An Inconvenient Truth

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Chapter 013

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Chapter Thirteen

Christmas Scenes

Sunday 25 December

Harry awoke early on Christmas Day, as was his habit. He brushed his teeth, walked out of his bedroom and quietly made his way down the hallway, so as not to wake anyone up who was still sleeping.

Susan's door was open an inch or two and Harry instinctively glanced in. She was standing in front of her mirror brushing her shoulder length strawberry blonde hair. It took Harry a second to catch her reflection in the mirror, and in that moment, he realized that she was wearing a pair of the black knickers that they'd bought the week before. She was wearing only that pair of black silk knickers! The young teen found himself unable to look away. In his eyes, she was very beautiful.

Susan noticed the gurgling noise outside her door and made eye contact with the wide-eyed reflection of Harry that she could see in her mirror. She smiled at him and in a soft voice said, "Happy Christmas, Harry. I'll be down in a minute."

Harry gulped an apology of some sort, turned and somehow managed not to fall down the stairs. Amelia was seated at the table reading one of several newspapers lying on the table and greeted the teen. "Happy Christmas, Harry. Did you happen to notice if Susan was up yet?"

If possible, his face went redder than it was and he replied, "I, er, saw her. She should be down in a minute."

She handed him a plate with toast and bacon, then asked, "Grapefruit or melon?"

He resisted the urge to choke and gurgled, "Either one."

Just then, Susan zoomed down the stairs and into the kitchen. Dressed in a pale blue sweater and jeans, she hugged Amelia then hugged Harry from behind as he sat on the bench seat. She greeted them, "Happy Christmas. Who's coming over this year?"

Amelia replied, "Becky, Ben and Hannah are supposed to stop by at ten. They're spending the afternoon with Becky's sister. Connie is coming for dinner. If you like, we can pop over to the Granger's for a few minutes after lunch."

The two teens nodded and Susan replied, "That would be brilliant, Auntie."

… --- …

A prudent Auror arranges for backup assistance before entering an unfamiliar location that is almost certainly dangerous. Even their Muggle counterparts, who arguably had superior forms of instant communication would follow the same procedure. Most law enforcement agencies do not follow the old Texas Rangers slogan – One riot, one Ranger.

But Albus Dumbledore had left the previous month's meeting with Amelia, Harry, the two Investigators and the Senior Auror with mixed feelings. Certainly, he was pleased with the progress that they had made in finding and destroying the cup. Yet a part of him – just a small part - was slightly ruffled that he'd essentially come up empty-handed after years of research, whereas they'd come so far, so very quickly.

It had not been difficult locating the villages of Little and Greater Hangleton after he began searching for them by name. A few minutes in the library gave him the information that he'd needed. Thus, while Harry and the others were exchanging Christmas greetings, the ancient wizard was floating two hundred feet in the air, disillusioned, riding on an old Comet 60 broom, looking down through the bushes. As the search continued, the windchill and damp air completely numbed Dumbledore. Traversing the countryside like cornrows, the old wizard flew back and forth. It would have come as a shock to both him and his nemesis that for a few moments, they had been within the length of a Quidditch pitch from each other. A half-mile south of the old Riddle mansion, the old professor saw what he was looking for.

At the bottom of the hill, largely hidden by hedgerows, trees and an overgrowth of brush, stood the remains of a dilapidated shack. The path leading up to it was almost completely grown over, indicating that it hadn't seen daily use for many years.

There was an inch or so of heavy, wet snow on the ground, untrammeled for as far as he could see. He floated lower to the ground and extended his senses, searching for trace levels of magic. Eventually, he could feel dark magic originating from the shack. He floated carefully around the old shack, attempting to sense any wards or traps. He didn't find any, but objectively, his senses had been somewhat numbed from the cold air.

The old professor briefly considered returning with assistance, either from Filius or Severus, but elected not to. He decided to just land and have a quick look, rationalizing that he could always change his mind. Albus walked the handful of steps from the spot where he landed to the front door. The snake that he had seen in Ogden's pensieve memory had long since disintegrated into dust, but the nail that had held it was still embedded into the door.

His attention wavered for a moment as he considered that Morfin and his father Marvolo had been arrested in the summer of 1924 and Merope had delivered Tom late in 1926. He wondered if living alone in this hovel would have been an improvement or yet another burden on a young witch with no education or skills.

He stood absolutely still in the dim light. He let his magic reach out and sense the dark magic that was hidden beneath the center planks of the worn, wooden floor. He carefully took a few small steps and reached the center of the room. For many minutes he stared at the six inch wide, worn rough-cut planks that covered the floor. He noticed that most had been nailed to the floor joists, but one wasn't properly fastened. He drew his wand and carefully levitated the board before setting it down a few feet away.

… --- …

A qualified cursebreaker, like Ron Weasley's oldest brother Bill, would have immediately noticed the weak compulsion charm that had been activated by the use of a spell in the immediate vicinity.

A qualified cursebreaker would have considered the weak compulsion charm to be a gigantic red flag and probably backed away for a while to observe what happened next. More likely he would have consulted with one of his co-workers to get another perspective.

