Table of Contents

Chapter 2 - The Perilous Point by A.J. Hall

But oh, what ailes the Sunne, that here he staies Longer today, than other daies?
Staies he new light from these to get?
And finding here such store, is loth to set?

John Donne: Epithalamion on the Lady Elizabeth and Count Palatine

The Stage Manager eyed the makeshift stage with exhausted eyes.  And why not?  After all, she had been up since well before dawn, and the ceremony at the Seven Sisters had been worth every second of her lost sleep.  For a moment up there, just as the sun rose, she had almost thought she caught the shapes of - some beings that did not belong to the waking world - just on the edge of perception, shadowy, flitting all around in and out of the mist which by now had burnt off so satisfactorily.

Whatever else was going to go wrong, the weather at least was now absolutely perfect after the alarums of earlier in the week.

Which was more than could be said for anything else about this benighted production. 

Dermot materialized at her elbow.  “Well,” he said, his most irritating expression of blind optimism nailed all over his face, “that augers well for tonight, doesn’t it?”

The Stage Manager’s eyes narrowed.  The jazz trio, with the unerring instincts of musicians everywhere, had made straight for the pub as soon as their part in the rehearsal was over.  Most of the cast had now straggled off to whatever private bolt holes they’d found for an hour or so resting before returning for makeup and preparation for the evening. 

“What do you mean, augers well?  That was probably one of the worst days I’ve ever spent in the theatre.  It’s a good job we’d decided to do this one with the scenery minimal, because I’m not sure they were even up to not bumping into it.  And about the only one of them who can take direction is the donkey!”

At this point the animal concerned, which was picketed in the shade of the ruins, let out an immensely woeful long-drawn out bellow. The Stage Manager was inclined to give it some sympathy.  It had been the only cast member to perform creditably in the dress rehearsal, and had put up fairly well with some theatrical trickery which was supposed to make it look headless, its head having been transported to Bottom’s shoulders.  The amount of trouble this particular sleight of hand had put her to was not, in the Stage Manager’s opinion, justified by the director’s misbegotten notion that it was necessary to convey a truly Elizabethan notion of the limits of faery power.  According to him, Oberon could not be seen to create something material out of nothing, but only to transfer the positions of corporeal objects.  According to the Stage Manager, the odds were that only two members of the audience would take the point at all, and they probably would have violently adverse opinions about it.  And donkey bites hurt, anyway.

Dermot smiled.  “Bad rehearsal; great performance.  Rule works every time.  It’s a mystery, but there it is.  Run along and get some rest, you look done in.  And I’ll see you at five past.  And don’t worry.  Everything’s going to be great on the night.”

Down the slope, the donkey let out another bellow of anguished disagreement.  The Stage Manager looked at it.

“You and me both, Neddy,” she muttered under her breath.  “You and me both.”

“You know,” Peter’s uncle said thoughtfully to him, “your wife does have the most interesting friends.”

Draco could have sworn he saw Peter blench, but his voice was commendably level as he said, “Yes, aren’t they?  Which have you been talking to?”

Professor Harvey gestured vaguely.  “Oh, a very nice chap - Arthur somebody - I think those sweet little bridesmaids of yours are his grandchildren - so adorable, they reminded me rather of my cousin Erica at that age - you won’t remember her, of course, though come to think of it I believe she should be eligible for parole some time soon - anyway, what struck me about Arthur was how intelligent he is - he actually asked me how electricity knows which way to flow and how it knew instantly when there was a chance of a short-cut - that was when the marquee lighting short-circuited, of course.  So many people assume that just because electricity happens every time you press a switch they know all about it, whereas in real terms a medieval alchemist pottering about with his retorts and hoping to discover the secret of the philosopher’s stone ‘knew’ a lot more about the limits of his physical universe than we do.  And of course, once one gets to the sub-atomic level - “

Peter gently touched his uncle on the arm.  “Anyway, can I introduce you to another of Hermione’s friends?  This is Draco Malfoy.  Draco, this is my uncle Henry, he’s a quantum physicist, so don’t expect to understand a word he says.  And I sincerely hope the converse is true, too.”

Draco grinned appreciatively, but before he could make the experiment Caitlin had materialised at his elbow, looking distraught.  Given what he had known her go through without registering more than mildly flustered, he was unsurprised when her first words were,

“Draco, I need you in the kitchen garden.  Now.  We’ve got a Situation.  The sort you and your mother specialise in.  And Narcissa seems to be - um - otherwise occupied at the moment.”

He put his head on one side, and assumed a nonchalant air.

“Yes, I thought I hadn’t seen the best man around for a bit.”

 Caitlin dragged him rapidly through the marquee - he spotted Justin twirling Hermione with surprising expertise across the dance floor, and Viktor at the bar, looking morose (and who could blame him, with that prat Weasley bending his ear about something or other?).

There being no one obviously Muggle within earshot, he risked a question.

“Caitlin, what the hell’s going on?”

Her expression was grim.  “Well, I suppose if I were to say ‘Thelwell on acid’ it wouldn’t mean a lot to you, but you’ll see for yourself in two minutes.”

And indeed, as soon as they entered the kitchen garden towards the back of the house, he did.

“Holy shit!”

At his exclamation Caitlin looked grimly satisfied.  “Well, I thought even for you, that couldn’t be something you saw every day.”

He drew a deep breath.  “I can assure you, if I were seeing things like that every day, I’d be in St Mungo’s.”

There were about a dozen ponies being ridden around the kitchen garden, some of the more daring of them popping over a series of jumps which seemed to have been somewhat hastily improvised from bean poles and stakes.  Any impression, however, that this was an ordinary riding school on the rampage was contradicted instantly by two salient facts.  All the ponies were headless, and their cheering, whooping, thoroughly over-excited little riders were skeletons.

Caitlin gestured towards them with her thumb.

“So what sort of supernatural crisis do we have here, precisely?”

Draco took a long hard look at the scene, and exhaled slowly.

“Well, don’t ask me,” he said.  “I mean, whatever you might suppose, just because you’ve acquired a demonic infestation of some sort doesn’t mean I’m on first-name terms with it.”

“I don’t care whether or not they originate from some realm of the infinite beyond the deepest reaches of human thought,” Caitlin said passionately, through clenched teeth.  “What I do care about is that they’ve chosen to materialize in my kitchen garden.  And they haven’t even the good manners to be ethereal about it, either.  Those bloody creatures might be a bit short-changed so far as heads go, but they certainly make up for it on the hooves front.  Oh, shit!  There go the cucumber frames!”

At this moment, there came a break in the headlong stampeding up and down.  Two of the small skeletal figures had dismounted from the fat, headless ponies, leaving them in the care of their fellows, and had raced into the potting shed, emerging with three buckets - loaded with something, judging by the awkwardness with which they were carrying them - and an armload of sacks.

“What are the little beasts doing?”  Caitlin muttered.

A rather fascinated voice came from behind her.

“It rather looks like setting up a potato race, judging by the buckets.  And obviously a sack race, too  - but then, it wouldn’t be a proper gymkhana without the sack race, now would it?”

They spun on the spot.  David was framed in the door that was set in the high wall that separated and sheltered the kitchen garden from the rest of the grounds.

“My sister was a pillar of the Pony Club and she insisted on the entire family getting involved,” he said, with an explanatory gesture.  “You’ve no idea how many of these events I’ve been dragged to in my time.”  He paused, momentarily, with his head on one side.  “Not usually involving decapitated ponies ridden by little stiffs, admittedly.”

Draco looked at him with disgust.  “I can’t believe you’re a proper Muggle.  I mean, don’t you think it’s about time you started cringing back in terrified disbelief and gibbering in insane hysterics?”

The glance David gave him was coolly level.  “When I was doing my PhD, I spent three and a half years getting into the mindset of the sort of people who thought it was perfectly usual to rip open a guy’s stomach in order to use his entrails to read the future, or to prop Grandad up on the ramparts when he popped his clogs, so he could rot nice and peacefully as part of the family.  It elasticised my viewpoint about what constituted Normal considerably.”

He grinned.  “And anyway, Peter was most explicit that there was no point at all in my accepting this role if I was going to get my knickers in a twist if something odd cropped up.  And that the most important part of the best man’s duties was to make sure I threw my body between any problem and Hermione’s over-developed sense of public duty.  I didn’t bother to tell him Hermione had already given me a lecture on what she saw a best man’s duties as covering.  Anyway, suppose we stop worrying about how you think I should be reacting, and start concentrating on finding out what these things are, and how we can get them out of Mrs Naismith’s garden before Deadly Dorothy spots them.  Or I can assure you, you’ll get all the cringing terror and screaming hysterics you could possibly imagine.  And quite a few I daresay you can’t.  In your wildest nightmares.”

There was the sound of slow clapping from behind him.  He half-turned, enough to allow Narcissa to slide past him into the kitchen garden.

“What a refreshingly rational point of view.”  She eyed the scene.  A row of three buckets had been placed in the middle of the cabbage patch, and the riders were racing against each other, pulling up halfway between the start line and the buckets, throwing themselves frantically off their ponies or swinging down to pick potatoes from a line spread along the ground, and then pounding up to the buckets and throwing them in (or, in several cases, randomly towards) the buckets.  “Well, well, well.  The Anarchic Gymkhana.”

Draco raised an eyebrow. “You know them?”

His mother smiled, a trifle grimly.

“Well, I’ve read about them.  For some reason, not even your father and his friends seem ever to have considered actually invoking them.”

“Probably,” Caitlin said, her lips compressed, “because they didn’t consider vegetable gardens legitimate military targets.  Anyway, what are they?”

Narcissa made an elegant gesture.  “What it sounds like, really.  Sort of junior version of the Wild Hunt.  All those kids whose parents kept telling them And when you fall off, you’ve just got to get straight back on again.  Naturally, over the years you’d get a few who’d take it just that little bit too literally.  What I can’t understand is what they’re doing here.  Now.”

“I think I can,” Draco said suddenly.  “Neville mentioned it to me, actually; after he’d gone into the Rose and Crown to see if Ginny was ok.  And apparently, they’ve got a bunch of Muggle actors here for that shindig Nelcorp are holding on Castle Mound.  And it seems some of them were barnstorming around the Seven Sisters at dawn today, doing some mumbo-jumbo or other.  Midsummer’s Day, up there: it doesn’t sound all that clever.  You could stir up practically anything if you weren’t careful.”

Narcissa’s brow wrinkled.  “Indeed you could.  Oh, really.  Muggles are so embarrassing when they try to do magic.  Especially when by some million-to-one shot they actually succeed.  Damn!  If it had been someone who knew what they were invoking, there’s a sporting chance they’d have looked up the Banishment ritual in advance.   I could try a few of the commoner ones, but there’s no guarantee they’d work.  And certainly not before some of the other guests start wandering over here to find out what’s going on.”

David coughed.  “May I make a suggestion?”

The skeletal riders had finished their potato races, and switched to bending between Caitlin’s beanpoles.  It seemed to be something they had not had much previous practice at.  Caitlin looked at him.

“Well, fire away.  Any port in a storm.”

