A/N: This story continues on from my one-shot fic, Truth Under Fire, but can hopefully be understood separately. Enormous thanks, as always, to my beta, Mistral, who managed to correct my punctuation while recovering from the 'flu. And who puts up with my determination to put commas in the wrong place. :)
There was no blood. One pale arm had dropped to the covers of the bed, the curled fingers of the hand dangling gently from the sheet's edge. The woman looked faintly ludicrous in death, her eyes open and glassy, the lips parted and chapped. She had woken, which was irritating, because it had broken the logical sequence of the plan. Her husband still lay as if sleeping, his gaping mouth silenced mid-snore. He, at least, had behaved in an appropriate manner. No nasty smell hung in the air, and the scene was not marred with blood.
There was something so crude about blood.
The woman should not have woken. That had not been foreseen. Fortunately, the disruption to the plan had been minor.
Mistakes were not to be forgiven. The inept must never go unpunished. Justice would be done.
The dawn light was pale when Ginny awoke, flushed and blinking. It was one of those delicious mornings when consciousness came slowly and luxuriously. It made a nice change from habits of the previous years, when, more often than not, she would find herself jerking into sudden, wide-eyed awareness. The few seconds of blissful oblivion as her body struggled to orientate itself had usually been followed by a sick sense of fear or the heaviness of grief. This morning, however, she felt strangely relaxed and almost mischievous. Which was odd, actually, because she'd fallen asleep thinking about work and convinced that impatience would keep her awake.
Extending her arms and legs, Ginny stretched until her joints made a satisfying popping sound. She grinned up at the ceiling and wondered if she could manage it again at the breakfast table. The noise never failed to make Ron shudder. Her sleepy smirk evolved into a yawn as she flopped over in the bed and gazed at the sleeping man beside her. Harry hadn't even stirred at her movements, and she was pleased to see that the smudges beneath his lashes had faded slightly during the night. They'd all been existing on cat naps recently. Her lips curved again as she watched the rise and fall of his chest. The Daily Prophet's "knight of valour" was sprawled on his back, arms and legs flung wide. Harry was an awkward person with which to share a bed. He maneuvered to take up as much space as possible during the night, and in the morning -- when she found herself clinging to the edge of the mattress -- would flatly deny any such thing. Ginny rather thought he considered himself a cuddly, conscientious sleeper -- which he was, until he actually went to sleep. At which point, he would suddenly spread out everywhere, often knocking her in the head or arm in the process. For such a lean person, she mused wryly, there sometimes seemed to be an awful lot of him.
If she loved him less, it could have easily made her cross.
Suddenly wide awake, eyes sparkling, Ginny pushed up on one elbow and reached to gently stroke Harry's stubbly cheek. His mouth closed abruptly on a snore, and he frowned. Her fingers gently traced the line of nose and jaw, before returning to touch his lips. He made a slight sound of irritation and moved beneath her hand. Before he could open his eyes, she leaned forward and pressed her closed mouth to his. Harry stiffened momentarily, and then relaxed beneath her weight, his long fingers cupping the back of her head.
Ginny pulled back, resisting his attempts to draw her closer, and rested her chin atop her folded arms. "You almost pushed me out of bed, Harry. Again."
Harry belatedly covered his yawn. "Did not." His voice was slurred and drowsy. "Can't be morning yet." His eyes drifted closed for a minute, before he roused himself and turned to squint at the dim light beneath the curtains. "What time is it?"
Ginny pushed against his chest, ignoring the muffled protest that ensued, and stretched to swipe his glasses and wristwatch from the bedside table. Plunking the former unceremoniously, and crookedly, on his nose, she peered at the watch.
"It's eight... No, it isn't. It's seven. You could get a proper watch one of these days, you know."
"Seven? Bloody hell, we're already half an hour late!"
Ginny anticipated his attempt to lift her away and tangled her legs with his. "No, we're not. Robards gave everyone a late start because of the night shifts we've been doing. Although," she added, "I'd hardly call eight-thirty a late start."
Harry gave up trying to dislodge her and reached to tug at a strand of red hair. "This from the person who woke me up at four in the morning last week."
Ginny frowned. "I couldn't sleep."
"I could. I was, actually."
"It's boring, lying awake with nobody to talk to."
"Then read a book."
"It's not like I didn't make it worth your while, Harry."
Harry closed his mouth on a retort and flushed. Ginny waited a beat, and then laughed when his embarrassed face became thoughtful, and a distinctly wicked gleam lit his eyes. Rolling swiftly to the side, she stood up.
