7The Balance Unseen
"To all 363rd FFM officers who submitted post-operation
complaints regarding the standing orders for Operation
redacted: greatly deviated strategical and logistical
applications must be ratified, at minimum, by Highground
during active engagements or by the acting MOFC when
assets are in play as determined by the mission parameters.
While adaptation is expected and encouraged, the widespread
disregard for Second Fleet's established jurisdiction on
redacted is not acceptable without command-authorized
alternativ es or situational necessity (which shall be determined,
ex post facto, by a designated Imperiarchy CRC with input from
observers and referred POR).
Second Fleet command has issued several statements regarding
this matter which are required reading for all commissioned
officers currently assigned to or pending assignment with the
Operation redacted attachments. It is the hope of the
current redacted regional command that any continued
issues with Second Fleet oversight can be resolved without further
overtures towards insubordination."
–Second Fleet Regional Command missive regarding recent difficulties with attached Fifth Fleet Marines
RE: New Orders:
Requested more than a single sheet of toilet paper.
–Praefectus Minor Phylla Galbarden, in reply to written orders from
Forward Command, Operation Lifted Trowel
Harry woke up on his side, squinting against the light shining into his eyes. When his vision cleared, he pushed himself up on one elbow and took in his surrounds. He was momentarily panicked by the unfamiliarity of them.
The walls of the room were blank white. There was a half-opened wardrobe opposite the bed on which he had awakened, with a few shirts hanging inside. The light which shone on him emanated from the open door next to it. There must have been a window somewhere beyond, as he couldn't see any lights that were on.
His heart rate slowed and the panic receded once he remembered what had happened. He was in the Kharan flat, still on Scott's bed where he had passed out the night before. A gentle snoring from somewhere behind him was proof of Ron's presence. Harry would have been fine with taking the sofa, but Scott had insisted it was his; only in retrospect did that seem suspicious. Perhaps the sofa was better than the bed.
Hermione and Ginny were in Lila's room. Everyone had been so knackered the previous night that they had automatically fallen into such 'appropriate' sleeping arrangements without questioning whether they were really necessary any longer.
Harry mentally retreated from that thought. He couldn't speak for Ron and Hermione, but he wasn't sure he was ready to share a bed with Ginny, temping as it seemed.
He rolled off the bed and tugged on his shoes. He noted with distaste they were his nice ones from the wedding; they had all fallen asleep in their tattered, filthy clothing. Getting more suitable clothes from Hermione's handbag would be a top priority (as was utilising Scott's shower). Harry walked out the doorway, deciding to let Ron sleep. There was no point in rousing everyone until he had some kind of plan.
The large sofa had been vacated when Harry emerged from Scott's room. The door to Lila's room was still closed. There were footsteps and the banging of cupboards from the direction of the kitchen, where Harry found Scott making a breakfast far too large for just himself.
"Is that for all of us?" Harry asked hopefully, eyeing the steaming bacon that Scott had piled on a plate near the stove.
"Good morning!" Scott said with pronounced cheer. "Yes, this is a group breakfast; you can thank me later and you can thank me right now, for double the thanks!"
"Thanks. Any particular reason you're so bright this morning?" Harry wondered, sinking into a nearby chair.
"I'm still riding high on our recent triumph. Also, I didn't sleep at all last night and I'm a mite wired."
Harry wasn't feeling especially triumphant. "What the hell are you on about?"
Scott deftly flipped the pancakes he was making with one hand, pointing the other at Harry. "Last night, you dumbhole! Everything went according to plan, it was perfect. We fought the enemy, lured them away from civilian targets, and then cleanly escaped."
That wasn't exactly how Harry remembered it. "Um, we just made everything up as we went along. Also, we were outnumbered, overpowered and terrified."
"And took no casualties. Harry, I know that you're new to this whole 'battle' thing, but take it from a guy with a lot of engagements under his belt – if you get away and nobody dies while you're 'outnumbered, overpowered and terrified', that's a success story. Never mind that we actually accomplished our objective. With a bunch of kids. In the dark."
"All we did was run…"
Scott scoffed dismissively. "We hindered and evaded. With a bunch of untrained kids. In the dark. If I was Riddle – and I'm way too good-looking for that – I'd be reassessing my element leaders at this point."
"Okay, then what would you have done if you'd been them?" Harry challenged.
"Well, first I'd have consulted Hermione as to what spells we could use. Then I'd have actually, you know, utilised my superior numbers to flank and surround you. Split up the left, right and middle, Disapparate further forward and double back. Bring up that area jinx so you can't get out, leave one side open to drive you towards that clearing. You know, that clearing by that hill? With the thing?"
"Hermione would have been with me," Harry said dryly. "I don't see the point of leaving us a way out."
