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."
"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, 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."
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.
"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
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."
"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.