Harry and Ginny returned to Godric's Hollow the next morning, half an hour early because Harry wanted to look around before he went upstairs. Ginny wasn't quite sure if that was the real or only reason, since he was keeping his mind closed. But she knew that he was troubled; after they dressed, he sat on the edge of the bed next to her and put his hand on her shoulder. When they ate breakfast he kept reaching for her hand, and when she asked how he was doing, he just shook his head.
They Apparated into the woods behind the house, pushed through the yew hedge, and saw people inside. They recognized Ron and his assistant, Tom Trenton; another Auror was kneeling on the floor.
Harry was still quiet, and Ginny began to worry. She felt little twitches of fear escaping from him. "Are you okay?" She took his arm, but he didn't look at her.
"I think so."
Ron glanced out the window and saw them. He waved and left the room.
"Come on," Harry said. "Let's get this over with."
They walked around the house, but instead of going to their right as they had last time, Harry led Ginny to the left, and when they came to the front, he stopped and looked up.
They were underneath the blown out bedroom. Small pieces of the house—mortar, chunks of brick, weathered sticks of wood, a few shingles—lay about in the spring weeds. They saw the bedroom's ceiling through the large hole on the second floor. The corner of the house was still intact, giving the ceiling some support, but it did appear that the roof was sagging.
"It won't stand much longer," Harry muttered.
Ginny didn't speak; she was not sure what was going on inside him, but she could tell that he wanted her to be next to him. She tightened her grip on his arm and rubbed it for a moment with her other hand.
Harry gave her hand a pat and they continued to the front. Ron was waiting just outside the door with Hermione, and he pulled Harry and Ginny a few yards away from the house. "'Mione just got here," he told them. "She has some interesting news."
"I met with Professor McGonagall this morning," she said, "and I showed her the book I bought in Borgin and Burkes. It's the copy from Hogwarts. There's a magical stamp in it that's only visible when the book is inside the castle."
"Now that's crazy!" said Harry. "Why would he steal the book one day and sell it the next? They can't need gold, they must have plenty of it if they're buying houses."
"Maybe someone stole it from them," Ginny said thoughtfully. "Someone with sticky fingers, perhaps?"
"Fletcher?" Harry looked at her almost in amazement; he gave a short laugh. "Now wouldn't that be poetic justice."
Ron glanced back at the house; Saliyah stood in the doorway talking to someone inside the vestibule. "We can check that out later. I think Sal wants to get started."
They walked back to the house and all four were surprised to see that the person inside the vestibule was Kingsley Shacklebolt. There was an uncomfortable moment when he and Harry looked at each other; the Minister covered his mouth with his fist and coughed.
"Hello, Harry," he said. "I'm here for a reason. If we—you—find what Saliyah says you'll find, I want to witness it myself. That way no one can object when you go back to your office this morning."
"You mean when you revoke my suspension."
Kingsley chuckled. "Yes, that's what I mean."
"Okay, then." Harry looked around. He nodded to Tom Trenton who was standing in the doorway to the parlor, and to Dennis Creevey, the other member of Ron's investigative team, who stood behind Tom. Harry went to the staircase and put his hand on the banister. He glanced back and Ginny came. Stay next to me, Harry sent.
They climbed to the first landing, halfway up. Everyone followed except Tom and Dennis, who remained by the front door. Harry paused on the landing. A half flight up was the second floor. He took out his wand and slowly climbed; Ginny, at his side, also took out her wand.
There were three doors, two on the left and one on the right. He gave an almost imperceptible nod to the right. Their bedroom. The door immediately on their left was closed. The loo or a cupboard.
The door past it, the door to the damaged room, was ajar, hanging by a hinge; most of the paint was charred or peeled off. Harry stood gazing at it for a long moment. No one spoke; the people on the steps behind him, Saliyah, Kingsley, Ron, and Hermione, did not move.
Harry finally started towards the door and stood in front of it. Ginny, at his side, put her hand on his shoulder.
"I saw it all, you know," he said tightly, looking straight ahead at the door. "When Hermione and I escaped from Bathilda Bagshot's house he had a flashback to that night and I saw it all. He killed my dad in the vestibule and came up here and blew this door in. Then . . ."
He stepped forward and pushed the door, which swung back and banged against the wall behind it. Ginny came with him and they entered the room. He put his hand to his forehead, and Ginny looked at him in alarm.
He shook his head. Just a twinge. It's a residue or something like. Nothing else is there. He gave her a quick smile.
The other four stood outside the door. Saliyah looked like she was in shock; she started to follow them but Harry put up his hand and she stopped.
"You can't," he said. "It is the blood protection. I felt it when I passed the door."
The Head Auror frowned and took another step to the threshold, tried another step through the door, but instead stumbled back. "Damn," she muttered. "How did Ginny get in?"