… --- …

Unfortunately, Albus Dumbledore, while a brilliant wizard, wasn't a professional cursebreaker. Where Bill would have stepped back and observed, Albus stepped ahead. He carefully brushed away the loose dirt and laid his eyes on the golden ring with the flat, black stone.

Using the tip of his wand, he lifted the ring from its hiding place and examined it. Without a doubt, it was oozing dark magic. Carefully he placed the ring into the pocket of his traveling robe without touching it. He replaced the floorboard. Satisfied that it was back in place, he walked out of the door, took his wand out of his pocket, and picked up his broom.

Dumbledore got on the broom and using his wand, repaired the snow on the ground to erase the tracks that he'd previously made. He put his wand back into his pocket and flew toward the edge of the village. When he had gone a mile, he landed. It was at that point that he unconsciously succumbed to the compulsion charm and slipped the ring onto his finger before apparating to the edge of the Hogwarts ground.

As he began his apparation, the curse on the ring fully activated from the magic, releasing a poison that entered into his system though the thin skin of his finger. By the time that the old headmaster realized that something was very wrong, it was too late. He dashed to the door of the castle and shouted for Severus.

Dumbledore wasn't able to immediately find the potions master, so he ran to his office where he picked up the Gryffindor sword that Harry had used to slay the basilisk, and with a focused swing, sliced through the ring. Satisfied that he'd at least completed his task, he used the Floo to find Severus, who arrived within seconds.

Snape carefully examined the brown flecks, which were still stuck to the inside of the ring. Whereas Dumbledore had assumed that they were simply dirt flakes, Snape recognized them as the dried bits of a sophisticated, magically-activated, skin absorbed poison. He dashed to his office where he grabbed a bezoar and several universal antidotes that he had on hand. The potions master, who owed his very life to the old wizard, ran as he had never run in his life. He forced the antidote down the old man's throat followed by the bezoar.

Dumbledore regained full consciousness and helped Snape contain most of the poison within the old headmaster's left arm. "Hold still, Headmaster," commanded Snape as he helped Dumbledore to the hospital wing.

Poppy heard someone coming and walked out of her office to investigate. Seeing the two wizards come through the door, she called, "Happy Christmas," before she noticed that Dumbledore was barely conscious, looked gray and was drenched in sweat. She cried, "Good Lord, Severus. What's wrong?"

Unexpectedly, Dumbledore answered for himself and replied, "Happy Christmas to you too, Poppy. I have accidentally absorbed a very deadly poison. Severus has helped me contain it in my left arm and while it will surely destroy my limb, it is currently in a stasis."

Snape and Pomfrey both drew their wands and ran diagnostic charms up and down Dumbledore's hard, wrist, arm and shoulder. He looked at the potions master and the master healer and asked, "How high up?"

Snape replied, "Just below the shoulder," whereas Poppy pointed to his mid-bicep so a replacement could be fitted. Inexplicably, the old headmaster deferred to Poppy's advice and lay down on her table to begin the procedure to have his left arm removed.

… --- …

Tom Riddle and Wormtail were eating a late breakfast, as was their custom. Riddle had always been a night owl, and frequently didn't go to sleep until four in the morning. What passed as companionship between the weak wizard and the weakened wizard centered, strangely enough, on the Daily Prophet. Riddle was a reader and due to the small size of his weak arms, he couldn't hold the paper open. As such, he allowed himself the indignity of sitting on Wormtail's lap, wrapped in a small flannel blanket, while they read the paper together.

At the moment that the old headmaster struck Peverell's ring, miles away, the small form that Riddle had taken flopped off of Pettigrew's lap in a spasm of incredible, intense, pain.

Entangled by the blanket, he didn't fall onto the floor, so much as he was unrolled from the blanket and landed against the table leg with a thud.

"Master!" whimpered, Wormtail, thinking that he'd accidentally done something that would either end his own life, or find himself in pain for at least a month.

Riddle let off a burst of accidental magic that, a dozen years ago, would have leveled a small house. Instead, it threw Pettigrew twenty feet against the wall of the spacious dining room knocking the round wizard unconscious.

… --- …

Miles away, in Welshpool, Harry flopped off of his chair and rolled onto the floor in his own version of agony. The glass that was in his hand fell to the floor and shattered on the slate. Susan saw his scar pulsing, an ugly shade of crimson, and had an idea. She scooped the teen in her arms, hugged him for everything that she was worth and gave his scar dozens of small, loving, kisses.

Within five minutes, Harry's mind felt a bit clearer, certainly better for all of the loving attention that he was receiving. Amelia, who'd left for a moment to firecall for a mediwitch returned and saw Harry open his eyes. She noticed the focus of his gaze and suggested, "Susie, maybe you should let go of Harry, just a bit, and let him sit. He probably needs a bit of air."

She smiled to herself at the pout on her niece's face, not unlike one from a child who was told to not squeeze a puppy so hard and forced to set it back on the floor. She waved her wand around the floor and repaired the glass before cleaning the spill, so no one would get cut.

Sandy, the mediwitch was there a minute later. She came through the fireplace and called, "Amelia?"

The gray haired administrator wasn't embarrassed to have called her mediwitch friend in, even if by the time that she had arrived, it had become apparent that Harry had shown remarkable improvement.

