AN: Well, it's been quite an eventful time since my last update, I hope everyone's had a nice, safe quarantine and an even safer post-quarantine rushed reopening. I wish I could've stayed home like many of you, but being forced to work the entire time as an essential worker with every person who comes in potentially being the one to infect me, isn't as bad as it sounds. No, wait, it kind of is. So yeah, it's been a real fun time. lol

Anyway, let's forget all that for a while and think about something else…

.o0O0o.

Harry didn't know what to expect from Percy's Defense Study Group. From the way the older boy had talked about it during the summer, it sounded great. Between dueling and dark creatures, what wasn't there to like?

Unfortunately, he'd learned the hard way that wanting something usually involved a lot of busy work and waiting – like with his case against Dumbledore, which Lichfield had written to say was likely going nowhere as long as the Wizengamot was in an uproar about Quidditch. Still, Hermione had high hopes of everyone turning their backs on Lockhart and the study group becoming the 'real' Defense Against the Dark Arts class, though Ron thought it'd just be Percy strutting around an empty room like he was Head Boy already.

It turned out to be something in between. There were several people there when they arrived but aside from Neville, Seamus, and Dean, most of them were much older – around Percy's age. Harry wondered why until he remembered what Mister Weasley had said about there being tests when they were older. It was far less than 'everyone' but Hermione considered it a good starting point.

The meeting was rather short and, he thought, a little boring.

After days of people building it up in their minds, it was mainly just Percy talking about what he'd like to do and what people should expect, so Ron claimed to have been right while Hermione claimed it was standard for an 'interest/organizational meeting.' Hearing how they were splitting things into Upper Years, Middle Years, and Younger Years groups, as dry as it was, did have one upside Harry could see. Percy was overseeing the Middle and Upper Year groups, since they were more focused on studying, while Percy's girlfriend, Penelope, was taking the Younger Years group – which she said "was more focused on fun."

It kind of made you wonder why she was dating Percy in the first place.

Still, it was hard not to look forward to having fun, but somehow Ron was able to. He was in a particularly odd mood. He had just made reserve Keeper – something which should've made him excited – but for some reason he only became more of a downer on everything.

"It'd better be worth it," their ginger-haired friend said sourly when the first younger years meeting was announced for Wednesday. "The last thing I want to do is be bored to death before spending all night looking at clouds," he remarked, obviously not looking forward to their first Astronomy class either.

Harry didn't know what was going on with him.

"It's obvious, isn't it?" Hermione replied when he brought it up to her in the common room later. "He's still worried about Quidditch."

This answer only baffled him more.

"Why would he be worried? He's already on the team."

"He's on the team but it doesn't mean his worries have gone away," his girlfriend countered. "If anything, they could be even worse."

"How?" Harry asked.

"Because he made the team mostly on nerve," she explained. "He was too mad at me to be worried about failing, but now that tryouts are over–"

"He's worried he's not good enough to stay on the team?" he asked curiously, trying to imagine himself in Ron's shoes.

Harry had never thought about it before, but he had been placed on the Quidditch team last year without ever having to try for it; McGonagall had simply told Wood he was their Seeker after seeing him at his first flying lesson. And while he'd doubted whether he was good enough to play, that was mainly due to not knowing anything about Quidditch. If catching Neville's Rememberall had been a fluke and he'd turned out to be such a lousy Seeker they had to replace him – yeah, that wouldn't have been nice, but he hadn't wanted to be on the team in the first place, so it wasn't like he'd be losing anything.

Ron though was really into Quidditch – he followed the professional teams and everything – so if there was anyone who'd want to be on the team, and really feel he'd lost something if they replaced him, it'd be him. And if all Ron saw was how he didn't measure up to other players, Harry could see how he would be worried.

"–And that he wasn't good enough in the first place," Hermione added. "You saw what he was like when his name was already on the signup sheet, he thought his brothers were out to embarrass him," she reminded him. "It'd be all too easy for him to think they made Wood take him when he wasn't wanted."

"–Which would only make him feel worse," Harry agreed, able to see her point. There were a lot of Weasleys on the team now, plus the only thing worse than feeling you weren't good enough was the feeling you had never been good enough, and never would be. "So how do we help him?"

"I don't know," his girlfriend replied, for once looking as uncertain as he did. "Normally I'd suggest talking to him, but Ron doesn't seem the talkative type; he seems to prefer to stew on things. If he's avoiding the issue, he may take it as an attack if we bring it up ourselves – like we were the ones saying he wasn't good enough. It may be something he has to work through on his own," she said finally.

He didn't like the thought of leaving Ron on his own, but at the same time thought she was right. Harry didn't know how he would bring it up, let alone know how the other boy would react if he did. The only real conversation they'd ever had was about Ginny's schooling and fancying Hermione, which had been about him, not Ron.

Another thought occurred to him.

"He's bound to know he's got nothing to worry about once they actually have practice," he said, hoping the two reserve practices a week Wood had scheduled would boost their friend's confidence. The niggling worry of what would happen if they didn't go well remained firmly in place though.

"And we could go with him as a show of support," Hermione said, offering to sacrifice a few precious hours of study time to help their friend. "You don't think it'd make him more nervous, do you?"

Once again he didn't know. Harry thought it was a nice gesture, either way, and didn't want to think Ron would take it badly. The uncertain way they were talking about it though really made him feel how infectious all this worrying was.

"I guess there's only one way to know," he said finally.

It looked as though they were in for another long week.

.o0O0o.

A private place to work wasn't too much to ask but with ticking clocks on every wall and other time-related devices crammed into every nook and cranny of the room it was impossible to find a place to call your own, let alone one that wouldn't drive you mad. 'Froggy' Saul said he'd take care of it, but Alastor knew the man was more likely to be distracted by the next time-related thought to enter his head than to follow through with what he said he'd do. Still, it was surprising to come in and hear the man actually say he'd made a place for him.

It was a six foot stretch of bare wall.

Keen to look through any tricks, Alastor opened himself up to the images coming through his magical eye. The wall was the deepest, darkest black you could imagine, dark enough to devour all light, while everything else in the highly enchanted room was as blinding as the sun. Squinting did no good when it came to either one; still, his eye scanning from one thing to another, there was nothing interesting to see.

"There's nothing here," he growled finally, turning his magical eye to look at the wily Unspeakable while his other checked things again in case he missed anything.

"Of course there isn't," Saul frustratingly agreed. "It wouldn't be a secret hideout if you could find it. But just because it's not here doesn't mean it's not here," he said with a smile.

Alastor grit his teeth to stop himself from replying, and tried to remind himself the man was far more useful than he was annoying. –At least he hoped he was. Then he got an idea...

'Just because I don't see a hidden door doesn't mean there isn't one,' he thought, pulling out his wand as he got up close to the wall. 'Had he found some way to hide it? An invisible enchantment my eye can't see?'

He tapped the wall with his wand.

Nothing happened.

"Looking for a hidden room?" Saul asked, his amused grin apparent even from behind him.

"That's the thinking," he replied, as he pushed on the wall. It didn't budge.

"But there are no enchantments there," the odd Unspeakable pointed out.

"I can see that," Alastor grunted in acknowledgement before pressing an ear to the wall and knocking. It seemed solid enough.

"Then why are you looking for it?" the man asked.

"Precisely because there aren't any enchantments here," he said, shooting the Unspeakable a scrutinizing look. Was he worried he was getting close? Alastor looked around in case there was something near him to trigger a hidden opening.

"Yes, a blatantly obvious blank area in a cluttered place like this would be really distracting, wouldn't it?" a happy Croaker asked. "Especially if someone came in knowing there's a secret area somewhere, but not know enough to know where it is."

Moody stopped in his tracks and turned to face him. He hated being jerked around.

"If you don't stop playing games–"

"–I'm really going to retire and you'll be left alone again. Yes, I know," the man dismissed with a wave. "But you were doing so well. It's right here," he said, gesturing to the wall again.

With a flourish, his outstretched hand came to rest on an ordinary cabinet.

"This," he smiled, "is your trunk."

Nothing about it changed, but his perception seemed to stretch and warp. It bloody well was his trunk, and it'd been standing on its side against the wall the whole time! He hadn't not-seen it, he'd just ignored it half a dozen times.

"Were you expecting invisibility?" Saul asked, misinterpreting the look he was being given. "Invisibility might work on most people, but clever people know if something's invisible it's because there's something to hide, which is why they always look for it first – it and magical doors and things. Anyway," he continued with a grin, "I found the best thing to do isn't to make things invisible, but to make it seem so boring nobody thinks about it twice."

"So why's my trunk standing here?" Alastor asked gruffly.

"Well, you wanted something as secure as your trunk, so why not use the trunk?" the man quickly replied. "It's why you left it here, isn't it? For me to fiddle with?" he rhetorically asked, completely missing what he'd actually wanted in the first place.

'Look at the trunk, study the enchantment, and use them to make a secure work area – it's really not that hard to grasp,' Moody mentally griped.

"Anyway, it's not like I had to do much," Saul continued. "In itself, the trunk's a good idea: it's a highly secure storage area you can quickly take from place to place – it's just the setup that's wrong. It's an over-complicated waste of space for a workplace, and it's not like anyone in their right mind would be climbing into it."

Moody chose not to respond.

"Come see what I've done," the eager man said before going to the cabinet-like trunk and darting inside.

Alastor followed along more slowly, wanting to get a good look at it.

It was taller now than it had been before, and having the trunk on its small end was odd, but it made a Froggy kind of sense. The lid now acted like a door and walking into it would be more convenient than climbing. He noticed all the different locks were gone though, and he wondered what this meant for the separate compartments.

Looking in, he expected a tiny area no bigger than a cupboard, one almost too cramped for the two of them to stand in; what he found was quite a sizable room. Strange lamps with tiny flames in glass bulbs lit the area as a table, two chairs, and several bookcases took up most of the space – the ones which were full were holding his own spellbooks and sneakoscopes. If he had to bet, Alastor would've said it was at least half the size of the room they just left, maybe more.

"Hm," he grunted, not wanting to let the other man know he was impressed. "It's different. How'd you get it so big – you combine it with the others?" he asked, stepping in further to see his Foe-Glass on the wall next to the coat rack holding his invisibility cloaks and a stand with his pensieve in the far corner.

"Yes and no," Croaker's voice replied in the contradictory way he had, the man himself having vanished into the bookshelves somewhere only to reappear carrying a steaming silver tea set of some kind he last saw sitting in Dumbledore's office.

"A multi-compartment trunk is an interesting novelty," the Unspeakable explained, "but it limits you in the amount of room you can have. Splitting the space into seven equal parts leaves you with a third of the volume. It's basic arithmancy, but I doubt the makers cared – they were making a trunk, not a house."

"Yeah, no reason to go nuts with it," Alastor replied. "Where'd you get that?" he asked, his magical eye swiveling down to Dumbledore's silver instrument and back to Saul.

"The Auror Office sent it down this weekend," Saul said, tilting the silver thing a bit to give the steaming instrument a second look. "They said it wasn't cursed, so I only found it mildly interesting – just something to stop magical eavesdroppers. Anyway, it's for you," he explained, not handing it over.

"The bigger question is, 'Where do we put it?'" the man continued as he looked around the magically-expanded trunk of a room. "Sticking it on a bookcase seems out of place, not to mention the smoke would make it look like it's catching it on fire, but putting it on the table makes it seem too important. Plus, with the table itself pushed to one side, the whole thing becomes a jumbled mess. I think we need a separate end table for it, maybe under the Foe-Glass," Saul said finally. "That could work."

"Hello?" a woman's voice called out suddenly, intruding into their secret lair.

