The Sugar Quill
Author: Paleologus (Professors' Bookshelf)  Story: Innocents  Chapter: Default
The distribution of this story is for personal use only. Any other form of distribution is prohibited without the consent of the author.

Author's note: This story is a sequel to "Drastic Measures". Other episodes will follow, although perhaps not as quickly… If you’ve enjoyed these ones, please keep an eye out! Many thanks to Elanor Gamgee for her infallible red quill.

***

"Then, all stand still. Or those that think it is unlawful business I am about, let them depart."

***

The world was cloudy. A kind of gauzy mist hung in the Great Hall. It was the dancing that gave away that it was a dream. Harry's feet found their place every step. It was the first dance at the Yule Ball, and Cho was leading Harry around the dance floor effortlessly. Harry was having a wonderful time. He swung past a table where Ron and Hermione sat, smiling at him and looking a picture together. He turned back to Cho, whose eyes were shut, her expression blissful. He shut his own eyes, and gave himself over the rhythm, and the warmth of Cho's embrace.

There was a bump and a "Sorry, Harry." Harry opened his eyes and turned, and there was Cedric Diggory, sweeping Ginny- Ginny?- away round and round across the dance floor. Something struck Harry as being out of place. He knitted his brow.

"Something wrong, Harry?" Cho asked.

"No, no."

The song ended and the couples returned to the champions' table. Cho sat to Harry's left, and Ginny to his right, and Cedric next to her. Harry was warm from the dancing. He realized that his forehead was aching dully, and he reached for his glass of water. Next to him he saw Ginny, fanning herself and reaching for her own glass. Cedric was absently reaching for the same glass.

There was a flash of violent pain in Harry's forehead as he watched Ginny's and Cedric's hands simultaneously drifting toward the glass. He did not know what made him do this: he jumped across Ginny's place, yelling "Don't!" and knocked the glass off of the table fiercely. Ginny and Cedric pulled back, startled. Harry watched the glass arc toward the floor, but when it hit, it was not the glass that shattered but the floor itself.

The scene dissolved, and Harry felt an acute conscious awareness that it had been illusory. That was not how it was at all, he thought. How silly. He found himself in a room, or looking at a room, because he did not seem to be there himself. There was no him but the pain in his forehead. There was nothing gauzy and sentimental about this scene- it was crystalline and real. A group of men and women sat silently on grotesquely carved wooden chairs, their hands open in their laps. The room itself was dank and very cold. A voice, colder than the room itself, repeated slowly "Wait... wait... be vigilant... be patient..."

Harry was not aware of when this scene faded and his silent sleep resumed. At six-thirty his wristwatch began dancing softly on his forehead. Harry opened his eyes before the watch began slapping at him with the metal clasp the way it would when he came to insufficiently quickly.

Six-thirty! he thought to himself. What was I thinking? Then he remembered, he was going for a walk with Cho this morning. Not Cho, *Ginny*, his mind shot back. His mind was a muddle of murky indefinable emotions and morbid dreams as he trudged off to the showers.

***

He went down the stairs, freshened somewhat but still sick at heart. He thought he should tell Dumbledore about his dream at breakfast. He did not know if Dumbledore would care that he had *dreamed* of his scar hurting, but Dumbledore's watchword lately was better safe than sorry.

Meanwhile, there was Ginny. He still could not shake the feeling that he was doing something horribly wrong, and kept telling himself that it was just a bit of a walk. Against his will, he thought about Cho and that made the feeling even worse. One thing was for sure, he decided- seven in the morning was a rotten time for a date.

Ginny was there, waiting. If she had had a troubled sleep, she certainly wasn't showing it. She was smiling widely as she watched Harry come down the stairs and cross the room. "Good morning!" she said so brightly that it could not help but banish some of Harry's melancholy.

"Hi," Harry said. Here was a funny thing, Harry thought. Ginny used to run out of the room whenever he showed up, or would babble when he spoke to her. Somewhere in the last year or so she had turned the tables on him. Now she was cheerful, amicable, placing herself squarely in his path, while he found it hard to speak to her. Harry was deep in unfamiliar territory.

Ginny is pretty, he said to himself as they walked, trying to think like a man on a date. Ginny is pretty. Ginny is pretty. It was hard to make this thought connect. Guiltily Harry thought of Cho, whom he adored but who always seemed half-imagined, a billion miles away. But Ginny adores me, Harry thought, she's here, she's flesh and blood, she's a dear friend...

They walked out onto the grounds, where the air was damp and the sunrise was hidden in a low, rolling mist. The grass was dewy and squelched under their feet.

"My feet are soaked," Ginny announced. Harry suddenly realized that they had walked about a hundred yards without saying a word. "Perhaps this wasn't such a brilliant idea," Ginny said sadly.

"No, it's great, Ginny," Harry said. "Sorry, I can't think of much to say this time of the morning." He smiled. "Let's keep walking, though."

"Yeah, all right," she said. They continued walking, and the lake appeared through the mist.

"Ron and Hermione were funny last night, weren't they?" Ginny ventured.

"Yeah," Harry smiled. "He really likes her, you know."

"I know. You didn't have to hear him whinging about her all summer. And her, last year-"

"Oh yeah?" Harry stopped walking.

"Yeah," Ginny said, grinning. "Well, she was just infuriated at him, of course, but she wouldn't shut up about it. She told me once- she'd kill me if she knew I told you-"

"What? I won’t tell," Harry whispered, smiling and leaning in. He was now having a great time.

"She told me once how she used to follow Ron around, bothering him, in first year. Thought he was cute, with the red hair and all."

"No- when-" Harry grinned, thinking of how Hermione used to always turn up at unexpected moments before they became friends with her. "Ha!" he exclaimed finally.

"Ron always thought she just wanted to be seen with Harry Potter," Ginny said. "Imagine if he knew."

"Sounds like if he did, it might have saved you and I a lot of trouble," Harry said. He and Ginny were giggling. "Why would she tell you something like that?"

Ginny stopped laughing. "Oh, I was just upset about something," she said. Harry took the hint.

Harry looked back, and the castle, for all its mass, was invisible. The mist was rolling across the grounds in great clouds, and now the lake was obscured again. "Look," Ginny said. "You can't see a thing. Maybe the school isn't even there anymore."

Harry gulped. He was alone with Ginny, quite alone. Harry took Ginny's hand, which was pleasantly warm. I think she would like that, he thought. "This is great, isn't it?" he said, and meant it.

Harry thought Ginny began to act very oddly. She turned to face him and began rocking on her heels, eyes closed. Harry raised his hands to catch her as she appeared to be toppling slowly toward him, and he wondered why she didn't right herself.

Ginny's lips were pressing firmly on Harry's before Harry caught on. Her hands gripped his shoulders. This must be a kiss, he thought. He had imagined a few in his time, and always expected some sort of soft, cloudy, tickly sensation. Ginny's lips felt dry and rubbery on his. He obligingly tried to press back and bumped one of his front teeth against hers, which banged uncomfortably. His hand lifted to her waist then yanked itself away immediately once he had found it, startled at its own presumption. They simultaneously pulled back, and stood about five feet apart.

Ginny's chest rose and fell. Her eyes were wide. "Blast, I'm sorry, Harry, don't hate me, that was so stupid. Do you hate me now?"

Harry was so busy staring at her in amazement that he did not register her words for a few seconds. "Uh, no, of course not, uh, Ginny."

"I feel so stupid. Harry, I like you, you know."

"Yeah, I knew that," Harry said, touching his fingers to his lips, not sure what he expected to find there. He kept thinking about the noise her teeth made.

