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Chapter 23 — Worth a Weight of Gold

Ten minutes ahead of schedule, Harry checked into the Auror's office for his field work. The office exuded a quiet intensity, the kind where it was so busy only one highly engaged person was left to man the office. Tonight, that assignment was covered by Shacklebolt, who stood hunched over the log book, sorting through the assignment slips with fingers too large to easily handle them.

The sight bolstered Harry, who was hoping to get out on a real assignment. He was feeling confident due to partly working out how to squelch curses and hoped to make himself useful rather than going out on regular, usually mindless, patrol. Harry slid over beside the stand holding the log book. When Shacklebolt put down the slips and glanced up, Harry asked, "Can I do anything?"

"Who are you assigned with tonight?"

"I don't know," Harry admitted.

Vineet stepped into the room, hands clasped behind his back. He stopped just inside the door, the picture of innate patience until the Auror said to him, "Tonks said for you to meet her in Scunthorpe. You know how to get there?"

Harry's heart sank a smidgen that this instruction was not directed at him.

Vineet said, "I have knowledge of an Apparition spot in Dragonby . . ."

Shacklebolt, keyed up by the busy night, did not let the Indian finish. "Good, then take a broom." Harry watched his fellow depart, remaining as patient as possible.

There was nothing beyond filing for Harry to do until Rodgers arrived at half past the hour. He rubbed his hands together vigorously and said to Shacklebolt. "You called me in. Luck for you, I didn't have a date."

"Things are busy. Do you ever have a date?"

This made Rodgers' eager gaze slip into insulted.

Shacklebolt rubbed his eyes and sorted through the slips from the beginning. "Busy weekend. We sent Mr. Wickem and Ms. Kalendula home late last night, both complaining about being late for dates. In their case, I believe it was honest."

Something thumped against the stand. Shacklebolt picked up the small chalkboard chained beside the log book. "Tonks has requested backup before forcibly going in to investigate an MCC."

"I get Harry?" Rodgers asked.

Shacklebolt shrugged his broad shoulders. "I'm assuming."

Harry jumped up from Tonks' desk, eager to go. "What's an MCC?" he asked.

Rodgers took his arm. "A mysteriously charmed construct."

A minute later, they arrived in a world of twilight and looming piles of twisted metal parts. Upon arriving Harry, with a thudding heart, imagined that they had leapt into the Dark Plane. But the ground was pitted tarmac rather than dust and the metal stood in sorted piles.

Before Rodgers could slip out of view, Harry ducked down to follow, leading with his wand and enjoying being out in the night air. They crept a long way down an aisle cutting between piles large and small, crossing similar rows that stretched to the sides as far as the dim light could reveal.

A building came into view and Rodgers gestured over his shoulder for Harry to halt. Harry crouched low a few steps behind his trainer's back and glanced around the greyness, instinctively training his wand on a spotted cat that darted stealthily between an old railroad car and a double stack of sagging lorry trailers. He exhaled hard, glad he had held back on a spell that would have given them away.

Rodgers made a nightbird sound and a count of ten later an answering call came from two stacks over. Two figures approached and crouched beside them, both with dark-skinned faces, one with rusty-red hair standing up in a Mohawk.

Tonks whispered, "Nothing on the grounds, but the large metal shed is sealed."

"Magically?" Rodgers asked.

With an air of gripe, Tonks said, "Any other kind of seal would not present a difficulty." She relented on her attitude and said, "The large sliding doors are around the other side. Should be easier to get open."

Following along her lead, Rodgers said to Harry and Vineet. "You two watch the back. Don't make any moves unless the fireworks start, you're signaled, or someone makes a break for it."

They crept off, melting into the background with what must be Obsfucation Charms.

A minute later, Harry, feeling confident, said, "Let's get a little closer than this."

Harry was glad he could not see his fellow's expression in this light. He did not wait for a reply, just slipped ahead to hide behind a pile closer to the small rear door. The painted metal of the long shed glowed in the ambient light of the nearby city. It looked quiet and innocent enough. Harry felt nothing ominous.

When Vineet came aside him, Harry asked, "There was no guard or anything?"

"The dogs sleep most soundly with some assistance," Vineet stated.

Crickets chirped. A car rolled by on a nearby road, its headlights appearing to float.

"How are things with Hermione?" Harry asked, mind wandering after ten minutes of waiting.

He heard rather than saw Vineet swallow hard. "As good as could be expected under circumstances of this nature."

"You don't talk to her like that, do you?"

A pause. "She seems to appreciate this."

"Yeah, I suppose she would."

Far off a dog barked. Another car floated by, stereo thumping. A breeze that threatened to grow chilling drifted through.

"Why this place?" Harry asked, wishing they were kept a little more informed, annoyed that they were not.

"This location was given up by one of the prisoners, after sufficient potion was applied to him."

Harry heard a noise, or he thought he did. His attentive imagination was straining to sense things.

"Did you hear that?" he asked.

Vineet nodded. Harry rocked forward off his heels onto his toes. "I wonder what's going on."

Vineet said, "We could not get in."

"Even with you helping?"

"It was not an ordinary barrier. It was something else."

The small noise came again, still too low to give a hint of what it might be.

"I can't stand this," Harry said, gauging the distance to the door in the side of the shed. "Hey, was that open before?"