Harry shrugged. "It looks like she's protected now, too." You're safe from Voldemort, Harry sent to Ginny with a mental grin.
But Ginny wasn't smiling. She was looking around the room, and now Harry did too. The two outer walls, on the side and front, were mostly gone; they could see into the front yard and the woods. The two inner walls were somehow intact, but charred like the vestibule. A small dresser stood against one wall; a cupboard door was in the other wall, and next to it was the crib. His crib.
Harry slowly walked towards it. Ginny stayed next to him, holding her breath; she watched him out of the corner of her eye, but his face was blank. When they stood in front of the crib, Harry reached out and put his hand on the rail. He turned his head to Ginny. "It must have protected the crib too," he murmured.
The crib was not damaged, although it was a little dusty. It was the same dark green as the little rocking chair they had found in the parlor, and the paint was still glossy; it looked almost new. There was no blanket or anything else in it, but the sheets on the mattress also looked fresh and clean, despite being exposed to the elements for twenty-two years.
Harry grasped the rail with both hands, rested his forehead on it and took deep, gulping breaths. Ginny put her arm around his shoulders and leaned her head against his. When their heads touched, Ginny felt everything, his pain, grief, anger, everything that she had felt last night after reading the letter from her mother saying that Coach Deverill would not take her back. But this was so much worse; this had almost been the end of his life, as it was for his parents. "I'm so sorry," she whispered.
Harry shook his head, but didn't lift it. "No, Gin, I'm sorry." His haunted eyes looked at her. "We're going to rip this place down and build our home here."
"Oh Harry, why—what are you saying? Are you sure? We don't have to do that. Don't say it unless you really want it."
He stared into her eyes and put his hand on hers, which was also resting on the rail. Isn't that what you want?
He looked back at the door; Saliyah was peering in, waiting. "We'll talk about it later," he muttered.
Ginny gave his hand a quick squeeze, and Harry stepped away from the crib. He walked to the door and Saliyah looked at him questioningly; Kingsley, Ron, and Hermione crowded behind her.
"There are two pieces of furniture in here," he told her, "a crib and a dresser. Nothing else. I don't see anything that looks suspicious—"
"Harry!" Ginny called; he turned to see her standing in front of the cupboard. She had opened the door and was pointing at the floor inside it.
"My assistant seems to have found something," he said to Saliyah. "One moment, please."
The people outside in the hallway couldn't see the cupboard, but they heard Harry murmur to Ginny and her ask him a question. He answered, and he and Ginny stepped back. Harry's wand was pointing at something. He spoke the Levitating charm, and as they moved backward an object floated in front of them. It hovered about a yard off the floor and Harry slowly moved it towards the door. It was another Pensieve disk.
"Don't try to put it through the door!" Saliyah cried.
He nodded. "They're using this room as a storage location. They probably figured that it's completely safe because no one can get in."
"Except you," said Ginny at his shoulder.
"And someone else too, otherwise how did they get it here?"
Ron, who had been peering from behind the Head Auror, craned his head around her. "Why don't we try to Apparate inside?"
"No!" Saliyah barked. "No one tries anything. But . . ." She looked around the hallway and down at Ron's feet. "Give me one of your boots."
Ron stared at her. "What?"
"Give me your boot. I want to try something."
Ron kept staring, but soon a light went on and he scowled. "What if it gets ruined? These are expensive boots, I bought them at a cool Muggle shoe store in Kensington Park Road."
"You will be reimbursed by the Department." Saliyah held out her hand and, grumbling, Ron took off his left boot and handed it to her.
Ginny was standing behind Harry inside the room, smirking at her brother. Ron pointed at her. "You keep your mouth shut, Ginevra. This isn't funny."
"It looks funny from in here," she said with a wicked grin. "Smells funny too."
Ron glanced at the Head Auror who was glaring at Ginny; he looked back at his sister and slowly and silently drew his finger across his throat.
"All right, children, that's enough. Stand back." Saliyah Levitated the boot, directing it towards the door. It sailed through and Harry snatched it out of the air.
"Do you want it back, mate?" He dangled the boot and grinned at Ron.
"If you don't mind," Ron growled.
The shoe came sailing back and Ron grabbed it. He stumped to the stairs and sat on the top step to put the boot back on.
Saliyah turned to Hermione. "What do you make of that? Is the protection keeping people out but not inanimate objects? Or does it let through something when magic is involved?"
"There's no way to tell for sure without trying to Levitate or put someone through magically, and I don't think we want to try that. But either way, it means that the people who are using this room studied it and figured out either how to modify the blood protection, or that it was already vulnerable somehow." She looked at Kingsley. "It had to be someone in the Department of Mysteries."
"Croaker is forcing Sprout to alter the magic," Harry declared. "It's him."
