20Erebus Tau Alpha
"Strategy is the art of knowing what you have.
Logistics is the art of getting what you need.
My art is called filching: I get what you need,
but aren't supposed to have."
–Technician Patrick Bennet, Transversal Station
Neville squinted against the sunlight coming in through the kitchen window as he tried to understand what he was doing wrong. The plant which was the source of his frustration was, from all that he had read, supposed to do quite well indoors. That was why he had chosen it to add a little colour to the kitchen. But it hadn't grown at all, so far as he could tell. Despite the ample lighting and frequent watering, it remained small and pale. He felt slightly insulted that the plant wasn't thriving. He was quite good with plants; it should know that. All of his other plants were cooperative.
He was just about to fetch one of his books when a loud knock at the door startled him. Gran was out, but, it couldn't be her, she'd used the Floo. Visitors were rare at the Longbottom Estate. No one ever knocked on the door.
The highly unusual nature of the situation warranted caution. Neville pulled his wand from his pocket and approached the door with apprehension knotting his stomach. The wards on the property were old and strong, and he doubted anyone could have forced through them without making a great deal of noise. But he wasn't going to heedlessly throw the door open on a supposition.
There was a swinging latch on the door which opened a small glass window; he peered through it and saw a blonde woman looking coolly back at him. He leaned away in surprise, and then opened the door.
"Um… Lila?" he said slowly. He hadn't seen the woman for a while, and, to the best of his memory, she'd never sought him out before.
Her gaze was serious. "Neville."
"What is it?" he asked, his stomach knotting again in the face of her demeanour. He hoped with all his might that nothing had happened to any of his friends.
"You're needed," Lila said.
Neville stood up straight, shocked and delighted. "All right!" He started to step out, and then paused. "Do I need to get anything?"
"Change of clothes, if you want."
He rushed upstairs and threw the first sets of clothing he could grab into his empty book bag. On the way back down he thought of Gran, and quickly scribbled out a note for her, some nonsense about going school shopping with friends. Not the best excuse, and she wouldn't be happy, but he couldn't delay. He was needed.
Outside, a Muggle vehicle was parked on the cobblestones of the front garden path. Neville winced: his house hadn't been designed for Muggle access, and he hoped the contraption wasn't so heavy it would do any damage. Lila slid into the front and he stopped, unsure of what he was expected to do. Should he follow her in?
Lila, seeing his uncertainty, climbed back out and opened a door on the rear of the car. "I think you'll want to sit in the back," she said with a knowing smile.
Neville didn't know what she meant by that, but he gratefully ducked into the opening. It was larger on the inside than he'd expected, and had an odd, rubbery odour to it that he'd never smelled before. It wasn't all that unpleasant, just strange.
"Hello, Neville," a dreamy voice to his left said.
He was so startled that he sent his book bag flying up towards Lila, who deftly batted it out of the air and into the empty seat next to her. He turned to see Luna, her wild blonde tresses fluttering gently in the cool air that blew from the vents. Her smile was wide and bright and just for him.
"Luna!" Neville breathed. "When did… How did you…"
Luna reached down and did something with the seat that made a 'click'; the strap that ran from the ceiling across her body slid away and she scooted over to the middle section of the seat. As she fastened a new strap over her middle, Neville leaned in closer, feeling her heat. He knew he was staring, but he couldn't help it. She looked (and smelled) amazing.
"Have you been well?" she asked, placing a hand on his knee.
It had been less than a month since they'd seen each other at the wedding, but it felt like forever. Neville didn't care that Lila was sitting right in front of him; he bent down and captured Luna's mouth. Any fears that he'd been a bit too forward were extinguished when she kissed him back with equal fervour.
"Good grief," Lila muttered.
Neville pulled away from Luna with a jolt when the vehicle started to move. "Where are we going?" he wondered.
"Birmingham," Lila said. "I'll be leaving you there with the others."
Neville's eyes widened. "So this… We're–"
"On a mission. You've been drafted."
"Um, all right," he said, having no idea what a 'mission' would entail but totally unwilling to be left out of it.
"Quite exciting, isn't it?" Luna enthused.
It was, though the way she was pressed up against him left Neville with a different sort of excitement in mind. "Y-yeah," he said, noticing how her shirt stretched tightly across her chest.
When Luna turned her head to look directly at him they were so close together her nose almost bumped his. "Birmingham is a bit far away. Would you like to keep me occupied?" she said with a hungry sort of tone.
"I'll think of something…" he said faintly, leaning into her involuntarily.
