Title: The Logic of Dreams - Part 1/3
Pairings: Harry/Draco; implied Harry/Euan Abercrombie; Ron/Hermione; Ron/Lavender; Euan Abercrombie/Colin Creevey
Summary: J.K. Rowling meets Philip K. Dick. War hero Harry Potter suddenly finds himself guilty of a murder he hasn’t committed of a man he has never met. And worst of all, he has no means of confronting his accusers, all of whom are former Death Eaters. Could this be a set-up? Or something even worse?
Disclaimer: All Harry Potter characters herein are the property of J.K. Rowling and Bloomsbury/Scholastic. No copyright infringement is intended.
Warning(s): Rimming, needy boy sex, and pretentious random quoting of Shakespeare
Word Count: 21,000
Author's Notes: In addition to
I dream of rain
I dream of gardens in the desert sand
I wake in pain
I dream of love as time runs through my hand
I dream of fire
These dreams are tied to a horse that will never tire
And in the flames
shadows play in the shape of a man's desire
This desert rose
Each veil, a secret promise
This desert flower
No sweet perfume ever tortured me more than this
And as she turns
This way she moves in the logic of all my dreams
This fire burns
I realize that nothing's as it seems . . .
Desert Rose – Sting
Ron had just finished packing his briefcase and was putting on his coat when the voice came over the Interoffice Sonorus Communicator. Even if he hadn’t frozen at the words the voice spoke, the nervousness alone with which they were spoken would have had the same paralysing effect.
“Uhm, Ron? Er, I mean Mr. Weasley? Uhm, this is Euan . . . Euan Abercrombie, I mean. Uhm, something just . . . something just happened down here, and, uhm, well, I think you should come have a look.”
Ron glowered at the featureless box on his desk, which had just emitted words he’d never heard before – or even imagined hearing.
“What do you mean ‘something just happened down here’? You need to be a bit more specific than that, Abercrombie. I was on my way out the door, here . . .”
“Uhm . . . well, I’m not sure I can explain over the Communicator, sir. I mean . . . er, that is to say . . .”
Ron sighed and hung his coat back on its hook.
“Whatever this is, it had better be important,” he grumbled. “I’ll be down in a minute.”
Ron dropped his briefcase on his chair and grabbed his Auror badge from the top drawer of his desk. Despite his dismissive tone, he felt rather alarmed. In the nearly four years he had worked for the Magical Law Enforcement’s Department for the Eradication of Unforgiveables, Dark Spells and Deadly Hexes, first as a Report Inspector like Abercrombie and later in his current capacity as assistant to the Commissioner, he had never once encountered a situation that warranted the use of the words “something just happened down here.” Never. Not once.
As he made his way to the heavily guarded and fortified basement facility, Ron felt his trepidation increase. Euan was relatively new, but he was not stupid. In fact, Ron was planning to recommend him for a promotion to Supervising Report Inspector at his next annual review. He’d shown remarkable acumen and discretion – two traits that were important for an Auror in any department but were absolutely nonnegotiable for advancement in the Department for the Eradication of Unforgiveables, Dark Spells and Deadly Hexes. Clearly, something had spooked Euan, and Ron was on the verge of finding out exactly what it was.
For a moment, he toyed with the idea of calling his boss, but then Ron recalled that Commissioner Williamson had already left for the day. Something about a Ministry function his wife was required to attend. Besides, Ron thought, as he stepped off the elevator, Euan had asked for him specifically. If this – whatever it was – turned out to be a mistake on Euan’s part, Ron could see to it that it didn’t turn into a black spot on the bloke’s heretofore unblemished employment record. And if it wasn’t a mistake . . . ? Well, then Ron would cross that bridge when he came to it.
The Report Generation Wing was a deceptively cheerful place, and as he walked along the corridor past the break room with its snooker table and self-brewing espresso machines, Ron found himself thinking how glad he was that he no longer spent his days down here. Sure, there was a well-appointed break room and a well-stocked magical vending machine. Sure, there was a wireless and a top-quality chess set. And sure, there were comfortable couches where a Report Inspector could take a nap whenever he or she chose, but this was also the place where they lived. That is, if “lived” was even the proper verb for the existence they endured in their underground chamber . . .
Ron shuddered despite himself. It had been nearly four years that he’d been working in this building, but still he got the creeps every time he thought of the three people who spent their days on the other side of the Report Inspectors’ Office wall. Of course, Ron had never seen them. No one except their caretaker saw them, and in turn, no one saw their caretaker. No one – except the Commissioner and a half dozen high-ranking Ministry officials – even knew their names. All Ron and his fellow Aurors knew was that three Death Eaters who could predict the future lived in the basement of the Department of Magical Law Enforcement building and were known as Report Generators numbers one, two and three. Their basic needs were met, and they were treated humanely. As far as Ron and most everyone else in the ravaged post-war wizarding world was concerned, that was all one needed to know. Anything more would be superfluous data. Given what had happened to every other convicted Death Eater, these three had been lucky. Some might even say ridiculously so . . .
Ron started at the hissed sound and turned to see Euan beckoning to him from the darkened doorway of the women’s loo.
“Bloody hell,” Ron hissed back, not even sure why he was whispering but nonetheless sure that he should. “What’s going on?”
Euan glanced furtively up and down the corridor and waved Ron through the door. Frowning, Ron followed.
