Disclaimer: Everything belongs to J.K.R.
AN: Many thanks to my fantastic beta Federer Rex ((formerly known as aussigh) for editing this chapter.
The next morning Daphne acted as always, although a small crease between her eyebrows showed she still wasn't feeling well.
When Harry got ready to leave for the Wizengamot meeting that afternoon, she'd settled down on the sofa again, a hot water bottle on her tummy, and the research material for her Arithmancy homework in easy reach piled on the coffee table and the backrest of the sofa.
'Looks like you have a busy afternoon planned.' Harry bent over the backrest to kiss her goodbye.
She smiled up at him. 'Yeah, this assignment's a nightmare, I'll be at it all afternoon, and probably after dinner too. I think I'll pass on dinner today and will just ask Breezy to bring me a sandwich. I want to get this finished.' She gave the parchment in front of her a playful slap with the back of her hand.
'You too.' She blew him a kiss and waved as he left their apartment.
She was already sound asleep when he returned after another long session, well after midnight.
They both were sleep-deprived and slow on Thursday morning, walked to the Great Hall for breakfast at a snail's pace and sat down in their usual places at the Hufflepuff table. Their friends greeted them, took one look into their tired faces, and left them alone.
They didn't talk until they'd both had a cup of strong coffee instead of their usual tea, they needed the instant kick today.
'When did you get back?' Daphne asked, stifling a yawn, and poured herself a second cup.
Harry held his cup out to her. 'Around two, I think. You were unconscious and didn't so much as stir when I crawled into bed.'
She grimaced while she filled his cup. 'I wasn't that far ahead of you, I know it was after one. I was out like a light as soon as my head touched the pillow.'
'Did you finish your Arithmancy homework?' He gave her a silent toast in thanks with his cup and took a sip. The warm fragrance hit his nostrils, and his little grey cells seemed to pop awake like in a chain reaction.
Her face brightened. 'Yeah, thank Merlin. I want to look up one or two things in the library today, and then I'll hand it in on Monday. I think it's good enough for an O.'
'I should think so, with the amount of work you put in. You are bright and disciplined, the best combination. I wish I was like that.'
'You're not doing so badly for yourself. At least this year you're applying yourself. Although I have to agree you didn't apply yourself that often. You have no idea how many times I wanted to give you a kick for motivation.'
He grinned at her over the rim of his cup. 'So you already noticed me back then, eh?'
'You wish!' She huffed, although her cheeks pinked, and the corners of her mouth curved upwards in amusement. 'However, nothing will stop me from calling you on it now. So get going, or we will be late for class.'
'Yes, ma'am!' He saluted with his free hand and put the coffee cup down with the other hand. 'Slave driver!' He got up from the table.
She threw him a saucy grin over her shoulder. 'Yes, and it turns you on.'
Heat shot to his face, although he didn't deny it as he joined in the laughter of their friends.
'Please, hand in your essays today,' Professor Flitwick said at the beginning of their double Charms lesson on Friday morning.
Daphne bent down to pull her assignment out of her backpack. The moment her hand touched the roll of parchment, her face scrunched up in a grimace. The reason became apparent as soon as she pulled the parchment out of the backpack: the scroll dripped with black ink, the ink covered the palm of Daphne's hand, and thick drops dripped on the flat of the table she shared with Harry.
She gaped at the soaked parchment in her hand. 'How could this have happened?'
Harry bent down, picked up her backpack and peered inside. 'All your extra ink pots are broken.' He pulled his head back and put the backpack on the ground. 'I thought you put Unbreakable Charms on them.'
'I did, I even recast them every other day to be on the safe side. I don't know how this could happen.'
A jolt went through her body. She paled, bent down, and snatched up her backpack. 'All my completed assignments for next week are in there, and my research for Potions and Herbology, too!' She thrust her hand into the backpack.
Harry grabbed her arm just in time. 'Be careful, Daphne, or you'll cut yourself on the broken glass.'
She nodded and rummaged through the backpack with much more caution. At last, she pulled about half a dozen rolls of parchment out of her bag. They were all soaked. Her face became paler by the second as she unrolled the parchment and spread them out on the table. Each one was saturated with black ink. The words, written in Daphne's small, neat hand, were barely visible.
She lowered her head until her face was partly hidden by her hair and bit her lip.
Harry put his hand on her ink-stained one. 'I'm sorry, love.'
'Every single one of my essays are destroyed,' she whispered.
Her voice was so low he had to bend his head towards her to understand her, and it was choked as if she had a cold.
'My Charms Essay for today, my Transfiguration Essay for Monday, and of course the Arithmancy homework.' She raised her head and looked at him. Her cheeks were flushed, and her eyes had an unnatural brightness. 'This is a nightmare! Even my first drafts for Potions and Herbology are only fit for the bin.'
'What about your essays, Mr and Mrs Potter?'
They'd been so absorbed they hadn't noticed Professor Flitwick standing next to their table.
Harry handed him his essay with a small grimace and said, 'Daphne's essay had a fatal accident, I'm afraid.' He motioned towards the soggy mess on their table.
Something that sounded like a rather watery snort came from Daphne.
Professor Flitwick looked at the mess on their table. 'Oh dear, yes, I saw it!' He pulled out his wand and cast a silent spell on the sheets of parchment.
The black splotches of ink turned infinitesimal brighter, although maybe that was wishful thinking.
'I'm afraid you're right, Mr Potter, these essays are beyond help.' He stashed away his wand and gave Daphne a kind smile. 'Hand in your essay on Monday.'
'Thank you, professor,' she said, a forced smile on her face.
Professor Flitwick patted her arm in a consoling gesture and turned to Lisa and Terry.
Daphne's shoulders slumped. She stared at her destroyed essays for a long moment, then pulled herself together, squared her shoulders and vanished the mess with a wave of her wand. Despite that, she was rather quiet throughout the rest of the double Charms period.
