Vis Insita by Caleb Nova



Summary: Every body persists in its state of being at rest or of moving uniformly straight forward, except insofar as it is compelled to change its state by force impressed. The seventh year sequel to That Terrifying Momentum.
Rating: R starstarstarstarhalf-star
Categories: Alternate Universe, Post-HBP
Characters: None
Genres: None
Warnings: None
Challenges: None
Series: None
Published: 2015.07.23
Updated: 2017.09.07


Index

Chapter 1: And This Long Wake of Phosphor…
Chapter 2: Goodbye, Arcadia Part I
Chapter 3: Goodbye, Arcadia Part II
Chapter 4: Landfall
Chapter 5: The Leaving Cycle
Chapter 6: The Enemy Without
Chapter 7: The Balance Unseen
Chapter 8: Dear Kylie
Chapter 9: This Island, These Tides
Chapter 10: Trace These Lines
Chapter 11: When We Remembered Zion
Chapter 12: Truth of Sequence
Chapter 13: Each Breath Be Blessed, Every Hour Be Stilled
Chapter 14: Meshes
Chapter 15: How to Build a Following
Chapter 16: As You Were
Chapter 17: Parts Per Million
Chapter 18: Apology Not Fucking Accepted
Chapter 19: For Your Information
Chapter 20: Erebus Tau Alpha
Chapter 21: What Is Gone Shall Be Forgotten
Chapter 22: What Is Forgotten Is Not Gone
Chapter 23: Nothing Important Happened Today Part II
Chapter 24: Closer to a Memory
Chapter 25: There Is None
Chapter 26: In Transition
Chapter 27: How You're Bound
Chapter 28: While You Unravelled
Chapter 29: Interior, Grimmauld Place
Chapter 30: Every Word Now Shall Be a Much Needed Recompense in Our Memory
Chapter 31: Solve for X
Chapter 32: Go to the Ant, Thou Sluggard
Chapter 33: This Conversation is Ending Starting Right Now
Chapter 34: The Crowded Hour
Chapter 35: Birds in Winter
Chapter 36: Wealth of Nations Part I
Chapter 37: Wealth of Nations Part II
Chapter 38: Wealth of Nations Part III
Chapter 39: Wind Down
Chapter 40: Blow Out
Chapter 41: Age of Anxiety
Chapter 42: Pounds Per Square Inch
Chapter 43: Probabilistic Modelling in Semi-Deterministic Space
Chapter 44: Psi Omega Warden


Chapter 1: And This Long Wake of Phosphor…

Prologue

And This Long Wake of Phosphor…


And this long wake of phosphor,
iridescent
Furrow of all our travel – trailed derision!
Eyes crumble at its kiss. Its long-drawn spell
Incites a yell. Slid on that backward vision
The mind is churned to spittle, whispering hell.

–Hart Crane (1899–1932), Southern Cross*


(a letter written on ruled notebook paper)

Ginny,

You know I'm not that great at writing letters but I'm giving it a go. I reckoned if you didn't hear from me at some point I'd be in trouble. The thing is I haven't written so far because I'm not sure what to say. Or I'm not sure what to say that won't make you hacked at me.

I don't want you to come with me. Sorry, but that's the truth. The Dursleys have been gone a lot the last few days and I've been sitting here and it looks like a bad idea. How are we going to get you away from The Burrow? Your mum will kill me, you know.

What really worries me is the Ministry. You'll still be under age and if you use any magic then they'll find us. I can't think of any way around that and yes I have tried, I'm not just using excuses. There's no way I'll let you come if you can't use magic to defend yourself.

So I've torn this letter up about five times now and started over. This is the best version, I think. I don't know. I'm not good at writing letters. I just want to know that you're okay and that you don't want to hurt me for changing my mind again.

Harry


(a letter written on blank white stationary)

Dear Harry,

You're a prat. I'm only slightly angry with you. You aren't good at writing letters, but at least you tried.

As for everything else – stop it, Harry. You're thinking too much. You should never be alone, you know that? You're terrible at it! I leave you to your own devices for a few weeks and you fall apart. I want you to get in touch with Scott and tell him to bring you to The Burrow right away. Full stop. Get out of that awful house and come see me. We'll work this out. I'll wager Hermione can think of something for the Ministry problem. Or we can tell Scott to just burn the place down.

Love,

Ginny


(a letter written on ruled notebook paper)

Ginny,

Please don't tell Scott to burn down the Ministry. He might actually do it and we've got enough problems. I don't know how to get in touch with him. He just shows up sometimes. I don't think he would take me to your place. He seems happy enough to leave me here, maybe because of the protections. Makes his job easier, probably.

Last time I saw him he said that Lila was watching out for you and everyone else at the Burrow. If anything should happen, make sure you stick close to her. I told Scott to stay near you as well, but I'm not sure he listened. He usually likes to keep us all in one place. If he hasn't tried to move us he must have some sort of reason.

I said before I wasn't good at writing letters. Well, I'm really really not good at writing letters that are personal. But I miss you. And I still don't see how this is going to work but I hope it does.

Guess that wasn't very romantic. I'm just rubbish at this.

Harry


(a note scrawled on the back of a flyer for a lawn service)

Hey dude

Lil said Ginny was griping

about me seeing you?

For something?

I don't know

Just call me

Even you magic Neanderthals

gotta know how to use a phone

020 7946 0998


(a letter written on heavy parchment)

Harry,

Hey, mate. Thought it was about time I write you since it's been a bit. I've been writing Hermione non-stop though, for a change. I think she likes it. Hard to tell just reading about her day, maybe she's sick of all the letters. You don't think Hermione would ever get tired of letters do you? Maybe I should stop.

Anyway I wanted to ask you something. I saw you'd been writing Ginny. Which is fine, that's nice that you can still be friends and all. But I thought there was something else going on? Gin seems kind of excited when she's writing you. So really what I'm wondering is if the two of you got back together. That's why I wrote.

Write back soon,

Ron


(a phone conversation)

(Ringing)

SCOTT: 'Yello!

HARRY: Hello? Scott?

SCOTT: Oh, hey, Harry. Thought I might hear from you.

HARRY: Well, you did give me your number. How does that work, though, did you just buy a–

SCOTT: Uh, Harry, if we're going to continue this conversation it would be helpful if you'd take the phone out of your ass.

HARRY: Sorry. Sorry, I… (embarrassed silence) God, I don't remember the last time I used a phone. I was putting it too close to my mouth. At least I'm not shouting, some wizards will do that.

SCOTT: Good thing you're no ordinary wizard. The Chosen One doesn't need to shout.

HARRY: (sigh) Right. Like I was saying, did you buy a phone in London?

SCOTT: This is a recent setup. Standard, but recent. This number actually just routes to my com.

HARRY: Okay.

SCOTT: …So did you call for any particular reason, or is this a cry for help?

HARRY: That thing with Lila and Ginny. Ginny wants you to take me to The Burrow as soon as you can.

SCOTT: Why? You changing your mind already?

HARRY: I change my mind about it every other minute. That, and she doesn't like me being alone out here.

SCOTT: Tough noogies. Not much longer to go anyway, you'll be there soon enough.

HARRY: I reckoned you'd say that. That's what I told her.

SCOTT: Well, aren't I predictable. (a loud bang, muffled shouting in the distance) Hey, look at that, I gotta go. Keep it real, H.

(dial tone)

HARRY: Bye…


(a letter written on ruled notebook paper)

Ron,

I know this isn't what you want to hear but the thing I have with Ginny is complicated. I'll just be honest. She wants to come with us. I know that isn't a good idea, but you need to talk to Scott about it more than me. He said some things that

I don't know how to finish this. I'm sort of convinced that leaving her behind is pointless, but then I'm also not because I know that it will be dangerous. I can't say more in a letter. Sorry.

Harry


(a letter written on blank white stationary)

Bloody hell, Harry! I can't believe you told Ron and not in person. He exploded today, no joke, I thought for sure Mum would find out about the whole thing. What were you thinking? You know he's all worried that you're just messing me about. It's unbearable here right now, thanks to you.

Even Dad wants to know why we're fighting and what am I going to say? Couldn't you just keep it to yourself for a few more weeks? Is that really so hard?!

You're such a total prat, Harry. Lucky I like you so much.

Ginny


(a letter written on ruled notebook paper)

Ginny,

I'm sorry. I really am. I just couldn't lie to him. I thought about it. He was going to find out anyway, you know that. He hasn't written back to me. I'm sure that's not a good sign.

I'm back to being glad you'll be with me. I feel like if I could just be with you we could work this out.

I reckon this will last until tomorrow morning, then I'll want to lock you away again.

Harry


(a letter written on personalized pale lavender stationary)

Dear Harry,

I understand you've made quite a mess recently. Ron has been writing me (for once!) and raised a fuss about you and Ginny. I suppose you've worked things out with her, at least for the most part.

I really can't imagine why you told Ron without doing so in person, but what's done is done. I'll do my best to calm him, though when it comes to Ginny you know how he can be. What you really need is for Scott to talk to him. That way, even if Ron tries to hit Scott, we all know he had it coming anyway (that was a joke).

Speaking of which, has Scott said anything about watching me? I could have sworn I saw a blond man across the street last Thursday. He was leaning against a car. I went to the front walk, but by then he was gone. There wasn't exactly a crowd on the street that evening, so I thought it might be him.

I know you're impatient and feeling cooped up at the Dursleys', but it won't be much longer until the wedding. Try to get some rest, Harry – real rest, not the tossing and turning you call rest when you're worried about something. I know you haven't been sleeping well, because I know you.

Affectionately,

Hermione


(a phone conversation)

(Ringing)

SCOTT: This had better be Harry Potter.

HARRY: It is me. Why would it be someone else?

SCOTT: Just getting ready to threaten someone, if need be. You never know. Somebody could have broken into your house or stolen this number from you.

HARRY: And you would have done what, exactly?

SCOTT: I would have told them that I'd rip their lower intestines out through their urethra unless they let you go immediately.

HARRY: Ugh. Can that actually be done?

SCOTT: No. But it would be both painful and fatal when I tried.

HARRY: Uh, anyway… Hermione wrote me. Were you outside of her house last Thursday?

SCOTT: Yep.

HARRY: (relieved sigh) Okay, good. I was worried that if it wasn't you, maybe someone else was looking for her.

SCOTT: They'd better not. I wouldn't like that at all.

HARRY: Me, neither. So everything has been okay?

SCOTT: Ron and Ginny are safe in The Burrow, Lila is still spending a lot of time there. Most of her time, actually. Hermione has been fine at her house, you've been okay at yours so far. Neville is holed up in his not-so-humble abode, and there's so much magic around there I can't get too close to it, I'm worried I might break something. Luna… Luna is okay for now. I caught a Death Eater sniffing around her place.

HARRY: What?! Already? Why her, she can't possibly be considered such a threat–

SCOTT: Relax, I took care of it.

HARRY: You can't be everywhere at once. Why don't you let me go and stay with her for a while, just until we can all get together.

SCOTT: No. You're staying right where you are.

HARRY: Luna is in danger, I can't just sit here on my arse!

SCOTT: You can and you will. I told you, I took care of it.

HARRY: Took care of it how?

SCOTT: I told Neville about it.

HARRY: You… Ah. I see. Sometimes I forget how sneaky you are.

SCOTT: No, you don't. Luna is now enjoying an indefinite stay in Neville's hospitality.

HARRY: I'm surprised he could convince his grandmum.

SCOTT: I don't know if he bothered to ask. So is there anything else, or were you just checking in?

HARRY: I – er – might have told Ron about me and Ginny. With a letter.

SCOTT: I know. Lila is currently having a high old time watching the two of them quietly seethe at each other.

HARRY: He hasn't written me back.

SCOTT: Probably saving his fingers for punching.

HARRY: …Er – about that. Hermione thought it might be best if you talked to him.

SCOTT: Hah! Yeah, I bet she did.

HARRY: Would you? I think he'll listen to you if you explain everything. Tell him what you told me.

SCOTT: And save you from being assaulted?

HARRY: Come on. You wouldn't want your Priority One to take a beating, would you?

SCOTT: (laughter) You picked that up quick. I'll make a Primare out of you yet!

HARRY: So that's a yes?

SCOTT: That's a maybe. I'll look into it. Talk to you later.

HARRY: All right. Later, then.


(a letter written on heavy parchment)

Just because I'm writing doesn't mean I'm not still bloody angry about the whole thing. But I guess I'm not blaming you as much. As much! Ginny is giving me the cold shoulder like you wouldn't believe, it's effing freezing in here. I know how she gets when she wants something. I thought you already settled things.

Lila had a few words with me. She and Ginny are best mates now, apparently, who knew. So I've got two narky girls in the house, that's brilliant. You don't think if we make Ginny stay at The Burrow, that Lila will take her along anyway? Fucking hell. I know Gin is good in a fight, but my mum will kill me. It'll be on my head, somehow.

Scott sent me a letter, sort of. Lila showed it to me on that little Muggle wireless of hers and says he wants to talk. I don't know what he told you, but it'd have to be bloody spectacular to work on me.

Ron


(a note scribbled on the personal ads page of the morning paper)

Talked to Ron

He wasn't feeling reasonable, but

we worked it out

Truth hurts

Keep an ear out for the phone

Lila wants to talk to you

S.K.


(a phone conversation)

(Ringing)

HARRY: –It really is for me! Yes, I get calls too. At least I think – hello?

LILA: Is there a problem?

HARRY: This is Lila, right?

LILA: Right.

HARRY: (distantly) I told you it was for me! This doesn't have anything to do with you–

(DISTORTED SHOUTING): –my telephone, boy, you'd better believe it's my business–

HARRY: Not this time. Just back off, all of you! Lila? You still there?

LILA: Present. Obviously there's some issue with my calling, so I'll make this short. Ginny wants to see you as soon as possible.

HARRY: Um… I don't know how I'd manage that.

LILA: I'll be managing it for you. Be at your window tomorrow night at ten. Okay?

HARRY: Er, yeah… Yeah, I'll be ready.

LILA: Good. See you then.

(Click)


(a letter written on blank white stationary)

Thought I wouldn't go through with it, I'll bet. I won't say where we're meeting over the post, but it's neutral ground. Lila handled everything very nicely. I think she's better at this Prime stuff than Scott is.

I'll see you soon, Harry. And don't start worrying.

Gin


When ten o' clock came around, Harry was sitting on his bed with his hands clasped nervously in front of him. Despite Ginny's parting words, he had, in fact, been worrying. What was he going to say to her? After all the times he'd changed his mind on the issue of her accompanying him on his mad quest, no doubt she was ready to slap him senseless.

It didn't help that the weeks of separation left him craving her company. She wanted to talk (or fight), and all he wanted to do was snog.

"Fuck," he muttered. It helped a little.

Lila was coming, and Ginny was waiting. Harry didn't know how to deal with Lila, which was mostly why he was keenly missing Scott's presence. Harry's interactions with her had been limited, at best. Her demeanour had always given him the impression that she didn't much care for him. He couldn't think of anything he had done to make her feel that way…

Well, except becoming the Chosen One and getting her assigned to his hopeless cause.

Did she resent him for that? Harry felt a bit angry at the possibility. It wasn't his fault she was assigned to this mess of a mission. He hadn't asked for her, or Scott's, help. He hadn't exactly refused it, but…

He was uptight and jumping to conclusions. Lila had been steadfast in her protection of Harry's friends during the attack, and hadn't flinched from the fighting or her duty. Scott might have seemed more dedicated to the task at hand in comparison, but he had also been a very visible presence for over a year, now. Harry hadn't seen much of the other sibling. He supposed her conduct that night at Hogwarts was proof enough of her ability. And, besides, Ginny was apparently on good terms with Lila, so that was important to keep in mind.

Harry didn't know how he'd be hailed, but he half-expected another rock pinging against his windowpane. Instead, a glaring beam of light swiftly appeared, traced its way across the ceiling, and then vanished again. It repeated this motion twice more before Harry made his way over and opened the window.

Below on the grass stood Lila, holding a torch in her hand as she flicked the switch on and off. When Harry stuck his head out, she tucked the light into one of her jacket pockets and motioned for him to descend. Obviously, she had the same faith in Harry's climbing abilities that her brother did.

Once again, Harry carefully lowered himself out the window and dropped the remaining distance. In a repeat of the last occasion, Lila caught him just as Scott had. The embarrassing key difference was that Scott didn't possess a large (and firm, a distant and very male portion of Harry's mind assessed) pair of breasts for Harry to be squashed against as he was prevented from injuring himself. Lila didn't comment, letting go of him without a hint of awkwardness, and Harry found himself thankful that the Kharan siblings weren't entirely similar.

There was a car parked across the street. Lila lead him to it in silence, sliding into the driver's seat whilst Harry sat in the passenger side. It took him a moment to remember how to buckle his seatbelt, fumbling with the straps and feeling more chagrined by the second. Lila's supposed opinion of him wasn't going to improve if he couldn't even ride in a car correctly.

But Lila said nothing, starting the car and driving down the street without so much as a glance in Harry's direction. Her silence didn't invite conversation. Despite his feelings of awkwardness, Harry chose to stare out the window rather than find something pleasant to say. It was obvious that Lila wasn't interested in talking.

As they drove, the Muggle world flashed by in patches of illumination: street lamps and houses, shops and petrol stations. A suburb dissolved into a field, which in turn grew back into a car park. With a growing sense of displacement, Harry realised that the normalcy outside the window seemed more alien than wands and wizards. When was the last time he had gone for a car ride of any distance, one that didn't involve flying? Nobody in the buildings flashing by knew that their future was in doubt. He had only been in the car for ten minutes, and already the wizarding world seemed small.

Scott had been right. It would be easy to get lost out there, and disappear.

"I'm glad Scott isn't here," Lila commented.

She had been quiet for so long that Harry actually jumped when she spoke. "Oh?" he said after he caught his breath. "Why's that?"

"He'd be making some stupid comments about the locale," she huffed, sounding irritated even though Scott wasn't present to make said comments. "Every time we're in the English countryside, it's Straw Dogs, and every time we're in the American south, it's Deliverance. He watches too many movies."

Harry felt that this conversation was only confirming his estrangement from his Muggle roots. "That sounds like him," he said, deciding that was a neutral response.

"Either that, or he'd want to listen to Village Green Preservation Society over and over again. Which is fine, for the first couple plays. I like it. But he never gets tired of it. It's like he thinks his life needs a soundtrack."

That was a very odd description of Scott, and yet, somehow it fit him perfectly. "I think sometimes he's waiting for the band to strike up, when he makes a big entrance or something."

Lila smiled. "Hah! Yeah, he wishes."

Harry leaned back in his seat, feeling more relaxed. Maybe Lila wasn't harbouring a deep dislike for him. "So, um, where are we going?"

"My apartment. Ginny is already there, though I'm sure that doesn't make you feel any better. She didn't look violent when I left."

Harry winced. Ginny had plenty of time to get violent before he arrived. "All right…"

"This is a one time thing. We found an opportunity and we took it, but just because the Death Eaters aren't looking for a car doesn't mean they won't be in the future," Lila warned.

Harry glanced back outside, peering upward into the overcast sky reflexively. Even if there was someone on a broom up there, there was little chance he could spot them. "I don't think they know exactly where I'm staying."

Lila nodded. "If they did, we'd have already run into them. But just in case, Scott is making some noise to keep them occupied."

That brought Harry's head snapping back around. "What? What is he doing now?"

"We found a Death Eater supply cache in a building over in Knockturn. Well, Scott found it. I don't think he was actually looking for it, but he's been following a few Death Eaters around while you Primes have been holed up." Lila checked the clock on the dashboard. "About… sixteen minutes ago, he set fire to the place."

Harry frowned. "Why would they have a supply room? They can keep their things wherever they want by now, probably."

"Maybe 'supply cache' isn't the right term," Lila amended. "There was some stuff in there, mostly robes and masks, but it was also a meeting area. A recruitment centre, we think."

"They'll just move somewhere else," Harry muttered. A familiar sense of hopelessness tugged at his heart. Wizarding Britain was being poisoned from within, and there didn't seem to be any way to stop it.

Lila merely shrugged. "It will get their attention for the night, and that's all we needed."

Maybe every victory was temporary, Harry mused, turning away from Lila and staring out the glass. They all had been so far. Every year at Hogwarts had brought another minor success, and it had never done anything but delay the inevitable. Voldemort had shrugged off his defeats and was stronger than ever.

As the dim outlines of trees flashed past outside, Harry felt like he was standing still. Even if he avoided death or capture and successfully sought out the Horcruxes, doing so would take all of his time and energy. Meanwhile, the rest of the wizarding world would be swallowed by the dark, piece by piece. What was the point of killing Riddle if, at that end, there was nothing left to save?

"I see what she meant," Lila interjected into the silence, making Harry jump again.

"Huh? What who meant?"

"Ginny. She told me you shouldn't be allowed to think alone," Lila said wryly.

Harry didn't reply, crossing his arms in a disgruntled fashion. Whatever Ginny thought, she didn't have to say that sort of thing to Lila, of all people.

Lila looked over at him with an amused expression. "I would say the same thing about Scott, personally. I understand where she's coming from."

"Scott?" Harry scoffed. "He's too spastic to brood, or whatever it is you think I'm doing."

"Only because the Scott you know isn't the one I know," Lila told him with a hint of what he thought was smugness. "You know proto-Scott. Scott Junior. Remember, he grew up, same as the rest of us. He just aged down for your convenience."

"Yeah, I know, but he still has all his memories, he's still an adult, just not… physically."

"But it's not the same. You'll see."

It was troubling to think that Harry's new found friend and ally might not be the same person anymore. And he didn't like the way that Lila seemed to be rubbing it in. "Whatever," he grumbled.

Lila rolled her eyes. "Scott isn't schizophrenic. He'll be different, but not that much. If I were you, right now I'd be more worried about Ginny."

That excellent point brought Harry up short. His meeting with Ginny was fast approaching and he didn't know if she wanted to smack or snog him. With any luck, she'd snog him first and then smack him after, when he'd be feeling no pain.

Who was he kidding? Ginny had a good arm.

Harry passed the rest of the trip in a pensive silence. Lila must have found that amusing, if her expression was anything to go by. Harry still wasn't sure where things stood with her. He wasn't certain that she didn't like him, but now he wasn't sure that he liked her.

After some time, the surrounding area began to look a little familiar. Harry thought he might have glimpsed parts of it from the air whilst playing Quidditch in the Weasley's garden. When they entered the town, he recognised most of it, having passed through before.

He did not, however, recognise the squat, two-storey building they arrived at. Lila drove the car around to an alley, and parked in a narrow space that seemed designed for a slightly smaller vehicle. A worn brick staircase climbed the back of the structure. Lila ascended it with Harry behind her, pausing to use a key at the door.

Inside, a small window overlooked the street to Harry's left; to his right, a blank hallway stretched out, punctuated by doors along the left hand side. Lila led him to the nearest one, marked number three.

"If you're going to fight, keep it down," Lila warned Harry as she inserted her key into the lock. "I share a wall and a floor with some people who are probably asleep by now."

When he entered the flat, Harry noticed the layout only peripherally; two bedrooms, a toilet and a kitchen attached to the sitting room. The fact that Ginny occupied a chair opposite of the door demanded the majority of his attention. She was wearing jeans that accentuated her slim form, coupled with a yellow, thin-strapped top with a hem about an inch too short to conceal a tantalizing strip of pale skin. After weeks apart, she seemed more stunning than ever.

Harry didn't want to fight. He wanted Lila to leave so he could get Ginny onto that sofa with him.

"Hey, Gin," he managed to get out, making a feeble attempt to keep his eyes on her face.

"Quit staring at my tits, Harry," Ginny said without much ire. "We need to talk. Again."

Lila brushed past him while he internally fumbled for a response. "I've been told that tits are for staring at, among other things," she noted. "But there's a time and a place. Like I said, no shouting. I mean it."

"Yeah, okay," Harry grated out. He watched with relief as Lila disappeared into one of the bedrooms and shut the door. He was already tired of her intercession in what he thought was a private matter, and the last thing he wanted was to suffer her snarky asides while he talked to and\or snogged his girlfriend.

With Lila out of the way, he looked back over at Ginny, only to see her eyes narrowing. "You'd better not have been staring at her tits," she said, crossing her arms.

"What? No!" Harry said, aghast. Lila's chest was undoubtedly impressive, but not even close to the first thing Harry was thinking about whilst dealing with her.

"And why not? I thought blokes went for that sort of thing, the bigger the better and all that."

He couldn't win. He couldn't– "What the– I– No! That's not even always true, you… You're taking the piss, aren't you."

Ginny laughed, muffling it with her hands. Harry just gaped back at her, dumbfounded. She was jiggling a little as her shoulders heaved, and he was rapidly developing a problem that he'd need one of the many pillows lying about to hide.

"I'm sorry, Harry, but you should have seen the look on your face when you came in," Ginny chortled. "You didn't know whether you wanted to hide or snog!"

He knew which one he wanted to do now. "It was all worth it just to hear you say 'tits'," he told her (and it sounded like a joke, but it wasn't, really).

Ginny moved over to the sofa and patted the seat next to her. "Come on, sit down. If you're lucky, maybe I'll say tits again."

No, if he was lucky he'd get to see some tits, not just hear about them. But luck had never been one of Harry's primary attributes, and he reckoned whatever good fortune he had was spent. Ginny wasn't angry, and that was about as lucky as he could see himself being.

He slumped onto the sofa and stared straight ahead at the blank television, too nervous to meet Ginny's eyes. "…So what did you want to talk about?"

"Like you don't know," Ginny scoffed. "Did you change your mind again on the ride over? Or are you waiting for my next letter?"

"I was waiting for your next letter," Harry replied in a monotone.

Ginny sighed. "And I suppose you've been too busy worrying about that to actually think of how we can make this work."

"Yes."

"Well, I've been talking to Lila–" Ginny began, and Harry immediately knew that he wasn't going to like any sentence that started that way, "–and she says that me being under-age shouldn't be a problem. There's a spell attached to me, she just has to get rid of it."

"All right. Does she also have a fantastic plan to stop your mum from killing me?"

Ginny shifted a bit in her seat. "We weren't going to tell her before we leave, right?"

That was the worst idea Harry had heard in awhile. "No!"

"Exactly. We'll just skip out at the first opportunity and take care of those Horcruxes." Ginny reached over and took Harry's hand, gripping it firmly.

She made it sound so easy, but Harry was a long way from sharing her confidence. Still, she was holding his hand and wasn't angry about his letters, so he said nothing and leaned into her slightly. There was no point in disagreeing and possibly starting a real row.

Without warning, Ginny released Harry's hand and turned over to straddle his lap. This put her breasts at eye level (as well as putting a few other things in close proximity) and it took a great deal of willpower for Harry to look up and meet her eyes whilst she moved her hands to the back of his neck.

"You'll be glad I'm there when it comes down to it. I know you're not happy now, but you'll see," Ginny murmured, pressing herself closer to Harry. "There are benefits to having me around, you know."

"I can think of a few," Harry said in a low voice, moving his thumbs to stroke her waist where he held it.

Ginny leaned in for a kiss that wiped every doubting thought from Harry's mind. It started off innocent enough, but when she opened her mouth and squeezed herself against him in an almost desperate manner, things became very interesting. Harry was suddenly very conscious of the fact that this was about as far as they'd ever taken things, and Lila was right in the next room.

Even as he pulled his lips from Ginny's and gently pushed her away, he was already regretting it. But Scott's sofa was not the ideal place to try the sorts of things he really wanted to try with her.

"Too fast?" Ginny asked. She was breathing hard and eyeing Harry's mouth hungrily.

"No, just about perfect," Harry told her. "But, you know, Lila is right over there…"

"Bugger her," Ginny said tersely, moving in closer again.

"I heard that!" Lila's muffled voice said from behind the door. "No sex on my couch! I want to keep it clean!"

Ginny sighed, slumping downward and resting her head on Harry's shoulder. "I bet if it were Scott, he wouldn't care if we had sex on his couch," she murmured humorously.

"If it were Scott, he might be giving us advice," Harry managed to choke out. Ginny's clear implication that she wouldn't mind having sex with him left his tongue uncooperative and his pants even tighter than before. He really hoped she wouldn't move a great deal while she was positioned on his lap. He was dangerously close to embarrassing himself.

Ginny raised her head to look him in the eye. "So, are we good now? No more doubts?"

Harry dropped his chin and gazed at that delicious strip of skin near her navel. "Like I've ever been sure about anything," he muttered.

"But more sure, I hope. I know this is hard. I don't always understand why, but I'm trying. You can't do this alone. And I want to be with you." She cupped the back of his head and kissed him, hard and possessive. "Please let me help."

"Okay, Ginny. I… Okay."

She placed her head back against his shoulder, holding him close. "You didn't really want to leave me, did you?"

"No, never," Harry said honestly. "I just thought I didn't have a choice."

"You always have choices, Harry," Ginny said. "But you need help to see them."

Harry snorted in amusement. "That sounds like what Scott's been telling me."

"Lila told me that, actually." Ginny ran her fingers through his hair, and then tilted her head, bringing their lips near enough to feel the warmth. "She didn't say anything about this, though."

Harry lost himself in her lips, tongue and scent, and for that moment he didn't doubt a thing.


(a letter jotted on the back of a blank envelope)

Had fun at your reunion?

I heard you enjoyed yourself

very much

remind me not to sit on that couch

anymore.

Fuck your balls

Scott


(a letter written on personalized pale lavender stationary)

Dear Harry,

Ginny wrote me a lengthy letter detailing your meeting with her. I'm glad that you've decided (again) to see reason, though I admit I'm a bit worried as to how long it will last. I know Ginny had you convinced at the time, but, as we both know, you aren't very reliable when it comes to this particular.

I've had some doubts (never about my own involvement, Harry!) the same as you, but I do realise that it's not as personal. Still, during our current separation I've given it a lot of thought, and, much as it pains me to put it in writing, I think Scott is correct. Past evidence points to Ginny being as inextricable from this mess as the rest of us. And yes, Harry, we are just as involved as you! Don't you dare mentally stagger off into another bout of solitary despair. You're stuck with us, like it or not. I'd prefer that you like it, but I know you too well.

Please don't distance yourself now. It's so very important that we collaborate in this. I really can't stress that enough. And if, as things may be now, you feel more inclined to listen to Scott, then I know he would tell you the same thing.

Wishing we could talk in person,

Hermione


(a letter written on ruled notebook paper)

Hermione,

I couldn't think of any good way to respond to your last letter which is why this is so late. I felt guilty. I still do. And not about the whole thing with Ginny, I mean that's still a problem I can't get over it just like that. But that you– I would have made you think that your advice doesn't mean anything or that Scott is my only

God I can't do this in writing. I'm not a writer. Scott is my friend, and I think he is yours too, but he wasn't there to fight a troll with us. He wasn't there at the Department or to help Sirius or at any of the million times that you were there for me like you always have been. At all the important parts of my life the worst and the best and come on, Hermione. You and Ron were the first real friends I ever had.

I just hate this thought that maybe I made you feel like what you had to say was second to Scott. Maybe when he's talking about guns. But you know magic and you know me and

Writing this all down has made me realise how stupid I was to even consider trying this alone. Sorry. When you're putting together all the plans that will actually get us somewhere you can laugh about how daft I am. And then Ron can punch me again.

Harry

P.S. How detailed was Ginny's letter?


(a letter written on heavy parchment)

Hermione says that Ginny convinced you all over again that taking her was a good idea. Is it just me or are all the women against us? I'm not mad at you anymore, Harry. I think us blokes need to stick together.

Fred and George were over here a couple days ago, talking about moving you to a safer place. I didn't catch the details. You know those gits, they won't tell me anything.

Anyway, taking Ginny is still a bad idea but this whole bloody thing is a bad idea. Nobody's going to be safe anywhere, not anymore. Guess we have to accept that. It doesn't make me a poof to be scared right? Too fucking right I'm scared. Bloody hell.

Sod it. Almost time to get on with it. I bet Hermione will know what to do.

Ron


(a letter written on blank white stationary)

Harry,

It will be your birthday before too long. I know I told you not to worry earlier, but I guess I am now. You have to promise me you'll be careful.

And for God's sake, don't change your mind about me again. I'll be very cross with you.

Love,

Ginny


*Southern Cross was written by the American poet Hart Crane, and is not of my invention. This initial quote selection will be, from this point forward, the sole exception: the poems and quotes prefacing all subsequent chapters are entirely fictional, and are not excerpted from the works of any actual poets or authors.

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Chapter 2: Goodbye, Arcadia Part I

2

Goodbye, Arcadia

Part I


"Primes may be required to leave behind their familiar spaces,
but they should not be
expected to. Understanding the difficulties
inherent in new and almost certainly dangerous undertakings
is an important part of building a solid working relationship
with your Primes. The demands of the shape can be both arduous
and frightening. A good integrationist takes this into account,
and utilizes empathy as much as any other tool at their disposal.
True rapport is emotional, not merely circumstantial."

–The Guiding Light: An Integrationist's Guide to Understanding Primes, Chapter VI: Being Kind


Harry was angry. That was not an uncommon state for him (especially recently), but rarely did he try so hard to keep it under control.

It was all related to how tired he was. He hadn't been sleeping well, not at all, and the fatigue made his temper short. Staying at the Dursleys' for the past weeks had been necessary, but entirely undesirable. He was so close to leaving for good, and that moment couldn't come soon enough.

And now Uncle Vernon was looking to delay it yet again. Harry didn't care how it happened, he just wanted the Dursleys to go hide, out of the house, and out of his way. He couldn't run off to fight Voldemort whilst they were easy targets; his conscience wouldn't stretch that far. Soon the protections around Privet Drive would be finished, and he didn't think the Death Eaters would have any problem killing some of his Muggle relatives, no matter how incidental they were.

He was also still unable to perform under-age magic without breaking the law. Going 'off the grid', as Scott had put it, would be that much more difficult if the Ministry wanted to arrest him yet again. Harry already had plenty of other people lining up to take a shot at him.

So instead of forcibly shoving his relatives out the door with a spell, Harry took another deep breath and tried to think of some way to get Vernon's fat arse out of the house and into the car. The man was currently labouring under the delusion that the protection program Harry had offered was an elaborate ruse to gain ownership of the Dursley house, a concept so stupid that Harry was actually stumped for a response. He would rather sleep on the street than live in that shitehole by choice.

He realised he had actually said that last part out loud when Vernon's face began to turn a rich, furious purple.

"Is there a problem?"

A new voice from the lawn interrupted the proceedings and temporarily curtailed Vernon's rage. Harry stepped forward to peer around Dudley as they all turned to look, but he already knew who it was.

Scott Kharan stood on the garden path wearing a slightly bemused expression. He was also wearing Muggle clothing, and, though his choice of trousers and a long-sleeved button-up shirt seemed slightly odd in the summer heat, he was neither mismatched nor obviously out of place.

Vernon looked suspicious, but didn't react as he would to yet another member of the wizarding society he so loathed. "No, no problem," he responded gruffly. "Just discussing something with the boy here–"

"Harry, yeah. That's his name – it's Harry."

Vernon glared. "I beg your pardon?"

"Call him Harry," Scott said. He moved a few steps forwards, towering over Vernon's stout form.

The implied menace in Scott's stance was enough for Vernon to realise what was going on. He whirled on Harry. "Boy, is this another of your – your–"

"Friends?" Harry suggested.

"Comrades. Compatriots," Scott added.

"–your type," Vernon spat out, like it was something rotten. Petunia grabbed Dudley's shoulders and pulled him further away from Scott.

"Do you see a wand?" Scott asked. He held up his hands for inspection.

That mollified Vernon, if only very slightly. "So he's a normal acquaintance of yours," he said grudgingly to Harry.

"Not exactly," Harry snorted.

"Wands are scary things," Scott said breezily. "You never know what they can do, right? Maybe turn you into a toad or something. Maybe set you on fire."

"Silence!" Vernon demanded, though he was apparently too afraid to shout in case the neighbours were listening. "I will not have these things discussed in my house!"

"That's fine. Weren't you just leaving?"

"Oh. OH." Vernon turned once more to Harry. "You've enlisted help, have you? Boy, I'll tell you right now that I will not be forced out of my own home on some ridiculous pretence–"

"That's not what you said yesterday," Harry interrupted.

"I've changed my mind! And now here's this fellow also trying to get us to leave, and I can put two and two together, yes I can, I see what's happening here!"

"I don't think that you do," Scott said, his blankly polite expression never wavering. "Harry is telling you that if you don't leave, then Voldemort will torture and kill you, your wife, and your grotesquely deformed son. I'm here to inform you of a more immediate danger."

"Am I to believe there's another maniac out to get us?" Vernon scoffed.

"Could be. You strike me as a man of many enemies. Are you scared of magic, Vernon?"

"Scared?" Vernon indignantly blustered. "Of course not, it's just unnatural, all of you are–"

"Then this must seem mundane." Scott reached into his buttoned shirt, and when he partially withdrew his hand the hard outline of a pistol was clenched in it. He rested the handgun against his chest, the last half of the barrel still concealed beneath the cloth.

Vernon's face drained of colour so quickly it was as if he had sprung a leak. Petunia let out a high-pitched squeak and scurried backwards until she was pressed against the wall. Dudley just stared, looking more interested than alarmed.

"Don't you know how a gun works?" Scott said mockingly. "Physics, chemistry, pressure and velocity. Nothing magical – what are you afraid of?"

"Petunia," Vernon croaked, "call the police."

Scott grinned. "And tell them… what? That a wizard is threatening you?"

"Scott, don't do anything stupid," Harry warned. He didn't think Scott would actually gun down his relatives, but wouldn't put it past the Kharadjai to put a hole in the furniture or something.

"There's jewellery upstairs in the bedroom!" Aunt Petunia said hysterically.

"I don't want your money," Scott said contemptuously. "I want you to get out of this house."

Since nobody had actually been shot just yet, Vernon had regained some small portion of his bravado. "And go where? We can't just drive off aimlessly!"

"There will be some people here soon to take you to a safe place," Harry reminded him.

"And you're going to go with them," Scott said with finality.

Vernon literally quivered with rage when given the order. "Or else what?"

"Or else I'll take this lamp," Scott said calmly, nodding at a table lamp near him, "and I'll beat you with it until you stop moving. Then I'll wrap you in those tacky drapes, and they can drag you to the safe house."

Vernon's mouth opened and closed several times, outrage vying with terror. But Scott's face was blank and hard, the face of a man eminently capable of carrying out his threats, so Vernon turned around on shaky legs and tottered over to the sofa, where he collapsed and was joined by Petunia. They huddled together, shock writ large on their faces. Harry found dark humour in the fact that, despite all the wizarding going on lately, it was the looming prospect of a Muggle-style beating that cowed them most of all.

Except for Dudley. Harry didn't know if it was stupidity or overconfidence, but Dudley was defiantly sizing Scott up.

"I could thrash you," Dudley grunted to Scott, flexing his massive arms. "Put the gun away if we're goin' to fight."

Scott glanced at Dudley, the expression on his face indicating that he didn't think the teen was worth his time. "You don't want that."

"C'mon then," Dudley said fiercely. "You scared of me? After all that talk? You're just a bloody coward."

Harry closed his eyes and placed a hand on his forehead, because he knew what was coming.

In what appeared to be one fluid motion, Scott grabbed Dudley's right arm and bent it the wrong way at the elbow, stretching it back. When Dudley leaned forward slightly with the torque exerted on his shoulder, Scott punched him in the throat. This was followed by a second punch to the chest and a kick into the side of a kneecap.

Dudley hit the floor so hard that the house shook.

"DUDLEY!" Aunt Petunia shrieked.

Vernon was too enraged to be so eloquent. With a wordless roar he sprang from the sofa and began to charge at Scott.

Harry knew he had to put a stop to things before they became even more out of hand. "THAT'S ENOUGH!" he ordered, and drew his wand. He pointed it at Vernon.

Vernon skidded to an ungainly halt, his face a conflicting mess of horror and rage. Petunia was down on her knees, hyperventilating as she worked in vain to roll Dudley onto his back. For his part, Dudley was making a great deal of noise trying to breathe.

"The throat is a good show stopper," Scott said to Harry, looking unconcerned by the scene he had caused. He gestured at Dudley's twitching form. "See how hard it is for him to inhale? The first punch closes his windpipe; the second hit to the chest knocks out any air he already had. He's close to passing out."

"Thanks for the lesson, but I could have done without the demonstration," Harry said, fixing Scott with a hard glare. "Try not to hurt anyone else while you're here, all right?"

Scott raised an eyebrow, looking down at Dudley. "I think the lesson was more for him."

Harry sighed, releasing some of his anger. Dudley had always been prone to starting fights. It was just his incredibly bad luck to start one with Scott. "They've been hard enough to convince without you maiming Dudley."

"Sorry. Regardless, we gotta talk."

"In a minute," Harry said. "Let's wait for the Order to get here."

"They can wait for the Order to get here," Scott said, jerking his head in the direction of the Dursleys. He grabbed Harry's arm and tugged him towards the stairs. "We have other plans."

As soon as they were in Harry's room, he closed the door and frowned at Scott. "What other plans?"

Scott flopped down in his usual position at the foot of Harry's bed, but in his adult form he hung off the edge from the waist down. With a groan, he sat back up. "I think the Order will want to move you, too."

Harry had the same thought, but there was no way to be sure. "They already told me they are. If I leave now I'm not coming back, and that will break the protections."

"They'll break on your birthday, and that's coming up fast," Scott pointed out.

"Either way, Voldemort will be waiting for me," Harry said grimly. "Maybe he doesn't know exactly where I am, but he's had a lot of time to narrow it down."

"That's right. And if we have to shoot our way out of here, I'd like to be prepared."

That was a daunting proposition. "We should see what the others have set up first," Harry suggested.

"That's fine. It'd be better to move under cover of dark. Here, this is what I've done so far…" Scott stood and led Harry over to the window; leaning down, he pointed towards the section of street that was visible from the side yard. "See that car parked across the way? That's mine." He then pointed downward. "There's a bag of stuff in the bushes, in case we exit this way."

"I think the Death Eaters won't have much trouble stopping a car," Harry said.

Scott smirked in response. "Let's see you stop a car while avoiding gunfire. Take it from someone with experience: it's not easy to do anything when there's bullets snapping around your head."

"They could still overwhelm us. We're bound to be outnumbered."

"Which is why speed will be key," Scott said absent-mindedly. He was checking the lock on the window. "A distraction wouldn't hurt, either, if you have any ideas."

Harry thought about that for a few seconds. "I could send my Patronus out the opposite way. It'll be bright in the dark, and it moves quick."

"I also have a variety of grenades in that bag," Scott said. He opened the window and, apparently satisfied that it could be done quickly, shut it again. "We could set traps in case they come into the house. Flashbangs would work well if we get caught in the open. I've even got some CI-WP6 canisters."

"And those are good?" Harry guessed.

"Combat Incendiary White Phosphorus grenades. They burn hot as hell, but more useful in this scenario is the shit ton of smoke they put out. All I have are WP6s, though. Wish I had some WP0s." Scott's eyes widened. "Or a WP double-oh…although, come to think of it, anything higher than a WP2 would probably set fire to the neighbourhood."

"I'd like to avoid that," Harry said dryly.

"Like I said, all I have are the WP6s. Good enough to get us out of here. Besides, the double-ohs are what they slide in the one-fifties, mount in bomb racks, rocket pods, that kind of crap. Nothing we could carry… Unless I can figure out how to bolt an artillery piece to that car…"

"We're trying to be inconspicuous," Harry said patiently.

Scott sighed. "I suppose we are." He paused then, looking confused. "Shit, did I really just beat up your cousin?"

Harry looked at him askance. "Uh, yeah. Yeah, you did."

"Godammit. That was uncalled for."

Harry was dumbfounded by the uncharacteristic expression of remorse. "What's got into you?"

"Teen form, that's what." Scott sighed again. "It lingers, you know. I changed just a little bit ago. Still feel stupid… impulsive. Chatty. End up punching a kid in the throat, that's nice. I need to settle back in to being me, not a bag of hormones."

"You calling me a bag of hormones, too?"

"Indirectly. But you are, yes." Scott moved back from the window and surveyed the rest of the room. "I heard from Lila that you've still been mailing Ginny, correct?"

"Yes, and it hasn't had much to do with hormones," Harry replied, making the connection in Scott's train of thought. "Keep your nose out of my letters."

"Keep your snog sessions off of my couch," Scott shot back. "Whatever erotic missives you've been sending, I don't care… much."

Harry decided to ignore that. "Have you seen this?" he asked, changing the subject. He grabbed his crumpled copy of the Daily Prophet and chucked it over to Scott.

"Seen what?" Scott said, trying to smooth out the pages.

"That article. About Dumbledore. By fucking Skeeter! I'd thought Hermione had her number, but I guess even that's not enough anymore." Harry's hands curled into fists. "He's hardly been gone for a couple months and people are already just…"

"Rewriting history, I take it," Scott guessed, peering at the newspaper.

"To say the least," Harry grated.

Scott lowered the paper and raised an eyebrow at Harry. "Is this something we need to take care of?"

"Take care of how?"

"Depends whether this Skeeter person is actively working against us, or just an opportunist. Is she taking a side, or making some money?"

Harry scoffed. That was an easy enough question to answer. "Making some money. She's a piece of work, but not really Death Eater material."

"All right. Understandable motivation, deplorable methods. Let me know if we need to shut her up. This sort of thing doesn't seem impactful, but you would know better than me." Scott shrugged.

"Most people don't listen to her. I hope," Harry amended. "What would you do to her?"

"Customary threats, as a starter. Maybe I'm wrong, but she doesn't seem likely to hold on to journalistic integrity at that point."

"You have to have journalistic integrity to hold on to it."

Scott grinned. "Point."

"I just can't believe she can do that," Harry muttered.

"The free press cuts both ways. From the look of things this will soon be irrelevant, because the wizarding press won't be close to free under Voldemort." Scott frowned. "He's got people afraid to say his name. He has to be a good propagandist. Or at the very least, he knows how to be memorable. I think we can expect wide-ranging manipulation of the media as the Ministry comes under his control."

That was an entire other issue, one that Harry wasn't ready to face. He didn't know what could be done about the Ministry, except for finding the Horcruxes and getting rid of Voldemort quickly. That didn't appear terribly likely, though. Harry knew he would be dodging Death Eaters and the Ministry in equal measure.

"Not much we can do about it," he said.

"Now now, no," Scott agreed. "No defence is perfect, however. Given the opportunity, the Ministry may be a good target."

Harry didn't know what kind of plans Scott was forming, but they probably involved a great deal of violence. With dull resignation, he reckoned Ginny's speculative scenario of Scott burning down the Ministry was close to the truth. Harry would prefer that it not come to that. He didn't like the idea of destroying the wizarding world in order to save it.

"Let's try to stay focussed," he warned Scott. "We have to find those Horcruxes and we can't stop to fight every Death Eater in the country along the way."

"Again, speed is the key."

"But how fast are we going to be, searching for bloody Horcruxes?" Harry said impatiently, feeling like Scott was missing the point. "You'll be dragging us along with you, remember. We're not soldiers, or – or whatever it is you're supposed to be. I have to sleep, even if you don't."

Scott shrugged. "Then we hide sometimes. It's not the biggest country, but big enough. But I still think a running battle is our best chance. Fire and manoeuvre, Harry. Don't let them fix you."

"I'll try. But I'm just…" Harry paused. What was he, exactly? The Boy Who Lived? The Chosen One? Or (as he felt) just a dumb kid in over his head? "…a student. I'm not any good at this."

"Not yet," Scott added. "And I disagree. You've shown yourself to be a fighter more than once. You didn't give up when Voldemort had you before."

"And I got lucky," Harry muttered.

"Sometimes, that's all you need." Scott glanced at the doorway. "I think someone else is here."

"It must be the Order," Harry said hurriedly, throwing open the door and rushing for the stairs. "You'd better stay up here!"

Not waiting for Scott's reply, Harry quickly descended and found Dedalus Diggle and Hestia Jones attempting to engage the Dursleys in conversation. In Harry's opinion that was a complete waste of time, and he was tempted to say so, but, considering that his relatives might be living with the two Order members, there was no reason to sour things so soon. Diggle and Jones would find out just what the Dursleys were like in short order.

"Harry Potter!" Dedalus exclaimed, beaming at him. "Good to see you again!"

Harry spared him a polite nod, but quickly approached the Dursleys. Dudley had managed to pick himself up off the floor and was slumped against the arm of the sofa, frequently coughing. "These are the Order members I told you about. Go with them and do what they tell you," Harry instructed Vernon.

Vernon was cowed, but not completely beaten. "Boy–" he started.

Harry leaned in closer. "Do I need to get Scott to help move things along?" he asked in a low voice.

Vernon swallowed whatever protest had been forthcoming, eyes wild. "Come on, Petunia," he said weakly. "Let's be off."

Harry stood by the stairs and watched in silence as the Dursleys left. Vernon's shoulders were slumped, appearing defeated. He didn't even glance at Harry as he went out the door. Aunt Petunia held herself stiffly, though the fear in her posture undermined the attempt she was making at dignity. She did look Harry's way, just for a moment; whatever she saw in his eyes made her flinch. Her mouth moved the tiniest fraction, but the words were left unsaid.

As Dudley staggered along – bent forward slightly, with the hand that Scott hadn't injured gingerly touching his throat – he paused at the doorway. Harry thought he seemed confused, and for a moment it looked as if he might say something. Instead, a great jagged cough burst from his lungs, and he turned away.

There wasn't a whole lot of emotion attached to seeing them leave. Harry had written them all off a long time ago. There was no point looking for family where he'd never find it. And he'd already found it elsewhere.

Back upstairs, Scott was waiting. "Everything taken care of?" he asked.

"They're gone," Harry confirmed.

"Anything you want to do while you got the chance? Set fire to the curtains? Take a shit on their bed?"

That made Harry laugh. "No, I think I'm all right. Leaving is enough for me."

"Cool. But if you want to steal a TV or something, I won't say anything."

"Where would I put it?" Harry went over to his bed and fell back onto his pillow. The sun was still bright in the sky.

As he stared upwards, the ceiling held no answers for the problems facing him. The man sitting at the foot of his bed might. Harry reckoned Scott had already said his piece, though. A waiting car and a rucksack of bombs were probably just part of the plan. Whatever came after would likely be improvised, seeing as how neither of them knew what they would be up against.

It still seemed impossibly daunting. Harry's worst fear was that Voldemort would force a confrontation right out in the street in front of the house. He didn't think he had much chance of surviving such an encounter, not even with Scott's help. Well… no. His worst fear would be Voldemort and his followers killing all of Harry's friends and then Harry himself (or, even more terribly, leaving Harry alive).

Harry reached into his pocket and withdrew his wand, holding it up for inspection. It looked like a weak weapon for saving the world, or at least the United Kingdom part of it (though he sort of doubted that Voldemort would stop there). "Scott," he said, breaking the silence, "who was the first person you ever killed?"

"That's a hell of a thing to ask," Scott replied calmly.

Harry winced. "Sorry."

"I don't know."

"You don't…" Harry blinked, realising that Scott had actually answered the question, sort of. "How can you not know?"

"It was a firefight. It was dark. I wasn't the only person shooting. I shot more than one target, but as to which I killed? I don't know. Highground credited me two confirmed kills. The OpFor took their dead and wounded with them when they withdrew. I never saw either."

That sounded very impersonal, and not at all what Harry had imagined for his fight against Voldemort. "Why were you fighting them? If it's okay to ask, that is…" he hedged, trying to be a bit more tactful.

"I was still in the Third Army at the time. I got my dick wet in universe, uh… I can't remember the number. But it was Operation Hold Spree, I remember that. I was with the 113th FIR, Sigma Company. Standard interdiction orders: they put us between the OpFor and the civvies and told us to send them packing. We did it, all right." Scott paused. "As for the why… I think there was a long term UO manifestation, and we were preventing… something or the other. It might have been ethnic."

"What does 'Hold Spree' mean?"

"It doesn't mean anything. It was just the operations tag, they're always random."

Harry frowned thoughtfully. "Then what's the operations tag for this?"

"Halberd Prevalence. The words are nonsense, but the initials might be more than coincidence. Someone has to name the mission, and I think a lot of times inspiration comes straight from the intel."

Scott was being unusually forthcoming. Normally Harry would have to pry anything Kharadjai related out of him. "So that was your first battle, huh."

"Oh, no. Not at all. I was with the 202nd SFM for years before that, Second Fleet Marines. Homefront SAD, Canaan Sector. Stationed on the KCC Ultimatum. Before that, 542nd RIR, Kappa Company. Saw some action during the Hanetse elections. And before that, the 195th SFM, Carcer Patrol, KCC Longevity. And other stuff, too."

Harry couldn't really process that many acronyms, so he just forged onward. "But you never killed anyone during any of those battles?"

"Kharadjai engagements. Strictly on the homefront. Always kind of tricky to fight other Kharadjai. Go through multus ammunition making sure they stay down."

"Wow. Yeah, that's got to be hard, fighting other people like you."

"Luckily, most aren't like me. Back then, I wasn't like me. The Primarius will do that to you."

"And experience, I'd bet," Harry said dryly. "Not like you've had a clean bill of health so far here."

"And the worst is yet to come, my troubled friend. How fortunate you have me as your handy damage sponge."

Harry didn't feel comfortable throwing anyone into the line of fire, not even Scott. "Let's try to be careful, I don't want anything like that to happen."

"We can be careful. But, Harry…" Scott's voice turned serious. "When it comes down to the wire, don't hesitate. Get behind me, kick me out the door, tell me to draw their fire, whatever you have to do. This world needs you, and it won't miss me."

"Whatever," Harry muttered, feeling the bitterness touching the back of his tongue, just like it always did whenever his supposed indispensability came up.

"No. Not whatever. You fucking do it."

Harry was starting to understand what Lila had meant. "Fine. I get it."

Scott sighed. "You don't. But that's just part of who you are."

"Enough of this," Harry grumbled, pushing himself up into a sitting position. "What are we going to do for the rest of the day?"

"It's your house now, boyo. We could redecorate."

"I thought décor was Lila's thing."

Scott grinned. "Only the part where you add stuff. Myself, I like to subtract."

And that's how Harry spent the next couple of hours practising his throwing aim with Aunt Petunia's china plates. It was petty, but so was she.


"I don't like this," Neville said stubbornly.

"I know, Neville," Luna said sympathetically. "But Daddy has been alone for a bit too long, don't you think? How can he be expected to catch a Snorkack without my help?"

Neville crossed his arms, not yielding to the point. He was watching as Luna packed the few belongings she had brought with her during her extended stay in the newly created guest bedroom. Against his better judgement, she was going back home.

In the past, Neville had almost invariably spent his summers alone. The plants in the greenhouse were his only companions, a (usually) silent collection of distractions to keep him occupied. He'd never had any friends he thought he could invite over for a visit; he knew that Harry was stuck at his own house for the duration, and, well… he supposed he might contact Ron or one of the other blokes from the dormitory, but, unless they liked plants, there wasn't a whole lot to do at Neville's.

The Longbottom Estate was a large, draughty old place, the kind of generational residence that had more rooms than occupants. That had been especially true for Neville's childhood, spent largely in the company of his grandmother and whatever relatives came to visit. There were doors that he hadn't opened in years, rooms full of cloth-covered furniture and heirlooms of indeterminate origin. The grounds were equally vast, though a great deal of the property hadn't been tended to. Past the greenhouse was an overgrown field, and then past that stood the woods, marked only by the trails of deer.

When Scott had advised Neville that a Death Eater had been spotted lurking about Luna's place, Neville hadn't needed the unsubtle hints the Kharadjai had dropped: he had known exactly what to do. That night, he had gone into the room across from his, forcing open squeaky, rusted windows and bashing out the splintery shutters when he couldn't suss out how to unlock them. Loads of dust had been sent out those windows, the cloth coverings on the bed and dressing table following it.

When Neville informed his grandmother that he would shortly have a guest, she had been too shocked to protest. Probably because he had simply told her, and not asked. Neville wasn't sure he had ever done that before.

He had never sent anything through the post, nor did he contact her via Floo, but the next day Luna had shown up on his doorstep, regardless. Scott had obviously taken care of things (and knew Neville well enough that he had never bothered to check and see if Luna could stay in the first place). The second that Neville had seen her on the porch, all floating golden hair and wide silvery eyes, his heart was caught in a fist. He had desperately wanted to avoid disappointing her. And he'd been afraid that his house and whatever entertainment he could provide would be entirely disappointing.

But Luna had flitted from room to room, from the kitchen to the greenhouse, expressing wonderment at the smallest things. Neville had followed her in a daze, registering her gentle chatter only peripherally. She'd smelled good. Maybe that had been an odd thing to notice (and certainly not something he could ever express to her), but he had been stuck on it, nonetheless.

Luna liked spending time with him out in the greenhouse, inventing fanciful origins for all his plants, giving them each a name. She loved the woods. Neville hadn't ever spent much time in them, but he followed her about as if she were magnetic, caught in her pull, stopping her only when they strayed close to the edge of the magical protections. At night, she would pull out a new book from the small library downstairs and read the ending with him. She explained that she always read the ending first, since she didn't want to get involved with the story if it didn't end happily. Sometimes she would read it backwards, for a different perspective. At supper-time, Gran would try her best to bore little, disapproving holes into Luna with her eyes, but Luna never seemed to notice. After awhile, Neville even found it funny.

And always, always, he noticed every little thing about her. The way her wayward tresses caught the slightest breeze. The way her small, pale hands held the pages of a book, so careful and reverential. The way her eyes lit up when some new fancy struck her. The way her delicate nose crinkled when she laughed, always full-bodied and without restraint. The way her perfect rosebud mouth pursed before she stood on her tiptoes to kiss him on the cheek before bed.

It was the best summer Neville had ever had.

And now she was leaving him.

"Luna, we don't know whether it's safe for you to go yet," he argued.

"It won't be long before Bill Weasley's wedding, I'll have to wear a dress, and I didn't bring anything suitable," Luna told him, making an unusually relevant argument. One thing spending a summer with her had taught Neville was that her head wasn't in the clouds as much as most people tended to think.

"Just tell me what you need, I'm sure Scott could get it for you," Neville countered lamely, knowing full well that he hadn't any way to contact Scott.

Luna stood up from where she had been stuffing a pair of trousers into her bag, and frowned. "I know he's a friend, but perhaps not in that way? I don't think I'd want Scott sorting through my knickers."

Neville's mind was immediately barraged by images of a drawer full of Luna's knickers and her wearing various pairs. He impatiently brushed the thoughts away. "All right, what about Ginny?"

Luna reached over and took his hand. "Neville, I know you don't want me to go. But I can't stay here forever. I don't think your grandmother would like that at all."

So she had noticed Gran's frosty demeanour. "Oh, she'll be all right, she just… needs time to get used to having someone else here, it's usually just the two of us–"

"No, Neville," Luna said firmly. She squeezed his hand. "I have to go. But we'll see each other again very soon."

Neville held onto her hand tightly, vainly searching for some reason why she simply couldn't go. "I…"

Without warning, Luna stepped forward and wrapped her arms around him in a close hug. Neville was generally aroused by her presence alone, and even as he put his own arms around her shoulders he was hoping that she didn't press any closer. His reaction to the hug would be entirely obvious at that point.

"I understand," she hummed into his chest. "I don't want to go, either. But it's time." She looked up at him, her silvery eyes completely captivating. "You smell quite nice," she noted.

Neville swallowed with some difficulty. "Th-thanks…"

She blinked. "Oh, before I go, there was something I wanted to give you."

"What's that?"

Luna lifted herself up on her toes, pulled down on Neville's neck, and pressed her lips to his.

Neville froze. He didn't know what to do. Every cell in his brain was screaming in ecstasy but he was just standing there like a lump. He had to do something! But by the time he had decided that he should at least try to kiss her back, Luna had pulled away.

She licked her lips, and Neville's gaze traced the movement of her pink tongue. "That was exhilarating," she noted. "Did you like it?"

"Yeah," he said weakly. "I liked it a lot."

"Oh, that's good. I thought you might not, since you didn't move at all. But I've never kissed a boy before, so I don't have any comparison. Is that normal?"

Neville responded by lifting her up and kissing her with every ounce of pent up attraction he had accumulated over the summer. When they finally broke apart, they were both gasping for air.

"How was that?" Neville ventured. He was already eyeing her lips again and felt like he could never, ever get tired of them.

Luna seemed slightly dazed. She touched her mouth in wonderment. "I've never understood before why so many people like kissing, but I do now. It's a lot of fun, isn't it?"

Neville nodded enthusiastically. "Uh-huh."

"I like it very much." She looked back up at him with an almost hungry expression. "I think it's more fun with you than it would be with anyone else. I feel warm all over; do you? Especially down here." She placed one hand in a spot that almost made Neville choke on his own saliva. "Would you like to kiss me again?"

Neville had never been more sure of anything in his life. "Um, yeah."

"All right then," she said, and moved her hands to his neck again.

Once again, the demands of oxygen forced them to separate. Neville was about sick of this 'breathing' thing. "Luna… would you like to be my girlfriend?"

Luna's smile was as bright as the sun. "Of course! I've been waiting all summer for you to ask."

"You–" Neville started, but then he realised that there wasn't any point. What was obvious to Luna had escaped far smarter people than himself.

"It's been such a wonderful summer, and I enjoyed spending it with you even more than I thought I would – and I thought I would quite a lot. I was right." She hugged him again, even more tightly than before. "You've been a great friend, and I'm glad you also want to be more. I've never had a boyfriend before. This is very exciting!"

Oh, yes. It was very exciting. Neville shifted his hips away from her slightly. "It has been a great summer, hasn't it? Best I've ever had. And I've never had a girlfriend, either."

"Really?" Luna actually seemed surprised. "I think that's odd. You're brave and handsome, and kind."

Neville blushed. "Yeah, well, you're really smart, and pretty and nice to everyone, even rotten gits like Malfoy. I can't imagine why any bloke would pass you up."

Luna smiled again. "That's why we should be together, Neville. We see what nobody else does."

They were holding hands on the front porch when Luna's father came to get her. Neville thought he might let go before Mr Lovegood saw, but couldn't think of any way to do it without upsetting Luna. Gran was already glaring at them from behind the window curtain. No doubt she'd have some words for him when he went back inside, but Neville didn't care. This was one decision Gran hadn't forced him into, and she couldn't force him out of it, either.

Luna made the hand-dropping irrelevant when she gave him an enthusiastic kiss right before she turned to go. Mr Lovegood was busily looking about with great interest, and Neville wasn't even sure he'd noticed; that was, until he paused to give Neville a very direct look. Neville couldn't control the blush that stole over his face, but stood his ground. Luna wasn't ashamed of it, and he wouldn't be, either.

As he watched her leave, all he could think about was seeing her again. The short time to the wedding didn't seem so short at all.

As expected, Gran had immediately tried to corner him with questions about 'that Lovegood girl', but Neville wasn't having any of it. He brushed past her with promises of talking later and went straight to his room.

There, resting upon his bed, every sensation she had left him with crowded his mind. The taste of her lips, the feel of her small form enfolded in his own… It was all so immediate, and tortuously unrepeatable. He wanted to do it all over again.

It was funny, really. Neville had always thought that finding his first girlfriend would be an awkward, difficult experience. That he'd have no idea what to do and would probably muck it all up before it even started. The only part of that which ended up being true was that he really didn't know what to do.

But he couldn't wait to find out.


"Fuck me," Scott muttered. Reaching over, he knocked one of his pieces off the board.

"I suppose you think that was lucky," Harry said sarcastically.

Scott brought his hands up and rubbed at his temples, peering at the board with furious concentration. "You made an estimated guess, and it worked. Real combat is not so forgiving… Although, sometimes–" He moved his piece forward, forcing Harry to reveal that his own piece was inferior. "–it is."

"Damn it." Harry had improved after four straight games of Stratego, but Scott was still reigning champion.

"Look for the patterns. The ranks are thinning… Am I obvious enough that those stationary units are bombs, or am I just screwing with you? Am I moving in a definable way, or am I just responding to your moves?"

"I don't know, that's the problem." Harry leaned his head over onto one hand. "I need to find my own strategy game to be good at. I'm tired of losing to Ron in chess and you in this."

Scott made a face of disbelief. "What? We've played four games just tonight, how many years have you been losing to Ron? We're not exactly in the same league."

"Well, I'm already tired of it. And I think that's a bomb," Harry said, pointing at one of Scott's pieces.

"Only one way to find out…"

"Okay." Harry grabbed the edges of the game board and spun it around so that Scott's pieces were revealed to him. "There we go. I was right, it was a bomb."

Instead of flying into a (admittedly justified) rage, Scott only smiled sharply. "Now you're thinking. Don't ever play the game they want you to. There are no rules, only limits."

Harry sighed. "I can't win at all. If I play fair you beat me; if I cheat you don't get angry and take all the fun right out of it."

"Someday you might have to flip the board on Riddle. And that's not a game."

"Fight to win," Harry stated tiredly, the underlying mantra of so many of Scott's 'lessons'. Harry usually felt like he was being tested, not taught.

"No glory in war. No honour in killing. No dignity in death."

"Is that a quote?" Harry asked. "Or did you make that up, too?"

"Nullus bellum in decus. Nullus honor in interfectis. Nullus dignitas in mortem." Scott leaned back in his chair. "It's a quote, yeah. Older than you, older than me, older than anyone still alive to remember it. The point is that we don't do these things because they're fun. We do them because we must. Don't put on a show, just get it done."

"Like you did with Dudley?" Harry said bitingly.

"Wrong target, right idea." Scott shrugged. "Sorry about that, again."

Harry sighed. "It's all right. He had it coming."

"So do a lot of other people. And wait, what else did I say I made up?"

"The thing about the 'shield within'," Harry said. When Scott looked blank, he added, "Remember? Back in the Room of Requirement, after you blocked everyone's spells. You said that you made up that quote about the shield."

"Really?" Scott appeared surprised.

Harry thought Scott might be fooling around at that point. "Come off it. You're telling me you don't remember that at all?"

"No, I know the quote. Nullus vim supra scutum introrsus. 'No power above the shield within'. I don't remember telling you it came from me, though. Maybe you're thinking of something else."

"No, I'm not. You said you made it up," Harry told him exasperatedly.

"Hmm. Well, if I did – if I did – then I was totally lying."

"So you lied. What a surprise."

Scott actually looked a bit embarrassed. He glanced out the kitchen window. "Getting darker out there."

"The Order should be here before too long," Harry said, allowing Scott to change the subject. "You might want to go upstairs. Last thing we need is for them to see you."

"What, you're just going to leave me up there alone? I'll get bored."

"We'll both be lucky if boredom is the worst that happens tonight," Harry said grimly.

"Cheerful. C'mon, let's go upstairs and make sure you didn't forget to pack anything. I'm sure that will be riveting."

Despite Scott's suggestion, Harry was the only one checking to see if anything needed to be packed once they returned to his room. Scott stared out the window whilst Harry peeked under the bed and went through his wardrobe, stirring up dust rather than anything vital. Apparently not content with the view, Scott left and went into the other rooms.

Harry was considering Scott's words about hiding out with the Muggles; some of the attire he had might still be useful in that regard. Most of it was just poorly fitting clothing that Dudley had outgrown, but it was better than nothing. It would do until he could buy some more.

"Harry, come here," Scott called out from Uncle Vernon and Aunt Petunia's room.

Harry dropped the shirt he had been examining and walked down the short hallway to where Scott was looking out the double windows intently. They offered a view of the back garden, as opposed to Harry's window, which mostly offered a view of the neighbouring house. It occurred to him, as he walked around the bed, that he had never actually been in the room before, or, if he had, he had been too young to remember.

Scott pointed at something outside. "You see that man walking down the street back there?"

Harry looked in that direction and saw the outline of someone before they went out of sight behind an obstructing house. "What about him?"

"That's the third time he's covered that part of the walk."

Harry felt a chill run down his spine.

"He's nervous," Scott continued. "He keeps looking around, but not finding anything. He's also wearing slippers, corduroy pants and a turtleneck sweater. So either he's high as a kite, or he's trying to fit in and doesn't understand how or why."

Harry knew what he thought was most likely. "He's looking for me."

"Probably. If he is, he's not alone."

It was a very bad discovery, but Harry had known something like it was inevitable. He set his jaw. "We have to warn the Order. If we can get a letter out in time, they'll call it off."

Scott nodded. "Okay. Make it fast."

Harry rushed back to his room, grabbing a loose piece of paper from his desk. He had no sooner begun to scrawl out his desperate message when Scott appeared in the doorway.

"Too late," Scott said calmly. He jerked his head in the direction of the stairs. "Your ride is here."

Harry dropped his quill, not caring when it fell and smeared ink on the floor. "Shit."

"Yeah. Go see what the plan is, but try not to leave without letting me know."

"Leave?" Harry said incredulously. "I can't leave, not now, those bastards are right out there! They'll attack everyone with me, we'll have to figure something else out."

"Like what? We already knew this could happen." Scott held up his hands in a helpless gesture. "Just go downstairs and see what the plan is. We'll go from there."

"Fine. But I'm not putting anyone else in danger. I'll go alone if I have to."

Scott laughed quietly. "You really think you could get out of here without me knowing?"

That, Harry thought as he descended the stairway, was a problem for later. First he had to find out what the Order was up to.

What they were up to, as it turned out, was completely unacceptable.

Back to index


Chapter 3: Goodbye, Arcadia Part II

3

Goodbye, Arcadia

Part II


"Initial encounters were scattered and indecisive. On the fourth
day at 1400 hours, the opposing force occupied the tree line
directly northwest of our forward positions. During the
following six hours, repeated artillery strikes were directed
at the enemy in the hope of creating gaps to exploit. These
proved ineffective at dislodging them, and enemy casualties
appeared light.
At 2100 hours the order was given to attack and force the
opposition out of their entrenched line. We advanced that
night under the cover of smoke."

–Excerpt from POR, Operation Lucid Javelin, U:1118907/Palgarvin
Decanus Scott Kharan reporting, regarding Talbot's Field (Field 187),
670-1122lts (pg. 24)


Scott sat on the edge of the bed and listened. The discussion occurring downstairs was very animated.

The time had come for Harry to leave the protections his mother had left him at the house on Privet Drive, and the Order of the Phoenix had arrived to oversee the transition. However, whatever they had planned was obviously not to Harry's liking, if his raised voice was anything to judge by.

Scott couldn't say he was surprised. The Order had no doubt come fully prepared to put themselves in the line of fire to protect their all-important Chosen One. And if there was one thing Harry simply could not abide (made all the worse by the loss of his godfather, Scott conjectured) it was others dying for his cause. A cause he hadn't even chosen; it had chosen him.

Scott knew that was how the multiverse worked. He had seen and dealt with it before. Harry was much less accepting of such invisible machinations. Scott understood that, as well. He would be interested to see if Harry could convince whoever was downstairs (Scott recognised a few of the signatures pulsing in the shape, but not all) that they would be better off letting Harry go it alone.

A small smile played around Scott's lips. He very much doubted that.

Either way, there were rapid footsteps on the stairs. Scott could tell it was Harry, so the truth would soon be apparent. One way or the other, they were leaving. The question was simply how.

When Harry burst through the door with panic writ large on his face, Scott knew exactly what was going to happen.

"We're leaving," Harry said shortly. "Now. Out the window."

Scott didn't bother asking why. "Leave them a note, and let's go."

Whilst Harry scribbled frantically away at a piece of parchment, Scott quietly opened the window and dropped to the ground. He dragged his equipment bag out from under the bush which had so helpfully concealed it. Through the small side window in the kitchen he could see shadows playing on the dining room walls. It looked like quite a crowd in there.

"Help," Harry whispered from up above. Once again, Scott assisted in his descent.

"Your stuff?" Scott asked in a low voice, noting that Harry wasn't carrying anything.

Harry was pale in the moonlight. "They'll take it. But we can't just leave them, we have to… draw attention, to ourselves.

Scott immediately began walking towards the street. "How long until they find your note?"

"Probably seconds," Harry said grimly.

"Get in the car," Scott said, starting to run.

They raced for the vehicle. As they ran, Scott dug into his duffel bag and pulled out one of the white phosphorous grenades he had been saving for just such an occasion. The black metal casing was stamped with yellow letters:

CI-WP6
DISTRACTION DEVICE
FUSE(4s)
(1s\60s)
LOT.414 TAM-MO.68770

Sliding into the driver's seat, he threw the bag into the back and thrust the grenade at Harry.

"The plastic dial on the face, it has red lines at intervals – turn it one to the right. Ignore the little clicks, move it one red bar to the right," Scott instructed, starting the car as he did so. "Then pull the pin out of the top, that ring."

Harry fumbled with the grenade for a moment, but figured it out quickly. "Okay, one red bar to the right." He pulled the pin and the catch snapped open. "I think that's got it."

"Good. Have your protections broken yet?"

"My… On the house?" Harry looked backwards as they drove down the street, the house that had been his home and hell rapidly disappearing. "I don't know. I didn't think about it until you said that."

"Then we can assume they are." Scott glanced up at the rear-view mirror but didn't see anyone following. "You see this intersection coming up?"

Harry turned back around. "Yes, I see it."

"Throw that sucker out the window right in the middle."

"But there's glass, how do I–" Harry started, though Scott quickly rolled the window down. "All right, here goes…"

Harry threw the phosphorous grenade out into the empty street, where it rolled a few feet before coming to rest in the recession of a drain.

While Harry had done as instructed, he was not satisfied that the Order members left behind would be any safer. "So what's that going to do? Scott, we have to go back. If the others get caught coming out of the house–"

"It was a timer, Harry, and while I'm impressed you didn't have any reservations about holding a live grenade, maybe that's because you forgot it's a grenade."

The grenade ignited with a blinding flash. It was not the natural light of fire but a scorching, pure white chemical burn that flickered with a painful brightness. A thick cloud of smoke roiled from the drain and created a dense cover that rapidly obscured the street behind them, suffused with an incredible glare that made it seem as if the entire intersection was blanketed with condensed light.

"Like kicking over an anthill," Scott murmured, checking his mirrors again. Any Death Eaters in the area would flock to that display, finding nothing but smoke and night blindness.

"They'll see that for sure," Harry said, echoing Scott's thoughts. "God, that actually hurts!"

"Don't look directly at it. And, yeah, everyone will see it." Scott settled back into his seat, but kept a sharp eye on his mirrors. "There's a hat in the glove compartment, put it on. And take off your glasses, there's a different pair in there as well."

Harry tugged at the latch and found the cap inside, the front of it emblazoned with a cartoon fox striking an enthusiastic pose. The back of it proclaimed, 'LIKE A FOX'. He also found the case containing a pair of grey-rimmed glasses with rectangular lenses. "I get it," he said thoughtfully as he put them on. "What about my scar?"

"Between the hat and your hair, it's fine. But we we're not in the clear yet, so keep your guard up. Lila is waiting up ahead at a waystation. She has another car, and we'll switch out there."

"You think the Death Eaters would recognise one car from another?"

Scott shrugged. "Let's not take that chance."

His precautions were admittedly more like the ones he might take for a Muggle opponent. He was switching lanes frequently, taking less obvious routes and occasionally doubling back when the roads permitted it. If Harry noticed, he didn't say anything; his eyes were firmly fixed on the sky.

"The protections should have broken once you left for good," Scott reasoned as he drove. "If they didn't attack us when we crossed the street, it's because they couldn't see us. The protections were still working."

"Or they wanted to see what we were doing. Or wait for Voldemort to get there," Harry countered pessimistically.

"I don't buy it. They had us dead to rights, out in the open. They had no reason to hesitate; even if they were looking to capture you, they still would have tried to kill me."

"Moody said that they didn't know it was tonight, that the move was tonight," Harry said slowly. "That was the secret. Apparently they've gotten to some bloke in the Ministry who made it hard to get me out of there, banned the Floo and Apparating, all of that. So they were going to all leave on brooms."

"But you caught a ride with me anyway because of that dude we saw on the other street," Scott guessed.

"Sort of. Moody had Polyjuice, if you can believe it," Harry scoffed. "That was their shite plan, to disguise themselves as me and split up. Moody reckoned they'd all go for his broom, since they'd think I'd be with him, the strongest."

Scott smiled slightly. He had known it was something like that; Harry was incapable of allowing others to take the weight of his terrible responsibility. The boy sounded deeply shaken by the thought, even though it hadn't actually occurred. "And it could have been a massacre," Scott said, deciding to play to Harry's assumptions for the time being.

"No, because I wasn't effing doing it," Harry growled.

"What did you put in your note?" Scott asked, taking the hint and changing the subject.

"I was in a bit of a rush when I wrote it," Harry said with wry understatement, "but it was mostly for Hermione."


It was after the one minute mark, almost exactly, that Hermione decided Harry definitely wasn't coming back.

Nobody else had seemed to catch on, yet. Moody was suspicious, but the rest of the assembled team looked content to wait for Harry to haul his trunk downstairs, secure in the knowledge that they had forced him into accepting their escape plan.

Hermione knew better. Harry had fled because he had a way out. She had known the second he'd begged off, resisting giving them his hair for the potion immediately, shouting about his things as he charged up the steps. She had known, but hadn't tried to stop him. That was perhaps a bit unusual for her. However, she felt that she needed to have faith. If Harry thought he had a better way, then maybe he really did. The fact that Scott was almost certainly somewhere nearby had a lot to do with Hermione's confidence. The Kharadjai would no doubt have plans of his own.

After a few more seconds, George nudged Fred in the side. "C'mon, let's at least help him to hurry things along."

Fred acted surprised. "Were we in a hurry?"

When they started towards the stairs, Hermione's loud sigh stopped them. "Don't bother," she said flatly. "He's already gone."

The twins just looked blankly back at her. "Gone where?" Fred said dumbly.

Moody's magical eye whirled and fixed on her. "Damn it, girl, if you're saying what I think you're–"

"Come on, then," Hermione said exasperatedly, ignoring all the stares and expressions of dismay at her revelation. "I do hope he's left a note…"

The Order members crowded onto the stairs in a race to the top. Hermione didn't bother, bringing up the rear. When she reached Harry's room it was empty, just as she had predicted. Moody was muttering a number of sulphurous oaths under his breath as he scanned the space. Hermione ignored him, approaching the bed.

"Oh, good," she said, picking up the hastily written note. "At least he remembered this much."

"What's tha' say?" Hagrid rumbled, his huge form taking up a good portion of the room. "Did he say where he went off to?"

"Of course not," Hermione muttered, scanning the words. "He knew we'd follow him."

"Bloody hell, Hermione, just tell us what it says!" Ron burst out.

One part of it, Hermione knew, was for her and Ron's understanding only. "'Stupid plan, not doing it'," she read out loud. "'Please take my trunk and Hedwig for me. See you later at the usual place'." She paused. "Then there's a bit more that doesn't make any sense, I think he didn't finish."

That particular part made perfect sense, actually. It read, 'motor with sk'.

Moody had already examined the lettering himself. "What motor? What does he mean by that?"

Hermione wasn't a very good liar, and she knew it. Luckily, Harry had written that last part down so poorly that he had provided her plausible denial. "That's the part he didn't finish, I suppose."

She was saved from having to continue her ad libbed deception by Bill's sudden shout from his place near the window. "WATCH IT!"

The Aurors and seasoned Order members immediately took cover, falling to the floor or rolling behind the bed and dresser. Hermione was a bit slower on the reaction time, having been caught completely by surprise, and as such she could clearly see the dark shapes that were speeding over the house.

"Death Eaters!" Moody snarled, wand at the ready.

The tension in the room ratcheted up to an almost unbearable level as wands were drawn and a few choice swearwords came up from various corners of the room (and at least a couple from the wardrobe, where Mundungus was cowering). But it quickly became apparent that the Death Eaters had no interest in them at all – in fact, it didn't seem as if they even knew the Order members were in the house. The hooded and cloaked forms of the enemy shot over the Dursley home, intent on a different target.

Ron was the first to stand, his distress clear. "They must've found Harry!"

Moody was already moving towards the door. "Outside!"

"Wait!" Bill interjected, still staring intently out the window. "I'm not sure they have. Mad-Eye, what do you make of that?"

Moody clomped over to the glass and peered outward. Hermione was close behind him. There, in the distance, a glaring white light could be seen pulsing, visible only by the trees it was illuminating.

Fleur shielded her eyes with one hand, hiding back behind Bill's shoulder. "C'est si brillant! It 'urts my eyes!"

"Magical flare, maybe, some kind of signal," Moody was muttering. His normal eye was squinted against the brilliance. "Very bright, very powerful. Someone wants us to see this, wants everybody to see this."

"And they saw it," Professor Lupin said tensely. He was hovering very near Tonks. "Should we follow?"

In the distance, Hermione could hear the din of sirens. Moody had as well. "Muggle police," he said. "The Death Eaters will clear out. We will, too."

Multiple voices immediately rose in protest, but Moody cut them off by being even louder. "SHUT IT!" he barked out. His magical eye fixed on everyone in turn, lingering on Hermione for an uncomfortable stretch. "Potter is impulsive, not stupid. That little display was his, I'd wager. However he did it…" Once again, he eyed Hermione suspiciously. She blinked nervously. "…he's long gone. Regroup and return to your posts before those blighters get their act together and come snooping around here."

Tonks sighed and leaned against Professor Lupin. "I hope you know what you're doing, Harry…" she said, a touch fearfully.

"He'll turn up when he's ready," Moody said gruffly. "Come on. Get up, let's move. You too, Fletcher. Budge your arse."

Whilst the rest of the group shuffled back down the stairs, talking amongst themselves with obvious confusion, Hermione snagged Ron by the elbow and held him back. "Let's get Harry's things."

"Oh, right! I almost forgot. Sorry, Hedwig," Ron said, lifting the owl's cage from its hook.

Hermione didn't bother trying to physically lift Harry's enormous trunk. With a flick of her wand, she levitated it and moved it towards the doorway. "I thought this might happen," she said quietly.

"It was Scott, wasn't it?" Ron presumed, speaking in an equally hushed tone. "Off his fu– er, ruddy nut, as usual. Blimey, look at all that smoke out there. What do you suppose he burned?"

"It was too bright to be a natural fire. I imagine he used some sort of technology. And I hope he didn't burn anything down in the process." Hermione frowned, worried by the thought. She certainly didn't trust Scott to be concerned about property damage.

Ron looked equally doubtful. "Maybe he lit a few Death Eaters on fire."

"Ron!" Hermione chided him, appalled by that image. "Scott would never… Well, that is to say he probably wouldn't, not if it wasn't efficient… Perhaps. We'll ask him about it later."

Downstairs, Moody was reapplying Disillusionment Charms. He stopped when Hermione and Ron entered the dining room, his magical eye staring at them with an unnerving fixation.

"Did you find Potter's things?" he questioned sharply, eyeing the trunk Hermione was levitating.

Hermione flinched involuntarily. "Yes…"

"Good." Moody turned to place the charm on Tonks, but then abruptly whirled back around. "And you don't know what he was talking about with the motor?"

"Perhaps he had a Muggle vehicle of some sort?" Hermione suggested, hoping to draw attention away from the 'sk' portion of the note.

"Huh," Moody grunted, mulling that over. "They wouldn't be looking for an automotive, that's for sure… Could Potter operate one, if he had it?"

"He was raised by Muggles, I don't see why not." In truth, Hermione hadn't the slightest idea if Harry knew the first thing about driving a car.

"Let's hope he doesn't crash the contraption and do the Death Eaters a favour," Moody growled. "Let's not any of us be doing them any favours, for that matter. Disillusionment Charms all around, and then get gone. And be sure you tell us the moment Potter contacts you, got it?"

Hermione felt a bit of pride at that. Moody knew that she and Ron would be the first people Harry would get in touch with. "Of course," she promised.

When Moody went back to help the others, Ron, who had cleverly remained silent during the exchange, put his arm around Hermione's shoulder and leaned in to whisper in her ear. "Are we really going to tell them? What if Harry asks us not to?"

"We'll deal with that when the time comes," she whispered back. "Besides, Harry will have to go to The Burrow at some point. They'll see him there whether he likes it or not."

"Probably not," Ron suggest wryly. "Not after this."

"Oh, he'll be a bit angry, but he'll get over it." On impulse, Hermione stood on her toes to kiss Ron. When she drew back, she smiled at him. "We've got too much to do to be fighting."

Minutes later they were in the air, speeding away from the Dursleys' and to where they could safely Disapparate. Hagrid had volunteered to take Harry's trunk and Hedwig, which was lucky. Hermione wasn't the best flyer, and she didn't see how she could manage either and still stay on a broom. Her own school trunk was a bit unwieldy, but Harry's looked like he could have comfortably slept inside of it.

Down below, Britain slumbered in the night air, unaware of the calamity that had nearly occurred in the suburbs nearby. Somewhere on those roads, Hermione knew as she tracked the lights of moving Muggle traffic, Harry and Scott were making their way to parts unknown.

If they didn't get there safely, Hermione would be quite cross with them.


"It's not an easy decision. Fast, but not easy. What it comes down to is what we could learn," Scott said quietly.

Harry sat low in his seat, shoulders hunched. "Whether everyone else is all right. What they're doing here in the first place."

"It's a net. They're watching the woods, if you noticed. Not a good net, full of holes and misdirected. They probably think you're on foot, Apparating by steps."

The two men in mismatched clothing walked an awkward perimeter at the back edge of the petrol station, clearly watching for something. Harry observed as they doubled back yet again, still pacing the same stretch of grass where the woods began. One of them, he was almost certain, had a wand tucked up in his sleeve.

"Whoever's in the shop has surely noticed them by now," Harry muttered. "We did, and we're a lot farther away."

"There's no one here but us and Lil," Scott pointed out, indicating the blue car parked in the side lot. According to him, Lila was inside it. "They probably did something to take care of the attendant."

"Stunned or Imperiused him, maybe," Harry guessed.

"Or they killed him. I haven't seen anyone moving inside."

Harry's blood ran cold. To think that some random Muggle could be on the floor behind the counter, dead, because Harry escaped without a trace and the Death Eaters were so desperate that they were out (on foot!) looking for him… Harry felt like he might turn to ice.

"Stop it," Scott said calmly. "You didn't kill anyone. We don't know if they killed anyone."

"If they did, it's my fault," Harry said numbly.

"No, it's not. Every outcome can't be predicted. What if you had gone with the Order? Would it be Ron or Hermione killed instead?"

Harry knew that Scott was purposefully manipulating his emotions. More than a year's worth of time spent with the Kharadjai had rendered his more blatant machinations transparent. But it was working, nonetheless.

"Let's go find out what they did," Harry said tightly.

"All right. They'll try to stop us if we just walk up to the store front. Give me a minute to move around, then I'll signal you."

"Signal me for what, what do you want me to do?"

"Just get their attention. Stay low and get over by the field, I just need you to say something to them. It will make things easier."

With that, Scott opened his door and slipped out into the night. He disappeared into the shadows almost immediately, and Harry had a difficult time tracking him. Scott avoided the ring of illumination from the lights of the station, circling wide and heading for the side lot where Lila was parked. After a moment, Harry climbed out of the car as well, taking care not to shut the door loudly.

The petrol station was situated in a roadside clearing not too far from the motorway. It was meant to service the passing traffic, frequent even late at night. The complete lack of other vehicles made Harry suspicious. Scott had said they were driving on the A303, and weren't too far from Andover. It didn't seem likely that the station would be so deserted. The Death Eaters must have done something to repel any potential Muggle customers.

Rarely had Harry been so utterly frustrated by his inability to use magic as he was whilst creeping through a shallow ditch, trying to get closer without being seen. That sort of thing might be all well and good for Scott, but a Disillusionment Charm would have done the job for Harry. He very much regretted leaving his Invisibility Cloak in his trunk. He had been in such a hurry…

The sparse scrub at the edge of the ditch was all the cover Harry was afforded when he came to a halt. Fortunately, the Death Eaters were fixated on the tree line. Their fixation increased when the loud snap of a twig echoed out from somewhere in the woods. The Death Eater on the right slid his wand out of his sleeve, confirming Harry's earlier guess.

Another loud snap. The two men started to close in on the general location from which it had emanated. With a jolt, Harry realised that the twigs had probably been his signal to do something.

Taking a deep breath, Harry stood up. "Oi! You two!" he shouted.

The Death Eaters spun around, wands raising, but it was already too late. Scott and Lila surged from the brush with unnatural speed and sent the unfortunate Death Eaters crashing to the ground with a series of rapid blows.

Scott immediately hauled the limp form of his opponent upward and began carrying him towards the back of the station. "Lil, take yours to the other bathroom. Harry," he called, "go check in the store, see if anyone is hurt."

Harry ran over to the double doors, a mounting feeling of dread suffusing him. Inside, the lights – so bright after his time in the dark – illuminated a plethora of colourful products and accessories. Behind the counter, the station attendant was slumped forward in a chair, his head pillowed on his arms. He didn't appear to be harmed, which was surprising.

"Um, hello?" Harry said tentatively. The man didn't stir. "Hey, are you all right?"

Still no response. Harry would have feared the man was dead, but his chest was rising and falling evenly. The attendant was sleeping, and couldn't be woken. There wasn't any doubt that the Death Eaters had done it to him, though it wasn't nearly as terrible as what they might have done.

Harry pondered that when he returned outside. Why hadn't the Death Eaters simply killed the man? He was grateful that they had not, obviously, but it was a bit confusing. Death Eaters weren't known for their compassion.

Around the back of the shop were the doors for the privy. Harry went up to the men's loo and peered inside.

Scott had situated the unconscious Death Eater on the floor, leaning against one wall. He was going through the man's pockets, rifling through the clothes with great concentration.

"There's someone in the shop, but they're just sleeping," Harry told him.

"Makes sense," Scott said a bit distractedly. "There are cameras in there. If they make it look like he fell asleep on the job, there won't be any questions asked."

"I was a little surprised," Harry admitted. "I thought they might have just killed that bloke. They've killed plenty of Muggles before…"

"And always covered their tracks. If they were going to kill him, they would have burned the place down or something. They'd have done it when they moved on." Scott stood decisively, looking down at the Death Eater. "Close the door. We don't have much time for this."

Harry wasn't sure he wanted to close the door. It seemed like doing so would enable Scott to do whatever… things he was planning to do. Not that Harry knew what was going on, exactly, but he wasn't naive enough to think the Death Eater was just going to talk. Not without some motivation. Knowing Scott, that impetus would be very unpleasant, and perhaps not something Harry wanted to watch.

Despite these misgivings, Harry steeled himself and closed the door, but he resolved to stop Scott if he thought things were getting out of hand.

Scott picked up the Death Eater by the back of his peach-coloured coat and dragged him near the toilet. He then slapped the man's cheeks a few times until he started to stir, coughing and struggling feebly.

"Welcome back to the world of the waking," Scott said pleasantly. "I'm going to ask you a few questions, but first–"

Scott grabbed a fistful of the Death Eater's dark hair and plunged him face first into the toilet bowl, forcing his head beneath the water. Bubbles poured out furiously; Harry could hear the frantic shouting reverberating through the ceramic. He bit down on his lip and said nothing, reasoning that if Scott wanted the Death Eater to answer any questions, then he wasn't going to outright drown him.

Sure enough, Scott pulled the man's head from the water. He kept his knee pressed firmly against the man's back, though, pinning him painfully in place. "What's your name?" he asked the man loudly. When he didn't get any immediate response other than gasping, he shook the Death Eater so hard that the man's teeth clicked together. "What is your name?"

"Preston!" the Death Eater choked out.

"Okay, Preston," Scott said, easing up a little on the pressure from his knee. "I'd like to know what you were doing out here tonight. What were you looking for?"

"Who are you? Where am I?" Preston questioned. "What the hell are you doing, treating me like this–" He was interrupted when Scott plunged his head beneath the water again. This time when Preston was pulled back up for air, he looked faint.

"What were you looking for?" Scott asked again in the exact same tone.

"I… just want to know… who you are," Preston garbled. "I haven't done anything, I… haven't said anything to anyone, I swear! There's no call for this!"

"Preston… As a favour to you, I'll ask you one more time, then down you go again. What were you looking for?"

"Potter, of course, we… we all are, were, all of us. That's what we were told! I'm supposed to be here!"

Harry tensed at the sound of his name. It was difficult to stay silent. The Death Eater wasn't making much sense, and Harry wanted Scott to cut to the chase. He needed to know what had happened back at the house.

Scott seemed to be having the same thoughts. "What about the house? Potter's house, where he was staying, why did you leave it?"

Preston seemed aghast. "What? There was a light! Surely you saw it, or you were told?"

"Preston, I want you to tell me exactly what your orders are, and why you were given them," Scott said slowly. He lowered Preston's head an inch closer to the water.

"The light was a fake, and Potter was gone, we were split up to search but he wasn't there, so they spread us out and gave us these clothes and we're supposed to watch the woods, just these woods, in case he comes through!" Preston spat out frantically. "I did what I was told, we put the Muggle to sleep and we watched the woods like we were told! I have orders! There's no call for this!"

"And you never caught anyone else?"

"Who else?! The Dark Lord wants Potter, blast it, and that's who…" Preston suddenly went white and he fell silent. "…Who are you?"

"Why did you think he'd pass through these woods?"

Utter terror passed over Preston's face. "Fuck off. I'm not saying nothing."

Scott glanced over at Harry. "We're out of time, anyway. Go see if the other one said anything."

Harry hurried out the door, anxious to see if Lila had wrangled any more information from the second Death Eater. He had only taken a few steps in that direction when she emerged from the other loo.

"Lila!" Harry said, getting her attention. "Did yours say anything?"

She shook her head. "No. I didn't have enough time. Come on, those Muggle wards are already fading and we need to be gone."

Harry fell into step beside her. "What about the Death Eaters?"

"I'll handle them. You and Scott are taking my car, and I'll take yours." Lila pointed out the blue car she had parked at the side of the station. "It's unlocked, go get in and Scott will be right over. I just need to talk to him."

Harry went and opened the door, stepping inside and buckling his seatbelt with slightly shaky hands. The adrenaline rush of confronting the two Death Eaters was fading, leaving him feeling a bit light-headed. He supposed things might have been simpler if they'd just kept driving, but he'd needed to be sure that no Muggles had been killed. It would have been an awful way to start the Horcrux hunt. He was aware that casualties were possible, but he'd always had the thought that if anyone died, it would be him.

Sirius had been enough of a price. No one else should have to pay it for merely being in Harry's proximity. He looked down at himself, fear clenching his throat. He was a poison, an airborne disease. He should have made Ron and Hermione stay behind. He should never have talked to Ginny.

He stopped himself before that line of thought spiralled out of control.

Scott came running up to the car and started it immediately. "That was risky," he commented. "Lila will make sure the Death Eaters aren't found any time soon. By the time they're missed, we'll be far from here."

"It was worth it to know that they didn't get anyone at the Dursleys'," Harry said with great relief.

Scott nodded. "We got away about as clean as we could have hoped for."

"What was he babbling about, though? He wasn't making much sense."

"Apparently he thought I was another Death Eater. An officer, maybe. He thought he was in trouble and that I was misinformed."

"He thought you were on his side and you were drowning him?" Harry said incredulously.

"Riddle controls through fear. He probably has a circle within the circle, his own Gestapo to keep the ranks in line. Random brutality as part initiation, part discipline. Standard stuff for a terror army, dictatorial." Scott almost sounded like he was reading the information from a book.

"So he thought you were kicking the shite out of him for being the wrong place. Or not finding me." Harry sighed. "You know I hate it when people get hurt because of me, but… if a few Death Eaters get a Crucio over missing me, I can't say I'd regret it."

Scott grinned. "Yeah, me neither. This is also useful to know. That sort of tactic is a hard balance between fear and resentment – dissension can be exploited."

Scott pulled the car back onto the motorway, merging with traffic, and soon the scenery was flying past the window once more. Harry found himself falling asleep, the left side of his forehead pressed against the cool glass. Headlamps flashed intermittently, illuminating his eyelids before dying back into the darkness. The rocking and rumbling of the vehicle was as effective as any lullaby.

It was an indeterminate amount of time later – when fewer cars blinked past and the moon was hidden behind thick clouds – that Harry's eyes popped open, propelled by a sudden dark thought.

With a cold feeling in his chest, he thought he knew why Scott had sent him out to check on Lila.

"You killed him," Harry spoke out into the silence.

Scott didn't look away from the road. His face betrayed nothing, but his lack of response was answer enough.

And Harry didn't know what to say or feel.

"An interesting note," Scott said casually in the silence. "While you were sleeping, I was thinking – and driving, of course – and even though I never pulled a wand on him, that Death Eater still assumed I was one of them. I was drowning him, and he didn't wonder why it wasn't a Crucio."

Harry started to ask why Scott had killed Preston (and Harry fervently wished he had never learned the man's name), but shut his mouth at the last moment. He knew why Scott had done it. It was safer that way, it made sense. It was the only solution that kept dangerous information out of Voldemort's hands. Even knowing the why, though, didn't make it any less terrible or easier to accept.

So which was worse: the thought that Harry's decision to check the station had doomed the two men to death, or the thought that if he hadn't made that call, the station attendant might have been a charred corpse when the Death Eaters left?

Nothing but chance. Life or death, at the mercy of a brief thought, a whim, a split-second decision. From Harry.

But if he had known beforehand, he knew which one he still would have chosen.

"…You'd just knocked him a good one. He wasn't thinking about any of that, he couldn't breathe," Harry slowly replied.

"A good point." Scott smiled. "I knew there was a reason I kept you around."

Harry relaxed a bit on this more familiar ground. "You must mean besides my brilliant good looks."

"Compared to what? A baboon? A moray eel?"

"You, for starters."

Scott let out a very long, exaggerated sigh. "Uh, in case you've forgotten our pre-assigned group roles, I'm the pretty one. Hermione is the brains, Ron is the muscle, Ginny is the firebrand, and you're the wannabe, the weedy, anxious little guy who wants to be like us but just ends up as the comic relief."

That wasn't how the joke had gone originally, as Harry was quick to point out. "No, you said I was the leader and you were the wildcard. Neville was the sidekick and Luna was the… something."

"Space cadet."

"Right. And nobody was the 'pretty one'. Except me, from now on."

"You are pretty for a man, that's true."

"You said you were, first!" Harry retorted.

"Uh, no, I'm fairly sure you just made that up. Maybe you dreamed it when you were snoring over there."

"Shut it, Scott. Maybe if you didn't talk so much your driving wouldn't be shite," Harry grumbled.

"We can trade off any time," Scott said graciously.

"I wouldn't know how," Harry reluctantly admitted.

"I figured. We'll probably have to do something about that, as a contingency. I'll get you some reading material."

Harry started to protest, but thought better of it. Homework or not, learning to drive could be dead useful. Even Hermione didn't have a license for that.

The second the conversation lapsed back into silence, the image of Preston's terrified visage floated back to the forefront of Harry's consciousness. He didn't understand it entirely; he'd seen death before. It was the manner, he decided. The Death Eaters at Hogwarts had died fighting, cut down in combat. Preston had died frightened and alone in a Muggle lavatory, somewhere off the A303 motorway. And Harry honestly couldn't say if the man had deserved it. Preston had been a Death Eater, which meant he'd most likely done something horrible just to earn the title. But that assumption wasn't proof.

"How did you kill him?" Harry asked quickly, almost afraid of the answer.

Scott sighed. "He was there to kill me and capture you, which in the end would be the same as killing you. You know that, right?"

"He wasn't there to kill you, they had no idea I wasn't alone–"

"They'd have killed anyone with you and you know it."

"Yeah." Harry set his jaw. "How'd you do it?"

Scott stalled. "Harry…"

"Just tell me!" Harry violently demanded.

"You want the simple answer, or the technical answer?"

That brought Harry up short. "Just… an answer. Simple, I guess."

"I broke his neck. It was quick and he didn't feel anything."

"Like you would know," Harry snorted derisively.

"I would. I've been hanged before," Scott said mildly. "I heard the snap, but I didn't feel a thing when I blacked out."

That was not what Harry had expected. "Oh. I… All right."

"Harry, look." Scott glanced over at him for a moment. "We'll have plenty of time to go into therapy later. We do what we have to, and we move on. Just try to remember the most important rule."

Harry rubbed at his eyes, feeling more tired than anything right then. "What?"

"Don't ever enjoy it."

Right then, that seemed easy enough. "Already done," Harry muttered.

Was that the trick to it? Scott seemed capable of killing someone and then joking not half an hour later… Though, he hadn't joked about the killing itself. He was compartmentalised, or maybe just jaded, or maybe… a million other things. Harry sighed and tried to clear his mind. People weren't that simple. He wasn't that simple. He couldn't understand himself, never mind Scott's contradictions.

The dark road ahead fled backwards beneath the headlamps and offered no answers. Nothing ever did. Somewhere up ahead lay temporary safety, and, somewhere behind, the enemy was looking for him. All paths were uncertain.

Head against the window glass, Harry succumbed to a shallow and uneasy sleep.

Back to index


Chapter 4: Landfall

4

Landfall


"It is the singular strength (and sometimes weakness) of the
integrationist to absorb a time and place and make it their own.
I've found home in a hundred centuries, I've slept in pits and
palaces. 'Home' often implies a house, but any long-term
integrationist will tell you the same thing as I – you need to find
the heart, not the dwelling. I never could find it on my own,
because it wasn't mine to start with.

Excerpt from the untitled memoirs of Optio Poitr Lewllyn, Ret.


Harry stood outside of Scott's room, and tried not to panic.

It wasn't that his present situation was especially stressful. He was just waiting (again), attempting to find both patience and courage. His arrival at The Burrow, a moment which was fast approaching, that was what he dreaded. Because he knew he was in for it. There was a long list of people he had upset with his sudden departure from Privet Drive.

There were three formidable females at The Burrow, none of which would be happy about Harry's impromptu escape. Between Hermione, Ginny, and Mrs Weasley, Harry reckoned he might as well make his peace. Hopefully, Hermione would let him off with a light scolding; she knew that Scott had taken care of things and trusted the Kharadjai enough for that. Ginny would also understand what had taken place, but when it came to Scott… Well, Harry would have to work to smooth that over. And Mrs Weasley would be the worst of all, because Harry couldn't tell her the truth (about much of anything).

The Order would be angry that he had abandoned them. He didn't care too much about that, though. Their idea of a 'plan' had been completely unacceptable, and he didn't regret not going through with it. Moody might be infuriated because things hadn't gone according to his design, Harry wasn't certain; he'd never known the real Moody. Tonks would probably laugh it off, she was easygoing enough. Hagrid would be worried, but accepting. Remus would be the most distressed. Harry's former professor had taken it upon himself to try and fill in for Sirius, and took the duty of godfather to heart. Harry would have to apologise; Remus deserved that, at least. He might have understood if Harry had been able to explain.