“You do realise this is highly irregular,” he said. “I don’t see what could be so important that it calls for a secret meeting in the ladies’ loo . . .”
“No female inspectors on the clock, tonight,” whispered Euan. “This seemed like the safest place . . .”
Ron’s frown deepened.
“Out with it, and this had better be good. I hate coming down here, and you know it.”
But Euan didn’t answer. Instead, he handed Ron a folded piece of parchment the size of a Muggle business card.
Ron recognised it instantly as a Pre-Curse Report Summary. After all, he’d handled countless cards just like this when he was a Report Inspector like Euan. They were the basic summaries that emerged from the Report Generators’ Predictive Pensieve every time they had one of their visions. The Pre-Curse Report Summaries were the first heads-up the Report Inspectors had that a violent crime was about to be committed, and they always contained three pieces of information. Three pieces and nothing more.
Feeling strangely and suddenly anxious, Ron unfolded the Report Summary and stared at it. Nearly a minute passed before he could even make sense of what he read.
MURDERER: Harry James Potter
VICTIM: Ed Kappington
TIME FRAME: Fourteen Hours.
Harry was just putting away the groceries he’d picked up on his way home from work when someone rang his doorbell three times in rapid succession.
“Hang on!” he grumbled as he stomped through the sitting room and into the front hall. Keeping the chain in the latch, he pulled open his door with a scowl, expecting to find another salesman or pamphleteer of some obscure Muggle religion. Instead he found Ron, his face pinched and pale.
“What’s going on?” Harry asked worriedly. “Is everything all right? Why didn’t you Floo here? Did you and Lavender . . . ?”
“I’m fine,” said Ron. “Lavender’s fine.” He paused and inexplicably glanced over his shoulder at the empty street behind him as though searching for invisible pursuers. “Couldn’t Floo. They might be watching. . . Look, mate, can I come in? There’s something . . .”
“Of course!” said Harry, stepping aside. “I’m sorry. I would have asked you in right away, but then you had this barmy look on your face . . .”
Harry’s voice trailed off when Ron didn’t smile at his teasing and instead pushed abruptly past him. Frowning, Harry closed the door.
“I know it’s been a while,” he said. “I’m sorry. It’s just that I’ve been busy with training recently. You must know, after all it’s no secret how badly the team sucks this season . . .”
Ron strode into the sitting room and pulled the drapes shut before collapsing into an armchair. His eyes were staring and his expression preoccupied. Harry hadn’t seen him looking this upset since he and Hermione split up . . .
“Are you sure you and Lavender are doing all right . . . ?”
Ron nodded distractedly, and still without looking at Harry, he reached into his coat pocket and pulled out a small piece of parchment. Without so much as a word, he handed it to Harry. Frowning, Harry reached out and took it from him. But even after he’d unfolded it and read what it contained, he still felt no closer to enlightenment.
“I take it this is . . . bad?” he said, and Ron nodded.
“And I take it this has something to do with the Department for the Eradication of Unforgiveables, Dark Spells and Deadly Hexes?”
Ron nodded again. After a minute, he cleared his throat and turned to face Harry.
“Do you know that man?”
Harry read the parchment again.
“You mean this Ed Kappington fellow? Never heard the name before in my life.”
Ron watched him closely as Harry sat down on the couch opposite him.
“So, you would have no reason, then, to murder this individual . . .”
Harry shot off the couch again as though he’d just sat down on a spiny urchin.
“Murder him? Ron, I don’t even know him!”
Ron scrubbed his face in his palms and then dragged his hands through his hair. He looked exhausted.
“How could this happen?” he said, his voice sounding mystified and uncertain. “How can this be?”
But Harry was starting to lose his temper.
“Why ask me?” he snapped, flopping back down on the couch. “After all, you’re the Auror. You’re the expert in all this Pre-Curse stuff, not me.”
“The Report Generators never lie,” Ron murmured, more to himself it seemed than to Harry. “They can’t lie. Their whole existence is predicting the future . . . in correctly predicting the future.”
“So, you’re saying these . . . these Report Generator thingies are predicting that I’m going to murder this bloke I don’t even know? Ron! That’s ridiculous!”
“I know it is, Harry!” Ron cried. His voice had lost any trace of listlessness and now sounded desperate . . . and scared.
“What . . . what’s going to happen?” Harry asked, almost in a whisper. “Am I going to be arrested?”
Ron nodded, his eyes wide. He seemed to be pleading with Harry to remain calm, and Harry was doing his utmost to comply, despite his confusion and growing alarm. He took a deep breath and waited for Ron to speak.
“Ordinarily, once we get the name of a soon-to-be-murderer, the Commissioner orders his or her arrest. That’s when I put together a tactical team, and we go in and nab the bloke.”
Ron fell silent, his eyes dropping away from Harry’s as he began to closely scrutinize the weave of Harry’s carpet.
“And then what?” Harry asked grimly.
“And then the person is sent to Azkaban.”
“I see,” said Harry. “For how long?”
“Forever,” said Ron, choking on the last syllable. “For life, Harry.”
“But why? How? The person hasn’t even done anything!”
“He hasn’t done anything yet, Harry. But he will. That’s the whole point. That’s why the programme is called Pre-Curse.”
“But what if the Report Generator thingies are wrong? What if they made it all up? What if they’re confused? They’re nothing more than inanimate Pensieves after all! They’re like Muggle machines, and Muggle machines break and mess up all the time. Are you saying that just because they’re magical devices they can’t possibly be wrong?”