"I'll wake you up at four tomorrow morning," she promised, grinning. "When we're back in our own flat. But, since Tonks and Remus let us all invade them for the night, we probably shouldn't be late for breakfast."
She waved her wand at the heavy curtains, and grey light flooded the room. Harry groaned and stumbled from the bed, shielding his eyes against the weak glare. He stood silently for a moment, looking rumpled, tired, and so grumpy that Ginny had to giggle.
Harry scowled at her. "You won't think it's so funny when it's your turn for double shifts," he threatened, rubbing a palm against his rough chin.
Ginny folded her arms, one copper brow shooting upward. "Excuse me, Potter. I believe I recall certain people getting a whole three days off recently. Seamus and I haven't even had Saturday off for months!"
Harry shrugged. "Tonks obviously thinks that you need the practice." He grinned, and easily parried her soaring pillow. "I reckon we should go away somewhere for a week, after we get Delltorio. Somewhere without Seamus and Ron," he added, pointedly.
She sobered. "You know I'd love to do that. But how long have we been saying that, Harry? 'After we get Delltorio?' Two years? Whatever we're doing, it isn't working. He's always one step ahead. Every bloody time."
Harry tugged off his wrinkled t-shirt and tossed it onto the bed. He looked troubled. "It's starting to look like Robards is right, isn't it?"
Ginny paused, one leg in her jeans, and looked up at him. "About there being a leak in the Department?" He nodded, eyes narrowed in thought, and she continued, in resignation, "It wouldn't be the first time. But who the hell is it? I've thought about it; you've thought about it. Internal Affairs has been investigating for a year now, and the most dirt they've dug up is on Seamus, for Merlin's sake. And his...night activities were old news, anyway."
Harry yanked his shirt down and blinked. "Did you know about that?"
She snorted and snatched up her trainers. "Oh, come on, Harry. How'd you think he could afford Ariel Silverstone robes? On an Auror's salary?"
Harry gave her the look that she'd grown up with, the look of a male who knew nothing about clothing design, and who cared less. "I dunno. Hadn't thought about it. Aren't the Finnegans pretty well-off?" he asked, as an afterthought.
"Used to be," said Ginny bluntly, passing a comb absently though her hair. "Apparently his dad made a few bad speculations. Lost their house in Dublin."
"How do you know all this?" Harry asked, looking faintly bemused.
"I'm a woman," Ginny replied airily. "We listen. We care. We..."
"Can't keep out of other people's business?" Harry suggested, and she threw the other pillow at him.
He kicked into his right shoe, and reached to grasp her hand. She smiled, slipping her arms about his waist as he bent to kiss her. His hands carefully cupped her jaw; his lips were firm and dry against hers. They were both flushed when he straightened, their breath mingling in short bursts.
Harry swallowed and let his arms fall to rest gently around her hips. "Don't forget," he said, a little hoarsely.
Ginny frowned and shook her head slightly. "Forget what?"
"Tomorrow morning. Wake me up. Early."
Remus and Tonks had been living together, not entirely peacefully, for several years and had bought what was possibly the most ramshackle, nonsensical cottage in Britain. Set on a tiny plot of wooded land, the home -- christened "The Manor" by a delighted Fred and George -- boasted a tree house guest bedroom, a reverse slide to the attic, and its own waterfall in lieu of a shower. The day she'd accompanied the couple to view The Manor was one of Ginny's favourite memories. Remus had been utterly speechless for a full ten minutes, before vociferously rejecting the "damn nonsense of a house." Predictably, it had been love at first sight for Tonks and her "endearingly ugly" find. She'd overridden Remus's aghast protests with a breezy "I just love projects," and a meaningful look.
Ginny, like Tonks, adored the cottage and ignored her mother's despairing sighs and clicks of the tongue when the subject came up. In what could be considered blatant hypocrisy, given the Burrow's own quirks, Molly Weasley had announced at the housewarming picnic that The Manor was hardly a suitable environment in which to raise children. At the time, Ginny had been first amused by Tonks's stammering discomfort, and then disturbed by the fleeting pain that touched Remus's eyes. There was always a question that burned at the back of her tongue, but that she just couldn't bring herself to ask.
For all its foibles, The Manor was fully connected to the Floo network, and its location provided a convenient stopover point on missions for the Ministry. Remus, reinstated at Hogwarts to general approval, was accustomed to sharing his home with exhausted, bedraggled junior Aurors. And weary intellectuals.
