10Trace 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
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."
"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.
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.
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.
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."
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?"
"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?"