That was the hardest part of the whole mess. Harry couldn't explain, not to anyone that didn't already know.

And that was a short list, indeed. Ginny, Ron, Hermione, Neville, Luna, and Harry himself. There would have been one more name, but Dumbledore was gone. Had fate allowed it, there would have been two. Harry wouldn't have kept anything from Sirius, even if Scott wanted him to (though he doubted the Kharadjai would have had any objections – in fact, Harry thought Scott and Sirius would probably have got along well).

That brought the guilty notion that Remus also deserved to know. Harry couldn't imagine a good time for that conversation.

The door to Scott's room flew open and the occupant in question strolled out with all the swagger and confidence of an affluent man about town. That posh air was directly at odds with his threadbare shirt, baggy jeans, and skinny teen-aged form.

"Ah, the heady vigour of youth…" Scott said enthusiastically, stretching his arms out. "I'm a teen again, hooray! Let me enjoy it for these first few minutes before I remember how much I hate it."

Harry shrugged, unmoved by Scott's complaints. "It's got to be better than ageing up. What if you had to be sixty years old for this mission?"

"Then they'd get an older Kharadjai and I wouldn't have to deal with this shit," Scott said cheerfully. "Can't be done, my clueless friend."

Harry bristled a bit at the 'clueless' part. If he was clueless, it was only because Scott was so full of shite. "Why not?"

"Because I've never been sixty before. How can I make myself an age I haven't been?"

"How do you make yourself younger? I don't sodding know!" Harry spat out.

"Wow… Relax, man."

Harry sighed. "…Sorry."

"You're all bent out of shape 'cause of everyone waiting at The Burrow, I know." Scott walked over towards the kitchen, patting Harry on the back a little too hard to be sympathetic. "Don't worry! You're only facing the unbridled wrath and disappointment of everyone in your life who cares about you."

Harry winced; he couldn't help himself. Scott had slid neatly back into teen form, and with it, being a complete arsehole. Harry's only consolation was that Scott wouldn't be walking away untouched. "Some of your Primes aren't going to be happy with you, either."

"Yes, which is why I plan on throwing you to the wolves and then hiding." Scott grabbed a banana off the table and stuffed half of it into his mouth. "Thall weh go?" he mumbled through the partially chewed mess.

Harry followed Scott out the door and through the narrow corridor. Lila was waiting by the car outside, appearing more than a little impatient. Scott had taken his time whilst reassuming his teenage form.

"It's not a good sign when you take longer to get dressed than your sister," Lila informed Scott as they approached.

"But it is a good sign when that's because you wear way more clothing than that sister, who dresses like a tramp," Scott retorted with great cheer.

Lila was wearing a pale green shirt and a pair of jeans that did flatter her form, but were not even close to being revealing. Scott was just getting in his jabs wherever he could, regardless of whether they were fitting.

Oddly enough, it seemed to be working. Lila glared daggers at Scott. "Get in the car and shut up. If I have to play 'older-sister-slash-guardian' again, then you're gonna listen to me."

Scott opened his mouth for what would have no doubt been a defiant rejoinder; Harry elbowed him in the side first. "Shut it," he muttered to the Kharadjai. "I just want to get this over with."

"'Things you don't want to hear during your first sexual encounter'," Scott quipped, but he must have taken the hint. He left Lila alone during the short car ride to The Burrow, which was a blessing. Harry didn't need Scott antagonising Lila, as well. There were enough angry people to be dealt with.

The car was only able to make it halfway up the overgrown path before a newly fallen tree blocked the way. Lila slammed the shift into park with a grumpy expression, eyeballing the dead tree as if it were a personal offence to her. "Hold on," she said shortly, opening her door.

"Give us a minute to move this thing," Scott said, following Lila out of the vehicle.

Harry was slightly offended that he hadn't been asked to help. He wasn't a Kharadjai, sure, but he wasn't a total weakling either. At the very least he might have moved some of the branches. He crossed his arms and settled in to wait. With the engine shut off, the siblings were close enough that he could easily hear their conversation.

"So is there a reason why you're especially mad at me today?" Scott asked as he grabbed the side of the trunk opposite of Lila.

"I didn't say I was mad at you." Lila heaved upwards, standing a large section of the tree on end. She knocked it back over, off the path, where it made a deep thump and shook the car a little.

"You never do. You just glare at me and expect me to read your mind," Scott said.

"I do not."

"Do too."

"Do not!"

"Do too."

"We're not doing this. I refuse," Lila stated.

"Fine, then just tell me what's wrong."

Lila narrowed her eyes at him. "Maybe it's that time of the month. You usually love that excuse; you assign it to every little thing."

Scott shrugged. "Is it?"

"That's none of your business," Lila told him.

"It is, isn't it."

"What did I just say?"

Scott threw up his hands in exasperation. "Then what? You've discovered a lifetime worth of pent-up resentment because I'm not a sister? You're a lesbian, but you don't know how to tell me?"

Lila merely rolled her eyes. "How you come up with this stuff, I really don't know."

Scott's face took on a shrewd look. "You know what I think? I think you're mad because I'm a teen again. I think you just settled back into being my younger sister and now you're stuck resuming a role you don't understand."

"You should have been a psychologist, Scott, you're so damn smart," Lila said scathingly.

"I bet I'm right."

"Too bad you'll never know," Lila said dismissively, and went back to moving the tree.

Scott retreated back to the car, leaving Lila to handle the rest of the roadblock alone. "She must be in a bad mood," he confided to Harry. "She won't even tell me if I'm right."

"Probably because it's already making you mental," Harry said dryly.

"I am right! You'll see."

Harry only shrugged in response, far too worried about his own problems to care. He was still lacking any ideas as to what he might say to defuse the situation. All he had was the honest answer: he had refused to play along with the Order's plan to put themselves in harm's way for him. But that wasn't a response which would placate anyone.

Lila seemed calmer when she re-entered the vehicle and started it up again. She made no comment regarding Scott's suppositions, instead speaking to Harry. "It might be better if you talked to Ginny first. She's been on edge since you took off."

"I'd supposed as much," Harry sighed.

The Burrow appeared between the trees as Lila drove down the bumpy path towards the garage. She couldn't park inside of it, not even with the loss of the old Ford Anglia. Mr Weasley had expanded his collection of Muggle odds and ends to the point that there was hardly standing room inside the small structure.

"She's probably up in her room," Lila told Harry, her eyes a bit fuzzy and distant. Harry recognised the same look as having been worn by Scott whenever he was examining the shape, that odd aspect of the universe that only the two Kharadjai seemed to experience directly. "I'll run interference as long as I can. Go upstairs and talk to her – quietly, if you can manage that."

The car jolted slightly as Lila put it into park outside of the garage. She unbuckled her seatbelt and looked backwards at Harry. "The other Primes don't need any real explanation. What will you tell everyone else?"

"Er… How about, that I called you and you came and picked me up that night? Without knowing about the whole Order thing. You didn't know. And I called you early, so you were already close when the Order showed up, and I just went to you instead," Harry said, inventing what he thought was a fairly plausible excuse.

"Keep it simple," Lila warned. "Don't dig yourself any deeper. You called me, I offered you a ride. But leave out the stuff about me meeting you at your house. There wasn't any time for that."

"She's right," Scott said, speaking up for the first time. He had been sulking after Lila's refusal to engage him. "You went out the window and called Lila later that night from a payphone. She came and got you somewhere else."

"That doesn't explain the grenade, though," Harry pointed out.

"Yeah. But unless you know of a very similar spell, there aren't any convincing explanations. Either me or Lil gave you that grenade just in case you got in trouble, because we have Muggle stuff like that, which is dangerously close to the truth – or, you have no idea. You weren't around to see it, you know nothing about it."

Harry was sceptical. "That's a bit of a stretch, isn't it?"

Scott nodded glumly. "Then you got it from one of us. Who?"

"You," Harry told him. "You're daft enough to give me something like that to play with."

That gave Scott a moment's pause. "…Not bad, Harry. I can see that working, banking on my notoriety as a loose cannon… It could have been an early birthday gift, or my idea of a starter kit for arson."

Of course, Scott would be perfectly willing to use his own status as a confirmed nutter for other ends. "Nobody would doubt it if I put it that way."

"I should hope not. I have a reputation to uphold."

Harry grimaced. "Just promise me one thing."

"Yeah?"

"If you get to know the twins better, don't give them any explosives. Or guns, or anything else of that sort," Harry pleaded.

"From what I've heard, seems like they're doing just fine without any Muggle munitions," Scott remarked.

"They are. So they don't need anything from you," Harry emphasised.

Scott sighed heavily. "Have it your way. But if the opportunity arises to arm them against the Death Eaters–"

"Then we'll talk about it," Harry quickly interjected.

Lila opened her door and motioned towards The Burrow. "All decided?"

Harry braced himself as best he could, gathering his courage. "Yeah. Let's go."

It was hard to reconcile the dread he was feeling with the familiar shape of The Burrow. He usually wanted to be there more than anything, he looked forward to it even more than Hogwarts. And part of him still did. That part was waiting for everything to blow over so he could relax again in the company of his real family. Realistically, he knew that would happen. Either he or Scott or time would smooth things over, relegating his dash from the Dursleys' into memory.

But not soon enough for his liking.

"Molly is in the kitchen," Lila was saying as they approached. "Ron and Hermione are also inside somewhere. When we go in, I'll cut right to distract Molly, Scott will keep Ron and Hermione where they are and you will go up to Ginny."

"It'd be nice if you could not tell them I'm talking with Ginny," Harry said nervously.

"That might actually be the only thing to keep them away," Scott noted.

Lila swatted at him, though he dodged. "No, Scott. Don't bring it up unless you have no choice."

"Like that's going to be easy? The first thing they'll ask is where Harry is!" Scott protested.

Lila gave him a look that could only be described as frostbitten. "You wondered why I'm mad at you? Well, guess what, now you're on the right track because when you're a teen you can't do anything! You just gripe about it! My actual brother would have just nodded and handled this crap, but instead I get a whiny little brat who sticks me with all the work!"

Harry quickly backed away from the two of them. There seemed to be a built-up grievance, and he had no intention of getting in the way.

Scott scoffed at her. "Whatever, Lil. All you did is sit around The Burrow and stuff your fat ass with cookies and fudge. So sorry you got stuck with that end of the 'work'."

There was a second where Harry was pretty sure that Lila was going to attack Scott (and, given Scott's teen form, Harry reckoned she would win, which he would sort of like to see). After standing motionless in a tense silence, she seemed to draw her professionalism around herself, and turned towards Harry.

"Come on, Harry," she said levelly. "Try to be quick."

"You're in for it later," Harry muttered as he bypassed Scott.

"You're in for it now," Scott shot back.

Lila opened the front door without knocking; apparently, she had been present often enough that she had become excluded from the protections on the house. She immediately diverted to the right, where Harry could hear Mrs Weasley moving about the kitchen.

"Hi, Molly," Lila said, growing distant. Harry went rapidly for the stairs, barely paying attention as Scott peeled off and headed for the living room. Harry hoped that Lila had been right, and Ginny was in her room. He didn't want to have to go looking for her, not with everyone else around.

Her door was shut. Harry took a deep breath, and knocked.

"What is it now, Mum?" Ginny called out, sounding exasperated. "I'm right in the middle of–" She opened the door and immediately fell silent.

"Hi, Gin," Harry said meekly. She stared back at him. "Uh… What were you in the middle of?"

She grabbed his arm, hauled him inside, shut the door, and kissed him soundly.

Then she pulled away and smacked him on the shoulder.

"Ow!" Harry yelped. It hadn't really hurt, but he thought maybe if he showed some sign of pain it would lessen her anger.

"Harry James Potter! You scared the shite out of me!" Ginny lambasted him, face flushed. "What were you thinking? Where did you go?"

"I'll explain, just keep it down," Harry shushed her, glancing nervously at the door. "I wanted to talk to you first."

That seemed to mollify her slightly. "So talk."

"Well… The Order had a really bad plan to get me out of the Dursleys' house. It was stupid and dangerous and so I… I just had Scott take me. In a car."

"In a car," she repeated, her eyes dangerously alight. "In a Muggle car with half the Death Eaters in Britain chasing after you."

Obviously, someone had told her about the Death Eaters. "They weren't chasing us. I mean, they were, but we lost them really early on." Harry decided to gloss over the petrol station incident, at least until later.

Ginny's expression was not promising. "Right. Of course you lost them. Why wouldn't you, in a Muggle car, with just Scott, leaving the Order and all your friends behind without telling them where you were going or letting them protect you in any way whilst a sodding car and whatever Scott has was plenty safe and not stupid or dangerous at all."

Harry flinched. "Come on, there were loads of Death Eaters around, you wouldn't want Ron and Hermione, or Fred and George, or Bill, going out against them…"

"Why wouldn't they? Because they shouldn't be allowed to help you? Because we're all so safe anyway?" Ginny said scathingly. "If I were there, would you have left me behind? Wait, stupid question. You'll leave me behind for just about anything!"

Harry was trying to keep his cool but she was making it impossible; he never could remain impassive around her. "I couldn't let them start a battle right in the middle of the bloody suburb!"

"Right, so you reckoned Scott would kill them somewhere else instead. Never mind that he's just one person, never mind that he's more interested in killing people than saving you–"

That sparked Harry's temper. "I don't need to be saved!"

"We all need help, Harry, especially you!"

Harry threw out his hands. "And he helped me. So what's the problem?"

"The problem," Ginny hissed through clenched teeth, "is that you had an entire bloody house full of your friends and family and you went and ran off with the least reliable bloke we know without telling any of us a bloody thing!" There was fear behind the anger in her eyes, bringing Harry up short. "I was scared, I didn't know where you were."

"I left a note…" Harry countered feebly.

Ginny turned away and flopped onto her bed, burying her face into one of her pillows. "A note that didn't tell us anything except that you were with Scott, like that was supposed to be comforting," she said, voice muffled.

Harry awkwardly fidgeted in place for a moment before seating himself next to her. It felt faintly forbidden to be anywhere near Ginny's bed, and now he was sitting on it. He tried not to get distracted. "It was the truth, at least," he said.

Ginny rolled over, staring at her ceiling. "…He got you out in one piece," she admitted, sounding like it pained her to do so. "I guess that's a point for him."

"He can be difficult, yeah, but… He's not a bad bloke. He just wants to help, even if he doesn't always go about it, uh…" Harry was unable to find the right word.

Ginny sighed. "God, Harry. You about made me sick with worrying. I never wanted to be like my mum, either, you know. Always worrying about things, nagging to cover it up."

"I think I've made both of you worry more than you should ever have to," Harry said quietly.

"Ugh." Ginny made a noise of disgust, sitting up. "Now I've sent you on another Harry Potter Guilt Trip. This is my room, in case you forgot, and it's a no-brooding area."

"Sorry."

"At least it's easy to get an apology when you're like this." Ginny wrapped her arms around his shoulders and kissed him again. "Like I said, no brooding in here. You'll have to find something else to do on my bed…" she murmured against his lips.

Harry was once again painfully aware that he was sitting on Ginny's bed. In her room, with the door closed. "Such as?" he said, heart pounding.

"This is a good start," she said, running her tongue across his lower lip.

They couldn't do this, not now, Harry knew, even as he kissed her hard. Lila and Mrs Weasley were in the kitchen, and Scott was doing something or the other downstairs to delay Hermione, and neither of them could keep it up forever. Harry reckoned he had minutes, at most, before someone came upstairs to see where he'd gone. He was definitely making the most of it. Too bad being caught in such a compromising position was the last thing he needed (though if it was by Mrs Weasley then he wouldn't have to worry about Voldemort or the Horcruxes anymore, because he'd be dead).

With a superhuman application of will, Harry extracted himself from their rapidly escalating snog. "We can't!" he gasped, barely preventing an almost involuntary return to Ginny's lips. "Scott and Lila are downstairs, and–"

"Scott!" Ginny's eyes flared and she pushed off of Harry's lap. She stormed towards the door. "Where is that sodding wan–"

Harry leapt forward and pulled her back with a full-body hug. "We can't all have a big row, either! Your mum doesn't know, Ginny, she doesn't know about Scott!"

Ginny seethed and struggled against his grip, but he wouldn't relent. "Fine!" she said. "Tell him to come up here, I'll talk to him in private!"

"Gin, if I go back downstairs your mum and Hermione are going to corner me and you know it."

"What am I supposed to do, then? Just let him get away with it?"

"Get away with what? With helping me? He got me out of the effing Dursleys', I'd say that's a good job all around…" Harry said defensively.

That gave Ginny a moment's pause, seeing as how she had conceded the same point shortly before. "Well…"

"I didn't want anyone to get hurt," Harry told her, though he tensed a bit when he remembered that his wish hadn't entirely come true. "It was the only way."

"Really," Ginny said shortly. "What about Scott's stupid Apparating, or whatever it is he does to get around? Why didn't he just do that?"

Harry didn't have an answer to that question, so he had to guess. "I dunno… The shape probably wasn't right, or something."

"The shape, the shape, the bloody shape," Ginny huffed, wriggling free of Harry's grasp. "That's his excuse for everything, isn't it?"

Admittedly, it sort of was. "You can always ask him." Harry's eyes widened a fraction when he realised his mistake. "Later, though. And… calmly."

Ginny flopped back down onto Harry's lap. "He won't tell me anything, you know that."

Harry thought that Scott would be much more likely to explain things to Ginny if she just asked him instead of being so confrontational. But he kept that to himself. "Then I'll tell you."

Ginny twisted her neck around to look at him. "Instead of trying to chuck me and not tell me anything at all? That's a switch."

He deserved that. "Sorry. I'm here now, aren't I?"

"Yes," Ginny said, picking herself up and reversing to straddle him. "So let's get back to snogging, shall we…"

Oh, that was marvellous idea. But even as her lips closed over his, Harry was feeling like they could be intruded upon at any second. In fact, it was a bloody miracle that nobody had walked in yet. Scott and Lila must have been working overtime downstairs.

"Lila can only delay your mum for so long," Harry said, turning his head so that Ginny's lips pressed against his cheek. "And Scott probably has his hands full with Hermione. I'm surprised no one's come up yet, to be honest."

Ginny sighed. "If you really want to stop that badly…"

He didn't. He really, really didn't. "No, but if your mum–"

"Right, I know." She stood up. "No point in waiting."


Hermione had been comfortably ensconced on the sofa with Ron (though not in an especially intimate fashion, not with Mrs Weasley about) when her thoughts were interrupted by a noise at the door. Someone had arrived at The Burrow, if the stamping feet at the entryway were any indication.

Ron perked up next to her, where he had been lightly dozing. "You think that's…?"

"It might be!" Hermione said, feeling hopeful that she might soon be seeing Harry, alive and intact. "We should…"

She trailed off when Scott waltzed into the room like he owned the place.

"Oh, hello," Scott said dully, as if they were distant acquaintances.

Hermione wasn't playing along. "Scott. Have a seat."

She intended to get some answers, but Ron was less interested in Scott's presence. "Hey, where's Harry?"

Scott slumped in one of the armchairs, putting his feet up on a small table (and getting away with it only because Mrs Weasley wasn't there to see). "He's upstairs with Ginny."

Ron flushed red. "Are you–! You'd better be joking."

Scott slowly shook his head. "Nope. Hermione, be a good Prime and prevent your significant other from interrupting Harry."

Although she chafed at Scott's deliberate needling, Hermione knew he was still correct. "Ron, it's all right. They have some things they need to sort out."

"Right," Ron snorted. "Things to sort out. Alone, in her bedroom. After Harry chucked her. And I'm just supposed to sit on my arse and ignore it?"

"Uh… Yes," Scott told him with a sarcastic undertone. "That's about right. Good summary, very succinct."

"Sod off," Ron retorted hotly. "Not like this is any of your business!"

"Not yours, either, bucko," Scott replied laconically.

Hermione knew she needed to keep Ron calm, and Scott wasn't helping in the slightest. She kept a firm grip on Ron's arm. "Ron, please. Harry and Ginny need to work this out on their own. I know you're just being protective, but that's not what Ginny needs right now. She's had enough of that from Harry."

"I… Yeah, I know," Ron muttered, subsiding. "I told Harry I wasn't angry anymore, but… that was before he went right up to her room!"

"They're just talking, Ron," Hermione assured him whilst fervently hoping that was the case.

"And maybe fucking, if they can multi-task," Scott added unhelpfully.

To Ron's credit, he didn't rise to the bait. His cheeks flushed a bit darker, but he merely responded with a terse, "Shut it."

Hermione glared at Scott. She didn't know what his problem was; from the second he'd walked in the room, he'd been nothing but mean-spirited and aloof. He was looking blankly back at her, a combative spark in his eye. At that moment, Hermione realised that she didn't care enough to batter at his defences. Whatever answers Scott held, they could wait until he was no longer in such a hostile mood.

"Let's go upstairs," Hermione said to Ron while watching Scott carefully. "I left a book up there. It's a bit stuffy in here, anyway."

Ron looked surprised, but didn't object. "Sure, if you want."

Hermione ignored Scott as she traipsed out of the room. The Kharadjai made no move to follow them. Hermione liked to think he was stunned by her sudden departure, sans interrogation, but that was a bit optimistic. Scott was difficult to read, even in his more volatile teen form.

As they passed the kitchen, Hermione saw Lila there with Mrs Weasley. They were conversing over their food preparations.

"–I understand that he needs to explain himself, dear, but I would like to hear what he has to say as well!" Mrs Weasley was saying.

"You know how kids are when they're in trouble. Harry wants to try his luck with Ron and Hermione first." Lila was speaking to Mrs Weasley and facing the doorway. Whilst Mrs Weasley was distracted with chopping vegetables, Lila shot a quick glare at Hermione, coupled with a hand gesture that clearly meant to stay out of sight.

Hermione swiftly stepped back, pulling Ron with her. If Lila was telling Mrs Weasley that Harry was with them instead of Ginny, then being seen without him would be very bad, indeed.

Mrs Weasley sighed. "I suppose he would. Thank you for looking after him, reckless though he was."

"It wasn't a problem. He can pay me back for gas money, and we'll be even," Lila said wryly.

"I wish you had been here when Arthur and the boys came back, along with the rest," Mrs Weasley said, shaking her head. "I about lost my head, it was such a fuss! They were half hoping that Harry was already here, but of course he was nowhere to be found, and the Order didn't know what to do."

"I'm not sure what help I'd have been," Lila replied.

Mrs Weasley chuckled fondly. "You're the very definition of grace under pressure, dear. I'll wager you barely blinked when Harry rang you in the middle of the night. Someday you'll have to tell me which side of your family that calm comes from – I do wish you'd smile a bit more, though." Lila must have smiled at that, because Mrs Weasley exclaimed, "There, see? Such a lovely face, I don't understand how you haven't had any admirers calling at your flat."

"I'm not at my flat. I'm over here," Lila pointed out.

"You haven't been at home much, that's true. Oh, and with the wedding all the rooms will be filled…" Mrs Weasley fretted.

"I'll take the couch," Lila offered.

"But what about your brother, dear?"

"He'll take the floor. And he won't complain about it, either."

Hermione peeked around the corner; Mrs Weasley was shaking her head. "I think you're a bit hard on him," she said.

"Only because he hasn't been around here," Lila countered.

Hermione took the opportunity presented and darted through the doorway and up the stairs whilst Mrs Weasley had her back turned. As she ascended with Ron, she heard what sounded like a large pot or pan hit the floor, followed by Lila apologising. The Kharadjai woman was neatly covering any sounds made by the creaky steps.

Lila had taken her integration at The Burrow just about as far as Scott had at Hogwarts, Hermione noted. Mrs Weasley seemed completely accustomed to Lila's presence, and had acted in an almost motherly fashion. Molly Weasley was a very caring woman, and Hermione herself had been on the receiving end of her maternal instinct on more than one occasion. It made sense that she had taken to Lila in that manner, especially as Lila didn't have much in the way of family.

That concerned Hermione. Mrs Weasley didn't know about any of Lila's underlying motivations. Hermione couldn't even be sure that the friendship was genuine on Lila's part. Scott and Lila had both come across as very calculating on numerous occasions, but at least Scott had done his manipulations from a position of (semi) honesty.

Further up the stairs, Ginny's door was still closed. When Hermione drew closer, she could hear voices inside, especially Ginny's. She didn't sound pleased, and Harry's muffled replies were defensive in tone.

"See? They're having a row, nothing more," Hermione said to Ron.

"Good. She can be shirty with someone else for a change," Ron grunted.

Hermione gave him a look of reproof that he probably didn't notice. "You brought that on yourself."

Ron didn't answer, instead turning to enter his room. Hermione knew he was having a hard time reconciling his position as Harry's best mate and his role as Ginny's older brother. She felt a bit bad reminding him of his earlier overreaction, but it really was his own fault. She just hoped that Ron would become more comfortable with the situation in time. Not that Harry was helping; his ambivalence only confused things further. Ron needed a clear signal that Harry was sticking with Ginny for good.

Hermione went to follow Ron, pausing to cast a nervous glance back down the stairs. She didn't like the idea of leaving Scott to his own devices in The Burrow, especially when he seemed to be in a difficult temper.

As she was hesitating, Ginny's door opened and Harry emerged. He stopped dead in his tracks and stared at Hermione. He had clearly not expected anyone to be outside.

Ginny squeezed past his still form and smiled at Hermione. "He's here, and he's fine," she said, indicating Harry. "Physically, anyway. Who knows where his head's at."

"Thanks, Gin," Harry sighed. He took a deep breath and squared his shoulders. "All right. Have at it," he said to Hermione.

Hermione frowned. "You want me to shout at you?"

"Of course I don't, but I knew when I came over that you were going to be angry."

"Yes, because I have a reputation for being unintelligent," Hermione responded sarcastically. "You really believe I didn't know where you'd gone? I knew you weren't coming back when you ran up the stairs, Harry. You can be very predictable."

"I…" Harry looked dumbfounded. "You knew? And you didn't say anything?"

Clearly, Harry hadn't thought it through. "Not with everyone else there. I knew that Scott had to be around, and that's not something we talk about with the Order," Hermione explained.

"Yeah. Sorry for, er… assuming. I should have known you'd suss me out quick enough," Harry said sheepishly.

"I can't say I was happy about it," Hermione was quick to point out. "But I understand."

"I guess I do, too," Ron said, coming up behind her. He was looking back and forth between Harry and Ginny; Harry was avoiding his gaze, and Ginny was staring back defiantly. "Well, come on, then," Ron said after a moment. "You've got to tell us what happened, mate."

Harry appeared to be immensely relieved. "Sure, of course."

Hermione followed them into their room, glad that Ron hadn't decided to cause a scene. He sometimes managed to surprise her in the best of ways. He would work things out with Harry soon enough. Whether he would be on better terms with Ginny in the near future remained to be seen.

As she seated herself at the foot of Ron's bed, Hermione made a mental note to check on Scott after Harry was done relating the details of his flight from the Dursleys'. She didn't want the Kharadjai causing any trouble whilst everyone else was occupied.


Scott was bored.

Hermione had left, depriving him of the opportunity to snipe at her. Lila was busy in the kitchen with Mrs Weasley, and even in his teen form Scott knew better than to interrupt. That wouldn't end well for him.

His major Primes were all safe and working out their own problems upstairs. Neville was virtually untouchable in his fortress of a house. Luna was still a concern, but she had sufficient magical protections around her home to be relatively safe. At the very least, there were enough wards at the Lovegood residence to give Scott time to show up if something should happen.

He would have liked to go check on her, regardless. Staking out Luna's house would give him something to do until the wedding. And if the Death Eater he'd seen before came back around, that would also be a welcome diversion. Before, he'd let the man go on the basis of not drawing further attention to Luna. Once Luna was back at Hogwarts (or staying at The Burrow, a thought that sent him on a mental tangent, trying to piece together how that might work) he'd be free to make an example. Perhaps he might send the Death Eater's head to Riddle in the mail?

He made a face, unhappy with that idea. Too cliché.

It didn't matter. He was stuck at The Burrow in his teen form. Lila had volunteered to assist in the preparations for the upcoming festivities, which meant Scott wouldn't be going back to the flat any time soon, either. Not unless he ran back by himself with an appropriate excuse.

What the hell was he going to do?

He glanced over at the empty chessboard near the fireplace, silently willing someone to come along and sit down in one of the chairs. Chess had never been his game, but it would be a diversion. Nobody showed up, of course. He couldn't will someone into appearing. He was being silly.

Silly. Teen form. Damn it.

He took a deep breath and let it out slowly. Over the course of the day he'd pissed off Harry, Lila, Hermione and Ron, and if he didn't get a hold of himself the list would only continue to grow. He needed a priority.

Surely there was something that required his attention.

But as he sat in his chair and scanned the empty living room, not a single thing came to mind. There wasn't even any classwork to revise. He couldn't leave the house to harass the Death Eaters or snoop around for Horcrux clues. Everyone inthe house was either angry with him or had no cause for interaction.

He stood up decisively, hoping that the act would provide inspiration. Stretching his arms, he strode over to one of the windows, which offered no insight into anything other than the woods surrounding the property. It was over that way where he had given Harry and Ron an impromptu lesson in handguns the year before; he wondered if he could still find the brass.

Also somewhere in those woods was the invisible line of the magical protections. Perhaps he should use the opportunity to examine them further? He might learn something useful… Or he might break something he shouldn't have been messing with in the first place. The vast majority of magic remained unfathomable to him, and there was no reason to think the property wards would be any different.

He angrily paced away from the window. If a swarm of Death Eaters attacked The Burrow, he knew what to do. But he was simply not equipped to wait as a teen. What year was it? '97? He could buy some video games, he supposed. The first-generation 3D games were rudimentary at best, but that didn't mean they weren't fun.

That was just one of his hobbies (he had many). For most of them, he'd need Muggle money. And since his sister was holding the purse strings, and was currently quite pissed off, he wasn't going to get it through official channels; a method which was frowned upon and at least slightly illegal, but he'd slipped in plenty of 'personal expenses' before. Primares were kept on a very loose leash, and it was understood that their small appropriations requests didn't endure much scrutiny. He could go out to eat pretty much anywhere on the company dime so long as he took Primes with him. 'Integration' covered a wide array of activities (and sins).

Now he was paying the price for going deep cover as a teen and leaving Lila in charge of appropriations. And the price was steep, indeed. He'd figure it out later, though. The mission came first; he just needed to recognise which portion of the mission he should attend to.

He headed for the back door. At the very least, he could patrol the boundaries of the Weasley property and pretend like he was doing something important.

Outside, the air was warm, stirred by intermittent breezes and filled with the gentle rustling of leaves and grass. The sun was just starting to set, still high in the sky but dipping towards the western horizon. On a whim, Scott marched off in that direction. It seemed like as good a place as any to start.

The boundaries of the Weasley property ran uniformly through woodland, and it was not a symmetrical border. Although the magical barriers never bent smoothly (Scott wasn't sure why, save for the uninformed guess that curved geometry was impossible, or at least difficult), they still angled outwards and inwards at various intervals. As he walked along the edge of the invisible line, he swerved often to avoid trees and the changing extent.

The land owned by the Weasleys was not perfectly rectangular. Scott wondered if the wards followed the exact contours of the plot, or if there were geological constraints to barrier creation that he was not aware of. Despite a year at Hogwarts, when it came to magic it generally seemed he was aware of very little.

A tall, hollowed-out stump caught his attention near the northwest corner. The remains of what had once been a large tree rested at the bottom of a slight hill, hiding it from view. Scott smiled when he peered inside. A variety of Muggle beer tins and Firewhiskey bottles had been tossed inside of it, jumbled together with the old leaves. Whose spot was it? Bill's? Charlie's? The twins'? Most likely all of the above. Ron would no doubt be added to the list soon enough, if he hadn't already. A few yards away, a slightly worn section of bark and a defoliated patch of dirt marked what was clearly the pissing tree. Scott made his way over, unzipped, and added his part to the legacy.

Farther south, Scott was struck again by how green everything was. The last time of any length he had spent in woodland had been on Silva Greater, now that he thought about it. That had been in a hilly region where the soil was thick with dark clay. Everything else had followed suit, colour-wise. He had been in the English woods before, of course. It had just been a while.

"Crap," Scott said absently as a stick poked him sharply in the leg, reminding him to watch where he was going.

He tried to focus, but when the next few hundred feet of ground failed to yield anything more interesting than sticks and leaves, he knew it was a lost cause. He couldn't spend the remainder of his time at The Burrow wandering around the edges of the property. Now and then, fine, patrolling was good for safety. But he would have to find other things to occupy the rest of his time.

He turned and went back toward the house, dragging his feet a little. Even if his sister or some of his Primes wanted to fight, he was no longer feeling up to it. Maybe he'd crash on the couch and sleep away the afternoon. The closer he was to The Burrow, the more appealing that seemed.

His rendezvous with some couch cushions was immediately delayed when he set foot on the front walk. It seemed he could leave The Burrow without assistance, but entering was another matter. The door refused to budge when he tried to turn the handle.

He loosed a long sigh of defeat, raising his hand to knock. Lila was going to love this.

Then he paused, stopping his hand just before touching the door. Something wasn't right. No… not necessarily wrong, but something was different. Something was new. Someone was new?

He glanced back towards the garage. Lila's car was still the only one parked there, and there weren't any new tire tracks. Wizarding visitors, obviously. Or maybe visitor. The shape was not being especially helpful.

He could help himself if he could just get back inside. Frustrated with the magic that confounded him yet again, he banged on the door a bit harder than necessary.

It took a long moment, but it was Lila who eventually answered. "There you are," she said, looking down at him. With the aid of the doorstep, she was almost half a foot higher up than him and clearly enjoying the vista.

"Who's here?" Scott asked, brushing past her.

"The Minister. He showed up a few minutes ago and cornered all the Primes in the living room."

That was not what Scott had expected to hear. "The Minister?"

"Yeah, I know."

Lila might have said more, but Mrs Weasley hurried into view from the kitchen, throwing worried looks towards the living room. "Scott, there you are! Minister Scrimgeour was asking after you, dear. Where were you?"

"I went out for a walk," Scott explained.

"I'm not sure that's the best idea these days, it's not safe to go out alone," Mrs Weasley said chidingly. She gave Lila a meaningful look.

"Yes, that was not a good idea at all," Lila said severely, taking the cue and jumping right into her rarely exercised parenting façade. "Don't go out without telling someone first."

Scott clenched his jaw hard and nodded in response, not trusting himself to speak. Letting Lila boss him around went against every familial fibre in his body.

"I mean it. And don't think you can just not say anything so later you can claim you never agreed, buster," Lila warned.

She was really pushing her luck. "I get it," Scott said shortly.

"Then go talk to the Minister, we're keeping him waiting."

Scott went to the living room, wondering why his presence had been requested. Harry, sure, of course Scrimgeour would want to see him. But Scott had only met the man once, at Dumbledore's funeral, and it hadn't been a very polite encounter. If the topic had come up prior to the Minister's arrival, Scott would have doubted that Scrimgeour even remembered him.

Inside the room, Harry, Hermione and Ron were squished together on the sofa. Scrimgeour had commandeered the chair that Scott had been sitting in earlier. Ginny was sitting on the arm of the couch, next to Harry. Harry's arm was wrapped firmly around her waist in a supportive gesture. Scott smiled as he slipped to the side and came up behind the Minister. Harry was often confused when it came to Ginny, but every now and then he was surprisingly intuitive about staying in her good graces.

Scott swiftly stepped into view and leaned back against the fireplace, crossing his arms. The gazes of his friends would alert Scrimgeour to the fact that there was someone behind him, and Scott wanted it to look like he'd been there for awhile.

Sure enough, Harry's startled look brought Scrimgeour's head swivelling about.

"You wanted to see me?" Scott drawled nonchalantly.

The Minister was tall and rangy, with hair that reminded Scott of a large cat. He had the sort of hard, line-etched face that came from a lifetime of scowling. No doubt his Ministry ran on threats as well as incentives. Scrimgeour might have been an intimidating man if Scott were the sort to be intimidated. The Minister for Magic was clearly a forceful character, and possibly someone to be reckoned with.

The Minister's eyes were an interesting colour, and very focussed. Scott met them coolly, affecting a pose of indifference. "Scott Kharan?" Scrimgeour said roughly, seeming like he wasn't expecting an answer. "I believe we've met before."

So Scott had been remembered. Should he reciprocate? …No. It was more fun not to. "Have we?" Scott asked, frowning.

"Yes. At Headmaster Dumbledore's funeral. You were especially adamant about saving a row of seats." Scrimgeour's eyes were hard and unfriendly.

Scott shrugged. "I don't recall."

Scrimgeour clearly did not believe him. "Really. Then perhaps you'll recall which possessions Dumbledore would have been most likely to leave to you?"

"It's Dumbledore's will," Harry interrupted, leaning to the side to look around the Minister. "He… He left us things."

Scott had been so caught up in baiting Scrimgeour that he hadn't taken a closer look at his Primes. All of them looked stricken in various degrees; Hermione had obviously been tearful not long before Scott's entrance, and was leaning hard against Ron's shoulder. Scott was immediately suffused with curiosity as to what they had each received, but it could wait. If he was understanding the slant of the conversation correctly, he had been left something as well?

"Dumbledore accorded something to me?" Scott asked, letting his surprise show.

"He did." Scrimgeour reached down near his feet and picked up what appeared to be a steel cube, a little over one square foot in volume. It must not have been heavy, since he lifted it with ease.

Scott left his spot by the fireplace and crossed over to the couch, peering at the cube with fascination.

Scrimgeour held it out slightly, but made no move to give it to Scott. "Do you know what this is?"

"It's a cube," Scott said blandly, still studying it.

Scrimgeour's eyes narrowed. "More specifically?"

"It's a symmetrical object. It has six square facets. You could also call it a regular hexahedron."

"I'm not amused by your games anymore than I am by Mr Potter's," Scrimgeour said coldly. "This is a magical strongbox. It is heavily enchanted in such a way that it requires a password."

"Then it must be a long password. Dumbledore's funeral was awhile ago; obviously you haven't had much luck at brute forcing it," Scott said dryly.

"They haven't," Harry said with hint of maliciousness. "Not with any of our gifts."

Scott raised his hands helplessly. "Cryptography isn't my area of expertise…"

Scrimgeour's fury was plainly apparent. "This came with the strongbox. What does it mean to you?"

Scott took the envelope. Inside was a short piece of paper with only two, neatly printed words:

sock drawer

Scott lowered the paper and raised an eyebrow at Scrimgeour. "Did you try 'sock drawer'?" When the Minister merely glared in response, Scott added in a more hostile tone, "I'm assuming you already ransacked a dead man's sock drawer. Find anything incriminating? Did he not wash his socks regularly?"

"We did what we deemed necessary to prevent powerful magical objects from entering the wrong hands," Scrimgeour bit out. "It doesn't surprise me that you don't understand that, if you've been spending time in Potter's company. There are a great many things he doesn't understand."

Harry immediately leaned forward to retort, but Scott beat him to it. "Looks like you've had some rousing success, for sure. You kept that cube from me for a whole – what? A month and change?"

Scrimgeour was incensed. "You need to switch your tone, boy, and learn a little respect–"

"Is it a dangerous cube? Are the edges sharp?" Scott interrupted, getting more than a bit angry himself.

The Minister stood up to his full height – which was considerable, as it turned out – glaring down at Scott. "If Dumbledore thought it appropriate to leave Gryffindor's sword to a gaggle of resentful children then we can only imagine what he believed should be hidden within such a strongbox! Your lack of cooperation, your incessant opposition to government efforts–"

Scott cut him off again. "And you try so hard, it's good to see those tax dollars at work, but are you talking to me, or Harry?"

"I am speaking to all of you. Mr Potter is merely the most stubborn and ignorant, though it appears that you are the latest of Dumbledore's excesses to be left to me!"

"But you deal with them so gracefully."

"Let it alone, Scott. If he can't control us then we have no use," Harry said, sounding sick of the entire argument.

"There's a line between control and guidance, unable though you are to see it," the Minister retorted. He turned a ferocious glare on Scott. "As for you, boy, your impudence will earn you nothing but additional troubles."

"Yeah, fuck you, too!" Scott exploded, stepping forward. "My name is Scott and if you call me 'boy' one more time I'm gonna cram that cube right up your–"

Scrimgeour's eyes blazed. "You arrogant, disrespectful–"

"–square peg, round hole, old man, let's solve that problem–"

"TIME OUT!"

The Minister was interrupted yet again, this time by Lila's loud shout. All heads turned towards the door, where Lila was standing with her hands on her hips. Scott knew that was never a good pose to see. Regardless, for the first time that day, he was grateful for her interference. He was dangerously close to doing something stupid.

"If you can't discuss this calmly, then don't discuss it at all, and, yes, I'm talking to you, too, Minister," Lila said sharply. Mrs Weasley hovered behind her, looking shocked. "Now if you aren't going to be civil, I'm afraid I'll have to ask you to leave."

"I acted only as I was treated," Scrimgeour nearly snarled, moving forward to dwarf Lila with his height. "I suggest you discipline your brother before someone else is forced to do it for you."

It didn't seem possible, but Lila's expression somehow became even frostier. "I'll keep that in mind. Or not. Let me show you the door."

Scrimgeour turned his glare on Harry one last time. "Our business is not concluded, Mr Potter."

"It never is," Harry said with disgust.

The Minister turned on his heel and brushed past Mrs Weasley with a terse, "Madame." He didn't acknowledge Lila.

The second the door shut behind him, Harry sank back into the couch with a sigh. Ginny turned to comfort him with a strained expression and Ron was clearly overwhelmed by what had happened, staring at the small silver device in his hand. Hermione, though, was the most conflicted. Considering she had simultaneously received a gift she didn't understand from a dead man and watched her friends argue with the Minister for Magic, that wasn't surprising.

Scott figured he'd better say something to Mrs Weasley. But Lila (who had been very on top of things at The Burrow, it seemed) was already doing damage control.

"I'm sorry about that, Molly. I knew it wasn't going to be pleasant, but I guess things got out of hand," Lila was saying.

"I just wish all this nonsense hadn't been necessary in the first place," the older woman sighed. "We're supposed to be on the same side, after all."

"The Minister doesn't seem to understand that," Lila told her, smoothly shifting the blame towards Scrimgeour. "Come on, let's have a spot of tea. No point in worrying about what we can't change."

And just like that, the potential crisis was averted and Scott was left alone with his Primes again. He was slightly irritated that his interference hadn't been required. "Well. That's taken care of," he blandly remarked.

Hermione looked at him angrily. "Where on earth were you? Of all the times to disappear!"

"Hey, cut me some slack. I showed up at a very opportune moment," Scott said defensively.

"You should have been here to begin with," Hermione said, but her tearful visage and hoarse voice robbed her reprimand of any bite. Instead, Scott felt like she had just wanted everyone present for moral support. He couldn't blame her. Dumbledore's death was still a raw wound.

"Do you know how to open that box?" Harry asked, nodding at the metal cube.

"Of course. Do you know how to do whatever it is you have to do with your… whatever it was you got?"

"He left me the first Snitch I caught," Harry murmured, looking down at the small golden orb. "And yeah, I think I know what to do."

"Wish I did," Ron grunted. "Well, I suppose I do know what it does… I just don't know what to do with it."

Harry glanced at his friend. "Use it to put out lights. We might need that to sneak around, when called for."

Ron smiled a little. "Could have used this a few times over the years, eh? Before you got the Cloak, anyway."

"Well, we're a bit big for the Cloak, now. We won't outgrow that."

"Ginny, do you know what to do with your gift?" Hermione asked, leaning forward to see the other girl.

"No," Ginny responded quietly.

Scott did a double take. He hadn't even realised that Ginny had received a gift. In her hands was a blank box, like a smaller version of Scott's own cube, though hers appeared to be made of wood.

Ginny noticed his reaction. "What? I can't get something too?" she said defensively.

"You really need to work on those exclusion issues," Scott told her. "I didn't say anything like that."

Ginny flushed. "You… Fine! There's a note carved on the top. You're so smart, you work it out."

She passed the box over to Scott, who examined the top section. There, in neatly carven letters, was printed:

something that was supposed to happen

"Huh." Scott was drawing a blank.

Despite her words, Ginny had looked somewhat hopeful. "Nothing?"

"Hmmm… No. Not yet, anyway. Pass it around, let everyone think it over."

But no one else had anything to add to the discussion. Given the events of the afternoon, Scott felt that they were all most likely drained anyway. Between revisited grief and the hostility brought by the Minister, it had been quite the day for his Primes.

"Let's sleep on it," Scott suggested. "I don't think we want to deal with this shit right now."

"Agreed," Hermione said tiredly, not even commenting on Scott's language.

Harry wasn't quite ready to let it go. "Why did he pick today? He could have shown up as late as he wanted, or not at all. We didn't know anything about Dumbledore's will."

"He had to show up at some point, Harry. It's illegal to withhold items from a will," Hermione said.

"They dragged their feet for awhile and then came to us when they couldn't figure it out." Scott picked up his cube and spun it in his hands. "The Minister thought we might solve the puzzle for him."

"It can't be that puzzling if you already know how to open it," Ron commented.

"Why? Because I'm stupid?"

"Yeah, more or less."

"Fair enough. But in this case Dumbledore made sure only I would understand the clue."

"Then what does it mean?" Harry wanted to know.

Scott was about to answer when Lila came back into the room. "Your mom wants to talk to you. Keep it simple," she said to Ron and Ginny. "And this goes for everyone: I suggest you shelve your boxes and whatnot and get ready to work on wedding junk. I bought you as much time as you're going to get."

"When are we eating?" Scott immediately asked.

Lila crossed her arms. "If you pester us, never. Either be patient or go forage in the woods."

"I think you're taking this 'parenting' thing a little too close to heart," Scott mused.

"Someone has to raise you right. Now go put your cube away and get busy, there's a lot to do."

Scott carried his cube upstairs, deciding to leave it in Harry and Ron's room. He knew how to open it and wasn't feeling any real sense of urgency to do it – instead, it was Ginny's gift that dominated his thoughts. He had the inescapable notion that he had heard the phrase written on it before.

No doubt it would come to him in time. He only wished he knew how much time he had.

Back to index


Chapter 5: The Leaving Cycle

5

The Leaving Cycle


Thus the road did wander to the shore
Great swells coiled forward
then washed back, thrice more
Yet, that retreat left silence, vast, unbroken
held quick in the pools of thy memory
unspoken
That windswept mire: devious, bereft!
Worn piers of disarray, black shoals,
heart's theft.
Caught fast in the naught,
twixt the needle and eye
Spilled forth, still fearful
pressed low 'neath the sky

–Susanna B. Aether, Still Lost, Constantia
(Verse XII: lines 227–239)


Hermione was hanging wedding decorations, and wishing that she weren't.

There were so many other activities that required her time: planning, discussing, preparing mentally and physically for the coming trials. She desperately wanted to get everyone together and go over the items left to them by Dumbledore with an eye for the slightest details; they had only brushed the surface of whatever secrets the Headmaster had wanted them to divine, she was sure of it. She also needed to work out some sort of arrangement for their leaving of The Burrow.

And they would need to leave; the sooner, the better. She only wished they didn't have to attend the wedding. Not that she wasn't looking forward to such a joyous event, and there was sure to be dancing… But, the timing left a great deal to be desired.

As did her decorating companion.

"This is FUCKED." Scott kicked over a stool with a loud clatter, making Hermione wince. "Look at this crap. Look at it! Look at it now, because nobody is even gonna bother come show time, they'll all walk through here without even noticing all the effort it took to make this room look so shitty–"

"Oh, just stop." Hermione reprimanded sharply when Scott's voice began to rise. She didn't want to hear yet another blistering tirade about wedding jobs. Harry and Ron were about as unenthused, but at least they were less verbose.

"What?" he said, as if he didn't know exactly what the problem was.

"Obviously you're having issues, but we'll have even more if you start shouting."

"Issues?" Scott mocked. "Yeah, we got issues. Issues, like, these crappy decorations, the fact we haven't had a spare minute to plan anything, the fact that even if we did I'm not sure we could get out of the house without making a scene… Also, I just stepped on this glass thing." He pointed towards his left foot, beneath which he had broken some sort of bauble. "I'm not wearing shoes. That's an 'issue'. Apparently, I've been scuffing the wood floors. Ask Lil, she'll tell you all about it!"

Hermione sighed and motioned him towards a nearby stool she had used to reach the top of the windowsill. "You're a mess, do you know that?" She gripped Scott's ankle and lifted his foot for inspection, wrinkling her nose at the amount of blood already soaked through his sock. "Accio glass!"

"Ow. Yes, fine, I'm a mess. Bully for me."

"I don't think it should be a point of pride. Take that sock off before you smudge anything. And keep your voice down!" Hermione said quickly when Scott opened his mouth. "Your sister is going to come looking for you if you don't be quiet."

"Good, when Lil comes in here I'll staple this to her forehead!" Scott bent down from his perch and snatched a length of garland off the floor, brandishing it like a weapon.

"You don't have a stapler. If you did, we'd be done already," Hermione said pointedly. Scott was supposed to be attaching the decorations to the wall with a Sticking Charm, but just about everything he tried to stick fell back to the floor.

Scott crossed his arms, dropping the garland in the process. "Rub it in, Hermione, you're a real class act. Not all of us have magic shooting out of our tits."

Hermione coloured. "Shooting out of my–"

"Tits. T-I-T-S."

"I'm aware of how it's spelt!" Hermione turned her back on him, moving some of her moreprominent features out of his view. "Why don't we finish this so–"

Scott scoffed, disrupting her. "So Molly can give us some more busywork when she gets back? Come on, we aren't doing a goddamn thing around here but running in circles. How much you wanna bet that Ron and Harry are just layin' around upstairs while we do our assigned work like a couple of gulls?"

He had a point, but she certainly wasn't going to admit it. "Whatever else there is to do, hopefully we'll be separate," she rejoined a bit more coldly than she'd intended.

"Awwww… Don't be that way, magi-tits. You're the breast friend I've ever had."

Hermione gritted her teeth. Scott had been a handful recently, even by his standards; he'd been short-tempered, moody and occasionally even outright hostile. His latest bout of crudity was just another symptom of whatever snit he was in, and Hermione was tired of it. She hadn't done anything wrong and she was fed up with being treated like she had.

She rounded on him. "What, exactly, is your problem?" She placed her hands on her hips and glowered.

"Wow, an open forum. Where do I start? First off, I'm fucking sick of these decorations–"

"No," Hermione said, cutting him off.

Scott's brow creased in a threatening frown. "No?"

"No. Don't even try to misdirect me. You were in a state before we ever started putting these up."

Scott's glare intensified. "You think so, huh."

"I know so. You've been snapping at everyone ever since the Minister left, and I for one have had enough!" She stamped her foot for emphasis, leaning towards him and glaring with all her might.

Unfortunately, whilst such an action would have impressed upon her other male friends that she was well and truly angry and it was time to be reasonable or back down, Scott was either unable or unwilling to be properly intimidated. Every furious argument with him was an escalating series of barbs, growing more hurtful with elevation.

Hermione liked debating with Scott. He always had something to say on every subject, even (especially) the ones he knew nothing about. Sorting through his slang of wildly varying origins and looking past his frequent use of cutting invectives could be difficult, but was usually worth the effort. She did not, however, like fighting with him.

He still didn't seem to understand that.

Scott cast his gaze about the room, his eyes wide with mock chagrin. "Oh no, you've figured everything out. Where's Ron, I need him to shove his tongue in your mouth since you won't shut it."

Hermione fought hard against the blush, but couldn't overcome her body's involuntary response to such a comment. "I must have figured something out if you're already resorting to crudity. You might want to work on that jealousy, it's a touch transparent," she shot back.

Scott nodded in exaggerated acceptance. "You're right. I've been hanging decorations when what I really wanted to be doing was tonguing Ron. The homoerotic angst has just been hanging over this house like a pall. Tell you what – you go out with Ginny and rug burn your mouth, and me and Ron will head upstairs for a rousing game of Butts and Weenies."

She rolled her eyes to prevent herself from flinching at his graphic remarks. "So predictable, it's always the same with you, isn't it! I make a valid point, and you head right for the gutter!"

"You think your point about jealousy was valid? Or… maybe I got the wrong idea? Should I have flipped that around, Hermione, did you mean I couldn't control my throbbing sexual urges for you?" Scott scoffed.

The thick scorn in his tone hurt far more than his words. The implication was that he couldn't possibly find her attractive, that nobody could ever find her appealing enough to induce jealousy. He was stabbing right into her shaky self-confidence. Frigid, mousy, bushy-haired and buck-toothed Hermione. An old image, one she'd tried to shed with age. The tatters still clung to her, and maybe always would.

Intellectually, she knew that Scott was doing it deliberately. He was trying to drive her away, abandoning his more subtle manipulations for blunt trauma to the psyche, using a year's worth of profiling to push her buttons in a damaging fashion.

Emotionally, she was incensed.

Scott was still going. "Well, if you really want to, I guess I can take one for the team. You all look the same in the dark, right? Just remind me to double bag it."

"You should be so lucky!" Hermione hissed at him, her face now flushed with rage instead of embarrassment.

"By whose definition?"

"It should be yours, by this point! At least I've been interacting with another person, the best company you've had lately is–" Hermione couldn't believe what she was saying even as she finished the thought, "–your own h-hand!"

It was something similar to what Scott might have said in her situation, which was the point. Maybe she wanted to win an argument, just once, without having to stick to her moral high ground. Her continued reticence to drop to Scott's level was apparent in her revealing stutter. Despite the somewhat inept delivery, perhaps the uncharacteristic nature of the insult would be enough to shock him.

She should have known better.

"Yeah? Yeah?!" There was a dangerous spark in Scott's eyes. He leapt up from the stool, smacking his injured foot onto the floor with a sound that made Hermione flinch, though he didn't even seem to notice.

What followed was far more disjointed than Scott's usual diatribes, and especially vile. "Well, what-the-fuck-ever! At least I do it in the goddamn shower, that's just common fuckin' courtesy! Meanwhile, where are you assholes at, in your bed, beds, plural, I'm stuck on the floor and decent enough not to streak Molly's cushions, sleeping on borrowed sheets still sticky from a bunch of frustrated teens jacking and jilling off all over the fucking place because you don't know how to fuck each other! Well, here's some advice on that front, dumpling: raise your knees, bite your pillow, and keep your fingers out of your ass! Christ!"

Hermione slapped him, hard, across the mouth.

After a moment of tense silence, she fled the room.


Lila was in the process of baking cookies (no, biscuits) when Hermione passed through the kitchen on her way up the stairs. Her face was flushed and her eyes were moist as she rushed by. Lila placed her spatula down and watched Hermione's feet disappear into the upper reaches of The Burrow. Her eyes narrowed thoughtfully.

It was possible that Hermione was simply experiencing the same borderline-hysterical reaction to some minor catalyst that seemed to plague teens of both genders. Hermione, however, was considerably less susceptible to that sort of thing. In fact, it was downright unlikely.

Which left only one culprit within the realm of standard possibility.

As expected, Scott slouched into the kitchen a few moments after Hermione had made her hasty exit. Far less expected was the reddening imprint of a hand across his face. Lila took a deep breath through her nose and let it out slowly. She was going to need patience for whatever came next.

"Congratulations," he said dully, slumping into a chair opposite from her. "You've been promoted."

Lila refused to play along. "Thanks, I'm honoured. It's been a long time coming."

Scott didn't react to her sarcasm. "I'll put in for a duty transfer tonight. It won't be an easy transition, but I know you can handle it. If there's anything you want we don't already have, just let me know, and I'll call in whatever favours I have to. Best I can do on such short notice, but… I'm sorry. I should have had a handle on this."

Lila nodded slowly. She reached over, picked up the glass of water she had been sipping, and threw it in Scott's face.

He nearly fell over backwards, stumbling off the stool, sputtering and flailing. "What the fuck–"

"You are saying that to me?" Lila said incredulously. "You're the one trying to bug out and stick me with YOUR mission, you asshole! What the fuck, indeed!"

Scott's shoulders slumped. "Okay… I might have overreacted, somewhat…"

"Yeah. Somewhat." Lila glared at him, motioning for him to reseat himself. When he did, he looked so pathetic that she could only roll her eyes, her anger softening. She handed him a biscuit. "Here, eat this. I dropped it on the floor earlier."

Scott stuffed the entire biscuit into his mouth without comment, munching it glumly.

"Now, do you want to tell me why you and Hermione decided to have a dual breakdown?" she asked.

His replied was muffled by food. "Thought it would be fun. Kind of a bonding thing, really, very sisterly. Sometimes my feminine side seems neglected, gotta get the oestrogen raging, have a good cry…"

Lila paused a moment to see if he would continue. "Are you done?"

"Yeah. Yeah, I'm… I'm done." He didn't seem entirely sure.

"So?"

He sighed, spraying a good deal of crumbs across Lila's previously sanitary counter top. "We had a fight."

"About?"

"How I was being a dick. Which I then ended by being an even bigger dick. Kind of a hollow victory."

"You're really having trouble with this."

"I know." Scott dropped his head into his hands. "God, I know."

"You're not even a true teen, get a grip. Surely you didn't act like this the first time around. You've never said anything to that effect," Lila pointed out, although, when it came to his younger years, Scott had never said much to any effect.

Scott shrugged. "Well, maybe I don't remember."

"Liar."

"Well, maybe I want to forget."

"Much more likely." Lila probably knew more about Scott's childhood than anyone else, but it still didn't amount to much. She often felt his reticence was unfair considering how much she had told him of her adolescence.

"…I'm just going to stay here awhile," Scott muttered.

Lila pushed away from the counter. "You're lucky you're in teen form right now, because it means I'm going to be an understanding big sister and cut you yet another break. You will stay here – and don't even think about touching those biscuits – while I go smooth things over with Hermione. You know, like you should have done in the first place."

"There's a very good reason ARI is not recommended," Scott said dourly as Lila left the kitchen.

Scott was right about that, anyway. Age Regressed Integration was a solution sometimes worse than the problems it was meant to address. Still, for all his scatterbrained, teen form vitriol, Lila had to privately admit Scott had done well so far. His latest difficulty could be smoothed over with a little effort from a third party, which was why it was often so nice to have a partner for a long-term operation. Even if that partner was his little sister, Lila thought wryly.

As expected, Ginny's door was shut. No doubt that was where Hermione had fled. Lila first went to address the two lazy boys in Ron's room who were dozing in the midday sun.

Lila slapped the door frame with her hand, causing both of them to jump. "Attention all useless boys: there are cookies, or biscuits, as you prefer, downstairs in the kitchen. You may EACH–" she said, raising her voice when Harry and Ron began scrambling to their feet, "–have three cookies. See how many fingers I'm holding up? That's three, in case you've forgotten."

"Brilliant, thanks, Lila," Ron enthused as he sped off downstairs, followed closely by Harry.

With them out of the way, Lila was free to approach the girls. Pausing at Ginny's doorway, she listened for a moment but couldn't hear any sobbing within. She'd have been surprised if that were the case. Scott probably hadn't expended too much effort to get Hermione to leave the room, but making her cry would require crossing lines that even Scott's teen form wouldn't allow (Lila hoped).

She knocked twice. The door slid open just far enough for Ginny's angry visage to peek out.

"Oh, it's you," she said, her expression calming somewhat."Thought it might be your git of a brother."

"My git of a brother is downstairs contemplating his shortcomings. Can I come in?" Lila raised a questioning eyebrow.

Ginny opened the door and let Lila through. Inside, Hermione was seated on the edge of the bed. Her face was a bit red, but it didn't seem as if she'd been crying, per Lila's expectations. She was definitely upset, however. Her hands were fisted in the sheets and her expression was drawn.

She glanced up when Lila entered, then cast her gaze back down. "I thought you were Scott, come to apologise. I should have known better." A tinge of indignation coloured her words.

Lila leaned against the door, arms crossed. "I think you both need to simmer down before any apologising gets done."

"Scott's the only one who needs to apologise!" Ginny interjected angrily.

Lila threw her a sceptical look. "Do you even know what this is about?"

Ginny leaned back against her dressing table in a huff. "I know enough. I know Scott."

"I think I have a bit more authority in that area," Lila said dryly before turning back to Hermione. "So?"

"What do you want me to say? You're evidently aware we had a row," Hermione said defensively.

"I was more interested in what started it. Actually – no, never mind. I don't care. How are we going to end it?"

"I don't even know why he was so angry!" Hermione burst out, clearly frustrated. "He's just been so distant and hostile, and – and I'd had enough! I still have."

Lila tilted her head. "And what he said was unforgivable?"

When Hermione hesitated, Ginny jumped in again. "Obviously; that prat, always saying horrible things with no regard for others–"

"Ginny, did Hermione even tell you what he said?"

Ginny's mouth snapped shut but her expression remained defiant. "She doesn't have to. Look at her!"

"I wouldn't care to repeat any of it," Hermione said weakly.

Lila shrugged. "Yeah, probably not. But I'm assuming that he didn't say anything he wouldn't have said if he wasn't yelling it."

Hermione blinked. "Well… I suppose that's one way to put it…"

"He likes you," Lila said simply. "He might hit below the belt, but he won't go for the jugular."

Hermione sighed in response. "Given time, I might find that comforting."

Ginny raised her hands in disbelief. "Right as rain, are we? Hermione, you've never just given in to him before, why the bloody hell would you now? Make him apologise!"

"I do deserve an apology, but… So does he." Hermione's cheeks tinged pink, and she hung her head. "…I slapped him."

A bright grin immediately lit Ginny's features. "Oh, Merlin, I bet that felt good!"

"No!" Hermione immediately denied. "…Well, perhaps a little – but that doesn't matter! I've perpetuated a dangerous gender stereotype. Violence against women is rightfully deplored, but it shouldn't be any more acceptable for me to strike a friend just because he's male."

"That's very PC of you, Hermione, and could no doubt spark a fascinating debate on gender," Lila said in a bland tone that belied her spoken interest, "but the fact of the matter is that if you hit Scott, it's because he let you. You know what he is. He could have broken your wrist without a whole lot of effort. It probably took more effort just to sit there and let it happen, actually. I almost admire his self-control, right then. Which is odd, coming right out of a spectacular failure of self-control. Isn't that odd? I find that odd."

"I know he let me! That hardly makes up for it."

"Then you can both say you're sorry. After you eat some of the biscuits I baked, assuming there's any left after the ravenous horde of boys descended."

Ginny's attention was captured by that statement. "You baked biscuits? Why didn't you say anything earlier, they're probably gone now!"

"Don't worry. I left some out, but I hid the rest. Still, that's no guarantee. Scott will find them, somehow." Lila's eyes narrowed. "He always finds food I hide. He's like a goddamn truffle pig."

Ginny didn't seem interested in what a goddamn truffle pig was or why Scott was similar to one. "If Ron gets into them, there'll be nothing but crumbs!"

"Then I guess you'd better hurry," Lila told her. When Ginny made a hasty departure, Lila looked over at Hermione and rolled her eyes. "These kids, huh? Too bad you're one of them so you can't roll your eyes, too."

"You don't see me sprinting off, do you?" Hermione protested.

"No, and therefore the cookies will be gone. You've sacrificed everything in your pursuit of dignity."

"Biscuits are hardly everything," Hermione opined.

"That's not a good attitude to take when all the cookies are currently being eaten." Lila pushed off the wall and gestured to Hermione. "Come on, I'll make sure you get some alone time with Scott when you're ready. Just try not to drag things out, Molly won't be running errands forever."

By Lila's estimation, they were already cutting things close as it was. Molly was an efficient shopper and would no doubt return before too long. Before that happened, it was imperative that everything was calmed and that everyone had at least the appearance of getting things done. Lila liked weddings, but she'd never been involved in the preparations for one before. It was severely dampening her anticipation.

She walked into the kitchen just in time to see Hermione snag one of the few remaining biscuits (whilst Ginny flirted with Harry, and ate his share in the process). Scott remained exactly where Lila had left him, chewing on a cookie without any apparent enjoyment.

Lila approached Hermione and briefly leaned down to her ear. "Now would be the time," she said quietly. Straightening up, she addressed the others in a louder tone. "Anyone who gets crumbs on my clean floor will be cleaning them up with their tongue – and then cleaning that up with a rag. And, Ron, for fuck's sake, chew with your mouth closed! That's right, I said 'fuck', don't give me that look. You're making me mad."

Offered the proper distraction, Hermione and Scott slipped out to the sitting room. With any luck, they'd patch things up before the rift grew any wider.

Between the wedding and the war, further distractions were not needed.


Scott was hiding.

Not from Hermione, surprisingly. He wouldn't have minded seeing her. The two of them had arrived at an uneasy truce, and Scott would have liked the chance to settle things on a more permanent basis. Instead, he was lounging on the roof of The Burrow, safely out of sight and hopefully out of mind, as well.

With the arrival of so many Weasleys (Arthur had been at work far less often, Fred and George had returned to help with preparations, Charlie was present for the same reason and Bill was around to be the star of the upcoming show), it was becoming increasingly difficult to avoid attracting notice. Scott's false history had been established enough for most purposes, but Bill's presence during the attack on Hogwarts was problematic. He'd seen too much and knew too little. That was a dangerous combination, and it was only his near-total preoccupation with his forthcoming nuptials – and Lila's stone-faced refusal to discuss the matter – which kept him at bay.

And that wasn't even taking into account Fleur's family. Scott nervously opened one eye and glanced around, closing it again once he was sure no one was looking for him. Fleur's younger sister (what the hell was her name?) had developed an unhealthy obsession with Scott, providing attention he didn't want or need. Her puppyish crush was, as far as Scott could tell, not hampered by the fact that Scott could deflect her juvenile Veela aura. His immunity seemed to only provide her with more determination.

Scott found the part-Veela sisters interesting solely for what they were involuntarily doing to the shape. Tall blondes were not his style, even if the little one had been old enough to qualify. Women like that only reminded him of his sister.

In regards to Lila, she had been a godsend. He had never been more grateful for her presence on the mission than he had been in the last few days, watching as she used her deep integration at The Burrow to the fullest effect, issuing orders and butting heads with the Weasley boys as if she'd lived there her entire life. Fred and George had been resentful at first, but quickly learned it would make their lives easier not to cross Lila (no doubt Mrs Weasley's support of Lila had helped their conclusion along). Scott had learned the same lesson long before – he just generally chose to ignore it.

His lips twitched in a small smile. It had probably escaped the attention of most, but Scott had been watching from the outskirts of the semi-organised free-for-all that constituted the final days of wedding preparation, and Charlie was clearly smitten with Lila. He did his best to hide it, but Ron appeared to come by his lack of subtlety honestly. Scott didn't know whether Lila would discourage Charlie's interest or not. He hoped she wouldn't burn any bridges, since that kind of infatuation could be useful. It provided a hold over a person that might be exploited at some point, should a situation require it.

"Scott?"

Scott sat up, broken from his thoughts by Lila calling his name. It sounded as if she were in the garden just below his feet.

"Scott, I know you're up there. Gabrielle isn't with me, numb nuts. Get down here."

That was the kid's name. Scott knew it started with a G. "Yeah, hold on. I'm working on my tan."

"Prematurely age on your own time. There's stuff that needs doing."

"Oh, God. More? Surely Mrs Weasley is out of decorations. There isn't that much storage in the world."

"We're done with the decorations. For now. I'm going to pop out to the shop with Molly, and I need you to keep an eye on things," Lila explained.

Scott scooted down the shingles until his legs were dangling off the roof. He leaned forward and looked at Lila mischievously. "'Pop out to the shop'?" he quoted. "You're blending in so well, I'm proud of you, really."

"Get. Down. Here. Pronto."

"You're very impatient for a single mother."

"Now!"

Scott sighed and pushed himself off the roof, landing gracefully in the grass. "All right, but that creepy little blonde chick better stay away from me. She's not even a Prime, I don't have to put up with her."

Lila crossed her arms, unyielding. "But you will. Oh, but keep Ginny away from her. Gabrielle has been making eyes at Harry since you did your disappearing act, and it's creating some friction. Better she moons over you than the guy in a fragile relationship with a very touchy girlfriend."

As much as Scott hated to admit it, she was right. The integrationist in him was already examining the situation dispassionately, working the angles, calculating how best to keep Gabrielle's interest on him and divert her from Harry. "Okay, I'll do something about it."

Lila smiled at him. "There we go. I knew there was still a professional in that teen form somewhere."

"When I grow up, I want to be big and strong like you!" Scott said, affecting a high-pitched street urchin accent.

Gratifyingly, Lila laughed. "Then eat your vegetables, do your homework, and keep that creepy little blonde chick away from Harry."

Scott eyed her knowingly. "And should I also keep that creepy big redheaded dude away from you?"

Lila ran a hand through her hair, preening. "Oh, I don't know about that. It's so nice to have a gentleman caller."

"That sounds so dignified… And sexless. I'm pretty sure he wants to bone you on any available flat surface."

"Please stop projecting your lust for Sophie on all other relationships. It's very unbecoming." Lila raised a finger. "Also, don't say anything like that to him. I will handle this, not you."

"As your older brother–"

"You'll stay out of it. I happen to like it when someone notices I'm a woman."

"Who couldn't? You have two huge reminders–"

"Just go!" Lila cut him off for a second time before he could really get started. "I'm supposed to have left like five minutes ago, get out of here!"

"There must be something innate in my teen form that accepts older authority, because why else would I be listening to you?" Scott complained as he headed for the back door.

"You're showing signs of self-preservation – I'm as surprised as you are!" Lila called back, and then Scott was inside and had many other things to focus on.

He hugged the outer walls of the room as he moved towards the kitchen, avoiding both eye contact and the appearance of being unoccupied. That was a dangerous state to be in with the wedding so close; idle hands were immediately tasked. So he walked with purpose, even though he didn't have much of one. All he had to work with was the vague notion that he needed to watch his Primes and make sure of… what? Nobody was in danger inside The Burrow. Not physically, anyway. There were other pitfalls.

One of those obstacles came bounding towards him with a swish of platinum blonde hair. "Bonjour, Monsieur Kharan!" Gabrielle said brightly.

Scott carefully hid a flinch. "Gabby, hi! Lila told me you were talking to Harry, do you know where he is?"

She nodded. "Oui, il est là-haut."

Scott was fortunate that he spoke French, as Gabrielle's skills in English were not at the same level as her sister's. He considered that his fluency might be working against him: Gabrielle probably appreciated his ability to converse in her native tongue.

Well, it was too late to pretend otherwise. "Merci. I'm going to go see what he's up to."

Gabrielle followed him without invitation, chattering away in French whilst occasionally pausing to look up at him through her eyelashes coquettishly. Scott largely ignored her, though with Lila's admonishment in mind he did throw out a comment now and then. Mostly 'yeah' and 'uh-huh', but it was enough. At least Gabrielle was too young to expect anything else. Her girlish attraction was simple and untainted by the emotions and hormones that could have made things much more complicated for Scott. He'd give her a modicum of attention, dance with her at the wedding, and then she'd be shipping off back to France.

"Avez-vous été amis avec Monsieur Potter pendant une longue période?" Gabrielle asked, breaking Scott away from his thoughts.

"Uh, about a year or so. Près d'un an. I moved here from the United States with my sister, could you tell from my accent? Que je suis un Américain?"

She looked up at him curiously. "Votre accent est différent… Mais je ne connais pas les Américains."

"Well, I guess you do now."

She smiled. "Yes, I know you!"

The upper portions of The Burrow were largely empty due to the activity below. Scott made his way up to Ginny's room, leaning around the door frame and peering inside. Harry, Ginny and Hermione were in deep discussion over a book. Dumbledore's gifts were spread around on the bed: Harry's Snitch, Hermione's children's book and Ginny's wooden box. Scott was pleased to see there was research in progress. They'd had little time for it beforehand, and a stolen moment could be valuable.

He stepped inside, making sure to knock his shoe against the wall to alert them that he was present, and not alone. Hermione snapped the book shut, the Snitch disappeared into Harry's pocket and Ginny knocked the wooden box behind the bed.

"Scott, hey," Harry said, standing up. "Where'd you run off to earlier?"

"Rooftop. I was hiding from Lila," Scott told him, but he jerked his head in the direction of Gabrielle, who had stepped into the room behind him.

Harry winced slightly. "Oh, hello, Gabrielle."

Gabrielle smiled and nodded in Harry's direction, but her gaze remained fixated on Scott. Apparently, his presence was enough to dampen her interest in The Boy Who Lived. From an integration standpoint it was useful, but unexpected. As far as most people knew, Scott was just some random Muggleborn from across the pond who had befriended Harry. Harry, meanwhile, had not only interacted with Gabrielle before, he was famous as hell and had saved her life (or had at least provided the appearance of doing so, as Scott understood the story).

Scott didn't know if it was his unusual accent, his looks, or the simple fact that he spoke French though it was likely none of the above. He suspected that Gabrielle's fixation had gone to him by default: he was the youngest unattached male in the household.

Ginny had already shifted a bit closer to Harry and was glaring at Gabrielle, so Scott knew it was time for a distraction. "Yeah, so, I don't think anybody knows we're up here right now and Lila just left with Molly. That probably gives us about forty-five minutes to an hour to do whatever we want as long as we stay out of sight. Also, where the hell is Ron?"

"With Charlie, last I saw him," Harry said.

"He doesn't get to see Charlie much, so he's making the most of it, whilst he can…" Hermione added, and as she trailed off it went unsaid, but understood, that the end of the wedding was not what she referred to.

"Hmm." Scott wanted to say more, but Gabrielle's presence was severely hampering things. About all he could do was leave, letting his Primes work out what they could before they were inevitably interrupted. "Okay, just checking in. Me and Gabby are going to go see if there's anything worth stealing in the kitchen. As you were."

He turned and left, glad that Gabrielle would follow him without prompting. Downstairs, things were just as chaotic as before. Scott dodged Bill and Gabrielle's father, who were moving a table, and slipped past Fleur and her mother in the midst of a high-pitched argument in rapid French. Something about flower arrangements.

With Lila and Molly gone, the kitchen was blessedly deserted. Scott poked around in a cabinet that seemed like a spot Lila might conceal something in; he was rewarded with a small wrapped package of leftover biscuits. He turned to Gabrielle with a smug grin and hoisted his ill-gotten gains. She beamed back at him in response.

They slipped out the front door. Scott decided to avoid the usual spots on the off chance someone came looking for them. Lila's car was still parked near the garage, so Scott made his way over to it and sat down with his back against one of the tyres. Anyone at the house would have to circle around to see him.

Gabrielle sat in the grass next to him and held out an expectant hand. Scott dropped one of the cookies into it and together they ate in silence, savouring the stolen treats.

It was such moments which reminded Scott what a mistake it was to assume integration was all about fighting. His job sometimes required killing, but it also required him to sit out in the sunshine and eat biscuits with a French girl for companionship. True integration was about becoming a part of someone's life and accepting everything that came with it. And life was mostly mundane.

"Ceux-ci sont très bons," Gabrielle commented. "Votre sœur en faire?"

"Oui. She can be handy in a kitchen – elle est bonne dans une cuisine. I'm not half bad myself, depending. When you travel a lot it's a nice skill to develop."

Gabrielle frowned. "Half bad? Partiellement mauvais?"

"Uh, non. I mean that I'm pretty good at it. Plutôt bien."

"Très bon! Yours are like hers?"

Scott shrugged. "I'm not much for biscuits, that's kind of her thing. I make some kick a… some kickin' chimichangas, though."

"What is 'chimichanga'?"

"A fried burrito. It's Mexican food. Mexicain." He grimaced in pity. These poor savages had never had a chimichanga.

That answer seemed to satisfy Gabrielle for the moment. Scott knew he probably wasn't doing her English skills any favours by constantly explaining in French, but it was all he had the patience for.

Patience. He should have had limitless patience after all that had happened. There he was, treading water again. Playing escort for a blonde tween who was barely even peripherally related to the events at hand. At least at Hogwarts he'd been networking.

At least Kylie hadn't talked much.

"My sister looks like your sister, you think?" Gabrielle wondered.

Scott didn't know about that. They were both blonde, true. Going any further, Scott knew he was probably biased. That said, Lila was taller, tougher, smarter and (in Scott's sibling-solidarity rooted opinion which he would NEVER, EVER confess) substantially more attractive.

He kept all of that to himself. "A little bit, yeah."

Gabrielle looked up at him with a hint of apprehension. "Je pense que Fleur ne l'aime pas beaucoup…" Then, perhaps realising that the possible tension between Lila and Fleur might be carrying over to Scott and herself, she hastened to add, "I do like you!"

Scott had already arrived at that conclusion. As for Fleur not liking Lila, he didn't know much about that. Either Fleur was just naturally catty, or they had clashed over some wedding details (possibly both). The fact of the matter was, he didn't know a whole lot about Gabrielle's family in general. Under different circumstances he might have used the time before the wedding to rectify that, but there were far more pressing concerns.

He spotted two of those concerns slipping through the trees at the edge of the property. From the way Fred and George were attempting to be inconspicuous, Scott figured they were probably looping their way around to the stump he had found full of whiskey bottles. It would be a good opportunity to take their measure; Scott didn't know exactly what was coming, but he did know they would be a part of it. It might be helpful to come to an understanding.

Besides, the secrecy was already wearing thin. The battle at Hogwarts had punched all kind of holes in Scott's carefully constructed false existence. A few more wouldn't hurt.

He turned and pressed the few remaining biscuits into Gabrielle's hand. "Here, Gabby, do me a favour – take these back to the house with you. Partagez-les avec votre sœur, si vous voulez, mais assurez-vous que vos parents ne les vois pas."

She took them eagerly. "Thank you! Je vais les cacher quand je rentre à l'intérieur…" She stood to leave, then paused. "Mais… you are not coming?"

"I'll be there in a few, dans une minute, I need to go talk to the twins, okay?"

"Bien. See you soon, Scott!" Gabrielle waved at him in a manner that was probably intended to be flirtatious.

Scott headed for the woods as soon as she was gone. He hoped she wouldn't head straight for Harry once she was back in The Burrow. Scott had never actually been grateful that he and Lila hadn't met until they were both adults (the loss of a common childhood seemed a high price), but he was starting to consider it. Kid sisters seemed like a lot of trouble.

Several minutes of walking put him out into the woods, the sounds of nature deadened by the thick summer canopy. Fred and George were conversing up ahead, standing around the decaying tree base and passing a bottle of something or the other back and forth.

"Is this a private party?" Scott asked as he meandered up, startling the both of them.

They recovered quickly. "Scott Kharan, old bean!" Fred said grandly. "By all means, join us! Pull up a stump!"

"If you can find another. This one's full of rubbish," George added, gesturing around.

"It's not the only one," Fred said.

"Who, me?" George pointed to himself incredulously.

"If the shoe fits!"

"Our feet are the same size, brother mine. In fact, I think these are actually your shoes."

"I thought I felt a bit lopsided today."

Scott shrugged. "Well, you may be full of rubbish, but at least you aren't drunk." He peered at the bottle George was holding. "Oh. Never mind."

Fred grinned. "This might be enough to knock you on your arse. We're sober as judges."

Scott shrugged. "Just let me know when your liver is about to explode, so I can clear the blast radius. And speak of blast radii…"

"You had our undivided attention the moment you said 'blast'," George told him.

Scott leaned back against a nearby tree and let his expression become serious. The twins took note, glancing at each other. "I wanted to talk about your shop."

Fred smirked. "You might want to be more specific, mate, there's a lot going on behind those doors…"

"I hope so. In layman's terms, fellas – what do you have that will take the legs off a theoretical Death Eater?"

The twins dropped all pretence of humour. "So it's happening, then," George said quietly. "You lot are leaving to…"

Scott was not surprised that the two of them had pieced together that much. "Yes. And soon, we're only here for the wedding. You know what's coming."

"Everybody knows what's coming," Fred said. "Everybody who isn't a bloody idiot."

"We're ready… Or, mostly. We still have all the defensive products we've been selling, and we can disappear if we have to. As for anything else…" George trailed off, scratching at his head. "We've had a few ideas. But we weren't sure…"

"There was a market? Or that they were a step you wanted to take?" Scott asked.

"The second one. There's always a market for weapons," Fred said cynically (and correctly).

Scott leaned forward with interest. "What kind of weapons?"

George held up a hand. "Before we go any further with this, we need to know who you are. Who you really are. You and your sister aren't exactly your average American tourists, yeah?"

Scott sighed. "You don't need to know that any more than I really need to know about your weapon designs. Me and Lil have been tasked with helping Harry. In the larger scheme of things, that translates into helping pretty much everyone close to him."

"Remus said you were with some American version of the Order. Or, at least, that Dumbledore trusted you." Fred seemed uncertain of that information.

"And if that's not the truth, it's close enough to work if you choose to believe it," Scott said. "Bottom line: make all the bombs you can and get ready to vanish. The time may come for some collaborative efforts."

"You'll notice he didn't answer the question," George said to his brother.

"No, I didn't. Can you live with that?"

"Harry trusts you. That earns you a bit from us, as well," George said. "Just don't stretch it too far."

"What kind of collaboration were you talking about?" Fred asked, returning to Scott's previous comment.

"Some properly targeted deconstruction can go a long way," Scott hinted.

"We aren't terrorists, mate," George stated.

Scott rolled his eyes. "A terrorist is just a revolutionary without a game plan. Our hate has focus. And our goals are achievable. We aren't trying to kill an idea here, guys, we just need to kill one person in particular."

"Ah, I hate to burst your bubble, but we run a joke shop, if you'll recall. Light-hearted, class clowns? Dropped out to pursue a rollicking life manufacturing fart pranks?" Fred said acerbically. "Somehow the 'assassin' part of that was something we missed out on."

"Unless you think you can force-feed You-Know-Who an Acid Pop; we might have a few on back order," George noted.

Scott recognised their defensive reaction in derailing a serious conversation with sarcasm; he did it all the time. It didn't matter, though, because he'd said what needed to be said. "Hey, do what you want. I'm just giving you the heads up, chuckles, don't shoot the messenger. I'll be getting shot at soon enough as it is."

"God, you're morose when you're sober," George sighed, lifting the whiskey bottle to his lips.

"You're very judgemental for a drunk," Scott told him. He turned to leave, but stopped when Fred caught him by the shoulder.

"Be careful. All of you. And make sure you do stay in touch, however you can manage it. We're not saying no, absolutely, but let's see how things turn out, right?" Fred was stoic, but couldn't quite hide the worry in his eyes.

"I meant it about having a way out," Scott said. "The Order is going to be a big fat target for every Death Eater looking to make his bones. They'll kill you if they can and scatter you even if they can't."

"Don't worry about us. We can handle ourselves. Just watch out for Ron, will you?"

Scott nodded. "I will."

"Good. Oh, and if you tell him I said that, I'll fill all your trousers with itching powder."

"Doesn't it kind of defeat the purpose if you tell me what it's going to be?"

"Not if I'm lying," Fred said, grinning wickedly.

Scott's eyes narrowed thoughtfully. "Good point. Just keep in mind that any pranking retribution will be visited upon your balls."

Fred was outraged. "Damn it, you can't just go right for the bollocks!"

"Disproportionate, is what that is. There's an order to these things," George said authoritatively.

"Just stopping this before it starts, stultorum. That was Latin, by the way. Latina, lingua. Wouldn't want you of lesser intellect to feel left out," Scott said condescendingly.

"Expect the worst, my friend," Fred said ominously.

George perked up in interest. "Can you teach me to swear in Latin? 'You cuntus maximus', all that lark?"

Scott spread his hands. "Just say that – who's gonna know?"

"I'd know," George grumbled. "If you're going to swear, do it properly."

"That's a sentiment I can get behind – but we'll have to save that activity for a rainy day, because I need to get back to the house. I can give you the Latin motto for your shop, though," Scott said over his shoulder as he walked away. "Caveat emptor!"


"Machiavellian."

"What?"

"That's the word I was looking for. Machiavellian."

"I didn't know you were looking for a word," Harry said shortly. He wasn't automatically opposed to Scott's conversation, but, seeing as how he was sitting at the table waiting for his birthday cake to be brought out, it wasn't the ideal time to discuss 'Machiavellian'.

"Machiavelli said it was better to be feared than loved," Scott mused. "But he also warned against being hated… That's the balance, between hate and fear. Riddle doesn't walk it well. He's not subtle."

Hermione leaned in to assist. "Scott, is this really the time?"

Ron was also talking. "It is chocolate, right? I'm not speaking to you if you asked for anything else."

Somewhere behind Harry, Neville and Luna were engaged in a conversation of their own. "I just wish you could have stayed a bit longer," Neville was saying.

"We'll be at Hogwarts soon, Neville," Luna replied. "Would you like to hold hands?"

Hagrid was also present, making the room seem crowded all by himself. He was talking to Remus and Charlie in a voice that would have been considered shouting coming from anyone else. Tonks was deep in discussion with Ginny; about what, Harry didn't know, but Tonks was frequently changing her hair colour.

Between them and the other weddings guests moving in and out of the room, it was all a little overwhelming.

Harry would have preferred a quieter gathering. A little cake, a few presents, and maybe a special present from Ginny later on… That would be ideal. Alone time had been a precious commodity during the wedding preparations; with the event itself now imminent, it had all but vanished.

Harry shifted in his seat and tried not to look put out. It was all for him, after all, even if he hadn't asked for it. There was no need to be ungrateful.

Besides, all the presents he'd received thus far had been splendid. Before Mr and Mrs Weasley had given him one, he hadn't known it was customary to give a wizard a watch when they came of age (even after all the years spent divorced from his Muggle upbringing, he still had a great deal to learn). Ron's present had been a book with the rather unwieldy title Twelve Fail-Safe Ways to Charm Witches. Harry hadn't shown it to anyone else, yet. He was certain Scott would have something to say about it, probably at length.

Scott had yet to deliver any presents of his own, which might have meant he simply hadn't bothered to procure one. Harry didn't think so, though. Scott wouldn't ignore an occasion that was so significant to Harry, even if it was only to further his integration. No, he most likely had a present that couldn't be safely given with their current audience. It could very well be dangerous, a thought that left Harry excited and apprehensive all at once.

Ginny also hadn't given any presents so far. Harry had a good feeling about that. All the best gifts from Ginny couldn't be wrapped.

Well… They couldn't be unwrapped in public.

"Cake Time!" Lila sang out, carrying the delicious dessert on a tray, candles lit.

Harry was immediately besieged by well wishes and hugs. After Mrs Weasley squeezed him tightly, Lila stepped in. She didn't give Harry quite as enthusiastic a hug as the other woman, but when she moved back she placed a hand on his shoulder and whispered, "Molly wanted something more extravagant, but I was told you didn't."

Harry smiled up at her appreciatively, nodding his thanks. If she'd been given the chance, Mrs Weasley would have run herself even more ragged than she already was putting together additional decorations for Harry. He didn't need that kind of effort. Just having any sort of party at all was enough, and, after his childhood at the Dursleys', still something of an oddity.

Scott had risen from his seat and was fidgeting near the cake. "Harry, for the love of GOD, dude, hurry up and cut this thing or I am about to commit a major infraction of birthday protocol–"

"Oh, no, you aren't!" Lila said, brandishing a knife in his direction. "Harry gets the first piece and you will wait your turn."

"It's fine, everyone can help themselves," Harry tried to say, but Lila placed an enormous slice on a plate in front of him and then fixed him with an expectant stare. Harry dutifully ate his first bite. "It's really good, thank you, Lila."

"No big deal, just an old recipe I dug out," she said airily, but she seemed pleased by the compliment.

"I will now demonstrate my impression of Ron," Scott was saying. He had his plate tipped upward, apparently to shovel his entire slice into his mouth.

"That's not an impression, that's just you," Ron scoffed. "I could eat two slices at once."

"Uh, that sounds like a challenge, freckles."

"It sounds like both of you are going to get smacked," Lila said threateningly.

Harry wouldn't have minded seeing Ron versus Scott in an eating contest, but he didn't voice that.

"Happy Birthday, Harry," Neville said, coming up on Harry's left. "I know I already said it with everyone else, but…"

Harry grinned up at him. "Thanks, Nev! I'm glad you could make it."

"Me too! I've just wanted to get out of the house, since…" Neville trailed off and glanced in Luna's direction.

Harry knew that Luna had stayed with Neville for some time over the summer, and not much else. Obviously there was more to the story. "Er, Nev… Are you and Luna…?"

Neville turned bright red, but kept his chin up. "Y-Yes. We're seeing each other now."

Harry felt a twinge of sympathy when he heard how defensively Neville said it, as if he were expecting immediate derision. The worst part was, he probably would receive it back at Hogwarts. Luna was pretty, intelligent, and one of the bravest people Harry had ever known, but many (including her own house) never saw past the cork necklace and radish earrings.

Well, Harry thought firmly, neither she nor Neville were going to get that kind of scorn from him. "That's brilliant, Nev. Really, I mean it. She's a great girl."

Neville was still red with embarrassment, but he smiled hesitantly. "She really is… I wish I'd seen it sooner."

"I know what you mean," Harry said, looking over at Ginny.

Neville went to rejoin Luna, and Scott immediately appeared in the vacated space. He grinned widely at Harry, teeth blackened by copious amounts of chocolate. "I love it when a plan comes together."

Harry's expression turned dubious. "Now you're taking all the credit for them, too?"

"I can never take all the credit," Scott said with blatantly false modesty. "An object must exist before it can be moved, these things are no different. We don't create reality; we shape it, we shift it."

"Which is Machiavellian?"

"No! Wait – yes, sort of. But no, that was a different train of thought. Thanks for reminding me, though."

Harry glanced around, but no one was paying attention to them. "So what would have happened, then? If you hadn't done anything, I mean. If you just left everyone alone."

Scott eyed him. "You sound faintly bitter."

"You were a complete twat on loads of occasions just to get me with Ginny."

"It worked, didn't it?"

Harry glared at him. "And with Neville and Luna, all you did was send a bloody letter…"

Scott held his hands up in a placating manner. "Okay, I see what you're saying, but it's not a fair comparison. I started giving you a hard time only after I tried a bunch of other stuff."

Harry didn't want to have that argument in the middle of his birthday party. "Sod it, just answer the question."

"I don't know. You and Ginny, Ron and Hermione – these are relationships built on requirements. They provide strength. They are, if not absolutely necessary, then highly useful. They give you something you need."

"But how is Neville different with Luna?" Harry asked, feeling a bit angered at the implication that they weren't important to the shape (and therefore, to Scott).

"They aren't. Not functionally. Love is a binding agent: you take two disparate people, and that connection allows them to compensate for the weaknesses of the other. They become complementary. Love can also destroy, of course, but hopefully this whole war thing will be over before that happens. If it does," Scott amended upon seeing Harry's alarmed look. "So, the principle is the same. But because Neville and Luna aren't as… central, to this escapade, the shape wasn't so urgent on the matter. There were multiple strands available, I just… I just encouraged one of them."

There were lines to be read between that statement and Harry didn't like the implication. "You mean you picked the outcome that was most convenient for you."

"I suppose you could put it that way."

Harry stared at his cake for a moment, trying to decide if he was outraged, resigned, or if it was really any of his business in the first place.

"They're happy together, Harry," Scott defended himself. "Could you see them with anyone else? Maybe they would have had a connection anyway, and maybe it wouldn't have lasted, but why go through that kind of trauma and then wait to find someone else when they can have a lasting relationship now?"

"What if they would have been happier with those other people?" Harry countered.

"What if they wouldn't? Let's not pretend we can compare what they have now with some distant, unknown outcome."

Harry considered that. "So you don't know much about the alternatives?"

"Nope."

"…Well, whatever. I just hope you know what you're doing."

"Hey – it's me!" Scott said, grabbing his empty plate and going to help himself to more cake.

Harry had about three seconds to contemplate how unhelpful that was before he had company again. This time it was Ron who sat at Harry's side. "Happy birthday, mate. You look at that book, yet?"

"No, not yet. I'm waiting until Scott isn't around," Harry said.

"Why? Think he'll get smart about it?"

"We are talking about Scott…"

Ron snorted. "He should keep his fat mouth shut. Most action he's seen is flirting with Hufflepuffs, and the easy ones, at that." He nodded his head in the direction of Lila, who was picking up empty plates. "Hey, have you seen Charlie with Lila?"

"Charlie?" Harry located Ron's older brother sitting near the window. Sure enough, he was watching Lila. "Huh. Can't say I have…"

"He's completely barmy about her, full stop," Ron said, sniggering. "Embarrassing, really."

"Yeah, you have no idea what that's like," Harry said dryly.

Ron's ears turned red. "Shut it. That was different."

Harry considered the situation and couldn't think of any positive outcomes. He wasn't even sure if Lila qualified as human. "Maybe you should say something to him…"

Ron shook his head sorrowfully. "Charlie, Charlie… Daft bugger pokes at dragons for a living, 'course he picks the most violent girl we know. I wonder if he needs to feel like he might lose a limb, no matter what he's doing…"

Harry had been thinking more about the emotional fallout, but he couldn't say that Ron didn't have a point. "Er, true. Maybe one of us should talk to Lila about it…?" He reconsidered whether he really wanted to do that. "Let's make Scott talk to her."

"You do what you want, mate, I'm not going to be anywhere near when that goes pear shaped," Ron said wisely.

The party began to slow to its inevitable end once everyone was full of cake and satisfied. The guests began to drift off, several of them having to leave (though any goodbyes were tempered by the knowledge they'd be right back for the wedding). In deference to his birthday, Harry found himself exempt from any jobs around the house. That was how, as evening began to set, he found himself upstairs, alone with his friends, for the first time in weeks.

Hermione took charge. "All right, let's go about this in an organised manner," she said in her best authoritarian voice.

Scott, predictably, sabotaged her moment. "Jawohl, mein Führerin!"

She paused just long enough to roll her eyes at him, then turned to Dumbledore's gifts, which she had arranged on Ron's dressing table. "I've read through the book… And though I enjoyed it, I can't see any other reason it was left to me. That said, I'm sure we can all agree that there was a specific reason we were given these things; therefore, I just haven't discovered it yet."

"You'll suss it out," Ron said with total confidence.

Hermione blushed a bit. "Um, thank you, Ron. Moving on…" She picked up the Deluminator. "As for your gift, I can think of all sorts of ways this could be useful. Stealth, primarily, but I was wondering if it works on anything that produces light, even as a by-product."

That caught Scott's attention. "Power sources? Bioluminescence?"

"Perhaps. We'll have to test it, at some point." She set it down and lifted Harry's Snitch. "Harry, I've given it a bit of thought, and, if I remember right, you know how you caught this particular Snitch…"

"Yeah. The bloody thing about choked me," Harry recalled. "Give it here, I'll lick it or something."

Ginny, who was on the bed with Harry, leaning against his chest, grimaced and shifted against him slightly. "Ugh. You don't know where that's been!"

Harry grinned down at her. "Want to give me a kiss afterwards?"

She turned her head, pressing a hand against his mouth playfully. "No! You'll just have to kiss me somewhere else…"

Ron was staring at them in horror, so Hermione prudently moved things along. "Harry?"

"Right." Harry pressed the Snitch to his lips. He held it there for a moment, but nothing happened. He lowered it.

Hermione looked puzzled. "I thought that would accomplish something…"

Ginny took the Snitch from Harry. "Look, there's writing here now! 'I open at the close'… What?"

"'I open at the close'," Harry repeated, reading it for himself.

Hermione sighed. "More riddles. I suppose it couldn't be too easy." She gestured at Ron and Scott. "Any ideas from either of you?"

Ron shrugged. "No, that sounds pretty much like nonsense."

Scott's face was creased in thought. "Get back to me. We're missing something."

"All right, well, I suppose we won't solve everything in one night." Hermione took the Snitch back and traded it for the small wooden box that had been bequeathed to Ginny. "Has anyone had any thoughts on Ginny's box?"

Scott startled everyone with a sudden snort of laughter. "Maybe a few, though I can guarantee that Harry has had many thoughts concerning Ginny's box."

Hermione may not have been familiar with whatever slang Scott found so amusing, but she knew a rude joke when she heard one – especially from Scott. "This! This wooden box she got from Dumbledore, not whatever horrible thing you're thinking of!"

"What does it say on it, again?" Harry interrupted. He wanted to head off any potential clashes between Scott and Hermione before they grew loud enough for someone to investigate.

"'Something that was supposed to happen'," Hermione said.

Ron rolled his eyes. "We don't understand any of this shite; there we go, that's what was supposed to happen. Dumbledore always liked a good laugh."

"No, I know this one. I've heard that before…" Scott muttered.

"Where?" Ginny said.

Scott sighed and leaned back against the headboard, pressing his palms into his eyes. "Okay. 'Something that was supposed to happen'. Involving Harry and Ginny, probably. Something Dumbledore said to me… Wait… No, I said that!"

Hermione's face lit up in excitement. "You said it?"

"Yeah! Yeah, it was up in his office. We were talking about stuff, then there was an interruption from the shape, he asked me what was wrong… I said something happened, he was worried, so I said it was okay, that it was 'something that was supposed to happen'!" He opened his eyes. "That's it! God, that was driving me crazy. It's kind of scary to think that he was banking on me remembering that."

"Out with it, already!" Ginny said impatiently. "What's the secret?"

Scott looked at her shrewdly. "Nothing that hasn't already happened in this house with the box present. So, let's try something a little more tactile. Harry, Ginny – put your hands on the box."

Ginny placed her hand on the wooden surface and Harry followed suit, placing his hand over hers.

"That's very touching, Harry, but let's not take any chances – put your hand on the box," Scott ordered.

Harry grimaced to cover his embarrassment, and moved his hand.

"Okay. Now, kiss each other."

Ron started. "Wait just a bloody minute–"

"Shut up, firecrotch, this is for a good cause," Scott told him.

Hermione nodded. "I think I see what he's getting at. Go ahead, you two."

Harry looked down at Ginny and raised a nervous eyebrow. "Er, not especially used to an audience…"

Ginny shook her head fondly. "Harry, stop being a prat and just kiss me."

So he did.

He withdrew in alarm as he heard the box click and felt it jump beneath his hand. "Whoa!"

"It's opened!" Ginny said excitedly. She popped open the lid and reached inside.

"Be careful!" Hermione cautioned. "We don't know what… Oh!"

Hermione's exclamation was in response to Ginny withdrawing a strange object from the box. It was shaped like a vial, wrapped with gold filigree in curious shapes that were hard to trace with the eye, beguiling and strange. The bottom had four silver legs so it could be stood up, and the top of it seemed to be sealed with lead.

The liquid inside the glass was dark red and burned with a strong, unearthly light.

Ron peered at it in fascination. "What… the bloody hell… is that?"

"It appears to be a test tube full of blood," Scott said matter-of-factly.

Hermione shook her head. "It's much more than that. If I'm not mistaken, that's a phylactery!"

Ginny's eyes widened. "Aren't those illegal?"

"Some kinds are, yes. But I don't think the Headmaster would have had any of those."

Ginny reached back into the box and withdrew a slip of paper. "There's another note…"

Harry read it over her shoulder. "'Ms Weasley – A token to assist you in your admirable dedication. Take comfort in the light: so long as it shines, so does he'."

"Oh…" Hermione had a hand pressed to her chest, her eyes bright. "That's so romantic!"

Ginny blinked. "Um, why?"

"That's Harry's blood inside the vial. It's tied to him, and as long as it's glowing, Harry is… still with us," Hermione explained. "It should also grow brighter or weaker depending on how far away he is."

Harry wasn't sure he liked the idea of having that much of his blood sitting around outside of his veins. "That's… sort of disturbing."

"I think it's dead useful," Ginny said archly. "Hah! Let's see you run off without me now!"

"You're screwed, dude," Scott assessed.

Ron motioned at the vial uncertainly. "What I want to know is, how did Dumbledore get all that blood?"

The same thought had occurred to Harry. "While I was in the Hospital Wing, I guess. Could have happened any number of times."

"Just thought he'd help himself one of those times, huh."

"Guess so," Harry said, feeling a bit queasy.

"You really shouldn't find this so odd, Ron," Hermione said. "After all, your family clock downstairs works the same way."

Ron and Ginny were both taken aback. "It does?" Ron gaped.

"Of course. How did you think it worked?"

"I didn't," Ron admitted. "It just did, that's all I needed to know."

"Well, now you understand," Hermione said a trifle smugly.

"So the clock is full of blood, doesn't mean I have to like a vial of mine any better," Harry muttered.

Ginny pressed the phylactery against Harry's chest, and they all witnessed the way it became even more incandescent. "Well, I like it," she said.

"I bet that could be used for some kind of weird sex. Most magic is conducive to weird sex, it's kinda fucked up," Scott mused.

"Moving on!" Hermione said desperately. "We should have Gryffindor's sword, which was left to Harry, but the Ministry found a loophole of some sort and kept it."

"That, we could use," Ron opined.

"So all that's left is Scott's cube," Hermione noted, lifting the cube curiously. "It's a magical strongbox, and evidently powerful enough to keep the Ministry out of it."

"So it'll keep us out, too," Harry said.

"Yes, but Scott already said he knew how to open it. Correct?" Hermione asked Scott.

Scott shrugged. "About ninety-percent sure. I mean, there's only one way to find out."

Hermione held the cube out to him. "Give it a go, then."

The Kharadjai reached out and took it, but merely placed it on the bed next to him. "That might not be the best idea. Whatever is inside is probably better off staying concealed so long as we're here at The Burrow. We don't even know how big it is."

"It's probably much bigger on the inside," Hermione conceded. "Which actually brings me to my next point. I've been working on this handbag…" She picked up the small, beaded handbag that had been sitting innocuously next to the other items. "I've placed an Undetectable Extension Charm on it, and I think I've got it all done correctly. It wasn't easy…"

"Fishing for compliments?" Scott asked wryly.

"Explaining the process," Hermione said loftily. "Now, we should be able to fit whatever we need in here when we leave. I've already put a few changes of clothes for all of us, and I also have important books and some other things we might need. If you have anything you'd like kept safe, let me know soon."

"Does it matter how much the stuff weighs?" Scott questioned.

"Not within reason. I can't fit a lorry in here, if that's what you're wondering."

Harry had the feeling that Hermione would soon be a walking armoury. He also had a few ideas as to what he might store in the handbag. Brooms, maybe. Some of the things from his trunk.

He was broken from his thoughts when Ginny inhaled sharply. "What is it?" he asked her.

"Look!" She held up the phylactery, which had dimmed completely. "You're still breathing, right?"

"Er, yeah." Harry smiled awkwardly. "Still here. It's all right now, see?"