Ron closed his eyes and took a deep breath. Much that he was about to say was a closely guarded secret. If he hadn’t already forfeited his job by coming to Harry with the Pre-Curse Report Summary, he certainly would do so now by telling Harry how it was generated . . .
“The Report Generators are not Pensieves, Harry. The Report Inspectors use a Pensieve to access their visions, but the Report Generators themselves are not Pensieves . . .”
“Well, then what are they?” Harry snapped. He was trying to remain patient. He really was. It was just very difficult to be in the dark about something that involved him so intimately . . . and inexplicably.
“They’re people!” Ron blurted. “They’re people, for fuck sake! Former Death Eaters. Virtual vegetables. Pathetic freaks of nature! That’s what they are, Harry. That’s what You-Know-Who made them, and that’s how we – you and me and the rest of wizarding Britain – keep them!”
Ron stopped short. He was breathing heavily, and he had no idea where his outburst had come from. It had rushed from his mouth in a torrent of pent-up emotion he hadn’t even realised he’d harboured. Sudden memories of Hermione flooded his mind. Of arguments in the kitchen late at night. Of hot tears and shouted accusations. Ron, how could you be a part of something like that? It’s wrong, and you know it!
Harry was staring at him.
“So . . . so, the Report Generators are actual people?” he said.
“And they predict the future?”
Ron nodded again.
“And they . . . these unknown former Death Eaters predicted that I, Harry Potter, was going to murder someone I don’t even know.”
Ron nodded a third time.
“And that doesn’t strike you as suspicious? That doesn’t sound like a set-up to you? Like revenge for my having killed their Lord? I mean, come on, Ron! I’m not an Auror or anything, but this seems about as transparent as a pane of glass to me.”
“But you don’t understand,” said Ron. “You seem to think these individuals are people capable of thought, capable of feeling. But they aren’t, Harry. They haven’t been for years. You see, back when You-Know-Who was at the height of his power, he was also at the height of his paranoia. He was convinced there were countless plots to assassinate him, and he grew increasingly enslaved to his fear. So much so that he was distracted from his plans to take over the Ministry, and to find and kill you and the rest of the Order. So, he came up with a complex spell through which he could turn a person into a living, breathing crystal ball, if you will. Something he could devote full-time to monitoring the future and warning him of any attempts on his life . . .”
“So, the Department of Magical Law Enforcement is using a spell Voldemort developed to turn former Death Eaters into human crime predictors?” Harry interrupted.
“No,” Ron replied. “You know as well as I do that no one would use one of You-Know-Who’s spells, even if it could be used for good purposes, Harry. This may be a bit morally dodgy, but it’s not evil. No, no one has used the spell, and in fact, no one even knows what it is. It’s the people we’re using, not the spell. It’s the three Death Eaters that You-Know-Who, himself, used the spell on . . .”
“What did it do to them? The spell, I mean.”
“Basically, it heightened a latent talent they already possessed and essentially hollowed out the rest of their minds, their consciousness, so the talent could take over. After being placed under the spell, these people lost all capacity for thought on their own. They lost their memories, their personalities, their abilities to think of anything else but the future, and more specifically, the future of violence. They see nothing all day, every day, but horrible violent crimes that haven’t happened yet, but which will happen if there is no intervention . . .”
Harry winced. Despite his alarm over his own fate, he found Ron’s words about these nameless, faceless people living in a constant nightmare of blood and hate and fear absolutely appalling.
“Can’t we cure them?”
Ron shook his head.
“Not only are there no known means of reversing the spell, but what would the point be? I mean, these people are former Death Eaters, and we’ve executed every single former Death Eater except these three. If we cured them, it would be only for the purpose of executing them or sending them to Azkaban for the rest of their lives. Can’t you see what a waste that would be, Harry? These people can be used for a good purpose. They can be used to predict violent crimes and save the lives of countless innocent people!”
Harry stared at his best friend. At some point while he’d been talking, Ron had appeared to stop addressing him and instead seemed to be arguing with some invisible third person. Harry frowned and waved his hand in front of Ron’s face.
“Thanks for the history and morality lesson, mate, but none of this helps to explain why you showed up this evening with a note calling me a murderer. You know I wouldn’t kill anyone. You know that!”
“Of course, I do. I have no idea what’s going on. It just doesn’t make any sense!”
Harry gazed down at the folded parchment in his hand for a long moment.
“Is this it?” he asked. “Is this the only report you people get before you arrest someone?”
“It’s the initial report, yes,” said Ron. “It gives us the critical details. The Report Generators can see up to only twenty-four hours into the future . . . so, in that sense you and I are lucky. Sometimes these Report Summaries get generated, and they say we have ten or sometimes as little as four hours. Then, we really have to scramble . . . .”
“You said this is an initial report,” said Harry. “That implies there’s another, more detailed report . . .”
“Right,” said Ron. “Actually there are three additional reports, one from each Report Generator. We usually get them a couple of hours after the initial Report Summary . . .”
“And what do the additional reports tell you?”
“Well, each one of the Report Generators sees a slightly different . . . how can I describe it? Slice of time, I guess . . .”
“You mean, one may see Monday morning, while another sees Monday afternoon, and the third sees Monday evening?”
