Age of Anxiety
"Component, Solidary, and Symbiotic.
Taken together, the thread types which
are considered the bedrock of Spencerian
Shaperate, the tools with which the shape
may be unravelled and then studied. Each
has many coexisting variables, and each
has many simultaneous states. This you
It is easy to believe that with classification
comes understanding. Easy, and untrue.
Over the length of this course, you will
discover that classification provides the
illusion of knowledge. If you learn one
thing from me in the next three years, make
it this: Do not ever delude yourself into
thinking you have divined the shape's
purpose in totality. In touching infinity,
you will find yourself to be profoundly limited."
–Opening lecture by Dr. Emil Xiang, Advanced Shaperate 202
When Harry awoke, his mouth felt like a desert and tasted like death. More pressingly, he had to urinate so badly he was genuinely concerned his bladder was going to rupture.
He jumped to his feet; or, rather, he attempted to jump to his feet. The second his soles touched the floor it seemed to lurch beneath them and he gracelessly slumped forward to crash face first into the dresser table. The mirror rattled loudly in protest as he impacted. He barely felt it. His need to use the loo was all consuming.
When he reached the toilet after what felt like an eternity of lurching down the hallway, the relief was so intense it bordered on holy. He stood in front of the bowl and shivered as every muscle in his body went limp with utter joy. Then he continued to stand there for what struck him as a ridiculous amount of time as he released a stream that seemed as eternal as the Thames.
Finally finished, he tottered over to the mirror to take in the damage. To his surprise, he looked fairly normal. A bit pale, yeah, but nothing too serious. He'd expected far worse. His head hurt and he was sort of dizzy and he didn't think he could eat much, but all together it wasn't so bad. Drinking all that water must have worked.
He made the easy decision to skip breakfast as he washed his hands; he reckoned he'd be hungry enough by lunch to overcome the undercurrent of nausea that accompanied his every movement. He drank a little of the tepid water from the tap and then slowly proceeded down the dark halls of Grimmauld, not really having a destination in mind. He just didn't think he could go back to sleep yet.
It must have been early in the day, as the house was mostly still. There was a light coming from the training room. Harry wobbled his way over to the door to see who else was up in the dark hours of the morning.
"And… go!" Sophie said.
"Expelliarmus!" Kylie cast at the training dummy, causing the wooden spindle taped to its arm to fly off and clatter across the floor
Sophie retrieved the spindle and taped it back to the arm of the dummy. "Okay, now let's try it with a boost." She went back to Kylie and placed her hand on the girl's shoulder.
"Now?" Kylie said, looking back at Sophie.
"Whenever you feel ready."
Kylie scrunched up her face in concentration. "Expelliarmus!"
When the spell hit the dummy for the second time there was a tremendous noise as it flew backwards to crash into the wall, dust and pillow feathers billowing outward. The spindle went whirling across the room with considerable force and flew out the doorway. Normally, Harry would have utilised his Quidditch-tuned reflexes to duck out of the way. But he was really hungover, so instead he watched dumbly as the spindle whipped through the air and smacked him straight in the face.
"Ow," he said torpidly as the wood bounced off his forehead.
"Oh, geez. Harry!" Sophie sighed. She approached and put her hands on either side of his head, stretching the skin of his forehead with her thumbs. "Now you're going to bruise."
He frowned and leaned back until she released him. He wasn't a bloody child; a bit of wood to the forehead wasn't going to matter. "I'm fine."
"Of course you are," she said more testily, eyeing him. "You are hungover."
He shrugged. "Yeah, so?"
Sophie's lips pursed in a very disapproving manner. "So now you see what I was talking about."
"It's not so bad," he lied as another wave of nausea washed over him.
"You're sick. I can tell. I know," Sophie retorted. "You should go back to bed. But this is what you get! …But try to feel better."
Her innate empathy was clearly at war with her need to say 'I told you so'. "What were you just working on?" Harry asked her, refusing to be ordered off to bed like a toddler.
"I'm giving Kylie a little boost for her spells," Sophie said, going back over to the girl. "It's good practice, for both of us."
"Could you try it with me?" Harry was keen on the idea. With Sophie providing some extra kick, Harry's spells might hit wicked hard.
"I could, once you're done being sick," Sophie said, pointedly turning her back on him.
Harry honestly wasn't feeling well enough to push the issue. "Yeah, all right. I'm going to have a lie in," he said.
"I hope you get better, Harry," Kylie said as he turned to leave.
"Er, thanks," he said, still unused to being addressed by her. It seemed not so long ago that she wasn't saying anything at all.
"Drink some water!" Sophie called after him.
He trudged his way up the stairs (which felt more endless by the second) and stopped by the loo once more to splash some cold water on his face. It helped a bit, if not as much as he'd like. He drank from the tap until he thought he might just expel it all back into the sink. The dark sanctuary of his room beckoned him, and he collapsed onto the mattress and just lay there, trying to breath evenly and stop the room from spinning around him. It took a long time, but he eventually fell asleep.
The next time he awoke was easier. He had to pee again, but the pounding in his head wasn't so fierce, and the ground was steadier beneath his feet. His thirst had returned with a vengeance, though. After relieving himself, he was drawn to voices emanating from the drawing room. His curiosity temporarily overcame his thirst, and he diverted his path.
He entered the room to see Ron laughing weakly on the settee whilst holding his head, as if it might break if he shook it too hard. Scott was in the armchair.
"Ow, owww…" Ron winced, sinking down farther onto his side.
"This is not okay, dude," Scott was saying. "If I could make myself get up, I'd hit you, and not gently."
"So I'm safe, then," Ron chortled from his prone position.
"What are you talking–" Harry discovered exactly what they were talking about when the smell wafted over him. "Oh."