“Well - it occurs to me that whatever else this is, it is a gymkhana.  And at a gymkhana, once you’ve had prize giving, that’s it.  It’s over.  Everyone hacks home - or drives off in horseboxes if you’re in that sort of bracket - bitching about how blind the judges all were, and what blatant little cheats Penelope Whatsit and Fiona So-and-so are.  All that’s needed here is for some big wig to show up and dish out rosettes, and there you are.  Problem solved.”

There was a short pause.  And then,

“Brilliant, darling.”  David basked in the warm glow of Narcissa’s megawatt smile, and tried to look modest.  She snapped her fingers at Caitlin.  “If you snaffle some of those ribbons the table decorations were tied up with, I’m sure I can - um - run you up some plausible rosettes in a jiffy.  The only problem is, who’s going to dish them out?”

David looked rather puzzled.

“Well, I rather thought you.  I mean, aren’t you the lady of the Manor?”

Narcissa opened her mouth to speak but Draco forestalled her. 

“For these purposes, certainly.”

His mother looked reproachful.  “Darling!  As if you didn’t know how I feel about the old dump.  Anyway.  Whatever.  Apart from that minor issue, I know less than nothing about horses.  How can I possibly award the prizes?”

David smiled happily.  “Well, don’t worry at all about that.  No-one expects the person awarding the things to know a blind bit about it.  And I do.  All you have to do is hand out the rosettes to whoever I tell you to, pat the winning ponies on the nose - um, well, better make that the withers in this case - look as though you think it’s desperately hilarious if one of the animals tries to eat your hat - oh, and if some little brat whose pony hasn’t won anything looks as though she’s going to make a scene, award her an emergency rosette for Pony With The Best Brushed Tail, or Most Expressive Ears or something.  Better make it the ears, come to think of it.  Fewer opportunities to quarrel with your judgment.”

He cupped his hands around his mouth, and shouted,

“Oy!  You there!  First and second in the potato race.  That is, small black pony ridden by some character with a badly healed fracture of the left ulna, incipient juvenile arthritis and traces of TB in the femur and the grey welsh mountain approximately 13.2 hands whose rider has a depressed fracture of the occiput.  Prize giving in 5 minutes, pull over into the winner’s paddock.”

He gestured, explanatorily, towards a slightly flatter part of the kitchen garden.

“There,” Caitlin hissed, “go my lettuces.”

Draco smiled at her.  “Bloody boring vegetable, don’t you think?”  She opened her mouth to remonstrate, and he waved an elegant hand.  “If you have a burning need, I daresay we’ve got some in our greenhouses.  We have everything else, after all.  I’ll suggest Neville has a word in the morning - no, make that tomorrow afternoon.  I sense this is going to be a long night.”

David cupped his hands and shouted again.

“And the first and second in the bending race.  The little black pony again, and the palomino with the white off fore, and the rider with six broken ribs down the left side.  Line yourselves up in the paddock, ready for prize giving.”

He turned to Narcissa.  “Give you five minutes, ok?  And then you’re on.  Trust me.”

Arianhrod swept her eyes nervously in every direction.  Her mother - thank god! - was locked in earnest argument with someone or other.  Hermione - of whose sharp eyes she had already learned to be wary - was dancing with the definitely fanciable dark-haired, green-eyed bloke she’d noted in the church.  Her grandmother was flopping back in a chair to the left, absorbing the full attention of her son and at least two other guests.  It was a perfect moment to make the break for freedom, before everyone got dragged into the kerfuffle of seeing the bride and groom off, and settled down to the serious partying of the night.

She made it to the gate that led onto the main street of the village, and then paused.  It was all very well to have escaped from the stifling atmosphere of a party where she was (now that the baby bridesmaids had been hauled, kicking and screaming, off to bed) significantly the youngest, and knew about six people, all of whom had made it clear she was in disgrace.

But it was only then, standing in the pool of light from the lone streetlight, and looking each way through the village, that she realised that for the second time that day she had made the mistake of running away rather than to.

And at that moment came an appreciative whistle from the darkness just behind her.  She turned, and a slender young man stepped out of the shadows and bowed, elaborately.

“The Queen of Elfland, I presume?” he asked.

Part of her wanted to take off and run straight back to the party, but she was apparently rooted to the spot.  He obviously spotted her panic, because he waggled his eyebrows encouraging, as if to telegraph Joke, incoming, snapped his fingers and said,

“Of course, I ought to have introduced myself.  We are in the same profession, you know, your serene elvenness.  Master Peaseblossom of the fairy court, at your service.  Though I’d be grateful if you interpreted fairy in the distinctly 16th not 20th century sense, thank you.  It’d at least make a nice change.  Round here. You could try thinking Legolas, if it helps.  And I’m sure it will.  At least - ” He dropped his voice to a low purr. “I sincerely hope so.  Also known as: one Peter Quince, a carpenter by profession.”

Vague memories of GCSE Eng. Lit. swam to the top of her churning brain.  “You’re an actor?”  she asked dubiously.  He smiled.

“Got it in one.  We’ve been performing Dream on Castle Mound.  Strictly between ourselves, I don’t think our esteemed producer quite managed to gauge the reactions of our audience as well as he might.  Nude fairies may be all very well in the Barbican, and places where they sing.  Rural Wiltshire: not so good.  Also, it got bloody cold once the sun went down.  All I can pray for on that score is that we are being remembered with advantages by the County as it drives off home in its Range Rovers.”

Waves of shocked fascination swept over her.  “You actually had to be nude?  On stage?”

He grinned.  “For the briefest possible moment, I can assure you.  Not like poor Titania.  By the end of Act III the backstage crew were having to pour brandy into her, to stave off hypothermia.  And even so her nipples were standing out like Armalite-piercing shells.  However, even Dermot couldn’t think of an excuse to strip Egeus, so you probably saw more of Edmund this morning than you would have done this evening if you’d been a paying punter.”

“Edmund?”  She was palpably failing to keep up; equally obviously, the young actor didn’t mind.  His gaze was confiding; almost conspiratorial.  A thrill of pride swept through her.  This was definitely something worth ducking out of the wedding for.  To say nothing of something to tell her friend Ally on Monday.  Chatted up by a professional actor.  One who does rude bits.  On stage.

“Well, there can’t be more girls running round this village in long dresses with green hair, can there?  Tell me, did you bump into someone up by that stone circle this morning who made an enormous fuss of you?”

Her flush gave her away; she could tell by the sudden sharpening of interest in his face.

“Yes,” she muttered.  “He - um - kissed my feet.”

The young actor’s smile grew malicious.  “So I gather.  Though I’m sorry to say, m’dear, he was operating under a misapprehension.  Unless you actually are the Queen of Elfland, that is?”

Arianhrod tried to stop her jaw dropping.

People actually believe in fairies?  I mean, grown- up people?  I mean, not even Mum - at least, probably not - I hope -

 ”Er, no,” she managed.  “I mean - I’m at school - my name’s Arianhrod - I’ve just been a bridesmaid at my uncle’s wedding - “

“All excellent and worthwhile, no doubt.”  He looked across at her.  “Poor old Edmund.  I’m not sure if he was more terrified or delighted, by this lunch-time.  But - I doubt you’re a Girl Guide?”

These twists and turns were baffling.  And his face gave no real sort of clue what answer he was expecting, either.  So she was left with no alternative but falling back on honesty.

“No.  I wanted to be in the Brownies once, because my best friend was.  But Mum wouldn’t let me join anything where I had to promise to love God and serve the Queen.”

The young man’s face crinkled with amusement.  “And who can blame her?  Anyway, if you want to do your good deed, notwithstanding, suppose you come round to our party - I’ve just been back to my digs, to stock up on the wherewithal -” He lifted a carrier bag he was holding, which clinked.  “Do come along.  Let everyone see who you really are. Don’t let Edmund suffer in ignorance and go on making a complete tit of himself.  Think of it as being cruel to be kind.”

Arianhrod cast a last, lingering look back towards the gates of Gaia’s Place, but the noise of the wedding was unbroken by any hue and cry after her.  And - after all - it was only right to clear up any misunderstanding she’d caused.  And what wouldn’t she have to say to Ally on Monday?

She followed the young man down a narrow winding passage between two houses, which ultimately revealed (after a steep climb) the reverse side of Castle Mount, and below them the glow of lights, the debris left by an audience, the tail of whom were still vanishing into the distance, and the tent which had served as props tent, changing room, storage and all, and which was now given over to the post production relief of partying.

Almost giddy with excitement she skidded erratically down the darkened hillside.

Fuming, Tom Patullo directed his guests down the slope from the Castle Mound, and out through the gate.  It had looked as though there might be a certain degree of congestion at the exit - plainly, they were not the only ones leaving early - but in the teeth of his cold, tight-lipped stare the Nelcorp trainee who was stationed to guard the barrier leapt up, and by a combination of outrageous lies (“Gangway! Major hypertension risk in transit!  Yes, indeed Madam, I quite agree: but would you like a burst aneurysm on your conscience?  Or on that most attractive silk blouse, more to the point?”) and main force had managed to beat a clear path to the door for Patullo and his fellow directors.  Tom, still too angry to trust his voice, had vouchsafed him a choppy nod, and clocked his name-badge with an instantaneous, reflexive glance.

Jeremy Armstrong.  Hm.  Bright boy.  Vice President in a decade’s time.  If the company survives that long.  Hell, face it, Goddammit! If I survive that long.

In stony silence the Nelcorp main board walked the short few hundred yards to the car park.  The drive to Barton Cleeve was equally silent.  It was only as they walked into the bar that Tom felt able to break it.

“Well,” he said in a desperate effort at bonhomie.  “Here we are.  Why don’t we wash the taste of - um - recent events - out of our mouths, eh?”

As a man the main board turned to him.  Sherwin - the long-jawed New Englander - jutted his most inescapable feature in his face.

“It’ll take more than a few drinks, Patullo, to clear that up.  And believe me, I’m not the only one who remembers who it was who fought for this European Center when - others -  advised caution.”

Patullo bit hard on the soft skin of his inner lip.  Irene - doubtless dispensing her own brand of corporate support to these men’s wives on her own way back to Barton Cleeve - had hissed in his ear that at all costs he must avoid rising to the obvious.  And he had assumed the advice superfluous.  Until he realised how easy it was to get under his skin.  And how long it had been since anyone had dared take him on.  Yet, ironically, he knew the world today better than anyone.  He knew the evasions and the compulsions.  He knew the compromises and the evils, and also the unexpected graces.  His eye swept the suited Board - no-one less than fifteen years younger than him, all of them following keenly on the scent of possible defeat.

Vultures.  Wolves, he thought, and then: this old buffalo knows a few tricks still.  You aren’t going to pull him down that easily.

He curved his lips up into the false, corporate, easily assenting smile that back in the days he had had to practice in hotel room after hotel room before he could deliver it without reservation.

“I can see entirely how you might feel that way, Jim.  But - nevertheless - let’s have a nightcap on it, eh?”

It had taken most of his will to get the first round into them, and more than that to get the second.  He was almost about to concede defeat when he heard a breathy voice behind him.