All natural eyes shifted to the lid-door before going back to each other.

"Can anyone out there hear what we're saying?" Alastor asked before pushing his magical eye's vision through the enchanted trunk's walls to see who it was.

"It'd be kind of a useless hideout if they could," Croaker remarked with a look before shouting "Horcrux!" and waiting silently a moment. "See? We're fine," he said, turning to set the silver instrument on the table. "I thought it'd be convenient to hear out, but now I think we need a peep hole too."

"It's Amelia Bones," Moody announced, taking in his old boss's short cropped gray hair. "Don't know what she's down here for."

"Alastor?" she called, looking around the clock-encrusted room. "Mister Croaker?"

"She found the right room, at least," Saul said happily. "It says a lot for her intelligence. Most of the time visitors get lost at the entryway."

"Don't remind me," he grumbled, withdrawing his sight back into their hideaway. He turned to ask if it was safe to leave but Croaker was halfway out the door. Swearing, he followed after him.

"Oh! Madam Bones! I thought I heard someone," Froggy Saul said as Alastor tried to slip out and close the trunk lid-door without drawing any unwanted attention.

Amelia looked right at him but didn't seem to notice anything about where he came from.

"Just the two I was looking for," she replied.

"Both of us?" the curious Unspeakable asked. "That sounds interesting."

"For different reasons, yes," Amelia explained. "Alastor, I need you to do a write-up on the dragon incident in Diagon Alley. The Minister wants a full report and I seem to be missing yours," she said pointedly, her implication clear even without the hawkish look.

"Yeah, I'll get on that," he replied, his dislike of all the D.M.L.E. paper-pushing lessened by how little of it he had to avoid doing in the last couple of weeks.

"I hope you didn't come to me for paperwork," Saul said, drawing her attention back to him. "They may call us Unspeakables but we don't really write anything either. I'd suggest calling us something different but the Ministry employing a bunch of Illiterates doesn't have the same ring to it."

Amelia looked at him the same way Alastor himself often did: like the man had been down here for far too long and wasn't quite sane anymore.

"No, it's nothing like that," she said smoothly, getting to the matter at hand. "I need to hide something from prolonged close muggle contact and nothing in our standard repertoire does what I'm looking for. The Obliviators and Accidental Magical Reversal Squad didn't know how to achieve it, and since you're rumored to be brilliant–"

"–And mad to boot too, no doubt," Saul added, "–you nonetheless thought I could help you. Hm," he said in thought. "So no Disillusionment or invisibility, no Confunding, Obliviating, or other memory charms – you can't even use Muggle Repelling Charms since you're implying the muggles have to interact with it regularly and remember it. What are you using this for?" he asked curiously.

"I'm attempting to insert two Auror trainees into muggle law enforcement," Madam Bones replied, getting both of their full attention.

"Tonks and Jameson? What are you looking for with them?" Alastor asked, remembering how he had been meaning to work out his own thoughts on Auror training for Scrimgeour but hadn't gotten around to it.

"Information on their law enforcement practices," she answered. "Nymphadora found how to contact and enlist in their Please Force, but their introductory training takes several weeks, with an additional two-year program afterwards. The next intake period isn't for several months so Rufus and I were hoping to craft a more focused training for them by directly inserting them into different parts of their Please – with Nymphadora learning the on-the-ground patrol and enforcement duties while Jameson learns the procedural and administrative duties, since he's still reluctant to draw his wand."

"They'd have to ask a load of questions they should already have answers for," Saul pointed out, "but it's nothing a Confundus couldn't cure."

"You would think so, but our recent dealings with muggle law enforcement has shown it creates more problems than it solves." Amelia replied. "I was wondering if there was something you could do to make anything they do seem completely commonplace, though it'd be ideal if the muggles ignored it completely."

Moody's magical eye spun around to stare out the back of his head at the upturned trunk which should've been readily apparent.

"Making something so mundane it's not even worth noticing? What a novel idea," Croaker said approvingly as the man gave him a look. "I'm surprised it hasn't been thought of before. It may take a while for me to think of something, of course – unless I have a stroke of genius – but I'm sure I can come up with something," he smiled.

.o0O0o.

The man was practically giddy, so much so even a casual observer would be able to tell he'd been given wonderful news. Wonderful news, in their situation, was rather different than it would have been otherwise.

"Have you seen this?" the glowing Minister asked, picking up the latest issue of the Daily Prophet to wave it at him as he entered the room. "Three teams have threatened to leave the country now – three! – with this one demanding Umbridge resign as Chief Warlock," he said, successfully summing up half the story.

"Ludo Bagman, was just in here from Magical Games and Sports," the man continued as he approached. "He insisted no one was even suggesting we cancel or postpone the Quidditch season, let alone seriously considering it, so of course it means everyone is doing the opposite."

With a smile still on his face, Lucius knew the Quidditch season was only the start of issues silently beginning to accrue for them. In a surprise move by the goblins, rather than leaving the Quidditch teams to twist in the wind and fight their own battles, they had instead pledged to aid any relocating teams with their financing – though how they would do that in the midst of a gold crisis was anyone's guess. Before they won the so-called 'Isle of Gringotts' in arbitration he would have seen it purely as a move to take financial advantage of the troubled teams, but now he saw it for what it was: a political move.

His adversaries were learning and beginning to cooperate. It wouldn't do.

Though Madam Umbridge clearly had to go – she was far too stubborn to control in her current position – the attacks on her in the Prophet had been gaining her a bit of quiet support in the Wizengamot. It was a bit maddening since it came from his own network of supporters, who hoped she could weather the storm and slip through discriminatory laws in the future. It had taken quite a bit of time, and a great deal of effort, to get them to see other ways of getting what they all want.

"Yes, I saw," Lucius agreed as he took a seat across from the Minister. "It seems as though the public has truly turned against our new Chief Warlock," he said, wishing private sentiments about her were as easily swayed as the public's were.

"It makes me very glad not to be her," Cornelius said happily. "I thought it'd die off when her bill was sent to committee, but it's been five days and still the outrage grows. Even Dolores has to know there's no way for her to continue."

"Never underestimate the obstinately stubborn," he replied smoothly, "They have an unusual talent for blaming others for their own failings, and you'd be surprised what Umbridge thinks. From what I've heard she's become increasingly irate, holed up in her office and doing little more than berating her staff for ruining her 'perfect moment' in the Wizengamot. I'm afraid she's no closer to resigning than she was yesterday."

"Oh, pah!" the Minister cried, throwing the Prophet down on his desk and flumping back in his chair. "If anyone ruined things it's her. Staff only do what the important people tell them to," he said dismissively.

"Quite so," Lucius agreed, enjoying the delicious irony of the Minister failing to see how his statement applied to himself. "How's the report on the dragon coming?" he asked, directing the Minister back to his assigned task.

"Hm? Oh, good," the other man replied. "Amelia already had people working on it before I told her to start. It should be done by the end of the week, which means we could probably get it Thursday if we push it. If there's anything that'll drive Dolores out it's having the truth come out."

"Indeed, but it may be a mistake to drive her out too soon," he noted, somewhat dismayed at having to save yet another mild incompetent for later use.

"What do you mean?" the Minister asked surprised.

"While she's a terrible Chief Warlock, it doesn't mean she's completely useless," Lucius said smoothly. "I have a position in mind where she could actually do some good, and I should know Thursday evening if she's willing to accept. If all goes according to plan, Madam Bones can continue as she is with the report coming out the beginning of next week."

"So we're not releasing it Friday to get a Weekend Prophet about her?" Cornelius said with an unexpected flash of independent thought.

"Only if she fails to see the wisdom of my offer and refuses to leave," he explained. "Then we can release it early, destroy her over the weekend, and run her out on Monday."

"Oh, good. I was looking forward to seeing her blamed for everything."

As always, Lucius refrained from the short-sighted schadenfreude, especially when a long term benefit could be gained.

"As much… fun… as it would no doubt be," he said diplomatically, "left somewhat intact and given time, our dear Madam Umbridge could become a useful ally," he explained, getting to the end of this brief check in visit.

"Yes, well, meh," the Minister replied, waving it off as if the one brief moment of thought was the limit of his abilities. "We can't even say Amelia will get it to us by Friday either way," the man pouted. "She had to dig through the Department of Mysteries yesterday for Mad-Eye's input on it, so who knows if she'll get it done on time."

That gave him pause.

"What was Alastor Moody doing in the Department of Mysteries?" a Lucius asked, a spike of dormant cautiousness breaking through years of complacency at the Minister's remark.

"He works there now; transferred a short time ago," Cornelius replied, offhandedly dropping an important new development. "Spooky place, but so is he. I'm sure he'll fit in with whatever else they have hidden down there."

"Interesting," he remarked, wondering if this warranted a closer look.

"Not the way Amelia tells it," the Minister replied with a shake of his head. "He'd been grouching about retirement for years, but kept putting it off. The dragon just finally burned him out," the man explained, as if the same wouldn't have happened to him for much less.

"Anyway, Amelia said he wasn't one to spend his days with nothing to do and asked to be transferred there," Cornelius continued. "There was no reason not to let him; he practically won the last war by himself. Let him spend the next few years doing Unspeakable things, even if all he's doing is taking a lifetime of naps where no one's going to disturb him. The quiet is the least the man deserves."

"That's certainly true," Lucius said with a bland smile, but despite the Minister's words he knew something wasn't right.

Life was an ever-changing game with rotating players and mutable pieces, where success relied upon knowing how each shifting piece moved – so you always had to be on the lookout when they started to behave differently. Amelia had never seemed to be one to play the Minister false but her account of Moody's 'retirement' didn't match who he knew Alastor Moody to be. It was far too anticlimactic an end for him.

'Mad-Eye' Moody had always been one to keep an eye on during the war, and his reputation was well-earned. By himself the Auror was enough to scatter their muggle hunts entirely, and that was before the early attempts on his life made him all the more dangerous. There was no reason to believe the man had become any less dangerous or diligent in the last decade, so if the man was up to something, discovering what it was could be the most difficult thing he's ever done.

He had never been so foolish as to cross wands with him himself – retreat had always been the most intelligent option unless you had overwhelming numbers – but Lucius had no doubts how an altercation with him would go. The man had been a dedicated warrior, and of all the Death Eaters in Azkaban, Moody put most of them there himself. It was far safer to not engage and offer advice well away from the front lines, even if the so-called Dark Lord looked upon it like it came from a small-minded child.

Regardless, 'dedicated' was the wrong word for Moody. Narcissa was dedicated to the Dark Lord's cause; Moody was implacable, a stubborn half-step short of insanity, where his sister-in-law Bellatrix's devotion had seen her firmly lodged. Yes, Moody was an implacable enforcer of order and rectitude, which made him natural allies with the busybody Dumbledore, and their connection raised even more issues.

After the war, he had let himself forget the danger Alastor Moody posed, for his had never been the kinds of acts to draw the Auror's eye. But after years of dealing with Dumbledore, he wondered why the man hadn't put the Auror on his tail years ago. If there was one thing guaranteed to have given him pause it would have been Alastor Moody sniffing around, so why didn't he do it?

'Perhaps he knew even if he found anything he'd never be able to see me in prison,' Lucius thought shrewdly. 'It would have put the two in an interesting position. Moody would no doubt want to press forward and make a grand display bringing the high and mighty to justice, while Dumbledore would have to try and placate the implacable, to get him to see the futility when I could buy or connive my way out of it, and to stay silent about what he knew so Dumbledore himself could silently try to use it against me in invisible ways.'

Looked at this way, perhaps it wasn't surprising Moody had never crossed his path.