"This fucker melted a hole in his pants, and probably the loveseat," Scott accused. "I think I just got pink eye straight from his asshole."
"C'mon, it's not that bad," Ron said.
Harry did not agree, even though the stench was beginning to dissipate. "That's raw, mate. That's like Seamus level."
"You probably saved Sophie the trouble of stripping the paint off the walls," Scott said, dropping his shirt from where he'd had it over his mouth and nose.
"What about the paint?" Sophie said, having wandered in.
"You just missed Ron's ass leaving this mortal coil," Scott told her.
"You bought the drinks, mate, so that's on you," Ron said, pointing limply in Scott's direction with one arm over his eyes.
"No, you do not get to lay that at my feet. We are at war, so that was a war crime. Next Nuremburg, you are front and centre."
"I don't think Ron tooting is quite as bad as racial genocide," Sophie said sternly, apparently having caught on (or caught the remnants).
"No, but it's a close second."
"Come on, you know I'm not serious."
She rolled her eyes. "Okay, fine. But you could be a little more sensitive, if only because I'm Jewish."
"Okay, first off: yeah, you're a Jew, but you're Jewish Catholic, so when you see a synagogue burning you're probably a little conflicted–"
"–and secondly, Ron didn't 'toot', he prolapsed his fuckin' anus right into the couch and released what they probably breathe in Hell."
"Oh, gross, you… shut up!" Sophie commanded him.
"Hey, I didn't do it."
Harry would have sat down with them, but his parched mouth was demanding liquid. "Are we still having a meeting tonight?" he asked as he backed away to the door.
"No," Ron groaned, arm still over his eyes.
"Probably," Scott countered. "Hermione has some things to say, I know that much."
"Can we have it in here? Like this?" Ron said plaintively.
"I think one ecological disaster in here is enough."
"All right, I suppose we'll wait and see," Harry said, leaving.
Down in the kitchen he found Hermione sitting at the table with an empty bowl of cereal to her right and a huge book splayed open in front of her. She didn't look up when he came in and he didn't bother trying to interrupt her. Ginny was also seated at the table with a glass of water; her head was pillowed on her folded arms, which probably wasn't a good sign.
"You alive?" he asked her, placing a hand on her shoulder.
"Fucking hell, not for much longer," she groaned into the table. "Why'd you let me drink all that?"
"Let you?" he repeated incredulously.
"Whatever," she grumbled, reaching out blindly for her glass of water and nearly knocking it over. "It's my own bloody fault, blah blah blah."
"Yeah, it is," he laughed.
"Bollocks," she mumbled wanly into her glass, sipping at it unenthusiastically.
He did feel a bit bad for her. It wasn't like he was in perfect shape, either. "Try to drink all of that. It's supposed to help, I think," he told her.
"Yeah, that's what Sophie said. I'm dehydrated, or whatever." Ginny put her head back down on the table. "Carry me back to bed?"
Harry had procured his own glass of water and already had to refill it. With his thirst soothed, he reckoned she might have the right idea. "Yeah, all right."
Ginny perked up. "What, really? Even with all the stairs?"
"You think I can't?" Harry said, slightly offended. He'd been working out, after all.
She leaned back and lifted her legs slightly, ready to be picked up. "Go on, then. Impress me."
He downed the rest of his second glass and then scooped her up. She barely weighed a thing, small as she was.
"Do be awake this evening for our meeting!" Hermione called after them as they left.
"God, no," Ginny moaned, head lolling back limply over Harry's arm. "Let me sleep forever."
"You'll feel better tonight," Harry predicted.
As it turned out, he was partially right. That night, all who had chosen to imbibe at the party were doing better, but not fully recovered. Ron had regained most of his colouring but still nursed a headache and Ginny remained tired and listless. Harry felt all right, give or take the occasional bout of nausea.
The mood around the table wasn't quite as solemn as usual, undercut by the clear state of drink-related suffering so many of the attendants displayed. And perhaps their recent festivities had supplied a form of release for all the stress they'd been dealing with. Harry was still glad to get back to business, though. Well, 'glad' wasn't really the word. It was just that every step they took was one step closer to the end of all this, whatever that might be.
Hermione took charge of the meeting. "I know we've all been considering where to go from here," she began. "The snake is still a concern, and of course we'll need to destroy the cup once we've prepared. For the time being, I'd like to focus on our other issue, which I believe I have a solution for."
Harry leaned forward, half eager and half dreading her solution and whatever it might entail.
"For obvious reasons, we can't deal with Harry's problem in our usual way…" she said delicately. "But I think I've fashioned a sort of workaround. We're going to need the phylactery." She held up the box containing Ginny's gift. "Riddle created the Horcrux in Harry by mistake, so it isn't fully complete."
"There are varying states of Horcrux?" Scott interjected.
"Well, there aren't intended to be. But he didn't perform the ritual to create the Horcrux in Harry. It isn't something you do on a whim, there's a process involved. And, no, I won't go into it. It's horrible. So, Harry isn't a Horcux at all. There isn't another word for what's in him, not that I know of. I can't find any mention of anyone ever creating a Horcrux by accident; it's a very deliberate thing."
"He did put a lot of planning into his others," Harry mused.
"Yes, he did. And he did it so many times that he lost a sliver of himself without even knowing it, which is unprecedented."
"We seem to have a lot of unprecedented questions," Scott said dryly.
"Many of which were created by you," Hermione said. "At least in this case we know why Harry has always been himself."
Harry had to agree, self-serving though it might be. Logic dictated that Riddle wouldn't have been working against himself with quite so much dedication.
"The Horcrux is tied to Harry, but he himself is not a Horcrux. The tricky part was determining how to approach such a situation. Fortunately, we have a point of comparison in the phylactery. It contains a part of Harry and is tied to him, but he is not the phylactery. We can use that."