"Don't hate me! I thought I could make you-" Ginny said, looking horrified.

Harry had the impression she was about to run away. "Don't go away, Ginny!"

"Er, what do you want to do?" she said, still cringing.

"Um, we could have another go..." Harry made himself smile, and imagined he must have looked stupid. He and Ginny walked slowly toward each other, as if each expected the other to suddenly pull out a wand and Stun them.

Harry put his hands on Ginny's waist, and clumsily pulled her to him. He felt, there was no other word, really weird. She was rigid and shaking through layers of jacket and lumpy old wool sweater. Harry tried to find Ginny's lips again, his eyes closed this time, the way he thought it was supposed to be, but her nose got in the way and bumped his glasses. Ginny's hand, trying to be helpful, grasped Harry's right ear- "ow!"- but she found Harry's misguided mouth finally. Harry tried to keep his teeth out of it this time.

There was an odd sensation, as in a dream, of watching himself coolly from the outside. Harry had always imagined kissing a girl (like Cho... there was that thought again...) he would be swept up in some kind of blissful trance. He realized that the fun of it was something else- being aware of every bit of the stiffness and breathlessness and teeth and noses and lumpy wool and funny-smelling breath, and *not minding*. He found himself hoping Ginny wasn't disappointed. He certainly wasn't.

Ginny finally released Harry's lips and allowed herself to speak. "I planned this, you know. Silly of me. I was sure I wouldn't have the nerve."

"Umm..." Harry said. "Does this make you my girlfriend now?"

"There's an idea!" Ginny said, smiling.

"Well, Ron and Hermione are taking so long-" Harry muttered.

"That's because they're stupid. Harry, tell me honestly, is there someone you like better?"

Harry did not answer right away, and Ginny caught his silence. "Don't say 'no' just to make me happy," she said. "I know you asked Cho to the ball last year, and you've looked at her a lot..."

Harry swallowed hard. "I like Cho a lot. But I haven't spoken to her at all since..." Harry stopped.

"Right," Ginny said, and her arms slackened but did not let him go. "Well, this is all very sudden for you I suppose."

"Ginny, I..." Harry had a hard time with this one. "I really liked... kissing you. You're like me, I mean you're one of my best... you feel wonderful... and I feel wonderful, when you... you're kind of pretty when you... Cho is, like, not like you, well... I think I want to keep on kissing you. Yes."

"Only if you're sure," Ginny laughed. She hugged Harry close one more time then let him go. He was slower to release her, and when she had separated from him it was as if all the cold in the world had closed in on him. Everything became cloudy and uncertain again.

"What's so great about me anyway?" Harry said, but Ginny's eyes had drifted and looked suddenly quizzical. A cloud of fog swept past behind her, and her smile seemed to be swept off her face on the same wind. Harry caught a glimpse of the castle behind her- the mist was breaking up.

"What's that," she said dully.

Harry turned. The clouds of mist were being brushed away by the breeze. About forty feet away, there was a crumpled heap lying on the ground. Then another, a few feet further on.

They walked toward the heaps, and several more appeared. As they walked Harry realized that his forehead had begun to ache again.

"Not today," he whispered. He stopped in his tracks, and Ginny stopped and looked at him. "Oh, come on, not today. NOT TODAY!" He grabbed his forehead and stomped his foot hard on the ground. Ginny grabbed his elbow and pulled his arm away from his head. "Oh no, Ginny!" He felt tears forming in his eyes and shut them hard.

"Come on," she said, and they continued to move forward. Each heap was a body, clad in dirty yellowed linen robes, apparently dropped hastily on the ground not far from the lake. The scene looked like a battlefield.

"They're robes from Azkaban!" Harry said, recognizing them from the newspaper photo of Sirius Black. "How many are there?"

They walked from one to the other and counted seven. Harry could hardly tell their ages- their faces were wasted and worn in a way only Azkaban could make them. At the end of the row, there was a wooden post stuck in the ground, and piece of parchment tied to it.

THESE ONES WERE INNOCENT - BAD LUCK

Harry looked around him at the bodies, thinking of the vicious and vindictive trials of Voldemort's suspected accomplices he had learned about the year before. Were these falsely convicted prisoners?

"Look, this one's breathing," Ginny said, kneeling by one of the bodies as Harry looked at the morbidly facetious sign. There was a sudden twinge in his forehead, a flash of intense pain, that disappeared as quickly as it came. Harry put his hand to his forehead.

A sensation of terror came over him. He turned and saw Ginny kneeling over the body, her hand stretched out a little ways. Harry lunged down and grabbed her arm, yanking her violently away from the body.

"DON'T TOUCH HIM! DID YOU TOUCH HIM?" Harry shouted.

Ginny's eyes were wide with surprise. "H-Harry!" she said.

"Did you touch him! Tell me!" Harry demanded.

"No, of course not!" Ginny protested. "No! Let go!"

Harry did not let go. He continued to look at her furiously. "What were you doing! Five minutes ago, where were you. What were you doing!"

Ginny looked at him blankly, her jaw opening and closing randomly. "Well- we were out, walking-"

"Come with me!" he interrupted, pulling her up by the wrist and marching toward the castle.

"Harry, let go, I didn't-- you're hurting me!" Ginny protested.

"I'm so stupid. I'm so stupid," he repeated viciously, running up the hill with Ginny barely able to keep up. A couple of students were starting to come out the entrance. "Go back in!" Harry shouted at them. "Find Dumbledore!"

***

Ron and Hermione ran down the stairs in to the Entrance Hall. Harry stood, grasping Ginny's wrist and watching her, while shooing off anyone who was heading out to the grounds.

"What's up, Harry?" Ron said. "Dean says he saw you down here, yelling for Dumbledore. Hello, Gin. Harry, why are you doing that?"

"Hi, Ron," Ginny said weakly.

"I'm not letting go of her. I want Dumbledore to see her. There are bodies of Azkaban prisoners down by the lake, and Ginny touched one of them-"

"I said I didn't!"

"-and this is not Ginny!" Harry finished.

"Eh?" Ron said.

"Let go of me!" Ginny continued to protest. "This is stupid- Hermione, this is ridiculous, I keep telling him I didn't!"

"Why do you say that, Harry?" Hermione asked, looking at Ginny.

"She couldn't tell me what she was doing before she touched the bod-"

"I didn't!" she interrupted. "We were out walking, and we found these bodies, and Harry started acting wild like this!"

It seemed somebody had finally alerted Dumbledore, because he strode into the Entrance Hall. "Harry, what is happening?"

"Come here, sir," Harry said, still holding on to Ginny's wrist, leading Dumbledore outside and down the hill. Ron and Hermione followed behind. "Ginny and I were walking, and we found these bodies- I think they're from Azkaban, but I don't think anyone should touch them! Ginny did, and she's-"

"I didn't!"

Dumbledore's eyebrows lifted. "Let go of Ginny, please," he said, pulling his wand out of his robes. "This won't hurt, Ginny."

A faint halo of orange light appeared around Ginny. "You must be an excellent student," Dumbledore said, "to be able to throw off that charm in only your fourth year."

Ginny was not protesting any more. She was silent, and her lips were set firmly. "Harry, thank you for keeping the other students away from here. You may have foiled Voldemort's first attack. Expelliarmus," he said matter-of-factly, and Ginny's wand flew out of her pocket and into Dumbledore's hand. "Not that I expect you needed this. Please watch her carefully, all of you, wands out. We are bringing her to the hospital wing." He pointed Ginny up the hill toward the castle, and followed close behind her. The others trailed behind.

"What's the problem with Ginny, sir?" Ron asked.

