To his great surprise, Ron Weasley was actually having a good time and, to his amazement, so was Hermione. He turned and smiled at the young woman, and was pleased to see she returned his smile with one of her own. He was not sure where the idea to dance had come from; if he’d been asked beforehand what was the least likely thing he was going to do whilst at the ball, he would have put all his Galleons on dancing. And yet here he was, fresh from the dance floor, a bit out of breath, but nonetheless happy.
What made him even happier was that his sister was not here and he didn’t have to spend his time fending off the lecherous gits who seemed to make it their goal in life to get off with her. As an added bonus, Potter had not put in an appearance.
Good job I had that chat with him, Ron thought. After all that had transpired between the two of them, he was surprised Potter had agreed to stay away from Ginny. Perhaps that meant he wasn’t such a git after all.
“So where did you learn to dance, Ronald?”
Where did he learn to dance? As far as he knew, he didn’t. But then a distant memory surfaced.
“Mum taught me and Ginny when we were younger. She said that it would come in useful sometime in the future.”
“That was nice of her. Why didn’t you dance at the Yule Ball all those years ago?”
Why indeed? He wanted to say he didn’t know how to dance then, but that wouldn’t be true, would it? He knew how to dance now, and if he had learned when he was a kid, then…?
“Don’t know, Hermione. But the good thing is, I’m dancing now, and I’m having a good time.”
He didn’t like where the conversation was going. Hermione Granger was too clever a witch to let a conversation go until she had worked out every detail of something. So he did the only thing that he could think of to stop her.
“Care to join me for another dance?”
Without waiting for her refusal, he stood and took her hand in anticipation of her acceptance.
Albus Dumbledore surveyed the scene in front of him, wishing, not for the first time, that the evening was over and done with. So many of those present were totally innocent of the events that were about to unfold. But there were also a fair number who were waiting for everything to kick off, and who were looking forward to the inevitable mayhem that would follow. And there were those, like Mr Weasley, who had agreed to take part in the shenanigans, but who were now ignorant of their role until a very carefully selected trigger unlocked their memories, enabling them to play their part.
And then there was Black. A schemer whose cunning matched his family’s Slytherin heritage, and who made Albus’s own plots seem very amateurish. If he had a Christmas card list, he would have removed the man from it long ago. As it was, well, the only way to get Black out of his life was to remove himself from public life. He would miss it all, Hogwarts especially, but it would be a small price to pay. There was no guarantee that Black would leave him alone even then, but he had to try, it was the least he could do.
He pulled out his pocket watch, pressed the winder down three times and watched as the dial turned orange. A darker colour than before, he noted, but still a while before the balloon is due to go up. He slipped the watch back inside his robes, taking a sip of his drink before turning to Minerva to begin another meaningless conversation.
Dean Thomas was confused. Where was the girl? He had spent Galleons he didn’t have to look his best for the evening, and she didn’t have the grace to show up? What would happen to his family if she didn’t turn up? That woman had promised him the girl would, but then, she had used him all term. He shuddered as the memories of her forcing herself upon him. How she had taunted him as she took her pleasure, promising that all he needed to do was deliver the girl to her. He had tried, but he had been thwarted by some magic that stopped him from getting really close to her. And now this was his last chance. Would she be here? Could he succeed and would the bitch release his family once he did so? He took another sip of his Butterbeer and scanned the room nervously.
Part of her wished she had never opened the package, but part of her — the part that was smiling back at her from the mirror — was pleased she had. Quite how he had got her measurements right, along with the style and the colour, she would never know. Of course, she could ask him tonight, but how would she phrase it? What would she say? She couldn’t just come out and say: ‘Have you been lurking in my wardrobe and loitering amongst my lingerie?’ Okay, she could, but she wouldn’t. She didn’t know how she would talk to him tonight about anything but the most mundane of matters, let alone her most intimate measurements.
She turned to the left, her eyes still locked on the mirror, admiring the flow of the robe as she did so. It was a traditional robe in terms of its shape; a high collar and a laced front that thankfully was more modest in the neckline than had been fashionable at the time. The long, expansive sleeves would take a bit of getting used to, but the overall feel of the garment made that a small price to pay. It was made of silk, of that she was sure, but from what source she did not know. Her experience of clothes was limited to the most basic of materials, but even she could recognise that no expense had been spared with her robe. As for the colour? At first sight it was black, but as she moved it shimmered, revealing other colours such as purple and carnelian as well as a universe of stars, planets and constellations, all of which disappeared as quickly as they were revealed. The whole effect was both bewildering and breath-taking.
