Harry awoke early the next morning and went downstairs, eager to enjoy a leisurely breakfast with Ginny and Hermione before he and Ron headed off to work. He was the first one to enter the kitchen, where Kreacher had just started preparing another hearty breakfast.
After a few minutes, he was joined by Ginny, who managed to look pretty even in her nightgown and robe. “Good morning,” she greeted Harry through a yawn, still sleepy-eyed.
“Sleep alright?” asked Harry, hoping she’d been comfortable enough in the second floor bedroom he’d offered her.
Ginny nodded, stifling another yawn. “I slept fine.”
It wasn’t her first time staying at number twelve, Grimmauld Place, Harry reminded himself, recalling the summer they’d spent cohabitating Sirius’s house while it was being used as headquarters for the Order of the Phoenix. Still, he half-wished he’d just invited Ginny to sleep in his room. Out of respect for Mr. and Mrs. Weasley, whom he regarded as sort of surrogate parents, he hadn’t. There was also the fact that Ron, who was both Harry’s best friend and Ginny’s brother, had decided to spend the night at Grimmauld Place as well, rather than apparate back to The Burrow. Ron had been surprisingly accepting of Harry’s relationship with his sister, but tolerance had its limits, and Harry knew better than to test them.
Yet when Ron and Hermione came into the kitchen together a few minutes later, Harry wondered if he’d been wrong to think Ron wouldn’t approve, when it was fairly obvious he had just spent the night with Hermione. For a moment, Harry wondered what had gone on between the two of them, then realized he really didn’t want to know. Maybe nothing, he thought. It wouldn’t have been the first time Ron and Hermione slept in the same room, after all those nights sharing a tent. Maybe they’d just fallen asleep holding hands, like that night they’d spent in the drawing room, the night after Bill and Fleur’s wedding. Harry wanted to believe that, but he didn’t really, and he wasn’t sure what bothered him more – the idea that Ron and Hermione might be sleeping together, or the realization that Ron, who had always seemed so clueless when it came to the opposite sex, might not only have caught up to Harry, but surpassed him.
“’Morning,” Ron said with a grin that Harry wanted to wipe right off his face. Hermione merely smiled and said nothing, slipping into a seat next to Ginny, as Ron sniffed the air like a dog. “Smells good! What’s cooking, Kreacher?”
“Kreacher has made eggs, sausage, and toast, sir, but if Mr. Weasley would prefer something else-”
“No way, Kreacher; this looks great!” Sitting down next to Harry, Ron loaded his plate with a generous serving of everything Kreacher offered him and started eating enthusiastically. He was on his second helpings when Hermione pushed away her plate and picked up The Daily Prophet.
“Anything interesting?” asked Harry, after she’d had a few minutes to peruse the front page. He missed having Hermione as a news source. He’d taken out his own subscription to the Prophet, but she’d always had a keener eye for spotting the small details he tended to overlook. What he didn’t miss was Ron asking, “Anyone we know dead?” every time Hermione opened the morning paper, like he had all through their sixth year. The mysterious deaths and disappearances had ended along with the Second Wizarding War, but that hadn’t stopped Harry from searching for signs that the Death Eaters were on the rise again. And signs did seem to pop up now and then. Small… insignificant, possibly… but signs, all the same.
“There’s been another case of Muggle-baiting,” Hermione noted, then began to read aloud from an article. “Magical Law Enforcement Patrol officers were dispatched to a Muggle residence in the small village of Puddington on Tuesday to investigate reports of a pool toy attacking two children.”
“We heard about that at work!” Ron exclaimed through a mouthful of food, spraying bits of egg across the table.
“Shut up, Ron, I haven’t heard about it,” said Ginny, wiping the flecks of egg off her face with a napkin. “And don’t talk with your mouth full; it’s disgusting.”
Hermione continued, “The Muggle children were enjoying a dip in their backyard swimming pool when the toy, a tube-shaped Muggle flotation device known as a “Noodle,” suddenly transformed into a massive serpent that tried to strangle one of the children by wrapping itself around the child’s neck. A neighboring witch witnessed the incident and saved the child by using a Severing Charm on the snake. The Magical Law Enforcement Patrol arrived in time to modify the memories of all Muggles involved. They believe the pool toy was bewitched with a transfiguration spell that was activated when it touched water. The incident is still under investigation.” She looked up from the paper, frowning. “Don’t they have any idea who did it?”
Harry shook his head slowly. “I don’t think so. Not last I heard, anyway.”
“Well, I sure hope they catch whoever did!” cried Hermione, her nostrils flaring in the way they always did when she got all riled up about house elf rights. “That’s not just Muggle-baiting; it’s attempted murder! They should be sent to Azkaban for that; it’s deplorable!”
“No one’s arguing with you, Hermione,” Harry said patiently. Working for the Department of Magical Law Enforcement, he was aware of the recent rise in anti-Muggle activity, and he was just as concerned as Hermione. In the days before his return, Harry had witnessed Voldemort’s old followers engaging in cruel Muggle-baiting at the Quidditch World Cup. It was the sort of thing the Death Eaters did when they were bored, and the presence of a snake suggested they were somehow involved. Was this just another prank, Harry wondered, or something more sinister?