"I have some examination to do to be certain," Dumbledore said. "But I suspect that your sister is in Azkaban now. Get away from there!" he cried out suddenly and fiercely, to a group of curious students who had begun venturing down the hill to the lake.

***

Harry, Ron and Hermione sat quietly in a corner of the hospital wing, staying out of the way. Ron's hands were balled tightly, and Hermione was twisting a strand of her hair. Alastor Moody was there too, examining one of the bodies with his wand. All the bodies had been levitated carefully to the hospital wing by a group of teachers, while Dumbledore ordered the rest of the staff to round up all the students and keep them in the Great Hall. He had, however, allowed Ron and Hermione to stay with Harry in the hospital wing, perhaps for comfort, perhaps to keep an eye on anyone who could spread word about the morning's events.

Moody seemed to come to some conclusion, and there was a muttered conversation with Dumbledore.

Dumbledore called over. "Harry, come here. Yes, you two also, over here." The three of them stood and obediently walked over. Moody began to intone a complex series of spells in the background, most of which Harry had never heard. Even Hermione was craning her neck to listen, looking intrigued but baffled.

"You may have guessed this," Dumbledore began. "These seven people were inmates of Azkaban. What you see here is what happens when you are caught by a Dementor. If, as we suppose, Voldemort's supporters have taken control in the prison, I expect this was the reward for the Dementors' cooperation. I knew several of these people-" he went on, waving vaguely toward the beds. "I was very surprised to see some of them convicted. I suppose I have been vindicated," he said with morbid irony.

"Alastor is at present trying to determine what sort of hex is at work. It appears that somebody, a powerful Dark wizard, has exchanged personalities with Ginny. These bodies were simply used as conduits. This is... perverse, hateful magic," Dumbledore spat. "It requires... hollow souls... human sacrifice... Alastor really knows much more about this area than I do." Dumbledore fell silent.

Moody called gruffly. "Come over here. All of you. But stay quiet. Albus," Moody continued quietly when they had arrived by the bed where the man Ginny had found lay. "I'll have to use Imperius. No alternative. We may be able to speak to the girl."

"To Ginny?" Harry said. "Speak to Ginny?" Moody glared at Harry, and Harry shut his mouth.

"Alastor, that's-" Dumbledore began.

"Illegal, yes, yes, you'll have to send me to Azkaban, good luck," Moody chuckled grimly. "This man has no soul, Albus."

Dumbledore stood still a moment, then nodded assent.

Moody turned to the breathing corpse, and held out his wand. "Imperio," he called out. Harry winced.

The body shook. Harry, Ron and Hermione shuddered and stepped back when its eyes opened. Moody began to mouth words, and the body mimicked his words simultaneously. A voice emerged croakily from the body.

"GINNY WEASLEY. THIS IS MOODY. DUMBLEDORE IS WITH ME, SO IS YOUR BROTHER. THINK A WORD CLEARLY AND WE MAY BE ABLE TO HEAR YOU-"

The body suddenly started to gag and twitch, and Moody closed his mouth. Somehow this stopped the gagging, and the body spoke distinct words again.

"QUIET. QUIET. SOMEBODY HERE SPEAKING. PLEASE."

Moody waited a moment, then mouthed. The body spoke again.

"ARE YOU GINNY?" A pause, then: "YES. QUIET. JUST A MINUTE."

All of them stood tensely. Harry could not tell how much time passed as he waited, desperate to hear the voice speak again. He had to fight down an irrational urge to shake the body and beg it to speak.

"WHO'S THERE?" the body croaked suddenly, startling the whole group. Moody held up his wand, and once again began to mouth words silently, the body obediently speaking his words.

"GINNY?" the body mimicked. A pause, then: "YES. WHO'S THERE?"

"THIS IS MOODY. I HAVE DUMBLEDORE WITH ME. ALSO YOUR BROTHER, AND HERMIONE GRANGER AND HARRY POTTER."

Another silence. "HELLO," the body croaked, seemingly of its own volition this time. "Hi," Harry, Ron and Hermione all said uncertainly. Moody went on.

"WHAT DO YOU SEE, GINNY? AND WHO WAS SPEAKING? ARE YOU SAFE?"

"NOBODY KNOWS I'M HERE," the body said now on its own, with increasing clarity. "I AM IN SOME KIND OF CHAMBER, WITH SEVERAL OTHER PEOPLE- THEY ARE ALL SITTING AND WAITING. THEY THINK I AM STILL WAITING TOO- WE ARE NOT ALLOWED TO SPEAK. A MAN JUST TOLD US THAT IF NOBODY MAKES THE RENDEZVOUS IN THIRTY MINUTES THEY WILL CLOSE THE PATHWAY. I THINK THEY WERE EXPECTING SOME STUDENTS."

"Good work, Ginny," Ron whispered. Harry was suppressing a lump in his throat. Ginny was displaying unimaginable courage and self-possession.

"SIR, DO YOU KNOW WHERE I AM?" the body asked.

Moody looked over at Dumbledore. "No," he whispered.

"She should know!" Harry said suddenly. "Sorry, sir. I think she should be allowed to know everything we can tell her. If she--" Harry suddenly could not find words, and to his fury and embarrassment his hands began shaking like leaves. "--and she didn't know where or why--"

Ron and Hermione looked at him in horror, and he drew a deep breath to try to still himself.

"Go ahead," Dumbledore said to Moody. Moody began to mouth words again.

"WE AREN'T SURE," came the voice again. "WE BELIEVE YOU MAY BE IN AZKABAN."

A pause, then: "I THOUGHT SO." A few moments more, then: "CAN YOU GET ME BACK?"

Moody's face was dark. "WE ARE LOOKING FOR A WAY," he pronounced finally.

"I'M FRIGHTENED!" the voice spoke forcefully. "SOME GRYFFINDOR."

"You're doing great, Ginny," Harry muttered.

"HARRY THINKS YOU'RE DOING GREAT," the voice said. Harry looked at Moody, whose face remained a blank.

"THANKS, HARRY."

Moody tugged at the sleeve of Dumbledore's robe, and the two of them walked over to a corner of the room, once again to confer in hushed tones. Harry, Ron and Hermione stared at the body, blank-eyed but tensed, lying on the bed.

Hermione spoke, softly. "Do you suppose there are really students here who would take part in something like this?"

"I'm sure of it," Ron muttered icily. "Malfoy would love it, wouldn't he? Let some dirty powerful Death Eater borrow his body for a while."

Harry was straining to hear what he could of Dumbledore and Moody's conversation. "...must have planned on a way to get them back," he heard Moody muttering. Then some inaudible words, then Dumbledore: "...negotiate for hostages? Not their style."

Then Moody's voice, speaking words which chilled Harry's heart: "...can't risk the few resources we have, for one student..."

"They won't do anything," Harry said absently.

Hermione looked at him. "What, Harry?"

Harry turned to her. "They won't try to rescue her. They know they've stopped the attack. She's not important enough."

Ron's lips were thin. "Don't be ridiculous," Hermione said, but her voice was without conviction.

Ron called to Dumbledore. "You're going to try to get her back, aren't you, sir?"

Dumbledore turned. Moody had a fierce look on his face. Dumbledore walked over. "Ron, of course we will do everything we can-"

Ron crossed his arms. "Don't give me Fudge's answer, sir!" he said, looking pleading and fierce at once. "Give me yours!"