"Here's what I'm going to do," Lila said loudly, gaining their attention. "I'm going to turn the radio on and try to pretend you aren't back there. So don't do something I can't ignore, all right?"
Neville felt his face flood with heat. "R-right."
"Mind your hands, then, Neville," Luna sighed regretfully.
It took awhile for Neville to become accustomed to riding in the car. The motions of it seemed unnatural, so smooth compared to the carriages at Hogwarts. By the time they were speeding northward on the motorway it had ceased to be disorienting. That was good, since with Luna wrapped around him like some kind of hot-blooded blonde eel, he didn't want any distractions. Their brief time apart had apparently left her craving his touch as much as he did hers, an idea which left him gobsmacked when he thought about it. How could she possibly want him the way he wanted her? He wasn't that great, and she was Luna.
He tried to be mindful of Lila a few feet away, divided from them as she was by a single seat, but the moment Luna thrust her tongue into his mouth was the moment he forgot the rest of the world existed. Fortunately they had to stay 'buckled in', as Lila had said, referring to the straps that held them to the seat. This prevented Luna from climbing on top of him (as her constant wriggling seemed to indicate she was trying to), a position which would lead to him having to cast a Scouring Charm whilst doing his best to avoid explaining why.
She tasted wonderful and smelled even better, and the warm silk of her skin was driving him absolutely mental, he couldn't hold her close enough. He couldn't go another month without her, that was certain. Although, if it meant another reunion like this…
"You guys might want to tone it down, you're starting to turn me on," Lila commented.
Luna leaned back, her face flushed and her lips swollen. Her wide silvery eyes were even more languid than usual. "Did you want her to watch?" she asked.
Neville blanched. "Not really."
"Me, neither," Luna said. She regretfully slid her hands down from where they had been buried in his hair, letting them linger on his shoulders. "May I have a hug?"
He really didn't know what she was thinking, sometimes. About eighty percent of her body had just been pressed against him. "Whenever you want."
In the calmer aftermath of Lila's interruption he found his eyelids sinking lower, lured downwards by the soothing warmth of Luna's body heat and the sweet scent of her hair as it tickled his nose, his cheek resting on top of her head. The road rumbled beneath the tyres in a steady drone that mixed with the radio. Luna had quickly become lax in his arms, drifting into sleep. She was probably tired; given the distance from her house to Neville's, and the fact it was only then approaching noon, she must have been up quite early.
He hadn't even realised he had followed her example until he found himself suddenly staring into a pair of amused grey eyes, his forehead stinging from where it had been flicked.
"Rise and shine," Lila drawled. "Your next chariot awaits."
Neville gently shook Luna awake and pushed himself out of the car. He found himself in a paved lot next to a narrow street, a two-storey brick building across it and houses down the way. Nearby was a larger Muggle vehicle painted a dull grey – standing around it were Harry, Ron, Ginny, Hermione and a tall blond man.
Neville grinned and hurried forward to greet them. "Hey, you lot! What's this about a mission?"
"Nev, glad you could make it," the blond man said.
"Hello, Scott," Luna said, yawning. "You've grown taller. Did you mean to?"
"It was intentional, yes."
Neville's mouth dropped open. He took a few steps closer and stared. It was unmistakable: the blond man was Scott. "How did you…" He trailed off and closed his mouth, embarrassed. It had been implied, along with all the other information the Kharadjai had shared, that Scott had always been older. It was just a shock to see. "…So this is really you, yeah?"
"This is me, as I am," Scott said grandly.
"Disappointing, isn't it?"
"Good to see you, Nev," Harry said warmly. "You too, Luna."
"Good to be here," Neville said, not really caring whether he had a basis to believe so. He was just ecstatic not to be left out.
"Yes, all we Primes, together again. Scott must be beside himself," Hermione said dryly.
Scott was leaning into the opened side door of the large grey motor, rustling sounds emanating from within. "Nev, Luna, come over here. Let me get you up to speed before we take off."
They all gathered around Scott as he pulled a map from the vehicle and held it out. Harry took one corner and Ginny the other, stretching it taut. Neville wasn't sure what he was looking at. Some of the places were familiar, but it was all a bunch of lines and letters. He didn't recognise much but the coasts and cities.
"We're here: Birmingham." Scott placed his finger on the city. "Off Burlington Street. Philips Street Park is right behind this building. And we're going…" He drew an invisible line northward, ending in Scotland. "…To Hogwarts."
Neville felt a bit let down. He had expected a more exotic destination. "Why not just Apparate, then?"