"Never encircle an enemy completely. Nobody fights harder than a man who knows he's trapped. Also, a surrounded force has a tendency to punch a hole through one side, which can put you in a very nasty position. The trick is to make the enemy think they can get away. Then they go where you want them to."
"Never encircle the enemy completely," Harry repeated. He took the lesson seriously, memorising it as he always did whenever Scott imparted advice of a militaristic nature. Such things might someday be crucial. "No exceptions?"
"Well, that's technically more applicable to a large land battle, but when you've got guns and wands a circle is also going to cross your own lines of fire. If you're going to put your enemy's back up against something, the best approach is actually a sort of staggered 'V'. But, there are always exceptions. Understanding when they apply is a very valuable skill."
"Do I have time to learn it?" Harry asked, only partially joking.
"I don't know. You've got a decent amount of raw talent, so let's see how that pans out."
"Great. I'll be dead before I learn anything."
Scott studied him. "Hmmm… Your despair is most likely symptomatic of a lack of protein. Quick, eat these eggs! Hurry!"
Harry dutifully began eating the eggs Scott had slid across the table to him, though he did it with considerably less haste than suggested. "Seen any Death Eaters snooping about?"
"No, but I have a limited view from these windows." Scott crossed the room and peered out through the shades. "We could be anywhere, far as they know. You aren't at Privet Drive, you aren't at The Burrow and you aren't at Hogwarts. That pretty much covers all your known haunts."
"I don't get out much," Harry admitted.
"Hey, all those years of being a shut-in are finally paying off."
Harry took another bite of his eggs, suddenly ravenous. He hadn't eaten much at the wedding, and the Death Eaters hadn't paused in their pursuit so they could all have a snack. "Those pancakes done yet?"
Scott's cooking was unexpectedly good. Harry didn't know why that was so surprising, except that Scott didn't really seem the type. Of course, neither did Lila, and she had made some wicked biscuits and cake. Harry was just happy to know that there would be someone to provide edible meals, should circumstances require it.
Harry and Scott ate and cooked, respectively, in a companionable silence for about five minutes before Hermione appeared from Lila's room, yawning widely and sporting a head of hair even bushier than usual. Her wedding dress was badly wrinkled and dusty.
"Good morning," she said sleepily. "Oh! Are those for me?"
"How do you want your eggs?" Scott said by way of response.
"Scrambled, please. I don't like it when they're watery. Harry, you look awful."
"Thanks," he said through a mouthful of bacon.
"We all need to change… I'll get my handbag in a bit. Scott, are you going to use the clothes you already have here?"
"Yeah," Scott affirmed. He motioned at Harry. "Dude, once you're done get some clothes from Hermione and jump in the shower. We'll rotate everyone through the bathroom when they finish up eating."
"I'll go after Harry, then," Hermione said. She sat down at the table, eyeing the eggs Scott was making expectantly.
"Wait, I just had an even more efficient idea!" Scott proclaimed. "We'll double up to save time! Harry, you shower with Ginny. Hermione, you shower with Ron. Then, you can all jump back in with me for a second shower to get clean on account of the sex you had during the first shower."
"I think my eggs are ready," Hermione said tersely.
you prefer to shower with me, first? Before you respond, keep in mind that you could hurt my feelings."
"Scott, it's a bit early for this," Hermione sighed. "Can I have my eggs, please?"
Scott looked a bit put out that Hermione hadn't risen to his bait. "Fine."
Harry thought that things would be a lot calmer amongst his friends if Hermione could just learn to disregard Scott's deliberate needling all the time. He still hadn't found out what had happened between them at The Burrow, but it was obvious they'd had a brief falling out. He hoped they'd settled things. The journey ahead would be hard enough without inner tensions.
Ginny wandered into the kitchen and flopped down into one of the other chairs. She looked tired, though a lot of that had to do with the ragged state of her dress and the smudges on her face. "Morning… I thought I smelled breakfast. Give it here, Scott."
He frowned at her. "What's the magic word?"
"That's two words! I said word, singular!"
"Well, let me have some of that food and then I'll thank you if it isn't shite," Ginny said in a reasonable tone.
"All right, that seems fair."
Harry turned to Hermione, who was using her fork to arrange her eggs in a neat pile. "Can you get some of my spare clothes for me? I'm going to clean up."
She obligingly went into Lila's room and retrieved a change of clothing for Harry. He dropped the bundle on the sink in the loo and sorted through it whilst the shower warmed up. They were all bits of Muggle clothing, of which he had little that still fit him. He needed to buy more if they were going to be moving outside of the wizarding world.
When he stepped under the spray, the water at his feet ran dark with debris and the heat stung like acid on his scraped legs and fingers, but it was a good feeling. He had survived the attack and, much more importantly, so had his friends.