Hermione's hands flew up to her mouth. Harry saw something which terrified him as much as anything he had seen in his life. Albus Dumbledore's face flushed red, and he raised an open hand, which twitched, shaking, the intention to strike Ron hard barely suppressed. "Don't speak to me in that tone, young man," Dumbledore's voice whistled coldly and thinly from his throat. "You are not the first to face losing someone dear. Not at all. If you have found an infallible way of choosing the right thing to do, I give you leave to take over my job. With utmost PLEASURE!" On this last word, he swept his arm back down to his side, but Ron, expecting the blow, reeled and put his hand to his cheek anyways. Hermione inhaled a deep sob. Her eyes were shut tight. Dumbledore raised his hand again, and Harry saw him rub his eyes for a moment, teeth gritted, before he adjusted his glasses on his nose and took a deep breath.

"ARE YOU STILL THERE?" came the croaking voice, cutting through the tense silence.

"YES, GINNY," Moody mouthed. "SIT TIGHT, WE'RE NOT GOING AWAY."

"This is a waste of time," Ron said, tearful and annoyed. "I understand you're not going to sacrifice any bloody great wizard to rescue my sister, when you'll need them to fight You-Know-Who. I know that. I'll go!" Hermione's eyes were wide.

"You'll do no such thing," Dumbledore said, calmer but still fierce. "I am responsible for seeing that every student returns home safely at the end of the school year. There is nothing you can do, and in any case we don't need any more Dark wizards showing up in our hospital wing."

"Knock me out!" Ron said. "Give me the strongest sleeping potion you've got, just before I go. Look, sir, with all due respect, you're talking about responsibility. I've got my mum to answer to, if I come home and tell her I couldn't do anything for Ginny, when all I had to do-" Ron's arm was raised toward the next hospital bed.

"ACCIO!" Hermione called out suddenly. Harry jumped, startled. Ron's pose was comical as he skidded on one heel, and slammed backwards full-on into Hermione, who threw her arms around him clumsily. "Don't do that, you stupid git!" she cried.

"Let go! I wouldnt've, really!" Ron protested, shaking Hermione off. She grasped Ron's hand, not in a gesture of affection, Harry guessed, but to prevent him from going too far away from her. Ron seemed irritated by this but did not pull away. Harry understood exactly how Hermione felt.

Dumbledore had returned to normal. "Ron, that is admirable. Please forgive my outburst. But I repeat, there is nothing you can do for her."

"Sir," Hermione said. "Nobody knows what has happened yet except us, you and Mr Moody. For all anyone knows we touched the bodies too."

Ron looked over at Hermione, his eyes wide. "No you don't, Hermione," he muttered.

"Shush, you," was her reply.

Harry came forward. "I know the Patronus Charm," he said. "I can deal with Dementors. And I can resist Imperius."

"Harry, Ron, Hermione, all of you," Dumbledore said. "We have no idea what you would have to deal with once you're there. We still don't know what happened in Azkaban, or who is in control."

"We'll be able to tell you," Ron said. "That will be worth something, won't it?"

Moody looked at the three of them, shaking his head. "You're damned fools," he growled. But Dumbledore was silent, considering.

"You know, sir, don't you, you know that about us?" Harry said finally.

Dumbledore raised his eyebrows. "Yes, Harry, I do know."

"Know what?" Ron asked.

"That we'd go anyway," Hermione said. "Even if he said no."

Harry continued to look at Dumbledore, who simply nodded.

***

Moody filled Ginny in on the plan. Ginny carefully described the room, as well as the place she occupied in the row of waiting wizards. Dumbledore prepared three vials of a powerful sleeping potion, which would neutralize anyone taking over the bodies of the three students. Harry, Ron and Hermione could do nothing but wait, nervously rehearsing useful spells as Dumbledore and Moody went about their preparations. Harry's stomach was in knots. Moody repeated the instructions to Ginny, reviewing every point.

"YOU WILL ALL SLUMP DOWN WHEN THEY APPEAR," Moody mouthed. "REMEMBER TO STAY ON THE FLOOR AND KEEP YOUR EYES SHUT."

"YES," came the voice again.

Dumbledore nodded to Moody, then to Harry, Ron and Hermione. The three stood up. Ron put his hand on Hermione's shoulder. "Hey," he said.

"Yes?" Hermione turned to him, looking impatient.

"Uh... happy birthday," Ron said, then leaned over and pecked her politely on the cheek.

Hermione smiled weakly. "Oh right. Thanks."

"Yeah, happy birthday, Hermione," Harry said, and kissed Hermione on the cheek nervously in imitation of Ron. A look of consternation appeared fleetingly on Ron's face, but he apparently thought better of making an issue of it just at that moment.

"Many happy returns, indeed, I hope," Dumbledore said wryly. "Are you ready to take your places?"

The three students took up their positions next to three of the bodies. "Drink this, and you will have seven seconds of consciousness in which to act," Dumbledore said, handing each their vial of potion. We will continue to work to find a way to reverse the transference," Dumbledore said, "but in the meantime, use any opportunity you may have to find safety. Do not pick any fights."

"No, sir," they all said in unison.

"THEY'RE COMING," Moody mouthed. As Harry tossed back the potion, he saw Ron and Hermione do the same, a set look of determination on their faces. Only then did he realize exactly what he was doing, and the attack of sheer terror was so strong that his knees gave way beneath him. The vial shattered on the floor, and it felt like someone else's hands entirely reaching up to touch the breathing corpse on the bed.

***

Harry recognized the room immediately- he had seen it in his dream. He knew the faces, he knew the walls. He knew exactly where the master stood waiting, enforcing silence and vigilance.

He cried out and swooned, exactly as planned. Just as he was shutting his eyes, he saw at least one, maybe two others doing the same. "At last!" came the cold voice of the master.

*Eyes shut*, Harry reminded himself.

"PHOSPHORO!" cried a deep male voice, and there was an achingly bright light that shone through Harry's eyelids. Hermione certainly had the luck of the draw, Harry thought.

"What is-" came the cold voice. Harry opened his eyes, facing the master, who was staggering blindly. "Stupefy!" he cried, and the cry was echoed by others behind him. The master reeled. Harry's hand- an eerily different sort of hand- rooted around in the thick robes. A wand! Harry pulled it out and repeated the spell, his voice booming in a way that startled him. The master was blown back against the wall, unconscious. Harry turned, wand out, ready to aim again. Three others, he thought, there should be three standing, four down.

There were.

"I'm Hermione," said a tall man, almost in Hagrid's league, with a long dark beard.

"Ron," said an emaciated woman.

"Ginny," said a taller woman, equally wasted-looking.

"Harry," Harry said, and looked down at himself. He was small, maybe shorter than his usual self, but had broad, hairy hands.

Hermione found the wand in her new robes, and began uttering a Memory Charm on each of the five stunned bodies.

"Weirrrd," cooed the she-Ron.

"Tell them we're okay, Ginny," Harry said. She had had the most practice at enunciating her thoughts through the conduit.

"Already have," Ginny said. "They're glad to hear it. I can't believe you're all here," she said, her voice breaking.

"Yes, I expect it is pretty hard to believe," said the imposing he-Hermione. "We should get moving," she/he said. "We don't want to be found here when they start wondering what's happened."

"Wait," Harry said, although he felt suddenly apprehensive about second-guessing Hermione. "Everybody remember to watch for Dementors. We have to focus on positive thoughts, to avoid waking their appetites. Everyone take a minute to think back and imagine the happiest times of your lives."

"Won't have to think back too far, any of us, I expect," Ginny said, and anyone watching at that moment would have been treated to the sight of four prison-hardened Dark wizards blushing and shuffling bashfully.

They were silent a few moments. She-Ron sighed, which caused giant bearded Hermione to chuckle, which caused Ginny to snort and Harry to splurt laughing at the overwhelming absurdity of the scene. "I think we're ready," Harry said, and they filed out of the door and tiptoed stealthily down the corridor.