Stepping into the kitchen, Sandy inquired, "What's wrong?"

Bones replied, "Harry was eating breakfast and suddenly had some sort of seizure. He…" She paused and thought about what Susie had told her when Hufflepuff's cup had been destroyed.

She caught herself thinking out loud and was relieved that Sandy had been focused on Harry. Sandy inquired, "I'm sorry, Amelia, what were you saying?"

"Nothing." She thought to herself, 'It had to be that. Either that, or he reacquired one.' Horcruxes were not a subject that she was willing to discuss on a wider basis than she needed to. Instead, she told Sandy, "If you could just give him a quick look-over, I'd be grateful. Be sure to bill my department for the call."

With a disappointed tone, the mediwitch asked, "Joe Bloggs again?"

"Unfortunately." Turning to her son she replied, "But in all fairness, Harry, this is my friend, and all-too frequent lifesaver, Sandy Page. Sandy, this is my son, Harry Potter."

Harry held out his hand and greeted her, "Happy Christmas, Ma'am." I'm sorry to interrupt your holiday." His smile was disarming.

The normally stoic mediwitch stammered, "No worries. Happy Christmas to you too, Mr. Potter." After an uncomfortable silence, she finally asked, "So what seems to be the problem?"

Harry replied, "I had a blinding flash of pain by my scar. It lasted for about…" He looked at Susan for confirmation and continued, "Five minutes?"

She nodded.

The blonde mediwitch waved her wand over the teen and cast a few diagnostic charms across his face and upper chest. There was something that she didn't like around his scar, but she couldn't immediately identify it.

Harry didn't want to miss his first real Christmas and pleaded, "I'm fine. Actually, somehow I feel better than I did yesterday."

Sandy looked at Amelia, gave her a wink and suggested, "I wouldn't mind some company at St. Mungo's today. Are you sure you wouldn't like to go in to get checked…"

"No! He's staying here," shouted Susan, who suddenly realized that the mediwitch was having them on and turned red in her face.

Amelia saw the frown on her friend's face and asked, "What is it, Sandy?"

"If I didn't know better, I'd say that Harry just had a block of some type removed, but these sorts of thing don't "just happen." Perhaps you should stop by sometime next week."

Amelia remarked, "Joe Bloggs will be in to see you Tuesday at eight if that will work?"

Sandy pulled a small piece of parchment from her pocket, tapped her wand to it and replied, "How about half eight?"

They agreed on the time and wished the mediwitch a "Happy Christmas." A moment later, she used the Floo to get back to St. Mungo's.

After asking Harry again if he was okay, Amelia gave him a hug and excused herself to make a few telephone calls. Within five minutes she had contacted Rufus, Connie and Anna. None of them had any recent contact with horcruxes, nor had they come across any promising leads in the last two days.

She went back into the family room where Harry and Susie were sitting together discussing the ball. She asked, "Did you both have fun at the dance?"

Harry immediately replied, "Quite a bit, thanks."

Susan made eye contact with her aunt, glanced at Harry, smiled and added, "A lot of the other witches had gone pretty much over the top with their formal robes. Some were past the edge."

Amelia understood the teen's unstated message about overexposure and inquired, "What did you think, Harry?"

Harry replied, "Susan's and Hermione's dresses were both very nice. I really didn't notice anyone else in particular."

Amelia noticed the smile on Susie's face as he answered and thought to herself, 'Good answer, Son.'

Just before ten, Amelia heard Poppy Pomfrey call through the fireplace, "Amelia, can you come out to the castle for a few minutes? Headmaster Dumbledore…" She paused when she noticed Susan and Harry in the room and finished, "Just for a few minutes?"

Bones gave a strange look to the Master Healer and replied, "I'll be right over." She looked at the teens and mentioned, "I don't expect to be long. If the Abbotts get here before I get back, be certain that Smidgen gets them a beverage." She leaned over and gave the teens each a hug and added, "I'll be right back."

… --- …

Junior awoke, comfortable in his normal form. Relieved of the need to be Mad-Eye for a moment, he nonetheless positioned his Polyjuice, artificial eye, and peg leg near the shower of his staff quarters. Not only did he hate the peg leg and its awkwardness, he loathed every second he had to wear that damnable magic eye. What he could see with it was a wonder, all right, but so were the headaches it gave him. He didn't realize that any competent eye healer could have given him a minor adjustment that would have eliminated the headaches, so he just took it off at every possible opportunity.

In keeping with Mad-Eye's legendary paranoia, he had previously demanded that Dumbledore disable Floo travel into his fireplace and limit it to only firecalls. He had also placed a screen in the line of sight from the fireplace to the hall leading back to the bedroom and loo. He had made it a habit to always hop on one leg when unPolyjuiced. Given Moody's social skills - or lack thereof - he figured that few knew of Moody's personal habits concerning the peg leg. He could readily explain that his stump itched so he took the leg off in his apartment. What he couldn't explain would be two normal footfalls should a firecall come in while he was distracted.