"We can't, not directly onto the grounds. Not into Hogsmeade anymore, either, or so we've heard," Hermione explained.
Harry nodded. "It's an area we know, and they know it. So we're going to take our time and do this the Muggle way."
"It's been hard to stay hidden," Ginny said to Luna. "We've had to do things differently."
"All right, makes sense, but why Hogwarts?" Neville wanted to know.
Harry hesitated. "…I'll try to explain more as we go."
Scott rolled up the map. "We'll stop on the way out of town so everyone can go to the bathroom, because we're going to be headed up the M6 for almost eight hours and I am not pulling over thirty minutes in because you didn't feel like taking a piss at McDonald's, Hermione."
"It's not hygienic!" she asserted.
"You've got an immune system. At least, you'd better. All right, load it up!" Scott slapped the top of the van and went around to hop up into the driver's seat.
"Shotgun!" Harry called out, running forward to claim the second seat at the front of the vehicle.
"So you get that seat just because you keep saying that? What is this ruddy game?" Ron grumbled, climbing into the back.
Harry paused with his hand on the door frame. "Not my fault you didn't pay attention," he said in a superior tone.
"Reload," Scott said.
"Shotgun!" Hermione blurted.
"Shot–… Oh, what…" Harry whinged.
With Hermione smugly ensconced in the passenger seat they drove off, briefly stopping to relieve themselves at a restaurant (and Hermione had been correct, the loo at McDonald's was not hygienic). As the scenery flashed by, Harry told Neville and Luna about the mission in very general terms. He was clearly omitting more than he was saying, which was a bit of a let down. Neville had hoped that he and Luna had been 'drafted' in the complete sense, finally allowed to participate in whatever Harry and others had been up to.
Harry's explanation was so vague that by the time he was finished about the only thing that was clear was that they were looking for something.
Neville frowned. "But what is it? How will we know if we find it?"
"We'll know," Harry said firmly. "Luna, we think this object has something to do with Ravenclaw. Have you ever heard anything about that? Like, old Ravenclaw artefacts?"
"Well, Lisa Turpin is mysteriously missing several pairs of knickers. She loses more each year. I told her it was Nicking Numbees, but she never did put up the correct charms to ward them off," Luna said thoughtfully. "Also, there's the Lost Diadem."
"You should look for the knickers, Harry, you're quite good at spotting those," Ginny said with a wicked smile.
"Awwwwww yeaaaahhhhh," Scott crowed from the front.
"Er – the diadem thing sounds like a good lead, tell me about that," Harry said hurriedly, perhaps noting the look of horror on Ron's face.
"It's lost," Luna clarified.
"Right. It's lost, but… anything else?"
"They say it grants whoever wears it great wisdom. It also looks quite nice with a ball gown."
"How do you know that? Maybe it's really old and ugly," Ginny said.
"I've always thought it looked lovely on her statue."
"There's a statue of it? Is that in your common room?" Harry asked. When Luna nodded, he said, "Okay, we should look at that."
"Maybe we could talk to Flitwick," Scott said loudly, turning his head so they could hear him over the constant hum of the car.
"Oh! What about the Grey Lady?" Hermione said, craning her neck in a similar fashion. "Although, I don't know if she'll speak to us… I've never heard her say a word."
"She talks to Ravenclaws," Luna said. "She helped me find my books when I misplaced them."
"Did you misplace them, or did someone take them?" Neville said, angrily remembering the many times Luna's housemates had stolen from her.
Luna looked at him, her gaze uncommonly serious. "It's all right, Neville. That was last year."
"I don't care what year it was. People shouldn't take things from you."
Luna said nothing, staring at him. Then she laid her head on his shoulder and threaded her fingers through his.
"…Well," Harry said awkwardly into the following silence, "good thing we have you then, Luna. You can ask the Grey Lady about the diadem."
"What's the difference between a diadem and a tiara?" Ginny wondered. "I know what a tiara looks like."
"Never been clear on that," Scott said. "Also, if you want to talk to a grey lady, Hermione about fits the bill. Looking a little off colour there, Herms."
"A touch of motion sickness," Hermione said faintly. She was indeed looking a bit grey.
"You need to stop turning to look at the back, that's your problem."
Harry chuckled triumphantly. Hermione heard him, and risked additional nausea by giving him a cutting glare.
"Crack the window," Scott said. "Or just stick your head out, like a dog."
"What a flattering comparison," Hermione muttered. She rolled the window down a few inches and leaned against it.