Maybe it was a trick of the oblique light, but the door appeared to be hanging a few inches open now, based on the wider shadow it cast against the ridged exterior wall.

"It was most definitely not open previously."

"All right, I'm going to stay here," Harry announced in a whisper, wishing he were trusted enough to actually do something directly. He felt more eager tonight than usual, and his wand responded to this, electrically charging his hand. But he may not need it, he thought with excitement; he could squelch two curses for sure, although an angry organized crime wizard was unlikely to resort to a Jelly Legs.

"We were instructed to remain here," Vineet said. "This is a strategic location. We will see anyone depart and will have warning of attack."

"Not if they're invisible. Oh, shit." Harry dashed forward, mind spinning to bad possibilities, such as the perpetrators slipping away under cloak, leaving a deadly booby trap behind.

Harry reached the door and pressed his back up beside it. This made the side of the shed creak just at the edge of hearing. Harry used the tip of his wand to push the door open farther. It swung easily. Vineet had moved to cover him from behind the closest stack, composed of tangled, ropey wire.

Harry pushed the door open further, listening hard to the echoey inside of the building. Their multi-person coordination training made him resist going in. The others would not know he was there. He made himself wait where he was, listening with the door completely open. Inside, loomed ceiling-high racks, barely discernible in the red light glowing from the light switches.

A crash sounded from the other end of the shed, and Harry immediately imagined Tonks had tripped over something. But then a small voice came, speaking something he could not understand, followed by another crash. A high-mounted light flicked on in the distance, outlining the building roof in shadow over the scrap yard.

Harry felt a touch on his arm and found Vineet beside him. Harry, in the lowest voice possible said, "Maybe stall the Muggles if they are coming. I can guard the door." Harry would have offered the other a choice if Tonks had not been involved. Vineet moved off and Harry was just stepping in when something darted in front of him. He had a vision of uplifted, low but oversized palms facing him and then he was airborne. He struck the door and landed in a half-roll, half-skid on the tarmac outside. There had been no warning at all.

Harry scrambled to his feet and pressed himself beside the door, noting with accented stabs in various places that the light metal door hung crooked now, still swaying from his body striking it. He used his toe to move the door out of the way and stood waiting with his wand out. A small, light figure moved inside, and Harry instinctively cast a Netting Charm, followed by a full force Mutushorum. The dim light made it hard to tell, but it seemed like the netting bulged over something.

There may be more than one. Harry thought he should wait until the Aurors inside swept the space. The freezing spell would hold for a while. Content with that mature decision, Harry held his wand at ready and waited for a signal.

A few minutes later, Vineet reappeared and from inside, Tonks said, "Did you do this, Harry?"

Harry stepped inside, guided now by a Lumos from Tonks' wand.


Under the net lay an elf, albeit a strange looking one with unusually coarse, long hair and black finger nails. Rodgers crouched close and examined it. "Looks like a Caspian elf, or a close relative."

"They don't have the same restrictions on elf powers, I take it?" Tonks asked, rubbing her elbow and frowning painfully.

Vineet interrupted, "The Muggles are delayed, not stopped."

Rodgers stood and waved his wand at their prisoner. "Let's go then. That back door looks like an ordinary break-in, so we are covered."

In the light of the Ministry department, Harry's injuries even attracted the attention of the busy Aurors.

Tonks said, "Take yourself to St. Mungo's, Harry. Skip the next call."

"I'm okay," Harry insisted, using a damp cloth to gingerly soften the caked blood gluing his brow hairs together. His skinned knees stopped hurting when he used a quick healing charm on them. The skin covering his kneecaps looked strangely mottled after the spell, which he was not so adept at. He ignored it till later and tugged his torn trouser legs down. Candide was good at clothing repairs of that sort, so Harry did not attempt to fix them himself.

His body complained when he was summoned to head out again, and he wondered how he could have started the evening so eagerly.

This time they were called to a brawl in a wizard pub in Maidstone. Tonks walked through the melee and straight up to the red-nosed owner. "Why didn'tya close down sooner?" she asked over the noise of smashing chairs and sizzling hexes. The abandoned Harry and Vineet pressed back against the heavy door, partially protected by an alcove, hoping for an opening in the confusion to get across to join Tonks.

Harry stunned a rough looking middle-aged man about to throw a curse at someone two tables away whose back was turned. The stunned man's friend turned and shouted, shaking a fist at them. For a moment the crowd noise eased and the apprentices made a clean dash for the bar.

"It's opening day of Quidditch tomorrow, I can't possibly close down early," the owner was explaining.

The spells and projectiles started up again, bouncing around the hard stone walls like a pinball game. Harry's bruised limbs flinched every time one flew near. He and Vineet took up positions guarding Tonks' back while she talked to the man behind the bar. The man was arguing against arresting everyone since they were his best customers.

A short figure was hurled across the room, and Vineet caught him, or possibly her, with a Hover and lowered the person to the beer-sopped floor. A large wizard muttered, "Bloody Pakki," and rushed at Vineet with no wand in sight. The man was on the floor an instant later, no spell needed. Harry adjusted to better cover Tonks while Vineet set this person aside out of the way. The room had divided itself by colored accessory, mostly scarves and hats: yellow and black on one side, blue and gold on the other. Harry tried one of the crowd control spells they had learned, putting up a wall that stretched to the door. His wand shook as he held the spell and the door across from him rattled in a rich low tone. He should have aimed the spell at the solid wall, he realized, shaking his head at forgetting the rules of a spell they had learned half a year ago. The fighting eased as the parties drunkenly sensed they could not penetrate the barrier to get at each other. One large wizard pressed his forehead against it and futilely swung his arms in loops.