The Minister gazed at Harry but didn't speak for a long moment; Harry stared back. Ron stood up with his boot back on but didn't move. Everyone was silent.
"It does look that way," Kingsley said at last.
"And," Harry pressed on, "he stored the Pensieve in here, maybe he used it in here."
"What do you say, Kingsley?" Saliyah asked after another moment. "The evidence is piling up."
"I see that." The Minister rubbed the bridge of his nose between his fingers and looked at Saliyah. "I'm not making any decision right here. Keep a guard, and maybe they'll blunder into it. Meanwhile, I'm going back to the Ministry. We'll talk there." Without another word he turned on the spot and was gone.
"I'm sending this thing out," Harry said. The disk floated out the door as the others stepped back. Ron plucked it out of the air, Harry lowered his wand, took a final look around the room, and walked through the door; Ginny followed.
"I'm sorry, Harry," Saliyah said. "I'm sure he'll reinstate you, maybe even today."
"Why is he doing this?" Harry asked. "Everyone thinks that Croaker knows something about him and is blackmailing him."
Saliyah gazed at Harry, hesitated for a long moment and spoke. "Croaker knows something, but it's not about Kingsley, it's about you."
Harry stared a her in disbelief. His mind raced as he tried to think of anything in his past bad enough to cause the Minister for Magic to suspend him from his job. What could it be? he sent to Ginny, who, along with Ron and Hermione, was also gaping at the Head Auror.
"What are you talking about?" he finally said. "Croaker is nutters."
It's fine, love, came from Ginny. It has to be a mistake.
Ginny gripped Harry's arm and Saliyah glanced at her. "Kingsley was protecting you," the Head Auror said. "Croaker knows about the Unforgivable Curses you used during the war, and threatened to go to the press about them unless Kingsley fired you. He agreed to suspend you instead."
"The what?" Harry exclaimed. "But that was years ago. He is crazy!" He looked around at the others, then back at Saliyah. "And Shacklebolt let him get away with it?"
"Harry," Saliyah said calmly, "if it was Ernie Macmillan or Katie Bell, no one would care. But it's you. At best there would be a blow up in the press, at worst the Wizengamot would get involved and maybe even set up a committee to look into it." She held up both hands to stem his outburst, which they all could see coming. "Don't say anything. It isn't necessary. All we need is a bit more evidence that Croaker is mixed up with stealing the Pensieve and, more importantly, one of his associates used an Unforgivable. He'll have to shut up. He'll crawl back into his hole in the Department of Mysteries and no one will hear of this again. All you have to do is solve this case, and I think you're well on the way to doing just that."
Harry took a deep breath and blew it out. He looked at Ginny, who was now holding his hand. Neither one looked away or blinked. Finally Harry turned his head to Saliyah. "Okay, but I still can't believe that Kingsley would let himself be bullied like that."
Saliyah smiled mirthlessly. "It's not a good time to be in the middle of Ministry politics. Well . . ." She sighed and took the disk from Ron. "Let's get this back to the Department and see what we find."
They went downstairs where Tom and Dennis were standing at the door. Saliyah told them to remain where they were and to expect more Aurors to join them. "I'll see you back at the office later," she said to Ron, who had started to follow her into the front yard. She Disapparated as quickly and with as little ceremony as Kingsley.
"That was strange," said Hermione. "Why didn't she want you to go with her?"
"Because," answered Ron, "she wants us all to talk about this whole mess, and she doesn't want Harry back at the Ministry yet."
"Your place or ours?" Harry asked.
They Apparated to the Weasleys' flat in London, and Hermione and Ginny went out to buy cold cuts and salads for lunch. Ron sat in a chair in the parlor while Harry paced around the room. He couldn't believe that anyone would care that he had used a Crucio on Bellatrix Lestrange—especially since he had been underage—or even on Amycus Carrow. But now that he considered it, he had to admit that the Imperio he put on that Travers bloke in Gringotts, while necessary, might be questioned by an unfriendly person.
He stopped thinking about it. He had to concentrate on the Pensieve, and on somehow getting Deverill to change his mind. The thought of what it was doing to Ginny raised his ire again.
"Even if I get my job back and no one brings up the Curses, Ginny is still off the team," he groused. "What are we going to do during the tournament? She'll be a wreck."
"Maybe Deverill will relent?" Ron said hopefully. "Maybe fans will scream loud enough and he'll have to take her back."
Harry stopped in front of the wedding photo of him and Ginny sitting on the mantel. She was so beautiful and alluring in her gown. Aunt Muriel's goblin-made tiara sat on her brow; a veela necklace with a solitaire diamond, a gift from Bill and Fleur, radiated magic from her bosom; she held a bouquet of red roses and beamed with utter joy. He wore a black Muggle tuxedo trimmed in emerald green, and he smiled when he remembered Ginny's delight at how it matched his eyes.