He put the palms of his hands against the wall and pressed his forehead to the slick tiles, letting the water course through his hair and down his back. He breathed, slowly, in and out. The steam was calming, almost medicinal. If he could keep his head, plan everything out, stay hidden… They might have a chance, however slim. He had more help now than he'd ever thought he would.
He snorted self-deprecatingly, opening his mouth to let the water run in and spitting it back out. More and more, it seemed like his thoughts of going it alone had been nothing but delusions. He couldn't even get Ginny to stay behind, never mind Ron and Hermione. It wasn't like he had lived to see what would have been his seventh Hogwarts year all by himself. Not even close. He'd have died in his first without his friends. Why had he thought he was strong enough to handle the war alone?
Maybe Scott was right. Maybe Harry was retarded or something. It would explain a lot.
He nearly jumped out of his skin when a voice broke him from his contemplation. Outside the sliding shower doors was an outline mottled by the steam and frosted glass. The pitch of the voice and the bright red hair crowning the figure identified it as being Ginny, who had, for some reason, entered the loo. Harry couldn't remember if he'd locked the door or not.
"You're not trying to drown yourself, are you?" she asked with obvious amusement.
Harry didn't think she could see anything through the distorted glass, but he covered himself instinctively. "Um, kind of busy here, Ginny…"
"Hmmm… Anything I could help with?" she inquired in a laughing tone.
Oh, God. How did he respond to that? "Well…"
"I'd probably lend you a hand, if you asked nicely enough."
She sighed impatiently. "We're flirting, Harry. Can't you at least try a little?"
"We don't usually flirt while I'm starkers," Harry said defensively.
"Would it help if I were starkers, too? Would that be more fair?" she asked with a grin in her voice.
There was only so much blood in Harry's body, and, seeing as his brain was being starved due to it being hoarded by one organ in particular, he was having difficulty thinking of an appropriate response. That might have been bollocks, medically speaking, but that was what it felt like. "No. I wouldn't be much interested in talking, then," he managed to force out.
Ginny giggled. "No, I suppose you wouldn't. You're having a hard enough time now and I'm only standing here!"
She had no idea how hard. "Right, just standing. Because it's perfectly normal to walk in on a bloke while he's in the shower and say things to drive him mad," Harry said even as he was fervently hoping that she'd do this sort of thing more often.
"Yeah? Should I keep you company more often, when you shower?" Ginny said throatily, and with a start, Harry realised she was much closer to the glass than she had been.
Harry couldn't deal with that. He wanted to have some sort of witty response, he wanted to keep the game going, but in the intimacy of the setting and without the armour of his clothes, he was helpless. "Ginny…" he groaned, not sure if he should tell her to leave, tell her to stay, or tell her to get in.
At that moment, fate decided to spare Harry from choosing. Regrettably, a far worse problem was created.
The door popped open again and Ron stuck his head in. "Mate, I don't fancy taking a cold shower, hurry – GINNY!"
Ginny stood unaffected. "What?"
"What the bloody hell are you doing in here?! GET OUT!" Ron shouted.
"YOU GET OUT!" Ginny yelled back. The sound bounced around the tight quarters with a volume that was painful.
With the door open, Harry could hear Hermione attempting to intervene whilst Scott was laughing uproariously somewhere in the background. He shut off the water and dried himself as quickly as possible. His clothes were still near the sink, and he didn't much care for the thought of exiting the shower with nothing but a towel for modesty.
"HEY!" he shouted, momentarily silencing the arguing pair. "Can you both get out so I can get dressed? I'm not putting on a show."
"That's a shame," Ginny immediately rejoined.
"What's the idea letting Ginny in here?" Ron demanded.
Harry had no intention of explaining the situation fully. "She sort of let herself in."
Ginny sounded unapologetic. "I didn't hear you complaining."
"Ginny! Merlin, do I even want to know… No, fucking hell, I really don't!" Ron exclaimed.
Then Scott shouldered his way in, causing Hermione to let out an undignified squawk as he pushed her aside. "Okay, loud fucks and fuckettes: reality check. I do have neighbours! So Hermione, good-bye, and Ron, get out of my bathroom. Harry, get dressed. Ginny – staying or going?"
"Staying," Ginny said smugly.
"Going!" Harry immediately countered. "Everyone is going, go!"
As soon as the door shut behind them, Harry darted out of the stall and locked it. He wasn't leaving any chances open for a repeat performance, even if the first half had been exciting, to say the least. Ginny might have been a welcome intrusion, but nobody else was. He dressed himself quickly and tried not to think about it. Of all the reasons to leave Ginny behind, the inherent, tempting distraction of her presence hadn't occurred to him. He had to focus.