A young man with hair like unmown hay staggered over someone else and pulled his wand on Vineet, who was checking someone draped like a broken doll over an overturned chair beside the wall bench along that side. Harry shouted a warning. Behind him, he heard Tonks spin around. Harry, wand otherwise occupied, scrunched the curse down just as it sputtered from the troublemaker's wand. The man shouted and tossed his wand, holding his sparkling hand, then running around holding it away from himself as though it were on fire. He ran in a panicked circle until he met Harry's wall and then knocked himself out striking it.

This scene shook the crowd to its senses. They all stopped to stare dully at the fallen wizard, so Harry dropped the barrier. The room remained quiet, until someone else staggered and fell. This was a cue for the conscious to start hunting for their possessions amidst the rubble.

The owner came around and cast a Reparo at the first broken thing on the floor. Parts flew in from everywhere to reassemble into a table. Harry had never seen anyone better at that spell. He was sure that was a footstool moments before the parts were so small. Someone cursed and held a shin that had been struck by a flying table leg. The owner said, "Get on out then! I got work to do here and yer in the way."

Tonks stepped down the bar and Harry turned and found her filling a mug from the tap by leaning far over the bar in an unladylike manner. She poured out an inch or so and slid back down to the floor and handed the pint to Harry after taking a gulp. "Vineet?"

The Indian shook his head. Tonks took Vineet's share and gesturing with the mug, said, "You were lucky that pillock's wand backfired."

Harry turned to her a little sharply. Snape's instructions to him about seeking advice and keeping him informed bled over into that moment. "I did that."

Tonks grew hard. "Was that a Forbidden Curse?"

"No, just a . . . what was the incantation?"

Vineet said, "I believe it was a Morey Eel Curse."

"Something minor," Harry assured her.

"Depends on where it latches on," Tonks stated with insinuation. "So, you're getting better at blocking things sans wand," she said. "You been practicing during training?"

"No. I can't always use it on someone I like, since the spell backs up into their arm."

She appeared doubtful and with a snort, said, "I think any spell someone is willing to throw at me, I'd be willing to make them eat."

"We shall keep that in mind," Vineet stated.

- 888 -

Harry shed the heaviest of his clothes and dropped into bed. His shoulder and several other spots complained bitterly when he shifted, as if they had been holding back on their grievances until just that moment. He rubbed his eyebrow and found it tender and stinging and crusting over with a scab. Perhaps he should not have resisted suggestions that he see a Healer. Had it been daytime he would have willingly visited the Ministry's own Healer, but he could not avail himself of that after hours.

The late hour and the release from stress let him fall into sleep despite his aches, which followed him into his dreams. He dreamt that he again stood before his own defeated double, wand held out, his mum and dad attending to his rival. In the dream he wanted to argue that he was hurt too and deserved some attention, but his mouth refused to move. He stood frozen in place, wand aimed, peering out of locked eyes as everyone diverged around him like a rock in a stream.

Someone shook Harry's shoulder and with a flinch of pain he was back in his room, blinking in the glaring lamp flame. He rolled to sit up and reached for his glasses, only to have them placed in his hand.

Harry wearily fitted his glasses onto his head and looked around. The world was still well inside night beyond the window. He asked, "What time is it?"

"Half past four. What is in your nightmare?"

Harry had only been asleep an hour. The Monitor did not rest on the night stand. "How'd you know I was having one?"

Snape remained still an instant before tugging the night stand drawer open. The half globe of swirling glass threw its eerie light around the contents of the drawer.

"Ah," Harry muttered. "Don't worry; the nightmare is nothing."

"No?" Snape prodded doubtfully. But he distracted himself from that line of questioning with, "What happened to your head?"

"I got thrown out a door. I was a little overconfident, I think." He frowned, remembering getting hit with no warning. "Here I thought I had worked out something really useful, but it turns out elf offensive magic is something I can't sense, even it if feels like a curse when it hits."

"You were battling an elf?"

"A strange elf. Rodgers said it looked like a Caspian elf."

"Interesting," Snape said. He reached to prod Harry's forehead, making Harry flinch away. Snape continued talking as he held Harry's head steady. "They are bound to their masters differently than our own elves. I have heard it theorized that this is because they have more rogue power than our own elves, since they were domesticated more recently." He tapped Harry's brow with his wand and let him go. "And even in this day are sometimes taken from the wild."

Harry rubbed his brow, finding only a faint sensitivity there. "Thanks," he said, trying not to feel chagrin.

"Need a Healer?"

"Not anymore."

Snape slipped his wand away into his dressing gown. "So, you learned this evening that understanding the limits of your power is more powerful than having new and unusual powers?"

"I did better at the pub brawl."

"Busy night."


Harry settled back under the duvet, undisturbed by dreams until the scent of breakfast drew him from a deep slumber.