Harry also had problems concentrating as he thought of Daphne's accident. Daphne was a strong and competent witch, on top of that she was well organised. There was no way her Unbreakable Charms on her extra ink pots had been sloppy, or that she'd forgotten to re-cast them when they were about to wear off. One or two, maybe, but not them all. That taken into consideration, there was only one explanation for what had happened: the prankster struck again. However, was this latest "prank" the confirmation that he or she was out to get Daphne?
He scrubbed his face with both palms while he pretended to listen to Professor Flitwick. This was just what they needed on top of everything else. So far, the school year had been a nightmare, and the first term was barely half over. He let out a silent laugh. When had he ever had a school year that had been nice and easy? However, he'd better talk to the other prefects if there had been more "pranks" on other students. His mind made up, he turned his attention to Professor Flitwick.
Yet back in his mind the thought repeated that these attacks were aimed at Daphne only.
Neither Harry nor Daphne had any classes on Friday afternoon. Mindful of the workload ahead of her, Daphne skipped lunch in the Great Hall and went straight to their apartment to redo her destroyed essays. She didn't even change out of her school uniform, as was her habit. Instead, she called for Breezy, asked her to bring a few sandwiches along with some pumpkin juice for Harry and herself, and buckled down to work before Breezy had returned, her face a tense mask of concentration.
Her head snapped up. 'What?' Her voice sounded irritated, and she frowned at him.
Harry's shoulders slumped. 'Nothing.'
She grumbled and returned to her work.
Harry walked into their bedroom to get rid of the bulky school robes and the uncomfortable tie. He let out a deep breath as soon as the door closed behind them. He'd known that Daphne was ambitious, her plans for her education after Hogwarts were a testament to that, and she was a Slytherin, after all. He'd also known that she was at the top of their class, better than Hermione, actually. So far, she'd made it look easy. She seemed to study no more than he did, in contrast to Hermione, who wouldn't give up on her study time without a fight.
Today was the first time he'd seen her freaking over schoolwork, and without a good reason in his opinion. The professors weren't unreasonable. Each of them would have given her an extension, had she explained what had happened to her.
He let out a mirthless laugh. Maybe he had rubbed off on her, and she was too proud and stubborn to ask.
He returned to their living room, now wearing a comfortable pair of jeans and a woollen sweater, in time with Breezy putting a plate of sandwiches and a goblet of pumpkin juice in front of Daphne, who was so engrossed into her Charms textbook that she didn't notice.
His lunch stood on the coffee table already. He sat down and mouthed a silent thank you at the elf. Breezy beamed at him in return and popped away without a sound.
He picked up a sandwich from the plate in front of him. The moment he bit into it, Miss Bennett jumped onto the sofa and rubbed her head against his arm. He patted the Kneazle with his free hand. 'Are you hoping for a bite of my tuna sandwich? Sorry to disappoint you, Lizzie, but mayonnaise isn't good for you.'
The Kneazle let out a low meow and curled up into a ball beside him. Harry scratched the animal between its ears. Lizzie was almost grown up by now, not much longer, and they'd have to worry about tomcats besieging their apartment.
Thinking of tomcats… He looked around. Usually, Crookshanks kept Lizzie company while they were away. Today there was no speck of orange fur to be seen. 'Where's your suitor, hm?'
Miss Bennett gave him an unfathomable look, closed her eyes, and purred.
Harry chuckled and continued his lunch to the scratching from Daphne's quill and the soft purring of the animal beside him.
As soon as he had finished his lunch, he also got to work. Professor Flitwick as well as Hestia both had assigned them new essays to hand in on Monday. Harry read through the assignments and sighed. Both required a lot of additional research.
Daphne raised her head, her quill poised over the sheet of parchment in front of her. 'Are you working on the essays we got today?'
'Yeah.' He nodded. 'Both are bloody difficult. I guess I'll have to go to the library for some extra research.'
Daphne made a face and sighed. 'I have no idea how I am going to find the time for this on top of everything else we are doing this weekend. With the cardboard tournament for the younger years, I can write off tomorrow afternoon.'
'Don't worry about that.' He stood up from his chair, walked around their desks and gave her a small kiss on the crown of her head. 'The prefects and I will manage without you, and you can use my research notes.'
'I knew there was a reason why I love you.' She blew him a kiss.
'And here I thought you fell for my extraordinary good looks.'
She snorted. 'Aren't we full of ourselves today?' She made a shooing gesture with her hand. 'Get going; I've got work to do.'
'Yes, dear.' He gave her another peck, this time on the cheek, and left their apartment.
Each table in the library seemed to be occupied when Harry arrived a few minutes later. He took his time to select the books he'd need for his assignments. There weren't many to choose from. He made a face, it seemed as if Hermione had beaten him to the library.
He took the small stack and wandered deeper into the library. Very few students knew of the quiet study area in the backmost corner of the library. Hermione, of course, had found it in their first year.
He'd been right. She sat at one of the tables, hunched over a sheet of parchment, and scribbled at a pace that made his fingers cramp just from watching her. Ernie and Morag sat at a table opposite her, also lost in their work. Between the three of them sat a tall stack of books: the missing reference books, if he wasn't mistaken.
Three heads got up when he pulled out a chair for himself beside Hermione with a small greeting, smiled at him, and returned to their work. He pulled parchment, inkpot and quills out of his backpack and reached for the first book on the stack.
Almost three hours later he had finished his research; it had taken him much longer than usual, for Daphne's sake he'd taken extra detailed and careful notes.
Ernie and Morag also seemed to be ready to call it a day, they packed up when he did. Hermione gave him a short wave and was lost to her book again the next minute.
Daphne had finished her Charms essay and was working on rewriting her Transfiguration essay when he returned to their apartment. Mindful not to disturb her, he pulled his notes for the two new essays due on Monday out of his backpack, duplicated them with a silent Gemino spell, and pushed one rather thick stack towards Daphne.
She raised her head, thanked him with a quick smile, and was lost in her work yet again.