Having ignored the tree house's rope ladder in favour of the short jump to the ground, Ginny crossed the lawn at Harry's side, shivering in the crisp autumn air. The sound of Tonks's off-key morning singing competed with the muted roar of the hidden waterfall. Pushing open the circular front door of the cottage, they found Ron and Hermione awake and dressed in the small kitchen. Ron, his head submerged in a bowl of cornflakes, barely managed his usual grunt of acknowledgment. Hermione, pale and heavy-eyed, cast them a slightly peevish look over the top of her newspaper.
"Good morning. You look rested."
Harry grinned at her. "I told you the couch is lumpy. Remus expected you to share the tree house with Ginny."
Ginny reached for a piece of toast and shook her head in mock-regret. "And you would insist on staying with Ron, Hermione."
The other witch tossed her head. "I didn't hear you two complaining last night. And the couch isn't just lumpy. It bucks! It threw me off before dawn! I've never heard of such a thing." Hermione sounded personally offended.
"Sorry, forgot to warn you about that," said a hoarse voice from the doorway.
Ginny looked around as a tired Remus ambled into the kitchen, rubbing both eyes with thumb and forefinger. The worn trousers and jumper still hung loosely on him, but she'd noticed that he'd put on a bit of weight since the war. His hair was more grey than brown now -- and yet, in all the time she'd known him, he'd never looked younger. A quiet contentment had replaced the unrest in his expression, and the lines about his eyes and mouth spoke of frequent smiles. Every time she saw him with Tonks, Ginny was hit by the realisation that she was looking at a happy man. Mild complaints about unpredictable living and inefficient housekeeping aside. For her part, Tonks frequently, in tones of the greatest astonishment, asked Ginny if Harry was also one to organize the teabags. And actually read the morning papers from cover to cover. The older witch was unable to go through a complete morning without bringing Remus's name into conversation at least once.
"Tonks thought that the furniture could do with new coverings," Remus continued. "I'm afraid the spell went a little awry. The couch seems to be under the impression that it's a horse of some sort." He gazed thoughtfully at the odd assembly of furnishings. "The footstool's been trying to burrow under the cabinet for the better part of a week. I'm not sure what's going on there." His voice was unperturbed; Ginny suspected that a person would get used to a great deal, living with Tonks. Working with Tonks tended to deaden the impact of surprises.
Hermione made a faint harrumph sound and briskly continued to butter her toast. She was obviously unappeased by the explanation. Ginny hid a smile. A poor night's sleep and shoddy spell work were unlikely to pass muster with Hermione. She looked more weary, however, than was warranted by a single bad sleep. Ginny suspected that it had something to do with work, but there was no point in asking. After the war, Hermione had toyed briefly with the notion of Auror training, immediately changing her mind on the arrival of a mysterious letter one summer's day. She now worked somewhere in the Ministry; none of them, not even Ron, to his intense irritation, knew exactly what she did. Ginny had since learned to control her curiosity. Hermione could be rather irritating when pestered.
Harry was loudly eating cereal and watching as Remus produced his wand out of nowhere and began to coax the teapot toward his cup.
"You look tired," he commented, pressing his spoon down to collect the last remnants of milk.
A particularly warbling note of song pierced the air, and Remus grinned ruefully. "Tonks couldn't sleep, so she woke me up for company."
Harry snorted on his last swallow of breakfast and opened his mouth to reply, before catching sight of Ginny's raised eyebrows.
"Er -- awfully good cereal. Is there any more?" he asked hastily, reaching for the box.
Ginny giggled and turned to greet Tonks as she strolled into the kitchen, smoothing a vivid purple shirt down over jeans. Her hair was freshly washed, the pink corkscrews shiny and crisp. Domesticity hadn't dimmed her colour.
"Wotcher, Ginny," Tonks returned, sounding surprisingly chirpy for someone who was decidedly not a morning person. "Hallo, you lot," she said, cheerfully, to the other three. Ron managed a finger twitch in reply. Hermione barely cracked a smile, and Tonks laughed. "Oh, Merlin. The couch give you trouble, did it?" She glanced at the suspiciously still loveseat. "It's sort of sweet though, don't you think? I call him Stanley."
Hermione reached for her mug of tea and took an extremely drawn-out sip.
"It wasn't that bad," Ron mumbled, summoning the energy to speak for the first time.
Ginny took one look at Hermione's pained face and gathered that Ron hadn't had any trouble falling asleep at all. He usually didn't. He also usually snored, and she strongly suspected that Hermione would, in the future, think twice before coming to meet Ron on a mission.
"Oh, are we out of toast?" Tonks whipped her wand from her pocket and flicked it with practiced ease.
The loaf of bread on the counter promptly exploded.