And that meant putting together some sort of plan. He sat on the sofa whilst the others took their turns in the shower. The muted rush of the water, the murmuring of conversation and the hum of the cars in the street all faded, relegated into the same mixed swell of noise that settled somewhere at the back of Harry's head as he thought about the past and how it might inform the future. He didn't know enough to finish, but he thought he knew enough to start.
The sofa shook and Harry tilted to his right when Ron flopped down next to him. "You look lost," he commented.
"Aren't we all, now?" Harry said philosophically.
Ron looked at him askance. "Are you trying to be deep or something?"
Harry sighed. "Or something. Hey, remember that life-sized chess game you played first year?"
"I remember most of it. Up until I got bashed in the head; that part's a bit fuzzy, for some reason. I swear I've got a dent there now." Ron ran one hand over his temple. "Don't tell Hermione about that. She probably doesn't go for blokes with lumpy skulls."
"Yeah, it's true. Good skull symmetry is a must," Harry agreed. "But, what I want to know is, how did you do it? How do you… I don't know, look that far ahead?"
"I don't know exactly what's going to happen. The big thing is to look at the board and know all the possible moves you can make, and then you need to know your opponent, at least a little. So you can guess how he'll react. You can't plot everything out to the very end, just have a general plan of movement and be able to change it if you have to," Ron tried to explain. "The giant chess board wasn't all that smart, really. If I'd done a little better I wouldn't have got dented."
"You were brilliant," Harry assured him. "Hermione and I would have been right fucked without you there."
Ron shrugged modestly. "Maybe. Why'd you bring that up?"
"Because I'm trying to do the same thing now, and I don't know if I can," Harry admitted.
"I don't think I'll be much help, mate. I mean, I'll be with you, whatever happens, but… Chess has rules."
"I suppose. I just thought you've kicked my arse around a chess board so much that you'd probably be better at planning than me. You're unbeatable."
"Hermione is better than both of us combined, she'll see us through," Ron said confidently. "And as much as I'd like
to just take the title, I'm not 'unbeatable'. I've lost plenty of times to Dad. Bill's beaten me too. You know, Scott's beaten me at least once!"
"Of course even he'd be better than me," Harry grumbled.
"You just lose track of things. You always do fine to start with," Ron said encouragingly. "Scott does the same thing, but he's weird about it. He only uses, like, a third of his pieces much at all, but he uses them really well. I usually just sacrifice a few of mine because I can't pin him down, then after awhile he's too outnumbered to do much. It's like he expects the rest of his pieces to take care of themselves."
Harry grinned at that. "Maybe he does. They can talk, after all. Does he get angry when they don't do anything on their own?"
"He used to. One night, I thought Hermione was going to put a Silencing Charm on him, he was swearing so much. He'd borrowed one of my sets and they weren't listening to him. Or, they didn't right up until he threw one of the pawns down the stairs." Ron made a chucking motion. "They listened pretty sodding well after that!"
"Where the bloody hell was I during all this?" Harry wondered as he laughed.
"Not witnessing a great moment in chess history, obviously."
"What are we laughing about?" Hermione asked. She had just left the bathroom and her hair was curly and damp as she settled onto the sofa next to Ron.
"I was telling Harry about that time I was playing chess with Scott and he worked himself into a strop," Ron said.
"Quit talking about me!" Scott yelled from his bedroom.
"Fine, we have more important things to discuss," Hermione said.
"No, you don't! Keep talking about me, but only say nice things!"
"Impossible!" Hermione called back. "All right… We managed to escape, that's good. Now we need a starting point for our hunt. Harry, I have the locket in my handbag. When do you want to examine it?"
"I don't. Not until we have some sure way to destroy it," Harry said. "I think Scott might be able to help with that. Scott!"
"Yeah?" Scott walked out of his bedroom, wearing a shirt that was at least two sizes too big for him.
"Nice look," Ron commented. "The Death Eaters will never notice a blond midget following us around."
"You're like, not even that much taller, so can it, dude. What is it, Harry?"
Harry leaned forward. "We don't have any way to kill the Horcruxes. So I was wondering if you still had any of that Blue explosive?"
Scott grimaced in a discouraging way. "I've been thinking about that, too. I'm pretty much ninety-nine percent sure it would destroy the object itself. Blue converts matter to energy, so the only issue is density versus quantity. And minimum safe distance. That being said, I'm shaky on how the magic would factor in."
"How so?" Hermione asked. "Without an object to tether it, the fragment of the soul should… Oh. I think I see the problem."
"What?" Harry said impatiently.
"Once ignited, Blue only interacts with matter. If destroying a Horcrux physically is all that we need, then it should do the trick," Scott said. "No more locket, no more soul. But if there's something else going on, some kind of magical reaction that's necessary… Well, if I Blue bomb that thing there's no guarantee Riddle's soul sliver won't go floating back to him."