She stopped admiring herself in the mirror and glanced down at the accompanying letter. Where there had been detailed instructions regarding the clothing and other more mundane matters, now there was a simple message:
Tap the parchment when you are ready, and I will meet you in the Entrance Hall.
She did just that, and the parchment burst into flames, and the wand he had provided faded slowly from view.
She took a deep breath and, after picking up her own wand, made her way down the stairs, through the common room and out into the castle beyond.
Elsewhere in the castle, the would-be king and queen of the evening were making their way towards the Great Hall. The Man Who Would Be King had arrived by Portkey in Dumbledore’s office and was now making his way slowly through the castle under an invisibility cloak, the necessary vials of potion secure inside his robes. His careful progress belied the nervousness that he felt. Once upon a time, he would have gone into any situation full of confidence that his plan would work. And if it didn’t? Well, he was Sirius Black, and he could think and fight and kiss his way out of any situation. But now, he was not so sure. Perhaps it was because he now had a stake in the future. He had been happy to move others around his proverbial chess board as if he were a celestial grandmaster. Pieces came and went, all that mattered was they served the overall aim of winning. And now? Now he wanted to survive and, for some reason, that made him nervous for both his own and everyone else’s future.
On the other side of the building, his cousin strode through the lower corridors with confidence, her bubble-gum pink hair proclaiming her presence to all who came across her. True, her confident stride was interrupted by a stumble as she tripped over nothing in particular, but that would be no more than anyone would expect from her half-breed niece. A lifetime spent in a tall slender body had not prepared her for a lower centre of gravity and shorter legs. The wider hips gave her a gait that made her feel like she was swaying like a Muggle on a broomstick. Overall, she wondered how the half-breed could walk. Hopefully, after tonight, she wouldn’t be around to worry about, but that was something for the coming days. Tonight was all about disposing of the Weasley girl and her scheming cousin. She slowed down as she approached the entrance to the Great Hall, looking to take her position in readiness for the evening’s events.
Albus pulled out his pocket watch and saw, to his dismay, that less than ten minutes had passed since he last looked. There had been a time, not too long ago, when he could have waited for an age, content in his scheming, the righteousness of them smoothing over any concern for the lesser souls who had been sacrificed for the greater good. Was it a function of age or had he lost his nerve? He wished he still smoked, but Smokeweed was now deemed too dangerous for magical folk to use, and so he contented himself with another look at his watch and a slow, cautious sip of his drink.
Black held all the aces, all the cards, if truth be told, and all he could do was play the hand he’d been dealt. He hoped the Memory Charms planted by Black worked as they should and no one died before they had fulfilled their role.
Despite the background chatter and the sound of the band, he heard the door to the Great Hall open and the final piece of the jigsaw, in the shape of Mr Potter and Miss Weasley, entered. At any other time, their appearance would have caused considerable excitement, but given the evening ahead, he would wager that there were many other interested parties in the room.
Harry, because of who he was, would always attract attention. His ‘defeat’ at the hands of those who spoke behind their hands and kept to the shadows whilst leaving others to do their dirty work made his appearance of particular interest. As would be expected, he was exquisitely dressed, his robes finely made and beyond pocket of his peers. The garment was of a style popular in the last century, but without the foppish accoutrements that would have made the ensemble look outdated. Instead, it was a display of wealth and power and warned those thinking of repeating their previous ambush that he was not to be trifled with.
As Head Girl, Miss Weasley always bought a sense of presence that made her a natural leader. This evening she was exquisitely dressed, sporting a robe in a similar style to Mr Potter that surely cost a year of most people’s wages to make.
She had attracted no small amount of attention throughout her school years as hopefuls of both genders had vied for her attention for a whole range of reasons. He supposed this was one of the few benefits the bond between the couple had served; she was completely uninterested in any kind of romantic entanglement and regarded the attention as an unnecessary nuisance. And now, unbound and free to choose, she had chosen Harry Potter, the man who had all but owned her, but chose to set her free. Whilst he didn’t doubt Harry’s attraction to Miss Weasley was anything other than genuine, he wouldn’t put it past Black to have engineered the whole thing for his benefit and his alone.
He knew his eyes were not the only pair observing the couple, some less friendly than others. Although their arrival appeared not to have provoked an incident, schemes and stratagems, long agonised over, were now being readied for implementation. The final ingredient had been added to the cauldron and all that now remained was for it to be given a last stir and await the result. Albus hoped that the wait was worth it.
Harry Potter knew he was being watched. Ginny did, too, but whereas she thought it was all down to their late entrance and, in particular, the clothes they were wearing, he knew there were many unfriendly eyes focussed on him in particular, not least because he was Ginny’s partner. Jealous boys were of no concern of his, he had bigger fish to fry.