“Basically. To be honest with you, I’ve never understood all the details. All I know is that in order for a Pre-Curse Report Summary to be generated, at least two of the three Report Generators must predict a crime.”
“So, it’s kind of a ‘two out of three’ wins . . .”
“Yeah, or the majority rules. But basically you get the idea.”
“So, if only one Report Generator predicts a murder from looking at his or her little slice of time, or what-have-you, no Pre-Curse Report Summary will be generated?”
“Right. Which means no one is ordered arrested.”
“Unless, of course, there’s been a mistake.”
“Which it appears there has been.”
They sat in silence for a long moment, each of them lost in his own thoughts.
“But . . . ,” said Harry at last. “Correct me if I’m way off the mark here, but isn’t it at least possible that the third Report Generator could be right, and the other two are wrong?”
“Well, usually all three Report Generators agree,” said Ron. “It’s very rare that a prediction isn’t unanimous.”
“Rare,” said Harry. “But not impossible.”
“No, not impossible. But in order for the Aurors to act, at least two of the three Report Generators must agree that a crime will be committed. Otherwise, it would be unfair . . .”
“It’s unfair to arrest an innocent man if one of these freaks in a basement says he’s going to kill someone, but its perfectly fair if two say it? Nice criminal justice system you people have there.”
Ron glared at him.
“When was the last time someone was murdered?” he snapped. “When was the last time someone was beaten within an inch of his life? When was the last time someone was raped, or kidnapped, or spell-damaged beyond repair? Not since the war ended, that’s when! And do you want to know why? It’s because every single violent crime has been accurately predicted by the Report Generators . . .”
“That may be,” said Harry. “But that doesn’t mean the net has never been cast too wide. Maybe you’ve caught all the murderers and rapists, but maybe you’ve also ensnared a few innocent people along the way. Wouldn’t it be better to go with three-out-of-three, instead of just two-out-of-three?”
“But what if that means a murderer goes free just because one of the three Report Generators’ reports doesn’t agree?”
“Is that worse than sending an innocent man to Azkaban for the rest of his life?”
Ron looked at him for a long moment before sighing deeply and collapsing back into his chair.
“If you had asked me that question two hours ago, I would have said ‘yes.’ But now . . . ?”
Ron closed his eyes wearily.
“Now, all I can think about is my best mate in Azkaban. I don’t know about any of the big philosophical shite, but I do know one thing. You don’t belong in prison, Harry, and I’m going to do everything in my power to make sure it doesn’t happen.”
He opened his eyes and smiled weakly at Harry, and Harry, in turn, smiled weakly back.
“What can I do?” Harry asked.
“The first thing we can do,” Ron replied, “is get our hands on the Report Generators’ reports as soon as Euan can write them up.”
Despite his fear, Harry felt himself smile at Ron’s use of “we,” as well as his mention of Euan Abercrombie’s name.
“Euan’s helping you with this?”
“We Gryffindors need to stick together.”
“He’s not mad at me, then?”
“If he ever was mad at you, that went away when he hooked up with Colin. They just moved in together last month.”
Harry stood from the couch and went to the closet to get his coat.
“I felt bad about the way things ended between Euan and me . . .”
Ron followed Harry into the front hall.
“You were honest with him, though. I think he appreciated that.”
Harry laughed rather ruefully as they stepped out onto the front steps, and Harry locked the door behind them. The sun had set more than an hour ago, but its light still lingered in the late spring sky, rendering the street lamps almost superfluous.
“Honest about my stupidity. What an admirable trait!”
“It’s better than lying about it,” said Ron. “But promise me, Harry. When I get you out of this mess – because I will get you out of this mess – promise me you’ll make a real effort this time to forget about him and move on. It’s been seven years, after all! Even if he is still alive, do you really think that git is still carrying a torch for you?”
“Hey! None of that ‘git’ stuff,” Harry replied sternly. “You may never be able to refer to him as Draco, but the least you can do in my presence is refer to him by his name and not by an epithet. He was my lover after all!”
“Don’t I know it,” he muttered under his breath, but when Harry jabbed him in the ribs, he relented. “I’m sorry. It’s just that it’s time to move on, Harry. It’s been too long to be nothing more serious than head-games, even for Malfoy. He’s either over you, or he’s dead. There are no other explanations left. And either way, you have to move on. You’re only twenty-six, for Merlin’s sake! You’ve got your whole life ahead of you!”
“Hopefully not in Azkaban,” Harry said darkly.
Ron swallowed hard as the recollection of their precarious situation struck him with the force of a battering ram.
“Not in Azkaban,” he said, lifting an arm and draping it over his best friend’s shoulders as they walked. “And not in Malfoy’s thrall either, which, to my way of thinking, at least, amounts to more or less the same thing.”
Harry turned his head and smiled faintly but with determination.
“Thanks, mate,” he said. “I know what this is going to cost you.”
“As long as it doesn’t cost me your friendship, then I don’t give a shite,” said Ron, trying to sound more confident than he felt. He cleared his throat. “Or my ability to give your Malfoy-whipped arse a kick.”
“Fair enough,” he said. “I won’t try to pretend I don’t deserve it.”
When they arrived at the Department for Magical Law Enforcement building, Ron stopped and turned to Harry, his expression a picture of agonised guilt.
“I’m sorry, mate. I can’t . . .”
Harry sighed and gave Ron a lopsided smile.
