The Sugar Quill
Author: Night Zephyr (Professors' Bookshelf)  Story: Points of No Return  Chapter: Contagious Confusion
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~ Chapter 15 ~
Contagious Confusion

~~~***~~~

A/N: The content of this chapter would have landed much farther from canon without the generous, gracious, and bloody brilliant help of my beta-reader, Christina Teresa. She helped me avoid all of the plot/canon landmines I was headed for, and led me into writing a much stronger chapter besides. Thank you so much, Christina, you continue to be
the best!

~~~***~~



Hermione was amazed that she could think at all in the whirlwind of color that was swirling around her as the Portkey carried them back to Hogwarts. But the thought never left her mind that Ron was now alone-- hundreds of miles from Hogwarts, wihtout any way to get back to the school.

SLAM!! She felt herself smack into something almost flat. It wasn’t the ground; it was upright, more like a wall. Hermione felt the impact of several bodies hit the flatness next to her, bumping knees, elbows, and shoulders. Before her mind could register what had happened, the pull behind her navel began anew, and she assumed they would be at Hogwarts in a matter of moments.

Feet hitting the earth, Hermione could not remain standing this time, and she held out her arm to break her fall. Harry had landed next to her, almost managing to keep his balance, but dropping to the ground on his knees nonetheless. Fred and George were trying to untangle themselves several feet away.

From her vantage point on the ground, Hermione looked up as the others were busy looking down. She gasped and tried to speak, “Oh, my...”

Harry heard her gasp and followed her gaze. “Wha--What happened?!”

“I don’t know,” Hermione answered, still stunned. “George, Fred--did you guys do something wrong?”

“Wrong? No,” George said. “Why--damn!” George had obviously just seen why she was asking.

The fact that they had landed in a clearing in a forest was not too surprising. Certainly, they could have landed near the Forbidden Forest on Hogwarts property--it looked a bit like this.

But they didn’t land anywhere near Hogwarts.

They had landed right back where they started--at the Quidditch Portkey site in Ireland.

“How did that happen?” Fred asked, gawking at the area around them along with the others. “And all I did when it was my turn with the Portkey was land you in a thorn bush,” he said to George accusingly.

“I didn’t do anything wrong! You can’t make a Portkey go wrong once it’s set--we’ve tried, remember?” George said defensively. “Hey--did anyone feel something strange while we were in motion?”

“Yeah. Like we hit up against something,” Harry offered. “A wall, or--I don’t know...”

“Did everybody feel that?” George asked, looking towards Hermione and Fred. They nodded. “That never happened before when we traveled by Portkey--that I know of.”

The Weasley twins had had some experience traveling with their family by Portkey, and Harry and Hermione had done it several times each. But none of them had enough experience with one to find out what went wrong or how to fix it.

“Well, I guess there’s nothing to do but see if the watchwizards know--” Hermione began, standing now and visually scouring the area. “Where did they go?”

Fred, George, and Harry scanned the area as well from where they stood.

“They’re gone--already?” Harry asked, looking toward the sunset. “I think the light’s pretty much the same as before--we couldn’t have been gone that long.”

“Well,” said Fred, suddenly smiling. “All I can say is--guess we don’t have to desert Ronniekins after all!”

“But-- what about Harry?” Hermione questioned.

“What about me?” Harry asked dryly.

“We still don’t know who’s trying to find you, or what they’re trying to do. It’s not safe for you here,” Hermione explained.

“Do we have a choice?” Harry retorted. “Besides, we already passed the Portkey time, didn’t we?” he asked of the twins.

“I’m not sure,” George started. “But if we already left, then came back, I’d have to say ‘yes’. We’ve already used it for this time. Won’t be able to use it again for another-- what time do you have, Fred? Magical or Muggle?”

Fred’s watch was set to Magical Mode instead of Muggle Mode. It only said “You’re grounded if you’re not at Hogwarts by now,” so he had to judge by the amount of light still glowing over the horizon instead. “My watch is set to Magical Mode, but it’s likely about seven o’clock, I’d say.”

George was calculating in his head. “That would mean it’ll work in the same number of hours as the time it was set for, squared. So if it was set for seven, then times seven. We can try again in forty nine hours.” He then reached to adjust the stem of his watch, setting it to Muggle Mode to make sure the hour count was correct, in case they needed it later.

“But what if we come back again?” Hermione asked.

George shrugged. “Then we do. I haven’t a clue as to why we came back this time.”

Hermione had been looking into the woods, as the boys were staring at the sun and deciding what time it was. A movement caught her eye at the edge of the trees.

“What was that?” Hermione asked suddenly, causing the boys to all look where she was squinting. She thought she’d seen a person--someone who looked vaguely like Beeles, but Hermione decided the dusk, the dark forest, and her fatigue must have been playing tricks on her eyes.

“What?” Harry asked, visually scanning the area where she was looking.

“Nothing. Sorry,” Hermione said quietly.

“Hermione, which direction did Ron say he was headed?” Harry asked.

“He’s southwest of here--on the other side of the hill.”

“Well, can you ring him up, or whatever you do, and tell him we’re still here?” Fred asked.

Hermione looked at Fred strangely. “I don’t ‘ring him up’. This isn’t anything that I can do from my side. He’s the one who has to locate me. I just have to be really emotional about something, and he’ll find me.”

“Well, carry on then,” George suggested. “Can you be emotional while we’re walking?”