Harry also got to work. An hour and a half later, the first draft of his Defence essay was finished, and a somewhat light feeling in his head reminded him it was time to think of dinner. He leaned back in his seat and stretched his arms over his head.
'Do you want to go to the Great Hall for dinner?' he asked his wife.
She shook her head without a word, her eyes fixed on the book in front of her, while she wrote what seemed to be the last five inches of the required two feet and six inches. 'I'd like to get this finished, grab a sandwich, and then start with Arithmancy.'
'Don't you think you're pushing yourself too hard today, love? You're done with Charms, and there'll be enough time for Arithmancy and the homework we got today tomorrow and on Sunday.'
Her head jerked up. 'Don't patronise me, Harry.' Her eyes blazed and her tone matched the harsh words.
He started, never before in their short marriage had she raised her voice to him. That prank had done a number on her. She was stressed beyond reason.
He held up his hands in a placating gesture. 'Don't bite my head off! I was just worried about you, I thought that was my job.'
Her gaze softened, colour crept into her cheeks, and she bit her lips. 'I'm sorry, love. It's just… It's too much, you know? It seems to me we haven't had a single quiet moment since we came back to Hogwarts. There is Hermione and her unreasonable behaviour, Finnegan is still glaring daggers at me whenever I come across him, I feel like I'm drowning in school work and head girl duties, and then there are the attacks on you. I know it's a small thing, and I probably sound really petty, put this on top of everything…' Her voice trailed off. She indicated with her hand towards the essay in front of her and shook her head.
'It's the straw that broke the camel's back, isn't it?'
She nodded once more, her gaze not meeting his.
Harry got up, walked around their desks, and gathered her in his arms. 'It's alright, love, you're allowed to blow off some steam. You told me you have always had problems handling stress, remember? However, this just confirms what I said, you'll need to take a break, or you'll burn out.'
She slumped against him with a small sigh. 'I hate to admit it, but you're right.'
'Can I have that in writing?' He smirked, then grunted as she jabbed him in the ribs.
'Abusive woman!' He dropped a kiss into her hair. 'Get your Transfiguration essay finished and then call it a day. That's an order, Mrs Potter. I'll go to the kitchen and see what I can whip up for dinner, and then it's a relaxed evening in front of the fireplace, just the two of us, and no more thinking about homework or anything else.'
They spent the evening as he had suggested; Daphne fell asleep on him on the sofa before their usual bedtime, a sure sign of how stressed out she was.
To save time for Daphne, they had breakfast in their apartment on Saturday morning.
Harry pulled the Daily Prophet out of the Banishing Box and unfolded it. 'Let's see what nonsense Skeeter has written today.' His eyes perused the front page. The next moment, he gasped.
Daphne raised her head from the toast she was buttering. 'What is it?'
'Skeeter's been fired.'
She had a point there. It was hard to believe the Daily Prophet got rid of the goose that had provided the golden eggs for that rag of a newspaper for many years. He scanned the small article on the front page. 'It says here her contract has been terminated in mutual consent due to a difference of opinion.' He looked at Daphne over the rim of the newspaper. 'Do you think the verdict against the Prophet had something to do with that?'
'You bet.' She scrunched her nose. 'You would think Skeeter had learned her lesson during the year Hermione forced her to stay out of your business. By the success of her interview with you, she should have learned that good reporting and financial success aren't contradictions, yet she returned to her old ways as soon as she was off the hook. Now the Prophet has to pay for that. Cuffe is a businessman first and foremost, he might have threatened you in court, but now that he's lost he'll cave in and bow to the verdict so that the Prophet won't lose even more gold. The compensation they have to pay out for their last infringement is pretty steep, after all. If Skeeter was unrepentant and refused to change her ways, he'd get rid of her as soon as possible. By the looks of it, that's what happened.'
'You're probably right.' Harry closed the newspaper and put it beside his plate. 'Isn't "mutual termination of her contract because of different goals" a euphemism for that they fought like cats and dogs?'
Daphne snorted. 'Most likely.'
He joined her laughter, but behind the careless front he presented to his wife his thoughts raced. This was the second time Skeeter had lost her job because of her actions against him. Only, she wouldn't see it that way, she'd hold him responsible. She was a spiteful bitch, so it was only a question of when she would exact her revenge, not if.
He cast a surreptitious glance at his wife. She spread jam on her toast and didn't look concerned at all. He took a deep breath; that was good. The last thing he wanted was Daphne stressing about having yet another problem on their hands.
He probably shouldn't waste any of his precious energy on worrying about Skeeter, either. Merlin knew there were too many other things in his life he also had to take care of. He drained his cup of tea and got up from the breakfast table. He had two essays to tackle and a hoard of young teens to entertain this afternoon, so he'd better get going.
The weekend passed by in a blur. It seemed to Harry as if he hadn't had any free time to relax at all when he sat down for breakfast at the Hufflepuff table on Monday morning. Why Finnegan, that git, still hadn't got over his grudge against anything Slytherin was beyond him, but as long as he decided to be unreasonable he chose not to sit at the table of his own house. Daphne didn't deserve to be bad mouthed by that idiot.
His mood brightened when Luna slipped into the seat on his other side. 'Luna! How are you? It's been ages since we talked.'
She gave him her serene smile. 'Since the Wrackspurts left you, you're not a very interesting subject of study anymore, Harry.'
Beside him, Daphne snickered.
He flung his hand to his heart. 'You wound me, dearest Luna.'
'I'm not the one who has the power to do so,' she said, and her eyes flickered to Daphne. 'Stop making silly comments, Harry, I have something serious to talk about.'
Her serene smile didn't falter despite her sombre words, yet there was something in her expression that had his stomach drop.
He leaned towards her and lowered his voice. 'What's troubling you, Luna?'
'Daddy wrote me a letter. He offered Skeeter a job at the Quibbler, he thinks he owes her that because of the success of her interview with you a couple of years ago. Skeeter told him she had better things to do than writing for daddy's rag, as she called it. She is not a nice woman, I am afraid.'