Remus didn't even blink. He calmly handed her a muffin and reached for the morning paper.
Tonks bit into her breakfast a little sheepishly and turned to Harry and Ron. "You lot must have got back late," she commented around a mouthful of food. "Kingsley and Harlow got you on double shifts again?"
Ron groaned. "It's bloody insane, is what it is. What git thought up thirty-six hour shifts, I'd like to know?"
"That would be your boss," Tonks said, swiping at a puddle of spilt coffee. "I'd like to say it'll ease up soon, but if we don't get a better lead on this..."
Ginny sighed inwardly. Tonks was -- just -- hiding her annoyance, but Ginny knew how irritated she was. The Delltorio situation was dragging on far too long. People were getting hurt, had been getting hurt for years, and the press was having a field day with it. As far as the general public was concerned, the Ministry was doing jack-all and was no closer to catching Marcus Jackson Delltorio, dangerous escaped convict, than they had been two years earlier. The former statement was both untrue and unfair, to which their puffy eyes and bad tempers of late could testify; the latter was damnably close to the mark. A coup, meticulously planned and successfully executed by Tonks and Kingsley Shacklebolt five years before, had seen Delltorio join Bellatrix Lestrange in the heights of Azkaban. Their reunion had been short-lived, with Bellatrix's death boosting sales of the Daily Prophet barely a month later. Ginny doubted that the woman's former lover had grieved; as far as she was concerned, they were perfectly suited. Delltorio was still saddled with the label of "the Lestrange's toyboy", which he no doubt loathed, but on the scale of pure evil, she thought they had probably scrabbled with one another for supremacy. Take Bellatrix's ruthless ambition and disregard for human life, add a dollop of sheer perversion, and the result was Delltorio. A wholly nasty creature, who should be snogging Dementors.
Tonks had taken his escape hard; Ginny had rarely seen her so serious and subdued. Her placement under Tonks's supervision in the Auror programme had roughly coincided with the beginning of a series of high-profile killings. A claim from a reputable source had placed Delltorio at the scene of the third murder, and, two years later, they were still chasing in his wake. And still arriving at work to be greeted with photographs of white, staring faces.
"The partners didn't want to come back here?" Tonks asked, sniffing a banana suspiciously.
Fred and George's habit of referring to Seamus Finnegan, Neville Longbottom and Dean Thomas as "the partners" had been picked up by nearly everyone in the family circle, although only the twins ever managed to give the title sexual innuendo. It had been a natural outcome after the war, Ginny supposed, that many of their classmates would want to continue the fight for justice. Although, with everything she'd seen, and would likely see in the future, she sometimes wondered whether that word meant anything at all.
Shortly after Gawain Robards had succeeded Rufus Scrimgeour as Head of the Auror Office, he'd requested permission to make minor changes to the Department's structure. Once granted, those "minor changes" had snowballed into a complete revamp of staff, training and practice. All applicants were still subject to a rigorous screening programme, but junior Aurors -- or "baby Aurors", as Tonks called them -- now spent two years trying to survive a brutal training regime. Robards was a fair man, but tough as nails, and his measures successfully weeded out at least half of the hopefuls - the "undesirables". Anyone who made it through their two years of hell immediately gained official status and responsibility, and was placed under the authority of a more experienced agent.
During Ginny's seventh year at school, her Mum had frequently owled her newspaper articles about Healers and nurses -- nice, safe, rewarding careers. Ginny would carefully fold each one, thank her mother in the next letter home, and promptly forget about them. She had wanted to be an Auror for a long time. For not quite as long, she'd wanted to work with Tonks. It had either been sheer luck that Robards had given her exactly what she wanted, or some intuition on his part that it might result in great things. She usually opted for dumb luck, and most people agreed. Emphasis being on the 'dumb'. Outside reactions had ranged from forced enthusiasm to explicit horror. As Molly had tactfully suggested, perhaps Ginny and Tonks were "just a little too alike."
If Tonks's other Junior had been the sober, responsible type, the dynamics of their group might have been a bit more balanced. As it was, Seamus completed their impulsive and foolhardy (to use a few words from Robards's latest report) trio. To his mother's revulsion, the Irish boy had spent a highly successful twelve months as a personality on the Wizarding Wireless after leaving school. Certain circumstances had forced an early retirement, and he'd joined Ginny in Auror training, managing to liven up the hard slog considerably. They'd never been especially good friends at Hogwarts, even less so after her split from Dean, but actually got on surprisingly well now. Tonks didn't find it at all surprising, having once (rudely) told Ginny that "one smart-ass can find another."