His preparations complete, Junior entered the shower for half an hour of steamy luxury. Still, it ended all too soon. He had one of the worst of his chores before him; all the worse because the end was not yet in sight: He had to go feed and clean Moody.

He still needed Moody's hair, and for that he needed the old Auror alive. While Polyjuice could still give him Moody's appearance if Moody died, its potency was badly degraded by the death of the donor. Junior was already sick of having to drink the revolting concoction every hour or so and the thought of having to drink it every few minutes was unbearable. Besides, he was brewing as much as he could already; if Moody died, he'd have to abandon his mission or ask the Dark Lord for assistance in brewing the potions. Both options were unthinkable.

Grumbling enough to do the real Alastor proud, Junior got as dressed as he could in his normal body, and then gagged down another swig of the noxious brew. As the painful transformation completed, he sighed and reached for the peg leg and the accursed eye. He muttered to himself, "At least I don't have to wear the damned thing while I'm feeding the bastard."

… --- …

A few hours later, Alastor Moody heard the lid to his magical trunk open. He'd been a prisoner in his own trunk for months now. Nearly always in the dark and barely fed, he looked up and was nearly blinded by the light. The seventh compartment of his trunk was a magically expanded twelve by twelve by twelve-foot room. A metal ladder bolted onto the wall was used for entrance and exit. Originally intended as an extra storage compartment, Moody had used it twice in the past to illegally detain prisoners for questioning for a few days at a time. Never in his darkest dreams had the old Auror imagined that he would be a prisoner in his own trunk.

The old Auror was surprised when the food bucket was lowered. Instead of the usual sandwich and goblet of pumpkin juice, there were two sandwiches and a bottle of brandy. Also, there was a sprig of a branch from a pine tree. Moody looked into the bucket, quickly took the contents out, and tied the cord of the waste pail to the rope.

Unable to resist, the old Auror croaked in a voice that was increasingly unused to talking, "What, you going soft or something?"

As he pulled the pails back up, Junior replied, "Happy Christmas, Moody. It's the last one you'll live to see."

… --- …

Back at Welshpool, after dinner had been served and the Christmas gifts opened, the teenagers had gone off to examine their new treasures. Connie asked, "So what happened?"

In a low voice, Amelia related the story from the hospital wing, including Riddle's deadly trap.

Connie shook her head at the senseless tragedy and observed, "What a prideful, arrogant man. What was he thinking?"

Amelia replied, "Obviously he wasn't at that moment. He did convey his hope that I would reach his age someday and have as few regrets."

Connie asked, "Not to be completely cold about his injury, but is he certain that he destroyed the horcrux?"

Amelia nodded and held out a box that contained the ring. The bottom had been split in two. She observed, "Harry had a severe pain in his forehead this morning just about the time that the Professor split the ring. Not to doubt him, but I'd sleep better if you would cast your detection charms to verify it." Before she handed Connie the box, she added, "Be careful with it. Snape claims that he removed all of the poisons from the band, but it makes no sense to take a needless risk."

Connie conjured and put on a pair of surgical gloves, then picked up the broken ring and examined it. She cast the detection charm, but wasn't completely happy with the result. There was something there, but she wasn't certain what it was. She replied, "Lets take it outside and burn it. Why take a chance that it still contains a fourth of that monster's soul?"

She put the ring back in the box and they went outside to the stone barbecue pit. Connie cast the Fiendfyre charm, while Amelia kept a close eye to be certain that the fire didn't spread. Fifteen minutes later the fire had cooled down and the ring had melted. As they walked back into the house, Connie asked, "How long will Dumbledore be in the hospital wing?"

"Not more than a few days. Poppy and Snape removed his arm that they said contained most of the poison. Even so, Snape stated that there is no antidote and that it will eventually prove to be fatal."

A bit embarrassed by her previous words, Connie exclaimed, "Good Lord! I had no idea. How long does he have?"

Amelia grimly replied, "Perhaps as short as a few months or maybe as much as a year. No one really knows."

The senior investigator blanched. It was a sobering reminder that they weren't simply out on some treasure hunt. She asked, "Are you going to say anything to the kids?"

Amelia shook her head and replied, "Not unless they specifically ask. It's Dumbledore's story to tell, and I'm certain that he'll concoct some tale."

… --- …

A few minutes later, Harry accepted the envelope and the small package from the brightly colored bird that had tapped on their window while Connie and Amelia looked on with amazement. Susan made eye contact with her aunt and pointedly looked over at Connie. Amelia nodded and asked Connie to help her with the afters for a minute.

Susan scooted over to her boyfriend and inquired, "What did he say?"

Harry opened the letter and read,

Harry,

Bangkok was amazing. I took a tuk tuk to Patpong, and then visited the Kwai river memorial. It was a sobering reminder of the horrors of enslavement.

Happy Christmas.

Uncle Sylvester

The pair looked at each other and shrugged. Neither of the teens had a clue what he was writing about. Harry tapped the letter. Not only was there writing on the back page like the previous messages, but a second, smaller, lumpy envelope appeared. He looked at it and saw that it was addressed to Amelia Bones. They read the rest of the letter together.