'I'm sorry, Luna.' His response came automatically, while his mind already pondered the reasons why Skeeter might have refused Xenophilius' offer. She had just lost her job, and there weren't that many newspapers and magazines in magical Britain. You would've thought she'd jump on the offer of a new job. That she didn't, left him with more than a slight feeling of uneasiness that refused to go away as the week passed.
During the weekly prefect's meeting, he raised the topic of the mean pranks played on Daphne. 'I got complaints from a student that they have been the target of rather mean and destructive pranks.'
Daphne tensed, and she shot him a warning glance across the table. As if he'd be so dumb as to tell the prefects she was the target of the pranks, after all, he knew first hand what a well-oiled machine Hogwarts' gossip mill was, and he wouldn't submit Daphne to that and give the prankster a hint he was after them.
He described to the prefects what had happened to Daphne, the broken bag included. 'Has anyone heard of other students being the victims of pranks like that?'
There was a general shaking of heads and murmurs of denial around the table.
Harry sighed, the reaction of the prefects confirmed his fears: someone was out to get Daphne, and there was probably more to come. He'd better come up with a plan to draw out the prankster soon.
A letter he got from Gordon on Saturday morning did nothing to brighten his mood. They had skipped breakfast in the Great Hall for the quietness of their apartment and lingered at the table over a last cup of tea and the morning mail.
I talked to Trude Herr the other day, Gordon wrote. Going by the rumours she has heard, Rita Skeeter blames you for her job loss and has sworn revenge. There are also rumours that despite the termination of her contract with the Daily Prophet, Skeeter is about to strike a big bargain.
He made a face. To what was Skeeter up to now?
'What did Uncle Gordon write?' Daphne asked across the breakfast table.
Damn! Daphne was the last person he wanted to tell about Gordon's warning, she'd worry even more, and she already worked herself up about things more than she should. Yet, he'd promised not to shelter her.
Without a word, he handed the letter to her.
Daphne read the letter with an unmoved face. 'Well, this was to be expected, wasn't it?' she said and gave the letter back to him.
Harry gave her a surreptitious glance as he took the letter and banished it to the file where he kept his correspondence with Gordon. You had to know her as well as he did to notice the tenseness in her jaw and in her shoulders that hadn't been there before she read the letter. Damn that Skeeter! Aloud he said, 'We'll deal with her together if she tries anything.'
That got him a smile from his wife, and some tenseness in her posture eased.
Harry breathed with relief and picked up the next letter in the Banishing Box. It was from Robards. Merlin give, he had some good news for them, they needed some for a change.
He scanned Robards' letter, and his stomach hardened more with each line he read. That was worse than he'd expected.
'Bad news?' Daphne watched him across the table, her brows knitted in a slight frown.
Harry sighed, there was no way to keep the results of Robards' investigations from her, she'd find out sooner or later, so she'd better hear it from him, or she'd be angry at him on top of everything else. If only it wasn't so difficult not to want to shelter her from more bad news, being open with her went against his overwhelming instinct to protect her. Yet, there was no way around that.
'Yeah.' He rubbed his face with one hand. 'Robards got the results of the blood tests on the students.'
'Quite a number of students have traces of the same potion like the one that had been used on Richard Sprout. Tori and Gideon were among them.'
Daphne's face went pale, she slumped back in her chair, her mouth opened, but no sound got out.
Harry jumped up and crossed the small distance towards his wife with two long strides and gathered her in his arms.
'Do you think Tori and Gideon are behind the attacks on you?' she whispered into his chest.
'I don't think so.'
She leaned back and looked up at him. 'Why? They had the potion in their system.'
'So had half a dozen other students, some of them who are well accounted for both attacks on me, and others who are not. Don't forget that they are the victims here, sweetheart. Someone gave them the potion to turn them into potentially lethal weapons they can use against me. That doesn't necessarily mean they were the ones used during those two attacks.'
Daphne pushed her chair back and got up. 'I need to talk to my sister.'
He held her back. 'You can't, love.'
Daphne whipped her head around. 'Let go of me, Harry. I need to talk to my sister.'
Harry put his other hand on her upper arm and turned her around to him.
She glared at him and squirmed, trying to get out of his grip. 'Let me go, Harry, I need to warn Tori.'
'You can't, Daphne.'
She froze, and the glare she sent him intensified. 'Try me!'
He tightened his grip on her arms. 'Daph, the information I got from Robards is classified. You can't run off and warn your sister. If this gets out, it might get back to the one behind this.'
Understanding washed over her face, and she slumped in defeat. 'I'm worried about Tori.'
'So am I.' He pulled her towards her and cradled her against his chest. 'However, there's nothing you can do. The danger of tipping Robards' hand to the real criminal is just too great. Robards also said that they are working on a means to detect the potion when it is mixed into a beverage or food. Until then, all Hogwarts elves are on high alert and monitoring the food when it is brought on the table. We'll have to hope they'll catch whoever is tampering with Tori's food.'
Daphne raised her head and grimaced. 'Is that supposed to make me feel better about this horrible affair? After all, it's Nott we suspect to be behind the attacks, and he's already proven that he's a ruthless bastard who will stop at nothing to reach his goal. The safety or even the lives of the puppets he uses to reach his aim mean nothing to him.'
Harry's stomach gave a twist. Yes, Daphne was right, Nott would stop at nothing. If only there was a way to protect Tori, the Hogwarts elves couldn't be everywhere at once, there were so many students on that list Robards had sent him…
A jolt went through Harry. Of course, that was the solution! He pulled away from Daphne. 'I've just thought of a way to protect Tori.'
The worry on her face gave way to hope. 'I knew you would.' She beamed up at him.
Warmth spread in Harry's chest. What had he done to deserve that unconditional trust? 'Don't praise me before you've heard my idea. How many elves belong to the Potter estate, you said? I remember you mentioned the number during the train ride back to school.'