He turned back to Ron. "I just don't understand the bastard. Why would he sack his best player for missing a few damn practices, especially at the beginning of training camp?" Ron didn't answer, and Harry went to the window and peered out. "Here they come." Ron rose and went into the dining room.
A minute later Ginny and Hermione were back with sliced corned beef, salami, ham, cheeses, pickles, salads, fresh rye bread, and a tub of ice cream. There was enough for Harry and themselves too, so they all sat around the table and ate. They talked about the events in Godric's Hollow and wondered why Amander Croaker and Chadwick Chamberlain needed a Pensieve.
"I'll bet Chamberlain wants to sell it," Ron said while stuffing his salami sandwich into his mouth. "In fact, I wouldn't be surprised if that's what he planned all along, even while he was still teaching at Beauxbatons."
"That's total speculation," Hermione said. "I think Mr. Croaker hired Mr. Chamberlain to steal it."
"That's a new theory," Harry said, somewhat surprised. "Why?"
"I don't know why Croaker wants it, but he has no reason to be around Hogwarts, and that's why he needed Chamberlain. If Croaker showed up there, everyone would wonder why. Chamberlain can say he's there to visit Professor Flitwick, and he can say he's in Hogsmeade to check out Zonko's."
"If he's interested in jokes," said Ginny, "why doesn't he go to Diagon Alley? The store there is a lot bigger."
"That's true," replied Hermione. "But by appearing to be interested in Zonko's he's establishing a more solid alibi for being up north, where the Pensieve happens to be."
"Wait a minute," Ron said as he reached across the table for the tub of ice cream. He scooped half of it into a bowl while the others watched. "You are totally speculating that Croaker is paying Chamberlain. What evidence is there?"
"Well, none," Hermione admitted. "But what motive does Chamberlain have for stealing it? Croaker could want it to help in his studies of the mind. As far as I know, they never replaced that brain you demolished, just like you're demolishing a half-gallon of ice cream all by yourself, I might add."
"I didn't demolish anything. You were unconscious, if I remember correctly, so how could you know what happened?"
"Okay!" Harry raised his hand and they both stopped and looked at him. "It's all very interesting, but I think what you're both saying is total guesswork. I agree that there is no motive for Chamberlain that we can see yet, but he and Croaker make for two very strange bedfellows. And we're forgetting someone else. Mundungus."
"That's easy," Hermione said. "He's the errand boy. They need someone who knows the underworld, maybe even raise money for them."
"I don't know if that's all he did," Harry said with a slight frown. "He was suspiciously close to the lorry when Percy was Imperiused."
"I'll tell you why he didn't do that," Ginny said. "If he's caught, he would go to Azkaban for using an Unforgivable Curse, and he wouldn't take that risk. He just retired from the Auror Department, right?"
"As an unofficial special assistant snitch, or something like that," Ron snickered.
"But he was on the payroll," Ginny went on. "He was always a scoundrel, but he was never a vicious scoundrel. He never actually hurt anyone."
Ron shook his head as he scooped more ice cream for himself. "He fancies you, Sis, so you're biased. I say he's perfectly capable of hurting someone."
"You're my brother, so that should also bias me, but I still might hurt you for eating a whole tub of ice cream. It was my favorite flavor too."
"I owe you, then," Ron grinned. "One half-gallon of butter brickle. I didn't know you were trying to put on weight."
"You are skating on very thin ice, Brother. Be careful."
Ron went out to buy more ice cream, and after all four of them polished it off, Harry and Ginny returned to the inn. Ginny went down to the dining room and sat at the bar, chatting with Harriet, while Harry wandered around the village talking to anyone who might have seen something two days ago when the lorry was stopped next to Honeydukes. He came back as dusk was falling to find Ginny upstairs in the flat, sitting in the kitchen, staring at a pile of vegetables. He could feel that she had slipped into an unhappy mood again.
"Soup tonight?" Harry asked, sitting across from her.
Ginny shrugged. "Yeah. Is that okay?"
"Do you want some help making it?"
Ginny sighed and looked at him. Her sadness filled him, and he got up and went around the table to her. He stood behind her and ran his fingers through her hair.
"That's nice," she murmured, putting her head back and closing her eyes. Harry looked down at her uplifted face, at the life-pulse in her neck, at the swelling of her breasts, which he could see down her blouse. He felt a wave of love and longing, not sexual, but a yearning for her and a need to protect her and make things right. What had happened to her wasn't fair, and it was his fault. He needed to do something.
Ginny opened her eyes and looked at him upside down. "It isn't your fault. It was my decision."
"I don't care." He leaned down and she giggled at their upside down kiss. "Come on, we're going back to Godric's Hollow," Harry said.
Ginny stood and turned to face him. "Now? Aren't the Aurors there?"