Hermione just rolled her eyes, and headed off toward the southwest.

~~~***~~~


*Can they see it now?* Ron thought to Hermione, holding his wand straight up as high as he could, and mumbling the spell again. A small fountain of red sparks shot from the wand’s tip up through the trees.

*”Do you see anything at all?”*Hermione called to them.

Ron could hear Hermione calling to Harry, Fred, and George from his side of the connection. Hermione had let Ron know earlier that the four of them had taken the better part of an hour to walk the distance from the Portkey site to the hillside area just west of the castle ruins. They were now trying to find exactly where Ron was before it got any darker, so they would at least all be together for the night.

Ron followed the course of the last sparks with his gaze. The dusk was setting in fully now--anything on the ground now appeared black. The only light at all came from the early evening sky; with the huge fog bank Ron could now see moving toward them from over the ocean, he knew that light would be going fast.

*Er, Ron? Sorry to say this, but--one more time?* Hermione said quietly.

*Ergh! Are they blind?!* Ron thought irritably to her. *Okay, if they miss this, forget it!* Ron moved out into the middle of the clearing near the foot of the hillside. Maybe it was just being out here alone in a dark, unfamiliar forest, but he had a sense that something else was amiss and he didn’t want to announce his presence too obviously.

Ron lifted his wand in the air, pointing it skyward again. Concentrating hard, he said loudly this time, “Relashio!” The blast of red sparks from his wand shot no less than thirty feet high, maintaining the illusion of a spilling fountain for at least two minutes or so.
His intense focus on the spell kept him from noticing the crunching sounds at the edge of the clearing behind him.

A loud crash and the sound of two small boulders smacking together and rolling through the brush made Ron jump, whirl towards the sound, and ready his wand. Squawking birds had flown from their roosts at the racket, making his heart pound even harder.

Suddenly he heard a much more familiar sound that at once made him feel relieved, then quite promptly, furious. It was the sound of Fred and George trying to stifle a laugh as they stood just out of sight at the edge of the clearing.

Ron stalked off toward the noise with a dangerous look on his face. “I could have seriously hurt you two, you know,” he said tersely as he approached them. “In fact, maybe I still will--no one would be the wiser, way out here.” Even in the near-dark, Ron managed to walk right up to them, and greeted them with twin punches in their arms. “At first I thought you guys would never get here, and now I’m sort of sorry you have.” Ron could still feel his heart pounding in his chest.

“Oh--now, Ron. We’re sorry. Won’t happen again-- today,” George promised, still trying to stifle a laugh, and having to look up a bit at his ‘little’ brother.

“How much longer is that?” Fred asked his twin, rubbing his own arm where Ron had punched him.

“Four hours, maybe,” George responded.

“Hmmm...okay,” Fred agreed. “I can make it that long. Awfully dark here, Ronnie. Who turned out the lights?”

Ron scowled at them, ignoring their attempts to be amusing. “Where are Harry and Hermione?”

“Why? Worried about them out there in the dark forest?” Fred asked.

“No, Fred. I think he’s worried about them out there together in the dark forest,” George explained.

“Shut up!” Ron said. “You guys have been here for maybe two minutes, and you’re already a pain!”

“Thank you! We’ve been trying to improve our S.O.A.--Speed of Annoyance!” Fred said, smiling, as George nodded.

Harry and Hermione appeared from the shadows of the forest a few dozen feet behind the twins.

“You’ve found him!” Harry said, sounding relieved.

“Yeah. Don’t give them too much credit. They almost did me in with a heart attack before you got here,” Ron said, giving his brothers accusing glances. He pulled out his wand, which he’d pushed into his belt momentarily to punch his brothers and ordered, “Lumos!”

Ron smiled at his two best friends. “I’m glad to see you two, anyway. Nice job with that ‘intuition’, Hermione.”

He gave her a meaningful look that rested on her for several seconds. It had been easy to find her mind--he’d made an attempt about fifteen minutes after he thought they would have transported, had the Portkey to Hogwarts worked. The several times that he’d needed to connect with her telempathically since the beach, she’d been willing to let the connection come through. Yet he felt there was a point inside of her at which she stopped him and held back--a part of her was still unwilling to risk letting him get too close.

Ron’s gaze at her did not go unnoticed. She smiled back at him, blushing, then covered her mouth as another yawn escaped.

“Now that we’re all here, we should figure out what to do for tonight,” Ron began. “You can’t see it now, but down that way is a little stone house. That’s where the girl is--”

“Valeria,” Harry interrupted. “Her name’s Valeria, she said.”

“Valeria? Guess she never told me her name all those times,” Ron replied.

Fred and George peered quizzically at their little brother.

“Yeah, I reckon I need to fill you two in on a few things,” Ron said. “Actually, I think all of you need to hear what I found out today. I don’t think we ought to go down there where--Valeria-- is, until everyone knows what we’re dealing with. Besides, I have no idea if she’s alone, or if she has weapons, or spells ready--we need to find out first. Especially for Harry’s sake.”

“Yeah. Maybe you could let me in on that, since now you’re saying she’s dangerous to me,” Harry said.

Ron saw movement at the edges of the darkness, where the light from his wand stopped. Great patches of fog were beginning to blow by and over the five friends, making them shiver like they did at Hogwarts if they happened to wander through one of the castle ghosts. The fog was beginning to roll in thickly now, and soon they might lose their bearings completely.

“You know what? I’m not so sure we should be standing out in the open like this, or talking where anyone can hear,” Ron said cautiously.

“What? Why?” George said. “There’s no one around here for miles--unless some of the people from the match are still there--and I doubt that, this long after the game.”

“I don’t know. Maybe it’s just from being alone for so long until you all got here,” Ron said, “but it just feels creepy to me--something’s weird out here.” He noticed Hermione was looking cold and tired as she tried to pull her cloak closer around herself. “Besides, it’s going to be freezing if we stay outside. Come on. I think I saw a place we can go.”

Hermione looked at Ron wearily, adjusting the rucksack straps on her shoulders as if they were uncomfortable. “Is it very far?” she asked, trying to sound light-hearted.

“Not really,” Ron said. “But in this fog, we’d better get there while I can still find it. Here--give me your rucksack, Hermione.” He held out his hand to collect it.

“No, it’s okay. You have your own, and you have to lead--” she protested, pulling away.

“Give me your rucksack now, Hermione,” Ron insisted.

“You can carry mine,” Fred offered, starting to shrug his off.

Ron just gave him an irritable look, and moved closer to Hermione, reaching for her rucksack strap at the shoulder, and starting to tug at it.

She gave in and wriggled out of the straps, apparently too tired to argue at the moment.

Ron slung Hermione’s rucksack onto his shoulder over his own and held his wand out briefly, swinging it around in front of him to see where he was. “I don’t know if we all should use our wands, but someone in the back needs to,” Ron said. “There’s lots of rocks and roots and stuff--watch out and stay close.”

George obliged by lighting his wand. “I’ll be the light of your life, Fred,” he said teasingly.

“Well, then, don’t make light of it, George,” Fred answered.

Harry rolled his eyes at the twins, then moved up behind Ron. “How can they keep that up when they’re this tired?”

“They never run out,” Ron answered dryly. “But the jokes keep getting worse the later it gets. Ready, then?” he asked, as everyone nodded. Ron discreetly reached for Hermione’s hand and led the group off across the clearing, with George and Fred chuckling and whispering about that bit of scandal once all the ‘light’ jokes had run thin.

~~~***~~~

Valeria paced back and forth across the room, wishing she had gone through with the suicide attempt several nights ago. The oil lamp was burning low and would soon flicker into complete darkness, but she didn’t care. She hardly noticed.

It hadn’t worked. The plan hadn’t worked. She almost had Potter talked into it--almost convinced him to help her. Tom was right--Potter at least pretended he wanted to help. But then Potter had to go and call his friends in--those must have been the same friends Tom had said would hurt him if they were all together.

But Tom didn’t tell her about the boy with the red hair. She should have known he and Potter were mixed up together in this somehow. Valeria wasn’t sure how it happened, but she recognized the red-haired boy from the visits to her mind. It was strange--whenever the Muertos wanted her to see where Potter was, the voice of the red-haired boy appeared. She’d heard his voice so often--earlier, it had been her voice of hope--telling her to fight the evil, to fend off the Muertos, that if she held on he was going to try and help her. She had wanted to trust him and believe in him so badly. Now she wasn’t sure what to think--was it a trick? Was he evil like Tom had said Potter was?