“Tom! What are you doing here?  And is Irene with you?”

He turned, to see a tall, slender figure in a cloud of cream silk gauze holding out her hands.


He had not paused to think whether it was inappropriate before he was pressing her hard - without any thought for damage to her fragile silks - against his chest, and kissing her on her cheekbone.

“Tom!  I wish - you did get our invitation, didn’t you?”

“We did,” purred an amused contralto from behind them both, “and there’s a gift on its way to you - we were so sorry not to be able to make it, and not just to check you really meant it this time -“

Hermione disengaged from Tom’s arms, and turned to Irene, standing in the sitting room doorway, and also holding out her arms, her eyes alight with mischief.

Hermione giggled, and hugged her, too.   The teasing note deepened in Irene’s voice. 

 ”And where are you planning on going on your honeymoon?  If you can tell us?”

There was a flash of pure merriment in Hermione’s eyes - Tom felt his stress easing merely at seeing it.  Her voice, too, seemed to be threaded with laughter.

“Well, I decided - after all - to take your advice.  Um - belatedly.  Peter and I fly out to Prague in the morning.”

The Board and - following his wife’s lead, evidently - most of their wives - were now standing around the bar, their faces set in blank, vaguely disapproving lines.  But now, suddenly, the sparkle in Hermione’s eye seemed to be lending him courage.  He was not alone here.  And he could - if he chose - call in favours that would have his cold, censorious colleagues shaking in their hand-made shoes.  He took another drink from his brandy glass, so as to stop his smile of grim satisfaction betraying him.  As if on cue, Irene said,

“But aren’t you going to introduce us to your new husband?”

A tall young man in morning dress ducked under the 17th century lintel, extending a hand.

“Ah.  That would be me.  Peter Blakeney.”  He smiled at Irene, and added, “But of course, I know you already.”

“Surely.”  She shook his hand and then murmured gently, “And also knowing Hermione so well, I don’t think I should stand on ceremony,” and dropped a kiss on his cheek before turning and murmuring explanatorily to the assembled guests, “Reverend Blakeney is our Episcopalian pastor here, you know.”

There was a slight hesitancy among the Board, as though they were feeling for the right response.  Peter looked unfazed; it was clearly something he was used to.  He turned back to Irene.

“So,” he said, “what brings you to Malfoy Intrinsica this time?”

Before she could respond, Sherwin wrinkled his long nose and waggled a finger at him.

“Something I’d appreciate your opinion about.  I mean, does this country make a habit of laying on public debauchery and passing it off as entertainment?  And, if so, what do you as a representative of the Church have to say about it, hey?”

Peter raised an eyebrow.  “Public debauchery?” His eye swept round the elegantly dressed mob in the bar.  “Whatever can you have been attending?”

Hermione’s eye, it seemed, had been drawn to the programme that Tom had put down on the bar.  Her brow creased in puzzlement.

A Midsummer Night’s Dream?  But that’s Shakespeare, it’s hardly -“

“Allow me,” Peter said firmly, detaching the programme from his wife’s hands.  His lips pursed a little as he read.

“I see,” he said finally.  “This is the bit you probably didn’t remember properly, Hermione:

The Dream abounds in coded references which would have been immediately apparent to those who shared the covert network of the Old Religion, but which were intended to pass under the radar of the Established Church and the civil authorities, increasingly on the alert for taints of heresy and witchcraft as the tolerant 16th century zeitgeist shifted towards the puritanical excesses of the 17th” 

He paused, and added, “You know, of all the words I’d have chose to describe the 16th century tolerant wouldn’t have been the first of them - oh, anyway - here’s the next bit:

“Shakespeare uses the deliberately contrived story of the lovers and their tangled emotions to imply the midsummer tradition by which a chosen few virgins went out into the woods to offer their virginity to the Goddess as a sacrifice, bound by the ritual to have sex with the first man who offered - “

He gulped, boggled visibly, and looked up at the Patullos.  “Oh,” he said.  “I see.  Radical revisionist interpretation.  Directors with ideas - worst sort.  Don’t tell me, let me guess.  Random nudity and live animals, yes?”

Sherwin snorted.  “You seem to know a lot about it.”

Peter returned his gaze steadily.  “I do.  Friends in OUDS when I was at University.  And because I was reading Divinity it always was me they insisted on bouncing their dottier ideas off.  Thought they’d get better value by way of shock reaction, I suppose.  Ah well, I can certainly say I’m not sorry to have missed that. Even if I hadn’t had much better things to do with the evening.”

And the look of proud possessiveness he directed at Hermione on the last words jolted Tom back a good three decades.  From Irene’s slyly reminiscent smile, it was plain her thoughts were heading in the same direction.

Sherwin looked at Peter with steady dislike.  “And is that all you’ve got to say about it?”

Peter’s eyes were cool.  “Well, since I haven’t seen the play, and I haven’t had a chance to talk to the production team, I can’t tell whether they actually believe what’s in the programme, in which case they appear to be poor historians and worse theologians, but at least they’ve honestly tried to bring about a work of art based on something that’s true for them, and to do the best work they can.  If, on the other hand, they went down a particular route - well, to put it bluntly, because they thought that it was the best way to annoy people like yourselves - then that’s quite a different thing.”

His smile was ruthlessly bland, and impartial.  “Either way; Shakespeare’s 400 years old, and our faith is 1600 years older than that. What harm can one summer’s evening in Wiltshire do to either of them?  I’d rather, you know, that people felt challenged to defend their views.  Being forced to think about your values or taking them for granted; which is better?  And also; I’d rather have a bit of on-stage nudity which some director honestly thought made a dramatic point about the human condition or whatever, than the latest Hollywood blockbuster trumpeting that material success is the greatest possible good, sugar-coated with a few platitudes to hide how morally bankrupt the message is.”

There was a deeply indrawn breath throughout the room.

Somewhat desperately, Tom looked across at Hermione, who was fumbling for something in her pale satin bag.  For a moment he saw the eyes of the newly-weds meet, before hearing Peter say, distinctly,

“But maybe I’m being too prescriptive.  One thing I’ve found is that the real problem always is that none of us is actually willing enough to step into someone else’s shoes.  If we could do more to - ah - ameliorate that, then that would be an major step to promoting understanding.”

There was the faintest of acknowledging nods, before, softer than breath, and barely audible even to him, Patullo heard Hermione breath the words Rosae Lunuculae. 

It felt as though the tight collar of his dress shirt had suddenly loosened.  The previously oppressive heat of the bar diminished - someone must have opened a window - and the fresh clean scent of gorse bushes blew in on the light breeze from the hillside outside.  Sherwin blinked, like a man who realises he may have been on the brink of making a little bit of a fool of himself, but has been pulled back just in time.  He smiled.

“I’ll drink to that.  And anyway, guys, we’ve given enough time to some two-bit student director seeing what he can do to shock.  Let’s start celebrating.  I propose a toast to the newly-weds!”

The barman, true to his training, was already at his elbow.  Sherwin waved a hand.  “Half a dozen of Dom Perignon.  Charge it to my room.  And the best of health and good wishes to the both of you.”

Hermione’s hand went to her lips in an endearingly guilty gesture.  “But I can’t let you -“

Tom stretched out a hand, resting it on her arm.  “Jim - it’s a generous gesture, but the drinks are on me.  My room.”

Irene stepped forward.  “Our room.”  She smiled at Sherwin.  “After all, we owe Hermione a lot.”

Tom, too well trained over many years to drop a cue when offered one, nodded vigorously.  “We sure do.  If Inc hadn’t had its own base in Europe over the last few years, so it could keep its own eye on things, who knows what messes the subsidiary would have landed us in?  Because - Jim, you’ve hit it dead on the nail tonight.  That play was a total mess.  And what the UK Board must have been thinking of to put it on - well, after all we’re here to find out all the other places where they’ve screwed up.” His eye swept the room. “And I don’t think any of us - whatever our starting point - would say their judgment was worth trusting without investigation, after tonight, would we?”

A gale of tension-relieving laughter shook the room.  Sherwin turned to him.

“Split the champagne, ok?  For a moment back there I did wonder if we were singing from the same hymn sheet, but now I get it.  Enough rope, yes?  Same as a couple of years ago?  God, I hope I’m as good as you when I’m in your shoes.”

Over my dead body, part of Patullo’s brain chimed in, but his smile was ready.

He gave the younger man a light buffet on the shoulder.

“Well,” he said, “to quote old Shakespeare - not the play we heard tonight, sad to say - if you want to stand in these shoes some days one thing you do have to buy into the idea  that there are more things in heaven and Earth, Horatio, than are dreamed of in thy philosophy.  Trust me.  It’s the most important thing I’ve ever learned, son.”

As he hoped, Sherwin’s expression revealed that, however resentful he might feel, he was disinclined to argue.  There was a glint deep in Hermione’s eye, though.  The barman opened the first bottles; the round was poured and they all raised their glasses.

“To Peter and Hermione!” Tom said. “May they have all the happiness they deserve, and all the blessings their closest friends could dream of wishing them.  Peter and Hermione!”

Everyone drank.

The newly-weds’ eyes met. Hermione dipped her chin, very slightly, and signalled the barman to top up the glasses.

“Thank you all very much,” she said huskily.  “Earlier this evening, I - um - well, as you know it isn’t traditional for the bride to get to say anything at her wedding, and while I - ah - campaigned quite strenuously for a Right to Reply when it came to the speeches, I - um - got overruled.  By - I gather - all my closest friends. Who - ah - whatever their normal differences of opinion, all seem unanimous that I get to say quite enough on all ordinary occasions.”

The mixture of mock-thunder about her brow and a rueful, self-deprecating smile about her lips was irresistible.  A rumble of amusement echoed round the bar.  She picked up on it, obviously: her expression first became impish, then serious.

“But now I can say something, and it’s this.  I want to give the biggest possible thank you to Tom and Irene and to the rest of you.  When - when I first came into this village Peter said something to me.  He said that for a lot of people round here, life is a battleground.  I didn’t believe it, entirely, then.  But since he said it, I’ve found out for myself that’s true.  But compared to the villages up the road - well, please believe me.  Having Nelcorp in the village makes a huge difference. To -“

She dimpled attractively.

“To more people and to more kinds of people than you could possibly imagine.  You cannot possibly have any idea of how many peoples’ live were improved inconceivably when you decided to put your European headquarters here.  Or how. So: thank you for your good wishes.  But thank you more for being here, and for staying here.  To Tom and Irene.  And to all of you!”

She raised her glass to her lips.

Peter turned to the assembled gathering.

“I hope you’ll forgive us,” he said, “but we’ve got an early start tomorrow.  So: thank you for everything.  But, goodnight!”

He smiled - he dropped an arm around Hermione’s shoulders - and they were suddenly gone. 

On the summer breeze there was left a scent like roses, and in Tom’s veins ran the certainty of a happy ending.  And more corks were popping, and the night was only just beginning.

“She’s what?”  Ron looked at Harry, and his voice echoed with fear and disbelief.  Ginny coughed. 