"Yes, but there's something I want to do. No, don't ask." He put his fingers on her lips and then kissed her again. "You'll see when we get there. Let's do a Side-Along."
They went into the sitting room, but before they Apparated, Harry retrieved his Invisibility Cloak from his dresser in the bedroom. A moment later they were once again in the woods behind the house in Godric's Hollow. It was dark under the trees, and Harry lit his wand. He led Ginny around to the front and out to the gate on the lane. They turned and looked back at the house. Night had fallen and the building was a large shadow, barely illuminated by a street lamp down the lane.
Harry put his arm around her waist. "I've been selfish," he began, but Ginny stopped him.
"No! Don't say that. I told you I'm fine. It was my decision."
Harry shook his head and took Ginny's waist with both of his hands. He pressed them into her, moved them up and down her sides, feeling her body, the body he loved, that drove him crazy. He saw the sparkle in her eyes and he let himself fall into her mind. It was not something new; they had done it for years. But now he wanted to go deeper, because she loved him so much that she had given up something that was precious to her, in order simply to be with him. He could not let that pass without giving in return.
I know I don't have to, but I want to. I need to.
Speak it, then. I want to hear it.
He stared into her eyes. "I've been selfish. You left the team because you love me. I want you to be as happy as you possibly can when we have our baby. I will tear this house down and we will build one together. But it will be your house. I will build it, but I will build it the way you want. You will be the mother of my child, and it will be our home but your house."
"Harry, no! It should be for you too. Don't you want a library, or a den, or . . .?"
"I'll tell you what I want, and I'll trust you to do it. But wherever you are, that's where my home is."
She pulled his head down and kissed him. His hands went under her jumper and when he touched her flesh she shuddered. Their kiss went deeper and Ginny moaned, but she suddenly broke the kiss and looked at the house. "They'll hear us," she giggled.
Harry, still holding her, also looked at the house, but he frowned. "I don't see anyone. Someone should be at the door. Damn! I didn't notice."
He took out his wand and held Ginny's hand. They walked through the high weeds to the front door. "Stentorian!" he called in a loud whisper. He cocked his ear; there was no response. "That was a two-day-old password," he said to Ginny in a much lower whisper, "but it should still be valid. I don't think anyone is here."
"Or they're hurt. We should take a look," she said in a like whisper; her own wand was now out.
"Sal would have sent at least two more people for the guard. I don't see how they all could have been taken. Wait here."
Harry pushed the door and it swung open. He listened for a moment, and quickly slipped inside. A few seconds later he reappeared and opened the door wider, pulled Ginny into the dark vestibule and closed the door. "I don't think anyone is here," he whispered. "I don't understand. Why would Sal pull the guard?"
The parlor door was open and they peered in, but saw nothing. They poked into the two other rooms that opened off the vestibule, a small kitchen and a dining room; both were completely bare of furniture.
They went upstairs and paused on the landing, listening. Harry went to the two intact doors and looked in each room. They approached the final door together and stood in it; for a moment Harry hesitated.
Are you okay?
Ginny sensed more than saw him nod. He took her hand and pulled her through. They felt the same faint pulsing sensation as their bodies passed inside, and Harry felt a twinge in his scar. Once again they walked over to the crib.
Now what? came from Ginny.
We wait, but . . . Harry reached into his jacket pocket and took out his father's Cloak. He threw it over both of them. "I'm thinking that the guard got tricked into leaving," he whispered into her ear.
"And that means that someone wanted to get into this room."
"Yes." He paused. "Let's sit in a corner. It will be easier than standing."
"Wait," Ginny giggled. "I have a better idea." She put her wand outside the Cloak and pointed it at the crib. "Fermare!" The crib gave a little shudder. "It'll hold us now."
She reached below the front rail and pressed the lever underneath. The rail slipped down and she climbed over it into the crib. "Come on," she grinned, "it's a good mattress." Harry climbed in after her. They sat side by side with their legs folded, leaning back against the bars; Harry pulled the front rail up and adjusted the Invisibility Cloak.
Ginny put her hand on his knee. Are you okay?
I want a bottle, and my nappy needs changing.
Ginny made a wheezing noise, and clapped her hand over her mouth. "Sorry, you made me laugh."
Harry put his hand on her thigh and she leaned her head against his shoulder. They sat and waited.
It didn't take long. After only a few minutes, they heard the front door open. A single set of footsteps slowly climbed the stairs. The intruder approached the door to their room, and they heard a muttered incantation. Through the Cloak Ginny and Harry saw a hand thrust a wand into the room. The wand lit and a face peered in. They recognized Julia Sprout.
Ginny started to move, but Harry's hand on her leg held her down. They watched as the Unspeakable slowly entered the room, stopped, and looked around. She walked to the cupboard, and Harry shifted so that his wand was pointed at her.