All she knew was that he had followed her, chasing her across the field and through the forest. She’d had a good head start, thank goodness, and he’d never managed to catch up with her, but she could hear him crashing through the brush on the hillside above the whole time. Then when she’d reached the cottage, he’d never appeared outside. She was at once curious as to why he’d stopped, and also thankful that he had.

The Muertos were furious with her. They had forced their angry thoughts on her as soon as she started running from Potter. The whole time, they were threatening and promising to make her do things she would hate. They forced pain and darkness and despair into her mind, making it more difficult to run from the red-haired boy. But she managed to run, anyway. Escape was the only thing in her life that made sense right now.

Mercifully, the Muertos had been called away. She had no idea what had caused them to leave. But her guess was that Tom wanted to know what had happened during and after that game--and she already knew how he’d feel about that.

Valeria had no idea who to trust now. Everything felt as if it was crashing in on her.

The worry, the anger, and the fear all mixed together were smothering her. Again she wished the Muertos hadn’t pulled her from the cliff’s edge that night. It would have been so much easier to jump than face this.

Breathing fast and shallow, Valeria felt her head began to spin. The color went from her vision and she felt herself begin to feel faint. She sat down on the bed and held her face in her hands.

*Valeria? Is that your name?-- Valeria?* the tired-sounding voice thought to her already jumbled mind. It was him, the red-haired boy. Now that she’d actually seen him, his image was etched in her mind from their mutual recognition at the stadium. She could envision him talking with her. *Are they there with you now? The beings with the black cloaks?*

She wasn’t sure whether to trust him. Maybe he just wanted to know if she was alone, so he could come force some other gruesome task upon her. But still she wanted to believe in him somehow. *No. They’re not here with me, or in my mind. They were called away.* Valeria paused, afraid to hear the answer to the next question. *You’re... out there, aren’t you?*

*Yeah. I’m out here--and I need to talk to you. But I can’t if the dement-, I mean, the beings are there with you. Are they coming back later, or tomorrow? Because my fri--* the boy’s voice stopped momentarily, *because I can’t talk with you if the beings are there. I can’t leave where I am tonight, either--it’s too foggy. I’d never find the way.*

*Wait. He must have told you my name. What’s yours?* Valeria thought to him, not wanting him to have any advantage, however small.

*Oh. Yeah. It’s Ron. Just Ron.*

*Well--Ron-- I never know just when the Muertos are coming--the beings. So I can’t promise you they won’t be here. Maybe you should just leave, because I already know they’re really angry with me. I don’t know what they’re going to do to me.* She tried to sound brave and forceful, but it didn’t last long. *It probably doesn’t matter, anyway,* Valeria thought dejectedly.

*What? How can you say it doesn’t matter?* Ron thought back, incredulous. *Of course, it matters! Don’t you know what those-- beings-- can do to a person? Hasn’t anyone told you? And as for my leaving, I’m not sure that I can. So you may as well expect me to be there tomorrow. I can feel that you’re really upset, and really afraid. Don’t you dare do anything to hurt yourself tonight. You hold on.*

*Okay, I’ll try,* Valeria thought back weakly.

*Promise me. You hold on. I can get to you now--well, tomorrow. We can get you some help--and we will. Don’t give up now,* Ron thought encouragingly. *Promise me you’ll hold on until I can talk to you.*

Valeria felt that tiny little ray of hope that she’d felt some of the other times that the boy had connected with her. It certainly was a much, much better feeling than what the Muertos made her feel. She decided if she was going to have to trust someone, it might as well be Ron; in fact, she’d have to trust him just to get herself through the night.

*Okay,* Valeria thought to him. *I promise. Until tomorrow.*

~~~***~~~

Ron woke with a start. His face was freezing, his right shoulder and back were shoved up against something much too hard to be his four-poster at Hogwarts, and he was surprised he had managed to sleep at all sitting up this straight.

Without moving, he blinked dully at what lay in front of him. Now I remember. He opened his eyes wide this time and tried to focus on his surroundings. Inside a small natural cave in a group of huge granite rocks, everything around him was a dim gray. The gray-white rock was only a shade lighter in color than all the foggy air he could see outside the small opening in the ceiling of the cave. There was a bit of light outside, but the fog was so thick it was impossible to tell if it was daybreak or noon.

Trying to move a little, Ron found his body was achy and stiff all over, but less so on his warm left side, where Hermione was slumped against him, sleeping soundly.

He visually checked the remainder of the group as well. Satisfied that everyone had made it through the night safely, Ron recalled that they had talked until quite late. They had gathered themselves around one of Hermione’s famous little bluebell fires inside the cave. Even though she hadn’t dared to make it large, in case it could be seen from afar, she did her best to create it extra nice and hot to keep the chill of the fog away. Pulling cloaks from their backpacks (Ron was, for once, thankful for his mum’s insistence on taking them), they huddled beneath them to discuss their predicament.

The group had shared everything they already knew that might help them survive their dilemma. That included what Ron had found out through the telempathic connections with Valeria and how much danger he thought Harry might be in. Then there was the issue of the Portkey problem. Ron even felt it necessary to tell them all a bit about Valeria’s attempted suicide, since they might all be in contact with her in some way.

A loud rumble in his stomach caused Ron to grab at his middle with the arm Hermione wasn’t laying on. Dinner last night had been Ron’s last Sssnecklace, broken into five equal pieces. It hadn’t looked too tempting after spending the afternoon wrapped around Ron’s bicep, especially after his chase through the woods behind Valeria (at least there was only a little bit of orange fuzz left stuck to it from his Cannons shirt, and not too much miscellaneous foliage). But it was the best and only thing they had to eat, and it had gotten them through--until now.

Ron felt something jostle his side. His own movement had disturbed Hermione a bit, and without waking, she grabbed at the cloak that had slipped down in the night. Checking to see that none of the others were awake yet, Ron reached across himself to pull the cloak up around her. A small clump of honey-colored curls fell into her face and he pushed them back, accidentally grazing her cheek with his fingertips. Hermione stirred once more at his touch, then snuggled back into the coziness of him and settled down again. He was amazed at how the warmth and comfort of having her next to him could make him feel.

Just then, Harry sat up and squinted about the cave, looking confused.

“I’d say ‘good morning’, but I’m not sure it qualifies,” Ron said.

“Yeah--I’d definitely vote ‘no’ so far,” Harry replied, wincing and twisting his head around, his neck apparently stiff from sleeping where he’d fallen over against Hermione’s leg.

“Guess it’s time to wake everyone else and see what the day brings,” Ron said.

“Yeah. Nothing like a good night’s sleep to get you prepared for what the world has to offer,” Harry said dryly.

~~~***~~~

“I think I should be the only one to go right now,” Ron said, as they sat in a tiny clearing next to the creek. “At least until I talk to her.”