“As I was saying, the chief bridesmaid appears to have legged it.  Gone AWOL.  Caput. Vanished.  Dematerialised.  Legged it.  Fucked off.  How many other variations do you want?”

She did not wait for an answer, but plunged on regardless.  “And while Hermione and Peter may have made their getaway, I wouldn’t like to bet that either lot of in-laws doesn’t have the phone number of their hotel.  And, having had the pleasure of meeting her while we all got dressed, I can tell you the kid’s mother thinks that all men are rapists.  Oh, and her grandmother thinks nothing’s worth talking about when screamed hysterically makes so much more interesting noises.”

She paused to look the two of them up and down, notwithstanding that they avoided her glance.

“So I reckon that makes finding her before they guess she’s lost our problem to deal with.   Before it spoils Hermione’s wedding night.  After all, given what Peter does for a living, presumably they’ve both been waiting some time for this one.  So what are we going to do, then?”

Annoyingly, Ron continued to look at Harry rather than at her.  “Look, mate, anything could have happened to her round here.  You know what the Ministry reports said when the Manor was decontaminated during Recent Events:  We can scarcely overestimate the likely dangers that may persist in this vicinity for decades to come.  We recommend it be defined as a thauma-hazard zone for the foreseeable future.  If it hadn’t been for Malfoy’s bloody mother pulling strings - or whatever - well, people like old Mad-Eye were arguing they should have slagged this village back to bare rock, just to be on the safe side.  Dad told us all about the rows there were about it in the Ministry at the time.”

 Ginny snorted.  “Oh, come off it.  You know what Ministry types are like if they’ve just developed a mass destruction charm and want a good excuse to use it.  If you take my advice, I suggest we start looking for Ari down the local.  It doesn’t look like the sort of place where they’d be too fussed about proof of age, or whatever.”

But even as she said it, she could tell it was going to be no use.  With a sinking heart, she saw Harry’s face assume an expression with which she had become all too familiar during her school-days.  She gritted her teeth, and prepared for the worst.  It did not disappoint.  And, it seemed, there was nothing she could do to affect it.  Though she gritted her teeth and argued her point anyway.  And ten minutes later was still no better off.

“Well, fuck you.  With the broomstick you rode in on,” Ginny muttered, as she strode seething back towards the bar.  She was, abruptly, conscious of a pair of wicked, dancing grey eyes fixed on her.

“What, and when we always thought you were the Hon. president, secretary and treasurer of the Harry Potter fan club?”

She turned to face Draco fully.  “He’s got a plan,” she hissed viciously.

“And doesn’t he always?”  Without waiting for an answer, Draco made a dismissive gesture with one elegant hand.  “Of course, lacking what you might call local intelligence - and being a bit short-changed in the ordinary sort in my humble opinion - I daresay his plan involves skulking around the village with Weasel-features under an invisibility cloak, and hoping he’ll stumble on our missing one more-or-less by accident?”

Despite her natural loyalty, she was unable to repress a snort of laughter.

“Well, I think there may have been some mention of broomsticks, but yes - that seemed like the general idea.  And apparently there wasn’t room for anyone else.”

“So what’s new?”  Neville had strolled over, and draped a casually possessive arm around Draco’s shoulders.  Draco relaxed back against his lover, and grinned at her.

“Well, we’ve got room on our rescue mission if you’re interested.”

She must have looked surprised, because he added, “Well, you’re a scary woman when you’ve got your temper up, if I recall correctly.  And I certainly still remember that Bat Bogey Hex, thank you very much, so I’d prefer not to upset you.  And anyway, you’d make a better diversion than the dogs, which was what we’d been planning to use if you hadn’t turned up.”

If he’d been expecting to get a rise out of her with that he had seriously underestimated her ability to avoid succumbing to provocation.   She smiled sweetly at him.

“So,” Ginny said, “what’s the unique skill you’re bringing to your mission, then?”

With an elaborately bored expression, Draco yawned.  “Oh, nothing much.  An open mind.  Charm.  Brains.  Applied logic.”

Neville leaned over, and casually snaffled Draco’s drink, downing the champagne in one.  “Plus, knowing exactly where she is.  Now.  And what she’s up to.”

Her efforts to keep her surprise from showing in her face must, it seemed, have only been partially successful. 

“You see,” Neville added, “there’s only a small number of people in the village who Do for events like this. You know: serve drinks, serve food, wash up.  Well, you heard Jack in the pub.  With two events of this size happening at the same time, stands to reason they were all box-and-coxing it like mad.  Thirty minutes here - pelt over to Castle Mound for the interval of the play - pelt back to do the evening buffet - you know.  Anyway, looks like Ma Winzar was still on duty closing down the Castle Mound bash - the bar was open thirty minutes after final bows, officially, which for this village means at least an hour and a half - and by that time the back-stage party was in full swing, of course.  And, it seems, our missing one was brought in by one of the cast, who seemed to have got her in tow.  To say nothing of more than a little pissed.  And, though Mrs Winzar’s morals would have been slightly elastic, I suspect, if it had been a local girl - “

“The local euphemism for teenage virgin round here being Olympic sprint candidate,” Draco added brightly.

“And still more if it had been a local boy doing the towing,” Neville continued, as though the interruption had not occurred, ” ‘specially since in that case it’d most likely have been one of the Winzar mob -“

“Nevertheless,” Draco said, diving enthusiastically into the first pause that presented itself, “she obviously regards the Vicar’s niece as off-limits - unless it’s that she knows she’s got connections of course - I suppose Ma Winzar can’t be quite as stupid as she looks - she wouldn’t be able to dress herself - “

Ginny blinked.  “She’s sloped off to another party with a bloke?”

Draco’s eyes glittered. “Got it in one. Mrs Winzar confided in Mrs P., and Mrs P. mentioned it to Neville, and Neville told me.  Arianhrod has, for the last three-quarters of an hour, been locked in conversation - loosely speaking - with some Muggle actors whose intentions (at least in Ma Winzar’s opinion, and she ought to know) are strictly dishonourable.  And I, for once, am hell bent on flying in the teeth of my popular reputation.  You see before you a born-again knight in shining armour, a Chevalier sans peur and sans reproche.

Ginny snorted.  “That wasn’t exactly what Adrienne was saying about your side of the family earlier on.  She was claiming that the Malfoy motto ought to be the Family that slays together, stays together.

Draco emitted a quick burst of laughter.  “God, you know, that’s quite witty for Adrienne.  Nice to know she’s getting entertainingly bitchy in her old age, rather than just the plain old-fashioned sort.  But then, I suppose having Weasel-features to practise on daily probably does do wonders for her style -“

Ginny’s mouth had dropped open for a sharp retort, but Neville forestalled her, laying a hand on Draco’s forearm.

“Look, come off it.  You promised you wouldn’t stir it on Hermione’s wedding day.  And you can hardly expect Gin to put up with you slagging off her family, now can you?”

Draco looked faintly petulant.

“When it’s that family?”

Neville glared at him.  He shrugged.

“Oh well. And blood, as we all had much occasion to prove by actual experiment during Recent Events, is so much thicker than water - Oh, ok, sweetheart.  I promise to lay off Weasel-features for the duration.  Provided he extends me the same compliment, that is.  Actually, I do wish Potter hadn’t gone footling off with his famously secret invisibility cloak; it would have just come in handy to gate-crash this party round about now - “

Ginny got to her feet and swept them a low bow.

“Gentlemen.  Here is where I reveal my secret weapon.  You might have local knowledge, but I” - She snapped her fingers “Have what you need most.  That is; an invitation to the party.  You don’t have to think of a way of gate crashing it - I can walk straight in there. The musicians are mates of mine.  As it happens.” 

She intercepted a quick, triumphant glance passing from Draco to Neville, and Neville responding with a quick, repressive shake of the head, and it momentarily crossed her mind that she had, after all, fallen into a trap: these two had, of course, been playing as a team for a very long time.  However, it was, at least, better to be manipulated into the thick of events than relegated to the sidelines, surely?

Draco grinned at her.

 ”Point taken.  But anyway, are you in or out?”

The abruptness of the question took her by surprise.  But there was, of course, only one proper answer.  She infused her voice with its most sultry essence. 

“In, of course.  So what are we waiting for?”

The Stage Manager was definitely flagging.  Exhaustion, nervous strain, the effect of three and a half pints of the ferocious local scrumpy combined with two of Edwin’s powerful G&T’s after the weeks of lime-and-soda to which she had strictly rationed herself during the production, and, not least, the cloud of aromatic blue smoke which had enveloped the jazz trio as soon as their formal duties were over, and which was now drifting downwind towards her, had all conspired to leave her feeling detached.  Not drunk, yet (she had been too on edge during the whole disastrous production for alcohol to work its magic readily on her) but nevertheless not really present. At all, whatsoever.  Rather as though she’d been washed up bemused on a foreign shore, after a thorough buffeting by storm and wave.

What country, friends, is this?

It was a minute or so before she realised that hanging over her left shoulder was a bottle of champagne and two flutes - real glass, not the plastic that the powers that be behind the bar had deemed suitable for outdoor use earlier. 

Most of her adult life on the precarious fringe of the professional theatre had taught her to take chances when they came. But equally to stand on her dignity with those who wished to trespass.  She captured one of the glasses, and with what seemed like a disproportionate effort turned her head.

“And who are you?” she demanded. A dark-haired, assured man - apparently in his late thirties though there could be five years leeway either way about that - was looking down at her from up-slope.

“I’m the money,” he said simply.

A vague recollection struck her.  She smiled, swigged down half her glass, and gestured expansively. “Then you may stay,” she quoted.

He flopped down on the grassy bank besides her.  “Congratulations,” he said, as he topped up her glass again.

“Congratulations?”  Her voice wavered a little, and then her innate honesty broke through the training of a lifetime.  “We were diabolical,” she announced, with the assurance born of a little too much alcohol, and a lot too much night air.

He smiled at her.

“I know.”

His voice was low and confiding.  He went on.

“Had you been just averagely bad - painfully inept, say, or earnestly, jaw-droppingly incompetent - then I’d be looking for a job tomorrow.  Since, on the other hand, your company - I exempt you, by the way, personally: so far as I notice the props arrived in their rightful places, even if the actors seemed less than able to grab them, and the scenery was robust enough to take any amount of maltreatment, so to that end you as stage manager are to be congratulated - anyway -“

He took another swig of champagne.

“Anyway, like I said: your company managed to bypass the merely bad.  They transcended the awful.  They scaled the chilly distant heights of catastrophic, and stroked the face of Doom.”

He paused, reflectively, and sipped his drink.

“God, were they ever shite.”

He refreshed their glasses once more.  She looked at him.

“You - don’t sound as though you mind.”