Harry (and if I'm correct, Susan too)

Happy Christmas, Harry. You too, Susan. After that bit of unpleasantness in Cypress, I took your advice and returned to Madrid. Until Pettigrew is found and Fudge leaves office, I really can't return. He's too easily corrupted and has too much to lose if I were to be found innocent. I'm sorry that I won't get to see you both over the holidays.

Harry, I miss you every day, but that's nothing new. However, I did find something useful for you for a Christmas gift. I know it's not much, but please keep it with you always.

I've also enclosed an envelope for Amelia to look at. It contains a pensieve memory. Please don't pester her too much about it.

Susan, please do your best to keep Harry happy. I know that he must feel that he has the weight of the world on his shoulders between that blasted tournament and that Bat's prophecy.

Happy Christmas.

Love,

Sirius

Harry saw the tears welling in Susan's eyes as he carefully placed the letter back in the envelope. As gently as he could, he hugged her, only to be nearly crushed by her returned embrace. They held each other for a few minutes as they each silently struggled to hold back their tears.

Amelia and Connie came back into the room and saw the two teens let go of each other; Susan's eyes still glistening with unshed tears. She handed Harry the small package and gave her auntie the lumpy envelope. Amelia held it and suggested, "Perhaps you should open your gift, Harry."

He unwrapped the paper and looked at what could only be described as the wizarding version of a Swiss Army knife. In addition to a small blade, cork screw and bottle opener, there were a dozen little metal pins of various colors that looked a bit like hex keys. He looked at the instructions and realized that they held various charms like shrinking or enlarging an object. It was the perfect circumvention of the underage restriction on magic!

Amelia saw the smile on the teen's face and asked, "What did you get?"

Harry replied, "A magical pocket knife."

She smiled and replied, "Susie's dad had one of those when he was growing up. He loved it."

Connie asked, "What did you get?"

Amelia opened the envelope and carefully read the letter. She excused herself and went to get a pensieve. Two minutes later, she returned and set the dish on the kitchen table. As the others gathered around, she announced, "Harry, Sirius sent me a memory and asked that I take a look at it. We'll talk about it when I come back out. Okay?"

He nodded and she put the tip of her nose in the dish and disappeared.

… --- …

Amelia found herself in the living room of the cottage where James and Lily were staying at Godric's Hollow. She watched in fascinated horror as James, Lily, Sirius and Peter Pettigrew discussed the Fidelius charm, back and forth. She felt her heart break as Sirius convinced James that no one would suspect Peter of being their secret keeper. She felt tears running down her cheeks a minute later, when Lily cast the charm and gave Pettigrew the secret. Lily hugged Pettigrew and Black as they got ready to leave while James held baby Harry. Her last words to them were, "We'll have you two and Remus out for dinner next week after Halloween. Thank you both so very much. We love you."

With that, Sirius walked out their door with Pettigrew and the memory ended. She stepped out of the memory and tapped her wand on the bottom of the note as she'd been instructed. Words appeared on the back half of the note.

Director Bones,

The memory that you just watched was the last time that I saw James and Lily alive. I swear on my magic that it hasn't been altered. I will regret my insistence that they use that rat until my dying day. Harry has written me and on multiple occasions mentioned the outstanding job that you have done in providing a loving home for him. For that, I thank you from the bottom of my heart. I'm living a quiet life in Madrid. I was nearly apprehended in Cypress a few weeks ago by British Aurors. My belief is that they were sent (illegally) by Fudge at the recommendation of Lucius Malfoy. I don't know their names, but if you wish, I'll send a memory the next time that I send a letter to Harry.

His owl knows how to contact me. Please do what you can to keep him safe without walling him in. I'm certain that Harry's destiny is to destroy Voldemort and I'm equally certain that he's out there somewhere.

Your humble servant,

Sirius Orion Black

Amelia thought for a moment and announced, "Connie, I'm going to leave this note on the table for a few minutes while I take Harry and Susie upstairs to talk with them." She gave her friend a meaningful look and took the teens up to Harry's room and closed the door. She directed, "Have a seat, you two."

Susan asked, "What did he say?"

She replied, "In short he asked that I continue to provide Harry a loving home. He said that until Pettigrew is captured and Fudge gets sacked, he'd stay away and probably stay in Madrid." She added, "The memory that he showed me was of your parents selecting Pettigrew as their secret keeper at Sirius's recommendation. It was the last time that he saw them. He recommended that I not show it to you, but I would leave that decision up to you. In that context, it's a fairly disturbing scene, but I know you don't have many memories of your parents. Either way, you don't need to see it tonight. I'll save it and you can decide later."

Susie asked, "Why did you leave Connie downstairs?"

Her aunt replied, "Plausible deniability. Do her a favor and don't bring Sirius up in any conversation. Regardless of what you believe, he's still a wanted man. Can you both do that for her?"

The teens nodded and she added, "Good. Now let's go have some afters."

… --- …

Monday 26 December

The snow was falling in heavy, wet, galleon-sized flakes when the teens got up on Monday morning. Amelia greeted Harry warmly and asked, "What are your plans for the day?"

Harry replied, "Rufus suggested that I spend a few hours each day practicing swimming. If it's not too much trouble, I was wondering if you might warm the pool up a bit?"

