34The Crowded Hour
"The LSM Corps is frequently misunderstood,
and therefore often unfairly maligned. By
its very nature, such a speciality does not
lend itself to the showy displays or battle
statistics that make for interesting stories, fit
for the news cycle or the local bar. The
LSMC work in technicalities, exacting detail,
and foreign universe specifics. Their
accomplishments are as difficult to quantify
as they are absolutely necessary to the success
of more missions than could be counted."
–B. Q. Lyons, And Shall Fight on the Farthest Shores: The Primarius, The Mission, and The Modern Republic
Harry turned the Elder Wand over in his hand, rubbing his thumb along some of the filigree on the handle. Straightening his arm, he pointed it towards the nearby tea cup.
"Reducto!" he snapped.
The spell hit the cup and shattered it with explosive force, flinging shards against the walls. Harry instantly regretted not using a less volatile spell as he was pelted with sharp bits of porcelain. He covered his face with his arms reflexively.
"Didn't think that through," he said to himself, coming out of his defensive stance.
The cup was obliterated, though he had felt the wand's resistance. It was difficult to judge, but he thought that the power of his spell hadn't been any greater than his own wand, and probably a bit less. Definitely more difficult to use, either way. So the Elder Wand didn't just work for whomever picked it up.
He slumped against the wall and stared at the thing. What was the point of it? If it was no better than a normal wand, why did Dumbledore want them to have it? Harry wondered if Dumbledore had thought that Riddle might desecrate his grave for petty reasons, taking the wand because he could. The Headmaster had collected all kinds of artefacts, considering what he'd had in his office. Perhaps he'd only wanted to keep a very important one from being stolen. It seemed likely, after all, that Riddle would visit Dumbledore's tomb at some point, if only to gloat.
Harry desperately wanted to speak to Dumbledore's portrait. There were so many questions he had that only Dumbledore could answer. But going to Hogwarts whilst it was in session was an entirely different sort of endeavour than sneaking in before the start of term. And Snape would be in the Headmaster's Office. But he was supposedly on their side… But, if he actually wasn't, the portraits were supposed to serve him and could reveal things he shouldn't know… But Riddle hadn't found out about his missing Horcruxes yet, and all indications were that Dumbledore had never trusted anyone but Harry with that information…
It was an endless circle of what ifs and Harry couldn't find an end to it. And all the while, there was an expiration date hanging over the whole undertaking. Riddle could go to check on his hidden soul containers at any time. Yet, there were still probably months needed to prepare for Gringotts. Hermione hadn't even been able to start her Polyjuice brewing yet, and that was a month right there, minimum. They also still hadn't thought of a good way to get Sophie to Neville's vault. Neville was stuck at Hogwarts, and although they had discussed sneaking him out over a weekend, he would be going to Gringotts as himself; by necessity, without disguise or pretence. He couldn't be seen at the bank when he was supposed to be sick in his dormitory, so they seemed to have little choice but to wait for the winter hols.
Harry pulled out his pocket watch and checked the time: half-past ten in the morning. Scott and Lila had left not long before and were expected to be gone for most of the day, if not beyond. Ron and Ginny were with Hermione, aiding her in one of her many research projects. Their need for her magical acumen seemed to grow by the day, and Harry worried that she would eventually be overwhelmed. They had all been trying to make her pace herself. She would read herself ragged if left to her own devices.
In fact, all of the tasks had piled up to the point that Harry had been considering telling her to drop the problem of his own Horcrux. It wasn't going anywhere, hadn't for sixteen years, and the impossible problem of getting into Gringotts seemed to far outweigh any other current considerations. Harry was definitely eager to get rid of the poisonous soul fragment inside of him, but he still reckoned that it might kill him to do so. Better that he still be around to help with the other two, first.
And, yeah, that went against the Prophecy, but most of the time it was hard not to feel like it was pretty much bollocks (the source didn't help). Besides, if it all went pear-shaped, then whoever things fell to after Harry got snuffed would have an easier time of it if Riddle didn't have any extra lives.
Harry held the Elder Wand up again and made a face at it. So much for gaining a superweapon. "Bloody useless rubbish," he muttered, setting the wand back down on the table by the door and leaving it there.
He stepped out in the hallway and very nearly drew his wand to cast a curse, because there was an unfamiliar man idling in front of the stairs. He remembered at the very last second that it was Primare DeLucca.
"Hey, Mr Potter!" DeLucca said with a smile, apparently not noticing how close he had come to being cursed. Harry glanced down at the sidearm on DeLucca's belt, and decided it was more likely that the Primare was too polite to call attention to Harry's momentary fright.
"Er, Primare," Harry said stiffly. He'd never called Scott by his rank before. He rarely even thought of Scott as having a title.
"Just Cody is fine," DeLucca said, smile never wavering.
Harry didn't really know what to make of Cody DeLucca. He was a wiry, dark-haired man of medium height with a wide face, pointed nose and olive complexion. He had been unfailingly friendly since his arrival, expressing his delight at the simplest of spells. He had an almost embarrassing enthusiasm for the workings of Harry's universe.
"I saw you were using that stick in there," DeLucca said, sounding impressed. "Man, you really fragged that cup! Pretty cool, pret-ty cool."
"Um, yeah. It's called a wand, it's how we cast our spells," Harry told him.
"Right, a wand. You guys must have a blast with this magic quis, that's gotta be fun."
Harry found himself nodding as he remembered his first year at Hogwarts, and how incredible magic had seemed then. Sometimes, it still did. "I like to fly, actually. We use broomsticks to play a sport called Quidditch. I played Seeker. It's, um, a position in the game."
"Flying broomsticks," DeLucca said, shaking his head admiringly. "How nuts is that? Hey, can you, like, just make things appear? Or disappear?"