“Mind?”  He gestured eloquently (she bore it in mind for Macheath, when informed at the gallows foot that not only has he gained a free pardon, but also ?10,000 a year, and the Duchy of Edinburgh).  “Why should I mind?  I warned them - I warned him, the Chairman - I told him to forward the email to the US Board, too - I said I’d seen Fourth Wall’s Coriolanus - for research purposes, you understand, that’s what I do - “

Involuntarily, she flinched.  “I think it’s important to point out,” she said, “that while I might possibly have said - in an off-moment - to Dermot that I thought incest was the only rational motivation for Volumnia’s behaviour, I had no input whatever into those two extra mimed scenes - in fact I argued against - quite strongly - “

He grinned.  “I believe you.  But I described them - quite strongly - to our Chairman.  When arguing against the Dream.  But he somehow was hell bent on funding it.  Already committed, allegedly - tell me, what hold does his wife have over him?”

The question was so swift it jerked backstage gossip out of her before she was able to resist.

“Well - um - they say she thought he’d got a mistress and put private detectives on him, but - ah - it turned out to be more complicated than that, because when she actually saw the photos - well, anyway, apparently he’s got a kink for being beaten.  Um - in nappies. And apparently there’s somewhere out Streatham Hill way that specialises - the detectives got photos for her - well, then she reckoned she’d do better to stay married, and get the long term squeeze on him rather than go for the clean break, and risk having it eroded by inflation.”

She had responded before reflecting, and then added weakly, “Um - all that is - allegedly -“

He looked rather as though Christmas had come early.  “For that,” he said, “you deserve another bottle.  Even if it is only - allegedly.  After all, what one set of private detectives have found once, another lot can find again.”

He reached behind him, and there was a subdued popping sound.  She allowed her guilty conscience a moment’s respite, and let her glass be topped up.  Her companion leant back against the night-scented grasses, staring dreamily up at the stars.

“I saw their faces, as they left tonight.  The US Board. Tomorrow, they’ll be planning that heads will roll.  Oh, will they ever. And that’s when I’ll point out that the whole thing could have been avoided - if the Chairman had only forwarded my email, as specifically requested.”  He leaned back even further in the grass.  “Nappies!  And whips!” he murmured beatifically as he closed his eyes and apparently drifted off to sleep.

The Stage Manager sipped her champagne, and allowed her thoughts to wander as she looked vaguely down at the bulk of the company, whom she had little inclination to join.  Peaseblossom - Elwin - had brought a stranger to the party - but it had had the presumably intended effect. Titania - previously noticed straying toward Mustardseed - had wandered over to exercise her territorial claims, and Elwin was basking in the attention.  Mustardseed was consoling himself all too obviously with Moth in a corner. The girl Elwin had towed in - looking a little lost, and surprisingly young despite her punk hairstyle - had been button-holed by Edmund.  Briefly, the Stage Manager considered drifting over to rescue matters.  But she felt too washed-up to move, and after all - she suppressed a yawn - Edmund was harmless enough. Choking him off should be child’s play for anyone. 

 The musicians, it seemed, had also invited their own guest.   A stunning red-head - stunning enough, the Stage Manager noticed through amused, albeit half-closed eyes, to have provoked Elwin to abandon Titania again (much to her fury) - was exchanging banter with a few of the cast.

Reno picked up his clarinet - Simon looked at the new arrival, blew out a cloud of smoke, and grinned.

“Well, Ginja?”

The new arrival allowed her hand to trail, suggestively, across Elwin’s face before picking up the microphone.  Titania bared her teeth. 

The familiar opening bars drifted across the night air, the red-head’s voice was breathily sensuous.

“Oh the shark has pretty teeth dear
And he shows them pearly white
Just a jack-knife has our Mac-heath dear
And he keeps it out of sight”.

“How touching,” a voice said from just behind her.  “She’s playing my song.”

The Stage Manager turned.  Her friend of earlier was out of it; curled on the grass asleep, making occasional slight twitching movements like a dog chasing rabbits in its dreams.  The cut-glass public school accent had come from a shadowy figure part hidden by the flap of the props tent.  Having spotted that she had noticed him, the figure stepped forward a little way. 

“I was looking,” he said with calm assurance, “for an acquaintance of mine.  Long draggling dress - green hair - tendency to fall into ponds - no social skills whatsoever -?”

Mesmerised, she gestured vaguely down-slope towards Edmund and the girl Elwin had dragged into the party.  The young man nodded brisk thanks, and started to move towards them.

At which moment she noticed what he had left propped up against the tent-pole.

“Hey!” she said. “But that’s a broomstick -!”

He turned abruptly back to face her. “What have you been taking?” he demanded.  “And where do I get some?” His hand moved in a rapid, blurring gesture.  “What broomstick? It’s my motorbike.” And indeed, a black Triumph, sitting primly and a little incongruously on its stand, was now clearly visible even in the gloom under the tent-flap.

Even in her befuddled state, the Stage Manager wondered vaguely how she had managed to miss the roar of its arrival. 

He smiled at her devastatingly.

“And anyway, do you know nothing about pagan traditions? Broomsticks? Oughtn’t it to be yarrow stalks?”

She gaped for a crucial few seconds, before being overcome by an attack of l’esprit d’escalier to say nothing about l’esprit de Gran’ma Ogg.

“Yarrow stalks? Plays merry hell with the gussets,” she yelled down slope after his retreating back.

But her inquisitor was already out of earshot, halfway towards Edmund and the green-haired girl.  And life, suddenly, seemed too complicated to grapple with any further.

“Oh, sod it,” she muttered to herself, and reached again for the champagne.

“And what,” Ron said through gritted teeth, “do you think you’re playing at?”

Ginny looked up at her brother.  “Er, singing?” she hazarded.  “I mean - microphone, band, noises coming out my mouth - how many more clues do you need?”

Si stepped forward and jutted his face aggressively into Ron’s.

“And anyway, what the fuck business is it of yours what Ginja does?  Last time I looked, she was all grown-up.  And even if she wasn’t, there’s no law against singing.”

He paused, looked at Ron rather as though he was weighing his chances in a fight, and allowed a slow smile to spread over his face.

“Mind you,” he added, “I admit some people reckon the way Ginja does it, there ought to be.”

The third member of the trio grinned happily at them all.  “Yeah.  Or at least an extra shift down at the local Cardiac Arrest unit.”

Harry’s leaping hand pulled Ron back from the confrontation.

“Calm down,” he said. 

Reno squared off on Si’s other side.  “Yeah. Listen to your mate.  Shut the fuck up, or get lost.  No-one invited you to come butting in, and some of us were trying to enjoy ourselves.”

Ron swept his eyes round.  “So, what’s happened to -” he snapped his fingers, “Arianhrod, then?  Or don’t you care?”

Suddenly the anger boiling up inside her became an almost solid presence; hard and demanding.

Don’t I care?

She took a deep breath - the pounding of the blood in her veins was interfering with her ability to speak, and added,

“I’ll tell you exactly how much I care - provided you are prepared to take out that cloth you seem to have got permanently stuffed down your ear-holes these days  - and I suppose I can see why, and I suppose in some ways I don’t blame you -“

Her brother paled, suddenly, and made a brief, broken sound of misery that, despite her anger cut at some deep place inside her.  She shook her head impatiently.

“Oh, don’t be ridiculous, of course I didn’t mean that - what I meant was, we’re all still coping with the War any which way we can, and I daresay yours may be as good as any -“

She took a deep breath.

“But, Ron, you know what I saw when I came in here? I saw a kid who wasn’t prepared for what she’d got, who was floundering around trying to make things relate to something she knew about, and who wasn’t getting any help at all.  Who was feeling so desperate about being cast adrift with nothing to cling on to that she was going to grab at the person who seemed to be holding out a helping hand to haul her out, without even thinking to ask him Oh, I’m sorry, but what might your motives be - ?”

Here she leaned even closer towards her brother, who was looking appalled, and added,

“Well, that’s what I spotted her looking like, anyway.  It reminded me of - no, let’s think, what did it remind it of?  That awful first term at boarding school, perhaps?”

Ron spluttered.  “Gin, I - “

Harry reached out and caught her arm.  “Look, calm down.  No-one meant -“

Her head was up, her eyes wide.

“No-one means?  Don’t you reckon that’s the trouble, Harry?  No-one ever does bloody mean anything round here. And - you know?  I reckon ever since Recent Events they’re just too fucking scared to dare to admit they might want to do or say anything that actually might just indicate that something - anything - actually means anything to them. Don’t you think it’s time they started?  Has it ever occurred to you that you might start?  If you’re the Great Leader, maybe you ought to give us a lead, eh?”

She could see him spinning back, his face hurt and bewildered.  He was supported, unexpectedly, by the musicians.

“Nah, mate,” Si said.  “Don’t worry.  Ginja gets uptight sometimes.  She’ll be ok after another drink or three.  Gin!  Here! Have a toke and shut up! Anyway.  Who’s this Arianhrod chick, anyway?  The pissed kid with the green hair?  Don’t worry about her.  Ginja’s blond friend whisked her off on his motorbike, about two minutes before you showed up.”

“He did?”   Suddenly Harry grabbed her arm.  “And where were they going?”

She made her voice sound deliberately bored.  “The Manor, of course. The state she was in, they could hardly let her get back to the Vicarage unless they’d sobered her up a good bit.  And where else would they get the p- wherewithal?”

Her brother was at her other side, urgent and indignant.  “And you just let Malfoy run off with her? Like that? We’ve got to get after them.  Harry I told you we shouldn’t leave the broo - “

“Ron!” Harry said in sudden warning.  He shrugged

“Whatever! We’ve got to get after them.  Now!”

Suddenly, they were gone.  Si looked at her. He screwed up his face.

“Fuck, Ginja!”

She nodded, assenting.  “Fuck.”  After a moment she added, by way of explanation, “Family.”

Reno leaned over.  “Family? Fuck!”

The third one - whose name, even by this stage, Ginny could barely recollect, seemed to be composing himself to speak.  In a moment’s black humour, she imagined him struggling to find some variant on the foregoing, and having run out of alternatives.   Instead, he beamed broadly and said,

“Why’re they so fussed?  I thought your blond friend was as camp as they come?”

She shrugged.  “He is.  As a row of pink marquees. Oh, fuck.  Whatever. Looks like I’d better be on up to the Manor, to warn him and his boyfriend that the forces of righteous indignation are heading their way.”

Reno gestured.  “Why don’t we all go?  I expect we can bum a drink or so up there?”

Ginny nodded.  “Cellars full.  And he said drop on over, too.”

Si snapped his fingers.  “Well, what are we waiting for?  This party here’s going straight down the toilet anyway.  Let’s go!”

Gin looked at him, and at the other two.   She cast a glance at the number of roaches in the overflowing ashtray on the grass in front of them.  “Well,” she said, “ok.  But I’m driving.”

They were still arguing by the time they got to where Si had left the van.

“Stop flying, you fools!”

The guttural yell from behind them distracted, but did not deter them from their headlong pursuit across the park that surrounded Malfoy Manor, the night-breathed scents of vegetation heady in their nostrils, the moon silvering the whole scene with a coldly brilliant illumination.

Suddenly a thunderbolt, which in the instant of exploding revealed itself to have elbows, feet and furiously pummelling fists, erupted between them.  And they were thrown bodily from their brooms, and the constellations whirled above them -

The ground was an inconvenient distance below.  They landed in the ditch, in the shadow of the ha-ha.  It was, among its other amenities, amply supplied with brambles.