***

The students climbed a stairway at the end of the corridor, quietly, hoping nobody would be coming down at the same time. The little light there was came from faint glowing lanterns hanging from the ceiling. They cast a sickly blue light that seemed designed to maximize the dank, oppressive cold of the halls of Azkaban. Great gargoyles stood at the end of each corridor, every one with its face blasted off. As they went, they reported everything they saw back to Moody and Dumbledore, practising their command of silent speech through the bizarre conduit back to Hogwarts.

At the top of the stairwell there was a window. They had reached ground level. The windows were heavily barred, but there were more than just bars keeping the window sealed, as rain pattered and ran down an invisible surface. There was an open yard outside, then a fortress wall. Harry saw corpses in the yard. Some were human- some wearing the robes of inmates, some wearing heavy purple cloaks. There also appeared to be corpses of Dementors. Harry had never imagined one could be killed- they seemed hardly like living things to begin with.

"There's been fighting recently," Ron said. "That's good- maybe we'll find friends here."

Beyond the wall the fortress went on. Towers rose in the distance, until they were not visible in the rain and mist.

"Can we get outside?" Harry whispered.

"I don't know if I want to," Hermione said. "Who knows what's looking out from those towers."

"Well, we look like we belong here, don't we?" Ron said.

"HOW MANY TOWERS DO YOU SEE, HARRY?" said a voice from the center of Harry's mind.

"Three," Harry reported back.

"WHAT DIRECTION ARE YOU FACING?"

Harry took out his wand and performed the Four-Point spell. "West", he enunciated in his mind.

"YOU ARE AT THE FAR EASTERN END OF THE FORTRESS. THERE ARE FOUR TOWERS, YOU ARE AT THE BOTTOM OF THE EASTERNMOST. THE NEXT NEAREST TOWER IS WHERE THE WARDEN'S CHAMBERS ARE. CAN YOU SEE ANYTHING THERE?"

"No," Harry thought. "All the windows look dark."

"TRY TO GET TO THAT TOWER. WE MIGHT BE ABLE TO GET YOU OUT THROUGH THE WARDEN'S FIREPLACE. DUMBLEDORE'S CONTACTED ARTHUR WEASLEY, AND HE MIGHT BE ABLE TO RE-OPEN THE FLOO."

"You didn't tell him about-"

"WE JUST TOLD HIM SOME STUDENTS," Moody reassured him. "NO NAMES. HARRY," Moody went on. "IF YOU CAN'T GET THERE, WE'VE THOUGHT OF TWO WAYS TO GET YOU OUT. THE FIRST ONE REQUIRES A VERY EXPERIENCED WIZARD. IF YOU FIND ANY AURORS ALIVE THERE, THEY SHOULD BE ABLE TO DO IT."

"What about the other one?"

"LAST RESORT," Moody said. "DUMBLEDORE'S DEAD SET AGAINST IT."

"Why?"

"IT WOULD ONLY GET TWO OF YOU OUT."

"Well, let's do that one, at least there'd only be two of us."

"NO," Moody answered. "IT'S A DARK SACRIFICIAL SPELL. LIKE THE ONE THAT GOT YOU THERE IN THE FIRST PLACE. THE OTHER TWO WOULD DIE."

Harry didn't report this exchange to the others.

The group climbed to the next floor. There was another corridor. This one appeared to be a cell block. There were about a dozen great doors, all of which were wide open and blasted, but the block appeared to be deserted. The four moved quietly and warily through the dark corridor. Here all the torches had been extinguished- light came only from the openings at either end.

At the other end was a blessed sight- a great entrance hall, fifty yards across, with a great vaulting entranceway at either end. The high iron doors were wide open to the wind outside. They moved toward the opening, then Hermione put her great arm out and stopped the group in their tracks. She shooed them into the mouth of another corridor.

Four Dementors were entering through the gateway. Harry felt a familiar chill at the pit of his stomach, but he held up. "No fear," he whispered to the others. "No fear, and they won't smell us. I won't use a Patronus unless I have no choice left. Think only good, and they won't notice us... think only good."

The four students walked as close to casually as possible out of the mouth of their corridor, and made their way toward the arch that the Dementors had just passed through. The Dementors, many yards away, expressed no interest in them. The four passed through the archway and out into the rain.

They were outside the fortress walls, but this was hardly a comfort, as there were only a few meters of rocky ground before the island plunged into the turbulent, crashing sea. The cold was biting as the four huddled against the outside of the fortress walls and trudged westward along them.

"GOOD," Moody's words came through Harry's consciousness. "YOU ARE HEADING FOR THE LANDING, AND THE MAIN SEA-GATE. THE WARDEN'S TOWER IS INSIDE, THROUGH THE MAIN GATE AND ACROSS THE GREAT YARD."

The sea-gate was a great, vaulting archway over an inlet, easily high enough for a sizable boat to pass under. There was a large iron grille that kept the inlet closed to boats, but on the shore on each side there was a small man-sized arch that allowed entry on foot to the landing area. Harry, the smallest of the four, peered through the archway. The landing had many mooring-posts and at the end another great gate, blasted open like the others. Taking deep breaths, the four marched with as much authority as possible toward the gate.

"Hey!" came a hissing voice. "Fools! Over here!"

Harry nearly jumped out of his skin. There was an open passage that intersected with the walkway of the landing. A worn-looking old man, clearly an inmate, beckoned them to the passageway. They obeyed, remaining silent.

"Damn you!" he said in a stern whisper. "Who knows how many could be watching up there?" he said, indicating the tower. "Stay back here, and keep yourselves quiet." The old man peeered nervously around the corner. "What block are you from, anyway? Never mind," he interrupted himself. "Here they come."

Out the main gate came a troop of Dementors, keeping some kind of loose formation. The old man, amazingly, jumped out from the hiding-place and waved to them.

"Cum mortuis in lingua mortua," the old man uttered, touching his adam's apple with a wand. He then began addressing the Dementors. "Friends!" the old man shouted, and at that sound, Harry felt a searing cold pulse from inside his bones. He saw the others shuddering too, with each word spoken.

"Friends! I am your new commander!" the old man shouted, walking toward the troop of Dementors, who had stopped in their tracks. "His lordship will reward you like your masters never could! Follow us! Join your fellows in the East Tower. See how they have fed well-"

"STUPEFY!" called another voice, a woman's voice this time, but more vigorous than the decrepit inmate. The old man suddenly froze and fell.

Across the inlet, Harry saw a woman tap her own throat, and again came the searing cold that spiked through his marrow with every syllable.

"Go to it then," said the new voice. "Feed, if you want!"

Horribly, the Dementors broke their formation and began to swarm the inert corpse of the old man, pushing each other aside to get at his mouth. The sight was too much for Harry. His head was swimming in the familiar fear and cold that the Dementors inspired in him. Ron, Hermione and Ginny were slowly retreating down the passage.

"STUPEFY!" came the voice again, and Harry was horrified to see Hermione fall to the ground. Ron and Ginny fell to their knees, trying to lift her. The cry came again, and now Ginny fell.

"You are fortunate indeed," the death-cold voice came again. "Enough for everyone today. See, loyalty is advantageous."

"EXPECTO PATRONEM," Harry called as the Dementors began to advance down the alley. There was a great white light, and the Dementors recoiled. The great stag gambolled up the alleyway, and the Dementors scattered. Harry caught a clear glimpse of the woman, who was now advancing toward them, ignoring the fleeing Dementors rushing past her. She was not dressed in the inmates' robes. She wore a heavy purple cloak. "Expelliarmus!" she cried, causing Harry's wand to fly out of his hand. "Avada-"

"STOP!" Harry screamed. "STOP!"