"Yeah, we can do both. But there are a lot of rules about it."
"Past the rim, man. We make these things called apertures, I don't know if Scott's showed you, but we have all kinds of rules about those, too."
"I sort of saw one, once," Harry said, thinking of the dreams. He looked past DeLucca towards the stairs. "Uh, I'm going to go up and see if they need help with all the research we've been doing."
DeLucca immediately stepped aside. "Good luck, wizard!" he said, and Harry couldn't tell if he thought that was customary or if he was being sarcastic.
Upstairs he found everyone gathered yet again in Ron and Hermione's room. Sophie seemed to be fiddling with the mirrors whilst everyone else concentrated on the books. Even Kylie was there, curled up in a chair with a book of her own (though Harry wasn't sure if it was related to the research). It was taking more time to determine how to use the information than it had for Hermione to acquire it, although Harry suspected even she hadn't finished all the books. There were quite a few, and they were all very thick.
Sophie looked up when he entered. "Hi, Harry. You want to help me with this?"
"Sure, just tell me what to do," Harry said, seating himself next to her.
"One moment," Sophie sang whilst she finished whatever it was she was doing. "Have you talked to Cody at all?"
"Yeah, I've just seen him downstairs," Harry said. "He wished me luck, but I couldn't tell if he was taking the piss."
"He wouldn't take your… that," Sophie said, wrinkling her nose.
"No, I mean, I didn't know if he was having me on."
"I know! He wouldn't."
"All right," Harry said. He supposed Sophie would probably know. "He's a bit strange, isn't he?"
Sophie set her mirror down and fixed Harry with a direct look. "Now don't you start, too."
Harry's eyes widened. "What? No, I'm not – he seemed all right…"
"He is so nice and he really admires integrationists like Scott and what they do, and Scott and Lila make fun of him all the time," Sophie said indignantly.
That sounded very plausible. DeLucca seemed exactly like the sort of sincere bloke who would make an easy target for the Kharans (or Fred and George). "I won't say anything to him," Harry pledged.
"Good. You shouldn't be cruel just because you can," Sophie said a bit self-importantly, reciting the sentence as if it were a life lesson she was allowing Harry to learn.
Sophie was usually one of the friendliest, most easy to get along with people that Harry had ever known, but sometimes she took on an almost haughty air, the automatic assumption
of being in the right that came with privilege. It was reminiscent of a certain breed of pureblood he had often encountered. Sophie was never that bad, of course, and had always assumed a stately demeanour that was far more kind and conscientious than Malfoy's sneering contempt, but it still served as a reminder of how little Harry really knew about her.
Of course, he didn't think he'd ever had much of a conversation with her before. "So are you really going to use that fake company on your CV if you look for a job?" he asked after watching her work for a few moments.
"Fake company?" she repeated curiously.
"Strauss Industries or whatever it was. The one Scott did the banner thing for," Harry said, miming the same unveiling motion Scott had made.
"Oh," Sophie said with a quick little smile, as if she were embarrassed. "I forgot about that."
"I thought it was sort of funny," Harry said, not sure what to make of her reaction.
"Ha ha, yeah. He's a goof. Now hold this, please," she said handing him another mirror. "What does it look like if I do this?"
Harry looked into the mirror and beheld his own reflection. "It looks like me."
"Hmmm." Sophie shook her mirror slightly. "How about now?"
The mirror's surface abruptly went black. "Now I can't see anything."
"Well, what the poop," Sophie said exasperatedly. "That's not right."
Harry handed his mirror back to her and waited to be useful again, a process that began to drag on. Sophie gradually seemed to forget he was even there. He glanced around the room, but no one else seemed to notice that he wasn't actually doing anything. Which was all right, from his perspective, but he did start to feel guilty around the ten-minute mark.
"Harry, are you busy?" Hermione asked from somewhere behind him.
"Not unless Sophie needs something," he told her.
"Hmm? No, this thing isn't doing what it's supposed to," Sophie said.
Harry moved over to where Hermione was leafing through an enormous book with yellowed pages and significant water damage on the cover. "Yeah?" he said, sitting next to her.
"You've always been referred to as the sole person to survive the Killing Curse," Hermione said slowly, eyes still glued to the page. "I've wondered how that could be true; Lily Potter can't have been the only mother to ever sacrifice herself to protect her child."
Harry hadn't ever given it much thought, but that made sense. "You'd think someone would have done it before."
"Yes, although the Killing Curse wasn't always an Unforgivable. Back when it was more commonplace, perhaps surviving it wasn't enough of an oddity to make history." Hermione pointed to a crude illustration. "This is from a woodcarving; it shows a person jumping in front of a curse to save another, and then the next curse rebounding on the caster."
The lines of the image were difficult to make out, worn as the parchment was, but it did seem to be a crude representation of what Hermione described. "Huh. Then why was I always so special?"
"Well, you're special because of the Prophecy; or the shape, rather, but that's not common knowledge," Hermione said. "The caster to which the spell backfired was, in your case, particularly infamous. I suppose that was enough to grant the moment legendary status."
"They've always talked about it like I 'defeated' him," Harry muttered. "I didn't do anything."
"You survived. And he didn't, or so everyone thought. The real reasons for many things tend to be lost." She gave him a sympathetic glance. "The wizarding world wanted a hero."
"They'd have been better off with someone like Scott."
Hermione rolled her eyes. "Firstly, you could easily be someone like Scott, had you more training and life experience. I would argue that you are like Scott, in the ways that fundamentally make him as capable as he is. And secondly, it wouldn't be better for the Chosen One to practically be a Squib."
"Scott's not a Squib, he's just…" Harry realised that he was on the wrong side of the argument. "He is a bit of a Squib."