"To do what?" Ginny said impatiently, looking like she wanted her gift back (Harry had the feeling she wasn't going to get it back).
"My belief is that the piece of Riddle's soul is, um, vestigial enough that it can be moved, if that makes sense. Provided the proper conduit."
Ron's brow furrowed. "So… we're going to make the blood into a Horcrux?"
"Yes!" Hermione said, obviously pleased someone had caught on. "Sort of! It won't be a real Horcrux and we certainly won't be performing the Horcrux ritual." She pushed one of the books she had on the table forward. "I've found instructions on how to create a phylactery in these blood magic books. What we'll do is combine that ritual with select parts of the one Riddle did in the graveyard. It'll be a bit like a siphon. The soul is clinging to Harry because it has nowhere else to go, and if we give it a new path, gravity will do the rest. So to speak."
"Hang on. Which parts of the graveyard ritual?" Harry asked.
"Oh! No, no, nothing like that, Harry. The part we need is the one which tied you to Riddle. We're already halfway there with the phylactery, we just need to create a magical conduit attractive to the Horcrux, something so closely tied to you that the difference is negligible. We'll need to do this somewhere you have strong history."
That complicated matters. "Most of those places we can't go, and I don't think Grimmauld will do it," Harry said.
"No, I agree. Scott suggested using the cottage in the Hollow, specifically the cot, but returning there would be very risky, especially as I'm not even sure that would work; you only spent a year of your life there, after all. Hogwarts is even more dangerous, though any number of places there would be ideal."
"Our place is right out," Ginny said.
"Yeah. Don't fancy our chances getting to The Burrow again," Ron concurred.
"I think the Dursleys' place is going to be our best bet," Hermione said to Harry. "I know your memories of it are mixed, to say the least, but that's fine. What matters is that it's a place very intrinsic to your self."
Harry couldn't say he liked the thought of going back. He also didn't have another idea. He'd spent his life after his eleventh birthday alternating between Privet Drive, Hogwarts and The Burrow. "Scott, what do you think the odds are it's being watched?"
"High. But probably by a token force, if any. I'd be surprised if it's more than one or two people, in shifts," Scott said. "If they're overtasked it might even be some spell alarms."
"So we go in the Muggle way," Ginny said. "Right? We can have a look first."
"Not so much 'we', but, yeah. A lot of planning to do."
"Good, all of you can get to work on that whilst Sophie and I finish some of the finer details for the ritual," Hermione said.
"I want a better way for everyone to get out this time, something more fool proof," Scott added. "I'm thinking Portkeys."
"It wouldn't hurt, but they aren't 'fool proof'," Hermione warned. "There are ways to stop Portkey use, just like Apparition."
"It's just another tool. If they counter one, I'd like us to have another."
"Fair point. I'll get to those once I have a chance." Hermione's fingers twitched slightly, as if they were grasping for a quill that wasn't there. "I should make a list…"
"When are we going to kill the Horcrux we've got?" Ginny wanted to know.
"We should talk about it," Hermione said. "It's my feeling that Lila should be here for that, I don't know about rest of you?"
"Yeah, I want everyone on deck for that. Lil should be here," Scott agreed. "Let's avoid any repeats."
The more Kharadjai around to suppress the Horcrux, the better, as far as Harry was concerned. "Keep it locked up, then. It's not going anywhere," he said.
The meeting gradually devolved into small talk after that as they ate the food left over from the party. It was a bit difficult to enjoy the food with his stomach still reacting to the damage he had done the night before, but Harry ate what little he could and tried to relax without relaxing too much, as he reckoned he might just fall asleep again.
"Did we forget anything?" Hermione said. "I know Lila has plans to meet with some of the Order, but we'll have to wait to hear from her."
"Oh! We've got something," Ginny said, nudging Harry's side.
Harry looked at her blankly. "We do?"
"You know, that bloke we overheard, in the Alley. Remember? The Death Eater who was on to Scott?"
Scott – who had clearly been miles away, staring at some distant point near the tap – snapped back to attention. "Who the what now?"
"Right, yeah," Harry said. "Before we left the Alley we managed to eavesdrop in on some of the Death Eaters in charge."
Scott's interest was immediately and fully captured, as Harry thought it might be. "What happened?"
"So, we made it back to the pub, but then Harry had this idea to listen in," Ginny detailed. "We got inside and there were a few Death Eaters sort of sitting around and Malfoy's dad was there, for a second, and he was getting all narky with this other Death Eater, this big bloke who was Bulgarian or something."
"What makes you say that?" Scott interrupted.
"His accent. I suppose he sounded a bit like Viktor," Harry said.
"You're sure it was Bulgarian?"
"Er…" Harry looked to Ginny, who appeared just as uncertain as he was. "I wouldn't bet any money on it…"
"But it was something Slavic."
"Yeah, pretty sure," Harry said, and Ginny also nodded.
"Riddle's been pulling people in from all over," Scott observed. "In the Alley I think I heard one guy swearing in Swahili."
"You speak Swahili?" Hermione said, looking surprised.
"Only the swears."
"Anyway, he was banging on about how you'd dodged him a couple times already, and he knew you were going to escape again," Ginny continued. "He also reckoned you were working with Harry, though I guess Snape said it was the Order. That's what that other Death Eater said, wasn't it?"
"Yeah, something about Snape saying it wasn't me who rescued Kylie," Harry confirmed. "The bald bloke was really interested in you, Scott. He was talking about the guns you use, training, that sort of stuff. He said you were a freedom fighter."
Scott shrugged slightly, eyes intent with thought. "Well, sort of."
Hermione must have divined his train of thought, because she said, "If this person is familiar with your Muggle tactics, that could explain the higher level of enemy organization we saw at the Hollow."
