A/N: I'd like to thank everyone who reviewed Chapter One. It is truly an honor to have such readers. This story has been a joy to write. I keep each of you in my heart during the process and hope to do you proud. One comment, though. I want to clarify that just because I said I left fluff behind, I didn't rule out romance. To paraphrase JKR, "What's life without a little romance." Or in this case, lust. ;)
I'd also like to thank Iviolinist, my incredible beta, for personifying everything an editor should be: brilliant, insightful, patient and kind. I am having an illegally good time working with her.
B/N: It's been my pleasure. :-)
They've let a Muggle doctor touch me.
Ginny's head throbbed so painfully she could only believe she had been treated by what Virden bitingly referred to as "quacks." What ducks and Muggle Healers had in common she had no idea. She lifted a hand to her head, but the sheer act of it sent a red-hot poker through her brain.
No, moving was definitely not a good idea.
Blinking her eyes open, a room of concerned faces eyed her with poorly hidden alarm as though she might begin screaming at any moment. Had she screamed when she hit the tiles? She couldn't remember. Standing in the corner were Webster and Allay with Susan sitting between them. Ginny raised her hand while grimacing a smile. They nodded back looking better than when she had last seen them, although still not appearing half their good-natured selves.
A cough forced her gaze to the mahogany desk in the front of the office. There, sitting behind piles of charts as though receiving a scalpel to the gut was an everyday occurrence, was Healer Virden flanked by three Aurors. One she instantly recognized as Tonks, the other, her brother Ron. The remaining one, unknown to her, frowned as though her awakening had inconvenienced him.
"Ah, so you've decided to come and join us, Healer Weasley," the elder Healer retorted, looking down at her from the top of an open chart. "Damn unreliable you are, fainting like that when I, personally, could have used a decent Healer."
"You told me to leave." Her voice was hoarse and scratchy as though she hadn't used it in a while.
He chuckled. Ginny was thankful for his wry sense of humor. It allowed them to be human to each other without having to own up to it. The horror of the last few hours was not a new thing to her. She had served as a triage Healer under his tutelage during the war when he was still stationed at St. Mungo's. The worse things got, the faster their sarcasm flew.
Laughter was her armor and her mentor knew this. A veteran of two wizarding wars himself, he could be extremely exacting, pushing her as well as all his residents to the brink. He always knew when to stop, however, and always tempered his demands with gallows humor. It made the "dying business" of a Healer's life bearable. Unfortunately, it often did little for the rest.
Still, Virden had hired her with no hesitation a year ago despite the rampant notoriety that went with her name. Not a wizarding magazine existed that hadn't plastered her face on its cover. It was only to be expected. One wasn't the lover of the most popular wizard in the UK without the press wanting their due and hounding her relentlessly for it. In the end she learned the agonizing lesson: sensation always trumped contentment. Scandal sells. Scandal and heartache.
"Wotcher, Ginny. I leave you alone for a bit and look what happens to you," said Tonks, helping her up to a sitting position, the Auror's spiky hair a violent purple. She returned Tonks' warm smile. They had so much interaction during the war, with Tonks in the front lines and Ginny knee-deep in wounded, that it seemed hard to believe they hadn't seen each other for over a year. She wanted to ask about Remus, but decided to wait until they were alone, for the conversation might lead into dangerous territory. Women are only willing to speak of their love life once they've heard enough of someone else's. Tonks was no exception.
"You okay there, Sis?" Ron added, eyeing her guardedly. There were myriad meanings in that sentence. She hadn't been home to the Burrow in months. He wouldn't press her, though, at least not now, she could tell by the softness in his eyes. He was worried: he was chewing the corner of his lip. Ron always was a lousy poker player.
"You were late," she said, looking up into his freckled face, but seeing her brother's ears redden, added, "I'm fine, really. Stop worrying, okay?"
"You had quite a nasty fall on that head of yours. Blood was everywhere," Tonks informed her, moving back over to the table.
She raised her fingers to her forehead and felt the butterfly bandage near her temple. Wonderful. Always inspires confidence in the patients when their Healer is wounded.
"We've taken statements from everyone else present in the exam room. Do you think you're up to it? Or we could do it in the morning if you're too tired."
"It is morning. Isn't it?" Glancing out the window, she was surprised to see the gaslights flickering to life. "How long have I been out?"
"Going on sixteen hours."