"I don't understand how someone can be a squib. A squib is what they use to make people look like they were shot in picture shows," Sophie said, breaking into the conversation. "Unless you said squab? Were you calling him a chicken?"
"No, a Squib is someone born to a wizarding family who lacks magical ability," Hermione explained.
Which wasn't a description of Scott, but his general lack of facility with a wand made the appellation not entirely inappropriate. "He's more like really strange Muggle," Harry supposed.
"You have such weird names for things," Sophie said inattentively, tapping her mirror with one hand. Then her eyes widened, and she looked up. "I'm sorry, that was rude."
Harry shrugged. "I thought the same thing when I found out I was a wizard."
"It was an adjustment," Hermione agreed. "When I got my acceptance letter, I wasn't sure a school called 'Hogwarts' was any establishment I'd care to attend."
"What should it be called? 'Lord Haughtybottom's Academy for Really Swotty Gits'?" Ron suggested.
"Oh, you grew up with it. It never sounded strange to you," Hermione retorted.
Ginny hopped up from where she had been sitting and came over to Harry, getting a squawk from Ron in the process when she stepped on him. She flopped down onto Harry's lap. "I'll read the left page and you read the right," she said, dropping her head back onto his shoulder.
"I don't think that will work," Harry said.
"I don't really care, I just don't want to have to read both," she sighed.
Harry focussed on her hair, glowing red and gold in the low light. "Maybe you lot should just drop it. We have too much to do for Gringotts to waste time trying to fix me."
"It's not a waste!" she objected.
"It certainly isn't," Hermione concurred. "We have to get rid of that Horcrux, Harry, Gringotts or not."
Harry had expected their reaction, but had felt compelled to make the suggestion. "I know. It just seems like a lot of effort right now."
Ginny shifted in his lap, setting the book down and placing her hands on either side of his head, meeting his eyes. "Don't you give up," she said quietly, so that only he could hear.
He rested his forehead against hers, hoping his eyes conveyed his response better than his words ever could. Ginny pressed a quick kiss to his mouth and then swivelled back to her book. He looked to his other friends, a bit embarrassed. Hermione had already resumed reading and Ron was determinedly ignoring what his sister and best friend were doing, but Sophie had been watching with a starry-eyed smile.
Not wanting to encourage that kind of attention, he quickly looked away. "Hermione, is there something I should read?" he asked.
She pulled herself away from the words and cast her gaze around the room. "Yes, I actually had something I set aside for you…" She located the tome a moment later and passed it to him. "I've marked the page already, it's an account of a ritual that I believe is similar to the one Wormtail performed. It would be helpful if you could read through it and note which parts are like what you saw."
Harry had little desire to relive the memory, but he would do whatever he needed to. He read the page she had indicated; the ritual was described with spelling and syntax that he had difficulty understanding, though he eventually caught on. He'd thought it would be uncomfortable to read about an experience so similar to his own, but the odd language and written medium provided a distance that allowed him to approach the account with detachment. He felt more curious, than anything. He read through it three times, his attention falling on one passage in particular that he didn't fully understand:
wen he reqyred the bloode
frum her Phyal he poored
that Essence wych cam frum
the woman, held and blesed wythyn
her mageckd Phyal
wych he had enspelled for that
purpus and the fynding of
her corpus shud it wend
"What the hell does that mean?" he muttered, reading it again.
"Are you having trouble? I know it's quite cryptic, I only skimmed that part before I set it aside for you," Hermione said. "Some of it seemed almost unrelated; the author was a bit rambling."
"This part, about the blood," Harry said, holding the book towards Hermione and pointing at the passage. "It's someone else's, like with mine, but he didn't take it right from them. He did something else to it first, which isn't the same."
Hermione frowned and took the book from him. "He didn't take it from them?" Harry watched as she read the passage. When comprehension dawned on her features, her eyes widened. "That's it!"
"Yes! Or, I think it is!" She set the book down excitedly. "Why didn't that occur to me? I've been going about this all wrong! We'll have to start over, practically, but it'll be worth it."
"Does that mean we can stop reading?" Ginny said hopefully.
"Of course, there's no need for that now," Hermione said absently, her mind obviously racing ahead. "I was trying to manufacture the proper connection when it's already been done. So we will have to start over. Not that we did much beyond research. I wonder if he knew, when he gave it to you…"
Ron and Ginny appeared very pleased considering they had just been told their efforts were worthless.
"When who gave me what?" Harry said.
"Not you – Ginny."
"When who gave me what?" Ginny said.
"When Dumbledore gave you Harry's phylactery!"
Hermione said with triumph in her eyes.
Harry should have known, really. It wouldn't be like Dumbledore to bequeath anything lacking meaning beyond the sentimental. It was probably only a matter of time before the Deluminator became crucial in some way.
Hermione placed her finger on the page Harry had read. "This ritual used a phylactery in place of several other elements. It makes sense: it's a magical artefact already tied to Harry's blood, and, in fact, containing it. In a way, it's a part of him."
"Sort of sounds like a Horcrux," Harry said uneasily.
She shook her head. "I worded that wrong. It's not literally a piece of you taken away, it's more like it's… tied to you. The phylactery can be used to find you – though that's only efficient over short distances – and monitor your well-being, which I imagine was Dumbledore's intention in creating it. But just as the Weasleys are all connected to the same clock, so can we be connected to your mother's sacrifice."
"Don't tell me we have to drink it," Ron said.
"Nothing so crude. We won't be literally mixing our blood with his, only using it as a conduit, so to speak. Riddle took things a bit farther, but we aren't trying to duplicate his ritual, only its side effect."
"You aren't going to break my gift, are you?" Ginny said, apparently hesitant to hand it over.
"I don't think so…" Hermione prevaricated.
Ginny sighed. "As long as it helps Harry."