Finding that the fog had risen somewhat, the little group had emerged from the cave earlier and were surprised to see that they were still about halfway up the hillside, looking down into a long, narrow valley. The valley ran in front of the castle ruins to the east of them, while a tiny stone cottage lay to the west at the crest of some very high cliffs leading down to the ocean. The cottage and the castle were the only evidence of human life, past or present, that they could see.

An old trail, mostly covered with foliage by now, wound its way down to a small, rickety bridge over a bubbling creek. From the bridge, they spied the clearing and decided that at least they could get a drink and splash their faces, even though what they really would have liked was a nice, full Hogwarts breakfast table. (Fred and George insisted on talking about every course in detail, despite everyone else’s complaints.)

“What about the dementors?” Harry asked. “What if they’re in there with her? Are they just in her mind, or can they be with her physically, too?”

“I’m not sure,” Ron responded. “She used to think they were just in her mind, but when she tried to kill herself, she told me it was them who pulled her away from the cliffs. So I’m not sure she’s even sure. But I need to find out before we all go down there. Maybe she has some way to help us, too, like Floo powder, or even a fireplace that’s connected so we can contact Hogwarts or the Ministry.”

“Maybe one of us should go with you,” Hermione suggested. “Not Harry, of course.”

“No,” Ron replied slowly. “I think I should go alone at first. She’s kind of-- you know, mental. I’m afraid she might panic if even two people walked in on her. She was really upset last night.”

“Last night?” Harry questioned.

“Yeah. I connected with her for a bit. She knows I’m here-that I’m coming,” Ron said, then pointed toward the direction of the cottage. “Look. You can see the side of the cottage through the trees right there. I’ll signal green sparks if I think it’s clear for all of you to come down, red sparks if there’s a problem.”

Ron noticed Hermione had been looking at him strangely. At first, it was just an odd look when he said he’d connected with Valeria, but then she had a serious look of concern when he’d mentioned the red sparks.

“What if there are no sparks because you’re hurt, or--worse? What if she’s a really powerful Dark witch or something?” Hermione asked tentatively.

Ron thought for a moment and decided it would do no good to even consider that. “That’s easy--I’ll just turn on the animal magnetism, and then hex her while she’s still completely dazzled.”

Hermione frowned at his nonchalance, but her eyes were still filled with worry.

“It’ll be okay,” Ron told her, trying to sound convincing. He leaned against her side and discreetly squeezed her hand, wishing he had the nerve to hold her in front of everyone. He turned to face them all. “Wish me luck!”

“This is Ireland,” Fred said. “Everyone’s got the luck of the Irish, so a little extra will do you no good at all.”