“Of course, you can’t. Go on. I’ll meet you . . .” He paused and looked around for a moment before glimpsing a small neglected-looking park down the street. “ . . . in that park over there. All right?”
Ron nodded reluctantly.
“Will you be okay?”
“I’ll be better when you get your arse in there and get this thing sorted out,” Harry replied. “Don’t worry. I’m not going to fling myself under a bus.”
“I’ll be as quick as I can . . .”
“Just go on, already!”
Ron smiled grimly and ran up the steps. Harry watched him until he disappeared through the door before stepping back. All at once, the air seemed to ripple like a motorway under a mid-summer sun, and the place where once an impressive, windowless stone building had stood was now an unbroken row of unremarkable townhouses. Harry sighed and crossed the street.
The park didn’t look like a place in which he wanted to be alone after dark. Harry sat down on a dilapidated bench, drew his wand, and laid it across his knees. Having to sit and wait while his future hung in the balance was hardly how he’d planned to spend his Friday night, but there was clearly nothing for it. He couldn’t go into the DMLE building with Ron. Even without this new suspicion clinging to his name, Harry’s presence in any Ministry building would not go unnoticed and unremarked. After all, he’d made a career after the war of harassing the Minister and his officials until he’d finally been formally banned from entering a government building without an escort. Looking back with the hindsight of more than four years, Harry could see there were valid reasons behind it, but at the time, the highly-publicised ban had felt like just another personal affront. He’d fought like a magical killing machine in the war. He’d vaporised Voldemort and aided in the capture of dozens of Death Eaters. One would think the least his government could do for him in return would be to provide him with the accounting he’d requested of all the people who had been executed since Victory Day. But, no. The one thing he’d wanted had been the one thing he was denied . . .
Harry swallowed down the bitterness that rose like bile in his throat. Even after all this time, it still stung to remember how he’d been reduced to pleading tears in the Minister’s office; how he’d had to stalk the Head of the Aurors like a crazed lunatic just to have him say, for the millionth time, “I have nothing to tell you, Potter!” Even compared with the war and all the hardship and horror it had brought, that year had been the worst year of Harry’s life. Irony notwithstanding.
He’d escaped one enslavement for another. Immediately after shrugging off the chains that were his quest to kill Voldemort, he’d donned new ones. But this time, it wasn’t a quest of hate, but of love. He had promised Draco . . . promised him! . . . that if anything happened on that final undercover mission that Harry would find him – dead or alive. And if he were alive, Harry had promised him the secrecy and subterfuge would end, and Harry would tell the world – shout it from the fucking rooftops! – that he loved Draco Malfoy and fuck the world if they couldn’t handle it. And if he were dead? Well, then Harry had promised him that he would see to it that Draco was buried on the hill beneath the chestnut tree where he and Harry had first . . .
It was a struggle, but Harry at last managed to force the memory of that afternoon and their first kiss from his mind. It was only recently that he’d even begun to be able to recall bits and pieces of it without breaking down completely. And that was when he was feeling relatively strong. Right now, he was feeling anything but, and remembering Draco – the way Draco’s hair kept blowing into his face and the way Draco had kept tucking it behind his ear without even thinking, so focused had he been on what he was saying, on trying to find the words to make Harry understand why he’d been acting like such a prick ever since he’d arrived at Number Twelve Grimmauld Place – would be a disaster . . .
Harry closed his eyes and surrendered to the desire to see again his lover’s face. He hadn’t the strength to recollect whole afternoons or long summer nights or the way Draco used to melt into Harry’s arms when they embraced. But he had come to learn over the years that just imagining Draco’s face, as though he were looking at a portrait in a gallery, had a deeply calming effect. It wasn’t because Draco was beautiful – although he was that. It was because Draco, his eyes softened with affection, was still a miracle for Harry. Still a symbol that anything was possible in this world. After all, who would have imagined that two boys so at odds could come, not only to like and respect, but to love one another. Love and adore. Because that was the word that always sprang to mind when Harry thought of his long-lost lover. He had come to adore Draco and everything about him. His laugh, his brashness, his unexpected capacity for earnestness. The way he would look up every now and again while he was reading and gaze thoughtfully out the window. And whenever he’d seen him like that, Harry had always wanted to cross the room and drop to his knees and take Draco’s chin in his hand and force Draco to look at him. To see him. To know that he, Draco, was loved and cherished and desired and would be for every single second of every single day for the rest of his life . . . .
A cry startled Harry from his reverie, and his fingers tightened reflexively around his wand. It wasn’t a human cry, and when Harry heard it again, he looked up into the branches of the park’s sparsely planted trees. It had been an owl’s cry, but what kind of owl, Harry wasn’t sure.
On the third cry, Harry spotted it, and it flew down to land on the bench beside him. Regarding it warily, Harry considered the possibilities of its origin. Either the missive it bore was from Ron’s boss ordering Harry to surrender, or it was a note from his coach telling him practise had been rescheduled for six a.m. or some other equally forsaken hour. Both possibilities were just as unwelcome in Harry’s view. But at least a letter from his coach didn’t raise the spectre of a lifetime in Azkaban for the murder of someone Harry had never even heard of, let alone met . . .
“Ouch! Hey, cut it out!”
Harry jerked his hand away from the owl and brought it to his mouth.
