on his lower lip.

 

"You alright, Greenhorn?"

He shrugged. "I'm okay."

“Do you want to talk about it?"

He sighed. "No. I can work it out myself."

Bludger picked up a small jagged stone and threw into the waves. "Sometimes it helps to get another viewpoint, you know? An objective opinion."

He considered her for a moment. "Alright then, Bludger" he agreed quietly. “Here's a question for you: have you ever wanted something so badly, for so long, that you somehow convinced yourself that it was meant to be? That it would happen eventually, no matter how insurmountable the obstacles?”

"What is the 'something' that you want?"

He gave a small smile. He wasn't going to tell her.

Instead he continued, “And then, out of the blue, a letter arrives, announcing something that changes your life” -- he smacked his fist into the palm of his hand and looked at her-- “something good and right, and you begin to think that you’ve mistaken your destiny entirely.” His voice grew hoarse, and she could barely hear him for the waves. “And you wonder if you should...just...” He struggled as if he could not bear to speak the words. “...just give up hope on the thing you wanted in the first place.”

“Hmm. Do you have to choose one thing over the other?” She hoped that neither “thing” was a woman.

“Not really. It’s possible to have both, although I can’t imagine being so lucky.”

They were silent for a while, watching the winds build enormous waves. “All I know is,” she answered finally, “that I never give up hope on the thing I want most. How could I get up each morning and face myself in the mirror? It’s my...reason for being.” She punched him playfully in the arm, a little uncomfortable with the gravity of her own words. “So hang in there, mate. Don’t ever give up.”

He sat up, straightening his shoulders. “You’re right. You’re absolutely right. Thanks.” He punched her right back. “That is exactly what I needed to hear.” He stood up and grasped his broomstick; he would reveal no more, apparently. He drew his wand and pointed at his rucksack: “Sequor responsae”. It rose in the air, a few feet behind him.

“What’s that for?”

“A new ‘puppy-dog’ spell; just learned it today. My stuff should follow me around now without running into things. Try it -- we can test it for speed.”

They set off into the darkening sky, their rucksacks flying behind them. Bludger enjoyed the responsiveness of her unburdened broomstick, and they both picked up their speed. But Greenhorn was clearly not content to fly in a straight line as dictated by the compass. He dove down close to the waves and began swooping up and down, leaning sideways to skim the crest of each frighteningly enormous wave with the palm of his hand. His rucksack echoed his moves easily behind him, but was getting soaked by the spray.

Bludger watched breathlessly from above, checking her compass every now and then that the gale force winds were not blowing them off course. Greenhorn grew more daring: waiting until the last possible second and then zipping out from under the curl of the wave just before it broke over his head. Then he started in on dives, corkscrews, loop the loops, roll-overs -- all timed with the troughs and crests of the waves. Just watching him - and his copycat rucksack - made Bludger laugh with exhiliration.

She was glad, however, when he joined her again, his hair dripping and his face flushed but satisfied. He flew in close, his shoulder brushing hers as he bowed forward toward her broomstick. "Wha-" her breath caught in her throat--was he falling over? Passing out? Trying to kiss her? Suddenly, he shook his head madly like a dog, sending cold water flying in her face.

“Aaaargh!” she shrieked, pushing him away and laughing. “You bastard.” He grinned in return.

That was almost flirtatious, she thought. ‘Bout time.

They rose above the roiling clouds into the crystalline evening sky, checked their course, and soon fell into a companionable airborne silence. He seemed more at peace now, after his mad exertions. For almost an hour, she debated whether the time was right to discuss her own personal quest. He had certainly proven his metal at the Stone Circle- his power and skill were no journalist’s invention - and now she wanted to bring him into her confidence. She covertly watched his face, studied his arms and his hands held loosely around the handle of his ebony broomstick, and soaked up his presence. There was something good and right about Harry Potter. Surely he would help her.

“Greenhorn,” she took a deep breath.

“Mmm?”

“I’ve heard that when you snuffed You-Know-Who, you went after him on a completely unauthorized mission. Padfoot had no idea you were going. Is that true?”

He stiffened slightly, not looking at her, and Bludger wondered if she had overstepped the new boundary of their friendship. Bludger had heard that he didn’t like to talk about the night of The Dark Lord’s defeat. Many a journalist had tried to get the whole story, and he would only give them a brief and flat version of the night’s events. Rumors of the details flew around the press and even among the Aurors. Last year, in a Turkish bar, she finally gotten a more complete story from SlimJim (a fellow Auror and good friend of Greenhorn’s) but only after she had bought him numerous drinks.