“And thank you for all the bloody well-wishing, Fred,” Ron said sarcastically, slinging his rucksack over his shoulder and heading off through the trees.

~~~***~~~

Albus Dumbledore stood leaning against his desk, poring over the article in the Daily Prophet for the fifth time. He was too disturbed to be able to sit calmly, and it was rare that anything upset him this thoroughly. On the other hand, perhaps it was nothing, just teenagers feeling their oats and refusing to come home before curfew. He wanted to believe it was the latter--it had certainly happened before at Hogwarts.

Still, there it was in black and white: Ireland Quidditch Match Attack--Rogue Dementors ‘Kiss’ Eighteen”. What worried the Headmaster most was that this meant a group of dementors was working in concert--the article mentioned more than five--and once they had organized, they were a much more formidable enemy. Plus, these were dementors that had already defected from their posts at Azkaban, presumably the rebels, and undoubtedly the most unpredictable of the lot.

Dumbledore read it once more before roughly folding the paper and throwing it on top of his desk. He began to pace back and forth across his office, as he had been doing for most of the morning.

Hearing his office door swish open, he watched as Minerva McGonagall strode in through the outer chamber.

“Albus, I’ve just spoken with Arthur and Molly Weasley,” she began. “They haven’t heard anything either. Of course, Molly’s quite upset already--says she could almost imagine the twins pulling something like this, but not the other three. Arthur says he’s been trying all the channels he can in the Ministry, but it hasn’t been long enough for them to be worried about a group of lost teenagers yet. All they know for sure is that none of our students were among those who were found...attacked.”

“That seems to be the consensus from everyone there I’ve talked to, as well, I’m afraid,” Dumbledore replied. “Even when I explained to Fudge that Harry’s with them, he seemed to pass it off as an underage lack of responsibility--which, though with that group of students is unlikely, I must agree is still possible.”

Suddenly, a loud crash was heard from the corridor outside, after which someone with a deep, booming voice shouted the password, “Dragonlips!” As soon as the first chamber door edged open just a bit, Sirius Black shoved his way through it, charging toward the two Hogwarts professors with all the subtlety of a rampaging bull.

“Albus, how could we let him do this?!” Sirius demanded, his arms flailing about as he thrashed around inside the office. “How could we have been so stupid as to let him leave Hogwarts?! Dementors! You know what dementors do to Harry! What if they realized it was him and dragged him off somewhere so he couldn’t be identified? What if they’ve just left him somewhere in a soulless heap? What if--”

Dumbledore held up a hand to Sirius in hopes of calming him even a little. “Sirius--I’m just as worried as you are--about all of them. I’m attempting to keep myself from thinking the worst, and hoping it’s just as the Ministry says-- a misunderstanding of time, or just plain old teenage ignorance of how serious a problem this could be.” Dumbledore considered pointing out how dangerous it was for Sirius to be out and about like this, but he remained silent, knowing that at a time like this such a warning would be futile.

“No. No,” Sirius continued ranting, causing Fawkes to ruffle his feathers and eye Black suspiciously. “Harry’s too smart for that. He wouldn’t do that. And if it turns out he did, I’ll kill him myself.”

Dumbledore couldn’t help but find Sirius’ reversal of thought about Harry a bit amusing, even in the solemnity of the moment. “You know, I don’t think intelligence has anything to do with it. As I recall, there were four very intelligent students who drove a certain Headmaster mad about returning on time for years.” He shot a meaningful look at Sirius, who seemed to know exactly who he meant. “And it’s still quite possible there’s nothing wrong except five teenagers being a bit headstrong. So let’s calm ourselves, and see what we can do to resolve the situation.”

“What’s been done so far?” Sirius demanded.

Dumbledore paused a moment to summarize their efforts, then nodded toward McGonagall, who’d been listening to the two of them quietly. “Minerva’s just spoken to the Weasleys--they haven’t heard anything, but Molly’s posted herself at home in case the students try to get through. Arthur’s doing what he can through the Ministry. Except he has to step lightly because I’ve spoken to Fudge, who doesn’t consider it to be much of a problem yet. I’m sure he’s not giving Arthur any official support.”

“That figures,” Sirius growled under his breath.

“I have a call into one of the watchwizards that was the last to see our group--they’re trying to locate him now,” Dumbledore said, stroking his beard lightly, thinking. “Have you heard anything about Moody lately?”

“A couple of days ago,” Sirius replied. “I was with Remus in Diagon Alley. Moody was trying to buy some kind of herb they need for an Anti-Freezing Potion for the Aurors in the Ukraine. He told Remus it’s been ridiculously cold up there, and the usual Anti-Freeze Charms aren’t holding long enough on anything--claims it’s damned difficult for anyone to hold on in that weather.”

“How is it that Moody’s helping the Aurors? Surely they haven’t re-enlisted him already--it hasn’t been two years since he retired,” Dumbledore noted. “Are they that desperate for help?”

Sirius managed a tiny smile. “The way he tells it, the Aurors were begging him to come back. But I got the feeling that retirement isn’t agreeing too well with old Mad-Eye. He kept lurking around the encampments, and of course, they’ve always welcomed his advice, if not his actual help. So the captains started finding things for him to do--small things, but nothing undignified. It just turned into this kind of liaison position he’s handling for them now. I’m not sure it’s official, but it works well for everybody involved,” Sirius explained.

“So you were with Remus when you saw Mad-Eye? I trust he didn’t recognize you,” Dumbledore said.

“No, I’m sure he didn’t. But I drooled all over his shoe, just for old times’ sake, even if he didn’t know why,” Sirius said. The tiny smile had almost disappeared, but there was a definite twinkle in his eye.

“I was thinking--if he could get away for a day or so, in case we need him--he’s still one of our best Aurors--”

Sirius narrowed his eyes at Dumbledore. “You are worried, aren’t you?”

Dumbledore released a short, tense sigh. “Yes, I’m afraid that in my heart, I am. This isn’t like them-- any of them--to just run off and leave us without word. There’s either a very good reason for why they haven’t returned, or they’ve been purposely delayed by someone. But it won’t do to panic--that won’t help them or us. We’ll give them a little more time. I just want to make sure that if we do decide to make a move and go after them, that we have the best people to do it with.”

Dumbledore turned to Professor McGonagall. “Have you spoken with the Grangers yet?”

“No. I sent an owl, but the poor thing returned immediately without a reply, so I’m assuming they weren’t at home. I’ll try to send a new owl shortly, and see if we get better results.” She looked a bit perplexed about something. “Albus, do I tell them about the dementors? And, if so-- how?”

Dumbledore thought for a moment how difficult it would be to explain a dementor attack to two Muggle parents, even if they were fairly well-versed in the world of magic.

“Let’s just--tell them the students didn’t return when they were supposed to. Let them know we don’t think they’re in danger yet, but we’re doing all we can to find out where they are and get them back. If we have to explain the dementor situation later, we will.”

Professor McGonagall turned to leave, but just then the flames in the fireplace roared and intensified. As they were dying back down a bit, the Headmaster stopped her. “Minerva, wait--maybe this is the call I’ve been waiting for. I’d like you to hear this, too.”

Dumbledore turned swiftly to Black. “Sirius--go! And stay there!” he whispered urgently, nodding his head toward the outer office chamber. The Headmaster moved so that his body was in the line of sight between the fire and the outer chamber door until Black had disappeared through the opening.

Once the flames were calmer, a pop was heard, and the image of a head appeared in the center of them.

“Headmaster Dumbledore?” the head questioned, peering through the flames until his gaze fell on the older man.

“Yes?”

“Claudius Reagan at your service, sir. I was told that you wanted to speak with me?” the watchwizard said, obviously aware of the importance of the man he was addressing.

“Yes, we do. And thank you for coming so promptly,” Dumbledore said. “You may have heard from your superiors that we have some missing students. We haven’t released that information to the press yet, and hope that we can trust you to make every effort to assure that this is handled in the strictest confidence.”

“Of course, sir. That’s part of my job,” Claudius assured. “What can I help you with?”

Just then, a huge black dog came trotting through the door of the outer office chamber, panting his way up to a place near the fire.

“Excuse me, Mr. Reagan,” Dumbledore said, turning to the dog. “I thought I told you to ‘stay’!”

The dog, still panting, looked up at the Headmaster with a sweet, pleading, pitiful look in his eyes, his tail wagging slowly behind him.

Dumbledore narrowed his eyes at the dog, but relented. “Then if you stay, you’ll behave yourself. And--sit!!”

The dog complied with Dumbledore’s request immediately, then turned his attention to Claudius in the fire, as did Dumbledore and McGonagall.

Dumbledore spoke. “We’re trying to find out what happened the last time anyone saw the Weasley group together and I was told you were one of the watchwizards at the Portkey site. Is that true?”

“Yes, sir. I was there,” Claudius replied. Though he was trying to sound confident, it was obvious to those in Dumbledore’s office that the man in the flames was very uneasy about something.

“Can you tell us if everything went as planned, or was there a delay of some sort? Just what exactly happened the last time you saw them?” Dumbledore queried.

“Well, sir, we were actually trying to figure out what happened as well, but the four of them--”

“The four of them? But there were five,” the Headmaster interrupted.

“Yes, I know, sir. Let me explain. All five of your group arrived safely in the morning. We did sporadic surveillance on them all day to make sure they were safe, as requested by Arthur Weasley and yourself, sir. Everything was going well, until it was nearly their departure time. Then, from what your students told us, the youngest Weasley boy--”

“Ron?” Dumbledore asked.

“Yes, sir--Ron-- ran off into the forest after some girl he saw at the match.”