Neville spent the first hour or so of the trip trying to get a sense of what he had missed. After the escape from the wedding, he had returned home and hadn't done much but write to Luna for some time – he'd been wondering if any of the Death Eaters had recognised his opposition to them. Luna's hair, especially, was memorable enough that he worried for her. His warnings to Gran had gone unheeded as she'd done her shopping and attended social gatherings as usual. He supposed that was the privilege of being a well-known pure-blood. The Death Eaters seemed reluctant to go after a family as established as the Longbottoms.
Neville wasn't naïve enough to think that wouldn't change if he was seen with Harry – he just didn't care. He had already decided that, once the current 'mission' was concluded, he would be asking if he could stay on as part of Harry's team. He'd probably be refused, and he knew he wasn't all that useful, but he felt compelled to try.
His questions met a lot of dead ends, but slowly he put together a picture of a task left to Harry that was so dangerous, even the deceased Headmaster's own Order knew nothing of it. Harry had kept that duty close, sharing it only with a very select few, and together they had been doing their best to fulfil it. Perhaps Dumbledore wouldn't have wanted Neville to know the secret, which was fine. He just wanted to help, and he didn't have to know the details behind what he was asked to do.
The conversation was sporadic after that. Most of the talk faded away after the first hour. Neville watched the scenery roll by as Luna slept on his shoulder again; it didn't take him long to get tired of the interchangeable pastiches. There wasn't a whole lot to see, really, outside of the towns. Everything sort of looked the same from a car window, he was discovering. He was actually a bit proud of how quickly he had become accustomed to the Muggle transport; he didn't even hit his head when he clambered out with the others at the three hour mark, having stopped to stretch their legs and use the toilet.
The petrol station was a strange berth for Muggle motors, smelling strongly of rubber and something extremely acrid and unfamiliar. The roars of other vehicles whipped by on the road behind them: deep-pitched approach, loud crescendo, and then yowling high as they faded away. There were lights everywhere, multicoloured, shining down on pitted artificial surfaces, gleaming off stained metal, illuminating cracks in the walk. It was utterly alien, a neon island in a steel river.
"Where are we?" Luna said sleepily, looking blearily about.
"Carlisle," Scott said. "You all get a tenner for the store, put your hands out if you want it. Don't stand back, Harry, everybody likes money."
"If he thinks he's better than us, I'll take his share," Ron graciously offered.
"I'm his girlfriend so I should get his," Ginny declared.
Harry pushed past them and claimed his note. "I'll pay you back after we rob Gringotts," he told Scott.
"Put it in writing," Scott said, leading the way into the shop.
Neville was utterly lost amid all the shiny plastic packages and endless advertisements of the small shop, so he kept his flimsy paper money in his pocket and followed Luna as she gathered an armload of seemingly random items. He wasn't sure she understood how much money she actually had or what the things she was buying were, though she gravitated toward whatever had the brightest wrapping. When she hauled it all up to the counter,
Neville placed his own money on top of hers, just to be safe.
The next hour was spent passing around their purchases, eating a wide assortment of food and washing it all down with bottled water. An hour after that, Neville was deep in an involved discussion with Luna (meaning she talked and he listened) about the theoretical migratory patterns of the Crumple-Horned Snorkack. Once that topic was exhausted, he listened in to what was happening up front – Hermione had begun to bother Scott for information.
"Is it really too much to ask for a bit more about you?" she was saying stridently. "You've long since abandoned your guise as a new student. I really don't see why you insist on remaining so secretive."
"Force of habit," he said nonchalantly.
"That's not much of an excuse. I hope you realise that."
"And what, exactly, do you want to know?" he said irritatedly.
"How do your portals work?"
"We've been over this. Nobody knows how they work."
"All right… But, why can't we use them?"
"You're not a Kharadjai. It's very difficult to move anything with significant mass through an aperture, especially when you can't hold it open for yourself. There's a low-percent chance an aperture wouldn't collapse the second you touched it, but that's for the best, since if you did manage to get through that would be very bad."
"You're a Prime. In moving through the aperture, there would be a period of time when you technically weren't in the universe. It's a fraction of a millisecond, but that's still a fraction of a millisecond in which the shape considers you dead."
Hermione nodded sagely, apparently comprehending Scott's point even as Neville was lost. "Best not to force it, then."
"The odds of you successfully going through an aperture are low enough that I'm not going to worry about it, but I'm also not going to let you try."
"That's stupid," Harry said. "We could have gone anywhere, otherwise."
"Not anywhere I haven't already been," Scott said.
Harry frowned. "Bollocks. You went right to the cave with us, how could you have been there before?"