Harry shook his head. "But when I destroyed the diary, I just stabbed it."
"With a Basilisk fang," Hermione reminded him. "Basilisk venom is a very powerful magical poison. According to what I've read, the soul cannot exist without its vessel. But that information presupposes a method of destruction which is magical, as that's the only thing a strongly enchanted Horcrux would be susceptible to. You can't just smash one, even if it weren't well protected."
"Then hitting the locket with Blue ultimately wouldn't be much different than dropping a pound of PE4 on it. That might not suffice. It burns me to even think it, but Muggle tech may fail us in this case." Scott did not look happy to be saying that.
"Actually, if the Horcruxes were properly made then Muggle explosives would have no effect; they're supposed to be impervious to everything but the most powerful forms of magical destruction. That's what's worrying about the Blue, we can't know what the effect would be," Hermione explained.
"The shape tends to manifest in specific forms with specific rules," Scott mused. "Breaking those rules often isn't the shortcut you'd think. Blue doesn't play nice with local shape manifestations; I'd be hesitant to use it on a Horcrux. I don't know what you consider the 'soul' to be around here, but it's arguably an energy form. Blue cuts it loose, maybe sends it back to start…"
Hermione pursed her lips thoughtfully. "As I said, the soul is supposed to die with the vessel, but the magic of the vessel must be utterly destroyed. Although, one wonders how the tether works, then. When the owner dies, how does the fragment of the soul become semi-corporeal and sustain them if it can't leave the Horcrux?"
"I get the feeling the people who make these things don't really know what they're doing," Scott said.
"I've had the same thought," Hermione admitted. "It's magic that should have been left unexplored. So, considering your explosive is an unnatural compound introduced from an entirely different universe, we simply can't know what the result might be."
Scott nodded. "This probably isn't a good time to experiment."
"Does it matter if You-Know-Who gets bits of his soul back?" Ron wondered. "I mean, as long as they're all in him, he can be killed again, right?"
"We have to assume he'd notice," Hermione said regretfully. "Otherwise that might have been an ideal outcome."
"It was building the Horcruxes that made him fuck ugly in the first place. Sorry," Harry said quickly to Hermione when she glared at him in response to his profanity. "If he starts getting his soul back he'll probably change again. And he'd almost have to feel something…"
"He'd know what we were doing, and then there'd be nothing stopping him from collecting the other Horcruxes or making new ones." Hermione shook her head. "We can't allow that. The process is supposed to be draining, so I doubt he'd do it on a whim, but if he makes even one more that we don't know about…"
"Then he'll be your kids' problem after we ice him," Scott noted.
"I'd rather just end this now, if I can," Harry said firmly.
"I'm just saying, we got options."
"That is not an option! I'm not having you make an encore appearance in twenty years and lead my kids around through the same bloody nightmare!"
"Twenty years? What, are you going to have kids tomorrow? In twenty years, you should still be able to get off the couch and cast a spell or two."
"Not an option," Harry repeated.
"There's something else we need to consider," Hermione said. "Harry's connection to Voldemort has been a problem in the past, and if he–"
Scott held up a hand, interrupting her. "What did you just do?" he asked sharply.
"What?" Hermione's face revealed nothing but confusion. "I didn't do anything…"
"Yes, you did. There was a magic thread you sent out, just now."
"Scott, I didn't–"
"Yes, you did!" Scott insisted. "You created a linked spell, like, five seconds ago."
Hermione paled. "Linked to what?"
"Hell if I know. You were talking about Riddle and then, boom – connection. Very brief, I probably wouldn't have noticed it if I wasn't so tied to the shape right now."
Harry didn't know what Scott was talking about, but Hermione looked concerned enough to put him on edge.
"Can you tell me anything about the characteristics?" Hermione said intently.
"The technical details would be in terms you aren't familiar with. It was similar to the seeking spell Dumbledore put on me last year when you were looking for me. Not exactly the same. You weren't pinged, it came from you. Or if it didn't, then it was created so fast it seemed like it did. Something was… triggered? Does magic even work like that?"
Hermione nodded shortly. "Rarely. Since it's already over and done with, I'm going to test a theory. Tell me if anything happens, all right?"
"Voldemort," Hermione enunciated clearly.
Scott squinted towards the window. "That did it. Whatever 'it' is."
Hermione rapidly rose to her feet, her expression grim. "Everyone grab your things. I'll get Ginny out of the shower. Hurry!"
Ron gaped at her. "Hermione, what the bloody hell are you–"
"I don't have time to explain but we have to leave as soon as possible, I promise it's urgent! Go!" she yelled when they just looked at her dumbly.