'Well over ninety. Why?' She gave him a look from under furrowed eyebrows.
'Do you think we can pull one away from its usual duties and assign it to Tori? As a kind of invisible bodyguard? Elves know not to show themselves, don't they? I imagine Tori will not be pleased if she finds out I sicced a babysitter on her.'
Daphne's face brightened. 'That's a brilliant idea.' She flung her arms around him and kissed him soundly. 'Thank you for taking care of my little sister, love. If you will let me look into the family ledger, I'll find an elf for the task right now.'
He pulled the shrunken ledger out of his mokeskin pouch and handed it to her.
Daphne sat down at the breakfast table once again, pushed away the used cups and plates, and put the heavy ledger on the table. 'While we're at it, we might as well find another elf to be your bodyguard,' she said, already looking for the right column within the property section.
Another jolt went through Harry. The picture of Dobby, dying in his arms, a knife buried in his chest, pushed itself to the forefront of his mind.
Daphne looked up, her finger still on the column. 'But Harry -'
'I said no,' he said in a harsh voice and frowned at her. 'It's enough that Dobby died protecting me. I won't allow a creature that is dependent on me to endanger itself on my behalf. It's different if I order one to watch out for Tori and make sure she isn't fed a potion compared to getting in the way of an assassin who is out to kill me.'
Her face coloured. 'Is it supposed to be a comfort for me if you are dead that you stuck to your principles?'
He looked at her as if he saw her for the first time. Didn't she listen at all when he told her about the agony the deaths of Cedric, Sirius, Dobby, and even Dumbledore had caused him? Didn't she remember how he blamed himself for the loss of so many lives who sacrificed themselves so he could live?
'You don't know me at all if you think I could do that.'
'Harry, please, be reasonable -'
'I said no!'
He glared at her and pushed his chair back in an abrupt movement.
She flinched back in her chair.
He gave her another dark look and stormed out of their apartment. With long strides, he walked through the deserted hallways and down the Moving Staircase. Thank Merlin, this early on a Saturday morning most students were still asleep, so the likelihood he'd run into someone while he was still in such a foul mood was slim.
How could she have made such an atrocious suggestion? She had to know that he'd never accepted that. Were old Pureblood habits so deeply ingrained into her that the life of an elf meant nothing to her? Merlin damn it, he'd thought she was different from the rest of her class.
He pushed the entrance door open with more force than necessary.
The wet cold of a late November day hit him like a hammer. He didn't care, his anger transformed into restless energy that fought its way out of his system, and he almost ran along the worn-out path that led to the Black Lake. He followed the path surrounding the lake in a brisk pace, almost a jog, until his breath came in short, hard puffs and stitches in his side forced him to slow down.
He stopped, bent over, his hands on his thighs, and waited for his breath to even and his hammering heart to calm down.
At last, his breath was back to normal; he straightened and resumed his walk around the lake. The physical exertion had taken the edge of his first anger, and he went over their fight in his mind.
Why had she come up with that outrageous suggestion? She had to know how he felt about sacrifices made on his behalf, hadn't she?
He sighed; she did, they'd talked about that more than once. She'd always found the right words to set things into perspective, alleviate some of the guilt he felt. There was no doubt she loved him and would do anything to protect him.
He stopped in his tracks, blinded by the light bulb that went on in his head. Of course, that was it. How could he have been that dumb? Daphne loved him, she'd do anything for his safety, and she'd use any means to reach her goal. This was not the first time they fought about that topic, it had come up the night after the last attack. Daphne wasn't unfeeling towards creatures dependent on her, the way she treated the Greengrass house elves and their elves proved that. However, he was her priority, she'd sacrifice anything and anyone to keep him safe, probably even her own family.
Harry quirked his mouth in a wry smile and continued his walk at a much slower pace. Did that change his feelings for her?
His stomach gave a painful jolt. Of course not, he loved her with everything he had, despite the differences in their backgrounds and their characters. They'd always managed to find a common ground as soon as they talked -.
Again he stopped in the middle of the path. Talking, that was the keyword, wasn't it? His shoulders slumped and he let out a deep breath. Yes, a talk to his wife was overdue.
Daphne sat at the chair next to the window and stared out of the grounds as he arrived back in their apartment. Her head whirled around to him when he closed the door behind himself.
He froze, the door handle still in his hand.
They looked at each other for a long moment.
'I'm sorry,' they said unison.
Harry let go of the door handle and crossed the room towards his wife. He sat down on the armrest and slung his arms around her shoulder.
Daphne's hand sneaked up and fisted in his sweater.
'I shouldn't have blown up at you as I did,' Harry said into her hair.
His wife shook her head. 'No, I shouldn't have suggested an elf to act as your bodyguard. I know that you still blame yourself for Dobby's death, love. I'm sorry, I was thoughtless.'
He raised her chin with his index finger so she had to look at him. 'No, Daph, you were concerned for my safety, I should have known you'd do anything to keep me safe. I'm sorry I reacted as I did.' He bent his head and touched her lips with his.
Daphne slung her arms around his neck and pulled him closer.
'So, we're good?' She smiled at him when he raised his head.
Harry returned her smile. 'Yes, we are.'
The week after their fight was quiet. There was no news about what Skeeter was up to, and - even more important to him - there weren't any pranks played on Daphne.
Harry thanked all deities that were for that. With a Wizengamot meeting cutting into the time of his preparations for the end of term exams, he could do without additional distractions.
However, the quiet didn't last long. Excited chatter greeted Harry and Daphne when they entered the Great Hall for breakfast on the following Saturday.
'What's up?' Harry asked as they sat down at the Hufflepuff table.
Neville pushed a colourful magazine towards him. 'Skeeter struck again. She became the star reporter of a new magazine, The Magical Hotspot. It concentrates on reports about the people of power in magical Britain. They've distributed free copies to Hogwarts this morning, probably to gain readers.'
Harry made a face. 'Another tabloid paper. Just what I needed.'