Hermione was already shifting books around, probably looking for one that she had set aside before. "It's our best chance, I only wish I'd thought of it before!"
Harry didn't blame her in the slightest. There was still so much to research and carry out that some things were bound to be lost in the shuffle; and, no matter how awful having a Horcrux inside of him was in concept, the fact remained that it was one of their least pressing problems. December was the deadline for Gringotts. They had to be ready.
Hermione carefully crushed the wormwood and then added it to her cauldron, slowly stirring it to ensure the proper mixture. Sleeping Draught wasn't an especially complicated potion and Harry, Ron and Ginny had all volunteered to assist in making the batches – even Kylie had quietly offered to try, and the girl had displayed a strong aptitude for the craft. But Hermione simply couldn't allow herself to step away from the procedure. There was too much at stake. She knew that she had probably hurt a few feelings in the process. It wouldn't be the first time her instinct for control had offended those close to her, and probably not the last, either. She ignored the pang of regret, continuing to stir. She could be sensitive later.
It had taken Lila and Sophie most of a month to obtain minor funding from Fred and George and all the necessary potion ingredients without the Order knowing. Hermione still wasn't completely sure that Lila hadn't just stolen the money from the twins. But what was done was done, and it had put the mission back on track, at least so far as supplies went. The Polyjuice was in a second cauldron salvaged from the attic of Grimmauld, old but still usable. Hermione's cauldron had thus far produced multiple batches of Sleeping Draught. She didn't know how much would be needed, but it was better to be safe than sorry.
Scott had been testing the Draught for effectiveness when dispersed in a mist. It had proven to be far less potent than when directly ingested, but contact through the mouth, nose and eyes was capable of rendering a person unconscious for up to twenty minutes, depending on saturation. Hermione had refused to guarantee the safety of such usage, citing her lack of information on prior incidents. Scott had compensated by using Harry, Ginny and Ron (and, inadvertently, Kylie, who had once walked into a cloud of the Draught) as test subjects. As much as Hermione was glad he had ensured the misted potion wasn't overly harmful, his methods left a great deal to be desired.
Of course, the 'CS' gas grenades she had seen him unloading made whatever irritant properties the Draught might have more or less irrelevant. And she didn't even want to know what the flashbangs might do to a person, non-lethal or not. Really, the less she knew what was going to happen in the bank lobby, the easier her conscience would rest. Too bad ignorance wasn't an option.
So she continued to brew the Sleeping Draught that she knew would be used to commit violent armed robbery and tried to think less about that and more about how they were going to get to that point. Sophie was doing her best to learn many of the basic countermeasures goblins and wizards had used to guard their wealth for centuries, including several specific spells that Bill had singled out as being common to Gringotts. No one but the goblins knew exactly how all of Gringotts defences functioned, but Bill's insights had still been a good place to start. The real test would come once Neville could take Sophie to the Longbottom vault. It was that trip which would either give them the last pieces needed to make the plan work, or crush the very core of their mission.
There was still one very important missing piece, however. No one knew which vault belonged to Bellatrix, and the goblins weren't likely to volunteer the information. Short of stumbling across some sort of ledger during the actual mission itself, they'd yet to come up with a way to discover the vault number without tipping their hand.
Hermione felt as if they were missing an avenue of possibility. Her inability to determine what form that possibility took was driving her to distraction. Kylie had already been asked if she'd overheard Bellatrix telling Riddle her vault number. Kylie hadn't, and despite Scott's gentle questioning had no further information to offer. Unfortunate, though not unexpected. Lila had made some additional inquiries with Trevor's mother, but she knew very little of the vaults. As a human clerical employee, the woman's knowledge primarily concerned the ins and outs of Gringotts' front end business, the numbers and procedures for exchanging and tracking money.
The last thing Hermione wanted to do was admit to the possibility that there simply wasn't any way to discover the Lestrange vault number quietly. Taking the information by force from whatever likely target could be located would be the first major compromise in the security of the mission. Nothing they had done so far, none of the people they had tangentially involved, could directly trace their curiosity to the Lestrange vault or Horcruxes. Putting the Imperius Curse on some hapless goblin would be a major liability.
Hermione had already considered the darker options, because she knew that it was only a matter of time before Scott brought one or two of them up to the rest of the group. It wasn't outside the realm of possibility that they might capture a goblin to be held as a prisoner in Grimmauld Place. The risks and logistical considerations made such an act less than ideal, but Hermione worried it might soon be all that was left to them.
Her thoughts were interrupted when Ginny appeared in the doorway.
Hermione sighed, thinking she had lost track of time. "Is it time for supper already?"
"I've had an idea," Ginny said, beckoning.
Curious, Hermione decided she could let the potion simmer for a bit more (the Sleeping Draught was forgiving, as potions went). She followed Ginny to the drawing room and over to the broom cupboard where they had once found the box of rubbish Molly Weasley had stored. The space housed a new item, the Black family tapestry.
"I'm surprised Kreacher hasn't rescued it yet," Hermione remarked. Sophie, tired of tiptoeing past the portrait near the front door, had taken Mrs Black off the wall and stored her in a different cupboard. The portrait had disappeared afterwards, almost certainly taken to Kreacher's den.
"You think it's because Scott spends so much time in here? Harry said Kreacher was afraid of him. Or his guns, anyway," Ginny said. She bent down and spread out the rumpled tapestry. "So, I was looking at the board and thinking about the vault numbers. I know only the goblins know where all the vaults are, but the numbers aren't very secret."
"They give the numbers to the owners of the vault, and don't prevent visitors from seeing them," Hermione said, recalling how Harry had been allowed to stand outside Vault 713 when Hagrid had gone there. "But who would know it? I doubt Bellatrix had many confidantes, even before she spent all that time in Azkaban."