"And why we've seen less of it since, after it didn't work," Scott reflected. "That's the kind of short-sighted idiocy I'd expect from Riddle's command structure."
"He's probably been undermined further by your most recent escape," Hermione added.
"Maybe. I don't know if anyone else could have done better in that weather with those troops."
"Riddle won't care," Harry scoffed. Only Dumbledore really knew Tom Riddle, but Harry knew enough.
"I think you're right," Hermione agreed. "He's the sort to demand results and see even justifiable failure as an 'excuse'."
"Maybe our Eastern European opponent won't be our problem anymore," Scott said. "You know, there's something to be said for an enemy that destroys itself."
"I don't think any nation under Riddle has much chance at longevity. Though, if he gets to that point, there won't be any of us around to see the collapse," Hermione said solemnly.
Scott smiled humourlessly. "I know preying on the Muggles is kind of his thing, but if he sends his little dictatorship to war it won't be too long before the only thing inhabiting these isles is cesium-137."
Harry tuned them out for a minute – he didn't much care for the topic, anyway – and turned to Ginny. "I dunno, what do you think about that Death Eater? Did he seem worried to you?"
"What, about getting in trouble?" Ginny's mouth scrunched in thought, which was adorable and distracting. Harry reminded himself that he was trying to talk to her, not snog her. Yet. "…No, not really. He even said Lucius didn't have any stones, right to his pointy face."
"Yeah, that's how I remember it. He wasn't worried at all."
"I suppose he's really brave. Or really stupid. Kind of like you," Ginny said, poking Harry playfully in the chest.
"I'm not the only Gryffindor here," he retorted.
Ginny rolled her eyes. "Like any of us can compete with the Chosen One."
Harry already hated being called that, but he really hated it coming out of her mouth. At least now he was armed with a response. "I'm not a 'Chosen One'. Ask Scott, he'll tell you. Sort of."
"Sort of?" Ginny said, bright brown eyes dancing with amusement. "Are you or aren't you?"
"I… It's complicated. We had a whole talk about it and he sort of went on, like he does, and… Well, it mostly made sense. I'm sort of chosen, but not in special way, or, like, actually picked, the way you or I would pick something. It's like how water 'chooses' where to run, something like that. There's no fate, just paths."
She considered that for a moment. "Doesn't really change things, though, does it?"
Harry still preferred the distinction. "It's just nice to know."
"You're still just Harry. You know that, yeah? That's the part I like. The rest is rubbish," she said, one hand curling around the back of his neck with gentle affection.
"So long as I'm your chosen one," he said with a half-smile, and then winced when he realised how trite that had sounded. "Just… pretend I said something smooth, all right?"
She laughed delightedly. "As if! I'm writing that down later, you watch."
She was so close and so beautiful and so full of life and Harry couldn't do any of the things he wanted to do with her whilst everyone else was right there at the table. Instead, he reluctantly reverted to the original subject. "So why do you think that Death Eater wasn't afraid of what Riddle would do? I reckon he had a reason… He seemed smart like that."
"What was it he said about what Riddle wants?" Ginny frowned, dropping her hand as she tried to remember. Harry immediately missed its presence, and reached forward slightly to take it in his own. "He said something, like, it was what Riddle wanted, for them to fight. The way he was with Malfoy's dad, I mean."
It did make a very Dark Lord-ish sort of sense. Harry remembered what Dumbledore had said about tyrants. If Riddle's minions fought with each other, they'd be too busy to challenge him. Seemed a bit stupid to encourage that kind of competition in his own ranks, Harry thought. But, then, Harry would probably make a pretty shit Dark Lord.
"Yeah, but it's one thing to call Lucius a prick, and something else to let Scott escape," Harry said.
"Let?" Scott interjected, breaking off his conversation with Hermione.
"You know what I mean."
"If I were him, I'd expect a curse right up the arse for that," Ron said.
"What if it wasn't him at first?" Ginny theorised.
Scott must have twigged on to her meaning, because his head tilted contemplatively. "Go on."
"Remember how they all just ran in there and got shot? That doesn't seem so smart, not if they know a thing or two about Muggle fighting. So, what if the big stubbly bloke wasn't in charge at first, what if he came in after?"
"They surround the bank, someone makes the call to attack, they get shot up, so they bring in the guy who might know how to deal with it," Scott said, ticking off the hypothetical series of events on his fingers. "He gets there, gets organised, puts his people in the streets; but, he's got holes punched through his lines, casualties everywhere, conflicting and outdated reports all up and down the Alley, it's getting dark, and outside the window it's a whiteout. By the time you run into him, he knows he's not going to get me or Lil. But, he also knows someone else is more to blame than he is."
"He doesn't look good… But, he doesn't look any worse," Harry finished.
"He actually comes out ahead, if he plays his cards right. From the sound of it, he put everything together quick enough, he just came in too late in the game for it to matter. All he has to do is make a convincing case that he could have done the job if he hadn't been cut out of the action," Scott said.
"So we may not be rid of him, after all," Hermione said soberly.
"We've been lucky, but not that lucky."
"Okay. Yep, hold on." Sophie's voice came from the stairs, drawing everyone's attention. She walked into the kitchen with her mobile pressed to one ear and gestured at Scott. "He's here. I'll tell him." Lowering the mobile, she said, "We're going to let Kylie stay with Trevor for this mission again, right?"
"I don't see why not," Scott replied. "I know you'll be here, but there's no reason for her to sit around and worry when she can be with him."
"Right, but Lil is saying there's some sick people over at that safehouse and she thought maybe I could go take a look," Sophie said.
Scott immediately nodded. "Take the opening. Let's get the Order familiar with you, too, build a little trust."
"That's what I thought," Sophie said, and then traipsed back up the stairs, still chatting with Lila.
Scott reached behind himself and picked up the duffel bag on the floor.