“Well,” he said finally, clearing his throat. “That’s true, but only because Padfoot wouldn’t let me put myself forward as bait. He can be overprotective at times.”

Bludger nodded in understanding.

“When Albus Dumbledore was murdered, I just couldn’t wait any longer.” The muscles in his jaw twitched with anger. He turned to look at her, and held up a finger of warning. “But I didn’t do it alone, and it was a well-planned and prepared assault. I wouldn’t recommend a spontaneous or angry attack on a heavily-guarded enemy.”

Bludger jerked her head indignantly. “I’m not stupid, Greenhorn.”

“No, but you are...passionate.” Did he blush slightly in the moonlight, probably regretting his choice of words? “What I mean is...” He shook his head, faltering. “I know what it feels like, to really hate someone - to want to remove them from the face of the earth. I was a bit mad, I suppose. But clearheaded enough to know I needed support and a good plan.”

“And so you got two friends to help you. Friends with no Auror training, I heard.”

He looked over sharply. “No, they were Aurors.”

“I don’t believe you, Greenhorn. No other Auror would defy Padfoot except you.”

And you, it seems.”

“Anyway, SlimJim told me. Not your friends’ names, of cours--”

“That,” he interrupted her forcefully, “is a great secret, and you’d better keep it that way. I don’t want them becoming retaliation targets after all this time.” His green eyes blazed at her, and then softened into a sad smile. “SlimJim. What a blabbermouth. God, I miss that bloke.”

Bludger missed him too. SlimJim was funny and charming and an amazing flier. “A lousy way for an Auror to go - dying in a restaurant,” she sighed. "Of course Padfoot refused to tell me if SlimJim had loved ones - you know, a wife or girlfriend, a family. There's bound to be somebody left behind, and we Aurors can't even give our condolences! Stupid secrecy protocol..."

“Yes, there is always somebody left behind," Greenhorn muttered angrily, "a wife or husband, an elderly parent, an infant child." He shook his head and let a string of vehement profanities under his breath. She easily recognized the bitter gleam in his eye - he had once been left behind, as had she. “Sorry,” he mumbled.

“So,” she said. “I want you to help me -without Padfoot's approval. Help me lock up that @#$% &*#@” --she repeated his obscenities-- “Lucius Malfoy.”

He grinned wryly at her then, but did not answer, tapping his fingers on his broomstick in irresolution.

“Don’t you want to end this war?” she pressed.

“Oh, yes. Now more than ever.”

He slowed his broom to a stop and she followed suit. Hovering, he turned to face her, and his sober green eyes searched hers unabashedly. “Give me your word you won’t speak of this to anyone.”

“I swear it.” She held up her hand, courtroom style.

He nodded. “Alright. I've been racking my brains this last month to come up with a new plan, something Padfoot hasn't tried. But I can't figure it all out by myself. A set-up - an entrapment - is not easy. Of course you and I could simply barge in the Manor, wands a-blazing..."

"That sounds good..."

"Sure, if you want to become a lifetime member of Azkaban, enjoying a ten-by ten-foot cell on Homicide Row."

Bludger frowned. There was a profoundly angry and primitive part of her that would like to use those forbidden words: Aveda kedavra. She could hear them in her head at night: Lucius Malfoy's merciless curse, screeched at her muggleborn fiancee'. The possibility of a lifetime in the wizard's prison did not hamper her determination. She must succeed, and if she can't put him in prison then she must kill him.

Greenhorn continued, "What we need is the brainpower of my friends - the same friends who joined me in defeating Voldemort. In fact, I went to them this very afternoon to request their help.”

 

“And what did they say?”

“Well,” he said, blushing for some inexplicable reason, “I had to leave before I could talk to them about it. But,” he added hurriedly, “I will soon. Then if they agree - and that’s a big if - they must be weigh their own personal safety against the chances of success - then we’ll plan it out in fine detail.”

She gave him a sharp nod of acceptance and a grim smile of satisfaction.

"So! Bludger!" he commanded in a drill-sargeant's voice. "Are you in?" He offered his handshake.

"Wait a second, this is my quest! I'm supposed to ask you, Greenhorn: Are you in?"

And they grasped each other's hand in a single firm shake.

****

Author's note: Sorry to leave you wondering about Katie's letter, reader. All will soon be revealed...

//
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