"What about her sister?" Ginny said, and she put her finger on the small, burned hole that had once been the visage of Andromeda Tonks.
Hermione forgave herself for not remembering Bellatrix's sister Andromeda, if only because she didn't have any more time for self-castigating. She mulled over the possibility, considering the likelihoods. "It's hard to say. I doubt they were ever close, considering how far their ideology has diverged. I don't know the exact date when Bellatrix married into the Lestrange family. If they weren't completely estranged from each other at that point…"
"I thought it'd be worth asking," Ginny opined.
"You know who else we might ask? Kreacher!" Hermione exclaimed. "He's been here for years and Bellatrix was a Black. He may have overheard something."
"He won't want to tell us."
"He won't have a choice, if it's Harry asking," Hermione said grimly. She loathed the thought of taking advantage of the bonds that house-elves suffered under. But, if the cause demanded it…
Ginny stood decisively. "I'll see if Sophie will let me use her mobile to call Lila. You want to tell Harry about Kreacher?"
glanced back towards the door, thinking of her still-bubbling potions. "I'll bring it up with him later. We can discuss it over supper; Harry will have to word things very carefully with Kreacher."
"I'll put his filthy little head up on the wall myself if he tries to betray Harry again," Ginny asserted.
Hermione sighed. "He doesn't know any better, Ginny. He's been a slave his entire life."
Ginny didn't offer any direct retort, though her expression remained unsympathetic. "I'll find Sophie," she said, turning to leave.
Hermione tried not to resent Kreacher, twisted as he was by a lifetime of abuse. He was exactly what the Black family had made him. She still thought that Sirius, as much as she had liked him, had brought Kreacher's actions upon himself, considering his poor treatment of the house-elf. It wasn't something Harry cared to believe about his departed godfather, but it was the truth. Hermione, despite her desire to rehabilitate Kreacher, had been content with his avoidance of them because she felt that Harry would probably only follow in Sirius's footsteps when it came to interacting with Kreacher. Harry wasn't especially cruel by nature, but he did blame Kreacher for Sirius's death, and Kreacher's general demeanour didn't make things any easier.
Deep in thought, she moved to return to her potion making when Scott entered the room with Kylie behind him, another board game tucked under his arm. "–so keep that in mind," he was saying.
"It sounds fun," Kylie said in an unsure tone.
"You would think. I'm not sure I've ever gone much past actually setting up the board, that's like half the game right there," Scott said, putting the game (which was labelled 'Mouse Trap') down on the table.
Kylie opened the box and began extracting a bewildering array of pieces from it. She had such a serious expression on her face that Hermione had to fight not to laugh.
"Join us?" Scott offered to Hermione.
"Thank you, but I've potions to attend to," she told him. "Have fun with your game. It looks… very intricate."
"Kylie will figure it out. Right, Kylie?"
Kylie nodded shortly, extremely intent as she carefully separated each colourful piece and arranged them on the table.
"Well. I'll leave you to it," Hermione said.
"Hey, when are those potions going to be on autopilot?" Scott called after her. "I want to get you and Harry behind the wheel."
Hermione thought about it. "I'll be finished with the Sleeping Draught by tomorrow. The afternoon?"
"Cool. There's gotta be somewhere around here we can practice."
"Now, as you can see," Scott said, sliding a pair of silver aviator glasses over his eyes, "when I wear these, I look awesome. And when you look really cool, you probably drive better. So try to imagine you're wearing sunglasses like these. You won't look as cool as me, obviously, but everyone has to start somewhere."
"I'd be interested in seeing some statistics," Hermione said, unimpressed.
"Why can't I just use yours?" Harry asked, reaching for Scott's glasses.
Scott slapped his hand away. "Harry, if I let you have my aviators, you'd just be leeching off my masculine charisma instead of developing some lesser version of your own. And what kind of lesson would that be?"
"I don't know, but all I'm learning right now is that you're a twat," Harry said reasonably.
Scott pointed out the windscreen. "Just put it in drive and try not to kill us."
When seeking a location in which to practice, it had quickly become apparent that there was no such thing as an empty car park in London. Or, if there was, they didn't know where to find it. So Scott had driven them further out into the surrounding area, where the suburban landscape offered more room to manoeuvre.
Harry inexpertly applied pressure to the accelerator and the car lurched forward. He knew he was gripping the wheel harder than he needed to, but he still felt like the vehicle was controlling him instead of the other way around. The unwieldy hunk of metal was nowhere near as responsive or intuitive as a broom. He'd been at the wheel for about fifteen minutes whilst Hermione impatiently awaited her turn. During that time, he'd learned to very slowly steer around the handful of other cars parked nearby, and not much else.
"Pick it up a little when we're on the straightaway," Scott suggested. "Try switching to the brake a few times first, you don't want to miss that."
Scott had been a pretty decent instructor when it came to teaching Harry the ins and outs of combat tactics and firearms, but, much like his hand to hand lessons, his car lessons were rather lacking. Or maybe the best way to learn was by doing. Harry didn't really know, but Scott had been light on the technical details and heavy on the, 'press the pedal and go that way'.
Scott's sparse instructions halted for a moment when he reached into a pocket and pulled out his mobile, glancing at it. He straightened his shirt and affected a pose of cool indifference before answering. Harry had never considered vanity to be one of Scott's vices, but the aviators seemed to be encouraging a new side of him.
"Yeah?" Scott said. Harry couldn't make out anything from the other end, but Scott frowned after a moment. "Just him? …Okay, we're on our way back. That's fine, he wants to talk to Harry, we'll let him talk to Harry. Don't push him. Bye."
"We're going back?" Hermione asked, her head poking into the front of the car.
"Lupin just showed up, apparently. He wants to talk to Harry." Scott hit the release on his seatbelt. "Here, put it in park and switch out. I'll drop you guys off at the front, just let me know when it's clear."