It was the de facto 'map bag', full of Muggle maps and some of Scott's diagrams. He leafed through them for a moment before pulling out a large and detailed map of Surrey and some of the surrounding county. Harry had been thinking that Sophie would have to go shopping for a map more specific than the general ones Scott had of England, but Scott already had what he needed. Which made sense, now that Harry considered it. Of course Scott would have a map of Surrey. He probably had maps of Ottery St Catchpole and Hermione's area, too.
"Little Whinging isn't ideal," Scott said, placing a finger on a road. "Here's Privet Drive, but it's not a thoroughfare. We got two ways in and out – make it to either end of the street, and then it's five ways. There's too many hedges to cut through yards with the car. Most houses have a fence, too. A lot of brick construction, a lot of hedges, a lot of high fences. Good cover, decent sightlines, too, especially street side. Not a good position to approach."
"You think they'll be waiting for us?" Hermione said, surprised.
"Probably not. They'd have to know we were coming, and they haven't anticipated anything we've done yet."
"It's not as if we're going to assault the place even if they are. If there's an army present we'll have to find somewhere else suitable."
"Cross that bridge when we come to it. There are places we can go," Scott said, pulling the map closer to his chair and looking down at it.
"Just so long as there aren't any dragons. That one was enough."
Having had his own close encounter with a dragon, Harry did not envy Hermione and Sophie their task of bypassing the one guarding the vault.
"We have dragons too, you know," Scott said idly as he traced the roadways in Surrey.
"Do you?" Hermione said with interest. "Do they breathe fire, as well? Or did you mean something more like a lizard, like a komodo dragon?"
"No, more like yours. They don't breathe fire, but they do hoard treasure."
Hermione blinked. "They hoard treasure?"
"Oh yeah, anything shiny. Plastic bags, broken mirrors, pipes and conduit. They guard it violently."
"So it isn't treasure so much as it is rubbish," Hermione concluded, looking a bit let down.
"Dragons are animals, and, as you might expect, aren't really up to date on market value."
"But why do they collect shiny things?"
"No one's really sure. The most common theory is that it's a mating thing, like a display; any dragon fit enough to amass a pile of shiny garbage and defend it is fit enough to mate. It's an odd qualifier for procreation, but nature's given us stranger."
"I don't think we humans can point any fingers when it comes to odd qualifiers for procreation," Hermione said dryly.
"We can point all we want; they're stupid animals, they don't know what we're pointing at." Scott circled something on the map. "Harry, double check this."
Harry got up and went around the table. Scott had circled a portion of Privet Drive, roughly where the Dursleys' house was. "Yeah, that's about right," he said.
"No, that's the old circle. This," Scott tapped the map. "That's the playground lot, right? Not this one?"
"Uh… Yeah. 'Cause that's the lot where Dudley lit off his fireworks."
"I was ninety-nine percent sure. Just check when you can," Scott advised as he made more notations.
Harry had watched him work before, but it was still impressive. "You've done this a few times, huh?"
"Been in the army a long time, Harry. Joined as soon as I could."
"You joined when you were my age?" Harry tried to imagine a teenaged Scott, eager to serve his country. He didn't have to imagine all that hard since he had known a teenaged Scott. Still, he knew it wasn't the same.
"When I was fifty," Scott said absently, still scribbling.
"Fifty?" Ginny said in shock, while Hermione and Ron made noises of surprise.
"On Solas the minimum age is actually fifty-two, but I saved up and booked a flight to Eastervale Hub so I didn't have to wait another two years. I was young, dumb and full of cum." Scott tilted his head slightly in consideration. "Now I'm just the last two, so… progress."
Given that Scott's features had the ageless quality of a healthy man somewhere in midst of his twenties or thirties, Harry had to wonder just how old Scott was. He didn't ask, though; Scott was becoming more intent on his planning by the second.
"Covering the whole neighbourhood with one car could be risky, someone might notice. That means either I have to change vehicles or one you needs to drive," Scott said.
"I doubt the Death Eaters pay much attention to cars," Hermione pointed out.
"We don't know what they do. Not anymore."
"All right, Scott," Hermione said, leaning back slightly, "whatever you think is best. I'm going to fetch Sophie and get started. You'll let me know if I'm needed here?"
"Once I have something for you to go over," Scott mumbled, tracing another road with his finger.
"You want me up there?" Ron asked her.
"If you don't mind. I can always use your help," Hermione told him with a grateful smile. "Um, Ginny, could I borrow you as well?"
Ginny looked a bit surprised, but stood up to go. Harry started to push himself away from the table when Hermione suddenly said, "No, that's fine, Harry. Ron and Ginny will be all the help I need."
Harry paused uncertainly. "Oh. Okay."
"You should stay and plan with Scott, anyway," Hermione said hurriedly, perhaps concerned for Harry's feelings.
He had the sudden feeling of being outside his body, of looking at the situation with eyes other than his own; or maybe they were his own eyes, just from another time. Was this how it was? Ron and Hermione going off to take care of something else along with Ginny, Harry staying with the strange man who had butted into their lives? Just the three of them, no longer. Not for a while, now. For a split second, Harry longed for the simpler problems of earlier years, when it seemed there wasn't anything he and Ron and Hermione couldn't tackle so long as they were together.
Ron, noticing Harry's frozen state, frowned slightly. "All right, Harry?"
Harry let out a quick breath, felt the past loosen its grip. Different didn't mean worse. Things changed, and they changed with them. "Yeah, mate. You lot go on, we'll hash this out. We'll need everyone's opinion after, anyway."
Ginny still looked confused as to why Hermione required her presence. "Don't let him plan anything where he gets to sacrifice himself, Scott," she said.
"Don't worry, I know how this dude thinks," Scott replied.