Still, there was another concern he couldn't dismiss: Dumbledore knew the Dark Lord still lived, just as he now did, though how long the man knew was anyone's guess. Had Moody's quiet fade into obscurity been orchestrated by Dumbledore, perhaps as a safeguard against the Dark Lord's return? Or did the loss of Dumbledore from the political scene prompt the Auror to move himself into a position to protect something from falling into the Dark Lord's hands if he should ever return?

Both scenarios presented terrifying possibilities.

The Department of Mysteries looked into all manner of Unspeakable things, so it was only natural to presume Death would be their concern. If there was a way to return from death, they would have to know, or at least be working on it. Was this what Moody was protecting, a device or magical process which would allow the Dark Lord to return in the flesh if used by the wrong people?

Not knowing anything about this enigmatic section of the Ministry, Lucius couldn't begin to say. If it were, one thing was absolutely certain: any attempt to figure out if his suspicions were true would be seen by a desperate Moody as confirmation he knew what was there and was after it for this specific purpose. With Dumbledore effectively isolated and unable to keep the man in check, trying to discover if there anything to fear from one madman could end with another madman attacking him in the night.

If he was to die, it certainly wasn't the way Lucius wanted to go.

Still, if there was something down there they didn't want the Dark Lord to have, it would have to be exceptionally powerful. Aside from causing death and inspiring fear, Lucius was hard-pressed to think of something that would have interested him. The future perhaps? Or the ability to dictate how the future played out?

It seemed the sort of thing he might have been interested in, for as someone who had reportedly 'gone further down the path of immortality' than anyone, the so-called Dark Lord had been supremely short-sighted. A man of brute force, low cunning, and quick action, he failed to see the benefits of eternity. Lucius had tried to get him to see how slower, generational change was the best way to achieve lasting results – which he had proven the effectiveness of in the decade since the war – but the man had refused to see it.

That was not to say the Dark Lord would never delay when confronted with difficult issues, especially when the outcome was unknown. Near the end of the war the man seemed almost paralyzed by something. For months he shut himself away, leaving the rabble to kill and torture as they wished with no direction, and kept his own council as to what he was thinking.

Looking back, Lucius saw a desperate man – one who must have realized his strategy was a losing one and was considering increasingly reckless acts in an attempt to seize victory with a single swift stroke. In what meetings the Dark Lord had called, breaking into the Department of Mysteries had been mentioned more than once, though without knowing what he was looking for the prospect of accomplishing anything was next to impossible. The more likely to succeed was uncovering where certain well-liked Order of the Phoenix members had hidden themselves, though he personally doubted how much such a blow to their morale would really accomplish.

Now he was wondering if the two acts were really as distinct as they seemed to be.

The maniac had met his supposed end when he rushed to kill the Potters, but did he rush to kill them because of something in the Department of Mysteries? Was there something in the Department which could have protected him from whatever happened to him at the Potters'? If he had gone for the Department of Mysteries first, would the attack on the Potters have even happened?

"Are you alright?" the Minister asked, drawing him from his thoughts. "You drifted off for a moment there."

"I was just imagining how relaxing such a retirement would be," Lucius readily lied.

"Yes, it almost makes me envious," Cornelius smiled, fingering the Daily Prophet on his desk. "Still, somebody has to keep the world running, and you know how anyone else would just make a mess of things," he said supportively.

"I do indeed," he agreed, hefting his serpent-capped cane and rising to his feet. "Just leave the small things to me, Minister, and we'll have a proper Chief Warlock lined up for you by the end of next week."

"Marvelous!" the Minister of Magic said as the most powerful man in the country turned to take his leave.

Whether Alastor Moody was a silent protector or a pathetic pensioner trying to stay awake, Lucius was content to leave him undisturbed precisely where he was. He worked too hard for too long to arrange the world to his liking to let anyone foul it up. He was quite possibly the last person who'd want You-Know-Who to return.

.o0O0o.

With all the concern around Ron's temperamental downturn Harry felt very aware of his friends as they went to the great hall for breakfast the next morning. Outwardly, nothing had changed in their friend's disposition beyond him being quick to see the worst in everything, but if Hermione was right there could be a lot more on his mind. It left them walking on eggshells and shooting glances at each other when around him, all while hoping he'd bring it up himself but knowing he wouldn't.

Besides all that, they tried to pretend today was just a normal day, which for Hermione meant a delivery by the Daily Prophet. Harry was quick to see Quidditch dominating the front page again but Hermione made no mention of the growing Other Way Backlash, as the Prophet was calling it. She still devoured the news, but beyond saying there was no way for Umbridge to stay in office she thought it best to let the people involved speak for themselves.

"Besides showing my support, there's nothing I could do they wouldn't be able to do better," she explained. "The last thing they need is someone like me thinking I can speak for them when all I'd be doing is drowning them out."

As relieved as he was not to have a girlfriend who was on the war path again, it struck him as a little odd. This was the same girl who faced down Lockhart in the middle of class – and on the front page of the Prophet – yet here she was taking herself out of a public fight they already knew she agreed with. He couldn't help thinking it was because of Ron; the subject was too close to what she thought he was worried about, they had fought about it before, and if there was one person who looked ready to snap and fight about something it was him, no matter what he'd said about it before.

If that was the only thing strange about her behavior he could've shrugged it off, or at least understood, but it wasn't. With all the giant wars, goblin rebellions, and muggle witch burnings in the last thousand years, History of Magic should have been the most interesting class at Hogwarts but it wasn't uncommon for people to zone out or fall asleep due to Binn's lifeless voice. What was unusual was for Hermione to be one of them.

Their ghostly professor droned on about things he may have seen himself in the most mind-numbing way while Hermione looked at him the way she did Lockhart. She didn't challenge him or call him a fraud but she did seem to weigh everything he said twice. She still took notes, but only as many as he did, rather than twice as much as everyone else combined.

Harry tried to tell himself his girlfriend wasn't a mystery to be solved. His experience with Dumbledore, and hers with Lockhart, had just made her more skeptical of people in charge, and this was a good thing. This explanation didn't seem to hold though because there was no rhyme or reason to who she was critical of.

She hadn't been critical of Snape and Flitwick when she saw them a few days ago, so why was she focusing on Binns now? Hermione also hadn't been skeptical of Professor Sprout last week and any thought she'd subject her to this newfound scrutiny flew out the window when Tuesday came and she was just as engaged in class as she always was. If anything, Hermione seemed to have enjoyed the class, even talking with the Finch-Fletchley fellow about their parents' muggle professions.

But as sunny as things were in Herbology, the temperature around her seemed to drop when they entered Transfiguration. Rather than driving them towards seats near the front row as she usually did, this time Hermione steered them to the back, as far the teacher they could get and still be in the same room. She took notes when she had to but never raised a hand to answer questions, and the way she looked at McGonagall made him glad she'd never looked at him that way.

It seemed too extreme to be the result of a detention with Lockhart, and the way she held her silence told him it was something else. Hermione had said she'd been strong armed into taking a potion she didn't need, which caused problems when added to another, but could McGonagall be involved somehow? It didn't seem likely, but neither did Dumbledore abandoning him as a baby.

Either way, she had refused to tell him who it was once before, so she probably wasn't going to tell him now and he didn't want to pry when she'd said she'd taken care of it. Nobody wanted a nosy boyfriend.

"What are you reading?" Harry asked, keeping up his crusade of casual conversation to get them through lunch.

"It's a new advice column they're running," she replied, glancing up at him from her Daily Prophet. "I meant to read it yesterday–"

"An advice column?" Ron asked suddenly, smiling for the first time in days. "Don't tell us you're becoming a girl," he grinned.

"I've always been a girl," an affronted Hermione countered. "And I'll have you know it was very educational."

"It's hard to be a girlfriend if you're not a girl first," Harry said to Ron in her defense. "How was it educational?" he asked her as well.

"There's a whole world of magic out there we've never discussed in class," she explained. "Whether it's cooking and cleaning or tending minor wounds, the wizarding world would have their own way of addressing the same concerns muggles have. It'd be silly to dismiss it as unimportant or girly," she said before looking at Ron.

"Yeah, Harry. You can't just ignore it," their friend said in curious agreement. "You guys have loads to learn."

Harry looked at him like he was spouting nonsense, but then he realized it was worse. Ron was using his own words against him! He had said the same thing Ron did weeks ago to defend his studying and now he was using it to cover his own bad joke.

"It's less for me since I've got Dobby," Harry pointed out in return. "But that doesn't mean it's not important," he added before his girlfriend could, hoping to split the difference between his friends.

Hermione gave him a knowing look. They had gotten together in order to 'get to know each other better,' and it appeared to be working. She seemed to know he was trying to be a good boyfriend while keeping the peace, and the slight smile she had told him she appreciated it – or found it mildly funny. Or both.

He hadn't thought about it at the time but this 'knowing each other' had another side to it, and hinted at things she may have wanted to keep quiet. Right now it was telling him she was stretching the truth about it being educational, even if her reasoning about what they didn't know was true. He couldn't shake the feeling her saying it had more to do with Ron's 'girl' comment than anything else, like she was telling him it was fine to be girly while also sounding disapproving of being girly in the first place.

It was a little confusing being Hermione's boyfriend, mainly because what she said always seemed to have multiple things going on in it and you could only guess at what she meant, even when she said it straight out. Harry thought about it on the way to Lockhart's class but ended up getting lost in what he thought she might mean and why. If normal girls were confusing and alien, Hermione was all the more confusing for not being alien.

All the articles about them still had groups of girls watching and whispering as they passed, and while he tried to ignore them, their giggles always cut through. He didn't like feeling he was the butt of everyone's jokes and it made him all the more thankful Hermione liked studying and homework instead of rumors and gossip. A brainy girl he had a chance to understand; he wouldn't have a clue how to handle one of those other girls.

'Is it too soon to tell her I like her for her?' Harry wondered. They had been together for eight days now – or three weeks, depending who you asked – but both dates made it feel like a really long time and not long at all. Then another question occurred to him: 'Wouldn't she already know?'

It did seem a useless thing to say, now he thought about it. Still, the more time they spent as boyfriend-and-girlfriend – even tip-toeing around things they weren't talking about – the more he liked her. Surely there had to be some way to let her know that wasn't stupid.

The door was open when they arrived and Harry stood aside to let her enter first. She gave him a smile as she did, which he returned. A beat later Ron followed suit, giving him a grin and batting his eyelashes.

"Shut up," he told his friend, halfway between defensive and laughing. Ron might not get this boyfriend-and-girlfriend stuff but he'd probably be doing the same thing if he was the one with the girlfriend.

Hermione claimed seats for them in the back row, and for once he didn't have to wonder why. Gilderoy Lockhart beamed at them in rosy robes and a sparkling smile, as if the problem with the pixies had never happened. Hermione pulled out her Charms book and got to work reading ahead.

Harry had to smile. McGonagall might have been able to force her to come back to class but that didn't mean she was going to waste time paying attention. He hadn't brought his Charms book with him but wondered if he could get by with reading One Thousand Magical Herbs and Fungi without drawing attention.

"There we are," Lockhart cried when Neville brought up the rear and was forced to take the last seat available, directly in front. "Now, seeing where you all are in your studies, I thought a little change of pace might be in order."

A wave of uncertainty swept through the room. Normally when a teacher said that it meant a practical class where they applied what they already knew, but so far the most he'd taught them was when to run from pixies. He wasn't dumb enough to do it again, was he? Even Hermione was interested enough to see what came next.

"Naturally, my first thought was to continue the public readings from Friday," the man said as if offering them a tantalizing treat, "but that's not good enough – not nearly good enough! I'm not just the most famous author in Britain after all, I also happen to be the most daring adventurer the world has ever known, so what could I possibly add?" he asked the hushed class. "Dramatic reenactments, of course!"

