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August 23rd, 2002: Spinner's End, Cokeworth (morning)

Zed dreamed she froze to death. It felt like birth deferred. She curled up, naked, on the icy cement floor of a black room.

In her feebly conscious state, she knew this was the barren womb in which she'd freeze. It had sat empty and dry for so long it turned to stone, and had lost her in its nerveless hollow, unable to feel her trapped inside, shivering.

The ground leeched the warmth from her skin, numbing some of the searing pain. Zed wanted to cry, and managed a few hot tears rolling across her face, stinging her cut cheeks as they dripped to the floor.

It was dark. If not for the shape of her hands in front of her, she would try to open her eyes. She had hair in her mouth, and coppery blood, so she opened her mouth to taste the open air, although her throat was too hoarse to speak.

She panted on the ground, hoping the rest would come quickly.

She listened to the body around her as she cooled. There thumped a rapid, scrambled heartbeat, like footsteps up above. Elderly creaks, like wooden bones. Down swanned the absent-minded singing of the mother, unaware of Zed or her troubles.

"I've got my looove to keep me warm," the mother sang, the words echoing in the dark.

Zed felt a flutter in her broken body, faded amusement, the smiling afterimage on a TV screen. Her old mum was Billie Holiday? What a strange dream, indeed.

Crack!

Long-boned feet fell into view, bringing with them a blue-white glow. They were swollen and spotted with blood, unexpected for magic feet, but she supposed they'd walked a ways to get here. Billie wouldn't let just any man walk into her body, not unless he was the love of her life.

Billie's beau bent down and called her name.

"Zinnia, speak if you can hear me."

She smiled, tickled. She recognized that voice from the pulpit by the kitchen sink. Billie had married the priest! He didn't seem happy about it though. Zed thought it rude, as she would kill to be Mrs. Holiday.

The dream changed then. This was when Zed figured she died.

The floor gave and grew warm, morphing into a cushion she sagged into. Static fizzled over her body, running along her cuts and bruises and horrible angles. A flannel blanket appeared out of thin air to swaddle her, holding her pieces together.

Then she was lifted, like a patient on a gurney. Snug as a bug, she floated to the side, the pale glow bobbing beside her. She landed on a cot that sprouted out of stuffing and mangled springs.

Her head hit the flat pillow and she started to fade.

The priest muttered bitingly and paced about her new bed. He passed out of her line of sight, and she didn't mind too much, staring contentedly into the corners of the room. The flannel gave off penetrating heat, which overrode some of her pain. Billie turned to Cab Calloway.

The music melted into the priest's complaints. Swearing, a bitter instrument, made the space just familiar enough to keep her calm. Zed had left the rocky womb. She was in the soft ground now.

She was fine. She was dead! There was nothing else to worry about—not the pain, or the sad old mother, not even the cold.

"What hurts," interrogated the priest.

If she could move her hands, she would shoo him away. But he kept on, so she threw him a line, hoping he'd leave her to doze.

"It's dark," she mouthed, any sound she made ravaged with her throat. She then closed her eyes, leaving the priest with those last words. Zed thanked the old blues singers and welcomed the void, its brass horns lulling her to sleep.


She woke to the patter of rain. Zed opened her eyes and saw the candied greens and overcast grey of the backyard. Rain trickled down the panes and puddled in the grass. Brown frogs croaked and splashed through the mud.

This all happened through a curtainless window across the room. The woman herself lay in her cot, by her ashtray and her small radio leaking static, sweating under a flannel cover. She thought she'd just woken up from an extended nap, gone off the medication. She should be in the bare-walled basement, and yet the token window disagreed.

Am I upstairs?, she puzzled.

The view from the kitchen was the only look into the yard that she knew of. She couldn't expect her claustrophobic-but-better-than-prison, subterranean lair to sport a view of the rainy woods. Especially given that said woods were an entire level above her.

If her basement had a window—which, of course, it did not—it would look out into packed dirt and worms, not the treeline.

In trying to sit up and investigate, Zed realized she missed some vital pains. Her ribs didn't ache, and tensed for spasm in her back that never came. She inched up onto the pillows, which fluffed and firm as she moved. Nothing clicked or twinged, or tweaked or rattled.

She was fine?

Zed peeled off the sodden blanket. Humid air rushed out, and she inhaled a cloud of something punchy and vegetal, layered with tea and spices.

Oh, that's the, uh. She'd been greased down with medicinal goo. It mixed with her fever sweats, slicking her skin.

She swiped a finger through the gunk coating her bare arm. Her fingertip skated from her shoulder down to her wrist, leaving a slippery trail behind. Zed oozed slime, like a slug. She brought her finger to the tip of her nose, eyes wide. Wisps of murky green smoke curled off of her sticky hand.

"Don't wipe it off. It's still working."

Hunched in a chair by her feet was Miss Eileen's son, the reverend. He sat in navy track pants and a loose t-shirt with Cokeworth Cal's Devil Spit Brewery emblazoned in Man United's red and white.

He was odd to look at. Given the stringy black hair and spidery fingers, bloodshot black eyes and sunless skin, he favored a paralytic sleep terror. Add the clothes, and he was a demon on the dole. And so he looked so much like her father, that if not for the fact that he was sober and present—and wore his hair long, which Tobias Snape would call "queer"—then she would've thought him the ghost of two days past.

"...The hell?" Then she grabbed her throat in surprise. It was sore, but not raw. But then, why had she expected it to be?

"What," the man sniffed.

He had his fingers laced over his stomach, and his feet soaking in a tray of what looked like water. But then he crossed a leg, and the clear stuff dripped off his knobby toes like thin jelly. She recognized it: essence of whatever. It sizzled and smoked like the gunk coating her skin.