Harry glanced over at Ron to see an identical expression of befuddlement. Scott, in contrast, had rushed back into his room the moment Hermione had said they were leaving. Either he understood the emergency, or he just trusted Hermione enough to believe there was one. Harry fell into the second category, and acted accordingly.
Most of their personal belongings remained in Hermione's handbag, so there wasn't much for Harry and Ron to gather. Instead, they busied themselves by keeping an eye on the door and peeking nervously out of the window. Harry didn't know exactly what they were watching for, but it was presumably Death Eater related. Just about everything was, more or less.
"Harry," Ron said quietly from where he stood by the door.
"Where are we going to go?"
That was a very good question, and Harry didn't have an answer. "I haven't the foggiest. We were supposed to figure that out here."
"Maybe Grimmauld Place?"
Ron suggest hesitantly.
"Bollocks to that," Harry immediately replied.
"Look, I know you don't want to go back there, because of what happened to…"
Harry glared at him, resenting the inference. "It doesn't matter whether I want to or not! Snape can get in, remember? He has the keys, just like us!"
Ron grimaced. "I'd forgotten about that. I guess since Dumbledore snuffed it we're all Secret Keepers now."
"Yeah. Damn place is probably Death Eater headquarters by this point." Harry had never liked Grimmauld Place, and that had only become more true with the painful memories now linked to it. Still, he hated the idea of Voldemort's followers (particularly Snape) making themselves comfortable in Sirius' home.
"What is this place you're discussing?"
The unfamiliar voice made Harry spin around, wand at the ready. His shoulders slumped and he relaxed when he saw it was just Scott, fully grown once more. The Kharadjai really needed to give them some kind of warning.
"Grimmauld Place," Harry said. "Sirius' family house. I think I've mentioned it before. We've stayed there."
"Is that where we're going?"
"No. Snape can get in, too. The building is under a charm that makes it invisible to anyone who doesn't know about it already. Dumbledore had the key, essentially, but…"
"Now nobody does," Scott surmised.
"No, now we all do."
"Something to keep in mind. If it's occupied, we could jump in there and cause some damage.
"Or get damaged," Harry added. "Let's not go looking for trouble, we've got loads as it is."
"Don't discard an asset just because it's in enemy hands. A house like what you're describing is useful."
"Was useful," Harry said stubbornly.
"If it was made unassailable once, it can be made that way again," Scott argued.
"Will the two of you shut it? I'm trying to think," Ron interrupted them.
"Well, maybe we should all stick to our strengths," Harry said snidely, and then immediately regretted it. He was lashing out, and Ron didn't deserve it. He sighed. "Sorry, mate. What were you saying?"
"From what just happened, it looks like You-Know-Who put some sort of curse on his name, right? That's why we have to leave; Hermione said his name and now they can find us," Ron supposed.
Harry had been too busy fighting off memories of Sirius and arguing with Scott to really think about it. Now that Ron had laid it all out, his theory made frightening sense. "Damn," Harry breathed. "I didn't know that was even possible."
"On his assumed name. I've referred to Riddle multiple times without effect," Scott pointed out.
"Then we all need to do the same, from now on. We can't slip up on this again," Harry said seriously.
"They haven't smashed down the door, yet. So that's a plus," Ron said.
Scott pushed down the window blinds and peeked through. "That's a fair point, Ron. What's keeping them?" He let the shades snap shut with a decisive motion. "They won't recognise me. I'm going to go out the back and do a lap around the building. Help the girls get all our junk together and lock the door behind me."
Harry shook his head emphatically. "No, we should stick together!"
"Don't be an idiot on this one, Harry," Scott said in a maddeningly level tone. "They won't know it's me and even if they do, I'm expendable. If I get made, I'll start shooting. You'll hear that real quick."
Before Harry could protest any further, Scott unlocked the door and slipped out, closing it quietly behind him.
"He's gone completely mental," Harry seethed. He darted over the window, keeping watch.
"What do you mean, 'gone'?" Ron said, doing the same. "You act like this is out of character for the git."
Hermione came sweeping back into the living room with Ginny in tow and her handbag slung over her shoulder. "All right, I think I have everything, but there's not much time to check. Let's pick a destination, it doesn't matter where so much as it isn't here. I think – hang on, where's Scott?"
"Outside," Harry said.
"What?" she gasped
"Are we not leaving, then? Hermione hasn't told me what's bloody happening," Ginny said irritably.
Ron was still next to Harry, straining his eyes in an attempt to catch sight of Scott. "He thought he'd just pop out and look around."
Hermione was pale. However, she seemed to calm after a few tense seconds of consideration. "…I see. Well, they haven't come in yet so we'll have to assume they don't know where to find us, precisely. I'm sorry for not explaining right away, but they found us because–"
"You-Know-Who has cursed his name, right?" Ron said. "How many times have I told you not to say that bloody name?"