Vampires, werewolves, ghouls and hags were suddenly everywhere, destroying desks and savaging students, all while Lockhart's inept wand-waving did nothing to hold them off.

"He can't be serious," Hermione whispered, dispelling the waking nightmare and bringing him back to earth.

"Oh, I'm quite serious," the man replied. "And not only that, one lucky person here will have the pleasure of playing the fearsome fiend in front of the class! Won't that be fun?"

Harry was sure he wasn't the only one more than a little relieved he hadn't brought any real creatures to class, but just as suddenly he felt a deepening sense of dread. He was being laughed at enough as it was, he didn't want to play pretend in front of everyone. The man had tried to use him for publicity once before though, and there was no Lichfield to put a stop to it this time, so there was little he could do unless he wanted a detention like Hermione got last week.

The unease in his stomach shifted into a protective worry: What if he picked Hermione? McGonagall might have tried to impose a truce on them to stop their public fighting, but who knew if Lockhart was going to keep it? What if he thought a night's detention wasn't enough to make up for all the bad press he'd received and wanted to get back at her with a bit of public humiliation? There was no way Hermione was going to put up with that.

Harry glanced at his girlfriend and saw he wasn't the only one thinking along these lines. Hermione was already shooting daggers at Lockhart as if daring him to even try. Being forced to embarrass himself would be fine if it kept Hermione out of it, and risking detention by leaving with her if he picked her was better than starting another row between them. And maybe, if they went to McGonagall together, she would stop any punishment since Lockhart's the one who started the fight.

"Now, who should it be?" smiled Gilderoy Lockhart, his eyes skipping off Neville, who was slumping down in his chair trying to hide, before flitting over Seamus and Dean and coming to land on the back row.

The man smiled and pointed at them.

"You there, Mister Weasley!" he cried happily.

'Ron?' Harry's puzzled brain asked itself.

"Me?" Ron echoed next to him.

"Of course you, who better?" Lockhart asked as he beckoned him down to the front. "Who else amongst you has the daring bravery needed to face me or the charm to woo the crowd as effortlessly I do? Come along, there's nothing to be afraid of," he said with a smarmy smile.

The stunned disbelief on Ron's face was hardly the look of daring bravery and effortless charm. Still, there was little he could do but walk forward to make a fool of himself. Harry knew he should feel sorry for his friend but there was a part of him that thought 'Better him than me.'

Ron was rightfully embarrassed when the whole thing began, but it quickly turned into the best Defense Against the Dark Arts class of the year. With Lockhart reading out the exciting bits of his books and Ron pretending to be hags or a ghoul, they didn't learn a thing, but it was very entertaining. Even Hermione was too distracted to work on something else.

The laughter seemed to do good things for Ron too. As the redness faded from his ears, he seemed to get that everyone was laughing at the stupidity of the situation, not at him, so he soon began to really throw himself into it and exaggerate his part of it. His bug-eyed hag face was genuinely creepy.

Lockhart kept glancing back at them as the class went on but what he expected to see was anyone's guess. The performance was over much too soon – and even drew a round of applause.

"You see, Mister Weasley?" Lockhart asked gesturing to the class. "You're a natural – real star potential. Don't forget to take a bow," he added before taking a very flowery one himself and leaving before anyone could say he hadn't taught them anything.

"That was wicked, Ron," Seamus said as they came to the back row.

"You have to teach me that hag face," Dean interjected, doing an imitation of it that wasn't nearly as good, but with spider-like finger movements to make up for it that even seemed to creep Ron out a little.

"You should add some drool to it or something though," the Irish boy added. "That'll make it so much worse."

Lavender and Parvati had been making their way over to say something too but changed their minds at the mention of drool.

"That would be good," Ron echoed to them. "So what'd you two think?" he asked him and Hermione as he gathered his things. "Did you see alright?"

"I liked it," Harry replied honestly.

"You were the best part of the lesson," Hermione said supportively.

"I was, wasn't I?" their friend said with newfound confidence. "You think we'll do it again?" he asked eagerly.

It was hard not to catch Ron's mood and Harry was sure the Reserve team's Quidditch practice was going to be smooth sailing now.

.o0O0o.

Some things were done just because they could be, or because no one ever does.

Taking a book from Flourish & Blotts was like that, a distraction to fill the boring summer months. Afterwards it provided a bit of entertainment, smirking at seeing all the 'ways to charm witches' written up all serious like, and laughing, imagining anyone actually needing the help. The more you thought about your own life though, the more you came to realize you might just need the help after all.

Pranks and parties were great ways to please a crowd, seem a hero, and get a lot of attention, but they got you nowhere in terms of getting a girlfriend. The crowd liked you for who they thought you were and how well you entertained them but afterwards they moved on and generally forgot about you. So while cutting up and goofing off would get you a reputation as a class clown, it seemed the wrong way to get a girl's attention; approach a girl that way and she's likely to think she's going to be the butt of a joke, even when you're sincere.

So looking at it, what did it matter what kind of prank you pulled or how many people laughed when it did nothing to help you get to know the person you're interested in? And even if jokes and pranks did get them to like you, you can't bring an audience with you on a date or be funny all the time – and trying to be funny was sure to get irritating sooner rather than later. And worse, only dealing with crowds left you completely unprepared on how to approach a girl to even get to that point.

Help was definitely needed, but the witch-charming ways were difficult to apply because every single one of them required you to already be close to the person you wanted to be closer to. It really had no advice on how to make the jump from teammates to something more, so he could only imagine how hopeless it'd be if they were starting off as strangers. Still, with his brother complementing her right in front of him he'd had to do something, so when she was named Captain of her own team – which would get her well away from his brother and her other friends when at practice – 'Chapter 10: Show Interest in Her Interests,' and 'Chapter 5: Helping Hands,' kept flashing through his mind and made him volunteer to go with her, which was as mad a leap off a flying broomstick as Ginny had done at tryouts.

It was a recklessly stupid way to try and spend time with her, so much so he couldn't help but think everyone was able to see right through him. Still, as dumb as it was, he was committed now. 'Helping Hands' said he should find ways to help her out, which worked since the only way he saw to avoid a total public embarrassment was try to act natural and throw himself into the practices like he said he would.

Showing up early to set an example seemed a suitable first step. Maybe with it she'd see him as something other than an incorrigible troublemaker or his brother's shadow. He hadn't expected to be in a No Man's Land of responsibility and shouldering the enormous weight of trying to keep the team from falling apart before she ever got there.

"What do you mean, 'you want to quit'?" a stunned George asked. "The season hasn't even started."

"I know, but I decided I don't particularly like Quidditch," their daft new Chaser, Florence Fernsby, explained.

"And you couldn't decide this before going through tryouts?"

"I don't see how," she replied, as if it were obvious. "Before them I was just flying around the grounds – which is much more fun – and there's no one there to fly me into things."

'No one but herself,' he thought, but what he said was, "Cormac's not going to be here, today's just for the Reserves. And besides," George argued, "if you quit you're only proving him right. He flew you into the stands to sabotage you and show you're not good enough to play."

Florence looked at him with calm curiosity.

"It was Dunbar he flew into the tower, not me," she explained. "I was using it as an example."

"Right," he said, trying to push the meaningless point aside. "Anyway, you liked it well enough to make it through tryouts," George reminded her, "so why not stay for a few practices before deciding it's not for you? You might decide you like it again."

"I don't see how," she replied, her brow scrunching in thought. "Tryouts were far too violent compared to flying, and practices are likely to be even worse. And even if I stay, the games would be a nightmare."

George couldn't imagine why anyone this set against a little violence would ever get the idea to go out for Quidditch in the first place. Regardless, her leaving would be a problem, and he wasn't about to drop it on Angelina as soon as she arrived. He didn't want to be the guy who gave her problems, he wanted to be the guy who helped her solve them.

"Then give us one practice," he said, bargaining for anything he could get to mitigate the damage, "just one as a favor to Gryffindor. Quidditch might not be for you but it'll give us one day with a full team before we have to look for a replacement. And if at the end you decide to leave, at least we can say we tried everything we could to get you to stay.

"It makes us look nice and you look like a good player," George followed up quickly, putting on his Weasley Twin grin. "It could even help us recruit someone new. That way you don't have anyone chasing after you in a week begging that you reconsider," he finished, hoping the girl would go for it.

"That would be very annoying," Florence agreed.

"And you are already here," he pointed out.

She scowled at him from behind her glasses, as if she was on the verge of being tricked.

"Fine," Florence said finally, "but I'm still quitting afterwards."

George didn't have anything smart to say to that so he just gestured her inside and tried not to look like everything was going wrong on the first day. Martin MacQuoid appeared shortly afterwards and Kenneth Towler managed to pry himself away from his studies long enough to join them. It took longer for Ron and Ginny to turn up, but they both had followers in tow.

"Come on, Weasleys," he called out to them. "Run like mum's after you!"

They still took their sweet time – with Harry and Hermione leaving so they can canoodle in the stands, and Luna going with the 'super-secret Slytherin spy' Wood was so worried about to document the whole thing in photographs – but the shouting made him feel better. The feeling disappeared when he saw Angelina hauling a heavy crate of Quidditch balls towards him. George kicked himself for not thinking of getting them from Madam Hooch himself.

"I'll take it for you," he said, coming up to help her out.

"You sure?" she asked before letting him take it from her. "Thanks."

George felt a little wrong at how much he enjoyed watching her stretch her arms.

"You alright?" a curious Angelina asked before nodding to the changing rooms. "Everyone here?"

"Yeah," he said flushed. "They're all here for now. Fernsby's already looking to quit but I managed to talk her into at least staying through practice, but who knows if it'll be enough to get her to reconsider. Apparently the game's too violent for her," George explained, trying to lessen the blow as much as possible, but still feeling bad for putting a damper on her first day as Captain.

"Well, we can't say there were high hopes for everyone, but good on you for trying," she smiled, seeming to take it better than he did.

He felt a brief flicker of hope at the praise – until another meaning hit him. How she said that could mean he was one of the people they didn't have high hopes for.

'She doesn't think I'm that bad, does she?' George wondered.

"Maybe it'll help if she knows there's three people between her and a real game," Angelina said as they walked, "and we never have that many people injured. I was also thinking about reminding everyone we're here to learn the game and improve what skills they have, but in my head I always ended up sounding like Oliver."

"Nah, I'm pretty sure short of ordering everyone to their deaths in an insane bid to win, there's nothing you could say that'd come close to sounding like Wood," he said as a nervous joke before realizing he just had a real 'Be Her Ear to Hear' situation.

George froze. Wasn't he supposed to have done something there? He was sure he was, but his mind had gone blank. And what had he said to her? He couldn't remember that either. Had he already messed up? He was sure he had to say something, but what?

'Just say something nice!' he told himself panicking.

"I'm sure anything you say will be fine," he said lamely, instantly wishing he could do the whole thing over again.

"I wish I had your confidence," Angelina said, not knowing how she'd damn herself if it came true. "Here's hoping I don't end up looking like an idiot at least," she remarked as they reached the changing rooms, her optimism shining through to light the way inside.

George waited a moment before following her in. He was pretty sure not looking like an idiot was an impossible task with her around, but he was hoping to at least be seen as a noble idiot. Redoubling his effort to try to get everything to work out, he went in to join the fray.

Things had to get better from here, didn't they?

.o0O0o.

The gloomy weather reflected his mood. Since Florence quit on Tuesday, George learned a valuable lesson: decent Quidditch players were hard to find. He had known this for years but hadn't really known it until now.