Harry pushed up from the table and banished his empty dishes. "Neville decided to go back to London," he explained, sliding his wand into its holster. "Think he wanted to visit his parents before work."
Ron yawned and leaned his head against his hand. His eyes were closed. Her brother was probably even less of a morning person than Tonks. "Dean's spending the night with his people. Or his girlfriend. Someone."
Harry and Ron had entered training a year before Ginny had done so, of course, and had been paired, respectively, with Neville and Dean. Neville's bravery during the final months of the war had gained the respect of everyone concerned; Harry was happy with the partnership, and both men liked their mentor, Ben Harlow, a great deal. The older Auror was a brash Scotsman, incapable of seriousness, but well suited to his job. Ron had crowed for weeks after scoring a spot with Kingsley Shacklebolt, who was on the way to becoming a Department legend. He had been less impressed, however, at the prospect of working closely with his sister's one-time boyfriend. To Ginny's constant annoyance, both Ron and Harry were inclined to be a little short with Dean.
Tonks frowned over at her. "Where did Seamus bog off to last night?" she asked. "When I came out of the house, he'd gone, the lazy little git." Her voice was tinged with amusement.
"Disappeared as soon as you gave the word. He's probably..." Ginny stopped, and shrugged. Who knew where Seamus got to? She saw him talk his way out of sticky situations every day. It was pretty useful, actually. Changing the subject, she directed her question at Tonks: "What's the plan for today?"
"Roderick owled this morning. Divisional meeting in Suite D, at half-past eight. For all personnel working the case." Tonks grinned at her. "Babies included." Reaching over, she swiped a strawberry from Remus's bowl and demolished it with every evidence of satisfaction.
Remus swatted her hand away as it went for another. "Nymphadora, you don't even like strawberries."
"I know," said Tonks, thoughtfully. "But they always look so good on your plate." She sat up suddenly, hit with one of her sudden bursts of professionalism. "I'd better send word to Seamus, so he knows where we're at. I thought he might have stayed the night."
Hermione cast a baleful look at the couch, which still hadn't moved an inch. "He'd probably heard about Stanley," she said, rather bitterly.
Remus coughed behind his tea cup. "More likely he'd heard about Tonks's singing," he suggested.
Tonks paused in rummaging through a tattered rucksack. "Any more comments like that, Lupin," she informed Remus sweetly, "And you'll be renewing your relationship with Stanley tonight." She frowned. "Besides, I must be good at singing. Everyone in the Black family can sing. Even Bellatrix used to belt out a song on Walpurgis Night."
The entire room collectively blinked.
"Right," Ron said, suddenly conscious. "Er -- we should probably get going, then."
Tonks threw a glance up at the clock. "Bugger! We're going to be late. 'Bye, Remus." She smacked a noisy kiss on his cheek.
They left him sitting at the kitchen table, still lost for words.
Ginny sat tensely in her chair and listened as Alistair Roderick recited biographical facts in his low droning voice.
The deceased were Sir Edward Rolleston and Lady Rolleston, of Little Chiswick, a magical village in Cheshire. Deceased. It was such a polite, impersonal word. It never seemed to mean real people, somehow. And yet, these had been real people. Living and breathing when they went to bed. After uncountable deaths, Ginny could never -- would never -- get used to it.
"All clocks frozen at exactly two o'clock this morning," Roderick continued, officiously. Along with Joshua McGinty (known to everyone, except Roderick, as the "Colonel"), Roderick was Robards's second-in-command. Almost everybody liked the Colonel; almost nobody liked Roderick. "Both Sir Edward and Lady Jane were associated with the Ministry prior to retirement."
"So it's definitely another 'O'Clock Killing'?" Seamus asked. He was lounging at Ginny's side, looking slightly worn. And very hung over.
Roderick cast him a frosty look. "The gutter press use pithy labels, Master Finnegan. We do not." The Deputy had a way of making trained Aurors feel like particularly immature schoolchildren. "But, yes," he continued, coldly. "It fits the pattern. We knew what time the next one was likely to take place. We had not yet ascertained the date or location."
Because, once again, they were one step behind.
Roderick swung his wand in a precise manner, and a map flopped down from the ceiling. A small black 'x' appeared in the north-east corner of Cheshire, joining a host of others. Cynthia Caldwell, in Oxfordshire, at seven pm. Alexander Baker, in Leicestershire, at eight pm. Simon and Norma Grey, found cold in their London flat, the clocks stopped at nine. The list continued. Different days, widespread homes, months apart - but sixty minutes later each time. And now, the Rollestons, dead at two am.