Despite his annoyance, Harry found himself impressed. The two of them could hold a relatively civil conversation, now. That was certainly progress. "Right, Scott; break this down for me," he said, leaning over the map again.
"Our enemy probably has sentries here or somewhere nearby. But it's a public space, which means we can move through it if we're careful," Scott said. "We start by canvassing the subdivision on the outside circuit, and then move inward. Our biggest problem is possible identification if our car is seen moving up and down all the streets without purpose. So I'm thinking, we give ourselves a good reason to be there…"
Outside the window, the snow was thick on the ground. Glittering powder still adhered to the frame. Neville's breath fanned against the glass, fogging it. He glanced at the clock again.
One in the afternoon. Just like the last time he looked.
It wasn't that he was eager for the time to change, since that meant Luna would be leaving, but he was concerned. Her father was supposed to be coming to pick her up after her stay at Neville's for the first half of the Christmas holiday.
Luna was perfectly capable of Apparating to her own home once beyond the wards around the Longbottom estate, but it wasn't safe to travel alone – especially for her. The reprisals against the Gryffindors had been getting worse over the school year and Luna, despite her status as a Ravenclaw, had been the focus of the worst kind of attention. She thought it was because her father was stubbornly printing the truth about the Ministry despite the current political climate. Neville thought she was right. He also thought her relationship with him, and her friendship with Harry and those closest to him, had put a target on her back. Neville wasn't exactly the Death Eaters' favourite person, but he did come from a very old and very rich pure-blood wizarding family, so, at the very least, they seemed reluctant to kill him. He didn't think Luna was afforded the same benefit, and he had been seriously considering taking Lila up on her offer and getting Luna out of Hogwarts while she was still in one piece.
Xenophilius was late, by almost a half hour. He must have often been late, given that Luna's expression had remained serene up until about the twenty-five minute mark. It was only now that the slightest frown began to crease her pale features.
"He must be running late," Neville said, just to say something.
It wasn't long ago at all that he would have thought nothing of it, but these days any absence carried with it an undercurrent of darker possibilities. Especially in this case, when Luna's father had been using his paper to criticise the Ministry. It was very brave and admirable of him, but also very dangerous. Neville still carried the bruises that came with acting out against the current powers.
"He might be reading quite a good book," Luna suggested.
"Right, yeah," Neville said, though he didn't believe it any more than she did.
Time dragged on, seemingly more slowly by the second. The shadows grew longer outside. When the clock struck two, Neville knew they had to make a decision.
"Perhaps I should just go," Luna said, standing.
"No! No, let's… How about we send an owl, first?" Neville said.
Luna clearly didn't like waiting even longer, but she understood the dangers involved. She wrote a quick note whilst Neville fetched one of the house owls. They sent the owl out the window and watched it swoop away through the light snow that had begun falling, obscuring the sun behind a curtain of white and grey.
The owl came back the next day, letter unopened.
They sat on the edge of Neville's bed together, hands intertwined as Luna looked out his window with a lost expression, the morning sun blotted out behind snowfall. Neville had tried to make her feel better, but in truth he was just as worried. If the owl hadn't been able to find her father, then he wasn't at home. And since he'd never arrived at Neville's…
He held Luna's hand as his heart sat heavy in his chest and she stared listlessly out his window. He could barely stand it, the way she looked. He felt so helpless.
"I suppose they'll take me, once I go back," Luna said quietly into the silence.
Rage filled Neville so suddenly that he got caught up in it as if by surprise. "We shouldn't go back," he said, making up his mind right then.
Luna fixed him with a very direct look. "I won't sit and do nothing, Neville," she told him.
"We shouldn't do that, either." He jumped up and rummaged through his things until he found what he was looking for: the mirror Lila had given him. He popped it open and touched his wand to it, speaking the password. "Is anyone there? Hello?"
Luna came up and peered into the mirror as well. For a few long moments, there was nothing. Neville was just beginning to feel disappointed when the surface of the mirror suddenly brightened, and he found himself looking into wide green eyes.
"Hello? Oh, Neville!" It was Sophie, appearing delighted to see him. "How are you?"
"Not good. We… We need to talk." He quickly summarised what had happened over the last day.
Sophie's demeanour became solemn. "Okay, I understand. Just a second, please."
She must have set the mirror down because it went blank again. Neville looked to Luna whilst they waited. "You think Harry will let us help?" he said uncertainly. It was possible Harry would still want them to be his eyes and ears at Hogwarts, but if that were the case then Neville was going back alone. It just wasn't even slightly safe for Luna, not anymore.
"He'll want to help us, first," Luna predicted.
That did sound like Harry. There was sound from the mirror, and Neville looked back down to it. "Neville?" Another pair of green eyes appeared, albeit of a different shade. "You there, mate?"
"Is that you, Harry?" Neville said, raising the mirror to be more in line with his face.
Harry held it back, too. Behind him, Neville could see what he thought was someone's arm and a bit of Hermione's distinctive hair. "I brought everyone else. What happened?"
Again, Neville related the ominous news. "And the owl's just come back with the letter," he finished.
Harry's expression was grim. "How's Luna?"
"She's right here, she's…" Rather than trying to speak for her, Neville turned the mirror slightly in her direction.
"I really want to look for my dad," Luna said matter-of-factly.
"Yeah, I reckoned. But…" Harry's face creased in thought. "Damn, if we weren't right in the middle of…"
"Retask Lil," someone said off-mirror.
Harry's head turned. "Is she available, what with the…?"
"If she's on schedule. She's in a better position than we are to do something, whatever the case."
Harry turned back to the mirror. "Nev, I really want to go with but you caught us right in the middle of something. Scott reckons Lila can help you, and then maybe we can meet up the day after tomorrow. Is that all right?"
"Um, yeah." Neville was once again lost, feeling left out and confused.