The owl blinked and held out its foot, and before it could peck him a second time, Harry reached down and retrieved the parchment. Without waiting for him to read it, the owl hopped onto the back of the bench and flew away.
Taking a deep breath and preparing himself for the worst, Harry unrolled the letter. But what he read there was just as unexpected as the news Ron had brought him earlier in the evening. Harry read through the short note and then read it again.
Dear Mr. Potter,
You don’t know me. I am a colleague of your friend, Hermione, and it is out of concern for her that I’m writing to you. Something happened at work today, and I think Hermione may be in trouble. She’s been dating our boss for about a month, but yesterday she told me she wanted to end things between them, and that she didn’t care for him more than a friend. Anyhow, he called her into his office this afternoon and closed the door. I and a few other people could hear shouting, and then we heard Hermione scream, and then they both Apparated away. Now, I don’t want to alarm you for no reason, but I also didn’t want to call the Aurors on my boss if there isn’t, in fact, anything wrong. I was hoping you could stop by Hermione’s flat and make sure she’s okay. Hopefully, this is all a big misunderstanding. But if it isn’t . . . well, I just want Hermione to be safe.
Harry stared at the letter, completely stunned. Hermione might be in danger! He had just had dinner with her last weekend, and she hadn’t mentioned a new man in her life, but then again, Hermione had become rather circumspect about mentioning her relationships to Harry after she and Ron had split up. So, the fact that he hadn’t known she was dating again wasn’t all that surprising. And perhaps she hadn’t mentioned this bloke because she hadn’t liked him that much and was only seeing him to keep her job . . .
Harry rose from the bench and prepared to Apparate, but just before he did, he paused. What if Hermione really was in trouble? What if this bloke had kidnapped her or hurt her . . . or worse? Was this the start of the prediction? Were these the wheels that were being set into motion? What if Harry found this man hurting his best friend? How could he not hex him into a slimy puddle?
Harry gasped out loud. Where just a few minutes ago, it had been literally unthinkable that he could kill some random bloke, it was now entirely imaginable. Hell, it was almost inevitable!
Pulling his thoughts together as best he could, Harry began to put together a plan. He would go to Hermione’s flat, of course. Not to do so was not even an option. If Hermione was in trouble, Harry had to help her. And it wasn’t as though he could simply contact the Community Policing Aurors and have them do it. Ron had told him that all branches of the Aurors would receive copies of the Pre-Curse Report Summary. It was one of the checks and balances that existed to ensure that no one in the Department for the Eradication of Unforgiveables, Dark Spells and Deadly Hexes could accept a bribe from a would-be murderer in exchange for “inadvertently” losing a Pre-Curse Report Summary. Ron had bought Harry time, but he couldn’t hide the news forever . . .
So, calling the Aurors to check on Hermione was out of the question. And waiting for Ron was also out of the question. Hermione could be in danger now! And every second Harry spent deliberating over what he should do could mean the difference between life and death.
Harry paced before the park bench, wracking his brain. If he went, he would just have to stop himself from killing or maiming anyone. How hard could that be, after all? There were plenty of nonfatal hexes Harry could use. There was Stupify and Petrificus Totalus and a dozen other defensive spells, not to mention a quick right hook followed by an uppercut . . .
Having convinced himself it was safe to proceed, Harry Apparated to Hermione’s front door and knocked sharply.
“Coming!” Hermione called, and instantly Harry felt the adrenaline start to drain from his body. He’d been virtually convinced he’d find Hermione in danger. After all, it was the only way the prediction might make sense.
“Harry,” she said, opening the door. “I’m so glad you came.”
“You sound like you were expecting me.”
Hermione took a deep breath as if steeling herself for something unpleasant.
“Actually, I was. Please, Harry, come in.”
She stepped aside, and Harry walked into her flat. And even though he had no idea what to expect (or not expect), he was still surprised to discover about a half-dozen people squashed together in Hermione’s tiny living room drinking tea and eating take-away. They all looked up excitedly when he entered and beamed at him with poorly disguised hope. It was a situation Harry had encountered frequently during the war, and its familiarity made it all the more unsettling.
“Er . . . Hermione?”
“Remember I told you I started a new job, Harry?” she replied quickly as she began rubbing his back as though he were a nervous horse at a starting gate.
Harry nodded, wondering what that had to do with the people eating curry on her futon.
“And remember I told you we were looking into human rights abuses by the Ministry?”
Harry nodded again.
“Well, these are my co-workers. This is Michael, and this here is Janet. Over there on the divan is Margaret, Joan, Susan, and David . . .” They all waved and beamed at Harry. “And there, in the armchair, is Ed. Ed Kappington.”
Harry stared at Ed, and Ed stared back at Harry.
“Er . . . I thought . . .”
Hermione put both of her arms around him and rested her chin on his shoulder. And, again, Harry found himself trying not to recall the war . . .
“I know, Harry,” she said gently. “And I’m sorry we lured you here under false pretenses. That was Janet who wrote the letter . . .” Janet waved in embarrassed apology from her perch on the stone hearth.
“But I don’t understand . . .” Harry’s confusion, though not abating, was rapidly giving way to anger.
“I know,” said Hermione soothingly. “We’ll explain everything. Do you want some curry? I got your favourite, chicken tikka masala . . .”
“No,” said Harry tersely. “I want to know what’s going on.”
The hopeful looks on everyone’s faces dimmed slightly, but Hermione forged ahead, her voice determinedly cheerful.