Harry spat a mixture of leaves, petals and weevils out of his mouth, and struggled in vain to rise.  A massive weight seemed to be pinning him to the ground. His arms and legs flailed out in all directions, but failed in the simple tasks he demanded of them, namely pushing him upright or, failing that, along.  A few feet or, given the complexities of motion at this juncture, half a continent away the sounds of muffled swearing indicated that Ron was in a similar predicament, only face down.  And, his muffled invectives made clear, with a side-order of nettles to enliven the brambles.

In a patch of moonlight a few metres behind where their catastrophic descent had dumped them, their attacker lay on his back, unfairly amid clover.

“What the hell - ?”

The figure in the clover half rolled onto his side, and extracted a hip flask from his pocket, which he extended towards Harry in a hospitable manner. 

“Have some schnapps?”  a deep Slavic accent enquired out of the gloom.

Viktor?”  Harry, at the full extent of his reach, took the flask in his fingertips, and conveyed it gingerly to his mouth.  The blast of raw spirit briskly delaminated his tonsils.  He coughed helplessly on and on.

“Schnapps,” Viktor said sympathetically.  From his far side, Ron hissed in an exasperated way.

“Krum?  What the fuck did you think you were playing at?  Another minute and a half and we’d have had the bastard -“

Krum, with some difficulty, propped himself up on his elbow, retrieved the flask from Harry, took another swig, and said, with careful dignity, “Another second and a half and - pfut! my friend.  Goodbye your broom.  Goodbye your nose.  Goodbye - maybe - your stupid fat head.  Though maybe - perhaps not.   The specification did, after all, say that the new defences were not to be lethal.  At least, not intentionally so.  And we - Intermage Consultants - always deliver to specification.”


Krum nodded.  Harry thought he detected a note of pride in his voice.  “Lat year, we installed them.  Our biggest single site so far.  Hermione’s invention.  You hit the barrier - or you miss it.  No matter.  Once you enter the barrier zone, you cannot get out.  And up at the house, the alarms go off.  And then - presently, they come to see what they have caught.  Ah. So elegant.”

He put the schnapps flask to his lips again, and toasted the Milky Way.

Harry twisted himself round to face Viktor; from the frenzied movements from amid the brambles on the other side of him Ron had the same idea.

“You mean - you mean we just have to be stuck here - like - like flies on fly-paper - until Malfoy can be arsed to come down and get us out?”

Viktor gave them a small, affirmative sigh, as though pleased they had grasped the point so quickly.  No-one spoke.  Harry would have betted that Ron, like him, was working out what the odds were that Draco would find tomorrow morning as an infinitely more suitable time to liberate them from his ha-ha than any time like the present.  And also, how bad things would have to get before he actually welcomed Malfoy arriving to witness his current plight.

“At least,” Viktor said consolingly, “we have the stars to look at.  And our memories to keep us warm.”

And he began crooning small snatches of something that sounded like a Slavic ballad of star-crossed love, interspersed with frequent sips of schnapps.  Ron exhaled.  It sounded rather as though he was getting close to an explosion.

“Ssh!” Harry muttered.  “Yelling the place down won’t help.”

“It might not help,” Ron muttered through gritted teeth, “but do you have a better suggestion?”

Harry had to admit, he had not.

The night - despite Viktor’s best efforts - was very silent.  Occasionally a fox barked from far away; once or twice they heard the hooting of an owl.  The sound of the church clock striking the hour, and then the half, came clearly across the park to them.  And then - when they had been lying there long enough to start wondering if the next hour might not be about to strike, they heard something; not, as they had sub-consciously expected, from the Manor side of the ha-ha, but from the gravel path that wound up through the grounds from the main road.  There was the sound of footsteps - low, almost whispered conversation - and then, finally, a peal of silvery laughter.

Harry - his eyes had grown accustomed to the darkness, though his wand had fallen too far from him in the broomstick crash for him to cast an Ex Tenebris charm - could see Ron pushing himself up and straining towards the noise.  He waved a hand to catch Ron’s attention.  Ron nodded.

“One - two - three - “

They both let out an ear-splitting yell. 


Krum paused in the middle of what was either the thirty-seventh verse of his song, or the thirty-seventh reiteration of the first verse.  He sounded rather puzzled. 

“As we are where we are, do you think it wise to attract the attention of anything before you know what it may be?”

Belatedly, Harry realised that he might well have a point.  But it was too late, there were footsteps on the grass, and two shapes running in their direction - and then a sudden, high pitched squeak of surprise as the nearer figure apparently stumbled over something -probably Krum’s outflung arm - flailed to regain balance - lost the struggle - and landed heavily across him, winding him and momentarily making him completely incapable of speech.

There followed a torrent of most unladylike language, in precise, cultured tones.

“Are you all right, Narcissa?”  an anxious voice sounded out of the shadows from the edge of the ditch.  “You went down an enormous wallop.  Hope you haven’t broken anything?  Let me feel your ankle.  Admittedly, the ones I’m used to tend to be a few hundred years older, but I really know a remarkable amount about bones, honestly.”

“I think,” a husky voice purred from disconcertingly close to Harry’s left ear, “that the pain is coming from further up the leg.”

“Really?  Well, I’d better see about that - no, don’t worry - I can get down the bank here, no problem -“

“Ow,” said Harry, as his hand was trodden on.  The dark shape that was - yes, Harry definitely recognised that voice now - the best man, turned towards him.

“Oh, sorry, didn’t see you there.  Lot of people in this ditch, aren’t there?”

“It’s not a ditch, darling.”  The husky voice was redolent with injured dignity. “It’s a ha-ha.

“Well, I’m not laughing, that’s for sure.”  Ron’s voice was a low mutter.

“Golly, and that’s another one, too.  Like Piccadilly Circus.”

“Except a lot pricklier,” Harry muttered. 

 ”Now - don’t be silly.  No, not you, David.  No, much higher than that.  Yes, there.“ 

Out of the darkness came the one sound Harry had both expected and dreaded to hear.  From the top of the ha-ha a clipped, light, amused voice said,

“Ma!  You’re squiffy!”

The figure that had been sprawled across him struggled into a sitting position, and looked upwards.

“I am not - squiffy,” she declared, her enunciation precise and careful.  “I merely am suffering from intense emotional exhaustion after a particularly long and tiring day.  So there.”

There was a snort of laughter from above.

“Ma!  You’re sitting on top of Harry Potter in a bramble patch.”

Disconcertingly, Harry felt his chin being caught in a long, slender hand and tipped towards the light.  Narcissa inspected him.

“Good heavens, so I am. What are you doing down here?  And did anyone ever tell you you’ve got Lily’s eyes?”

There was a further snort from the top of the ha-ha.

“Ma!   This is Potter you’re talking to.  The man who went through school with everyone he ever met from the Headmaster to the caretaker’s cat telling him he was a second-hand assembly of all his nearest and dearest’s body parts.  You know; ‘Ooh, Potter, you’ve got your father’s hair!’  ‘Ooh, Potter, you’ve got your mother’s eyes!’  ‘Ooh, Potter, you’ve got your great-uncle Bilius’s liver’ -“

“No, darling,” Narcissa interrupted.  “I distinctly recollect Arturo Mulciber got that.  Put it in a glass jar in his library, I think.  He went more and more peculiar, you know.  And it was most embarrassing, because the Dark Lord took to having what he called ‘little family reunions’ for his inner circle round at Mulciber’s, and you’d have to concentrate on looking respectful and attentive, all the time when you were hoping you hadn’t spotted what you thought you just had in the Scotch broth - Anyway, darling, aren’t you going to come down and help me out?  My ankle overturned; you’ve absolutely no idea how shockingly difficult it is to cross rough ground on high heels.”

Somewhere off to the left of him, Ron made a disbelieving noise.  “You’re sure you don’t, Malfoy?  I’d have thought stilettos would be just your bag.”

David leaned over him solicitously.  “Oh, you don’t want to start with stilettos.  They’re tremendously difficult.  I’d recommend those high platforms, myself.  Like Elton John in Tommy.”

A palpable air of Too Much Information descended over the ha-ha, before David added, with an explanatory wave of the hand, “I always do the Dame in the Faculty pantomime.  And they still claim my Viola was one of the finest they’d ever seen at Stowe.”

There was a rush of soft air, and Malfoy landed lightly on the ground below the ha-ha, muttering a Lumos charm as he did so. A startlingly bright, white light illuminated the whole scene; each leaf or blade of grass had its own knife-edged shadow.  At that moment, the pressure binding Harry’s body to the ground suddenly lightened, and he began the slow and awkward process of disentangling himself from the brambles.  Ron, liberated at the same moment, was engaged in doing the same.  Somewhat resentfully, Harry noticed that Draco had strategically avoided both the brambles and the nettles, arriving just to the left of Krum, whom it now appeared he noticed for the first time.

“Viktor!  What are you doing here?”

Krum waved his arm with a languid air, but made no effort to rise from his supine posture.

“I spotted them both heading at the barrier.  Fast.  Very respectably fast.  So I thought - “

He shrugged, a difficult manoeuvre to bring off on one’s back, but impressive.  “What could I do but all I could to stop them?  Given what happened to the test-elf.”

Draco visibly winced.  “Ah, yes.  That. Very public spirited of you, Krum.”

Ron’s voice was thick with horror.

“The test-elf? Surely you didn’t test this protection shield thing by killing a house-elf?”

Draco shook his head.  “No.  Though until Glenny bobbed back from who-knows-where three weeks later we were thinking we’d have to put up the ‘Missing’ posters in at least six dimensions.”

Harry gulped.  It occurred to him that he possibly owed Viktor an apology (and a bit of fulsome gratitude wouldn’t come amiss either, his conscience reminded him, sounding remarkably like Hermione).  Despite his reluctance to engage Malfoy in conversation, he felt a queasy fascination about the unknown house-elf’s fate.

“Well? And where had he been?”

From Draco’s tone, Harry’s addressing him at all had come as something of a surprise.

 ”We don’t have the faintest idea.  All we could get out of him was have you ever been red?  Mind you, he must have been quite peculiar to apply for that job in the first place.  And if you know house-elves, that’s saying a good bit.”

Viktor pushed himself up on his elbows, and announced,

“They are all volunteers, you understand.   It is a highly competitive entry process, and most prestigious. No-one is accepted onto the test-elf programme unless they agree to wear our specially developed safety suits on all necessary occasions.  And the salary and benefits packages are unsurpassed!”

“Thank you for the commercial,” Draco said, extending a hand and pulling Viktor to his feet, absentmindedly relieving him of the flask and taking a swallow as he did so. “But it really wasn’t necessary to do the whole they enjoy it really and we pay them lots and lots spiel for our benefit.”  He took a quick glance at his watch, and a sly smile spread over his face.  “After all, Hermione must be miles away by now.  And even she won’t be thinking about house-elves at the moment.  I hope. For Peter’s sake.  Though whatever lights your fire, I sup -“

Scuttling back a pace or so, he just dodged Ron’s sudden round-armed punch, looking white-faced and  rather shell-shocked as he did so.  And at that moment there was the roar of an engine: brakes screeched, and a battered white Ford transit van came to a juddering and abrupt halt on the driveway 50 metres away.  Four figures piled out of it, pelting over towards them.