That afternoon, Harry found a few books on elves among Snape's collection and took them to his room. In the back of his mind he thought he behaved too much like Hermione, but such knowledge did not seem trivial anymore. Perhaps no knowledge seemed trivial to Hermione. It was not until Hornisham came for her shift, that he realized how long he had been reading. He arrived downstairs just in time to find Snape making his goodbyes to Candide.

"You're not staying for dinner?" Harry asked.

"McGonagall prefers I make an appearance on Sunday evening. Remus fares well enough as a backup Head of House, but he is too easily fooled by those who do not wish to put in the effort to complete their assignments for Monday morning."

Snape accepted a peck on the cheek from Candide. "Owl me, Harry," was the last thing he said, before stepping into the Floo.

Hornisham was pleased to join them for dinner after some urging. She had unlimited stories about magical animals and tonight told them one about an old wizard who brought in a boa constrictor to Control insisting it was the spawn of Nessie. The boa ate a fire chicken and burped hard boiled eggs for weeks after, which one of her colleagues insisted tasted fine.

With Candide suitably engaged and thinking sheepishly of unfinished assignments for Monday morning, Harry headed up to his room to start his readings. He stacked the elf books aside, amazed at how far he had read into them based on the bookmark locations. If only he had started in on his assigned readings instead, he considered with a long exhale as he leaned back onto a stack of pillows. Hornisham joined him a short time later, and the ticking of her steel needles made for an accelerated marking of the time.

A light tick sounded against the glass, nearly lost in the clicking of knitting needles. Harry thought it must be his owl, but Hedwig was already asleep in her cage. The sound made her ruffle her feathers. The noise came again. Harry stood to go to the window, but Hornisham gruffly gestured him back.

Harry backed up with a roll of his eyes, head lolling to the side in frustration. Hornisham levered the sash open and leaned out. Ginny's voice came floating up, "I need to talk to Harry."

When Harry moved to the window a second time, his guard's rough hand blocked him. Used to handling large animals, he had no chance. "How do ya' know it's her?" she growled.

Harry ducked as close to the window as he was allowed to. "Ginny, fly up here," he shouted down to the figure in the road.

Seconds later a redtail hawk alighted on the sill and hopped inside, transforming smoothly back into the youngest Weasley.

"See," Harry said. "Has to be her, no one could fake that."

Hornisham gave in with hmf of approval and resumed her seat.

"Why didn't you come to the door?" Harry asked.

She peered at him in disbelief. "Do you know what kind of night-activated spells this place has on it? I didn't even dare touch the gate."

"I didn't think of that," Harry said. "The spells don't bother me." Harry glanced at Hornisham who was enjoying watching them. "Er, what do you need?"

Ginny paced to the wardrobe and back, fitfully. "I had a date . . . I was supposed to have a date with Aaron last night, but he stood me up."

"Oh," Harry said. "Sorry about that."

"Why? What's going on?" Ginny demanded.

"I don't know," Harry helplessly said. "I just thought I should apologize for him."

She appeared confused by this, but went on. "So, I thought, fine, his loss. But today, I thought differently and went to go see him. But I can't find him anywhere. I sent an owl to his mum and she sent me this reply. See."

She held out a letter, which was strangely crinkly. It basically stated that she could not reply. "That's odd," Harry said, turning the letter over to stare at the blank back of it in case there was more.

"Those are tear stains, Harry. I checked."

This gave Harry pause. "You have a spell to check for that?"

"I have drops from the twins that check for that. They didn't sell the same stuff to the boys at Hogwarts as they did to the girls."

Harry stared at the letter. "What's going on, I wonder?"

"I was hoping you knew her well enough to go over and ask."

Harry vividly remembered his luncheon with the worshipful Mrs. Wickem. "Yeah, I think I do."

After some negotiation and a quick chat with Candide, Harry convinced his guard to let him head off with Ginny while she remained behind. "After all," Harry said in a whisper. "Who needs more protection, me or the woman with child?"

Hornisham nodded sagely and returned to the hall where Candide sat working. When Harry turned to face Ginny, pleased with the results of this argument, he found his friend fixing him with a glare.

Arms locked across her chest, she said, "Oh, a 'woman with child' needs more protection?"

"Er, well, I convinced her, didn't I? Come on, it's getting dark."

Harry Apparated them both to the empty stables, which he remembered from the Ministry party the Wickems had hosted. Unlike that cheerful night, the lawn beyond the stable door lay in impenetrable darkness canopied by old, long-limbed trees. A light glowed deep inside the rear of the house. Harry took Ginny's hand and led the way across, tripping repeatedly on half-buried bricks used to border the trees and lines of shrubs. He almost pulled Ginny down with him one time.

"I'll just fly, thanks," she said after that, and assumed her hawk form, changing back to wait for him beside a white pillar topped with a carved capital that held up an overhang on the side of the house. Harry changed to his form and tried to follow, but the trees were too closely spaced, forcing him to tuck in his broad wings and canter, but at least he did not trip again. He came up beside her and changed back after a windy flap for good measure and perhaps some showing off. He decided that the nearby door would work enough for an uninvited guest, so they knocked there, finding no bell.

The light came on over the entryway and the butler came to the door, dour as usual. His expression shifted as he recognized Harry, his unexpressive face doing a complex dance of twitches. "Come in, sir," he simply said.