"Sixteen hours? Bloody hell. Why didn't anyone--"
"I am not about to have my best Healer kill herself on my behalf, Ginevra," Virden interjected. "You were off duty anyway. You'll be back on tomorrow--my sympathy only goes so far." He managed a hidden smirk as he glanced down the chart before handing her a tall goblet. "Drink this, it'll cure the fireworks in your head."
Ginny didn't question and drank down the fizzing clear liquid, swallowing it with a grimace.
"I brewed it myself," Susan added, walking over to her and taking the glass. "Just what the Healer ordered."
"It tastes like bat dung."
"Exactly. You didn't get an 'O' in organic potions for nothing."
"I cheated off of you," Ginny murmured.
"I know." Susan rumbled Ginny's hair and smiled affectionately. "We were worried about you. Don't make it a habit, eh?"
"How's your neck?" Ginny glanced a look at her friend's throat. No scar. "Hmmm. You do good work." Suddenly remembering, she asked quickly, "How's the girl?"
"She's unconscious. I think she'll make it, but it's too soon to tell. Poor thing."
"What about the other one?" Ginny's memory fell back to the vacant disgusting eyes of his partner. No, they couldn't have been Death Eaters. No. The Ministry had driven the few that remained out of England after the war. It would be a death wish for anyone bearing a Dark Mark to show his or her face in this country again. The Aurors had seen to that. "Can anyone tell me what happened down there? Did you get anything out of him?"
"We would have liked to." Ron's face fell in frustration, the toe of his foot jabbing the carpet. "But he preferred to be dead."
Tonks shot Ron a glance. "Strangled to death."
"But . . . "
"I know – no one touched him. We can't explain it. His neck was crushed – just like the other one. We think it's part of a curse. The moment they begin speaking, their throats are crushed."
Virden interrupted, "Excuse me, but I've still got a hospital to run here. Will you be needing my whole trauma team? I believe you've received full statements from everyone except Healer Weasley?"
"Oh, of course, sorry," said Tonks. "But please let us know if you remember any other details from last night. We'll be dispatching Aurors up here to aid with the investigation. Just Floo us at the Sword and the Rose if you need us or send an owl. Who's assigned to the girl, by the way?"
"It's an open rotation. Right now Healer Weasley is slatted for rounds this week." He nodded toward Ginny.
"Stay here as long as you need, but please try to avoid breaking anything else." He eyed Tonks with a raised eyebrow before he and the three other Healers left the room. Susan mouthed a, "See you back home," to Ginny as she turned the corner.
"I didn't know it wasn't attached to the desk," Tonks mumbled, glancing at the small pile of china pieces in the rubbish bin. Ron chuckled and just shook his head. Tonks' appointment as a Senior Auror had been greeted with great applause. Ron once commented that one advantage of having Tonks as a boss was that everyone's desk would be clean at the end of the day: her enthusiastic arms whipped everything into rubbish bins right and left. Ginny remembered him bewitching his picture of Hermione to leap into the air the moment Tonks got within five feet of his desk.
Ginny closed her eyes at the thought. A pang of homesickness overtook her. She reached into her robes for a candy. Her pockets were empty, dammit.
When she got up to move toward the table where everyone was sitting, the room began to spin. Her hand reached for the armrest before another arm came behind her to steady her. Ron smiled down at her and helped her toward the table. Grateful, she felt a surge of emotion rise in her throat at the feel of his strong arm around her. She wanted to hug him, but she merely nodded in thanks.
"Is this room warded?" Tonks asked her.
"I'm not sure. Most of the rooms were warded during the war, but I'm not sure if any are still good."
Tonks thought for a moment. "Marc, can you work with Ron to establish the wards while I get Ginny's statement?"
Ron and the blond-haired wizard pulled out their wands and began the series of incantations necessary to secure the room while Tonks took a seat next to her.
"Tonks, is this really necessary? What's going on? Who's that Auror?"
"Listen, Ginny." She spoke under her breath. "I'll explain everything later. Right now I need you to tell me everything, and I mean everything, you remember about last night."
Ginny, seeing the seriousness in Tonks' expression, painstakingly recounted all that had transpired from imprinting her wand to passing out on the tiles. The three Aurors watched her intently–Ron's anger, evident by the redness of his neck, flared seconds after she described the assailant's warning.
"But, Tonks, you don't think. . .I mean, the Dark Mark . . . it has to be some sort of sick joke."
"Whatever it is, it's not a joke, Healer Weasley," the blond-haired wizard countered dismissively. His voice bared the sharp, biting accent Ginny instantly recognized as from New York City. An American Auror. Here? Why?