“Is he behaving like a total idiot, then?” the leading runner gasped breathlessly as she arrived within earshot.

Narcissa, who had apparently been absorbed in damage assessment on her frock, looked up at the new arrival.

“Which of them?” she drawled.

Ginny Weasley shrugged.

“Whichever. It seemed like a good all purpose opening line. Given the circumstances.  Whatever they are.”  She surveyed the scene, still floodlit in the relentless blaze of Draco’s Lumos charm.  Narcissa raised an eyebrow, and said,

“Well, just to get matters straight: my son is being my son; Harry apparently has been pursuing him on his broomstick all the way from the village, as to why frankly I leave it to you to enquire; your brother tagged along for the ride; Viktor I gather at considerable personal cost is here to prevent them smearing themselves promiscuously across the Manor security barriers; and David and I are out for a walk in the moonlight.  Does that help?”

Ron jutted out his chin, and jerked a thumb at his sister’s companions, who had come pelting up behind her as Narcissa had been speaking.

“So.  What made you bring the Cat-Stranglers’ Trio along with you, then?”

Ginny waved her hand airily.  “Oh, Draco told me to invite them along for a drink, after the party at the Mound started to wind down.  Given they’d been so helpful.  Draco: meet Si, Reno and - oops, sorry - no, don’t remind me, I’ll get it in a minute - Dessie.  Sax, clarinet and double bass, respectively.  And when we realised you were about to screw everything up, we thought we’d better leap in the van and get over here pronto to see what we could salvage from the debris.”

Had Ron been a cartoon character, Harry thought, steam would at this point have been coming out of his ears.

Draco told you to invite them for a drink?  And since when have you taken for dropping round to Malfoy Manor for drinkie-poos, then?”

Ginny smiled sweetly at her brother.  “Actually, this is the first time I’ve been invited.  And unlike you apparently I tend to wait for an invitation rather than just come crashing into someone’s front garden.  Especially when they’re the sort of someone who one just knows will have state of the art anti-intruder precautions and probably highly trained guard-leopards to boot.”

There was, eerily on cue, a sound of rustling from the nearer bushes, as though some large beast was making its way through them. Harry hoped his nervous start had passed unnoticed in the general consternation.

Draco flicked a grin at Ginny.  “Not leopards, alas.  Though I agree they’d look wonderfully decadent.  However, since I haven’t even managed to persuade the dogs that chasing ordinary cats isn’t a good idea, given that the average mog has roughly three times their intelligence and infinitely sharper claws, I reckon in the interests of domestic peace I’ll have to give that one a miss.  But yes: most certainly state of the art anti-intruder precautions.  As your brother and his heroic little friend have just spent the last forty minutes finding out.”

Harry caught Ron by the sleeve as he lunged forwards. “Don’t let the bastard rile you,” he hissed.  “It’s what he’s trying to do.”

Draco turned to face him.  “Au contraire.  It’s what I’m succeeding in doing at the expense of a frighteningly small amount of effort at all on my part.  You know, if you ever applied a little imagination you might at least consider that the effects of one major war and Neville’s influence might just have changed me a little.  For instance, even though I do still think Weasel-features is a dickhead, at least I can now express that view a trifle more coherently than when at school.”

Ginny giggled.  With faint horror Harry realised that her giggles might owe their origin to the spliff that Si had just lit and passed to her.  He cast a sidelong glance at Ron.  Fortunately, Ron seemed to have lacked Harry’s own experience of such matters (Piers Polkiss, Dudley’s best friend, had, Harry suspected, been Smeltings’ biggest dealer, and he had never understood how Aunt Petunia and Uncle Vernon had continued to accept Dudley’s explanation that the smell which drifted from under Dudley’s bedroom door when the two of them got together was simply Piers’ brand of aftershave).

Anyway, Ron was too fixed on Draco to be excessively suspicious about his sister’s behaviour.

“Well?” he hissed.  “If you’re so innocent all of a sudden these days, how come you need all these oh-so-sophisticated intruder alarms?”

There was a sardonic curve about Draco’s mouth.

 ”Perhaps it’s something to do with the ten death threats or so I get per month from people who seem to have missed out on that I’m Really Not That Evil After All memo?  Including, I might add, a regular stream from someone who reckons I killed him -“  he nodded in Harry’s direction - “about five years ago, buried him under the Western Terrace, and that all Potter’s subsequent public appearances can be accounted for by a golem I’ve invigorated using Dark Arts and sent out into the world to further my long-term plan for world domination.”

Unexpectedly, Harry found himself grinning. Draco, catching sight of his expression, raised an eyebrow. 

“And what’s so funny?”

“Well, I  regularly get owls written in green ink from some nutter in Wilmslow who claims that your change of side in Recent Events was entirely due to your having been murdered by me, and that your public appearances can be accounted for by your being an homunculus I’ve matured to life-size in a jar in my basement.  Bloody lunatic.  I don’t even have a basement.”

Draco turned towards his mother.

“Ma!  Isn’t that sweet?  Harry Potter’s stalker is my stalker’s evil twin.”

“Yes, darling.  But what about those drinks?  We can’t stand here all evening chatting, you know.  It’s getting chilly. And the dew is rising.”

Si looked at her with enhanced respect.  “Got a head on her shoulders, your mum.”

Draco gestured gracefully.  “By all means.  Well, I suggest we all head on up to the Manor, then.  If you’re driving, you just follow the driveway to the top and park round the back, next to the Land Rover.”

Ron blinked, slowly.  “What?”

“I said, if we’re going to get any drinks in tonight, we’d better get weaving.  Which part of that failed to penetrate your oh-so-awesomely limited comprehension, Weasel-features?”

Before Ron could say anything, Harry intervened.  “The part where it looked as though you were inviting us for a drink, Malfoy.  The part that - at least momentarily - appeared to ignore twelve years of uninterrupted back-biting and petty points-scoring.”

“Well, there’s no need to ignore a fine tradition like that, if you insist.  I just thought it might be nicer to carry on with it somewhere warmer.  Sitting down.  With alcohol.”  He looked pointedly at Si.  “Or, of course, whatever.”

Si grinned.  “Good thinking, that man.” He sketched a parody of a salute, and turned to walk back towards the van.  Ginny, muttering firmly, “And I’m still driving” headed after him.  Reno and Dessie followed in their wake.

“So, Malfoy,” Ron said as the rest of the party started to stroll along the driveway, “what’s with the ‘come round for cocktails’ bullshit?  Because I can tell you, if it’s anything to do with us being related by marriage, I’d just as soon forget it.”

“Oh, believe me Weasel-features, so would I.  Though, come to think of it, it was something Adrienne said earlier that struck me.  You really did only need to ring the front door bell if you were desperate to see me, rather than try conclusions with my security precautions.”

Ron paused, turned, and looked disbelievingly at Draco.

“What?  When you’d just snatched a teenage girl from a party and were legging it home as fast as you could?  You expect me to believe you’d have just opened the door?”

Draco took a few seconds to digest this, and then exploded in a shout of laughter.  “Oh, Weasel-features, tell me this is a wind-up?  Please?  Or that at the very least you were thinking I was going to use Ari for potions ingredients or arcane Dark rituals? You can’t possibly be serious that you genuinely suspected - “

And he went off into yet more shrieks of laughter, almost doubled up on the driveway.  Ron flushed.  His voice sounded huffy.

“Well?  What could anyone be expected to think?”

Draco calmed down sufficiently to say, “God, Weasel-features, if everyone’s mind was as naturally filthy as yours the porn industry would collapse for lack of demand.”

They were by now nearly at the kitchen door of the Manor, and he raised his hand and wriggled it in a complex gesture.  There was the sound of locks disengaging, and it started to swing open, spilling a narrow band of warm yellow light across the gravel.  He turned again to face Ron.

“Good grief, you idiot, you can’t think I was snatching Arianhrod in order to subject her to a fate worse than death, can you?  I mean, be serious.  She’s a fifteen-year old girl of strictly limited personal attractions, and as of three o’clock this afternoon she’s also Hermione’s niece by marriage.  If you couldn’t believe that my morals, my aesthetics and my sexual orientation were going to prevent my trying anything inappropriate, you might at least have banked on my natural cowardice.”

“Anyway,” a warm, deep voice said from inside the kitchen, “it wouldn’t have been a fate worse than death.  And I ought to know.”

The door opened wide to let them in.  Neville, clearly, had not expected to see him framed in the doorway. With a pang, Harry noticed that Neville flinched visibly on spotting him.  He gulped, stiffened his resolve, and stepped forwards before his nerve could break.

“Look - I was hoping we’d get a chance to talk at the reception, but somehow - and then - look, well, anyway, I’ve been thinking.  A lot.  Since - um - since we met last.”

Neville began to speak, but it would be unbearable to let this moment slip, and it might never come again if he did.

 ”No, let me finish.  Well, what I thought then - I mean, when I was lying flat on my back waiting for you to kill me - when I got past the sheer terror and the oh, fuck, why did things ever come to this bit - well, I realised how absolutely unforgivable what I’d done was.  I don’t expect it’s any comfort to you to know that I really did have the absolutely best intentions - I still wake up and cringe when I think how that fucking bastard Eustace played me for a complete sucker - anyway, look, I was patronising, and arrogant, and a total git - and for fuck’s sake, you’re bloody well entitled to do what you want with your own life: I ought to realise that if anyone does. Anyway, it’s just I’m sorry. I’d quite understand it if you didn’t want me in your house or ever wanted to speak to me again.  But I just wanted to say it.”

He ran out of steam.  Caught Ron’s appalled glance back at him.  And abruptly the full sense of where he was and of what he had just publicly declared hit him like a kidney punch.

Jesus.  What a fuck-up.

Not just in front of Malfoy.  But in front of Malfoy’s mother, for Christ’s sake.

Plummeting down from the South Col towards Base Camp at the rate of one metre per second per second.

Neville took two strides forward, paused uncertainly, and then punched him affectionately just above the collar bone. Harry suppressed a gasp of pain; he would have to do an analgesia charm the minute Neville’s eyes were off him.

“Harry, stop gibbering.  And what are you having to drink?”

Awkwardly, he passed over the threshold into the kitchen of Malfoy Manor.  As he did so he caught, out of the corner of his eye, Neville glancing towards Malfoy with a look that somehow managed to combine apologetic hesitation - he could understand that, being for the first time wholly conscious of just how insulted Malfoy had every right to be about everything Harry had believed which had led to the whole ghastly fuck-up in the first place - with a centred confidence that where his own conscience had led him, his lover would surely follow.  Eventually.

And Harry, who had had no prior reason to believe the truth of that assumption, suddenly saw it made plain in Draco’s face as he in turn looked at his lover: his relief, his fierce exultation at the vindication, and his sheer blazing pride in Neville’s magnanimity: the pride of someone terrified of heights who sees someone he cares about to parachute from fifteen thousand feet.