His mind muddled over this question and more the whole way to work, where he was given even bigger things to think about. “I have a job for you, Potter,” said the Head of the Auror Office himself, a man by the name of Xander Turnbull.
“A job, sir?” asked Harry, unable to hide his surprise. As an Auror still in training, he wasn’t used to dealing directly with the head of the department, so it had come as a shock when Turnbull had pulled him out of his morning magical combat class for a private word.
“That’s right. Your first field assignment, I believe?” Turnbull raised an eyebrow, and when Harry nodded, he continued, “The department has received a tip from an anonymous informant, who claims to have knowledge of the latest plot to terrorize Muggles. I trust you’ve kept up on the recent string of anti-Muggle attacks?”
Harry nodded. “There was that one yesterday, with the pool toy.”
“Yes, yes… and many more incidences prior to that. The Misuse of Magical Artifacts Office has certainly had their hands full lately.”
Harry suppressed a smile as he thought of Ron’s father, who had once been head of that office. “Do you think they could all be connected, sir? Do you think the Death Eaters are involved?”
Turnbull eyed him sharply. “It seems beneath the Death Eaters to bewitch Muggle children’s toys for a laugh, but certainly, we’ve considered the possibility.”
Harry was so used to authority figures dismissing his theories that he was surprised when Turnbull didn’t. Encouraged, he added, “I mean, the fact that it turned into a snake… sort of suggests it’s the work of Voldemort’s old pals, doesn’t it?”
Even Turnbull, Head of the Auror Office, couldn’t help but cringe at the casual way in which Harry tossed the Dark Lord’s name around. Most wizards and witches still refused to use it, referring to Voldemort as “He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named” or simply “You-Know-Who.” Not even death could keep Voldemort from terrorizing the Wizarding community. In a way, Harry had to admit, he’d achieved his goal of immortality. Tom Riddle’s pseudonym – and the fear it evoked – would live on in infamy. Harry wished people would just get over it.
“If, indeed, You-Know-Who’s followers are behind these recent attacks, then I suspect they are only the warm-up acts leading into tonight’s main event,” Turnbull said grimly.
“What do you mean, sir?” asked Harry, his heart beginning to pound. “What’s happening tonight?”
“Muggle girls from all over Britain will be flocking to London for a large concert put on by a popular music group from the United States, the Backstreet Boys.”
“I’ve heard of them…” Harry said slowly. He had a vague recollection of hearing the name on the Muggle entertainment channel Aunt Petunia liked to watch on television, the last summer he’d spent at number four, Privet Drive.
“Have you? Excellent, Potter. I was told you’d make a good man for the job, seeing as how you’ve lived among Muggles; you’ll know how to blend in.”
“Blend in where, sir?” asked Harry, who was starting to suspect he wasn’t going to like this assignment. “What’s the job?”
“The information we’ve received suggests that anti-Muggle extremists may be targeting Muggles – perhaps even the band itself – at tonight’s show. You’re to go to the concert undercover, to keep an eye out for suspicious activity and intervene if anything should happen. More than likely, nothing will; it’s probably an empty threat, but even so, one can never be too careful. Are you up for the challenge, Potter?”
Turnbull’s encouraging tone made it sound like dangerous, important work, but Harry wasn’t fooled. He had a feeling all of the fully-qualified Aurors had already turned it down, leaving the demeaning mission of attending a Muggle boyband concert to one of the lowly trainees. “Can I take Ron with me?” Harry asked.
“Weasley? I don’t see why not. If you have a girlfriend, bring her too, to help you blend in. The audience will be mostly female.”
Harry nodded. “Okay, sir.” Ron and Ginny would probably roll their eyes when he told them, but how could he say no to his first field assignment? They would all just have to go along with it.
As he’d expected, Ron and Ginny’s reactions were less than enthusiastic when he told them where he was taking them that night. Hermione, on the other hand, actually seemed excited. “Oh, I love the Backstreet Boys!” she squealed, bouncing up and down a little, her brown eyes aglow. “My parents gave me one of their CDs as a birthday gift.”
“One of their what?” asked Ron, wrinkling his nose in confusion.
“CDs – compact discs. They’re these flat, shiny, round objects that hold songs, and you put them in Muggle music players, and – oh, honestly, Ron, I can’t believe you never took Muggle Studies! You work for the Ministry!”
“Not in the Muggle Liaison Department,” replied Ron with a grin that clearly said, Who cares?
“But still, you should know something about Muggle culture; it’s important!” Hermione insisted. She had lightened up a lot over the years, but she still took most things far more seriously than Ron.
“That’s right, Ron, and this concert will be the perfect opportunity for you to learn,” Harry chimed in. Ron returned his mischievous grin with a mutinous look, while Hermione beamed at Harry, thinking he was on her side. Really, he just wanted to stop them both from bickering.
“So where is this concert happening?” asked Ginny, effectively changing the subject.
“Earls Court.” Harry checked his watch, the one Mrs. Weasley had given him for his seventeenth birthday. “It starts in a couple of hours, so I guess we should eat dinner and get going.”
“Oh, I don’t know if I can eat a thing; I’m so excited!” gushed Hermione. Ron just stared at her as if she’d grown a second head. For his friend’s sake, Harry hoped none of the Backstreet Boys looked like Viktor Krum. He already had a feeling this was going to be a long night.