Maybe it was because he'd grown up in a family of Quidditch players, but he had always thought there were dozens of would-be players all around them just waiting for their shot. After all, there were so many Quidditch fans out there it only made sense they'd want to play the game themselves, right? This meant anyone who wasn't actively playing were just held back by a lack of equipment or chance to better their skills.

As it turned out, it wasn't any of that. Oh, sure, equipment and opportunity might hold back a few people, but the vast majority simply didn't want to play. Everyone loved to be seen at tryouts and cheer at the games, but participating for real was for someone else to do, they didn't want to put their bodies on the line and get hurt.

The world wasn't full of would-be Woods, it was full of Florence Fernsbys.

Perhaps he'd been too ambitious to want an entire reserve team, but the idea was a good one. What better way was there to practice Quidditch than to actually play Quidditch? It put new players up against experienced opponents in an actual game, which kept the older players sharp and made the new players have to learn quick in order to compete, which was something their old practices could never do.

It only made sense to play with a full team because there needed to be real competition for them to be at their best. Without it the only obstacles Keepers faced were their own Chasers, Beaters were batting Bludgers at their own teammates, who they had every reason not to hurt, and Seekers flew around with no reason to catch the Snitch, if they even bothered to look for it. With a team only having three games a year, how were they supposed to be prepared to face off against each other when they haven't trained to face anyone but themselves?

Wood had scraped the bottom of the barrel to put seven people on their reserve team, and it was dying because people simply didn't want to put in the effort to make it succeed. It was beyond frustrating. It made every player they had indispensable and left him with an impossible problem to solve: how do you find a replacement when no one wants to play?

It was almost enough to make him chase down Florence to beg her to reconsider. He wasn't going to though because it wasn't his place. Angelina was the Captain of the Reserves, not him.

Had he been the one to want a full reserve team? Yes, he and Fred both had wanted it, but that didn't mean the team belonged to them or gave him the right to take over. All those reasons for it to happen had just been a way to sell it to Wood and the others if need be, something to cover them pushing for more reserves in order to insure Ron got a spot on the team by giving him more chances to do so.

Trying to do more than offer a bit of help also ran the risk of ruining any chance he might have with Angelina. The last thing he wanted to do was make her think he wanted to push her aside. If she did, he'd be nothing but a McLaggen to her.

With how hard it was to find decent players, George could see why Wood had been stuck with him. All it took was the argument at tryouts though to know it wasn't going to end well; the boys seemed grate on each other so much for no other crime than just existing. His favorite moments of last year were when Angelina had absentmindedly fell asleep on his shoulder during Wood's early morning pre-practice pep talks; it'd kill him if she ever thought of him like a McLaggen. He supposed the only thing he could really do was offer up options but follow her lead.

"Any luck?" she asked as he approached the changing rooms while the rest of the team flew drills above them.

He shook his head. He'd stayed behind to do some last minute checking with a couple of people who had said they'd think about it. In the end they both decided they had better things to do.

"Same here," Angelina said with an unsurprised look. "Even the ones who went through tryouts turned me down. If they're not picked the first time around they think being asked to join the reserve team is insulting."

"No one wants to be a second choice," George echoed. "I even tried to find someone for Seeker and they turned me down."

"Seeker?" she asked curiously before jumping ahead of him. "You're thinking we could use your sister to replace Florence."

"She was my first choice," he admitted, "and it makes sense to use what we already have. It's your call whether to offer it to her – and I know you wanted a more permanent solution – but even using her just for today would give us three Chasers. Plus, I know she'd go for it since she prefers to play Chaser anyway."

"I know," Angelina smiled. "I saw what you did for her at tryouts."

George wasn't sure if she meant talking Ginny into going out for Seeker or getting Ron to loan her his broom, but she seemed to support it either way.

"–I also saw the mad leap she made for the Snitch," she continued. "That's the kind of crazy a Seeker needs to have, so I'd hate to lose her as one. Besides, unless we found another player to fly with her it wouldn't make much of a difference anyway."

"What do you mean?" he asked, at a loss for how tapping Ginny to fill their empty Chaser role would mean they'd need another Chaser. Was Angelina or Martin not wanting to fly with her for some reason?

"MacQuoid hasn't shown up," Angelina explained, looking a little put out.

The urge to force everything to work out reared up again with a vengeance and he tried calming himself by looking up to confirm there were three people flying around above them when there should be four. It didn't work much so he looked down to his watch as well. He had been late himself but at least he had told her why he'd be late.

"Want me to go find him?" George asked, wondering what the boy's excuse would be.

She shook her head.

"We can find him later, there's no point in both of you missing practice," Angelina said decisively. "I'd like to get something besides drills accomplished before the light goes completely. You concentrate on Towler and try to strengthen that arm of his; I'll take the other two."

His actions over the next few hours may have focused on Towler but his mind was stuck on MacQuoid. While Ron darted from goal hoop to goal hoop and Ginny dove for the little white balls Angelina was throwing, George wanted nothing more than to go back to the castle and find out what's going on. If they were going to have another Fernsby on their hands he wanted to know sooner rather than later, so as soon as the weather-darkened sky made it too hard to continue he went off to find their missing man.

It took him nearly an hour but he finally found him in an unused classroom near Ravenclaw Tower which the Ravenclaws had taken to using as a second common room where they could hang out with all their out-of-House friends. MacQuoid was there haggling for the best deal on a Chocolate Frog Card trade with one boy while playing Wizard's Chess with another. He tried not to fume as he waited for the group to break up for dinner.

"Where have you been?" George asked.

"Um… duh!" the boy said, gesturing to the now-empty room and having the nerve to look annoyed at being questioned. "Where do you think?"

"Why weren't you at practice?" he asked more plainly.

"I was at practice – on Tuesday," MacQuoid rebutted smartly.

"You weren't at practice today," George repeated.

"And it was no big loss, was it?" the dark-haired boy asked rhetorically. "You still had practice. It's not like I'm needed for it."

"You are needed," the Assistant Captain's assistant in him pressed, trying very hard not to pummel the other boy for making things difficult. "Every member of the team is important."

"Don't give me that," MacQuoid scoffed. "We're reserves. You may have chosen to be one so you can play at being Captain but the rest of us have no chance to play in a real game."

"You'd have a chance if you actually showed up," he countered. "Besides, why do you think we have a full team of reserves for? So we could have real games with just Gryffindors."

"Not with only two Chasers," the boy said, determined to poke holes in everything.

"We'd have three if you show up," George rebutted, sure Angelina could be persuaded to at least split Ginny's time in practice between Chasing and Seeking for the good of all involved.

"Real games?" MacQuoid asked dubiously, though he could see the prospect of it did indeed appeal to him. "Even if you get the redheaded Seeker girl for Chaser, we'd still need a new Seeker," he said, pointing out the compounding problems he was trying to fix.

"Seekers rarely have an impact on what a Chaser does," he said evasively. "Getting ready for full games gives us plenty of time to find another one."

"Yeah, or for more people to quit."

"Do you want to play Quidditch or not? It's really as simple as that," George said, trying to get them away from the poisonous idea that they were destined to fail already.

"Games, yeah," MacQuoid answered unhelpfully.

"And you know that means showing up for practice, right?" he pressed.

"Yeah, yeah," the other boy said dismissively as he walked away from the conversation.

"Just show up on Tuesday," George called after him.

Alone in the hallway, he couldn't help thinking they should've had a reserve team for the reserve team.

.o0O0o.

The outrage of deviants only proved how right she was. The longer their protests against her continued the more it served to show how easy they've had it and how they should have been properly oppressed years ago. Merlin himself wouldn't be able to get the addle-brained cowards in the Wizengamot to see it though, or have the courage to do what must be done.

The chance to impose Order on those unsightly miscreants was slipping away due to their cowardice and it was all Cornelius's fault. With her pathetic staff, the Minister, and his weaselly creature Lucius – who didn't even have a proper place in the Ministry – running around behind the scenes on the Minister's behalf, she was surrounded on all sides by traitors to her crusade. They wouldn't see her hounded from office though – they wouldn't! She would stay as long as need be to get it done.

The tinkling of tiny bells drew her attention to the where Tibbles and The Curious Mister Johnson, her newest gray and ginger tabbies, were slinking their way through the cracked door of her home office. Intruding on her private sanctum, The Curious Mister Johnson sniffed at the fireplace and examined the frolicking cats in their decorative plates lining the pretty pink walls without ever turning his attention to her. Tibbles though looked to her with his tail in the air, for all the world as if he were the master and she the pet, and meowed at her expectantly.

"Hem, hem!" Dolores intoned, shocking The Curious Mister Johnson into getting low to the floor and looking at her, before darting from the room. "Tss!" she hissed harshly when Tibbles refused to leave, warning the insolent feline he was on thin ice.

Her going for a wand was the only reason the cat fled. Hungry or not, their dinner would not be served until the Mistress decided, and for their actions they would have to wait longer. Order in place, she returned to her work and soon the quiet skritch-skritch of quill on parchment and the low crackling of fire used to chase away the week's deepening gloom were the only things to disturb her concentration.

Legislation was a wondrous thing. Ink on paper dictated all that society was and should be in black and white clarity. Every acceptable case for what can arise could be denoted, defined, and detailed, with deviancy delineated how she wished and disciplined in whatever extreme she saw fit. The orderly world it provided was such a pleasant escape from the disordered chaos outside that some might think she's hiding. In truth, she was enduring; a solid stone set firmly against the roiling current, she would not yield. She would make the current yield.

The obstinate committee chairs who avoided her and refused to come when called would crumble before her might. With them broken by her sheer force of will, they would have no choice but to do as she said and begin creating her new world, brick by legislative brick. In time, even the Minister would follow her lead – if she allowed him to remain Minister that is.

She was Chief Warlock and the Wizengamot would be hers… somehow.

Harsher methods of persuasion would no doubt be necessary to break those who stood in her way, but she had never been a physically imposing figure, and to many this was still a factor in how they'd respond. Anyone could be momentarily intimidating with a wand in their hand and a Cruciatus on their lips, but without the physical presence to carry it through it could all be for naught. Then, with all the attention currently affixed to her, her diminutive stature would only encourage them to run and speak against her rather than stay properly cowed lest she deem a second lesson necessary. So as pleasant as it would be to torture them into servitude, some other method would have to be devised.

In a sense, it was unfortunate You-Know-Who was dead and gone. Say what you will about magical lives lost, if he was in charge she'd have free rein to do as she pleased and no one could say a word against her. She hated the thought of giving up her own personal power, and running the Ministry under You-Know-Who could put her in the same tricky situation she faced now if he proved less than reliable, but it was better than nothing.

'Using a figurehead to inspire change through fear had its place as a political tool, but it's not what I need right now,' Dolores mused to herself, bringing her thoughts more into focus. 'I need someone to work for me directly, someone imposing and intimidating – a bogeyman to threaten enemies with and coerce compliance, if necessary. Someone to dirty their hands while my own stayed clean.'

She'd never had any involvement with You-Know-Who's followers when they'd been put on trial but of the names she remembered hearing about, the competent ones were wasting away in Azkaban. The ones still free were either cowards who bought their freedom by selling out their compatriots or the weak-willed dupes who'd been compelled by a will greater than their own. The former couldn't be trusted, and what was the point of approaching the latter when they were nothing but pawns, like the loathsome lickspittle Lucius?

'No, what I need isn't a rogue agent or a mindless dupe, but a bold as brass thug who can take orders,' she thought with a smile as the perfect candidate came to mind. 'Someone who'd lie in wait before turning on his best friend when told to; someone with no qualms killing, and did so in spectacular fashion, only to laugh as they carted him off to prison. If I could get the Dementors to release Sirius Black…'

The silver time piece on her mantle chimed eight o'clock.