Opening his hands, the man held a pair of tiny tweezers that he took to his steaming soles. He worked expeditiously, tweezing jagged splinters and brushing them to the floor.

"Did…," she trailed off, looking at her hands. They were lined with scars. New scars criss crossed her palms and speckled her fingers.

She ran her gaze up her arms. Streaked with sheen and wet flannel fuzz, the skin on her arms curved around the sinew underneath. Tendons wiggled and snapped taut, pulling her joints into place. She grunted, disturbed.

Her stitches were gone. Her wounds, the vicious bite marks, were all healed. Instead of scabbed and irritated, her forearms were plump and smooth save for four pearlescent, keloid scars—four shiny, crescent moons.

"Hold on," Zed gawked at the healer skin, the rainy woods, and Reverend tweezing his feet. "Am I...is this a seizure? Or a coma, or…? Is this real?"

He quirked an eyebrow at her, and pulled his other foot from the tray. This left him crouched on the chair like a gargoyle.

"Yes, it's real," he answered lowly, starting on his other foot. "But it won't feel like it. I suspect this day won't grow any saner, for either of us." The last few words were muttered.

"So this's weird to you, too?," she huffed, squeezing her biceps, groping for pains. "Double Alice, no rabbit?"

"Hm," was his only reply.

"Ah, well. There ya go talkin' my ear off."

Zed ran her hands down her outfit, trying to wipe off the grease, and frowned, forehead wrinkling. A flannel nightgown tented around her body, not at all like the sweatsuit she fell asleep in. It more resembled the blanket thrown over her, almost exactly in fact, except shorter and with arm holes.

Whoever built this rabbit hole was far from a fashion luminary.

Her back went up, then, because again, she didn't fall asleep in a nightgown. Meaning, if this was real life, then she'd been stripped when out cold.

"Oi!" Zed ripped off the sheet, gritting her teeth, fist balled in the ugly gown. When she swung her feet off the bed, a breeze wafted up the gown, telling her she was bare-arsed underneath.

She saw red. "I'll beat your arse, sicko!"

The man reared back, looking her up and down like she'd lost it.

"Are you mad, woman?"

"You fuckin' touched me! While I slept!? And we're siblings, you pervert!?"

"What? I never." He caught her meaning and shuddered. "Eugh! It's always something with you Muggles! If you must learn of it this way—"

He rummaged in his shirt and had to dodge her glancing swipe at his head. "Stop it, brutish idiot! Look!"

He brandished a stick of dark wood with a flourish—a wand, probably from some hocus altar. Then swished and twirled it, then jabbed it at his own get-up.

She jumped back, ducking her head and protecting her middle, waiting for the sharp stab. Then she unfolded, gobsmacked. She stared open-mouthed at his clothes through her mussed hair. They transformed in a shower of sparks, like Cinderella, if she were a revolted middle-aged man.

Suddenly, the reverend sat before her in a black-and-white tuxedo, complete with top hat and bow tie.

His face still screwed in disgust, he swished at himself again, and the tuxedo morphed into a black floor-length robe, then a maroon monk's cowl, then a fur coat, then a flannel nightshirt to match her own.

Finally it turned back to the beer tee and joggers, and Rev threw his arms over his chest with a positively filthy scowl.

"Unthinkable, the shit you lot come up with," he aggrieved. "I never laid a hand on you, nor would I! Atrocious. Makes me wonder what you all have gone through to spew such filth.

"If you're looking for the clothes you wore yesterday, you've already torn them to shreds. I can't tell them from the other trash in this room, or else I'd attempt to mend them. I had to make do to get you decent."

He motioned around the room with a long hand. Zed looked and then staggered back, fists still raised, head spinning.

This…She registered the destruction surrounding her. The lived-in corner, with the bed, table, and chair, was a bit of order in a stretch of ruined scrap metal, torn fabric, stuffing, and rubber. Someone had shoved the hill of luggage and half the staircase through a shredder, and then chewed on the shreds.

Huge gashes were taken out of the cement walls, exposing crusty rebar. Stains splattered the ceiling and scored walls. One corner reeked of pure animal musk.

"GET HER OUT!"

Zed stumbled toward the cot, missed it, and spilled onto the trash-littered floor. And then, heightening her shock, when her back twinged, a nerve wriggled up her spine and brought new feeling rushing into her legs.

She hadn't realized she couldn't feel her toes until they were intact and tingling, like she'd grown then anew.

"No—!," she gasped. A condensed, digital concerto cut her off with an oblivious tune.

Reverend grimaced and dug in his pockets, yanking out a chirping Nokia on the third ring.

"Blasted thing." He glared at the boxy phone, and shook it. "Quiet!"

He stabbed at the buttons with a rigid middle finger. The toy piano played over and over until there sounded a loud beep. Then Gracie's voice launched out of the low quality speaker.

"...ve magic but can't figure out the bloody phone—ey! Why ain't ya pickin' up?! How's she, is she awake? Is she okay?"

"Mum!" Zed cried, clinging to the first truly familiar thing since waking. "What happened?"

"Zeddie!" Her mother called, relieved. Then there was some scuffling on the line, and she heard her brother's shout.

"Zed! You had us scared shitless! It never ends wiff ya! You only said the nurse flipped out on ya in prison, crazy. You ain't said she were rabid!"

She wiped the sweat and slime off her legs off her nightgown, and squinted at Rev.

"I have rabies?," the befuddled woman probed. "I thought it was, like, epilepsy." He shook his head, annoyed, and started to speak.