The phylactery had regained its glow. Hermione walked over to examine it more closely. "I do hope it wasn't damaged somehow," she said, tapping it with her wand. "Perhaps the Ministry weren't careful with the box."

"That was me, actually," Scott volunteered lazily.

"You?" Hermione said, rounding on him.

"Yeah. I interrupted the magic thread to Harry, just for a second. I recognise it now, though." Scott flopped back onto the bed and closed his eyes, his position mirroring the one he had taken at the foot of Harry's bed during their first meeting, what felt like a lifetime ago. "It's a lot like the threads Ron and Ginny have, which makes sense considering what you said about the clock."

"You break that – that 'thread', and I'll break you," Ginny threatened. "You about stopped my heart!"

"Noted. I've obstructed a few one-way threads before; it's the ones like these that are reciprocal which get tricky. Your Trace thing is gone, Harry, in case you had any doubts."

Harry had already cast a few minor spells since that morning. "I know. And it's absolutely brilliant, let me tell you."

"Hmph," Ginny grumbled crossly.

"Relax, Ginseng. We'll snap that spell off you soon enough," Scott reassured her.

"It's getting dark," Hermione fretted, looking out the window. "We'll be sent off to bed soon, and it'll be an early start tomorrow. Is there anything else that can't wait?"

"What about the ghoul and your parents?" Ron said. "Although, I don't know about the ghoul now, what with Ginny…"

"What about me?" Ginny said.

Hermione took a deep breath, and, in a halting voice, explained how she had placed a powerful Memory Charm on her parents and sent them out of the country. Ron had also prepared for his own absence: with Mr Weasley's help, he had disguised the ghoul in the attic as himself with a severe case of some kind of magical disease.

"But if I'm gone as well…" Ginny concluded.

"Right. But it's a bit too late to worry about it now," Hermione sighed.

Harry was still crushed by the news about her parents. "Hermione… I'm…"

"Don't, Harry," she said weakly. "It's done. I'm not sorry. At least they'll be far away from all this."

"I just wish they didn't have to be," Harry said, gritting his teeth against the guilt.

Ginny's arms wrapped around him, drawing him close. "She's right, Harry. Don't get all broody about this."

"Nobody blames you, mate," Ron said.

"Man up, Harriet," Scott added.

"Thanks," Harry said, grateful for his friends. "Except for you, Scott, you can sod off."

"I'm sensing some hostility…"

Whatever further retorts Harry might have come up with were forestalled by a rapping at the entryway. It was Lila, pushing open the partially closed door and leaning inside.

"Wrap it up, kiddos," she said. "Big day tomorrow. I suggest you hurry to a bathroom if you don't want to wait in line the rest of the night." She was in her bedclothes and her hair was damp, proving she had already beaten the crowd. "Are you sleeping in here or on the floor downstairs?" she asked Scott.

"Hmmm, on the floor up here, or on the floor downstairs? Decisions, decisions…" Scott said sarcastically.

"Flip a coin. And Ginny, I need to see you before the wedding tomorrow, all right?"

"Sure," Ginny agreed.

As everyone stood and stretched and readied for sleep, Harry reluctantly removed his arms from where they had been around Ginny's waist. "What was that about?"

"Probably about the Trace," Ginny whispered, as the others in the household were now moving up the stairs.

"Right. Well, let's hope she can get that sorted."

Harry still wasn't completely sold on the idea of bringing Ginny along, but it seemed inevitable. His arguments had been refuted and about all he had left was his irrational fear (or so he'd been told; he felt his fear was entirely rational). He'd have to make the best of it, along with everything else. Still, their impromptu council of war had helped a little.

He felt slightly more prepared.

Back to index


Chapter 6: The Enemy Without

6

The Enemy Without


"Fear is a primal response – it's not considered, but
reflexive. Our race is exempt from so many of the perils
that plague baseline humans; regardless, we are just as
subject to sharp, involuntary terror as those who have an
even greater reason to heed it.

The belief that runs deep in the military – and is often taken
to extremes within the specialized branches – is that fear can
be, and should be, controlled. The ability to remain calm in
the face of terror is highly prized among all levels of
field agents and eternally sought after by the Imperiarchy.

When unable to find it, they create it. S.P.E.A.R¹ has always
been intended to emphasize that no matter what the rank
or individual experience, panic is an unacceptable reaction to
any circumstance. They call it uneconomical, obstructive, and
without use. The fundamental reason is far more dangerous: it is
contagious."

1: Subsistence, Perception, Endurance and Agility Regimen

The Tip of the SPEAR: Kharadjai Republic Special Forces and the
Purview War


Ron shifted uncomfortably in his dress robes, pulling at the collar. About the only thing they had to recommend them was that they weren't old; they were new, clean and well-fitted, for a change. So at least he didn't have to attend Bill's wedding wearing something that should have been binned a decade ago.

He tugged at the collar again. Nice robes were a scant comfort when he was expected to greet a thousand effing people whose names he couldn't remember, and then find them on the seating chart.

"When is everyone supposed to arrive?" he asked Fred, who was standing closest to him.

Fred flipped out his pocket watch. "Well, let's have a look… As I thought, everything goes tits up in five, four, three…"

He was a bit off, but, no more than a handful of seconds after he finished his count, guests began Apparating in just beyond the edge of the grounds.

Harry was studying the seating chart again, appearing very uncomfortable. Or, at least Ron assumed he was uncomfortable. It was hard to tell as Harry had taken Polyjuice that morning, and assumed the form of a red-haired Muggle from the village. Now, he was 'Cousin Barny'. It was supposed to be a protective measure, though Ron didn't really see the point. Even the Death Eaters couldn't be stupid enough to think Harry would be somewhere else on a Weasley's wedding day, off by himself.

Nobody had asked Ron's opinion, though, as usual.

As the guests approached, Ron turned slightly to give Scott's distant form an envious eye. The lucky git had been recruited by Lila to help with the catering; although he wasn't blatantly stealing anything, his mouth always seemed to be full. The bastard was stuffing himself whilst Ron and Harry did the real work.

"We need a system for all the younger witches," George was saying. "I get first choice, I think that's fair."

"Hang on there, old man, nobody's picking through your leftovers," Fred protested. "We'll do this proper like: anyone have a coin on them?"

Ron didn't know why they were even bothering to discuss it. "Me and Harry are already taken, you sods. Do what you like."

George nodded. "Yes, that's right – you are, aren't you. That reminds me, Harry… Charlie was saying we should sit down and have a talk with you, at your earliest convenience."

Straightening his collar one last time, Ron gave the seating chart another once over. "Shut it, they're here."

Seating all the newcomers was a bloody nightmare; he didn't know two-thirds of them and all the cousins from Fleur's side either had incomprehensible accents or didn't speak English at all. Ron and Harry did the best they could, and Fred and George spoke a few phrases in French, but it quickly became apparent they were going to need help.

"Oi, Ha– er, Barny. I've just had an idea," Ron said, walking up to his friend. "Scott speaks French, let's foist these frogs off on him."

"They'll all keep bothering him if they know he understands," Harry pointed out.

"And?"

Harry grinned. "I'll go get him."

A couple of minutes later, Harry reappeared with an obviously reluctant Scott. "–just ask them for a name, Barny, this isn't particle science! Quel est votre nom? There, you're set."

Harry just handed him the seating chart. "Look, the faster you do this, the faster we can be done."

With that, Ron and Harry each seized one of Scott's arms and practically threw him at the unseated Delacours who had gathered to converse.

"Uh… Bonjour et bienvenue. Puis-je vous aider à trouver vos chaises?" Scott said grudgingly.

With that problem taken care of, Ron found himself with a bit of time to mingle. He went looking for Hermione, with the vague idea that maybe if he spent time with her before the wedding proper, she wouldn't ask him to dance afterwards. The more he thought about that, the less likely it seemed.

The weather was perfect for a wedding. The decorations were a bit much for Ron's taste, though he supposed it all fit together well enough. He might have paid a bit more attention to everything for use in the eventuality of his own wedding, but, seeing as he might not survive the rest of the year, there wasn't much point in worrying about it. That was about as far as he was willing to go with the whole 'inevitable death' thing, though. Ron, along with Hermione, still tended to find Harry's fatalism annoying. At least Scott and Ginny were positive about the future (which probably should have been scant comfort: Scott was paid to keep their spirits up and Ginny usually just wanted Harry to stop brooding). And who knew what Lila was thinking.

Ron grinned as he thought of the uproar Lila had caused earlier. As she had requested the night before, Ginny went to see her before everyone filed out into the garden. Ron hadn't been present, showering at the time, but, as Hermione told it, Lila had broken the Trace. Problem was, she had also broken a few other things.

Half the Weasleys in the household had rushed upstairs in a panic as Ginny's hand on the family clock spun around aimlessly, moving from 'Mortal Peril' to 'Lost' and eventually coming loose and falling off. They had found a very startled Ginny in her room, still alive and well.

Mum had fixed Ginny's connection to the clock whilst Dad had taken the thing halfway apart in an attempt to find the problem before having to abandon it for his wedding duties. It was still mostly in pieces. Fred and George had harried Ginny for the secret of her 'prank' until she threatened to hex them both, Ministry rules or no.

Ron just hoped that Lila had done the job right. If Ginny could be tracked by the spells she cast, it would be a short Horcrux hunt.

"Weasley," a voice grunted from somewhere near Ron's left elbow. He turned to find the craggy visage of Mad-Eye Moody looking back at him. Ron braced himself.

"Hello," Ron said politely, trying hard not to stare at Moody's whirling false eye. It was moving so fast the pupil was just a blur.

"Lot of power here today," Moody said without preamble, not that Ron expected any small talk from him. "Nice to see you're all on guard, anyway… Those heavy wards are solid, but no replacement for constant vigilance."

It hadn't been so long ago that Ron would have found such comments amusing. He understood that kind of paranoia a bit better, now. "Expecting trouble?"

"Always," Moody growled. His magical eye came to an abrupt stop. "There she is. Over by the bubbly."

Ron glanced towards the champagne table, but there was more than one woman there. "Who?"

"The Kharan girl. Lila, I think it was." Both of Moody's eyes fixed on Ron, boring into him. "You watch that one, lad. She's got a look about her…"

Ron glanced that way again, this time spotting Lila. She was conversing amiably with several of Fleur's cousins. "What kind of a look? Blonde, tall…?"

"Oh, she seems normal enough just now. Had a chat with her just a minute ago. Well-spoken, polite, bit distant. Pretty, if you like the type. Your brother obviously does." Moody's expression darkened. "But it's in the eyes. You can't hide what you've seen, who you are. Not to someone else who knows."

"Knows what?" Ron asked tensely.

"How to scrape the fear from your insides and leave nothing but the scars. I'm not daft, Weasley, I know what I look like. You think any of the other pretty young things here can see me and not want to look away?" Moody's eyes narrowed. "Not her. She was taking me apart. You understand, lad? She had me sized."

Ron wished that Hermione, Harry or even Scott were present to smooth things over. Diverting Moody probably required a team effort. "At least you didn't duel, Mum would have been a bit shirty about that," he said, trying humour.

Moody snorted derisively. "She's got a knife strapped to her left thigh. At that range I'd have had it in my throat before I could get my wand out. Not as young as I used to be."

"Oh. Yeah, she's… good with pointy things. Mostly in the kitchen, though." Ron really needed to stop talking.

"You watch that one," Moody said again. "She's a different sort than the rest."

That was the absolute truth, even though Ron couldn't confirm it. He just nodded, not trusting himself to reply further. As soon as Moody walked off, he let out a breath he hadn't know he'd been holding. "Blimey," he muttered to himself.

"Ron!" Hermione walked up and looped her arm through his. "Did Moody want something?"

She was so lovely in her dress, that, for a moment, Ron forgot he should respond. He wanted to bury his face in the crook of her neck, or between her… "Um…"

Her eyes sparkled teasingly. "Yes?"

He tried to get a hold of his hormones even as he moved his arm around her waist. "He was talking to Lila. I think he's on to her."

Hermione's playful expression switched to a frown. "Drat. How did that happen?"

"I dunno. She has some sort of 'I-can-kill-you-with-my-little-finger' aura that equally mad bastards like him can detect. He said she was dangerous and I should watch her."

"Well, she is dangerous… But not to us, at least."

Ron made a face of disbelief. "Were you there when she went after Fred and George after they jinxed her toothbrush? She's scary, she is."

"Oh, she wouldn't have hurt them." Hermione stilled, then added, "Not permanently."

Ron wasn't willing to give her even that much credit. "Yeah, sure. Also, Harry never broods and Scott always tells the truth."

Hermione swatted his arm gently. "You! She's not that bad."

"She and Scott are both nutters, and heavily armed, at that."

Ron staggered awkwardly into Hermione when Scott came up behind him and unexpectedly threw a comradely arm over his shoulder. "Hey! This is the guy, this is my boy, right here! Hey, man–" Scott leaned in close to Ron's face and completely dropped the jovial act. "If you ever leave me alone with the full cast of Les Misérables again I will fucking end you."

Ron looked at Hermione. "See?"

Hermione only sighed. "Scott, if you can't watch your language at a wedding just because Ron left you with–"

"–a bunch of goddamn cheese-eating surrender monkeys–" Scott said over her.

"–our French guests, then there's really no hope for you. If you didn't want to be a translator, you shouldn't have let it slip that you speak the language in the first place."

"I regret that deeply, now," Scott said bitterly. "Whatever. Bye."

"I think you mean, 'whatever, au revoir'," Hermione said pointedly.

Scott's face remained creased in anger, but he couldn't stop his lips from twitching upwards at Hermione's retort. He glared at her with comically narrowed eyes as he stomped off towards his assigned seat.

"That was brilliant," Ron said, trying not to laugh too loudly.

"That was mean," Hermione corrected. "But he had it coming for so many things." She put her arm around Ron's again. "Come on, looks like it's time for the ceremony."

"Bugger. And here I was beginning to think we got to just stand around, talk and eat."

"We get to do that afterwards."

The ceremony was fine enough, not that Ron had a whole lot to compare it to. He didn't understand why so many of the women felt the need to get all teary. He spent most of the time alternating between resisting the urge to tap his foot and staring at the back of Xenophilius Lovegood's head, which was shaped a bit like one of the rocks in the front garden. Luna, at least, was dry-eyed. She moved up a notch in Ron's estimation for that.

Scott and Lila were sitting side by side. Lila was ramrod straight in her seat, her full attention focussed forward and her eyes as soft as Ron had ever seen them. Scott was slumped awkwardly in his chair and perpetually looked as if he were a few seconds away from falling asleep. Ron could sympathise. Hermione was tightly clutching Ron's sleeve, her eyes shiny with tears, and he just hoped she didn't decide that his sleeve made a good handkerchief. He didn't know what to make of the look on Harry's borrowed face. That was becoming a trend. At least they, like Ron, were seated. Poor Charlie, Ginny, and Gabrielle had to stand for the entire thing, being the best man and bridesmaids, respectively.

Being able to observe most everyone did provide Ron with some vital information. He spotted Viktor Krum, the grouchy git, and resolved to keep Hermione away from him. And Great-Aunt Muriel was the last person on Earth he wanted to get stuck at a table with during the reception. Perhaps he could talk Scott into staking out a private area, free from undesirables. The Kharadjai never seemed to have an issue being disagreeable, and nobody expected courtesy from an American, anyway.

Then Bill and Fleur were man and wife and so on, and so forth… Ron had lost his patience about halfway through and wanted nothing more than to stand up. He was given the chance when everyone rose to applaud. The sides of the tent were opened, the chairs were removed with a grand magical flourish, and the far more pleasant aspect of the wedding began.

He searched for a suitable table as the band struck up a tune. He'd lost track of Harry in the crowd (which was easy to do, with Harry no longer sporting his distinctive messy black hair), but Hermione and Ginny were with him. Scott had also been following; he'd made it a few steps before being accosted by Gabrielle, eager to dance.

"Danse avec moi, Scott!" she'd insisted, tugging at his hands.

"D'accord," Scott had said without much enthusiasm. "Vous pourriez avoir à m'aider, je ne sais pas cette chanson."

They left him to his dancing, picking up Neville and Luna along the way. The five friends took their places around the table.

"It's funny how he humours her; it seems so incongruous with the rest of his personality," Hermione mused, watching Scott twirl Gabrielle around. "I suppose he was the same way with Kylie."

"That's a lovely dress, Luna," Ginny said to her friend.

"Thank you." Luna seemed a bit more focussed than usual, perhaps because all of that focus was on Neville. "I wanted to match Daddy's outfit, but I also wanted Neville to see me and like it."

Neville bashfully slouched down in his seat. "I always like seeing you."

"Taking notes?" Hermione said to Ron after Neville's heartfelt declaration.

"Come off it," Ron grumbled. "It's easy to be lovey-dovey when you get an opening like that."

Ginny was searching the crowd. "Where's Harry?" she wondered, lowering her voice. "How am I supposed to spot him when all our cousins look the bloody same…"

Lila wandered over to their table. "Ah, this must be the party table. Is this seat taken?" Without bothering to find out if it was or not, she sat down. "I love weddings. Planning them, not so much."

"It has been a lovely wedding, but you may have a point," Hermione agreed.

Lila leaned forward on her elbows, addressing Ron and Ginny. "I know you guys will be taking off soon. I wanted you to be aware, if you weren't already, that I'll be staying here to keep an eye on things."

"Thank you, Lil. I'll feel a lot better with you here to watch the family," Ginny said softly.

Ron nodded shortly. "Yeah, me, too."

"Neville, Luna," Lila said, "you'll be at Hogwarts, which makes things more difficult. Scott will try to stay in contact with you. That said, if something comes up and he can't be reached, send me a letter or use the Floo or do whatever you can to reach me immediately."

"We'll try," Luna said, uncharacteristically grave.

"You might have the worst of it, all things considered. Be strong. And if things get too bad, leave." Lila pointed a finger at them. "I don't care about the laws or your parents or the stupid Trace or whatever – if things really go downhill at Hogwarts, you get hold of me or Scott and we will get you out of there. Full stop."

"But… how?" Neville asked.

"You let us worry about that."

Ron gripped Hermione's hand beneath the table, the relaxed mood of the wedding dispelled by Lila's words. Reality was fast approaching.

Having said her piece, Lila left them. Shortly after, Neville and Luna also went to dance; or rather, Luna went to wriggle about abstractly and Neville went to stand awkwardly nearby. Ron felt a twinge of guilt as he watched them. They had been absent for some very important events.

"Do you think they'd be better prepared if we'd told them everything?" he said to Hermione.

"That's just the way it happened; they couldn't be around as often…" she said regretfully.

"I'm just worried about them, going back to Hogwarts without us," Ron said roughly. He blinked in surprise when Hermione pressed a kiss to the corner of his mouth.

"I'm so proud of you, Ron," she told him, her eyes suspiciously shiny again. "I really am."

Ron coloured a bit, shifting gracelessly in his seat. "What's brought this on?"

"Oh, nothing," she sighed, placing her head on his shoulder. "Just you being yourself."

Ron rested his cheek on top of her soft hair. "Well… That's all right, then."


"Potter – a word…"

Before the interruption, Harry had been looking for his friends in the press of people. He desperately needed to sort out a few things, he needed their insight. He'd been speaking to Elphias Doge about Dumbledore, wanting to get the truth from the man who had known the Headmaster well enough to write his obituary. Doge had refuted the Skeeter article that had so infuriated Harry, but then Ron's Great-Aunt Muriel had broken into the conversation and contradicted Doge on every point.

Harry's mind was spinning with new information – Dumbledore had once had a sister, who'd died under mysterious circumstances. That, along with his friendship with the infamous Grindelwald, the imprisonment of his father, the falling out with his brother… Harry had known none of it! That wasn't even including Dumbledore's roots in Godric's Hollow, the very place Harry's parents had lived.

He didn't know what to think. He'd stopped for a moment and leaned against a tent pole; lessons flashed through his memory, trying to provide calm and context. Words spoken out in the darkened woods and snow – the intangibility of truth, the power of lies. Information was ammunition. Harry needed to speak with his friends, because he didn't know if what he'd been handed was explosive.

Mad-Eye Moody had just asked for a moment of time that Harry wasn't especially willing to give. Still, he turned towards Moody, not bothering to ask how the Auror had known it was him. "Yes?"

Moody stepped closer, lowering his voice. "I just had an interesting conversation with the groom…"

Harry thought he knew where this was going; he'd seen Mad-Eye talking to Lila earlier. "I'm guessing it wasn't about married life."

Moody made a hacking sound that might have been a laugh. "What would I know about that? No, the subject was much more familiar, to me and you both – a battle at Hogwarts."

Harry wasn't sure how to approach the situation. Luckily, he had a minute to think about it as Moody continued talking.

"Peculiar thing, that battle… Lot of Death Eaters dead – and good riddance – but from Muggle weapons, not wands. Used by her," Moody jerked his head in Lila's direction, "as Bill tells it. Not a bad tactic, altogether. Most wizards won't see that coming. Still, it's unusual. But maybe not as much as where she and her kid brother came from in the first place, eh, Potter?"

"America?" Harry hazarded. He found himself unexpectedly grateful that his Polyjuiced form made his emotions far less obvious.

"The accent's right, I'll grant you that," Moody grunted. "Look, Potter… I don't really care if you know something about this. Dumbledore trusted you. He let that Kharan lad into his school. Arthur's got good sense, and he let the tall blonde lass into The Burrow. So if you trust these Kharans, you have your reasons. But if you don't, I'm telling you now – they're dangerous. That girl might look like the latest model for Witch Weekly, but she killed more than a few men that night at the school. And from what I hear, her brother might have, too."

Harry nodded grimly. "I know."

"Then I'll quit wasting your time," Moody growled. "Just one thing, Potter – if I survive this round with the Dark bastards, I'd like an explanation. Unanswered questions are a bloody bad itch."

"I'll tell you, I swear. I… have a few questions like that right now, myself. About Dumbledore," Harry finished. He was almost afraid to bring it up, but if Moody knew something…

Moody's mouth thinned into a pale, lopsided slash. "Been reading that rubbish in the Prophet, have you?"

"Sort of. I just… he never said anything about having a sister, or Godric's Hollow, or… any of it." Harry tried to hide the hurt in his voice.

"Some things a man doesn't want to talk about. I should think you'd understand that, Potter," Moody said gruffly.

Harry felt a flash of anger. Dumbledore had known all of those things about Harry, every last one. "I suppose."

Moody huffed out a short breath in apparent irritation. "I can't help you, not the way you want. I don't make it my business to pry or gossip. He was a strong man who always did right by me and wrong by the Dark, and that should be good enough for anybody."

It had been enough for Harry, once. "Yeah… Well, thanks anyway."

Moody nodded. "Constant vigilance, Potter. You watch your arse out there or you're liable to lose it."

"I will."

And with that, Moody was gone. As he went back to searching for his friends, Harry was glad that it had been Mad-Eye who'd finally cornered him. The old Auror's practicality and discretion had saved Harry a real headache in trying to explain things. Moody was a realist, the type to worry about the 'why' after the fact and simply accept the hand that was offered when war left little recourse. Harry could strongly relate.

He eventually found his friends; most of them were out on the dance floor. It was comforting to see that, even when dancing with Ron, Hermione still had her handbag with her. Back behind the crowd, Harry found Scott sitting by himself at one of the more out of the way tables.

"I expected you'd be at the centre of the party," Harry said, sitting next to Scott.

"I already did my time on the floor. I'm a free man for the moment – Gabby was distracted by pudding." Scott leaned back in his chair, stretching.

Harry lowered his voice. "I've just had a talk with Doge and need some other opinions, I don't know what to make of this…"

"Can it wait?"

"Wait?" Harry looked more closely at Scott and noticed that his face was a bit strained. "What's wrong?"

"I'm not sure. I didn't expect things to accelerate so soon, but the shape is behaving–"

He was interrupted by cries and shouts of alarm from the guests. A silvery blur darted through the crowd, stopping when it reached the middle of the tent. Harry's eyes widened as he recognised the Patronus spell, in the form of a lynx. The apparition froze for a long moment. When it moved again, it opened its mouth and spoke in the voice of Kingsley Shacklebolt.

"The Ministry has fallen. Scrimgeour is dead. They are coming."

Panic erupted. The guests scattered, Disapparating or searching for friends and family. That alone proved there were already Death Eaters nearby – there had been wards that prevented Apparition. It was total chaos.

Harry jumped up from his seat, wand at the ready. He turned to tell Scott that they needed to find the others, only to see the other boy still sitting calmly in his chair. He looked like the Patronus had just informed them that the wedding might be gently rained on.

"Postrēmo," he muttered. "Well, now we know what the deal with the shape was."

And just like that, Harry felt his heart rate decrease. Scott's tranquillity in the face of an imminent attack was comforting (and Harry knew that was probably the point). He began to consider the situation more dispassionately.

"The Death Eaters are here," he said to Scott, shouting over the panicking guests. He pointed towards the indistinct shapes at the edges of the Weasley property. "They'll need a minute to drop the rest of the wards; where's Lila?"

"She'll be gathering everyone to get them into the house, it has protections the yard doesn't," Scott said, standing. "We can get out in the meantime."

"No. Not when they can still get surrounded," Harry said stubbornly. "We need to draw these bastards off."

Scott smiled approvingly. "I like it. Come on, let's find Ron and Hermione. They should be over this way."

They found Ron and Hermione a handful of seconds later; the pair had been searching for them in turn. Neville and Luna were close behind.

"Harry!" Hermione yelled, gripping him a fierce hug. "We didn't know where you went!"

"Afraid I might leave without you?" Harry said with a wry smile.

"Don't act like you wouldn't! Come on, we've got to Disapparate before they get through the wards!"

Harry ignored her insistence. "Where's Ginny?"

Neville pointed towards the other side of the tent. "I saw her over that way, just a second ago."

"Not a bad way, the enemy is thinnest on that side," Scott said, already moving in that direction.

"What? Harry, what's going on?" Hermione demanded, her eyes wide and frightened.

"I'm distracting them so the family can get into the house; are you coming or not?" Harry wasn't offering again. He'd prefer to have his friends stay with Lila, anyway.

"Coming," Ron said firmly. His wand hand was steady despite his shaken demeanour.

Harry led the way through the rapidly thinning crowd, picking out the distant line of Death Eaters at the rim of the woods. Scott was correct: there were fewer that way than towards the path and The Burrow.

The air was beginning to fill with spells. A bright light ripped through the tent canopy over Harry's head and he heard Shield Charms being shouted. He glanced to his right as he ran; a dark blob of shapes were moving together towards the house. Spells were emanating from the gathering more thickly than anywhere else, and he knew that had to be the Weasleys. But if the Death Eaters weren't given good reason to leave, Ron's family would be trapped inside the house. Despite the heavy protections on the structure, a protracted siege was a dangerous possibility.

A Stunner rang loudly off a nearby tent pole, casting brief illumination in a flash of red. Harry stumbled and nearly fell when a slim form ran into him headlong.

"Harry!" Ginny gasped. She disentangled herself from his arms and grabbed his hand as they ran together. "Where are we going? Lila said I needed to find you!"

Harry furrowed his brow, angered that Lila had willingly left Ginny behind. He'd have a few words for the Kharadjai when they next met. "We're going to break through the Death Eaters up ahead and draw them away from The Burrow," he panted.

The dark figures ringing the property were drawing closer. The last of the wards must have fallen. Harry increased his speed, hoping the cover of twilight would disguise his intent long enough to smash aside the few Death Eaters ahead and reach the cover of the trees.

Scott shot ahead of the group with unnatural velocity. Harry could hear the closest Death Eater shouting in alarm.

"HOLD IT RIGHT THERE! DROP YOUR WA–" the Death Eater roared, only to be silenced with an audible expulsion of air as Scott kicked him full force in the stones.

"Blimey!" Ron choked somewhere behind Harry.

The Death Eater's agony didn't last long. When he slumped forward, Scott grabbed the back of his hood and pushed him down further, proceeding to slam a knee into the man's face. There was a nasty crunching noise (probably the nose, Harry guessed) and the Death Eater went limp.

The other Death Eaters nearby were close enough to witness the act; spells began hurtling in their direction.

"PROTEGO!" Harry shouted, deflecting two Stunners and what he thought was a Diffindo. He flinched but kept moving, extending his arm to block another spell from hitting Ginny. When it rebounded it left a small crater in the grass, apparently a weak Blasting Curse.

The group's training in Dumbledore's Army was proving its worth as everyone was furiously casting without pause: Stunning Spells and Disarming Charms flew out in all directions, striking unprotected Death Eaters and forcing the others to shield themselves or find cover. The bulk of the enemy force was still on the other side of the front garden, but Harry knew they needed to reach the woods before they were overwhelmed.

Scott knew that, too. He hadn't even bothered to draw his wand. Instead, the Kharadjai teen had doubled back and was moving like a wraith, low to the ground. He curved out and then swept back in towards the Death Eaters to the left, flanking them.

Harry dropped his Shield Charm and raised his wand simultaneously with a Death Eater who had managed to deflect several spells from Luna and close the distance. "STUPEFY!" he shouted, ducking to the side just in time to avoid the masked man's answering Stunner.

He scampered across the ground as a spell cut through the grass where he had been a moment before. He deflected the next curse, and the bright spark of the rebounding spell lit the night enough for Harry to see a second Death Eater – who had been sprinting up to reinforce the one duelling Harry – fall flailing to the earth as Scott slammed an elbow into his throat.

The nearer Death Eater heard his comrade's thick choking; he turned to look and Harry's Stunner rocketed into the back of his head, throwing him violently forward. He didn't get back up.

Harry straightened and resumed running, taking stock of the rest of his friends. Ron and Hermione had disabled their opponent whilst Neville and Luna had the last Death Eater pinned behind a tree which was shaking as spells pummelled it, shedding bark and leaves.

Realising his predicament, the hapless Death Eater decided to run. Stupidly, he did so in wrong direction. Blindly casting a Blasting Curse at the soil to cover his retreat, he sprinted out from behind the flora as Harry tried to lead properly through the dirt thrown in the air.

Then, the Death Eater jerked with an odd motion. He stumbled forward a few more steps seemingly by momentum alone, and collapsed to his knees.

With the dust clearing, Harry could see the hilt of a knife extending from the Death Eater's chest.

Scott ran up to the stricken man, and, in one smooth motion, pulled the knife from his chest and kicked him onto his back. Reaching down, Scott grabbed the Death Eater by his hood and bent his head backwards, exposing his throat.

"Scott, no!" Hermione shrieked out in horror.

Scott froze. Harry couldn't make out the expression on his face, but after a half-second of pause he released the Death Eater and gifted the helpless man with a solid kick to the head.

"Everybody go, keep moving," Harry said, finding his voice. "Come on, it's not far now!"

A quick glance over his shoulder revealed that the last of the wedding guests had either escaped or been captured. There were no lights on in The Burrow, but Harry didn't have time to worry about that. A row of Death Eaters were making their way towards him, though not quickly. There must have been some confusion in their ranks as to what was happening.

The group hurried into the trees, stopping once they were concealed to catch their breaths and ease the adrenaline shock. Harry could scarcely believe they'd actually made it as far as they had; he'd been harbouring the fairly serious thought that he was just martyring himself so everyone else could get away.

Of course, they hadn't made it quite yet. He tried to plan as his friends huddled around him. "All right," he breathed, sweat running down the back of his robes, "they're going to see those berks we just handled when they get close enough. With a little luck they'll follow us, but we need somewhere to go."

"Do you think everyone else got to the house?" Ron asked.

"Lila wouldn't let them turn any lights on. With a hostile force outside the windows the last thing you want to do is provide a silhouette," Scott explained.

Ron and Ginny both looked relieved at that, evidently having been extremely worried by the lack of life signs at The Burrow.

"What about your sister's flat? We could hide there; I doubt any of the Death Eaters know about it," Hermione said to Scott.

"Sure, if we can get there," Scott said.

Harry nodded. "I think we can make it."

"Neville, Luna…" Hermione said hesitantly. "I hate to suggest it, but the two of you absolutely cannot be seen, not if you're going back to Hogwarts. You should probably just Disapparate back home."

"No way!" Neville protested, looking outraged by the suggestion.

"It would be quite unseemly to leave you now," Luna said, her voice uncommonly serious.

"No, she's right. Those blokes we just fought never got close enough to see you well, but we don't know if it's going to stay that way," Harry said.

"But you need our help!" Neville said.

"I need you at Hogwarts!" Harry countered. "Luna's still got the Trace and without you there–"

"The Trace means fuck all with the Ministry gone!" Neville said stridently. Harry wasn't sure he'd ever heard the other boy swear before.

"Which is fine for tonight, but that won't last," Scott cut in. "If you absolutely refuse to leave then we can discuss this at the apartment, because these guys are starting to get their shit together and we need to go now."

"Right," Harry said decisively, standing from his crouch. "Wands out, eyes open."

They started moving along the tree line towards the back of The Burrow rather than going deeper into the woods. Minutes later, they could hear the shouts as the Death Eaters found their defeated compatriots.

Ginny was next to Harry every step of the way, picking through the brush and trying to minimise the noise she made. It was easier for her with her light, slim body than the most of the rest of them (though, somehow, Scott made hardly a sound). Harry thought about the men chasing them and fought down the fierce surge of protectiveness that ensued. It was not the time to think about how stupid he'd been to include Ginny in this madness. She should have been safe in The Burrow with the rest of her family.

"Any regrets, yet?" he asked her quietly as he pushed aside a branch so they could both pass.

"No. And if you ask me that again I'll hex you instead of those Dark wankers," she responded fiercely.

So much for that line of inquiry. Harry kept his mouth shut as they advanced further. The shouts from behind kept getting closer, an ominous sign. Unfettered by stealth, the Death Eaters were moving slightly faster.

"Hermione…" Scott began as they walked, using a conversational tone that was incredibly incongruous with the situation. "Do you know the incantation for the Entrail-Expelling Curse?"

"No, but I could find it easily enough," Hermione whispered. "Is this really important?"

"If it does what I think it does – and it really should, considering the name – it could be useful. A spell like that has utility in combat."

"It's not fatal. It was designed for medical purposes, the organs come out intact," Hermione told him.

"Don't underestimate the shock value. You could inspire terror with a curse like that. Besides, nothing says they have to stay intact." Scott stopped talking abruptly and swivelled his head to look backwards. "Tom's friends have just about caught up. No point in being quiet – they sure aren't."

The Death Eaters could be heard crashing through the woods, all rustling leaves and snapping twigs.

"Run!" Harry bit out.

They started moving as quickly as they could, which wasn't very fast considering all the obstacles and their hindering dress clothes. They could travel more easily on the open grass, but Harry didn't dare leave the concealment of the forest. The lack of open space was the only thing keeping the Death Eaters from bombarding them with spells.

"Laqueusi Crus!" Hermione chanted, jabbing her wand at the forest floor behind them. Harry had never heard of the spell before, but trusted that she knew what she was doing; she repeated it several times as they went along.

Harry had been half expecting to be reinforced by the Order at some point, but the further they went along the forest's edge the more apparent it became that they had been scattered, and were either long gone or in The Burrow itself. He just hoped his improvised distraction had allowed them to get away cleanly. The party had devolved into such a mess at the first sign of attack that he didn't know where anyone ended up who wasn't actually with him.

A couple minutes of further progress and Harry heard a pained yelp from behind. Hermione nodded in grim satisfaction. "That will be the first of the traps. They'll be moving slower now if they know what's good for them," she said.

"Brilliant," Ron panted, grinning at her. "I hope he lost a foot!"

"Nothing that dramatic, but it wasn't pleasant."

Scott, who was ahead of the group, hopped over a fallen log and reached underneath it, flipping it out of the way. "I was wondering what you were doing." He slammed his hands into another fallen tree that sat at an angle across the deer path they were on and grunted in frustration when it wasn't immediately removed. "Fucking teen form."

They were now past The Burrow and moving parallel with the back garden. The sounds of pursuit were growing fainter, Harry noted with relief. Hermione's traps had done their job.

A few seconds later he nearly jumped out of his skin when an acute, reverberant noise sounded out across the area.

It came from the direction of the house. Harry spun to face it and saw that Ron's window was open. From inside the room came the faintest flicker of light and a rapid SNAP-SNAP-SNAP that was sharp and clear, blended with a fuzzier echoing report. The staccato percussion beat against Harry's eardrum. The Death Eaters began yelling again, this time in fright.

It didn't take too long for the Death Eaters to start returning fire; the night was illuminated in multicolour once again as spells flew from the trees towards The Burrow. Some of them were dissipated by the wards, but Harry could see others being countered, proving that Lila was not alone.

Ron winced when a luckily aimed spell flew through his open window and briefly lit his room with an orange glow, followed by a muffled thud that Harry felt in his chest.

"There goes the furniture," Ron grumbled.

Property damage was the least of their concerns. The Death Eaters appeared to be falling further behind, but Harry wasn't counting on that to last. The gunfire from The Burrow had stopped and he knew that Lila must have lost sight of her targets. That could have been because they had gone further into the woods, where the dip in elevation and thicker foliage would conceal them; or they were much closer behind Harry than they had seemed.

Either way, the clock was ticking. Harry knew they had to reach the river before the Death Eaters also emerged from the woods. There was no concealment between the end of the forest and the start of the town. He considered simply Apparating to Lila's flat. He'd been there before, and Ginny had as well.

"I think we're losing them!" Ginny remarked breathlessly. There were scratches on her face and hands, and her bridesmaid's dress was smudged and torn.

"Should we slow down a bit to save our energy?" Neville wondered.

"No! Keep moving," Harry said before anyone could start to relax. The entire point of their flight was to draw the bulk of the Death Eater force away from The Burrow, and that meant leading them to the town one way or the other. If they weren't distracted by the chase, they might get clever.

"If they think they aren't right behind us anymore, one of them is going to start using his brain and try to cut us off," Scott said, echoing Harry's thoughts. The clatter of gunfire started up again from the direction of the house, the sound bouncing off the trees. "Argh, not now, Lil! Let them run!"

"What is she doing? We're trying to get them away from house!" Harry said, frustrated.

"She doesn't know how incompetent they've been." Scott nimbly ran up along the trunk of another fallen tree, digging his phone out from somewhere in his dress robes. "Here, the slope is clearer to the right up ahead, go down that way."

Harry leaned backwards and slid down the hill where Scott had indicated, stopping at the bottom to catch Ginny. Hermione busied herself setting more magical traps along the incline whilst Scott dialled Lila. They didn't pause longer than half a minute before they resumed walking.

"It's me. Hold your fire, the OpFor is trailing. …Yeah, they're with us. We just hit the bottom of the hill back behind the house, how many Death Eaters are still up there? …Where? Yeah, just get back to me. …It's all in Hermione's bag, I'm set for now. We can link up if we have to. Okay. We're going to draw them to the end of the forest and then decide from there, just drop the wards when you can and get gone. Okay. You too, bye." Scott hung up.

"Are they all right?" Ginny asked anxiously.

"Yeah, she's got the whole crop of redheads, minus two, inside the house. Once we pull the assholes following us down to the edge they're going to drop the emergency wards and Disapparate," Scott explained.

Harry allowed his tension to ease a slight bit at that. "So they're still following us?"

Scott nodded. "Sounds like it. Lil is done shooting, so I imagine they'll rediscover their balls any second now."

"Let's go, then," Harry said, increasing his pace to the one they had set before.

As they went, Hermione drew closer to Harry. "Harry, I had a thought," she said quietly. "We don't know if they've already put up a jinx on the area to stop us from Disapparating. They can't on The Burrow, not with the wards up, but we aren't protected…"

"They might be too busy to have bothered," Harry said, but he wasn't really that optimistic. "Look, if that's the case we'll ask Scott to get rid of it."

Hermione appeared moderately reassured by that. "Try not to stand out in the open if there's another fight, Harry," she said with an odd mixture of resignation and fondness. "You're too recognisable a target."

Startled, Harry reached up and touched his face. The Polyjuice had worn off and he hadn't even noticed in the confusion. "I can't believe I didn't feel that."

"Adrenaline," Scott said, apparently having been listening in. "You can get shot and not know it."

The woods had been thinning steadily since they'd arrived at the lower ground. It wouldn't be much longer before they reached the scrub brush that marked the end of forest and the beginning of field. The lights of Ottery St. Catchpole glittered up ahead in the night, glinting off the rippling water that lay between them and their destination. There was only one bridge nearby, part of the road that wound past The Burrow.

The night was still, save for the occasional Muggle car passing through the otherwise empty streets. Harry strained his ears, but could hear nothing above the sussurating grass and the hushed rushing of water. He knew his group of friends needed to make some decisions. With the Death Eaters having fallen behind, they had a bit of time in which to think things over.

"We don't have a lot of time, so let's make this quick," he said hurriedly. "Nev, Luna – we've made it out, so you need to go. Scott, is there an Anti-Disapparation Jinx over us?"

Scott stilled for a moment, his eyes unfocussed. "There's some kind of area-effect spell behind us. I couldn't tell you what it is, but we're out from under it right now. I think… I think they're moving it as they go."

"They'll have to recast it periodically, that's probably what's keeping them," Hermione said.

"If they find us, they don't want us slipping away," Harry said darkly.

Neville looked indecisive, while Luna's expression was unreadable. "Are you sure?" Neville said uncertainly.

"Yes! You've done all you can and I appreciate it more than I can say, but you have to get out of here. We'll be leaving as well, it's not like you're just abandoning us," Harry insisted.

"It's fine, mate. Good on you for staying this long," Ron said to Neville.

Luna reached out and gripped Neville's hand. "Don't be long, Harry. We'll miss you."

Neville set his jaw. "We'll take care of things for you at Hogwarts, Harry."

"I know you will," Harry said, fighting back a horrible combination of pride, gratitude and desperate fear for his friends.

Neville and Luna vanished with the loud crack typical of Disapparation. Harry knew he would breathe a little easier with them out of harm's way. If only the rest of his friends were, too. Unfortunately, they were even harder to get rid of.

"Now what?" Ron asked. He was scanning the trees warily, his wand held tight.

Harry wasn't entirely certain. "I think going to Lila's flat is as good a plan as any, for now. Ginny and I know where it is, so that shouldn't be a problem."

Ginny nodded. "All right. I'll take Hermione, and you take Ron and Scott. We'll Apparate into the living room, all right?"

"I don't suppose you've ever done Side-Along before?" Hermione asked a bit nervously.

"No… Would you rather Harry try to take all of us at once?" Ginny said tartly.

Harry was very much opposed to that. "Uh, no. I'm not doing that."

"Guys, you need to do this, like, now. Whatever that area spell is, it's getting closer," Scott interrupted them.

"Right. Come on, let's try it." Harry held out his hands to Ron and Scott, trying to look more confident than he felt.

"Go ahead. I'll be right behind you, same as the cave," Scott said, ignoring the offered appendage.

Harry was fine with that. Taking only Ron with him would be substantially easier. "Okay. Ginny, on the count of three. One… two… three!"

Harry squeezed his eyes shut and imagined the flat where he and Ginny had spent quality time on a sofa covered with small pillows. The world condensed, pressed inwards until he felt as if he were riding the pressure front of a storm, a bullet spiralling out of a gun. The air roared, then twisted.

And he was gone.

Back to index


Chapter 7: The Balance Unseen

7

The Balance Unseen


"To all 363rd FFM officers who submitted post-operation
complaints regarding the standing orders for Operation
redacted: greatly deviated strategical and logistical

applications must be ratified, at minimum, by Highground
during active engagements or by the acting MOFC when
assets are in play as determined by the mission parameters.
While adaptation is expected and encouraged, the widespread
disregard for Second Fleet's established jurisdiction on
redacted is not acceptable without command-authorized

alternatives or situational necessity (which shall be determined,
ex post facto, by a designated Imperiarchy CRC with input from
observers and referred POR).

Second Fleet command has issued several statements regarding
this matter which are required reading for all commissioned
officers currently assigned to or pending assignment with the
Operation redacted attachments. It is the hope of the
current redacted regional command that any continued
issues with Second Fleet oversight can be resolved without further
overtures towards insubordination."

–Second Fleet Regional Command missive regarding recent difficulties with attached Fifth Fleet Marines


RE: New Orders:

Requested more than a single sheet of toilet paper.

–Praefectus Minor Phylla Galbarden, in reply to written orders from
Forward Command, Operation Lifted Trowel


Harry woke up on his side, squinting against the light shining into his eyes. When his vision cleared, he pushed himself up on one elbow and took in his surrounds. He was momentarily panicked by the unfamiliarity of them.

The walls of the room were blank white. There was a half-opened wardrobe opposite the bed on which he had awakened, with a few shirts hanging inside. The light which shone on him emanated from the open door next to it. There must have been a window somewhere beyond, as he couldn't see any lights that were on.

His heart rate slowed and the panic receded once he remembered what had happened. He was in the Kharan flat, still on Scott's bed where he had passed out the night before. A gentle snoring from somewhere behind him was proof of Ron's presence. Harry would have been fine with taking the sofa, but Scott had insisted it was his; only in retrospect did that seem suspicious. Perhaps the sofa was better than the bed.

Hermione and Ginny were in Lila's room. Everyone had been so knackered the previous night that they had automatically fallen into such 'appropriate' sleeping arrangements without questioning whether they were really necessary any longer.

Harry mentally retreated from that thought. He couldn't speak for Ron and Hermione, but he wasn't sure he was ready to share a bed with Ginny, temping as it seemed.

He rolled off the bed and tugged on his shoes. He noted with distaste they were his nice ones from the wedding; they had all fallen asleep in their tattered, filthy clothing. Getting more suitable clothes from Hermione's handbag would be a top priority (as was utilising Scott's shower). Harry walked out the doorway, deciding to let Ron sleep. There was no point in rousing everyone until he had some kind of plan.

The large sofa had been vacated when Harry emerged from Scott's room. The door to Lila's room was still closed. There were footsteps and the banging of cupboards from the direction of the kitchen, where Harry found Scott making a breakfast far too large for just himself.

"Is that for all of us?" Harry asked hopefully, eyeing the steaming bacon that Scott had piled on a plate near the stove.

"Good morning!" Scott said with pronounced cheer. "Yes, this is a group breakfast; you can thank me later and you can thank me right now, for double the thanks!"

"Thanks. Any particular reason you're so bright this morning?" Harry wondered, sinking into a nearby chair.

"I'm still riding high on our recent triumph. Also, I didn't sleep at all last night and I'm a mite wired."

Harry wasn't feeling especially triumphant. "What the hell are you on about?"

Scott deftly flipped the pancakes he was making with one hand, pointing the other at Harry. "Last night, you dumbhole! Everything went according to plan, it was perfect. We fought the enemy, lured them away from civilian targets, and then cleanly escaped."

That wasn't exactly how Harry remembered it. "Um, we just made everything up as we went along. Also, we were outnumbered, overpowered and terrified."

"And took no casualties. Harry, I know that you're new to this whole 'battle' thing, but take it from a guy with a lot of engagements under his belt – if you get away and nobody dies while you're 'outnumbered, overpowered and terrified', that's a success story. Never mind that we actually accomplished our objective. With a bunch of kids. In the dark."

"All we did was run…"

Scott scoffed dismissively. "We hindered and evaded. With a bunch of untrained kids. In the dark. If I was Riddle – and I'm way too good-looking for that – I'd be reassessing my element leaders at this point."

"Okay, then what would you have done if you'd been them?" Harry challenged.

"Well, first I'd have consulted Hermione as to what spells we could use. Then I'd have actually, you know, utilised my superior numbers to flank and surround you. Split up the left, right and middle, Disapparate further forward and double back. Bring up that area jinx so you can't get out, leave one side open to drive you towards that clearing. You know, that clearing by that hill? With the thing?"

"Hermione would have been with me," Harry said dryly. "I don't see the point of leaving us a way out."

"Never encircle an enemy completely. Nobody fights harder than a man who knows he's trapped. Also, a surrounded force has a tendency to punch a hole through one side, which can put you in a very nasty position. The trick is to make the enemy think they can get away. Then they go where you want them to."

"Never encircle the enemy completely," Harry repeated. He took the lesson seriously, memorising it as he always did whenever Scott imparted advice of a militaristic nature. Such things might someday be crucial. "No exceptions?"

"Well, that's technically more applicable to a large land battle, but when you've got guns and wands a circle is also going to cross your own lines of fire. If you're going to put your enemy's back up against something, the best approach is actually a sort of staggered 'V'. But, there are always exceptions. Understanding when they apply is a very valuable skill."

"Do I have time to learn it?" Harry asked, only partially joking.

"I don't know. You've got a decent amount of raw talent, so let's see how that pans out."

"Great. I'll be dead before I learn anything."

Scott studied him. "Hmmm… Your despair is most likely symptomatic of a lack of protein. Quick, eat these eggs! Hurry!"

Harry dutifully began eating the eggs Scott had slid across the table to him, though he did it with considerably less haste than suggested. "Seen any Death Eaters snooping about?"

"No, but I have a limited view from these windows." Scott crossed the room and peered out through the shades. "We could be anywhere, far as they know. You aren't at Privet Drive, you aren't at The Burrow and you aren't at Hogwarts. That pretty much covers all your known haunts."

"I don't get out much," Harry admitted.

"Hey, all those years of being a shut-in are finally paying off."

Harry took another bite of his eggs, suddenly ravenous. He hadn't eaten much at the wedding, and the Death Eaters hadn't paused in their pursuit so they could all have a snack. "Those pancakes done yet?"

Scott's cooking was unexpectedly good. Harry didn't know why that was so surprising, except that Scott didn't really seem the type. Of course, neither did Lila, and she had made some wicked biscuits and cake. Harry was just happy to know that there would be someone to provide edible meals, should circumstances require it.

Harry and Scott ate and cooked, respectively, in a companionable silence for about five minutes before Hermione appeared from Lila's room, yawning widely and sporting a head of hair even bushier than usual. Her wedding dress was badly wrinkled and dusty.

"Good morning," she said sleepily. "Oh! Are those for me?"

"How do you want your eggs?" Scott said by way of response.

"Scrambled, please. I don't like it when they're watery. Harry, you look awful."

"Thanks," he said through a mouthful of bacon.

"We all need to change… I'll get my handbag in a bit. Scott, are you going to use the clothes you already have here?"

"Yeah," Scott affirmed. He motioned at Harry. "Dude, once you're done get some clothes from Hermione and jump in the shower. We'll rotate everyone through the bathroom when they finish up eating."

"I'll go after Harry, then," Hermione said. She sat down at the table, eyeing the eggs Scott was making expectantly.

"Wait, I just had an even more efficient idea!" Scott proclaimed. "We'll double up to save time! Harry, you shower with Ginny. Hermione, you shower with Ron. Then, you can all jump back in with me for a second shower to get clean on account of the sex you had during the first shower."

"I think my eggs are ready," Hermione said tersely.

"Would you prefer to shower with me, first? Before you respond, keep in mind that you could hurt my feelings."

"Scott, it's a bit early for this," Hermione sighed. "Can I have my eggs, please?"

Scott looked a bit put out that Hermione hadn't risen to his bait. "Fine."

Harry thought that things would be a lot calmer amongst his friends if Hermione could just learn to disregard Scott's deliberate needling all the time. He still hadn't found out what had happened between them at The Burrow, but it was obvious they'd had a brief falling out. He hoped they'd settled things. The journey ahead would be hard enough without inner tensions.

Ginny wandered into the kitchen and flopped down into one of the other chairs. She looked tired, though a lot of that had to do with the ragged state of her dress and the smudges on her face. "Morning… I thought I smelled breakfast. Give it here, Scott."

He frowned at her. "What's the magic word?"

"Avada Kedavra."

"That's two words! I said word, singular!"

"Well, let me have some of that food and then I'll thank you if it isn't shite," Ginny said in a reasonable tone.

"All right, that seems fair."

Harry turned to Hermione, who was using her fork to arrange her eggs in a neat pile. "Can you get some of my spare clothes for me? I'm going to clean up."

She obligingly went into Lila's room and retrieved a change of clothing for Harry. He dropped the bundle on the sink in the loo and sorted through it whilst the shower warmed up. They were all bits of Muggle clothing, of which he had little that still fit him. He needed to buy more if they were going to be moving outside of the wizarding world.

When he stepped under the spray, the water at his feet ran dark with debris and the heat stung like acid on his scraped legs and fingers, but it was a good feeling. He had survived the attack and, much more importantly, so had his friends.

He put the palms of his hands against the wall and pressed his forehead to the slick tiles, letting the water course through his hair and down his back. He breathed, slowly, in and out. The steam was calming, almost medicinal. If he could keep his head, plan everything out, stay hidden… They might have a chance, however slim. He had more help now than he'd ever thought he would.

He snorted self-deprecatingly, opening his mouth to let the water run in and spitting it back out. More and more, it seemed like his thoughts of going it alone had been nothing but delusions. He couldn't even get Ginny to stay behind, never mind Ron and Hermione. It wasn't like he had lived to see what would have been his seventh Hogwarts year all by himself. Not even close. He'd have died in his first without his friends. Why had he thought he was strong enough to handle the war alone?

Maybe Scott was right. Maybe Harry was retarded or something. It would explain a lot.

"Harry?"

He nearly jumped out of his skin when a voice broke him from his contemplation. Outside the sliding shower doors was an outline mottled by the steam and frosted glass. The pitch of the voice and the bright red hair crowning the figure identified it as being Ginny, who had, for some reason, entered the loo. Harry couldn't remember if he'd locked the door or not.

"You're not trying to drown yourself, are you?" she asked with obvious amusement.

Harry didn't think she could see anything through the distorted glass, but he covered himself instinctively. "Um, kind of busy here, Ginny…"

"Hmmm… Anything I could help with?" she inquired in a laughing tone.

Oh, God. How did he respond to that? "Well…"

"I'd probably lend you a hand, if you asked nicely enough."

"Uh…"

She sighed impatiently. "We're flirting, Harry. Can't you at least try a little?"

"We don't usually flirt while I'm starkers," Harry said defensively.

"Would it help if I were starkers, too? Would that be more fair?" she asked with a grin in her voice.

There was only so much blood in Harry's body, and, seeing as his brain was being starved due to it being hoarded by one organ in particular, he was having difficulty thinking of an appropriate response. That might have been bollocks, medically speaking, but that was what it felt like. "No. I wouldn't be much interested in talking, then," he managed to force out.

Ginny giggled. "No, I suppose you wouldn't. You're having a hard enough time now and I'm only standing here!"

She had no idea how hard. "Right, just standing. Because it's perfectly normal to walk in on a bloke while he's in the shower and say things to drive him mad," Harry said even as he was fervently hoping that she'd do this sort of thing more often.

"Yeah? Should I keep you company more often, when you shower?" Ginny said throatily, and with a start, Harry realised she was much closer to the glass than she had been.

Harry couldn't deal with that. He wanted to have some sort of witty response, he wanted to keep the game going, but in the intimacy of the setting and without the armour of his clothes, he was helpless. "Ginny…" he groaned, not sure if he should tell her to leave, tell her to stay, or tell her to get in.

At that moment, fate decided to spare Harry from choosing. Regrettably, a far worse problem was created.

The door popped open again and Ron stuck his head in. "Mate, I don't fancy taking a cold shower, hurry – GINNY!"

Ginny stood unaffected. "What?"

"What the bloody hell are you doing in here?! GET OUT!" Ron shouted.

"YOU GET OUT!" Ginny yelled back. The sound bounced around the tight quarters with a volume that was painful.

With the door open, Harry could hear Hermione attempting to intervene whilst Scott was laughing uproariously somewhere in the background. He shut off the water and dried himself as quickly as possible. His clothes were still near the sink, and he didn't much care for the thought of exiting the shower with nothing but a towel for modesty.

"HEY!" he shouted, momentarily silencing the arguing pair. "Can you both get out so I can get dressed? I'm not putting on a show."

"That's a shame," Ginny immediately rejoined.

"What's the idea letting Ginny in here?" Ron demanded.

Harry had no intention of explaining the situation fully. "She sort of let herself in."

Ginny sounded unapologetic. "I didn't hear you complaining."

"Ginny! Merlin, do I even want to know… No, fucking hell, I really don't!" Ron exclaimed.

Then Scott shouldered his way in, causing Hermione to let out an undignified squawk as he pushed her aside. "Okay, loud fucks and fuckettes: reality check. I do have neighbours! So Hermione, good-bye, and Ron, get out of my bathroom. Harry, get dressed. Ginny – staying or going?"

"Staying," Ginny said smugly.

"Going!" Harry immediately countered. "Everyone is going, go!"

As soon as the door shut behind them, Harry darted out of the stall and locked it. He wasn't leaving any chances open for a repeat performance, even if the first half had been exciting, to say the least. Ginny might have been a welcome intrusion, but nobody else was. He dressed himself quickly and tried not to think about it. Of all the reasons to leave Ginny behind, the inherent, tempting distraction of her presence hadn't occurred to him. He had to focus.

And that meant putting together some sort of plan. He sat on the sofa whilst the others took their turns in the shower. The muted rush of the water, the murmuring of conversation and the hum of the cars in the street all faded, relegated into the same mixed swell of noise that settled somewhere at the back of Harry's head as he thought about the past and how it might inform the future. He didn't know enough to finish, but he thought he knew enough to start.

The sofa shook and Harry tilted to his right when Ron flopped down next to him. "You look lost," he commented.

"Aren't we all, now?" Harry said philosophically.

Ron looked at him askance. "Are you trying to be deep or something?"

Harry sighed. "Or something. Hey, remember that life-sized chess game you played first year?"

"I remember most of it. Up until I got bashed in the head; that part's a bit fuzzy, for some reason. I swear I've got a dent there now." Ron ran one hand over his temple. "Don't tell Hermione about that. She probably doesn't go for blokes with lumpy skulls."

"Yeah, it's true. Good skull symmetry is a must," Harry agreed. "But, what I want to know is, how did you do it? How do you… I don't know, look that far ahead?"

"I don't know exactly what's going to happen. The big thing is to look at the board and know all the possible moves you can make, and then you need to know your opponent, at least a little. So you can guess how he'll react. You can't plot everything out to the very end, just have a general plan of movement and be able to change it if you have to," Ron tried to explain. "The giant chess board wasn't all that smart, really. If I'd done a little better I wouldn't have got dented."

"You were brilliant," Harry assured him. "Hermione and I would have been right fucked without you there."

Ron shrugged modestly. "Maybe. Why'd you bring that up?"

"Because I'm trying to do the same thing now, and I don't know if I can," Harry admitted.

"I don't think I'll be much help, mate. I mean, I'll be with you, whatever happens, but… Chess has rules."

"I suppose. I just thought you've kicked my arse around a chess board so much that you'd probably be better at planning than me. You're unbeatable."

"Hermione is better than both of us combined, she'll see us through," Ron said confidently. "And as much as I'd like to just take the title, I'm not 'unbeatable'. I've lost plenty of times to Dad. Bill's beaten me too. You know, Scott's beaten me at least once!"

"Of course even he'd be better than me," Harry grumbled.

"You just lose track of things. You always do fine to start with," Ron said encouragingly. "Scott does the same thing, but he's weird about it. He only uses, like, a third of his pieces much at all, but he uses them really well. I usually just sacrifice a few of mine because I can't pin him down, then after awhile he's too outnumbered to do much. It's like he expects the rest of his pieces to take care of themselves."

Harry grinned at that. "Maybe he does. They can talk, after all. Does he get angry when they don't do anything on their own?"

"He used to. One night, I thought Hermione was going to put a Silencing Charm on him, he was swearing so much. He'd borrowed one of my sets and they weren't listening to him. Or, they didn't right up until he threw one of the pawns down the stairs." Ron made a chucking motion. "They listened pretty sodding well after that!"

"Where the bloody hell was I during all this?" Harry wondered as he laughed.

"Not witnessing a great moment in chess history, obviously."

"What are we laughing about?" Hermione asked. She had just left the bathroom and her hair was curly and damp as she settled onto the sofa next to Ron.

"I was telling Harry about that time I was playing chess with Scott and he worked himself into a strop," Ron said.

"Which time?"

"Quit talking about me!" Scott yelled from his bedroom.

"Fine, we have more important things to discuss," Hermione said.

"No, you don't! Keep talking about me, but only say nice things!"

"Impossible!" Hermione called back. "All right… We managed to escape, that's good. Now we need a starting point for our hunt. Harry, I have the locket in my handbag. When do you want to examine it?"

"I don't. Not until we have some sure way to destroy it," Harry said. "I think Scott might be able to help with that. Scott!"

"Yeah?" Scott walked out of his bedroom, wearing a shirt that was at least two sizes too big for him.

"Nice look," Ron commented. "The Death Eaters will never notice a blond midget following us around."

"You're like, not even that much taller, so can it, dude. What is it, Harry?"

Harry leaned forward. "We don't have any way to kill the Horcruxes. So I was wondering if you still had any of that Blue explosive?"

Scott grimaced in a discouraging way. "I've been thinking about that, too. I'm pretty much ninety-nine percent sure it would destroy the object itself. Blue converts matter to energy, so the only issue is density versus quantity. And minimum safe distance. That being said, I'm shaky on how the magic would factor in."

"How so?" Hermione asked. "Without an object to tether it, the fragment of the soul should… Oh. I think I see the problem."

"What?" Harry said impatiently.

"Once ignited, Blue only interacts with matter. If destroying a Horcrux physically is all that we need, then it should do the trick," Scott said. "No more locket, no more soul. But if there's something else going on, some kind of magical reaction that's necessary… Well, if I Blue bomb that thing there's no guarantee Riddle's soul sliver won't go floating back to him."

Harry shook his head. "But when I destroyed the diary, I just stabbed it."

"With a Basilisk fang," Hermione reminded him. "Basilisk venom is a very powerful magical poison. According to what I've read, the soul cannot exist without its vessel. But that information presupposes a method of destruction which is magical, as that's the only thing a strongly enchanted Horcrux would be susceptible to. You can't just smash one, even if it weren't well protected."

"Then hitting the locket with Blue ultimately wouldn't be much different than dropping a pound of PE4 on it. That might not suffice. It burns me to even think it, but Muggle tech may fail us in this case." Scott did not look happy to be saying that.

"Actually, if the Horcruxes were properly made then Muggle explosives would have no effect; they're supposed to be impervious to everything but the most powerful forms of magical destruction. That's what's worrying about the Blue, we can't know what the effect would be," Hermione explained.

"The shape tends to manifest in specific forms with specific rules," Scott mused. "Breaking those rules often isn't the shortcut you'd think. Blue doesn't play nice with local shape manifestations; I'd be hesitant to use it on a Horcrux. I don't know what you consider the 'soul' to be around here, but it's arguably an energy form. Blue cuts it loose, maybe sends it back to start…"

Hermione pursed her lips thoughtfully. "As I said, the soul is supposed to die with the vessel, but the magic of the vessel must be utterly destroyed. Although, one wonders how the tether works, then. When the owner dies, how does the fragment of the soul become semi-corporeal and sustain them if it can't leave the Horcrux?"

"I get the feeling the people who make these things don't really know what they're doing," Scott said.

"I've had the same thought," Hermione admitted. "It's magic that should have been left unexplored. So, considering your explosive is an unnatural compound introduced from an entirely different universe, we simply can't know what the result might be."

Scott nodded. "This probably isn't a good time to experiment."

"Does it matter if You-Know-Who gets bits of his soul back?" Ron wondered. "I mean, as long as they're all in him, he can be killed again, right?"

"We have to assume he'd notice," Hermione said regretfully. "Otherwise that might have been an ideal outcome."

"It was building the Horcruxes that made him fuck ugly in the first place. Sorry," Harry said quickly to Hermione when she glared at him in response to his profanity. "If he starts getting his soul back he'll probably change again. And he'd almost have to feel something…"

"He'd know what we were doing, and then there'd be nothing stopping him from collecting the other Horcruxes or making new ones." Hermione shook her head. "We can't allow that. The process is supposed to be draining, so I doubt he'd do it on a whim, but if he makes even one more that we don't know about…"

"Then he'll be your kids' problem after we ice him," Scott noted.

"I'd rather just end this now, if I can," Harry said firmly.

"I'm just saying, we got options."

"That is not an option! I'm not having you make an encore appearance in twenty years and lead my kids around through the same bloody nightmare!"

"Twenty years? What, are you going to have kids tomorrow? In twenty years, you should still be able to get off the couch and cast a spell or two."

"Not an option," Harry repeated.

"There's something else we need to consider," Hermione said. "Harry's connection to Voldemort has been a problem in the past, and if he–"

Scott held up a hand, interrupting her. "What did you just do?" he asked sharply.

"What?" Hermione's face revealed nothing but confusion. "I didn't do anything…"

"Yes, you did. There was a magic thread you sent out, just now."

"Scott, I didn't–"

"Yes, you did!" Scott insisted. "You created a linked spell, like, five seconds ago."

Hermione paled. "Linked to what?"

"Hell if I know. You were talking about Riddle and then, boom – connection. Very brief, I probably wouldn't have noticed it if I wasn't so tied to the shape right now."

Harry didn't know what Scott was talking about, but Hermione looked concerned enough to put him on edge.

"Can you tell me anything about the characteristics?" Hermione said intently.

"The technical details would be in terms you aren't familiar with. It was similar to the seeking spell Dumbledore put on me last year when you were looking for me. Not exactly the same. You weren't pinged, it came from you. Or if it didn't, then it was created so fast it seemed like it did. Something was… triggered? Does magic even work like that?"

Hermione nodded shortly. "Rarely. Since it's already over and done with, I'm going to test a theory. Tell me if anything happens, all right?"

"I'm ready."

"Voldemort," Hermione enunciated clearly.

Scott squinted towards the window. "That did it. Whatever 'it' is."

Hermione rapidly rose to her feet, her expression grim. "Everyone grab your things. I'll get Ginny out of the shower. Hurry!"

Ron gaped at her. "Hermione, what the bloody hell are you–"

"I don't have time to explain but we have to leave as soon as possible, I promise it's urgent! Go!" she yelled when they just looked at her dumbly.

Harry glanced over at Ron to see an identical expression of befuddlement. Scott, in contrast, had rushed back into his room the moment Hermione had said they were leaving. Either he understood the emergency, or he just trusted Hermione enough to believe there was one. Harry fell into the second category, and acted accordingly.

Most of their personal belongings remained in Hermione's handbag, so there wasn't much for Harry and Ron to gather. Instead, they busied themselves by keeping an eye on the door and peeking nervously out of the window. Harry didn't know exactly what they were watching for, but it was presumably Death Eater related. Just about everything was, more or less.

"Harry," Ron said quietly from where he stood by the door.

"Yeah?"

"Where are we going to go?"

That was a very good question, and Harry didn't have an answer. "I haven't the foggiest. We were supposed to figure that out here."

"Maybe Grimmauld Place?" Ron suggest hesitantly.

"Bollocks to that," Harry immediately replied.

"Look, I know you don't want to go back there, because of what happened to…"

Harry glared at him, resenting the inference. "It doesn't matter whether I want to or not! Snape can get in, remember? He has the keys, just like us!"

Ron grimaced. "I'd forgotten about that. I guess since Dumbledore snuffed it we're all Secret Keepers now."

"Yeah. Damn place is probably Death Eater headquarters by this point." Harry had never liked Grimmauld Place, and that had only become more true with the painful memories now linked to it. Still, he hated the idea of Voldemort's followers (particularly Snape) making themselves comfortable in Sirius' home.

"What is this place you're discussing?"

The unfamiliar voice made Harry spin around, wand at the ready. His shoulders slumped and he relaxed when he saw it was just Scott, fully grown once more. The Kharadjai really needed to give them some kind of warning.

"Grimmauld Place," Harry said. "Sirius' family house. I think I've mentioned it before. We've stayed there."

"Is that where we're going?"

"No. Snape can get in, too. The building is under a charm that makes it invisible to anyone who doesn't know about it already. Dumbledore had the key, essentially, but…"

"Now nobody does," Scott surmised.

"No, now we all do."

"Something to keep in mind. If it's occupied, we could jump in there and cause some damage.

"Or get damaged," Harry added. "Let's not go looking for trouble, we've got loads as it is."

"Don't discard an asset just because it's in enemy hands. A house like what you're describing is useful."

"Was useful," Harry said stubbornly.

"If it was made unassailable once, it can be made that way again," Scott argued.

"Will the two of you shut it? I'm trying to think," Ron interrupted them.

"Well, maybe we should all stick to our strengths," Harry said snidely, and then immediately regretted it. He was lashing out, and Ron didn't deserve it. He sighed. "Sorry, mate. What were you saying?"

"From what just happened, it looks like You-Know-Who put some sort of curse on his name, right? That's why we have to leave; Hermione said his name and now they can find us," Ron supposed.

Harry had been too busy fighting off memories of Sirius and arguing with Scott to really think about it. Now that Ron had laid it all out, his theory made frightening sense. "Damn," Harry breathed. "I didn't know that was even possible."

"On his assumed name. I've referred to Riddle multiple times without effect," Scott pointed out.

"Then we all need to do the same, from now on. We can't slip up on this again," Harry said seriously.

"They haven't smashed down the door, yet. So that's a plus," Ron said.

Scott pushed down the window blinds and peeked through. "That's a fair point, Ron. What's keeping them?" He let the shades snap shut with a decisive motion. "They won't recognise me. I'm going to go out the back and do a lap around the building. Help the girls get all our junk together and lock the door behind me."

Harry shook his head emphatically. "No, we should stick together!"

"Don't be an idiot on this one, Harry," Scott said in a maddeningly level tone. "They won't know it's me and even if they do, I'm expendable. If I get made, I'll start shooting. You'll hear that real quick."

Before Harry could protest any further, Scott unlocked the door and slipped out, closing it quietly behind him.

"He's gone completely mental," Harry seethed. He darted over the window, keeping watch.

"What do you mean, 'gone'?" Ron said, doing the same. "You act like this is out of character for the git."

Hermione came sweeping back into the living room with Ginny in tow and her handbag slung over her shoulder. "All right, I think I have everything, but there's not much time to check. Let's pick a destination, it doesn't matter where so much as it isn't here. I think – hang on, where's Scott?"

"Outside," Harry said.

"What?" she gasped

"Are we not leaving, then? Hermione hasn't told me what's bloody happening," Ginny said irritably.

Ron was still next to Harry, straining his eyes in an attempt to catch sight of Scott. "He thought he'd just pop out and look around."

Hermione was pale. However, she seemed to calm after a few tense seconds of consideration. "…I see. Well, they haven't come in yet so we'll have to assume they don't know where to find us, precisely. I'm sorry for not explaining right away, but they found us because–"

"You-Know-Who has cursed his name, right?" Ron said. "How many times have I told you not to say that bloody name?"

Hermione blinked. "How did you…?"

"I thought about it a bit. I'm not completely daft, Hermione," Ron said wryly.

Her cheeks coloured. "Of course you aren't. I didn't mean it like that."

"Most of us aren't completely daft, save one, who thought it would be brilliant to take a stroll out with the Death Eaters no doubt surrounding us as we speak," Harry muttered.

"Very positive, Harry, good job keeping our spirits up," Ginny mocked him.

Harry kept his mouth closed after that, but he continued to glare out the window, regardless.

Several minutes passed before there came a rattling from the lock, and the front door reopened. Scott walked through to be greeted by the business ends of everyone's wands.

"At least you're paying attention," he commented. He shut the door behind himself and relocked it. "I just did a walk around the building, pretending like I was in the middle of a phone call. It's a good cover, especially when the people who might otherwise notice you have no idea what an actual phone conversation looks like."

"So are there Death Eaters out there or not?" Harry demanded.

"At least two." Scott pointed a finger in the direction of Lila's room. "On that street, standing around. They're dressed like workmen and not too badly, actually. One of them has his wand just jammed through his tool belt, though, didn't even try to hide it. Sloppy."

Some of the tension went out of Harry's shoulders. "So they weren't actually trying to get in here."

"Oh, no, not at all. They're obviously lost."

Hermione had seated herself on the sofa, her face etched with intense thought. "That makes a great deal of sense, actually, as they've used this new sort of tracing spell in combination with Apparition, which requires very specific knowledge of a place. If they can only Apparate to the nearest known location – and since none of us have activated the spell again – then they don't have anything else to go on. It could have been anyone, or someone who has already left…"

"It's not very good, then, is it? They'll have to do a better job of finding us than that," Ginny said with a hint of scorn.

"I don't think it's intended for us… Or, not us alone," Hermione mused. "No one who follows Riddle dares to say his name, and the same goes for those who fear him. He's using this spell to find the opposition before they consolidate."

"It would've worked well enough if we'd been somewhere else," Ron said.

Harry nodded. "We got lucky. If Scott hadn't caught that, they wouldn't have found us this time and then we'd have said it again where they could catch us easy."

"Or I might have kept saying it…" Hermione said sheepishly. "You know what I'm like when I'm making a point."

Scott spread his hands. "Lesson learned. And almost painlessly, the best way."

"So we don't have to leave?" Ginny questioned.

"It's still less safe here," Harry told her. "I guess we don't have to run, but I don't want us to stay here longer than we have to."

"If we could find somewhere with more than one loo, that would be brilliant," Ginny said, clearly only partially joking.

"I haven't thought of anything," Harry admitted. "Hermione? Ron?"

"I have loads of relatives outside of The Burrow, but…" Ron hesitated.

"It would be too dangerous for them," Harry finished.

"Yeah."

Hermione shook her head. "My house is empty, but I can't be certain they don't know where it is. Scott, did you ever see any Death Eaters near my home?"

Scott nodded. "Twice. Even Riddle's goons can find an address."

"Then that's that," Hermione said, looking a bit shaken by the revelation.

"Well, we can't bloody well stay here," Harry bit out in frustration. They were talking in circles and no one seemed to have a viable solution, least of all him, the supposed leader. They had barely started their insane quest and already he felt hemmed in.

"All right… Let's consider this more closely," Hermione said slowly. "This discussion would be more focussed if we knew where we needed to be. We have to pick a Horcrux, and start there."

Harry crossed his arms, thinking hard. "We'll have to settle for collecting them until we have a way to destroy them."

"There's one over that way," Scott said, waving a vague hand in a northward direction.

Everyone in the room ceased all motion and stared at him.

"…What?" Harry said slowly.

"A Horcrux. Well, I think it's a Horcrux. But it's that way." Scott pointed north again.

"And how is it that you know this?" Hermione asked in a dangerous tone.

"It's pretty much the only clear thread I've gotten since this shebang kicked off. Do you have any idea how many tries it took me to change age?" When nobody said anything, he added, "At least five. And I didn't start counting right away."

That mollified Hermione enough to head off the rebuke that had been sure to follow if Scott had been withholding vital information again. "So this is a new development," she said more calmly.

"Yes."

Ginny appeared extremely sceptical. "So… You just somehow know there's a Horcrux out that way somewhere? Just like that?"

"No, not 'just like that'. And I can't be one-hundred percent on it being a Horcrux. I caught the line for a second: it's an important thing, and it's way north of here. That's the best I can do." Scott responded to Ginny with a slight acerbic undertone, but Harry was a bit relieved at the lack of outright antagonism.

"Your efforts are always appreciated, of course," Hermione cut in diplomatically, perhaps sensing that any conversation between Scott and Ginny should be interrupted. "However, there's not much we can do about that right now, not without knowing more."

"'North' is sort of a big place, and a bit cold and drafty, at that," Ron said.

"That's all I got," Scott said.

"Not like we have anything better," Harry muttered, feeling like they were still getting nowhere. "Scott. Let me ask you something."

"I'm just standing here."

"If you were in my shoes, what would you do? How do you find things?" Harry asked him.

Scott crossed his arms and leaned against the wall. "This is hard mostly because the trail is so cold. We're looking for things that nobody is supposed to know about, some of which were created decades ago in total secret. First rule of any UO-related search is to check the shape, see if there's anything helpful. I said there's something up north, and that's all we've got out of that. Then you do all the usual things, methodical background work. What is this thing you're after, are there others like it, who would want it, is it worth anything, are there any known previous owners… That kind of crap."

"Most of that isn't applicable," Hermione pointed out.

"Exactly. My initial instinct at this point would be to start shaking people down, see what turns up. There's a reason most detective work involves knocking on doors. Unfortunately, those are the kinds of questions that absolutely can't get back to Riddle."

"So you think we're effed, more or less," Harry summarised.

Scott frowned at him. "You have a couple key advantages, Harry. First and foremost, Riddle thinks you're just hiding from him. He doesn't know that you know. Secondly, Dumbledore did a lot of research and handed you a bunch of clues. As I understand it, they're mostly based on circumstantial evidence and his estimation of Riddle's personality, but it's better than nothing. I think we can count on Dumbledore's profiling to be largely accurate. He knew his enemy, and he asked his questions when Riddle wasn't around to hear about them."

"All the clues are just what the Horcruxes are probably made out of: the cup, the locket, the snake, something of Ravenclaw's," Harry said. "We need location."

"Get your ear to the ground," Scott advised. "We've been out of touch with the rest of the world for about twenty-four hours. With the Ministry gone, just about anything could be happening out there."

"That's a very good point," Hermione agreed. "Let's not decide to go somewhere only to find it's entirely unsafe now."

"We have to get out of here first, which…" Ron trailed off.

"…Brings us right back where we started," Harry said unhappily. "It's great that this conversation is so interesting, since we're going to be having it for the rest of our lives."

Ginny wrapped her arms around his waist and leaned into him, momentarily derailing his vexation with her presence. "You're cute when you're snarky," she told him, pressing a quick kiss to his chin.

"I… Thanks?" he stuttered.

"Eloquent," Scott said. "Look, guys – just leaving isn't the problem. I can get us a hotel or a flat pretty much anywhere. I thought the concern was being located somewhere more magical. I've already had the talk with Harry about disappearing. If that's all we need, we can pile into the car and Riddle's boys won't even know where to start."

"Neither will we," Harry said. Scott was correct that the two of them already had a similar discussion, and Harry had been equally unconvinced of the viability of hiding in the Muggle world then, as well.

Hermione stood and approached Harry, her hands clasped together in a nervous fashion. "Harry… I know you're not very open to the idea and I do understand, but Grimmauld Place–"

"Why does everyone keep bringing that up?" Harry said, pulling away from Ginny's grasp. "Am I the only one who remembers that Snape probably has the bloody house full of Death Eaters?"

"But we don't know that for certain! There are more protections there now than ever before: I overheard Moody talking to Professor Lupin about spells the Order left to keep Snape out."

"Like that's going to keep out Vol– guh–" Harry leaned forward, gasping in pain after Scott jabbed two fingers, hard, just below his sternum.

"Sorry, but they might get a better fix if you say that name again," Scott explained apologetically as Harry rubbed at his chest. "Consider it avoidance conditioning."

Harry nodded silently, trying not to cough. It hurt like hell, but it was better than the alternative. He needed to be more careful.

Ginny was less accepting. "You could have just said something!" she snapped at Scott, moving between him and Harry protectively.

"It's all right," Harry wheezed. "I wasn't thinking, he had to be quick about it."

"Funny, isn't it? You spent all that time trying to get everyone to stop saying You-Know-Who, now we don't have a choice," Ron mused.

"For future reference, Scott, it's acceptable to just put a hand over the mouth," Hermione chided. "We tend to bruise more easily than you do. Harry, I think we need to at least check Grimmauld Place. If you're right, then we'll avoid it from then on, but I would really like to know if it's usable."

"She's right, mate," Ron said with apology in his tone. He was obviously in tune with Harry's strong feelings about Sirius' old home.

Harry sighed, feeling outnumbered. Objectively, he knew they had a point. Grimmauld Place was just too useful to abandon without checking on it. Emotionally, he never wanted to set foot there again. But, the mission came first.

"Fine," he relented. "We'll see how it looks. But if there's a single Death Eater inside, we're never going back."


"How does this open?"

Hermione watched with trepidation as Harry reached forward and brought his wand close to the door. "Magically," he said. "Are you ready?"

"Okay." Scott raised his shotgun. "Give me three seconds before you follow. Keep your wands up and check corners. Staircase is forward, correct?"

"Straight down the hall," Harry confirmed. "The stairs down to the kitchen are there, too. First door on the right is the dining hall."

Scott shifted his stance, leaning forward slightly. His face went blank, only his eyes reflecting the intensity of his posture. "Open it."

Harry opened the door.

Scott leapt forward, pressing his shoulder to the side of the door frame, crouching as he did so. He swung his weapon in both directions, covering the angles of the doorway. Hermione released the breath she had been holding when his finger remained still on the trigger. The entry hall must have been clear.

He moved inside, and, after a short pause, the rest of the group followed him.

The entry hall was dark and dirty, much filthier than the last time Hermione had passed through it. The dust was settled thickly on the floor, almost unnaturally so. A gust blew through the open doorway and stirred it, raising a cloud to sift through the air. Or, at least, that's what Hermione assumed. When the dust did not settle, and instead began to move and create an unmistakably human shape, she realised something else was happening.

When the face formed, Hermione clapped her hands to her mouth and recoiled in horror. The dust wraith was the ghastly, wavering doppelgänger of Albus Dumbledore. Its arms outstretched menacingly as it approached them.

Scott levelled his shotgun at the apparition's head, unmoved. "If you're alive in some way, then stand down. I will kill you. Again."

The dust wraith exploded violently into a choking cloud, leaving all of them coughing and batting futilely at the thick air.

Scott appeared taken aback. "…I didn't expect that," he said after a moment. "Did it die?"

"It was a terror spell, not properly alive," Hermione told him. "It must have been looking for Snape."

"Ah. It was more subtle than the other spells, I didn't catch it. Sorry about that."

"What others?" Ron asked, shaking dust from his trousers.

"There was a spell that hit me when I stepped in, and something is pinging from those curtains." Scott pointed at the portrait of Mrs Black, still blessedly concealed.

"Keep stopping that one," Harry said quickly.

"We must be alone if those spells hadn't already gone off, right?" Ginny supposed. She started to cautiously approach the door to the dining hall.

"Most likely, but don't run off!" Hermione cautioned. "We need to check every room."

"Behind me. Spread out, don't hug the walls. Harry, watch the back," Scott said, raising his gun once again and moving forward down the darkened hall.

"Let's just split up, I think we can handle it," Harry said, visibly impatient with Scott's methodical approach. "I'll take Ginny and check downstairs, you go with up with Ron and Hermione."

Scott stopped his advance. "…No," he said. "You take everyone down, I'll go up alone."

"Take Hermione then," Harry countered.

"Fine." Scott gestured to Hermione. "Come on, let's go."

Hermione felt like she was some sort of prize at auction after Harry and Scott's impromptu compromise, but she was willing enough to follow the plan. Harry, Ron and Ginny would be capable of handling a great deal between the three of them. Scott was highly lethal, but that lethality was of a largely Muggle variety. Pairing him with Hermione neatly compensated for his lack of wizarding knowledge. Hermione approved of the team structure; it was the most efficient variant.

She voiced the thought to Scott as they ascended the staircase. "These are the best teams, I think, if we're required to separate again. Obviously, it's best that we're all together, but I'm sure that won't always be possible." She sent Scott a curious glance. "I must admit, I'm surprised you let three of your Primes go into danger without you."

"This way nobody can slip out and tell anyone we've entered. And I didn't think there would be an overwhelming Death Eater force all jammed into a kitchen." Scott poked the barrel of his shotgun into the cheek of one of the mounted house elf heads. He left it when that provoked no response. "Besides, there's no one here."

Hermione looked at him in surprise. "How do you know that?"

"The house is linked to everyone in it. Probably because of the charm you guys had to let me in on. From in here, I can see the threads that I couldn't from the outside, all the people that are part of the magic. There's nobody here but us." Scott opened the door to the drawing room and peered curiously inside.

Hermione was struck by a thought. "Can you see everyone attached to the Fidelius Charm, or just those that are present now?"

"I can see the threads for people who aren't currently here, but I have no way of knowing if that's all of them," Scott said logically.

"But can you identify those people?" she asked intently.

"A lot of them I don't know, or I'm not reading them right. There's 'distance' on some of them. There's not any actual spatial arrangement in the shape, of course, not in a conventional sense. See, travel and communication through the shape have the exact same latency regardless of the distance involved, so we know it's coterminous with the entirety of the physical universe, and–"

Hermione reluctantly broke in. "I really don't want to interrupt you and please promise me you'll finish your explanation later, but this is very important: can you find the thread to Snape?"

Scott leaned against the grimy wall and his eyes became unfocussed. "…Yeah. He's fairly clear. So is Mrs Weasley, for some reason." He blinked and shrugged at Hermione. "Coincidence. The shape can be like that, it doesn't imply a connection. The shape is… stirring. Complex. You find yourself, uh…"

Hermione placed a hand on his shoulder, trying to focus him before the shape took him off on another tangent. "If you can see Snape's thread, does that mean you can break it?"

"I'd need a little time to isolate it, but, yeah, probably. As long as you think it won't cascade and break the charm."

That brought Hermione up short. Scott was prepared to defer to her on the matter, and the truth was she hadn't the slightest idea if the cascade he proposed was possible. "Well…"

"Table it?"

"Table it? But we're already discussing – oh, you must mean to – yes, for now," Hermione agreed. "I may have to do some research." That would give her more time to consider the matter, anyway, as she highly doubted that she would be able to find any pertinent information in her books. Scott's manipulation of raw magical energy had no precedent that she'd ever encountered.

Scott had already moved on and was pushing open the door to the room that had been Hermione and Ginny's during their last stay. "This one looks inhabited," he said.

"It was mine. I suppose it is again, unless Ginny would prefer it. There are more rooms upstairs," Hermione said. She watched as Scott walked a bit further down the hall and swiftly stepped through the door to the loo, gun at the ready. "I thought you said there was no one here but us?"

"No one connected to the charm," Scott corrected. He exited the toilet and moved towards the staircase to the next landing, his eyes and weapon constantly seeking targets. "There could be other things – the dust man proved that. Besides, complacency is a good way to end up dead."

"We've made enough noise that anything up there already knows we're here," Hermione said, even as she lowered her voice.

"Let's find out," Scott suggested, not pausing in his ascent.

Hermione didn't much care for the idea of running into another terror construct. The sight of Dumbledore rising from the dust had given her quite a fright. Which was the point, of course, but she didn't have to like it. She wasn't entirely certain why the spell had ended itself; perhaps it had only been meant for Snape.

"Can you detect any more spells around here?" she asked as they went up. She made a note of his stance: he held himself in a state of taut readiness, walking in rapid, smooth steps as he swung his shotgun in different directions, his eyes never ceasing in their assessment of every shadow, every doorway. It was clear he still believed a threat was possible.

"Vaguely," Scott quietly replied. "There's a general ambient energy here, sort of like there was in Hogwarts. Probably a lot of spells tied to objects."

"Be careful about interrupting anything," Hermione warned. "Some tethered spells might be necessary for the wards."

Scott pressed the barrel of his gun against the nearest door. "What's this?"

"Harry and Ron's room. The next door over is the loo, and the third is just storage – mostly dust, at this point," Hermione said without concern, until she remembered what had happened with dust not long before.

Scott shoved the door open, revealing nothing but darkness. "Empty," he said after a moment.

Hermione relaxed; then, something else occurred to her. "What about the portrait?"

"Well, there's a painting hanging on the wall. If you want a critique, I'll have to look at it in something other than the infrared spectrum," Scott said with a hint of sarcasm.

That did make sense, but she wasn't going to give him the satisfaction of admitting it. Hermione waved her wand and illuminated the room. The portrait was empty, just as she had hoped. With another wave, she put out the lights and swiftly shut the door.

"That's the portrait of Phineas Black; there's another one in the Headmaster's office at Hogwarts. As I understand it, all of the former Headmasters are bound to assist the current one, but with the Ministry having fallen, and us not knowing who's in charge at Hogwarts now, I think we should be prudent."

"His loyalties are suspect?" Scott asked.

"He was a Slytherin and a pure-blood Black, first and foremost. I'll put an Imperturbable Charm on this door. The boys will have to stay in a different room."

"It's better that he not know anyone is here, especially with the sterling qualities you listed." Scott glanced at the stairs. "How many more floors?"

"Two, not counting the attic."

The next floor was where a great deal of the Weasley family had stayed during fifth year. There were multiple bedrooms to check, but all of them proved empty. Hermione was glad at the lack of opposition, and also suspicious. Why hadn't Snape led anyone to Grimmauld Place? It was an unlikely oversight. Hermione had initially assumed that Snape may have entered alone, and the traps left for him had been effective to the point that he was unable to relate his knowledge of the hidden structure to any of his cohorts. However, there had been no clues of any activity, not even at the entrance.

The top floor had only two bedrooms, formerly belonging to Sirius and his brother. Both were empty. With those cleared, the only thing left was the small, crooked stairway leading up to the attic. Hermione had never been in the attic before, and wasn't looking forward to it. It was certain to be filthy.

The musty smells emanating from the small door at the top of the narrow stairs were not pleasant. The door itself had once been painted white, though most of the paint had since stripped away. Scott reached down and tested the doorknob.

"Not locked, looks like," he said.

Hermione held her wand closer to Scott, illuminating the dark space as he tried the door in earnest. If any unseen dangers did lurk within (and had somehow managed to ignore the racket created by the two of them walking up the rickety steps), such foes would be alerted by the door. It dragged against the floor, having apparently sunk a bit since its earlier days. Hermione winced and covered her ears as Scott forced it open with a protracted series of kicks against its base.

The light of her wand revealed nothing but more dust and the lumpy, shrouded forms of furniture and boxes covered in sheets. That was more than enough to satisfy Hermione's curiosity, but Scott stepped inside for a closer inspection.

"No footprints," Scott noted, examining the thick layer of dust on the floor. "Nobody's been up here for… I'd say at least ten, fifteen years."

"Well, then I suppose we can go back," Hermione said with relief, trying not to touch anything.

"Hold up your light first, I want to check this." Scott was distracted from leaving by some sort of standing cabinet that had caught his attention.

Hermione didn't know what was so fascinating about a dusty old bit of décor, but she wasn't happy at having her exit forestalled. Her expression reflected this, but Scott was too busy trying to pry the cabinet open to see that. Since her glowering was wasted on his back, Hermione glanced around the attic with forced curiosity. There were probably any number of things she might find interesting beneath the drapes of heavy cloth, but, for the time being, she was much more concerned with how Ron, Harry and Ginny were faring downstairs.

"Junk, junk," Scott was muttering to himself as he pawed through the dust-ridden contents. "Textbooks, boxes. Not what I was expecting. What was I expecting? What the… Porn? Hmmm, these are pretty old. December seventy-seven of Playboy, and American, too, which is weird… Interview with John Denver, who cares… Short story by Bernard Malamud, that could be good…"

Hermione could feel her face burning scarlet. "Put that back!"

"I'm not done with it. There's a do-it-yourself folding paper spaceship, which… is gone. I guess someone already used it. Damn. Still, those are some nice tits. Not a total loss."

"Accio magazine!" Hermione hissed, ripping the periodical from Scott's grasp. She caught it and dropped it onto a nearby table, making sure it was face down. "And here I thought you were above such things!"

Scott gave her a look that indicated a poor opinion of her sanity. "What would make you think that?"

"You're an adult, now! Act your age!"

"You first, Miss 'I'm-Seventeen-Years-Old-But-Still-Blush-At-The-First-Hint-Of-Sexuality'," Scott smoothly riposted.

He had a point, damn him, but that wasn't going to stop her. "We aren't talking about me, we're talking about your immaturity–"

Scott was already back to rummaging through the cabinet and ignoring her. "Look at this, it's a whole shoebox full of darts. Who would keep these?"

Hermione had a few suspicions that had been solidified by Scott's pornographic discovery. "These are most likely some of Sirius' things."

"That would seem to fit, based on what little I know of him." Scott reached into the very back, his face lighting up. "Hello…"

"What is it?"

"Oh. Oh my." Scott was reverently unwrapping something that had been bundled in several blankets. "Purdey. I'm guessing nineteen-fifties. Twelve gauge bore, over under shotgun – look at that engraving. That's nice."

Hermione took a half step backwards. "It's not loaded, I assume…"

"It doesn't feel loaded…" Scott said, bouncing the weapon in his hands. When Hermione leaned away, he snapped it open and glanced into the chambers. "Nope, not loaded. And also not very clean. I'll have to teach Harry how to take care of that."

"You aren't going to give that to him, are you?" Hermione said in alarm. Harry had no experience with firearms.

"Well, yes. It is his, isn't it?"

That gave her pause. Technically the gun was, in fact, Harry's. And it had once belonged to his godfather, which made the prospect of not telling him highly uncomfortable. Harry had spent the last six years of his life in the study of magic, and Hermione wasn't convinced that giving him a Muggle weapon was a good (or safe) idea, but… The weapon wasn't hers to withhold.

The parallels between that line of thought and the Ministry's recent actions were not lost on her. Really, the problem wasn't that she thought Scott didn't know what he was doing with firearms. She just had less faith in his ability to impart that knowledge. Regardless, Harry had a right to know.

"Just, please be careful with it," Hermione cautioned.

"Obviously." Scott looked around the attic; nothing else seemed to grab his interest. "Might want to poke around up here later. Come on, let's see if they found anything."

Scott took the stairs down two at a time, leaving Hermione breathing hard in her attempts to keep up. She hoped Harry and Ron weren't particularly attached to their old room. Well, just Ron. She doubted that Harry was particularly attached to anything about Grimmauld Place.

When they reached the ground floor, Hermione could see that the lights were on downstairs. She followed Scott, not bothering to rush in order to match his pace. The house was clear, and she didn't feel as apprehensive about being left alone close to the light as she did in the dark upper reaches.

Harry, Ron and Ginny were gathered around the large table in the kitchen. Harry held a letter in his hand, and his expression was troubled. Hermione felt a flash of fear – had something happened to the Weasleys? A quick glance at Ron relaxed her somewhat, as he didn't appear to be panicked. Still, his and Ginny's countenances were grim enough to set Hermione on edge.

Scott spread his arms in question when no one said anything right away. "What? Did you find something?"

"There wasn't anyone here, obviously," Ron said. "But, an owl came in, and… Well, here."

Ron took the scrap of paper from Harry and handed it to Scott. As Scott read, his expression turned dark. Wordlessly, he gave the paper to Hermione once he was finished.

The letter had been written in cramped, curly handwriting that rigidly adhered to straight lines across the faint blue of the paper. Only the occasionally shaky forms of the capitals and the blotted spots of what must have been tears indicated the anguished state of the writer.

It was from Kylie.


Mr Harry Potter,

I am sorry to write you. I tried to write Scott but my owl could not find him. If you could give this letter to him I would be very grateful. Death Eaters came to my house and took my parents away. I do not know what to do and I need help please. I wrote my address on the back of this letter, if Scott can help.

Please help,

Kylie Elizabeth Timous


Hermione lowered the letter, her face pale. Her heart went out to the young girl, who, with no one else to turn to, had sent a cry for help to one of the only friends she had. The war against Voldemort would have casualties, Hermione knew that and had always known that. But Kylie's desperate plea had hammered home the terror, the plight, of the wizarding nation in a way that was immediate and personal.

Scott's expression had lapsed from its initial coldness into something more unreadable. He set Sirius' gun, once again wrapped in blankets, down on the table. "I'll take care of this. Get the Horcrux research going, I'm sure Hermione has a few ideas."

Harry laughed, though there was no humour in it. "Yeah, right. Come on, let's find a way to get to Kylie's."

"Floo is out. That's going to make things tricky," Ron said.

Hermione flipped the letter over and looked at the address. "This is out in the country," she said, examining it closely. "Holbeach in Lincolnshire."

"Let's just take our brooms, there's a reason we packed them," Ginny said, leaning back from the table. She looked eager at the prospect of taking action.

Hermione didn't quite share the same avidity, but she wasn't willing to leave Kylie in such a terrible situation. "That may be an option. We'll have to consult a map, first."

Scott crossed his arms. "If you're all done discussing the trip that you won't be taking…" he said loudly. "…Then we can move on. You're Primes. You got more important things to do right now. I said I'll take care of it."

"You're integrated with us – or did you forget?" Harry wondered sarcastically. "Going to run off and leave all your Primes to their own devices? To save a non-Prime's family? You're a true professional."

That seemed to get under Scott's skin in a way Hermione hadn't often seen. "Yeah, sure, Harry. Maybe I should ignore a direct quest for help from a terrified girl and sit around with my Primes, who, being of age and all, should probably be able to hide in an invisible house without me to hold their fucking hands!"

"Or maybe we'd rather not hide when someone needs our help!" Harry shot back, and although he'd said 'we', it was clear that he blamed himself for the situation. "Why don't you stay here and think about Horcruxes?"

Hermione looked beseechingly to Ron and Ginny, hoping for some assistance in ending Scott and Harry's escalating argument before it grew completely out of hand. But the Weasleys had already distanced themselves from the two verbal combatants, and it was obvious that Hermione would have to intercede.

"Stop it, both of you!" she commanded in as piercing a tone as she could muster. "This isn't helping in the slightest! Harry, you know that Scott only wants to help Kylie; he's her friend! And Scott, even though Harry and the rest of us weren't as close to her as you, we still want to help! We know it's dangerous, and we accept that. And as you yourself pointed out earlier, we need to get out there." She tried to think of a way to appeal to Scott's military sensibilities. "This is… This is our first mission. It's a test of us, of our effectiveness. How can we improve as a, um, fighting unit, if we don't fight?"

Scott narrowed his eyes at her. "When did you get to be so manipulative?"

"I had a brilliant example," she shot back. "So are we going, or not?"

Scott sighed, rubbing at his face as his shoulders slouched. "…I guess we've all been expecting something like this," he said after a moment. "Harry, let's look at the map. Ron, Ginny, help Hermione unload our stuff from her handbag. Looks like we're going to need it."

"We'll leave most of it in here, for now," Hermione said to Ron as he moved to assist her. "Careful with that black rucksack, it's Scott's and it may be explosive. Scott, here's the Muggle map."

Scott took the map from her and unfolded it on the table. He and Harry leaned over it, tracing the North-East coastline. "Here's Holbeach," Scott said. "Little over a hundred miles. That doable by broom?"

"Yeah. I'd say two and a half hours, at most," Harry confirmed.

"Okay. Now, the first thing you want to look at when preparing a ground operation are major roadways. Their patterns define points of population and provide clear landmarks."

Hermione busily sorted through her handbag, trying to remain occupied and not let her growing nervousness overwhelm her. It was one thing to talk about mounting a rescue mission, and something else entirely to do it. A similar outing in the fifth year had not gone well. At least this time, Harry wasn't acting on falsified visions and impulse.

Which didn't necessarily raise the chances of success, all things considered.

Back to index


Chapter 8: Dear Kylie

8

Dear Kylie


"Of course, the [question] I get asked the most relates to that
one designation on the bottom of the [Field Performance Report]
brevium: neutral, influenced. The key word there is 'influenced',
and during the initial stages of
[Observation and Reporting]
it tends to come up a lot. What is 'influenced'? How do
you define that on the ground? Even field agents still have
questions about it, even Primarius. How and where do we draw
that line?

The simplest definition of 'influenced' falls along the lines of the
obvious, we're talking about mind control now, total loss of freewill.
It's once we move into the less apparent that things start to become
murky. What about blackmail? What about conscription? Now
we're going to have difficulty. That kind of decision becomes too
detailed, too situational. Those people are inevitably going to be
lumped under 'hostile'. If they're shooting at you, it's kind of hard
to think of them as being anything else, right? Many of you have
been in that position.

But the most insidious definition, the one that raises the most
uncomfortable questions is, I think, the victims of misdirection.
The victims of lies. Not everyone who hinders is aware that
they're doing it. People can be taken advantage of in truly
awful ways, and that's just the worst situation to find yourself
in."

–Major Ezekiel Philipps, Praesaedius Training Corps
Keynote speech at ICDC¹ DCCCXCVI

1. Imperiarchy Communis Disciplina Congressus


Kylie's parents had been taken from her. The thing was, if she hadn't received the note informing her of that fact, she probably wouldn't have known.

The manor was large, silent and empty, but it was always large, silent and empty. The pristine halls were as quiet and cold as a tomb, the neatly buffed floors and elegant archways lacking any sound save for the hushed flutter of the lamps. Kylie had spent her whole life avoiding those halls with their stone-tiled floors. She traversed the carpet where she could, and tiptoed where she couldn't. Sound could only bring attention to what an ungainly beast she was, as Mother said.

She knew that her parents were not at home and apparently were not coming back, but some habits couldn't be broken. She could no more speak out loud or run freely than she could when Mother and Father were there to note her every misstep and enumerate her failings. So she hid in her room and glanced furtively out the rain-slicked window, trying to ignore her frantic heartbeat and hold on to the faintest hope that help might come.

The note had been pinned to her door when she had opened it in the morning, ready to sneak across the hall to the loo as she did every day. She purposefully woke up early, since her father would descend the nearby staircase on his way to breakfast, and she couldn't look unkempt if he were to spot her. But, that day, instead of a scolding for tousled hair she had received a letter explaining that He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named had taken her parents, and that she need not look for them (as if she would know where to begin).

She was positive there were still Death Eaters about the garden. She had seen shapes moving near the front walk at night. She'd wanted to take a closer look, but had ended up cowering beneath her sheets instead, trying to summon up the bitter disappointment in herself she should have been feeling. What kind of Gryffindor was she?

The afraid kind, obviously. She had stuffed her house scarf in the bottom of her school bag, terrified that her parents would find it. She didn't have to lie about which house she had been Sorted into, she just had to hide – no one talked to her if they could help it. If she kept quiet (which she always did), then her parents would assume… Well, they would never assume the best, but they might not assume the worst.

A proper Timous belonged in Slytherin; her ancestry proved that well enough. And though the Timous family had been marginalised and ignored for the better part of a century, they were still from the same, pure-blooded stock. Kylie was supposed to have been making connections in Slytherin, reminding them that the House of Timous may have been forgotten, but was not gone. Instead, she made friends (real friends!) in Gryffindor.

If her parents found out, Kylie wasn't sure what would happen. She was already unworthy; she barely existed in the margins. She had a feeling that she couldn't be a Timous and be a Gryffindor. She knew which one she'd choose if she had to.

She dropped the quill she'd been using at her desk and drew her knees up, hugging them to her chest. She breathed hard, fighting down the panic that squeezed tight at the edges of her lungs. Such thoughts were dangerous and difficult. It had been hard enough just to write to Harry Potter and ask for help.

She knew he probably wouldn't come. And, even if he did, what could he do? Everyone was running from the Dark Lord, terrified and overpowered. She had been taught to take comfort in that, to know that she was on the winning team. But she didn't feel like she was. And if the Dark Lord was on her side, why had he taken her parents?