Looking at her work, she felt she'd made her feline flock wait long enough, so she put the thought aside and rose to make her way to the kitchen. Candles in their polished brass holders lit themselves as she approached, giving the pink walls a rosy glow and bringing life to the cat-patterned plates decorating them as hundreds competed for her attention. She couldn't help but feel like the most important person in the world with them all clambering for her like this.

A few turns past the rarely-used sitting area was the kitchen, where she was pleased to find her motley crew sitting on the floor in a half-circle, staring wistfully at the food bowls resting on the counter above them …all except Tibbles. The irksome gray continually failed to take her warnings to heart and was now on the counter pawing the empty dinner bowl dangerously close to the edge. She would have to teach him a lesson.

Dolores drew her wand.

"Hem, hem!" she cried out as she hit Tibbles with the Cruciatus.

The gray tabby howled, twitched, and clawed at the air, sending the dinner bowls clattering to the floor as the others scattered.

"Does kitty want to be put in a plate?" she asked sweetly as he fell from the counter, already picturing where Tibbles's plate would hang in her as-of-yet undecorated sitting room. "If kitty doesn't obey then a plate's all he's good for!"

She released the spell and Tibbles scrambled to get to his feet.

"Hem, hem!" Dolores shouted again, reinforcing the sound's link to pain in the cat's tiny mind and sending the animal fleeing from the room.

In a silent kitchen she picked the bowls up off the floor and filled them with their evening meal. Pickles, the black and white painted cat with a fondness for sour things was already back in position by the time she was finished, but she'd had her the longest. She took a sliced dill pickle and fed it to Pickles as a reward; it might be time to reward Pickles with her own plate soon for her good behavior.

A few short whistles were enough to draw the clowder of cats back to her, except for Tibbles of course, but he would learn.

'The Curious Mister Johnson did,' Dolores thought as the ginger tabby trotted in to join the others.

Placing the bowls on the floor, she waited a moment to make sure they remembered not to rush forward. None did, so she turned and left the room, leaving them to eat on their own. She would have her own meal later, once they were full enough not to disturb her.

She was on her way back to her study when it happened, a lazy knock-knock-knock! on her front door. Dolores glanced out the nearest window but it was too dark to see. The sun was down and the moonlight was being blocked by roiling clouds which had been threatening rain all day.

The thought of moonlight made her cautious. She had no doubt many within the flea-bitten werewolf community considered her an enemy and it wasn't beyond the savages to try and kill her, hoping to throw suspicion on the riotous Quidditch hooligans currently in an uproar over her sensible measures against them. There was still several days before the full moon revealed who they all truly were inside though, so if any did choose to strike they'd have to do so without their fangs and claws.

She debated the merits of drawing her wand as she crept towards the door. Having the wand prepared meant she was protected should the worst happen, but it also let visitors know she had something to fear. Showing fear only encouraged your enemies to attack, and the same could be true for not having a weapon in hand. Perhaps she should demand Aurors be used to protect her from here on out, at least until the rabble was properly underfoot.

Dolores knew this was much ado about nothing; even werewolves wouldn't dare attack the Chief Warlock in her own home. It was most likely her staff anyway, running to her with some sort of emergency – though their definition of 'emergency' was more along the lines of running low on parchment than anything truly important. The fools knew not to presume the familiarity needed to floo to her directly though, if they had done that she really would have to teach them their place.

Self-preservation being more important than valor, she drew her wand and kept it low behind her. Hidden in her skirt, her wand was small and easily concealed, but if anyone did wish her harm they'd feel the business end of it right quick. She turned the nob to open the door.

A cold wind knifed through the room and dimmed the flickering candle light as the door was knocked aside. A dark shrouded figure loomed above her menacingly and thunder rolled as fear leaped within her. Dolores backed away immediately.

'D-d-d-dementors!' she thought horridly. 'Cornelius sent Dementors to kill me!'

She fell back in shock, pain radiating from where her wand hand lay crushed beneath her.

"May I come in?" the Dementor asked in a honeyed drawl as the wind whipped its cloak around it. "The weather's taking a nasty turn."

Without waiting the dark figure swept inside, lowering its hood to reveal an immaculate shock of pale-blond hair; it was Lucius Malfoy. Knowing this did nothing to quiet her pounding heart or steady her legs as she climbed back onto them. At least the man had the decency to pretend not to notice she had fallen on her wand as she stood and put it away.

"To what do I owe the pleasure, Mister Malfoy?" Dolores asked when she recovered herself enough to close the door again.

"When there are important matters of state to discuss, who better to discuss them with than our renowned Chief Warlock?" the man replied in that smarmy way of his.

"Ah, yes, of course," she said sweetly, gesturing him deeper inside. "Please, come in – but do leave your cloak by the door," she amended promptly.

Cornelius's well-trained lapdog did as he was told and she led him further into the house. Through the comfortable sitting area to the more functional and secluded dining room just off the kitchen, her stomach roiled with every step.

'The man's gall is appalling,' she fumed. 'Coming to my home to do the Minister's dirty work. They're not going to push me out. The deviants don't have the will to sustain their outrage for another week. I can outlast them.'

"Such a lovely home you have, Madam Umbridge," the sycophant said to smooth the still silence. "There's not a single item out of place."

"A well-ordered mind is the key to a well-ordered life," Dolores explained to him, doubting the man had enough in his head to even need ordering. "A well-ordered home is a reflection of it. Make yourself comfortable," she said, motioning to the rosewood table and chairs. "I'll make us a spot of tea to warm us up," she smiled.

The smile soured and slid off her face as soon as she stepped into the kitchen. A gray tabby blur fled her presence and the others slinked away. She didn't care, she had larger problems to contend with.

'The Minister never should have sent him here,' Dolores thought as she retrieved her pink porcelain tea set and arranged it on a serving tray. 'I'll have to send a message to Cornelius the Coward,' she decided as a coldly pleasant thought settled over her. 'After all, what would do more to cow the Minister into compliance than the loss of his little lapdog?'

She smiled and opened a special cabinet, one reserved for the most ignorant and indolent cats, the ones you simply couldn't train and yet weren't willful enough to fight you. Her fingers flittered over the tiny phials as she wondered which to use. Quick and painless would do the job, but slow and agonizing would give her time to tell him precisely what she thought of him.

"So what was it the Minister sent you for?" Dolores asked loudly lest the mindless man think anything amiss as she unstoppered death for him.

"Oh, I'm not here on the Minister's behalf," the man drawled unexpectedly. "I come from your supporters."

She paused the phial over his teacup.

"My supporters?" she asked curiously. "I wasn't aware I still had any."

"You can't make a defiant stand for moral virtue and not gain a measure of support, no matter what they print in the Prophet," Mister Malfoy replied.

Dolores considered things for a moment before restoppering the phial and leaving the teacup untouched. She bustled around the kitchen quickly, replacing the poison and making the tea properly. He had given her so much to think about and no time to do it in. If Lucius Malfoy wasn't doing the Minister's bidding, who was telling him what to do?

"Do you need assistance?" he asked from the other room.

"No-No, I've got it," she replied, carrying in the tray with the sweetest smile back on her face. She placed the tea on the table runner, the silver tray contrasting with the pink runner to highlight the varying shades of the rosewood and porcelain.

"I must say, my supporters have a funny way of showing their support," Dolores said, trying not to let her frustration show as she filled a cup for Mister Malfoy and then herself. "I've yet to hear a word of support, either within the Wizengamot or the Prophet," she noted, taking a seat across from him.

"And yet they're there, I assure you, both within the Wizengamot and beyond," Lucius said obsequiously as she added several spoonfuls of sugar to her tea. "With how maliciously you've been treated in the press, naturally they're reluctant to say anything in public themselves. Such harsh reforms – necessary as they are – don't match the quiet detachment many families like to present to the world," he explained in weaselly words.

"Decency and order are black and white issues, Mister Malfoy," she stated, taking a sip of tea to make him feel the weight of her words. "If you support decency but do nothing to bring it about, then you allow indecency to thrive and chaos to continue. These secretive supporters you speak of cannot truly desire a better world if they're afraid to step into the light."

Lucius smiled in what might have been an attractive way, if any of his words were his own.

"If only everyone had your boldness and nerve, Madam Umbridge," he demurred, fiddling with his cup. "Sadly, they think the time isn't quite right for such things."

"And you call these people my supporters?" Dolores asked sweetly.

"Very much so," the man reiterated. "They support your cause very dearly and fear your place in the Wizengamot is barring you from achieving truly great things. We want to help you bring them about."

Instantly she became guarded again, wary of any trick by Cornelius to get her out of office.

"What do you mean?" she asked probingly, regretting it was too late to add a little extra to the man's tea.

"Your rise to Chief Warlock was well-earned; a crowning moment for the years of dedicated service you have provided the wizarding world in keeping the corrupting influence of lesser creatures at bay," Mister Malfoy said rightfully. "It seemed only right and natural for the gavel to be in your hands – especially after having to silently suffer through decades of Dumbledore's deviancy.

"Your silent supporters were glad to give you this recognition, but feel saddened that rather than freeing you to continue your campaign uninterrupted, your elevation has shackled you," he continued on to say. "We feel we've failed you by making you answerable to the Wizengamot, the people, and – quite frankly – a Minister who doesn't deserve a Chief Warlock like you."

Dolores looked at the man across from her like he were a dog who had raised itself on its hind legs and started to speak. Had she been wrong about him all this time? It seemed unlikely, yet here they were having the most unlikely conversation. Lucius Malfoy deriding the Minister? Something had to give.

"You always seemed well disposed towards the Minister," Dolores pointed out, buying time for thought as she sipped the sweetness of her tea.

"Oh, the man is companionable enough, certainly," he said disarmingly, "and I can see how proximity can be confused for friendship. In truth, it's the ones we disagree with the most who require the most attention, and the Minister is a man who's too easily swayed by others – which is why I'm around him so often. Rarely do we find someone as constant as you. We thought you would be able to balance out and correct the Minister's worst impulses, but now we see you languishing because of him and wish to change that."

Power came with positions of authority, that was a given, but these strange people seemed to think otherwise. If forced, she would have to grudgingly admit – at least to herself – her position had given her little power to change things or authority over anything not immediately around her. She still saw this as the result of others standing in her way, like he said, so she supposed she could continue to let him speak.

"Go on," she prompted.

"We've always seen the Minister's… changeable nature as a liability, a personal failing to combat," the man reiterated, continuing to talk around the issue with flowery prose. "So many of the most influential families have never had to face public scrutiny for what we've done, the way elected members of the Wizengamot do, so we really couldn't see it any other way," Mister Malfoy explained, leaving no doubt the people he was running errands for were a group of rich old purebloods, the hereditary seat holders she'd so desperately tried to get the attention of herself. "Now, however, we've seen how it can be an asset."

"Do tell," Dolores replied, genuinely interested in how the social elites did things.

"One sudden shift in policy position is an… inconvenience," Lucius said. "Two is a growing frustration, but three – three is a pattern of behavior. Fortunately, once you control the pattern you control the behavior, and by extension–"

"–The Minister," she said swiftly, hoping to show her own shrewd sharpness, though where this was leading was still out of sight.

"The Minister," Mister Malfoy agreed. "The uproar in Diagon Alley prompted the Ministry to respond – it stationed Aurors to keep the goblins at bay and closed down the shops for safety – but then the shopkeepers complained, they gained public support, and the Minister changed course. This same thing happened with the goblins capturing the Hit Wizards and is happening now with you. The Minister is controllable," he said finally, "but only by someone who is outside the Ministry, someone who is able to draw the public to their cause in a way he can't ignore."