The affronted look on her face resulted in him shoving out his hand in introduction. "Marc, Marc Areids. Salem–Massachusetts, not England."
Everyone laughed–except the American who looked as though no one had ever called him on his pomposity. Ginny studied him. Possibly in his early thirties, he bore the classic look of the typical American: blond hair, blue eyes, fit and healthy. Ha, give him a month here and he'll be swilling scalding hot tea with the rest of us.
"Healer Weasley, I'm over here investigating a case we've been involved with for some time. I need information, not witty repartee. Those two assailants, have you ever seen them before?"
Ginny's mouth hung open a moment before she answered curtly, "No."
"Then how did they come to call you by name? They evidently knew you. Do you make it a point to fraternize with Death Eaters?"
"Whoa, Areids. Miss Weasley is not a suspect. Please do not treat her as such." Tonks glared at the American, who simply walked to the opposite side of the table and flipped open a chart, his eyes idly scanning the Healer's notes.
"Excuse me, Nymphadora, but until we get to the bottom of this, everyone is a suspect, everyone who had any interaction with that man. Miss Weasley doesn't seem like a shrinking violet. You aren't going to cry, are you?" He looked down at her, his lips pursed.
"I don't cry."
"Good, waste of time anyway. Let's get on with it then, shall we? Everyone happy in the sand box now?"
Ron and Tonks sat back, arms crossed, Tonks' hair matching Ron's face.
Evidently this prat knows nothing about me, thought Ginny. For once, that was perfectly fine.
"I've not been a stranger to Death Eaters, Mr. Areids. No one in my family has. I'm sure there isn't a Death Eater alive who wouldn't want me dead. You see, we were all involved in the war, quite heavily." Her eyes met Ron's then glanced away.
Clearing her throat, she continued, "We've sacrificed an awful lot in the last few years: families have been ripped apart. Our infrastructure had to be rebuilt. We had to start over. We did it alone." She meant this as a barb. No help had come from the Americans during their battle with Voldemort or the peace that followed and tensions still ran high between the two wizarding worlds.
The American absorbed her words, giving them no recognition. "What do you remember of this song the other Healers spoke of? Can you repeat any of it?"
The mysterious music. She closed her eyes trying to bring it back, but it was like trying to remember smoke or a scent; it was too illusive.
"There weren't words, at least I don't think there were, not like a real song. It was more like–chords–from an organ, but it had being."
Tonks' eyebrows flashed yellow, clashing with her crimson hair. "Being?"
"Yes. Being. Like it was a living thing. Look, I'm not mad–I realize the limitations of the human voice–it must have been the manifestation of an enchantment: something concealed within his mind, perhaps."
"Not likely." Areids dismissed her idea with a wave of his hand while flipping a page of the chart. "The man was too close to death to even be capable of such an act, according to Healer Virden."
Ah, I'm discounted, thought Ginny. Go with the most experienced male. I see what you're playing at. Obnoxious and a male chauvinist. It keeps getting better and better.
"When did he begin to chant?" questioned Areids.
"When I touched his arm."
"Where the skin had been torn away? Or the other arm?"
"It was his left upper arm. Ron, you don't think--"
"Maybe he was trying to remove something. A Dark Mark?" Ron suggested.
"Not likely. You see, Weasley, we Americans don't carry those tattoos. And that man was an American. From the Salem Institute. Working in a highly classified area. He was on the run."
"How can you be certain?"
Areids looked at the ceiling in disgust. "I'm sure. I've been tracking the people involved for years. And if it wasn't for Miss Weasley here, maybe we could have kept him alive."
"Oh, I apologize. Let's see, you were the first in charge in that room after Healer Virden was injured, weren't you?"
"And even before that, whose responsibility was it to make sure all Hexology reports were performed on all patients in that room?"
Ginny's nails were digging into her palms. Seething, she whispered, "It was my responsibility."
"And who assumed they were immobilized? The orderly?"
"No. I believed that--"
"Enough. Thank you, that wasn't so hard, was it?" He looked up, smirking into her face.
Ginny bit her bottom lip, tasting blood, inches away from leveling the most vicious Bat-Bogey Hex of her life.
"Okay, class, listen and listen carefully. I'm going to say this once. Take good notes." Arieds snapped the chart closed and looked at the faces glaring up at him. Nonplussed, he went on, "Since the end of your first war, a group of wizards has been operating within the Department of Mysteries at the Salem Institute. We know very little about them. What we do know is this: they refer to themselves as the Coven of Echoes. We have no idea what the name alludes to, but we do know all members bear an insignia on their upper right arms – a series of interlocking Celtic rings. Otherwise, they're untrackable. We assume their insignias become visible only when they need to meet. There seems to be no definitive leader that we can tell. We believe they consist of a consortium of top Unspeakables from throughout America, but we can't be sure. We do know, however, that once you belong to this group, there is no exit strategy, short of death.