If he was lucky, he and Ginny would manage a dance or two before everything went pear-shaped. If his usual luck prevailed, they would be hard-pressed to make it to the refreshment table before the spellfire started. For once the fates were smiling on them, and they were able to complete two very enjoyable dances before Hermione Granger’s request for some refreshments led to the moving of the first piece on the board.
Deep down, Ron knew his pleasant evening couldn’t continue and so it turned out. It wasn’t until Hermione suggested they take some refreshment he noticed his evening had begun to take a turn for the worse.
Out on the dance floor, and enjoying a conversation far too intimate for his liking, were Harry Potter and his sister. For a brief moment, it occurred to him that the two of them made a very good couple. Unsurprisingly, Potter’s robes were tailored to the highest level, using expensive material. Even his footwear spoke of haute couture. But it was his partner, Ron’s sister, who attracted the most attention. Throughout his time at Hogwarts, Ron had hated being in his sister’s shadow. It wasn’t just that she’d overachieved in the classroom and on the Quidditch pitch, her passage through the years had been filled with admirers, all of whom she had dutifully ignored. He, on the other hand, had struggled academically and, despite his passion for the game, his skills on a broom were limited. Until this evening, he would have said he had drawn the short straw, but the time spent with Hermione Granger, a girlfriend whom he had at times barely tolerated, had shown him his life could be as fulfilling as hers appeared to be. Glancing over at Hermione, he could see that she, too, appeared to be in awe of the couple.
“Oh! The robes she is wearing are unbelievable. I didn’t know they still made that type of material, let alone knew how to tailor it. It must’ve cost a fortune. Harry must have given it to her. I do hope he is not expecting anything special in return. I hate it when men think an expensive gift entitles them to your favours.”
And that was it. The old Ron was back and, before he knew what he was doing, he had slammed down his drink and was marching across the dance floor towards Harry Potter. He barged past couples on the dancefloor, not caring who he upset or what the consequences would be; he was on a mission, and no one was going to stop him.
Behind him, other people began to move. Not with the same hippogriff-in-an-apothecary-shop approach, but sliding along the walls gathering others with nods and winks, making their way carefully and unobtrusively in the direction of the main entrance.
Potter appeared to have noticed Ron barrelling towards him and, in response, placed his hands on Ginny’s shoulders and whispered in her ear. She looked up at Ron, exasperation written all over her face, and nodded to Harry. He bent down and placed a gentle kiss on her cheek before turning and walking swiftly towards the door.
Ron increased his pace, earning a few angry shoves in the back and shouts of anger as he did so. He didn’t care who threatened to come after him, he was interested in only one person, and that person was in danger of getting away. Potter made it through the door before anyone else in the room and, rather than seeking cover, he took a right turn into the widening corridor. Just as Ron appeared, another person emerged from the shadows.
Sometimes, thought Sirius, the waiting was the hardest part of all.
What made it worse was, this time, he was actually nervous. Gone was the bravado that normally accompanied him at times like this. He had no doubt in his abilities or those of Harry or Albus. Tonks was a cool operator under the most trying of circumstances, but he knew who he was up against, something he had failed to share with the others. In the past, it wouldn’t have worried him, but now… well, now it did, and he just hoped his nerve held long enough to see this through. He shook off his doubts, and focused on the large set of double doors that lead into the Great Hall. He knew once things started that the adrenaline would kick in and doubts would be, not erased, but buried in the rush and the thrill of battle. His plan was complex, perhaps too complex, but if he was going to draw the man out, along with his cohorts, then plain and simple wasn’t going to work.
Finally, the huge doors opened and Harry walked through, his pace brisk suggesting the Weasley boy was close on his heels. With a flick of his wand, Harry closed the doors. He could have locked them, but then, the aim was to slow Weasley down and not to stop him. Harry’s pace slowed and, once he’d reach the widest part of the corridor, he turned slowly, ready for the start of the fight.
The door rattled angrily and finally Weasley emerged, his face red as a beetroot, anger apparent in every step he took.
Here we go then, thought Sirius, and emerged from the shadows and began to walk towards Harry. Weasley’s pace did not change, and he now pulled out his wand and thrust it in Harry’s direction. Before the boy could speak, Sirius played his first card of the evening.
“Good evening, Ron, so glad that you could join us.”
For a moment Weasley said nothing, confusion obvious on his face. And then realisation dawned, and a smile replaced the angry visage that he had presented to the world.
“Oh, hi, Mr Black, Harry, good to see you both. I must say, Harry, you are looking awfully dapper this evening and my sister… well, she looks like she was born to it.”