"Dumbledore had, and I followed him."
"Interesting. If a Death Eater were to Disapparate away, could you chase them?" Hermione asked.
Scott pushed himself straighter in his seat, whipping his head from side to side and getting a few pops for his effort. "Probably not if I didn't know them. Maybe if it was Snape. Maybe."
"Are you going to be fine driving the whole way?" Hermione asked him, noticing his discomfort.
"It's not that far. And who else is going to do it?"
Hermione pursed her lips. "I suppose I might…"
"No, no," Ron said immediately. "This is already scary enough."
"I could learn!" she said defensively.
"Yeah, but… This really isn't the time, you know?" Scott said.
"Fine!" she huffed, crossing her arms. "See if I show any concern for you again."
"She's mental if she thinks I'll ride with her steering," Ron said to Harry. "You remember what she's like on a broom?"
Ginny shuddered. "We'd die. I know we would."
"I can hear you!" Hermione called out.
"Good," Ron yelled back, "then you know you're mental if you think–"
"I heard you the first time!"
Their argument quickly picked up steam after that. Neville did his best to ignore their squabbling, but it was rather difficult in such close quarters. Luna looked unbothered as she nibbled at some bright orange crisps.
"Those any good?" he asked her. She held the bag out for him and he popped one into his mouth. A few seconds after swallowing, he realised his throat was on fire. "Bloody hell!" he choked, reaching for a half-full bottle of water nearby.
"They're delicious," Luna said serenely, crunching through another one.
After the pain subsided, he thought about the flavour and realised they were good. He had another, then a few more, and after about half the bag was gone he was eating them with almost the same ease as Luna. He'd never had much in the way of spicy foods before and was encouraged by his ability to handle it. He hadn't known that about himself.
Outside, evening was tinting the sky. They wouldn't arrive at Hogwarts until after dark.
Harry was pleased with himself: at the last stop of the journey he had managed to catch Hermione unaware (she had been dozing, and was still half-asleep at the petrol station). When they resumed the drive, he was in the front passenger seat. The victory was a bit hollow, however, as she hadn't really seemed to mind. Having Ron to lie against probably had a lot to do with that.
More than that, his self-satisfaction was rapidly dimming in the face of fear-laced anticipation as Hogwarts grew ever closer. It would be about an hour before they arrived. He knew the plan and the terrain, but the opposition remained unknown. There could be anything waiting for them at Hogwarts, and it was that thought which troubled him most. He had the Map, sure, but there were a few places that it didn't show (at least one from which they had been attacked before). And there was no telling who might be at Hogsmeade.
But since he couldn't do anything about it, he tried to distract himself (perhaps sitting away from Ginny hadn't been the best idea). To that end, he had tried to engage Scott in lighter conversation, but it seemed like everything they spoke about inevitably turned towards darker subjects.
"You think they'll be waiting for us?" Harry said.
Scott adjusted the rear view mirror and squinted at it; no matter how long the trip went on, he continued to closely examine the other cars on the motorway. "No. If anything, this little excursion has proven just how removed from the Muggle world wizards really are."
Harry could see the truth in that. "I've never eaten at McDonald's before."
"That has less to do with being a wizard and more to do with your asshole relatives," Scott said dryly.
"It was all right," Harry said, loathe to dig into his past with the Dursleys.
"It's a hard place to recommend. But it's cheap, and it's everywhere."
"How much do you think they're looking for me?"
"Depends on the day. Depends on Riddle's mood, probably. He'll hand out a few Cruciatus, everyone will get real busy, and then when he gets distracted they don't try so much." Scott shrugged. "You gotta remember, they think you're just hiding. If they think you're under a Fidelius somewhere – which, you are – then there's a definite sense of futility to the hunt."
"Didn't help my parents any," Harry said quietly.
"Pettigrew came forward. He volunteered. Kind of undermines the whole system. I don't see anyone back there betraying the charm, do you?" Scott jerked his thumb over his shoulder. "Although, hindsight is everything. Your parents certainly didn't see it coming."
Harry greatly resented the implication. "That's not true. They just suspected the wrong person," he said, thinking of Remus.
"Who do you suspect?"
"You," Harry said sarcastically.
"I'm not even a Secret Keeper," Scott scoffed.
"Oh yeah? How do I know you didn't just make yourself one when you changed the spell?"
Scott frowned thoughtfully. "I might have if I knew how. I still can't tell the difference between Secret Keepers and clients. The threads all look the same."
"Does it matter?"
"Not really. Call it professional curiosity."