“We know about the Pre-Curse Report Summary, Harry. We know it has been predicted that you’re going to murder Ed.”
Harry turned away from Ed to stare at Hermione in astonishment.
“But . . . but how?”
“Ed’s sister is an Auror in the Community Policing Department. She contacted Ed as soon as she learned it was predicted that he was to be killed. That was the first thing we knew. We didn’t discover that you were the alleged murderer until later.”
Harry nodded and relaxed enough to permit Hermione to lead him to an armchair recently vacated by Michael.
“At first we were afraid for Ed,” said Janet. “But then we realised this may just be the moment we had been waiting for . . .”
Harry felt his eyes narrow.
“What do you mean?” he asked suspiciously.
Hermione jumped in, her piercing glance at Janet effectively silencing the poor, defenceless woman.
“Harry, we’ve been searching for months for a way to bring down the Department for the Eradication of Unforgiveables, Dark Spells and Deadly Hexes and end their barbarous Pre-Curse Programme. It’s an abominable practise that has absolutely no place at all in a civilised society. Just think! Hundreds of people like you have been unjustly accused and imprisoned. All those people in Azkaban? Not a single one of them has committed a crime, and many of them probably never would have.”
Harry stared at her as the import of her words began to sink in.
“I’m being accused,” he said slowly, “of killing a man I didn’t know until five minutes ago and with whom I have absolutely no quarrel.”
“Exactly!” Hermione exclaimed. “That’s what we all realised the second we heard it was you who is supposed to kill Ed. It was preposterous! And that’s when we knew that we’d stumbled onto an obvious mistake – something we could use to show the public just how dangerous and wrong the whole system is.”
Harry nodded and reached for a teacup. Hermione broke into a relieved grin when she saw him start to relax and settle in.
“Because it is wrong, Harry. Hundreds of people are imprisoned every year based on nothing but a dream! It’s a system based entirely on faith, not on laws. And since when has anyone wanted to trust his fate to nothing but blind faith?”
Around them, Hermione’s co-workers all nodded in agreement.
“I’m so sorry we had to trick you like that,” Hermione continued. “But I had to be one hundred percent sure that you would come. After all, I couldn’t just ask you to stop by. You know how anti-social you’ve been lately . . .”
“I haven’t been anti-social,” Harry exclaimed around a mouthful of chicken tikka masala. “I’ve been busy with training . . .”
“Regardless,” said Hermione. “I had to be sure that you would come immediately, but I also had to be sure you wouldn’t bring anyone else with you. I knew if I invented a reason that permitted you time, you’d go get Ron . . .”
“Shit! Ron! He thinks I’m waiting for him in the park . . . Hermione, we’ve got to get word to him and let him know what’s going on.”
Hermione’s expression darkened.
“I don’t want Ron to know about this,” she said.
Harry looked at her, his confusion evident in his face.
“But why not?”
“Harry, you have no idea how devoted Ron is to the Department for the Eradication of Unforgiveables, Dark Spells and Deadly Hexes. He believes in it and everything they do. He thinks this is the best thing that ever happened to society and that he’s saving hundreds of innocent lives. But what he refuses to consider is the possibility that he’s not saving lives as much as ruining them needlessly . . .”
“But Ron’s the one who told me about the prediction. He’s there now, trying to see the Report Generators’ reports. I think he may be looking for a way to alter or destroy them . . .”
“Merlin save us!” exclaimed Michael. “He’s going to ruin everything! We’ve got to stop him!”
“What do you mean?” asked Harry, utterly perplexed. “He wants to help me . . .”
“This isn’t just about helping you, Harry,” said Kappington, and Harry started at the sound of his voice. He was a big man, and his voice was low and almost menacing.
“What do you mean?”
“I mean,” said Kappington. “That this is bigger than just you or me, Harry. This is about ending a brutal system that was brought into existence by Voldemort himself.”
“But . . .”
“But nothing. Your friend Ron believes in this system, Harry. If he destroys those Reports, he’ll accomplish two things: he’ll save his best friend from Azkaban, and he’ll prevent anyone from looking too closely at the Pre-Curse Programme and discovering this mistake.”
Harry shook his head, confused.
“But . . . I don’t understand. Wouldn’t that be a good thing?”
“No, it wouldn’t, Harry. You see, along with that letter we sent to you, we also sent one to my sister informing her that someone tipped you off about the prediction, and that you are in the process of fleeing Britain to escape your just fate. As soon as she hears this, I can assure you that my sister will be terrified for my life and will immediately get the Aurors to issue an emergency broadcast, informing the public not only of the prediction, but of your fugitive state. In other words, any minute now, you will be wizarding Britain’s most wanted would-be criminal.”
No longer hungry in the slightest, Harry frowned and set aside his plate of curry.
“Why on earth would you do such a thing?!”
“Because we had to,” said Kappington.
Harry stared at him, but when he did not elaborate, Harry turned to Hermione. His face must have reflected his confusion and hurt because she instantly began wringing her hands.
“I’m so sorry, Harry. But we had to do it so our publicity stunt could work. Don’t you see? All of wizarding Britain will think you are going to murder Ed, but then you and Ed are going to stand up tomorrow in front of the rally we’re organising, and everyone will see for themselves that the Report Generators’ predictions were wrong. The two of you will be living, breathing proof of that fact!”