Amelia smiled at her son and replied, "Certainly. I'll go out and tidy it up a bit it. Can you get Susie something to eat when she comes down?"

He quickly agreed. A few minutes later, Susan made her way into the kitchen and plopped down at the nearest spot. She wasn't a morning person.

"Morning," greeted Harry, in a cheerful voice.

She had a few sips of coffee and a slice of toast. When she was finished with the toast and had another gulp of coffee, she smiled back at him and replied, "Good morning to you too. Did you sleep okay?"

Harry nodded and replied, "I dreamed about Sirius. I really only met him that one time and he looked pretty ragged. I hope he's lots better now."

She didn't say anything; rather she touched his hand and looked into his eyes. She could see the sadness, but didn't know how to make it go away. Instead, she asked, "What do you want to do today?"

He replied, "Rufus wants me to spend a few hours in the pool, kicking and doing arm work."

Susan looked doubtful and replied, "That sounds like a good way to catch a dreadful chill." She was of a mind to read a little book that Hermione had given her

He shook his head and countered, "Amelia went out to put a warming charm on the pool."

Her eyes lit up and she suggested, "We could invite Hannah, Neville and Hermione over for a winter swim."

Harry looked cautious and replied, "Maybe we should ask first."

Amelia had just stepped back in and caught the last few words and inquired, "Ask what, Dear?"

Susie jumped in, "Would it be all right if we invited Neville, Hannah and Hermione over for lunch and a swim?"

"Certainly. Can Hermione take the Knight Bus? I'll be at the office until six. Otherwise, I'd go pick her up."

Harry replied, "I'm sure that would be fine. I'll go get my practice in now before they get here."

Susan added, "Thanks, Auntie."

Amelia considered the situation for a minute and said, "I'll get you both ten-day conditional magic permits from Malfalda." Hopkirk had been somewhat easier to work with since their confrontation the previous July. She added, "Rufus mentioned wanting to come over sometime tomorrow. What are your plans?"

Harry looked at Susan for a moment and replied, "Nothing for certain at this time. I'll be happy to work around his schedule. We have some schoolwork reports to do, but only about a day's worth. Susan?"

"I wanted to go to Diagon Alley sometime this week, but any day would be fine."

Amelia nodded and replied, "Okay. Let Smidgen know if you are having guests over for lunch so she knows how much to make. I'll see you both tonight at six."

"Bye Auntie. Love you."

As Amelia stepped into the fireplace to take the Floo to work she heard Susan command, "Get your suit on, Aqua-Man."

… --- …

Tuesday 27 December

Albus awoke on Tuesday morning. Instinctively he attempted to scratch his nose and recalled that it wasn't going to happen as it had for the last one hundred and thirty four years. He had lost his arm and most of his remaining life two days before in his effort to rid the world of Tom's horcrux. He could second-guess himself for the remainder of his shortened life, but it would serve no purpose.

He tried to recall his painkiller-loaded conversation with Amelia. Mostly it was a haze, except he recalled her promise to go collect Peverell's ring from the top of his desk in his office and destroy it.

Poppy noticed that he was awake and he saw her frown at him as she walked over. "Good morning, Poppy."

Pomfrey wanted to berate the headmaster for what he had done to himself. She wanted to slap him silly for taking such a foolish risk. She wanted to cry that the British wizarding world's unofficial leader was mortally wounded, and would soon leave them. Instead, she looked him in the eye and inquired, "Can I get you anything?"

Dumbledore considered her question for a moment and inquired, "Would it be possible for me to return to my own quarters after you have finished your examination? There is much to do and increasingly less time to complete what must be done."

Pomfrey couldn't see a benefit in holding him against his will. The stump of his arm had been magically healed. She nodded and said, "Against my better judgment, I will not hold you against your will. Are you interested in arranging an artificial limb fitting?"

Fighting his lifelong habit, the old professor itched his nose with his right hand and replied, "No, Poppy that won't be necessary. However, I must ask you to stick to the story that I was hit by an automobile in London on Christmas morning and lost my arm as a result of a tragic accident. It is imperative that no other version or tale is related to anyone. Can I count on your keeping this most important confidence?"

Reluctantly the old Master Healer nodded and asked, "Will you ask the same of Severus and Amelia?"

Dumbledore nodded and replied, "Yes. I shall speak with each of them within the hour. He added, "I'm aware that I shall eventually fall victim of the poison still in my system, probably much sooner than I would wish. Again, that is information that cannot leave this room."

She concluded her examination a few minutes later and recorded his condition on a parchment and marked it 100 percent - 27 December. She would use it as a starting point to track his deterioration. After she reluctantly sent him on his way, she filed the document in her folder and locked her drawer before going to the Great Hall for breakfast.

As Dumbledore walked the comparatively short distance to his office, his well-organized mind considered the hundred things that he needed to accomplish before his allotted time was up.

… --- …

As they sat in Director Bones' private conference room, Anna asked, "So destroying horcruxes aside, "What can we do to weaken Riddle?"

Scrimgeour observed, "His arsenal consists of magical power and skill in his own right, plus his followers, fear, and his supposed social platform."

Connie suggested, "Go on."