"Sorry, mate, but we're halfway out the door. When we get back we'll get you and Luna sorted, if Lila hasn't already, I promise."
"Good luck, Harry," Luna said.
He smiled tightly. "Thanks, Luna. You, too."
The mirror was passed back to Sophie. "I'm going to forward your connection to Lila, okay? I already sent her a message so she knows."
Neville wasn't sure what that meant, but he nodded anyway. "Okay. And, um, thanks."
"We'll help more as soon as we can," Sophie assured him, and then the mirror went blank again.
Neville looked at Luna uncertainly. "I guess we wait…?"
"They seemed in a hurry," Luna noted. "I hope they'll be all right."
"Me, too," Neville said. He hoped they were all going to be all right.
The mirror flickered, and then familiar grey eyes appeared. "Hello?" Lila said.
"Hi, yeah! It's me. It's, uh, it's Neville," he said awkwardly.
"Sophie said there was a problem."
Neville quickly got Lila up to speed. "So he never showed and we're worried, you know, it's… It's Luna's dad."
"You're at your house?" Lila asked.
"Yes, the both of us," Neville confirmed.
"I'm about to be in the middle of something, but I'll be over as soon as I can. Don't go anywhere. I'm serious. Stay put."
Neville glanced at Luna. She didn't look happy with having to delay the trip to her place, but she did seem resigned to it, which was probably the best Neville could hope for. "Okay. We'll be here."
"Good. See you soon."
The mirror went blank once more, and Neville snapped it shut.
"That's good, yeah?" he said, trying to remain positive.
Luna looked at him very seriously. "Do you think he's all right?"
Neville just stared back at her, the right words, whatever they were, not coming to him.
Her shoulders drooped slightly, and she turned away. "Neither do I," she said quietly.
He knew he'd never find anything worthwhile to say to that (sort of doubted there was anything at all). So he gently placed his hands on her shoulders and sat back down on the bed.
She sat with him and they stayed like that for a time; worried, but together.
Remus watched out of the corner of his eye as Lila spoke into her hand. He couldn't see who she was communicating with or how she was doing it, but he had what he thought were some good assumptions.
He knew better than to ask, anyway.
"See you soon," she said, shutting something with a soft click and hiding it back in one of her pockets. She turned around and resumed her place next to Remus at the table.
"Is everything all right?" he ventured.
"No," she said. "But you knew that."
He supposed she meant the state the of things in their entirety, and of course she was right. Hence the meeting of the Order that was about to take place at Shell Cottage. It was one of a long line of such meetings, though it was the first to which Lila had been invited. She'd proven herself a capable ally, if a secretive one.
Moody came stumping into the room, slouching into one of the chairs and taking a pull from his flask. Tucking it back into his robes, he said to Remus, "You see the Prophet?"
Remus knew Moody wasn't one for small talk. Whatever the news was, it was important (which was unusual for the Prophet, now that it was controlled by the puppet Ministry). "No, I haven't. Something of concern?"
"Could be," Moody grunted. He dug through another pocket and withdrew a crumpled copy of The Daily Prophet. He tossed it onto the table. "Front page."
Remus pulled the paper across the table and looked at it. The headline across the top declared, 'GRINGOTTS PLUNDERED IN DARING DAYLIGHT RAID', with smaller print adding, 'Gringotts goblins helpless to stop attack; brave Aurors slain by terrorists'. Remus' eyes widened in surprise.
"Great Merlin," he muttered, scanning over the rest of the article. "Someone actually robbed Gringotts?"
"Just the top part of it, but that's bad enough," Moody said.
"And even got away with it…" Remus read over the last paragraph.
"If you believe it."
Remus nodded, setting the paper down. "The Prophet isn't the most trustworthy source."
"Something happened there. I've heard things, talked to people. There was an attack. But by who, and for what…?"
Remus considered that. "You think You-Know-Who was behind it?"
Moody's expression soured. "It makes sense. Those rotters would love a chance to discredit the goblins and take the bank for themselves. It's a damn good pretext."
"Especially if Aurors were killed," Remus noted.
Moody snorted in contempt. "'Brave Aurors'," he sneered. "Bloody Death Eaters, more like."
Remus frowned slightly. "If some of them really were killed, he may not have been behind it."
"Perhaps," Moody allowed. "Maybe someone did rob the place; but I doubt they got away. They say that, it makes the goblins look weak. Gives them a reason to get in there, start mucking with things. The bank's lost." Moody's regular eye squinted contemplatively. "But we might come out ahead. There'll be a lot of angry goblins after this. Angry enough to side with some wizards, even…"
"It's worth looking into," Remus cautiously agreed. "I do have my doubts."
"As do I." Moody jerked his chin up at Lila. "What about you, what do you make of this?"
Lila had been sitting to the side of their conversation without comment. When Moody addressed her, she glanced at the paper. "I'd want a second source before committing to anything," she said neutrally.
"I asked for an opinion, not a commitment," Moody said firmly, his electric blue eye fixed on her.
"Then I agree. I've been to Gringotts and I don't think anyone could rob it and escape. Some idiot probably tried and gave Riddle the excuse he was looking for."
Moody assessed her for a silent moment. When she didn't blink, he finally looked away with an odd twist to his lips. "While he still needs one," he said. "He won't for much longer."
"It's surprising how long he's maintained his ruse," Remus agreed.
"Maybe he knows something we don't," Moody growled.
And with that lovely thought, the rest of the core Order members began to enter the room, cutting the conversation short. Remus stood and embraced a slightly out of breath Tonks, whose cheeks and nose were pink with the cold.
"You been out in that rot?" she asked him, tugging at her scarf. "I swear it gets colder every bloody time I have to be outside at all. It's like it knows."
"You've been hunting?" he asked, knowing she had probably been searching for fleeing Muggle-borns, hoping to find them before the Snatchers did.