"Two years ago we had a member of our Auror squad successfully infiltrate a meeting. She found out very little. Evidently, everything transpires through a series of codes. Each Coven member guards a portion of that code and passes it to another member after five years. All the members carry codes at all times though. So it's impossible to figure out which series of codes is relevant. But they are in place to guard something and it is worth dying and killing for."
"Killing?" asked Tonks.
"By the time the Auror's owl reached us, she was dead. Strangled to death. A note was left on the body telling us to abandon our efforts and apologized for the death. I liked that touch," he added bitterly. "Murdering with style."
Areids directed his attention back to the group, "So you see, that man in there was the only other member we've found alive."
"There was another one? Did he live?"
"No, he too preferred to be dead, Mr. Weasley. But he also had a patch of skin removed from his upper left arm. We found his body in the Boston's Back Bay six months ago. What was left of it. His right arm bore the crest, the Celtic rings. Evidently the invisibility charm ceased at death. As it did with our current victim."
"Was it—did you see the rings on the man downstairs?" Ginny asked.
"Now, Miss Weasley," Areids returned his focus to Ginny, ignoring her entreaty, "I suggest you don't screw things up again. The moment that girl opens her eyes, I want to be notified. She's our only link to the Coven that hasn't ended up dead. She barely made it out of that room from what I hear."
"I relieved Susan when--"
He cut her off, "Look, please save your excuses for someone who has time." He banged the end of a quill against the edge of his notes, twisting it in his fingers to circle something. "Now what of this Lord Voldemort? He was destroyed years ago. He and his followers, during your war."
"Yes. Our war."
"And you're sure of that?"
"Yes. I would bet my life on that, Mr. Areids."
"Yet this alleged Death Eater, whom you allegedly never met, claimed a 'he' was coming for you, that a 'he' was going to take you. Who would this 'he' be if not this Voldemort?"
"I have no idea."
"'Take you,' 'Have you.' These statements seem to suggest something sexual. Did you have some sort of relationship with this wizard?"
"Areids, that's enough, really," interrupted Tonks. "You have no idea what you're talking--"
"I'm merely asking Miss Weasley how can she can be so confident that this Voldemort is dead if he plans on contacting her in some way? You were wrong before if I remember my history correctly."
He returned his gaze to Ginny. "Healer Weasley, if you please."
Her wand was now trembling between her fingers. She was going to jinx him into the wall. You bloody wanker. How dare you be so smug. You never lived through the war, stumbled through the destruction, wrenched the bloody bodies away with your bare hands. You, back in Salem, fat and happy in your hallowed halls while we fought to the death. Furious, tears burned in her eyes.
"I don't think it's something someone of your limited experience could understand. We loathed him. I lost my bro--" She pointed her wand directly into his face. "Voldemort's dead. He can't return."
Ron and Tonks flew to their feet, wands drawn. "Ginny, no!"
Areids' eyes flared in anger. "Were you there? Did you see him die?" he countered.
"No," Ginny said through clenched teeth.
Ron went to step to his sister's side, Tonks grabbed his arm and shook her head, shooting him a look that said Ginny could hold her own.
"Look, Miss Weasley," Areids said icily, ignoring the wand aimed at his face, "I need cooperation, not thinly veiled sarcasm. Too many lives have been lost already. As a Healer, one would think that was your utmost priority. I've found that in my limited experience with your profession most Healers prefer to keep their patients alive. Now, I repeat, how can you be so sure this Voldemort is dead?" He was nose to nose with her across the table.
"Go to hell."
He whipped his wand to her throat and demanded, "How do you know he's dead?"
She opened her mouth to shout the answer when he screamed. He crashed to his knees in agony as though brutally punched.
She knew. She knew without turning around. He was here.
Yet she did. Slowly turning toward the door, her eyes met his.
He stood in the doorway at rigid attention staring straight at her, his green eyes very dark and harsh with his mouth tight and his hand clenched around his outstretched wand.
In an icy cool and controlled voice, Harry shifted his penetrating glare to the American Auror. "Because, Mr. Areids, Healer Weasley knew the man who killed him. Quite intimately. Now I suggest you drop that wand, if you value your life."