Then she blinked and yelled back at the phone. "Wait, forget that! Am I in a dream or another dimension or limbo or summit, 'cuz Rev just pulled some shit outta his hat, and I can't make sense of—."

"Yeah, no, he's a wizard or whatever. Who cares. But Laney—nah, nah, but you, actually!"

"Wizard! Heh, and you don't mean the vegan, worship the earth type, probably?"

She heard a struggle, and her mother's voice returned, persistent. "No, sweets, the Merlin type, the pointy hat, full Fantasia, dancing brooms type. Wizard wizard. From Lena's side."

Rev, deciding to preen, zapped this and that bit of rubbish to make them float or vanish. Zed waved impatiently for the phone. Showing some restraint, he didn't magic the Nokia. He just dropped it into her upturned palm with a smirk.

She rolled her eyes, and ended up following a suitcase wheel as it rolled across the ceiling. She brought the phone to her face, grumbling, "Bloody show-off."

"Tell her!" Fox pestered their mother in the background. "Zed, the nurse!"

"Yeah, she had rabies, I heard. So do I need a shot? Is that what happened to, uh." She looked around the room again, and at her new scars, muttering into the speaker. "Everything? That doesn't seem likely but."

"No—okay, Freddy, relax—alright, so Zeddie, love." Zed distrusted how softly Gracie spoke to her. The old biker wasn't known for her delicacy. That every sentence practically cooed killed any confidence in incoming good news. "Okay, this's gonna get wild for a second. See how wizards are real? How magic's real?"

Zed eyed the wizard present, who'd grown bored with posturing and simply watched her expressions, one leg bouncing impatiently, wand stashed back into his shirt.

"Yeah, I see." That was wild enough, she felt. But it laid smoother over her worldview than an extended dream or a psychotic break.

Or rather, it fit better into her idea of herself that real magic existed. Zed didn't imagine herself the type to lose touch with reality. Sure, anybody could, and so she'd suspected, what with the strange horror of her attack, that prison might have robbed her of some sanity. And that thought might've—no. It definitely frightened her.

But if game changing magic was real and related to that day at all...on second thought, that didn't comfort her.

How could she keep tabs on reality if wizards ran around bending it?

"Yeah, okay, wizards are real. I'm following," she frowned into the pause.

"Right, and they got things: all types of curses and creatures. So...one of them is werewolves. It's just like we know them, y'know. They turn on the full moon, they go after people, they wake up and don't remember anything—."

Zed broke out into a sweat. Her father's son watched her from his chair, looking constipated. She flipped him off on principle, for being wizard mostly, and again for being in her face.

"Ah, yes, the gratitude of Muggles," the wizard sneered.

"I don't know what that means, but shut up. I'm on the phone." She nodded at her mother, even though the woman couldn't see it. "Yeah, mhm, werewolves. Werewolves are r… are real..."

"Christ, what...what are you?"

Werewolves. Zed's insides turned to the smoking jelly. The curtain crashing down, the doctor screaming, the nurse hulking out of her uniform—the yellow eyes, unshakeable, forever branded behind the prisoner's eyelids, following her home, chasing her into her dreams.

Zed didn't like that werewolves existed, too. But she tried to calm herself and restrain the rabbit brain urging her to run.

That thing was inside Odd-Daughters, she reminded herself firmly. You got away. You're safe.

"Yeah, okay. The nurse was a werewolf, okay. I can see that. And?"

"And? Baby, she bit you." Zed went stiff.

"She bit you."

Werewolves.

"What are you?"

Werewolf.

"Hey, something's wrong! You fucking bastards! Help me!"

Right, she bit me, she thought, looking at one scar hugging her wrist. It was perforated, but not with straight lines like from flat, human teeth. The islands making her moon were pointed, jagged tears, now obviously misshapen without the scabs and sutures.

"GET HER OOOUT!"

"I, um." Her eyes were stuck on the reverend. She didn't mean to look at him. She had aimed for the window, but trailed off around his chin, where his scowl hovered over the thick scars on his neck.

She stared, seeing the crescent moons up and down her arms, and smelling the musty corner, and sweat, and medicinal herbs. There was rustling and a sucking of teeth, and she looked up, in a daze. The wizard stood over her, and offered his hand.

Zed only looked at it, unsure of what he could possibly be asking for. Hadn't he heard? She was—.

"Quit crying and get off the floor," he said harshly. "I've had quite enough of this family's blubbering."

"Hey, don't be a dick, Rev!," barked her little brother through the phone. She looked up at the wizard's gaunt face. He scowled, but kept offering his hand.

"She's being ridiculous. She doesn't even know what it means to be a werewolf, having only justbeen made aware of their existence. Up! Off the floor! I'll not have you wallowing in self-pity like the rest of your kind."

"You've met other werewolves?," Zed asked, smearing an arm across her face. She supposed she had shed a few tears unintentionally, and cleaned up bitterly. "Am I really—?"

"I have. You are." His black eyes bore down on her and his tone was absolute.

From this angle, it was almost like talking to Fox on the street outside Failsworth. The older man was similarly pissed and fearsome, and while she wasn't afraid of him, someone was. So, as he glared Zed's way, it felt like the glare passed through her to bite the problem dogging her.

She didn't expect that comfort. So, she climbed off the floor herself, determined never to mention it to the wizard's face. "Fine, and there's no question? I'm just a werewolf now?"

He seemed like despite himself, Rev was impressed. "You all have taken this remarkably well. Your mother also—."

"Yeah, she's like that. And well, I could reject the whole idea," she asserted, "since I don't remember much. Maybe later I will, dunno. But, I mean."

She gestured at the ruined corners of the room, and her healed arm, and his disheveled appearance.