Ernie lowered the magazine in his hands on the table. 'Not quite right, Harry.' He pointed to the article in front of him. 'This article is about a businessman in Diagon Alley I happen to know, the Macmillans had business with him. We stopped that a couple of months ago because we had evidence that he was involved in less than savoury deals we wanted nothing to do with. Father even reported to the department of the Wizengamot that is dealing with corruption, but nothing came of that. This article is a factual report about the dealings I witnessed a part of, nothing is exaggerated, no false claims or insinuations are made. It's a solid piece of journalism, and so seems to be the rest of the magazine.'
Harry's eyebrows rose a notch. 'Rita Skeeter and reliable journalism? Somehow that doesn't roll easily off the tongue in one sentence.'
Daphne spread jam on a piece of toast. 'It's not so hard to believe. She did it before, as she wrote that interview about you in the fifth year, Harry. I suppose with a strict editor who keeps her on a tight leash she will be pretty good.'
'Yeah, you're probably right, love.'
Harry turned to his breakfast, and his wife and friends talked about something else. As he ate his eggs, he couldn't suppress the slight feeling of apprehension about what Skeeter's new job might mean for Daphne and him.
The demands of his daily life shoved Skeeter into the recess of his mind soon enough. The Wizengamot was gearing for the last round of household debates for the upcoming year, and Gordon scheduled additional faction meetings. Harry's homework piled up because of that, and on top of all, he had to patrol Hogsmeade on the next Saturday to supervise the younger students.
'You know, I could have spent this time at my desk and have finished that bloody transfiguration essay.'
Harry kicked a pebble out of his way and adjusted his scarf tighter around his neck to prevent the clammy cold of a grey late November day from creeping down his spine.
'You needed a break, love. Someone told me lately that's important not to burn out,' Daphne said.
He grimaced down at her. 'You know, I hate it when you throw my own lines back at me.'
She laughed, hooked her arms around his, and snuggled close to him. 'Who says we'll have to stay outside all day? Might as well find a warm spot somewhere and keep an eye on things from there.'
'Sounds good. Let's head to The Three Broomsticks, then.'
'No, it's much too loud and crowded there. Come on, love, I know exactly the place to go.' Daphne pulled at his arm and dragged him with her. Mischief glinted in her eyes.
Harry followed her lead with a small laugh and a raised eyebrow. What was she up to? However, when his eyes fell on the pink exterior of Madam Puddyfoot's tea room, the laughter died in his throat, and he stopped in his tracks.
'You're taking the mickey, Daph, aren't you?'
She looked up at him with an adorable pout, the mischief in her eyes even more pronounced. 'You promised to take me here on our honeymoon, remember?'
He snorted. 'You know I was joking.'
A small giggle escaped her. 'Don't be a spoilsport, Harry. I'm sure I can make it worth your while.' The mischief in her eyes vanished, and she lowered her eyelids in a suggestive way.
His breath caught. There were worse ways to spend a cold November afternoon than with his wife in a secluded corner of Madam Puddyfoot's.
This time he didn't put up any resistance when his wife pulled at his arm again and dragged him into the tea room.
December descended on Harry as sudden and unexpected as each year. He became aware of the approaching season not until Hagrid brought in the traditional tall firs to put them up in the Entrance Hall and on the staircase.
Some of the strain seemed to slip off his shoulders. Christmas time at Hogwarts had always been special for him. He'd enjoyed his first celebration of the holiday here, got his first-ever Christmas presents here… Even in later years when the world seemed to become a little darker with each year that passed, Christmas time at Hogwarts had never failed to delight him.
A smile on his face, he entered their apartment. The smell of fresh fir needles seemed to follow him inside and intermingled with the aroma of homemade biscuits.
Daphne puttered around in their living room. A garland of evergreens interwoven with dark red poinsettia blossoms and silver coloured Christmas tree ornaments adorned the mantlepiece, and a row of potted poinsettia plants in silver-coloured flower-pots stood in front of the window. When he entered the room, she just put a large Advent wreath of evergreens with four thick, red candles and silver bows and ornaments in the middle of the coffee table.
She straightened and beamed at him. A strand of hair had come loose from her ponytail, and there was glitter from the ornaments on her sweater and even some on her flushed cheek. 'Do you like it?'
Harry's stomach fluttered, everything inside of him became warm and light. Their first Christmas together… His first Christmas with his own, little family... The smile on his face deepened, and he stepped towards Daphne and took her in his arms.
'I love it!' His lips found hers in a long kiss. 'And I love you.'
Daphne took his hand and pulled him to the sofa. Once they had sat down, she snuggled against him, pulled out her wand, and summoned two cups of hot cocoa and a plate of freshly baked biscuits from the kitchen.
He bent forward and took a chocolate biscuit. It was delicious. 'Did you make them?'
His wife almost choked at her cocoa with laughter. 'Of course not, I didn't want them burnt, so I asked Breezy to make us some.'
'Ah, I thought so, knowing your lack of skills in the kitchen.' He chuckled.
'Prat!' Daphne gave a light shove with her elbow in his side. The next moment she cuddled against him once again. 'We'd better decide on a present list, I don't want to miss anybody. Christmas will be here far too soon, especially with how busy we are.'
'Yeah, and we'll have to find the time to get out of the castle and do the shopping.'
'We could ask the house elves to get the presents for us.'
Harry pursed his lips. 'Where's the fun in that?'
They swapped some ideas for presents for their friends. At one point Daphne got up to get parchment and quill from her desk to write a list.
Harry followed her with his eyes. She made him so happy, he couldn't recall a time he'd ever felt so content and truly at home in his life. His first Christmas present to her had to be something special, something that showed her he cared as much for her happiness as she did for his.
He leaned back on the sofa and folded his hands behind his head. He had to give that some thought.
When the second week passed without another mean prank on Daphne, Harry began to hope the prankster had run out of steam. The written end of term exams would begin next week. Daphne could definitely do without that as a distraction.
'Thank god it's Friday!'