Harry gulped.

Oh god.  Please don’t let me die before someone chooses to look at me like that.

Before anyone could say anything else there was a wail of “Uncle David!” and a green-haired, woebegone figure got up from a chair near the fire and flung herself hard against the best man’s chest.  He seemed to cope as best he could.

“Now, calm down Ari.  There’s no need for all that.  What’s up?”

She disentangled herself and looked tearfully up at him.  “Am I in the most awful, awful row with Mum?  Is she doing her nut?  Is she going to be a total pig about me going to Scotland with Dad in the holidays?”

David tried to look stern.  “I have to say, Ari, you most certainly deserve to be in an awful row. And I’m sure Jeremy would agree.”  She set off another wail, and he patted her somewhat ineffectually on the back, muttering parenthetically to the room as a whole, “I’m not really her uncle, you understand.  I’d be her godfather if either Tavia or Jeremy went in for that sort of thing.”

“Well,” Narcissa said, fixing the girl with a gimlet-eyed gaze (it occurred to Harry that Draco’s mother had apparently done a sobrefacio charm while they were walking up the driveway) “you ought to be, but at the moment you aren’t.  Once I realised that Draco and - ah - Ginny were on the case, I took the liberty of anticipating a successful outcome and - oh, fuck it, Arianhrod, look: I told your mother you were in bed back at the Vicarage with a headache.”

Arianhrod turned a damp and distraught countenance on Narcissa.  “That’s never going to work.  She’s got a phobia about me being abducted by rapists through the window.  She always comes in to check.   Sometimes twice or three times a night.”

Narcissa raised an eyebrow.

“How remarkably infuriating of her.  Well, we certainly can’t risk you not being where you’re supposed to be when that happens.  Though I assure you, since last time I looked Caitlin Naismith has her locked in a remarkably in-depth discussion about - oil exploration, or gassing badgers - or were they whales? Well, something of that sort, anyway - I think we do have some leeway.  The only question is: how do we get you back into the Vicarage?”

“Well, I do have the Vicarage spare keys - ” David began, just as Neville, reaching for his jacket, said, “I’ll run her down in the Land Rover.”

“Excellent,” Narcissa said.  “If Tavia should get back a little earlier, nothing could be more proper than her bumping into the child’s godfather, checking she’s safe.  And nothing harder to explain than her bumping into Neville without you to vouch for him.  Thank you, both of you.”

“But - ” David began.  Draco smiled blandly.

“The sooner you get it done, the sooner you’ll be back.  And Neville - if there’s anyone still standing at the party you reckon we can put up with, nab who you want to scoop up and bring them back for drinks -“

“Will do.”  Neville had his hand on the latch of the kitchen door, his arm on Arianhrod’s elbow, propelling her onwards; David, reluctantly, was getting to his feet, casting a backward and somewhat pathetic glance at Narcissa, who was looking determined.  Draco smiled charmingly at him.

“I gather you walked up from the village to look at the Manor in the moonlight, from the park.  It is particularly fine, isn’t it?  But it would be a crying shame if you missed the view of the park, from the Manor, too.  It complements it perfectly.  There’s a particular room on the first floor one gets the best view from, at this time of night.  I can never remember precisely which one it is, but I’m sure Ma can show you.  Later. Anyway.  See you in a bit.”

The door closed behind Arianrhod and the rescue mission with the faintest suspicion of a slam.  From the depths of the Manor came the sounds of a saxophone playing and of singing.

“Ah,” Draco said, “that will be Ginny and her friends.  They’re doing that thing musicians do - you know, Muggles call it something like marmalade.  Quite good, aren’t they?”

A solo female voice broke in again with what was evidently the next verse.

“Je renierais ma patrie
Je renierais mes amis
Si tu me le demandais-“

Abruptly it struck Harry that the husky, remote voice sounded like pure sex.  In stereo.

Draco coughed.

“Though I have to say, I hope she didn’t go round singing anything like that during Recent Events.  Specially given her past - um - well.  As she’s still alive, I presume she didn’t - anyway, should we go through and join them in the East sitting room?  Unless you want beer or white wine or anything else that needs chilling, the drinks are mostly is in there anyway.”

Harry - despite Ron’s panic beside him - did not resist being gently steered out of the kitchen in the direction of the music.  He told himself was in the hands of fate, and shouldn’t complain.  And whatever became of him, at least one thing whose wrongness had troubled his sleep intermittently for years had been set straight tonight.  And in the unlikely event Malfoy did poison the cocktails, he’d still die ahead of the game on that alone.

Outside the night had sunk into a calm stillness.  The last breath of breeze had died, and the three-quarters moon hung golden in the velvety blackness of the sky.  Inside the Manor the remains of the party chatted to whoever the fortunes of the evening had flung into neighbouring chairs, or curled in relaxed comfort on the sofas and let the evening drift past their half-closed eyes.

Neville picked up the discarded harmonica, and blew gently across it.  The notes had almost formed themselves - a few phrases sailing distinctly across the room - when he became aware that the room had fallen silent; that, unexpectedly everyone seemed to be waiting for something.  Him.  He flushed, suddenly, and put the harmonica down.

Across the room Reno looked at him, raised his clarinet to his lips, and played over the same phrases.  Then he lowered it.

“Well, go on, mate.”

“I -“

Reno looked at him.

“I’ll take the tune for you.  You know the words?”

“Yes, but I - I can’t -“

A cool, long-fingered hand, with an unfairly expert knowledge of how he responded to each gradation of pressure, dropped over his own hand.

“Don’t be ridiculous.  Of course you can.  You’ve sung enough things for Martin’s folk club, haven’t you?”

“Yes - but that’s different - I mean, I can’t - not here -“

Draco’s voice was calm.  Assured. Commanding.  And pitched for his ears alone.

“If those Muggles deserved it, then I’m sure your own people do.”

About to say But I can’t possibly his mind arrested him with a treacherous And why not anyway?  Nervously, he let a chopped nod signify agreement.

The long-fingered hand gestured imperiously towards Reno on the clarinet, and the opening bars drifted across the room again.  Neville gulped.  There was Ginny; unnaturally bright-eyed, leaning across the freestanding bookcase and showing a lot of cleavage.  There was Justin - bless him, smiling a saturnine and disengaged encouragement from the sofa.  Harry - he didn’t want to look in that direction.  That was all too new, too much of a gift.  And Ron, reassured by now of everyone’s good intentions, had fallen noisily asleep on a sofa corner.  So: the Professor of Quantum Physics, nattering quietly in a corner with Arthur Weasley; they probably weren’t even in the same galaxy to criticise.  And closer than thought or breath, a pair of brilliant grey eyes; daring him, challenging him.

Yes, sod it.

It was hardly the Albert Hall, after all.

He swallowed.  He moved his hand, slightly, in an arresting gesture.  Reno paused.

Neville coughed, sweeping his eyes nervously round the room, trying to will himself to think its Jacobean beauty the backroom of some scruffy Lancashire pub on folk-night, blue with cigarette smoke and raucous with ill-adjusted sound equipment.

“I - yes. Well.  Yes.  This is a song by a guy called Eric Bogle.  He was a Scotsman, who emigrated to Australia, and this is a song he wrote about war.  It was about the First World War - the one my Gran’s first husband died in - but you know, I’m not sure that that really matters.”

Slowly, deliberately, conscious of everyone’s eyes on him, but somehow for the first time in his life no longer paralysed by that knowledge, he picked up the harmonica, and played through the first verse.  In the whole of the room no-one moved.

He let the harmonica drop, and began to sing.

“Now when I was a young man I carried me pack
And I lived the free life of the rover.
From the Murray’s green basin to the dusty outback,
Well, I waltzed my Matilda all over.
Then in 1915, my country said, ‘Son,
It’s time you stop ramblin’, there’s work to be done.”
So they gave me a tin hat, and they gave me a gun,
And they marched me away to the war.

And the band played ‘Waltzing Matilda’,
As the ship pulled away from the quay,
And amidst all the cheers, the flag waving, and tears,
We sailed off for Gallipoli.”

He looked up, and caught Reno’s eye.  The clarinet carried the lament through a reprise of the chorus, before fading to let him sing again.

“And how well I remember that terrible day,
How our blood stained the sand and the water;
And of how in that hell that they call Suvla Bay
We were butchered like lambs at the slaughter.
Johnny Turk, he was waitin’, he primed himself well;
He showered us with bullets, and he rained us with shell -
And in five minutes flat, he’d blown us all to hell,
Nearly blew us right back to Australia.

But the band played ‘Waltzing Matilda,’
When we stopped to bury our slain,
Well, we buried ours, and the Turks buried theirs,
Then we started all over again.

There was a raw sound from a throat towards the back of the room.  He allowed himself a quick flicker of vision in the general direction.  Ah.  Oh.  Yes.  Arthur Weasley.  There were, of course, reasons there.  But Reno was playing again, leading him on, and he was as unable to stop now as if he were under Imperius.

“And those that were left, well, we tried to survive
In that mad world of blood, death and fire.
And for ten weary weeks I kept myself alive
Though around me the corpses piled higher.
Then a big Turkish shell knocked me arse over head,
And when I woke up in me hospital bed
And saw what it had done, well, I wished I was dead -
Never knew there was worse things than dying.

For I’ll go no more ‘Waltzing Matilda’,
All around the green bush far and free —
To hump tents and pegs, a man needs both legs,
No more ‘Waltzing Matilda’ for me.”

That muffled rasp of gut-wrenching pain was, even in this moment as the music carried him on, a direct blow at his solar plexus.  Oh my love -

He faltered - Reno, realising, unleashed a blizzarding cascade of improvisations to cover his slip -

Draco looked straight at him out of wide, stretched, dry eyes, and mouthed Go on.  He gulped and got through the next verse as best he could, and thank god, the end was in sight -

“And so now every April, I sit on my porch
And I watch the parade pass before me.
And I see my old comrades, how proudly they march,
Reviving old dreams of past glory,
And the old men march slowly, all bones stiff and sore,
They’re tired old heroes from a forgotten war
And the young people ask “What are they marching for?”
And I ask myself the same question.

But the band plays ‘Waltzing Matilda’,
And the old men still answer the call,
But as year follows year, more old men disappear
Someday, no one will march there at all.

He came, awkwardly to a stop - they were all looking at him; his mouth was dry.  It was impossible he could continue.  It was all going to end in a mess-up, as usual.  His voice had gone; he must be gaping like a goldfish -

And remotely, with a cold purity like that of a choirboy, a strong soprano voice broke in like an echo in the mountains, rebounding from a distant cliff.

“Waltzing Matilda, waltzing Matilda.
Who’ll come a-waltzing Matilda with me?
And their ghosts may be heard as they march by the billabong,
Who’ll come a-Waltzing Matilda with me?”

With unimaginable gratitude he looked across the room at Ginny Weasley.

And was discombobulated beyond measure to see that her eyes were flooded while she sang on, and that even as she finished on the last, perfect note the tracks of tears ran down her cheeks to her jaw line.