Hermione blinked. "How did you…?"
"I thought about it a bit. I'm not completely daft, Hermione," Ron said wryly.
Her cheeks coloured. "Of course you aren't. I didn't mean it like that."
"Most of us aren't completely daft, save one, who thought it would be brilliant to take a stroll out with the Death Eaters no doubt surrounding us as we speak," Harry muttered.
"Very positive, Harry, good job keeping our spirits up," Ginny mocked him.
Harry kept his mouth closed after that, but he continued to glare out the window, regardless.
Several minutes passed before there came a rattling from the lock, and the front door reopened. Scott walked through to be greeted by the business ends of everyone's wands.
"At least you're paying attention," he commented. He shut the door behind himself and relocked it. "I just did a walk around the building, pretending like I was in the middle of a phone call. It's a good cover, especially when the people who might otherwise notice you have no idea what an actual phone conversation looks like."
"So are there Death Eaters out there or not?" Harry demanded.
"At least two." Scott pointed a finger in the direction of Lila's room. "On that street, standing around. They're dressed like workmen and not too badly, actually. One of them has his wand just jammed through his tool belt, though, didn't even try to hide it. Sloppy."
Some of the tension went out of Harry's shoulders. "So they weren't actually trying to get in here."
"Oh, no, not at all. They're obviously lost."
Hermione had seated herself on the sofa, her face etched with intense thought. "That makes a great deal of sense, actually, as they've used this new sort of tracing spell in combination with Apparition, which requires very specific knowledge of a place. If they can only Apparate to the nearest known location – and since none of us have activated the spell again – then they don't have anything else to go on. It could have been anyone, or someone who has already left…"
"It's not very good, then, is it? They'll have to do a better job of finding us than that," Ginny said with a hint of scorn.
"I don't think it's intended for us… Or, not us alone," Hermione mused. "No one who follows Riddle dares to say his name, and the same goes for those who fear him. He's using this spell to find the opposition before they consolidate."
"It would've worked well enough if we'd been somewhere else," Ron said.
Harry nodded. "We got lucky. If Scott hadn't caught that, they wouldn't have found us this time and then we'd have said it again where they could catch us easy."
"Or I might have kept saying it…" Hermione said sheepishly. "You know what I'm like when I'm making a point."
Scott spread his hands. "Lesson learned. And almost painlessly, the best way."
"So we don't have to leave?" Ginny questioned.
"It's still less safe here," Harry told her. "I guess we don't have to run, but I don't want us to stay here longer than we have to."
"If we could find somewhere with more than one loo, that would be brilliant," Ginny said, clearly only partially joking.
"I haven't thought of anything," Harry admitted. "Hermione? Ron?"
"I have loads of relatives outside of The Burrow, but…" Ron hesitated.
"It would be too dangerous for them," Harry finished.
Hermione shook her head. "My house is empty, but I can't be certain they don't know where it is. Scott, did you ever see any Death Eaters near my home?"
Scott nodded. "Twice. Even Riddle's goons can find an address."
"Then that's that," Hermione said, looking a bit shaken by the revelation.
"Well, we can't bloody well stay here," Harry bit out in frustration. They were talking in circles and no one seemed to have a viable solution, least of all him, the supposed leader. They had barely started their insane quest and already he felt hemmed in.
"All right… Let's consider this more closely," Hermione said slowly. "This discussion would be more focussed if we knew where we needed to be. We have to pick a Horcrux, and start there."
Harry crossed his arms, thinking hard. "We'll have to settle for collecting them until we have a way to destroy them."
"There's one over that way," Scott said, waving a vague hand in a northward direction.
Everyone in the room ceased all motion and stared at him.
"…What?" Harry said slowly.
"A Horcrux. Well, I think it's a Horcrux. But it's that way." Scott pointed north again.
"And how is it that you know this?" Hermione asked in a dangerous tone.
"It's pretty much the only clear thread I've gotten since this shebang kicked off. Do you have any idea how many tries it took me to change age?" When nobody said anything, he added, "At least five. And I didn't start counting right away."
That mollified Hermione enough to head off the rebuke that had been sure to follow if Scott had been withholding vital information
again. "So this is a new development," she said more calmly.
Ginny appeared extremely sceptical. "So… You just somehow know there's a Horcrux out that way somewhere? Just like that?"
"No, not 'just like that'. And I can't be one-hundred percent on it being a Horcrux. I caught the line for a second: it's an important thing, and it's way north of here. That's the best I can do." Scott responded to Ginny with a slight acerbic undertone, but Harry was a bit relieved at the lack of outright antagonism.