"I know you want to maintain what's left of your cover, but disappearing every time we have company is also suspicious," Hermione said.
"It's easier than ageing down." Scott exited the vehicle and walked around the back to get in the driver's seat, exchanging a high five with Harry as they passed each other at the car boot. "The time might come when I don't have a choice," he continued, settling into place behind the wheel, "but why rush things?"
"Remus wants to talk to me?" Harry said.
"Sounds like it. It must be important, obviously he's not gonna trust Sophie much but I guess it's not something he wants to discuss with Ron or Ginny, either."
Harry felt a pinch of worry. Hermione must have seen his expression change in the mirror, because she said, "If it had to do with the Order, I'm sure we would have heard from Lila."
That didn't really help, because that meant the problem might be personal. "Maybe," Harry said noncommittally.
Traffic slowed their return to Islington, Harry becoming more agitated with every passing second. Too much time to think meant too many awful scenarios for him to ponder.
Scott brought the car as close to the kerb as possible when they arrived at Grimmauld Place. Harry and Hermione hopped out and quickly entered the protective safety of the Fidelius Charm. There had still been no sign of any Death Eaters nearby, no indications that Riddle had discovered even the general area they had been hiding. From a purely practical standpoint it wasn't all that surprising; London was a big place, and they didn't stand out with their Muggle clothing and nondescript vehicle. But magic could be tricky, Harry had learned. The Fidelius hadn't kept his parents safe, after all. It wasn't the only precaution to be taken.
Harry moved very carefully through the door until he remembered that Mrs Black's portrait was gone. There was a lighter-coloured patch on the wall where the portrait had hung for however many years it had been. Sophie had mentioned a desire to repaint the house a few times, but whatever plans she'd had for more in-depth renovations had been pushed aside by her primary work.
Ginny was waiting for them. "He's downstairs," she said to Harry, pointing. "He said he wanted to talk to just you, first."
"Did he say why?" Harry asked.
Ginny shook her head. "No. He looks a bit peaked, though."
Hermione frowned. "When was the full moon? Does anyone know?"
Harry shrugged. "When was the last time any of us were even outside at night?"
"This place could do with some blimming windows," Ginny said.
"I'm sure Sophie agrees. Don't keep Professor Lupin waiting, Harry. And do tell us what's happening, if you can," Hermione said.
The kitchen was always a bit surprising for Harry; he'd become so accustomed to the dark, grimy state of the place from his previous stay that walking down into a well-lit, properly organised and nearly spotless version of the kitchen was an odd transition. Sophie couldn't work miracles, and much of the woodwork and other materials bore marks and stains that couldn't be undone, but with the grime removed and the lights restored such small imperfections seemed more like signs of use than decay. Grimmauld Place had gone from looking abandoned to merely lived-in. The décor was still bloody awful, though.
Remus had seated himself at the table, and met Harry with a tired smile. "Harry," he said, standing in greeting.
"Is something wrong?" Harry said quickly, bypassing politeness in his need to know.
"No. Or… I'm not certain. I was hoping you might help," Remus said haltingly.
"I'll do whatever I can," Harry said, wishing he could promise more.
Remus rubbed at his jaw, his body tense. "The full moon was last week."
Harry blinked, unsure of the point. "Oh. Did you… Do you need somewhere safer to stay? We could do something with the attic, probably, or one of the rooms–"
"No, no. I didn't come to ask for that." Remus chuckled ruefully. "I'd hoped
that my mentioning the full moon might prompt you. But I suppose that would have been too easy. It seems you're as in the dark as I am."
"Probably more," Harry said.
"Yes, sorry. I'll be blunt, then: the past two months, I haven't changed during the full moon. This was the second month without a transformation. None of the side effects, none of the signs… Nothing. I sit there whilst the moon rises and falls and the next morning, it's…" Remus trailed off. "I hadn't seen the full moon with my own eyes since I was a boy. It's been twice, now."
Harry was astounded. "How is that possible?"
Remus shook his head, sagging back into his chair. "I don't know. I'd thought you might. I came here not long before the full moon in September and it was the only thing I could think of that was unusual."
"We're not doing anything with werewolves, nothing like that. I don't… I mean, you've been here before, so it's not the house. It's not me." He scoffed at himself. "It's not me– what would that even mean, how could it be me. I…"
Harry suddenly thought about Remus's choice of words. Unusual, he had said. Grimmauld Place was unusual, all right, but not because of any strange magic. More like a different kind of magic altogether, in the form of three Kharadjai. And Remus had been in contact with Lila, quite a bit. He hadn't seen Scott since The Burrow, but he had seen Sophie… What if Scott had asked one of them to–
Harry stopped that line of thought quickly. There was no point in getting angry again before he had some actual confirmation. He'd had it out with Scott over the Kharadjai's secrets several times, but he'd thought that the two of them had made some real progress. Scott wouldn't have mucked with Remus without telling Harry. Harry had to believe that, at least until proven otherwise. Maybe Remus' sudden recovery from an incurable curse had nothing to do with Kharadjai at all.
Though the more Harry considered that, the less likely it seemed. Lycanthropy had resisted all permanent forms of treatment for the entirety of wizarding history, that was what Harry had been taught. But Remus had come in contact with some people who stood very much outside of that history.
Harry began to back away. "You know what, give me a moment to ask around."
Remus started to stand, shaking his head. "No, that's all right. I knew you wouldn't have anything to do with this, I just didn't know who else to ask."
"Just in case, though," Harry said hurriedly. "I'm not the only one here, maybe somebody else did something on accident or, er, saw something. I should ask."
Remus gave Harry a strange look, but sat back down. "If you think it might help."
"I'll be right back," Harry told him, and went up the stairs as fast as he could without running.