"This is Ginny Weasley," Harry said as the butler held the door for her to enter as well. Ginny sheepishly slunk in, eyes taking in the grand foyer with its domed ceiling and plaster accents.

The man took a step and turned. "Are you expected?"

"Not exactly," Harry said.

The man hesitated, but appeared to come to a decision and led them farther in, footsteps echoing. Ginny remained quiet, even falling behind as she craned her neck everywhere, stutter-stepping when they passed two Chinese vases taller then her. She came to herself and plowed on with purpose after that.

Mrs. Wickem sat in consultation with someone Harry did not recognize, a witch whose dress reflected the style of Trelawney's robes. They had little metallic stars scattered on the fabric and overlapping layers that floated about her. They both blinked in surprise as Harry was introduced by the butler.

"Mr. Potter," Mrs. Wickem said in the mode of an accusation.

"We're just looking for Aaron," Harry explained.

Mrs. Wickem shifted her substantial frame in her chair and looked about the papers before her, flustered. "Oh, I uh . . ."

The other woman clasped her hands before her and serenely stated, "He isn't here."

Ginny asked, "Do you know where is?"

When no reply came right away, Harry held up a hand before his friend to stall her next comment. Ginny had the letter in her hand. She pocketed it and huffed.

Calmly, in the voice he had heard the Aurors use in countless similar situations, Harry asked, "What is going on, Mrs. Wickem?"

Mrs. Wickem raised fleshy arms, her elbows like indents, rather than points, to blow her nose daintily. Harry held up his hand again, since Ginny had twitched, threatening to approach closer.

"I just don't know what I'm going to do," Aaron's mother muttered into her hanky.

"Is there a reason you can't explain?" Harry went on still as smooth as glass with his speech.

Despite his calming voice, this triggered something. Mrs. Wickem's beefy fists came down on the small table with a bang, making the papers upon it jump in unison. "I cannot explain; don't you understand? Terrible things will happen if I do." She buried her nose and mouth in the hanky again, the picture of misery. "Terrible things. The letter contained a curse they said, just reading it seals the spell."

"What letter?" Harry asked.

Mrs. Wickem gestured at the white lacquer box beside her. Harry walked over, prompting the other witch to put her hand on it. "Why are you interfering when you are clearly not welcome?"

"I don't think we were introduced," Harry said.

Mrs. Wickem lowered her hanky to her breast long enough to say, "Heather Feyther, this is Harry Potter." She covered her hiccup with her hanky.

Ginny had slipped up beside Harry, "Don't you write a column for Witch Weekly called Portents and Providence?"

The bob-haired woman gave a stiff little bow. "Yes, I do young lady, and what would your sign be? No let me guess . . ."

"Don't we have more important things to worry about?" Harry interrupted sharply. He pointed at the box, which was now unprotected. "Can I just see the box? I won't open it."

Mrs. Wickem handed the box over. Harry held it out before him and emptied his thoughts to concentrate. "This isn't cursed."

"How do you know?" Feyther asked.

"I can tell when something is. Like your bracelet there. That's cursed."

She held out her jingling arm and demanded, "Which one?"

There was quite a choice. Harry leaned close and pointed at a black and white one that resembled a chess board stretched long.

"Really?" she asked. "Rita gave that one to me for my birthday."

Ginny snorted and had to cover her mouth to keep from laughing aloud. With a jangle, Feyther tossed her arm to her side and glared at them.

"Please, Hettie," Mrs. Wickem said. "You mentioned you could help."

"I expect I can. I need a lock of hair and something he kept with him often."

Ginny said, "Where is Aaron?"

Feyther turned on her in a huff. "If we knew that we wouldn't be trying to scry for him, now would we?" She put her hand over her mouth, eyes wide, showing the whites all around.

Harry put the box down. Mrs. Wickem started to speak and Feyther said, "Mitzy, you can't. They explicitly said not contact the authorities."

"We're not the authorities," Ginny said. She glanced at Harry. "Well, not really."

"We're certain the house is being watched," Feyther insisted primly.

Harry turned to Ginny. "Let yourself out an upstairs window and circle around to see if anyone is skulking around."

Ginny strode off to do this, and Harry was glad for her absence a moment later when Mrs. Wickem opened the box and held it out to Harry, hand shaking. Inside was a letter, spotted with red and an ear, just beginning to shrivel. Despite all the death Harry had seen in his life, he still shied from it. He used a spell to make the letter float out of the box and unfold. It was a ransom note, signed with three vertical lines in the shape of an upside down triangle, like the slits in the masks worn by Durmulna. He waved the letter back away and gestured that he was finished. She closed the box and set it down, then rested her face on the table, arms outstretched, still holding the box.

Harry had thought taking responsibility for the twins by not reporting them was too much, this was ten times more difficult a predicament. What would Dumbledore do? he wondered. He repeated the question again, like a mental mantra.

His brain latched onto the letter. "They demanded how much . . . five-hundred thousand Galleons?" Sad affirmation followed. "That's rather a lot."

Mrs. Wickem nodded with more tears. Harry asked, "Have you contacted Lord Freelander?"

Feyther perked up at this, gazelle-like neck stretched out in curiosity. Harry realized he should not have said that in front of her. He quickly amended, "He has been generous in the past with me. Of course that was a pittance compared to this . . ."