The woman stopped in her tracks, but kept her wand out. "If you don't want to make nice and be a treat for the guards, then you die right now. That's the rules. You were warned."

"I WASN'T!" Harry yelled, grasping at whatever words he could find. "I'M NOT WHO YOU THINK! I'M FROM HOGWARTS!"

The woman's eyebrows rose, but her wand was still out. "Explain yourself very quickly."

"Are you with Voldemort?" Harry said, breathing hard.

"Filth," she said, and swung her wand aside and stunned Ron.

"Don't," Harry said, pleading. "We are here by accident. There were bodies... at Hogwarts... we touched them and appeared in these bodies. We are students from Hogwarts."

"SHE'S AN AUROR. IT'S HECATE DURELL," said the voice at the centre of Harry's mind.

"You're Hecate Durell?" Harry said, surprising himself. The name meant nothing to him.

The woman smiled unpleasantly. "Every prisoner knows that. Try a little harder."

"FORGIVE ME, HARRY," came the voice. "IMPERIO."

"Katie," Harry found himself saying, enitirely involuntarily. "This is Alastor."

The woman blinked, and her wand arm slackened just a little.

"Nobody calls me that."

"I do," Harry spoke again, in Moody's words. "Take these people to safety. He is not lying. They are from Hogwarts."

There was a silence. "You're from Hogwarts, are you? Have you learned levitation yet?"

Harry waited, then realized he was free to speak himself. "Uh- yes."

"Carry the women. I'll take the big one. Be double-quick about it," the woman said impatiently.

"You know her?" Harry thought. "YES", came Moody's voice. "I USED TO, ANYWAY."

***

"Welcome to the officers' mess," Hecate Durrell said bitterly as they entered a chamber, three floors up in the gate tower, where perhaps fifteen purple-cloaked Aurors were gathered. Some dozed on the floor. Others were eating small meals of prison rations. On the way up, Harry relayed questions from Moody, no longer holding him under Imperius, and reported Hecate Durrell's answers back.

"There are about forty of us officers left," she informed Harry. "We've been holding the gate tower against the inmates for over a month. Thankfully, we've got the rations store. Some of the Dementors have turned. Not all of them. We can still keep some of them happy," she said wryly, and Harry thought of the mob that swarmed on the old man.

"Is Voldemort here?" Harry asked, for once from his own curiosity.

"No," Hecate said. "We don't think so. But we have no doubt that he is on his way. A rumour of his rebirth somehow got to the inmates. That gave them courage. They hadn't tasted that for years. That was half of what it took for them to break out. Some of the stronger ones got some Dementors on their side, and they rose up. We had no defense against that. Dementors won't fight each other, whether they're with us or with the inmates. They'll go with whoever feeds 'em better. That's our one advantage. There are fewer of us, but there are more of them to feed on!" She grinned viciously. "But when he arrives..." She trailed off.

Harry explained how he and the others came to the prison. Hecate interrupted only once during the story- "Nobody in Azkaban was innocent!" she had asserted in a hate-filled whisper.

"Wait here," she instructed when Harry had finished, and went over to confer with a knot of Aurors. Harry didn't like the way they looked at the four of them. Their looks alternated between spiteful and suspicious.

Hecate came back and reanimated Ginny, Ron and Hermione, under the watchful eye of a half-dozen of the prison officers. The officers relaxed their guard some when they saw the weakened and confused expressions on their faces as they looked around.

"Where are we?" Ron muttered groggily.

"We're okay, for now," Harry said. "These are the officers of the prison. They've been holding out here, in this tower."

"Do you know how to get us back?" Hermione asked.

"Would have left ourselves, if we knew, don't you think?" Hecate said, with unpleasant sarcasm. "Not exactly the sharpest lot Hogwarts has raised, are you?"

The four looked stung by this. "There is a way," Harry said suddenly. "There's a spell that can reverse the transference. Moody says you would have the ability to do it."

"He's figured that one out, has he?" Hecate said. Harry was really getting exasperated by her tone. "Yes, I know the spell."

"Well... can we go, then?" Ron asked timidly.

The four were sitting on the floor, and Harry noticed that the officers had been looking at them appraisingly.

"No," Hecate said finally. "Not yet."

"What's the-" Harry began.

"Four nice young wizards that look just like Dark wizards," Hecate interrupted. "That's handy. Just the kind of spies we need. You can find us a way into the warden's tower. Well, you can try, anyway."

Harry relayed these words back to Moody. "FORGIVE ME AGAIN, HARRY", came the voice, then Harry felt his mouth moving again, forming Moody's words.

"Katie," Harry parrotted. "Don't hold our students hostage. They've had enough trouble."

"Don't presume to tell us about trouble, Alastor," Hecate shouted, as if Harry were a wall through which she was trying to make herself heard. "We've been abandoned here."

"You chose to do this job, Katie," Harry mouthed. "You knew the dangers. These children are innocent. They came to save their fellow. They can't do anything for you. Let them go."

"They can still earn their way out," Hecate said. "They may do themselves great honour."

"Katie," Harry said, his voice involuntarily adopting a patient tone. "One of them's Harry Potter."

Hecate was silent a moment. "All right, then," she said finally. "He can go. The others stay."

"That's him," Harry said, pointing at Ginny. Thinking at first that his voice had echoed, he was amazed to look over and see Ginny pointing at him.

"He's lying, that's him," came the voice and the echo once again.

Hecate smiled with hateful irony. "So it's one of those situations, is it? Can we just get on with it then. You'll have plenty of opportunity for heroics. Let's march."

"Damn you to hell, Katie," came the words from Harry's mouth. She just smiled. "Too late, Alastor," she said. "I'm already on my way there."

***

The four students shivered with cold and despair as the Aurors briefed them. A gruff man, looking like an even less affable twin of Moody's, laboriously rehearsed with the four the identities of the bodies they occupied. They each learned the names of their corporeal landlords, as well as their biographies, associations and prison records.

"When you don't know something, just act sick and confused," he instructed. "Most of 'em are anyways, after all those years with Dementors." Harry, Ron, Hermione and Ginny simply repeated the Auror's instructions blankly. It seemed ridiculous to Harry that they should be rehearsing like this for what was essentially a pointless suicide mission, undertaken only to satisfy the vindictive desperation of the abandoned Aurors. Satisfied that the students knew their parts as well as they would, Hecate led them down the stairs toward the bottom of the tower.

Harry saw Hermione grasp Ron's arm, and they hung back a few steps, conferring in an urgent whisper, until one of the Aurors went back up and spurred them forward. Ron nodded to her as they rushed down to catch up with the others, Hermione's great bearded face twisted and near tears. Harry didn't bother to ask what was wrong.

There was a great expanse of open yard between the gate tower and the warden's tower. Harry, Hermione, Ron and Ginny peered around the edge of the archway, into the yard. Behind them in the shadows Hecate and her two colleagues were standing, silent and hidden. There was not a soul moving. It was a great no-man's-land between the Aurors' last stronghold and the high tower held by the mutinous inmates. There were corpses here too, a couple of Aurors caught running one way, a couple of inmates caught running the other. Some of them, Dementor-kissed, were still breathing belabouredly in the rain and cold while their bodies slowly froze to the death to which their minds had already departed. Others simply lay, blankly staring in the manner Harry recognized as the mark of the Avada Kedavra curse.