With a relieved sigh, Daphne adjusted the strap of her book bag on her shoulder as they walked out of the room, somehow lost her footing because of the shift of weight, and bumped with her shoulder against the doorframe.
'Ouch!' She grimaced at the pain, straightened, and her hand went up to massage her shoulder.
Harry lifted the bookbag from her shoulder so she had better access.
'Thanks, love.' She shot him a small smile. The next moment the smile gave way to a frown, and she stopped rubbing her shoulder.
'What's that?' Daphne turned her head and looked at her shoulder.
Harry's eyes followed hers.
Her hand almost disappeared in a huge gash in her robes on her shoulder.
'How on earth did that happen?'
He turned towards the door frame and examined it. Was there somewhere a nail or a splinter sticking out that could have ripped Daphne's robes?
His stomach sank, and he exchanged a look with his wife.
Daphne bit her lip. 'The prankster struck again?'
Harry replied with a silent nod.
She grimaced, then shrugged. 'Well, there's nothing we can do about this right now. Come on, love, let's get to our apartment. I want to change and I need to revise some more for the exams.' She hooked her arm into his and led him down the hallway.
Harry followed her lead and cast her a surreptitious side glance. If she was upset, nothing in her demeanour let on. The slight crease between her brows might as well be caused by her thinking of the upcoming exams. He tried to emulate Daphne's calm attitude while his brain was in overdrive.
Who was behind these pranks? How did they conduct them? Nobody had been near them when Daphne passed the door frame, they had been the last to leave the classroom, thanks to Hestia wanting to have a chat with them.
He ought to go back and examine the door frame for residual magic, and probably runes and traces of potions, too. Not that he would be able to determine what kind of runes or potions had been used, if there were any, that was way out of his league. Thank Merlin, he had a couple of very smart friends who could help him out there. However, he probably shouldn't ask Hermione, she was already freaked out about the upcoming exams and wouldn't take any demands on her precious revising time kindly. Out of their small group of friends, Terry was probably the most relaxed about revising for the upcoming exams, so he'd better ask him.
Five hours later Harry knocked on the door of the Boot apartment. He had finished revising for the upcoming Herbology exam and decided to call it a day, while Daphne was still hunched over her Arithmancy notes. She had taken his announcement that he would take a walk around the lake to clear his head with an absent-minded nod, so he had slipped out of the apartment, glad she didn't pry.
Terry opened the door.
'Harry!' His face lit up. 'Just the man I wanted to see. Lisa is still revising and just threatened to throw me out.'
'Yeah, because you keep trying to distract me, you prat,' Lisa's voice came from the living room. 'Harry, be a dear and take him away and don't return him for at least another hour!'
Harry laughed. 'That's just what I came here for.'
'I love you!' Lisa's statement sounded as if it came from the bottom of her heart.
Terry's head whirled around. 'What?' he said in a mock-offended tone. 'And here I thought I'm the only man you love.'
'Give it a rest, mate, or she'll be really mad at me, too.' Harry grabbed Terry by the arm and pulled him out into the hallway, the click of the door closing was loud in the empty space.
Terry flashed him a broad grin. 'Yeah, but she's cute when she's angry at me. Making up with her is also worth it. Last time -'
'That's enough, Terry, I don't need to hear anymore.' Harry rolled his eyes. 'Besides, I need your help. There's been another of those pranks on Daphne, and I want to get to the bottom of it.'
'Another one?' Terry's face sobered in an instance. 'That's tough. What do you want me to do?'
On their way to the Defense classroom, Harry explained his conclusions to Terry.
'You might be on to something,' Terry said with a thoughtful nod. They had reached the door to the classroom. 'Do you know how to detect residual magic, Harry?'
'Yes, Dumbledore showed me when - eh, when we were out on a mission to stop Voldemort.'
Terry gave him a sharp look. 'Alright, then you know what to look for. I admit I'm pants at it, as long as it is not freshly cast strong magic, I don't feel anything.' He pulled out his wand and conjured a looking glass. 'You go after the magic, I'll be looking for runes.'
'A looking glass?' Harry raised an inquiring eyebrow at the Ravenclaw.
'I doubt the bastard will have made it easy on us and written his runes in plain sight. They'll be small and hidden to cover his or her tracks.'
'I'm sure it's a she we're looking for,' Harry said while he already examined the door jamb next to him with his fingertips. 'The pranks were all rather petty. If it were a bloke behind that, I'd expect something more violent.'
The two young men fell silent as they examined the door and the doorframe.
At last, Harry lowered his arms with a frustrated sigh and shoved his hands into the pocket of his jeans. 'Nothing. There's not a bloody trace of magic on that door.' He frowned. 'Which is odd, isn't it? Generations of wizards and witches must have passed through it, you'd expect to find weak residual magic from the odd hex or prank potion on it.'
Terry lay flat on his stomach and examined the threshold with the looking glass. At Harry's words, he looked up with a triumphant smile. 'Not if the door is protected with strong masking runes.' He pointed towards a point on the threshold close to the left door jamb and held out the looking glass to Harry. 'Look for yourself.'
Harry took the looking glass, lay down next to Terry, and examined the spot his friend had indicated.
At first, he saw nothing, except magnified dust and debris students had dragged in that looked like small rocks. He eventually found what looked like a small, circular scratch in the floor. He squinted his eyes, and small signs like footprints of a bird and interwoven with each other became visible.
'That's it?' The small circle didn't look like much.
'Yeah.' Terry got back to his feet and dusted off his robes with a flick on his wand. 'Rather ingenious, if you ask me. There's Haglaz at the centre, the nordic rune for destruction, surrounded by the runes standing for power, endurance, time and the unseen things. The latter suppresses all magic emanating from the door, that's why you didn't sense anything. The time rune probably contains some delaying properties. Those four runes repeat themselves three times, and since they are arranged into a circle, it means they are endless. Even if only powered with a small amount of magic, that circle will work for a long time. There's even more to it. If you look closely, you'll see that the Haglaz rune is drawn on six other runes, again drawn in a circle. All runes are interwoven with each other, thus supporting and powering each other.'