More tearful nodding, but Mrs. Wickem had fallen thoughtful, which was an improvement. What would Dumbledore do? Harry thought again. Then he answered himself, he would be very prudent, not rash in the least unless death were imminent. He would wait to see what everyone would do. He would observe everyone's reactions and even their thoughts until he had a good picture of the situation and who could be counted on to help and who not.

Ginny returned. Quietly she said, "There are two watching from a house two doors down, though at the moment they are playing a card game and not paying so much attention. Should we nab 'em?"

Harry shook his head. "We have to be very careful. If past prisoners are any indication, they probably don't know enough to help, and it will tip off the leaders." Harry cast his mind ahead, finally finding some purchase in his thoughts rather than just spinning helplessly. To Mrs. Wickem, he said, "Aaron will be missing tomorrow at the Ministry. I want you to send an owl first thing in the morning to the Department Head, Arthur Weasley, telling him Aaron is . . . I don't know, ill or something, or his uncle in Albania died. It much doesn't matter what you say as long as it sounds convincing."

Ginny broke in, "But why don't you-"

Harry cut her off by touching her arm and holding it. "The owl is for your watchers to intercept."

"Ah," Ginny said, and Harry felt her relax through his grip on her.

"I'll talk to Arthur myself in the morning, Ginny, if she thinks it's safe to, can explain tonight, but I think no one should do anything unusual tonight. I think we slipped in here unnoticed, hopefully. I'll explain in a second," Harry said to Ginny.

To the Witch Weekly astrologer, Harry said, "If you find anything scrying . . . let me know by sending an owl through the Floo from your house, not from here." He could not generate any faith that she would find anything, but he could not justify turning away any help, and he did not want her accidentally tipping off Durumulna if she believed she had found something.

Feyther nodded and kept her gaze down, making it impossible for Harry to see if she had any faith in herself.

"If you think you know where he is. Don't tell anyone else. Just me. I can fetch him if I know where he is." Harry said this with such force that all eyes came his way and held there. To Ginny, he said, "If we slipped through any barriers undetected, it's because we were in Animagus form when we crossed them. Let's leave that way from the window you just used.

Harry turned back to the lady of the house. "I'll be back tomorrow Mrs. Wickem."

She nodded. Her tears had dried, or perhaps she had run out. There was nothing else to say. Harry could not think of anything else that should be covered so it could not go more wrong.

Back in Shrewsthorpe, he and Ginny huddled in Harry's room, scheming. Harry explained what he had learned and mentioned the ear, only because Mr. Weasley would need to know.

"Oh, Harry this is awful," Ginny said, sounding very much like Aaron's mother.

"I expect your dad will know what to do. I don't have very many ideas right now." Quite the opposite, his mind was going in spirals, imagining his friend subject to all manner of horrors, some of which he had personal experience with.

"Half a million in Galleons," she muttered several times. "Harry, that's insane."

Harry said, "Go on, your dad needs to know."

Ginny stood and said, strained, "Hopefully he doesn't do anything daft that gets Aaron killed."

"Your dad was in the Order, Ginny, and he is department head. He knows what he's doing." She disappeared, and Harry breathed, "I hope."

Harry called down from the balcony that he was home and was going to bed. He dumped his books on the floor and quickly got ready for sleep. He needed rest now while he could get it. He may not get any again for quite a while.

Sleep did not come right away. Harry kept thinking that Aaron was most likely not in a comfortable bed like he was. He could only imagine he was huddled anxiously on the floor somewhere, wishing he were anywhere else.

- 888 -

The next morning Harry was awake and ready to leave more than half an hour early. But he should not break his routine, he knew, even though it wrung his heart to not get started. He used the time to write an eyes-only letter to Snape that he felt confident added no risk to the situation.

Harry read the letter over while stirring the ash-stained wax he would use to seal it. The letter had stretched long, the facts written out stark and cold, interspersed with guesses that Snape did not need to read but Harry had needed to write to make himself feel better. Harry assumed Snape would ignore them, and he need not start again. His suppositions, upon a re-read, painted a pretty accurate picture of his current frantic state of mind, which Snape would like to know, Harry was certain.

Harry sighed and magically charmed the letter before burning it and casting the spell to reform it, locking in the destruction that would render the letter unreadable to anyone but the intended recipient. Of all the people Harry knew, Snape would never make a wrong step for having been informed of what was going on. Harry fingered the rolled parchment, checking that the ring of fouled wax was intact, thinking that there really was no valid excuse for holding back with his guardian on any matter.

Harry arrived at the Ministry five minutes early. Before he could step into the training room, Rodgers gestured out of the office door for him to come that way.

Rodgers led the way to the tea room and closed the door. "Did you hold back anything from Ms. Weasley?" When Harry shook his head, Rodgers said, "Drat it all, we were hoping for a little more. All right." He rubbed his mustache back and forth before smoothing it down, a rare nervous gesture for him. "Your training is cancelled for now."

"Are we being allowed to help search, then?" Harry asked, hopeful his black thoughts could be eased by action.

"You four are going to help Rogan cover the calls while we investigate and search . . . with great care."

"We can search with great care," Harry said.

Rodgers shook his head. "More care than that."

Harry's settled into an open desk in the Auror's office, glad to be helpful in any way possible. Tridant was assigned to him as a partner for the day, which Harry took as a compliment implying that they had confidence he could cover for their youngest apprentice. Before their first call, after Tonks joked about sending the babes out, Harry aged Tridant to appear something around late-thirties.