"And you think this person is me?" Dolores asked, her cooling tea all but forgotten.

"I do," Lucius said simply, his pale gray eyes meeting hers with a calm confidence which only comes from having your scandals well litigated and accepted by the public. "I can think of no one better. Your speech before the Wizengamot was a clarion call which shocked the world into silence until a small, vocal minority reacted violently against you to drown you out. The truth is, the wizarding world needs a brash, charismatic leader; one who's willing to speak for the downtrodden and say the harsh truths polite society won't let them say and really give them a voice for the first time in decades, and I believe that person is you."

It was like new vistas had opened before her. She could see herself speaking not to a body of blind bureaucrats belligerently refusing to budge but to two, three, ten times their number of common witches and wizards who were entranced by her words and absorbing her thoughts as if they were their own. They'd come to her a disorderly rabble and she'd turn them into an Army of Order. They'd rally, cry out, and demonstrate their discontent with deviancy until they forced the Ministry to abide by their demands – by her demands.

He was right, this could make her powerful.

A small gray shape to one side drew her back to the present. She cleared her throat with a 'Hem, hem!' making the intruding Tibbles take notice and change his mind about loitering there. Like people, cats could be trained, it just took more pain than most were willing to inflict.

Firmly grounded once again, she dispelled the wondrous image he conjured from before her eyes. She must be orderly about this and examine the situation from all sides. Simply because this was a proposition Cornelius wouldn't support in a thousand years didn't mean it wasn't still his brainchild meant to fool her. After all, even if what he was saying was true, she wouldn't know where to begin.

"You've certainly given me quite a lot to think about, Mister Malfoy," Dolores said tactfully before sipping on the last vestiges of tea and drying her lips with a napkin in a play for time. "I'll have to give it some very serious thought."

"Of course," he drawled amicably, "we understand how much we're asking of you, but we do hope to have your answer soon, for all our sakes. It isn't in our nature to be so hasty, but I'm afraid our backs are against a wall on this," the man added mysteriously. "It's come to our attention the Minister intends to lay official blame for the dragon incident and the capture of the Hit Wizards solely at your feet."

Her stomach tightened in knots. It would be just like Cornelius to try to ruin her by telling everyone she was at fault for his bungling ineptitude. If he had sent every Hit Wizard and Auror they had with her this never would have happened.

"–It's a patent lie, of course," Lucius continued when what she was feeling must have shown on her face, "but that doesn't mean the public won't believe it. You've seen how easily swayed they are, and with them already disposed to think the worst of you…"

Dolores could only imagine what people would be saying about her after this – that she ate children, no doubt.

"Naturally, we're trying to delay this tragedy as long as possible, but the Minister wants it out tomorrow, in time for a Weekend Prophet."

'Of course he would,' she thought. 'The Prophet would love to have the chance to re-run all the negative articles they've come up with about me over the last week and charge their readers again for it. These fresh allegations and biased reporting would set all the groundwork he'd need to have the Wizengamot strip me of my gavel first thing on Monday.'

"We were hoping that if we were able to delay this report until next week, it would give you the chance to claim it was politically motivated and perhaps turn things around on him," Lucius explained. "It's an obvious effort by the Minister to distract from his own culpability, but these reporters aren't savvy enough to see it without someone pointing it out – to say nothing of the public themselves.

"Once your departure is framed as you 'leaving a corrupt Ministry unwilling to change as you look forward to developing new avenues of political reform,' the Minister's attempt to discredit you will be seen as a self-serving political attack, timed to slander you when you'd be least able to respond. It'll work against him, you'll see," the man said shrewdly, subtly seeming to imply he had the means to make sure it would work out the way he said it would.

"All of this presupposes you leave your current position no later than tomorrow afternoon, however," he continued offhandedly, as if leaving the Chief Warlock's position was as casual as leaving a dinner party. "Any earlier may cause the Prophet to run a Weekend on you anyway, while waiting too late would make their rumor-mongering reporters wonder why you were slinking out the backdoor. It would fuel their worst impulses and have them give credence to the report when it does come out – which is the last thing we want."

"It's a delicate position, and it's happening very fast," Dolores said, wishing for a moment to stop and think.

"Regrettably so," Lucius pushed on to say, "but perhaps this will put your mind at ease."

From within his robe he produced a folded sheaf of parchment and passed it to her.

"Since this is all so sudden, I've taken the liberty to open a corporate account at Gringotts under your control," he explained. "We've pooled a few resources together and deposited them there. It isn't much," he said, which gave her pause when she checked the balance, "but it should be enough to help you become organized, recruit staff, and flesh out your ideas for how to appeal to the public in order to become a permanent political fixture. After all, we may be rushed, but it's no excuse not to be professional about this."

She was astonished by what she'd just been given. People had escaped a trip to Azkaban for less. Aside from its existence, she did find one thing very peculiar.

"Mothers Against Goblin Inclusionist Culture?" Dolores asked.

"A placeholder name," Lucius said offhandedly, "though representative of concerns we have for the future. With the political moves they've been making, we fear it's only a matter of time before goblins push for Wand Use, Voting Rights, the striking down of the goblin strictures, and perhaps even demanding Seats in the Wizengamot."

She pulled a face at the very thought – and wanted to say it was impossible – but with goblin greed and Cornelius's cowardice you could never know.

'As spineless as he is, he may well reverse hundreds of years of history and give them what they want if they push him hard enough,' she thought instead. 'Someone competent does need to be on hand to make sure it doesn't happen.'

"With this, we think you will be well situated to be a bulwark against such action, as you'd present yourself as what the wizarding populace thinks of such measures," he went on to say. "It's rhetorically similar to what you did in your stand for decency, without the unfortunate element which doomed it to fail."

Umbridge arched her brow at his implication of her shortsightedness.

"To be fair, we hadn't seen it coming either," Lucius said in a bid to cover his mistake, "for as you said, 'decency and order are black and white issues.' Learning from this misstep, we believe your much-needed reform failed to gain popular support because of how impossible it is to know who's Other Way unless they tell you," he went on to say as if the lack of support from her 'supporters' had no effect whatsoever.

"This social invisibility lets people imagine they know an Other Way person and thereby can be angry at you on their behalf," the man explained. "It's about the image they present to each other far more than the issue itself. As such, we believe this phony animosity you're facing will melt away once word of your departure is known, leaving only the Other Way people with any lasting negativity towards you, and they're precisely the kind of people who are used to hiding and not making a fuss," Mister Malfoy smiled, as if he'd put all his effort into thinking of this himself.

"To that end, the goblins, being noticeably very different and socially isolated in their bank, makes for a better target for legislation because they illicit no such sympathy. The other issues we want the public to support can be slipped in later once they already agree with us on this larger issue," he concluded.

"You seem to have thought of everything, apart from how I'm not married and have never had children," Dolores said offhandedly to take power away from him in the conversation. "But as you said, it's just a name. I can always change it or widen the scope of who I appeal to," she told Lucius, who suddenly didn't look so pleased, though he tried to hide it. "Why women though – why mothers?"

"The pattern we hope you can make use of suggests segments of society who have been previously overlooked can make the biggest impact when they unexpectedly come forward to voice their complaints as a group," he replied without a change in his tone to tell if he had slid into a subservient role or not. "It seems to make the Minister, or perhaps politicians in general, doubt the way society is structured – as if the ground is shifting beneath their feet. Appealing to mothers – or women in general, if you prefer – gives you an inroad into virtually every magical home, where every mother would be your mouthpiece at the dinner table."

"It would certainly be better than relying on the Prophet," she mused out loud.

"They do seem stubbornly resistant to pushing people's politics in the right direction when there's a more sensationalist way to tell the story," Mister Malfoy remarked, trying to worm his way into her good graces by being agreeable. "I don't think there's much that would change them aside from an official propaganda campaign by the Ministry filling their coffers, and Merlin help us if the Minister ever thinks of that," he continued, raising that horrifying idea.

'Telling people what to think should really be left to those who know what they're doing,' Dolores decided.

"Still, we have some hope we can persuade them to cover your departure not as a victory for any one side but more along the lines of 'we'll never truly know what happened, so no one can really claim credit,'" he said as if her resignation was already assured.

"If I do decide to take this offer, I expect to be in charge," she said forcefully, to make her intentions clear. If the offer was genuine she might have to work with them, but she wasn't going to be chained to their will.

"Most certainly," Lucius agreed in sycophantic fashion. "We may wish to meet to discuss strategy and pass along the latest on what's happening in the Ministry, so we can all be on the same page, but the organization is yours to run as you see fit."

Though he readily agreed, and such information would be useful, Dolores couldn't help feeling like she was being fitted for a collar and leash. If he thought she'd let him weasel his way into dictating what she did he had another thing coming. She'd gladly take the money, but she was not going to be beholden to him.

"We'll have to do this again," she declared in response, smiling as she rose from her seat.

"Agreed," Lucius said, rising with her and finally taking the hint he should leave. "I've taken enough of your time, but must say, it's been a pleasure getting to know you better," he added in the same manner cats had when they thought rubbing up on you would be enough to get you on their side.

"And you," she said by rote, knowing full well neither of them had come to know more about the other in the slightest. If anything, the man was more of an enigma than ever. "Here, I'll walk you out," she said sweetly with a gesture for him to proceed her, before seeing him to the door.

When he was gone, Dolores returned to the dining room to examine the corporate document once again. So much of what happened next relied on who Lucius Malfoy truly was, and there were no easy answers to that.

'This could be a dagger to the heart of any conspiracy Cornelius cooked up,' she thought as she considered what to do. 'Going to the D.M.L.E. with it could see an inquiry launched, which would lead to a scandal and possible bribery charges for Lucius and Cornelius – though he was careful not to frame it that way. Still, there could be possible corruption charges if the Minister stonewalled the investigation or pardoned Mister Malfoy for taking all the blame upon himself,' she smiled and tapped the folded document against her hand.

'It would certainly take the Prophet's attention off me,' Dolores mused, 'but Bones wants me gone, so any investigation would be unfavorable towards me, quiet, and slow going. If I'm to remain in my position and gain control of the Wizengamot, I'd prefer it be a quick and loud rush to judgement. Perhaps I could turn the Minister's scheme back on him and slip the information to the Prophet to make sure it gains public attention – and they could do a full Weekend on it if I get my suspicions to them tomorrow.

'Any attack on me then would be seen as retaliation,' she concluded. 'I'd go from villain to victim in an instant, confirming everything I said about them in the public's eyes. It should be easy to sniffle a few tears and convince them I'd been set up.'

"It w-was the Minister who w-wanted me to p-propose the Other Way l-legislation," Dolores bogusly blubbered. "He m-made me h-hated and now he w-wants me gone. I n-never knew he was s-such a v-villain."

With Cornelius on the defensive and his allies backing away lest they be dragged down too, it'd be the perfect opportunity for her to get them on her side. With enough of them, they should be able to elbow him aside and make him resign, and then she could scheme a way of getting a Minister who knew their proper place. It could work, but only if Lucius really was working on the Minister's behalf and there was evidence to confirm it.

If she was wrong, if there really was a secretive group of hereditary houses working to combat the Minister's worst impulses, then trying to use the offer as a weapon against Cornelius would only ruin her instead. Her allegations in the Prophet would make her look like a raving lunatic when the D.M.L.E. investigates and only finds Lucius's quiet lobbying work. She'd not only destroy their attempt to control the Minister – both through Lucius and their proposed outside-the-Ministry group – but she'd prove she couldn't be trusted, so she'd have no support when Cornelius laid blame for Diagon Alley and the Hit Wizard capture at her feet.