Harry followed suit. 'What do the six runes under the Haglaz rune mean?'
Terry's cheerful face became uncharacteristically hard. 'Dagaz, Ansuz, Perbro, Haglaz, Naudiz, Ehwaz. In this case, they don't stand for anything but the sound connected with the rune: D, A, P, H, N and E.'
Harry's stomach hardened. 'Daphne.'
'I'm afraid so.'
Harry took a deep breath. 'Well, at least this confirms my suspicion that someone is after Daphne. Can you get anything else from the rune arrangement, maybe who made them?'
'Sorry, made, identifying magical signatures is advanced magic. Maybe an Auror or an Unspeakable can do that, and the results might be ambiguous. I doubt you'll get the Aurors or Unspeakables interested in investigating a prank runic array.'
'Yeah. Let's try something.'
He lowered himself on his stomach again and traced his fingertips across the small circle. His fingers tingled with a gentle warmth, not uncomfortable and somewhat familiar, although there was an undercurrent of something that made him want to withdraw his hand and wipe it on his jeans. He closed his eyes to commit the feeling to his memory, then looked up at Terry.
'There's something familiar about the magical signature of the runic circle, although I can't put my fingers on it - yet. I'm sure I'll recognise it if I happen to come across it again.'
Terry's eyes went wide. 'You could feel that? Wow! Did you ever consider joining the Unspeakables?'
'Not once.' Harry got up and dusted off his robes with his hands. 'I don't have the brains for that.'
'It's not everything about brains with the Unspeakables. For certain areas of magic you need to have talent, you can't learn them out of a textbook. Detecting magical signatures is one of them. I bet the Unspeakables would be delighted to have you. I've got an uncle in the department, I can talk to him if you like.'
Harry blinked. Joining the Unspeakables was the last thing on his mind. The only career he had ever taken into consideration was being an Auror, and that had lost its appeal after the war. Also, Daphne didn't need the additional stress of being the wife of an Auror too, and keeping Daphne happy was important to him. He had resigned to oversee his holdings and sit on the Wizengamot as his future job. At least the latter was important, the opinion of The Man Who Conquered had weight in the magical world. Yet it was a trifle for him, it required nothing more than being a poster boy for the side he had chosen.
Being able to do something meaningful besides that, maybe assisting the Aurors in hunting the last remaining Death Eaters still on the run… It wouldn't be as dangerous as being an Auror, and his talent probably wouldn't be needed very often. So, why not? It wouldn't hurt to try and he had nothing to lose.
He straightened and grinned at Terry. 'I never thought of that, but why not? The worst thing he can do is laughing at me.'
'He won't.' Terry patted him on the shoulder. 'I bet Uncle Algernon will be delighted to recruit you.'
During breakfast in the Great Hall the next morning, the handle of the teapot broke just when Daphne poured herself another cup. The teapot fell on her cup, both teapot and cup shattered into pieces, and tea spilled over the tabletop and into Daphne's lap.
She hissed in pain and scrambled off the wooden bench to gaze down in resignation at her soaking robes.
Harry followed after her to offer his support.
There was a big, dark spot on her robes that reached from her lower stomach towards her thighs. She waved her wand over the dark spot to dry her robes, her jaw clenched.
He took her by the arm. 'Let me take you to the infirmary, Daph, to make sure the hot tea didn't burn your skin.' Just that seemed to have happened, going by her pinched expression.
She offered no resistance, just nodded, another proof for him that the accident had hurt her.
However, was it really an accident? Across the table, he shared a look with Terry.
Terry nodded and Summoned the broken teapot towards himself, shrunk it, and put it into the pocket of his robes.
With a nod of thanks at Terry, he turned and led his wife towards the door. The accident seemed to have passed without anyone outside of their small circle noticing it, however, as he walked to the door, his eyes scanned the four long house tables. Was there anyone who paid special attention to them? Anyone who had a trace of smugness on their face?
At the Ravenclaw table, nobody paid them any attention.
That was different for the Slytherins, Parkinson and Nott both stared after them. Nott averted his eyes as he felt Harry's gaze on himself, although not fast enough for Harry not to see the burning desire in them with which he regarded Daphne.
Harry's pulse sped up, and he balled his free hand into a fist and hid it in the pocket of his robes. How dare he!
Pansy, however, never averted her eyes from Daphne, an ugly sneer on her face.
A sudden cold washed over him, and he took in a sharp breath. Was Pansy behind the pranks on Daphne? What if she was jealous that her husband still pined after Daphne? No, that didn't ring true, Pansy wasn't in love with Nott. However, considering everything Daphne had told him how these contracts are handled among Purebloods, Pansy had to be well aware of the insecurity of her position and afraid for her future. It would be natural if she took out that frustration on someone, wouldn't it? Especially if she thought that Daphne was going to replace her if her contracted spouse had enough of her.
They had reached the doors, and he pulled them open for Daphne. His gaze swerved over the students breakfasting in the Great Hall.
Seamus Finnegan looked up that moment and glared at Daphne's back. Beside him, Ginny had a smirk on her face as she watched Daphne pass through the door.
His stomach gave a jolt. Ginny hadn't taken their separation kindly and never held back with her jealousy of Daphne. However, he'd thought she was over that, with her dating Seamus.
Well, it wouldn't hurt to keep an eye on these two, as well.
A motion at the Hufflepuff table caught his attention. Ron waved and gave him a reassuring nod, and so did Neville, while the rest of their friends followed their exit with concerned eyes, except for Hermione, who had, as always, buried her nose in a book. Harry suppressed a snort, the end of term exams began on Monday, and she was panicking as usual. As if she had any reason for that, despite her rocky start of the school year she had soon found back to her magnificent form. He held up his hand to thank them for the silent support, then closed the door behind him and led Daphne towards the stairs to the infirmary.