Sirius saw Harry smile and nod, obviously still wary of attack. Sirius had no doubts, the charm had worked and the boy had played his part. It was time now for the professionals to take over. He just hoped the charms worked on everyone else.
“Good to see you as well, Ron. Do you remember our agreement?”
The boy nodded as a glazed look came over his eyes.
“Good, and you know what to do know?”
The boy nodded again and Sirius smiled.
“Off you go then. I will see you later. I haven’t forgotten the reward I promised you.”
Ron smiled, waved cheerily at Harry and took Sirius’s place in the shadows.
“Will he be safe there?” asked Harry.
“As long as he doesn’t move, yes. He’s no threat to anyone as long as he doesn’t interfere. They’ve been happy to use him against you, but they have no specific agenda to pursue as far as he is concerned.”
“And just who are ‘they’?”
“All in good time, Harry.”
Truth was, he couldn’t tell Harry, or anyone else for that matter. Until the man emerged from the shadows and everyone could see him, his lips were sealed. The wizard who had evaded capture for years and used that freedom to wreck plan after plan would finally be snared.
He pulled a marked vial from his pocket and downed the contents. No matter how many times he’d taken Polyjuice potion, he’d never got used to the changes that his body underwent. And this time it had given him a headache as well. He rubbed his temple, not liking the pain that swept through his brain. Thankfully, it passed quickly enough, and he was back focussing on the next part of his plan. Perhaps, he should tell Harry who the man was; in fact, it would be best that everyone knew, wouldn’t it?
Whilst he contemplated this new approach, he turned towards Ron and cast a spell in his direction. A yellow beam shot out from the corner where Ron was hidden and Sirius’ clothes transformed to match those the boy had been wearing. He patted down the pockets, checking that everything that he needed was there and was in easy reach.
“Material’s a bit cheap, but the stitching is good. Right, let’s get going, Harry!”
And with that, he flung a simple Stunner towards Harry, who simply sidestepped the spell, and sent far more vicious spell from the same family back at him.
So it’s going to be like that, is it?
He was obliged by dint of his role as Ron Weasley to keep his spells at a level the boy could reasonably be expected to use. A review of the boy’s academic record had shown his repertoire was very limited, to say the least. Just why anyone believed he was capable of playing a key role in Harry’s defeat, he had no idea.
The grin on Harry’s face showed he was enjoying himself as spell after spell found its target. Harry had been clever enough to disguise the actual spells he was casting by saying the incantation for a simple spell, whilst casting a more complex and more painful one wordlessly. This was going to be a painful few minutes, but he was sure that Edith would say he deserved every painful hit.
Ginny watched Harry head to the door and was unsurprised to see her brother following on behind. She looked over to where Ron had left his girlfriend and was unsurprised to see Granger’s face full of indecision. Ginny hoped the girl would stay put. She knew she could count on Harry to keep things in proportion, but Ron only had two settings when wound up and neither would help him survive what was going to happen.
Granger was the first to move and Ginny watched for a few moments before she followed at a discrete distance. Her plan was simple: stop Granger getting injured as she tried to stop them all fighting. Given the girl’s normal propensity to plough on, convinced as to her own infallibility, she wouldn’t have put it past her to actually cast a few spells in Harry’s direction. She suddenly became aware of how much she trusted Harry to act in the best interests of her brother and his girlfriend.
That’s nothing special, she told herself, he’s an Auror, of course he knows how to deal with members of the public who get too close to the action.
Unseen by her and everyone else except for Dumbledore, other players made their way out of the Great Hall using doorways not used by the general population of the school for decades.
Predictably, Granger had pulled her wand out as she reached the doors and slipped through the partially open exit. Ginny could glimpse the multi-coloured flashes that signalled spellfire and upped her pace. She followed through and closed the door slowly behind her.
To her surprise, Ron was still standing and she concluded Harry was only playing with him. Still, he appeared to be showing a bit more dexterity and ring craft than she would have expected. However, she wasn’t here to save Ron — she would let Harry take care of that — she was here to prevent Granger getting herself and everyone else injured.
Granger was sneaking up behind Ron, doing her best to use his larger frame to shield herself from Harry’s spells and his line of sight. Ginny didn’t bother following her, just drew her wand and was about the Stun the girl when a familiar hand came to rest on hers.
“No need to help out, Ginny.”
It was Ron. Her brother Ron was standing next to her smiling, but he was also fighting Harry. What was going on?
“Ron? What in Merlin’s name is going on?”
Before he could answer, the other Ron, the one that was fighting Harry, turned on his heels and Stunned Granger. Another spell, this time from Harry, stopped her falling to the floor.