It was what she understood the least. Mother and Father had been ignored by the pure-blood elite just as she was, in turn, ignored by them. Nobody remembered the Timous family, nobody asked for their presence. Their fortune was modest by the standards of the upper class; they were not disgraced, but they were not important. Perhaps they were of some other use? Perhaps… a sacrifice?

Kylie shuddered again, planting her forehead against her knee. If He had needed a sacrifice, why not take her?

Was she so unworthy that she was useless even in death?

Not that she wanted to be killed. Going to Hogwarts had been the greatest change her life had ever seen, an entire new world opened to her; and then the Headmaster had been murdered as her new home was attacked by the people she was supposed to consider allies. Even if she could go back, it wouldn't be the same. Maybe it didn't matter. Everyone had probably forgotten about her, by now.

She picked up the quill again, trying to summon the willpower to finish her letter to Trevor. Even if he didn't reply, at least she had tried. That would be a personal victory. Harry Potter and Scott had never responded, though, and it hurt. She shouldn't let it. She should be used to being ignored, and, with no real experience at making friends, how could she expect to be any good at it? Their kindness had probably been nothing but pity.

Even so, it was still the best thing in her life. She would always have those moments.

The parchment stared up at her, half blank and waiting for the words. She pressed the quill to it and tried to be honest. It didn't come easily. She had been taught to keep herself tightly bound.

In the last year, those knots had started to fray.


The night was wet and dark. Raindrops fell from the sodden skies and ran down the tree trunks, hanging off the leaves and dripping onto rocks and mud. Harry shifted in the wet grass, trying to ignore the way it was soaking his trousers. Their impromptu mission was the first real strike of the war that he had found himself at the centre of. He needed to focus on the task at hand, not how bloody uncomfortable he was.

Besides, it seemed like the sort of thing he should become accustomed to. The enemy wouldn't wait on the weather. The rest of his piecemeal rescue party were all wearing similar expressions of discomfort, save for Scott; he was prone on his stomach, disregarding the mud puddle he was lying in.

No time like the present, Harry thought. Bracing himself, he shuffled forward on his knees, and then fell next to Scott. He instantly regretted his decision to emulate the Kharadjai and set an example for the rest – the shock of the wet and the cold on his stomach was unpleasant, to say the least. He tried not to think about what was soaking through his shirt, and motioned for Scott to pass him the binoculars.

Scott obliged, handing them over. "Turn the wheel on the top to focus," he said softly. Harry had to strain to hear him over the downpour. "Look to the right of the house, past the fountain in the middle of the yard."

Harry did so, looking to the right and peering through the lenses. "Damn," he swore the second he focussed on the spot Scott had indicated. "That's not all of them, is it?"

"No. There's two more behind the split-trunk tree on the left side yard. You see the lit window on the second floor? To the right?"

"Yeah," Harry confirmed. The window in question was just barely lit, but when magnified it was noticeably brighter than the others.

"I think Kylie is in there, I saw her hair for a second."

"I know it seems paranoid–" Harry began.

"Very little at this stage seems paranoid," Scott said.

"…But I think this is a trap."

"Had to be this bloody obvious before you decided that?" Ron said derisively.

"Someone had to say it," Harry muttered. He stared hard at the looming structure ahead, willing a solution to occur to him.

"I think we all have some doubts about this," Hermione said, her nervousness displayed by the rapid tapping of her wand into her palm.

Harry turned to Scott. "Do you think her parents are here somewhere? I know she said they were taken, but it looks like they've got her hostage, too."

"Possibly. Kylie could only tell us what she knew."

"If it was actually her who wrote that letter," Ginny suggested.

"I think it was, actually. Her handwriting was familiar," Hermione said. "I helped her revise on several occasions."

"Like I said, she could only tell us what she'd been told," Scott reiterated.

Hermione's eyes widened. "Do you think… that her parents went willingly?"

Scott pointed at the house. "You tell me. Does this look like a ransom attempt? Or does this look like bait for a third party?"

After a few seconds, the shock in Hermione's face faded, replaced by a grim sadness. "It does make sense, yes. A house like this would suggest…"

"That Kylie takes tea with the Malfoys," Ron said with disgust.

"Is this the same Kylie I know?" Ginny said with disbelief. "Barely says a word? Was Sorted into Gryffindor?"

"It's not likely that she personally has Death Eater sympathies," Hermione agreed. "No, I think it's rather that she… Well, I do hate to say it, but she is the 'bait' tonight."

"I'm prepared to check this under the assumption that not only is this a trap, but it was planned and implemented by Kylie's parents," Scott stated.

"And I thought I was being paranoid," Harry said, grimacing.

"You think they would use Kylie like that?" Ginny sounded sickened by the thought.

Scott nodded, his face remaining the blank slate it had been for the entire conversation. "Yes."

Harry rolled over onto his side, shivering a bit at the sensation of cold water streaking across the top of his head. It was a bad job all around, no doubt about it. It wasn't the first trap he'd ever walked in to, but that hardly recommended it. "They'll wait for us to go down the garden path, and then…"

"There have to be more," Ginny guessed.

"If there are any, they'll be behind the house," Scott told her. "Once we commit, they'll swing out from the sides. They'll have the high ground and we'll be stuck in the middle with limited cover."

"Waiting isn't getting us anywhere," Ron said gruffly. "C'mon, I'll go first."

Hermione gripped his arm and pulled him back down into the brush. "You will not! Scott will go first!" As soon as the words left her mouth, she blushed in chagrin. "That is, if he… If his plan…"

"Involves taking one for the team?" Scott said dryly. "Not this time. Tell me something: does this look like the kind of force you would leave for the almighty Chosen One?"

Harry really, really hated that appellation, but Scott did have a point. "If Riddle knew I was going to be here, he'd have everything he's got."

"Which means they don't really know if you're going to show or not, so they have a few low-level robed turds standing around to pass it along if you do."

"I'd love to get my hands on the Slytherin that told them about Kylie and us," Ron growled.

"Later. The point is, these guys aren't so much a trap as they are an alarm."

Harry considered that. From his vantage point there didn't appear to be many options. The Timous estate was situated right in the middle of farm country, surrounded on all sides by flat fields. The wards that kept Muggles out also thwarted the progress of rural planning; the manor was an island of trees, no doubt looking exactly the same as it had for centuries, if not longer. He wondered how many farmers had harvested their crops not twenty feet from the property, never having a clue they shared a border with wizards.

The result of all that empty space was a definite lack of alternative routes. While the manor gardens were ringed with trees, the areas around the house proper were barren save for a few low stone walls and the large decorative fountain. There was no way to cross to the door without being seen.

Stealth offered the best possible outcome. Especially as the only other thing Harry could think of was speed. If Scott opened fire, and everyone rushed the front, it was possible that they might rescue Kylie and get back beyond the edge of the wards before more opposition arrived. They would have to be very quick, though. The window of opportunity would be slim; perhaps too slim for that to work.

Harry looked at Ron. "I don't fancy our odds in a fight. How about we go in under the Cloak?"

"We aren't all going to fit under there," Ginny pointed out.

Harry winced. "Er… I was just talking to Ron, actually…"

Ginny fixed him with a hard look. "Oh, is that right?"

"I suggest you rethink that plan, unless you have some way to get past the wards," Hermione said in a frosty tone.

"The front walk should be fine, it's the door that could be a problem," Harry said, trying not to sound defensive. He needed to sell everyone who wasn't Ron on the merits of his plan. "We'll slip under the Cloak and get in and out before anyone notices."

"And what if you're seen?" Hermione questioned. "Never mind how you intend to get past the door…"

"We'll get Kylie to open it for us," Harry asserted.

"How? Are you going to give her a ring?" Hermione said sarcastically.

Harry had to smile at that. His methods were Muggle, but not that advanced. "Close. All we need are a few rocks."

Hermione didn't immediately respond. Her expression remained stiff, which, when combined with her silence, indicated that she knew the plan was workable, but was opposed to it by default.

Ginny had not arrived at the same conclusion. "What a crock of shit! I am not staying here while you march through the Death Eaters and hope for the best!"

"There is an issue," Scott spoke up. He had been distant from the conversation, still staring through the binoculars.

"More than one," Ginny agreed, which was probably some sort of landmark event.

"Ron is too tall to get under that Cloak. You are, too, Harry, but it would just be the bottom of your shoes if you stand up straight. Remember trying to stay quiet with both of us tripping over each other under that thing?" Scott reminded.

Harry did remember, now that it had been mentioned. It had been a right pain in the arse to spy on Malfoy whilst trying to keep their feet from showing. And that had been in the previous year; Harry didn't think he'd grown all that much, but Ron had always been taller.

"Then I'll go," Hermione volunteered.

"Why don't I just go alone?" Harry wondered out loud. He was getting very tired of debating everything with his uncooperative friends. His plans weren't that bad.

Scott gave his unsolicited opinion. "Try not to do that, a two-person team is more effective. And I want Hermione here. I might need her magic brain."

"Then it's up to me," Ginny said smugly.

Harry didn't want her anywhere near the line of fire to begin with, never mind the effing front door. If only he could think of some way to express that without getting slapped. "Um, Gin…"

Even that garnered him an immediate glare. "Don't, Harry. I'm going with you."

Hermione nodded reluctantly. "That's our best course, I think. If anything goes wrong, just run back to us and we'll cover you."

Harry glanced back the way they had come, mentally marking the spot where the trees ended. Scott had been able to get them past the edge of the property, but, according to him, the wards over the entirety of the grounds were old and very powerful. They would have to get back into the fields before they could Disapparate.

It was not a welcome prospect. Harry tried one last time to find another alternative. "Scott, do you think we could pick off the side guards without the rest noticing?"

"Can you cast a spell without yelling it?"

A fair rebuttal. Harry could cast some spells non-verbally, but certainly not his full arsenal. "…Maybe."

"Not good enough. If Riddle shows up, there's no desirable outcomes."

Which could result from more than just the sound of spells being cast. Studying the manor once more, Harry remembered that there could be an indeterminate number of Death Eaters on the other side of it. They might be able to see the forward sentries – or perhaps all of the Death Eaters were in regular contact. Either way, removing even one of them could be disastrous.

"Nothing for it," Harry sighed. "We can't risk an alert until we have Kylie. We have to use the Cloak."

"Agreed," Scott said.

"Yes," Hermione also concurred.

"Then this is how we'll do it," Harry said, his mind working rapidly. "Ginny and I will get down to the door as quick as we can. Hermione, can you hand me some of that gravel by your foot? It's about the right size for this. We just have to get Kylie to look out the window long enough for me to wave to her. I think she'll recognise me."

"She'll know me, I saw her in the dormitory all the time," Ginny added.

"Right. As soon as she gets the front door open, we get her under the Cloak and leave. I don't really care if we have to run or whatever at that point, we just have to be gone. Ron, you and Hermione will – hey!" Harry broke off as Hermione rapped him on the top of the head with her wand. "What are you…" He trailed off as the familiar sensation of the Disillusionment Charm trickled over him.

"It's not as perfect as the Cloak, of course, but it should help if you have to run…" Hermione explained as she did the same to Ginny.

"Now that's damn useful," Scott commented with a look of far greater interest than he usually wore when magic was happening.

Harry glanced down at himself. In the darkness of the woods, he could barely distinguish his own form. The rain dripping through the trees provided the clearest indications of his outline. "I'm sure you can see me just fine," he said to Scott.

"We're not up against other Kharadjai. And considering how infallible your Cloak has been, I'm going to guess there isn't any spell to view the infrared spectrum."

"I've never come across such a spell," Hermione confirmed.

"Good. Although, if the Death Eaters have any cloaks of their own, maybe it's something you could look into?" Harry suggested as he pulled his own Cloak out of Hermione's handbag.

Hermione was clearly intrigued by the challenge. "I suppose I might, at that…"

"Come on," Harry said, motioning to Ginny. "Let's do this."

She slid under the Cloak with him, her body heat soaking through his damp clothes. "This is really strange… I'm not sure where I am," she said, shifting a bit awkwardly.

"We'll go slow at first, until we get used to it." Harry turned to the others. "Is everyone ready?"

"One last thing," Scott said. "Are you sure you want to do this?"

Harry stared at him. "What?"

"This rescue. It's a big risk. You sure about it?"

"As opposed to what?" Harry asked, becoming angry. "Leaving Kylie all by herself, surrounded by Death Eaters that would probably kill her for being a blood-traitor Gryffindor? What kind of question is that?"

"Well, considering her parents set all this up, she might actually be safer here. I mean, we're rescuing her from a trap set for us."

Harry could scarcely believe what he was hearing. "Right, sure, so let's just ignore her, let the Death Eaters do whatever they want with her, and let her think we didn't even care enough to check if she was all right! I can't believe this shite, what are you thinking?! This was your idea in the first place, and now you're–" Harry's mouth snapped shut as he realised exactly what was happening. "Oh, you… You fucking sod. Of all the times to – stop testing me!"

"Really, Scott? You decided to take the piss now?" Ron said.

Ginny made a sound that was equally disbelieving, but Hermione seemed more curious than anything. "Is this sort of scenario part of Kharadjai training?" she wondered.

Harry blew out a furious breath, not particularly caring if that were the case. "So what was this all about, then? Just poking me to see what I'd do?"

"Offering an alternative – logistically desirable, morally bankrupt. The kind of choice that sometimes has to be made… but not this time," Scott said, unperturbed by Harry's hostility.

"We'll talk about this later," Harry said balefully.

"Yeah." Scott had retrieved his rifle and was looking through the scope. "If you hear me fire, fall back immediately. Ron, I have a job for you and your Keeper skills. Grab those grenades."

"Um…" Ron looked at them apprehensively.

"They're smoke grenades, relax. If we go loud, I want you to toss three of them, left, right and centre. Get them as far out as you can. Harry, if you have to retreat, just make the smoke and you'll be all right. Between that and the Cloak, they won't see shit."

"Do be careful," Hermione whispered as they shuffled forward under the Cloak.

Harry pushed his way through the brush for a few feet, fighting the tangles of weeds and low-hanging branches. It was lucky that the darkness and rain would conceal their movements, since the Cloak did nothing to hide all the foliage being pushed aside. Once they were out of the overgrowth, it was less likely anyone would notice the grass flattening beneath their feet.

Ginny didn't have the experience with the Cloak that the others did. Her movements were slow and halting as she tried to match stride with Harry, and it didn't help that he was slightly bent over into her space. The gradual hill that marked the end of the woods was a jumble of mud and soaked grass. Harry put an arm around Ginny's waist and held her tightly, bracing both of them as they slid down the slope.

Making matters more difficult was the pervading darkness. The dark clouds overhead prevented even a sliver of moonlight from shining through, shrouding the entire property in deep, impenetrable shadows. Harry hoped that the grounds were well-kept enough to be free from detritus. A rabbit hole or a misplaced rock could send them sprawling.

Ginny wrapped her arms around herself with a shiver. With the shelter of the trees behind them, what would have been a pleasant summer's night breeze became cold with the rain. "This thing still works when wet, right?" she whispered through chattering teeth.

"It'll be fine," Harry assured her. "Let's go right around the fountain."

The stone slabs of the garden path were easier to navigate, though not without their own hazards. They swerved around the gathered puddles for fear of splashing. The Cloak was becoming uncomfortably heavy in the rain, clinging to Harry's face and arms. The dim light in the window they had presumed to be Kylie's became clearer, a beacon through a downpour that was turning into something near torrential. At the top of the hill, Harry had been able to see the house fairly well. Now past the fountain, he couldn't even see the tree line he had come from.

"At least they'll never hear us!" Ginny said positively, all but pressing her lips to Harry's ear in order to be intelligible.

Harry nodded shortly in reply, not wanting to encourage conversation despite the decreased danger of detection. Ginny was probably right, but the problem was that Kylie might not hear them, either. If the rain fell any heavier, they would have hardly needed the Cloak, never mind Scott's smoke grenades. The wind was picking up as well, cutting through their soggy covering and making Harry fervently wish he had dressed more warmly. Ginny obviously felt the same – she had pressed back into him, seeking warmth.

The front of the manor was a solid edifice of stone and ivy, fronted with stylised columns and even a couple weather-worn statues. Harry could barely make out the details; Kylie's window had become almost the only point of visual reference in the pouring rain. He placed one hand against the cold wall and followed it towards the dim glow.

With the window directly above them, it was time for the hard part. Harry looked to his left and right, trying to determine if any Death Eaters could see the section of the house where he and Ginny stood. The columns at the outside corners would shield them from anyone not actually in the front garden.

"See anyone?" he whispered to Ginny.

"How could I? I can barely see the bloody house right in front of me," she grumbled. "Take this spell off so she can see me."

"Just stay close to the wall. I think you'll have to light your wand." Harry dispelled the Disillusionment Charm from Ginny, and then did the same for himself. If they were discovered, he didn't want her to draw all the attention.

He extracted several rocks from one of his pockets and looked upward. The light from Kylie's window barely penetrated the storm, even when he was so close to it. No doubt Ron and Hermione could no longer see it at all from the hill. Hopefully, Scott would be able to see well enough, though Harry wasn't sure if the infrared spectrum was impeded by rain.

The first pebble he threw yielded no results. He repeated the action, not really knowing if he was hitting the window or not. He couldn't hear anything but the rain, and lost track of the pebbles almost as soon as they left his hand.

Then, a shadow flitted behind the streaked glass. Ginny straightened beneath the Cloak and began pushing the sodden material off of her. Her long red locks were plastered to her neck and back; with the Cloak collecting so much water, she looked as if she had gone for a swim."I think she heard that one! Lumos!"

Ginny sheltered the bright gleam of her wand with her body whilst Harry kept tossing rocks. Kylie would have to open the window to see them, and that meant she needed more incentive than a noise she might have imagined. With a little luck, curiosity might make her brave enough to investigate.

The light shifted, became more obscured. Harry threw his next pebble a bit harder than the others. It shot upwards into the dark, clinking off the glass. He paused anxiously. Kylie had to have heard that one, if that was her shadow blotting out the light. And if it wasn't her, then Harry was about to have quite a problem. He readied himself to run.

The window moved slightly; then, with a creak that was just audible over the storm, it was pushed open. Seconds later, Kylie's head peeked tentatively over the edge, her eyes huge with trepidation.

Ginny jumped up and waved at her frantically. Kylie's already wide gaze somehow widened even further, and the portion of her head which could be seen shook with what must have been a startled gasp.

"Kylie!" Ginny said in a loud whisper. "It's me, Ginny! Open the door!"

Kylie stared downwards, not moving.

Ginny grimaced. "The door!" she repeated, emphasising with gestures towards the front walk. Open the door, she mouthed with exaggerated precision.

The door? Kylie silently repeated, peeking her head out further so her mouth was visible.

"Yes!" Ginny nodded emphatically. "Open the door for us!" She mimed turning a doorknob.

Kylie nodded in reply, and she slid back out of sight.

Harry pulled the Cloak back down over Ginny. "I think she understood," he said, feeling good about their chances for the first time.

By the time they hurried over to the door, it was already partially opened. Kylie's slight form was sketched against the light from the entryway as she leaned out into the rain, as if she were a silhouette painting. Harry glanced towards the hill, but the rain had yet to slack.

He looked back just in time to see another shadow on the wall behind Kylie.

He surged forward, leaving Ginny momentarily exposed as he snatched Kylie from the doorstep and clamped a hand over her mouth; she tensed and loosed a muffled scream. He pulled her to himself and fell backwards onto Ginny, leaving all of them sprawled on the ground next to one of the decorative columns. There was frantic moment as he rearranged the Cloak, trying to cover them. He was sitting on the portion Ginny needed, and Kylie was still on the outside. Somehow, he managed to push himself upward, slide Kylie underneath the Cloak and allow Ginny to worm her way in to flop against his side.

Kylie struggled against his grip, still unaware in the dark of who held her. Harry almost lost his hold on her when Ginny fell against him; reaching blindly upward, he caught Kylie again and yanked her back against his chest. Her tiny chin smacked firmly into the deep bruise where Scott had jabbed him earlier. Harry fought back a yelp of pain, biting his cheek so hard he tasted blood.

"It's us, it's us, Kylie, stop! Stop moving!" Ginny hissed, catching Kylie's flailing hands with her own.

Kylie instantly calmed, going limp with relief. Either that, or she had fainted, Harry couldn't tell in the dark. More concerning was the large shadow standing just inside the hallway on the other side of the door.

Harry wrapped a tense arm around Ginny's shoulders, hugging her to him both as a warning to keep quiet and as a precautionary measure. If they were discovered, he was in a good position to shield her. He barely breathed as a Death Eater stepped out into the rain, the drops plunking hollowly against the stiff cloth of his hood.

"No one here?" a voice asked from inside the house.

The man outside descended from the steps and lit his wand, waving it from left to right as he searched around the column. "No… Where's the little Timous bird, still up in her room?"

"Light's still on. Dolohov said we're not to go up there, though."

"Fuckin' Dolohov," the man grumbled, looking up through the rain with a posture of distaste. "I'm about sick of that cunt."

"Orders is orders. You'll earn a Cruciatus with that kind of talk," the other Death Eater warned.

"Hmph. You think this door just blew open, then?" the first Death Eater said. He took another step forward. The tip of his boot was now resting on the edge of the Cloak.

Ginny shuddered slightly. She was stiff at Harry's side, every muscle tensed. Carefully, Harry slid his wand hand out from where it had been trapped beneath Kylie.

There was a rattling sound; the Death Eater inside the house was probably testing the latch. "It's pretty old."

"Like everything else around here. God, I hate this bloody rain. My wife is going to give me hell if I catch a cold."

"Then don't. Hurry up and look about and then get back in here, we have to report in a few minutes. You want them to think we ran off like Preston and Henry?"

"Remember what Lestrange said she'd do if she found them? Christ. All right, just give me a moment. If you come out here you'll get sick, and then your wife will give you hell, too."

"My wife actually loves me, Grebbs."

"Fuck off. I'll be right back."

The next step Grebbs took was right onto Harry's leg.

Grebbs stumbled backwards, confused but not immediately alarmed. "What…?" He kicked out towards Harry.

Harry wasn't going to wait for the inevitable. "GO!" he shouted to Ginny. He caught Grebbs' foot just before it hit him and pulled, sending the Death Eater reeling sideways into the column.

"Expelliarmus!" Ginny disarmed Grebbs, catching the man's wand and hurling it out into the dark towards the fountain. "Come on, Kylie, run!"

Harry desperately fought to get on his feet, hampered by the slick cobblestones. He tugged up on the edge of the Cloak and managed to keep it in place, but Grebbs' leg was still resting on top of him. He pushed furiously against it even as the Death Eater swung a fist at his invisible tormentor. Ginny threw herself against Grebbs' chest as Harry just barely dodged the punch. Her weight knocked Grebbs onto his back, freeing Harry.

Harry grabbed Ginny's shoulders and pulled her up and off Grebbs. For a moment, her wrist was caught in the Death Eater's grip; then there came an unexpected SNAP that cut through the rain with startling clarity, and Grebbs' head lolled backwards. Ginny yanked her arm free.

Harry began to run, Ginny at his side. He looked to his left with the expectation that Kylie would be there, only to find that she was already ahead of them, having apparently taken Ginny's instructions to heart. Her legs were short, though; it didn't take Harry long to catch up to her.

"This way, Kylie, keep going. We just have to make it to the hill!" he said breathlessly, grasping the small girl's hand in his own and pulling her along.

She nodded, her breath emerging in pants that were more like sobs. Her eyes were full of terror and it was clear that she was pushing herself just to keep up, but she still ran gamely along with them. Harry felt a brief flash of something like pride; perhaps Kylie had been more of a fellow Gryffindor than he'd ever given her credit for.

CRACK, CRACK, CRACK. Shots rang out from the hilltop, growing louder with every step. Harry couldn't hear any shouts or footsteps behind him, but that didn't mean much with the storm drowning out everything save the noise of Scott's gunfire.

His heart dropped in his chest when he heard a very different kind of snapping sound coming from multiple directions: the distinct report of Apparition. The Death Eater reinforcements had arrived.


It took Ron about five minutes of inactivity to be bitterly reminded of how much he really, really hated being left behind.

The relief that Hermione wasn't part of Harry's mad plan to march up to the front of the manor was tempered by the fact that Harry was, and he was taking Ginny with him. If Ron had his way, they would all go or not go at all. Splitting up didn't feel right.

It certainly didn't help that a few minutes after Harry and Ginny had exited the woods, their destination could no longer be seen. The rain steadily increased in tempo until it drowned out all sight and sound with a heavy deluge that soaked through Ron's clothes so quickly he might as well have not been wearing any. The smoke grenades Scott had indicated earlier seemed more or less useless once the weather took that kind of turn.

Scott had reached the same conclusion. "Forget about the grenades."

"Gladly," Ron muttered. He had been none too eager to handle Scott's dangerous Muggle weaponry in the first place.

"I can't even see the fountain now," Hermione fretted. She was gnawing on her lower lip with evident worry.

"They're fine," Scott said. He was prone in the mud with his rifle resting on some kind of two-legged stand.

Hermione left her (relatively) dry spot beneath an arching tree and huddled next to Scott. "Tell me what they're doing!"

"Walking. Or, you know, shuffling."

"Ginny's not tripping Harry, is she? She hasn't been under the Cloak like us, I wish we'd had time to let her practice…"

Scott wiped water from his face and pushed his fringe up away from his eyes. "I can't tell at this distance. But they're still upright."

"Just use your binoculars, or the thing on your gun," Ron suggested.

"I would if I could. Glass appears opaque in my optic range, it's surface temperature only." Scott waved a hand at his weapon in an exasperated gesture. "Kharadjai tech has projected optics and integrated imaging to get around that, but I'm stuck with contemporary GEP equipment for the most part. Can't have the locals getting ahead of themselves if I lose something."

"Of course. We have to be kept in our place," Hermione said tartly.

"Says the girl from a hopelessly backward, borderline pre-Copernican society that is the very definition of technologically stagnant. It's not the wizarding folk I'd be concerned about finding a Voight magazine with eight millimetre caseless. The Muggles might reverse engineer that shit; a witch would probably think it was food or something. Try to eat it."

"You are so deliberately offensive at times," Hermione remarked in a tone that was more resigned than angry.

Ron didn't understand even half of what Scott had said, but he knew when he was being insulted. At that moment, however, he barely cared. "Well, however you do it just keep watching Harry and Gin. Be a prick later."

"They're almost to the front wall," Scott reported. "If you want to see, use the scope on the gun, it has a night setting. I just hate that green shit. It hurts my eyes."

Hermione looked at him in surprise. "Your eyes? I've seen you look straight at the sun without blinking…"

"Yeah, the eyes are actually the only part of Kharadjai anatomy with any major physiological differences. They're at the front wall, moving towards Kylie's window," Scott updated before continuing, "There are advantages, but we're all still subject to our little quirks. I used to get migraines working with green screens."

Ron carefully crawled over Scott and settled down next to the rifle. He raised it up and pressed his eye to the scope, but couldn't see anything. "It's not working."

Scott reached over and moved something that clicked. Ron found himself looking at one of the distant columns in front of the house. The world was rendered in a palette of contrasting shades of green, glowing and fuzzy. The rain streaked down in blurred lines that made it even harder to discern details.

"It's not great, huh?" he said, blinking a bit in an attempt to focus better.

"Not in this weather."

There was a flash of white to the right of the column Ron was looking at. He turned that way, rotating the weapon on its stand. The motion was so disorienting through the magnified sight that he had to pull away. "This is harder than I thought. Did you see that light?"

"I think someone lit their wand." Scott had moved up into a sitting position and was leaning forward, staring hard into the darkness.

"They call that being careful?" Hermione gasped.

"Probably didn't have a choice. Ron, I might need that gun back."

Ron removed his eye from the sight and pushed the weapon back towards Scott without protest. It had been nice to be able to see, but he didn't exactly trust himself with the Muggle implement. The only thing he really knew about it was that it shouldn't be played with.

"Where are the guards? Did they see?" Hermione asked anxiously.

"The guys on the right went to the back of the house. The guys on the left are just hanging out on the side yard, they haven't moved yet," Scott answered.

"Thank goodness for that."

The rain was not letting up in the slightest. Deprived of the night vision offered by Scott's firearm, Ron was once again unable to see further than ten feet in any direction. It was more than a bit frustrating. If Harry ran into trouble, Ron would be useless.

A thought occurred to him. He shifted closer to Hermione, putting his mouth at her ear so he wouldn't have to raise his voice. "Do you think you remember where the house ends to the right, if you had to aim there?"

"I believe so," she said.

"Good. If Scott says there's a problem, maybe we could start casting to the right and left and make the Death Eaters look our way."

Hermione hesitated, then nodded her assent. "If we must. We should keep that plan in reserve, though. Our spells will be very visible right now; Scott can fire his rifle without giving away his precise location."

"All right, well, we'll let him go first," Ron said with a grin.

Scott began speaking again. "They're at the door. Looks like it's already – what the fuck…"

"What? What's happening?" Hermione demanded.

"Harry just grabbed Kylie from the steps. There's a Death Eater right inside, they're hiding and he's…" Scott pulled his rifle up to his shoulder and stared through the sight. "If he takes another step then that's it."

"Have they been seen?" Ron said tersely. He readied himself to react, though he wasn't entirely certain what he was going to do. "Scott?"

"…Here we go," Scott said under his breath, and pulled the trigger.

BAM! Ron flinched back and clapped his hands to his head, but it was far too late for that. A familiar sonic splinter once again ripped through his left ear. He clenched his teeth and rode out the pain, waiting for it to subside and the ringing to begin. Next to him, Hermione had also covered her ears, looking dazed.

Ron dropped his hands and pushed himself up on his knees. "Same fucking ear!" he snarled at Scott, drawing his wand. Scott might have said something in reply, but all Ron could hear to his left was a piercing tone and his own heartbeat.

Scott was already shooting again. Two shots, then three more in quick succession. Ron still couldn't see. The rain sheeted downwards with unrelenting regularity and he had no targets.

"Scott, what is happening?!" Hermione shouted.

"They've got Kylie and they're coming right up the middle!" he replied. He swung his weapon to the left and fired. Barely two feet away, the shots broke across Ron's skin like a stinging gust, sharp and disorienting.

A spell came zipping out of the darkness, a blinding streak of light that was dazzling in the wet night. It flew harmlessly over their heads. Ron blinked and stared down towards the manor, trying to discern where it had come from. A second spell sparked to life at the right side – he pinpointed the source to a general area, and raised his wand to return fire.

Hermione seized onto his arm and dragged it back down. "No, Ron! We can't give away our position!"

Ron rounded on her to argue but was interrupted by a sound that sent a shiver down his spine – the distinct crack of Apparition.

"Oh, no," Hermione gasped.

"Multiple hostiles. They're coming in at the front and sides of the house, I see six, eight, ten, too many," Scott said in a dry cadence. "Harry's out in front, almost here… I'll swing left and – no, they're moving. No time. Grab him and we'll fall back, they're at the bottom, just help them up!"

BAM! Out on the lawn something sparked brightly in reaction to Scott's shot, and he muttered inaudibly in response. Ron stood and rushed forward into the brush, skidding down the muddy hillside with Hermione close behind. He didn't get far before he heard the crashing of branches being forced aside.

"Harry, is that you?" he said, raising his wand.

"Yeah!" Harry's welcome reply emerged from a thick tangle of bushes. "The Cloak is caught, give me a second. Kylie, grab Ron's hand!"

A small, pale appendage snaked out of the foliage and Ron took it, yanking Kylie up the embankment. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw Hermione doing the same for Ginny. Then came Harry, clawing his way up with furious determination. They all reached the top and slid down the short crest to the other side, gasping, filthy and soaking wet.

Scott had resumed firing. On his third shot a bright flash from the garden below illuminated the night like a bolt of lightning, brief and dazzling. The strobe effect left Ron with a still picture of every drop of rain in that moment, imprinted like a dark photograph.

Everyone scrambled to their feet, bracing off tree trunks to avoid slipping and not always succeeding. Ron helped Kylie get up; the young girl was breathing hard and trembling. Ron just hoped she had the strength to keep running. At least they didn't have far to go.

The storm that had once been a hindrance became more useful, even as it made descending to the field a bit tricky. The Death Eaters were no doubt having just as much trouble with movement and vision as Ron was. He slid from tree to tree, using them like stepping stones, in too much of a hurry to be more careful. Everyone else went down with the same reckless speed. Ron couldn't see Scott, but since he was no longer shooting, he was likely right behind them.

As the trees thinned and the ground became level, Ron reflected that it was the second time he had been running for his life through a darkened wood (and if he went back to his times in the Forbidden Forest, it wasn't even just the second). He thought he might try to get used to it. It seemed like running away was the only thing they could do against the Dark Lord and his growing army, which was not a pleasant realisation.

From somewhere back up the hill came the sound of another short, sharp explosion. Ron spun around, concerned that Scott had been left, but the Kharadjai was only a few feet behind.

Ron opened his mouth to see if Scott had done something with his Muggle weapons or if the Death Eaters had resorted to blowing up the woods in their pursuit, but Scott grabbed his shoulder and propelled him forward again.

"Just run!" Scott barked out. He sprinted ahead and scooped Kylie up into his arms; the slight girl had been slowing, unable to keep the pace with her taller companions. "Hermione, they're working on that area spell!"

"How close?" she shouted back.

"Too far north but they'll figure it out real quick!"

"Everyone group up!" Harry called out. They were at the edge of the fields, stumbling over the unevenly ploughed ground and trampling a farmer's wheat in the process. "This is it!"

Ron reached out and latched onto Hermione's hand, preparing himself for Disapparating. Harry was doing the same with Ginny. Scott rushed over to Hermione and set Kylie back on her feet. He took her limp hand and placed it firmly on Hermione's arm.

"We're good, go," he said, and turned back towards the estate.

Just before they disappeared, Ron looked up to see the shining orbs of lit wands bobbing at the top of the hill like faerie lights. Shadows darted among them in search, hunting for their quarry as they surged down the slope.

Then the world contracted and twisted, pressing inward with discomfiting pressure, followed by the sensation of falling.

The next thing he knew, he was lying on his back on the cold stone floor of Grimmauld Place.

There was a heavy silence interspersed with breathing and a few sighs of a relief. Eventually, Hermione broke it. "I apologise for the rough landing, it wasn't the best job of Side-Along…"

With a groan, Ron pushed himself into a sitting position. "You were brilliant," he assured her. "If I'd done it we'd be Splinched all over the room."

They were downstairs in the kitchen. Ron supposed everyone had spent enough time there that it was a natural enough destination, and it had the added benefit of avoiding Mrs Black's portrait.

Harry was shakily rising to his feet, taking stock of the room. "Is everyone all right? Ginny?"

"Fine," Ginny said from somewhere on the other side of the table.

"Looks like we're all here, except for Scott," Harry said, though he didn't sound all that worried. "He's probably– Ginny!"

"What?" Ginny said in response to Harry's panicked exclamation.

"Are you hit? You've got blood on your clothes, let me see you–"

That gave Ron the motivation he needed to get up. "Gin?"

"I'm fine!" Ginny said, exasperatedly swatting Harry away from where he had been tugging at her garments. "It's not my blood."

Harry still looked concerned. "You're sure? You can be hit and not feel it."

Ginny just rolled her eyes. "I'm not hit! It's all from the man on the stair, the Death Eater."

"Grebbs?"

"Yeah. I think Scott shot him," Ginny said, more subdued.

Ron had no idea who they were talking about, but as long as Ginny wasn't bleeding he didn't much care. "So nobody got hurt by anything, right? Except the damn trees, I mean," he said, gingerly prodding a long scrape on his forearm.

"Kylie?" Hermione gently inquired. She had helped the younger girl into one of the nearby chairs; Kylie was still trembling violently.

"Okay," Kylie whispered through chattering teeth. "Scott?"

"He's fine, he'll be here any moment," Hermione reassured. "Ron, could you start the fire? She's freezing."

Ron was beginning to feel more than a little cold himself. In the shaky aftermath of the adrenaline rush, his heart rate was slowing and the stone basement was a poor place to be in soaking wet clothes. The chill sank into his skin, settling in his chest and making him want to cough.

"So, where the hell is Kreacher, anyway?" he said to Harry as he ignited the fire. The task had made him think of Grimmauld Place's resident house-elf. "The lights were on when we Apparated in, weren't they?"

"Yeah, none of us lit them. He's around here somewhere, but if he doesn't want to see us then I'm fine with that," Harry said with distaste.

"Just not like him, that's all. I thought he'd have shown up to say something horrible by now."

Harry frowned thoughtfully. "That's true. He hasn't even been over by Mrs. Black's portrait."

"Maybe the little snot learned his lesson," Ginny chimed in.

Harry shook his head. "Not likely. I mean, it'd be great if he'd just go die in the attic or something, but…"

"Whatever. As long as he stays out of our way, I don't care. And, Harry, stop it, this is embarrassing enough already!" Ginny complained.

Ron turned around in bewilderment and saw a blushing Harry looking away from Ginny. Ron didn't get it until he noticed that Ginny's arms were crossed over the source of Harry's sheepish stance; the rain had plastered the fabric of her shirt to her chest, making it extremely evident that she was quite cold.

"Ugh!" Ron groaned in disgust, stepping away from them. "Why don't you get back under the Cloak until you're decent, Gin, however long that's going to take. If we have that kind of time."

"Sod off, Ron. Harry, don't just stand there, be a useful boyfriend and warm me up," Ginny said, wrapping her arms around Harry.

"Um, Gin, you've got blood on you…" Harry said, though he didn't pull away.

Ron could only take so much of that. He left the two of them by the fireplace and went back over to Hermione and Kylie. The small Gryffindor girl was the very picture of misery, shivering in her chair with her wet strawberry-blonde hair hanging in long, limp strings that stuck to her pale face. Her wide eyes were ringed by dark circles and filled with hopelessness. Hermione was rubbing at the girl's arms, trying to warm her.

"Scott will be here very soon, you're safe now, you're all right," Hermione said soothingly.

"W-what about m-my parents?" Kylie stammered.

Hermione met Ron's eyes with a sad expression, worrying at her lower lip. Carefully, Ron very slightly shook his head. Kylie didn't need their theories, not right then.

"We don't know where they are, yet," Hermione said truthfully. "But we got your letter, and we came to get you."

"…T-thank you," Kylie whispered.

"They didn't hurt you at all, did they?"

Kylie shook her head.

"That's good. Let's get you warmed up and then see what we can do for a change of clothes. I'm afraid everything will be a bit big for you, but at least they'll be dry," Hermione said.

Ron grabbed another chair and placed it in front of the fire whilst Hermione led Kylie over to it. Harry and Ginny had also gathered close to the flames, and for a few minutes the group silently huddled together in the warmth.

"Your hair is steaming," Harry said to Ginny. He had his arms around her waist and they were looking very cosy, which Ron was doing his level best to ignore.

"I'm thinking about cutting it," she replied. "It's a bit long for fighting and whatnot."

Harry made a noise of disappointment. "Maybe you could just pin it back?"

The sound of footsteps descending the basement steps interrupted them. Scott jogged down into the room still dripping wet and covered in more mud than the rest of them put together. He set his rifle on the table and ran a hand through his hair, leaving it sticking almost straight up.

"Good, you got the fire. Everybody all right?" he asked.

"Fine. Just a few scrapes is about it," Harry told him.

Hermione was giving Scott a look of concern. "What took you so long? Did you have trouble leaving?"

Scott wasn't listening to her. He held out his hands and went to Kylie in the manner of someone approaching a skittish animal. "Kylie, are you okay? It's me, Scott. I'm just a little different right now."

Kylie was staring at him in wide-eyed wonder, mouth open. In retrospect, Ron appreciated that he'd been given the opportunity to at least consider the possibility that Scott was actually an adult before witnessing it. He was sure it was quite a shock.

"We read your letter and came as quick as we could," Scott continued. "You warming up?"

"But, how?" Kylie said with wonder.

Scott sighed. "Not moving off that topic, huh? Okay, there's a few things about me you don't know… First and foremost, this is my real age. I was pretending to be a teenager so I could go to school with you guys."

"Why?"

"To help Harry, mostly. He needs help with this whole war thing. As it turns out, I guess you needed help, too. So here we are."

Ron didn't think that was much of an answer, all things considered, but Kylie closed her mouth and did not inquire any further. That was understandable; she was sliding lower in her chair, wilting with exhaustion.

Scott noticed that as well. "Tell you what, how about you go with Hermione for now? She'll find a nice room for you and then we'll talk more once you're feeling better. Hermione, if you have any ideas…?"

"She can stay in Mr and Mrs Weasley's room; it's one of the cleanest, from what we saw," Hermione said. "Come on, Kylie, I'll get you a shirt and see you to bed."

Ron watched them go. The thought of sleep was wonderful indeed, but he was very reluctant to leave the fire. He thought about just sleeping in a chair right by the crackling flames, though he changed his mind when he remembered doing something similar after the battle at Hogwarts. His neck still hadn't forgiven him.

"Scott," Harry called, motioning for the Kharadjai to come over.

Scott obliged. "I assume no one here is a casualty?" he said as he approached them.

"Not in the physical sense," Harry said dryly. "Did you make it out okay?"

"I crossed the road and came back after I found a barn at the end of the other field. They had that spell to stop Disapparation up by that point, so ideally they're still wandering out in the wheat," Scott explained.

"I hope they all catch cold," Ginny said spitefully.

"Pneumonia would be even better, and possibly fatal."

"I heard an explosion when we were going down the hill, was that you?" Harry asked.

"Yeah, I was wondering about that, too," Ron said. "I tried to ask you about it, but you were a bit pushy about hurrying, for some reason…"

Scott chuckled darkly. "Someone found my claymore. Hopefully multiple someones."

Harry didn't look ready to laugh about that, but he didn't look all that horrified, either. "All right, um… I think we should talk everything over in the morning. We should try to get some sleep."

"That's fine. Everyone did some good work tonight, I want you all to know that. Get some rest. Oh, that reminds me – did Hermione tell you guys about your room?"

"Our room? What about it?" Harry said, confused.

"You'll have to stay somewhere else this time. She said there's a portrait in there that can't know we're here. She put a spell on the door so you can't get in."

"Phineas," Harry said with disgust. "That wanker. I'd forgotten. She's right, we can't go in there."

"Wonderful," Ron groaned. He had so been looking forward to his old bed. "On the up side, I guess we can have our own rooms."

"Harry can sleep in my room, I don't mind sharing," Ginny casually offered.

Harry blanched and his eyes darted towards Ron. "I, er… I don't know about that…"

Ron was too sodding tired for a row with his sister. "You know what? Do what you like and I'll yell at you for being a slag in the morning, because right now I don't effing care," he said to Ginny.

"Good enough for me; come on, Harry," Ginny said brightly, tugging on Harry's arm.

"…We'll talk about it," Harry said nervously, resisting her pull.

They drifted away, still talking, and Ron prepared himself to leave the seductive warmth of the fireplace. Scott was the only one who didn't look that tired, which wasn't all that unexpected. For a trained soldier, their relatively short outing into the night probably hadn't been all that taxing. Ron wished he could feel the same way. Maybe he would, at some point, if they kept running rescue missions. He tried not to think about that too much. He knew not every mission could end so well.

Scott turned away to go back to the table and Ron noticed that he was limping slightly. Glancing down, the low light of the fire revealed that the back of Scott's left trouser leg was soaked with blood from a bit below the knee to the very bottom.

"What happened to your leg?" Ron said. "Don't tell me you got hit by your own bomb again."

"Of course not," Scott scoffed, as if such a thing would never happen, even though it had before. "Someone got lucky."

"Ouch. What was it?" In a way, Scott was fortunate he had been struck with some sort of offensive spell. Being stunned or paralysed would have been even worse.

Scott shrugged as he picked his weapon back up from the table. "I have no idea. Took a nice chunk out of the back of my leg, though. Not a huge deal, but it surprised me. Pissed me off enough I almost doubled back, but I was afraid Harry would be an idiot and stay, too."

Ron grimaced. "And then I'd have to, and Hermione and Gin would never stay behind, and we'd all still be there. Because, you know, Harry would be an idiot."

"Yeah. I know. Anyway, go get a change of clothes from Hermione and then get some sleep. I'm going to do a sweep of the building just in case, then do the same."

"Want some company?" Ron offered half-heartedly, not really wanting to walk all over Grimmauld Place.

"No. I've got it."

Ron wearily made his way upstairs, not knowing where he was going to sleep and not particularly caring. Any empty bed would do. No doubt he'd be roused from whatever bed he chose before he was ready by either Hermione or Harry, or possibly both, as they would be eager to discuss the night's events more thoroughly. Ron understood the necessity, but didn't think there was any rush.

Everyone was still alive, which was good enough for the time being.

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Chapter 9: This Island, These Tides

9

This Island, These Tides


"When immersed in the environment, it becomes
easy for even an experienced integrationist to lose
sight of the details in favor of wider focus. This
is never more apparent than during the 'down time',
the long stretches that exist between objectives.
Primarius training is designed to impart patience,
but many in the field find that patience does not
always equate to tolerance. When the adrenaline
fades, the mundane then attempts to reassert itself.
As is often the case, the most subtle lessons of
integration are the hardest to bear, for they insist
that events must unfold at their own pace. The same
trauma that is lost on battle-hardened integrationists
can leave Primes exhausted, physically and emotionally.
True integration requires a constant adjusting to
the needs of those within your care. An integrationist
must learn to accept that, quite frequently, those
needs cannot be met with effort, but only by time."

–The Guiding Light: An Integrationist's Guide to Understanding Primes,
Chapter IX: When Strength Fails


"Harry."

Harry was clinging to the edge of unconsciousness, nearly sunk into the full embrace of welcomed sleep. The insistent tug of the darkness behind his eyelids was not quite strong enough for him to ignore the sudden speaking of his name, though, no matter how much he wanted to.

"Harry," the voice said again, more insistently.

The flat tones of the accent identified it as Scott, and therefore not an immediate threat. Harry was accordingly not enthused enough to respond. That had a lot to do with the heavy warmth wrapped around him. The weight which so attractively draped itself across him was none other than Ginny, who had started the night collapsed on the opposite side of the bed and had, at some point, shifted to cling to him. Not that he was complaining. If he had known that having her in his bed like a heated blanket would be so conducive to slumber, he might have tried it sooner.

She did provide some distraction, however. Every time she inhaled, her breasts pushed themselves against his ribcage, a delicious sensation which made him think that perhaps women with Lila's level of endowment were overrated. Ginny was just so… pert, he supposed was the word.

A sigh. "Harry… I know you aren't asleep. I need to talk to you."

Harry squeezed his eyes shut even tighter and grimaced. It was clear that Scott wasn't going away. Harry blinked back encroaching sleep, and tried to focus. After a few seconds, he could see Scott's dim form towering over him, backlit by the low light from the open doorway.

"What?" Harry whispered.

"I have a question and, no, it can't wait." Scott tilted his head more towards Ginny. "Someone's a sound sleeper."

Harry was grateful for that, but even Ginny would probably wake up if he had to shove her off him. "I can't exactly move right now."

"Really? Did you pee before you went to bed? It can be difficult to just lay there, when you're so comfortable, but there's that insistent pressure and all you can think about is waterfalls and spigots… All that liquid, pouring, gushing, trickling…"

God damn him. Harry's attention shifted to his bladder, and it responded accordingly. "Just when I think I can't hate you more…"

"And before you take a leak, you have to talk to me. Another obstacle on the road to relief."

Finally, Harry gave up and shifted from his position. Somehow he managed to slide out from under Ginny's limbs and slump gracelessly to the floor. Ginny snuffled a bit in her sleep, but didn't wake. She must have been more exhausted than she'd let on.

Out in the hallway, Harry motioned for Scott to hurry up. "Go on, what's so bloody important that it can't wait?"

"I was poking around downstairs and ran into some kind of prope-human sapient named Kreacher. Short, oddly coloured with large ears. He said he lived here, is that true?"

Harry sighed. "I should have mentioned him before. Yes, he does live here. He's the Black family house-elf."

Scott cast a glance around the grimy, poorly lit hall. "Don't they clean or something?"

"He's mad. Spends all of his time talking to the portrait of Mrs Black in the entryway. He also hated Sirius and had a part in… what happened."

"He's a traitor?"

Harry didn't want to relive those events, not again. He tried to move on. "I don't know if we can call him that. He was never loyal to us in the first place, he just answered to Sirius and now me because he has to. He's an evil little shit, though. I was hoping he'd stay in whatever hole he crawled into."

"Do I need to kill him?"

That brought Harry up short. Scott had the blank look on his face that commonly accompanied his most difficult questions and statements. He looked neither eager nor loath to actually carry out such an act; he merely wanted to know if it were necessary.

"No. He can't leave the house or betray us or do much of anything unless I tell him to," Harry said. "He might call you some names, but that's about all he can do."

"I think he's afraid of me, actually. Or at least what I was carrying." Scott tapped a finger against one of his handguns. "We ran into each other by surprise. He asked me what I was doing sullying this house, I asked him who he was supposed to be and how he got in. He told me his name and that he served here, so I said I'd have to check on that with you. He started to leave, I pulled a gun on him, said to not fucking move; he took off like a bat out of hell."

Harry frowned in thought. "Huh… He's been a wizarding house-elf his whole life, almost never leaves this damn place. But if he was afraid of your guns, then he must know what they are…"

"I may have the answer to that, as it turns out. But it can wait until morning."

"I'm so glad this couldn't," Harry said sarcastically, though he was torn with the need to return to bed and the curiosity raised by Scott's assertion.

"Go ahead and sleep in, everybody needs it. Nothing on the agenda for today but discussion, anyway."

Harry nodded and turned away, ready to relieve his aching bladder and crawl back into a bed that would still be warmed by the second presence he was not yet accustomed to. He and Ginny were both dressed, at least, and had been so tired that they'd collapsed onto the same bed and fallen asleep without having to think much about it. Which was fine. It wasn't how Harry had imagined his first time sharing a bed with a girl would go, but it was a good way to start (not that he dared to hope it would continue). His protestations the previous night when Ginny had suggested sharing had stemmed mainly from his anxiety in not knowing what she was expecting from him. If she just wanted to cuddle for warmth, he was more than willing to give it a go.

She was still asleep when he returned to his (their?) room, and he couldn't think of any way to get back in his previous position, so he moved to the other side of the bed and put his arm over her waist. They were fully clothed, but it was still the most intimate Harry had ever been with another person. That was sort of a depressing thought. Of course, given how little the Dursleys had ever been tactile, it was good he hadn't developed some kind of neurotic aversion to being touched at all. He'd never really thought about that before. He supposed, in that sense, he was lucky such a toxic upbringing hadn't damaged him more thoroughly.

Or that's what he thought, anyway. He knew better than to solicit any other opinions.

He blinked a few times, felt the darkness at the edges of his vision start to swell and fold in. His limbs ached with the memory of exertion and cold; a myriad of scratches stung against the cloth of his shirt whenever he shifted. It didn't matter. Ginny's heat radiated through the layers of cloth and skin, pushing aside the thoughts and pain and then consciousness.

Then he blinked again, this time against the light.

He had no idea how long he had slept. Ginny was gone, and a quick sweep with his hand revealed the spot she had occupied was no longer warm. Harry had never closed off the room completely after Scott had come in, and the soft light that shone across his bleary vision came reflected off the partially opened door. There were no windows in the room, which was good, since he probably would have woken up much sooner had that been the case.

With a groan, he pushed himself up and out of the bed and staggered into the hallway. Some of the bedroom doors were opened and others were closed, and he realised he had no idea who was sleeping where.

Glancing back into his new quarters, he noticed something odd, a detail he had not perceived without anything to illuminate the scene. The furnishings were clearly disarranged, with randomly opened drawers and odd and ends scattered about. He was fairly certain neither he nor Ginny had caused the mess, and couldn't think of any reason why Scott and Hermione would have when they had searched the place the night before. Someone had been looking for something. His heart rate quickened: had it been Snape?

He considered that as he went downstairs. There was no evidence that Snape had returned to Grimmauld Place at any point. The added protections left by the Order had been undisturbed when Harry had arrived, and no doubt there were further safeguards that were not apparent. A more likely culprit, Harry reasoned with burgeoning fury, was that rat Mundungus. He'd stolen more than a few things from the Black estate, and likely hadn't felt the need to be subtle about it.

Harry stumped into the kitchen to be greeted by the sight of Hermione, Ron and Ginny rummaging through cupboards and generally making a mess in what seemed to be the pursuit of breakfast. Scott was nowhere to be found.

"Find anything edible?" Harry asked as he approached them.

"Not much, I'm afraid. We won't starve today, but we will need supplies soon," Hermione said, placing tins on the table. "I'd rather not dip into our emergency stores unless we have to."

"No point in eating any of that when we can go to the shop," Harry agreed.

"Will it be safe going to Muggle shops?" Ginny wondered.

Harry bit back his automatically pessimistic response in favour of something more encouraging. "Well… They can't watch all the shops. There're a lot of them out there," he said, remembering his car trip with Lila when the Muggle world had seemed so vast.

"I doubt they're watching any. They may be watching this particular area, however, so we'll want to go farther afield." Hermione turned away from the tins she had been examining with an expression of mild disgust. "These are edible, in the strictest sense of the word."

Ron sighed. "We do have Muggle money, right, because I can't do this more than once. Breakfast was not meant to come in tins, that's just… Blasphemy, I suppose."

"Your mum isn't here to cook for us, so even after we buy food, I suggest you lower your expectations," Hermione advised.

Ron leaned his head back and groaned. "God, we are just off to a great start. We should have brought Lila instead of Scott: handy in the kitchen and nicer to look at. Uh, not as nice as you, though, of course," he quickly added.

"Good save," Harry said.

Hermione just rolled her eyes. "I know what you meant. And while Lila is quite pretty, I don't find that reason to prefer her. Scott has his foibles, but at least we know how to work with him."

"I like Lila, she's got her head on straight," Ginny protested, defending the woman she had befriended (an unexpected attachment that still bemused Harry).

"Not as much as Charlie does," Ron snickered. "And he doesn't just like her head, he really likes her–"

"Ron!" Hermione yelped.

"Hey, where is Scott, anyway?" Harry asked.

"He's upstairs with Kylie. Oh, poor Kylie…" Hermione sighed. "She had a panic attack when she woke up this morning. I think she didn't know where she was."

"How are we going to tell her about her parents…?" Ginny said slowly.

That was a good question, and one that Harry didn't want to face. "Er… Maybe Scott will tell her. He knows her best, anyway."

"I hate to just push the responsibility onto Scott–" Hermione began.

"I don't," Ron interjected.

"But, in this case, it might be for the best. It would be easier, coming from him. Not that it could ever be easy…"

Harry couldn't really understand what Kylie was about to go through: betrayal and disappointment had been constant expectations from what he had nominally considered his 'family'. Even when he had latched on to Sirius, there had always been a part of himself held in reserve, reluctant to trust and become vulnerable. From what he had seen, he thought that Kylie might have had a similar upbringing. But, for whatever reason, she had never become hardened like Harry, who saw emotional abuse as routine.

He frowned, a little disturbed by his own contemplations. He may not have had much experience in the area, but he was self-aware enough to know that those were not good traits to bring into a relationship with Ginny. Perhaps he had tried to chuck her for the wrong reasons.

He couldn't express that sentiment to her, of course. Not again, unless he was feeling extra masochistic.

"Knut for your thoughts?" Ginny offered, taking Harry's hand as she sidled up to him.

With a start, he discovered that Ron and Hermione had resumed scavenging for breakfast whilst he had drifted off into his reverie. He shook himself. "Sorry, I was miles away," he confessed.

"I saw. Look, I know you're worried about Kylie, but I really think Scott should handle it. She likes him, for some reason."

Harry couldn't help but laugh. "Yeah, for some reason. Aren't you done hating him by now?"

"I never hated him," Ginny protested. "He was just such a prat, all the time. Especially to me!"

"I guess that's true. Still, you have to admit he's been better lately."

"He's been older lately," she pointed out. "He's more tolerable as an adult, for whatever that's worth."

"I'd just like it if you two got along better. This is all hard enough without us fighting with each other," Harry said a bit more plaintively than he'd intended.

"So sorry to be a burden! Too bad you didn't just ditch me after all, then you'd only have Scott to worry about," Ginny said with a huff, pulling her hand from Harry's.

Harry groaned and rubbed at his eyes. "Oh, come off it. Don't try to make this into a row, it's too early, I'm still tired and I'm hungry."

"It's actually not early, it's a bit after noon."

"Really?" Harry blinked with surprise. "Oh. I didn't know what time we went to bed."

"Hmmm," Ginny hummed with satisfaction. "Yes, we did go to bed, didn't we? That was cosy."

He didn't disagree, but he was also hesitant to encourage her too much. When it came to their relationship, Ginny tended to take a mile when given an inch, as if she were trying to make up for lost time (or an inevitable shortage of time, which was a much more depressing concept). Harry certainly didn't mind the occasional snog and snuggle; however, he wasn't sure he could handle anything more on top of everything else. Additional complications were the last thing he needed, and going further with Ginny was sure to be very complicated, indeed.

Maybe feeling that way made him a poof. Maybe he needed to just get over it and grow up. Or maybe he was making an arse of himself with the daft assumption that Ginny might want to have sex with him in the first place. He was an emotionally damaged wannabe hero with a death sentence hanging over him; it was a wonder she wanted to be with him at all. He should be happy with what was being offered, even if the limits of that intangible offer remained a mystery.

"I don't want to assume anything," he said hesitantly, "but should I put my things in our room, because I slept great, and if you did, too, then maybe we could sleep again, in the same place, that is, if you wanted to… But if you don't, I understand, it's kind of a weird situation and we were just living in totally separate dormitories and then at your house with your mum and maybe it's not… right…"

Ginny stepped forward, took him by the back of his head and kissed him on the mouth. It was chaste compared to some of their past kisses – for which Harry was grateful, considering that Ron was standing right fucking there – but it was still passionate.

"Harry," she said firmly when she pulled away, "if you don't show up in our room tonight, I will be very cross with you."

"Understood," he said weakly.

"I should probably do something about this, but I can't even look at you," Ron jeered from somewhere near the oven.

"Hermione, will you hurry up and share a room with Ron so he'll stop pretending he's better than me?" Ginny called without looking away from Harry.

"Leave me out of this, please, I've got more important problems than sibling rivalry to deal with. Things such as feeding all of us, and keeping us clothed and alive," Hermione answered with pronounced sarcasm.

"Someone would have woken up cheerier with a Weasley to keep her warm," Ginny snipped back.

"Girls, girls – you're BOTH the prettiest," came a loud voice from the stairwell. Scott strode down into the kitchen wearing the same rumpled and mud-streaked clothing he had the previous night. His hair was in a frightful state, and it didn't look as if he'd slept at all.

Harry was just glad the girls had been interrupted before things had escalated. He was in enough pain without any screeching, and Scott's condescending greeting would neatly pull all aggressions towards him. Harry, thinking of Scott's many manipulations, wondered if that had been the point.

"Why didn't you get any sleep?" Harry asked.

"I did sleep, just not in a bed. I camped out on the hallway floor outside your rooms. Ideally, if we were attacked, my hideous dying screams would wake you."

"Appreciated," Harry said wryly.

"In a much more likely scenario, you would blow up the entire building killing whatever it was that attacked you," Hermione said acerbically.

"Wow," Scott drawled. "Maybe you should have spooned with Ron last night."

"No, I should not have, and…" With a sigh, Hermione trailed off. "Why are we all arguing this morning? We have shopping to do and Horcruxes to find and we're all alive and we're all safe, and… and we should be grateful! And poor Kylie had to see all that violence because her parents are just horrible…"

Ron was at her side the minute her voice began to crack under the pressure of barely repressed tears. "Hermione, we're just fooling around, nobody's really angry…"

"Oh…" Hermione buried her face in Ron's shoulder and made a few odd, stifled snorting noises.

Ron rubbed her back soothingly. "It's all right, love. It was a rough night, but we made it out."

"We did last night, but what about the next?" Hermione groaned into Ron's shirt, echoing Harry's own thoughts.

"Nothing we can do about that right now," Ginny said with a staunchness that was somewhat undermined by the trepidation in her eyes.

"I know. You're right, of course." Hermione sniffed a few times and raised her head, though she stayed in Ron's embrace. "I try to be strong all the time, but I think the shock just hit me. I'm sorry I snapped at you, Ginny."

Ginny shrugged dismissively. "Don't worry about it."

"I will worry about it, just a little," Hermione said, but she smiled. "Oh, dear. I think it was Kylie that sent me over the edge, I just can't imagine what she's going through…"

"But what can we do?" Ron said.

"Nothing. It's something she'll have to come to terms with," Hermione said sadly.

As Hermione pulled herself back together, Scott walked over to Harry and leaned towards him. "This is getting heavy," he remarked.

"I guess," Harry said uncomfortably. He supposed the trauma of the previous night might seem trivial to Scott. Either that, or he was just trying to alleviate the mood.

Whatever his reasoning, Scott switched his approach. "Kylie is asleep again. She cried herself out, finally."

Harry's heart sunk in his chest. "She was crying that long? Did… you tell her about her parents?"

"She didn't cry that long – it just took her that long to start crying. She was bottled up tight." Scott's countenance was compassionate, though something in his eyes went deeper than that (empathy, maybe, but the look passed over his face too quickly for Harry to catalogue). "I haven't told her our assumptions about her parents. To be honest, though, I'm not sure I'll have to. She's not stupid, and I don't think she would see something like that as being impossible for them. If she's already struggling to come to terms, I don't see any reason to interfere."

"I'm worried about leaving her here if we have to run off again. Kreacher isn't exactly good company," Harry said. "I know she can't go back to Hogwarts; they'd just take her again, especially now that they know we'd come for her. That's another mouth to feed, too. Money wouldn't be a problem if I could get into Gringotts, but…"

"Don't worry about cash. I took half my bank with me, and Lil has the other half. She's not unreachable if we need it. That should get us where we need to go, depending on how long this lasts." Scott shrugged. "We may have to consider other eventualities. I can always get my hands on regular money, at least."

"You have that much?" Harry said with a start. Scott had never acted like he'd had a great deal of money. Then again, it wasn't like there was much use for pounds at Hogwarts.

"No. But I know where to get it."

Harry rolled his eyes. "I don't think we'll have time for you get a real job, mate."

Scott grinned, an expression that instantly made Harry forget he was conversing with Scott's adult self. "Yeah, probably not. But operations sometimes call for self-funding in a hurry."

"So… Like, just take out a loan?" Harry supposed taking out a Muggle loan would be an easy way to get money, especially since a Memory Charm would erase the debt quick enough. That was not very morally sound, of course. He definitely would not want to modify anyone's memory unless he absolutely had to.

What Scott said next took morality more or less out of the equation. "Drug money, usually. Maybe number rackets or prostitution, depending on time and place, but usually drug money. All cash, large amounts and untraceable. It doesn't even matter if you can't make it clean, it's just more drug violence."

Harry fought hard to disguise just how appalled he was. "Oh. Um… Look. I don't want to get involved in selling drugs, we've got more than enough problems without Muggle police looking for us too."

Scott sighed. "No, Harry, we don't sell the drugs. We steal money from the people who are selling the drugs! We don't have time to sell drugs, come on. One time, during my GEP-ILT, I was attached to a LEEM unit doing long-term Establishment. They needed a big influx of capital within a month to fund something the MOFA was doing. Anyway, they moved us out of Belgium and set up over Columbia. Two weeks later, we hit the FARC, the ELN and the Calis all in the same forty-eight hours."

"I am not going to Columbia to steal drug money."

"You don't have to; this is London! We don't need millions, but if we need a few thousand there's always a place."

"No."

"Okay, well let's look at what we got." Scott turned and waved a hand at Hermione. "Hermione, are you done freaking out?"

"Yes, and thank you for your concern," Hermione said tartly, stepping out of Ron's embrace. "What is it?"

"Break out the handbag and let's go over some things while we have the time."

"Wait a minute," Ron interrupted. "I'm not discussing anything without breakfast first, full stop."

"It's lunch, really," Ginny pointed out.

Ron nodded agreeably. "I'll have both. And supper, if we can manage it."

"Then I hope you like beans, because not much else has lasted." Hermione picked up one of the tins in question. "I think Mrs Weasley took most of the food with her when she left."

"To the store!" Scott declared.

"I have about sixty pounds I took from home," Hermione said. "I didn't feel comfortable taking any charge cards from my parents, they'll still need them…"

"There's money in one of those duffel bags I gave you," Scott said, unconcerned. "Come on, people in Islington have to shop somewhere."

"People in Islington aren't being hunted by Death Eaters," Harry said.

"Neither are we; not here, not yet. I've already been outside and there's nobody around but us and the normal humans you call Muggles, for some reason," Scott told them.

"And what is it you call them? 'Baseline'? How is that less insulting?"

Hermione took a small breath in relief. "It's fortunate they haven't started looking here yet; I just said we might have to go farther into London. It won't last, so let's gather up supplies so long as we can. I doubt there will be any Death Eaters at Tesco."

"Yes, let's pop out to the shop for tea and crisps, chaps," Scott proclaimed in a British accent that, though accurate, was unbearably posh.

Harry couldn't quite suppress the smile that brought. "Sure, just talk like that when we're at the shop, that won't draw any attention."

"Why didn't you just fake an accent when you came to Hogwarts?" Hermione said. "It's not as if you aren't capable of it."

"Because I didn't have to. Why keep track of an unfamiliar accent twenty-four hours a day when I can just say I'm an American?"

"So you could at least pretend to be more civilised," Hermione said, looking down her nose at him.

Scott crossed his arms and gave her a level look. "Should we talk about how the sun never set on the horror of British colonial practises, or just agree that every culture has its monsters, not that you know the first thing about mine?"

Hermione gestured at him dismissively. "Oh, don't get all snooty. You started this."

"All right, obviously we need to go shopping, but we also shouldn't leave Kylie here by herself," Ginny said.

"I would stay, but it would not be in anyone's best interests to leave me and my many valuable skills behind. And I say that with total humility," Scott said gravely.

"That goes for me as well," Hermione said. "What do the rest of you lot bring to the table?"

"Bloody hell, Hermione. Way to make a bloke feel useless," Ron groused.

"Now who's being snooty?" Harry said.

"I was joking, and you know it," Hermione told them. "Scott, on the other hand…"

"Is indispensable, always. Now, we could discuss this store trip all day–" Scott began.

"And probably will," Harry grumbled.

"–but in the interest of expediency, how about we lay this out on a D6 or draw straws or whatever it is you British people do."

"I've got a better idea: I'll just decide who's going," Harry said flatly.

Scott hummed in interest and nodded his head slowly. "Hmm, Harry attempts to act unilaterally… But, how will that go over with the masses?"

"Take a guess," Ginny said with a glare towards Harry.

"She won't be mad if you pick her," Scott said.

Harry ignored them. "We're all going. Scott, go wake Kylie up. She'll be safer with all of us than she would be here with one person. Besides, this way she can pick out whatever food she likes."

Scott grinned. "Common sense? Why, Harry, when did you develop that?"

"It's a work in progress. Go on, get Kylie. Hermione, let's put a list together."


Hermione walked down the cereal aisle, and felt out of place.

She wasn't quite sure what to make of that, as, of all her friends, she was the most likely to be familiar with a Muggle grocery (with the probable exception of Scott). She had often gone shopping with her father as a child; she very much doubted that Harry had ever been taken shopping by the Dursleys. Ron and Ginny had limited contact with Muggle society, and Kylie probably didn't know what ninety percent of the products on the shelves even were.

Hermione's own discomfort stemmed from the realisation that the world of aisles, dairy refrigerators and microwave meals was no longer familiar to her. Her summers at home were filled with holidays and time spent at the house with her family. It had been a long time since she had gone shopping anywhere but Diagon Alley.

She glanced around the shelves again anxiously. She knew that appearing fearful would only draw attention to herself, but it was hard to be unwary, though there were no robes or wands in sight. It was evening, so instead of a crowd of mothers and small children, there were a smattering of diverse adults wandering the shop. It might have been better for her nerves if the place were emptier. However, she knew that concealment demanded other patrons. Her ragtag group of teens plus two blended in well enough once separated.

The low ceiling and thin shelves didn't do much to muffle sound. In the next aisle, Scott was speaking to Kylie. "How about sugary stuff? Do you like sweets?"

Hermione didn't hear any response from Kylie. The girl had been completely silent since she had been roused from bed, and never moved more than a few feet away from Scott. She was a soundless, bedraggled shadow for the Kharadjai, and Hermione worried not only about the slight girl's state of mind, but also the concern her demeanour might draw from strangers.

Either Kylie had nodded in reply or Scott had decided for her, because there was the sound of a box being dropped in his shopping trolley. "Okay, we'll try them."

What were they going to do about Kylie? Hermione pondered that question as she meandered over towards the dairy section. The poor girl couldn't go back to her home, not after her escape. And while there was no way of knowing what Hogwarts would be like once it reopened, Hermione assumed the worst. It probably wouldn't be safe for anyone, but especially not for Kylie.

And, yet, Grimmauld Place was hardly suitable quarters for a traumatised child. With the Horcrux hunt ongoing, she would be left there, alone, for days or weeks at a time. Hermione plucked a jar of pasta sauce off the shelf and idly spun it in her hands as she thought. Perhaps Kylie would be better off in Lila's care, safe wherever the Weasleys had taken refuge.

Hermione winced when yet another thought occurred to her: Kylie would not take separation from Scott well. He was her lifeline, her only point of familiarity and safety. That wasn't reason enough to risk her well being, of course, but it could be problematic.

Farther up the next aisle, she discovered that Kylie wasn't the only one trying out sweets.

"Really, Harry?" she said to him, crossing her arms. "All of this time, and the only thing you've collected is an armload of Jaffa Cakes!"

"I like them," Harry said defensively.

"So do I, but they aren't exactly a well-rounded diet. Scott has a trolley over there, why don't you drop them in and then find something we could make a meal out of?"

"I was getting to that."

Meanwhile, Ron and Ginny were loading bottled water into a different trolley. Hermione approached them with a nod of satisfaction. "At least someone is getting something useful."

"Do we really need all this? Grimmauld Place has water," Ron said.

"I know, but these will be good in an emergency."

"How much Muggle money do we even have?" Ginny wondered. "Is water expensive? We've got loads of it."

"Quieter, please," Hermione nervously reprimanded, looking around for anyone listening in. "We're Muggles, too, remember. Don't worry about money. Scott has enough for whatever we buy here."

"I don't really want to owe him anything," Ginny complained.

Hermione rolled her eyes. She didn't think Scott would be so petty. "Nonsense. I doubt it's even his money, now go on. See if you can find some sacks of flour."

She should have known a group trip to the shop would end up with her supervising the entire endeavour. Scott was too busy seeing to Kylie to direct the shopping frenzy, Harry had hardly any experience in a Muggle shop and Ron and Ginny had none, full stop. Although, hadn't Mrs Weasley bought food and other things at Muggle shops in town? Hermione supposed that if Ron or Ginny had been in attendance at any point, they had been very young.

She went back to Scott and Kylie, who were rolling their trolley down an aisle stocked with crisps and other salty snack foods. Kylie was holding out a bag for Scott's perusal.

"No, I'm not supposed to eat Twiglets. They make me violent," Scott said. "What about nacho chips? See if you can find some nacho chips."

Kylie dutifully began searching the shelves. Hermione went over to Scott to inspect his chosen purchases more closely. He had selected a wide variety of goods, ranging from tinned soup to paper towels. There didn't seem to be any overarching method to his choices, or at least not one that Hermione could establish.

"All the stuff on the bottom will last," Scott said, noticing her examination. "Now I'm just getting whatever. How about the other cart?"

"Ron filled it with bottled water, primarily. Harry seems to be wandering about gathering up biscuits."

"Well, as long as he's doing something."

Kylie came trotting back with a large bag of Doritos. Mutely, she held it out to Scott.

He reached out and took it. "Tangy Cheese, huh? Well, that's probably like nacho cheese. Good work, Kylie. Hey, why don't you pick out something that looks good? Surprise me."

Kylie turned to her new task, studying each new item of food with a seriousness that they really didn't deserve. Her steps were short and hesitant and she paused frequently in rigid poses, hands clasped, the very picture of deep uncertainty.

"She hasn't said a single word all day," Scott said quietly to Hermione. "I'm afraid if I stop trying to engage her, she'll just fold in on herself completely."

Hermione did not know what to say to that; she had no answers. "…Keep trying," she said finally. "You're all she has left right now."

"Ouch. That's probably worse than having nothing at all," Scott chuckled, giving her a knowing glance.

In truth, Hermione felt more than a little insulted he would presume that was her opinion. Did he think her so cruel? Scott wasn't perfect, but he'd been a godsend for Kylie and more than a little helpful to the rest of them. "That's not true, don't say that."

Scott frowned. "I was joking."

"I know, but it wasn't funny. She needs you."

"And I can't always be there," Scott sighed.

"I've been thinking about that. We could put her with the Weasleys; Lila will be there, too, which is even better. We just need to know where they're hiding."

"Lil said something about a Fido Charm, isn't that the same magic as Grimmauld?"

Hermione nodded. "Fidelius, and, yes, they are, and therein lies the problem. I know your 'apertures' can circumvent that protection itself, but she'll still need the Secret Keeper to reveal the place to her or she won't even be able to know where she is. I'm not sure what the effects of that would be… I'd assume very disorienting, and perhaps even dangerous."

"Even if you get past the ward, you still can't know where you are?"

"That's my understanding, though there isn't any precedent that I'm aware of. Lila is most likely a secondary Secret Keeper – she can't tell anyone else about the location. Or, I suppose she's a Kharadjai, so she could break her own enchantment, and then should theoretically lose her own knowledge of the location… Unless you can stop the spell from doing that, as well?"

"I have no idea. I'm the first integrated Kharadjai in this universe, there's no basis of information for how I can interact with magic."

"Of course, even if she did break the enchantment and revealed the location, the charm should prevent anyone from gaining the knowledge without also being tied to the spell by the Secret Keeper," Hermione continued musing, before shaking her head in exasperation. "Oh, my, that's quite a puzzle. I'd love to experiment, but this would be an exceedingly poor time for it."

"So, as a secondary Secret Keeper…?"

"You can't reveal the location of Grimmauld to others. You just know it yourself."

"Okay, but if everything you just supposed is true, then why wasn't Kylie affected when you Apparated her in?"

"I took precautions," Hermione said with a touch of smugness. "I gave her a piece of paper with the address on it when we were at the top of the hill. I thought if she weren't told, she might be unable to Disapparate with us at all."

Scott looked disappointed. "Oh. And we could have learned so much."

"At the risk of leaving her before a horde of advancing Death Eaters?" Hermione said incredulously. Surely Scott would not be so ruthless, not to learn something that might not even be important.

"No, no. It's better this way."

"That's what I thought."

Hermione turned her head and looked back down the aisle at Kylie's small outline, her slender, timid hands gently picking up snacks and putting them back exactly as she had found them. She looked lost and ragged, wearing clothes too big for her, with her strawberry-blonde hair in tangles and her arms and ankles covered in scratches. She looked like a refugee.

"Scott," Hermione said softly, "do you think we can win this?"

Scott did not hesitate. "Yes."

"Did you just say that because you know it's what I needed to hear?"

"Yes."

"What do you really believe?" Hermione asked him, well aware that she was unlikely to get a truthful reply.

"I believe Riddle still doesn't understand what he's up against. And it will cost him."

"And once he does understand?"

Scott grinned. "Then things get interesting." When Hermione stared back at him the smile collapsed, and he sighed. "Look… I can't tell you the future. You can't know what doesn't exist; it's just a word we use to express and simplify a complicated combination of causality, probability and chaos. And then there's the shape, and its unmeasurable impact. So if you're looking for some kind of oracle…"

"No, that's not at all what I meant," Hermione said impatiently. "I just wanted an honest answer."

"From me?"

"Yes, from you! I wanted to know how you felt about our chances. Obviously, that was a mistake."

"Okay, fine. Then in my professional opinion, we're doing all right. We have successfully hidden from superior enemy forces, eluded them on multiple occasions and won every combat encounter to date. We have goals to pursue and the ability to pursue them. We're losing our support structure from the wizarding world, but we're establishing our own. Intelligence gathering and force composition remain standing issues."

Hermione liked how easily Scott could break the situation down into individual components to be managed and improved. He was an alien soldier, of course, and the way he saw things was not always applicable to the magical world, but it was still nice to hear.

Kylie came trotting back with a bag of caramel popcorn, which she diffidently placed on top of the pile already in the shopping trolley.

"Ooo, popcorn," Scott said.

Later, when they all reconvened at the front of the shop to pay, Scott extracted a sizeable stack of pound notes from his pocket. The staff member at the register blinked in surprise, but the look on Scott's face didn't invite questions.

"Load it up in the car, kids," Scott said, ushering Kylie out of the store with a hand on her back.

The car had been retrieved from Scott's flat. It had taken time to drive it from Ottery St. Catchpole to London, which was why they had ended up shopping in the late evening. There wasn't anywhere to store a car at Grimmauld Place; it would have to remain in a car park nearby.

It was an oddly comfortable trip, despite how cramped the vehicle was. Ron had been afforded the passenger seat due to his long legs, which left four of them packed in the back. Fortunately, Kylie was a small presence. She sat behind the driver's seat, alternating between leaning against Ginny's shoulder and the window. Scott tapped his fingers on the wheel in time with the wireless. Hermione thought she recognised The Kinks, but he had it turned down low. His attention was elsewhere as he moved smoothly through traffic with a practised hand, his eyes assessing every shop front and alleyway. The groceries in the car boot rattled and rustled and nobody felt like talking.

When they arrived at Grimmauld Place, Scott drove past it without stopping. Hermione understood his intent. The others seemed more confused, and Ron opened his mouth to point out Scott's 'mistake'.

Scott beat him to it. "Eyes?" he said impatiently, as if he had already expected something from the rest of them, and they were tardy.

"We all have them," Harry said.

Scott sighed and turned onto a side street that would take them back in the other direction. "Call out targets, people. Give me eyes, three-sixty. You know what to look for."

Their second pass down the street revealed nothing out of the ordinary. There were a few passing cars and a bare scattering of Muggle pedestrians. Scott helped them unload the supplies and then drove away to where the car would be kept.

"Maybe I should have gone with him," Harry fretted.

"He can handle it, mate, he'll be fine," Ron said.

It took time to carry all the food downstairs to where it was sorted and stored. Hermione didn't know how much money Scott had left. He was about as forthcoming as ever as to the background specifics of his work. She sometimes wondered if much of what he knew was considered classified by his mysterious government. It was an uneasy thought: what if he was under orders to withhold vital information? Such a directive would seem to run contrary to his mission objectives and was therefore unlikely, but she never could be certain about much when it came to him (a source of their frequent clashes, she knew).

Ginny was examining the Muggle snack food with great interest. Her mum probably hadn't bought that sort of thing, and most of the food hoarded by students at Hogwarts had been from Hogsmeade. She began to open Scott's prized bag of nacho crisps, and Hermione quickly stopped her.

"Let's not open those. They'll be good for awhile, and it's early days yet," she said. They were also Scott's, and Hermione had no wish to mediate the conflict that would erupt if he found Ginny eating his precious nacho cheese.

Ginny dropped the crisps with a put-upon sigh. "Hermione, I'm bloody starving!"

"I bought some scones for today, they're in that bag. Just leave enough for everybody!" Hermione said, raising her voice as her friends descended on the package.

Kylie hadn't moved, of course, so Hermione made sure to grab an extra scone for the girl before someone else unthinkingly ate it. She thought she might be able to coax Kylie to eat without Scott's intervention. While Kylie followed Scott like a lost lamb – which she was, really – she did seem to have some measure of trust in the rest of them (save for Ron, who seemed to intimidate her).

"All right, what's next?" Harry said, munching on his scone.

"Clean this place up again?" Hermione suggested. It seemed their stay at Grimmauld Place would not be temporary, and she would prefer more sanitary surroundings.

Ron groaned, Ginny winced and Harry's expression made clear how unenthusiastic he was at the prospect. "Uh, maybe we can clean as we go? We've got a lot of stuff to handle that's more important," he said.

"Very well…" Hermione said, disappointed but unsurprised that her suggestion was not well received. "I believe our first priority should be gaining the means to destroy the locket. I would like to be able to get rid of the other Horcruxes as soon as we find them."

"We could clear out the dining hall, put some protective spells up and…" Harry trailed off. "I don't know. Did you have a spell in mind?"

Hermione shook her head regretfully. "I've haven't found anything that would help us. I think we would need something specific to the task. But we do know an alternative: basilisk venom."

"That's not something we can just buy, is it?" Ron asked.

"No. Not legally, anyway. But we know it works, and we have a source."

"The Chamber," Ginny said in a small voice.

"It wasn't your fault," Harry said immediately, stepping closer to take her hand.

"It certainly wasn't, Ginny," Hermione told her. "And besides, that basilisk might save us."

Scott came thundering down the stairs, making more noise than anyone else had. "Car is parked," he announced.

"Good. We were just discussing the use of basilisk venom on the Horcruxes, there's some we can retrieve at Hogwarts."

"Okay. Do we have a plan to get in?"

"The tunnels, maybe… They're sort of well known at this point, though," Harry said thoughtfully.

"The plan will have to come later. There are things we still need to see to, like your strongbox, Scott," Hermione said. "I also need to talk to you about the Fidelius Charm. I've an idea, but only you can tell me if it's possible."

"Better eat some thinking food, then," Scott said lazily. "Kylie, did you eat?"

Kylie had eaten about half of the scone that had been given to her, which was more than Hermione had expected. The girl raised the partially eaten treat for Scott's inspection.

"Okay, good. Try to eat some more." Scott turned a dark eye on Ron. "If you ate all of my scones, son, it's about to get tragic."

"Nice, mate, just threaten me right off," Ron protested.

"History is on my side." Scott stuffed nearly an entire scone in his mouth, and then turned to Harry. "When you're up for it, I have something for you."


"Faster."

Harry thumbed the lever and released the lock, his skin abraded and stinging from the textured surface of the metal. He reached out with his left hand and snapped open the breach, remembering at the last second to turn the barrels so the shells ejected out and to the right. He extracted the ammunition from his pocket and fumbled slightly when withdrawing, almost dropping one. By putting them between his fingers with the brass portion against his thumb, he could insert both simultaneously and seat them with his palm. It was a technique he had yet to master, and he grimaced when the top shell glanced off the rim before he managed to get it in. Finally, he shut the breach and pulled back the hammer.

"I said, 'faster'," Scott reminded.

Harry scowled but didn't respond, raising the shotgun to his shoulder.

Scott reached over to the tray of china cups that Hermione had reluctantly conjured. "Quick acquisition," he said, bouncing one in his hand. "Identify, aim, fire."

So he kept saying, but, as the targets consisted solely of the identical tea cups, the 'identify' part of things hadn't meant much. Harry's ears rang, his shoulder ached and his arms were growing tired, but he refused to end the training session. Scott's discovery in the attic had given Harry a new connection to his godfather, a sense of purpose he had needed and a loud, violent outlet for his darker emotions that he had needed even more.

"Just throw the bloody thing," he told Scott irritably.

Scott shrugged. "Okay, but you need to keep your–"

In mid-sentence he hurled the cup down the long stone room, low and fast. Harry was startled by the unexpected action and reacted badly. He spun and fired without fully raising the weapon to his shoulder. Without proper bracing, the recoil sent him back a step and the shot went wide, cracking against the charmed mattresses they were using as a stop. The Imperturbable could only take so much; there was a flash, and feathers burst from a newly created hole. The cup shattered against the floor and the pieces skittered into the corner to join the rest.

Scott sighed and shook his head, gazing mournfully at the ruined mattress. "That mattress was two days from retirement."

Harry lowered his weapon and rotated his aching arm. "We really shouldn't be doing this inside."

"Yeah, okay. Let's go shoot skeet in the middle of London."

Harry rolled his eyes. "I didn't say that. But this isn't safe, is it?"

"Not for your ears. Might do your upper body some good," Scott said, punching Harry in the shoulder.

It was a friendly blow with no real weight behind it, and it was still like getting smacked with a cricket bat. Harry winced and rubbed his already sore appendage. "Ow. Are we done?"

"Yeah, we're done."

Harry turned to leave and was stopped when Scott caught him by the back of his shirt. He tugged out of the grip. "What now?"

"You're not walking out of here with that thing loaded. Drop your ammo and clear it."

Harry grudgingly ejected his remaining shell and pulled the trigger, resetting the hammer. "You're always going about fully armed," he accused.

"For which I am fully trained and certified. How much training do you have? Hmm, oh, that's right, a little session in the woods and then tonight, so maybe an hour?"

"What if we get attacked?" Harry demanded. "What then?"

"I presume you still remember how to use magic. Or at least you'd better if we're going to win this thing." Scott grabbed the dusty box of shells and closed it. "Keep a few with you, just don't leave them in the chamber."

Scott had a point. Safety was important, and Harry's other friends were uncomfortable enough around the gun as it was. Hermione was especially distrustful of the weapon, which was odd considering her Muggle origins… Or perhaps she was reacting more to the fact that it was in Harry's hands. He supposed that was fair, if a little insulting.

He looked down at the shotgun, savouring the heft and imagining Sirius doing the same. There was a tinge of guilt in the pleasure, though. Had Sirius really threatened Kreacher with the gun? That had been the theory espoused by Scott, and, while Harry didn't like the thought, it did make a lot of sense. The decrepit elf had not been seen again since his confrontation with Scott.

During a late lunch that day, Hermione leaned forward on the table and caught Scott's attention. "Scott, I'd like to discuss my idea with you."

Scott took another bite of his sandwich. "Shoot."

"I remember you saying that you could identify certain 'threads' attached to the charm, and that it might be possible to separate individuals from it."

"I also asked you if that would destroy the spell entirely."

"Yes, and I honestly haven't the foggiest. But if we can't monopolise the Secret Keeping again, this building will not be secure." She frowned in thought. "There are still curses in place to prevent Snape from entering or telling anyone. He's not our only concern, though."

"So you want me to cut him off," Scott guessed.

"Actually, I was wondering if it might be easier to remove everyone who isn't in this room?"

"Hang on, what about the family?" Ginny protested.

"They have their own Fidelius now, they're perfectly safe," Hermione assured her. "I don't want to exclude them, either, but I've given this a lot of thought and we don't know how many people have access. Between Snape and the entire Order, that's too many Secret Keepers. Even Fletcher is a Secret Keeper now, and God only knows who he might have told…"

Harry had not forgotten Mundungus. His anger flared as he remembered the stolen suitcase and the mess upstairs. If there was profit to be made from being a Secret Keeper, then Mundungus would certainly capitalise on it.

"Dung'd probably sell to the highest bidder," Ron scoffed.

Hermione concurred. "He's proven untrustworthy. A clean sweep is our best option, leaving just us as Secret Keepers – save Scott and Kylie, of course."

Harry glanced across the table to where Kylie was nibbling on a slice of cheese she had removed from her sandwich. By unspoken consensus, it seemed they had all stopped trying to keep anything from her. There didn't seem to be much point to it, not after everything she had already witnessed. She probably understood very little of what was being said, but she kept her eyes on her food and asked no questions. He understood that particular brand of self-absorbed pain.

"Can it be done?" Hermione asked Scott.

"Yeah, probably. I mean, there's only one way to find out, and I can't guarantee the spell will remain intact," Scott said around a mouthful of lettuce.

"I understand. If it comes to that, we'll leave." She looked around the table. "Well? What are your opinions on this? I'm not making this decision alone!"

"You were doing just fine, I thought," Ron sniggered.

"Do it," Harry said. If it worked, they would be safe. If it didn't, he wouldn't be sorry to leave.

"It sounds like the best plan," Ginny said agreeably.

"Kylie, what about you?" Scott turned to the girl.

Kylie seemed to shrink when their eyes fixed on her. She slumped in her seat and shrugged her thin shoulders.

"Good enough for me. I'll need time to parse this out. If you need me, I'll be upstairs on that couch." Scott pushed himself to his feet and belched loudly.

"Right. Don't strain yourself," Ginny snarked.

"Ah, Virginia… Your ignorance isn't even amusing anymore."

"You know that's not my name, after all the stupid things you've called me," she retorted. "What was it last? Ginnamon?"

Scott ignored her, traipsing up the stairs with Kylie at his heels. For his part, Harry was tempted to go back to the dining hall and fire off a few more rounds. Scott would insist on supervision, though, and Grimmauld Place did not offer much else in the way of recreation. Hermione retained nearly full control of all the reading material, which was likely for the best. Past experience indicated that having Harry and Ron participate directly in her literary research would only serve to slow her down.

Harry had already thoroughly explored the premises on previous occasions and had no wish to unearth any memories. He remained in his chair as the room emptied, and tried to stave off the dark thoughts which always came seeping in whenever the future loomed large in his mind. It was hard to believe it had only been a couple of days since the wedding; it felt like a lifetime. At least they hadn't been idle, waiting for the fight to come to them. He wondered if, outnumbered as they were, there would always be too many fires to extinguish. Would they run themselves ragged fighting a war too large for them to win? He slumped over in his chair, brow furrowing.

His brooding was interrupted by his best defence against it. "I know that look," Ginny said. She seated herself in his lap and wrapped her arms around him. "This should help."

He returned the gesture. Her warmth had a way of thawing the fear that gripped his heart. "It always does."

They sat like that for a long moment. Harry was just beginning to calculate how long he could remain in such a position before he lost circulation to his legs when Ginny began to speak again.

"I didn't get you anything for your birthday," she said guiltily.

She was still thinking about that? Harry barely cared that he'd even had a birthday. "It's fine, Gin. I honestly don't care, my birthday doesn't matter now and didn't matter much when it happened."

"I care!" she told him. "And you should, too, if only for all the effort Mum and Lila made. She gave you a cake."

That made Harry feel a bit bad. He hadn't thought of it like that. "You're right. It was a good cake, too…"

"…I did have something. Something in mind, I mean," she said quietly, after a pause.

He debated whether he should express interest or point out the irrelevancy of the discussion. The first option was safer. "What was it? That is, if you want to tell me. I can always wait."

"I almost didn't bring it up, since I…" She stopped. It was strange seeing her so hesitant. "It was sort of an impulse."

He didn't know what she was talking about. And, really, he just wanted her to understand that it didn't matter. He didn't need any more presents. He was alive and he had her with him, which was more than he had expected. "Are you going to tell me? Or is it still a secret?" he asked, humouring her.

She looked up and met his gaze seriously. "I'm not a slag," she said defensively, as if that were something he needed to hear. "I'm not."

He was becoming confused. "Uh… I know that. I never thought you were. I don't think you are."

"But, I thought, maybe, since this is so dangerous and if… I mean, if I wasn't going to make it–"

He did not want to hear that. "You're going to make it," he said with firm desperation rooted in the impossibility of believing otherwise.

"But if I don't–"

His teeth clenched. "You will."

"Harry! I'm just saying that I was a bit scared and thinking about things, and then it was your birthday and, well, we haven't been dating very long, but I feel like we've been together forever, and all I could offer was…" She looked away. "…Me."

She was sitting in his lap, and they were entwined in a tight embrace. He wasn't sure how he could be said to not have her at that moment. "So… What's this, then? You aren't really here?"

She groaned with exasperation. "Stop being thick, Harry! I thought we might… do it."

She couldn't be suggesting what he thought she was. He recalled his earlier thoughts, his self-recrimination at similar presumptions. "I must be missing something."

"You aren't, but you're doing a good job at pretending," she told him. She was blushing, he noted with shock. "Sex, Harry. I thought we could have sex. I didn't want to die a virgin."

Lust was instantly subsumed by terror. "You're not going to die at all!"

"Probably not," she sighed. "But that's what I was thinking. I lost my nerve, after all that's happened. I guess… Given the time to think about it, you know, I guess I wasn't so ready."

If he were direct with himself (which was difficult, considering the images her confession had sent spinning through his mind), he knew he wasn't ready for that, either. He had decided as much earlier, and nothing had changed since. "It's a big decision, or so I hear," he said, trying to downplay it.

"You aren't upset, are you?" She risked a glance up at him. "I know it's a bit shit for me to bring it up and then tell you I changed my mind. Now I'm just a tease."

He did sort of wish he'd never heard about her intentions or her change of heart, but it was too late for that. "It's all right. And you're not a tease or a slag or any of that other rubbish. You're just being honest."

She pressed her cheek against his shoulder and sighed. "I'll have to get you something else. Sorry."

"It can't possibly be as good," he said in a rough approximation of a leer.

She wiggled on his lap in a self-satisfied sort of way and laughed. "Of course not. But it will have to do… for now." She whispered the last part directly in his ear, making him shiver.

Harry didn't expect anything from her; every new offering was accepted with gratitude. He was still amazed she let him touch her at all.

He hoped he could never take her for granted.

Back to index


Chapter 10: Trace These Lines

10

Trace These Lines


"… for its continued role in deciding the patterns
of Kharadjai expansion within Solus. Similarly, the
shape is crucial to field agents operating within
other universes for the inverse of the same purpose.
Rather than plotting the most stable locales for growth,
the shape is frequently utilized to find the center of
an already extant continuum. It can be misleading
to use the word 'center' in the same sense as it is also
technically inappropriate to use any terms of basic
spatial relations. The shape is at once infinite and
finely featured, a blank slate that reflects the geometry
and hues of existence. In doing so, it corresponds to
what we identify as landmarks both physical and
idealogical. Used in practical application, this
ephemeral 'center' often marks the Prime(s),
delineating them by corresponding to their actions
and presence.

Confusing the issue are the objects that may be
marked in a similar fashion. A more detailed
understanding of the shape can only be gained by
learning to differentiate the finer threads of change
and import that emanate with subtle distinction from
the sentient and the inanimate. Experienced field
agents will not confuse the two; but multiple
inanimates are often challenging to isolate, and
inscrutable of purpose."

H. James Weller, The Measureless Expanse


The shape floated behind his senses like magnified plaid, a riot of woolly, contrasting colour. Each thread had a purpose – or, at least, implications. Most were meaningless to the observer. The information contained within the shape was the sum total of existence, ultimately too large and detailed to be fully deciphered. Only the tiniest fraction was ever apparent, and always relative to whomever was looking. Either the observer only understood what was relevant and familiar, or they only understood what the shape allowed them to understand, depending on who was asked. Scott had always been of the opinion that the truth fell where it usually did: somewhere in between. Reading the gossamer threads was a skill part experience, part luck, part innate ability and part inexplicable, savant-style instinct. The shape was a science, to be sure. But it was only partially understood at the best of times.

Scott's present universe of residence had never presented a best case scenario for understanding. Much of what he saw as he sat on the couch, staring at nothing, was a chaotic jumble without readable pattern. He could trace the usual lines to his Primes, and he knew the direction he would need to travel to find Lila. Kylie was also linked to him. He'd seen that before, and still found it somewhat surprising. She was not a Prime, and not central to events in any way he could discern.

He left the shape for a moment and studied Kylie where she slept on the couch cushions. Her strawberry-blonde hair fell over her face, and only the rise and fall of her chest attested to her still living. Scott felt a surge of protectiveness that he didn't try to suppress. Kylie was not a Prime, but she was a friend and an innocent in need. His mission was, at its most basic level, to preserve as much life as possible. Occasionally, that meant abandoning the few to save the many. But it was not the integrationist way to let the guiltless fall if it could be prevented. It didn't matter how peripheral she was or what his original intentions had been. Through his actions, he had taken responsibility for her.

Besides, it was impossible to say what part she might play in the shape of things.

Back in the shape, the twisting strands glittered in an entrancing arrangement. He refused to be distracted. The shape could be seductive in its forms, promising epiphany with just a few more minutes of observation. It encouraged obsession. Scott had been trained to hold the pace.

Grimmauld Place was laced with magic, draped with the lines of energy like creeping vines on a monolith. There were a bewildering variety of spells tied to all kinds of objects and structural features. He could not define the purpose of even a fraction of them, but he knew the Fidelius from the connections it held. Like some sparkling, diaphanous anemone, the tendrils stretched out from the anchoring building to wrap themselves around all who shared in it. Some were familiar signatures, some were not. Hermione's proposition had saved him from having to painstakingly pick out the individual threads, a task he might not have been capable of.

It took time to work it out. The constant motion of the shape made it difficult to construct well-defined actions. He paused before applying his calculations. If the worst should happen, and the charm was unable to sustain itself after such a drastic change of property, then they would all need to retreat back to the flat. At least Hermione's beaded handbag ensured they were always prepared for travel.

So he did it, reaching into the shape and wiping out all the distant chains, severing them from the source. He almost expected them to begin regenerating immediately – if the spell had a memory system, it would re-grow the missing connections and there would be no way to stop it without destroying it entirely. But the way it had become altered after Dumbledore's death suggested a level of malleability.

Sure enough, the links did not extend again. Scott waited a full hour before he was reasonably satisfied they wouldn't be coming back. He would recheck periodically for as long as necessary.

He didn't want Kylie to wake up on the couch by herself, so he carried her to her room and tucked her in bed. Given her recent levels of physical and emotional fatigue, her tendency to doze off was not surprising. If it persisted, then it could become a problem. The very fact that she was present to begin with was a concern. Everyone who had taken shelter at Grimmauld Place was part of what Scott considered the strike team, the combat element: except for Kylie. They needed someone else to hold down the fort. He had an idea or two about that.

He went to Hermione's room and knocked on the door, forgoing his usual method of barging in because he knew Ron was also inside. He didn't know what he might be interrupting. He wasn't especially concerned with the morality of the situation. He was not a parental figure to any of them (with the possible exception of Kylie); that ship had sailed when he had integrated as a fellow teen. In the unlikely event of his advice being requested, he'd do whatever he could. A few questions about contraception might be in order.

Ron opened the door. "Hey, mate. What's up?"

"Need to talk to Hermione," Scott said. "She available?"

"Maybe if you talk real loud. She's reading."

"I can talk real loud."

Scott entered the room to find Hermione surrounded by books far larger than they probably needed to be to convey the information contained within. She looked up at him, not so involved as to miss his approach.

"Did you have any success?" she asked hopefully.

"It's done. Nobody outside the building is part of the charm."

She clasped her hands together, beaming at him. "Brilliant! That's a great relief, to have a safe place."

"I might be able to make it safer. I was thinking about Kylie and the food situation." He flopped down on Hermione's bed and made himself comfortable. "We're going to need someone here when we're gone."

"I was thinking about that, too. We can't keep going out in public for groceries forever, it's too dangerous." She paused. "…But I can't see any of us willing to stay behind."

"I was going to get an additional FA to stay here, another Kharadjai. Someone to watch the street, keep the place stocked and look after Kylie and whoever else."

"Whoever else?"

"We can't assume Kylie will be the only refugee we harbour."

Hermione appeared startled; that must not have been a possibility she had considered. "I suppose we can't, at that. And here I was worried we wouldn't be able to shelter ourselves…"

"Guerilla tactics will serve us well, but it's always good to be able to withdraw to a solid position." Scott closed his eyes and thought about his options again, only one of which he liked. "It's something I'll have to work on. What were you doing?"

"Reading in circles," Ron said. "She keeps asking me for the same books. Which is fine, really. I already feel a bit bulkier about the shoulders."

Hermione sighed and picked up a particularly weighty volume. "He's not wrong. I had been researching Horcrux creation on the chance I might learn something about their destruction. That went nowhere, so I thought I might look into thermal emissions, as Harry suggested. I found an old spell they use in metalworking to identify thin spots in cauldrons holding heated material, then that led me to another spell that shows hot or cold spots in pipes to reveal leaks; but, that actually causes the liquid itself to change colour according to temperature. If I could find some way to marry the concept to altered vision, perhaps with charmed goggles, or–"

"Take a breath," Scott recommended.

She deflated. "Yes, well. It's quite fascinating."

"I know. I just don't want you to pass out."

"Your concern is very touching," she said acerbically.

Ron had been shifting impatiently from side to side, clearly eager for Scott to leave so he could have Hermione to himself. That was too bad. Scott had one more point of discussion.

"Speaking of touching," he drawled, "is there some kind of contraceptive spell?"

Hermione regarded him warily. "I don't see how that's relevant."

"Oh, but you do. You really do."

"What's it matter to you?" Ron asked pugnaciously. Perhaps he had misinterpreted the direction of the question, as Scott had been the one asking. Scott wasn't asking for himself.

"It matters to you," Scott said pointedly. "We can't wait nine months between Horcruxes."

"There is such a spell, Scott, and honestly I'm insulted you should think we'd have opportunity to use it," Hermione said stiffly, chin up.

"Right, how silly of me. A bunch of physically mature teenagers, all recently of age, in a massively stressful life or death situation with no future guarantees, no parental supervision and no comfort save each other? You'll never be tempted to do more than hold hands, I'm sure," Scott said with what he felt was exquisite sarcasm.

"Come off it, I wouldn't… I mean, I– not just like…" Ron struggled, trying to walk a line he obviously hadn't realised was so thin. "She deserves better, I… I owe Hermione more than that!"

"Yeah, it's called 'foreplay'."

Hermione leapt up from her place on the floor and seized Scott's arm, trying to tug his dead weight off her bed. "Out!"

"I am being a responsible adult and responsibly reminding you to remember that spell before you run out of experimentation that doesn't involve penetration–" Scott said mildly, allowing himself to be pulled towards the door.

"Out!"

The door slammed behind him, leaving him standing back out in the dim hallway. He supposed he might have been more tactful in his broaching the subject of preventing teenage pregnancy. But 'tactful' wasn't really his style when he could avoid it, and he was pretty sure the message had been received. The warning would transcend the method of delivery.

The door to Harry and Ginny's room was also closed. That was more concerning than Hermione and Ron's similar state, because Ginny had been very forward in her affections. Scott had a notion as to why, and thus far Harry had demonstrated his typical reluctance in such matters. Still, he could only hold out so long. Scott had always maintained a necessary personal detachment when it came to the sexuality of his female Primes, but he was not so distanced that he didn't understand Ginny's appeal. However, he wasn't at all certain of her true intentions. There were layers at work. He wasn't the only one trying to bypass Harry's self-destructive tendencies.

A friendly reminder remained in order. He knocked on the door and frowned at the lack of immediate response. He knocked again.

"…Who is it?" Harry called out with reluctance. His voice was rough with sleep; it sounded like Scott had woken him up again.

"Scott. We need to talk."

"Can it wait?"

Scott paused. What had they been up to? When in doubt, be direct. "Are you guys having sex?"

"No!" came Harry's much more alert reply, followed by a "Sod off!" from Ginny.

"Do you know the contraceptive spell? I asked Hermione and she said there's a spell for that."

"We aren't having sex!" Harry yelled in exasperation.