Harry watched as a farm went by, all green fields, white wooden buildings and low stone walls. He thought it might be nice to live somewhere like that, perhaps because it reminded him of The Burrow. "So, when we get there… You think you can find any Horcruxes yourself?"
"I don't know. The locket was definitely magical, but not in a unique way I could know as a Horcrux without digging into it. And despite everything, it was not a lit Priority Object. Which honestly doesn't surprise me that much. It's rare when the universe points something out for you."
"So even when we had it on the table, you couldn't tell for sure," Harry said.
"I could tell it was doing something, but that was after it was active. But I'm not sure what the wizarding world considers a 'soul'. Stuff like that usually falls under the deep shape."
Harry had never heard that term before. "Deep shape?"
"Oh, boy. You just opened a can of worms. Okay…" Scott pushed his shoulders back into his seat, stretching his neck again. "The shape is a reflection of existence. It's alive because we are and it's complex because reality is. But what we see of it is only the surface. Imagine the shape as an ocean. You swim on the top, and below… below, it gets real dark. Anything could be happening down there."
"But you always talk about the shape as being all around you, like… not flat."
Scott grimaced. "Yeah, just, I'm really reaching for an analogy. Okay, new one – and this one will work. Imagine a piece of string. One end is tied to a post, the other is tied to a second post. Two posts, one connection. You look at it and say, 'okay, this string is connected to these two posts'. Maybe you take another string and tie it around your wrist and then to one of the posts. If you get lost, you can follow the string back. That's integration: you build your own connections. You really only see what you're connected to, through the things you're connected to, and that's the barest fraction of the whole.
"Now… These two posts are in a forest, the biggest forest ever. And everything that exists in this forest is tied with string. There are threads everywhere, connecting everything. If you look at one of those strings more closely,
you'll see it's not just a single piece, it's several strings twisted together. Get even closer – more strands, infinitely smaller, tangled tight to make bigger ones. Everything is made of something which is made of something which is made of something.
"The shape we see… It's infinite. But it's still macro. The deep shape is beyond our ability to perceive. The Liberi glimpse it, and it makes them crazy. Or they have to be crazy in the first place, whatever you believe. There are entire libraries of speculation on what the deep shape could tell us. Who we are as Kharadjai, why we have the abilities we do. How the Multiverse really works. What the human soul is, if there is such a thing. I'm good with the shape in a way not many people are. And I'm just paddling around the shallows, wondering what's out in the dark water. I switched analogies again, god dammit. Ugh… Well, most people can't swim."
"Like me?" Harry said.
"Literally or figuratively?"
"Hey, I can swim," Harry said, stretching the truth a bit. He'd done all right with Gillyweed, but a handful of occasions spent at the lake in the summertime had proven he wasn't much of a swimmer. Prior to going to Hogwarts, the closest he'd ever come to a body of water was the bathtub.
"You can swim, or you can just not drown?"
"I don't know, something in between. I didn't say I was great at it. I swam at the cave, didn't I?"
"Not really. We were sort of pulling ourselves through. It's not swimming when you've got a wall and floor to push off of."
"I swam some," Harry muttered. "What does it matter? Are you going to crash us into a river?"
"Too early to say."
"Yeah, well… Don't." Harry squinted against the last sliver of the setting sun, watching the layered hues fade across the horizon. Before leaving Grimmauld they had considered the time table for the day, calculating how long it would take to drive. It turned out to be significantly longer than it took for the Hogwarts Express to go even further, direct from London. Lack of traffic wouldn't account for all of the differential. Obviously, the train was magical; Harry had always known that it must have been, everything related to Hogwarts was, but hadn't really put much thought into it.
The cover of night would both cloak them from enemy eyes and ensure that the castle itself would be mostly empty. They were counting on the castle's protections being the same as they were during the school year, especially as they were so close to the start of the term; once Scott bypassed the powerful outer wards, they should be able to move about freely, like usual. The Marauder's Map would provide all the information needed to go undetected, if it were at all possible.
Harry glanced over at Scott, wondering if the Kharadjai was thinking similar thoughts now that the school was near. The trees outside were beginning to look familiar in their shapes and patterns. But if Scott was worried, it didn't show.
"Could be anything out there," Harry said, trying to gauge if that bothered Scott. No reaction. "…But I guess this isn't much to you, huh."
Scott shrugged. "Not entirely."
"Why's that? I thought you'd seen it all," Harry said, only partially mocking.