"Somethin' happened and it weren't a seizure."

"Oh, last night, Zed! Swear on Nan's grave, I saw it myself."

Fox nattered, filling the awkward silence. "You went full-on gigantic wolf! And first I thought it couldn't be you, what with you bein' maybe five-seven tops and a little scrawny, and this thing bein' an eight foot long, chest height, actual fuckin' beast of the wild.

"But then it butchered Gloomy Sunday and I knew it was you, since ya can't never sing for shit."

Gracie said something far off and then repeated it closer to the receiver. "Be nice to her. She's cursed."

"Nah, mum, she's tone deaf. Plus, I can poke fun. She nearly killed us! It's my right!"

"I did all that?" She looked to Rev, who did not seem amused. This was obviously not off par for him. However, a cold resentment came through that sobered her lick of humor. "Ah, 'kay. That bad, eh?"

"I must impress upon you—all of you—how dangerous you've now become. If I'd not been here last night, complications notwithstanding, you all would have died horrendous deaths, as would have most of this neighborhood.

"I've seen the damage an untreated werewolf can do. Zinnia would have escaped the basement, mauled everyone in this house, and then gone on to the next one, stalking the night, until she devoured the whole street. Then, come dawn, the trauma of your transformation back to human would've ultimately killed you, leaving you broken on the road."

"Christ, Severus," hissed her mother. Zed swallowed her spit, feeling nauseated.

"This isn't a laughing matter," the wizard insisted, glaring at the phone. "It's not reasonable to rely on my presence to keep you alive. My being in England at all is subject to change with nary a moment's notice."

"Where're you goin'? Wait, yeah, where'd you even come from?," Fox probed. "None of this started 'til you showed up."

"A month ago, I wasn't even in Britain. She was attacked weeks before I ever arrived, correct?" He addressed her brother, but stared at Zed.

"...Yeah," she admitted. So, if not for the mysterious magic, Zed and her family would be dead?

"Yeah, Fox, I dunno his deal either, but I'd already been hurt. But then what's up? Why come if you're just gonna leave again?"

"I cannot control the circumstances of my staying or going beyond remaining hidden from other witches and wizards. I had no way to know you all had taken root. My original plans were to heal here, gather intel, replenish my resources, and relocate somewhere else.

"And no, I will not tell you why or where to."

"Well, you'll have to explain somethin'," Gracie pressed. She sounded personally insulted. "The only options you gave me was some potion and lockin' her up. And it sounds like without a magic expert we can't do either.

“So if you're just gonna say all this and then leave anyway, I deserve to know when and, yeah, why!"

"Despite what you may think," the wizard replied cuttingly, "I don't owe you or your family anything! You have my house and have had a great deal of my help outside of what was necessary for my own survival."

"May I remind you," he relayed in a sinister tone, "if I'd left your daughter down here, this werewolf issue would've resolved itself."

"Y—you bastard!," Fox cursed, winded.

"Funny, coming from you," the wizard said drolly, receding into apparent indifference.

Now, Zed had watched him talk. She saw him fidget, saw him tense and look away. He held her glare when he said he owed them nothing, and when he alluded to leaving her to die. However, he averted his eyes in the middle, when he ranted about already doing more than his part.

He wants to stay, she knew with clear certainty. She perhaps knew this better than the man did himself.

Rev had an easy point. He didn't owe them help or explanations. If he needed to leave, he would. She had no qualms about accepting that ruthless logic. But in several ways, he already should've taken off. Zed alone had given him a grand welcome, her bloody Spinnerette best. Yet he stayed and said so as if expecting thanks.

But that was only a slip of the tongue. He was making a point he barely understood.

Because thanks? From them? It didn't take long to see it wasn't coming. They were more the type to complain he hadn't acted sooner. The man went out of his way, and why? In Zed's mind, because he wanted to.

Zed had yet to have an issue understanding where his head was. She'd been there, she knew that place. It was survival brain at war with humanity, a trouble she had herself. And sure, words came out twisted, but they meant the same. It might've been a risk to think she knew him when she didn't.

But something about him told her he talked to keep from listening. He picked fights to avoid team playing. She got that.

"Are the ones after you that scary, Reverend?," she needled him, grinning. Her half-brother looked at her askance, offended by the suggestion he was afraid.

"Please," he scoffed. "The man wants my head on a pike, but from context clues alone, I can tell he's a buffoon. You've done considerably more harm than him so far.

“Regardless, if he comes to this house, you'd prefer that I leave than stand and fight. Although, he'd have lost the element of surprise this time—."

"Nearly gotcha last time, huh?"

"I—!," Rev thinned his lips, jaw clenching. He then sniffed sharply and defended, "I was negligent. It won't happen again, surely."

"Good, so yer stayin'," her mother declared, words a little fuzzy from poor reception. The wizard began to protest, but her mother spoke over him, closing the book on that.

"Dunno why ya act cagey if you can take him, Severus. S'waste of everyone's bloody time. Mind, once Laney is squared away, we'll have us a chat, me and you, about what shit luck you brought with ya. Once my youngest is all good."

Fox grumbled something intelligible that the speaker couldn't catch. "Whatever. What about the potion?"

"Yeah, the potion," Zed prodded, sitting on her bed and tossing aside the damp blanket. She eyed the wizard, who stared off with furrowed brow into the middle distance.

"Hey, can you dry this?," she asked him, plucking the flannel. "Like, with magic?"

"Hm? No," he said, not even looking at her, opting instead to gaze confusedly out the window, into the woods. The last exchange seemed to have thrown him for a loop.