"Now we'll wait for you back here after nightfall. Find out how many are still alive in there, whether there's an unguarded way to the fireplace. You'll run across there," Hecate said. "We'll throw curses at you as you run. But we'll miss. Unless any of you turn around to come back," she added, glaring. "Then you'll see our aim is actually quite good."

Harry had an urge to turn a stunning curse on Hecate, just for the satisfaction of it. Each of her sadistic threats made him angrier and angrier. "Blast you," Harry muttered. "This isn't fair."

Hecate scowled. "Welcome to the war," she said. "It ain’t fair to noone. Bad luck."

***

Four deep, deep breaths, then a desperate run. Out of the gate tower came bolts of purple, blue, green. Curses came echoing off the great fortress walls around them. They were under open, raining, watchful sky, scampering stupidly across the yard toward the hold of the Death Eaters. The bolts missed, but not all of them missed by a lot. "Hey!" came voices from the warden's tower. A gate at the base of the tower was opened. Might this folly actually work? Harry thought. The four ran at the open gate, and passed under the arch. A couple of inmates were waiting there. "Blimey!" one of them said admiringly. "You made it! Just in time, too!"

"Uh huh," Ron said, winded.

"Come up here, quick," the man said, leading then to a stairway, the mirror twin of the one they had just descended on the other side. Down the stairs came a wizard that Harry recognized as the cold-voiced master from the chamber. "You're alive!" the master said, eyes wide. "We were sure we'd lost you. Looks like the bloody Aurors must have found us. His Lordship will be disappointed about the plan," he said. "Hope he's not *too* disappointed, if you get my meaning," he said with a grimace.

Harry breathed an inward sigh of relief. Hermione's memory charm had clearly done its job.

"He'll expect a briefing when he comes," the first inmate said.

When he comes? Harry thought. He looked over and caught Hermione's eye. She shrugged.

"Well, the bloody Aurors can have their fun, anyways," the master said. "They've not got long now. Looks like they got Haskell with their Dementors, the bastards."

Following the group up the stairs, they soon found themselves in another hall, a richly-decorated one this time, probably used for official functions and Ministry visits. It was occupied by dozens of inmates, some sporting civilian robes over their uniforms, obviously plundered from the officers' quarters. They wore bits of jewellery and fancy silverware as crude insignia and badges of rank. A very old-looking wizard stood on a raised platform at the front of the room and tapped his throat with a wand. He wore four prawn-forks pinned on his lapel. He spoke, and his voice rung out across the room.

"Brothers! Sisters!" he announced. "The time is upon us. The fortress is all but ours, and his Lordship is ready to take possession. I have just had words with him, and he will be coming this very evening, to embrace us again, his *true* disciples! Let us prepare the way for him. Tonight with his Lordship's help we'll finish off the Aurors. Shall it be death for them?" He was smiling. The assembled inmates roared approval. "Or," came the voice, trilling with rhetorical flourish, "shall it be living damnation? Torments equal and commensurate with every one inflicted on us?" The assembly roared even louder and longer. Harry suddenly realized that it would be wise to join in and he punched Ron and Hermione on the arm as he started to whoop enthusiastically.

"Whhooohooo!" Ginny shouted, suddenly perking up.

"Bloody right!" Ron yelled.

"Hooray!" Hermione boomed out.

"To his Lordship, and life everlasting!" the announcer called out, raising his arm high, and displaying the mark on his wrist. The mob repeated his words, as well as the eerie salute, and the four students followed suit.

The master, appearing so menacing before, was clapping and whistling like an overexcited Quidditch fan. Tears were in his eyes. He leaned over to Harry and whispered. "Bloody brilliant, ennit? Never thought I'd live to see the day," he said.

"Yeah," Harry said.

"Look!" the announcer cried now. "Look, out to sea, past the Auror's tower!"

There was a rush toward the few windows. Only Hermione stood high enough to see over the crowd pressing toward the windows. "What is it?" Ron whispered. "Shh, don't know," Hermione said.

"He is coming!" the announcer called, his voice rising in pitch.

"Oooh!" Hermione said. "There's... there's a great big wave!" She grabbed Harry and lifted him up, with startling ease. He could see now: a great white swell was rising up, and driving toward the sea-gate. Harry realized that as the wave grew out at sea, a pain was intensifying in his forehead. Voldemort was there; and he would surely know Harry was near when he arrived.

"Let us meet him!' called a voice. "We will lay the bodies of the Aurors at his feet!" There was a frenzied rush toward the doors. The inmates were struggling with each other to be the first down the stairs. Hermione swept her arms across Ron, Ginny and Harry's shoulders and shepherded them through the bustling crowd. "This way," she hissed, pushing them along one edge of the corridor, trying to keep them from being crushed.

They held themselves back as the crowd pressed past them. Hermione pulled them upward along the stairs, one at a time, as the inmates jostled downward. In the excitement they managed to get themselves one whole storey further up, where the crowd was thinner. Moody's voice came into Harry's head, explaining that he was trying to guide Hermione to the warden's residence. With any luck, the office would be abandoned in the excitement. "SO QUIET FOR NOW, PLEASE," he added.

Hermione led them down a corridor. A few inmates ran past them, waving at them and laughing as if it were a New Year's party. At the end of the corridor was a great oak door, cracked and half off its hinge. They reached the door, and beyond was... nothing. The entire back wall had been blasted away. There was no trace of a fireplace, only a vast charred hole where the rain and wind came in, soaking the rich carpet and tapestries.

There was a great CRASH. The four ran back along the corridor, despairing. At the other end, there was a small arrow-slit. Harry peered through. The wave had crashed against the sea-gate, causing the iron gate to collapse. Below, in the yard, a battle was in progress. The Aurors had abandoned their tower as the wave crashed against it, and Harry could see another wave and then another forming out to sea, ready to batter the gate tower to a heap. Water was flooding into the yard, while the desperate Aurors and the emboldened Death Eaters fought an almost comical-looking melee, ankle-deep in green water.

"What'll we do?" Ginny cried. "We're caught up here."

Hermione swallowed, and spoke. "Two of us are going back," she said matter-of-factly. Ron turned his head suddenly to look at her. She nodded at him, and he muttered, "Right."

Harry was startled. "Moody told me-"

"He told me, too," Hermione said. "And he told me the spell. You and Ginny are going back."

Harry's heart seized in his chest. "NONSENSE!" he shouted.

"What are you-" Ginny began.

Ron spoke up. "Hermione and I worked it out, Gin. There's a spell that will get someone back, but there's got to be somebody to do the spell."

"And the one who says the spell dies," Harry said quietly, staring at Hermione. Ginny's eyes were wide. "Ron, no-" she said, but her voice failed.

Hermione spoke. "We can't let them get Harry Potter, can we? You're everybody's hope. And Ginny, you're the one we came for in the first place," she said, with a sadly ironic smile.

"Don't talk rot, Hermione," Harry muttered unevenly. "We're not leaving you here to be-"

"That's the beauty of it, Harry," Ron said. "You won't be."

Harry suddenly began gasping. There was a commotion filtering up the stairs from the lower floors of the tower. "Don't make us do something ridiculous like Stun you, Harry," Hermione said. "We want to say goodbye and all."

Harry slumped down to the floor, unable to speak, barely able to see through his clouded eyes. He sat, back against the wall, and Ginny sat down next to him, speechless and numb.

"Goodbye, Harry," Hermione said with forced evenness. "Thank you for everything, Ginny."

In front of them Hermione and Ron knelt, in their laughably misshapen forms. Harry watched Hermione, her great clumsy hands fussing somehow delicately. Ron was looking over at her, his eyes dry but wide. "Bloody hell, Hermione," he said to her. "I just wish I could see you proper again. You're so pretty."