"You mean not yet. Do you know the spell or not?"

"Yes!" Ginny snapped.

"Good. Then be careful. Try using your hands, first."

"Oh, God, please go away," Harry groaned.

Scott obliged, striding off confident that his responsibility to his Primes was fulfilled. It wasn't the usual kind of guidance he offered, but integrationists had to be flexible. And, so long he was on the subject of flexibility, he had some calls to make.


"Ah, the mystery box," Scott said with relish, dropping his magical strongbox on the table with a considerable clatter.

"Don't drop it like that! It might be fragile," Hermione scolded.

"It's a magical metal box. I'm sure it's fine."

Hermione sighed and placed a hand on his arm. "I know, but please be careful. Magic isn't as durable as you might think."

"Sorry. I think a part of me wanted to see if it would bounce."

"What was the clue for this?" Ginny asked.

"Something about socks, wasn't it," Ron recalled.

"'Sock drawer'," Harry murmured.

"Distressingly cryptic," Hermione said.

"Not really. He left a clue he knew I would understand, and only me. Just like I did for him," Scott mused.

"I'm glad you could clear that up," Ron said.

"You just had to be there." Scott lifted the box in his hands and recited:

This is a password,
A past written sign.
The outside is yours,
And the inside is mine.
Open it with your hands,
Memorise with your mind.
Trust not to your senses,
Instead cleave to this rhyme–
Fear not the fighting,
Or the cliffs yet to climb.
The journey is dangerous,
But our real problem is Time.

There was a loud, hollow clank and one of the identical box sides popped out of place. Scott turned it over so that it was right-side up, having gained a recognisable lid; when he flipped it open everyone instinctively leaned back.

He looked down into the strongbox. "It's bigger on the inside, for sure," he said, his voice echoing hollowly. "Not by a whole lot, though." He reached in.

He pulled out a long shape wrapped in rough, lumpy green cloth. It turned out to be a sort of bag; after locating the drawstrings, he extracted the object.

In his hand he held a silver sword studded with glittering rubies.

Harry's jaw dropped. "The Sword of Gryffindor!"

Ron was equally awestruck. "No way…" he breathed.

"But… the Ministry said they'd confiscated it!" Hermione stood and hurried around the table for a closer look.

"There's not more than one, is there?" Ginny wondered.

"No, the historical record is clear on that much." Hermione placed her fingertips on the handle of the weapon. "Dumbledore must have given the Ministry a fake… That's the only explanation I can think of."

"Unless this is the fake," Scott said.

She looked at him sharply. "Do you think it is?"

"No…" Scott said slowly, testing the balance of the blade. "It's crawling with magic. And I don't know why he would give us the fake one."

"Hey, there's a note pinned there," Ginny said, pointing to the discarded bag.

Ron retrieved the note, holding it up to the light. "'Mr Kharan'," he read. "'I regret the premature ending of our mutually beneficial alliance. But, you know better than most that there are events beyond our control. I also regret the necessity of using you in this fashion to circumvent the Ministry, but you understand necessity, as well. I suspect your understanding of the situation surpassed mine in at least a few undefined ways, though there are many more facets you could not have known. No doubt you have discovered several of them by now. I know whatever armaments I might have offered would be of little use to you – you work within your strengths, as you should. Therefore, I trust that you will see this sword placed in the proper hands.'"

There was a moment of silence as they all absorbed the words of the deceased Headmaster. "…Indeed," Scott said after those seconds of contemplation. He flipped the sword in his hand and extended it hilt first towards Harry.

He didn't take it right away. "I'd bet a roomful of Galleons you know how to use that better than me."

"I have my own sharp instruments. This one is yours."

Harry took the sword and set it on the table, rocking it back and forth and watching the play of light on the blade. "I guess I won't actually be fighting with it…"

"Sure, stay positive."

"This neatly resolves one of our most pressing issues," Hermione happily declared.

"Get the locket and let's smash it!" Ginny said eagerly, excited at the prospect of progress.

Ron was of the same mind. "This is what we've been waiting for, right? We should kill the one we've got before we find another."

Hermione nodded. "I do think we shouldn't delay. Horcruxes have a negative effect on those around them, according to what I've read. That's not surprising, considering what little I know of their creation. The handbag may be dampening the effect, I'm not sure…"

"The diary was alive, sort of," Ginny said with haunted eyes. "It might not do anything until we try to kill it."

"Good to know," Scott said, drawing his right handgun and checking the magazine.

"It will be your other talents which will prove more useful if it projects any dangerous magic," Hermione said, eyeing the weapon.

Scott didn't put the gun away. "That's one possibility."

A few minutes later, they were all staring at the innocuous-looking locket that Hermione had placed on the table. For his part, Harry felt the same way about it that he always had: it seemed like a prize not worth its cost.

"…Horcruxes must be something different, because I am getting nothing from this thing," Scott said.

"What, nothing at all? Not even just magic?" Harry said.

Scott took the locket in his hand and squeezed it, turning it over in his fingers. "No. It's just a locket."

Harry found that worrying. He had assumed Scott's abilities would help them identify the Horcruxes. "We'll see," he said, hefting the sword. "Everyone stand back!"

"Wait!" Hermione exclaimed. She hurried off and dug through one of the cupboards, returning with a cutting board. "No need to damage the table," she said, placing it beneath the locket.

"Watch, now the damn thing will explode," Ron predicted.

Harry raised the sword over his head and brought it down with all his strength. The blade sheared through the locket with a metallic shriek, sending the two halves spinning as the sword cut deep into the board. They had all tensed when the blade met the silver, but there was nothing. The halves clattered to a stop, and silence returned.

Ginny wrinkled her nose. "That's it?"

"It was rather anticlimactic, wasn't it?" Hermione said.

Ron cautiously kicked a half that had landed near him; it skittered away without result. "This is weird, mate. I mean, I didn't want it to explode, but… All right, I guess I sort of did. "

"Kylie, don't touch that," Scott said when the girl approached the other half apprehensively. "Something isn't right. Maybe the potion was the primary protection, but you've ascribed semi-sapient qualities to the diary you killed."

"Perhaps it was sleeping," Ginny suggested, relief crossing her features.

Scott bent down to examine the locket halves. He picked up the half that Ron had kicked and stuck his finger inside of it. Finding nothing of interest, he dropped it on the table and went to retrieve the other. Harry grabbed it, and after a quick inspection he had to admit that it really did seem ordinary. The sheared edges were shiny compared to the rest of the tarnished surface, revealing its age.

"It shouldn't matter if it was inert," Hermione was saying. "The destruction of a soul is powerful, violent magic. There should have been some kind of reaction."

"Cut it again, Harry, maybe it's not really dead," Ron said.

Scott broke into the conversation with a tone of mixed amusement and resignation. "This clears up a few things." He held up a creased note that he had apparently extracted from the other locket half.

Without further comment, he handed it to Harry, who read:

To the Dark Lord
I know I will be dead long before you read this but I want you to know that it was I who discovered your secret. I have stolen the real Horcrux and intend to destroy it as soon as I can. I face death in the hope that when you meet your match you will be mortal once more.

R.A.B.

At first, Harry didn't understand. It didn't seem possible that he had never possessed a real Horcrux. He read it again, then again. There was little to interpret. The note was clear and concise. What it meant for the future was anything but. He felt as if he had climbed a mountain, only to fall back down.

The rage – old, familiar and simmering – began to set in, a slightly better alternative to despair. Had it all been for nothing? All the pain, fear and sacrifice for a fucking note? Dumbledore had given his life for this? It was like some horrible joke. Better luck next time, Potter, the universe seemed to say. His efforts were utterly futile. Nothing he did ever made a damn bit of difference.

"Harry…? What is it?" Ginny asked, looking alarmed at whatever she saw on his face.

"The princess is in another castle," Scott said laconically.

And then Harry had to get out of that room before he said or did something stupid (and Scott's sardonic amusement at the turn of events was infuriating beyond measure). He hurled the note down on the table and stormed upstairs, ignoring the confused cries that followed him. He had to be alone. He had to suppress the aching knot of anger and panic and unbearable frustration before he would be of any use to anyone.

He started to enter the room he had shared with Ron out of habit, too caught in his maelstrom of emotions to pay attention. Hermione's Imperturbable reminded him, painfully, of the reasons for not going in there. He withdrew his aching hand from the invisible field and lashed out with his foot at the nearest wall, leaving a sizeable dent in the plaster. The act did nothing to calm him.

The worst part of the discovery was that Dumbledore had died to retrieve a worthless fake; nearly as terrible was the realisation that they were right back at the beginning, surviving without advancing. It wasn't enough to just stay alive whilst being hunted. They had to find victories if they were ever going to win.

Now one of the keys to victory was gone, taken by an unknown party who may or may not have destroyed it. And they could not afford to assume. The idea of facing Voldemort without knowing for certain that there were no Horcruxes left… Even if they won, it would only be a matter of time until the cycle started again. Harry wanted finality, one way or the other. At least if he died, he wouldn't have to deal with another Prophecy.

He made his way to the room he shared with Ginny, trying not to dwell on his last thought. Grimmauld Place encouraged such musings; the building carried a heavy air, an oppressive weight. The dim hallways and dark décor always made Harry feel as if he were underground, traversing some ancient subterranean lair. He remembered his brief sojourn to the Slytherin common room. Something about Dark magic seemed to shun the sunlight in a very classical fashion. When he reached his room, he made sure to light it as much as possible. It didn't help much. Light never seemed to reach far in Grimmauld Place. Everything was permanently in shadow, shrouded by gloom.

He collapsed on his bed and ran his hands over his face and through his hair. He knew he shouldn't have run like that. He was supposed to be part of a team. But the thoughts of Dumbledore dying in vain had overwhelmed him. It was so difficult to accept that the Headmaster's last, great effort had been for nothing.

He was sure that Hermione would be pulling herself and everyone else back together to work on the next step soon. She was often implacable in her logic. Harry sighed, trying to release some of his tension and regain control. The fight wasn't over. The locket was a disappointment and a setback but it was not the end. As long as they were all still alive, Riddle would be resisted.

He tried not to think about the likelihood that they wouldn't be living much longer.


Hermione knew she should probably go to bed, but her mind was moving too quickly for sleep.

The discovery that the locket was a fake had been a major disappointment, and had left them all discouraged (save for Scott – Hermione suspected that whatever let down he might have experienced was offset by smug satisfaction: his instincts had been correct). When Harry had left, not even Ginny followed him. There was a general numbness that set in with the realisation that they had been further behind in the Horcrux hunt than they had known. They were left with nothing but vague clues and scant ideas as to following them.

Ideas were usually Hermione's province, and she was feeling the pressure. Not for the first time, she wished the others shared her intellectual proclivities. It was nice to be relied upon, but sometimes she felt isolated in her research, expected to deliver solutions simply because she had in the past. She herself was largely to blame for that perception. She had consistently taken command of such tasks, and (if she were to be honest), occasionally belittled the academic gifts of her friends, unintentionally and otherwise.

She was the clever one. Everybody said so. Prior to Hogwarts, that was all she had been. Meeting Ron and Harry had allowed her to grow and change and occasionally take on other roles. Being a friend, a fighter; now, a girlfriend.

A girlfriend… That was a new title. She felt her heart skip at the concept. She thought it lucky that Ron was as inexperienced as she, since she doubted she had been an ideal significant other. The whirlwind of events they were caught in demanded the majority of her attention. As they had established a place of safety, perhaps she could spend more time with Ron, the way Harry and Ginny had been together more.

Of course, Harry and Ginny had also been sharing a room. Hermione bit her lower lip nervously, considering that. It hadn't been so long ago that she would have objected to the arrangement on moral grounds, but, now… Now, whatever comfort could be found in the shadow of evil seemed a small transgression, indeed. Even Scott, who was at least nominally the adult in their party, had done no more than inquire as to whether they all knew the contraceptive spell (which she really ought to have expected; and, in regard to sexual discourse, it had been responsible of him, despite his inconsiderate manner). It all left her to wonder if by clinging to irrelevant modes of propriety she was only depriving herself. Who was she seeking to impress with her virtue? Mrs Weasley, no longer present? The parents who didn't even remember her? There were lines and then there were lines, and many had faded beneath greater issues. Nothing said she had to have intercourse with Ron… She wouldn't mind being held, though.

She worried at her lip some more, thinking of how to best broach the subject with him. She was having difficulty conceiving of any method that wouldn't make her sound like a 'scarlet woman', as Ron had so humorously put it once. Ginny didn't seem to have that problem. But Ginny had been quite forward with Harry, and it did seem to be working. Harry had a complicated tangle of intimacy issues bestowed on him by his horrible relatives. Perhaps Ginny knew she would never get anywhere if she left things up to him.

Ron didn't have the same problems, but he did have a strong sense of inadequacy ensured by his accomplished older brothers, and a close friendship with a world-famous wizarding hero. It had come between him and Hermione before. Sharing a room might go a ways towards ameliorating that, making it totally clear that she wanted to be with him. They'd been so busy that he could probably use a reminder.

What would he think, though, at the suggestion? What would he expect? She crossed her arms beneath her breasts, imagining them bared to his gaze and feeling the heat flood her face. She didn't think she could handle that, not yet. Just the idea of being next to Ron in a bed, draped in his limbs, his presence large and warm and so intrinsically male… It all left her suffused with a heady combination of comfort, desire and fear. The concept of pressing herself against him in such a position, feeling the contours of his chest and stomach and perhaps even the clearest sign of whatever interest she could stir in him… It was odd how apprehension and arousal were not mutually exclusive.

The precise instant she became thankful that she was alone was, predictably, right when Scott came strolling in. He slouched in the chair across the table and tented his fingers, assessing her. She lifted her chin defiantly, and fought against her lingering blush.

"Everyone else is in bed, or at least in their rooms," he said. "I assume you're deep in thought."

"Yes," she replied, volunteering nothing.

"Judging from your flush, pupils, and the way you're poking against your shirt, I can guess what you were thinking about."

She bit the inside of her cheek and blushed further, trying to tug her shirt out a bit without making it obvious. "Then you can keep that guess to yourself!"

He nodded. "And you? Will you be sharing with anyone?"

She sighed and looked away. "…I haven't decided yet."

"Another hard decision."

"Well, this one isn't quite so earthshaking as some others."

"That depends how close you are to it. You are very close, and you might be taking things a lot closer."

She felt like she should be offended. "Perhaps I'm not that kind of girl."

"I think you could be, which is part of what you find so disconcerting."

She glared at him. "You really think you know everything, don't you. You think you've got us all so perfectly charted."

"Never. But I do think I'm right about this."

"What does it matter to you?" she demanded. "Ron and I are already together, your job is done. Further interest at this point is perverted; are you trying to breed us?"

He leaned forward on the table with exaggerated interest. "No, but since you've advanced such an intriguing idea…"

"You're vile," she sighed.

"And you're weird. I've got a teenager with a boyfriend in a safe house sans parental restrictions, and she's getting on to me for not being more repressive."

"You're supposed to be!"

"I'm supposed to be your friend and ally, not your dad. I'm here to protect and advise you, and to that end I already asked about safe sex. I was responsible. What else am I supposed to do? Confine you to separate rooms? Watch you twenty-four hours a day? Nobody here is going to be discouraged from sex by my non-existent authority. I came to you at Hogwarts as an equal. If you guys decide to start fucking each other, I can't stop it."

She didn't really know how to cope with the idea of her and Ron… doing that. "I see your point. But you're still an example for Kylie."

He spread his hands. "And who am I sleeping with? Anybody who tells you they've taken this ride is lying."

"That's good to know, seeing as you've spent most of your time surrounded by girls far younger than yourself. Sarah Hilman from Hufflepuff was telling anyone who would listen for awhile that you… Well, it's personal."

He looked at her disbelievingly. "What? That I did what?"

"I'm not repeating it!"

"Well, I don't even know who that is, goddammit!"

"Oh, don't have a fit. Nobody smart believed her."

"That leaves a lot of people who did."

"That's a rather dim view of the Hogwarts population… if fairly accurate," she conceded. "I don't think you need to worry about gossipy Hufflepuffs at this point."

"Neither do you."

"Steer me not towards temptation," she said dryly.

"My hands are off the wheel," he said. "It's your morals, your body, your love. I was merely curious as to the direction of your musings."

"You'll have to stay curious. I'm not rushing into anything."

"True to form," he said without disapprobation.

"Do you think I'm too careful?" she asked suddenly, voicing an old fear. "Maybe all I do is hold everyone back…"

"They need it. Harry is impetuous enough for all of you."

"But I– I wonder sometimes if I've ruined things for them, on occasion, and perhaps I'm not… Perhaps I can't be as passionate as Ron needs, and–"

He interrupted her. "Every fire needs a wet blanket? It's not that simple. Friendship is about balance, especially yours. Harry is an effective loose cannon, but he has to get to where he's going first. As for Ron, I think he's decided what he needs. And he's more likely to be worried that you don't need him."

"But I do!"

"I suggest you tell him that. And why." Scott stood up and stretched. "Also, go to sleep. We have a locket to find all over again."

Hermione's thoughts immediately switched gears. She made her way up to her room, again pondering the mystery of the locket. She might have saved it for later, as she was unlikely to make any progress without further information, but there was something about the whole mess… The initials R.A.B. seemed familiar, she felt as though she had seen them before, and recently. Even more oddly, she thought of them as being connected to Scott. But that didn't make sense. He didn't know much about magic (could barely use it), and R.A.B., whoever they were, would likely be found in historical tomes if they had defied Riddle in the last war. Although, perhaps not. The act had obviously gone unnoticed.

She couldn't imagine Scott ever mentioning such a person. The mental connection had to come from somewhere else, or be an aberration. If he knew who R.A.B. was he would have said something when he had read the note.

And yet, the feeling persisted.

She was standing outside her door, mere feet away from the comfort of bed, when she doubled back to find Scott and put the question to him before it faded. She reached the stairwell and then realised that she didn't know what room he was staying in, if any. He had been remarkably difficult to keep track of, considering he had been confined to the same building as the rest of them. Or, he supposedly was. She wouldn't have been surprised if he were wandering the nearby streets in search of threats.

Drat. The last thing she wanted was to search for him again. Scott's frequent disappearances at Hogwarts had carried over to Grimmauld Place.

Well… If he weren't outside, he had to be in one of the rooms. Checking each bedroom in turn would be simple enough. There were three bedrooms he definitely wouldn't be in, as they were occupied or sealed off, so she skipped those. She made sure to check in on Kylie and see if the girl were sleeping soundly. She was, but Scott was not keeping vigil in the padded chair by the window. Nor was he in the hallway outside, as he had been previously.

I should have never let him wander off, Hermione thought as she ascended the last flight of stairs before the attic. The door to Sirius' old room was ajar, so she pushed it open.

Scott was slumped on the foot of the bed, eyes closed. He was still fully dressed and armed, and didn't have the appearance of intending to stay. She frowned down at him, concerned. When was the last time he had slept? She didn't know how hard he was pushing himself, or how far he could. The source and limits of his stamina remained a mystery (and he probably preferred it that way). Whatever the case, the stream of low light from the partially opened door highlighted the dark circles beneath his eyes.

She was just wondering if she ought to leave him be when he spoke. "I'm not staying. Harry wouldn't want me in here."

"Harry wouldn't begrudge you a bed to sleep in," she said.

"He can allow me a nap. I'll be up in a minute."

"Why don't you just stay here for the night?" she suggested.

He took a long breath through his nose. "I don't trust the charm like you do. And I don't know if the threads I cut are going to re-grow, I need to check on them now and then."

"I understand the second point, but why don't you trust the charm? It's never failed before."

"That you know of. No defence is perfect."

"Granted." She glanced around the poorly illuminated room; she could see how Sirius' taste in décor would appeal to Scott for its Muggle roots, if nothing else. "I've had a sudden thought that I can't seem to disregard."

That grabbed his attention, as she thought it might. He put a great deal of stock in sudden thoughts. He sat up. "What's that?"

"When you saw the note was signed 'R.A.B.', that didn't mean anything to you at all?

"No. Why? Do you think I'm forgetting something?"

"Not precisely. I seem to have associated you with those initials, and I can't understand why."

"Hmm." Scott lay back down and closed his eyes again. "Well, I can tell you that I didn't take the original locket."

She rolled her eyes. He could at least try to help her. "Obviously. The initials would have been S… Whatever your middle name is, K."

"I don't have one."

"You don't…" She stopped herself, not allowing her curiosity to distract her. "Anyway, you have no thoughts on this at all?"

He shrugged, an odd expression for his horizontal position. "Not this time. Ask me again later. The shape might be accommodating, though I doubt it. Maybe something will come to me."

She sighed and shook her head. "Only if you get some sleep. Please just stay here tonight, you need to rest."

"Kylie–"

"Can handle your absence for a bit. I'll make sure she doesn't have any problems."

Scott grunted in response, neither a yes or a no. She turned to leave when he stopped her. "Hermione?"

"Yes?"

"I had another question for our earlier conversation. It's personal."

"Of course it is."

He rocked his shoulders, settling deeper into the mattress. "Why didn't you ever get together with Harry? It seems like the opportunity was there."

She had expected another interrogative concerning Ron, not a new and even more difficult area of inquiry. "You're right, that is personal."

"It's not that personal."

She sighed. "I didn't feel that way for him. Why would that surprise you? You're the one who pushed Ron and I together. You've always been insistent on coupling according to the grand design of your shape."

"The shape allows for many permutations. I try to steer you towards the best path, but that's a very subjective goal."

"Hence my continued difficulty accepting your tampering. Was there anything else?" she said curtly.

"Specifics, if you would humour me. Wasn't there ever a point where you thought Harry was bound to be with you? Didn't your closeness ever foster desire?"

"I was quite young when I met Harry, and, honestly, puberty pushed me towards Ron." She cast a furtive glance towards the door. "Don't you dare tell him I said this, but I've never found Harry… especially attractive. To me!" she hastened to add. "I can understand his appeal to other girls, but, he's a bit short and thin, and… Well. I've never really thought of myself as the kind of girl who has a 'type', but…"

"Big, brawny and red," Scott assessed.

She blushed, but couldn't exactly argue. "I suppose so."

"Did you feel like you went against expectations?"

She didn't know if Scott were digging for anything in particular, or if a little invasive psychology before bedtime helped him sleep. "I think a lot of people expected us to be a couple in the first three years… And maybe even after, I'm not sure. I'd thought at the time I was being rather blatant in my attempts to get Ron's attention, around the Yule Ball in particular."

"Just took you a little longer to reel him in."

She rolled her eyes. "Just a little."

"Think of how Ginny feels. At least Ron knew you existed."

"Part of me," Hermione corrected. "The part that was a good mate and technically female."

Scott took so long to answer that she started to wonder if he had fallen asleep. "…There's some resentment there," he mumbled. "Don't sit on it. Talk it out."

"Easy for you to say," she grumbled.

"It is, yeah."

She left him, her head no less stuffed with whirling questions than it had been when she had found him. Scott had a long history of leaving her with more questions than answers, but this time he had provided no answers at all. Not entirely his fault, to be sure, but why he had felt it was the perfect time to begin some impromptu amateur therapy…

She shut the door behind her, hoping he would stay put and rest. In the motion of turning, she glanced across the hallway at the door opposite of Sirius'. That was when the plaque mounted there caught her eye. It solved the mystery of why she had thought of Scott to begin with, for it had been with him that she had seen it before it had been worthy of notice:

Do Not Enter Without the Express Permission of Regulus Arcturus Black


The next day put them on the path to the real locket, but it didn't take long for it to become apparent just how twisting that road was.

Harry had enthusiastically joined in the ransacking of Regulus' room. The ostentatious amount of Slytherin-themed ornamentation made it feel like they were destroying something belonging to the enemy, even though that enemy was long dead (and had perhaps been an ally). They had torn it apart, searching every nook and cranny for even the slightest clue. None of them had been hopeful enough to believe they would find the locket itself so easily. Scott had taken charge of the search in a rigidly methodical fashion; he had obviously done that sort of thing before. But, despite such direction, they had found nothing.

By noon, all they were left with was the name.

They gathered in the kitchen once again, sitting in glum silence. The only sound came from Kylie, of all people, as she crunched her way through an apple – apparently she didn't mind making noise if there was food involved.

"All right," Hermione said, her face smudged with dust. "We know a bit about Regulus Black from what we just went through and what Harry's told us. So let's try to narrow things down, at least somewhat."

Harry stared at the tabletop, doing his best to contain his frustrations. "Go on."

"I doubt that R.A.B. ever destroyed the locket. We know first hand how difficult it is; there's not much out there which will do the trick. Sirius said that Riddle killed Regulus, correct, Harry?"

"Yeah. He said that Regulus tried to back out of being a Death Eater."

"Not the best severance package," Scott murmured.

"Retirement plan: six feet of dirt and a decently comfortable coffin," Ron quipped.

"Burial at your own expense."

Hermione pondered the information. "It almost had to be unrelated… Riddle never discovered that the locket was missing from the cave. Regulus may have rebelled, but he kept that secret."

"For all the good it does us," Ginny said. "He just made things even harder!"

Hermione sighed. "At least he meant well."

Harry reached under his glasses and rubbed at his eyes, feeling a headache coming on. "Comforting, that."

"He must have stored it somewhere. If he knew anything about Horcruxes, then he must have known better than to keep it in his own room. He would have put it somewhere safe."

"Gringotts?" Ron said.

"I hope not, I really do. We would have a serious problem."

"What about inheritance? Anything that this R.A.B. guy had should be Sirius', and anything of Sirius' is now Harry's," Scott said.

"Even if it is in my vault, I can't get to it," Harry said.

"Let's try to establish whether or not it was ever here before we worry about getting into Gringotts," Hermione said sagely.

Scott made a noise of concurrence. He rocked his chair back onto two legs and stared at the ceiling. "Hiding something important means either putting it somewhere it would never be found, or placing it in such an environment that, even if it was found, it would be unremarkable."

Harry looked at him. "So, if you were hiding the locket, where would you put it?"

"Around here… In the attic. Minimal foot traffic, maximum mess. It would be just another trinket on the crap pile, if anyone bothered to look."

"If we're going to search, we might as well take it from the top." Hermione rose from her chair and moved purposefully towards the stairs. "Besides, we can clean as we go!"

"Oh, frabjous day," Scott muttered.

"Do you think you could give me some hand-to-hand training? Like, right now?" Ron asked as he followed Scott upstairs. "Getting my arms broken would be really instructive."

"But then who would break my arms?"

The attic was intolerably dusty. Hermione and Scott had been the only two who'd known what to expect inside. The ceiling was not as high as Harry had thought, and it sloped downwards in a triangular shape, forcing everyone to hunch if they walked close to the walls. The peaked nature of the roof was extremely odd, considering that from the outside the building was square. It was like architecture from an entirely different house.

"Start in the corners, work your way towards the middle," Scott instructed. "I'll man the perimeter."

"I can't get to the corner," Ginny complained. She was trying to squeeze between two lumpy objects covered in sheets without success.

"Let's get rid of these sheets and all this dust first, that will make things easier," Hermione said.

The sheets were soon piled outside the worn white door, and a liberal usage of cleaning spells took care of the majority of dust. The process had mostly revealed a great deal of old furniture, some of it clearly expensive. Whilst the others cleaned, Harry dug through the standing cabinet that Scott had led him to, setting aside the things which had once belonged to Sirius that he wanted to keep or examine further. He even found another old box of shells in a lower drawer.

The search went on for a time without any useful discoveries. Nothing related to Horcruxes or even Dark magic turned up. The attic was full of the kind of useless household amenities that built up in a residence. It seemed that the Blacks kept their more dangerous artefacts closer at hand.

It was Ron who found the old velvet box underneath a discarded mound of other boxes. It was empty, but the white silk lining was formed into a perfect impression of the locket. They gathered around to examine it.

"Too bad R.A.B. didn't use this for the real locket," Ron said.

Ginny frowned and held out her hand. "Can I see that?" Ron handed her the box and she put it next to the light from her wand. "I didn't see the locket up close, but this shape… It looks familiar, somehow, I don't think that Mum has anything like it…"

"Then how could it be familiar? It's been sitting in goop for as long as you've been alive," Scott said, but his tone wasn't mocking.

"I don't know. I thought we threw something like this away, though, the last time we cleaned. I remember it was chucked with the rest of… the rubbish…" She stopped and her eyes widened.

There was a brief moment of inactivity as her words sunk in. Like a lightning bolt, the memory of the locket in the drawing room shot through Harry's mind. The strange, silver and green locket that nobody could open. Tossed with the rest of the rubbish…

"Oh, fuck," Harry said in a dead voice.

Even Hermione did not reprimand him. If the real locket had been discarded, thrown into a bin and forgotten, then it would be hidden more completely than Riddle had ever intended. It would be buried somewhere beneath mountains of refuse. They could never find it.

"Now, hold on a minute," Scott said sceptically. "You're thinking that the Horcrux got thrown away?"

"I know it did. I remember there was a whole box of rubbish that Mum wanted gone," Ginny said.

"So… you guys just throw magical artefacts out with the rest of your shit? Isn't that illegal? How is the Statute of Secrecy even possible if every landfill is littered with all your cursed junk?"

Hermione immediately brightened. "He's right. Normal rubbish can be put out with the bins, and some of the things here must have been, but magical items have to be properly disposed of. There's a whole process for it at the Ministry – your father would have been involved in some of it, when it concerned Muggle objects," she said to Ron and Ginny.

"Mum wanted that stuff out of sight, anything Dark or suspicious," Ginny supplied. "I don't think she ever went to the Ministry."

"I'll bet she boxed it up, our attic is full of boxes," Ron said.

Hermione raised her wand and swept the light around the room. "Right! Finish up in here, and then we'll check every cupboard."

"Mum never came up here, we should go check the cupboards now," Ginny said impatiently.

Hermione appeared uncomfortable with that plan – probably not happy with leaving a job half done – but she acquiesced. "All right. We know a lot of those things came from the drawing room, so let's start there."

The drawing room was more bare than Harry remembered, no doubt the work of Mundungus. He approached the shelf where the Horcrux had once sat, just another bauble in a house full of them. If he looked closely enough, he could almost see the dusty outline. How had the locket come to be on that shelf? It seemed like a poor hiding place for an object of such danger. He couldn't believe he had held it in his hands, not so long ago. It had done nothing to him. It must have known it was in no danger. The realisation that the Horcruxes were smart enough to understand when they were discovered was a sobering one. The slivers of Riddle's soul carried his evil intellect with them.

"Harry, look at this," Ginny called.

He left his contemplation of the empty shelves and joined his friends at the cupboard in the far corner. The dusty carpet inside had clear footprints pressed into it. Amidst the clutter there was an empty box on its side.

"Not our footprints, obviously," Ginny said quietly.

Everyone was looking at him. No doubt they were preparing for the effusion of rage that would ensue once he drew the same conclusion as the rest of them. And he already had. Mundungus Fletcher had beaten them to the Horcrux, just as R.A.B. had before. Harry tightened his fists until they shook, but managed to keep himself together. He felt more than a little embarrassed that everyone so clearly expected him to explode.

"Fletcher took it, then," he said in as calm a voice as he could muster. It probably didn't work so well emerging from clenched teeth.

"That fucking twat!" Ron burst out.

"Ron!" Hermione gasped.

"He is!" Ron said unapologetically. "Now what? It could be anywhere!"

"Mundungus… He's the Order member with the fence operation, correct?" Scott asked.

"I don't think he's smart enough to have an 'operation'. He's just a thief," Ginny scoffed.

Scott shrugged, not interested in the distinction. "Well, when we saw him in Hogsmeade I took a suitcase worth of stuff from him, was there a locket in there?"

Harry's heart, just moments before sunk with despair, jumped with hope. "I don't know, I just chucked it in my trunk and forgot about it, I never looked…"

"It's a good lead," Scott opined.

There was a snag, Harry knew, one that had also occurred to Hermione, judging by the expression on her face. "We had to leave Harry's trunk at The Burrow," she said. "Oh! Unless Lila brought it with her?"

Scott pulled his mobile out from somewhere in his many pockets. "On it."

"If it is at The Burrow, we'll have to be very careful," Hermione said, resuming the conversation as Scott walked away with his ear to the mobile.

"Maybe some of the wards are still up," Ron said, though he didn't sound like he believed that. The look on his face made it clear what he thought of the alternative.

Harry could relate. The idea of Death Eaters roaming unopposed throughout The Burrow was violently repulsive. He was angry just thinking about what they might have done. In all his life, he had only found himself at home in two places, and now both of them had been violated. Ginny took hold of his right arm, either sensing his mood or seeking comfort for herself. He leaned into her and hoped, for her sake even more than his, that The Burrow was still intact.

"If we go, we should do it at night," he said.

Ginny moved her head closer and whispered, "What about Kylie?"

Harry glanced over to where Kylie was seated on the sofa. She was reading a book that he hoped she had been given by Hermione, as most of the books in Grimmauld Place were not appropriate for her (or anyone, really).

"Scott said he had an idea," Hermione offered.

"Did he bother to share it?" Ron asked.

"What do you think?"

"Wait until he's done, then we'll see," Harry said.

Scott lowered the phone from his ear. "They didn't take your trunk. Lil says they were already loaded down, so anything of ours is probably still there."

"Damn." Harry squeezed Ginny's hand a bit tighter when he felt her tense; she knew they were going. "All right. We'll need to start planning."

"Yeah. Oh, and Ginny…" Scott held the mobile out towards her. "Your mom wants to talk to you."

Ginny paled. "What?"

"Your mom. She's on the phone. Don't shout, she can hear you just fine, and give it back to me when you're done." Scott actually looked sympathetic, which was not a good sign. "You might want to take this out in the hall, but don't wander far."

Ginny looked a trifle faint. She took the mobile from Scott's hand the way she might a live snake. She hesitantly raised it to her ear, looking to Harry to make sure she was doing it right. When he nodded, she took a deep breath and said, "…Mum?"

The outburst from the other end was not comprehensible, but definitely audible. Harry fervently prayed that Mrs Weasley did not want to talk to him next. He hadn't been raised in the Weasley household and didn't know how to deal with a scolding, never had.

Ginny winced and her lower lip trembled for a moment. Then she took another deep breath, and her face set with familiar determination. "I'm fine, Mum! I… No! I can't! I can't!" she insisted, rapidly walking out the door.

"Don't go far!" Scott yelled after her.

"Scott, don't you dare give me that bloody thing next," Ron warned.

"I would have preferred to avoid it, but Lil can only do so much."

"Will she be joining us once the Weasleys are settled?" Hermione asked, steadfastly ignoring the shouting echoing in from the hall.

"Unlikely. Charlie and Bill have been talking with the Order. If they get together to strike back, they'll need Lil."

"Keep Lila with them, we've got you," Ron insisted.

"I was planning on it, relax. Now let's get some food while we still can, we have to go to The Burrow and who knows what's waiting for us."

"You said earlier you had a plan for…?" Hermione subtly nodded her head towards Kylie.

"It's in progress," Scott said unhelpfully.

"BECAUSE I LOVE HIM AND I'M STAYING!" Ginny screeched from somewhere outside.

"…How very awkward," Scott said after a pause. "Ron, go tell your sister not to break my com."

"Tell her yourself!" Ron said.

Harry was touched to hear Ginny proclaim her love for him, and to her mother, no less, but couldn't help wishing she hadn't dragged his name into that mess. His good graces with Mrs Weasley were probably in serious jeopardy. No mother would be pleased to have her daughter rushing off into danger for some boy, even if that boy was the Chosen One and a friend of the family.

"I never should have let her come," he said miserably.

"That's not your choice," Hermione told him sharply. "Would you have left me behind?"

Maybe if he'd ever thought it were possible. Though, then again… "No," he said reluctantly. "I need your help."

"Be sure to tell Ginny she's of no use! And it's nice to know I don't rate for companionship," Hermione snapped.

She stalked off, leaving the room. Ron went after her, stopping for a second to give Harry a look of disbelief.

Harry sighed. "Why do I even bother talking at all?"

"Masochism," Scott said through a mouthful of a cereal bar he hadn't been eating a moment before. "Rampant, unbridled masochism."

"And why do I bother talking to you?"

"Refer to my previous statement. Kylie, do you want granola?"

When Ginny came back in, she looked exhausted. She practically hurled the mobile at Scott and collapsed on the sofa with her head in her hands. Harry wanted to comfort her, but wasn't sure that would be safe. He was at least indirectly to blame for her distress.

"Why did Lila teach Mum to use that thing?" she groaned.

"Consider yourself lucky she stalled as long as she did," Scott said.

She looked at him through her fingers. "You aren't going to make me go back, are you?"

"Why the hell would I do that?"

"Never mind," she said a bit more cheerfully. "What are we eating?"

Back to index


Chapter 11: When We Remembered Zion

11

When We Remembered Zion


"The 'Long Night', they called it, two hundred
days of darkness in which the cold took back
the countryside and the populace went dormant
below the permafrost. The same astrophysical
phenomenon that birthed the unique economy
of Arcturus created the eclipse which took it all
away once every twelve years. Many would leave,
returning with the light. Those who stayed would
watch their world freeze, held in stasis,
succumbing to sleep.

But the war did not freeze. It would burn hot,
cracking the ice, dispelling the night with the flash
of muzzles and the bright blast of artillery. The
two hundred days would not reign in silence so
long as the Commonwealth maintained their
position. As the shadow of Stygia fell over the
planet, the soldiers girded themselves for the
long, cold dark. The formations did not change.
No terms were given. This refusal to retreat
would result in the most horrific chapter of
the Border 219 Conflict. Few would leave the
Long Night unscathed; all would remember
the lessons in darkness."

–Colonel Had Yinsen, Ret., The Long Night


The plan was simple.

They would Apparate to the edge of the woods where they had previously Disapparated to Lila's flat. From there, they would retrace their steps to The Burrow, taking stock of the situation and looking for any new traps. At that point, based on the level of opposition, they would either approach the house or try something else. Harry and Scott would go first (Assault Team), whilst Ron, Hermione and Ginny would take position on the first floor (Fire Team – Scott had been very insistent in his terminology).

Ginny had complained for a bit about not being part of the Assault Team, but it hadn't done her any good. Scott had been unyielding when it came to 'squad' composition and everyone else seemed willing to give way to his experience. Ginny couldn't help but think that Lila would have put her on Assault Team…

Since then, they had all tried to keep busy until nightfall. Scott had weaponry to attend to and Harry was back to shooting cups. Hermione was in her room studying, where Ron was no doubt studying her. That left Ginny with nothing to do. Even Kylie was assisting Scott with his guns, mutely handing him whatever tools or pieces he asked for. She seemed to be enjoying herself, though it was hard to tell.

Grimmauld Place was cold and musty and bereft of amusements. So she loitered outside the dining hall, covering her ears and waiting for Harry to run out of ammunition or stamina. Snogging was about the only pastime she could think of that didn't involve a book. Unless Harry was willing to share his new toy. She knew it was dangerous, but she kind of liked that.

She leaned against the door and watched him reload with limited success; he was trying a technique he had yet to master. She admired the way his lean arms cradled the weapon with little regard to its weight. Harry had long had the appearance of being underfed, but he was finally filling out, gaining a definition to his chest and shoulders that made her pulse quicken.

And she loved him. That still was strange to admit, even to herself. Her feelings for Harry had aged with her, progressing each year: infatuation, longing, lust and then love. Time had blurred the lines between them, the steps indistinct. When had her awe been replaced by respect? When had she supplanted a want for the hero of the stories with a need for the real one? She was uncertain. It was enough to know she could at last be with him, despite his many attempts to ensure otherwise.

That was a persistent fault of his. Loving the person instead of wanting the legend had meant coming to understand just how much wreckage he insisted on carrying with him. Harry had always been unable to let go of guilt, clinging stubbornly to regret. He was a martyr in his own mind, determined to sacrifice all he was to save those he loved. He never seemed to grasp how pointless a gesture it was. Those who were close to him either couldn't or wouldn't be saved in such a fashion. He just wanted to assuage his unwarranted guilt by abandoning the people he felt were afflicted with his existence.

It was enough to drive her mad, most days.

Even after it had been made repeatedly clear that Ginny wasn't going anywhere, Harry still dragged his feet in their relationship. It was true that they had made great progress recently. That was largely due to her ongoing war against his reserve.

Contrary to some of the nastier rumours that had circulated Hogwarts, Ginny was not a slag. Neither of her previous boyfriends had made it any further than her neck, and not due to lack of trying on their part. For whatever reason, the curvature that she had expected to gain at the onset of her teen years had never quite come to fruition. She ended up short but still willowy, her pleasure at maintaining a tiny waist offset by maintaining a tiny everything else. But she had learned that her red hair, bright smile and confidence could do what other girls relied solely on their figure to accomplish. And not every bloke was looking for an excess of padding, anyway (Charlie's fascination with Lila's extravagant bust notwithstanding). Harry certainly didn't seem to mind.

And she had been giving him plenty of opportunities not to mind. From the outset, she had recognised that he wasn't going to push, not when it came to her, so she had to advance their relationship enough for the both of them. The outcome had sometimes been awkward in retrospect, and a lot of her confidence had been a front. She forcefully sublimated her doubts and hesitation because he had enough for both of them. She wasn't always certain when to ease back on the pressure and when to increase it, but, if his tense stance as he held his dangerous new toy was any indication, he needed another dose of the particular care only his girlfriend could provide.

That was when, out of the corner of her eye, she saw the front door begin to open.

It slid forward, then back, and then jumped forward again, as if whoever was opening it was unsure if they wanted to enter. It took Ginny a moment to understand what she was seeing. The house was invisible, and everyone who could get inside of it already was. So if the door was opening…

"HARRY!" she shouted to gain his attention, and then she sprinted down the hallway and hurled herself against the door. A surprised squeak came from the other side, but the door itself barely moved; the breath whooshed from Ginny's lungs at the impact.

Harry came rushing down the hall with his Muggle weapon in hand, trying to reload it whilst running. He snapped it shut, and Ginny heard a gasp from the threshold.

"Hold fire!" a high-pitched voice yelled out. "Friendly! Friendly!" A tiny, pale hand poked through the opening and waved back and forth.

Harry hesitated. "Who's there?"

Ginny found herself being pushed aside as the door opened further. "It's Sophie! Remember me?"

In stepped a diminutive woman with curly brown hair, a pixie face and large green eyes. She was dressed in Muggle attire and carried a sizeable rucksack in one hand. Ginny didn't recognise her, but Harry seemed to.

"Sophie!" he exclaimed, lowering his weapon. "How did you get in?"

"I had help," she said. She turned to close the door in the same halting fashion she had opened it. "Scott let me in on the charm, it's very interesting! I had a little trouble with the door…" She extended one perfectly manicured hand towards Ginny. "Hello, Ginny, we didn't have a chance to meet last time. I'm Sophie Strauss, I work with Scott."

Ginny shook the offered appendage; the woman's grip was stronger than a hand that delicate had any right to be. "Hello. Sorry about slamming the door into you."

"It's my fault," Sophie said graciously. "Scott told me to just come in, but I should have known better. Is he upstairs or down?"

Harry started to reply, and that was the moment when the curtains on the wall flew open to reveal Mrs Black's portrait. She began to howl her usual torrent of abuse. "Mudbloods, filthy half-breeds defiling my house! Blood traitors, get out–"

Harry jumped forward and wrestled the drapes shut, swearing at the old woman under his breath. When silence fell once again, Ginny looked back to see that Sophie had produced a handgun from somewhere in her clothing and was aiming it at the portrait. Ginny wondered if a bullet would have been effective. Perhaps Harry could practise on Mrs Black at some point.

"My goodness!" Sophie breathed, tucking her gun away. "Did I do something wrong?"

"No, that's just Mrs Black, she's barking mad," Harry said, glaring at the covered painting. "Just shut the curtains again if she shouts at you. Here, I think Scott is downstairs with Kylie."

Sophie followed them to the stairwell, curiously studying her surrounds. Her expression remained polite, but Ginny couldn't imagine she was impressed. Nobody else was.

Scott was still at the table, performing some kind of maintenance on a weapon Ginny had never seen before. Kylie was placing bullets on the table in neat rows with great concentration; it seemed Scott had found an unlikely apprentice.

"Scott!" Sophie called out excitedly. Kylie started and knocked over some of the ammunition.

"Sophie, my dear, how wonderful to see you," Scott said with overstated cordiality. "I see you've got your tits back, and they are marvellous."

Sophie gasped in shock. "Scott! Don't sexually harass me in front of a child!"

"Ooh, you're right." Scott pointed at Kylie. "Kylie, forget I just said that."

Kylie nodded.

"Anywho," Scott said uncomfortably, "welcome to base camp."

"It looks very… defensible," Sophie said with careful courtesy.

Harry snorted dismissively. "Don't hold back for my sake. This place is a rubbish heap."

"It just needs some fixing," Sophie said positively. "What are the other floors like?"

"I'll give you the tour," Scott told her. "In the event of ward failure there are only a few points of ingress."

They left and went upstairs. To Ginny's surprise, Kylie stayed behind and continued counting out her neat rows of bullets.

"She seems nice," Ginny said to Harry.

"She is. She's about the opposite of Lila, from what I remember."

"Hey, I like Lila!" she objected.

"I mean, she's not… You know, pushy like Lila."

"And Scott."

"And Scott, yeah."

Ginny brushed her hair back from her face. "Do you think she's pretty?" she asked casually.

Harry just looked at her. "I'm not falling for that again."

"It's just a simple question, Harry."

"Are you going to do this every time Scott brings in some pretty new Kharadjai?"

"Ah ha! You do think she's pretty."

"Her and half the girls at Hogwarts, so what?" Harry said exasperatedly. "How many of them did I end up with?"

Ginny wasn't actually threatened by Sophie any more than she had been by Lila. Rather, it was that Ginny took a perverse pleasure in tormenting Harry in that one specific fashion. He was just too adorable when flustered (and, no matter how much faith she had in his strength of character, it was always nice to hear that he only wanted her).

"Cho Chang," she said pointedly. Now, Cho was another matter entirely. Lila and Sophie were well off limits, but plenty of Hogwarts girls would have loved to get their claws into Harry – and Cho briefly had.

Harry sighed. "Thanks so much for reminding me of that huge mistake."

"Uh-huh, that'll teach you not to notice me!" Ginny was only partially joking, self-aware enough to know that jealousy was one of her less attractive features (and seemed to run in the family).

"I just love it when you get scary possessive," Harry said dryly.

"I don't think you can blame me after you've tried to chuck me about ten times," she rejoined. "If I let you go, you won't come back!"

"…That's fair," Harry sighed. His expression had become more serious. "Thanks for holding on, Gin."

She hugged him and pressed her mouth to his, savouring the rasp of his fledgling stubble and the way his lower lip felt beneath her tongue. "I had to, for both of us," she said once they separated. She had waited six years for him to see her as something other than Ron's little sister, despairing that maybe he never would, that she could never be what he wanted. Once she finally had him, he had tried to use fear as an excuse to tear them apart. She could never have stayed behind. She couldn't imagine bearing that.

She didn't express that to him, because he wouldn't understand. Only Hermione did, really. Two romantics waiting for a pair of thick-headed boys to see what was right in front of them.

"So…" Harry said, "I don't suppose you'd consider going back to your mum?"

"I'm going to pretend that you're joking," Ginny said, not letting go of him.

"It sounded like your talk didn't go well," he ventured.

That was a massive understatement. "We didn't 'talk' much. Mostly just yelled."

"We heard, yeah."

She grimaced. "It was hard, because I know she's scared for me, but she has to understand that I need to do this. And if we don't win, how long would I be safe hidden away? It's just…" She tried to find the right words. "I know she worries about Bill and the twins and Charlie, but she doesn't order them back home! But I'm the youngest and a girl, so I have to be coddled, always. It was like she couldn't even believe that I wanted to be a part of this. I need to be."

"It might be easier to think of you like that if you weren't so beautiful," Harry said without a hint of condescension.

She kissed him again – he'd just earned it. "Maybe I should carry bombs and stuff like Lila; then they'd take me seriously." She frowned. "I hope Mum doesn't go after her, now."

Harry didn't look concerned. "She can probably handle it."

Ginny knew he was right, though that raised the question of who would handle Lila. "So I suppose Sophie is here to look after Kylie when we're away?" she said, changing the subject.

"I think so. She doesn't do the same thing as Scott, she has a different speciality, or something," Harry said vaguely.

"She worked out how to open the door by herself," Ginny noted. It was a simple enough task, but for a non-witch without a wand?

Harry looked startled – he must not have thought about it. "Hey, you're right. I don't think she even had a wand, and Scott can barely light his…"

"Maybe she'll want to learn magic."

"Hermione would be happy to help. I'm not sure how much time she'll have, though."

"True." Ginny tugged at his hand and nodded towards the shotgun he had set on the table. "Come on, teach me how to use this thing."

Harry looked delighted. "Sure!" Then his face fell. "Except… I probably shouldn't. I'm just learning myself, Scott should show you how to be safe."

"I don't want Scott to show me, I want you to do it," she said stubbornly. "You don't have to let me shoot it, I just want to see what you do."

"Well, then Scott probably wouldn't care. I know I don't. I think there are some more ear plugs in that black bag, let's check."


Ron had plenty to worry about. He'd never been much of a worrier, mostly because Harry and Hermione took care of that, but even he couldn't ignore the immense difficulties ahead. And, thanks to the interference of Scott and Lila, he had something else unpleasant to look forward to: a possible call from his mum.

Sure, she had wanted to shout at Ginny first, and Hermione had said something about the need to vent and that Mum might settle down now, but Ron knew better. The next time the call came, it would be to berate him for letting his baby sister tag along, as if he had any choice in the matter. Mum just didn't understand the situation. He supposed that Lila might explain it to her. He was glad to be far removed from that conversation.

Hermione had been in a frenzy of research ever since it had become clear that they were returning to The Burrow. He understood the necessity of planning, and that she was trying to make progress on her spell for night missions, but he wished she would at least talk to him. He needed distraction. The adrenaline took the edge off the terror of the actual confrontations; it was the waiting which was unbearable.

She was fully immersed in her books; they were piled around her as if she were in the process of building a shelter. Her hunched position put her breasts in clear view, dangling tantalisingly from the confines of her jumper. He could remember the moment in fourth year when he'd first noticed that her chest was gaining some interesting properties, and it had only become better since then. He didn't know much about bra sizes and whatnot, but he knew what he liked. Hermione was less than Lila and more than Lavender, falling into the category known as perfect.

He looked away in case she caught him staring. He really couldn't help himself, though. Her chestnut hair fell around her face in a tempting tangle and her eyes were bright with interest, alight with that vital spark of intelligence which made her look so beautiful and alive. Why should he look away? There wasn't anything wrong with a bloke wanting his girlfriend. He was supposed to.

In fact, he had been trying to think of a way (inspired by Harry) to bring up sleeping arrangements without sounding like a complete pervert. There was more to it than just presentation; sharing a bed with Hermione would be temptation itself. He didn't know if he could trust himself not to touch her. And what if she wanted him to? What then? He was caught between desire, his upbringing and the distant but ever-present fear that each moment he had with her might be the last.

Not that any of it mattered when she was so busy. He knew how important her work was, and had thus far successfully resisted the urge to force her to take a break. Another half hour and he would anyway.

A knock at the door jolted him from his thoughts.

"Ron, could you get that?" Hermione said absently, turning a page.

He already was, expecting it to be Scott checking on Hermione's progress. He certainly hadn't expected to see the short woman who greeted him with a gleaming smile.

"Hi, Ron!" she said with a little wave of her hand. "Remember me? Sophie?"

It took Ron a moment to equate the wide-eyed, skinny girl he'd met at the Christmas party with the full-figured woman in front of him. "Right, Sophie. How are you?"

"Good, I'm good. Hermione, hello!"

Hermione had risen at the sound of an unfamiliar voice and walked up behind Ron. "Sophie!" she said with surprise. "When did you get here?"

"Just a few minutes ago. I tried to let myself in but it didn't work very well; I had some trouble with the door and then Ginny thought I was invading," Sophie told them with a sheepish tilt of her head.

"Scott failed to inform us of your arrival, I'm sure that didn't help," Hermione said. "Will you be staying long?"

"Yes!" Sophie replied enthusiastically. "I've been tasked with securing the dwelling for the duration of your stay. Do you have any food requests?"

"Uh… No?" Ron said, glancing at Hermione in confusion.

"We just went shopping, actually," Hermione said.

"Okay, I'll be sure to take stock of supplies. Scott is still showing me the building, so I'll see you around!" With that, Sophie shut the door and was gone.

"…So, is she like our secretary now?" Ron wondered.

"Ron, do yourself a favour and don't call her that," Hermione warned.

"Why? What's she going to do, be slightly less polite?" he scoffed. "Still, she's a nice change from the other Kharadjai we know."

"She might not do much, but Scott fancies her, remember?"

"Does he?" Ron had honestly not noticed at the party, but he'd had Hermione firmly on his mind then (some things didn't change, he reckoned).

"I thought so. Either way, we could use the help."

Ron gave her a sideways glance. She was finally on her feet, which seemed like a good time to intercede. "How about you take a breather?" he suggested.

She straightened out her jumper and ran a hand through her hair. "Yes… I'm not getting anywhere with that spell as it is. I need more sources, I think."

That wasn't Ron's cup of tea, but he knew that spell creation, and even the modification of an existing spell, was highly difficult. "I just wish I could help you. I'm rubbish at that stuff."

"No, you aren't, don't say that!" She scolded. Maybe he was sick, but he'd always found it a bit arousing when she was bossy. "Besides, you've been keeping me company even though I know you're bored. I haven't told you how much I appreciate that."

"The view is never boring," he said with a grin.

She blushed. "I… could make it more exciting," she said playfully. She tugged down on her collar a bit, exposing a sliver of pale skin and a mole that Ron had only seen a handful of times.

His jaw dropped. Prim and proper Hermione was already sexy – a teasing Hermione was almost more than his libido could handle.

Her blush intensified and she dropped her hand. "Um… I mean, I like that you–"

He couldn't have stopped himself if he'd wanted to. He pinned her against the door, cushioning her softness with his arms and kissing her furiously, plundering her mouth. She squirmed in his grip but, far from trying to get away, she was working for a better position, hoisting herself up by wrapping her lithe legs around his waist. Her hands grasped at his shoulders and the back of his head.

It was heaven. He wanted more, could never get enough. Her tongue was like silk, her lips like candy and her body arched into his, highlighting every luscious curve. If only he had known she would be so receptive to taking a break.

But all good things had to end, this time due to the demands of oxygen. They broke apart, breathing hard, and she slid down him to stand on unsteady legs.

"…Oh, my," she said after a moment.

Ron nodded dumbly. It was at that point he realised that he was sporting a full erection against her stomach. She had to have felt it, it couldn't be more obvious. But, not only had she not cringed away, she was pressing back into him with fervour.

"Would you like to sleep in here?" she asked suddenly, not meeting his eyes as if afraid of the answer. "Unless you think it's not appropriate, and I understand, it's a quite an adjustment–" she babbled.

He didn't know what to say to make her stop so he kissed her instead, silencing her mouth with his. "That would be brilliant," he said after.

"Good, then that's settled," she murmured, leaning closer again. "I don't see any reason to stop…"

He was more than happy to resume.


"That's the attic," Scott said, pointing to the narrow, uneven stairs which led up to the peeling white door. "I've only been in there a couple times. We did some cleaning, there's a lot of material. You might want to take stock when you get a chance."

Sophie smiled up at him. "It will be like antiquing!"

He had something else to say after that but forgot what it was for a moment, stunned by the flash of her eyes and smile. He kept his face impassive as he sought his missing words; he needed to be careful if he was going to avoid embarrassing himself. It had been some time since he had basked in Sophie's adult presence, and he had to readjust. He hadn't expected her to look (or smell) so good.

She was short in stature but utterly feminine in form, a china doll with a porcelain complexion. Her tiny waist tapered out into broad hips and a delightfully well-shaped posterior; above, her slim, elegant neck and shoulders presided over a high-set pair of full breasts. Her features were a classical conception of cherubic beauty, with wide, pink cupid's bow lips and huge bright green eyes surmounting her heart-shaped face, framed by curly milk chocolate locks.

It wasn't easy, being professional around her. Sometimes Scott didn't bother to try.

"Watch your fingers, some of those antiques might bite," he said finally. "There's all kinds of wacky magic sunk into this place."

"I know, I feel it," she said distantly, her eyes unfocussed.

Scott knew many people who frequently accessed the shape, and it only bothered him when she did it. Perhaps it was because her wide eyes were so emotive, so bright – when touching the shape she had a doll's eyes, glassy and lifeless. He always wanted to shake her, force her to come back to him. He'd never had that urge with another Kharadjai. Of course, he had a lot of urges when it came to Sophie. Many were less innocent.

"You might notice the work I did on the largest spell, the area Fidelius Charm," he said, smoothly ignoring his instinct. "We want to keep it attached to everyone in this house only."

"Has it been regenerating?"

"No, and I don't think it will. But, just in case."

"I see there's been a lot of strengthening between Primes," she commented.

"Largely without my interference. High stress and close quarters: a recipe for bonding. Or breaking apart."

"Well, lucky for you this group is prone to the former!"

"Most of the time." Scott looked her up and down. "I see you've recovered well from your Christmas ordeal."

Sophie's cheeks tinged the slightest shade of pink. "I was fifteen!" She put her hands on her generous hips. "It was all your fault, anyway. You didn't need me there."

"Ah, but…" Scott leaned in close and lowered his voice, "I need you now."

She looked away, hiding a smile behind her hand. "Here I am! So, what were you saying about Kylie?"

Scott quickly sobered. "She's traumatised, with good reason." He gave a summary of the events which had brought Kylie to Grimmauld Place. "She's stopped talking. I try to keep her engaged and busy, but she sleeps a lot."

"That poor girl," Sophie murmured sympathetically. "I'll try not to leave her alone if I can help it."

"One more thing," Scott continued as he led the way downstairs. "There's a little gremlin-thing called Kreacher that lives here. He served the previous family as a butler, or something. He's a crazy little shit, but, he's afraid of guns; so, he should steer clear of you."

Sophie looked intrigued. "He's a gremlin?"

"A house-elf. If you want to know more, you should ask Hermione."

"You'll probably tell me that for everything," she replied slyly.

"Hey, if the Primes can handle it, let them," he said.

"Okay, okay," she said, smiling again.

Scott went back to his weapons as Sophie assisted Kylie with the counting, introducing herself and trying to establish some early rapport. Kylie seemed to accept the woman's presence readily enough, though the real test would come once Scott had to leave.

His thoughts turned to the operation. The Burrow was difficult to approach without being seen, he knew that from experience. The same woods that had once sheltered them in their flight would serve the same purpose for their entry. The closest he had ever come to assaulting a fixed wizarding position had been his hit and run with the claymore mine outside the Death Eater mansion. He didn't know what kind of defences were standard use for Riddle's men. None of his Primes seemed to know either, and he suspected that the Death Eaters had no modus operandi. The enemy was a loose confederation of irregulars comprised of idealistic bigots, opportunists and conscripts. Whatever organisation existed would likely depend on local officers, not general orders. Riddle seemed content enough with the state of his 'army' so long as they remained loyal to him.

Thus, there existed a random element. There always was in combat, but in this case Scott had only a slightly better idea what to expect than he had going into the cave. The enemy was united by ideology, not training. That could be an advantage. Zealots rarely made good soldiers. Even more of them were simply riding the coattails of what they thought was the winning side. Combatants lacking conviction would fold in the absence of training or fear to keep them in a fight they didn't want. Riddle used fear, and Scott had never put much faith in that as a consistent motivator. Combatants faced with certain death from the enemy would prefer to chance possible death from their superiors.

Adaptability would be essential, but it always was. That was true a hundred times over for an integrationist. His training demanded that he hit the opposing force as hard as possible, but Scott had held back on more than one occasion to further a connection to his Primes. There were lines to be crossed, and some that had to be walked. As in the shape, as in space – the universe, like those it was comprised of, sought equilibrium.

"They call me the seeker – I've been searchin' low and hi-iiiiiiiiiiiigh," Scott sang to himself as he refitted the telescopic stock to the M4A1 he had chosen for the night. The short barrel, zero-magnification optics and light recoil made it ideal for mid-range encounters. He'd also laid out his semi-automatic shotgun, to be used if the house were occupied.

"What's that song?" Kylie asked.

Scott froze for a fraction of a second before his composure snapped back into place. "It's from an old band. They come right from your own backyard, in fact," he said casually. "How many magazines have you counted out?"

"Nine," she said, pointing to the obsessively neat rows of bullets she had created. It had taken her several times longer than it would have if Scott had done it himself, but that wasn't the point. Anything to draw her out.

"Sophie, could you load those, please?"

Kylie shrunk a little. "Can I load, too?"

Scott knew those tiny fingers of hers didn't stand a chance against the spring in a high capacity magazine. "I have a different job for you, since you've got experience," he said. "Now, these rounds go in rows of eight, okay? Not forty like the others."

Kylie appeared pleased enough with that proposition. She opened the box of .45 JSP and started counting, her mouth moving silently with the numbers.

"What are you packing at the moment?" Scott asked Sophie.

"Well, I had to leave my Aus-10 at the Transferral because they stopped me and said you were doing tech equivalence for your integration, and I was like, 'Oh, duh! Of course he is!' So they gave me this .40, but the slide sticks. And it's not very clean," she said unhappily.

"Why do you think I always go to Litchfield?"

"The gate armoury is the only choice when you're in a hurry! It's not like you gave me advance notice or anything…"

"You still shouldn't have left your Aus at a grease locker. Why didn't you give it to Pat?"

"He wasn't there. If my Auslight ends up in some Second Fleet holster, I'm blaming you!"

"I think I could make it up to you," Scott said, leaning back in his chair and flexing his muscles.

Sophie rolled her eyes, though not before giving him a good once over. "I doubt that is worth eighty-eight fifty."

"Eighty-eight fifty?!" Scott exclaimed. "What is it plated with, adamantium?"

"It's the limited edition!"

He slowly shook his head. "Sophie, Sophie… You are such a sucker for limited edition and/or commemorative everything."

"They're new, and it's very nice," she said defensively.

"It had better be for eighty-eight fifty. I hope it at least came with a really expensive bottle of designer booze, or something. God. Eighty-eight fifty – for eighty-eight fifty the sales rep should give you a haircut and a handjob! It should–"

"I get it, and do you just forget that…" Sophie looked meaningfully in Kylie's direction.

Scott winced. "I– she doesn't even… All right, sorry. Do you forgive me, Kylie?"

Kylie nodded immediately.

"There, see? She forgives me."

"You're a bad person," Sophie said haughtily.

"But a smarter shopper," Scott muttered.

The evening wore on, and the sun descended. As twilight began to creep across the sky, everyone gathered in the kitchen for final preparations. They were all dressed in dark clothes, looking down at the crude map Scott had sketched out.

"We're all familiar with these grounds," he began, "so this diagram is for our point of entry and exit. Go ahead and draw on it if you think of something." He placed his finger north of The Burrow, near the river. "We go in here, where we left the last time. It's also our fall back position. Secondary fall back is the path from the road, here. If we get scattered, link up with whoever you can and Disapparate. Harry?"

Harry stepped forward. "Right… I thought we shouldn't get caught out in the garden in a single group. Scott and I will go in the front door whilst the rest of you lot get in the back, and, yes, Ginny, Scott will be going in first. He won't let me 'take point'."

"A point in his favour," she said, grinning at her own pun.

Harry shut his eyes for a second. "Ugh. Anyway, I'm hoping we'll see any Death Eaters about through the windows, if they're inside. We can't count on it, though, so we need to be quiet for as long as we can. If we find the locket, then we leave as quick as we're able; we don't want more showing up like last time."

"We don't know what the locket is capable of, or how well it understands what's happening around it. I'm going to bring Scott's strongbox along in my handbag, and that should provide some protection," Hermione added.

Harry nodded. "Good thought. Anyone have something to add?"

"If no one is there, can we look around a bit?" Ginny asked. "There're some things I'd like to bring back here."

Scott was prepared to buy Harry time to find the locket with his life, if needed, but he didn't care for the idea of becoming a casualty because the girls needed more shampoo. "I'm not getting shot because you forgot your lube."

"Scott!" Sophie hissed, clapping her hands over the ears of a confused Kylie.

He really needed to stop doing that. "I mean, Ginny, you can look around if it's clear, but let's not get stuck in a fight for a few extra pairs of trousers."

"Obviously. I'm not daft," Ginny snapped.

In the interests of mission unity, he decided not to prod her further. "I know."

Harry appeared grateful that the spat had ended so quickly. "Anything else?"

No one spoke. The air was charged with anticipation and anxiety.

"Okay," Harry said then, "we'll go at ten."


2200


The field by the river looked exactly the same in the moonlight as it had before, a startling (and somewhat heartening) reminder that it hadn't been long at all since the retreat from the wedding. The short time frame put their progress into perspective. It made Hermione feel more accomplished. Although, it also meant they hadn't survived very long, which was the pessimistic view.

The night was still save for the rustling of leaves, the rush of the river and the drone of distant cars. The group, tense and confused in the moments after Apparition, regained their bearings. Those first few moments were their most vulnerable. They spread out and kept a careful eye on the trees.

Hermione watched Scott. He was the most likely to see threats first, their best early warning system. He swung his short rifle around in slow arcs, no doubt searching for heat signatures.

"Clear," he said, lowering his weapon back to where it hung against his torso. He had it attached to some sort of strap system that allowed him to keep his hands free. Hermione approved of the versatility offered, and was already wondering if something similar could be constructed for her wand.

"Right, up the hill," Harry whispered.

They advanced with minimal discourse, climbing the short hill they had once descended and finding the same deer path they had followed before. They passed the tree trunks that Scott had pushed aside, and saw the circular depression in the dirt which marked where a Death Eater had stepped in Hermione's trap. It was too dark to see anything more, but she imagined the soil was stained with rusty blood, and looked away.

The Burrow sat quiet and dark across the grassy expanse of the side garden. There were no obvious signs of major damage, though it wasn't easy to tell at such a distance. She thought Ron's window might be broken, and remembered Lila using it as a vantage point for her machine gun.

But the appearance of abandonment was deceiving, for when they moved farther forward a single dim light could be seen gleaming out from the ground floor. It looked to be coming from the kitchen.

"Damn," Harry muttered. "I guess it was too much to hope that it would be empty."

Scott had his binoculars out. "I see two, sitting at the table. I think they're playing cards."

"Another couple of alarms," Harry surmised.

"Yeah. They shouldn't have a light on, that's a great way to ruin an ambush. This is what happens when you put thugs in a hood and call it a uniform."

"They're dumb berks, lucky for us. I say let them be stupid," Ron said.

"Amen."

"Scott, what about spells?" Hermione asked.

"None of the usual wards are still here. There's a kind of ambient energy around, but I think it's just a remnant," he reported.

"Old spells tend to linger; it makes re-establishing wards easier," she explained.

"…There might be some other things around. On the ground, maybe. I need to get closer."

"Could be traps," Harry said. "Do you think you can get Hermione to the right spot?"

Scott unclipped the rifle from his chest and handed it to a startled Harry. "Cover us," he said, drawing a handgun and thumbing the hammer. "Hermione?"

"Ready," she said tersely. She wasn't enthused at the prospect of going ahead, but it had to be done.

Ron's hand shot out and snatched her wrist. "Don't go far," he said with a worried edge.

"I won't," she assured him. "Please don't come running after me unless it's serious, I don't want you to step in a trap."

He smiled tightly. "No promises, love."

"Don't shoot me in the ass," Scott told Harry, and then he left the brush in a low crouch, moving much faster than Hermione thought he should be able to in such a position. She did her best to keep up, taking advantage of her shorter stature and leaning over instead of bending her knees as much.

Scott halted by a patch of grass that looked no different than any other. He held out a hand to stop her. "Here," he said, pointing downwards. "And there are more."

Hermione extended her wand, waving it near the patch with cautious motions. "Incantatem Revelio," she whispered. The runes that briefly shone above her wand were not familiar in their sequence, but the individual characters told her enough. "…I think it's a variation on the trap spell I used after the wedding."

"What are the trigger conditions?"

"I can't tell. Touching it would do the trick, I'm sure, but I don't know if it's individual or if they're chained somehow."

"Will it create an alarm?"

"If it's being monitored then yes, indirectly. But the spell I used made very little sound. They'll be counting on whoever gets caught to start screaming, I'd imagine," she said, shivering a bit at the thought of any of her friends stumbling into the spell.

"So there's a good chance these are self-contained. We're looking at a minefield, not a proximity fence."

She wished she could give him a more positive answer. "Probably. But it's a risk."

"It always is." He raised his head and peered at the house. "There's no Anti-Apparition field in place. That has to be deliberate."

He had a point – an Anti-Apparition Jinx was the first line of defence against intrusion. "They wanted us to come in like that, knowing we couldn't leave the same way…"

"Let's go back and share. We'll have to make a call on this."

Back in the trees, the new information left opinions divided.

"Just get rid of the traps and we'll rush like we planned," Harry said, handing the rifle back to Scott.

"I can't. Too small, too widespread. I have to get close," Scott said.

"If you lead us, we might get past without tripping any," Hermione said.

"And what happens if we have to leave in a hurry, maybe unable to Disapparate? They aren't just alarms, they're physically dangerous."

"We've got the brooms in the handbag, why don't we fly upstairs?" Ginny proposed.

Ron peered upwards – the night sky was clear and moonlit. "Are we sure there's nobody else around?"

"No," Scott stated. "We could do something for one or two people with the Cloak and a broom, but that doesn't help the rest of us. And I don't want anyone to touch anything until I check it first."

"I can also check," Hermione said, slightly offended.

"Me or Hermione," Scott amended. "…But mostly me."

"All right, look," Harry said with surprising patience. "The Burrow is trapped. If Scott and Hermione can't get rid of the traps without causing an alarm, we won't be getting in there tonight. So we'll all go together, disabling traps along the way, and then surprise the Death Eaters in the kitchen, grab the locket, and get out."

"You're right," Hermione agreed. "Scott, let's try it."

"I'll knock out that first trap. But get ready to Disapparate," he warned.

Ginny latched on to Harry's hand, as much for support as Apparition, Hermione thought. She herself moved closer to Ron. Presumably, Scott would be able to tell if the destruction of the trap triggered any silent alarms; if not, the first sign they had been discovered would be more of Voldemort's cohorts arriving.

Scott crept back out onto the green to the night tunes of buzzing insects and the whispering breeze. The calm and cool of the clear air was strange in contrast to the situation. If Hermione closed her eyes, she could easily imagine that she stood at the end of a summer day, spent with friends as close as family. The violence which might be imminent was difficult to accept in a place that had always seemed so inviolate, so removed from the turmoil of the outside world.

Scott stopped near the closest trap and settled back onto his heels. As always, whatever he did to alter the raw energy of magic was an invisible process. A few minutes ticked by. She was just beginning to wonder if he were having difficulties, when he gestured to them. They moved out of the woods to follow.

Their pace was slow at first, but after removing several traps Scott seemed to gain a better understanding of them. Given how quickly he had destroyed spells in the past, it was safe to assume he was carefully disarming them instead of simply erasing them. Hermione just hoped that deactivating the spells had not alerted their creator.

When they reached the front of the house (making sure to move below the windows), Scott paused and pulled the shotgun from the sheathe on his back. Hermione flinched; she knew what came next, but her need to allow her friends to be protected was at war with her misgivings.

Scott placed his hand flat on the door. Either it was unprotected, or he took care of the spells; he looked back at them and put up five fingers. His mouth moved silently in countdown, the fingers lowering one by one. Harry hurried forward to stand behind him.

"One," Scott silently enunciated, and then reared back and kicked open the door.

He was inside before the fragments of the latch hit the ground. Two shots blasted out in quick succession, sharp and rattling. Hermione held her breath, waiting for a counter-attack; there was none. A few soft sounds emanated from inside.

Harry stepped back out, looking pale in the light from the doorway. "Give him a second," he said.

If she concentrated, Hermione thought she could hear the rasp of cloth and footsteps. A shiver of horror vibrated up her spine – Scott must have been moving bodies.

A handful of seconds later, Scott's head poked back outside. "Let's go," he said, "and don't relax."

"No worries there," Ron muttered as they filed inside.

The light in the kitchen was from a candle flickering on the tabletop. Playing cards were scattered across the surface and the floor, along with dark drops of blood. More of the fluid anointed the wall; some of it looked undisturbed, but a lot of it was spread out in an unnatural smear, as if Scott had tried to wipe it off. There were only a few craggy pockmarks from the buckshot. The rest must have remained within the lumpy shapes in the corner, draped with a tablecloth. Hermione carefully averted her eyes.

She tried to ignore the cloying copper odour of blood as she examined house. The Burrow was in better shape than she had expected. The cupboards had been looted of food (likely by the two guards, judging from the mess they had made), but most of the structure itself was intact, including the windows.

"Lil said your family grabbed a ton of stuff before they left, so don't panic if something valuable is missing," Scott was saying to Ron and Ginny.

"I bet Mum took the clock," Ginny said, looking at the bare spot where it had been.

"Everyone stay where somebody can see you at all times. And make sure that candle stays lit. Harry?"

"Should still be upstairs," Harry said.

Hermione felt their chances were improving. If the Weasleys had taken most items of value with them during their retreat, then the Death Eaters would have had little motivation for a thorough search. It seemed as if the enemy might have been instructed to leave The Burrow in its post-wedding condition in order to lure its former occupants back. Someone high up in the chain of command must have possessed the foresight to issue such an order, perhaps even Riddle himself. As it turned out, the ploy had actually worked – or it would have, had those left to keep guard been more vigilant.

"Ginny, you and I will watch outside – make sure you stay below the windows. Ron, could you sit at the table? Let's make it look like nothing is wrong," Hermione said, taking charge. She tried to close the door but it would no longer remain shut, so she propped a chair against it.

Ron started to rest his hands on the table before he thought better of it. "You know what happened to the last bloke who sat here?" he said uneasily.

She did. "It's only for a moment."

"A moment too long. Bloody hell, I used to eat off this table…"

"I know, Ron, but–"

"I think someone's coming!" Ginny said urgently.

Hermione hurried to the kitchen window and peeked under the curtain. Three robed and hooded figures were making their way up the front walk. They weren't hurrying, and appeared to be in conversation. She estimated it would be no more than a few minutes before they reached the house.

"Stay right where you are!" she whispered frantically, and bolted up the stairs.

She rushed up to Ron and Harry's room – it was a mess. The two beds had been flipped over towards the window and the wall opposite was stripped down to its wooden frame, which had been charred. The glass in the window was gone completely, save for a few jagged shards at the edges, and the mirror over the dressing table was split in two. Brass shells were scattered all over the floor, mixed with steel links and dust.

Scott and Harry were crouched by the window behind a bed frame that Scott was supporting with one hand. Hermione realised that Harry's trunk must have been buried beneath the overturned bed by the explosion, which was a stroke of luck. Some of the trunk contents were laid out on the floor, including a familiar black suitcase. Harry held an object tightly wrapped in a rag.

"Death Eaters are coming up the path!" Hermione told them.

Scott was on his feet in a second, pushing the bed away and picking up his shotgun. "How many?"

"Three. They don't seem to know that anything is wrong, but we have a couple minutes at most, probably less."

"We got what we came for," Scott said. "Throw it all back in the trunk, Harry, and let's go."

Harry dumped the loose items back in the trunk and handed the crumpled cloth to Hermione. She took it and dug into her handbag as fast as her fingers would allow, bringing out the strongbox and placing what she fervently hoped was the real locket inside. Scott lifted Harry's trunk, and together they hurried back downstairs.

Ron and Ginny were still in place, frozen with tension. "We're leaving!" Hermione said, gesturing to them.

They didn't need any encouragement. Ron jumped from his chair and took Hermione's hand whilst Ginny did the same with Harry. Hermione thought she could almost hear boots on the walk when she concentrated on Grimmauld Place, fixing it in her mind. The world contracted, twisted, and then she was gone.


Harry had stumbled into a recurring situation – same table, different locket. The group had gathered around the second such trinket to fall into their possession. There was something different about this one, though, he was sure of it.

Ginny looked uncharacteristically afraid, standing further back from the table than the others. "I think it's awake. Do you feel…?"

"Yes," Hermione said, keeping her wand raised. "It was hiding itself before."

They all could feel it. The locket had a presence, an aura of weight and physicality. It was not merely an object. Even as they stared at it, Harry felt it was staring back, assessing them in turn. He didn't like the idea that they were dealing with another diary, capable of defending itself.

Scott was the only one who had moved closer to the locket. He placed his palms on the table and leaned forward. "What are you looking for?" he murmured.

Hermione gave him a sharp look. "What is it doing?"

"I'm not sure. I've knocked out several threads it's sent at me, and it's trying to counter my defence. The reaction implies intelligence, or at least programming."

"Not for long," Harry said, and raised Godric's sword.

The locket snapped open.

There was a great rush of wind and a muffled roaring, and the room lost definition behind a haze. Harry's thoughts slowed, nearly ceased. He was lost, bemused. Where had he just been standing? Memory was suddenly unreliable. There was something heavy in his hand, and he held onto it as the only solid thing in the confusion.

Ginny stepped down from a table that Harry hadn't noticed just a second before. She was beautiful, almost ethereal, glowing with life. Her hair shone like copper and her brown eyes flashed strangely; she moved with a blatant sensuality that didn't look quite right, for whatever reason. She didn't usually walk like that (he thought?), hips rocking, breasts jiggling unbound beneath her flimsy shirt. Something seemed off… Hadn't she just been standing next to him?

She stopped before him, lips red as blood. "I'm done, Harry," she said coldly. "I'm tired of holding you up."

Harry tried to respond – his mouth was numb. "What?"

"Supporting you, Harry. Waiting and waiting for you to pull your head out of your arse and give me what I need, but no… It's all about you, isn't it?" she said disdainfully. "You treat me like a little sister for years, then decide that you'd rather fuck me now that it's convenient. You've put my whole family in danger, but that wasn't enough for you, was it? You needed me, too, for a little extra comfort. How hard did you really try to leave me behind? I wouldn't have come if I'd known you'd just be selfish again. I don't know why I bothered."

The words flayed him like whips, stripping him of his defences. "But– I thought… What about all you said before, what about–"

"This?" Ginny simpered, running her hands down her body. "Or maybe just these?" She lifted her shirt to reveal her firm, high breasts, nipples stiff and pebbled in the sudden cold. "You think getting close makes you special? As if you're the first bloke I've shared a bed with, and you won't be the last. There are loads of other boys out there who will give me what I want. There are loads who already have. Stop acting like I need you."

He could barely speak. Even as his heart shattered his mind was stuck in a mire, moving at quarter-speed. "But… I…"

"You can't even defend yourself when you know it's true. But don't worry about me, Harry. Once I'm back at Hogwarts and line up a bloke or two, I won't tell them about us. I wouldn't want to embarrass mysel–"

She was cut off when, without warning, a chair swung out from somewhere to Harry's right and smashed her to the floor. The moment she hit the ground the murkiness seemed to dissipate from Harry's brain, and he turned to see who held the makeshift weapon.

It was Ginny, the real Ginny, dressed in the proper clothes Harry remembered. She was flushed red, almost shaking with rage. "Fuck off, slag!" she snarled.

Harry looked across the table; his vision was still severely limited, but he could hear someone talking. It sounded like Ron, though Harry had never heard that tone from his friend before.

"Ron, please!" Hermione cried out, tears in her voice.

"GET AWAY FROM HER!" Ron roared, and it sounded like the real Ron. Harry hoped he was dispelling the locket's hold as Ginny had.

"It's having a go at everybody!" Ginny said angrily. She dropped the chair and drew her wand. "Harry, if it gets me, just give me a good slap!"

He shook his head. "I think we just have to get rid of this damn fog–"

And just like that, the mist disappeared.

Scott was still standing right where he had been. He looked calmly out at his dazed friends and at the locket, which was emitting a sickly purple light.

"Sorry that took so long," he said in a voice that didn't sound especially sorry, "I didn't understand what it was doing. It's working on me, now."

They regrouped. Ginny took a deep breath, embarrassed in the aftermath of her fury (and probably by the way the locket had presented her). Hermione was wiping tears off her cheeks and Ron stood by her, his face contorted with anger.

Harry had seen enough. He was marching forward to kill the bloody locket good and proper when Scott held out a hand to stop him.

"Wait," Scott requested. "I want to understand this thing better. It could be important."

"If it grabs you, I'm going to kill it," Harry said.

"I know. But this is really something…"

Images began to flash from the locket. They were blurry projections, half-formed and too rapid to sort out. Harry was left only with impressions: pine trees covered in snow, a beach under heavy clouds, a fallow cornfield in autumn. None of it made much sense.

"What are you looking for?" Scott said again. His eyes were distant.

The images stopped. The light from the locket started to take new form, shifting into a human shape. Soon, Tom Riddle stood on the table, staring down at Scott. It was an older Riddle than the diary; not quite Voldemort, not still the same young man. His skin was pale and his eyes had a red tint to them that spoke of things to come.

Scott snapped back to focus. "Giving up?" he asked.

"Not quite," the echo of Riddle said, his voice high and clear. "What are you?"

Scott's answer was even less forthcoming than usual. "Another mystery in a world full of them."

Riddle's eyes burned. "I've solved many, and answered questions others were too afraid to ask."

Scott shrugged. "I'll allow for the possibility. Be real, though: you don't have that kind of time."

"Don't pretend to understand my capabilities."

"Same to you. Being only a fraction of a person, I presume you're limited to this smoke and laser show."

Riddle fell silent, apparently struck by Scott's knowledge of his creation. When he spoke again, he tried a different tact. "If you know what I am, then you know what I have to offer."

"Dick," Scott assessed.

Riddle glanced contemptuously at the others. "I gather this is the 'resistance'. Freedom fighters to themselves, mere nuisances in truth. What do they have to offer someone who can do what you can?"

"Are you suggesting an alternative?"

"I have use for power. It should be used, and expanded… We could come to an agreement, mutually beneficial."

Scott shrugged again. "Maybe. Either way, that would be something to bring up with the real you. Stuck in a locket is not a great position for negotiation."

"Take me to him. Be rewarded."

"With what?"

"The key to immortality," Riddle promised.

Scott smiled. "Way ahead of you. Harry?"

Harry slammed the sword through the locket. The segment of Riddle's soul howled in agony as the purple light grew too dazzling to look at. An explosion rang out, the force of it ripping the sword from Harry's grip and sending a painful jolt up his arm. Then the light vanished as if a switch had been flipped.

In the middle of the table was a bubbling puddle of melted metal, rapidly cooling as it steamed and fused to the surface.

Scott broke the ensuing silence. "Last time I saw something like that, I'd just decapitated a Sith."

"Is everyone all right?" Hermione asked. Her eyes were still red-rimmed, but her voice was steady.

"Fine," Harry said as he surreptitiously rubbed at his hand.

"You're hurt," Ginny said accusingly, noticing his distress.

"Just a bit of a shock. No more than a bruise."

She took the hand and prodded his palm with her fingers, frowning when he couldn't suppress a wince. "We need to talk," she said, relinquishing the appendage.

"I'm telling you, it's fine, it just aches–"

"Not about that!"

"About… Oh. Do we have to do that tonight?" Harry said plaintively.

"Yes! I'm not letting you brood about what that thing said until you push me away again," she insisted.

"I wouldn't do that," he said unconvincingly. In truth, the process had probably already begun.

She didn't even bother getting angry; she just rolled her eyes at him. "Right, Harry."

"He's not hurt bad if he's already telling jokes," Ron said from across the table.

Scott waved towards the stairwell. "Big night all around. Way past our bedtimes. Discuss whatever you like, but do it upstairs."

"Why? Are you going to tuck us in?" Ron scoffed.

"Do I need to?" Scott asked with equal bite. "Or are you old enough to know when to sleep?"

"All right, don't get shirty, Dad," Ron grumbled. He put an arm around Hermione and led her towards the stairs.

Harry followed them reluctantly. He was dreading what he knew was going to be a painfully emotional talk with Ginny. If he had it his way, he'd just bury the whole thing until it went away.

But he knew she wouldn't let him.

Back to index


Chapter 12: Truth of Sequence

12

Truth of Sequence


"Relativity teaches us that simultaneity is an
illusion; that, as there are no privileged points
of reference, all observations of time are equally
valid. There is no absolute truth of sequence:
all we can do is equate.

The shape tells us otherwise, depending on the
form it is given (or perhaps chooses). That
in itself is a valuable lesson, for by coming to
accept that there are worlds in which not
even causality is fixed we must at last learn
that it is not only time and opinion which are
subjective, but in fact the entirety of reality.
Each universe creates its own structure,
follows no rules but its own. That they appear
so similar in our experience may be the
greatest misperception of all: the most dire
overcognizants speak of things we dismiss as
impossible ravings, but someday we may realize
that when we looked out into the multiverse, we
found only what we were capable of understanding.

The difference between truth and lie is of the
beholder and no truth can ever be complete,
whatever the intention behind it."

–Dr Joseph Carnahan, New Constellations


It had been about an hour since the locket had been destroyed. Harry was sitting on his bed, staring at the wall. There was nothing interesting about the wall, but his head was swimming, and the blank surface didn't offer any further distractions. The traumas of the night were stacked on top of each other, and it was a small mercy that remembrance of a man's head disintegrating was temporarily blotted out by Locket-Ginny expressing what he feared was absolute the truth.

'Small mercy'… Who was he fooling? The more recent horror was far worse than yet another witnessed death in a long line of them.

The real Ginny was in the shower. Her ablutions were giving Harry time to think, the last thing he needed. And, once she returned, she would be determined to discuss what the locket had done. He didn't want to talk about it. He wanted to forget it ever happened. Confronting emotional problems was well outside his comfort zone. Too bad the locket had understood at least one avenue to his wounds.

A shadow fell across the doorway. "Are you all right?" Hermione asked tentatively, leaning in.

"No," Harry said honestly.

She sighed. "Well… that's not good, but I still prefer forthrightness to your usual avoidance."

"How about you?"

"Same as always: fearful, anxious and building up a nice store of post-traumatic stress for when this is all over," she said.

"Just be glad you didn't go into the house with Scott," he said dryly.

She flinched slightly. "Yes… I'd wondered if you weren't making a mistake."

Harry clung to the shreds of his stoicism. "I have to get used to it sometime."

"Oh, Harry. I hope not, for your sake," she said sorrowfully.

He just wanted to change the subject. "Did you need something?"

She hesitated. "I felt you might be discouraged, seeing as that was the only Horcrux we've had to destroy thus far. I wanted to remind you that we aren't entirely without clues."

"It's not much good to know what something is if we don't know where it is."

"I have to disagree. In this case, knowing 'what' may very well lead us to 'where'." She stepped closer. "Scott told us there may be a Horcrux to the north. That's not specific, but I'd wager he could tell us more if we were nearer. And you said you wanted to go to Godric's Hollow?"

He did, and had for some time. He'd never seen the place that could have been his home, or visited his parents' graves. "I still do."

"I'm sure you've considered the danger. But, I've discovered another reason to go." She was clearly excited by whatever she had to say. "Did you ever read A History of Magic?"

'Read' was a strong word. "Sort of."

She gave him a disapproving glance, but continued, "Bathilda Bagshot, the author, is still alive – and she lives in Godric's Hollow! We're hunting for historical artefacts of magic, and I can't think of anyone more qualified on the subject."

Harry didn't allow himself to feel much hope, but Hermione was right. It could be a real breakthrough. "We have to try, anyway."

She beamed at him. "Exactly! We'll start planning soon." She turned to go, and then stopped. "Oh, and Harry?"

"Yeah?"

"Do talk to Ginny about what happened tonight. Don't let it fester."

"Are you going to make Ron talk?" Harry asked accusingly.

"Of course!"

"Then I guess we're both buggered," he muttered.

Hermione left him, and he returned to his contemplation of the wallpaper.

His mind wandered. The patterns on the wall became Ginny, scorning him, rejecting him. As he had rejected her, and not just recently. He'd ignored her for years. He had turned from her attentions without even knowing it. He was tormented by the idea that such unknowing (uncaring) disregard was worse than a conscious decision. It was as if she hadn't even been worth the finality of a proper rejection. He had strung her along instead, breaking the young heart she had placed in his careless hands.

Perhaps what the locket had shown him was cruel, but just. He'd pushed her away without trying, and then at last drawn her close only to push again. How could she be blamed if she left? Even Ginny had to take a hint eventually. Even her stubbornness could only cushion her spirit so many times.

He shook his head so hard that stars burst into his vision. The thoughts were more than he could stomach; he fought against them, wiping his clammy palms on his trousers as if he could wipe away the very idea. Then, without warning, he was ambushed by a memory:

The door splintered, broken by the inhuman force of the kick. It would have rebounded off the interior wall had Scott not been in the way, shouldering through with shotgun raised. The Death Eater on the right barely had time to react. He swivelled in his chair, cards falling from his fingers. The gun barked, acute and deafening. As if an invisible hand had struck him, he recoiled in the chair, jolting back against it before beginning to slump forward. The robes at his chest shredded, turning to dust and whirling scraps. Blood flew out of the hole over his heart. He fell against the table, unmoving.

He had not fully come to rest when the second Death Eater was shot in the head. This time, the robes concealed little – his hood fell off with the impact. The tightly-grouped buckshot, each the size of a musket ball, hit at the corner of his right eye. His cheekbone caved in, flesh splitting away from the collapsing eye socket. When the leaden wad tore through his brain and smashed against the rear of his skull, his head snapped back with such force that blood spattered across the ceiling.

Scott continued without hesitation. The limp corpse was sliding off the chair and thudding on the floor when he stepped forward and tugged the tablecloth off the end where it had been shunted, apparently in the way of the Death Eater's card playing.

"Go out and stall the others for a second. They don't need to see this," Scott said.

And Harry did? He supposed he had volunteered.

The last sight before he stepped out was of Scott using the corner of the tablecloth to sweep brain and skull fragments from the wall.

"Harry?"

He snapped out of it at the sound of Ginny's voice. "Y-yeah?" he stammered. He realised his heart was racing.

"What's wrong? What happened?" She touched his forehead with one hand, still warm and damp from the shower. "You're not getting sick, are you?"

He laughed shortly. "Just in the head, maybe."

Her mouth thinned. When she sat next to him, he noticed with a start that she was wearing one of his old grey t-shirts. It hung down to her thighs before giving way to her long, slender legs. They were marred with scratches, a legacy of her insistent bravery.

She noticed his scrutiny, and rolled her eyes sheepishly. "I stole your shirt," she confessed. "I didn't pack much in the way of pyjamas."

He was fine with that. Probably a little too fine. "I don't mind, that's how I usually sleep."

"In a shirt and knickers?" she said impishly.

"The bloke version," he said wryly.

Her countenance sobered. "I know we're both tired, but I think we need to talk now, even if just for a bit."

He tried not to look overly reluctant, though he was sure he didn't pull it off.

"Were you thinking about what the locket said to you?" she asked.

"No, not when you came in," he said truthfully.

She gave him a doubtful look. "You looked upset."

He sighed and rubbed at his eyes. "…I was thinking about the Death Eaters tonight."

She took his hand. "Do you want to talk about that?"

He could talk about getting psychically violated by a piece of Voldemort's soul, or watching two men die in a terrible, if mercifully quick, fashion. Why wasn't going to bed an option?

The silence stretched out between them as he endeavoured for an answer. Ginny's grip on his hand tightened until she finally burst out, "Come on, Harry! I saw what you did, don't pretend it didn't bother you!"

"I know it wasn't really you, Gin."

"Of course you do, you aren't completely daft! That doesn't mean it didn't hurt!" She wrapped her arms around him and squeezed in some mixture of affection and frustration. "I don't want you to torture yourself thinking any of that shite was true, and I know that if I leave you alone, you will."

"I did try to push you away, though, I was a complete twat to you–"

"Good job," she snorted.

He had to concede the point. "I guess I'm not that convincing."

She didn't laugh. She pushed her hair back behind her ears and pressed her cheek to his shoulder. Then she wiggled her way around until she was straddling his lap, holding him as close as possible. "I'm going to hug you. It will make this easier," she said, her breath fanning against his neck.

That was foreboding enough to dampen his arousal. "Okay. I'm listening."

"When I first met you… it was like something out of all the books I loved," she said softly, playing with the hair at the nape of his neck. "You were a hero, a legend. I couldn't believe you were there at the station, and then you were there at breakfast…"

"I don't remember that well," Harry admitted. "It seems so long ago–"

"I know you don't remember. That was the problem. I was in awe. Ron was your friend and I thought maybe I could be, too; I might become more than just the little sister. Then you saved me in the Chamber. I thought I was in love after that." She sighed. "So I pined away in my dormitory like some ridiculous princess. I wrote bad poetry, some of which you heard, unfortunately. I lived for the moment when you would see me in the hall and think I was beautiful, or interesting, or anything other than a nobody."

Harry had to interrupt, he couldn't stand it. "You were always beautiful and interesting."

"Not enough for you to notice me. But it's not like I had anyone to blame but myself; I barely spoke to you at all. Did you know there was even a time when I hated Hermione? The two of you were so close, I thought it was her fault no one else had a chance."

"We were never like that!" he objected.

"I know, Harry! I'm pouring my heart out here, can you stop interrupting?"

"Sorry."

She took a deep breath. "Looking back, I should have known better. It wasn't the other girls I couldn't compete with: it was your life. I was heartsick when you asked Parvati to the Ball, and it was so much worse when I found out it could have been me, that it nearly had been. But then nothing came of it; she couldn't compete with the Triwizard Tournament, either. I think that was when I started to come to my senses. I thought you wouldn't see me no matter what I tried. I even asked Hermione about it earlier that year, if I could ever have the slightest chance. She told me I had to be myself more, be less shy, because you would never notice how I was around you, and, even if you did, you wouldn't understand why."

She was killing him; it was more than he could stand. He would do anything to take it back, to give her what she deserved. Everything the locket had said, everything he had been thinking before she had entered to the room, it was all true. He had been a monster long before he had got Sirius killed, long before Tom Riddle had possessed his mind. He really was The Boy Who Lived, the fucking Chosen One, marching down the road of destiny, heedless of the ants beneath his feet. Everyone around him was a casualty. He inflicted pain without even having to try.

The anguish made him forget his previous apology. "It's on me, all of it, you were always right in front of me and I'm so bloody self-absorbed–"

"Harry!" she yelped, tightening her arms until he couldn't breathe.

"Sorry," he wheezed.

"…So, I came out of my shell. I stopped hiding behind my hair, I made friends, boys noticed me. It felt good. I felt… relieved to know I wasn't completely unattractive, that boys could like me–"

"Unattractive?" he said incredulously. Was she serious? Was there no limit to the damage he had done? "Ginny, you are sodding gorgeous, you are–"

She slapped a hand over his mouth. "Thank you, Harry, but you're my boyfriend and I'm sitting on you wearing your shirt and a pair of knickers, so you're just a bit biased. But, thank you."

"I just hate that I ever made you feel that way," he said when she removed her hand.

"You never meant to. Anyway, you know most of the rest. I started dating. I liked the attention and found out snogging was fun, but… I tried to convince myself I was over you. I tried to replace you even though I'd never had you, and still no one else measured up. And for a short while, I thought I should hate you. I'd stopped chasing you and you were still in my head, this schoolgirl fantasy I couldn't get rid of. But by then, I was your friend, too. I couldn't hate you. And when I started to get to know you as a person, it didn't ruin that want, it just got even worse, it was more real. But you were just out of reach. With Dean, I thought maybe I finally was, too." She pulled back and looked in his eyes. "It didn't work."

"Thank God," Harry said, caught in her gaze.

"That night after the game, when we kissed – I didn't plan it. I know you didn't, either, it just happened. And then we were together like we always had been." She laughed in disbelief. "It's strange, isn't it? We barely even discussed it."

He remembered. That night had been full of heat and noise, the merriment almost overwhelming. He'd gone upstairs to escape the press, and Ginny had followed. She'd congratulated him, he her, and then when silence had fallen between them it had been about the only thing – they'd been standing close. The pull had been magnetic; Ginny's hair had hung in wonderful tangles, her lips slightly parted, her skin flushed. She had smelled like the outdoor air and flowers. They'd come together as if there were no other outcome.

He suspected Lila's interference, somehow.

"We did later. But right then we didn't need to, I thought," Harry said.

"Don't start second guessing that kiss, it was perfect," Ginny ordered, unaware she was already too late. She slid her hands back and rubbed at the tension in his shoulders. "Don't stress, Harry. I didn't tell you all that so you could beat yourself up about it."

She was too late for that, also. "Then…?"

"Because you need to understand what a load of utter bollocks that locket-me was spewing!" she said with an anger that didn't seem to have faded since the Horcrux's destruction.

"Oh, right. That," Harry said. Ginny's story had been wrenching enough for him to forget there was probably a point to it.

"I want you, Harry. I always have, even when I tried so hard to ignore it," she said. "I've never blamed you for the danger my family is in; we chose to fight back. I chose to be here with you, even when you didn't want me to. And it's not as if I'm the only one supporting you! Everyone should if they aren't a load of evil wankers."

Harry was unable to absolve himself so easily. "But–"

She cut him off again. "I don't want to hear it! We can fight about your guilt later. As for the other rubbish that thing said, and did…"

He recalled it all quite vividly. The breasts he had been taunted with were currently pressed against him.

"I can't believe it just lifted up my shirt like that, I was so angry. Good thing for that fog, I don't think anyone else saw…" She breathed hard through her nose, eyes flinty. "I have never shared a bed or anything else with other boys. I dated two, neither of which got anything more than a snog and that's all. That bloody locket took my face and made me out to be some sort of super slag!" she raged.

"None of it seemed right," he reassured her. "I never thought you were a slag, even when I saw you with Dean. I just wished you were mine."

He must have said the right thing: she melted back against him.

He blinked, his eyelids heavy. Confessions were exhausting, even when they weren't coming from him. "Are you as tired as I am?"

"I'm already half-asleep," she mumbled into his shoulder, going deliciously limp in his arms. "I talked myself out."

He lay back, swinging his legs up on the bed and settling her beside him, where she immediately draped a warm arm over his torso. He opted to leave his trousers on, feeling it was safer that way, and he needed them to make his erection less obvious. Maybe he wouldn't be so self-conscious someday.

"…Harry?" Ginny said sleepily.

"Yeah?"

"My tits are much nicer than that. Bloody locket didn't get anything right."

It was comforting to know the Horcrux hadn't taken that first away from them. "I believe it."


Sophie waited until Kylie was fast asleep before she left the room. The girl had been suffering night terrors, panicked dreams that often kept her from slumber. Another human presence seemed to calm her. Hopefully, her resumption of speaking was a sign of recovery.

Sophie had kept Kylie upstairs, well away from the Horcrux. She didn't know exactly what had happened in the kitchen, but the locket had been a dark vortex in the shape once activated, and she had felt it being snuffed out. Whatever came next, she understood her own role in it. She had begun creating a mental plan for cleaning the house, as well as a few organisational rearrangements for defensive purposes. The singular point of ground floor entry made her job easier.

She disliked the dim the hallway she stepped out into, closing Kylie's door behind her. She liked her dwellings brightly lit, spacious and well furnished. Her career had forced her to learn to live without any of those attributes from time to time, but had not changed her preferences. She wrinkled her nose at the candle holders she passed. Candles could be romantic and atmospheric, but they were such low-lumen alternatives to what she considered conventional lighting.

The doors for the rooms of both pairs of Primes were closed. Harry and Ginny's was dark. A sliver of light emanated from the crack beneath Ron and Hermione's door, along with muffled voices. They must have had something to discuss, perhaps related to the Horcrux.

Sophie descended the staircase with the intention of going to the kitchen and seeing if everything was still intact. She found Scott sitting on the landing between the first and second floor, beneath the disgusting, mummified elf heads mounted to their grimy plaques. From his position he had a clear line of sight to the front door, which was what she assumed he'd wanted, but his head was back against the wall and his eyes were closed. He had his shotgun resting across his knees. She hesitated, debating whether or not to disturb him.

Her indecision was made irrelevant when he spoke, eyes still closed. "Is Kylie asleep?"

"She is," Sophie said. She walked down the last few steps and sat next to him. "How did it go?"

"It's dead. And melted to the table, if you can believe it. It was dangerously manipulative; not surprising, considering it's a reflection of its maker, but whatever damage it did is a concern. I'm counting on the girls to take care of things. I know Ginny will, but I hope Hermione will talk to Ron."

"Do you want me to talk to her? If it was a personal attack, maybe she would be more comfortable speaking to another woman."

"Ginny, first, over either of us, but Hermione would actually be more comfortable talking to me. I mean, she won't be comfortable with anyone, if the locket went where I think it did, but I think I could make her talk to me. We have an interesting dynamic."

Sophie had seen a little of that. "She seems like the most difficult Prime."

Scott made a face. "Yes, and no. She demands oversight, but understands necessity."

Sophie nodded in silent agreement before remembering that his eyes were still closed. She looked down the dark hallway towards the door. "Do we need to take shifts tonight?"

"Hmm? Oh, no. No, I was just sitting down for a minute."

She studied him more closely. His straw blond hair had grown out since she had last seen him, falling closer to his eyebrows and the tops of his ears. She traced the lines of his elegant, angular face with its strong chin, lean cheeks and straight-edged nose set above his wide, firm mouth. He had a raw-boned handsomeness, sharp and male. The low light nearly hid the stubble dotting his features. He smelled like gun oil, flannel and warm masculinity. She wanted to kiss him.

She shook herself and glanced away in silent embarrassment. That attraction had been present from the moment she had met him, and had grown with time. But, in that time, she had also become his close friend and comrade (familiarity had not lessened the pull; it only added an emotional component). Sometimes she felt like they were gradually moving towards something more.

While she greatly enjoyed his physical appearance, she was not blind to what was currently detracting from it. His skin had the wan pallor of fatigue, and dark circles hung beneath his eyes.

"Scott, when was the last time you slept?" she asked.

His response was slow in coming. "…A couple days. We've been busy, and I've been watching that charm. Also…"

"Yes?" she pressed.

"The shape has been distracting. I don't know, I should sleep, this is stupid. I'm keyed up."

She sat up in alarm. "You've been taking c-stims?!" she gasped. He had never relied on the debilitating enhancers before.

"I was just using the expression! It's a figure of speech!" He looked at her with annoyance, but she was just glad to see the alertness in his gaze.

She settled back against the wall. "How long were you planning on burning out?"

"I wasn't. I just couldn't sleep before, I didn't trust this house."