Dumbledore exchanged glances with Professor McGonagall, thinking how unlike Ron it was to disappear chasing after some girl he didn’t know. But then, he was sixteen.

“Your students were also concerned that Harry Potter was in danger, for some reason, but we saw no evidence of any danger to him specifically at any time, sir. It was approaching their Portkey time, and Ron hadn’t returned, so we told them they would have to go on without him,” Claudius related.

“And what did they say?” Professor McGonagall asked.

“They--did as they were told. But we could tell they didn’t want to leave him behind, ma’am. They resisted touching the Portkey at the designated time, but Mr. Beeles said he made sure they did. He saw them leave for Hogwarts. What happened to them after that, I--couldn’t say--exactly,” Claudius finished, beads of sweat now apparent on his brow.

“Mr. Beeles? Would that be your partner?” Professor McGonagall questioned.

“Well, actually, no, ma’am,” Claudius said reluctantly. “Mr. Beeles works for the M.M.S. He’d been cleaning up the weather changes that were made for the game--returning them to normal. He assured us he’d stay and make sure the students were on their way. So, Tavish and I left to go down to the league office to report Ron missing before the office was Dissolved.” The watchwizard was obviously a bit fearful of what might come next.

“Is that your usual policy?” Dumbledore demanded, getting more irritable by the minute. “To leave your charges with someone else and make them responsible for assuring that all goes well?”

Snuffles barked loudly at Claudius several times, but was quickly silenced by a severe look from Dumbledore.

Claudius took a deep breath before responding, looking quite embarrassed and nervous. “No, sir. In fact, it’s not our policy at all. My partner and I were trying to work out whether it was more important to stay with your students or get to the office to report the missing person--which, by the way, requires the signature of two watchwizards. Looking back on it, leaving them with Beeles was probably the wrong thing to do. But Mr. Beeles assured us he could handle the situation--he’s a very important man, you know--and Tavish felt, I mean, we felt, it was more important to make that report.”

Dumbledore and McGonagall were not at all satisfied with Claudius’ answer. The tension in the office was getting thicker as the three outside of the fire absorbed the information.

“So--you’re saying, then, that actually you weren’t the last one to see them before they left for Hogwarts,” Dumbledore said.

“That’s correct, sir,” Claudius admitted glumly. “That would have been Mr. Beeles.”

Dumbledore sighed, loudly this time. “All right, then. I suppose we need to track down this Beeles fellow to see if he can better assist us with putting two and two together. But, despite the fact that we’re very displeased with the handling of this matter, I have one other question for you. Since you left the Portkey site to go make this report about Ron--where is the report? I assume your main office would have notified me of a problem, but I haven’t heard a word from them.”

Claudius turned a deeper shade of red, even visible in the fire. “I’m--afraid there isn’t one, sir. It was--never submitted.”

Snuffles stood at attention by now, several feet from the fire, the front half of his muscular body tensing ominously. The dog’s teeth were bared and his lips quivered as he growled dangerously at Claudius.

“Down, Snuffles!” Dumbledore ordered, trying to remain calm himself. He knew he had to keep Snuffles the dog, not to mention Sirius Black, the man, from exploding before they got the answers they needed. “So--now--enlighten us as to how this little report problem came to pass, then.”

Claudius seemed quite aware that the head of the huge, black dog, with its many sharp, white teeth, were just at eye level with him since he was in the fireplace. The watchwizard realized it would take but a snap for the dog to have his head between its drooling jaws.

Yet he tried to persevere in his explanation. “Tavish and I were nearly to the door of the league office, when Beeles caught up with us. He told us that Ron had returned just moments before they touched the Portkey. He claimed they all touched and transported with the five of them together. Honestly, he did. So we assumed it was all settled, and never entered the report after all.” Claudius looked like he wanted to go hide somewhere--far, far away-- and soon.

“And here I thought that you were going to tell me the report was waylaid due to the dementor attack--which, by the way, we had to read about in the Prophet, rather than being informed by your company,” Dumbledore said tersely. “When did that occur among all this incompetence? How close were the dementors to our students?”

Claudius looked down and shook his head. “That was the damnedest thing, sir. Tavish and I both remember going to Level Three Alert a short time before we saw your group. That meant that it was extremely urgent that we get to the Portkey site and evacuate people as soon as possible--we ran up the hill to get there. But then, once we were at the site, we both lost a few minutes of time somehow, and neither one of us could remember why we were at Level Three Alert. Next thing we knew, your students were there with Potter, so we figured it must have had something to do with him. That’s why we really pushed them to leave on time, sir.”

“Even though you and your partner didn’t manage to actually see the departure,” McGonagall reminded him.

“No, ma’am.” Claudius paused and shook his head again, looking bemused. “I still don’t understand how those few minutes could be so unclear. What was surprising, too, was that when Beeles came, he didn’t make any mention of a dementor attack, even though it had just happened--and he had to have known by then! The attack was on the other side of the stadium, so most of the commotion was over there--and somehow, once we were at our site, the whole issue escaped us. I just can’t imagine how that happened, though.” Claudius truly did look as if he didn’t understand a large portion of what happened in those few minutes. But he also looked as if he realized that his explanation simply wasn’t satisfactory.

“Excuse us a moment, Mr. Reagan.” Dumbledore turned away to speak to Professor McGonagall privately. “What do you think? Is there anything else you can think of that we’ve missed?”

“No. The man had no real answers, except to let us know we need to find this Beeles person, but I think that’s all we--” McGonagall replied.

A loud hiss broke the relative silence in the room, immediately followed by a voice shouting, “Hey--get away from here! Go away, you stupid mutt!”

Dumbledore and McGonagall turned back swiftly, just in time to see Claudius leaning his head as far away as he could from the side of the fire where Snuffles stood. It took a moment for the two professors to realize that the dog wasn’t just standing, but had lifted his leg on Claudius, relieving himself and dousing some of the flames with a ‘hiss’ in the process.

“Snuffles!” Dumbledore shouted. “Out!” He pointed toward the outer office chamber door, and the dog obligingly pranced away.

“I apologize for that, Mr. Reagan,” Dumbledore said quickly (and somewhat insincerely). “I trust that your information on this matter will not go unreported this time--and that everything you’ve told us here will be entered accordingly. I don’t pretend to understand how your superiors expect to run an effective protection business in this manner, but I don’t have time to deal with that now. We, in fact, have some students to find. Thank you for your time--I would expect you to consider how you would handle things differently next time, Mr. Reagan,” Dumbledore said tersely.

“Yes, sir,” Claudius said, his eyes downcast and his hair looking a bit--damp. Dumbledore’s overwhelming sense of authority could reduce even the strongest-willed of adult wizards to shame, if necessary, making them feel as if they were Hogwarts students in detention once more. With a ‘pop’, Claudius was gone, but they were no closer to finding the Weasleys, Harry, or Hermione.

The eyes of Sirius Black, who was now in wizard form, appeared briefly from around the doorframe. Once he saw that all was clear, he entered the inner chamber once more.

“And was what you did to that man entirely necessary?” Dumbledore asked, though his tone seemed to be more amused than angry.

Sirius paused. “Let me think. Hmmm. I don’t seem to remember exactly what it was that I did--but I do remember feeling much better for it afterwards.”

Dumbledore looked at Sirius with one eyebrow raised skeptically, but he knew that pursuing the conversation with Black would be pointless. “Have you ever heard of this Beeles fellow, Sirius?” Dumbledore asked.

Sirius shook his head that he had not--the grim look on his face had returned once his human mind had had time to consider all that he’d heard in canine form.

“Minerva?” Dumbledore turned to McGonagall. “Have you any idea who this Beeles person is?”

“No, no-- I don’t think so,” she said pensively. “Oh, wait a moment. You know, I think we did have a Beeles family here at one time. A Ravenclaw girl and her younger brother. It’s been some time ago, though. We could look it up in the archives.”

“All right. Perhaps you could take care of that for us, then,” Dumbledore suggested, looking at Sirius, who had now begun to pace the room as the Headmaster had been doing earlier. “I really doubt I’ll be able to get him to settle down enough to go looking around some dusty old volumes in the library. I’ll see who I know at the M.M.S. these days and check into contacting Beeles directly.”

“Certainly, sir. Perhaps I’d better go, as well, and send off that next owl to the Grangers.” With that, McGonagall turned curtly, and left the office, leaving Sirius and Dumbledore alone.

“I’m going over there, Albus,” Sirius stated matter-of-factly.

“To do what, exactly? Do you have a plan, or are you just going to storm the Irish countryside and flush them out--as a dog?” Dumbledore asked.

“I have a plan,” Sirius insisted. “Well, I will by then. I was just trying to remember where Moody said he was going to be. I know better than anyone how relentless he can be. He’d certainly be the next best man to take along.”

Dumbledore was fully aware of who Sirius would think the first best man would be. “This could last into the wrong time of the lunar cycle for Remus, couldn’t it?”

“Yes--and he’s the one who tried to keep me calm enough to even let Harry go. Tried to get me to see that Harry needed some freedom, or he’d just suffocate under all the Darkness. Remus was right, you know. Still is. Now he feels bad for pressing the issue with me. But still--dammit--look what’s happened!”

Sirius stopped pacing and looked up at Dumbledore, his dark eyes a mixture of rage and worry. His voice shook with quiet, yet intense emotion as he spoke very deliberately. “Harry’s got to be all right, Albus...He just has to.”