Hermione's composure suddenly broke. She smiled but a baritone sob broke from her throat. "I- I love you, Ron," she said, not able to look at him.

"Yeah," Ron said. "Me too, you, I mean." His voice was strangled and his small hands were starting to shake. "We have to do this or I won't be able to speak," Ron said, inhaling deeply.

"I love you both," Harry said. When he said it, he thought it sounded weak and stupid.

"Happy birthday, Hermione," Ginny barely squeaked. "I love you, Ron."

"Tell Mum..." Ron whispered. Ginny nodded.

There were shouts approaching from below. Harry watched Hermione kneeling over him, intoning. His eyes were so obscured that he could not have distinguished the great bearded giant she was now from the sleeping girl waiting in vain back in the Hogwarts hospital wing. Nor could he distinguish the pain in his forehead from the stinging of his eyes. He did not want to blink away the tears- hearing alone was bad enough.

"No Ron, that's wrong," he heard her say. "Neque luna per NOC-tem. Not noc-TEM."

The incantation started over again, and this time, Harry felt a horrid feverish chill wash through him. The noise and shouting from downstairs swelled louder. He shut his eyes tightly.

***

And opened them again.

"Harry." A very gentle voice. He tipped his head up. It was Ginny. She was smiling. "You were asleep."

Had there been a dream-? No, this was the hospital wing. But how can Ginny smile-?

"Come here," she said. Harry got up from the bed, a heavy grogginess insistently trying to pull him back down. Moody was over there. Memory came upon him like a stone wall collapsing. "Oh-" his breath hitched.

"No, Harry, no!" said Ginny, grabbing Harry's arms. "Come here."

This must have been the dream. Across the way was Hermione- actual Hermione- sitting straight up in a chair, next to a bed where Ron- actual Ron- lay, eyes closed but breathing. Ron's left arm was flopping off the bed, and Hermione was grasping his hand tightly in both of hers, clutched in her lap.

"We're all right, Harry," she said weakly. Harry was speechless. He kneeled by her chair and threw his arms around her shoulders, finally understanding why she did that all the time. Harry barked loudly into her upper arm. It took a couple of minutes to regain his composure enough to lift his face out of the sleeve of her robes.

Harry saw that her face was blanched and drawn. "I was dead, Harry," she said, smiling ironically. "I'm doing better now, thanks, although I'm still a bit cold."

"How can you-"

"Hecate found us. The Aurors fought their way... She, and another, they did the spell on us. They took..." Hermione broke off.

"Tell me about it later," Harry said.

"Yeah," Hermione nodded.

Harry turned. Through all this, Moody was sitting silently in a corner, deep in thought. Harry thought better of plying him with questions just at that moment. Ginny sat patiently on the bed next to Hermione and Ron. Harry sat down beside her. The three sat in silence, watching Ron, waiting for his eyes to open.

***

If you are young enough, you can travel to hell and back and then laugh and smile and gossip again only a few hours later, as if nothing had changed. Moody had left the hospital wing some time before, carting the bodies of the unfortunate innocent prisoners away with Madam Pomfrey's help. Madam Pomfrey seemed to understand enough of what had gone on to hold off from shooing the students away.

Harry could tell something had changed. For one thing, Hermione and Ron sat together, cross legged on Ron's bed, not three inches apart, but studiously not touching either. Harry wondered if he and Ginny looked any different together. He thought not, but he was sure Ron would deny he was acting any differently too if he were to ask. The enormous good fortune they had in being together that evening, even the very words they had all spoken to each other that day, seemed much too big and strange to mention now that they were safe.

Dumbledore came into the ward. "Good evening," Dumbledore said. "I have been having some interesting discussions with representatives from the Ministry. The bodies were brought through a sort of passage that was cut by the Durmstrang ship last year," Dumbledore explained. "Somebody at Durmstrang seems to have, er, neglected to close it. So we have a conspiracy, involving Azkaban inmates, Hogwarts students, a faculty member at Durmstrang, and apparently Voldemort. I think we will be having some visits and a lot of questions soon. Er, in any case, I imagine this sort of thing is not on your mind tonight," he added. "I wanted to advise you that I have arranged to have the four of you excused from classes for the remainder of the week. And, Ron, Hermione, if you have any questions, please feel free to see me..."

"What sort of questions, sir?" Ron asked.

Dumbledore was silent a moment, scratching his chin. "You were both... dead for approximately a minute and a half. It was the most obscure of Dark magic that brought you back here. Hecate Durrell obviously picked up some extraordinary knowledge in Azkaban. Mercifully, your... absence... was brief, but I'm not altogether sure how that will affect you."

Ron and Hermione looked at each other a moment. "We feel fine, sir," Hermione said.

"Well, that's excellent then. I... if in the morning, after a night's sleep... Well, take all the time you want here, before going back to your dormitories. Madam Pomfrey will let you alone. Professor McGonagall is covering for you tonight, Hermione."

"Thank you, sir," the four muttered. Dumbledore turned to go. "Sir-" Harry said, stopping him.

"Yes, Harry."

Harry looked over at Ron and Hermione, aware suddenly that it was not his business to ask, but went on. "We've been taught that you can't be dead and come back. How did they-" Harry trailed off, regretting that he had spoken just now. Hermione was biting her lip.

"Hm," Dumbledore said. Harry could tell he was considering his answer carefully. "This is the heart of the Dark Arts, Harry. No, you cannot come back from death. But magical death is a little different from the sort of death that happens if a boulder falls on you. It's just as final, but... more malleable. Hecate and her fellows took on your deaths," he went on, now speaking to Ron and Hermione. "Having nothing else to lose, I expect."

Dumbledore was quiet, but looked as if he still had words to add. "Some believe that it is justifiable to use the Dark Arts, to save lives. In my opinion, that is the first step toward Voldemort's error, in wishing to erase death. Voldemort survives because we all, to varying degrees, will compromise with evil. I am... in the minority in this opinion. Even among my associates." Dumbledore looked away, and began to shuffle. It was strange to see this adolescent mannerism in Dumbledore, and Harry realized that even the wisest have troubles in their hearts they did not like to expose.

It was Hermione who asked the question. "Sir, is it compromising-- if it had been you rather than Hecate there, would you have saved us?"

Dumbledore inhaled deeply, and faced Hermione square. "No," he said. "Please try to understand-" He stopped speaking. He held her eyes for a few more seconds. "It is complicated. All of us wind up with bloody hands," he said finally. "Please see me if anything happens." He turned and walked out of the room.

Hermione looked blank for a few moments, then slumped sideways toward Ron, who caught her and held her. He made an awkward face but did not let go. Harry felt Ginny grasp his hand. Hers was cold. With the other hand, he took off his glasses and stuffed them in a pocket of his robes. The world was cloudy. He didn't want to see any more.

***

THE END – to be continued in "Feather and Flame"

//
Write a review! PLEASE NOTE: The purpose of reviewing a story or piece of art at the Sugar Quill is to provide comments that will be useful to the author/artist. We encourage you to put a bit of thought into your review before posting. Please be thoughtful and considerate, even if you have legitimate criticism of a story or artwork. (You may click here to read other reviews of this work).
* = Required fields
*Sugar Quill Forums username:
*Sugar Quill Forums password:
If you do not have a Sugar Quill Forums username, please register. Bear in mind that it may take up to 72 hours for your account to be approved. Thank you for your patience!
*Comment:
The Sugar Quill was created by Zsenya and Arabella. For questions, please send us an Owl!

-- Powered by SQ3 : Coded by David : Design by James --