“Good evening, Miss Weasley,” the other Ron announced, “Sirius Black, at your service.” He performed a sweeping bow, swatting Harry’s wandless Stunner away as he did so.
“Sirius! We haven’t got time for this.”
“Au contraire, mon ami, one always has time for a pretty lady.”
He stepped forward and took her non-wand hand, leaning forward to kiss it. She pulled it out of harm’s way and stepped back. Looking over his shoulder, she swore that Harry smiled. She resisted the temptation to smile back and, instead, kept her eyes on the main troublemaker, Sirius Black.
He was grinning at her, but it reminded her more of the sort of smile a spider would display before dragging you off into its web to become its lunch. She didn’t trust him an inch and, by the look on Harry’s face, neither did he. Neither of them spoke and thankfully Ron, the real Ron, had enough sense to realise that opening his cakehole to offer his views on the situation was the most stupid thing he could do at this point in time. Unfortunately, the ersatz Ron had no such compulsion.
“Miss Weasley,” he said in what she took to be an attempt at his most endearing and charming voice, “your reputation precedes you, and common parlance has not done justice to your inestimable beauty.”
Ginny could feel her stomach turn as he spoke. She could see the look of distaste on Harry’s face as he levitated Granger to a quiet corner where she could be hidden. Ron’s eyes, her Ron and not the fake Ron, were on Harry as he took care of the girl. Ginny took advantage of his distraction and hit him with her best Stunner. She knew it was unfair to take her frustration with Sirius out on her brother, but she knew they didn’t have time to waste. Harry also took care of Ron and was soon standing next to Sirius, his annoyance at the man’s showboating clear.
“Pardon me for interrupting,” asked Ginny as Black still tried his best to charm her, “but this would be a good time to focus on the task in hand, would it not?”
She took a further step away from him, towards Harry’s side, waiting for Sirius to respond. He didn’t, but before she could ask him to explain, they were joined by another person.
“I think I might be able to answer your questions, Miss Weasley.”
Ginny moved instinctively closer to Harry and felt his hand rest gently upon her arm. It felt surprisingly reassuring, given their past history, but he was her safe port in this storm and she was glad he recognised that.
“It’s okay, Ginny,” he whispered, “Tonks will explain everything.”
Ginny turned and watched as the familiar face and features of Harry’s Auror partner morphed into a carbon copy of herself. She studied the woman as she walked in, and found herself smiling as she did so.
“You rock to the sides too much when you walk and you need to be more upright. Other than that, it’s pretty good.”
She turned back to Harry.
“Are either of you going to explain just what is going on here? Or do you need a woman to sort out your mess?”
She could see the sense in Harry taking steps to deal with her brother and Granger, but why were Black and Tonks now in the school? She looked at Harry, expecting him to provide an answer, but he merely nodded towards Black. Things were getting confusing and, to make matters worse, the whole thing was giving her a headache. There was some she was supposed to do, but what it was escaped her.
“Things,” declared Black, “are about to get a little more interesting, Miss Weasley, so with the greatest respect, I would ask you to go and join your fellow students in the corner.”
Ginny glared at Black, but he was still grinning at her, a grin that faded slowly as she stood her ground. For a moment, he looked worried and then his grin returned, but it looked rather forced. Getting no response from Black, she turned to Harry, who, to her annoyance, gave her a brief nod and whispered that he would explain everything later. Realising this was the best she was going to get, she took the hint and backed down. That didn’t mean Potter was off the hook, though.
“You’d better,” she hissed, less than pleased at being shuffled off like ‘the little woman’, “or I’ll have great pleasure in ramming the clothes you gave me down your throat and pulling them out the other end.”
Black laughed as if she’d cracked the funniest joke in the world, and she found herself wondering how good his hearing was, to have heard her comments. Harry nodded solemnly, a response that pleased her.
Good, she thought, we’re beginning to get some balance in this relationship.
As much she would have liked to have stayed and argued, let alone stayed and fought, she knew that whatever hare-brained scheme Black had dragged Harry into, she was almost certainly out of her depth.
Her best option was to retreat to the side-lines where she would have the opportunity to join the fight at a later date. Just as she reached the corner where Hermione and her brother lay, the fight between Harry and Black-as-Ron restarted, this time with Tonks playing an irate Ginny, who was busy shouting at both.
Do I really screech that much when I shout? she wondered as Tonks’s role-playing did nothing for her headache. She settled down to watch the next act of the evening’s entertainment unfold, hoping that whatever was planned, the idiots wouldn’t use the school for anything too stupid. Her questions were answered after a few minutes, as the door to the Great Hall opened, and things began to escalate.