"I'm here now, you don't have to worry," she said gently.

He favoured her with a tired smile. "I know. Thank you for coming."

She winked at him. "I was ordered to."

"And there are so many fringe benefits," he yawned, stretching in an exaggerated manner intended to highlight his musculature.

That was more true than she would ever admit. "And the locale is so grand, too."

He grimaced, glancing up at the preserved heads. "It's better than forward observation. Plumbing is always a plus." He sighed, taking in his surrounds with weary eyes. "Talk to me, Sophie."

She placed her hands on her thighs and rocked back and forth idly, not sure what he wanted to hear. "We are talking…"

"How are we doing?"

He looked so worn out sitting there that it sent a deep ache of empathy through her. She couldn't help herself – she reached over and took his large calloused hand in both of hers, trying to impart comfort. Scott was not an especially tactile person. He didn't seem to have a very strong aversion to touch, but rarely sought it out. She had always taken it upon herself to bridge the gap with friendly gestures of affection. Her vast family tree had given her a fondness for contact with those she held dear. And Scott, for all his singularity, had never pulled away.

"Did the locket show you something?" she said carefully.

"It tried. I don't think it was equipped to show our deepest fears. Few things can express something that abstract. But it knew how to get under Harry's skin."

"What did it tell him?"

"I don't know. I just know how he looked afterwards."

"I think you're doing great," she said, switching back to his original question. "You integrated for a whole year and now you're fighting back. You guys even just destroyed a Priority Object, that's awesome!"

"It's a start. But the Primes can't maintain the pace, it's brutal. They aren't trained to handle a battle every night." He rubbed at his eyes and yawned again. "I should talk to Lil."

"You should go to sleep," she retorted.

"I guess."

She patted her lap. "Here, lay down."

His eyebrows shot up and his gaze crawled towards the apex of her thighs. "You're inviting me to…?"

She blushed and brought her knees together, blocking access. "No!"

"So I can't use you as a pillow?"

"Oh, ha ha, very funny," she said petulantly. "That is not what you meant."

He slumped over and dropped his head on her lap, going limp. "Ahhhh… I always knew your thighs were the gates to heaven," he said sleepily.

"Shut up, Scott," she said fondly.


It hadn't taken very long for Lila to regret allowing Molly use of the phone. The problem was that she would have regretted it equally, if not more, had she denied the worried mother.

The result of Molly's high-decibel 'conversation' with her daughter had been the predictable demand that Lila go and retrieve Ginny immediately. In response, Lila could have lied. She could have promised to try, or to bring up the subject with Harry. But the truth was more convenient – if also more damaging, as the truth often was. She had advised Molly that she was unable to bring Ginny back home. Molly had pressed for reasons, and Lila had provided none. When Molly had declared that she would go and find Ginny herself, Lila had coolly informed her that could not be allowed (it was also impractical, due to Scott's tampering with the Fidelius).

Consequently, Molly was no longer speaking to her. Arthur seemed to understand the situation a bit better, but intellect alone could not overpower a father's fear. He had little to say to Lila, as well.

That was disappointing on a personal level, if not particularly relevant to the mission. Lila's past few days had consisted of watching a family who didn't understand her presence and listening in when Order members arrived to speak with Bill and Arthur. She had little to report back to Scott; the Order was still scattered and trying to consolidate. The felling of the Ministry had stripped the resistance of its main avenues of information. No one seemed to know what was happening outside of the safehouses.

So she waited. And – in such close quarters, without the distraction of a wedding – she had been forced to refuse questions instead of avoiding them. That made her presence increasingly inexplicable, and it was hurting her integration. Simply being Scott's sister who lived nearby no longer sufficed.

Even Charlie's interactions with her had been muted by wariness. He hadn't appeared to mind not knowing much about her before, perhaps looking forward to the opportunity to get to know her, but once it became clear that the rest of his family didn't know her either, he had found cause for concern. She sort of wished she hadn't used a gun during the escape from the wedding. The safety of the Weasleys had come before her secrets.

It was Bill who posed the greatest challenge. He had confronted her several times, frustrated by her refusal to level with him. It had not yet reached the point where he demanded that she leave. She was not a Secret Keeper, and therefore no threat to the house if ejected (or so he thought), and perhaps her efforts to protect his family had made an impression on him despite his distrust.

She needed to change her approach. Full disclosure was not an option, and might never be. Answering select questions could buy her the time she needed to reaffirm her loyalty; the Order would recognise her worth in the field once they ventured out.

She stood at the side of Shell Cottage, watching the waves roll towards the shore. The charm which concealed the dwelling loomed over her in the shape. It extended much further than she had expected. She wondered what might happen if she severed her own connection to the Fidelius. Would she become blind to her surroundings? Concealing what stood right in front of her would require magic to attack and impair her cognition. She should be able to resist.

The question would remain rhetorical, as she needed the link. It might only be answered if she visited Scott's safehouse without invitation.

She sighed and crossed her arms beneath her substantial breasts, lifting them and taking the weight off her too-tight brassiere. The fitted garment was designed for combat, supporting her prodigious bust in situations of great motion and impact. It had shrunk in the wash, despite also being designed not to do that. Apparently, magical laundering was different. She needed to try out her other bras to see if they fit better.

That had to be, of course, the way Bill found her: lifting her breasts with one arm whilst fiddling with the support straps with the other. His eyebrows shot upwards.

She dropped her hands and favoured him with a blasé stare. "My bra shrunk. Also, considering how often you men are adjusting your tackle, I think you can let me shift my boobs around without excessive comment."

"Entirely fair," he agreed.

She leaned back against the wall. "What can I do for you?"

He addressed her with directness. "You could answer some questions, for a change."

"That's a pretty big change," she said, unaffected.

His eyes darkened. "Look, how long do you think you can keep this up? You lied to my mum for a year, but that's over. None of us have any idea who you are. I'm not even sure you're a witch."

"I'm Lila Kharan."

"And who is that?"

She considered her reply for a moment. "Scott Kharan's sister. We're a team." She glanced at Bill, but he said nothing, looking impatient for more. "We're soldiers."

"Mercenaries?" he said sceptically. "Who hired you?"

"We aren't mercs. I told you, we're soldiers," she said stiffly.

"A sixteen-year-old and his slightly older sister. Just like all the other soldiers," he said sarcastically. "What are you? Twenty? Twenty-two?"

She ignored his guesses. "Our talents are suited to this mission."

"And what mission would that be?"

"Riddle is not merely a local concern," she told him, choosing her words with extra care. "Other parties are aware that Harry must be supported."

He took a step closer, eyes narrowing. "The American government?"

If that was what he wanted to think, then she saw no reason to disillusion him. "I'm not at liberty to say."

He sighed. "Well, you're going to have to tell me a little more than that."

"I'm here to protect your family and assist in mission planning and execution."

"Mission execution or person execution?" he said pointedly.

"Whatever may be required."

He stared at her, and then slowly nodded. "The thing is… I'm not in a position to turn away someone like you. The Order isn't, which I'm sure you've noticed. And I know you were at Hogwarts with your brother, during the attack. So Dumbledore knew that, too."

"Scott attended with his consent," she said.

"Right. You explained yourself to him, but don't feel you owe us the same courtesy. I get it."

Lila was not impressed by the ploy. "Good. I'm glad you get it."

Bill laughed without amusement. "I really don't know what to make of you. I'll tell you one thing, though: if you betray my family, you won't live long enough to collect whatever reward was promised."

She rolled her eyes. "Save your threats for the enemy. Or at least someone you can intimidate. Most men don't have prettier hair than me."

This time, he laughed genuinely. "Just so we understand each other – it's customary! You've killed enough Death Eaters that I doubt you're on the other side. I just wonder if you're on our side. But…" His expression sobered. "We need all the help we can get. And Harry, even more."

"What we do, we do to ease his path," she said quietly.

"I understand if you don't trust me entirely, as well."

"I do trust you. In time, perhaps with more. Not everything is mine to tell."

"Harry seems to trust your brother," Bill said. "I doubt he knows as little as me."

"Harry is privileged. How often did Dumbledore confide in you?" Lila asked pointedly.

"You aren't Dumbledore."

"We ran in the same circles. We had an understanding."

"That I believe," Bill stated. "Anything else you'd like to share?"

She looked away. "Ask me again later."

"Count on it." He turned to go and then stopped. "Oh, one more thing – don't hurt my brother. He still fancies you, so at least do me a favour and let him down gently."

"I haven't led him on."

"I know, that's why I'm not angry."

"He hasn't pushed the issue. If he wants to be direct, then so will I." Lila wasn't willing to simply reject Charlie outright. His attraction to her might still be of use, and it was fun, too.

"If it's all the same to you, then, I'll keep trying to talk him out of it."

"Do what you want," she said indifferently.

After he left, she stared at the ground and wondered how long her minor admissions would suffice. She had briefly considered bringing up the topic of Fleur, but, ultimately, Bill's new bride was more of an annoyance than a real concern. Lila and Fleur had clashed several times during the wedding preparations, and Fleur had not forgotten it. She barely tried to hide her resentment of Lila's presence. Lila doubted that talking to Bill about it would have accomplished much, anyway.

She was also bored. She knew that she needed to suppress the feeling if she was to advance into integration; it required many workaday things. So she did her best to stay occupied, and waited for a call from Scott or a gathering of the Order to bring new challenges her way.

She supposed she could call Strauss. The other woman wouldn't be excessively busy tending to her similar directives, and was always up for a chat. Strauss could natter away almost endlessly when invited to, and her family connections ensured she was always full of the latest news and gossip. Lila usually had to pry the best stuff out of her, though, or infer it. Strauss was too considerate and decorous to revel in anything malicious (she sometimes made an exception in regards to certain female members of the Consistorium staff – Lila suspected that Scott factored in).

Lila filed away the option for later. She needed to return to the interior of the cottage. However, going back inside might mean facing Molly again. It had to be done at some point. Eventually the frantic mother would understand things, though it might be too soon to hope for change. Lila could rebuild burned bridges, but first the ashes had to cool.

She wished she had a better way to check on the twins. Getting to Diagon Alley was the easy part (not that apertures were ever easy). It was more difficult to return before her departure was noticed. She knew that if her method of travel was revealed, Molly would insist that it be used to retrieve Ginny, which would in turn lead to a plethora of facts that Lila had no desire to disclose. Explaining that not only was she unwilling to take Ginny through an aperture, but literally unable, would result in questions about the shape and Primes and a million other things that the Weasleys didn't need to know.

Lila desired to end her feud with Molly, not create an entirely new mess with unneeded revelations. Regrettably, any missions with the Order could end the same way if Lila were forced to utilise any of her more unusual abilities. That was a problem that would have to be faced when it arose; other problems had to be faced more immediately. She took pride in her reputation for not shirking confrontation. With that in mind, she strode into the cottage to being repairing her integration.

The small sitting room was where Molly spent most of her time. The Weasley matriarch alternated between knitting, sewing and staring with desperate worry at the family clock. Lila was not unsympathetic. But to end Molly's torment was to end the war, and the only way out was through. There had to be some part of her which knew that. She just stood to lose too much. Perhaps it would help if Lila reaffirmed her dedication to preventing such loss.

Molly did not look up from her knitting when Lila seated herself in a nearby rocking chair. Her face was drawn, and the stiff movements of her hands were a far cry from her usual skill. She tore at the yarn, fraying it.

"We need to talk," Lila said evenly.

Molly's reply was terse. "I don't believe we have anything to talk about."

Lila went ahead and rolled her eyes; Molly wasn't looking at her, anyway. "That's obviously not true."

"I tried talking to you before and you wouldn't listen, I don't see the point now."

"I did listen. You were being unreasonable."

Molly's knitting needles clacked together loudly. "'Unreasonable'?" she bit out. "It was unreasonable to ask you to bring my daughter home? It was unreasonable to think a sixteen-year-old shouldn't be out on her own, fighting Dark wizards?"

"Under these particular circumstances, yes."

"I don't care!" Molly snapped. "You've done nothing but lie to me, and then refused to lift a finger when I needed your help! I don't even know who you are."

"You know me, Molly. I'm still Lila."

"No, I don't think I do. So please, leave me be."

"No."

"No?!" Molly nearly shouted.

"Not until we settle this."

"Unless you can produce Ginny, I can't imagine that happening."

"Scott is protecting her," Lila reminded.

"Scott?" Molly said incredulously. "Your younger brother? Are you trying to reassure me?"

"He has the same training I do," Lila told her, omitting the fact that he had significantly more.

Molly waved her hand, as if brushing away Scott as a topic worthy of discourse. "I can barely accept that Dumbledore left this task, whatever it may be, in the hands of children, my children, I surely don't pretend to know what the man was thinking," she said in an angry, rapid cadence. "I know that Harry will look out for Ginny and they think they're in love, but if I have no choice with Ron and Harry and Hermione – if I ever have, with all the trouble they get into – then at least they're of age!"

"Ginny chose to accompany them."

"That's not a choice she can make! I am her mother and I want her here!" Molly said with an edge of hysteria. "The only reason I haven't gone to get her myself is because I don't know where she is!"

"Neither do I," Lila said. Technically, it was true.

"Stop lying to me!" Molly demanded. "You rang your brother on that Muggle wireless!"

"It's just a number. It could connect to anywhere."

"Then you talk to Scott and tell him to tell you."

"That won't help you. I won't be a Secret Keeper."

"Then he can tell me!"

"I don't think he will. They have reasons for remaining isolated."

"Then we have nothing to discuss," Molly hissed, and resumed her knitting.

Lila wondered if her own reserve was creating a barrier. It could be maddening if one participating party in an argument never lost composure. Her lack of emotion might be reinforcing Molly's perception that Lila was uncaring, without pity.

Lila didn't have to act. She just had to loosen her rigid self-control and allow her body to reflect her emotions. "We have a lot to discuss," she said, hearing her voice roughen with temper and feeling the blood rush to her cheeks. "I have done my best to protect this family, and I know I'm not perfect, but I don't deserve to be treated like this just because I won't give in to your whims!"

Molly was taken aback. Lila rarely displayed any real anger, and had never raised her voice to Molly before. "Protecting my daughter is not a whim!"

"It is when you should have already realised it's not going to happen! Ginny is with Harry and they have a job to do, and I can't fucking change that!" Lila said forcefully.

Molly gasped. "Lila Kharan! I ought to jinx your mouth shut!"

Lila actually felt slightly ashamed. "I'm sorry. But stop blaming me for things that are beyond my control. You didn't think it was coincidence that Dumbledore left something to Ginny, did you?"

Molly looked away, a hand fluttering to her mouth. "I didn't want to think he'd be so callous."

"He was what he needed to be to finish this." Not enough of what he needed to be, in Lila's opinion.

"They're just children…" Molly said again, almost to herself. "Why must it be them?"

They trod near truths, now, stepping too close to the shape. Lila had no wish to speak in actualities, so she generalised. "It always has been. Harry is at the centre of this, and his friends won't leave him."

"And he won't come to the adults for help?" Molly smiled bitterly and wiped at her eyes. "He can't be blamed, I suppose. We've never been there when he most needed us. The Tournament, the Ministry… The way the Prophet treated him, those awful Dursleys…" she said the name like an epithet.

"It's difficult to trust authority when your family failed you like that," Lila said.

"We are his family," Molly said sharply.

That was encouraging. "I'm glad this hasn't turned you against him."

"Never!" Molly seemed shocked by the idea. "I don't always agree, but he does what he thinks is right. He always has."

"What is right is not what is easy."

"You don't think I know that?" Molly said tightly. She closed her eyes, mouth trembling. "All I want is for them to be here, to be safe. It never seemed like so much to ask, before."

"Your daughter is trying to make things safe again."

Molly loosed a wavering sigh. "Of course she is. Family of Gryffindors, every single one. I wish she'd come back to me. But she won't, will she. And there's nothing I can say."

Lila leaned back in her chair and smoothed her features once more. "This will all be over someday."

Molly looked at the family clock, its hands illustrating how grim things really were. "You'll forgive this mother for worrying about what happens before then," she said quietly.

"Whatever it may be, I'll be here."

"I know, dear. Perhaps soon you'll tell me why." Molly took a deep breath and set her knitting aside. "What shall we make for dinner?"

Back to index


Chapter 13: Each Breath Be Blessed, Every Hour Be Stilled

13

Each Breath Be Blessed, Every Hour Be Stilled


Time waits

Though not with Man
Nor on Planets
Nor near the Gates

Instead it stands
To side of view
And reaches out
With dusty hands

A jealous grasp
Our rhythm held
Beating slowly
Behind the clasp

By that long clock
Counting each tick
Marking each tock

Still caught

–Aidan Stonémarc, 1330 Long Beach, 1993


Days passed without change.

The problem, as Harry saw it, was information: they had none. They were cut off at Grimmauld Place, isolated. Their forays into the outside world had largely been rapid, violent affairs with narrow focus. They had accomplished much, but learned little. The Order hadn't a lot to offer, either, according to Lila's reports. They were trying to organise, left without resources or anyone to trust. Diagon Alley would be a death trap, Hogsmeade little better. The enemy had eyes everywhere, it seemed.

So they sat and studied and plotted, and, honestly, it was a bit of a relief. Harry usually hated inactivity, but the trauma of having the world turned upside down followed by battles in quick succession had worn him down. He needed the time to gather himself.

He spent a lot of his time fine-tuning his shotgun skills. Ginny often accompanied him, and even tried her hand at marksmanship on occasion. She didn't have the affinity for it that Harry did, and mostly went along for his company. They were not neglecting their magical skills, either. The whole group trained together, casting and covering each other, honing their wandwork in the process of teaching Sophie. It was strange to see the tiny Kharadjai woman casting without the aid of a wand (and sometimes without verbalisation or even a gesture). Her control was imperfect and, without a wand, it took her considerable time to master even simple spells; but, once she did, she was capable of doing things that Harry had never seen before.

She could send Stunners whirling around the room, accelerating and slowing them, splitting them into multiple glowing spears. She had access to the hidden workings of magic, manipulating with her innate power what a wizard would express in pages of runes and formula.

It certainly served to underscore Scott's magical incompetence. Harry had assumed that Scott would be caustic and defensive about it, and maybe he would have been in his teen form. But the fully grown Scott who sometimes sat in on their training sessions regarded Sophie's talent with an obvious pride.

"How many people could do that?" Harry had asked one time, watching as Sophie sent a Stunner into a corkscrew so fast it looked like a solid tube. When it hit the mattress, it had cut a perfect circle into the fabric.

"No more than a handful. Training helps, but what you're seeing, the way the shape is understood and then altered… It's like what makes someone a great painter or musician. It can't be taught." Scott had smiled as Sophie sheepishly prodded at the smoking mattress. "It's part of why she joined the Praesaedius."

"She wasn't going to before?" Harry had said. He had assumed that Sophie was a career soldier like Scott and Lila (which, come to think of it, was also an assumption).

"That's her story," Scott had stated.

"I haven't heard your story, either."

"That's right. You haven't."

Harry had let it go, knowing he wasn't getting any further answers.

Hermione had been absent for some of those practises. Harry was worried about her, and he knew that Ron and Ginny were, too. She spent endless hours in research, studying her books in search of information that Harry thought probably wasn't there. He doubted even Riddle had fully understood the nature of the Horcruxes when he had made his first one. The perceived reward had simply been worth the risk.

As far as Horcrux locations were concerned, Hermione had not found anything they didn't already know. Dumbledore had been thorough. Harry was all for gaining an edge, but Hermione needed to slow down. They could have to leave at a moment's notice, and they needed everyone to be well-rested. Ron was also tiring of her obsession, and could probably be counted on to do something about it soon.

Harry was sitting at the table with Ginny eating sugar-loaded cereal and discussing the best treats Honeydukes had to offer when a familiar white shape fluttered down the chimney and perched on the back of an empty chair.

"Hedwig!" Harry exclaimed with delight. The owl preened herself and allowed Harry to rub her feathered head. She dropped a folded note in front of him.

He picked it up and read:

Harry,
I thought you might want to write to some
of the Order members I haven't seen lately.
They might tell you things they wouldn't
say in front of me. At the very least, tell Lupin
you're okay. He asks after you all the time and
it's very annoying.

Lila

P.S. I tried to tie this to your owl's leg and
it tried to bite me. Lucky for it, I was feeling
merciful. If it wants to carry this the whole
way, whatever.

Lila's blunt presence permeated every line of the missive. Harry could practically hear it being read in her flat, sardonic tones.

"It's from Lila," he explained to Ginny. He handed it to her. "She wants me to send a letter to Remus."

Ginny read the note. "Hah! They won't talk to her, so she's going behind their backs," she said admiringly.

"If that's what it takes, I guess. It can't be easy over there, since they don't know what we do." He did not envy Lila's situation.

He procured some paper and a quill and was debating how to start (and getting plenty of unsolicited advice from Ginny) when Scott strode into the kitchen with Kylie close behind. He paused briefly to look at Hedwig.

"That's new," he commented, and starting digging through one of the cupboards.

"Lila thought I could use Hedwig to contact the Order," Harry told him.

"We thought about getting an owl of our own, once. Didn't pan out," Scott said idly. "Kylie, you pick something. I'm tired, not hungry."

Harry hadn't been blind to Scott's increasingly haggard appearance. "Did you sleep enough?"

"Define 'enough'." Scott passed Kylie the cereal she had pointed at. "I slept."

"I'm writing to Remus. Is there anything you want to tell the Order?"

"Not until we have a target for them, or vice versa."

"I'll find out." Harry pressed the quill to the parchment and started writing.

"From what Lil said, it sounds like they know as much as we do. Oh, and here…" Scott dug into one of his numerous pockets and produced a ballpoint pen, which he tossed at Harry. "Welcome to the twentieth century."

Harry looked around the stone room with its wooden furnishings. "This pen is too modern for this bloody place."

"So am I."

Harry couldn't argue with that. Even the cutting edge of Muggle technology must have seemed obsolete to Scott. "That's you, mate, you're just too advanced for us."

"Your sarcasm does not change the truth."

"That you're a stuck-up git?" Ginny said.

"Exactly."

Sophie trotted down into the kitchen, her demeanour an odd combination of sleepy and cheerful. "Good morning!" she said brightly, followed by a yawn that she hid behind one hand.

"Good morning, and, yes, I slept last night," Scott said pre-emptively.

"Wonderful!" She helped herself to a scone. "I slept great, if you were wondering."

"I wasn't. You sleep like the dead and are only slightly more responsive."

Harry concentrated on his letter. It took a few moments to get the knack of using a pen again. There was no question that it offered greater ease of use. A perfect world would really be a blend of magic and science; if only the two weren't so mutually exclusive.

Although, it struck him that Scott's mobile had always worked in places where it shouldn't. Harry had always assumed that was made possible by the advanced nature of Kharadjai tech, but perhaps not. Perhaps it could be copied and adapted.

"Scott, how is it your mobile works at Hogwarts?" he asked.

Scott answered promptly, which was a nice surprise. "Because it's not a phone, it's a comunit."

"…But you always call it a phone."

"It saves time."

"Not any more. What's a comunit?"

"Short answer: it uses the shape for communication and requires a Kharadjai to provide the connection. If I gave it to you, it would just be a phone."

"You gave it to me," Ginny pointed out.

"And I was right there, making it work," Scott said.

"How far away could you go before it would stop?" Harry asked.

Scott shrugged. "Not very."

"Never mind, then," Harry said, disappointed. It seemed communicating the Kharadjai way was not a goal within reach.

"Only a Kharadjai can provide access to the shape. It's a constant limitation," Sophie said thoughtfully as she stirred an excessive amount of butter into the bowl of porridge she was making.

"Would you like some porridge with that butter?" Scott asked, echoing Harry's observation.

"I have porridge with it," Sophie primly replied.

Harry was about halfway through his letter (he was having trouble with the wording; he didn't want to be perfunctory with Remus, but he also didn't want to discuss his own state of mind) when Ron and Hermione came downstairs. Hermione seemed rested, which was encouraging. Ron must have prevented her from reading late into the night.

"Why, hello, Hedwig!" Hermione said, greeting the bird. Hedwig blinked in reply. "Who are you writing, Harry?"

"Remus. I'm trying to find out if the Order knows any more than we do," Harry said.

"Ol' Mad Eye has got to have something up his sleeve, if no one else," Ron imagined.

Remus' reply came back quickly; Hedwig returned that evening and deposited the letter in front of Harry with an expectant manner. He gave her some of the owl treats he had dug out of his trunk and read the letter out loud whilst everyone clustered around.

"'Harry,'" he read, "'Upon receiving your letter I was going to come see you directly, only to discover I no longer remember how to get to where I suspect you may be. I spoke to Bill and Nymphadora and they can't remember, either. I don't know how you managed to change the charm, if that is what's happened, but I hope you did. If this isn't your doing then the implications are troubling. Please write back as soon as you can and let me know.'" Harry paused and looked at Hermione. "Should they be able to remember anything about this place? It sounds like he knows the name, or something."

She contemplated the question. "I'm not sure. It may be a side effect of what Scott did. He removed their access, but not their memories."

Harry continued reading. "'We have been trying to organise, but it has been difficult. Travel is dangerous, especially as Apparition is our only quick option. There are Anti-Apparition Jinxes placed in Diagon Alley and other major areas. Be very careful where you go. Moody has disappeared – he briefly returned to his house to gather his Auror equipment and was ambushed. He managed to fight his way out and sent a message to us before he went to ground. Hopefully, we'll hear from him soon. I'm glad you wrote, Harry. We're all worried about you. I have much I would prefer to say in person. If all goes well, perhaps we can meet soon. Be safe, Remus.'"

"I don't like the comments about meeting in person. Are you sure this is from Lupin?" Scott said.

Sometimes Scott's paranoia was a bit much. "Hedwig wouldn't take a return letter from someone else," Harry said. The owl was looking at Scott with her hackles raised, clearly indignant.

Scott stared back. "I suppose there are some benefits to an intelligent messaging system."

The letter had been full of the kind of news Harry had been hoping not to receive. "I'd better let him know about the charm."

He started a second, shorter letter to inform Remus that the Fidelius Charm had been altered by them and that it had been intentional. Harry also made sure to promise to stay in touch, though he didn't guarantee a meeting. He wasn't in a position to commit to much of anything.

"Scott. Scott!" Hermione was saying, trying to get his attention.

"Yeah?" Scott said, coming back from wherever he had been mentally wandering.

"I was thinking about what you said before, about a possible Horcrux up north. I was wondering if you'd had any more precognition to narrow it down?" she said hopefully.

"It's not precognition. It's perinoesis, or shape-given perception of the present," he corrected meticulously.

Hermione didn't like being corrected. "Fine. Have you or haven't you?"

"No. Maybe if we got closer."

"I'm sorry, I haven't felt anything like that at all," Sophie apologised, seeing the disappointment on Hermione's face.

"I can't exactly be angry with you when I can't see the shape at all!" Hermione complained. She opened her mouth as if to say more and then closed it, a troubled expression flitting across her features.

"It has many uses, but only a few in which it is reliable," Scott said.

"Then searching will be our last resort. We'll probably have to travel the Muggle way, unless we want to risk brooms again."

Flying on brooms without a destination in mind – and for an indeterminate amount of time – seemed like quite a risk, indeed. "Yeah, let's take the car if we're going to do that," Harry said.

"I thought we were going to Godric's Hollow?" Ginny said.

"We still are," Harry confirmed. "This is just a load of maybes."

Godric's Hollow was on Scott's maps, but they had come to the conclusion that they were almost certainly incomplete, covering those portions known to the Muggles. The wizarding population preferred a level of segregation for Statute of Secrecy purposes. That left them with a partial picture, which was better than none.

It had been decided early on that travelling by motor would be the safest way to approach the village. Hermione had discovered Bagshot's address, though if Bagshot were in hiding, perhaps behind a Fidelius of her own, then Scott would be the only chance they had of finding her. There was no guarantee that she even remained in Godric's Hollow at all. Harry was eager to find more Horcruxes, but the trip would be worthwhile for him regardless of whether they found Bagshot or not. He wanted to see his parents' graves, and the house he couldn't remember.

Perhaps Riddle wanted Harry to do that, too. Visiting a location so tied to Harry's history carried with it a bevy of perils.

The next day, Harry approached Scott with an important question. The Kharadjai was in the drawing room, intently studying the street outside through a foggy window. It was raining, and had been off and on for days. The puddles near the kerb were deep; passing cars churned up a dirty mist in their wake, tyres hissing in passage. The venture to Godric's Hollow would be a wet one.

Harry walked to the window and peered up at the overcast sky as raindrops plunked against the blurry pane. "Seen anything?" he asked Scott.

"Not yet. If they haven't narrowed it down by now, they must not know where to start. That's encouraging," Scott said satisfactorily.

"Maybe they're just good at hiding," Harry said pessimistically.

"It would be an uncharacteristic display of subtlety." Scott's eyes tracked a small yellow car as it drove past. "Besides, they can't know where we're looking out of."

"I'm just saying we shouldn't be careless."

"I wasn't planning on it."

Harry stepped back and sank onto the sofa. "I came to ask you something."

"Is it something I'm not going to like?"

"Uh, I don't think so… How am I supposed to know?" Harry said with a shrug.

Scott turned away from the window. "I don't know. You could ask me for a machinegun or something."

"Would you give me one if I asked?"

"God, no."

"It was worth a try." Harry moved on to his actual query. "So, if I can't have that, will you teach me to fight?"

"I thought I have been."

"But not just shooting and plans, I mean up close. Like, punching and stuff," Harry said eagerly.

"Punching and stuff." Scott sighed and sat in the chair across from Harry. "Okay, first off, I can't teach you to fight like me. You aren't strong enough or fast enough and you can't be. Trying to imitate my style isn't going to get you anywhere."

"Fine, but it's not like we have that kind of time anyway. Just teach me how to do what you did to Dudley – quick things like that."

Scott made a few elegant jabs at the air, his hands a blur. "Yeah, joints and points. Just the good stuff, the shit that works on people who know less than you, or get caught by surprise. You'll still be in trouble if they know what they're doing, but, like you said, you don't have time to master a system."

"But I could take on a Death Eater, right?"

"Well… How big of a Death Eater?" Scott raised his hands and dropped them. "This will be good in an emergency, but keep your distance. Your wand is what you know."

Maybe, but Harry had begun to feel that, against Voldemort, magic might not be enough. He needed to expand his arsenal, use tools the enemy wouldn't expect. There had never seemed to be much chance of him winning a duel against the Dark Lord: only Dumbledore had been able to equal Riddle in skill and power. Harry might have had considerable power of his own, he didn't know, but if he did it was undeveloped. Riddle had decades of practise and research behind him. Harry didn't have fifty years to hone his skills. By the time he achieved parity, he would have already lost.

It was unfair to be so outmatched thanks to the directives of the Prophecy. If anyone had to be fated to kill Voldemort, it should have been Dumbledore. But, the world was stuck with Harry, so he reckoned he needed to fight dirty. Luckily, that seemed to be the only way Scott ever fought.

That truth became even more evident in the opening moments of their first impromptu sparring session. They moved aside the table in the kitchen and faced each other on the bare flagstones. Harry had suggested they find some kind of matting for the floor; Scott's reply had been that preventing pain was not instructive, which Harry felt did not bode well.

"Okay, things you need to know," Scott began. "Forget everything you've ever seen in every martial arts movie. If you end up trading blows for minutes on end, either you both suck or you're in a fair fight, which is the last thing you want. You want to inflict as much damage as possible as quickly as possible. You want to end the fight before it has a chance to start. Every encounter is different, but the basic goal for someone at your level can be boiled down to this: get the other guy down, and then kick him until he's crippled or dead. You're going to do real damage if you can put your weight behind it. A lot of times, the fight will end up on the ground. Try not to hit the floor, but, if you do, make sure you take him with you."

"So, you're going to be knocking me down," Harry said, looking at the stone floor with reluctance.

"Not yet. First I'm going to show you where to hit someone, then we'll work on your footing a bit. Then I want a sandwich." Scott tapped a finger on his throat. "Lesson one: how to make someone wish they'd been born without a neck."


Hermione knew she was missing something. She just couldn't work out what that something was, and she hated that feeling.

The Tales of Beedle the Bard was a fascinating glimpse into wizarding lore, a rare valuable and an insight into the magical childhood she hadn't lived; but, as far as she could determine, it was nothing more. She couldn't accept that Dumbledore had given it to her simply because he had known she would appreciate it. That would have been true of most any book, and all of the other gifts bequeathed by the Headmaster had purpose.

He had not hidden her gift behind locks or passwords, which meant his intent was hidden in plain sight. The Ministry had been forced to give Ginny and Scott their gifts after failing to open them. For Hermione's, they had found no reason to withhold it at all, it seemed, which meant the answer was concealed, indeed. Hence her frustration.

Her efforts to produce a spell mimicking Scott's infrared sense had fared little better. She needed more books, especially ones with greater detail to offer on the specific spells she had found. She had already admitted to herself that she may have set her sights too high. Creating such a unique new spell, one based on a Muggle understanding of wavelengths, might well be beyond her abilities.

The others always had implicit faith in her magical acumen. But the fact remained that, no matter how clever she was, or how advanced her knowledge base had become, she was still a seventeen-year-old witch with a sixth-year education. She had already taken a great many tasks upon herself. Attempted invention might be the one she could not meet.

It was a disappointing thought. However, no matter how eager she was to solve the problem, the infrared spell had to remain a secondary priority. The Horcruxes had to be found, above all else.

With any luck, finding Bathilda Bagshot in Godric's Hollow would set them on the trail of one (or maybe even more) of the magical artefacts that Riddle had stolen for his own Dark purposes. And once they were all gone, he would be vulnerable; or as vulnerable as a powerful Dark wizard surrounded by a makeshift army could be.

"One problem at a time," she mumbled to herself. She set aside her copy of The Tales of Beedle the Bard and looked at the other books surrounding her without enthusiasm. They had all failed her.

She stood, stretched, and went downstairs in search of something to clear her mind. It was a minor miracle how busy she had managed to keep in a house so detached from the outside world. But between research, training and Ron…

She flushed a little at the last thought. It was not in her nature to be aggressive in her affections, but having Ron so close at hand, and never having to look over her shoulder for parents or teachers, well… It was easy for her hormones to take control. Thus far they had limited themselves to snogging and a bit of touching over the clothes. Ron could sometimes try to push things further in the heat of the moment, but he always stopped when asked. Sleeping in the same bed had remained chaste as well, both of them in their night clothes. They tended to wake on opposite sides of the bed, as it seemed neither of them were conditioned to seek contact involuntarily (in contrast, Ginny had said she'd fallen asleep directly on top of Harry; Hermione couldn't imagine how that was comfortable). They would probably have to share a bed for some time before they grew accustomed to being held in their sleep.

She was fine with that. She was no good at rushing things. And what would her parents think of even the current arrangements? Not that they would think anything at all, as for the time being they were unable to remember her… The thought saddened her all over again, as it always did. She pushed it away.

On the way downstairs she heard a racket emanating from the dining hall that had been converted into a training room. It was a common occurrence; there was always something happening in there.

"Wingardium Leviosa!" Ron was saying as Hermione walked into the room. He levitated a plate for a moment, and then lowered it back to the floor.

"Wingardium… Leviosa," Sophie slowly repeated. She moved her hand in the approximate motions a wand would make. The plate did not move, but Sophie smiled anyway, as if she had accomplished something.

Ron cast the spell again. "You have to be precise with the flick, see…"

Kylie was also present, standing silently in the background. There had been some debate as to whether the Fidelius Charm could overpower the Trace. It had been decided that it probably would, seeing as it overrode just about everything else, but Scott had still removed the tracking spell from Kylie. Ever conscious of the unexpected, he had wanted the girl to be able to defend herself should the occasion arise, regardless of her location.

Freed from Ministry oversight, Kylie was carefully levitating a cup whilst following Ron's example. Hermione flashed back to a similar scene, years before, when Ron's role had been reversed and the future held no hint of what was to come. It seemed like a lifetime ago. She felt a pang of nostalgia, and glanced at Kylie. It seemed impossible that any of them had ever been so young.

Of course, even the trials of securing the Philosopher's Stone (which were so trivial in retrospect) had been nothing compared to the horror that ended Kylie's first year. And her second looked to be far worse.

That gave Hermione a thought. "Kylie," she said, approaching the girl who would have soon been a second-year student, had things gone differently, "when is your birthday?"

"Sunday," Kylie said quietly.

"Oh! We can have a party for you!" Hermione said delightedly.

Kylie wouldn't meet her eyes. "Last Sunday."

"What?" Hermione said, aghast. "You turned twelve and didn't tell us?"

The girl hunched her shoulders, trying to make herself even smaller. "I'm sorry."

"No, no! It's all right, it's just…" Hermione tried to think of how to phrase her disappointment. Kylie was a textbook victim of neglect and abuse, defending herself by disappearing. She never volunteered anything personal. "I'm sure Scott would like you to tell him."

Kylie shrugged.

"I know he would," Hermione said firmly.

"Absolutely, and happy birthday!" Sophie added. "Look at you, twelve years old! You'll be all grown up before you know it!"

In truth, Hermione didn't think Kylie had grown much at all: she was as short and thin as ever. Hermione had a feeling that the slight girl was probably destined to remain that way, though that was not certain. She herself had not possessed much figure to speak of at twelve.

Kylie scurried out of the room, hopefully to inform Scott of her birthday – though she might have been fleeing all the attention.

"Wingardium Leviosa," Sophie said, returning to her previous task. "The spell does not exert pressure across the object. Rather, it simulates weightlessness, creating a limited separation from gravity and granting control through an energy tether… I think. Ron, could you please cast it again?"

Hermione stood back and watched, endlessly enthralled by Sophie's instinctual understanding of the very essence of magic, the shape from which it sprang. The Kharadjai was deciphering the building blocks of the spell. Even advanced spell studies could not match such a level of detail; a runic expression of the spell would have revealed the components for wand control and hovering, not how those facets worked as defined by physics.

Oh, the things Hermione might have accomplished with Sophie's help… It was crushing to realise that, should the war be favourably resolved, she would likely never see Sophie again.

Ron cast the spell and the plate rose once more. It climbed a few feet before Sophie stepped between it and Ron, sending it clattering back to the floor. "The tether is interrupted, and the object reverts to its natural state," she observed in a clinical tone. "The energy field dissipates nearly instantaneously when not maintained; the rapidity suggests a failsafe rather than a failstate. Ron, again, please?"

The plate lifted. Sophie moved close to Ron's wand but did not block it. "The failsafe is activated when the user loses line of sight as determined by the tether. Having lost control, the spell extinguishes." She interposed herself between Ron and the plate and, again, it fell. A slight frown creased her smooth brow. "Discovering the proper element of alteration requires trial and error. Ron?"

Four more times Ron lifted the plate, and each time it came crashing down. Fortunately it was silver, and not a more breakable material. Ron was beginning to look bored.

"Science is often repetitive," Sophie said apologetically. "Again, please!"

On the fifth cast, when Sophie stepped in front of Ron's wand the expected clatter never came. She moved aside, and the plate remained suspended.

She grinned triumphantly, green eyes shining. "Success! The failsafe is averted; the spell continues to hold in the absence of the tether."

She poked the plate with a finger. It moved away, gliding through the air and beginning a lazy spin. Bouncing off the wall, it drifted towards the ceiling. Hermione was reminded of recordings she had seen once from a space shuttle, the astronauts brushing things aside in the air.

"The object has no weight, but maintains mass," Sophie continued. "This likely limits the density and size of objects that can be moved, accounting for the varying power levels of individuals." Suddenly, the plate plummeted back to earth, ringing loudly on the stone. "The simulated weightlessness is temporary, lasting only so long as the spell continues to cycle. Without refreshment, it fades, and gravity is reasserted."

Hermione felt as if she were attending a lecture. Should she politely applaud? She had the urge to take notes.

"Trial two will be an attempt to create the spell without a focal object. Primare Strauss, 1-875-153." Sophie walked over to the chair in the corner where, unnoticed by Hermione, her mobile had been resting. She tapped a few buttons and tucked it away. "I'm hungry!" she declared. "I bet Scott will make us sandwiches if we ask nicely."

She traipsed towards the kitchen and Hermione hastened to follow. "What did you mean by creating the spell without a focal object?" Hermione asked.

"Casting the spell on a point in space, rather than a solid anchor. If it works, it should create a zero gravity field," Sophie explained.

Hermione had the sudden mental image of casting such a spell over her shoulder and watching the Death Eaters pursuing her flail helplessly in the air, unable to alter their momentum. "Could I learn to do such a thing?"

Sophie giggled, a high-pitched, childlike laugh that Hermione found a bit grating. "I think you could answer that better than me! But really, right now it's just a goal that sounds nice. That spell is made to work on singular objects. I have no idea how an area of effect even works in magic or if it has enough power to be distributed like that."

Hermione considered the problem. "…I believe you would have to create a new spell using the Levitation Charm as a base. It's one of several spells all derived from the same concept, such as the Hover Charm. None of them do what you're describing, I'm afraid."

"Well, it won't hurt to try! Unless something goes really wrong, then I guess it might hurt…"

They found Harry and Scott standing idly in the kitchen, both of them chewing on rather large sandwiches. Harry was holding himself stiffly, and Hermione saw him wince when he swallowed.

"What's wrong with you?" she asked him. She went to make sure there were still enough sandwich ingredients for the rest of them.

"You'd have to get the answer to that in essay form," Scott said.

Harry snorted into his food. "Nothing," he said to Hermione once he had recovered.

The blossoming bruise on his throat told a different story. "You just wait until Ginny sees that," she admonished, pointing out the offending blemish.

"He volunteered," Scott said.

Harry just nodded and took another bite.

"You're an adult, Scott; you don't need to hurt Harry to heal yourself, if you ever really did in the first place," Hermione told him.

"Oh, Scott… What did you do?" Sophie asked with a disappointed demeanour.

"Nothing out of line," Scott said, affronted. "Harry asked for some basic close combat training. He knew it was going to hurt. And it's not like it was all on me, I let him get his practise shots in."

"Which I'm sure also hurt. Hitting you is like, hitting a, a wall, or… Something else hard," Sophie finished lamely.

"If you can't find an analogy, you should probably stop reaching," Scott remarked.

"Quiet, you," Sophie ordered. "Harry, come see me when you're done eating and let me check your hands."

"I'm just sore, it's fine," Harry said with his usual unnecessary bravado.

"Could be bruised sore, or could be hairline fractured from punching Scott's big bony head sore," Sophie said pointedly.

Scott grinned at her. "Hey, it's not the only big bone I've got." Then he straightened up and cast a quick glance around the room. "Crap, is Kylie in here?"

"It's not much good if you catch yourself afterwards!" Sophie exclaimed.

"I'm good. She's not in here," Scott said, relaxing.

"You're not good. You're rude."

"And virile. Have you noticed how virile I am?"

"Virulent, maybe," Sophie said, looking pleased with herself.

"Virulently sexy," Scott said, deepening his voice. He stepped close to Sophie, towering over her, and ran his fingers down her arm.

"Quit it," she said without conviction.

Hermione had rapidly tired of watching them flirt. "That had better not be the last of the ham," she told Harry.

"There's some left," he assured her.

'Some' proved to be a few measly bits that would barely suffice for half a sandwich. "Sophie, we're out of ham thanks to these two, can you add it to the list?"

"Adding ham to the list!" Sophie chimed. She picked up the list and swept her hand around the rubbish that had accumulated near it. "Pen, pen – where's my pen, who took it?"

"It probably rolled behind the counter," Scott said.

His idle prediction provided the comical sight of Sophie – who usually carried herself with a posture and poise that Hermione associated with some sort of deportment school for Proper Young Ladies – climbing up onto the worktop and wiggling on her stomach until her head was flush with the wall. "…It's not here," she said, her voice echoing back hollowly.

"Oh, here it is," Scott said casually, extracting the pen from his shirt pocket. His gaze was firmly riveted on Sophie's ample posterior, her wide hips lifted and legs dangling towards the floor in a position that could easily be misconstrued.

She came to that conclusion without even looking back at him. "You butt! Give me that pen!"

"Sure, I'll give it to you."

"You butt!"

Before long, everyone had gathered at the kitchen table for lunch (Sophie had bullied Scott into making it as absolution, though he seemed entirely unrepentant). Ginny was discussing her infamous Bat-Bogey Hex with Sophie, who looked equal parts enthralled and disgusted. Harry was poring over the Muggle maps with Scott, no doubt continuing their study of Godric's Hollow's geographical features. Hermione didn't know what pertinent information was left to be discerned, considering how much time they had spent on the task already.

Harry had taken to Scott's tactical instruction like a duck to water. She couldn't profess any surprise. Harry had always been intelligent, but often unfocussed (and it was difficult to blame him for it, considering the difficulties he had faced each year). Between the guns, hand-to-hand and small unit tactics, Scott had provided his Prime not only with an outlet for that intelligence, but also rage and helplessness. Hermione approved of Harry having an outlet; fifth year had demonstrated the consequences when he was kept bottled up. She just wished he could turn to Quidditch again, instead.

Ron and Kylie were fully immersed in their food, at least one thing they had in common. Hermione ate hers without tasting it. The mission to the Hollow loomed large in her mind, a steady pressure. Would it always be that way before every excursion? Constant worry, the stress of her limitless research… She drove herself to consider every angle, but that was impossible.

It was simply in her nature, she supposed. She couldn't seem to charge heedlessly like Harry and Ron, or be ready to adapt to inevitable permutation, like Scott. She needed planning and contingency. She could have the first, but never enough of the second.

"Hey, Scott," Harry said, catching Hermione's attention as well. Scott had moved away from the map and was holding a very one-sided conversation with Kylie. "I have a question for you."

"You've had a lot of those lately," Scott observed.

"It's your own fault; you've actually been answering them."

"I've always had an open door policy."

"It's a bit frightening you can say that with a straight face," Hermione interjected with a touch of justified spite.

"What can I do for you?" Scott said to Harry, ignoring her.

"I want to know if you can break open the Snitch," Harry said seriously. "I have no idea how to open it and we might need whatever is inside, I don't want to wait."

"Same answer as always for magical items. I think I could break it, but I can't promise it would survive the process. Maybe it destroys itself if forced, maybe the thing inside of it is tied to the lock and breaking one breaks both. Who knows."

Harry looked to Hermione, and she sighed. More and more it seemed that she didn't have the answers expected of her. "I don't know. There's no magical basis for what Scott does, not that I've ever read about." She was once again rephrasing that familiar refrain. The workings of the shape were alien to her beyond what Scott had explained and what she had observed and inferred. So she did what any responsible academic would do: she referred them to another expert. "Perhaps Sophie could help?"

At the sound of her name Sophie perked up, halting her conversation with Ginny. "Yes?"

"Harry has a magically protected object that he would like Scott to open," Hermione explained. "Do you think you could help identify or separate the spells so that whatever is inside avoids damage?"

"Sure! But you'll have to teach me the spells I need to know, first."

"We don't actually know how it was created…"

"Oh… Well, in that case, the only comparisons I have are the spells I already learned," Sophie said regretfully.

Harry looked resigned, as if he had known better than to expect an easy answer. "Could you still take a look at it?

"No harm in trying," Sophie agreed.

"It's upstairs in my handbag, Harry, you know where that is?" Hermione said.

"Yeah – half a mo', I'll get it," he said.

Harry went to retrieve his gift, and upon his return Sophie dashed any remaining hopes. "No, sorry," she said. "This is very complicated."

"I would expect so. It was made by the Headmaster, after all," Hermione said.

"So are you going to break it?" Ron asked Scott.

"I don't know. Sophie's already holding it, let her do it," Scott said.

Sophie quickly set the Snitch down on the table. "I know I haven't been here very long, but that doesn't seem like a very good idea…"

Ron laughed. "That's all we got around here!"

"We don't have to decide right now," Harry said, though he was not quite able to mask his impatience.

More days passed. The foray into Godric's Hollow remained at the forefront of their efforts. They had been given time to prepare and contemplate. Rushing off with minimal planning was easier from a stress standpoint, eliminating the intolerable waiting, but they were all still glad of the room to breathe. Harry wrote to Lupin again in an effort to gain any insight, no matter how trivial, into what they might be up against. Unfortunately, the letter was not coached in specifics, as they were unsure how secure Lupin's location was. They had tried calling Lila, and the former professor had not been with the Weasleys.

During the call, a rare outburst of genuine frustration had emerged from Scott. "Give me something here, Lil!" he had yelled. It was the kind of display that had been entirely common at Hogwarts, but Hermione had become accustomed to the more subtle, placid expressions of an adult Scott.

Lila's response had been inaudible, but likely scathing. "Fine," Scott had grumbled, "I'm sure Sophie would love to hear all your excuses." He'd tossed the phone at the short woman, who had immediately set about placating Lila.

Lupin's reply to Harry came on another grey, soggy afternoon. The timing was fortuitous, as they had gathered to debate whether they should proceed without further reconnaissance. Scott had been advocating a solo trip for himself, after which he could report back. That had been the core of their discussion when Hedwig returned.


Harry,

I am relieved it was you who changed the Fidelius Charm and am also extremely curious as to how you managed it. But that can wait; Moody returned to us today, arriving unannounced at one of our safe locations. We made certain it was really him and that he was not Imperiused, and I suggest you do the same for those in your company.

Apparently he's been on the run. The Death Eaters at his residence chased him but he was able to give them the slip once he escaped the Anti-Apparition Jinx. He's been all around since then, checking on people known to be sympathetic to us, and the news isn't good.

Thanks to your warning we knew about the Taboo, but what we didn't know was how effective it has been at terrorising the populace. Many potential allies were discovered before we could get to them. It seems our own defiance in using He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named's proper moniker has come back to haunt us.

Worse, the sycophants and criminals and even those just scared out of their wits are taking sides. The result is a sort of militia that's been enforcing the Taboo and kidnapping dissenters. Those not motivated by a desire to move up the ranks and join the Death Eaters, or by simple fear, are seeking to collect a standing bounty on Muggle-borns. There's at least the pretence of legitimacy: the bounty has been placed by what's left of the Ministry. I don't know what they call themselves, but I've heard them referred to as the Snatchers. They are not organised like the Death Eaters proper, but by number alone are a concern.

I pray that you remain safe and well. Lila Kharan recently made some interesting admissions to Bill. I would like to talk about them, among other things, when we meet in person.

Be Safe, Harry,

Remus


"Again with the meeting in person," Scott mused.

"Shut it," Harry said absently. "Well, it's not good news, but it is news."

"'Snatchers', huh," Scott said, unimpressed. "I can't wait to tangle with the Death Eater Youth."

"I knew Mad-Eye would make it," Ron said triumphantly. "He's too barmy to die."

"Fortunate that we discovered the Taboo when we did," Hermione said, mulling over the new intelligence. "I also approve of the added precautions they've taken. I should think Scott could recognise the Imperius readily enough; it's powerful and constant, and there should be a, 'thread', back to the originator. I'm less certain about Polyjuice…"

"Can that be demonstrated?" Sophie asked.

Hermione shook her head. "It takes quite awhile to prepare and requires regular supervision."

"Darn it. Why can't everything just be demonstrated?" Sophie said unhappily.

"We should have secret phrases we can use for that," Ginny said eagerly, clearly excited at the prospect of exercising such spy-craft.

A bit dramatic, but not an idea without merit. "We could. If not, our shared memories should suffice," Hermione said.

"Right," Scott agreed. "Just ask something specific. For example: Ginny, when you were with Harry in the hospital wing, what did I say you would give him for good behaviour?"

Ginny coloured. "Shut it!" she snapped.

Scott looked at the rest of them. "It's her."

Harry was confused. "What?"

"Never you mind," Ginny told him.

"…I'll just ask later," he mumbled, subsiding.

Hermione didn't know what that had been about, and she also didn't much care. "You should really meet with Professor Lupin before long, Harry. It sounds like there are some things he'll only discuss in person."

"Ugh. I don't really want to handle questions about Lila," Harry said with distaste.

"Lil can handle it herself. Just send him back to her," Scott said.

"What do you think she told Bill?"

"As little as possible."

"Sounds familiar," Harry said dryly.

"Hey, I could have told you nothing at all."

Hermione rolled her eyes. "Yes, let's all be ever so grateful for each bit of partial disclosure we had to drag out of you."

Scott's face darkened, but, before he could issue a cutting remark, Sophie jumped in. "Some things are hard to explain, I'm sure we all understand that," she said lightly. "Will any of this change the plans for the next mission?"

"No," Harry determined.

"The stuff about the Taboo made me think, and I was wondering if the Fidelius might be stronger?" Ginny said.

"I don't think we should say the name even if it is. Don't break a good habit," Ron said wisely.

"Hmm… I believe that, even if they could be alerted, the location itself should remain a mystery," Hermione calculated. "Ron is correct, however. It's important that we continue not saying it."

"But if we could say it, even just once, it creates interesting opportunities," Scott said.

Hermione always became suspicious when Scott began to speak of 'interesting opportunities'. "Such as?"

"A trap. Riddle doesn't deal with the Taboo himself, he's a busy man. And it sounds like it doesn't even warrant the hooded crowd, now. So why not thin the herd and maybe learn something while we're at it?"

Predictably, it was Harry who seemed most eager to pursue Scott's suggestion. "What did you have in mind?"

"Record his name, find a nice spot out in the sticks somewhere, set it to repeat and wait for someone to take the bait."

Hermione could plot out the rest for herself. "The Taboo may not work on an electronic recording."

"I'd still like to try."

"I think it could work," Harry agreed.

"Perhaps," Hermione vacillated, unwilling to commit, "but we should wait. Let's not put them on high alert right before we go out there."

Scott tilted his head slightly in acknowledgement. "Of course."

"So where are we on the plan, then?" Ron questioned. "If I'm going to get cursed I'd like to know when and where, saves on worrying."

Harry picked up one of the maps and placed it on the middle of the table. "We'll be coming in on this north road, here." He traced it with his finger. "We'll have three teams. The first will be Ginny and me. We'll go to the graveyard and then to my parents' cottage. The second will be Ron and Hermione. You two will see if you can find Bagshot's house. Once that's done we'll meet up and talk to her, if she's there."

Ginny put her hand over Harry's and smiled at him. "You and me, yeah?"

"I thought you might like that part," Harry said wryly. "Sophie has some things she can use to make us look like Muggle couples, so we don't stand out."

Hermione had issues with the plan. "I don't know about splitting us up like that, even if only for a while… And where is Scott in all this?"

"Highground," Scott said cryptically, and placed his finger on a map point that meant nothing to Hermione.

Ron was on the same page. "Thanks for clearing that up, mate, you're always so bloody helpful."

Scott sighed loudly, as if his saint-like patience was being tried by their ignorance. When he saw Sophie glaring at him, he dropped the act and explained, "The town sits below this hill line in a flat area surrounded by woods. At least part of the ridge is probably man-made, you can see the railroad tracks that run along this section, north to south. The hill curves along the west edge of town and then tapers out in this farmland down here. That's my vantage point, the crescent hill. I'm going to cover and coordinate from there."

It was the same role he had taken during Kylie's rescue. Hermione knew that Ron would be glad he wouldn't have to sit on the sidelines again, but she wasn't sure… Staying behind was difficult, but moving without contact was dangerous. Another sudden storm could increase their peril. "Coordinate how?"

"Godric's Hollow is mostly Muggle. Their electronics work, so Scott's should, too," Harry said. "He has some radio gear."

"Gear that's been gathering dust up until this point," Scott said. "Military grade. I'll run you through some channel protocols."

"Radio? Like, what, the wireless?" Ron said apprehensively, no doubt reluctant to learn how to operate a strange Muggle contraption.

"It's not hard, I can show you how," Sophie told him.

"Anybody have something to add?" Harry asked.

"I realise that having two pairs in town initially will speed things up," Hermione said slowly, trying to phrase her concerns effectively, "but I'm worried that splitting our firepower may be a mistake."

"It's a risk," Harry grimly agreed. "I don't like not having us all together, either, but I think we'd be more noticeable with a group of four. And if something goes wrong, we'll need to get out quick as we can. Especially now, since it looks like Riddle has even more people."

"I'm out there to create a delay, if it comes to that," Scott said.

"Plus, you and Ron will have the Cloak," Harry said to Hermione.

That seemed unwise. "Oh, no, Harry, your parents' house is on the edge of town, you'll need it more," Hermione argued.

"You take it, we'll be fine," Harry insisted.

"Yeah, we don't need it," Ginny joined in.

Hermione shot an exasperated look Scott's way. "A bit of help, please?"

Scott obliged. "She's right. Graveyard team gets the Cloak. The mission comes before misplaced chivalry."

"Take it to a vote," Ginny challenged him.

"We are not taking it to a vote. You are getting the Cloak and that is the end of it," Hermione stated with finality. But, of course, it wasn't final at all. They argued about it for a few more minutes, until at last she exclaimed, "All right, we'll vote! All in favour of Harry and Ginny having it…"

Hermione, Scott, Ron and Sophie all raised their hands, leaving Harry and Ginny outvoted no matter what they did.

"Fine," Harry said shortly, angry at being overruled. Hermione would have thought that he'd be happy that Ginny would have the Cloak, but perhaps he hadn't considered it that way.

"Why does Sophie get a vote?" Ginny complained, even though it didn't matter.

"Because she's pretty. The opposite reason is why you don't get a vote," Scott said snidely.

Ginny jumped up from her seat to counter-attack by word or wand – it was good odds for either – when Sophie beat her to it. "Scott, you do not talk to her like that!" she said in a direct, imperious tone that Hermione had never heard from her before. Then she turned to Ginny and said in her usual light manner, "He was just joking, but he shouldn't have said something that mean. You are very beautiful, and don't listen to anyone who says otherwise."

Scott rolled his eyes. Despite the uncaring gesture, he didn't speak on his own behalf.

"Also, I get a vote because I buy your food!" Sophie said, once again cheerful.

"No, you get a vote because you can shut him up," Ginny said, glaring at Scott.

A moment of awkward silence descended, as no one seemed to have anything else to add (and the tension between Ginny and Scott was difficult to ignore). The distant rumble of thunder echoed down from the upstairs hall, causing everyone to glance that way involuntarily.

"It's going to look strange if we're strolling about in the rain," Ron said.

"Go when the weather clears. Probably won't be nice enough for a crowd, if this place ever has any," Scott advised.

"More waiting," Harry sighed. "Well, I guess that gives you extra time to knock me about, Scott."

"Actually, Harry, Scott asked if I would help you train," Sophie said.

Harry looked a bit relieved. "Sure, we could switch."

Sophie didn't appear to be much of an opponent, but appearances were deceiving. Hermione knew that Harry had been struggling to learn anything under the lightning-quick instinctual onslaught that was Scott's tutelage. Sophie might offer something more palatable. Hermione just hoped that Sophie wouldn't injure Harry before the mission, which was a strange thought to reconcile with the Kharadjai woman's tiny stature and porcelain doll features.

"When do the rest of us get to learn all that?" Ginny inquired.

"Whenever you ask," Scott said.

Ginny's jaw set pugnaciously. "Then teach me."

"Er… How about I go back to Scott and you practise with Sophie?" Harry suggested.

"What? You don't think I can handle him?" Ginny demanded.

"No," Harry told her with unfortunate directness.

"I can teach both of you, and anyone else who wants to learn," Sophie said. "The basics aren't difficult."

Hermione knew her strengths, and physical confrontation was not one of them. Still, it could only be helpful to learn a few self-defence methods. "I would like to learn those basics, at least. I think we all should."

"The more the merrier!" Sophie happily replied.

Hermione wasn't sure she liked such enthusiasm from the woman who was volunteering to hurt them. Scott didn't speak on the subject any further, apparently content to let Sophie take the reins. Hermione wondered if Lila might be persuaded to make a similar offer of instruction to the Order.

They could all use an edge.


Scott stared moodily out the window, taking in a second-storey view of a day as grey as an overcoat. It had been raining steadily for nearly twenty-four hours. The few pedestrians that passed did so in a hurry, carrying umbrellas and keeping their heads down.

Normally, a downpour wouldn't be reason enough to delay a mission (and hadn't before). But the plan was to hide in plain sight, and that meant not being the only people on the street. His chosen firing position on the far outskirts of town required good visibility, as well. Or at least as good as it ever became. England wasn't known for its low humidity.

Downstairs, Sophie was teaching the Primes simple hand-to-hand techniques, the 'joints and points' that Scott had already imparted to Harry. No doubt they were having an easier time of it with her. Scott wasn't much good as a close combat instructor, and he knew it. It came too naturally to him; he had difficulty limiting himself, and quickly grew frustrated with his pupils. So he let Sophie take over. And if anyone besides Harry wanted to learn shooting techniques, Scott could handle that without issue.

Rain continued to thunk against the windowpane. He didn't allow it to bother him. The military taught many skills, but one of the most valuable was the ability to tolerate tedium. HUAW, as the well-known saying went: Hurry Up And Wait. His time spent orbiting Carcer on the Longevity had been an exercise in endurance. The lesson had served him well ever since.

He reached into his pocket and grasped his phone for a moment. He knew there wouldn't be any calls he had missed, it was always on his person. Lil hadn't called him since he had snapped at her; she'd been calling Sophie instead, checking in that way. He probably deserved that. Lil would get over it, in time.

A few more cars moved by on the street. He had seen nothing to indicate Death Eater activity, which was enough to prod his paranoia. It had already been demonstrated that severing individuals from the Fidelius Charm removed access to the location, but not the memories of it. Grimmauld Place was the name of the street, not just the building. That should have been more than sufficient information to bring Riddle's men outside, even if they were unable to see the structure itself.

So where were they? The Death Eaters weren't exactly Primarius ComOp material, but they hadn't been completely incompetent. Surely they had their hands on someone who knew Grimmauld Place. Snape, if no one else. It was possible that, despite whatever vague memories remained after the severance, the name of the street was lost to Snape and everyone else who had been cut out of the charm. That would be convenient, but not something that could be counted on without more in the way of confirmation. Scott was about to start checking license numbers and identifying residents. He would need a phone book to get started, and then a police uniform and a notepad…

His highly illegal ruminations were stalled when Kylie pattered into the room and sat on the couch. He glanced back at her to make sure she wasn't more upset (than usual) since he'd last seen her. "Hey, Kylie. How's tricks?"

She stared back at him, uncomprehending.

He tried again. "What's happening, how have you been today?"

"Okay," she said, and it looked to be true enough. With the ongoing training sessions and frequent meetings, Kylie had found new ways to involve herself, and had been sleeping less. She enjoyed watching Sophie bend magic into new forms, and, with her first-year education, had a lot to learn herself. Her magical instruction would continue, if sporadically, despite her absence from Hogwarts.

Not for the first time, Scott wondered how much attention Kylie was paying to what was happening around her. She had never asked directly just who Scott was or why the Horcruxes were so important, but maybe she didn't have to. Or maybe she thought she wouldn't get an answer.

"Get tired of spellwork?" he asked her. She had been levitating plates and jinxing mattresses while the others suffered through Sophie's crash course.

Kylie nodded. "I broke a cup," she confessed.

"Well, we've all broken a few lately."

They lapsed back into companionable silence, punctuated by the skitter of rain. It was one of the things Scott liked about Kylie: silences with her were never awkward, never weighted with words waiting unsaid. Her presence was not demanding.

He followed the progress of a lorry, its cargo rattling loudly as it turned the corner. He'd never seen the vehicle before, but that didn't mean much, he hadn't been monitoring the street constantly. He had a hard time imagining any Death Eaters learning to drive, but it was impossible to track all of the traffic in London, and if they changed cars often enough…

Still unlikely. And inefficient, gaining glimpses only in passing.

Kylie's voice came again, quiet but steady. "Do your parents know you're grown up now?"

Not a question he had expected, though it obliquely approached some of the curiosities the girl must have had. "They're dead," he said easily, without reprimand. "And this is my real age, remember? I was younger before so I could go to Hogwarts."

"I'm sorry," Kylie said mechanically, as if she knew it was customary to express sympathy for dead parents, but wasn't sure why. "How did you get younger?"

"It's a special skill. Not many people can do it, but I was taught how."

"Oh." A short pause, then a deep breath. "I don't think you're a wizard."

He was surprised to see her being so straightforward, but it was a good sign. He had never wanted to be feared by her, and if she could put questions to him directly then it might be an indication that she had found a better basis of comfort at Grimmauld Place. He left the window to sit next to her on the couch, where she was looking shocked by her own audacity. She flinched when he met her gaze.

"I'm not. I'm a Kharadjai. We're like… a different kind of Muggle," he tried to explain. "We don't have magic, but we can do other things. And we have technology."

"Like guns?"

"Like guns," he confirmed. "I was sent here because Harry needs help, and I was trained to help people like him."

"But they didn't train you in America," Kylie ventured.

"No. I've been to America, but I'm not from anywhere you've ever heard of. It's very far from here, in a sense."

She crossed her arms and looked away. "You don't have to make it so simple for me. I'm not a dumb little kid," she stated with a note of tween petulance so unexpected from her that she might as well have screamed it.

Scott grinned at her. "Okay, sassy-pants. I'm a soldier in a special forces branch that's assigned to intercede in universes that have major problems by assisting those closest to the events. As an integrationist, I have been trained to become a part of their lives in order to maintain maximum efficiency while still being invisible, or at least inexplicable, to outside observers. That's why I was at Hogwarts, that's why I'm still here now. I go where Harry goes, I do whatever I can to help him."

Kylie took a few moments to absorb that. Then she asked the question that she had really wanted to. "Why did you help me?"

That was much easier to answer. "Because you're my friend. You asked for my help and I wasn't going to leave you there."

"Why did the others come?" she almost whispered.

"They weren't going to leave you there, either."

A tear rolled down Kylie's pale cheek. She stood, wiped it away, and hurried from the room.

Scott followed her as far as the doorway. ""When you want to talk again you can always find me!" he called after her.

Kylie was solitary by nature (and by nurture, as the case seemed to be). She would need some time to work things through, and then she would be back with more questions.

Though, if they were about the future, then Scott was going to run out of answers.

Back to index


Chapter 14: Meshes

14

Meshes


"What do you do when your hands are
not enough? What do you say when your
words will not help things? Remember,
always: the future is informed by the past,
and it is the past you cannot change.

–Primare Macawi Qaletaqa, Integration Corps


"Visus Verum"

(Sight True)

Primarius Combat Corps Designated Marksman Maxim


"You can still hear me, right?" Harry said nervously, touching a finger to his ear.

"Yes. Stop touching your ear," Scott said, his voice tinny and distorted.

Harry quickly dropped his hand. It wasn't that he doubted the technology: he had greater faith in Muggle devices than most of his companions. It was more that he had substantially less faith in his ability to utilise it properly. The receiver in his ear was working, but he was plagued by the persistent feeling that it might be a bit clearer or a bit more comfortable if he adjusted it just a little more…

He tried not to think about it, and tucked his hands into the front pockets of his light jacket to keep them from wandering. The hood of the jacket was pulled up over the hat with the enthusiastic fox on it that Scott had given him before, along with the rectangular glasses. The dark blue of the garment matched neatly with a pair of excessively baggy black trousers (with an extra tight belt in case he needed to run) and a ratty set of red trainers. All together, it made him pretty anonymous, he thought. He could be any London teenager with a taste for loud music and a contempt for authority.

Ginny was less unremarkable, but even more transformed. Her hair had been turned a light brown, streaked with bright pink stripes and styled at the front with a perfectly-edged fringe that fell to her eyebrows. Her lipstick and mascara were dark, highlighting her expressive eyes and the white of her teeth. She was wearing tight, low-slung jeans with stylish holes in all the right places, and a lime green t-shirt which had some kind of big-eyed Japanese mascot and lettering on it. There were multiple earrings in both of her ears (only the ones in the lobes were real), a tiny diamond stud on the side of her nose and a small silver ring in the left corner of her mouth (both fake). She was a veritable punk rock princess ("I look like a drummer for the Weird Sisters!" she had exclaimed).

Harry thought she looked hot. He wasn't all that keen on the brown hair, though.

"Enjoying the view?" she teased, noticing his scrutiny. She waggled her tongue at him, showing off her faux-tongue stud.

He needed to be focussing on a different view. "I wonder what your mum would say?"

"Nothing, unless you count shrieking," Ginny snickered.

The two of them were sitting in a Muggle park, huddled together on a bench whilst they waited for Scott to find a good position. Ron and Hermione were doing the same at an intersection several streets away.

"Any luck?" Harry tried again, making sure not to fiddle with the device.

"Yeah. I just jumped a fence and found myself in Muggle-charm territory," Scott said. "Shouldn't have to worry about company on this side of the ridge."

"There's a charm where you are? A Repelling Charm?" Hermione questioned.

"Yeah, I think so. It's familiar enough," Scott replied.

"Do you see any reason as to why?"

A short silence. "…I didn't think of that, that's a good point. There must be something up here. I'll let you know if I run across anything, but I'm moving on."

The fact that the Muggle-Repelling Charm didn't even try to work its aversion magic on Scott implied some things about the shape and what he was. It was the sort of stuff Hermione probably thought about. "Right, just let us know. Uh, break," Harry said.

Scott had devoted about half an hour the previous day to a lecture on the vast array of KRAF communications protocols. Harry had held on longer than most, but finally spaced out when Scott began detailing the command codes between squad, element and company leaders, whatever that even meant. Sophie had capped off the presentation by pointing out that strict adherence to protocol was irrelevant as there were only five of them in the field.

"Don't get stilted, Red-Lead. Just talk when you have to, Sophie already ruined my fun."

"Copy, Highground," Harry replied with a small grin.

"Technically applicable, since I'm functioning as forward observation and support, but as the ranking Primarius asset in the field I would probably be Sword-Lead. 'Scott' will also work."

Ginny had little interest in such specifics. "Are you ready yet?" she said edgily.

"Soon. I see a tree I like the look of."

Ron's voice came booming over the hiss of the radio. "For climbing or peeing?"

"Keep it down, Ron, I can hear you just fine. And the tree will serve both purposes nicely."

"Now we have to sit here whilst he pees," Ginny muttered.

Godric's Hollow was a sort of quintessential British town: one- and two- storey buildings with hedges, pine trees and low stone walls. The cottages crowded together along narrow streets lined with tall black lampposts. Cars were not allowed to park in the village proper, lending it an even more rustic appearance. The air was cool and more than a bit humid. The soil squished beneath Harry's shoes, and the roads were strewn with deep puddles.

He could see the hill and the woods rising above the edge of town; Scott was somewhere in those trees, invisible and lethal. It was comforting knowledge. It was also a bit unnerving. Harry felt as if he had an angel of death hovering near, and with the release of a single careless word or gesture would bear witness to a bullet snuffing the life from a hapless target.

That was stupid, of course. Scott wasn't so inept, so random. He wouldn't shoot some poor Muggle in a fit of panic because Harry had sneezed. Scott didn't panic, so far as Harry could tell. That behaviour seemed to have been stamped out of the Kharadjai.

"I'm situated," Scott radioed, his level tone underscoring Harry's thoughts. "Red-Lead, progress. Gold-Lead, maintain."

"I think that means we can go now," Harry said to Ginny, and together they stood and began walking towards the town square.

Harry knew that the graveyard was behind the church at the centre of the village. He didn't know much beyond what the map could tell him, though, so they would have to alter their plans according to whatever obstacles occurred. There were a few other people out and about, on the streets and their lawns; Harry returned the friendly wave from a man tending to his front garden. Ginny's newly styled hair was already beginning to frizz in the damp. Harry's jacket clung wetly to his skin, but he knew he'd be just as uncomfortable without it.

He tried to stick to the left side of the street, knowing it was the only chance Scott would have to keep them in sight. It didn't seem to matter much, though: the houses were too close to the pavement, and any buildings with a first storey were probably in Scott's way. Harry pulled on Ginny's elbow, moving her further towards the houses and away from the open street.

She went with him, but shook her head slightly. "It's no good, those trees are still there."

He glanced over; sure enough, the houses had momentarily ended only to be replaced by tall pines behind a fence. "Scott, can you see us at all?"

"Sometimes. Get to the square, it's mostly open. Gold-Lead, maintain, but be ready," Scott said.

"We'll be ready," Hermione replied.

"The sooner the better. This bench is rough on the arse," Ron said.

The square was just up ahead. There was little traffic of any kind around, despite it being the hub of the village. A woman on a bicycle passed by, and the retail shops had a few customers visible through the glass window displays. The Parish Church sat at the terminus of the lane which bore its name. It was a very old building, though Harry didn't know enough about architecture to guess how old. The suburbs of Little Whinging were an entirely different sort of England than Godric's Hollow.

"It's quite nice here," Ginny opined, looking around the square. "Bit damp at the moment, but that'll change…"

He looked at her and imagined, for a vivid moment, what life would have been like had he stayed, had his parents lived. He would have met Ginny at Hogwarts regardless; he might have been a better boyfriend, happier, more whole. He could see himself with her, hand in hand, roaming the square, eating at the shops and then going back home for a snog in the cottage garden.

But his parents were dead, the cottage was empty, and in so many ways he was, as well.

"Harry?" Ginny said softly.

He looked up, realising he had stopped in the middle of the pavement. "Sorry," he said, resuming motion. "It is nice, yeah."

They crossed the square together, avoiding the deeper puddles in the old, uneven road. Groups of birds chattered and pecked at the ground, searching for crumbs and splashing in the pools. Hints of music wafted out from an open window somewhere, echoing faintly. No one seemed to be paying Harry and Ginny much attention.

"What's this?" Ginny said, indicating the obelisk in the centre of the square.

"Memorial," Scott radioed. "I don't know what's on the other sides, but I can see the Air Raid Precautions insignia on the one facing me. Volunteers lost during the Blitz, most likely."

Harry felt somewhat ashamed at that; he was only barely familiar with the organisation's existence. "There's a crown with a circle on this one, it says 'AFS'."

"Auxiliary Fire Service. You'll find more than a few women listed on that thing."

Harry approached to take a closer look, and then recoiled in shock. The obelisk had disappeared: in its place was a statue of a family with a small child. He blinked, nonplussed. Obviously, the monument had been magically altered.

Comprehension began to dawn just as Ginny spoke again. "Harry… Is that your parents?"

It was. It was strange to see them in stone form, but there was no mistaking it. The infant in Lily Potter's arms was none other than Harry himself.

He didn't know how to feel about that. He had never become accustomed to being put on a pedestal, and now it was entirely literal.

"What's going on? Call out targets."

"No, no targets," Harry said quickly, taking a step back. The statue did not revert. "The obelisk is actually a statue of my parents and… well, me."

"It must be magically concealed. You would have to be close to see what they are, Scott," Hermione chimed in. Harry had almost forgotten that she and Ron were listening.

"Baby Harry is so cute!" Ginny gushed. She brushed the stone infant with one hand. "Ugh. And very wet, still…"

"Change your nappy, Harry," Ron said.

"Ha ha, shut it, Ron," Harry grumbled. "Brilliant, now I'm a sodding statue. And have been, I guess. Thanks for not telling me, all the people who have known my whole life."

"We didn't know, either," Ginny said.

"I wasn't blaming you. No one here is to blame," he said tiredly.

He stood and stared at the effigy for a couple long minutes, trying to decide how he really felt about it. He couldn't find the right mixture of emotions. It was a good likeness, but the photographs he had been given by Hagrid were better. He didn't know if the statue was a fitting tribute or an empty gesture. No one had ever asked him how he felt about it. No one had bothered to inform him that it existed in the first place. But there were a great many things of which no one had bothered to inform him, and the statue was far less important than most of them.

"Come on," he muttered finally, gesturing to Ginny. "Let's go before someone asks me to sign it."

"What is it all the girls do at rock concerts? 'Would you sign my chest?'" Ginny asked with forced levity in a rather obvious attempt to distract him from his dead parents given engraved form.

It didn't really work, but he appreciated the effort. "Maybe later."

"Oi! Mission stuff only, I don't need that shite delivered straight to my ear," Ron complained.

Harry had expected some colourful commentary from Scott, but the Kharadjai had remained silent as Harry left the statue and continued towards the church. Normally Harry would just let it be, but an extended silence of any kind made him second guess his radio.

"Scott? Are you there?" he asked, trying to touch a finger to his ear without being obvious about it.

"I'm here," Scott replied after a moment.

"Okay. Just making sure I hadn't lost connection."

"No."

Harry frowned. Scott sounded a bit different, not like he had a moment before. "Everything all right?"

"Yes, now if you're done playing with the statue there's a graveyard to tour."

Harry frowned. Scott's tone was brusque and annoyed, which wasn't his usual reaction to the kind of verbal sparring that had been going on. He almost sounded… "Er, Scott…" Harry said carefully, basing his query entirely on a gut feeling, "Are you… not happy about the statue?"

Ginny looked startled. "Is he getting tetchy on your behalf?" she said to Harry.

"No, I think he has his own reasons. And I guess I understand."

There was a long pause. "…All right. Look, it's no offence to your parents, okay? And I know they sure as hell didn't ask for it, but everybody on that obelisk is a fucking hero and it's – i-it's not a shared space, you don't just override that and use it for something else."

"But the obelisk is still there, only witches and wizards can–" Hermione began.

"Can not see the obelisk? Everybody should see it. And I bet it was there first. Forget it, this is immaterial. Where are you guys? I can't see you."

"We're still along the edge of town. Doesn't look like there's much magic around here, probably not the right place," Ron supplied.

"Copy. Keep looking."

The church was a typically shaped structure with intricate stained-glass windows and little else in the way of decoration. The front doors were open.

"Do we have to go inside?" Ginny wondered. There was a fence extending from both sides of the building.

"Scott, how do we get in? I'm not climbing a fence with these people around," Harry said.

"I think there's a gate to the right of the steps," Scott told him.

As it turned out, there was a gate there, almost hidden in the shadow of the church and neatly blending in with its dark surrounds. It was partially opened, and squeaked a bit when Harry pushed it. He quelled the impulse to glance around and see if anyone had noticed, keeping his gaze firmly ahead.

Scott had observed his discipline. "Good nonchalance, Harry, but not especially effective when Ginny is walking backwards and glaring everywhere. Why don't you just scream, 'I'm not supposed to be here'?"

Ginny flushed. "Then say something next time!" she snapped, but her defiance was laden with chagrin. "I'm sorry, Harry, I didn't think…"

Harry shook his head. "It's fine, nobody was looking. I should have told you."

"Ginny."

"Yes, I know, I mucked it up," she sighed.

"Maybe a little. But I know it's tense out there, and if your first instinct is to keep your head on a swivel nobody's gonna blame you for that. You're doing fine, keep it up."

"Right," she said blankly, apparently unable to deal with encouragement from Scott.

"Also, let's keep things clear. I'm remote switching all channels, separating Red and Gold. Don't panic if I'm not remarking on chatter, and let me know if we need to cross communicate again."

"Good luck, you two," Hermione said, and there was a soft 'click' that Harry assumed meant the radio channel had changed.

"Red-Lead, come back," Scott said.

"What? But we just got… Oh, wait, that means – yeah, we're here. Uh, I copy. …Break."

"Channel is good. Continue progression, check in at intervals."

The graveyard lay serene in the shadow of the parish church. The grass was neatly trimmed and the headstones seemed well cared-for, though a few of the older ones displayed the inevitable ravages of age and weather. Sounds from the village drifted in, mixing with the sighs of the wind through the bushes. It was odd, in a way, to be visiting a graveyard in such a fashion. The sun shone brightly overhead, burning through the damp and casting rainbows where the mist met the horizon. There was no gloom, no cold or dark. Harry's last visit to a burial ground had been in a more classical setting.

It was hard to be overly apprehensive in such surrounds. There was nothing threatening about the scene, no sense of foreboding. It was peaceful, lucent. It made the weight over his heart easier to bear. His parents had found a fine place to rest.

He had no indication as to where his parents' grave was, exactly, but the graveyard wasn't very large and it didn't take him long to find it. There was no ostentatious memorial, in contrast to the square. The headstone was a simple one of white marble, gleaming in the sun. It stood in the middle of a row, without anything to differentiate it save for the names carved there.

"This is it," he said to Ginny, who had been searching a different row.

She approached, her eyes scanning the inscription. "'The last enemy that shall be destroyed is death'," she read.

"First Corinthians," Scott said. "Novissima autem inimica destruetur mors. Always liked that one."

Harry stood over the grave, feeling sort of empty. There was no sense of closure or peace or even just sadness. He wasn't sure what he was supposed to feel, really. Regret? Loss? When he had been younger, he'd imagined what life would have been like with his mother and father, childish fantasies of perfection to serve as a sharply contrasting escape from the reality of the Dursleys. But by the time he finally arrived to pay his respects, he knew that no matter how he had been raised, he would still be destined for the war. For death.

'The last enemy', indeed. Unfortunately, not the only one. Death had many hooded minions.

Ginny took his hand hesitantly, probably not sure if he wanted to be touched right then. He didn't mind; he wasn't distraught. And, in fact, his lack of any strong reaction was beginning to make him feel guilty. They were his parents. Shouldn't he be grieving?

"…I don't know what I expected," he said finally, staring at the headstone but not really seeing it. "It's hard to feel like they're here."

"They aren't. The body is a vessel for something more complex," Scott stated. His confidence in such a belief wasn't difficult to understand: he was living evidence.

"Don't feel bad about it. You never had a chance to know them," Ginny said, leaning against him. "He took that from you, too."

"Yeah," Harry muttered, feeling dark strands of hatred cut at his heart, "he did."

The grave looked pristine. Not that he had expected it to be vandalised or covered with graffiti, but he had thought that there might be more signs of visitation. Perhaps the magical population was discouraged from coming to the graveyard, and that was the purpose the statue served. Most would likely assume that the square hosted the primary memorial.

He let a few minutes tick by, but no sudden onslaught of emotion assailed him. He was almost disappointed. There were no answers here, no memories. Just a marker for people he had never known, even if he should have known them, in a better world. He thought about what Scott had told him after Dumbledore had been killed, how the dead didn't miss the living and grief was a sadness for the self. James and Lily Potter were long buried, and Harry was the one who had been left to suffer. He could try to miss what he'd never had, but that was pointless and at least partially impossible.

He'd spent more than enough time feeling sorry for himself as it was.

"Let's go," he said to Ginny.

She hesitated. "I found something else you might want to see," she said.

"What's that?"

She led him past a few more graves until she stopped and pointed at one carved from granite. From the angle of his view he couldn't read all of it, but the name 'Dumbledore' immediately caught his eye.

He hurried forward and stooped down, studying the stone. "'Kendra Dumbledore'… 'And her daughter Ariana'…"

"Not a common name. I assume there's a relation," Scott said.

Harry had never discussed the upsetting rumours he'd been told during the wedding. Scott didn't know anything about Dumbledore's apparently troubled past. But, then, did Harry? Dumbledore had never even hinted that he'd had a sister. It was frustrating (and still hurtful) to consider just how secretive the Headmaster had been, and how little Harry had been entrusted with.

"I think so," Harry said, opting not to get into the details.

Scott either didn't pick up on his reluctance or didn't care. "I can lead you to the cottage whenever you're done there."

Harry looked to Ginny. "Ready?"

"If you are," she said, glancing back at the Potter grave.

He knew he would return someday, assuming he lived long enough to do so. "Yeah, let's move on."

The Potter cottage, or whatever might be left of it, stood on the southern border of town. Harry had been wondering if the Fidelius might still be active on the property, since a lack of occupants didn't seem to matter. If that were true, they would need Scott to abandon his post and assist them directly. Instead, Harry was mildly surprised to see the upper level of the cottage rising up from behind the hedges of the front garden.

It appeared largely intact, save for one section of the first storey that had been utterly destroyed, leaving the inside visible through the shattered walls. The weeds and hedges were overgrown and the wall around the front garden was vine-covered with crumbling mortar, but, despite those flaws, it seemed otherwise sound.

Harry stopped in front of the rusting wrought-iron gate. "It looks better than I expected," he said.

"I'll bet it used to be lovely…" Ginny said softly, and in her eyes Harry could almost see the reflection of what she imagined.

"Needs some work at the moment," he said. He didn't want to envision the house as she was, before it had been made a ruin. He didn't want to become attached or nostalgic for a time he couldn't even remember.

She looked at him knowingly. "You don't have act like this."

"Like what?" he said defensively.

"Like you're so tough."

He glared at her. "Maybe I am so tough."

"I know you are, you prat, it's part of what I like about you! But it's okay to feel something, it was your parents' house."

"So, what? I should throw a wobbly, right here?" he demanded.

"Just forget it," she muttered with a huff.

"Let's save the hysterics for Grimmauld, Red-Lead," Scott reminded.

"Sure," Harry said shortly. He reached out and grasped the gate to see if he could pull it open, and then immediately rebounded when a sign with golden letters appeared out of nowhere in front of him. "God – can't I touch anything around here without it turning into a fucking memorial?!"

"Problem?"

"No. Just another marker," Harry said, trying to calm down. Given the situation, he really couldn't afford to be fighting with Ginny and lashing out at inanimate objects.

"What's the sign? I can only see the back of it."

"Uh…" Harry quickly read through it. "It just says that this was the Potter cottage and that they left it like this in memory of what happened." Another fragment of his life, preserved in amber for the consumption of the masses.

Scott unwittingly echoed Harry's thought. "Nothing like seeing your tragic past reduced to a tourist trap, huh?"

"At least Uncle Vernon would charge," Harry said, amused at the thought of the Dursleys ever attempting to capitalise on their wizarding connections.

"When this is all over, I'll show you how to make some real money online. The obsessions of modern society ensure that there will always be some pitiable freak willing to pay a premium for your nail clippings and-or pubes."

Harry didn't want to know what they might do with either item. "I'd rather not."

"Did you see this, Harry?" Ginny was asking, pointing at the sign.

Harry looked to where she was indicating – on closer inspection, he saw that the sign had been repeatedly vandalised. There were all sorts of carvings and inscriptions in magic ink. Some of them were just the usual 'X Was Here' nonsense, but others were words of encouragement and hope. There was an old and faded 'Please come back Harry' on one side, and a much newer 'be careful out there, Mr. Potter' on the other. There was a 'SOD YOURSELF MUGGLELOVER' as well, but he ignored that one.

Ginny was looking at the top left corner with a grin on her face. "Someone carved a todger right here," she sniggered.

"Ah, the ol' line-drawing penis… Classic mainstay of every vandal. When in doubt, draw a dick."

"It's a touching tribute," Harry said, looking at the crudely etched genitalia. At the very least, it was better than the Death Eater-derived messages.

The gate proved resistant to their efforts, but after a couple minutes of investigation they were able find a spot in the wall where erosion had left a foothold. The grass in the front garden reached his knees in some places and the ground squelched beneath his trainers. It was almost like a marsh. All of the windows were shattered and there was no front door. Rubble clacked in time with his steps as he went inside, echoing from the bare walls. There was no furniture or ornamentation left.

Graffiti covered everything: scrawled names and dates, crude drawings and profanities, even a few professional-type multicoloured tags like the ones Harry had seen in the city. He examined one that appeared to be a quote, written in a loopy, elaborate hand that was difficult to decipher, and covered by other markings towards the end.

"'Come away… human child, to the waters and the wild, with a faery, hand in hand, for the world's more full of weeping than you can understand…' Sounds weird, doesn't it?" he murmured to Ginny. There was a hollow quality to the acoustics as he'd read it to himself. "I guess having carpet and furniture makes a difference."

"I wonder what happened to all of their things?" Ginny said. She brushed her foot across an indentation in the floor where something heavy must have once rested.

Harry frowned. "I don't know. Maybe some of it's in the vault… I've never looked."

"Are you going upstairs?" Scott asked.

"Yeah, why?"

"Be careful, there could be water damage."

The steps upwards were solid enough, save for some loud creaking. All of the rooms were so barren that Harry couldn't tell what any of them had been used for. There was a larger one with what had to have been a toilet attached (it was tiled, and there were pipes exposed in the floor). Perhaps it had been his parents' room. There wasn't enough evidence to imagine what it could have been like. He made a mental note to go back through the pictures he had; some of them had definitely been taken in the cottage.

In the middle of the hall were large, rigid letters carved deep in the wood of the wall, graceless and dark, like a warning. 'THIS IS HARRY'S ROOM', they starkly proclaimed. There was a crude arrow underneath, pointing the way, though there was no other way to go.

Through the doorway indicated was the destroyed room. The wall nearest the street was completely gone, blown outwards into the garden. Half the adjoining section was missing, and the back wall had been bent under the force of the explosion; it leaned in the middle, exposing the joists where it connected to the ceiling and leaving a gap between it and the floor. A great deal of the roof was piled here and there in musty puddles of rainwater.

The baby's cot in the middle of the room was the first piece of furnishing Harry had seen. He felt a chill run up his spine at the sight; there was no question that the cot had been his, and the state of the room was testament to what had happened there. What he couldn't understand was how it was still there, after so many years.

Behind him, Ginny gasped. "Harry… Is that…?"

"It's mine. Has to be," he said in a strained voice.

A closer look at the legs of the cot answered his question. The paint had been blasted off of them, and though the iron was rusted he could still see the clumpy drops and streams where the metal had melted and fused to the floor in extreme heat. The cot hadn't been moved because it couldn't be moved, not without tearing up the floor itself.

He stood back up from his examination. He touched the edge of the infant bed hesitantly – it was cold beneath his hands, unpleasantly rough and corroded. The empty space within where he had once rested was full of still water. He stared at his reflection, an odd mirror of the past where he was once again in the cot. A mirror, liquid and somehow not at the same time, a pool of everything that had gone wrong and still could. He had the vague, horrified sensation that some part of him lay drowned there, beneath the mirror, scratching against the other side… That, perhaps, if he reached into the water, a tiny hand might grip one of his fingers…

Ginny's footsteps crunched over the nearby refuse. "How did you survive this?" she said wonderingly.

"Maybe I didn't," he said dully, still staring into his own green eyes.

Ginny stopped moving for a moment. He heard her walk over to him, and then she took his hand. "Harry?"

He blinked, moving his jaw as words flitted near his tongue; none of them seemed quite right. The mirror in the cot wasn't helpful, offering nothing but his own silent visage.

She tugged at him insistently. "Are you trying to scare me? Because it's working."

"…I guess I'm feeling something," he said.

"Take your time," she said quietly.

He didn't think he could express it properly. The cot, the mirror, the hand in the water… It would all just sound mad once spoken. "This is just really damn strange," he finally mumbled. "Forget it. It's not much different than my cot under the stairs."

"Your cot where?" she said curiously.

With a start, he realised he had never told her about his old 'room' on Privet Drive. He had no intention of correcting that oversight. "Never mind. Scott, are you there?"

"Still here. Gold-Unit is mobile, how about you?"

"Almost." Harry glanced around the room. "Did you see us come in?"

"I'm on an angle, comparatively. I can see the back of the memorial sign through the gap in the second storey."

Harry was confused for a second before he remembered that Scott deviated from the usual method of numbering floors; the Kharadjai considered the ground floor to be the first. Harry stepped over a mouldering heap of roofing and went to the half of the wall remaining at the side of the cottage. Placing one hand against it, he leaned out through the empty space and peered up at the elevated trees in the distance.

"See me?" he asked Scott.

"Hello. Did you find anything in there?"

Harry searched the forested hill for any sign of Scott, though he knew it was futile. "Weren't you listening?"

"No, I was talking to Gold-Unit. You weren't yelling so I figured it wasn't important."

"Good to know you'll listen up if I start screaming."

"So did you find anything or what?"

"Not really. We're about ready to leave."

"Okay, get back to the square when you can. Gold-Unit is narrowing down the objective."

Harry waved his hand in acknowledgement. "We're going."

He avoided looking at the cot on the way out. Whatever it might represent or mean to him, it didn't much matter for the foreseeable future. He'd be better off without the burden of sentiment, that was clear enough. He almost regretted visiting in the first place. But not quite, since he wouldn't have wanted to face such a high probability of death without seeing the cottage and the grave (the cottage was really a grave all its own) at least once.

So that was one burden eased, if only slightly.


"How is the Red Team doing?" Hermione asked, looking towards Ron so it would seem to any observers that she were talking to him instead of radioing Scott.

"Red-Unit. They're still inside the cottage."

Red Team, Red-Unit – as if it really mattered. It was amusing to find that Scott, who had so often chafed beneath the restrictions of Hogwarts, was dedicated to such pointless protocols. "I wish we could see it," she sighed.

"Not to belittle Harry's deep psychological traumas, but your half of this mission is actually important."

"That was belittling."

"I was just being polite."

The Hollow was a lovely village, and ordinarily Hermione would have appreciated the opportunity to explore it further, especially considering its rich history. But the mission had cast an anxious pall over the day, and she'd hardly been able to relax enough to enjoy the architecture. Quite the shame, that. So many wonderfully quaint English cottages…

It didn't help that every time she saw Ron out of the corner of her eye she involuntarily tensed, thinking it was a stranger. His beautiful copper hair had been replaced with a dull brown, his blue eyes darkened to hazel. He had rejected some of the more atypical Muggle attires offered by Sophie and was clad in a jacket, t-shirt and trousers.

Hermione had been transformed into a dishwater-blonde with hair so limp and straight that it felt very odd where it brushed her shoulders and back. Her eyes were blue, and she wore a baggy black hooded sweatshirt over form-fitting jeans surmounted with a wide, button-studded black belt. She supposed it was a sort of university fashion? She wasn't really sure what Sophie had been going for. The important thing was that she looked very little like her usual self.

"Where is this bloody place?" Ron grumbled. He was counting the addresses as they walked down the street, making sure they didn't miss any.

"Professor Bagshot must live on the very edge of the village… We aren't far from the cottage at this point," Hermione said.

They were having great difficulty in locating the house because the address Hermione had found did not correspond to any areas they'd seen. Instead, they kept an eye out for anything obviously magical, structures or signs that were hidden from Muggles. Thus far, all the streets they had walked had been entirely normal. If Bagshot's house hid under a Fidelius, then they were out of luck. It would be down to Scott to determine things then, if he could.

"Scott, can you point us towards any magical concentrations now?" Hermione asked for what was probably the third time.

"We've been over this. Not from up here."

"Then get your arse down here, because we are so effing lost right now," Ron complained.

"I'm where I need to be. You're walking west along the south edge of town. There's a dead end coming up on your left through that group of trees, don't miss it."

When they reached the trees, they turned down the narrow street that was nearly hidden in the shadows of the pines. The curving hill to the south and west of them loomed closer, gaining a detail it had lacked when they had been at the bench on the opposite side of the village.

Hermione squinted at the ridge, thinking there might be some slight chance she could pick out Scott's hiding place. "Scott, where are you on the ridge?"

"To your eleven o' clock high, where the oaks are clustered and lean out."

A fairly specific hint, but between his camouflage and the constant motion of the leaves in the wind it quickly proved to be useless. "Hmmm… Well, so long as you're there, I suppose it doesn't matter exactly where."

Ron started to raise his hand, and then just as quickly dropped it. "I probably shouldn't point," he said wryly. "I can't see him, but I thought I saw the trees he's talking about."

"I'm close enough to track you without the scope. About… a hundred and fifty yards. Southward wind, six miles per hour. Minute of arc, six clicks up, left… Well, south-west, so maybe one-fourth MOA and I'm not going to get a chance to…"

Hermione was impressed at the amount of maths that was being implied. "Seems like a bit of calculation involved!"

"It's not too bad at this range, you can ignore a lot of variables and wing it. I just hate having to do it all in my head. I need Sophie to spot for me. Or, you know, some actual Kharadjai tech."

"And I need to find Bagshot's gaff, so I guess none of us get to be happy today," Ron said.

He was right. Hermione needed to get back to the important things. As soon as she studied her surroundings more closely, she found reason for encouragement: the street they were on was quiet even compared to the rest of the small village, shaded by trees and suffused with an air of seclusion. There was magic in some of the houses, she could tell.

"I think we're close," she said to Ron. "There! Lying on that windowsill, is that a Sneakoscope?"

"Blimey," Ron muttered, wrapping an arm around her waist and hurrying her past the house with its makeshift burglar alarm, "if it is we should stay clear!"

"Scott, we must be in the right place." It made sense that they would be so close to the cottage. The magical inhabitants of Godric's Hollow lived near each other along the southern part of the settlement, likely for the sake of convenience and safety.

"The Repelling Charm extends at least partially down the hill. It might run up all the way to the houses – could just be a Muggle-proof backyard."

"We probably should have checked here first, then."

"Might have saved us some time, but we were being careful. If you have to– movement behind you." Scott broke off mid-sentence, his voice instantly gaining the cold, unwavering tone Hermione had begun to associate with danger. "About fifteen yards north, where the trees end."

Hermione snaked her hand out and grasped Ron's sleeve before he could turn. "Slowly," she whispered. "Let's finish walking around."

"Yeah, brilliant. I can't get enough of that awful, crawly feeling about my shoulders," Ron said unhappily.

The half circle at the end of the street would bring them back around to face whoever was approaching. Hermione knew that such casual subterfuge might be necessary, but she was of the same mind as Ron when it came to how she felt about it. Becoming deliberately vulnerable to maintain their ruse was not a pleasant sensation, even if Scott was keeping watch from his perch.

When they finished the partial circuit they could see back down the pavement. The figure coming towards them was short and stooped, and wasn't walking so much as shuffling. The person was draped in enough clothing that there wasn't much else to discern at a distance.

"Stop and pretend to enjoy those flowers. Make them come to you."

It seemed wrong that they should have to pretend to enjoy some fragrant flowers, but there they were. They stood close together under the pretence of examining the bed of bright blooms decorating the front garden of the nearest house. "Here, lean on me," Ron said quietly. He raised one arm up and put it around her shoulders. "Can you get your wand out under my jacket?"

"What about you?" she whispered back as she carefully extracted her wand, using him as concealment.

"I've got my hand up my sleeve." He waved his right hand at the flowers as if he were pointing out some of particular interest, showing her the empty cuff. The elastic wrists of the garment had allowed him to hide his wand inside.

The gaunt figure tottered to a stop next to them. Hermione took a quick breath through her nose and turned towards the stranger.

The black shawl wrapped tightly around the person's head made it hard to distinguish anything at first, but when a cloud shifted overhead the increased light revealed certain key features. It was an old woman.

"…Professor Bagshot?" Hermione said tentatively.

Bathilda Bagshot nodded her head in a stilted affirmative, swaying strangely with the motion. She said nothing, but raised a hand as crooked and gnarled as an old stump and gestured at them.

Hermione was momentarily transfixed at the unhealthy, almost corpse-like grey of the appendage. She blinked, trying not to stare. "Professor, we've been looking for you. Did… Do you want us to follow?"

Bagshot motioned again. She was clearly ill, perhaps even close to death. Her clothing alternated between being loose and lumpy, caught up in odd knots and tied together in such a way that it didn't look as if it could be removed. The garments were also wet, as if she had been standing out in the rain. One of her eyes was unfocussed and had a white tinge to it, and the other was dull like an old marble. When the breeze wafted through, a very unpleasant smell came with it. Ron coughed a bit, though he covered his mouth with one hand and tried to pass it off as unrelated.

"Tell her you'll follow," Scott said.

Hermione smiled tightly at the ancient witch. "We'll be right behind you, Professor."

Bagshot turned on unsteady legs and began to limp back the way she had come. Hermione and Ron followed at a distance.

"This isn't right, there's something very wrong with her," Ron hissed in Hermione's ear.

"Well, she is supposed to be a bit batty by now," Hermione said weakly, but in truth she agreed.

Ron had to take almost comically small steps to match Bagshot's pace. "If she wasn't walking, I'd swear she'd already snuffed it. You can't Imperius a corpse, can you?"

"No, and she doesn't look like an Inferi." Hermione gnawed at her lower lip, feeling with every step that they were being led into a trap. "I don't know what happened to her, but you're right, this is wrong."

"Listen very carefully." Scott's voice came back over the radio with enough abruptness to make Hermione jump. "Whatever you're following is not human."

Ron swore under his breath; Hermione's heart skipped a beat. "How do you know?" she said tightly.

"Because it's the same temperature as the sidewalk."

The infrared spectrum: as Scott had described it, the world in greyscale, bright and dark representing the contrast of thermal emissions. A chill ran down her spine. If Bagshot was emitting the same heat as the wet pavement, then she – or it – was not living by the standard definition of the term. They were following a ghost. She drew closer to Ron, her footsteps faltering.

Scott was still talking, his voice ringing through her distress. "I could put a shot in it, but I don't know what kind of magic could do this and I'm too far away to look at it myself. I need you to make a call."

A call. She needed to make a decision, she needed… To hear what Ron had to say, first, she wasn't alone in her distress. "Ron?" she said faintly.

He was pale, but his stance was strong. "I say Stun her, find out what we're walking with."

"…On the count of three, then," she said, tightening her grip on her wand. "One…"

"Shift right after your shot. Do you copy? Take cover, right side, after your shot."

"Yes, I hear you…" Hermione affirmed. "Two…"

"Scott, if you put one of those bleedin' bullets in me…" Ron said, his wand held so tightly in his hand that it was shaking.

"Three," Hermione breathed, and then she swept her wand up and shouted "STUPEFY!" in tandem with Ron.

The two Stunners shot out with a bright red glare and impacted perfectly into Bagshot's back, sending the old woman crashing to the ground with an audible thud.

For about a second they just stood there, staring at the woman they had Stunned. Scott swiftly interrupted the moment. "I said shift right, Gold-Unit," he told them with a clear note of censure in his otherwise flat tone.

Ron grasped Hermione's arm and kicked open a nearby garden gate, hurrying both of them inside and crouching behind the fence. They faced each other in the shade of the slatted barrier, breathing hard.

"Tell me we didn't just kill an old lady," Ron panted.

Hermione peeked over the top of the fence, wand at the ready. Her eyes widened. "We didn't," she said, immediately dropping back down. "She's getting up."

Ron squeezed his eyes shut. "Bloody hell. I sort of wish you'd said 'yes'."

Bagshot was slowly regaining her feet, moving with the same bizarre, uncomfortably jerky motions that she had before, except even more pronounced. There were several horrible grating noises that reverberated in the silence, like bones that hadn't set properly, unnatural joints clacking and grinding against each other. It made Hermione flinch just to hear it.

"Fuck this," Ron said through gritted teeth. He hopped up into an extended crouch and levelled his wand over the fence. "STUPEFY!" The red light hit Bagshot right in the torso, but, save for making another wince-inducing sound, produced no results. "DIFFINDO!"

The cutting spell sliced across the woman's shoulder, sending tatters of cloth fluttering to the earth. A thin portion of dead grey skin was revealed, sporting a nasty deep cut – and no blood.

"Settles that," Ron said, dropping back down next to Hermione. "She's an Inferi or something."