There were voices coming from the drawing room. Inside, Hermione and Ginny were huddled with Kylie on the settee. Kylie had a piece of parchment she was writing on as the two older girls instructed her. The lesson actually sounded familiar; Harry thought it was something from second-year Charms.
"Have you seen Sophie?" he asked them.
Hermione looked up. "No, not recently. What's going on?"
"I'm not sure, I just need to find her," Harry said, ducking back out of the room.
The door to the hallway loo was closed and the light was on. Harry knocked on it. "Sophie?"
"Not bloody likely," Ron called back.
"Well, have you seen her?"
"I think she's gone upstairs, to Scott's room," Ron said.
Good, then she hadn't gone shopping, which had been Harry's fear. He hurried up the steps to the motorcycle room, hoping that Remus would stay put. The last thing they needed was for him to see what was in the drawing room.
Sophie was indeed in the motorcycle room, talking to herself as she made Scott's bed. "This is the last time, for sure the last," she muttered, setting pillows against the headboard. "I know he thinks I'll keep doing this because I can't help it, but I can stop whenever I want. I don't have to clean."
"Sophie!" Harry said, gaining her attention. "Did you do something to Remus?"
She placed her hands on her hips. "Well, hello to you too, Harry. What kind of question is that?"
Harry glanced back down the hall, then moved closer to her. "Remus didn't change this month or the last, something happened to him. He doesn't know why, but I thought you might."
Sophie combed an absent hand through her curls. "He didn't change what?"
"Into a werewolf. He's a werewolf and there's no cure, but the last two times he didn't change. That's never happened before," Harry explained. "You knew he was, right?"
Sophie pursed her lips. "…Maybe?"
Harry stared at her. "What, you didn't know?"
"I think Scott mentioned it," Sophie said uncertainly. "He said it wasn't important…"
"It's not, usually," Harry said impatiently. "Did Scott say anything about curing Remus?"
"No, definitely not. We're not equipped to cure diseases, we'd have to ask for something like that."
"Yeah, but it's magical, Lycanthropy is a curse."
Sophie's eyes went wide. "Attatae! Oh, geez! Why didn't you tell me before I blanked him?!" She paused. "…Or is this a good thing?"
"Wait, what did you do?"
"When we met in the park, I got rid of all the spells on him. Remember? I took his hand to make sure."
Harry did remember, now that she'd said that. He hadn't thought much of it at the time, though he should have. "That's right. That must have done it."
"What are you going to tell him?" Sophie said conspiratorially, hands twisting at her waist.
Harry didn't have an answer for her. What the bloody hell was he going to do? Remus had carried his curse for most of his life, and a cure had been nothing but an impossible fantasy. How could Harry not tell him that he was free? But, how could Harry say anything without revealing more about the Kharadjai than he should?
"Can I tell him?" Harry asked Sophie. "What would that do, does it still even matter?"
"I don't know! Not here, but he's outside, and it might change things for Lila," Sophie said.
Harry hadn't thought of her. "That's right. The Order doesn't know much about her."
"If she's been fighting, then they have to know something…"
"So you think it's all right?"
Sophie shook her head. "That's not up to me, we have to ask Scott. I'll call him." She pulled out her mobile and pressed a button, bringing it up to her ear. "…Scott? This is Sophie. …I know you know that, I'm being polite! What? So? I– I know it's the same, always, that's what we do, we say the… I say it's me and then you're all 'bleh bleh I know' and I say– isn't– isn't that what we do? Sometimes friends have a thing, it can be cute. …No one cares but us, it doesn't have to be very funny! …Harry has a question. Here you go." She handed the mobile to Harry.
"Scott?" Harry said.
"So what's the deal?" Scott said. His voice was a bit muffled by the constant rush of cars in the background.
"Remus is here because he's not a werewolf anymore, and we think it's because Sophie accidentally cured him when he came 'round the first time," Harry quickly summarised. "What should I do?"
"Oh, shit. So obvious in hindsight." Scott paused. "You know what? This could be good for us. Didn't you tell me Lupin was trying to keep the werewolves from joining Riddle?"
Harry didn't remember telling Scott that, but obviously either he or someone else had. "Yeah, he was, and Hagrid was recruiting the giants. That was before we lost the Ministry, though, I don't know if anyone is still trying that sort of thing."
"Well, now we have a cure. You think Riddle can beat that offer?"
Harry hesitated. "Yeah, but how do you explain that cure?"
"It doesn't matter. We're past the point of no return, we can't hold back. I'm out here because changing age was inconvenient – and because Hermione has all my teen clothes – not because it really matters if Lupin sees something weird. I gave Lil discretion, she's not talking because she doesn't want to. Sometimes it's easier to have people think you're enigmatic instead of crazy."
Harry rubbed at his right eye, considering the enormity of the revelation. "Maybe you should go explain it all again."
"I don't need to. That's what I'm trying to tell you, the evidence speaks for itself. Why did you let me hang around at first?"
Harry started to say it had been because Dumbledore had vouched for Scott, but that was only a small part of the truth. "Because I thought you were a harmless nutter and I needed all the help I could get."
"And why did you let me hang around continually?"
"Because you kicked Malfoy's arse and could block spells. And seemed to know a lot about hurting people."
"Exactly. Whatever else she is, Lil's already proven to be a very sharp weapon in the Order's arsenal. Now they'll know just how deep she can cut."
"All right. So we're doing this," Harry said, girding himself.
"You don't have to be specific. Just tell him Sophie is the reason he'll no longer attract furries and Lila can do the same thing for other werewolves."
"I'm not doing anything without you to back me up, I want you sitting there as some kind of proof. And maybe block a spell or something," Harry added.
Scott sighed. "Age regression is irrelevant, he doesn't need to know we can do that."