Zed huffed and flipped the flannel to the dry side. She then climbed back into bed with the phone in hand. She spared one glance at the bemused older man with his chin on his palm and snorted.

"What," asked Fox. "Why's he quiet?"

"Mum caught him with the left. Y'know how she does. He's tryna work it out now."

"Ah, yeah. Wild. I guess we're keepin' him."

Zed cackled, amused by Fox's put upon sigh. "I guess!"

Then she listened to the rain patter before asking the question nagging her: "By the way, why the bloody hell are we on the phone? Where are ya?"

"Upstairs, by Mum's room. She's callin' my cell with hers," Fox's voice lowered. "Can't get in the basement, since the door's kinda locked, wizardly speakin'."

"Who cares? Use magic, unlock it."

"Oh, wow!" He gasped sarcastically and then scoffed. "We're tryin', genius. But Rev magicked it up, down, and doggy style."

"Ew."

"Took it to dinner, and stayed for breakfast. Bought it a ring, proposed at dawn. Shit won't budge."

She stared at the man standing in the basement, in the absence of an open door and a staircase. Her silence was telling.

"I mean," Fox went on, "He can like teleport in and outta the basement. He stayed down there with you, so we can call. But he said us non-magic types don't 'twist' right to go with, and I do not like how he says it.

"But don't worry, you ain't trapped! Laney can fix it, after we can get her to, um, step a toe in the kitchen again."

Zed lifted her eyebrows at the speaker. "Yo, she's just some ten-year-old. What's she supposed to do?"


August 23rd, 2002: Number Twelve Grimmauld Place, Westminster

Harryneeded an hour of head scratches and two swiftly summoned mice to convince the post owl to perch.

The borrowed bird seemed to regret being on loan to him from Hermione. Even the scratch of quill on parchment sent it into a screeching fit. It had finally calmed down some after copious apologies, only to see the new letter in the human's hand and bristle, betrayed.

"Please!," Harry sputtered, protecting his face, spitting out feathers. "One more, I promise! Just one—argh!"

The barn owl slapped him with a heavy wing and hissed. It nipped his thumb, needle-sharp beak pinching the quick. Harry yelped, dropping the letter, which fluttered to the carpet, landing address side down.

The Boy-Who-Lived gave up and abandoned the parlor, sucking his hurt finger. He met Ginny as she came down the stairs. She greeted him, tucking a shrunken chest into tge pocket of her denim jacket.

"You'll be okay for the weekend?," he asked, kissing the witch on the cheek. She gave him a half-smile and brushed a bit of down from his mouth.

"I was about to ask you that. I'll be back on Monday, after I set up my bunk at the camp. Then we can have the weekends." Ginny looked him over, biting her lip. Harry felt a little sick to see her go. However, he put on a brave face, not wanting her to worry.

It nearing the end of August, the Chaser would attend the Harpies' fall training camp in Wales. The team had to prepare for the start of the regional playoff season come spring. Although Ginny would return to Grimmauld Place in her off-time, once fall frosted over, she'd begin playing for the pre-season.

It worked out this year. Despite the Harpies beating the local favorite, Welsh National Quidditch team, Wales didn't qualify for the Quidditch World Cup, starting the off-season in June. That gave the couple two months of regular domesticity to enjoy.

Now Harry's girlfriend was effectively moving out till the next summer. Leaving Harry alone for the foreseeable future except for weekends and the occasional holiday.

"Not to force it, but I can commute from London," Ginny offered, hesitating at the door. He almost wished she would stop trying to fix it and just walk out, so he could start missing her in private.

"You don't need to tire yourself out like that," he protested half-heartedly. "Plus I wouldn't pull you away from your team. C'mon, don't worry so much. You're starting to make me feel pitiful."

Harry suddenly found himself with an armful of chuckling ginger. He tugged in the end of her rough braid, grateful if embarrassed.

"Yeah, yes," he mumbled. He rubbed her back, playing at consolation, droning on, "I know, such a loss. You'll miss out on all my tantrums and secrets and my sordid birth drama. And for what, to play professional Quidditch on your dream team? You'll be crying with boredom, poor thing."

Ginny pecked the nape of his neck, visible over his shirt collar. Harry wobbled a bit internally, very nearly asking her to stay. But he held on to his resolve, grinned as carelessly as he could.

She peered into the parlor, perhaps memorizing the house before she left. She then excused herself and returned, grinning, giving him a last, lasting hug.

Harry pulled himself together again and snapped open the front door. He posed like a footman, an arm and closed fist resting on the small of his back, and presented her the stoop.

"Chaser Weasley," he saluted in posh tones. "Safest travels."

"Oh, well, this I like," the redhead smirked back, before smoothing her expression into one of regal regard. Her impression of aristocracy was spot on from years of mocking the ton. She tilted her freckled chin up in the air, looking down her nose at the lowly common street. "I will be off then, Mr. Potter. Mind the manor in my absence."

Harry bowed at the waist in mock deference. His parting quip was cut short, however, by Ginny freezing in the doorway.

"Harry...are you expecting company?"

He lifted his head, confused, and turned to the street. Then he too froze. Across the street, attempting to go unnoticed, a slim figure stood facing their house in the rain.

The man was still against the milling pedestrians, eyes and body obscured by dark, reflective sunglasses and head to toe black. The figure grilled the seam between Numbers Eleven and Thirteen, hands hidden in trench pockets. He wasn't Muggle, couldn't be. Despite the trickle of rain, he didn't carry an umbrella and yet, looked perfectly dry.

The stranger nodded and undonned his black hat, revealing a sheen of platinum blonde hair.

"Is that Malfoy?," Harry asked, uneasy. "What is he doing here?"