She'd be thrown out of office within a week, even without the Other Way uproar.

If this was a trick of the Minister's, the carrot-and-stick approach was well devised. With her profile now so large, no allies to rely on, and the report being released so soon there'd be no chance for her to find someone to snoop around and see if there was any truth to the claim at all. Also, he'd have to know she had no inroads with the pureblood sector of society to see if there was a group to offer her anything in the first place.

She paced the room, trying to find something she could do to determine the truth. Idly tapping the corporate documents against her palm, it took her a moment to realize what she had in her hands.

'If this is a trick, there's no way Cornelius put money in this account,' Dolores concluded. 'He'd find it deliciously devious to get me to quit over the promise of an influential position or a fat payday only to be left without money or position. On the other hand,' she countered, 'if the offer is legitimate, there'll be money in it, the account will be in my name, as he said, and – unless they were being very secretive – there will be a record of anyone who deposited into it.'

If she immediately sent an owl to the bank for an appointment first thing in the morning, there's no reason she wouldn't be able to–

A warm, furry brush against her leg made her look down to see Tibbles rubbing against her.

"Did you finally decide it was best to play nice?" she asked the tabby sweetly, to which she received purrs in return. "I won't pretend to believe you're so easily tamed, but you should get something for good behavior," Dolores told him before bending over to place Lucius's still-full teacup by him and giving him a pat on the head.

"You will still be punished if you continue to break the rules, but you may enjoy this for now. Mummy's got to work; no intruding," she said warningly as the cat sniffed wearily at the tea, before she turned to go back to her home office.

However it ended, Dolores supposed it was a good thing she hadn't poisoned the other teacup. Mister Malfoy hadn't had a drink from it anyway.

.o0O0o.

Their relationship was beyond taboo, but they couldn't stay away from each other.

They could never meet in public, but they shouldn't be meeting in private either.

He was married, she was single. He the distinguished scion of a wealthy pureblood line, she the product of poor and muddled ancestry. He dined with those who shaped society, she lingered on the edges looking for scraps.

A single glance at her workplace was all it took to tell her he'd be visiting once the curtains were drawn, though tonight's came from a beseeching look from her. He greeted her with wine, she greeted him with a smile. At times it seemed he brought too much, he was overflowing with it, and desperate for release. She always loved what he gave her, she could never get enough.

It all made for such wonderful reporting.

Whoever thought Lucius Malfoy would be such a proficient gossip?

"Gossip?" the aristocratically handsome man asked. "Come now, Rita, you know me better than that."

"A slip of the tongue," she said sweetly, content to dance around what they were doing as long as he provided the goods. He was a shameless gossip, the secret source of many of her best stories, he just didn't like to acknowledge what they were doing. He seemed to find it a guilty pleasure unbefitting his station, and more than a little unmanly. He preferred to see himself as–

"You're just a social person, and a conscientious investor," Rita said instead, changing her tune to sing his praises the way he liked. "It's only natural you're at the Ministry every other day. And if – by chance – you just happen to overhear things…"

"–The only responsible thing to do would be to inform the public through my good friends at the Daily Prophet," he finished for her, though 'good friends' meant little more than 'people I make money with' in this regard, which were friends of a sort, she supposed.

"Good friends don't have to all-but beg their friends to come over when news this big drops," she slyly chided him in the playful way they had. "You were at the Prophet speaking with Cuffe well before the news broke. Somehow you knew she would resign today," she pushed, gesturing with her wine glass.

"Oh, I knew nothing," Lucius evaded, playing the slippery fish who liked to be caught. "I simply heard she might be resigning today – though why she would changes from person to person. What have you heard about it?" he asked teasingly, always wanting to hear her side of the gossip first.

"Very little," Rita replied, "being so late in the afternoon, there was little to be found since most people had already left."

"Her departure does seem a bit conveniently timed, doesn't it?"

"She avoided having another Weekend Prophet about her – which is most inconvenient for me," she said a little crossly. "They're quite the little money spinner, with the bonus we get from them."

"Giving bonuses for a month straight may be a bit hard to justify when your main story is so hard to pin down," he remarked, all but confirming he'd used his rumor-gathering skills to augment his 'investor concerns' to put a stop to the practice this time around because of the expense. Lucius may have an addiction to gossip but he liked a full coin purse more. "I may have something to help with that," he said to make up for it, "but do go on."

"Well, what's left to say but the old 'he said, she said'?" Rita asked with a shrug. "One story says she left because she'd never be able to do the job. The other story is Fudge was trying to force her out, presumably to make the Quidditch folk happy."

"That's certainly the tamer parts of what I've heard," Lucius said nonchalantly. "But did she really go so quietly?" he teased. "There seems to be a bit of disagreement on that."

"So go on and dish," she said, finally breaking down. "Tell me what you heard."

"The more polished form of 'the toad left on her own' story involves her going off to pursue 'outside political interests' – though Merlin alone knows what that's supposed to mean," he said derisively. "She still seems to have some supporters running interference for her, because she'd never be able to come up with something like that on her own. I think most will simply be glad she's gone."

"For such a horrible person, she was so good for business," Rita smiled. "Now I actually might have to try to find bad things to say about people. It's so much easier when they don't try to hide it."

"I'm sure you'll come up with something," Lucius said supportively. "You always do."

He sipped his wine before returning to the gossip at hand.

"When it comes to the Minister forcing her out, I really don't think there's anything there," he said depressingly, ruining what could have been a wonderful article. "There are some around Fudge saying he demanded her resignation, and she relented, but Dolores Umbridge isn't the type to relent. He did seem happier as things got worse for her – and was cagey about something – so I wouldn't put it past him to have been readying a political attack on her to make it worse, but what's the point of doing so now?"

"He could try to make himself look better by beating up on someone everyone already hates," she pointed out.

"I suppose," Lucius said dismissively. "If he does have something he'll probably still use it – and it's not like you'll have to keep a sharp eye out for it. Neither are particularly known for their subtlety," he smiled.

Like a buzzing little bee, something tugged at the back of her mind; something he'd said from earlier. He often liked to bury hints in passing and then distract with something else. She thought he did it as a kind of weird reward for playing his little game, and she wasn't the Daily Prophet's best reporter for nothing.

"You said Umbridge didn't go quietly," Rita said, grabbing at the prize he'd tried to hide.

"Did I?" he teased.

"You said there was 'disagreement' about her going quietly," she reminded him, "which means some are saying they had a fight. This makes me wonder what they were fighting about that'd anger them so much they couldn't stand to work together anymore."

Her sharp mind instantly skipped past the well-known public outrage to land on the most scandalous thing it could possibly be.

The Minister of Magic was having an affair. The Minister's Mistress was his own Senior Undersecretary. The Minister had his Mistress elected as Chief Warlock. The Minister's years-long illicit tryst turned foul due to the woman's blatant bigotry and his public lack of support. The Minister and his 'Chief Mistress' split after a fractious row – right in the Minister's office itself!

They would sell so many papers with this.

"They weren't… 'having relations,' were they?" Rita asked, eagerly looking for even the faintest hint of a confirmation.

Lucius laughed.

"Have you seen Dolores Umbridge?" he asked incredulously. "No, no, it's nothing that interesting. The truth is always more mundane, and what I heard certainly sounds boring enough to be true – while also being laughably ludicrous in its own right. Apparently, she thought she could save her job by attacking the Quidditch teams and turning their own fans against them."

"Has she ever been to a Quidditch game?" Rita asked incredulously herself. "Those diehard fans are absolute in their devotion to their chosen team and half the games end with a violent row between rival supporters. A centaur will be Minister of Magic before they fight their own teams."

"That's what I thought too, but you never know," Lucius teased, sipping his drink as he slowly divulged what he knew. "Everyone has skeletons in their closet," he hinted, "even entire Quidditch leagues, and the Minister was supposedly so terrified of the idea it led to a shouting match and Dolores's furious resignation when he refused go along with it."

"With teams already threatening to leave the country, I can see why he'd be terrified of angering them further," she smirked, still favoring the idea of a Fudge/Umbridge tryst. "Who wants to be known as the Minister who killed Quidditch by driving teams away?"

"Oh, it goes far beyond losing a few teams, if what I heard was true," the man said, savoring the sweet morsel before deciding to share. "From what that clerk of hers, Carter, said–"

"–Carter?" Rita interrupted, "I'm not familiar with him."

"Oh, I'm sure you know the one," he said with a wave. "He was Dumbledore's man before Umbridge, the one with the awful mustache."

She wasn't sure she did know him, but it'd be enough to find him either way. It also gave her a thought.

"Now when you say 'Dumbledore's man'…," Rita said suggestively, only to falter at the look Lucius gave her.

"Is that all you think about?" he asked disapprovingly, far from the confiding gossip he was a moment ago. "Here I am handing you a story about a threat to destroy the entire Quidditch league, and you want to throw it away for some tawdry Other Way allegations you made up about someone you hardly recognize?"

"Clandestine relations between politicians and staff has always been fodder for the news," she replied, hoping to keep the man mollified.

"When proven true," Mister Malfoy said determinedly. "The last thing the Prophet needs is spurious Other Way and adultery accusations ruining its reputation – and I'm sure Mister Cuffe would say the same."

Rita doubted it very much, but there were other outlets for such stories. Witch Weekly might be interested in them instead. Well, not the Other Way one but Fudge and Umbridge could net her quite a bit for appearing on its pages.

"You're quite right," she said hurriedly instead, hoping to salvage the mutually-beneficial relationship – not to mention keep her job. "It's a bad reporter's habit," she lied apologetically. "We're always trying to find ways for all the pieces go together – Thank you for keeping me focused on what's important," she added before the prudish fellow could wonder if the 'pieces going together' bit was another Other Way reference.

"Now what was it this clerk of hers was saying?" Rita asked sweetly, already scheming a way to find this mustachioed fellow just in case things didn't go well. After all, if she heard the same straight from him, it counted as confirmation in her book.

.o0O0o.

AN: This chapter was by far the most frustrating one I've ever written – and it had nothing to do with Covid-19, though the virus didn't help.

I typically get started by letting the big events in the chapter gradually come to mind and separate themselves into their own scenes. This process lets me get a feel for whose POV we're seeing things in and piece together the course of events are that brings it about. There are hiccups occasionally; some events need to be altered or removed because they just don't fit with the characters, tone, or flow of the scene, and sometimes everything comes out wrong and the entire POV needs to be changed.

With this chapter, everything that could go wrong, did go wrong. The timing stayed vague in my head, making me have to nail down the dates myself – something I had to go back and revise with almost every single scene which followed, which led to some events being pushed back or moved forward, scenes I already had planned being split, new scenes being created, and that's on top of one scene having their entire POV flipped (the Rita scene was originally in Lucius's POV, which just did not work at all).

As I told Gandalf's Beard when I was venting to him about it: "...it's like my usual Muse took a sabbatical and the ditsy and disorganized Junior Muse has been having to fill in, and it keeps forgetting to tell me things until it suddenly springs to their mind and they go, 'Oh! I forgot to tell you this. Let's back up a bit...'"

If it weren't for the Harry scenes – which were the last ones to be written – this chapter may have taken me the whole year to write (not least because I wanted to get through two weeks of in-story time when I started this). Those two scenes ended up changing the entire tone and emphasis of the chapter in ways I hadn't seen coming, and I'm glad they did. They made it thematically easier to put everything together, to the point where I found I'd reached a natural end point with something I'd already written (usually those come last, but not this time lol).

I'm just glad it's done, after seven months of wrestling with all that, I just had to get it out of my head. I'm going to go decompress a bit and see if I can get rid of this seven month long headache.

As always, thanks for reading.