"But if you can do that, what else can you do? Come on, it'll make it easier to believe."
There came a long pause from Scott's end. "…I see what you're saying, but I'm debating whether I want it to be known that I'm an adult before we hit the bank. Up
until this point there's been no real connection between me and that blond kid you went to school with."
Harry frowned, trying to follow Scott's logic. "And?"
"If either me or Lil are identified somehow at the bank, we need the connection to you to be tenuous at best. It's likely that Lil is already known to the enemy in some capacity, between what happened at Hogwarts and the wedding. But she still has to go because I can't do it alone; I actually think we're going in Polyjuiced, too, I asked Sophie to source some extras. Precautions or not, things can happen. I don't want anyone to make a connection to you."
"It's Remus, not the enemy," Harry said.
"Yeah? If the Order is that tight of a ship, then why not tell them what we're really looking for?"
Harry grimaced. "Point taken."
"Look, I'm not saying it wouldn't smooth things over, but why don't we let Lil do the heavy lifting? She's the one you're putting on the spot, anyway."
Which hadn't been Harry's intention, though it did seem to be an inevitability. "Fine. Just talk to her first, all right? Don't let her get surprised by all this. I don't want her to choke me."
"Well, she'd come for me, first. I'll call her."
Harry handed the mobile back to Sophie once the conversation had finished, lost in thought. It seemed he would be giving Remus the barest amount of truth required and leaving the rest to Lila. She had proven to be quite capable of revealing almost nothing despite the pressures put upon her, but her approach was about to be forced to change. Harry hoped he wasn't about to ruin Lila's relationship with the Order. Whether they knew it or not, they needed her there.
"Do you want me to talk to him?" Sophie offered.
"No, I'll do it," Harry said, turning away. "Somehow."
Sophie followed him back downstairs, and when he descended into the kitchen she stopped and whispered, "I'll be right here, for support! You can call me, if you need it…"
Remus was still waiting patiently in his chair; he looked up when Harry came in, eyebrows rising in silent question.
"Sorry that took so long," Harry awkwardly apologised. "There was… a bit more to it than I'd thought."
"It gave me time to realise how ridiculous I was to even bring this to you," Remus said with a self-deprecating shrug. "I've been so desperate for an answer…"
Harry took a deep breath. "I've got one for you, actually. It was Sophie who cured you."
Remus stilled. He stared at Harry incredulously. "Sophie? The woman I met at the park?"
"Yeah, that's her. The short one," Harry said, and he thought he heard a huff of exasperation from the stairwell behind him.
"Er, well…" Harry fidgeted, trying to find the right words to simplify things. "It was an accident, sort of. When she shook your hand, she was trying to make sure it was really you, so she, um… cancelled all the magic on you. It was just a thing she was doing for safety, but she didn't know you were cursed."
Remus squinted, uncomprehending. "What do you mean, she cancelled the magic? If Finite Incantatem worked for magical diseases we'd have all been cured ages ago, and there's no counter-curse."
"No, it's…" Harry clenched his jaw, frustrated by his inability to think of the perfect way to phrase the revelation. He suddenly empathised with Scott. "It's not that kind of magic. It's something that she can do, she can break spells, just snuff them out."
Remus was silent as he digested that. "…How is that possible?" he said eventually, in a tone that conveyed his disbelief.
"I don't know, exactly, but that's not important," Harry said, deciding not to attempt assembling the varied scraps of information he had on the shape into any kind of real explanation. "Sophie's been a lot of help to us. The first time you came around, she was trying to make sure it was really you by getting rid of any magic you had. She wasn't trying to cure you… It was an accident."
"How does one accidentally cure lycanthropy?" Remus said sceptically.
"She just gets rid of all of it, it doesn't matter what it is. She probably made Bill's hand on the clock fall off when he came over." Harry frowned. "How did you think Ginny was doing anything if she still had the Trace?"
"You're under a Fidelius, the Trace could only bring the Ministry to the general area. We thought she was staying here to be with you," Remus said a bit uncomfortably.
Harry's eyes widened. The Order thought that Ginny had tagged along just to… What? Snog him? Of course, that also meant the Weasleys had thought Ginny to be at least relatively safe. If Mrs Weasley had been so opposed before, what would she think if she found out that Ginny had been on the front line for every lethal excursion Harry's group had undertaken?
"Er, you don't have to tell Mrs Weasley that Ginny doesn't have the Trace… Right?" Harry ventured.
Remus sighed. "Harry, I'm not sure what I'm going to tell anyone. I don't understand how Sophie can break curses with a touch."
"I don't either, really," Harry admitted. "It has to do with who she is and where she comes from."
Harry shook his head, giving Remus an apologetic look. "Lila can explain it better, you should talk to her. It's not just because I don't want to, I really won't tell it very well. There's a lot I don't know."
"Can't I talk to Sophie, then?" Remus pressed.
Harry hesitated. "Well…"
"I'm trying to understand, but you aren't making it easy."
"Talk to Lila," Harry said, feeling like that was the best course of action. "And if you still have more questions after that or you think she's not telling you the truth, come see me again."
Remus didn't look very happy with that answer. "Very well," he said reluctantly, standing to leave. "I'll speak with her."
"I'm sorry. I know I wasn't much help," Harry said. "Lila will be able to show you; I can't do that."
Harry felt bad about essentially pawning Remus off on Lila, but it wasn't like the Kharadjai didn't bring this sort of them upon themselves. Scott's reluctance to give clear answers during his year at Hogwarts had caused all kinds of problems. Admittedly, even the eventual answers had been problematic, as well. They weren't much good when no one could fully understand them.
At the very least, delaying Remus would give Harry time to talk to Scott some more. If the Order was going to receive more information, it should be decided beforehand what that information would be.