Ginny's rigid expression iced over into cold vigilance. "I don't like this. Even if the charms aren't air tight, he shouldn't know that we're here."

"It's a Black property. He might've been told the address by his mum," he tried, straightening up easing his wand from his back pocket. Harry stepped out onto his stoop in his slippers, wand out, stomach leaden. "Still. You should go. I've got this."

"Vetoed," she bit out, taking her own wand in hand. "I'm not abandoning you to a fight."

"It probably isn't—a fight, I mean," Harry reasoned, squinting through the poor weather. Malfoy seemed to grow impatient, fists now clenched at his sides, pacing a square of pavement. Harry couldn't call the other wizard menacing, beyond the general bad omen of finding him practically at his doorstep. "Why give himself away like this?"

"A trick," the Weasley girl asserted. Harry rubbed his forehead, doubtful.

It was easy to forget Ginny was just as distrusting and paranoid as Ron. She had a knack for playing it off that she clearly wouldn't employ when faced with Draco Malfoy.

Harry measured his gut feeling and committed to it. He padded down the front walk and through the wrought iron gate. Ginny protested behind him and he shouted back an apology, forging ahead. He begged a surprised mother's pardon—since from her perspective, he must've phased out of thin air—smiled into the bassinet, and came fully out into the sidewalk.

"Oi!," Harry yelled across the street, one hand cupped around his mouth. His voice echoed over traffic and carried up to the neighbors' apartments, drawing curious onlookers to their drapes.

In no time, Malfoy pulled off his sunglasses, hanging them on his collar. He circumnavigated walkers, puddles, and cars, approaching the curb before Number Twelve with a stiff saunter.

"Merlin, Potter!," Malfoy cursed, walking up to him, wrinkling his nose. Once eye to eye, the pureblood scion brushed invisible dirt from his lapel, pointy chin hoisted high. "I see you haven't changed much. You've still no sense of subtlety."

"Because standing and staring creepily in the rain is so inconspicuous. You're right, I'll take note." Harry smiled humorlessly, showing his wand without aiming, a cautious courtesy. "Why are you here?"

"Can we take this off the street? Behind closed doors, perhaps?" He sounded more like his father than the prat he knew from school. Harry thanked the lack of "Potty"s and "Scarhead"s for that.

"No," he retorted, maybe more firmly for being reminding of Lucius Malfoy. "What do you want."

Malfoy sighed and reached into his robes, holding up a hand to pause Harry's nervous twitch. "Relax, Potter. I'm only retrieving a letter. I come here on my mother's behalf."

He heard the gate hinges squeak behind him. Both wizards turned to Ginny, who had her wand trained on Malfoy's pretentiously coiffed head.

"She's got no business with Harry," Ginny said staunchly. "Stuff your letter and slink on home."

Malfoy's hackles rose. Harry stepped between the two, unsure of who needed warning or protection. He gave the other wizard the benefit of belief, regardless, and offered his palm.

"Fine, hand over whatever letter and go, Malfoy. I've got the rest of my day to be getting on with." Hopefully, they could come to a quick understanding and go their separate ways.

Malfoy gave him a condescending scan from his unwashed face down to his house shoes. "Ah, yes, of course. Clearly the Golden Boy has a packed schedule. Thank you so much for your precious time."

"You're welcome," he rebutted, wiggling his letterless fingers. With an eye roll, Harry's schoolyard rival slid a lightly perfumed letter into his hand. The translucent white vellum envelope was sealed in brushed silver wax. Harry examined his name penned in cursive, and flipped it over. The seal boasted the monogram "NB" wrapped in brambles in its middle center.

The whole affair had been scented with flowers, same as his previous missives from one Narcissa Malfoy neè Black. Through this letter specifically, he could see the folded shape of a letter, and an additional card of thick, cream stock. The latter resembled a calling card, inscribed with violet in.

The card was new. From what he could read, it only had Malfoy's mother's name, nothing else. He wondered if Mrs. Malfoy thought she needed to impress him, or if it was just her habit to be posh. Perhaps asking a Malfoy to tone it down was asking a fish not to swim.

Or a scorpion not to sting, Harry thought, eyeing Malfoy over his mother's letter. The other wizard looked oddly fazed by his scrutiny.

Harry worked open the envelope and read the letter, right there in front of his house.

"Honestly, Potter, can we please move this inside?" Malfoy checked the bustling street around them, so pale as to appear translucent himself.

"You didn't seem nervous standing out here a second ago," Harry pointed out, eyes landing on the first line of the letter. "For Christ knows how long. Why couldn't she just send an owl? She's managed before."

"It could be she's afraid to get caught plotting," accused Ginny, tightening her grip on her wand. Her arm didn't seem to tire from being held taut for so many minutes.

She didn't seem to pick up on Harry's slip about writing with Mrs. Malfoy at least once prior. Then again, his girlfriend was a master of her own expressions. While there was no visible reaction now, once they were alone again, Malfoy dispatched, it might be a different story.

"This isn't a plot, at least not on our part. Quite the opposite, this time," said ferrety blond explained with a surprising sliver of self-awareness. His grey eyes fell slab-like on Harry's own, defiantly curious gaze.

"We have reason to believe that an owl could be intercepted. Some...events have transpired that will be of interest to your people. And for security's sake, I'd rather speak of them behind private wards."

Malfoy then grimaced at Ginny's stony regard. "Your bodyguard needn't take eyes off me, Potter, if that's a nonnegotiable."

"It is," Harry conceded. He glanced down at the letter, which despite its luxurious delicacy, seemed to weigh down his hand. Then, shaking his head at his own audacity, he gave Malfoy his back to open the gates for them all.