"Wow," Tridant said, peering in Tonks' small mirror. "Is that what I'm going to look like? I better find a bird and get married, right quick."

"If you don't come on . . ." Harry said from the door. "Next time, I'll make you look like a crone."

Harry's last glance back revealed Shacklebolt and Rodgers grinning at him with more confidence than expected. It buoyed Harry's heavy spirits just enough to get him through the day.

Their calls were easy ones, as if fate intended to help them recover Aaron. Harry and his partner only had to cast a spell once against a wizard who insisted on continuing to argue, wands out, with his business partner in the back of a Muggle shop, long after it had attracted the attention of passersby.

While they made their way along the pavement to find an Apparition spot out, Tridant said, "Are most days like this . . . with just useless calls? Old witches who forget that their money tin was always cursed . . . wizards who don't trust each other and decide to duel in an office the size of a closet?"

"Most stuff is pretty lame," Harry agreed, feeling like he had been doing this longer than a year and a half as he went on. "Showing up for these things isn't useless; it reminds Wizardom that we're here. And there are times like these when you want easy calls, because you already have too much to take care of. But this easy stuff can be bad, too: you lose your edge and one comes along where someone is intent on killing you and you aren't expecting more than drunken Quidditch fans playing with a Bludger on some Muggle High Street at three in the morning."

The day passed quickly and, to maintain appearances, two of them were sent home for the night, including Harry, who would have complained louder, but he wanted time to think and to make his promised visit to Mrs. Wickem. Harry contemplated dropping by the Burrow to bring Ginny along, but decided his visit would be quick.

Mrs. Wickem flowed over a divan in a dim room surrounded by windows letting in the late sun and the street lamps which had just flickered on. Harry hung back, not wanting to be seen from outside. Feyther perched across from her friend on the edge of a chair, bony knees out to the sides, long neck bent. Behind her sat a collection of crystal balls and a heap of shiny painted bones.

"Any news?" Harry asked.

Feyther shook her head when it became clear she was the only one willing to respond. Mrs. Wickem did not take her eyes from the window. "And what of the Ministry?" Feyther asked.

"We are proceeding very carefully, but there is no news yet. You haven't received any more letters?"

Mrs. Wickem did not turn. She said, "We have until Thursday, Mr. Potter."

"I know that, ma'am. Believe me, there is nothing I wouldn't do to get him back."

At home, it was difficult for Harry to settle into his books, so he settled into the last week's worth of Daily Prophets, hoping for any kind of clue. He wanted to go out searching, anywhere, even just from one horse barn to the next, but the risk of tipping someone off and triggering retribution by Aaron's captors was too much, even for the impatient Harry to risk.

Feeling like a prisoner himself, Harry planted himself on the couch across from Candide and went through each paper, every line. He learned all kinds of things, such as the fact that the long-whiskered owlet had won best of breed in the Eastchester Cage Club Show. It was a tiny owl, bred by South American witches to carry messages through crowded barrios without being seen. It escaped into the wild in the seventies, to the delight of Muggle bird watchers.

Harry put the paper down with a disgruntled rustle, wondering how anyone could worry about such trivialities with so many terrible things going on. This attracted Candide's attention, which he had not meant to do.

Harry said, "I thought I'd catch up on the papers, but it's . . . boring."

Candide bent back to her work. "It's tough when people at the office are talking about some recent event and you don't know anything about it."

"Er, yeah," Harry said. He eyed her tall piles of files. "Last night before deadline," he stated. "Can I help you out?"

She peered doubtfully at the wave of paper washing over her lap from tall piles on the left to shorter ones on the right, with a side creek lapping onto the floor. "I suppose you could sort one of these. If you really don't mind."

Harry would be happy to do anything to keep his nervous hands occupied but leave his mind free to wander.

Harry did just that for many hours on end, beyond midnight when he probably should have insisted Candide go to bed. He stared at invoices and receipts, numbers and more numbers, all but a few rare ones stretching for four digits or fewer. They needed a hefty six to ransom Aaron. It seemed impossible. It had never occurred to Harry to think about money at that scale before. It was enough to buy every item Harry had ever seen for sale in a shop, put together. How would one get that much money in one place even if one had access to it?

Harry had been staring at the same small receipt for Never-Out quills and Ink 'B' Gone for many minutes. Candide leaned over in question, and Harry put it down on the wrong pile before correcting his error.

"You should go to sleep," she said.

"You should too," Harry countered, blinking to moisten his eyes to better read the exceptionally decorative cursive columns of numbers on the next slip.

But Harry gave in soon after, knowing his duties could grow to twenty-four hours a day without warning. "This is your last night of poor sleep?" he confirmed before departing for his room.

She smiled at his tone and nodded. Harry sighed. If Snape could not intimidate her, how did he imagine he could possibly have a chance?

- 888 -

The next morning, while filling out the fourth report of the day and thinking wryly that Auroring and Accounting bore remarkable similarities to one another, an owl arrived for Harry, delivered by a grand old bird that Harry recognized as belonging to Lord Freelander. Harry accepted the letter and pocketed it until he had finished. It reminded Harry that he had not received a reply from his guardian.