A rather dramatic way to seek proof, considering an alternate scenario would have resulted in a badly wounded Bagshot, but Hermione couldn't argue with results (not until later, anyway). "They're vulnerable to fire! I'll cast low, you cast high, Incendio should–"

"I'm firing, stay clear of the target."

Ron looked at her in confusion. "How clear? Should we run?"

Hermione pressed her eye to one of the gaps in the fence. "I–"

Bagshot took a step towards the fence – her ankle turned in the wrong way, and she stumbled forward. She started to raise her head again, and then… And then there wasn't much of her head left to raise. There was a HISS-SNAP and a THUNK and sort of a wet cracking noise beneath all of that, like an old fruit rind being smashed, and the left side of the woman's head and a bit of her face just sort of… blew away.

As Bagshot collapsed, a sharp, ringing report echoed out from the trees and drifted over the street.

"Effective fire, target is struck."

Hermione clamped her jaw until her teeth ached and furiously fought back her gag reflex, the bile burning the lower reaches of her oesophagus. She would not embarrass herself in front of Scott, she would not, she would not, not, not…

"Bloody hell…" Ron groaned in some terrible mixture of appreciative awe and sick horror as he took his own peek.

And then, though she would not have thought it possible, some even worse sounds emerged from Bagshot's ruined body. Hermione didn't want to, but she forced herself to look. Bagshot's jaw widened impossibly, yawning open like a sickly dry cavern, the flesh of her cheeks stretching until they tore, leaving wiggling strings of skin clinging to her yellowed teeth. Her throat bulged as something came up it–

The largest snake Hermione had ever seen burst from the dead woman's mouth in a flurry of scattered teeth and slithered into the nearby bushes with incredible speed. She gasped when a bullet impacted against the concrete where the snake's tail had been less than a second before, shattering the material with a sound loud enough to hurt.

"Traversing right, stay down… Lost visual. I've lost visual. I lost the snake, guys, I don't know where it is, get out of there. Move it."

They ran. Back out the gate, back down the street, past the houses and narrow alleyways. Hermione hadn't heard the staccato cracks of Apparition, but she knew they were coming if they hadn't already. "We're going to the square!" she said between desperate lungfuls of air as she did her best to keep up with Ron's long gait. "Where are Harry and Ginny?"

"They're on their way. I'm repositioning, thirty seconds."

Hermione just needed to know that Harry and Ginny were okay. Once that was ascertained, they could all leave without worrying if someone was being left behind.

Hopefully such information wouldn't take long to acquire, seeing as she wasn't sure they even had thirty seconds.

Back to index


Chapter 15: How to Build a Following

15

How to Build a Following


"The best way to survive an ambush is
to avoid encountering one. But when

reconnaissance fails, you may find
yourself in such a situation despite all
precautions.

When extracting yourself or your unit
from an ambush, there cannot be enough
emphasis placed on speed. A successful
ambush can consist of many elements,
including advantageous positioning and
strength of numbers, but it is the element
of surprise that so often results in
unquestionable victory. While immediate
withdrawal is the best tactic to use in an
ambush, it may not be possible, and a
fighting force which does not respond
rapidly will soon lose the opportunity to
respond at all.

As such, it is vitally important to react as
quickly as you are able. It is perhaps the
only battlefield situation in which blind
decisions can be encouraged, because the
worst response to an ambush is no response."

Excerpted from Field Tactics Introductory Manual,
Section III (Imperiarchy Bureau of Information, Third Army Division)


"Watch what, Highground, there's nothing
here but shit and leaves."

–Last pre-wrench transmission from Victus
Company, 897th SFM, just prior to an ambush


The scope was swaying slightly in the breeze; he didn't want to reposition in the midst of such a tense situation, so he pressed the stock more firmly into his shoulder and grabbed the branch with his left hand. A relatively thin tree like the one he sat in was not the best platform for a rifle. The problem was the hill itself, though, since it was so overgrown that the trees were the only elevated positions with clear sightlines. It wasn't as if he had the time to build a proper stand. Luckily, he wasn't shooting far.

Scott watched through his scope as the distant, hunched figure of Bathilda Bagshot tottered back up the walk. He hadn't seen her actually emerge from any of the structures. He listened as Hermione and Ron planned in hurried whispers.

"I say Stun her, find out what we're walking with," Ron suggested. He was demonstrating some healthy, proactive paranoia.

"…On the count of three, then," Hermione said. "One…"

The silhouettes of his Primes told him that he was at about a hundred and sixty yards out, more or less. Wind speed was holding fairly steady, so that was a plus.

He felt a reminder to his untrained Primes was in order. "Shift right after your shot. Do you copy? Take cover, right side, after your shot." There was a fenced-in yard to their immediate right that would provide decent safety in a hurry.

Hermione and Ron were still talking, but he half-listened, none of it was critical. He switched to the alternate channel when he heard Harry.

"Scott, we're almost at the square," Harry said.

"Copy, Red-Lead. Just be prepared to deviate," Scott told him.

He didn't have time to say more. Two Stunners, bright through the magnification of the rifle scope, slammed into Bagshot and sent the old woman reeling to the concrete. "Good hit," Scott muttered. He frowned when his Primes just stood there afterwards. He switched the channel back. "I said shift right, Gold-Unit," he said curtly. At least they complied once prompted.

His Arctic Warfare Magnum rifle was chambered for .338 Lapua, a round that straddled the line between anti-personnel and anti-materiel. The weapon itself was fifteen pounds and forty-eight inches of steel in a drab green, the barrel ending in a large suppressor. With a round velocity in the vicinity of three thousand feet per second the suppressor wouldn't do much in terms of actually quieting the gun, but it would eliminate muzzle flash and make the point of audible origin harder to identify. He slapped his palm against the handle of the bolt and the bottom of the magazine to ensure they were both fully seated.

Down on the street, Bagshot was moving. Scott figured he already knew at least part of what was going on, but he didn't want to put a bullet through an old woman until he had proof positive she wasn't just crazy or something. A few seconds later, Ron provided that proof with a Cutting Charm that demonstrated just how congealed all of Bagshot's blood had become.

Scott hit the safety and placed his finger on the trigger, aiming at his target's centre of mass. If accurate, the shot would enter just behind the dead woman's right arm and cut through her lungs and heart. "I'm firing, stay clear of the target," he warned, interrupting Hermione's plans to use incendiary spells.

Precision shooting was a tricky business, especially when the target was moving erratically. Scott moved his aim slightly to the right, targeting a spot just ahead of where she was standing. As soon as she put her foot forward to move in that direction, he started to squeeze.

And that, of course, was when she tripped and flailed forward, dipping downward and throwing off his careful aim. It was too late to readjust, though – he was already in the process of firing. The gun bucked against him, pushing hard into his shoulder. In the confines of the trees the sound was loud enough to make him thankful he'd forgone a muzzle brake in favour of the suppressor. Like the first sharp note of a thunderclap the sound rang out and then echoed back, rattling against the forest and the houses below.

The results weren't what Scott had intended, but they would certainly do. The round tore through Bagshot's frail cranium and left a mushy tapering spray of flesh, jellied blood and bone across the side walk, complete with tufts of white hair as garnish. Not a pleasant picture. Scott was more or less inured, but he could hear Hermione trying not to retch over the radio.

"Effective fire, target is struck," he reported. It was more out of habit than anything, since Ron and Hermione were quite aware that the target had been struck.

Bagshot's corpse started moving again. He glared into the scope, feeling almost insulted. He'd scooped the reanimated author's brains right out of her head, how could she possibly be moving? The twitching that sometimes resulted from nerve damage, sure, that wasn't outside the realm of possibility. But Bagshot was moving way more than could be attributed to the spasms of a body that didn't understand it was dead. The Inferi in the cave had all died when subjected to massive head trauma. What made Bagshot different?

What made her different, as it turned out, was the massive snake that surged from the dead woman's mouth – pushing her teeth outwards and sending them skittering across the walk – and then slithered into the nearby brush.

Scott hadn't been expecting that. He was so surprised he didn't even comment, struck momentarily dumb by the absurdity of it; he took an instinctual snap shot at the retreating snake, resulting in a close miss.

He tried to track the snake through the bushes, but it was no good. The green reptilian blended perfectly into the foliage, and he lost sight of it almost as soon as it had appeared. "Traversing right, stay down…" he told Hermione and Ron, not wanting them to get into the line of fire. Even as he said it, he knew it was too late. "Lost visual. I've lost visual. I lost the snake, guys, I don't know where it is, get out of there. Move it."

That was the end of their subterfuge. Scott wasn't entirely sure what he'd just seen, but snakes seemed pretty well up Riddle's alley, and now the clock was ticking. With all of the Primes converging on the town square, he hauled the rifle and its bipod off the tree branch and jumped down. There was a different, taller tree back to the west, in the direction he had come. He would need a better vantage point.

"We're going to the square!" Hermione said, her breathing strained and the jolts of her steps audible in each word. "Where are Harry and Ginny?"

"They're on their way," Scott answered, ploughing through the heavy brush without regard for stealth. "I'm repositioning, thirty seconds." He switched channels and then combined them again, controlling the two teams' receivers remotely. "Red-Lead, come back."

"There you are!" Harry sounded nearly frantic. "Were those shots I just heard? What the bloody hell is going on?"

"Are you at the square?" Scott asked, ignoring Harry's hurried questions.

"Yeah, we're right at the obelisk."

Then everyone was together and intact, and it was past time to leave. "All Element, Highground. Disapparate. Get on, get out, this is finished. Everyone is clear."

"We're leaving? All right," Ginny said, sounding a bit confused at the circumstances.

"We'll see you back at Grimmauld," Hermione said.

Scott reached the tree he had in mind and leapt up into it. He wanted a ringside seat for whatever Riddle would send in. No doubt it would be informative. He settled his rifle on a branch that was steadier than his previous one and started scanning the edges of town, watching for black hoods.

About a second later he knew something was wrong – the shape signatures of his Primes were far too close to be at Grimmauld Place. "Any unit, Highground. Come back."

Hermione responded almost immediately, and she sounded scared. "Scott, we can't get out. An Anti-Apparition Jinx is up over us, it must have been raised as soon as we attacked that snake!"

He scanned the shape and, sure enough, once he looked past the Muggle-Repelling Charm he could feel the buzzing of an Anti-Apparition field. It was unusually large and strong for something that had come up so quickly. It must have been prepared in advance, somehow, maybe having already been extant in the past, taking advantage of the magical residuum Hermione had once mentioned. Multiple casters, maybe? He needed to remember to ask.

Like the barriers at Grimmauld, it was too big to simply destroy – an outright attack would only tear rents into it, easily repairable. Instead, he started to look for the threads with which it could be unravelled, a time-intensive process that he probably couldn't afford.

He was angry at himself for not noticing. Between his focus on his shooting and the general miasma of magic that hung over the southern section of the Hollow, he'd missed the field entirely. "It must have been masked by the Muggle charm I'm in, it's…" No excuses. "I fucked up, Hermione."

She didn't seem inclined to blame him, at least not for the moment. "We're almost to the square, what should we do?"

Right. Current solutions, not future arguments. He paused, working on the spell, trying to think of the best course for his Primes. "Stay away from the middle and take cover on the south-west side. That field can't go forever: link up with Harry and Ginny, get the Cloak. Harry, tell me you aren't still by that obelisk." As if in answer, a small explosion echoed from the direction of town. Scott abandoned the shape and pressed his eye to his scope as he tried to mentally calculate his new MOA adjustments. "Harry?"

"Death Eaters! We're gonna need help!" Harry shouted, and even as he did more sounds of a struggle began to rise above the houses.

So much for dealing with the jinx. Through the scope, Scott could see dust rising from a hole in the cobblestones around the obelisk. "Are you hit?" he asked, trying to zero in on the origin of the damage. Harry and Ginny had taken cover behind some overturned tables outside of the café.

"Blasting curse, Ginny deflected it," Harry said breathlessly. "They're coming from the graveyard."

Graveyard. Scott nudged the barrel upwards and brought the church doors into focus, and then panned right. The gate to the cemetery was gone, as was a good portion of the fence. There were multiple figures in black robes stepping over the wreckage and flanking both sides of the square. He heard more popping sounds in the distance; pulling his head back, he looked down to see even more Death Eaters arriving near the cottage.

The sheer number of them was enough to give him pause. He wasn't going to have time to work on the jinx. He wasn't even sure he could get everyone out alive.

Which was fine. He just had to get the Primes out alive.

"Hermione, they're Apparating in through the jinx, how can they do that?" he said rapidly.

"They've likely put up the Anti-Disapparation Jinx. Anyone can still come in, but not leave," she replied in a grim tone. "It's a very large area, though, and they put it up awfully fast. I think it's a proper ward, and they were waiting to raise it."

That explained his difficulties with it. Looking back through the scope, he added up what he was seeing with his options and arrived at the only solution he could think of. "Harry, they're coming right at you. So listen close – are you listening?"

"We're listening," Harry said softly.

"Do you remember how to get back to the park?"

"I do," Ginny said.

The Death Eaters were closing in on the café, circling the square. Their progress was somewhat impeded by the handful of Muggles they had cornered. They were levitating one man, spinning him around in mid-air, and had a few women backed up against a wall. Scott couldn't hear what was being said, but he knew it was nothing good.

"If you run back down the street just to your right, you'll find the other two," Scott said, trying to talk quickly without losing clarity. "Link up, get to the park. From there you can get to the car. Hermione, if you can't find the ward edge, then you have the keys."

"The emergency keys you gave me?" Hermione said nervously.

"I'd say this qualifies. Harry, Gin, I'm going to take a shot. The second I do, you run as fast as you can."

"I'll shield us, Gin, you counter," Harry said.

Scott pressed the rifle to his shoulder and began searching the square for the best target. "No countdown. Just be ready."

It didn't take long to locate the lucky winner, which was good because Scott had no more than a few seconds – and that was a generous estimate – before Harry and Ginny were cornered. The table they hid behind wasn't large enough to conceal the two of them entirely, and the Cloak wasn't much good when they would have to run. The closest Death Eater was a rotund fellow who wasn't so much walking towards to the two as he was swaggering, apparently without a care in the world. A rather odd way to approach enemy number one.

Scott was centring the crosshairs over the man's chest when he shouted, close and loud enough to register over Harry's microphone, and what he said greatly changed Scott's perception of the situation.

"You two, behind the table! Budge up and get over with the others!" the Death Eater yelled hoarsely, and he kicked the short fence around the café's eating area for emphasis.

The Death Eaters hadn't seen the spell deflection, writing it off as a miss. They'd never recognised the Chosen One and the youngest Weasley at all. Sophie would be pleased to know her work had been so successful in the field.

"They don't know it's us!" Ginny whispered.

"I heard. Run!" Scott said, and squeezed the trigger.

The Death Eater stiffened as if he were about to say something further; instead, Scott's bullet knocked his breath and a good portion of his lungs out of his back. Scott didn't waste time watching the results. As Harry and Ginny stood and ran, he fired four more shots in rapid succession, working the bolt as fast as he was able. The first in the barrage was relatively on target, piercing one more Death Eater through the side (he staggered sideways with the force of the shot, losing his balance and bouncing off a shop window), but the next three all missed, hitting in and around a cluster of enemies and just scaring the hell out of them.

Which was ultimately the point: Scott wanted them to understand that it had not been Harry and Ginny who had shot the first man. They were sprinting away at full tilt even as the shots snapped through the air and blasted holes in the cobblestones.

The Death Eaters didn't seem to entirely realise what was happening, which suited Scott just fine. However, they were about to be given the time to figure it out: Scott had to reload. The seconds required could make a difference in a firefight.

Sure enough, when he slammed the bolt shut and brought the scope back up to his eye he found himself looking at a much emptier square. The Death Eaters had ducked inside the buildings – no doubt whatever chain of command they had was deciding how to handle a Muggle sniper. Scott could be reasonably certain that there was at least one enemy down there that understood what they were up against, if only in the abstract.

They were pinned, for the moment, which was what mattered. He tracked downward, locating the second, larger group of Death Eaters coming from the cottage. They were running through the streets, not far behind Harry and the others. Scott studied them for a moment as they moved, and he didn't like what he saw.

The front of the group was comprised mainly of non-hooded individuals who weren't wearing uniform black robes. They were dressed in a mix of everyday clothing and whatever else they wanted, often with what seemed to be rudimentary attempts to appear militant. Behind them were a handful of actual Death Eaters, robed, hooded and masked. Obviously, Scott was looking at an infantry unit of Snatchers with their Death Eater commanders. The most worrying thing about them, though, wasn't their numbers; it was the way they were holding formation. The group hurried through the town keeping to the same basic organisation, and they never stopped to loot the houses or attack the occasional Muggles they encountered. They were properly coordinated and under orders.

Scott's lip curled in contempt. Fine, good for them. They had fundamental unit coherency skills. Now he would see how well they stuck to their basic training when under fire.

He picked a Snatcher at the front of the pack and aimed for the head, looking for something dramatic. He would take aim at one of the Death Eaters in charge next, but first he wanted a nice, sharp shock to their morale.

The Snatcher ran up to the corner of the next intersection, leaned against the wall to peek down the street, and then picked himself up and began to sprint across the open space.

BAM. The shot hit him on a downward angle about an inch above his left eye and burrowed through his skull, coring it like an apple. The resulting spray of blood and brain matter, the exiting force of which sent his head snapping forward on his suddenly limp neck, was just the image Scott had been looking to share with the corpse's comrades.

Scott was too far away to hear whatever shouts of horror and alarm rose up in the aftermath, but the body language of the other Snatchers was clear enough. They reeled back in terror, scattering around the dead man. Scott quickly moved his view over to snipe one of the commanders while they were frozen in shock – only to have his heart sink slightly in his chest.

None of the Death Eaters could be seen. When the Snatcher had been killed, they had all moved to stand behind the houses on the side of the street towards Scott, removing them from view. And, even as he watched, the Snatchers – who were probably having orders shouted at them – began to do the same.

He swivelled back to the front of the formation and put a bullet through the chest of a second Snatcher and then, running low on options, separated a witch's leg at the knee, as it was the only part of her visible.

Looking up from the scope, he saw the Death Eaters from the square had left the centre of town and were moving quickly in his direction. He knew at that moment that he'd done all he could from a distance. He couldn't suppress both approaching groups of OpFor at the same time.

Which meant Plan B.

He dropped from the tree and set his rifle down, ripping the bandoleers with the .338 magazines from himself and leaving them where they fell. He hated to abandon the weapon, but he couldn't carry it with him. He swung the M4A1 strapped to his back around so that it rested on his front torso, quickly checked the compensator for any detritus, and then flipped the safety.

"Harry, what's your progress?" he called out.

"We're with Ron and Hermione and we're heading to the park," Harry said, panting into the mic. "Gin?"

"Just a couple more streets, I recognise that motorcar," Ginny said.

Scott made a mental note of Ginny's excellent sense of direction; it was a useful skill to have in a team. He hoped they were moving quickly, exposed as they were. With the four of them together, the Cloak would be only partially effective even if they were standing still; when running, it would barely work at all. It was unfortunate that the magic of the Cloak only functioned when it was worn, and they couldn't simply let it fan out behind them. "Understood. Good luck."

"Good luck?" Hermione repeated, sounding suspicious. "Where are you? Aren't you meeting us there?"

Scott squeezed the stock of the M4, debating exactly how much he needed to tell them about Plan B. "They aren't actually chasing you right now, but that could change if they see you together. I've got their attention, so keep moving and hopefully they'll wander off into the trees."

"Okay, then go back up the railway so you can meet us at the car," Harry said.

Scott started moving, making his way down the hill on an intercept angle to the Death Eater forces. "There's no time, I'll just aperture out."

He knew that if he didn't open an aperture before he started a running battle, then he wasn't going to open one at all.

"Let us know when you're about to leave," Hermione said.

"We'll be out of radio range by the time you get to the car," Scott lied as he ran. "You can't wait for a signal if I can't give it. The second you're out of the Apparition field then leave, I'll probably already be gone at that point. Don't be surprised if I beat you there and eat all the celebratory biscuits."

"We'll see about that," Ron promised.

"All right, Scott. Don't be late," Harry said.

"Never am," Scott assured him, and then he muted his microphone, hefted his carbine, and darted over a hedge and into the alleyway that would take him to the streets.

He skidded to a halt against an old stone wall that was part of a house. To his right, just a few doors down, was the street that eventually connected to the square, where the first group of Death Eaters were coming from. Straight on past that was the second group, who were darting from building to building and looking for a good way up to the hill. They had started casting at the trees, Scott could hear it. He could also hear the repeated shouting of Shield Charms; he leaned around the corner and saw, to his chagrin, that many of the Snatchers were holding defensive charms in place at the front ranks while those behind them cast a wide variety of offensive spells, trying to flush him out.

Still rudimentary, he thought, trying to convince himself. It didn't mean anything. Even a Death Eater could have a good idea or two if they tried hard enough.

Time to draw their attentions elsewhere.

The sun was just beginning its long dip below the horizon when Scott leaned out and carefully centred his holographic reticle on a Snatcher who was casting what looked like incapacitation-oriented jinxes at the woods. She was spacing out her spells without much regard for how Scott could have actually moved in the time after his last shot, which was nice to see. The world hadn't turned completely upside down.

He took a breath, let it out, and squeezed.

Without the magnification afforded by his rifle scope he couldn't tell what the damage was. The woman fell over, but in all the flurry of casting no one noticed right away. He ignored the man with the Shield Charm who had been in front of her and placed a few more careful shots into the back ranks. Hopefully, they were lethal. He was able to see one man clutching his stomach because he had fallen out into the street; before Scott could follow up with a better shot, the enemy realised they had been flanked.

It took a second, but not much more than that, for the spells to begin hurtling his way. Before they could really build up a frenzy and pin him, he held down the trigger and loosed a long, ripping burst back at them. The bullets flashed bright against the Shield Charms as Scott almost threw himself across the intersection, moving as fast as he was able.

The side street he was on ran back up towards the square. He ran, legs and arms pumping as his carbine swayed against his chest. He wasn't running for distance, forgoing a strong and steady loping cadence that made full use of his height. He was all-out sprinting, running as fast as he could. He needed to get past the Death Eaters coming from the square before they found out he was on the adjoining road.

He took a sharp right after winding towards the church and found himself viewing the square up close and personal. He glanced around, taking in the damage; the captive Muggles were nowhere to be seen. He hoped they were just hiding.

If they were, he wanted them to stay that way. "THIS IS SERGEANT WATT, I'M WITH THE TA!" he bellowed across the open space. His voice echoed back to him and he had a brief sense of déjà vu, of putting his back to a stone wall and looking out across a similar square with a weapon in hand; not so far away, but separated by time. "LOCK YOUR DOORS, STAY INSIDE AND KEEP AWAY FROM THE WINDOWS! HELP IS COMING."

The only help that was coming would arrive in the form of a Ministry Memory Charm. Scott saw a discarded single-use camera lying in a puddle near the café, and wondered how wizarding Britain found all the possible photographic evidence. There were very real bullet holes out there they would have to fix, as well.

His musings would have to wait. The first unit of Death Eaters had doubled back, and, no doubt drawn by his shouting, were coming into the square.

He opened fire immediately, his shots sparking off of hastily raised Shield Charms. The Death Eaters fell back, quickly retreating down the street and out of sight.

He'd gone through something in the vicinity of twenty rounds, he was pretty sure. That left half a magazine. During the mission to rescue Kylie, he had discovered it took about three shots from his M14 to rupture a Protego. It probably depended on the caster, but he figured the total would usually hover around that mark. His M4A1 didn't put out the same muzzle energy as the larger calibre M14. He would have to shoot more to down a shield, and although the 5.56x45mm carbine ammunition was a lighter and more compact round than the heavy 7.62x51mm used by the M14 rifle, he had also been carrying ammo for his Arctic Warfare Magnum, the bulky .338 Lapua (8.6×70mm). Accordingly, he was hauling fewer rounds for the carbine.

In other words, a battle of attrition would quickly leave him shooting back with his .45 handguns, and then, shortly after, throwing rocks.

He was putting a few rounds into the walls on either side of the opposite street to make sure the Death Eaters were thinking good and hard before sticking their heads out again when his radio buzzed, and Harry's voice filtered through the static.

"Scott? Sco– Um, Highground. Come back. …Hello? Scott, we're at the car. The jinx doesn't reach out here and we're about to leave. Are you already gone? I mean, of course, if you were already gone you wouldn't be… getting this…"

"He said these radey things don't work this far away, mate," Ron said.

"Radio. It's a transmitter and a receiver and, never mind, you just weren't listening when he explained it all, were you," Hermione said. "Scott, if you can hear this we're leaving right now. We'll see you back at home."

"Home?" Harry repeated, sounding disgruntled.

"Well, it is for now, Harry, like it or not"

"Come on, you lot! It's not safe, remember?" Ginny helpfully prompted them.

"Right. I bet he's already left," Harry said, and then the radio went silent.

That was the biggest problem taken care of. With the Primes safely removed from the field, Scott could breathe a bit easier. Not much easier, though, since the Snatchers were rushing into the square.

The difference between the group of Death Eaters with the Snatchers and the group without had never been clearer. The Snatchers scattered the moment Scott opened fire on them, but instead of simply trying to hide they took cover and began shooting back. Scott switched from target to target, trying to use the first few vital seconds of the firefight to suppress them, fixing them in place and swinging the odds momentarily in his favour.

It was no good. He dropped one man by pounding through a shield and hit the Snatcher's partner once the protection was gone. There were too many: the volume of spells heading his way increased so rapidly that he found himself ducking behind the wall as chips of stone flew past his face. He fired back as best he could, but when he saw Snatchers beginning to come out of the alleyways onto his side of the buildings, he knew he was outnumbered, outgunned, and outflanked. He just barely jumped a nearby hedge and went prone behind a fence before several cutting charms scraped off the wall he had been near.

Suddenly, it seemed that Scott was out of vulnerable targets, and as he lay there on the grass with curses lighting the space over his head, he realised with a sinking feeling that someone on the other side understood the dance – and Scott didn't have a partner.

Now he was the belle of the ball. But he'd had enough of being a débutante: it was time to spike the punch and head for the door. He'd also had enough of dance analogies.

He kept still for a moment, letting the barrage of spells slow somewhat. As soon as he had a bit of breathing room, he hopped onto his feet and backed up to the other side of the fence, letting constant bursts of fire go at every target in front of him, forcing them into cover. The firing pin clicked on an empty chamber; with that, he spun around and ran.

He cut around the back of the church with spells bursting at his heels. Then he headed south, towards the crescent hill.


To say that Harry was upset with Scott was something of an understatement. He wasn't in a full out, screaming rage, not quite yet, but he was not happy. And, really, Ron could relate, because it wasn't like he enjoyed being lied to, either.

After arriving at Grimmauld they had expected to find Scott already present (waiting for them in the kitchen and eating all the biscuits, no doubt). But the kitchen had been empty. Upstairs, they had located Sophie and Kylie in the middle of dusting out the drawing room. That was the point at which Harry had started to boil over, but at least he had gone back downstairs so as not to upset Kylie.

There had been a little bit of ranting about 'that bloody lying sodding gobshite', but mostly Harry fumed in silence, standing tensely with his arms crossed, staring at the floor as if he were attempting to see through it.

Ron didn't always get Harry's moods, but he understood this time. Scott had fully and completely lied to all of them, repeatedly, just to get them to leave him there. So they could be in safety as he let the Death Eaters chase him around. So they would just abandon him like a bunch of Slytherin cowards.

It angered Ron to a degree that actually sort of surprised him. Scott had always been a shifty bastard. For the most part, though, the Kharadjai's lies and omissions hadn't been specifically aimed at Ron. Not that Ron liked it when his friends were lied to, either… It just hadn't been quite so personal.

Scott had to have known how Ron would feel about leaving one of their own behind. If there was one thing Ron knew he wasn't, it was a disloyal prick. He'd never abandon his friends. No matter what happened, regardless of the odds, he knew he was with them. And that included Scott.

So, yeah, Ron was just a bit narked about the whole thing.

Hermione was pale and her lips were pressed tightly together, giving her the appearance of worry. And while that was probably a part of what she was feeling, her eyes sparked balefully. "I didn't even think to question it, we were in such a rush," she mused. "That was nonsense, of course, about the radio. I'd wager they have a range of a couple miles, at least."

Ron knew her logical dissection of what had happened was her way of dealing with things, but he sort of wished she would just stop, because every word out of her mouth made Harry's fists clench even tighter.

"And he knew we couldn't go back to the village, not with the ward in place. We could go back to the car park, but then who knows where he would be in relation, or how many Death Eaters would be in town, or the Ministry might be there by now, or…" She took a hard breath through her nose, her glare intensifying. "He really did it, this time. Trapped us but good."

"I could go back," Harry ground out.

Ginny straightened up from where she had been slumped in one of the chairs. "Not without me, you aren't!"

And not without Ron and Hermione, it went without saying. And since Harry wouldn't drag his friends back into almost certain death or capture, he wouldn't be going at all. Hence the clearly audible noise of his teeth grinding together.

"Don't do that, Harry, it's bad for your enamel," Hermione told him absently as she stared into nothing, likely still trying to calculate some way to help Scott.

"I DON'T FUCKING CARE!" Harry exploded, and rammed his foot straight into a cupboard door. Ron winced; the wood splintered and he imagined Harry's foot probably had, as well.

"Harry! Are you trying to hurt yourself?!" Ginny demanded.

Whatever pain he was in seemed to have dulled Harry's fury. "…If I was, it worked," he said after a moment of grimacing.

"Daft sod," Ginny said, though her tone was more fond than anything. "Why do you have to yell and kick things?"

Harry didn't appear to have an answer for that. The silence returned whilst Ginny watched Harry, Hermione worried, Harry paced (or limped, now) back and forth, and Ron just waited to see what would happen next. He knew that Scott could very well be in serious trouble, but he couldn't think of a single thing they could do about it. The blond bugger had neatly ejected them from whatever fight he was embroiled in.

If Scott had any idea what was good for him, he'd have run and hid the moment he ended up on his own. However, self-preservation had never been one of Scott's more prominent traits (the way he provoked Hermione was testament to that). No doubt he'd done his best to draw all of the Death Eaters his way to allow Ron and his friends their easy escape.

What Ron didn't understand was why, now that they were safe, Scott hadn't come back yet. Ron didn't know how Scott went from place to place (none of them did, really, not even Hermione). But he knew that mysterious ability had allowed the Kharadjai to follow the others when they used Apparition, and that the wards shouldn't matter at all. So there was something else going on.

Harry came to the same conclusion. He hobbled his way over to the stairs. "SOPHIE, WE NEED YOU," he bellowed upwards.

Her slight voice drifted down, barely understandable. "Wha…?"

"DOWNSTAIRS! WE NEED YOU DOWN– bloody hell, I'll just go up there," Harry muttered.

Sophie yelled something else that Ron couldn't make out at all, but a few seconds later he could hear her footsteps on the ground floor landing. She hurried down into the kitchen, still holding a dust rag. "What? What is it?" she said a bit anxiously, looking at all the serious eyes on her.

"Where's Scott? Why isn't he here yet?" Harry said brusquely.

Sophie blinked. "You didn't mean to leave him behind?"

"No!"

"Sophie, Scott lied to us," Hermione said, crossing her arms. "He told us he was leaving the Hollow before we did, but now he's still not here. And there were a great many Death Eaters when we left, we were lucky to escape. So why hasn't he just come back yet when the wards won't trap him?"

"Oh…" Sophie said softly, and she began wringing the dust rag in her hands, mindless of the way it dirtied them. "Was he fighting?"

"He drew them off so we could get away, but he said he was keeping his… distance…" Harry trailed off, his brow furrowing in fresh anger as he realised Scott had probably lied about that, too.

Sophie had always carried herself in a very rigid posture, but there was also a tension in her shoulders that fought against the weak smile she tried to maintain. "I see."

"So? Why isn't he here?" Harry said.

"Well…" Sophie tapped her fingers together, obviously debating how to reply. Ron could have told her that was a mistake; Harry had a bit of thing about people getting choosy with the truth.

"I just want a real answer," Harry growled.

Sophie's face took on a stubborn cast. "And you'll get one, if you'll be patient and let me decide how to explain things," she said, obviously not liking Harry's tone.

"It's really very simple. You open your mouth and tell me the truth."

She frowned at him. "I don't know why you're mad at me, I didn't do anything!"

"What we'd like to know is whether there is anything we can do to help Scott get back," Hermione said, cutting in before Harry said something he would later regret.

"There's this saying, that everyone knows…" Sophie began. She stopped and frowned again. "Or, I think everyone knows it, unless Scott made it up and just told me everyone knows it, which is something he might do…"

"And that is?" Hermione prompted.

"Oh! Um, it's, 'opening an aperture in combat is like threading a needle in free fall: you can waste your time trying it, or you can pay attention to the ground'. …I guess that doesn't work too well for you, since you would need a parachute, but you get the idea."

"So, Scott can't come back while he's fighting?" Ron guessed.

"No, he can't." Sophie's eyes filled with concern. "Apertures aren't easy to make even in ideal circumstances, especially when they have to be stable enough to move a person through. And when you're in combat, and you can't spare the time to concentrate, and the shape is going all crazy…"

"Then they must still be chasing him, correct?" Hermione said anxiously. "Otherwise he'd have hidden somewhere and come home?"

Sophie didn't look any happier about that scenario than Hermione. "That's likely. He might need to get further away from the town and the Death Eaters, depending on how the shape is acting. Or…"

"Or what?" Harry said agitatedly.

"Harry, relax," Ginny admonished him. "This isn't Sophie's fault!"

Harry grimaced and took a few steps back, not really looking contrite but at least trying to be less confrontational.

"There are a lot of things that could be giving him trouble: density, magnetism, shape turbulence, certain types of radiation…" Sophie trailed off when she saw that, with the sole exception of Hermione, everyone was looking blank or impatient. "But I thought there were people in the town? Moogles?"

Ron grinned. "Muggles," he corrected, glad to hear someone else mispronounce something for once.

"Most of the people there are Muggles, yes," Hermione confirmed.

Sophie sighed. "Then he's probably going to draw the OpFor out of town, if he can, to protect the civilian populace."

"And, of course, we're not allowed to help!" Harry said.

"You are the Priority One, Harry, and Scott has a responsibility to keep you from becoming a casualty," Sophie said gently.

Ron actually held his breath after that, and was pretty sure Hermione was doing the same, because Sophie probably couldn't have pushed Harry's buttons any better if she'd tried. She started to say more, but Ginny glared at the short woman so fiercely that she blinked in surprise and closed her mouth. Harry had his back to them, so Ron couldn't see how close they all were to being treated to a repeat performance from the summer before fifth year, but he reckoned it was pretty damn close.

Fortunately, Harry was self-aware enough to realise that, too. He spun around and stormed up the stairs without another word. Ginny followed with one last blistering look at Sophie.

"Well, that was rude," Sophie said after a moment of silence.

Ron looked over at Hermione. "You know what I like best now that Ginny's snogging Harry? We don't have to go after him and try to talk any more."

"Ron!" Hermione said, but there was a smile tugging at the corner of her mouth. "How easily you toss your best mate duties onto your sister."

"She wanted that one, so she can have it. Just like you and trying to convince Scott he's wrong about something."

Hermione immediately sobered at the mention of Scott. "I'd say I can't believe he put us in this situation… but I can. I hate feeling so helpless. He knows I hate feeling this way, and he still did it!"

Ron hated it as well. He put an arm around her shoulders and drew her close. "Me, too. I owe him a punch to the gob when he gets back."

Hermione laughed against his shoulder, but there wasn't much humour in it. "I hope he'll come back in good enough condition that it will be all right for you to punch him."

That was not a good thought. Ron remembered the night in Gryffindor Tower with the seeping hole in Scott's arm. "That bomb hole he had in him was right fucked. At least he won't ask me for an Episkey."

"Language, Ron," she protested without much enthusiasm. They stayed in their embrace for a minute or so, and then she pulled away. "Come on, let's have a sit down. I'm exhausted and there's nothing we can do."

As they walked towards the stairwell, Ron noticed that Sophie was still standing near it. Her complexion was pale and she was staring at nothing, idly crumpling the dust rag she held. It occurred to him that her state of mind might not be so far away from the rest of theirs.

"Think he'll be all right?" he asked her.

She jolted out of her reverie. "Oh! Yes, I'm sure he'll be fine. He's one of our best, you know, so he probably won't be captured…" she ended her half-hearted assurance waveringly.

"He's the most dangerous bloke I've ever known. I guess I haven't known that many, but it's got to count for something," Ron told her.

"I bet he'll be back soon," Sophie said in something approaching her usual tone. "Please don't mention this to Kylie, though, I don't want her to worry herself sick."

"We won't," Hermione promised.

Ron just hoped Scott made it back soon, because it wouldn't take Kylie too long to notice his absence.


It was getting dark out.

The setting sun was to his advantage, and every darkening shadow made it less likely his pursuers would find him once he disappeared from their sight. Unfortunately, they knew it. Their chase, once more careful and considered, grew reckless.

After carefully pulling them out of town by slowing his gait and taking shots at intervals, Scott had initially outpaced them once he reached the woods, moving more quickly on foot than they were capable of. But, again, he had underestimated them (or, as he was beginning to suspect, their new leader). The Death Eaters had split the Snatchers into smaller, more mobile groups. Some of them had begun Apparating to keep up, sometimes even flanking or appearing ahead of him, depending on what they were able to see. Others had taken to brooms, and although Scott's gunfire had forced them to keep a respectful distance, it also revealed his position.

Several flying enemies had hovered over him at considerable height, spotting for the rest and ensuring escape would not be easy. The encroaching darkness made such high altitude reconnaissance less useful, and soon it would be impossible to see him from the air at all. The Death Eaters were becoming desperate, running themselves ragged to keep up.

Scott hadn't seen any sign of Riddle himself, which was a bit insulting. Apparently the self-proclaimed Dark Lord didn't feel that Scott was worthy of any personal attention. Scott didn't know if the enemy had been ordered to capture him, but, judging from the damage the spells sent his way did to the forest, he sort of doubted it. Taking him alive would be a happy accident.

He was sporting the usual scrapes and bruises that came from sprinting through the woods, along with some other assorted minor lacerations from shrapnel. The only direct hit he'd taken had been a Full-Body Bind that had sent him crashing into the rough soil. Luckily, he'd stopped himself with his face, which now stung like a motherfucker. He didn't know what the damage was, but he probably wasn't ready for date night.

He hurtled over a small ravine and crunched through a dead thorn bush. Sliding across the loam, he regained his balance and took cover behind the largest nearby tree. At first, he didn't see anyone. Then, dark shapes flitted under the canopy to his right.

He scowled at them. He could stop and just try to hide, but the forest didn't offer much in the way of concealment. Short of crawling into a hollow log (he hadn't seen any big enough) or something else equally obvious, there were no options that wouldn't be easily discovered in a thorough search. He might have expected a less than thorough search in past engagements, but now… Now, someone on the other side definitely knew what they were doing. If the DEs lost track of him, they would double back and look. He had to get beyond their radius and disappear.

He had just decided to leave the approaching group behind and try his luck in a different direction when something smacked into his left hip.

He grunted in pain and rolled with the blow, bending at the waist and sliding partway down the trunk. He looked down to see dark blood spreading out from a sliced section of his camouflaged pants. Slapping his hand over it, he glared back to where he thought he had been hit from, trying to twist around enough to raise his weapon one-handed.

Sure enough, a hooded Death Eater was crouched on the short ridge to what had been his left. When Scott met his eyes, the man fell flat to his stomach and crawled backwards until he was out of sight.

"Good call," Scott muttered.

"AVADA KEDAVRA!"

The first group he'd spotted was still a ways back, but close enough for their frontrunner to shout a curse. Scott snapped back to face forward and snuffed out the green light shooting towards him. The Killing Curse was fairly slow, he'd noticed, compared to many of the other dangerous spells. The Severing Charm in particular had enough velocity that Scott found it difficult to counter even when he knew it was coming.

Scott returned fire, the sharp crack of his carbine reverberating wildly through the close-set trees. The Snatcher under fire didn't fall, running to a spot where he could no longer be seen. Scott was almost positive he had hit the man. Another Snatcher dove behind a nearby tree, but didn't travel far enough to be safe: Scott shredded the trunk at neck level, getting a nice gout of arterial spray for his trouble.

The rest retreated, but Scott could hear more behind another grove. "DOCTOR! DOCTOR, WILLARD IS HIT!" a woman screeched.

Willard – the man who hadn't fallen, the man with the punctured neck or someone else? Whoever it was, their suffering had given Scott a chance to get moving.

He pushed himself to his feet, ignoring the burning in his side. The cut was deep, but it didn't hamper his movement enough to warrant healing. He ran, peppering the short ridge with a few random rounds in case the Death Eater there was thinking about being proactive again.

There had been more of them closing in than he had thought. Spells rattled against the trees, showering him with bits of bark. Scott might have spun around to suppress them and give himself some more room to run, but he'd done too much of that earlier. He was down to his last two magazines.

He was beginning to wonder if they weren't also tracking him the old fashioned way. He was moving at such speed that his trail was apparent to anyone who knew how to follow broken twigs and faint footprints. And they had been diligent enough about holding a good search pattern that he hadn't been able deviate his course much, heading mostly south.

Opportunity arrived in the form of a stream that trickled through a gully ahead of him. With the rightmost group of foes concerned with their casualties, he had a chance to move that way, and the stream provided just the path he needed to–

–weightless, wet, pain–

–confuse the trail, what happened?

He gasped out a mouthful of water, the feeling rushing back to his limbs and the ringing in his head beginning to subside. He braced his hands and pushed to extract himself from the mud but he wasn't rising, his left arm was simply rolling him over. He raised his head and forced it to look to the right, sliding his chin along the ground.

There was blood all over the dirt, frothing red in the water. A few gobbets of flesh were scattered along with stained pieces of camouflage fabric. He couldn't move his right arm because most of his right shoulder was gone. Out of the corner of his eye he could see a dark, glistening hole in his shoulder blade, the bone splintered out into the muscle. It was just a throbbing red mess. He didn't know what had hit him; it must have been hot, because the skin around the injury was red and blistered, and wisps of smoke rose from it.

He couldn't feel it. That was very bad, because the first rule of shape triage was 'what you cannot feel, you cannot heal'. He needed the pain to provide his body with information, to intimately know the location of the injury. Under less pressing circumstances it was ideal to dress the wound and wait until his body was prepared to handle it, but, since he didn't have a great deal of time, he grabbed a jagged nearby rock and dug it into his ruined appendage.

That, he most certainly felt. He howled into the mud, writhing with the agony, not trying to stifle it. The burning point of pain was where he shunted his energy. The pain intensified, then changed into a sort of intolerable pressure; just when the sensation was almost unbearable, it stopped.

His right arm relaxed into a more natural position as the wound healed, and sweat immediately ran down his face. He was instantly tired. All of his muscles felt lax, uncooperative. It had been a deep injury with at least second degree burns. A couple more like that, and he was finished. Replacing anything was exhausting; replacing bone was brutal.

He forced himself to stand, shoulder still badly hurting. The actual hole created by the spell would be gone, the bone and muscle restored – mostly. Shape triage in the field was not the most reliable of medicines, especially without assistance. He couldn't even look at the wound to make sure it was fully healed, and there was always a chance that there were problems below the surface of the skin that he would have to tend to later. The blistered area around the wound was still there, as were all the other related lacerations and bruises. The little things were hard to get, and usually not worth the energy.

He had only been down for about thirty seconds, but he could hear the Death Eaters closing in. He took off down the stream as fast as he could, his shoulder sending spikes of hurt through him with every jolt. At least his hip had gone numb.

The stream coiled around through the trees, changing direction a few times but always heading generally westward. By the time the sun had sunk completely below the horizon he had left the water behind, climbing up the stream bank and continuing west. He jogged down a slope and found a narrow road at the bottom. It was paved, clearly of Muggle origin. He looked around for a way to identify it and perhaps figure out where he was based on his memory of the maps of the Hollow. That was when the lights caught his eye.

Weaving through the trees across the road were the twinkling lights of lit wands. He counted six, maybe seven individuals, no doubt looking for him. He didn't see any Death Eater hoods. They could have been Ministry people, which wasn't much better.

They might have Apparated ahead of him, or the net was wider than he'd thought. Either way, there were probably more still behind him. The lights were moving away from him, so it would be a good time to hide.

He went down the flooded ditch along the side of the road until he came to a drainage pipe which ran through a brief hill. Crouching in the water, he peered into it. He couldn't say it appealed to him, but it would do. He just had to gather himself for a minute or two until he could piece together an aperture pattern. All the fighting had left the shape a whirling mess (it hadn't been even a fraction as bad after the mercifully brief encounter at Kylie's) and his head was pounding. He really just wanted to lie down.

It wasn't until he was already a good twelve feet or so inside the pipe, sinking into the filthy water, that he remembered that it was, duh, full of water. He couldn't open an aperture in water. That much fluid mass was more than he could transport.

He pressed the heels of his hands to his stinging eyes, not sure if he wanted to laugh or cry. Both possibilities could bring unwanted attention, so instead he just took off what was left of his jacket and turned it into an acceptable (if extremely soggy) pillow.

Any further problems would have to wait until morning, after his pursuers were gone.

Back to index


Chapter 16: As You Were

16

As You Were


"Those not in the business often imagine
integration as being a constant struggle
against the whims of the shape and of
stubborn Primes. In fact, integration
much more closely resembles a business
partnership than a form of herding – you
aren't chasing cattle! There's a level of
autonomy inherent in the process that can
come as a surprise to the inexperienced.
But it's crucial, because it's just not possible
to always be in control."

–Captain Paul Skinner, Ret., Life in Providence


It was a very subdued breakfast that Ginny walked in on a bit before nine in the morning.

Sophie and Kylie were absent, possibly still in bed. Harry, Ron and Hermione were eating in silence, eyes on their food. There was a noticeable tension to the proceedings. It wasn't especially surprising, considering one of their own was missing.

And, yes, Ginny could admit to herself that she thought of Scott as 'one of theirs'. She wasn't exactly the best of chums with the Kharadjai, but he was part of the group and part of the fight, and… Well, he had come through enough times in the past to earn some respect. Besides, she was not so petty as to wish harm on him. She didn't want Scott to be gone, and certainly not to be dead, or whatever his equivalent was. She just wanted him to quit taking the piss and stop messing with Harry's head when it suited him.

She had really expected Scott to come waltzing in not too long after they started worrying the night before, probably making some smart remarks as he did so, the bloody liar. But his continued absence had given her anger time to cool. By the time she rolled out of bed to find her friends in the midst of an eerily quiet meal, she had discovered her own measure of concern.

Scott was somewhere out there risking life and limb for the cause, and although she was still angry that he hadn't allowed her the chance to do the same, she recognised his dedication. And she also knew that if she'd continued to fight, then Harry would have, as well. So Scott had done some good, even if he hadn't gone about it in a good way.

"Why didn't you wake me?" she asked Harry when she seated herself next to him.

Harry shrugged listlessly. "Nothing's happening. Reckoned I'd just let you sleep."

"No word, then?"

"No." Harry stared into his cereal as if there might be some answers floating within.

Ginny leaned around him to see what Ron and Hermione were thinking. Ron was shovelling food into his mouth without much in the way of expression, but Hermione was watching Harry with a look of resignation. Like Ginny, she knew what came next.

Harry did not disappoint. "If he's not back by noon, we go looking for him," he said, dropping his spoon with a clatter.

The noise woke Ron up. "You think it'll be safe by then?" he said, sounding unconvinced.

Harry's dark expression was answer enough: he didn't much care.

Ginny sighed and looked to Hermione. "Do you want to try and talk sense into him, or should I?"

"I'm not sure I have the energy for something so exhausting," Hermione said wryly.

"I'm sitting right here!" Harry said.

"Harry, going back is not a good plan. The Ministry will surely be there, even if the Death Eaters aren't," Hermione said, trying logic.

"You think I'm that daft? I've thought about this," Harry told them forcefully. "I'll go back to the car park under the Cloak. I can look around, suss out what's happening, and maybe see where Scott went. Then we can go from there."

"We work in teams, remember? I'll go with you under the Cloak," Ginny said.

"I'll move faster by myself. Less chance of being seen," Harry told her in a tone that was obviously intended to be as reasonable as possible.

Which was a bit insulting, but she got the point. She could be a little shirty when it came to being left behind. Could he blame her? She had been so peripheral before. He wouldn't have even taken her to the Department of Mysteries if she hadn't insisted then, too. She had to fight for every concession. She had to constantly prove her right to be present, and she didn't feel like anyone else had to do that.

Or was that just her own insecurities talking? Well, whatever it was, she didn't like the idea of Harry buggering off by himself with nothing but the Cloak for company.

She took a breath and tried to match his reasonableness. "I get that, but if you find trouble–"

Right in the middle of her sentence a clatter came from the stairs that about made her jump out of her skin.

They all whirled towards the staircase with eyes wide and wands out just in time to see Scott slide down the last few steps on his bum, legs splayed out in front of him.

"I do believe," he said in a hoarse yet cheerful voice, "that the ol' leg is giving out."

Harry was out of his chair in an instant. "You stupid idiot! You're fucking insane, what have you done to yourself?!"

"Bloody hell, you're dirty," Ron said with disgust. "What happened to your leg?"

"Let me look, let me look at it," Hermione insisted, trying to push past the boys.

From where Ginny was standing, Scott was a little over half dead. His military clothes were so filthy that they were more brown than green, and his left thigh was stiff with dried blood, running almost to his knee. He was missing an entire sleeve from his shirt, the skin unnaturally pale around the shoulder and flaring out into a nasty collage of red and yellow burns and pus blisters. His face looked like he had used it to batter down a door: covered in cuts, both lips split, nose swollen, topped with a nice fat black eye. Every square inch of him was covered in dried filth. He smelled positively awful.

He grinned at them, revealing red-tinged teeth. "Morning, mates. God save the Queen."

Harry tossed up his hands and stalked away.

"Ow! What happened to your face, mate?" Ron said, wincing sympathetically at the plethora of scrapes and bruises.

"Born this way, sadly. Doctors say they can't do anything for me."

Hermione huffed with exasperation and a touch of relief that she couldn't quite mask. "Your disfiguration is temporary. We don't mind looking at you, it's the listening to you we have trouble with. Ohhhhh…" She flinched away from Scott's mutilated shoulder after nearly steadying herself on it. "…I'll take a look at that in a moment. Lift your chin up."

Scott complied. "Will I ever be pretty again, nurse?"

"I'm not a miracle worker," Hermione said dryly. "Harry's right, what on earth did you do to yourself?"

"Took a spill. Got lucky, though, my face broke my fall."

"Maybe I can help some," Ginny offered.

Ginny was startled and almost jumped back when Scott reached out and grabbed her shoe, squeezing it. "It is weird how happy I am to see your scowling face?" he said, smiling up at her.

"Yeah, it is," she confirmed.

"He's riding his usual post-mission adrenaline high. With this level of bruising I'd say he's likely concussed, as well," Hermione said. "Can you check that hip and make sure he's not still bleeding?"

Ginny wasn't squeamish when it came to blood. Less than Ron was, anyway. His expression as he tugged down Scott's frayed trouser leg (it tore right off without much effort, and it was obvious he had taken a nasty Severing Charm at some point) was more than a bit queasy. Good thing he had a strong stomach to counterbalance how revolted he was.

Although, perhaps she had taken pride in her medical fortitude too quickly. The gash on Scott's hip was truly disgusting, and when she cast a few cleaning spells on it she could see what she thought was bone down through the gaps in the scabbing.

She glanced up to steady herself and found Scott gazing at what she was doing with curiosity. "That smell south of cheese to you? Not really bad, right?"

"You smell really, really awful," she told him honestly.

"Yeah, but not gangrenous, right?"

"Isn't it a bit soon for that? Besides, you told me you were resistant to gangrene, if I recall," Hermione said.

"I am. It's all good."

Very little about his state was good. Ginny did what she could, casting at the wound until the edges turned pink and the centre was fully scabbed over. Hermione had done more or less the same for his face, lessening the swelling. Neither of them were trained Healers with access to the kinds of resources available at St Mungos.

"I have some potions that can replenish your blood, Scott, are you going to need them?" Hermione said. "I wouldn't ask, but they'll be difficult to replace."

"Should be fine," he said, sounding a bit more lucid after their administrations.

"I'm not sure what to do about your shoulder. I cleaned up the cuts, but I don't have any salve for the burns."

"I'll fix all this stuff later, when I can. I'll slap a bandage on it, jump in the shower until the water stops running red and then pass out for awhile. You guys can yell at me when I wake up."

Hermione narrowed her eyes at him. "Yes. I'm glad you remember that we have good cause to."

"Got that right," Ron muttered.

"Harry's about ready to go nuclear over there. I can't wait for that chat," Scott said, and Ginny couldn't help but think he actually meant it.

"Please don't antagonise him," Hermione requested. "You know what you did, and we know why you did it, but that doesn't mean we don't have valid reasons to be angry."

"Uh huh," he said absently, tapping away at his mobile.

"You!" Hermione huffed. She stood and used her wand to clean her hands. "Ron, can you help him get up to the loo?"

"No need; help is on the way," Scott said, tucking his mobile away.

Sophie came rushing down into the kitchen, still holding her mobile. "Oh, no…" she groaned when she saw Scott, pressing a hand to her mouth.

"Come on, now. You've seen worse," Scott said. "And I even have pants on, mostly."

"So I should just be happy about the state you're in? Because of pants?" she demanded.

"Well, maybe not happy…"

As Sophie was even shorter than Ginny, and Scott was about the same height as Ron, the size and weight differential made it utterly bizarre to witness Sophie so effortlessly haul Scott up the stairs. She probably weighed about half as much as he did, even without all the weaponry he was still carrying.

Now that Scott was safely at Grimmauld and he wasn't in critical condition, Ginny turned her attention to Harry. He was standing near the cupboards with his arms crossed.

"Looks like Scott will be fine," she said, walking over to him. "He wasn't quite as bad as he looked."

"He's such a twat," Harry seethed.

"Are you going to go shout at him?" she said hopefully. It was sometimes nice to see Harry assert himself when it came to Scott (and, as a side bonus, an angry Harry was an extra attractive Harry, with his lean muscles tense and his green eyes flashing).

Harry huffed out a laugh, dropping his arms. "No. I'll wait until he tells us what happened, then I'll shout at him."

Ginny gave him a disbelieving look. "You're awfully calm for a bloke who was just in a strop."

Harry shrugged a bit sheepishly. "Yeah… It's hard to stay angry with him when he took a beating like that."

Ginny wouldn't acknowledge it out loud, but he was right. "I'm sorry we didn't find out more about your parents."

"I don't know what I was looking for," Harry admitted. "Just… something that wasn't there."

Hermione approached the two of them, breaking into the conversation. "Discussing the mission?" she said. Without waiting for an answer, she continued, "It's awful what happened to Professor Bagshot, the poor woman… And now the whole mission was for nothing." Her eyes widened, and she held out an apologetic hand towards Harry. "Oh! I'm sorry, Harry, I wasn't implying it was a waste. I'm sure the visit did you some good."

"Maybe," Harry said apathetically.

"I'm sure it did," Hermione repeated awkwardly. "Well, be sure to write to Remus and let the Order know what happened. If they hear about it, they'll want to know you're all right."

"They'll want to know we're all fine," Harry stressed.

"Yes, of course," Hermione said with embarrassment. "That's what I meant."

Ginny just rolled her eyes. Hermione was right about the Order, or at least some of its members, when she said they would be worrying mostly about Harry. But, seeing as he loathed any reference to his friends being more expendable than him, she really should have known he would latch on to her grammatical slip. Ginny always appreciated Harry's defence of her importance, even if she wished he would be more realistic sometimes.

Harry looked dourly towards the stairs. "We'll see what Scott has to say when he's ready. Unless we kick his arse before that for lying to us."

"I don't know about you, but I'm still more than a bit put out with him," Hermione declared.

Ginny was, too, though she was still bothered by the nagging thought that if Scott hadn't lied then Harry would have willingly stayed in the line of fire, no doubt waiting for the opportunity to sacrifice his well being for someone or something. She felt like Harry was actually angry not because of the lie, but because when it came to self-sacrifice, Scott had beat him to it.

She saved that opinion for later. "If you want to kick his arse, I'll hold him down," she offered.

Harry's mouth lifted in a small smile, which was progress considering the mood he was in. "I'd like to see that."

"What? You'd like to see me jump on another bloke?" she said innocently.

"Ugh. Not anyone, but especially not Scott." Harry grabbed Ginny's wrist and pulled her over to him. "I didn't have a mum to teach me to share."

Ginny leaned into him. "Too dark, Harry."

"Ron would have laughed."

"No, he wouldn't have."

"Scott would have laughed."

"He's a prick, though."

"Yeah."

Hermione glanced over at the table, where Ron had resumed his meal. "I'm going to finish eating. I need to get back to my research if we're going to find another Horcrux."

Harry quickly sobered, and Ginny sent Hermione a glare that the older girl didn't notice. He had been so close to cheering up, and then Hermione had to go and remind him of Horcruxes. "I don't know what we're going to do. Bagshot was our only lead," he said.

"Not true; Scott told us there was a Horcrux to the north. It's not much to go on, but we might be able to narrow it down," Hermione countered.

"How?"

"Manually, if we have to. The closer we get, the more precise the shape should be."

"Only if the shape is still showing him this thing at all," Harry pointed out. "His first clue might be the only one we get."

"Well, let's hope that's not the case." Hermione briefly hesitated. "It's not ideal, Harry, but we may need to bring more people into the know. The Order have resources we don't, and the more of us that are looking, the better our chances are."

Harry's eyes darkened, his stance gaining a clear tension. "And the better our chances of Riddle finding out what we're doing."

"I know, but–"

"Dumbledore left this to me. If he'd thought the Order could help, he would have told them," Harry said with a tone of finality.

But Hermione could be equally stubborn, and she didn't take the hint and drop the subject. "He couldn't have foreseen everything. And we needn't assume that the Order would require specifics to be helpful, just a few questions about artefacts in general might lead us in the right direction."

"It's too risky," Harry said, intractable.

Hermione began to respond yet again and Ginny was done with the whole conversation. The two of them were going to circuitously argue for who knew how long, and they didn't need Ginny standing there to do it. She grabbed a scone and sat down next to Ron, who was also ignoring the clashing of his best friends in the background.

"Feeling all right?" she asked him, wondering if his silence was a symptom of something more than fatigue.

"Been better, but, haven't we all?" he said philosophically.

"True." She pushed the crumbs from her scone around on the table with her fingers. "How do you think Bill and Fleur are getting along? It's been a bloody dreadful honeymoon."

"I reckon they're fine, Bill's tough and Fleur is…" Ron didn't finish, perhaps wondering what, exactly, Fleur was. "I guess she's probably not too keen on Lila being there, though."

Ginny did remember the two blondes clashing on several occasions. "Fleur will mind Lila if she knows what's good for her." Ginny couldn't imagine Lila tolerating much of Fleur's superciliousness, and she sort of wished she could be there to see it if Lila finally lost her temper. "Too bad you won't be there to jump to her defence."

Ron glared at her. "That was fourth year, and she's partly Veela! I'm not made of bleedin' stone, I can't just shrug off whatever they do to you."

"You do just fine now."

"It took some practice," Ron admitted.

"And some practice snogging Hermione?" Ginny said slyly. "Gave you a new focus, did it?"

"Piss off. I've given you hardly any shite for all the times you've tried to suck Harry's tongue out of his head!"

Ron had, in fact, been quite non-confrontational when it came to her relationship with Harry – at least by his usual standards. Which made sense, considering Ron had been pushing for Harry to get with Ginny from day one. He just wasn't comfortable witnessing the fulfilment of his hopes. "I'll give you that, big brother."

"Glad to hear it, baby sister."

"Why does it have to be 'baby'?" she protested. "Why can't it at least be 'little'?"

"Because you'll always be the baby of the family," Ron told her, and he poked her affectionately in the forehead.

"Isn't that the truth," Ginny grumbled.

"Thanks for talking to Mum, by the way. That was nicely handled, with all the shouting."

"I should have given that phone to you," she said spitefully. "Have you tell Mum why your baby sister is out dodging Death Eaters."

Ron shuddered. "If that ever happens, I'm telling her you Imperiused me."

"A true Gryffindor, you are."

The bickering was familiar and comforting, a relic of a time before the two of them had made the transition from students to soldiers. Ginny had never admitted it to her companions (and especially not to Harry), but she worried greatly about her brothers. She knew they would never stay in the safety of Shell Cottage. She understood that compulsion towards action and wouldn't expect anything less of them, even as she often wished they would stop expecting less of her.


"Careful, careful, careful!" Scott hissed as Sophie tried to extract him from his flak jacket without abrading his shoulder.

"Oh, now you want to be careful!" she said, still upset with him.

"No, I want you to be careful," he corrected.

"I am! Stop wiggling and hold still!" she berated him.

Scott fell blessedly silent for a minute or so as Sophie did her best to disassemble his gear as she worked around his injuries. It was a role she had performed more than once. She was used to weathering snide comments from Lila about 'stripping her brother'. Under other circumstances, it was true that Sophie might have taken secret pleasure in handling him in such a pseudo-intimate fashion; however, the condition he had be in before he needed someone to help extract him from his kit took attraction out of the equation. Especially this time, when he smelled absolutely terrible.

"I smell like the inside of an ass," Scott noted.

"That's what happens when you marinate in ditch water all night," she informed him.

"But am I tender?"

"Tenderised." She brushed a few gentle fingers over a particularly bad burn. "Can you feel that?"

"Very much," he said, wincing. The burn disappeared, leaving a patch of unnaturally clean skin behind. His posture sagged a little lower.

"Now the hip," Sophie said. "You don't need a pinch, do you?"

"Nah." Scott tensed up; when he relaxed, his breath came out in a wavering sigh. Beads of sweat dotted his forehead, and he wiped at his upper lip. "Got it?"

She checked his hip, making sure the injury was well healed. There was still significant bruising at what had been the tips of the cut, but the deep wound itself was gone. "Looks okay for now," she told him.

"I'll worry about the face later. Try to pretend you're still attracted to me."

"I'll try."

She helped him into the shower stall and then left to stand outside the door. She had led him to the master bedroom where Kylie usually slept, since it had an attached bathroom. At the very least, she could afford him more privacy than he would have received at a forward hospital.

"There's room for two!" he called to her as he tossed his ruined pants over the top of the curtain.

Or maybe he didn't care much for the privacy. "So?" she shot back, trying to sound indifferent.

"So, you know, the whole wash cloth thing was kind of a standing offer…"

Some day she would go ahead and take him up on one of his inappropriate propositions just to see what would happen. She liked to think he would be taken aback, caught off guard and left stammering some sort of retraction. A more rational part of her brain thought that was pretty unlikely, but she still enjoyed the idea of throwing him so thoroughly off balance.

"I was looking over your quick sheets," she said, steering him towards a different sort of conversation altogether. "Did you want me to update some of the statics?"

"I've been meaning to take care of that," he said, starting the shower. He hissed with the first shock of pain as the warm water coursed over his injuries. "I just don't see myself leaving any time soon, even for just a couple days."

"What about… involuntarily?" Sophie said reluctantly. She didn't care for the thought, but Scott had already flirted with capture.

"Good point. I'll fix the sheets, just promise me you won't let them sideline you if they bring some subs in."

"I don't see why they would…"

"Who knows. I was just saying," Scott mumbled.

He stuck to his washing from then on, offering no more salacious remarks or job-related commentary, which was a sure sign of exhaustion. She waited patiently for him to emerge. As the rush of the fight continued to wear down, she knew he would keep getting slower and more deliberate in his motions, until the act of just moving was a chore. Hopefully, the hot water would help with the soreness.

Sophie straightened up when the door to the room creaked open further. She assumed it was one of the Primes come to check on Scott and perhaps demand more immediate answers, but instead the strawberry-blonde head of Kylie peeked around the frame.

The girl's wide eyes darted towards the open bathroom door, and, upon hearing the sounds of the running water, she blushed. "Sorry," she whispered, beginning to withdraw.

"Scott's in there, he's okay! He just needed some help because he's really tired," Sophie volunteered, wondering if Kylie was getting the wrong idea about Sophie's presence.

"That you, Kylie?" Scott called out, his voice hollow as it echoed around the shower.

"Yes," Kylie replied in a voice he couldn't possibly have heard.

"It is Kylie, she wanted to know how you were doing," Sophie said, assigning motivations to the girl who might have just been trying to go into her own room.

"I'm spring fresh, at least according to this soap," Scott said, and the strain of projecting such a loud and ostensibly well voice was becoming more apparent in his gruff timbre.

"See? He'll be fine," Sophie said.

Kylie's mouth turned downwards. "Is he hurt?"

"He's okay. He just needs to sleep," Sophie told her.

"You're lying," Kylie said accusingly, and then she fled.

"Kylie! Wait…" Sophie trailed off.

"What?" Scott said, oblivious.

Sophie dropped her hands and sighed. "I fudged the truth a bit and told her you were okay, but she knew it wasn't entirely true."

"She ran off?"

"She called me a liar and then ran off," Sophie said sadly.

"Showing some spirit, nice."

Sophie wasn't quite so pleased. "I wish she had showed some spirit at someone else…"

She was prepared to refuse to help Scott dress himself for bed, but by the time he stumbled out of the shower he was so spent that he didn't even make such predictable comments. She helped him get up to the room with the motorcycle posters (which was how she always thought of that room, steadfastly ignoring all the girls in bikinis) and he collapsed on the mattress, asleep almost as soon as she pulled the covers up over him.

It was funny how the shape-enhanced Kharadjai physiology worked in combat. It was hard to slow without sputtering to a stop, dependent on inertia. No longer immersed in the rush of the shape and fuelled by adrenaline, Scott crashed.

She stepped back out in the hallway and shut the door behind her as quietly as she could (good thing she had oiled all the hinges recently). She took her phone out of her pocket and called Lila.

Lila answered quickly. "Speak," she said.

"Hello, this is Sophie," Sophie told her.

"I'm aware."

Sophie hesitated. Lila sounded terse, which might mean it wasn't a good time for a call. But Lila often sounded like that. "Are you busy?"

"I wish."

Right. Save for the coming and going of the Order, Lila hadn't had much interaction with the war effort. "Scott just got back from Godric's Hollow. He's a little banged up, but mostly okay."

"And why didn't he come back with the Primes?" Lila asked, having been made cognisant of their return with a different call the previous night.

"There were noncoms all over the AO. I guess that was expected, but Scott led the OpFor away and then hid until just a little while ago."

Lila was silent for a moment. "Hid where? In water?"

"In a drainage tube with water."

"That moron," Lila groaned.

"Well, he was in a hurry…" Sophie half-heartedly defended him.

"Don't use up his excuses, Strauss, I'll hear all about it later. Listen, when he wakes up tell him that the Order really wants to talk to Harry. Like, really. Remus Lupin is getting desperate, he even came to me. And they usually do their best to pretend I don't exist."

"Okay. Should I just tell Harry?"

"Run it by Scott. Then tell Harry, if you want to make it look like you came to him first."

There was a deeply manipulative facet to integration that Sophie had never been completely comfortable with. She understood that it could be useful and even necessary, but she didn't see the point in misleading Harry for no real purpose. Lila automatically established the option, whether it was needful or not. "Um, I'll just tell Harry since Scott's asleep. He already knows that Harry needs to see Lupin some time."

"Your call. Hey, I have to go stop Fleur from sabotaging my pound cake with her shitty French culinary 'skills'. We should talk more later."

"Sure, of course!" Sophie said, eager to have a real conversation with her friend.

"Have fun with the Primes," Lila said with a hint of warmth.

"Okay, I'll talk to you later!"

With that taken care of, there wasn't much to do except go back to cleaning and organising. And, while she had a strong and abiding belief in the value of cleanliness, she had to admit she was a bit tired of the tedium. Scott's interruption would have been welcome had he not managed to injure himself so thoroughly. And he had tracked mud everywhere, so there was that. Cleaning spells were highly convenient, and she had made full use of Scourgify. Some staining defied the magic, however. Perhaps one of the Primes could offer a more powerful cleansing spell.

Still, the upper hallways were looking better. The training downstairs had been creating a constant mess, and, rather than get caught in an endless cycle of picking up after another mattress explosion, Sophie had decided to start from the top down. The corridor she walked through was no longer quite so grimy, and the shadows didn't seem as deep. She didn't think anything could completely dispel the miasma of gloom short of a full remodelling. Grimmauld Place seemed designed to be… well, grim.

And Sophie just didn't understand why anyone would want that, she really didn't.

She peeked into the drawing room and found Kylie gazing out one of the windows. Sophie thought about saying something, but decided it would be better not to. The slight girl probably needed some time to calm down (which was a strange state of affairs, considering Kylie's general temperament).

Sophie found the Primes down in the kitchen, all of them gathered around the table with various foods. There was a bit of tension in the air, and after a moment of observation Sophie determined that Harry and Hermione were avoiding looking at each other. There must have been an argument.

She wasn't sure how well received any news of Scott would be, all things considered, but she offered some regardless. "Scott is mostly healed and in bed. Once he wakes up he should be ready for…" Sophie searched for the right word.

"Interrogation?" Hermione offered.

"He's trained to resist those," Sophie said humorously.

"I should hope he'd try to resist a bit less this time," Hermione said with a frown.

Ron shook his head. "The ponce probably doesn't think he did anything wrong."

"Perhaps not. But he may be convinced to do the right thing even if it's for the wrong reasons; that is, in the interests of team unity," Hermione explained.

"Or we may have to take turns hexing him until something goes through," Harry said darkly.

Sophie hoped that he was joking, as violence was a very unproductive way to get Scott's cooperation. "Would you like me to speak with him first? I could let him know, that… That things are a bit tense right now and he should behave himself."

"You really think he'll care?" Harry said cynically. He pushed his empty bowl away and went up the stairs, probably to make use of the makeshift target range.

"He might," Sophie said to his retreating back.

Hermione sighed, watching Harry leave. "That's going to be an uncomfortable conversation."

"You mean 'shouting match'," Ron said.

"No, I meant conversation, but I'm being optimistic." She glanced up at the clock. "I'm going to get back to research. Sophie, would you let me know when Scott is up and about?"

"Of course," Sophie assured her.

"I'm going to get back to bed," Ron said sleepily, stifling a yawn.

"Lazy prat," Hermione said affectionately.

After they left, Sophie turned to Ginny, who had been oddly silent. The red-haired teen was gazing towards the stairs with a thoughtful expression on her freckled features. Sophie had probably interacted with the youngest Weasley the least out of all the Primes, mostly due to Ginny's absence during the Christmas party of the previous year. She knew that Lila thought highly of the girl.

Ginny noticed Sophie's scrutiny. "I'm not that upset," she said, meeting Sophie's eyes. "I understand why he lied to us."

Sophie blinked in surprise. "You do?"

"He did it to save Harry." Ginny looked back towards the stair again. "How can I be angry with him for that?"

"That's very mature of you, Ginny!" Sophie said admiringly.

Ginny rolled her eyes. "I'm still hacked off about other things. Like what he said to me the other night. And how he obviously doesn't think we're worth a damn in a punch-up. He wasn't even at the Department, where does he get off acting like we can't handle ourselves?"

Sophie was not an integrationist, and she wished that Scott or Lila were present. It wasn't that the siblings always said the right thing; it was more that, even if they said the wrong thing, they were at least screwing up their own mission. Sophie didn't want to be blamed for anything.

Oh, my… Shameful thoughts, those were. She was no coward, she reminded herself. "It's not personal, it's just common sense. You can't run as fast as Scott can. Neither can I, I'm short, too! So because of that, and all his experience, he was the best choice to create a distraction." There! Clear, logical and concise. Lila would have been proud.

"He obviously thought he was the best choice, since it's one he made for us," Ginny said sarcastically.

Sophie had a good idea of Scott's reasons, but she hadn't been there. She didn't want to say any more, not before Scott had a chance to explain himself. "You'll have to ask him about that."

"If I can get a word in edgewise," Ginny sighed. "Harry'll probably drown the rest of us right out."

Sophie made a mental note to take Kylie elsewhere for that confrontation. There would likely be an unfortunate amount of bad language.

Ginny stood and placed her bowl in the sink. "How's Lila doing?" she asked.

"Oh, I just spoke with her! She's fine, doing very well," Sophie overstated. "She said she was baking with someone named 'Fleur'."

Ginny laughed. "You should have been there for the wedding. Lila doesn't bake with Fleur, she sort of bakes around her."

It was true that Lila hadn't referred to the other woman in very complimentary terms. "That's sort of what it sounded like."

"But everyone is okay? The family, I mean," Ginny said more seriously.

"Lil didn't mention any problems. Oh, but Remus Lupin wants to speak with Harry, she did say that."

"There's got to be somewhere we can meet with him," Ginny said thoughtfully. "I mean, just to be sure he's not Imperiused or something, then he can come inside."

Sophie thought about the surrounding areas in Islington; she had taken a couple excursions to get a feel for London, and studied the maps Scott had given her. "Highbury Fields isn't too far from here, that's a nice open space."

"So no one can sneak up on us?"

"Right! Clear sightlines are very important."

"I'll tell Harry about Remus and be sure to mention it, then," Ginny said. "Last thing we want is a repeat of what happened in the Hollow… Whatever did happen. Me and Harry were fine, and then all of a sudden there were Death Eaters everywhere! I haven't gotten the full story."

Neither had Sophie, and with Scott asleep she wouldn't for awhile. "All things in good time."

Ginny snorted as she went up the stairs. "You sound like my mum."

That wasn't a bad thing, was it? Sophie thought that Mrs Weasley was very nice, by all accounts. She had never met the Weasley matriarch and probably wouldn't, seeing as Sophie had no cover story. Although, with the way things were developing, fake histories might soon be useless. Scott and Lila were expending less and less effort maintaining their false identities. The pattern of events had made such things increasingly obsolete, the lies impossible to support. So perhaps Sophie could introduce herself to the Weasleys before too long.

She was startled out of her thoughts by an incoming call. "Hello?"

"Strauss, you got a minute to talk? I'm free for now," Lila said.

Sophie grinned. "Sure!"


Harry knew he was brooding. He did. He wasn't so caught up in his own little world that he didn't even know what he was doing. It was more that he didn't care.

What else was he supposed to do? Watch Scott sleep? Boring and, honestly, more than a bit creepy. He didn't want to sit in a dark room staring at some other bloke on a bed. If Scott woke and saw Harry there he'd have something clever to say, and Harry wasn't about to hand him that kind of ammunition.

So he sat in his own room and wrestled with his thoughts. Not easy, but familiar. It passed the time and kept him occupied, and, so long as he managed to keep his brain from drifting to the really bad things – like Sirius or losing Ginny or the rest of his friends stop it – it wasn't too painful. Just sort of melancholy, really. Sadness could be bittersweet.

When Ginny walked into the room, he reckoned he was about to catch some shite. She'd never had much patience for his frequent, crippling bouts of self-pity. And he couldn't blame her. He couldn't stand himself, sometimes.

She sat next to him and began running a soothing hand over his back. The press of her fingers against his tense muscles made him realise, as if he never had before, just how tiny her hand really was. She was so small, his Ginny. It made his heart ache, and he wasn't sure why.

"Breathe, love," Ginny murmured.

He did so, drawing in the air with a long, shuddering breath. He started to understand just how tightly he had been holding himself when his posture began to loosen.

"What brought this on?" Ginny asked him.

He couldn't even begin to tell her. "I'm mental," he stated.

She moved closer to him. "You're Harry. And it's not like things have been easy." She sighed. "I wish we had gotten together sooner. Before you got so used to doing this alone."

Harry tried not to think about the years it had taken him to pull his head out of his arse. It seemed so unfair, what might have been. He could imagine taking Ginny to Puddifoot's – they would have laughed about it. They could have danced together at the Yule Ball, snogged under the mistletoe. He was happy for what they had, but whatever they hadn't had was his fault. And now it felt like time was already running out.

He tried to put that into words. "…I wish I had done everything with you," he told her with all the honesty he could wring out of his heavy heart.

"We still can," she told him fiercely.

He felt the weight of the future settle onto him and squeezed his eyes shut, just trying to stay upright. His eyes snapped back open when Ginny put her hands on his face and forced him to look at her.

"Don't give up before we get a real chance at us," she said shakily. "I want a real life after this, and I want it with you. Don't you dare sacrifice yourself, because I know you would."

"I already tried to sacrifice this, remember?" Harry said, indicating their relationship and trying to deflect Ginny's demand with a bit of self-deprecation. "That didn't work out so well."

She was not distracted. "I want you to promise me."

"Promise what? That I won't die?" he said with a strained laugh.

"Yes."

"Stop it. You're barmy, I can't promise that."

"You can't even lie?" she said plaintively.

"No." He shook his head. "Not about that."

Her lips thinned and she looked down at the floor. "I'll bet you think I'm being daft."

He wasn't going to lie about that, either. "A little bit, yeah."

"You know why, don't you?"

It was a trick question, it had to be. Girls always did that: they presented you with a seemingly innocuous question that was not, in fact, innocuous at all, because you were expected to bloody well know the right answer already. If Harry was honest and said no, he hadn't a clue what she was talking about, that was wrong and he was in trouble because he should be able to read her mind. And if he took a guess at it she'd know he was just guessing, so same result.

And he really resented it, because Ginny didn't usually do that sort of thing. She was so up front, and the only kind of drama she started was the kind where she was telling him where he could get off.

So he tried to think of what someone else would say, and ended up channelling his inner Scott. In his current situation, that was a lot like channelling his inner Ron, with one subtle distinction: Ron would blurt out the first thing that came to mind, not knowing if it was wrong. Scott would blurt out the first thing that came to mind, not caring if it was wrong.

"Because you love me?" he said carelessly.

He was just about to smack himself for being such a smarmy git and save her the trouble when she nodded firmly. "That's right," she said.

He blinked at her, trying not to let his surprise show. At least she wasn't taken aback that he had guessed right – she hadn't been setting him up for failure.

"Because I love you," she repeated. "And the last thing I ever want to hear is you talking about dying for the rest of us."

He remembered her admonishment for his black humour at the Three Broomsticks, what felt like a lifetime ago. "You lot talk about dying for me all the time!"

"We talk about fighting for you, Harry! We'll die if we have to, but you seem to think you're going to die no matter what! It doesn't have to be that way and it's not going to," she declared with the hard, blazing look that he so admired.

He didn't know how to respond to that. He just wanted her to be right. They sat there for a few more moments whilst she calmed down and he looked everywhere but at her, knowing that the longer he studied her perfect, freckled face, the closer he would be to some kind of breakdown. She was so beautiful that sometimes it hurt, because beautiful things didn't last in Harry's life.

She hissed something under her breath that he didn't catch, and her slim arms were placed around his shoulders. "Just stop," she pleaded.

"No, I'm not… ignoring you, I just…"

"What?" she said, close to his ear. "Tell me."

He shook his head helplessly. "It's hard to explain. It's… You're too perfect, and I can't lose you."

She stiffened. "Is this about chucking me again?"

"No!"

"Then what?"

Harry pulled off his glasses and pressed the heels of his hands into his eyes, trying to relieve the pressure he felt. "It's about…" he stopped, put his glasses back on, and shook his head again. "It's about me being a moron."

"You're not a moron. You just act like one sometimes."

"Yeah, cheers."

"Oh, come off it. You're not even angry, look at you. You're trying not to smile!" she teased.

He was. "No, I'm not," he said stolidly before giving in to a tired grin. Enough was enough; sitting in a dark room wasn't accomplishing anything. "You want to go shoot some more cups?"

"We could have a cuppa first, it's about teatime," she said.

"It's always teatime around here. Come on, then."

They were about halfway down the stairs when she grabbed his arm. "I almost forgot – Sophie said that Remus wants to speak with you as soon as you can."

"In person?"

"Yeah, like he said in his letters. She told me there's a park nearby we could use to meet, it's nice and open. What do you think?"

Harry thought that he didn't like treating Remus as a potential enemy. But, given the situation, there wasn't much choice. They had to be careful. "Okay, so we would meet him there, make sure it's really him, and then let him back in."

Ginny looked unsure about the last part. "You want to let him back into Grimmauld?"

"Yeah. It's Remus, Gin, he's not going to try and make me go back," Harry said. He had that much faith in his former professor.

"I know that, but what about me?" she said, revealing the reason for her reluctance.

Harry understood. And he couldn't blame Remus or Mrs Weasley if they were to attempt to return Ginny to safety; it wasn't like he hadn't tried something similar. But Ginny was at Grimmauld Place, and by Harry's side, to stay. He still would have preferred to keep her away from the danger, and if she asked to leave he would never say no, but he wouldn't force her to go. And he wouldn't let anyone else do it, either.

"It will just be Remus, no one else, or I won't agree to it," Harry told her. "And… your being here isn't open for discussion."

Her expression softened, eyes glowing. "Thank you," she said simply.

He smiled crookedly. "For what? Not being a prat, for once?"

She grinned up at him, making him realise just how close they were standing. "More or less."

He couldn't resist her when she looked like that. He leaned in for a kiss and she met him halfway. What started as mild gesture of affection quickly evolved into an extended snog, her tongue tracing his mouth while he sucked at her lower lip. They finally parted with a smack that was embarrassingly loud in the stairwell. He hoped there wasn't anyone around to hear it.

"All right," he said once they broke apart. "Let's get the maps and take a look at this park."

"In a minute," she said. She put her arms around his middle and threaded her fingers. "I'm not finished yet."

Back to index


Chapter 17: Parts Per Million

17

Parts Per Million


"Every exchange is important. Every
word has value. You may not see it
at first, and you may never see it, but
that does not alter the logic of causation.
The shape tumbles out in an infinite series
of interlocking parts, creating unlimited
configurations with patterns too far
removed from their origins to be anticipated.
The hard limits of your perception will
prevent you from creating accurate
predictions. That does not mean you should
ever stop striving to create outcomes that
are likely to be favorable. To surrender to
the chaos is to lose all sense of efficacy,
and doubt is swiftly followed by inaction."

–Oritorius Arthur Eamon Grant


Remus Lupin stood near the corner of Highbury Crescent and Highbury Place. He knew the streets and where they led, despite never having been there before, because he had located them on a Muggle map. The war memorial at the intersection was just ahead of him: a woman on a column holding aloft some sort of laurel, with cannons flanking the pedestal. Harry hadn't owled much more than very basic directions, and the statue had been a key landmark.

Which was shrewd, and Remus was glad to see Harry taking such precautions. He knew that he was somewhere in the general vicinity of Harry's Fidelius-hidden home, but probably not especially close. He couldn't recall the name of the place no matter how hard he tried. He was sure he had been there before, however. He remembered the dark halls and stone kitchen. He remembered Sirius' room, the one he himself had stayed in, the entry hall with a loud portrait and the umbrella stand Tonks frequently tripped over. If Harry allowed Remus into the safehouse, it would be like recovering from selective amnesia.

The evening sun waned on the horizon, casting an orange glow over the park. A handful of Muggles came and went on the other side of the short, wrought-iron fences whilst Remus stood beneath the trees. He had come alone, as requested. Lila Kharan had helpfully taken him to the park, leaving him there in the afternoon. He had used the extra time to ensure there were no Death Eaters anywhere near the meeting point.

He was grateful to Lila for the use of her Muggle vehicle, even as he remained uncertain whether she could be trusted. She had jumped at the chance to assist Remus with transport, perhaps looking to prove herself. Unlike some other members of the Order, he already felt she had demonstrated her intentions with her defence of The Burrow. It was her motivations that remained suspect, along with her inscrutable history.

Remus was looking forward to seeing Harry for many reasons, not the least of which being that he missed the lad. But he also would be taking the opportunity to ask some pertinent questions. Even if Harry didn't know much about Lila, Scott was sure to. Perhaps he would be more tractable than his sister.

Remus checked his watch: it was three minutes after the time Harry had given. He wouldn't worry until the ten minute mark, and it was possible his watch was a bit fast. He began to look around to see if he could spot Harry, or perhaps Ron or Hermione, before they reached him. There were a few pedestrians across the way: a man climbing into his car, and a woman in a yellow frock strolling past the fence.

Remus started to pivot and look to the other street when the woman in the frock turned onto the path where he was standing. He straightened up and took a step closer to the trees, not wanting to be in her way. Muggles didn't usually believe in werewolves, but he knew that his rumpled appearance and shabby clothing could be off-putting. He didn't want to come across as being some loitering unfortunate. He'd had the Muggle police called on him before, once, when he had been at a park.

He gave her a half-smile when she walked near, along with a respectful nod of his head.

"Professor Lupin!" she said brightly.

To say he was startled would have been an understatement. "…Yes?" he said, trying to remember if he had met her before. She was young enough to have been one of his students at Hogwarts, but she didn't look familiar.

"You are Remus Lupin, correct?" she said, her accent standing out starkly with the speaking of a full sentence.

"Yes, I'm Remus," he confirmed, searching her features for any hint of familiarity. "Have we met?"

"No, we haven't. I'm here on Harry's behalf," she explained.

"Of course," Remus said, feeling a bit disappointed that Harry hadn't come in person. But it wasn't as if the boy's caution was unwarranted. "Well, you found me. What's next?"

"I have a few questions… But first, take my hand, please." She held out one petite, well-manicured hand.

Remus hesitated for a moment, unsure of what the woman was trying to accomplish. Still, he had his wand concealed in a pocket, and it wasn't possible to turn a person into a Portkey. He reached out and took her hand, his larger one engulfing hers. "Very well. And what will this accomplish?"

She smiled at him and shook her arm slightly, prompting him to release her. "Just checking on some things! Okay, questions, questions, let's see…" She scanned a piece of paper that she took from a handbag slung over one shoulder. "Um… How did James save Snape's life?"

Remus grimaced at the memory. "James intervened so I wouldn't inadvertently kill Severus after I transformed. In light of recent events, perhaps not as fortunate as I'd once thought," he said, thinking of Dumbledore's funeral.

"Okay, um… You made a special map, what was the password for it?"

A much more pleasant question. "'I solemnly swear that I am up to no good'," Remus told her with a small grin.

"Two for two!" she cheered. Remus raised an eyebrow, amused at her exuberance. Who was this tiny, ebullient woman? "Last thing, and it says on here… How did you and Tonks end up together?"

Remus frowned slightly. He had expected another question about a more distant past. "Some of the details are… private. But I had been aware of her feelings for some time, and, though I felt the same, I avoided her. A misplaced sense of responsibility, I suppose. I'm not the most stableof romantic partners," he said with a dry chuckle. "She cornered me after an Order meeting and told me she'd had enough of my excuses. She had been very much on my mind, and I was running out of ways to convince myself. And she is nothing if not convincing, when she gets determined." He looked to the woman in the yellow frock but she said nothing, still staring at him with great interest. Her large eyes were a lovely shade of green, reminding him of Lily. "That's about the size of it. Did I pass?"

"Oh, there's no answer written here," she said, waving the paper at him. "I guess someone just wanted to know."

Remus caught the parchment and took it from her, quickly skimming it. There, inked in messy handwriting, were the questions he'd been asked: and no answers of any sort. "There are no answers here at all," he said, head snapping back up to look at her.

Her eyes sparkled with mirth. "It's not me you had to impress!"

"'Lo, Remus," a voice said from somewhere to his left.

He nearly drew his wand before he remembered: the Invisibility Cloak. "Harry," he said through the breath he let out.

"Sorry if I scared you. We thought we'd be extra careful, what with…" Harry didn't need to say more.

"I understand," Remus said. He'd have done the same, in Harry's position. "Were you satisfied with my answers?"

"I reckon it's you," Harry said with a smile in his voice. "Just follow Sophie, she'll take you to the others."

They started walking, Remus staying close behind Sophie. He still didn't know who she was, but Harry seemed to trust her. As they went she chattered on about the park and how nice it was, seemingly without any need for a response. Remus was more interested in her accent than in what she was saying. It was highly similar to Lila's, flat and rhotic, though he thought he detected a few minor variations. He knew that Lila was an American and suspected that Sophie was as well, with perhaps some regional divergences (the last Americans he had spoken to had been from Salem, and sounded quite different).

Soon they arrived at a row of houses undistinguished from the rest, a flat-roofed tenement that still didn't seem familiar, even though he knew it should. There was a rustle from the empty air, and Harry's hand appeared with a slip of parchment.

Remus took and examined it.

Welcome back to 12 Grimmauld Place

And just like that, he remembered everything.

"Well, I'll be damned," he murmured, watching as the houses shrunk and grew apart, revealing the entrance he knew so well.

Ron, Hermione and Ginny were standing just inside the doorway, wands out. "Harry?" Ron said cautiously, eyes on Remus.

"He's fine," Harry said.

Hermione immediately tucked her wand away, beaming. "Professor Lupin!" she said excitedly. "It's so good to see you!"

"And you as well," Remus warmly replied.

The interior of Grimmauld was not quite as shadowy as he remembered, though signs of a recent scrubbing likely accounted for that. The light travelled a little further, the walls were not so grimy, and even though the colours of the décor were as gloomy as ever at least they weren't so overbearingly dour. He wondered if the spiders in the dining hall were gone, but the door was shut as they passed it.

He paused once they reached the kitchen, taking in the sight of the room where he had met with the Order so many times. "Hard to believe I couldn't remember this old place," he remarked.

"Why would you want to?" Harry said, looking at the surrounds with aversion.

"There are good memories here, too, Harry," Remus lightly reminded.

Harry didn't reply to that. He sat down at the table with the others flanking him (Sophie excused herself, going back upstairs). Remus looked at them from across the table and realised that they were presenting a united front against him. Had they become so isolated as to perceive him as a possible threat? Or was it more that, as an adult, he might try to force them to abandon the mysterious enterprise left to them by Dumbledore?

Perhaps he should address that first. "You should know that before I left, your mother," he began carefully, nodding at Ron and Ginny, "made some demands of me. Ginny, she asked if you would come back and see her."

"So she can lock me up?" Ginny said derisively. "No, thank you."

Remus couldn't discount that as a possible outcome. "I thought I would pass the message along, at the very least. I'm not here to try and force any of you into anything. Not that you would let me," he said with a self-deprecating smile. "I'm rather outnumbered at the moment."

Ginny didn't relax. "You can tell my mum that–"

"Ginny…" Harry said softly.

"She doesn't understand! Still!" Ginny argued. "She sent him here–"

"I came on my own," Remus corrected her, not wanting that misconception to gain traction.

"I don't want to get between you and your mum," Harry told his girlfriend, guilt etched on his face.

Ron winced, shifting in his seat. "There wasn't a way around it, mate."

"There was one way," Harry said roughly.

"That was never an option. I told you that," Ginny said coldly.

"I know. Really, I know," Harry repeated after Ginny gave him a disbelieving look. "Just…"

"If you tell me that I should have stayed behind one more time there is not a person here who will blame me when I hex–"

"I'm not saying that!" Harry yelped.

"Ginny, please, I'm not here to take you home," Remus assured her, trying to head off an argument between her and Harry that he didn't fully understand.

He hadn't known there had been any question as to whether she would accompany Harry, Ron and Hermione on whatever task the deceased Headmaster had assigned them. But Remus admittedly didn't know a great deal about the circumstances. He had always assumed that Ginny was as thick as thieves with Harry as the other two were. Perhaps that had not been the case.

Ginny frowned at him. "You just said that Mum wanted me to go back."

"I said that I was instructed to tell you that your mother wanted to see you." Remus leaned forward towards the girl. "Ginevra, I'll be honest: I don't think you should be here. It's too dangerous. But–" he continued when her glare intensified, "–I don't believe that any of you should have to be here. It seems there's no way around it, at least for Harry, and I know that none of you would ever abandon him. I certainly can't change things now." He looked directly at Harry, trying to make his sincerity as clear as he could. "You know that if I could take this off your shoulders, I would."

"Even if you could, I wouldn't let you," Harry replied, subdued but steadfast.

"I know," Remus said, his sorrow for Harry almost a physical presence. It wasn't right, the things Harry had to bear. Thank God he had the friends he did.

Hermione chose that moment to change the subject. "Professor Lupin, how is everyone in the Order?"

"Better, now that we're all in contact. I wish I could say the same for the Ministry."

The children (though he couldn't really think of them that way any longer, could he?) all exchanged worried glances. "We've been out of touch for the most part; I haven't seen the Prophet since we left The Burrow. What's been happening?" Hermione asked.

"You-Know-Who has completely taken over; they're barely trying to be subtle, these days. They've installed Thicknesse as Minister, and we're fairly certain he's under the Imperius," Remus told them grimly. "Right now, our biggest concern is the Muggle-born Registration Commission."

Hermione paled, and Ron immediately reached out to steady her. "Registration?" she said faintly.

"Nothing so benign, if you could call something like that benign to begin with. The Prophet ran a story on a false study done by the Department of Mysteries. It's absolute rubbish, of course, but I suppose the right sort of people will believe it. It says they discovered that magic can only be inherited, and therefore Muggle-borns must have taken their magic through theft or force. Supposedly, they're intended to present themselves for registration and questioning, but, I can tell you, few come out of the Ministry once they go in."

"That's absurd!" Hermione gasped. "The logic is utterly flawed!"

"I know, believe me," Remus reassured her. "It's just a cover for people who already accept that sort nonsense. The Snatchers I wrote to you about, Harry, they enforce the Commission's laws."

"They do a lot more than that," Ron said. "They came after us with the Death Eaters."

Remus sat up straight in shock. "What?"

"We were… on a mission," Harry said vaguely. "The Snatchers were there. Scott could tell you more than us."

"Right, Scott," Remus said, letting the 'mission' reference go for the time being, as it was obvious they weren't going to say more. "His sister actually brought me here. Is he around?"

Hermione gave Harry a warning look, which was interesting. "I'm afraid he's not available for the time being; perhaps later," she said.

Remus raised an eyebrow, concerned that he was so obviously being misdirected. "Are you sure? Lila would appreciate some news from him, I'd wager."

"Not this time. Sorry," Harry said with real regret in his voice.

"Very well," Remus said, trying not to let his disappointment show. "I expect I'll stumble into more than a few things you won't want to talk about."

"I didn't want it to go this way," Harry muttered.

"I know you trust me. I just wish you trusted me a little more. Though not as much as I wish your father had trusted me, just a… little more…" Remus sighed before he could stop himself, expressing more of his deep regrets than he had ever intended.

Harry looked stricken. "This isn't like that! If it were just me, I'd–"

"I know. I don't blame you for anything. Whatever Dumbledore left you with, it's more important than my feelings."

Harry shook his head. "Scott and Lila aren't about that."

"Then I doubt I'll be discovering what they are about. I'd need a pint of Veritaserum to find out what Lila had for breakfast," Remus said, trying to inject some humour into the proceedings.

Hermione was still wan, but smiled weakly at his joke. "That sounds about right."

"You said in your letter she'd said some things to Bill," Harry pointed out.

Remus nodded. "Unclear things, yes. She told him she's a soldier, and that both her brother and herself have been working to ensure your success. Which is a comfort, but not especially detailed. With all her interest in the Order's plans, it's hard to accept her when we know so little."

"I trust her and Scott, and so did Dumbledore," Harry said. "I don't know if that means much to the Order…"

"It does to me," Remus said. "I think the others will at least be willing to let Lila assist us in some way. She just has to prove useful. I doubt that will be much of a problem for her after what I've seen."

Harry still looked guilty. "I'm really sorry I can't tell you more. It's not fair to you."

"Very little about any of this is fair, Harry," Remus told him. "I'm sure you're only doing what you must. And, speaking of which…" He gestured at the room. "How did you alter the Fidelius Charm? I didn't think it was possible, even as a Secret Keeper."

Harry winced. "I can't talk about that, either."

"But we can assure you it's not something that could be duplicated," Hermione jumped in. "You don't need to worry about whatever other Fidelius Charms you have."

"It has to do with losing the original Secret Keeper?" Remus presumed.

"I truly can't say, Professor," Hermione said regretfully.

Remus sighed. "This meeting has been far less illuminating than I had hoped, though I suppose that's what I should have expected."

Harry was clearly frustrated, as well. "Look, what is the Order doing? Maybe we can help you."

"Originally, we'd wanted to infiltrate the Ministry. But the attack at the wedding revealed too many of us, so we can't pretend to be uninvolved. Arthur had to go into hiding immediately, and he was our best bet for an inside man." Remus shrugged helplessly. "In a way, it might be better to have been forced underground sooner. It would have happened eventually, and now we can learn how to strike back. We've begun assisting Muggle-borns who have fled the Registry, getting them to safehouses before the Snatchers catch up. We're also preparing to keep an eye on those who have already registered. Our eventual goal is to discover where captured Muggle-borns are being held. Every witch and wizard released from Ministry control is another possible wand for the Order."

"So recruitment is a priority," Hermione surmised.

"I'm sure I don't need to tell you how outnumbered we are. There are always more regular wizarding folk than there are Dark, but getting them to fight for us is daunting, to say the least."

"Bloody cowards," Ron snorted.

"They're afraid," Remus reminded. "Afraid for themselves and their families. Not everyone was in Gryffindor, Mr Weasley."

"I suppose," Ron mumbled, looking a bit ashamed.

"Correct me if I'm mistaken, Professor, but aren't the Aurors your best source of new members?" Hermione asked.

"For skilled members, yes, and I wish it were that simple," Remus replied. "Tonks has made some inroads there, and Moody has been using his reputation to attract possibilities, but we have to be so careful that it's a slow process. We want Aurors to join us whilst still working for the Ministry, at least for the time being. Not many are suited for that kind of work, and it's not easy to walk away from a career. We have to be able to guarantee the safety of our members' families if we really want to bring anyone in."

"There are no guarantees," Harry said flatly.

Remus smiled sadly. "No, there aren't. And the worse things get, the more people will understand that. We just have to hope that it won't be too late."

A heavy silence descended over the table. Ron had taken Hermione's hand and was studying her with concern whilst she stared at nothing, her astounding intellect no doubt examining the Muggle-born situation. Remus wished he had better news to bring her, but the Order was stretched thin and too many Muggle-borns had already disappeared. Thank God that she, at least, was safe with Harry, if only temporarily. Remus was also pleased to see that Ginny was holding Harry's attention, wrapping herself around one of his arms and neatly preventing him from tumbling into another morass of guilt. Harry already had enough terrible responsibilities without taking the blame for things over which he had no control. Remus wasn't blind to Harry's disturbingly advanced martyr complex.

"As we're already on the subject…" Remus began, not wanting to let the silence drag out too long, "I notice you've done a bit of recruitment of your own. When Ms Sophie approached me in the park, for a moment I thought she was an old student! Excellent misdirection, Harry."

"It was Hermione's idea," Harry said modestly. "We knew no one would recognise her, even if they were looking for us."

"She sounded American, at least to my ears. A friend of Lila's?"

"Yeah, basically," Harry said evasively.

It was obvious that Remus wasn't going to get more information on the Kharans, even indirectly. "Can't blame me for trying, Harry."

Harry gave him a hesitant smile, relieved Remus was taking his reticence so well. "I don't. Have you spoken to Lila, or was it just Bill? Because she might tell you more."

"Not bloody likely," Ron said, giving Harry an incredulous look.

"She will in her own time, if at all. I understand that much about her. If you want to help, however, putting in a good word for me with Scott might do the trick. Granted, I don't know how much influence he has with his older sister," Remus said.

"At least some," Harry said, not looking all that certain. "He's technically her… I'll talk to him, I'll do that for you. Maybe I can convince him to tell you things, or to have Lila do it. Even if it's just you and not the Order. I think Scott owes me that much."

"But does Scott think that?" Ginny said cynically.

Harry scowled. "I don't care what he thinks."

There was apparently some tension between Scott and Harry. Remus doubted he'd be privileged to the full story, but he hoped it wasn't too serious. The last thing Harry and his friends needed were internal divisions. "I would greatly appreciate it."

Harry shrugged off the thanks. "It's still less than you deserve."

"There aren't many getting what they deserve at the moment," Remus said wryly.

Remus spent the rest of the meeting trying to draw Harry out and get a sense of the lad's mental state; with Sirius gone (and Mrs Weasley out of contact), Remus felt it was his duty to care for Harry in whatever way possible. He had always carried a sense of guilt for not being more of a presence in Harry's life. His lycanthropy had seemed reason enough for years, but his relationship with Nymphadora had left him wondering if that wasn't just an excuse. She certainly thought that he used his werewolf status to protect himself from hurt, more than others. It was a particularly difficult idea to come to grips with. No one wanted to believe that their greatest trauma was also their greatest crutch.

It was apparent, even in cursory conversation, that Harry was not well. Given the pressures he had been subjected to his entire life, it was hard to conceive of how he could be. But Harry was strong, far stronger than anyone his age should have had to become. And his friends were loyal in a way that Remus hadn't often seen. He knew it was a rare group of young men and women who sat at the table with him. He had known that even during his year teaching at Hogwarts.

Soon enough it was becoming late, and Remus knew he should be going. He was reluctant to leave. There was a hurried feeling that came over him, as if he had one chance to say everything he had to say to Harry, and then it would be too late. He supposed it sprang from how difficult it had been to arrange a meeting with Harry in the first place. Now that he remembered Grimmauld, it shouldn't be as much of an issue. Unless…

Before leaving, Remus placed a hand on Harry's shoulder. He remembered a time, not long ago at all, when he would have had to reach down, instead of across, to do the same thing. "I don't know when we'll be able to meet again, but were you planning to exclude me from the Fidelius once more?" He winced internally: he'd sounded more anxious than intended.

"No, of course not," Harry assured him. "We didn't really mean to the first time, it was just what had to happen."

Which raised even more questions Remus had no hope of getting answers for. He hated to return to the Order with so little to tell. That was the nature of the business they were all embroiled in, however: too many secrets, and so little trust.

"It was good to see you, Harry," Remus said, squeezing Harry's shoulder. "Keep in touch."


Ginny was on a mission. And that word, 'mission', had taken on a great many new and often unpleasant connotations recently, but it still fit.

She needed to talk to someone. That was a requirement easily fulfilled, given the number of people with which she was surrounded every day. However, her needs were a bit more specific than that. She needed another girl to talk to, concerning the kinds of things she wasn't going to be comfortable discussing with a bloke. And that cut three of her companions right out of consideration.

It wasn't because of any one thing in particular. Rather, she had a lot on her mind and the catalyst had been another night spent wrapped around Harry with progressively fewer layers of clothing separating them. Her own self-reflection and awkward exchanges shared with the object of her increasingly uncontrollable affections were not sufficient to sort things out. She needed a second opinion.