"Terrorists and corruption, sure. But, here's the thing: look at similar people, like Pemuda Pancasila, Colombian coke armies, the IRA, the Shining Path, Pinochet, the whoever whatever. The Nazis, if we're going back to that well. Very bad people, all across the board, but very human, also."
"There's nothing human about the Nazis," Hermione said strongly, apparently having been listening in.
Scott sighed. "You are so very wrong, but that sort of plays into our unspoken yet eternal argument concerning the fundamental nature of man." Hermione made a disgruntled sound, which Scott disregarded as he continued, "The thing that separates Riddle's new order here, is the… the lustlessness of his aesthetic. I don't know how else to put it… The IRA, they'd go to a pub, they get shitfaced, they go home and fuck their wives or their girlfriends or both, tuck their kids into bed, and then get up the next day and bomb a church. The Nazis? The Nazis knew how to party. And in the end it's all about the reality or at least the illusion of power, but Riddle has somehow – and maybe it's the Dark magic? – has somehow stripped his starter empire of that Beer, Guns and Pussy ethos. They don't act like a paramilitary, or a death squad. They act like people expect evil wizards to act like in the movies. I mean, who's ever heard of a terrorist insurgency composed of the cultural elite?"
"It is the magic, or at least parts of it. The parts we're after," Hermione said. "Riddle is achieving immortality through inhumanity. Literal inhumanity. It's not an ethos in the typical sense."
Harry remembered the way Riddle looked at the Department: red eyes, slitted nostrils and chalk-white skin. He had become a Dark monster by choice. "He doesn't look human, that's for sure."
"Most of the guys I mentioned were all about rape," Scott said. "In between the killing. I know some Death Eaters have dabbled in the area, mostly with Muggles. It doesn't seem to be one of Riddle's core tenets, at least. I don't know if he'll bother to curb the impulse in his men, but perhaps the further they all take this Dark crap the less they'll care about it."
"I can't say if there's ever been any studies concerning the effects of Dark magic on libido… I rather doubt it, but I hope you're right," Hermione said.
Harry felt sick. He had known, in a very general way, that the Death Eaters might indulge in such behaviour, but hadn't wanted to think about it. He didn't know if he could stand having that on his conscience as well. "Why would they do that to Muggles or Muggle-born if they're all about blood purity?"
"Because ideals last right up until they have a helpless person at hand. More to the point, they would have to not be a hypocrite. Have you met a lot of pure-blood bigots with that quality?" Scott said.
"But… I…" Harry struggled with the idea. He couldn't see how it could possibly appeal. "Why would you want that? I mean… It couldn't be any good for you, either… could it?"
Scott shook his head. "You don't understand because you're confusing rape with sex. Rape is about violence and power, not traditional arousal. It's 'good' for the rapist in a way that's not related to how sex is good for the participants."
Harry slumped back into his seat, deeply uncomfortable with the concept. "I still don't get it."
"Me, neither," Ron said from somewhere in back.
"Yeah, because you guys don't get off on subjugation and torture. Not a bad thing, unless you're planning an audition for Riddle," Scott said.
"He tried to recruit my mum and dad. He'd kill me if I walked up and told him I wanted to join, the Prophecy guarantees that," Harry mused.
"You'd never join him, even if there weren't a Prophecy," Ginny said, her voice floating out of the dark. Sometime during the conversation the sun had sunk below the horizon, and the only illumination came from lights in the dashboard. It would have made Harry sleepy if he weren't so tense.
"Thanks, Gin," he said, appreciating the vote of confidence.
"Unless he offered treacle tart," Ron added much less helpfully.
"Now, Harry would never abandon his principles… for only one serving," Hermione chimed in.
"Are you hearing this?" Harry said to Scott. "Apparently they've confused me and treacle tart with you and bacon."
"Ah, but different approaches, Harry. Different approaches," Scott said easily. "If Riddle offered me bacon, I'd kill him and take the bacon."
The next half hour felt like a century, and then Scott pulled the vehicle off onto a dirt road that wound through woods that were heavy with a familiar foreboding dark. Not quite the Forbidden Forest, not yet… but definitely adjacent. The MPV shook with every bump, rattling the passengers. Harry winced when his teeth clacked together and kept his mouth firmly shut after that. When they started driving over roots, he nearly smacked his head against the window.
They rolled to a stop at the edge of a grassy field, and Harry could see lights in the distance. He knew it was Hogsmeade; any Muggles who had taken the same off-road journey would have seen nothing at all. The town was a glittering island on the horizon, beckoning the way across a rustling, unquiet sea of darkness. It was a landmark and a warning.