"Alright, Malfoy, come in."

He caught Ginny's quick gasp and looked to her, apologetic. She glared, clutching her jacket pocket, and he couldn't blame her. She had somewhere to be, and Harry really should have sent Malfoy away.

I'll have to tell her about Mrs. Malfoy and Snape. Harry's heart sank. He suddenly wished that he'd told the witch about the first letter the moment he'd gotten it.

Too late now, he reasoned. The silent trio trudged into Grimmauld Place, Malfoy's eyes widening as the building sprung into view before him. They walked up the path as it formed underfoot, and passed under the doorway through the regular shower of security magic.

"It's quiet…." Harry peeked at Malfoy, who cleared his throat upon realizing he'd spoken out loud.

"You've never been here before, right?," he asked the pureblood. Malfoy fiddled with his cufflinks, white cheeks growing pink.

"It stood empty before it ended up in your hands through Sirius Black," Malfoy explained, eyes narrowed, color still high on his cheeks. "As I'm sure you know, my mother's family has been whittled down to herself and her Muggle-loving sister—."

"Careful," the half-blood warned. He led them into the parlor and stopped a few paces in. Ginny stuck to Malfoy's side, tapping her wand with tried patience against her leg.

"I only mean—yes, I've never visited the Black home," backtracked Malfoy.

He then eyed his reflection in an empty display case, but apparently found nothing worth fixing. He stood duochromatic, pale hands lost in his robes. "Why is it so spartan? I'd always thought the house full of curiosities, for lack of a better—."

"We binned it," Ginny snapped, crossing her arms, her braid tossed angrily over a shoulder. Malfoy gaped at her, and asked if she was joking.

She grinned with a fierce, opportunistic joy. "As soon as my family moved in, we swept the house top to bottom and tossed all the Dark junk we could get our hands on."

"Must she be here, Potter, really!," Malfoy said, unbalanced by Ginny's viciousness.

Well, the Malfoys have put her through a lot, he remembered, taking a seat on the couch. From Tom's diary, then Bill and Greyback.

"Yes," he insisted again, but sent Ginny a staying glance.

Regardless of how they felt, he'd let Malfoy in. They could at least act civil until he left.

The witch gave a tactical shrug and chose that moment to sit on a quilted cushion settee. The pair rarely used it except to pile coats on. But from it, she could watch the room with gravid displeasure.

Flustered, Malfoy retreated to Harry's other side, to lean against the ornate mantle. Harry was sure the Slytherin wouldn't call it running away, despite it being just that.

"So," Malfoy started uncomfortably, gesturing to the grate. "Shall we summon my mother and have this over with?"

"What?," Ginny pressed, alarmed. "No! We won't give you permanent access to our Floo, Malfoy! Not with your track record!"

"Gin, please," Harry coaxed. "There were a lot of, erm," he looked over Malfoy's tense form and returned to Ginny, "circumstances back then. Even I'd be hard pressed.

"But she's right, Malfoy. I owe your mother my life, but I won't just open my Floo to the Malfoy Manor, even for her. Does she need to be here for this, if she's sent you?"

"Even I don't know what she means to say, Potter. She's become rather enigmatic in her...self-isolation. As such, she refuses to travel far outside the Manor grounds, which is why you found me outside and not my mother herself.

"Of course, we aren't asking for a permanent Floo connection, hence the calling card. It is only for a one time use."

Malfoy's spine could have been wood and iron, he stood so straight. He again reminded Harry of his Death Eater father, and the blond's own sordid history.

It made him hard to defend, but not impossible. He also recalled the crying boy in the Myrtle's bathroom, and stepped back into his choice to believe him.

Harry shook the card from the vellum envelope, looking it over once more. Again, the front had Narcissa Malfoy's name. There were user instructions on the back in more cursive, which upon closer inspection, looked more processed than handwritten:

1. The host must light their Floo accessible fireplace.

2. Burn the calling card in the grate, thus welcoming the guest into your home for one-time only.

3. The Calling fire will burn violet until the time of the guest's departure.

4. CAUTION: Only the prewritten guest printed on this card's face may travel via this calling. Any persons not written on the card will be engulfed in flame. Please use as instructed to avoid grievous injury.

He'd never seen a card like it before. Harry shared a wordless exchange with Ginny. The ginger chanted her head to say she'd heard of calling cards but never seen on used. Harry sighed and shrugged, resigned to a leap of tentative faith.

He waved his wand to light the fireplace with an eager whoosh. Malfoy stepped away, protecting his robe sleeves. Snorting, the Boy-Who-Lived left the couch and cautiously approached the Floo. He plucked the edge of the card, breathing deeply, before flicking it into the flames.

As promised, the fire ignited in stunning purple hues. The Floo dinged twice, as if announcing a visitor, Then, after a soft pause, an even, aristocratic mezzo-soprano rose through the parlor.

"Mr. Potter," Mrs. Malfoy greeted with a polite hum, "thank you for accepting my request for an invitation. I hope you will pardon the intrusion, but it is a matter of the utmost importance."

Harry found himself getting nervous at the measured address. He hadn't heard the woman's voice since her and her son's trials years earlier. Even then, they had not spoken directly to one another. Only in the couple letters had he met the woman's more respectful tones—not threatening nor desperate. No forbidden woods here, or so he hoped.

The Malfoy son extended a hand toward the grate, bowing some to do it. A slender hand passed out of the flames and took it. A heeled boot stepped through the fire in a swirl of jewel toned sparks. Purple embers glowed under the cloud grey robes that followed.