“And that’s why Ron can’t know what we’re doing. I know he wants to save you, Harry. But that doesn’t mean that, in the process of saving you, he wants the whole Pre-Curse Programme brought to an end. But we do. Ron will do what he can to save the system, and if he discovers our plan or, Merlin forbid, destroys the reports . . .”
Harry nodded slowly.
“I think I understand,” he said. “But that doesn’t mean I like it. Ron has jeopardized everything to try to help me, and this seems like a shitty way to repay him.”
“But do you understand that the Pre-Curse Programme must end and that this might be the only way of doing it?” Hermione pressed.
Harry sighed. “Yeah, I do. How could I not? Considering, like you said, I’m living proof that it makes mistakes? So, now what?”
“Now we hide you away for awhile,” said Kappington. “The Aurors are going to come looking for me, too. Especially since they won’t be able to find you. I’m going to have an Auror guard for the next twelve hours, and obviously it won’t do at all for them to find you here with me.”
“And how do you plan to hide me away?” Harry asked. “The Aurors aren’t idiots, you know. They have pretty sophisticated means of tracking people . . .”
“And we have equally sophisticated means of hiding them,” Joan interjected.
Harry turned at the sound of her voice just in time to see her pull a wizarding ID card from her purse. And in the blink of an eye, the tall middle-aged witch with strawberry-blonde hair had turned into an unremarkable-looking brown-haired wizard in his mid-twenties. Harry was so astonished that he actually rubbed his eyes in an effort to clear them.
“What on earth . . . ?”
“Harry, meet your new self,” said Hermione proudly, and Harry could only surmise that the identity-altering ID card must be one of her latest inventions. “This is Ned Noodginton . . .”
“Ned Noodginton? Could you have come up with a more pathetic-sounding name?”
“That wasn’t my idea. Some of my co-workers got a little carried away.” She paused to glare at David who was whistling tunelessly and examining his fingernails.
“I don’t even know you, mate,” Harry told him sullenly, “and you’re trying to ruin my life.”
Hermione rolled her eyes.
“Twelve hours is hardly the rest of your life, Harry.”
“. . . and being Ned Noodginton for a day is hardly equivalent to celebrating your 100th birthday in Azkaban,” said Kappington without a trace of humour in his voice.
Harry nodded his concession and reached for the ID that Joan-cum-Ned held out to him.
“As long as that ID is on your person, either in your pocket or your hand, you will have a different appearance, a different voice, and even different mannerisms . . .”
“. . . which is quite an improvement over Polyjuice Potion,” Joan interjected again.
Hermione blushed proudly.
“Well, I had lots of help developing it,” she said demurely. “So, Harry, despite not really existing, Ned Noodginton has an entire life history. He’s twenty-five, grew up in Leeds, and didn’t go to Hogwarts because he’s a borderline Squib. Instead, he attended nursing school in Glasgow and is about to start training at St. Mungo’s. He’s living in a rented room in a Muggle boarding house. Aside from work, Ned doesn’t do much. In fact, he’s so quiet and nondescript that people tend to forget him within a minute or two of meeting him.”
Hermione paused to grin at him.
“You always said you wanted to be a nobody, Harry. Well, here’s your chance.”
Harry smirked at her and accepted the ID card from Joan. Instantly, he felt a rippling sensation spread throughout his entire body and watched as his hands grew blunt-fingered and brown. He held them up and squinted at them.
“Oh right, I forgot,” said Hermione. “Ned Noodginton has perfect eyesight.”
Harry pulled off his glasses and tucked them in an inside coat pocket.
“It’s the weekend, so Ned doesn’t have to go to work tomorrow,” Hermione continued. “In fact, aside for going out to get some breakfast and Saturday’s edition of The Prophet, Ned doesn’t intend to leave his rented room for the next twelve hours.”
“I get the hint,” said Harry. “But how will I know when and where to go for this rally you people are planning?”
“That’s why Ned will be getting tomorrow’s Prophet.”
Just then, there came a sharp, urgent knock at the door.
“That must be the Aurors,” Kappington hissed. “They won’t recognise you, but you should get out of here anyway. Just to be on the safe side.”
“Coming!” Hermione called.
“You can take the Knight Bus, or you can Apparate to this address,” Kappington continued, shoving a folded piece of parchment into Harry’s hand. “It’s a car park near the boarding house Ned’s staying at. It should be empty by this time of night . . .”
“Oh, and I forgot to mention, Ned has already rented a room,” said Joan. “The lady at the desk will recognise you because I . . . or rather, Ned . . . went there a couple of hours ago and filled out the paperwork.”
Harry didn’t know whether to feel admiration or not. All the obvious planning gave him the creeps and reminded him of the way he – and Draco – had been used like pawns in the war. He repressed an instinctive shudder. He just had to remember that this was for his own good and only for a day . . .
“We’re looking for Ed Kappington,” said an official-sounding voice at Hermione’s door.
“Of course, he’s right inside,” Hermione said, opening the door a crack. “But before you come in, if I could just ask you to Scourgify your shoes. Had my carpets cleaned only last week . . .”
“Get going!” hissed Kappington as Harry stood and prepared to Apparate. “We’ll see you at tomorrow’s rally . . .”
Still feeling rather stunned by the speed at which his circumstances kept changing, Harry could think of nothing to say in response. Instead, he merely nodded and vanished without another word.