Sprout opened the cupboard door and peered in. Her wand flared and she swore. She stepped back and jerked her head to scan the room again.
Harry threw the Cloak aside, jumped up and cried, "Stupefy!" In the same instant Sprout turned on the spot and vanished as the spell hit.
Harry leaped out of the crib. "Oh, Merlin!" he shouted. "She Splinched!" He swore a string of epithets.
Ginny scrambled over the rail and stood next to Harry. She looked down and blanched, turning away from the foot, still in its shoe, that lay on the floor.
Harry looked at her in dismay. Ginny glanced back at the detached foot. "That was Sprout, wasn't it? What should we do?" she said in a shaky voice.
"One of us has to go to the Ministry and one of us has to wait here in case someone comes back for . . . it." He glanced at the appendage. "We shouldn't move it, though. Merlin, I hope she's okay."
"How can she be okay?" Ginny shuddered. "She's probably in agony. I just hope someone is with her who can come get . . . it."
"You go, then," Harry decided. "If someone comes back, they won't be in a friendly mood."
"Why do you think she didn't Apparate in? If you can Disapparate out, you should be able to Apparate in."
"Dunno. Maybe she was just being cautious."
"Who should I get from the Ministry? Everyone probably went home."
"There will be a duty officer in the Department who can raise Saliyah." He thought for a moment. "Why don't you go tell Ron first? He'll know exactly what to do, and then you and Hermione can come back here. But don't Apparate directly in or out. Maybe there is a problem if you do that. Maybe the Splinch wasn't caused by my spell but by the protection on the room."
"Are you sure you'll be okay?" Ginny looked down at the foot.
"I'll get back under the Cloak. Go!"
Ginny ran out the door and Harry heard the pop of her Disapparating. He donned the Cloak and moved away from the gruesome object on the floor, leaning against the pillar that was the only part of the wall standing at the outside corner. He held his wand at the ready and tried not to look at the foot.
The biggest question was, why did Sprout come here to fetch the Pensieve disk, and not Amander Croaker? Was it because she was the one who had countered the blood spell, and was the only one who could enter? Or did Croaker send her because he thought it would be dangerous and didn't want to expose himself? And why weren't there any guards in the house? Something underhanded must have happened because Harry could not imagine Ron or Popeye or anyone else simply abandoning their post.
Finally he heard two pops off in the woods behind the house. A moment later two figures, Ginny and Hermione, walked directly below him to the front. They came upstairs and Ginny cautiously poked her head into the room. Harry flung off the Cloak and she came inside.
She looked back at Hermione. "Try it, maybe the spell is broken."
Hermione put her hand in front of her and took a step, but shook her head. "I can't get through." She tried a few Penetration charms, and "Finite!" but nothing worked. She shrugged in frustration.
"Well, no one showed up," Harry said. "Did Ron go to the Ministry? And did he have any idea why the guard was pulled?"
Ginny nodded. "He said Saliyah came back here around five o'clock and told everyone to go home."
"That's ridiculous! Someone used Polyjuice."
"That's what we thought too," Hermione said from the hallway. "And it should be possible to find out who it was."
Harry nodded. She was referring to the Polyjuice Paper he and Ron had seen on her desk last week. "Now we're getting somewhere. All we need to do is compare Croaker's stock of ingredients with your inventory. But what about . . . that thing?" He pointed to the foot, still sitting on the floor in front of the cupboard.
"Tell me exactly what happened," Hermione said. "Ginny didn't see all of it."
Harry came to the door and stood next to Ginny, who lit her wand. He described what he had heard, seen, and done. "I thought someone would be here by now to get the foot."
Hermione frowned. "I wonder if they can grow new ones down there on the ninth level. It's not that difficult, you know."
"I wouldn't call it easy." Harry remembered the painful experience during his second year at Hogwarts.
"I meant that it's easy for the Healer, not for the patient."
"That pretty much describes most operations," said Ginny.
"Anyway," Hermione continued, "if they can grow another foot for her in the Department of Mysteries, then she doesn't even have to go to St. Mungo's and they don't have to come back here for . . . it."
"But," Harry proclaimed, "we have both her foot and her shoe, so we can prove that it was her."
"We should separate them. If they can't grow a new one, they'll need this one."
"Ugh." Ginny made a face. "Who gets to take the foot out of the shoe?"
"It should be possible to do it magically," Hermione said. "In fact, I think we should do it now, in case they try to get it back."
"Double ugh," Ginny said. "Someone else can do it. I'm not a Ministry employee."
"I guess that would be me," Harry sighed, "even if I'm suspended. As Saliyah said, I'm still earning holiday pay."
"You'll need one after this."
"Okay," Harry said, "let's think about this before I stick my foot in it."