Gradually, the Floo revealed the willowy form of Narcissa Malfoy. Her nearly white piled atop her head, framing a cool, unsmiling face. She retained the same Black features as Sirius and Tonks, and her polarized sisters. The familiar, heart-shaped face, still unlined by wrinkles, looked about the room with mild interest.

"You've made changes," she intoned. Her opaque assessment started and stopped with that. "I see Miss Weasley will be joining us?"

"Yes, I will," Ginny nodded, resolute and calm. The hard lines of her body softened some. "And thank you for saving Harry's life during the Final Battle. Since you're here now, I should give you my gratitude."

"Hmm. Yes, well. It has been received."

It gave Harry a wobbly turn to see another Black return to Grimmauld Place. The inescapable, internal nagging whispered that he didn't belong. He worried almost reflexively that the true Blacks present would set off some unknown ward and eject him from the house.

But of course, nothing happened. Narcissa Malfoy flicked soot from her bodice and gave Harry the full brunt of her clear, dawn blue eyes. Harry missed his godfather terribly, and let it pass.

"Shall we sit for tea?," suggested the blue blood.

"Will this take long?," Harry answered, then winced, hearing how rude he sounded.

Mrs. Malfoy frowned but didn't chastise. Instead, she perched on a nearby loveseat, smoothing her skirts and crossing her legs at the ankle. Her son stood by its arm, flushing at the slight to his mother. "I suppose not. I can be brief.

"Although, Mr. Potter. I'm unsure of how much your young woman knows. I wouldn't wish to be expository."

"Is it about Snape?," Ginny asked, fielding the question herself. Narcissa held a hand to her mouth then, almost girlishly.

"How forward a Weasley girl can be. That would be the Prewett in you, I suspect. Brash, the lot of you, but refreshing."

"Yeah, maybe…," Harry hedged, watching the two women, one rough-hewn and the other like marble.

"I'll reach my point and be on my way," Mrs. Malfoy assured. She then turned to a silk purse hanging from her wrist, and reached inside. There was a tinkle of glass and out she pulled a vial of silvery fluid—a memory.

"Please have your connections with the Aurors review this memory of yesterday afternoon," the woman requested, handing Harry the vial. "An intruder to Malfoy Manor left a rather poignant message via arson. Effective if tactless, it is likely the attack was carried out by an unapprehended Dark Lord sympathizer. They are statedly unhappy with the Malfoy position in the final hours of the War."

"How do you know it was a Death Eater?," inquired Harry. He received two unyielding stares from the loveseat. "I only mean, I thought all the Voldemort sympathizers were either dead or arrested. Lestrange and the Carrows were the last of them."

"Hmm, one would think," smiled Mrs. Malfoy. It was not a nurturing expression.

"They burned 'traitors' into the Manor grounds," Malfoy pressed, lip curling. "I think we'd know when we're being targeted."

"I say this to say," the cold woman continued, silencing her bothered son, "this person not only sought to inconvenience my family. I believe Severus," and at this, she glanced quickly to Ginny and back, "is also being hunted.

"He has fled his last known address. Likely, if he escaped this person as such, they will keep their frustrations on us until they can retake their pursuit of him."

"Why not report this yourself?," Harry asked. He stood, gripping the chilled glass containing the memory. "If you're asking for protection from the Ministry—."

Mrs. Malfoy coughed while her son scoffed.

"Mr. Potter, I don't fear for my household. I want the Aurors to finish the job they started, so that I might attend to my own business with Severus uninterrupted.

“Should he be killed before I meet with him, I will be—well, incensed is a kinder word."

With this, she sighed lightly and rearranged the lay of her robes. It was the closest he'd ever seen the woman to fidgeting, including before the Wizengamot. For some reason, this communicated a deeper ire than Harry felt he should be privy to.

"That being said, I feel you should know: that man is likely back in England, should you wish to avoid him. To preserve his life until I've had my time, I ask that you not write to him or myself until the attacker is captured. We wouldn't want an owl being tracked to his location."

Harry started to nod, then stopped, horrified.

Of course, Potter, he berated himself, right before you're told not to send him letters, it's the one time in four years you mean to send two.

But then, a smaller thought protested, what about…

"Uh, yeah, sure," Harry agreed, shoulders rounded. He looked to Ginny, who stared back with both brows raised.

"Well, then, I suppose that is all." Mrs. Malfoy rose from her chair gracefully, and wafted toward the fireplace. The Floo still flickered purple as she lifted a foot inside. "Do excuse my rushing off, but I've a spy to catch. Best to both of you."

And like that, she called for Malfoy Manor and spun away in the flames. Draco Malfoy nodded to Harry curtly and slid a sidelong sneer Ginny's way. Without another word, he turned on his heel and Disapparated with an air-splitting crack.

Harry and Ginny shared a moment of silence to process what had just transpired. Then Harry slowly leaned down to the carpet. He felt around for the letter to Snape he'd left there minutes before. He felt around some more when his fingers didn't hit parchment, then looked down, moving his feet and finding nothing.

"Shit!" The wizard dropped to his knees and checked under the couch, sweeping the space with his hands.

There was no letter. He bolted up and scanned the room for the barn owl. It, too, had gone. He looked around and, sure enough, the parlor window was open, whatever owl that had been perched near it long gone into the grey.

He turned to Ginny, mouth agape, and saw her guilty expression. It was true that earlier she had dipped into the parlor and returned. Harry had thought she'd needed to collect herself.

"Did you send it?," he whispered, pointing out to rain-soaked London.

"I was just," she answered, staring into the fireplace, sullen. "Damn. I was just trying to help."

He didn't know how to respond. He stayed kneeling on the carpet, wondering not for the first time, if he was terribly, horribly, life-endingly cursed.