~~~***~~~

Ron walked cautiously up to the little cottage without seeing or hearing a sign of life anywhere. Oh, man, I hope she kept her word not to hurt herself, he thought. But he had to admit he was a bit relieved not to have found anyone else wandering about the cottage, either.

“Hello?” he tried, calling out tentatively, not wanting to startle anyone. “Is anybody there? Valeria?”

He peered toward the windows. The sun was starting to burn away the dense fog, turning the air into a brilliant haze, since it was now approaching the middle of the day. The bright-white air glared relentlessly and made Ron’s eyes water as he tried to see any movement at the dark, covered windows.

“Valeria?” he called louder. “It’s me--Ron. Remember?--talked to you last night?” He started toward the old, splintering, wooden door to knock on it, but jumped back a bit when it suddenly swung open a few inches.

A pale, drawn-looking face peeked out at him, its most compelling feature a set of large, dark, yet very haunted-looking eyes. Ron remembered that same expression from one of the first connections, months ago. The emotion within those eyes had burned an image into his memory even then, as they peered above and between the shoulders of a circle of dementors.

Even though they looked nothing alike, there was a quality about Valeria that reminded him of Ginny. It was even more apparent in person than in the telempathic connections. Now it made sense why he had initially confused them in his mind, and thought it was Ginny who was endangered by the dementors. He briefly wondered how it must feel to this girl to be drowning in this horrible situation you didn’t understand, obviously without anyone to help protect you.

Ron could tell this was the same girl he’d seen yesterday at the Quidditch match (was that only yesterday? he thought), but she looked as if she had aged years overnight. It was obvious she hadn’t slept at all, and had spent the night fighting off the demons in her head. Whether those demons were of her own imagination or not this time, Ron knew that without some help, they would find a way to kill her, even if she did the killing herself.

“Valeria?” Ron questioned, trying to keep his voice even. “Hello. I finally get to meet you properly, I suppose. I’m Ron.”

“Yes. I know,” she replied, her voice shaky.

He tried to make it sound off-handed, but he couldn’t get the one thought off his mind. He didn’t sense any of the usual cold and sadness that came with the dementor’s presence, but he had to know. “So, do you live here alone?”

“Yes. I have been. But I think it was them who led me here,” she said, not budging from her spot behind the protection of the door.

“They? The dementors?” Ron asked, forgetting she’d never called them that.

“The--what?

“Oh--the ‘beings’. The ones with the black cloaks and hoods. We call them dementors. I forgot you call them something else.” Ron squinted at the dark doorway, trying to block out some of the sun in his face by holding his hand up to shade his eyes.

“The Muertos? I thought the Muertos were only in my mind. Until the other night--you know when-- that night, I think it was them who came and brought me back inside the cottage. It was the first time I’d seen them outside of my head.” Valeria’s eyes darted around nervously as she told him this-- as if her saying it would scare him away.

Ron shivered despite the warmth of the sun beating down on him. To think this poor girl had actually spent time in the company of dementors-- apparently some people didn’t have to go to Azkaban to go through hell. But he had to press on with her.

“Are they here now? Have they been back?” Ron asked.

“No. Not since they left yesterday-- and even then they were only in my mind. They were really angry with me. But aside from that, I’ve been alone since the other night,” Valeria explained.

Ron sensed that he needed to check out the cottage for himself, even though he felt fairly sure that she was telling him the truth. He wasn’t about to bring Harry here and walk him into a trap--or Hermione and his brothers, for that matter.

“Then would it be all right if I came inside?” Ron asked.

Valeria looked a bit surprised at his request.

“I know this whole situation is a bit strange. But that’s why I’d like to explain. You see, I think my friends and I are stranded here for a while--”

Valeria flinched at his mention of ‘friends’. “Your friends are here, too?” she asked anxiously. Peering out into the brightness, she scanned the outskirts of the clearing around the cottage to see if she could spot any faces staring back at her.

“Yeah, but--they won’t hurt you. They want to help you, too. Just like I do.” He was trying frantically to think of something convincing to tell her, because she looked ready to slam the door in his face. Ron wasn’t especially eager to tell her Harry was here with him, but he was afraid it might be the only way to keep their communication open. “You met Harry. He was willing to help you when he thought you were hurt, right?” Although I’m very interested in hearing the reason why you were out there with Harry pretending to be hurt, Ron thought.

Valeria, though frowning, paused a moment. “Yes. He was--nice, I guess.” She appeared to be thinking to herself, then made a reluctant decision and spoke slowly. “Okay. You can come in.” She drew back and pulled the door open far enough for Ron to enter.

Ron found he had to be careful with the height of the doorframe as he cautiously stepped inside. (It had obviously been built in a time when people were generally shorter.) To go from the brilliance outside into the inky darkness was a shock to his vision. He could see absolutely nothing, since there were no lights, and the paneless windows had been covered with cloths of some kind. He considered asking her if they could pull down one of the window cloths, but thought it might be too presumptuous for someone who had only just now talked himself in the door. As Valeria closed the door behind him, he held his hands out in front of him so he didn’t run into anything.

“There’s a chair right there,” Valeria offered, pushing it at him, apparently used to this kind of darkness.

Ron sat down willingly in what felt like a wooden straight-backed chair, hoping it would give his eyes time to adjust. Or maybe she’d reconsider keeping her guest in the blackness soon.

“So what do you mean, you’re stranded here?” Valeria asked, saying the word ‘stranded’ as if she hadn’t heard it very often.

“Well, it’s a bit of a long story. But our way to get back to school fell through. The Portkey didn’t work,” Ron explained. “We were hoping maybe you could help us out on that, if we can help you out with these dementors... I mean--what did you call them again?” Ron asked.