"Yes," agreed Ginny, "we need to be sure we're on sound footing, spell-wise, I mean."
"And we don't want to damage anything. What if the shoe was on the other foot?"
"They would make you toe the line."
"Enough!" Hermione put her hands over her ears. "My eyes are stuck from rolling. Get on with it. I suggest a Separating spell. But if there's a lace you should untie it first. You should be able to use Aufknoten."
"Right." Harry raised his wand, but paused. "You know, as a footnote to all this—"
"HARRY!" Hermione shrieked.
Harry grinned at Ginny and cast the spell. The lace untied itself and fell away from the shoe.
"I can't see from here," Hermione said, craning her neck. "Did it work?"
"It was the perfect spell," Harry answered. "I always say, if the shoe fits—"
"HARRY POTTER! If you say one more word, I will turn you irreversibly into a Blast-Ended Skrewt!" Hermione was breathing hard. Her nostrils flared and she glared through the door at Harry. "Now try a Separating charm. I suggest—"
Harry raised his hand to stop her; he gestured with his wand at the shoe on the floor. "Singulus!" The foot started to quiver, and slowly withdrew from the shoe. It took only a few seconds until the shoe and the foot lay side by side.
"That was totally gross," Ginny said.
Harry conjured a small cloth, covered the foot, and picked up the shoe. "There's something to be said for being footloose and fancy—"
"NO!" Hermione's face was red and she pointed her wand at Harry. "Only my fear of Azkaban is preventing me from using this."
Harry blew her a kiss and examined the shoe. There was nothing unusual about it, it was an ordinary brown leather laced flat. He picked up the lace and put it inside the shoe. He started to speak but stopped as they heard a string of pops outside. He and Ginny looked down from the blown-out walls and saw lit wands. "The Ministry of Magic has arrived," Harry said with only a touch of sarcasm.
Seconds later Saliyah appeared at the door to the room and peered in. "Is everyone okay?"
"Everyone except the owner of this." Harry held the shoe up. "But first tell me what Ginny and I gave you for a wedding present."
"Good thinking. A Romanian tapestry showing all the known dragon species. Okay?" Harry nodded and she continued. "Ron said that you saw Julia Sprout here, and she Splinched when she tried to get away?"
"That's right. Her foot is there—" he pointed to the lump under the cloth on the floor "—but no one came for it. You're going to have to figure out how to put a guard on this room in case someone does come back."
"I'm afraid that's you, Harry. No one else can get inside."
Harry glanced at Ginny and a dozen thoughts passed between them while Saliyah blinked once. He looked back at the Head Auror. "Erm, I thought I was suspended from the Auror Department."
"As of ten minutes ago when I told the Minister for Magic he could have both of us but not just one of us, you are un-suspended. The record has been completely expunged. You were never suspended."
Harry felt Ginny squeeze his hand, and he saw Hermione grinning from over Saliyah's shoulder. He had a huge smile on his face too, and felt like a large weight had been lifted from his back. He took a deep breath. "Thanks, Sal."
Footsteps clomped up the stairs and Ron appeared next to Hermione. "The guard is all set," he said to Saliyah.
She pointed to Harry. "Tell him. He's your boss."
Ron's eyebrows shot up and his grin matched Hermione's. "Excellent! Now I know we'll get this case cracked in no time."
A smile played briefly on the Head Auror's face. "That's what I'm expecting." She turned to Harry. "I brought a ten-man detail here, and you're in charge. I'll be back in the office coordinating the search for the rest of Madam Sprout. Let me have . . . the foot in case we find her."
She took the appendage wrapped in the piece of cloth, as well as the shoe, and departed.
"Thank Merlin that's gone," Ginny said with a grimace. But she smiled at Harry. "Sweetie, your job is back!" She gave him a kiss. Harry patted her back, but said nothing. She looked up into his face and shook her head. I'm okay, I'll be fine. Don't think about it, concentrate on your job.
"If I can," he mumbled. He kissed her back and looked at Ron. "Set up the same guard rotation that was here before. And use the night password, don't take anyone's word for who they are, although I doubt that Croaker will try the same trick twice, especially now that his accomplice is in two pieces."
"Why do you think Sprout came and not Croaker?" Ron asked.
"Because she was the expert on blood protection. She could get through but not him."
"That makes sense. Now, what's the drill here?"
"You're in charge of security, but after you set it up I'd like you to post yourself right outside this door. If Croaker comes back I'll want a witness. Hermione, can you go back to the Ministry and find out who made the Polyjuice Potion? If Popeye is here—" Ron shook his head "—okay, then find Popeye and tell him I've detailed him to help you. Now . . ."
"What about me?" Ginny asked, looking steadily at him. "I'm staying with you."
Harry frowned and started to shake his head, but Ginny's voice was already inside it. I didn't lose my spot on the team so I could sit around the house waiting for you.