"That wasn't good for the shocks," Scott grunted as he shut off the engine. He reached up and hit the lights on the ceiling. "Everybody out. Hermione, got your bag? Good. Harry, your stuff is in the glove box."
Harry jumped out of his door and reached back inside to get a small case from the glove box. He opened it and looked nervously at the contents. "Damn. Scott, give me a hand with these, would you? I barely know what I'm doing."
"Barely? Or not at all?" Scott took the case from Harry. "Where's the bottle? Get the bottle."
After retrieving the bottle, Harry watched carefully as Scott prepared the contact lenses. "So you put those drops in them first?"
"It helps. You don't always have to. Can you do this? Put it on the tip of your finger. Now just– no, look at it, not me. Stop looking at me! Look at the contact! You want to centre it. Now press it in, gently."
Harry paused, the contact millimetres from his eyeball. "Am I on it right?"
Scott sighed. "Just give it here. Pull your eyelids apart. Now hold still, look straight ahead. Pick a spot."
"Er…" Harry involuntarily leaned away as Scott's finger grew uncomfortably close.
be a pussy. Hold still."
Harry barely stopped himself from cringing at the incredibly unpleasant sensation of pressure on his eyeball. Then Scott's finger went away, leaving behind a strange feeling of something cool and sort of squishy in his eye, like he'd got pudding in it. "Ugh."
"Blink a few times. Close your other eye, is it good?"
"I guess…" Harry kept blinking, his vision blurry from excess fluid.
"Other one. Gaze into the abyss, there we go…"
Harry blinked rapidly and carefully wiped at the edges of his eyes. "God, now I'm crying. Look at me." He blinked, and wiped, and blinked a bit more, and then when he raised his head and looked back at Scott…
"Wow…" he breathed, staring at the other man. "Your face is so detailed…"
"Quit staring at my pores," Scott rebuked. "Look around, how is it?"
It was amazing. He had forgotten how crisp and elaborate the world was, how sharp the colours. It was funny how he could cease to realise things like that, over time. His glasses prescription had changed before, back in fifth year at Remus' behest, but his eyes hadn't been looked at since. Sophie had produced some sort of portable optometry apparatus after he'd asked about the possibility of contacts (and she had been highly reluctant to explain even the simplest things about the way the device functioned, perhaps indicating it wasn't something from the Muggles).
He walked over to the rear of the people-carrier, where the others had gathered whilst Hermione sorted through her beaded handbag. Everyone looked tense and pale. He stepped into the light next to Ginny.
"Well?" he said, pausing for her perusal.
Her mouth dropped open. "Oh, Harry…"
He shifted uncomfortably. "Weird, yeah?"
She stared at him, her bright brown eyes and flaming hair more beautiful than ever before with their newly gained definition. She put her hands on either side of his head, bringing his face down closer to hers.
"…Right, that's it," she said after a moment of mutual gazing. "You aren't allowed to go out without your glasses where other girls can see you."
He grinned in relief: she didn't hate it. "It's just for missions. I don't care for sticking things in my eyeballs."
"Is it bad?" she said with concern.
"It doesn't hurt, it's just… odd." He glanced away from Ginny to see the others all examining him as well.
"Who the bloody hell are you?" Ron said.
"Henry Porter," Harry said laconically.
Hermione rolled her eyes. "Remind me to invent a pseudonym for you if you need one. Goodness, Harry, I've hardly seen you without your glasses. Have your eyes always been that green? Those contacts aren't coloured, I assume."
"No. Ron said Ginny would kill me."
Ginny gave him a hard look. "If you ever change your eyes I'll… Well, I'll kill you. Like Ron said."
"You look really different without the glasses, mate," Neville said.
"I guess I do, huh," Harry said, still a bit surprised by the reactions. He supposed that was a natural result of wearing the same glasses for most of his life. "There goes my public image."
"I wouldn't expect anonymity," Hermione cautioned.
"I know. Not with this still around." Harry tapped a finger on his scar.
"You don't look that different, mate," Ron said. "Still the same scrawny git."
"What a relief."
Scott came up behind them. He had changed into his fatigues and was practically bristling with weapons and ammunition. "All set?" he asked, slapping a loaded magazine for his carbine into the palm of his hand. When no one said anything to the contrary, he slid the magazine into the receiver and pulled back the handle above the stock. Harry watched a long, pointed bullet briefly pop into view behind the ejection port before the bolt slammed into place. "Okay. Wands out, eyes open."
"Right," Harry said, drawing his wand. "Let's see how Hogwarts is doing without us."