“Muertos? It’s Spanish,” Valeria explained.

“So you never called them dementors where you came from?” Ron asked. “From Spain?”

“I don’t think anyone in Spain has ever seen or heard of them,” Valeria replied, “except me.” Some bad memories seemed to creep in upon her then. She sat down on another piece of furniture (that he couldn’t make out) not far from him, but Ron’s eyes were beginning to adjust enough to the dark that he could vaguely make out her face in the eerie filtered light coming through the window cloths.

As he began to see more, Ron could not spot anything he would regard as threatening in the cottage. It looked to be a simple one-room affair, with four windows and a door. He could barely see the outline of a table or stone room divider, of sorts, and a few areas of mass and pattern that must have been furniture. It didn’t seem like there would be space for anyone, or anything to hide. The ceiling was open to the rafters only partway across, which led him to believe that perhaps there was a loft or storage area above, but anything hiding there would have easily given itself away by creaking across the floorboards.

Ron squinted through the darkness to see if he could spot a fireplace, so they could perhaps communicate with Hogwarts or the Ministry. Just before he left the rest of the group by the creek, Hermione had mentioned they should try and contact someone, because she was sure people would be starting to worry about them by now.

Aha! I think over there...Ron thought, looking toward the corner and what could conceivably be a kitchen-type area. Looks like a big stone hearth--perfect for a Floo system fireplace. I’ll bet it’s been connected for years.

“So, do you use the fireplace to get from here to the coast, then use a Portkey from there?” Ron asked.

Valeria just stared at him, blinking.

Her lack of response threw him a bit. “Or do you just use a Portkey?-- Can you get it set way out here?”

Still no reply, except the blinking.

Ron frowned, then it occurred to him. “Oh--you must have an Apparating License! That’d be wicked! Probably had to get one to keep coming so far, right? But how did you get it at your age? -- They’re impossible in London.”

Valeria looked as if she were trying to process what he was saying, but it appeared as if nothing was going through.

Doesn’t she have any idea what I’m talking about? Ron thought. “How about the hearth? Is it connected to the Floo Network at all?”

“What do you mean?” Valeria asked, completely confused. “I have a little wood left that I collected the other day.”

An idea had begun to grow in Ron’s mind that he decided he’d really rather not accept. After all, he had thought all along that they’d be able to talk to someone... “Can you communicate at all through the fireplace? You know, talk to people?”

Valeria concentrated on what he’d said a moment longer, then began acting even more self-conscious. “I’m sorry. I usually understand most of what people say in English, but I don’t know what you’re talking about at all. What do you mean--talk to people through the fireplace?”

The little idea in Ron’s mind now fell like a large bomb. “Do you-- have a wand?” he tried as one last-ditch effort.

“A what?” Valeria shook her head and shrugged, still a bit embarrassed that she couldn’t comprehend.

Ron took a deep breath, and blew it out slowly through his mouth. Okay, I wasn’t expecting this at all. She’s someone who’s been sent to get Harry, is involved with dementors, and she can contact me through the telempathic connections.

But--she’s a Muggle?

Well, I suppose the good news is--there’s probably not much she can do on her own to Harry, then, unless she’s hiding one of those weapons in here that Muggles sometimes use to kill one another. But from what I understand of them, you have to fill them with little pieces of metal and point them to kill someone--she doesn’t seem anxious to do anything like that--at least not right now.

The bad news is-- unless she has a fellytone, we are really on our own until we can figure out what’s up with the Portkey. We won’t be going to Hogwarts this afternoon, I reckon.

Ron figured he might as well ask and get all the bad news over with. “Do you have a fellytone here?”

Again a blank look came from Valeria.

Ron tried to remember how he had used that contraption to call Harry at the Dursleys that time before second year. He pantomimed dialing and holding the listening part up to his ear.

“Oh--I know that one. You mean a telephone.” Valeria seemed certain it was he who saying it wrong this time--she appeared to be somewhat comforted by the fact that she wasn’t the only one having trouble with the language. “But no, there isn’t one here. There might be one in the town, but that’s about five kilometers away.”

Ron’s stomach announced loudly that it was not only way past time for breakfast, it was missing lunch as well. He held his arm to his stomach, but there was no doubt Valeria had heard it.

“I only have a little food. But you can have some, if you want,” Valeria offered quietly.
She seemed so fearful and withdrawn and defeated, yet was still willing to be the one to help him, instead of the other way around.

Ron considered the times she’d told him what an evil person she was. I knew I was right! That’s why I told her to resist the dementors. She doesn’t seem evil at all, just caught up in something she can’t handle, Ron thought. I think we’d be safe enough staying here for a bit, even Harry--then maybe we could help her, too.

Ron was very tempted to take her up on her offer of food then and there, but realized there was something he had to take care of first. Besides, he wouldn’t think of eating anything without making sure that his friends and brothers had something to eat as well.

“Valeria, I know we’ve really just met. But you know me a little, from our mind connections.” Ron was trying to make sure he explained everything in non-magical terms, so she could understand it all. “My friends and I are stuck here for the moment. Like I said before, they would all try to help you, not hurt you. We stayed in a rock cave up on the hillside last night, but it’s cold and drafty, and bloody uncomfortable. Could we maybe stay here with you for a bit? We could work on finding some way to help you, too, and try to find a way to free you from the Mooeer--those beings, though I don’t have any idea how you got mixed up with them.”

Valeria still acted nervous and a bit apprehensive. “I don’t know...”

“I’m not the only one who’s hungry, either. Maybe you could help us find a way to get some food,” Ron added, trying not to consider the alternative if they ended up having to be here longer than expected.

Repeatedly and nervously pulling at a strand of hair, she appeared to be thinking deeply. “What if the Muertos come? You’ve seen them before, so you know what they are. But I don’t know what happens when they take my mind over. I can’t control it after a while. I don’t think I’ve ever been dangerous to anyone before, but I might be to your friend Harry, because they want him. At the very least, people become afraid of me, and they won’t talk to me after I come back.”

“With any luck, we’ll manage to be gone by the time they come. Plus, I think I know someone who could help you. Dumbledore, or the Ministry, could make sure the dementors never came back to your mind again--I’m sure of it,” Ron explained.

Ron saw something that almost looked like gratitude in Valeria’s eyes.

“But you don’t even know me,” Valeria said, unable to believe what she was hearing. “You’d do that for me?”

“Why not?” Ron responded. “Somehow you were put in touch with me. So I reckon it’s me who’s supposed to find a way to help you. You kept telling me in the connections how evil you were becoming, but I don’t get that from you at all.”

Valeria managed a wan little smile then. “Well, okay. If you’re willing to try and see past what I can’t get out of my mind, you can stay here. I just hope you know what you’re getting into.”

Ron hoped that was just her way of trying to be nice, rather than an omen of what was to come. “Yeah, I know. Me, too.”

//
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