"Me and Kingsley, yeah. Had a bit of luck, actually: found the Ingalls hiding not too far from their home. They're over at the Exeter place." She glanced over at the others in the room, and then said more quietly, "Harry's up to something, I expect."
Remus leaned in closer. "Why do you say that?"
"That girl, Kylie? She's at Exeter, too. I even asked why they'd brought her over, but she wouldn't say. Never said where she usually stays, either, but it's obvious, isn't it?"
Remus mulled that over. This second-year, Kylie, had appeared at the Exeter safehouse without warning not too long ago, brought there by Lila. That wouldn't have been especially remarkable, except that her stay had been temporary. She must have been involved in Harry's business in some way, though Remus couldn't say how. He also wondered why she hadn't been given over to the Order's care on a permanent basis. Harry must have had his reasons.
"She wouldn't tell you?" Remus said, finding that sort of reticence odd in one so young.
"Not a word. Clammed up and just stared at me like I was touched in the head." Tonks shrugged. "Suppose she thought I was, asking about that. They're a loyal lot, Harry's friends."
"He's much like his father, that way," Remus murmured, lost for a moment in reminiscence.
"All right, listen up," Moody said loudly, bringing everyone to attention.
With Dumbledore gone, the Order had no official leader and no one had tried to directly assume the role. Decisions tended to be made by the group, on the rare occasion there was actually time to make them that way. Most of the Order's movements were reactionary and required such tight timing that the obvious course of action was simply performed without much in the way of debate. Moody was considered the senior member, however, and tended to take charge during meetings.
"We've got a break," Moody said shortly. "Fletcher, tell 'em."
Mundungus started to stand and then seemed to think better of it, slumping back onto his chair. "Had a chat with a couple of me mates," he began, and it was abundantly clear what he meant by 'chat' given the strong smell of Firewhiskey still wafting off him. "'eard some of them Snatchers was comin' out to Sheffield to have a shufti, on account of a bit of bother they already 'ad with some goblins. But I heard it wasn't just goblins; there was students with 'im, too. They grabbed some but the rest scarpered and now they're off to snatch 'em proper."
Remus traded a glance with Tonks, the implication striking them simultaneously.
Moody leaned forward. "Right. This is the first real chance we've had to find out where these bastards are taking people. We follow the Snatchers, find the targets, and if we're lucky, they'll have something to tell us."
"Why would they still be around Sheffield? Wouldn't they have Apparated somewhere else by now?" Bill asked.
"The first dust up was somewhere else. Sheffield is where the Snatchers plan to look this time," Moody clarified. "Someone they took must have talked."
"Did they say who they're after?" Kingsley said.
"They were a bit dodgy about it. Not munted enough for me to ask, neither," Mundungus recalled.
"It's better that you kept your cover," Moody told him, before addressing the group once more. "We don't know how many there'll be, but you can wager there'll be more of them than there are us. I say we bring everyone who isn't already off on something else."
"These goblins and students; even if they did get away, they may not know anything," Kingsley pointed out.
"I know it. But look at our options. We haven't captured a single one of these berks, either because we've been outnumbered or because we had to kill 'em – and we usually have to kill them because we're outnumbered!" Moody's pale slash of a mouth twisted with contempt. "Merlin knows I don't give a damn if we have to thin them out… But we're no closer to getting back anyone they've taken than we were at the start of this mess. And maybe it's already too late. But we've got to try. We've got to."
"You know I wasn't saying we shouldn't try, Alastor," Kingsley said firmly. "At the very least, we might be able to get some more people to one of the safehouses."
"And if that's all, it'll be worth it. So, who's going?"
Tonks immediately raised her hand, along with Remus. So did Bill, Kingsley, Arthur and Doge. Remus was quite surprised to see that Lila did not.
Moody noticed that, as well. "Whatever trust issues we've had, forget it," he told her. "We need you."
"It's not that. I'm already on assignment," Lila said.
Moody frowned. "From who?"
Lila said nothing, but the look she gave Moody made it clear she thought he should already know the answer.
"More secrets," Moody growled. "All right, have it your way. Or his way, whichever."
"I'll link up with you at Sheffield if I can."
The meeting adjourned temporarily to allow all present to consider a plan of action; after supper they'd take everyone's input and decide how best to approach the mission. Remus was just turning to talk to Tonks again when Lila suddenly appeared to his side.
"The werewolf thing is on hold," she said. "Sorry. Something came up."
"That's all right, I don't think we'd be all that convincing just yet," Remus replied. "The full moon already happened this month; our proof would be rather delayed." He was fairly certain he wouldn't get an answer, but was compelled to ask, "Is Harry doing well?"
"As far as I know," Lila said in a sympathetic tone.
"Is this something we could get in on?" Tonks said hopefully. "Like, maybe you could use another hand or two?"
"Not this time. The Order is going to need you in Sheffield. Move carefully. Stay safe," Lila urged. When she saw their reactions, the slightest of smiles crossed her face and she added, "Not for me. For Harry."
"You, too," Tonks said, clapping the taller woman on the arm. "And when you see Harry, tell him that if he ever needs us, for anything, we'll be there."
"He knows." Lila glanced at the clock on the wall. "People are waiting for me. Good luck out there."
And with that, she left, striding out of the cottage and off to parts unknown. For a moment, Remus wished he could go where she was; where Harry was, presumably. But whatever Dumbledore had left to Harry had not been left to Remus. And Remus chose to trust in the old Headmaster's judgement, hard as it sometimes was.
No point in dwelling, though. There were things to gather, and plans to make.
1. Read Harry Potter books
2. Write bizarre, obsessive combat-realism focused fanfiction full of sci-fi OCs and ideas that interest only self
3. ? ? ? ?
4. Get reviews