Scrimgeour continued, "Destroying his horcruxes weakens him personally, at least with respect to stamina. His helpers provide gold, manpower and influence. The Prophet does as much as anything to spread fear. Finally his 'Pureblood traditions' message gives him a face of legitimacy."

Amelia added, "The details of Riddle's actual heritage could be released. It would be a stronger message if some longstanding pureblood family like the Greengrasses or Longbottoms were interviewed and made statements to the effect that they believe in upholding wizarding traditions but they have no desire to exclude or harm firstborns or nonmagicals."

Anna added, "They could slant it along the line of, 'If you believe in the old-line pureblood values, why follow the bastard son of a Muggle who abandoned the pregnant mother of his child? It's a bit crude, but hard to ignore."

Scrimgeour shook his head. "Wrong message. We would be better saying, 'Power and position are earned, that there's room within the wizarding world for anyone who has the ability to prove themselves, and that each generation has the responsibility to live up to the achievements of their parents and to build on those and make their own mark in the world.' That recognizes the work that the old families accomplished and challenges their children to move ahead. It also offers space for the firstborn witches and wizards."

Connie considered his words for a minute and observed, "Well spoken, and you have the better message for the situation. If only we could get Fudge to step down, you could run for Minister on that platform."

Amelia nodded. Rufus had the ambition to lead and possibly be a man who wouldn't always have his hand out. She was honest with herself and knew that she would prefer to remain where she was. She liked her current position, found it quite satisfying, and beyond that, she felt that her two teenagers needed her. As much as she hated to admit it, should another war break out, the life expectancy of an effective Minister was quite short. She commented, "That really leaves us with two lynchpins – the locket horcrux and the Malfoys."

Scrimgeour coaxed, "Keep going."

Bones cleaned her monocle and added, "Should the locket be found and destroyed, I believe that it would be time to go public. The message would be, 'The Dark Lord isn't dead, but he's been irreversibly weakened. Tom Marvolo Riddle is no pureblood, and he's not worth following.'"

Scrimgeour commented, "It's a good plan, but we're in something of a footrace with Voldemort. If he regains his body before we destroy the horcrux, we've got another war on our hands. Fudge has frozen headcount so we have three tasks – Training for a war with no extra gold, hunting for the horcruxes; all-the-while running our day-to-day business. Connie, do you have any new leads?"

She shook her head and replied, "We found nothing at the old orphanage. We could try the Forbidden Forest next."

Amelia asked, "Where else?"

Anna interjected, "We've hit something of a brick wall in our search. We believe that the diary was given to Lucius without his knowledge of what it really was. We don't have an estimate of when he received it. Without completely showing our cards, we can't ask him. Gringotts wouldn't have a record of when Bellatrix stored the cup. So, at least two of the horcruxes were given to his followers to hold on to. The ring that Professor Dumbledore found was hidden in a place that held significance to Riddle and was heavily booby-trapped. Let's for sake of discussion say that he gave one to Rosier or one of his other inner-circle Death Eaters who were killed. It could be in the family vault or on someone's fireplace mantle. Conducting those searches without anyone's knowledge would be all but impossible, to say nothing of illegal. If he went with the significant places theme, it could be at Hogwarts, the Forbidden Forest, the first place that he felt up some girl, or at the bottom of Black Lake. I think we should consult with Professor Dumbledore while we're still able to, and ask him what ideas he may have."

Amelia nodded and offered, "He may have lost some of his arrogance since he found out that he'd given himself a death sentence."

She paused for a moment to think and continued, "So, in conclusion, Connie and Anna – you two will do a sweep of the Forbidden Forest. I'll talk with Harry about scheduling a time for looking around the Chamber of Secrets. Rufus – you'll schedule training time with the Auror teams. Try for a third of them at a time, each Friday so everyone can have offensive training once every three weeks. I'll come up with the galleons for the overtime and some better equipment. Please keep up with the Saturday training with Harry. He's practiced what you've given him three hours a day during the school holiday. I'll schedule a meeting with the Professor and invite whoever is available on the scheduled time. Is there anything else?"

No one volunteered anything and she inquired, "Have you found anything else in your research of the Marr horcrux collection?"

Connie replied, "The theory was put forward that the destruction of a horcrux wouldn't diminish the maker's skill with his wand, or power, rather his stamina."

Anna, who was many years younger than her partner, snorted at her remark, while Rufus looked annoyed.

Connie smiled politely at the Senior Auror and added, "There's no need to look ruffled Rufus, we weren't commenting on your stamina."

Scrimgeour grumbled quietly while Amelia commented, "I suppose that's good and bad. No one wants to get into a firefight with Riddle, but if they do and they're able to dodge the first few spells, they might have a chance. Is there anything else?"

No one responded and Amelia concluded, saying, "We'll meet again next week."

… --- …

Miles away from London, the two wizards sat in the dimly lit room, waiting for their Master to speak. Wormtail assumed a more subservient role in the presence of the Dark Lord's other faithful follower. His Master wasn't sitting on his lap, rather in a high backed chair cushioned by a blanket, ostensibly for the cold, but also to disguise his minuscule form. Riddle asked, "What have you to report, Barty. Has the boy been given the means of competing in the second task?"