Hermione had long been Ginny's confidante, ever since the older girl had stayed at The Burrow for the first time and established a friendship that had lasted and strengthened through years of near-death experiences and clueless boys. Ginny would have gone to Hermione first by default, except that Ron was now Hermione's boyfriend. And Ginny didn't want to hear advice from a girl who would be basing all of that advice on experience gained from snogging Ginny's brother.

However, Lila was unreachable (and the concept of having a personal discussion with the stoic woman was a bit daunting). Sophie seemed nice enough, but Ginny didn't know her very well. Kylie had probably traded a grand total of three or four sentences with Ginny, despite how often they had seen each other at Hogwarts (and Kylie was a bit too young). So Hermione it was.

It was a good time for it: Harry and Ron were caught up in an endless series of practice duels, no doubt another simple demonstration for Sophie that had quickly devolved into a mock battle that they refused to end. Ginny loved duelling and, at the risk of being immodest, she was quite good at it, but Ron and Harry just didn't know when to stop. They would cheerfully fight each other until they were both half-blind and stupid from the Stunners. Perhaps it reminded them of the DA. Or maybe it was more that there just wasn't much else to do.

Whatever the reasons, that left Hermione alone with her research. And, sure enough, Ginny found the older girl upstairs, sitting on a bed so covered with books that they looked like a very uncomfortable blanket.

"Hermione?" Ginny said.

Hermione looked up and blinked hard, squeezing her eyes shut. Perhaps they were dry, which would make sense considering how long she had been staring at the pages. "Yes?" she said a bit vaguely, at least part of her brain still processing the parchment.

"Do you have time to talk?" Ginny asked. And she wasn't really asking, because Hermione was probably rereading books in the hopes of finding something she had missed, and she needed to take a breather.

Hermione blinked again and seemed to come to herself. "Of course," she said brightly, closing her book. She carefully gathered up the volumes around her and stacked them neatly on the floor, clearing a space for Ginny.

"Thanks," Ginny said, closing the door and sitting cross-legged across from Hermione.

"What are we talking about?" Hermione said with interest.

"Boys! Our boys, in particular. We could pretend we're back in the dormitories, if you want. Just the kind of talk to have sitting on a bed like this, don't you think? We're really looking the part. Do you want to charm my nails?"

"Clichés are much less fun if you point them out," Hermione said disapprovingly. "But all right, give them here." Ginny held out her hand and Hermione took it. "I found a charm for a rainbow assortment I'd like to try…"

Once Ginny's nails were sparkling with five different colours on each hand, Hermione started on her own. "Do you think Harry will like this?" Ginny wondered, examining a particularly bright shade of pink on her ring finger. "I don't care for this one; I'm already pink enough."

"I don't believe he's ever expressed an opinion on nail colours – at least, not to me," Hermione said. "You could always ask. He's probably smart enough not to give an honest answer."

"You'd think, wouldn't you? No, he'll probably be, like, 'I don't care about your nails, Gin, do what you want'," she said in an impression of Harry's cadence. "This looks good, it would fit right in with what I wore to Godric's Hollow. I should dress like that more, Harry couldn't stop looking. You think Sophie would give the clothes to me?"

"I'd imagine so. But you can get the same reaction from Harry wearing anything that's a bit tight."

"I think he's into breasts, my Harry. You should have seen him when we caught up at Lila's flat, I was wearing that yellow top with the straps, you know, the one that shows my belly? I thought he'd love that, and I think he sort of did, but he was just staring at my tits the whole time. He even forgot to try and look like he wasn't."

"He likes your legs too, you know. He's always looking at your calves when you wear those striped knee-highs with your skirts," Hermione added.

Ginny dropped her hands in disgust. "I'm too short, I don't have legs."

"Oh? What were you standing on a moment ago?"

"You know what I mean! I've got these thick thighs and Quidditch calves for my hips to sit on, and then there's nothing going on up. Whoever said 'sporty' was good for a girl? I'm shaped like a bloody broomstick."

"You're entirely feminine and it's not just my opinion – ask Harry sometime what he thinks of your shape, I think you'll find it quite flattering. If there was 'nothing going on up', do you think he'd have been quite so distracted by your shirts?"

"I'd kill for your tits, honestly. They're just going to waste anyway, what with my brother staring at your bum. Hey, I should use an Engorgement Charm and see how long it takes Harry to notice!"

"About two seconds, I should think. And that's a terrible idea, Ginny. Do you want to look like you've had Lila's grafted on to you?" Hermione pursed her mouth in suppressed amusement. "You'd probably tip right over!"

The mental image that conjured was hilarious. "I'd look like I shoved a couple Quaffles down my shirt!" Ginny laughed.

"Harry wouldn't care for that, anyway. Cho wasn't exactly top heavy herself, so he's fairly consistent. It's your particular style of pulchritude that attracted him in the first place."

"My what?"

"Your beauty," Hermione clarified.

"Why didn't you just say that?" Ginny said derisively. "Who are you trying to impress?"

"I'm not trying to impress anybody! Some of us have vocabularies beyond Quidditch and vulgarity!"

"Who's fucking vulgar?!"

Hermione flinched. "You…! I've already had to tolerate enough of that from the boys! Ron never could watch his mouth, but Harry's language has taken a poor turn since Scott came around. Usually just when he's angry, at least, but he's angry so often…"

"I think he's dead sexy when he gets riled," Ginny confided.

"Even when you're shouting back at him?"

"Not when he's angry at me," Ginny clarified. "We're not like you and Ron, we're not sick. We don't fight so we can snog after."

"I am not sick!"

"Yeah, you are. You're snogging Ron, there's something wrong with you. You'd have to be mental to bring your lips anywhere near him."

Hermione glowered. "You're exceptionally biased, I can't ever count on you to be objective. Your opinion in this matter is invalid."

"Whatever, I had a question. Well, more than one but it's a start." Ginny hesitated for a moment, and then decided to get right into it. "What's the farthest you've ever gone with a bloke?"

Hermione froze, her mouth slightly parted. "…I hadn't expected that question, I must admit."

"I said I wanted to talk!"

"Yes, but I didn't know you meant that talk," Hermione explained.

"Why not? Who else am I supposed go to for a chin wag? 'Oh, hello, Harry, I've just had my monthly; want to talk about it?'" Ginny said.

"I'd suggest approaching Sophie, first," Hermione suggested wryly.

"She seems an all right sort, but it's not like I know her. And I wanted to talk to you."

Hermione frowned slightly. "All of this research I have, I didn't consider… I've been letting you down as a friend, haven't I?"

Ginny shook her head, her red tresses scattering over her face. "No, you've been busy. We all have."

"I shouldn't be too busy for you," Hermione said with self-reproach. "Now… You are aware, of course, that the farthest I've ever been with any bloke would be the farthest I've ever been with the only bloke I've ever had, and that would be your brother."

Ginny grimaced. "I know."

"I'm just making sure you understand. I do want to talk and be here for you, but I can only tolerate so many expressions of disgust!"

"I'll try to keep them to a minimum," Ginny promised.

"Very thoughtful of you," Hermione said dryly. "Now, with Ron, I…" Her cheeks flushed and she leaned forward conspiratorially. "Most of the time we aren't touching when I wake up, but once he had his hand on my breast."

Ginny scrunched up her nose. "You let my brother touch your tits? Do you know where he's been?"

"It was over the bra, as if I need to justify it! And I knew you wouldn't want to hear this, I don't know why you came to me," Hermione said with a huff.

"All right, sorry, but, he was probably sleeping when he did that. I meant on purpose, like… Together, you know?" Ginny stressed.

"Well, just some more touching under the shirt, and, as you said, he does like my bum, he's always cupping that when he gets the chance… He started lifting me that way when we snog, once he found out I didn't mind. I enjoy it, actually. I think he's still a bit uncertain about touching my breasts; he usually asks, first. That must seem more 'forbidden', I suppose."

"Ugh."

"Ginny!"

"What, I can't help it!"

"Try a bit harder to suppress it! Now do you want to talk about this or not? How can we have a sex talk if you keep making those faces?" Hermione complained.

"Sex?!" Ginny yelped. "Oh my God! You've been shagging? I can't believe you! …How was it? Did it hurt?"

Hermione had turned scarlet. "No! I meant sex talk as in sexuality, gender relations, not shagging specifically and the closest we've even come to that was…"

Ginny leaned forward eagerly. "What?"

Hermione glanced away.

"What? You can't just leave it at that!" Ginny demanded.

"Sometimes, when we're snogging," Hermione said slowly, "I've put my legs around his waist and sort of… Rubbed against him."

Ginny clamped her mouth shut whilst she overcame the urge to say something rude. The key to approaching such topics with Hermione was to wait out the initial revulsion, allowing Ron to become more of a faceless male ideal. Once she arrived at that point, the thought of grinding against Harry in such a fashion was a wonderful one. Some of the positions they slept in – Ginny wrapped around his side with his thigh between hers – had created a friction that brought with it an animal instinct for even more.

"Was that good?" she asked. "Did you come?"

"No!" Hermione denied a bit too quickly. "…But it felt like I could have."

"I've thought about that, sometimes. I mean, we're already snogging and he's right there, why shouldn't I just get up on him? I wonder if he would try that with me," Ginny mused.

Hermione rolled her eyes. "He'd do anything with you."

"But that's not true," Ginny said worriedly. "I know that the way you are with Ron is different. You're the one holding him back, you know, setting limits. Us Weasleys are a randy lot, and that's the truth. But with Harry I have to push for everything, always, right from the beginning. I barely got him to stay with me at the start of all this!"

Hermione placed a sympathetic hand on Ginny's knee. "I know it hasn't been easy for the two of you. Harry has… That is, considering his upbringing and everything that's happened… Ginny, all of your affections, in whatever form, are, I'm quite certain, the most he's ever been touched in his life. And I think he's still not entirely used to it," Hermione said insightfully. "I'm afraid it may be a long time before you don't have to push him a bit. But isn't he worth fighting for?"

"Always," Ginny said fiercely.

"I knew you felt that way. And I'm sure he does, too."

Ginny picked at the sheets with her fingernails. "Maybe. Sometimes I wonder if he thinks I'm all over him because I just want him to pleasure me."

Hermione's eyes danced. "Don't you?"

"Yes!" Ginny said, giggling. "But that's not all I want!"

"Perhaps you should make that clearer? I'm well aware you love him in more ways than one, but he doesn't have quite the same perspective that I do. You never showed him all the times you practised writing 'Ginny Potter' in your diary!"

"I didn't show that to you, you twit!" Ginny screeched in outrage. "You peeked when I dropped it that one time!"

"It fell open to that page; I can hardly be held responsible for that," Hermione said in an overly-reasonable tone.

"You bet your arse you can!"

"I can't bet my arse," Hermione countered. "Ron's recently claimed it."

"Oh, God," Ginny groaned, looking away.

"…It's an interesting thought, however," Hermione said after she gained control of her giggles.

"What, Ron squeezing your arse? That's a nauseating thought, and you should be ashamed."

"I'm not, though," Hermione said, lifting her chin despite the blush suffusing her face. "Do you think they'd be shocked at Hogwarts, if they knew?"

"What, that Hermione Granger is a secret slag for my brother?"

"I am not!"

"The only person shocked would be you," Ginny said, ignoring Hermione's protest. "Half our house already thinks you've been shagging after every argument since third year."

"No!"

"Yeah! If I told them you were snogging all over this place, they'd just be wondering what the real news was! The only people that ever thought you were subtle were you and Ron. Even Harry twigged on around the Yule Ball, and he's almost as thick as Ron is. Did you really think no one noticed?"

"It's just a bit disillusioning," Hermione sighed. "Regardless, I did have an interesting thought: what if you showed Harry your old diary? You know, the pink one with all the tassels?"

Ginny blanched. "Show Harry my old diary?"

"Right. The regular one that wasn't stabbed with a basilisk fang, obviously." A hand flew up to Hermione's mouth. "Oh, dear. That wasn't very sensitive, was it?"

Ginny barely noticed. "Show Harry where I wrote 'Ginny Potter'."

"Yes."

"Where I wrote about how green his eyes are."

"Yes."

"Where I made up little stories in which he rescues me from various dragons and Dark wizards."

"Yes, that's right."

Ginny stared at her. "Are you barking?"

Hermione held up her palms, as if to forestall Ginny's wrath. "Hear me out."

"Why? You've just started and it's already the worst idea I've ever heard!"

Hermione looked sceptical. "Oh, that can't be true. Surely Fred and George have come to you with worse ideas."

"Nope. This beats them all."

"Ginny! I'm only suggesting it because I think it might help Harry understand you better!"

"How? How could that possibly help?" Ginny said wildly. "I'm not that silly little girl anymore, I've tried so hard not to be!"

"But you were once. You were. And, despite your protestations, part of you will always see Harry that way, just like a part of me will always see Ron as that cute boy on the train with dirt on his nose," Hermione said with a strident note in her voice that made clear it was something she was convinced of. "Show Harry how long you've been in love with him, or at least the idea of him, and he'll see just how important he is to you. How important he was even before he let you be important to him!"

But Ginny wanted Harry to see her as the woman who was fighting by his side, not the girl who only dreamed of him. She had tried to reconcile the two with her confessions after the locket's destruction, and Harry had responded with loads of guilt for his unintentional dismissal of her feelings. "I told Harry some of it, and all he did was beat himself up for not noticing me sooner!"

"Oh. Of course he would," Hermione said blankly. "I didn't think of that."

"Obviously."

"But it doesn't matter," Hermione said, recovering her confidence. "Guilt is Harry's response to many things. You just have to work around it."

"It must be nice to have an easy boyfriend," Ginny snarked.

"You know better than that," Hermione reprimanded. "Harry may have guilt, but Ron has insecurity. Don't you remember what happened between the two of them during the Tri-wizard Tournament? Always worrying that he's not good enough for me, always feeling overshadowed by his brothers… It's maddening sometimes. So don't tell me I can't comprehend what that's like!"

"Come off it! Ron isn't even half as damaged as Harry," Ginny insisted.

Hermione's lips twitched, and then she snorted in laughter. "I can't believe you said that like it's a point of pride. Are we really arguing about whose boyfriend is more unstable?"

"I guess we are," Ginny said, giving in to her own laughter.

"Oh, we are so far off topic!" Hermione declared, and of course only she would ever worry about relevancy during such an informal conversation. "You asked me about how far I've 'gone', so to speak, but why did you want to know? Or was it purely for gossip purposes?"

"No…" Ginny sighed. "I guess I was looking for comparison."

"How so?"

"It's just, we're sleeping in the same bed and it's not easy to ignore how it just drives me mad sometimes, how I get so…"

"…Aroused?" Hermione diffidently suggested.

"Yeah. And I know he is, too. Half the time I wake up and he's all pressed against me there, I can feel him."

"Oh. Oh!" Hermione blushed. "His…"

"His cock," Ginny clarified, purposefully choosing a more uncouth term and enjoying the uncomfortable expression that flitted across Hermione's features. Served her right for being so detailed about Ron.

"I see. Um… Well, that's a very natural, physical reaction to that kind of proximity," Hermione said.

Ginny preferred to think of it as a very natural reaction Harry had to her. "So I wanted to know if you'd done anything with a boy's bits, although since it's you and Ron please don't go into it much. Please."

"No. Not, directly. Just… the rubbing, like I said."

"Right. Well, I thought since it happens with Harry so much that maybe I could give him a hand…?" Ginny made a fist and moved it in the universal gesture for male masturbation.

Hermione's eyes widened. "Whilst he's sleeping? I really think you ought to ask first, Ginny."

"Of course not when he's sleeping, I'm not just going to grab him!"

"I'm not sure he'd mind, entirely, but it's always better to ask…"

"But do you think I should? It's one thing to talk about it, I mean, Harry likes to flirt. I just don't know how far he wants to go. Which is so weird to say, since blokes are supposed to want everything right away, but…"

"It's a bit of a stereotype, isn't it?" Hermione agreed. "Our particular blokes are maybe more self-conscious than most, but it's a good reminder that we shouldn't assume so much and settle into simple societal labels."

Ginny rolled her eyes. "Stop trying to turn this into some sort of lesson. Our blokes are just prats who don't know what they want."

"I think Harry is probably just wondering what you want from him."

What Ginny wanted from Harry was more. That was often ill-defined, though her talk with Hermione had made some things clearer. Ginny didn't want actual shagging, not yet. She needed to work her way up to that, she couldn't just skip ahead right to the finish. But she wanted to see what Harry looked like beneath his trousers, and she wanted to touch him (and, if she was feeling especially curious, to take him into her mouth – just to try it). And on his end of things, she wanted his mouth on her, all over her, without embarrassment, and she didn't want to have to give him written instructions to achieve that.

"What if I just rolled over, and put my tit in his mouth…" Ginny mused. "He'd have to know what to do then, right?"

Hermione made a strangled sound that was part laughter, part shock. "By instinct, if nothing else," she managed.

They talked for a bit more, and by the time they finished Ginny was feeling more confident in what she intended. There was no need to rush headlong into shagging, but she was tired of getting herself off in the shower. And if she was tired of it, she imagined that Harry probably was, too. So the next logical step in their relationship would be mutually beneficial.

She didn't see much point in discussing it with him beforehand. Harry thought best on his feet, anyway: he'd be better off without time to worry about it.


"School starts in less than a week," Ron observed.

That brought about a severe moment of dissonance for Harry as he sat on the floor of the dining hall, still breathing hard from his last practice duel. He suddenly felt as if he were late, severely late – he hadn't bought his books yet or anything, didn't even have a list! He should be at The Burrow getting ready for a trip to Diagon Alley, not sitting about Grimmauld Place. What was he doing? He didn't have any new quills and if he 'borrowed' all of Hermione's, she was going to kill him!

But he wasn't going to school at all, he had to remember; instead of worrying about NEWTs, he was trying not to die, and instead of a quill, he had a ballpoint pen, and his wand was supplemented by a shotgun. It wasn't quite the start to a new year that he was used to.

"Won't be riding the Express this year, eh, Harry?" Ron said quietly.

"Not the Anglia, either," Harry said wistfully.

Ron snorted. "Damn thing's probably still out in the Forest with the spiders. Bloody spiders."

"Too bad, that. We could use a flying car."

"Think we could charm ours?" Ron said thoughtfully.

Harry shrugged. "Maybe? Didn't your dad spend loads of time on that, though?"

"I don't really remember. Wouldn't do us much good unless we could get our hands on an Invisibility Booster – though I guess they can't expel us for being seen, so that's a plus…"

"Yeah. I had this dream once," Harry began, closing his eyes and remembering, "where we crashed in a city instead of hitting the Willow. And it ended up being on television and they knew magic was real, and they found out all about witches and wizards and Tom Riddle. And then the Muggles killed him, so I didn't have to."

Ron was silent for a moment. "…I think we'd just have different problems after that, mate."

"I know. It was just a dream."

"'Sides, even if You-Know-Who snuffed it from Muggles or whatever, wouldn't he come back again?"

Harry sighed and ran a hand through his hair. "He will unless we can finish these Horcruxes. Any ideas? Because I am ready to be shut of this shite."

Ron made a face. "I think we'll have to go north, like Scott said. Maybe something'll turn up."

Harry shook his head, frustrated with the thought. "I don't get how that's going to work, we could wander around forever with a hint like that, if you can even call it a hint."

"Didn't Scott say he'd know more when he got closer?"

"I don't know. He says a lot of things," Harry said tiredly. He took off his glasses and gazed blearily around the room.

Looking down at the spectacles, he thought he might ask Sophie if she could get him some Muggle-style contact lenses. His vision was terrible without his glasses, and he worried that he might lose or damage them during combat. It wasn't something he'd given much thought before, but when Ginny had deflected the spell into the cobblestones at the square in Godric's Hollow the resultant dust had coated his lenses. He'd cleaned them with a quick Scourgify, but he couldn't help but wonder what might have happened if they'd been struck by a stray bit of rock.

He held the glasses up towards Ron. "It's funny how no one's ever Accio'd these things right off my face," he said.

Ron's eyes widened. "Blimey, I never thought of that! You're right fucked now you've said that."

"Not for long, tosser. I'll bet Sophie can find me some contact lenses; try to Summon those and I'll just close my eyes for a second."

"That a Muggle thing?"

"Yeah, they're pieces of plastic, or something, that work like glasses but they fit right over your eye."

Ron squinted as he tried to imagine such a thing. "Wait, over your eyes, or, like, in them?"

"In them, I think. I saw this kid messing with his once in the loo, back in primary school."

"Doesn't that hurt?" Ron said disbelievingly.

"I hope not," Harry said, not enthused at the prospect of sticking anything into his eyeball. "But even if it does, I need to do it."

"All right, mate," Ron said supportively. "You'll look right strange without your glasses, though."

"I'll probably only use the contacts for missions." Harry grinned when he had another thought. "You know they've got coloured ones, too, to change how your eyes look. Like a glamour charm."

"You know Ginny would kill you, right?"

Harry was a bit taken aback by Ron's warning. "Really?"

"What are you, daft? She's barmy about your eyes. She'll be out for blood if you make them anything less than green as a fresh-pickled toad," Ron said with a smirk.

Harry didn't have any strong feelings about his eyes one way or the other (though in his early years as a wizard he had tired of repeatedly hearing how they looked like his mother's). But he supposed he could understand Ginny's attachment to them, at least somewhat. He felt the same way about her hair.

"I hadn't planned on it. I was just thinking of disguises," Harry explained.

"Not much call for that whilst we're stuck in here, huh," Ron commented.

That brought things right back around to the real problem: they were hiding, and not much else. Harry knew that what he and his friends were doing was the most important piece of the war against Riddle, more vital than even what the Order was attempting. For that reason, Harry had cut himself off from everyone who didn't know about the Horcruxes (and as much as he hated the idea of the wizarding world thinking he had abandoned them, there didn't seem to be any way around it). But now, Harry was barely doing anything at all. He almost wanted to owl Remus and just leave with him, joining the Order. It was better than sitting and hoping that Hermione would find something in her books.

True, the time was well spent in research and training. But, outside, things were getting worse. Harry wanted to save the wizarding world before there wasn't still a wizarding world in Britain left to save.

For the first time, he wished his mental connection with Riddle would flare up again. Harry had assumed for some time that Riddle had gained firm control of his Occlumency and was actively blocking Harry from entering his mind. It made sense. The Department of Mysteries had been a costly trap for Harry, but it hadn't exactly gone according to plan for Riddle, either. The Dark Lord cloaked himself in shadows and thrived on secrets; having Harry in his head was just too great of a liability.

So although Harry was grateful to no longer be forced to delve into Voldemort's horrid psyche, he couldn't dismiss how occasionally useful it had been. It had saved Arthur Weasley's life, after all.

It was odd, though, how utterly quiet the connection had been. Riddle had a history of being unable to control his broadcasting during moments of extreme emotion. He could probably prevent most visions from going Harry's way, but it was surprising that nothing had slipped out at all, especially considering how happy Riddle had to have been after the Ministry's fall. Harry had seen nothing, experienced not even a twinge from his scar. The curse-created link between the two foes had been dormant for over a year. In fact, he hadn't been given so much as a glimpse through Voldemort's eyes since… Since…

…Since a blond-haired boy had walked into a playground.

His heart began to accelerate as a cold weight settled over him. He must have been jumping to conclusions. Scott wouldn't have blocked the connection without discussing it with Harry first, surely he… He couldn't have. Such a massive lie of omission would have threatened Scott's integration, his friendship, with Harry, it… There were too many opportunities inherent in the connection, Scott would have seen that. He would have wanted to know more, he might have even encouraged the link. Information was ammunition.

Harry's rationalisations were unconvincing: the worst answer was the one that fit too well. He felt the rage coming on, bubbling up from deep within him. He fought it, trying to be reasoning, searching every crevice of his memory for some hint that Scott hadn't known anything about the link and it was all simply a coincidence.

There was nothing. A few of the usual comments from Hermione, asking if Harry's scar was hurting. Concerned glances from Ron and Ginny if Harry rubbed at it out of habit. Scott had been there for at least some of those moments. Had he said anything? Had he ever asked? Or had he already known that Harry's scar was fine, because he had ensured it?

Harry couldn't remember.

"Er… All right, there, mate?" Ron asked hesitantly. He had been sitting and watching with obvious confusion as Harry's mood took a turn for the furious.

Harry stood. "Sophie's downstairs, isn't she?" he said in the most level tone he could.

"Last I saw her…"

Harry went for the kitchen, barely noticing as Ron jumped to his feet and hurried to follow. Scott was still asleep as far as Harry knew, which was good; when Harry confronted him, he wanted the Kharadjai to be off balance, and waking him up suddenly might do the trick. First, he wanted a second opinion, and since it was possible that Sophie didn't know much of what had happened at Hogwarts, he might be able to shake something out of her. Unless she had been told to lie, and was just another manipulative, conniving Kharadjai. Either way, Harry was going to give her the chance to look him in the eye and come clean.

Sophie was using cleaning spells on a stack of dirty dishes when Harry stormed into the room. She must have been experimenting with Scourgify, because she was holding a plate that was perfectly cleaned on one half and still soiled on the other. She turned when she heard Harry enter.

"Harry!" she said pleasantly, setting the plate down. "Are you hungry? I still have some– what is it, what's wrong?"

"I need to talk to you," Harry said a bit more calmly than he'd intended. Sophie was so small and feminine that it was difficult to be angry with her. Harry, in his newly refreshed paranoia, wondered if that was why she had been chosen.

Sophie's already large eyes widened slightly. "What about?" she said with an inquisitiveness that appeared to be innocent, but Harry wasn't sure he bought it.

"This." Harry pointed a stiff finger at his scar. "How long has Scott been blocking Riddle out?"

Sophie didn't react the way Harry had been half-expecting her to: she maintained the same simple curiosity. "Blocking what how?"

"Riddle. Tom Riddle, you know who he is?" Harry said sharply.

"Oh, yes. I thought you said riddle like, 'puzzle'. What did Scott do to him?"

"I'm asking you," Harry said, his voice rising. "I'm not going to explain shite you already know, so just answer my question!"

Sophie took a step back and clasped her hands in a defensive posture, catching on that she was being accused. "I don't know what you're talking about, Harry, and I don't care for your tone," she said, lifting her chin.

Harry was losing his momentum, beginning to feel like he had made a mistake. Sophie wasn't cagey like Scott and Lila, and if it was a performance then it was a very convincing one. He decided to be forthright and see what that gained him. "My scar here – it's a curse scar made when Riddle tried to kill me. It connects my mind through his sometimes when he's feeling a strong emotion, and once he used it to trick me. That hasn't happened, at all, since Scott arrived. So has he been messing with my head or what?"

Surprise was writ large across Sophie's open features, though shortly after she did her best to school them. Her stance became uneasy and she shifted her weight slightly. "No, no… The shape doesn't work that way, we can't read people's minds or alter them."

Harry was inclined to believe that was true, but it wasn't an answer to his question. "Has Scott been blocking Riddle without telling me?" he asked coldly.

"I don't see why he would…"

"Has he or not?"

Sophie flinched, though she remained infuriatingly hesitant. Harry was beginning to think that she didn't know anything about the mental link, but it definitely seemed like she was doing her best to cover Scott's arse. "Are you sure about this?"

Harry blew out a breath. He hadn't come down to the kitchen to waste his rage on Sophie. "No, I'm not, and that's why I'm asking. Please."

The 'please' seemed to accomplish what his confrontational attitude had not. "I don't know. I'm sorry, I really don't. This is the first I've heard of anything like that being possible."

"All right," Harry said, bracing himself. Getting a straight answer out of Sophie was child's play compared to the sleeping man upstairs.

"You'll have to talk to Scott about your concerns. I'm sure he would have apprised you if he had to 'block' anything important–" she faltered a bit when Harry scoffed, "but you should take this to him."

Harry planned on it. He turned on his heel and went back up the stairs.

"You'll have to wait until he wakes up!" Sophie called after him. Harry ignored her, but she hurried after him and caught him by the elf heads. "I mean it! He's still resting!"

"I don't care!" Harry shot back.

She crossed her arms and glared at him. "You can talk to him as soon as he wakes up, but not before. He needs to sleep."

Harry tried to stare her down, to no avail. It was obvious she wasn't going to budge when it came to Scott's well-being. "Fine," he said grudgingly. "As soon as he wakes."

Back to index


Chapter 18: Apology Not Fucking Accepted

18

Apology Not Fucking Accepted


"Two threads are side by side; sharing
an anchor, they are analogous. Observation
will be required determine if they are
Component, Solidary or Symbiotic.
Difficulties may be encountered in
the absence of frequent traffic or
proximity.
Lacking constant broadcast,
there is no immediate delineation
without simultaneous traffic.
"

–Thomas Spencer, Collected Articles (Fourth Edition)


Harry woke up at an indeterminate time after midnight. It was too dark to see his watch, and he knew he had left the door open a bit when he'd come back from the loo. That left him rolling out of bed sometime before sunrise.

He was thirsty, mostly. He yawned as he descended the steps with his lit wand held out before him. The pale light cast leaping shadows from the banister, flitting across the walls, and he was struck by the sudden memory of headlights projecting the same dark, scrolling shapes from his window at the Dursleys', when it had been barred. Thanks to Sophie's cleaning efforts, the sight was a bit less threatening than it would have been in the past. The décor remained oppressive, but at least it didn't look abandoned.

Near the bottom of the steps he could see the warm glow of lamplight shining from the kitchen. He extinguished his wand and descended into the light, wondering who else was up and about.

Scott was rummaging through the cupboards, digging about the food and making quite a racket with the bags of crisps he was pulling out. He was barefoot and dressed in a pair of boxers and a t-shirt that looked as if it might have been white at some point and had since turned grey. Despite such a state of undress, his M14 rifle was slung across his back.

He quickly looked around when Harry entered the room, only to turn away, incurious, when he saw who it was. "Hey, have you seen my nacho chips?" he asked with his head back in the cupboard.

Harry had not expected to find Scott. The sight of him sent Harry's anger leaping in his chest, tensing his muscles and curling his fingers. He tried to tamp it down. "What are you doing?"

"I'm starving, man. Got the munchies, need some calories to burn."

"I think Ginny ate your crisps," Harry said with a certain amount of satisfaction.

"Aww, what?" Scott dropped his forehead against the cupboard bottom with a thump. "Why would she do that? No, wait. It's because nacho chips are awesome."

Harry watched in silence as Scott continued to rummage through the cupboard, perhaps clinging to the vain hope that Ginny hadn't eaten the crisps. Harry needed to confront Scott, and he almost didn't know where to start. The Kharadjai had been out of action for long enough that the grievances had seemed to compile, long enough that Harry had discovered an entirely new one that almost overrode the others. If it was the truth. Some part of him wanted to give Scott the benefit of the doubt, but it was difficult to do so when Scott's history of omission, even more than the evidence, was so damning.

They had, after all, just survived a mission in which Scott had directly lied to all of his Primes. Not the best way to maintain trust. Harry was still deeply unhappy at being cut out of the battle, though at least he could understand Scott's reasoning, even if he didn't agree with it. But the mental link with Voldemort? If Scott had truly been blocking it, without ever saying a word, then Harry just couldn't abide that. God only knew what vital information might have been lost through such an action.

"Sit down," Harry said, his acidic anger coursing with his thoughts.

Scott withdrew his head from the cupboard. "What?"

"Sit down. I want to talk to you."

Scott's lips twitched as if he were going to smile; when his gaze met Harry's, his mouth flattened and his eyes narrowed. "About what?"

"What do you think? Take a wild guess," Harry said harshly.

Scott dropped the tin he was holding and raised a questioning eyebrow. "Are you still mad about the radio thing?"

As a matter of fact, Harry was, but that wasn't the present issue. He pointed at his scar. "About this."

Scott's other eyebrow shot up. "Okay. Not something we've really talked about before, but…"

"How long have you been blocking Vol–"

"Harry."

"–Riddle from my mind?" Harry said angrily.

"How long have I what?"

"Been blocking Riddle! Through the scar!" Harry shouted, enraged by Scott's dedication to playing dumb. "Do you have any idea what you've done, do you have any idea at all? We might have found them all by now, we might have saved more–"

"Harry, if you don't start making sense–"

"You'll what? What?" Harry snarled. "Lie to me some more? Cut me out of the fight? Muck about with my head?"

"Sure, I'll start with this fork! C'mere, maybe a fork lobotomy will calm your ass down–"

"Just tell me!"

"Tell. You. WHAT?"

"THE TRUTH!" Harry bellowed.

"Time OUT!" Scott yelled, making a gesture that formed a 'T'. "I feel like we've done this before. Let's try something different: fuckin' tell me what you want."

It took every ounce of willpower Harry had, but he reigned in his fury. "This. This is my curse scar, I got it from the Killing Curse," he said through gritted teeth as he pointed again at his scar.

Scott crossed his arms and nodded. "I know."

"It gives me a mental connection with Riddle, and I can see through his eyes when he feels something strongly, which is how I saw Mr Weasley get bitten and was tricked into going to the Department." Harry's voice was already rising again.

"I know."

"Then do you also know why it so happens that I haven't had a single vision since you decided to take over my life?" Harry seethed.

Scott just stared at him. "What are you suggesting?"

Harry looked him right in the eye, searching Scott's face for even the smallest sign of falsehood. "Have you been blocking Riddle from my mind?"

Scott's face contorted in scornful disbelief. "No, I haven't. I don't even know what that would look like, a thread like that would have been…" He froze.

Watching the realisation come into Scott's eyes was all the confirmation Harry needed. "You absolute sodding cunt," he said, his voice shaking with rage. "Have you ever been my friend at all? Why couldn't you just fucking stay gone! Or better yet, actually done your fucking job, because we'd all rather have Dumbledore, anyway!"

"Go fuck yourself, I don't need this."

"You don't even get it, do you? You think you're right, you always think you're right, you're NEVER wrong! We might have had the Horcruxes already, we could be done, but no – you had to go fucking with everything, always, thinking you know what you're doing when you know nothing at ALL. How much time did we waste because of you? How many people are DEAD now because I DIDN'T KNOW IT WAS HAPPENING?"

"How many of us are alive now because you didn't run head-first into a trap? Or did you have another godfather to spare?" Scott said in a tone like ice.

If Harry could have found the presence of mind, he'd have throttled the life out of Scott right then and there. He had to leave; he couldn't look at Scott for a second longer. He turned and staggered up the stairs, brushing through the stunned cluster of his friends that he hadn't even noticed gathering behind him.

"Harry, I'm sorry," Scott called after him.

Harry didn't even spare him a glance.


When Harry fled back upstairs, Ron and Ginny followed him. Hermione stayed where she was, meeting Sophie's eyes. They reached a silent agreement; Sophie put her arms around Kylie's shoulders and led the girl back to her room.

In the past, Hermione would have been the first to follow Harry and attempt to comfort him. But she had been supplanted in that role by Ginny, which hadn't always been easy to accept. Hermione missed the way she used to relate to Harry and Ron. Growing up meant finding significant others, and a gradual changing of their group dynamic that she sometimes resented.

But that was just life, wasn't it? And now she had stayed behind to confront Scott Kharan, the biggest change of all. She went down into the kitchen with a burning desire to find out why on earth she had been awoken by a shouting match.

Scott watched her approach with a look of resignation. "Go ahead," he said dully.

"Go ahead and what?" she questioned, halting in front of him.

"Slap me. Or punch me, you know how to do that, now. You heard what I said."

"I did. I also heard what Harry said," Hermione said shortly. "I missed the beginning of the argument, so I'm not sure at what point you both agreed to say the most horrible things you could think of."

"It came about very naturally."

"Oh, did it? Good, that's ever so reassuring, I should hate to think you forced that kind of behaviour," she said blisteringly.

Scott sighed. "What do you want? He came in here and just fucking lost it, was I supposed to stand there and take it?"

"Couldn't you? You're purportedly such a professional, you could have said nothing."

"I can't," Scott said, scrubbing at his face with his palms. "We're not even supposed to do that, you know."

Hermione felt the pang of excitement that always ran through her when Scott was on the cusp of actually revealing something. "I don't."

"It has to do with how we relate to Primes. You guys are my friends, for real. Faking that would just be hobbling myself. And when someone, a friend, comes at you like Harry just did, the worst thing you can do is not react. It's like… If you don't engage them at all, if you act like you don't even care enough to get angry back… That's just worse." He dropped his hands. "Look, I could suppress all my emotions, I could act like I'm in combat twenty-four-seven, but the point of all this is, I'm an integrationist. I integrate with you, I become your friend, you see me as I am. I don't have to be emotionless."

Hermione was about to protest and point out his long history of omission and obfuscation. Then it occurred to her that, although Scott often hid the facts, he didn't hide his personality. She didn't know much about the Kharadjai, or his mission, or even some of the things he had done for Harry's sake, but she did know a great deal about Scott as a person. He was sparing with his secrets, but he wasn't playing a character. He was Scott – humorous, dangerous, difficult Scott.

"Why not put on an act?" she said. "Why not give your integration a boost by telling us exactly what we want to hear, or being extra accommodating and friendly? Not that I want that from you, mind," she added quickly.

"Because you can lie to a person, but you can't lie to the shape. Building real threads means making real relations. Our thread," he motioned between the two of them, "is as much a reflection of how I feel about you as it is how you feel about me."

She felt herself soften towards him, despite what he had said to Harry. "That's… touching, actually, in a very strange way."

"It was always my intention to touch you."

His innuendo was too unenthusiastic to be offensive. "You'll have to try much harder than that to distract me. Now what brought all this about?"

"An oversight."

"All right. Yours, I presume?"

"Yes."

She gave him a few seconds to go on. When he continued to look blankly back at her, her mouth thinned. "Scott, you can tell me what you did, or I can go ask Harry and get his point of view."

"You're all going to be on his side anyway."

"And whose fault is that?" Hermione said sharply. "I am trying to be impartial and you are not, in any way, making it easy!"

Scott crossed his arms and leaned back against the kitchen stove. Hermione didn't know if he was formulating an answer or debating whether to answer at all. She scraped together some modicum of patience, and waited.

"It was about his scar," Scott said. "He came in, probably already pissed off about the Hollow, and asked me how long I'd been blocking Riddle's connection."

Hermione gasped. "His Legilimency?"

"Or something. I'm not clear on the details."

Harry's curse scar – his involuntary connection to Voldemort's mind. Harry's lack of Occlumency skill had been a serious point of contention between him and Hermione in the past, and it was only in the last year or so when Voldemort's mental invasions had ceased that she had largely let the subject go. Several times in the sixth year she had asked Harry if his scar were hurting, or if he'd been having visions, if he looked especially tired in the morning. He'd always replied to the negative, and though she had suspected he might not have been entirely truthful, that was only in regards to the pain. He disliked any focus on his physical weaknesses. If he'd had any actual visions, he would surely have reacted to the information. Hermione would have been told.

She'd given it a bit of thought, and assumed that Voldemort had taken care to block Harry more thoroughly than before. It made sense: the battle at the Department of Mysteries had been devastating for Harry, but it had also been a huge defeat for Voldemort. The Dark Lord must have decided that the curse link was simply too dangerous to allow, despite its possible uses.

Scott was suggesting an alternative scenario, one involving a breach of trust that Harry would take very, very badly.

Hermione needed a moment to sort out her thoughts. If Scott had actually prevented Voldemort from broadcasting to Harry's mind then that was good, and she approved. She knew that Harry, in an almost disturbing way, liked the link as much as he feared it; it offered tantalising glimpses into the operations of the enemy, a first-hand window into Voldemort's plans. But Hermione had never believed that was worth the risk to Harry's mind. Had he learned nothing from his possession? Scott had done him a favour, removing such a vulnerability.

Unfortunately, it sounded as if Scott had gifted that favour in the worst possible manner. Tampering with Harry's mind and saying nothing would be a horrible lie of omission.

Hermione worried at her lower lip, not sure how to process the situation. "…I don't know how what you've done can be so good and so awful at the same time."

"If it helps you split the difference, it was completely unintentional."

That put things in a different light. "How can that be?"

Scott sighed and lifted his hands. "I need time. I'm trying to remember things, and I don't know exactly how this happened. I have one incident in mind, but that's not enough to account for… It should have come back, especially with effort on the other end, which means it was more than… once, or…" He stared at an undefined spot somewhere to Hermione's left, eyes narrowed in deep thought.

"Can you tell me anything? Explain how you didn't mean to do it, and I'll try to talk to Harry," Hermione offered.

Scott shook his head. "I have, like, the smallest piece of the puzzle right now. It doesn't make sense."

"Try," she persisted.

Scott huffed out a quick breath and bounced on his heels. "I think it started with the Trace. Harry had it all last year and I was watching it, off and on, ever since I caught it that first day at the playground. But I couldn't anticipate it unless I knew he was casting, and it was slow enough to catch but not consistent; especially at the school, where I think it would get swallowed by the wards. Or maybe there was something else about it, where it would be interrupted in an area deemed… I don't know, but if Riddle sent something down the pipe and I chopped at it without knowing there were two threads on top of whatever else…" He frowned and rattled off, as if from a textbook, "'Lacking constant broadcast there is no immediate delineation without simultaneous traffic'. That's Spencerian Shaperate 101."

It took Hermione a moment to sift through his rambling. "So, you believe that you were attempting to interrupt the Trace on Harry, and prevented a vision from Riddle instead?"

"That's my first, off-the-top-of-my-head theory, yes. Because I distinctly remember severing what I thought was a Trace thread when I was coming back to bed from a monster late night crap. I remember it so well because I felt five pounds lighter."

Hermione wrinkled her nose in disgust but refused to comment on Scott's bowel movements. "But why would you be worried about the Trace at Hogwarts? We were allowed to do magic there, Harry's Trace should have been inactive."

"It wasn't. Not always."

"That's very odd, then, because it's not as if he ever received any warnings…" Hermione mused.

"Not just him, though. I blocked your Trace, and Ron's, and Neville's, and even Ginny's and Luna's a couple of times. Those threads kept going off, and I thought the Ministry was tracking your spells or something. Finally, I just figured they weren't going any further than the wards."

"Why didn't you say something?" she said, exasperated.

He raised his arms in aggravation. "Because I thought I was wrong! There wasn't any point, it was all working as intended, no one was getting into trouble and you all seemed just fine with your Trace. So, then, I assumed I was wasting my time. There's a lot of shape things I've done that I didn't go over with you, Hermione. You wouldn't have known what I was talking about anyway."

"Is that what you were doing when you wandered off all the time? Fiddling with the wards or whatever other magic caught your eye?"

"Sometimes, yeah."

She sighed. The dead of night was not the proper time to see if Scott would divulge more details. And, as much as she hated to admit it, he was probably correct about her level of understanding. The shape was entirely beyond her experiences. "I see. But if you gave up interrupting the Trace, or at least what you thought was the Trace, then why hasn't Harry's scar been acting up again?"

"That's the part I don't understand."

"Any thoughts you can share?" she said hopefully.

"Like I said, I need some time."

"Then you can use the time it will take for Harry to calm down. I'll speak with him and let him know, once I have the chance. At least you actually apologised; I am impressed," she said wryly.

"And it worked so well, too."

"Let him sleep on it." She turned to go and then stopped, looking back at him. "Oh, and if I ever hear the two of you say things like that to each other again, I'll jinx you both and you can sort it out as slugs!"

Scott's face lit up with interest. "What kind of slugs? What if my preference is to be a snail?"

She ignored him, climbing the steps into the dark upper reaches of Grimmauld. She went straight to her room instead of Harry's. She didn't have to worry about him being alone, he was with Ginny, and by the time morning came around he would be ready to hear Scott's side of things. Or perhaps not, but, regardless, Hermione wanted more sleep.

Ron was there on the bed, staring up at the ceiling with his arms folded behind his head. He sat up when she walked in. "You all right?"

"I'm fine. He wasn't hostile," she reported. "A bit reticent, but not hostile. Harry and Ginny?"

"Asleep, I think. Harry didn't want to talk about it. What happened?"

"Harry jumped to conclusions, it seems. Though it's hard to blame him; what he thought had happened certainly sounds like something Scott would do."

"Did he?"

"Sort of." She explained what Scott had told her, outlining the uncertainties. "So all we really know is that Scott might have tampered with Harry's curse link instead of the Trace."

Ron sighed and flopped back down. "Damn, I hate it when they fight. We just get caught in the ruddy middle."

"Now we know how Harry felt for all those years," Hermione said ruefully.

"Oh, brilliant: guilt. That's just what I need."

"Consider it a sense of perspective. Or at least empathy." She shed the outfit that had been hastily assembled when the shouting below had awoken her and climbed back into bed. "Hopefully Harry will have cooled off by morning and we can have a proper discussion."

Ron appeared sceptical. "I don't know," he said, rolling over to drape a warm arm around her. "Ginny's usually good for that, but maybe not when Scott's the problem…"


Ginny could scarcely believe what she was doing, even as she reached up and knocked on Scott's door.

When Harry had returned to bed she had been close behind, doing her best to hold back the torrent of questions ricochetting about her mind. She was absolutely furious on his behalf, Scott's brutal comment echoing in memory. But Harry hadn't wanted to talk about it, shrugging off her tentative questions and sitting silently whilst she raged against Scott. Harry's refusal to join in sapped most of the energy out of her reaction. By the time he'd fallen asleep she had lost the momentum of her anger, and was left with worry.

It was also then that she reluctantly remembered the way she had gasped when Harry had all but outright stated he wished Scott had remained dead.

But what had Scott said before that? Ginny thought about his fight with Hermione and all the other occasions he had been such a complete arsehole. It didn't matter how Scott had been provoked – he had no right to speak to Harry that way. If there were sides to be taken in a fight between friends, she knew whose side she was on. Scott was not deserving of her sympathy.

The problem was that as she sat next to Harry's dozing form, she found herself wondering if her relationship with him was affecting her judgement. She had never wanted to be the sort of girlfriend who said yes to everything, who was blindly supportive and just blind in general. She'd known girls like that at Hogwarts, who dated boys that they thought could do no wrong. And they made fools of themselves, over and over, and learned nothing. Ginny didn't see herself that way. She called Harry on his shite all the time; it was her independence, her fire, that had gained his attention to begin with. He didn't want her to be a passive partner. She was naturally inclined to oblige, letting him know exactly when he was in the wrong.

Her heart was irrevocably loyal to Harry, and that wouldn't change. It hadn't changed, even when she had spent time trying to change it with different boys. She wanted to take his side. But her head was telling her that Harry's fight with Scott seemed far from one-sided. Or at least the part of it she had witnessed.

So that was how she ended up knocking on Scott's door, ready to give him a piece of her mind and maybe, just maybe, tolerate his excuses long enough to hear his version of things.

Scott opened the door with a short enough delay that he must not have been asleep. "Yes?" he said wearily.

Ginny's jaw flexed furiously as she tried to boil her indignation down into the proper words. "You're a massive wanker, you know that?" she said finally, unable to formulate anything more eloquent.

"Is that all?" He started to close the door.

"I'm not finished!" She slapped her palm against the entryway.

"I'm busy, Ginny," he said shortly. "You're mad at me, I get it."

"No, you're mad if you think you can say something like that to Harry and get away with it!" she said.

"Nice use of grammatical context. Now, I'm busy."

"I don't care." She pushed passed him and entered the room. Halting by the bed, she spun around to face him and crossed her arms.

Scott pressed his face into his hands and ran them over his head; he made an odd sort of groaning chuckle in tandem with the gesture, a sound more related to disbelief than humour. His hair had grown out to the point that it almost fell past his eyebrows, and when he lowered his hands it began slowly settling downwards from where he had pushed it up, as if it were reflecting his mood. "Gin," he said with a tight, uneven smile, "this may not be the time to assert yourself."

Was that supposed to be threatening? Perhaps having Harry Fucking Potter as her boyfriend had made her somewhat blasé when it came to smouldering, dangerous-type blokes, but Ginny had never found Scott intimidating. Granted, that had been back at Hogwarts when he was a teen and didn't loom over her quite so much as he did now, with his musculature and endless Muggle implements of murder. But she remained unafraid, because she knew he would never hurt her. Oh, sure, he'd dismember a room full of Death Eaters if he had to, but he'd never lift a finger against his Primes. She had his number.

So he could stand there and look at her with the same intense, slightly unhinged glare that he'd used on certain Slytherins, but she really didn't care. She could see the cracks in the façade, the slight softness at the edges of his eyes, the way his shoulders slumped. She knew he was trying to intimidate her. When he was staring down a Slytherin in the hallways, he didn't have to try: an air of imminent violence would come over him, and he just was. That air was conspicuously absent.

Also, he was wearing nothing but an old t-shirt and boxers which displayed his hairy legs and rather knobbly knees. So that was really working against him.

"I think it's a perfect time to assert myself," she said.

His shoulders slumped a bit more. "So you want to waste your breath yelling at me?"

"I want an explanation."

He must have decided to drop his menacing act, because a flicker of surprise crossed his face. "Really."

She didn't like his dubious tone. "What? Is Hermione the only one around here who gets answers from you? The rest of us aren't allowed?"

"I believe we've touched on those exclusion issues. And I already talked to her, and I think you'd rather hear what I had to say from her, not me."

"That would make your life easier, I'll bet. I'm already here, though, so too bad."

"It would make my life easier if I picked you up and tossed you out of here," Scott said equably.

He could, but she didn't think he would. "Harry wouldn't care for that," she warned.

"Hiding behind your boyfriend's skirts?"

"Does it look like I'm bloody hiding?"

"No, not you," Scott said with a sort of tired amusement, and then he began to explain.

Ginny didn't fully understand what Scott was saying; she'd been privileged to only a fraction of whatever previous insights into the shape he had offered. But she knew that even Hermione was quickly lost when he explored the subject. It didn't help that he seemed to take so much of it for granted and spoke as if he expected them all to be familiar by matter of course. She understood enough to know that Scott had definitely made some sort of mistake. Still, Harry wasn't blameless.

And from Ginny's perspective, the only mistake Scott had made was neglecting to mention anything to Harry. Because blocking the curse-link wasn't a problem – it was an utter relief.

"So you didn't know that you did that to him," she said, making sure.

"I have mixed feelings about blocking the link at all, on purpose or not. It sounds useful. I need to know more."

Ginny's eyes widened. "It's dangerous for him!" she hissed. "Do you want him to get possessed? No, don't answer that. I'm hacked off with you enough as it is. You should have told him that you'd blocked Tom out, maybe you didn't know, but don't you ever let Tom back into his head if you can stop it!"

She fought back the tendrils of panic that wrapped themselves around her heart, bringing memories of the diary. The thought of Riddle having access to Harry's head was terrifying, she couldn't breathe. She couldn't lose him. Not like that. And Harry was brave enough, mad enough, to welcome Riddle's connection if he thought it would help the mission. She couldn't let that happen. She knew how easy it was to lose pieces of yourself that way. The Dark could be comforting, and seduced as easily as it frightened.

Scott reacted to her vehemence by looking thoughtful. "Is this curse-link that much of a threat?"

"Don't ever let Tom into Harry's head," she said, making her stance absolutely clear.

"Even if Harry hates me for it?"

"I'll talk to him if I have to," she pledged.

The fact that Ginny would be willing to intercede on Scott's behalf seemed to affect him more than anything else had. "Is this because of the diary thing?"

"This isn't about me," she said quickly. She didn't want to talk about the diary with Scott. "You need to protect Harry, you said you would."

Scott nodded. "And I will, but it sounds like he isn't going to want me to stop this particular thread."

"Then tell him you aren't!" she said urgently, not stopping to think about it.

"…But, that's why he was screaming at me in the first place."

Ginny shook her head in frustration. Scott didn't get it, he didn't understand her desperate, overriding fear of losing Harry to Tom's influence. She knew what it was like, she carried the scars, and the thought of Harry gradually succumbing to the Dark that forced its way into his mind was horrifying to the point that she would do anything to avoid it. Harry would gladly throw away his sanity if it meant assuaging his overriding sense of responsibility and guilt, but she was not going to let that happen.

Scott didn't seem to grasp that he was the cure. He had the power to keep Harry safe from the curse-link and the self-sacrificing impulse to use it. Ginny had confronted Scott with the intention of giving him a good telling off for making such an inappropriate comment about Sirius, but she was willing to let even that go if Scott would just protect Harry's mind.

She tried to think of a solid argument that would appeal to Scott's tactical considerations, if he wasn't taking Harry's health seriously. "Look, what… What about the Fidelius? Harry's a Secret Keeper; what if Tom got into his head and found us here?"

Scott appeared contemplative. "It was my impression that the location has to be given willingly… On the other hand, without understanding exactly how Harry's thread works, we can't say for certain that Riddle couldn't grab it… So, you have a point."

"Right," she said, relieved. If Scott agreed with her reasoning, then it was probably logical enough to convince Hermione and maybe Ron. Ginny wanted them on her side if she had to confront Harry.

Not that she wanted to confront Harry, or do anything to hurt him if she could help it. But he was mental if he thought she was going to stand idly by as he risked his sanity and soul for unlikely benefits.

"Strange night," Scott dryly remarked. "You came in here to pick a fight and end up asking for my help."

He'd better not be gloating. "I want you to help Harry."

"What do you think I've been doing?"

"Lying to him and throwing Sirius in his face," Ginny said, making it clear to Scott that he had not been completely absolved.

Scott stepped around her and toppled into his bed. "All right. Go away, I'm sleeping, zzzzzzzzz…"

She had made her point, so she started to leave. "Just remember what I said, this is really important," she told him, hoping he had been taking her seriously.

"Well," he said, his voice a bit muffled by a pillow, "if anyone knows what they're talking about in this instance, it would be you."

Harry had once conceded the same thing. Ginny had always hated the residual stains that came from having touched Voldemort's mind, but if that experience was enough to make Harry listen to her again, then perhaps it had all been worth it. It was hard to find an upside to the Chamber. She would take what she could get.

Hermione was outside in the hallway, leaning nervously against the wall.

Ginny frowned at her. "Have you been eavesdropping?"

Hermione shook her head. "No! I had to use the loo, and then I heard you on the stairs and thought you were going to confront Scott… So I followed, just in case things got out of hand."

So Hermione had been eavesdropping. "You thought we would try to kill each other?" Ginny said, a bit affronted at the idea. She had traded words with Scott on more than one occasion, but never spells.

"You can't blame me for thinking you two need a chaperone!" Hermione said defensively.

"Us? You and Scott fight more than anybody!"

"It's not the same. We argue in a more academic parlance," Hermione said loftily.

"Bit swotty tonight, are you?"

Hermione ignored that comment with a disdainful air. "So? What did he say?"

"Some rubbish about how it was all an accident. He made it sound good, but who knows?"

Hermione sighed. "We can't prove it one way or the other, but it was my feeling that he was being honest."

Ginny wasn't entirely sure she wanted to admit it, but she said, "I do care about whether he was lying to Harry, I really do. But… I don't think that matters as much as whether he can stop Tom from getting to Harry."

Hermione brightened. "Exactly! Harry never could be bothered to learn Occlumency properly, and this is just the solution we needed. I should have thought of it earlier, really."

"Harry won't see it that way."

Hermione bit her lip, hesitating. "We will have to be very careful, I think," she said slowly. "He could easily see us siding with Scott as a betrayal."

Ginny felt a stab of irritation. "Bollocks, why should we have to tiptoe around him just because he wants to be an unreasonable git?"

"I'm just saying how he might feel. He thinks that scar is his chance to turn things around, and he won't care if that puts him at risk. You know what he's like."

"We aren't siding with Scott, he was wrong not to tell Harry and I still can't believe what he said earlier–"

"He wasn't exactly unprovoked…"

"–As if he has any right to say that," Ginny continued, disregarding Hermione's tentative defence of Scott. "We're using him to fix a problem."

"Harry doesn't see it as a problem. We're going to have to work to convince him. You can be… Well, convincing in ways I can't…" Hermione said delicately.

Ginny's mouth dropped open. "Are you suggesting I bring this up while my tits are in his face?"

Hermione blushed, but said, "If you think that would help."

"Hermione Granger, you are becoming a devious woman. I like it." Ginny's grin faded a bit and she added, "Just don't tell me if you've done the same with my brother."

"I haven't any intention of doing so. Telling you, that is. I might yet put Ron's face–"

"Stop!"

"HEY! SOME OF US ARE TRYING TO SLEEP!" Scott thundered from behind his door.

"Oh, that's rich. He's probably been listening to every word, not sleeping," Hermione said, glaring at the shut door. "Shall we forget who woke everyone in the first place?" she said, raising her voice.

Scott did not reply.

Hermione rolled her eyes. "If only he'd stay quiet. Well, I don't know about you but I'm off to bed. See you in the morning, or whenever you decide to pry yourself off of Harry."

Back in the bedroom, Harry was sound asleep. Ginny was glad; he needed more rest, and she wouldn't have to explain where she'd been. Looking at his face, lax and peaceful in sleep in a way it never had been in waking, she felt a reluctance come over her. Did she really have to side with Scott? Harry didn't need his girlfriend against him when the world was. And though it was for his own good, he'd had more than enough of people doing things for his own good. The last thing she wanted was to work against him, not when he needed her support so badly.

But equally urgent was her deep, overriding terror for the state of his mind. He had to see what a terrible idea going into Tom's head was. He had to. She didn't know what she would do if he wouldn't see reason. She would debate with him, plead with him, scream at him… She would cry, even though she knew he didn't like that. Whatever it took to save him from himself.

She crawled onto the bed next to him and placed an arm around his torso, resting her cheek on his shoulder. If she pressed her ear close enough, she could hear his heart beat; it was that sound which she followed into sleep.


Harry awoke feeling more tired than he had when he'd gone to sleep. It took a moment for him to remember why.

Part of it could be attributed to the tumultuous night, but another part was a simple unwillingness to confront the day. He didn't want to get out of bed, because getting out of bed meant having to talk. And having to talk meant having to face what had happened, and, more specifically, what he had said.

He could recall every word, and the echoes of his furious vituperations washed over him in a hot wave of shame.

He hadn't meant to say those things to Scott. Once again, his anger had driven him to lash out at his friends without giving them an opening to share their side of things. Maybe Scott had been deserving of such rage (though whether he had deserved Harry's more pointed comments was another issue), but, in the clear light of the morning, Harry could process the argument with a clarity that had been lacking in the dark of the night. Scott had never admitted guilt, and he had never been given the chance to explain. What that meant, exactly, remained to be seen. But Harry knew he had let his fury and frustration get the better of him.

Scott's verbal reprisal had been so devastating because it had been true. Harry had got Sirius killed. He had rushed headlong into a trap. It hurt to have it thrown back in his face, but staying angry about it would be a kind of hypocrisy, he thought. Perhaps the whole sorry adventure had served to illustrate what a poor excuse for a leader Harry was, a decidedly second-rate 'Chosen One'. Did Scott hold Harry in contempt? It had certainly sounded like it. Perhaps Harry had violated the soldier's creed that Scott adhered to. Harry was a fuck-up, a liability. A danger to his own comrades.

He was suffused with guilt, a leaden weight in his chest. But there was still enough anger flickering in the hollow around his heart for him to discount an apology. Scott hadn't outright said that he'd blocked the curse-link; he hadn't continued to deny it, either.

He would get a chance to do both, once Harry could find it in himself to roll out of his sheets.

A warm weight settled on the bed next to him, and the subtle floral fragrance let him know it was Ginny. "Harry? Are you awake?" she said quietly.

That was the question. His body said no. His brain knew better. "…Yeah."

She placed a tentative hand on his shoulder. "How are you feeling?"

"Tired," he said truthfully.

"Still in a strop?"

Her tone was gentle, but the question was direct enough. Harry grimaced into his pillow. "Not at the moment."

"Good. I've got some things to tell you, before you have to see anyone else," she said.

That was interesting enough to make him roll over and look at her. "What do you mean?"

She seemed to be having trouble meeting his eyes. "I talked to Scott last night, after you were asleep."

He understood: she was reluctant to look at him because she was afraid he was going to explode after she admitted to speaking with the 'enemy'. Harry wasn't angry. He was just knackered.

"You just talked?" he asked, wondering how that could have happened without violence.

"I didn't try to kill him, if that's what you're asking," she said with a bit of an edge, obviously not happy with his automatic assessment of her temperament.

"Let me guess: he says he has nothing to do with my scar."

"He said that he did, but–"

Harry sat straight up. "That son of a b–"

"–But–" Ginny stressed, pushing her hands against Harry's chest, "–that he didn't do it on purpose!"

Harry almost laughed. "Really? That's the best he can do? What kind of rubbish is that?"

"I don't know… But, Hermione thought it was true."

That brought Harry up short. There was some form of betrayal implicit in such a revelation, but it was also sobering. Hermione was not easily convinced of anything, especially when Scott was involved.

Harry wasn't sure how to deal with that. "Why?"

"It made sense. To her, anyway, it sounded like a load of nonsense to me," Ginny admitted.

"So you thought he was lying?" Harry said, gratified by her admission.

She dropped her hands from where they had still been resting on his torso. "I think… That Scott has a good reason," she said slowly, her eyes assessing Harry's face.

He couldn't believe her. "Bollocks," he said hotly. He swung his legs over the side of the bed and jumped to his feet. "Where is he? If he's so bloody convincing, he can tell me himself." Before he could move, Ginny reached out and hugged him, pulling him back down to the bed. "Gin!" he protested, though he didn't try too hard to escape her grip.

"Harry, listen to me. I know Scott's been a git, and you have every right to be angry about what happened. But don't ask him to let Tom back into your head," she pleaded.

"I'm not, I'm going into his head if I can. Think of what we could learn!" he enthused, hoping she would see the possibilities. A vision at the right moment could even end the war.

His hopes were dashed when she glared at him, jaw set. "I don't care what we could learn. I care about you. And if you think I'm going to just smile and go along when you give Tom another chance at possessing you, you're mental!"

Of course: the diary. It all came back to the Chamber, and the diary. Harry's heart sank a little as he considered just how utterly opposed Ginny was going to be to the curse-link. He hadn't thought about it before, but he should have.

He tried to think of a way to bring her back to his side. "It's not really the same as the diary, he doesn't usually want me to see what he's seeing. It's like spying, not like…"

"Like a two-way connection? Like losing your energy, your mind, entire days? Like giving away parts of yourself you didn't know you wouldn't get back?" She was holding herself so tightly that the muscles of her slender neck stood out in stark relief, and her voice held a quaver that made Harry's heart ache.

He didn't know how to make his case without hurting her. "Ginny…"

"Don't," she forbade him. "Don't try to make me feel better about this."

"I'd be a rubbish boyfriend if I didn't."

"No, you'll be – well, all right, yes, but – you'll be a rubbish boyfriend when you get possessed and turn into Tom! You think I want to date the Dark Lord?"

Harry, extremely aware of her emotional state, phrased his answer very carefully. "No, of course not. But what I'm trying to say is that, right now, we really need some answers. And there are risks, yeah, but we have to take some if we're going to win."

"No! You are not going to put your sanity on the line when you don't even know if it will get you anything!"

He leaned away from her, his efforts to curb his own anger beginning to fail. "You knew this would be dangerous! You knew what I was getting into, I told you about the Horcruxes and the Prophecy and you knew when I was leaving that I might not ever come back, and you still came with! After I told you you couldn't, remember? So don't tell me I can't take a chance!"

"I bloody well will tell you when you're being stupid!" she shot back.

He stood and towered over her, hands clenched. "This isn't your choice. It's not up for debate. It's my mission and my scar and if I want to try and use it to help us, you don't get to tell me I can't!"

She jumped up after him, matching his stance. Her face was flushed with rage, but her eyes betrayed her fear for him. "Your mission? You're up your own arse, Harry!"

"I'm serious, this is too important–"

"You listen to me. You listen," she hissed, and she grabbed the sides of his face and forced him to look her directly in the eyes. "Maybe you're too much of a git to remember that we love you and we are scared to death for you, but, even ignoring that, I am making it my decision when you are putting everyone at risk with your stupidity!"

"I'm pretty sure you can handle me if Riddle takes up residence. There's only one of me," Harry scoffed.

"Oh, that's good, I'm so happy you were thinking ahead, but, and here's a thought: you are a Secret Keeper."

Harry could almost feel the bottom dropping out of his argument. "I… It probably doesn't work like that…"

"Prove it! Without killing us all!" Ginny spat. "Oh, and in case you've forgotten, the Prophecy says that only you can kill Tom. So hand the keys to your head over if you want to kill us all anyway!"

Harry froze, her words splashing across him like ice water. He had been so sure he had found the solution to his persistent problem of information – all he needed was for Scott to fix whatever had been broken. But he had failed to consider the risks to anyone other than himself. Harry could gamble his own health, mental and otherwise. He'd done it before and he would do it again, Ginny's wishes notwithstanding. There just wasn't any way around it.

Placing everyone else's lives and their only safe haven on the line was not a chance he was willing to take.

The fact that Ginny had presented such an insurmountable argument was infuriating. Harry had no riposte. "God! What have I missed? How many visions…"

"How many lies?" Ginny said rhetorically, reminiscent of Scott's cold words.

Harry didn't care for the reminder. "Scott still shouldn't have played with, with my… Sodding, threads, fucking whatever," he said stiffly.

"He might have said something, yeah, but it was still good," Ginny told him. "He did you a favour. And if you can't see that, then you haven't grown up as much as I'd thought."

That stung. "Not even going to pretend to take my side, Gin?"

"No, Harry, because this time you're wrong!"

She looked as if she was about to say more, and then stopped. She glanced out the door, looking at something. Harry was just about to move and see what it was when she turned back and fixed him in place with one last scorching glare; the tears in the corners of her eyes didn't detract from its power, they only made it heart-rending. Then she stormed from the room.

He was left with such a bewildering mess of emotions that he didn't know what to try and deal with first. Even his righteous anger towards Scott was no longer a surety.

A shadow fell across the floor. It was Hermione, standing silhouetted in the doorway with her arms crossed. She stepped inside and Ron followed her. "So much for feminine wiles," she muttered.

Harry blinked. "What?"

"Don't concern yourself. How much did she explain?"

"Enough to know you're against me, too," Harry said.

"I most certainly am not!" Hermione objected vociferously. "What I'm against is your foolish plan to make yourself vulnerable again. I don't know exactly what Ginny's told you, but if she hasn't already made it clear why using your link to Riddle is such an awful idea, then I will be more than happy to do so!"

Harry ignored the offer, looking past her towards Ron. "What about you, mate? Here to tell me I've cracked?"

Ron's eyes darted towards the open door; he plainly wished to be anywhere else. "I barely know what's going on, mate."

"Come off it. You know what this is about."

Ron sighed. "It's a real chance you're talking, Harry. I know you think you can handle it, and maybe you're right, but… If it goes wrong, then that's it, yeah?"

Harry was being forced to face the possibilities inherent in his decision to use the link. And not just the possibilities that had encouraged him to confront Scott in the first place. He wasn't feeling all that reasonable, but when everyone closest to him was declaring that he was risking too much, one after the other… He was self-aware enough to realise that much of his anger was springing from resentment. He resented the lack of blind support from his friends, he resented the logic being thrown at him, and he resented having to question his own recklessness. He'd rarely second-guessed himself in the past, and it had generally worked out well enough.

It hadn't worked out too well for Sirius, though.

"So Scott mucking about in the shape… I am supposed to just let that go?" Harry said, already feeling defeated.

Hermione shook her head. "Of course not! You should demand a thorough explanation, you deserve one. Severing the link was definitely for the best and is, without reservation, an enormous relief, but he should have at least said something."

"He'd have done it anyway, even if I said no," Harry muttered.

"I really can't say what he might have done at the time. Now, yes – Ginny made a rather excellent point regarding your status as a Secret Keeper."

"Yeah, that's me, I never think of anything and I'm too bloody reckless!" Harry said loudly.

"Harry, please. I would be the first to admit that the link has some merit as a weapon, and might even tell us something vital. However," she stressed, "the risks are too great. It's as simple as that, risk versus reward. The 'rewards' are nebulous at best and the risks are extreme."

Perversely, it was more acceptable to Harry's mind to hear such an impersonal assessment of the curse-link. Otherwise, he was left with the thought that perhaps his friends' desire to see him safe was interfering with their understanding that danger was inevitable and often necessary. Hermione was making it clear that the link was not logistically viable.

And as much as Harry wanted to argue, he didn't have a counterpoint other than, 'but it might work'.

"…I get it," he said finally. "I'm outvoted."

"It's for the best," Hermione said gently.

"Right," he said shortly. He was too stubborn to be totally convinced, but it was obvious he wasn't going to get what he wanted for the time being. "Now where's Scott?"

"Kitchen, I think," Ron volunteered.

"That'll do," Harry said grimly, and pushed past Hermione on his way out the door.

"Try to keep your head!" Hermione said, hurrying along behind him.

"Have I been shouting at you? I must have missed that."

"No, but you're hardly calm! Will you wait–" She caught him by the arm at the top of the steps. "Harry!"

He pulled out of her grasp. "What?" he said impatiently.

"You're going to start all over again, that's what! You're going to storm down there and shout and we'll be right back where we started!"

Harry leaned around her and looked at Ron. "Could you get your girlfriend off my back?"

"No, 'cause she's right," Ron said almost apologetically. "If you don't settle things with Scott, mate, we're never going to get anything done – and we've got a fuck load to get done."

"Ron!" Hermione hissed, slapping the back of her hand against his chest.

"Oi! Whatever," Ron scoffed. "It's just a word, get over it."

"It's a word you shouldn't be saying!"

"Is this really the time to act like my mum?"

"I wouldn't have to if I weren't surrounded by rude boys that think swearing makes them sound cool!"

Harry took the distraction offered by their argument and hurried down the stairs. There was a clatter of pots and pans emanating from the kitchen, and when he walked into the room he saw Sophie on her knees in front of the cupboards, apparently in the midst of rearranging things. Kylie was helping her by stacking the various utensils in piles whilst Ginny sorted out the silverware. Scott was standing over them, either supervising or adding nothing to the proceedings (most likely both).

"Scott," Harry said, gaining the man's attention. Scott's expression – which had been openly amused as he'd watched the girls work – became unreadable. "We should talk."

"Can we keep it civil?" Scott asked, inclining his head towards Kylie.

"Time for a break!" Sophie declared before Harry could reply. She set down the kettle she had been holding and stood, steering Kylie towards the stairs. "Please try not to shout," she said quietly to Harry as she passed.

Ginny did not leave; she moved to stand just behind Harry's shoulder in silent support. Harry was just grateful that she had forgiven him so quickly – though that might not last, depending on what he said next.

"So, my scar." Harry rubbed at it. "Are you going to tell me what happened?"

Scott said nothing for a moment, probably assessing Harry's disposition. "I can tell you what I think happened."

That wasn't what Harry wanted to hear, but he said, "All right."

Scott explained that threads were not always easy to differentiate within the shape, especially if they were extant, but not active. He had repeatedly blocked what he'd considered to be the Trace under the assumption that the Ministry might be tracking Harry through it (and the way Scott described the Trace, it actually sounded similar in working to the Taboo). But after some trial and error, Scott had discovered that the Trace was always working, though the wards around Hogwarts prevented it from going anywhere. He had ceased meddling with the tracking spell.

"The thing I still don't understand is why you haven't had any visions since then. If Riddle is broadcasting from his terminus in conjunction, even unconsciously, then I don't see why it wouldn't re-grow or resume. The Trace works in pulse traffic, so if I chopped at a signal the carrier should still be there, if damaged, which… What if there was sympathetic resonance? Damage done in echo is still cumulative if it exceeds the rate of repair through resumption…"

Scott was getting a bit technical. "Dumb it down for me, mate," Harry said.

"I don't know why you haven't seen anything from Riddle, especially now that the Trace is gone. But I'm working on it."

"All right, well… Don't try too hard," Harry grumbled. "I've been outvoted."

"Let you know they prefer you un-possessed, did they," Scott said with a smirk.

"Don't look so proud of yourself. You didn't even know what you were doing."

"No, but it seems to have worked out, at least for now. And, Ginny had a pretty good point about the Fidelius. It's in our best interests to keep your thoughts to yourself."

"But think about what we're giving up," Harry said, making one last attempt to get someone to agree with him. He pretended he didn't hear Ginny's sharp intake of breath behind him. "We've been stuck here without a single sodding idea what to do next. What if I could find out?"

"Man, if it were just me, you might have a chance at convincing me," Scott said. "God knows it's tempting. And if it worked, it would be an intelligence goldmine. But that's a huge 'if'. You're asking to put our entire operation, personnel and all, on the line for a long shot. You can't even give me a clear picture of the odds."

"…I don't usually think about that," Harry admitted.

Scott shrugged. "And that's not a bad instinct when you're up against the wall. I don't know your combat history like Ron and Hermione, but I do know you're good on your feet and take chances when the moment comes. Thing is, this isn't one of those moments."

It was true. Many times in the past, Harry had defied the odds and taken extreme chances; retreat didn't seem to be his style. But there was a gulf between reacting in the heat of battle and planning a war. He had responsibilities – an 'operation', as Scott had put it. There were people counting on him, an entire war effort depending on the actions of the makeshift team he was a part of.

Harry mentally pledged that, in the future, he would do a better job of remembering that.

"I guess it isn't," he said.

"Also, if I'm going to be honest… Hermione told me the curse-link was a bad idea. And when Hermione tells me something magical is a bad idea, I tend to listen," Scott said.

Harry had to smile at that. "Smart of you. I wish I had listened more, my marks would be better."

"Nobody mention this to her, all right? We'll never hear the end of it, seriously," Ginny cautioned.

"Like she doesn't know," Scott said.

Harry took a deep breath and let it out slowly. "Scott… We'll keep Riddle blocked, then, but… Let me know if anything changes. Or if you change it."

Scott nodded. "Yeah, definitely. I wish I knew how it works."

"Doesn't really matter for now, looks like. That's that," Harry said, and he couldn't quite suppress the irritation that came from having to let the whole idea drop. Maturity was hard. "Let's get everyone together for supper tonight. We need to talk about Horcruxes again; we have to do something."

"Agreed. If we can't locate a military target, maybe we can put together something for reconnaissance."

Harry left the kitchen to go and get dressed (he'd never put any socks on, and the stone floor was cold). Ron and Hermione's door was closed; they must have ended their argument in the usual fashion.

Ginny sat on the bed next to him as he dug a pair of socks out of his trunk. "Thank you for listening," she said warmly.

"Didn't have much choice, did I?" he said, though not with any ire. "I was wrong."

"We'll find another way. It'll all work out," she said optimistically.

Harry had never been good at optimism. "We'll see."

Back to index


Chapter 19: For Your Information

19

For Your Information


Wilt thou speak now, O guarded youth?
Thy lips dost bloom with tongues and truth.
Cast loose the ripened, press the wine
lest thy words wither on the vine.

–Susanna B. Aether, Still Lost, Constantia
(Verse VIII: lines 23–26)


Harry took another bite of his sandwich, resting his elbows on the table and looking at nothing in particular. "So the Trace is kind of like the Taboo."

"Sort of," Scott said. "The Taboo isn't a constant connection; it just seems to be able to find you, somehow, like owls do. Did Hermione ever tell you about the time she came to find me on top of the Astronomy Tower?"

"I don't think so."

"Dumbledore helped her. He sent this weird floating blue orb to find me. At the time, I thought it made a connection and followed the thread, which is how I think the owls work. I thought it just happened really fast. But now… Now I think it was following a strand that was already there. I think Hogwarts tracks everyone within the walls, all the time. And I think your map taps into that."

It made sense. The Map itself was complicated, but didn't seem to be especially powerful. Harry wondered how his father and the other Marauders had managed to unravel that particular Hogwarts secret. "But the Trace is different because it's always there."

Scott dropped the bit of crust he had been gnawing on back onto his plate. "Right. I can't break the Taboo because it doesn't exist until the moment of broadcast. Except, that doesn't make sense. In order for you to broadcast in the first place you need a medium, you don't have a carrier. Unless it's omnidirectional, and amplified at the receiving end… Which would really be something else, that's verging on Kharadjai tech…"

"But is the Trace really fast like the Taboo?"

"It's fast, but not as fast."

"So how did you catch it that day on the playground?"

"You know I would love to claim it was by virtue of my tremendous talent. I can't, though, it was sheer luck. I had already been examining your threads very closely when Tonks opened up on me, and when the Trace pulsed I was knocking out magical connections to you in case they were a form of attack."

Harry rolled his eyes. "So you just stopped the Trace by accident. And probably my curse-link with it. Again."

"You know, I might have at that," Scott said agreeably.

"Obviously, Riddle never had a chance of reaching me with you around."

"You say that like it's a bad thing."

The two of them were lingering over a late lunch after a productive training session with the others. Scott had been teaching them how to divide themselves for suppression and flanking, which was a bit difficult in the limited space they had. Despite that, they had made progress. It was encouraging to see how much better everyone moved and fought as a team with just a little proper instruction. They had learned a lot at Hogwarts, but small unit tactics and coherency hadn't been on the curriculum.

Scott's attempts to teach them standard Third Army hand signals had been less successful. The basics weren't all that difficult to remember, but once Scott started getting into the distinctions between command and subordinate gestures, as well as what seemed like a million different motions for unique enemy signatures and weapons (most of which didn't even exist in Harry's world), confusion set in. There was theoretically a difference between the gesture for a stationary sentry and a mobile one, but Harry couldn't remember what it was.

Harry had also taken Scott's words outside of the Timous Manor to heart, and had been trying to increase the number of spells he could cast nonverbally. It was much more difficult than he had hoped, though he supposed he should have expected that after his poor results during Snape's lesson. Harry didn't know if he was just naturally bad at nonverbal casting or if it took the kind of time to learn that he didn't have.

Thus far he had managed to nonverbally cast the Severing Charm consistently, and made fair progress with the Banishing Charm. He had been disappointed to note that the spells he did manage to cast without speaking had all been considerably weaker than their shouted variant, with the sole exception of his Expelliarmus. That spell, at least, produced equivalent results.

He drew his wand underneath the table and tried a Summoning Charm on Scott.

Scott's eyebrows shot up and he glanced down at his left armpit as the handgun beneath his button-up flannel shirt protruded against the fabric, vibrating wildly. "What is it, little guy? Is it feeding time?"

"Not much fun when you've got it all strapped in there," Harry said, disappointed that the weapon hadn't flown towards him.

"That was a good one, though. Last time you Accio'd my shit I barely felt it."

"There's a bit of a knack."

"And what's that?" Scott said somewhat disinterestedly.

Harry held his wand up to the light. "I don't know… Sometimes I just do better."

"Well, that makes one of us." Scott pushed away from the table. "At least I don't have Flitwick riding me any more."

"Where's your wand, anyway?" Harry asked.

Scott reached up into his sleeve and yanked his wand out with an odd 'click', as if it had been fastened to something. Harry noted that it had not been well taken care of. "Just in case."

"Where'd you get it? Maybe they made a mistake and it's not right for you." Harry had never heard of anything like that happening, but surely it was a possibility.

Scott shrugged. "I stole it."

"From who?"

"From the shop."

Harry stared at him. "Are you daft? Don't you know anything about wandlore?"

"Yeah, sure, because we built the Republic by waving sticks at each other, Harry. The only wood in the army is the erection Halsey gets when he orders you dusted from orbit!"

"Whatever, but–"

"Try doing some belt mining, maybe, all this wood and stone was a great look a couple centuries ago. You might discover a few things, like alloys and high-contact ceramics and superconductors–"

"Yes, you hate the wizarding world, I get it!"

"'Hate' is a strong word, Harry."

"How do you spend a year at Hogwarts without knowing you should have gone to a wandmaker? Honestly…"

"I went to Ollivander's! He's supposed to be the best, right, that's all I fucking heard at school, Ollivander, Ollivander, Ollivander, everyone has wands from fucking Ollivander!"

"Yeah, because he's popular around here, but all those people actually had him find the proper wand! The wand chooses the wizard, mate. It could be a big part of your problems."

"Then where did all the first-years get their wands?"

"I… don't know. I got mine at Ollivander's."

Scott threw his head back and sighed. "Ollivander was gone, I needed a wand, I took one. It didn't work well, but it worked sometimes and now who cares?"

Harry didn't think that was a wise attitude. "All this training you've been doing with us for fighting without magic, and you ask me that? If we might have to survive without a wand, what makes you think you'll always have a gun?"

"The fact that I'd be better off sharpening this thing to a point and putting it through someone's eye. It takes me too long to put a spell together to bother with it, and that was in a classroom setting."

"But having a good wand could make it a lot easier. You won't know until you try it."

"Again, there's this little problem of supply…"

"Ask Kylie where she got hers," Harry suggested.

"Maybe I'll look into it. Hell, I guess I could write Trevor if Kylie can't help me." Scott leaned forward in his chair, bringing the front legs back down with a loud clack on the stone floor. "Which reminds me: do you have any more of those owl treats? Hedwig was looking to me earlier and they were all gone."

"I'll check my trunk. Or you can ask Hermione if she has any in her handbag."

After leaving the kitchen they ran into Ginny on the ground floor as she was coming from the upper storeys. Her hair swung heavily, weighted downwards with damp, and it was obvious she had just finished with the shower.

"Ginnaaaayyyy," Scott said by way of greeting. "Was struck by a thought: do you ever reflect on the irony inherent in you dumping Dean because he was too condescending and overprotective, but fighting tooth and nail to stay with Harry even though he tried to leave you for reasons both condescending and overprotective?"

"Yeah, constantly. I spend all my free time reflecting on the irony," Ginny said without missing a beat.

"There's something about him, obviously," Scott mused. "Something that made you persevere through behaviour you wouldn't begin to tolerate from anyone else."

"She tolerates that from me? This is news," Harry said dryly.

"Shut it, you big blond pillock," Ginny told Scott. "Harry, are you going to the training room? I'd like another go with your gun."

"Is that what the kids are calling it these days?" Scott wondered.

"Maybe later. I'm about to go sort out my trunk, I've been putting it off," Harry explained.

Scott couldn't take a hint. "And then are you going to sort out her trunk?"

"What does that even mean?"

"I don't know. Something to do with anal, I guess…?"

"How about I sort out your bum with my foot?" Ginny threatened.

"Who says I was talking about you? Harry can bite a pillow."

"Why don't you go sort out your innuendo? Come on, Gin," Harry said, taking her hand and leading her back up the steps.

"What if I don't want to help sort your rubbish?" she complained.

"Yeah, you do. It'll be fun, somehow."

The light up in their room had never been very good, so Harry set his lit wand on top of the trunk lid once it was opened. He surveyed the piles inside with great reluctance – Ginny's description of it being 'rubbish' hadn't been far from the truth. The last time he'd taken a good look into his trunk had been sometime before the wedding, he couldn't remember exactly when. The night they had crept back into The Burrow he hadn't done much more than push everything aside in search of the suitcase.

He started digging into the right side of the trunk whilst Ginny picked through the left with a more delicate touch. The first thing he set aside was the mokeskin pouch gifted by Hagrid – dead useful, from the sound of it. It wasn't as big internally as Hermione's handbag, but as only he could take anything out once it was placed inside, he needed to start using it for certain valuables.

On top of the pile was a package of Chocolate Cauldrons; he checked the wrapping and noted they were quite old, so he tossed them into the bin. His Quidditch robes had somehow become jumbled up with a bunch of the jumpers from Mrs Weasley, no doubt during transit. He spent a moment trying to separate them before giving up and placing the tangled ball on the floor, along with several pairs of socks that he hoped were clean (the odds weren't good).

It looked like most of the school books were on Ginny's side. No owl treats so far… He found the handle of the ruined penknife Sirius had given him. After a moment's sad contemplation, he placed it back. Below a stack of Transfiguration homework (with average marks at best, he noted with chagrin) was the shiny new cover concealing the old contents of the half-blood prince's Potions book. He held it in his hands, considering it. It was another unsolved mystery in a school full of them. But it had been surpassingly useful – perhaps Hermione might make use of its secrets.

Several boxes of Chocolate Frogs well past their expiration. A piece of parchment he didn't recognise until he flipped it over and saw Scott's mid-DADA work of art, an inked drawing of Ron and Hermione K-I-S-S-I-N-G in a tree (according to the messy caption). Harry had no idea how he'd come into possession of it, but it was highly amusing. He'd have to tack it to a wall somewhere. A scrap of paper with his name on it, spat out by the Goblet of Fire (he remembered Fred giving it to him, who knew where the twins had found it). Still no owl treats.

Spello-tape, the miniature model of a Hungarian Horntail (no longer moving), a Grow-Your-Own-Warts kit. Various correspondence, including some of the notes Dumbledore had sent the previous year. His old Sneakoscope, calmingly silent. An Exploding Snap deck. A load of mementos and just plain rubbish had sifted to the bottom, a layer of messy detritus. Mostly Chocolate Frog cards, loose threads, and dust.

He was distracted from delving into the bottom layer when Ginny spoke. "Found some owl treats," she said, tossing the package to him. "Where'd you get this Firebolt model? That's really detailed."

"Tonks gave that to me for Christmas fifth year. I was missing my real one."

"At least you still have it. The real one, I mean. I still can't believe that mad bitch banned you for life like that."

Harry shrugged, no longer particularly bitter about it. The scars on his hand led to far worse memories of Umbridge. "It got you on the team, didn't it? I'd say that's a silver lining if there ever was one."

"I suppose… I prefer playing with you, though." She lifted up a thick stack of books. "Oof. Why didn't you resell these? That's what Mum always… Hang on, what's this?"

Harry peered down with mild curiosity, only to freeze when he saw the object of her attention. He knew exactly what it was and he'd completely forgotten he had it.

"Harry… Is this…" She lifted out a faded card, pressed thin from the weight of the tomes. It cracked a bit when she opened it, stuck together, but otherwise it was in good condition.

Harry could already feel his cheeks burning. The singing get-well card she had given him in third year was at least blessedly silent. He wasn't quite sure why he was embarrassed – at the vivid remembrance of what had been a painfully awkward moment, or at the sentimentality implied in his possession of the card? Perhaps both.

"Why do you have this?" she said quietly, not looking at him.

"Because you gave it to me," he said honestly.

At that point in his life, and even years later, he hadn't received so many cards or so many anythings that he just tossed them aside. As difficult as it had been for his thirteen-year-old self to accept a shrilly singing card from a blushing, infatuated girl, the fact was that she had come to the hospital wing to give it to him. The idea that someone cared felt new to him, then. Sometimes it still did.

She looked at him, eyes soft. "You didn't have to be so kind to me, when I was silly."

Harry wanted to shrug it off, but he was utterly caught in her gaze. "You weren't silly, you were… You were you, you were…" He was struggling to find the phrasing. "You were there for me, and… I wasn't ready. I'm sorry."

She pressed her fingertips to his lips and rolled her eyes. "Harry, are you really apologising for not falling in love with me when you were thirteen?"

"…No? Yes? I mean, I could have at least handled it better…"

"How?" she scoffed. "By pretending? Even back then I would have resented it, eventually. Besides, even if you'd just kissed me on the cheek, I wouldn't have been able to be in the same room with you for a month."

Harry had been a bit slower to notice girls than some of his other friends, and, given his history with the opposite sex, he had to admit it was unlikely his third-year self could have done better. But the actions of the past were always difficult to correlate to present knowledge, and he was still troubled by the thought that if he had done something, given her even a fraction more of the attention she'd craved, the Chamber might have been avoided.

"I don't know," he muttered. "It was what you wanted. I should have at least tried to give you that."

"What I wanted was to close-mouthed kiss Harry Potter, marry him, and then what happened after that was a bit vague," she said with a half-smile.

"Well, we got the first part taken care of," he said, returning her grin.

"And a bit extra," she said, eyeing his mouth. "But we already talked about this, remember? I regret all sorts of things about it, I wish I had done so much differently, I wish… God, I wish I had just asked you to the Yule Ball. Before that I couldn't even talk to you, so… That's the point where things could have been different if I'd just used some of that Weasley courage."

"Or if I'd not had my head up my arse."

"Up Cho Chang's arse, anyway, that bint," Ginny laughed, though there was a definite edge to it.

Harry made a mental note to avoid bringing up Cho in conversation even more fervently than he had been. Obviously, rivalries – even one-sided rivalries – formed that early didn't easily fade away.

"Are you going to keep it, or put it back?" Harry said, nodding towards the card.

"I'm not going to take it! It's your gift, after all," Ginny said sweetly, and she placed it back where she had found it.

Back to the rubbish. Harry picked up something that looked a lot like one of Crookshanks' hairballs and swiftly deposited it in the bin. There were a few stray Every Flavour Beans that needed to go, as well. He picked at one with his fingernail; it was hard as a rock. He was lifting up another bundled, dusty jumper when a flash of light caught his eye. There, against the back of the trunk, was a reflective surface.

His heart constricted as he gently took the hand mirror from where it had slid down between his belongings and the back wall. He hadn't thought of the mirror Sirius had given him in some time. He didn't even know where the other one was.

A wild, uncontrollable thought surged through him: what if Sirius had the other mirror still with him? What if he had taken it through the Veil? What would that mean? If Harry used it, and received an answer…

Harry held up the mirror in slightly shaking hands. "Hello?" he said, his breath fogging the glass. "Is anyone there? Hello?"

Nothing. He waited a few more seconds, peripherally aware of Ginny watching him with open concern. But Sirius did not answer. He really was gone.

Irrational anger came over Harry like a sudden storm. He had been, if not accepting, then at least resigned to Sirius' death. And then he'd stumbled across this stupid, worthless mirror and been sucked into the inevitable disappointment that came with his insane burst of hope. Furious, he lifted the mirror over his head, intent on smashing it the way it had just smashed him.

"Harry?"

A man's voice. Harry went stock-still for a moment until his brain caught up and realised it wasn't Sirius' voice. He lowered the mirror and looked over his shoulder towards the door. "What, Scott?!" he barked, still angry.

Scott wasn't there. "Harry? I heard you from this thing. Harry, come back."

Harry looked down into the mirror to see Scott's sharp grey eyes gazing back at him. "Scott?"

"There you are," Scott said. He moved his head around, apparently studying the mirror's frame, and giving Harry a rather unfortunate view up his nostrils. "So, I don't know why you didn't tell me you had a mirror communication system, but this is exactly the kind of magic junk I need to hear about."

"I forgot I even had this. Where are you?"

"The motorcycle room." The image shifted as Scott lifted the mirror from wherever it had been sitting. "Can you still see when I'm moving?"

"Yeah. Works fine."

"No latency that I can tell, though that might not hold up over real distance. We need to give these to Hermione."

Harry didn't want to part with his mirror (despite having been ready to smash it moments before). "Why bother, your radio works just as well, and we don't have to hold it."

"But it won't work everywhere. Maybe this won't, either, but it's nice to have options. Let's at least see what she can tell us."

When they approached Hermione, she looked a bit put out that her research had been interrupted, but quickly became immersed in the magic of the mirrors. She placed them side by side on her bed and tapped them in turn with her wand, watching as the action was broadcast. It was disorienting to see the two mirrors reflecting the vantage of their opposite.

"I believe this may be a variation on the Protean Charm," Hermione said. "It's a very malleable bit of magic, you can do all sorts of things with it. This is more complex than anything I've seen so far…"

"Modification, duplication; is that feasible?" Scott said.

"Feasible, yes. Guaranteed, no. Our DA coins were attuned to a master, a 'server', if you will, which filtered down to the rest. These mirrors are working in tandem, neither controlling the other, reflecting changes made to one and then in turn… Quite impressive that they're sensitive enough to copy light and sound, that's a much greater breadth of information than numbers on a coin."

"You're almost talking about this in telecommunications terms, fidelity and bandwidth," Scott noted.

"Same concept, different methods… It's often said by wizards that Muggles use their technology to compensate for their lack of magic and accomplish the same things."

"And typically failing to comprehend just how far they've been surpassed in so many of those things."

"Yes, we're all aware you're a techno-supremacist," Hermione said tartly. "I'll work on these and see what I can do. Sophie might speed things along, if she's available."

"I think she's cleaning the bathrooms again. I'm a little worried she's becoming obsessive."

"There's nothing wrong with promoting cleanliness."

"And it saves us the trouble," Ron added.

Scott went off to find Sophie and, before Hermione could become completely absorbed in her work, Harry made sure to mention the meeting he had planned. "Everyone be around for supper tonight?"

"Where else would we be?" Ron said.

"You know what I mean. We need to talk Horcruxes. We've been stuck too long."

Ron looked around the room with aversion. "Yeah. Getting a bit sick of it, really. Like that summer all over again."

"I know you two are eager to do something, but let's not be too hasty," Hermione cautioned. "Our circumstances are still a sight better than dodging curses."

Harry shifted impatiently. "We can't keep sitting here, this is taking too long–"

"I'm doing my best!" Hermione cried.

"I wasn't blaming you! I– I just want us to talk about it."

"All right, we will," Hermione said stiffly, obviously wounded by the implication that she had failed to provide the next step.

Harry sighed. "I'll see you at supper."

When Harry left to return downstairs, Ron went with him. Harry made sure to shut the door behind them on the way out; Hermione tended to become annoyed with footsteps in the hallway when she was working, much like she had in the library. At least at Grimmauld Place she didn't have Pince to provide additional noise suppression. Harry grinned when he thought of Scott's clashes with the Hogwarts librarian; his intense dislike of the woman had been entirely mutual.

"What's so funny?" Ron asked.

"Thinking about Pince and Scott."

Ron immediately wore an answering smile. "Hey, remember when he took out those big bloody books with the letters on them?"

Harry remembered very well. Scott had removed several reference books from their proper places and relocated them to an empty shelf used for temporary sorting. The volumes were arranged according to the alphabet, and he had set them so that the spines spelled 'P-E-N-I-S'. When Ron had critically suggested that 'bollocks' would have been more apropos, considering the medium, Scott had defended himself by pointing out the limitation of one unique book per letter.

They had left before the fruits of Scott's labour were discovered, but by all accounts Pince had been on the warpath for about a week.

At the bottom of the staircase there were noises emanating from the kitchen that sounded a lot like dishes being organised. Harry and Ron wisely decided on the training room as their destination, not wanting to get conscripted into Sophie's latest home improvement project. Inside the dusty, spell-scarred interior, Scott was throwing lightning punches at a dummy made primarily of pillows. He was standing back too far for his hits to really connect, likely a measure to preserve the slapdash construct, which was not built to withstand punishment from a Primare.

"You look like Dudley," Harry remarked as he watched Scott perform the same kind of boxing moves he had seen his cousin practice. The comparison was not quite accurate, as Dudley had performed the same motions at about a fifth of the speed and with none of the grace.

"Who?" Scott said, not pausing.

"Dudley. My cousin, the bloke you decked for no reason."

Ron looked delighted. "Aw, and I missed it!"

"Oh, that guy." Scott hopped away from the crude mannequin and pivoted at the waist, stretching. "Fuckin' chav."

"You what?" Harry said, taken aback. "What do you know about chavs?"

"You act like I've never been in jolly ol' England before. I know a chav when I see one." Scott kicked out, getting a decent puff of feathers for his effort. "The chain and the track pants were an especially nice touch."

"Yeah, well, Dudders' sense of style took a bad turn once Aunt Petunia stopped dressing him. Which, you would think was impossible…"

Ron sighed. "I wish I knew what you were on about, because it sounds brilliant."

"It sort of was," Harry agreed.

"I'll say this for the kid: he can take a punch. He was up and walking way sooner than I expected," Scott said.

"That's good for him, since he's so punchable. He might get more out of life."

"Really, really lost," Ron reiterated.

Scott dropped his hands and assessed the dummy. "I gotta stop using this thing. It's the only one we have. So – what did Hermione say about the meeting?"

Harry didn't know why Scott was asking; it wasn't like anyone had better places to be. "She'll be there."

"Ginny?"

"Not sure where she is, actually…" Harry assumed she was spending some time alone, a rare commodity at Grimmauld. But since he hadn't actually seen her in a fair amount of time, distant klaxons began blaring in the back of his mind. "I'd better go see if I can find her."

"She hasn't left the building," Scott said. From anyone else it would have sounded like bland reassurance, but he likely knew for certain.

"Right. I was just saying."

Scott turned away to inspect the mattresses and Ron leaned in closer to Harry. "All right, mate?" he said, looking at Harry a bit askance.

Harry forced himself to relax. "Yeah. Overreacting."

"What, you?"

"Stuff it. Scott, you told Sophie that Hermione wants to see her, right?"

Scott waved him off. "Yeah, yeah. She's going up once she's done with whatever she's doing. Something with plates, I don't know."

"She'll have to let me borrow one, because I'm starving," Ron declared. He turned to Harry. "Coming?"

"Nah, I'm not hungry. You go ahead."

"Suit yourself. Just don't go shouting at me when all the crisps are gone – you had your chance," Ron said, walking out of the room.

"You don't have to eat all of them!" Harry yelled after him.

He loitered around the training room after Ron left, sort of hoping Scott would start practising again. Just watching didn't teach much, especially when Scott did everything so quickly it was hard to see the specifics. But it was always interesting and even a bit inspiring. Wands weren't the only way to survive. Harry wanted to remember that.

Unfortunately, Scott seemed to be doing nothing but stretches, which was boring. Harry started thinking about getting down to the kitchen before all the crisps really were gone. Hungry or not, he still wanted his share.

"You've been spending a lot of time with Ginny," Scott said suddenly, as if that was somehow a meaningful observation. Harry had a very short list of available people to spend time with, and Ginny was at the top of that list.

"Is this jealousy? Should I try to be sensitive?"

"Oh, don't spare my feelings."

Harry sighed. "It's great, you know? With her I feel like… I just forget. I don't have to think about things, I can imagine a future, going places with her… or whatever. Then something else happens and I wake up. And I remember it doesn't matter what I want, because I have to fight a Dark Lord and I'm not going to live long enough to really be with Gin the way I want to."

"Agree to disagree. Even so, you can still get laid before that."

Harry didn't have a response for that, mostly because he really wished it was true. "I hope you have some ideas about Horcruxes for tonight. Because I don't."

"Really." Scott sounded unconvinced. "All this time and you haven't thought of a single thing."

Harry inclined his head in acknowledgement; he'd been exaggerating. "The snake. It already came after us once. Maybe we can find it again."

"The problem with the snake is that it's a pet. Riddle will miss it."

"I know!" Harry nearly shouted, instantly exasperated. He caught himself and said, more evenly, "I know, yeah. But it's got to be luck that he hasn't noticed already, right? I mean, how long can we expect to go before he checks on at least one of them?"

"We can't do anything about that. If it happens, it happens, but it doesn't seem like he watches his Horcruxes very closely. Between all the traps and the fact that the damn things do a pretty good job of protecting themselves, I guess he figures he doesn't have to."

"Cross your fingers, then," Harry said. There wasn't much else to do but pray. That, and try to finish the war before Riddle found the time to check on his things.

To that end, the entire group convened that night in the kitchen. The meal was a fairly boisterous affair, which was heartening. It always made Harry feel better when everyone could escape the pressure and the gloom long enough to enjoy themselves. Scott entertained Hermione and Kylie with a predictably outrageous (and quite possibly fabricated) tale from his past, whilst Sophie looked on in amusement. Harry, Ron and Ginny had an in-depth Quidditch conversation for the first time in what felt like ages. Harry even managed to speculate on their seventh-year team composition and strategy without succumbing to regret.

It was all over too soon. With the remains of their repast still littering the table, Harry took it upon himself to turn the discourse towards the most pressing issue.

He stood, gaining everyone's attention. "That was brilliant; thanks for popping out to get it, Sophie, we all owe you a few quid," he said. "All right… I've been thinking, and we can't keep sitting around here hoping something will just turn up. We're down to the cup, the snake, and something of Ravenclaw's. So let's go with that. We need a place to start looking."

Hermione was rigid in her seat; chin raised and face pale, she began, "I would like to apologise for my failure to–"

"What? Failure?" Ron broke in, face incredulous. "Bloody hell, woman, you've been working your arse off over this!"

She flushed. "My efforts don't mean much when I haven't been able to–"

"This is not an inquisition," Scott said evenly, cutting her off once again. "We tried the books we have, and if you couldn't find anything then the rest of us sure as shit aren't going to. It's probably not there to find."

"So we move on," Harry said.

"Very well," Hermione said, subdued. Harry couldn't tell if she was convinced that the limits of her research had been reached, or if she still felt crushed by the perception that she had failed her friends in the same way her books had failed her.

"Now, we know about the snake. But even if we can find the damn thing again, Riddle is going to miss it once it's gone. So the snake probably has to be last." Harry frowned. "That leaves us with the cup and a Ravenclaw object."

"Can you fill me in on this cup again?" Scott requested. "What did Dumbledore say about it?"

Harry quickly ran through what little he knew of the cup, how it had been owned by Hepzibah Smith and then stolen by Riddle after he'd murdered her. "That's all we know. It could be anywhere."

"It won't be, though, just anywhere," Hermione said. "He's consistently chosen hiding places that are important to him."

Scott ran his fingers over his short stubble, staring off into space. "He's compulsive. Narcissistic and compulsive, he could have used anything to make a Horcrux, right? He could have used anything and left it anywhere. Use a rock and bury it a hundred feet down in a random field. There'd be a friggin' strip mall over it by now, we wouldn't be able to find it even if he told us where to look."

Harry was very glad that Scott hadn't been offering Voldemort any advice. "So he's arrogant, that's good for us."

"Absolutely. I'm just trying to understand him."

"We may not know as much as Dumbledore but, thanks to Harry, we know quite a bit," Hermione continued. "It's a question of choosing some areas of interest."

"Hogwarts!" Ginny supplied. "He went there, same as us. Tom would have liked to get one over on Dumbledore, too."

"Borgin and Burkes, since he worked there," Harry said. "Um… His father's house, maybe. Where he got his body back. And maybe somewhere in Albania."

"Your cottage in the Hollow, Harry," Ron said. "Though I guess you didn't see anything when you were there."

"No, nothing," Harry said, although he never had reached into that still water in the baby's cot… But, anyone could have run into a Horcrux there.

Hermione pursed her lips. "I don't know if he would want to commemorate a defeat in that way. Albania worries me – I'd rather us not have to take such a trip. Do you know if he spent time there before he lost his corporeal form?"

"I have no idea," Harry admitted. "He went back there again after first year, though, didn't he? There must be something about the place."

"He's not Albanian, that's the thing. The placement of the other Horcruxes suggests he likes to keep them closer to home than that." Hermione worried at her lower lip. "Oh, I wish we could be more certain. I would hate for us to waste time going all the way over there for nothing…"

Scott was still deep in thought, his voice slow and a bit vague. "I don't get these Horcrux things. They seem like a real Hail Mary. I mean, he spends a decade floating around down there, and the only r