Harry had no argument to that. "Okay," he said reluctantly, "but stay under the Cloak."
"Yes, sir." She smiled at him, but Harry pointed his finger at her.
"I mean it, Gin. If someone comes back they'll be expecting us to be here. If you get hurt I will be suspended."
"Fine." She grabbed the Cloak from him and threw it over herself. Harry heard her disembodied giggle for a moment, but then she was silent. He stared around the room and finally laughed too.
"I'm sorry," he called. "Please don't hide."
"Here I am." Ginny poked him hard in the back and took off the Cloak. He stumbled forward, turned and glared at her, but she skipped to him, laughing, and kissed him again.
"Oi!" Ron called. "No snogging during office hours." Harry waved at him and he turned with a shake of his head and went downstairs.
"I am truly sorry," Harry said to Ginny after their snog was finished. His hands were on her bum and she moved against him. "I also meant what I said about tearing this place down."
"I know you did. You made me very happy." She put her hands on his chest and rested her head over his heart. "You know, if I'm not going to play Quidditch any more, there's no reason why we can't get pregnant right away."
Harry didn't speak for a moment. "Let's not give up. We're halfway back to where we were. I still think we can push Deverill—"
A loud "Crack!" filled the air and a short, dumpy figure stood only inches from Harry, who jumped back, startled, while Ginny let out a squawk. Harry brought his wand up as did the newcomer, and two Shields appeared. They collided with a "Bang!" and Harry was flung backward into Ginny; his head smashed into her face. They crashed to the floor in a tangle, just inches from the edge of the room at the missing wall, a dozen feet above the ground outside.
Harry scrambled up. He lit his wand and saw bloodshot eyes and scraggly, ginger hair, some of it going gray. Fletcher's eyes were bulged with surprise and fear, and he took a step back. His Shield glimmered in front of him as Harry, his own Shield up again, approached, crouching low.
"Dung! Wait!" he shouted, sensing that Fletcher was about to Disapparate. "How did you get in here? The disk is gone, we took it away! Sprout's foot is at the Ministry. No!"
He sprang forward as Fletcher's Shield vanished and Mundungus started to turn. He felt Ginny grab his left arm. Fletcher noticed her for the first time, and hesitated.
"Mundungus," she whispered, "don't go. We can help you."
She stood next to Harry and reached her hand out. Fletcher looked uncertainly from her to Harry.
If you leave, I'm coming with you, Ginny sent.
Harry was distracted for an instant, and in that blink of an eye Mundungus shifted his weight. As Harry lunged toward him, Ginny put both of her hands firmly on his waist. Fletcher took a step back, and Harry grabbed an arm and tried to keep him from turning, but the man resisted with surprising strength. Harry felt crushing pressure on his chest as the air was squeezed out of his lungs. He was aware of both Mundungus and Ginny as they spun through darkness.
When they landed, Harry staggered forward into the other man. Fletcher's wand was up between them and he yelled, "Stupefy!" Harry was once again flung back into Ginny. They sprawled on the ground, Harry on top of her, and she let out a strange, "Huuuh!" as her empty lungs were pushed in again.
Fletcher stood over them for a moment. He seemed torn between a desire to flee and anguish, especially for Ginny, who was gasping desperately for breath. He stared at her for a moment and backed away. "I'm sorry! Rennervate!" he cried, and Disapparated.
Harry slowly rolled over onto his hands and knees. His shoulder ached where the spell had hit, but he thought that Fletcher must have held back when he cast it, because it should have been much worse, given how close they were standing.
"Are you okay?" he said to Ginny, who was still breathing hard, but sitting up and rubbing her nose.
"I think so," she said between gasps. "You have a hard head. Is anything bleeding?
Harry lit his wand and examined her. "No, just a little bruise." He touched her cheek with his wand. "There, it's gone."
"What about you? He hit you, didn't he?"
"Yeah, but I think he held back. My shoulder's a little sore, that's all."
He carefully got to his feet and helped Ginny up; she was shaky, and he steadied her.
They looked around. They were on a paved road with houses on one side and a cemetery on the other. A lone, dark house stood in the middle of the graveyard. Lights filled the windows in the houses across the street. About a hundred feet to the left the road ended at a crossroad. The intersection was illuminated by a street lamp, and as they watched, a car passed along the cross street. In the other direction stood a large church, mostly in shadows but with a few lights in some of the windows.
"Where are we?" Harry asked.
"Harry." Ginny grabbed his arm. "I know where we are. See over there?" She pointed to the right, past the church. A castle-like building up on a hill loomed against the night sky.
"What is it?"
"It's Dunster Castle. We're in Dunster. It's a little village near the sea in the middle of Exmoor. We're only a couple of miles from Exmoor Quidditch Stadium."