Harry stared at the long form before him; he really needed a file out of the file room to look up an address and case history, but he was the only one left in the office so he could not fetch it. He sighed that files were charmed so as to not be hovered out magically. Mr. Weasley wandered in, heading immediately to the log book. Harry thought of asking him to cover, then decided it could wait.

"Any news, sir?" Harry asked

Mr. Weasley shook his head. "Rodgers thinks we should limit contact to Mrs. Wickem through you. Feel like heading over there to get a report?"

"I can go when my replacement comes, or right now, if you prefer. I assume I can go without a guard?"

"This afternoon after Ms. Kalendula returns with Mr. Abhayananda you can go." He peered at Harry with underslept eyes. "It feels like we need to guard all of you. But I think you are safe to go without a guard, Harry. No one should know where you are going."

Harry opened his mouth to say he felt confident it should be no problem and decided that was completely the wrong thing to say. "I'll be careful, sir," he said instead, garnering a nod and small smile from his boss.

An owl caught Harry as he crossed the Atrium, thinking to make an exit from somewhere tracked less carefully by Transportation. Harry uncurled the letter from Snape. It simply said: you can not be too careful, nor too wise.

"Thanks Albus," Harry muttered before stashing the letter in his pocket with the other one.

- 888 -

Lunches felt like snippets of immorally stolen time. Harry ducked low over a bowl of soupy Asian noodles heated unevenly with a distracted wave of his wand. His mind had been in overdrive all morning and despite having no work before him, it kept working at high speed. "The seventh pure-blood son who is not," he murmured.

"What?" Tonks asked, holding out a soggy chip left over from someone's take-away order from the night before. "Is that a puzzle?"

"Sounds akin to prophecy," Vineet said. The only thing he had volunteered all day.

"Know something we don't, Harry?" Tonks asked, sounding quite concerned.

"It's nothing important," Harry said, "Just something I was thinking of." He bent back over his loudly-printed styrofoam bowl, thinking that he knew who that must be. He wondered if he should owl McGonagall to double check that there were no new prophecies in this Plane. He hoped not. He especially hoped that someone would tell him if there were. Just in case, for the future, he should ride Ginny harder to make sure she got into the Auror's program next year. All of this flitted through Harry's mind in two eye blinks.

"If you say so," Tonks remarked, doubtfully assessing Harry's far away expression. With a loud crackling, she bundled the brownest bits up in the grease-spotted basket liner and tossed it in the rubbish bin. That was the cue for everyone to get up and return to duty.

- 888 -

At the Wickem residence, Harry found Lord Freelander, hat in hand, speaking with the lady of the house.

"Ah, Mr. Potter. You did get my owl."

Harry resisted patting the pocket where the unopened letter rested. He greeted Mrs. Wickem and asked if there was any news.

Freelander shook his head. "We cannot possible come up with the requested funds by Thursday. Mitzy's holdings are even less liquid than my own. Properties in far flung places would have to be sold or put up as collateral, holdings in corporations divested, carry trades unwound . . . A month would be unreasonable, let alone four days!"

Harry who had been doing accounting the night before, almost followed along with this tirade. "How much can you get together?"

"Ninety-thousand, perhaps ninety-five."

Harry thought that quite a lot of money for being so far short. For the first time he resisted the notion of giving thugs that much money for any reason. There must be another way.

Freelander said, "I expect we could negotiate down to three-hundred thousand or a quarter of a million . . ."

"I will not barter over my son!" Mrs. Wickem burst out, her arms spasming in anger.

Freelander's shoulders slumped. Speaking in a hush, he said, "I did not intend to devalue Aaron . . . I am trying to be realistic."

The air showed no sign of warming after that, and Harry took his leave after spouting more of what felt like empty assurances that everything was being done.

- 888 -

At dinner time Harry's department again insisted that he go home. When he resisted, Tonks said, "Harry, of all of us, you are the most likely one to be watched. Things have to look normal."

Harry thought ahead to going home, knowing Candide would not be home until after the midnight deadline.

In a commanding manner, Tonks said, "Harry."

Harry stood up. "All right. All right." He stared into her changeable eyes. "Are you going find him or not?" he asked, finding that his patience with how things were supposed to work had run perilously thin just over the course of that day.

She rested her folded hands over her crossed knees and said, "We hope to. We intend to."

Harry remembered so many years of empty help from the Ministry when things were desperate for him. He tried to shake that off by reminding himself that he was part of this now and knew better what the department was up against.

"Harry?" she questioned, sounding quite concerned. "If you have ideas you should tell them to someone rather than going off on your own."

Harry bleakly shook his head. His only ideas involved dark magic and he did not think he need share them.

Author's Notes: Sorry for the delay, had to finish 24 before posting this. So we are on track for 24 to be posted at the regular time.

Next: Chapter 24 -- The Ransom of Red Twin

"Remain there," an echoing voice commanded. Harry let the trunk drift. Another rumble built and receded as if the very earth were sliding by, seconds later a rush of air lifted his hair and robes one way and then the other, as though he stood before the gaping maw of a great animal.

"Touch the railing. If you are not in the employ of the Wickems this will render you senseless."

Harry rested his hand on the iron pipe railing that split the stairs, amused as well as worried to think that his trunk was full of the same cheap material, and he was going to ransom a life with that.

"Send the trunk up."

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