Junior replied, "Master, I suggested to Professor Sprout that one of Potter's friends would like a book on magical water plants. I don't believe that he posses the skill needed to maintain a simple Bubble Head charm for an hour. I will talk with the boy a few days before the task. I didn't want to reveal my hand by directly aiding him."

Pettigrew asked, "What happens if he doesn't know the charm or learn of the magical plant?"

Junior replied, "Based on his high score from the first task, he'd still be allowed to compete in the third task."

Riddle considered the conversations and directed, "You have done enough. If he fails, he fails. Do not reveal yourself outside of the normal classroom activities. We have too much to lose and too little to gain by any additional coaching of the boy. If he thrashes around in the cold water, we have lost nothing except a favorable starting position in the third task. By a stroke of luck, Potter won the first task. There is nothing to worry about."

Pettigrew had nothing to add, so Riddle asked Crouch, "Is there anything that you need?"

Junior replied, "No. I have enough gold from the old crone, McGonagall. I need to visit the apothecary and obtain more Boomslang skin and Bicorn powder for the potion. What else can I do for you, Master?"

Riddle was worried about the stability of his current form, but he didn't want to make that admission. The dizzy spell from a few days ago had ended and hadn't reoccurred. He concluded the meeting saying, "Do nothing to jeopardize the plan. Find out if there is anything else known about the Old Fool's injury beyond what was reported in the newspaper. Report back to me after the second task has played out."

Junior took his leave, saying, "I shall go pay my Father a visit and see how the Weasley boy is doing. He has unknowingly enabled much of our plan to succeed."

Riddle acknowledged Junior's departure and announced, "It is time to eat, Wormtail. Milk Nagini for me."

Wormtail silently cursed his lot in life as he went to find his Master's snake.

… --- …

Friday 30 December

Susan missed being able to watch Harry paddle around the pool while lying on her floatie. Floaties simply didn't work in the winter. Regardless of the fact that her Auntie had cast a warming charm on the water so it was bathtub warm, the air was freezing. That left her with the option of being in the water or sitting out wearing a sweat suit.

Despite Senior Auror Scrimgeour's best efforts, Harry was unable to master the Bubble Head charm. He could cast it, and as long as he was consciously thinking about it, could hold it. However, he had yet to hold it for longer than a minute.

Remarkably, the book that her Head of House, Professor Sprout had given her for Christmas had referenced gillyweed. A trip yesterday to the exotic plants shop and sixty galleons later, her boyfriend was the proud owner of ten doses of the rubbery, wormy looking plant. Scrimgeour had insisted that he try it a few times to get used to it, and as a result, her boyfriend was zooming around on the bottom of the pool, swimming twice as fast as she could, with the aid of his webbed hands and feet. She looked at her watch again. It had been nearly an hour since he'd taken it. The young teen cringed as he flinched at the obvious pain of the transformation, but a minute later, she had her boyfriend back.

She paddled over to him and asked, "How was it this time, Aqua Man?"

Harry replied, "Loads better this time. It hurt pretty bad the first time." He held his arms out and she snuggled into his grasp. He did his best to maintain eye contact and said, "This is nice."

She snuggled a bit closer into him, felt something that surprised her, and quickly wriggled away, saying, "Sorry… I didn't mean to…"

Harry felt his face go pale, "I didn't mean to… Sorry."

Regaining her composure quicker than her boyfriend, she suggested, "Maybe we should go in for a while. We're getting pretty worked up here."

They both nodded and as they got out, thought to themselves, 'Especially me.'

The cold air felt good as they walked back into the house.

… --- …

Monday 9 January

Filius Flitwick folded the newspaper and looked across the staff table. As he expected, Hagrid had already left. Skeeter's article announcing the "confession of the half giant's heritage" at the Yule Ball had been especially biting. Hagrid wasn't a skilled politico who occasionally needed to be taken down a notch or two. He was, simply put, a kind and gentle man who spent most of his time caring for others and trying to make the world a better place.

The diminutive professor recalled the similar taunts that his father had been half-goblin (which was true) from his days on the international dueling circuit in the '20s. As he was pondering what to do, he heard the outraged objection from Miss Granger, "Well it was obvious, but that doesn't give that cow any reason to go after him like that. Hagrid wouldn't hurt anyone. He's one of the nicest men that I know."

She and Harry went to the Hufflepuff table to go collect Susan Bones and together they marched off to go talk some sense into their distraught friend.

The brilliant educator got up to leave and muttered, "One-hundred points to Gryffindor, Miss Granger."

ooo CCC ooo

"Old Crone??? Detention, Mr. Crow! Detention with Mr. Filch for a week. I don't care if you've been visiting the lunatic fringe, there is no excuse for disrespecting a Hogwarts Professor." Even the gray hair in her tight bun seemed angry at the insult.

Her words had fallen on deaf ears, as the old scribe had already left the building.

The highly offended educator noticed that he'd written something on her classroom blackboard before leaving. It appeared to say, Meddle 4816968.

Still worried about the Headmaster, she went to her office to sample some of the moonshine potion that Crow had left the last time she'd seen him.

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