"Your efforts are always appreciated, of course," Hermione cut in diplomatically, perhaps sensing that any conversation between Scott and Ginny should be interrupted. "However, there's not much we can do about that right now, not without knowing more."
"'North' is sort of a big place, and a bit cold and drafty, at that," Ron said.
"That's all I got," Scott said.
"Not like we have anything better," Harry muttered, feeling like they were still getting nowhere. "Scott. Let me ask you something."
"I'm just standing here."
"If you were in my shoes, what would you do? How do you find things?" Harry asked him.
Scott crossed his arms and leaned against the wall. "This is hard mostly because the trail is so cold. We're looking for things that nobody is supposed to know about, some of which were created decades ago in total secret. First rule of any UO-related search is to check the shape, see if there's anything helpful. I said there's something up north, and that's all we've got out of that. Then you do all the usual things, methodical background work. What is this thing you're after, are there others like it, who would want it, is it worth anything, are there any known previous owners… That kind of crap."
"Most of that isn't applicable," Hermione pointed out.
"Exactly. My initial instinct at this point would be to start shaking people down, see what turns up. There's a reason most detective work involves knocking on doors. Unfortunately, those are the kinds of questions that absolutely can't get back to Riddle."
"So you think we're effed, more or less," Harry summarised.
Scott frowned at him. "You have a couple key advantages, Harry. First and foremost, Riddle thinks you're just hiding from him. He doesn't know that you know. Secondly, Dumbledore did a lot of research and handed you a bunch of clues. As I understand it, they're mostly based on circumstantial evidence and his estimation of Riddle's personality, but it's better than nothing. I think we can count on Dumbledore's profiling to be largely accurate. He knew his enemy, and he asked his questions when Riddle wasn't around to hear about them."
"All the clues are just what the Horcruxes are probably made out of: the cup, the locket, the snake, something of Ravenclaw's," Harry said. "We need location."
"Get your ear to the ground," Scott advised. "We've been out of touch with the rest of the world for about twenty-four hours. With the Ministry gone, just about anything could be happening out there."
"That's a very good point," Hermione agreed. "Let's not decide to go somewhere only to find it's entirely unsafe now."
"We have to get out of here first, which…" Ron trailed off.
"…Brings us right back where we started," Harry said unhappily. "It's great that this conversation is so interesting, since we're going to be having it for the rest of our lives."
Ginny wrapped her arms around his waist and leaned into him, momentarily derailing his vexation with her presence. "You're cute when you're snarky," she told him, pressing a quick kiss to his chin.
"I… Thanks?" he stuttered.
"Eloquent," Scott said. "Look, guys – just leaving isn't the problem. I can get us a hotel or a flat pretty much anywhere. I thought the concern was being located somewhere more magical. I've already had the talk with Harry about disappearing. If that's all we need, we can pile into the car and Riddle's boys won't even know where to start."
"Neither will we," Harry said. Scott was correct that the two of them already had a similar discussion, and Harry had been equally unconvinced of the viability of hiding in the Muggle world then, as well.
Hermione stood and approached Harry, her hands clasped together in a nervous fashion. "Harry… I know you're not very open to the idea and I do understand, but Grimmauld Place–"
"Why does everyone keep bringing that up?" Harry said, pulling away from Ginny's grasp. "Am I the only one who remembers that Snape probably has the bloody house full of Death Eaters?"
"But we don't know that for certain! There are more protections there now than ever before: I overheard Moody talking to Professor Lupin about spells the Order left to keep Snape out."
"Like that's going to keep out Vol– guh–" Harry leaned forward, gasping in pain after Scott jabbed two fingers, hard, just below his sternum.
"Sorry, but they might get a better fix if you say that name again," Scott explained apologetically as Harry rubbed at his chest. "Consider it avoidance conditioning."
Harry nodded silently, trying not to cough. It hurt like hell, but it was better than the alternative. He needed to be more careful.
Ginny was less accepting. "You could have just said something!" she snapped at Scott, moving between him and Harry protectively.
"It's all right," Harry wheezed. "I wasn't thinking, he had to be quick about it."
"Funny, isn't it? You spent all that time trying to get everyone to stop saying You-Know-Who, now we don't have a choice," Ron mused.
"For future reference, Scott, it's acceptable to just put a hand over the mouth," Hermione chided. "We tend to bruise more easily than you do. Harry, I think we need to at least check Grimmauld Place. If you're right, then we'll avoid it from then on, but I would really like to know if it's usable."
"She's right, mate," Ron said with apology in his tone. He was obviously in tune with Harry's strong feelings about Sirius' old home.
Harry sighed, feeling outnumbered. Objectively, he knew they had a point. Grimmauld Place was just too useful to abandon without checking on it. Emotionally, he never wanted to set foot there again. But, the mission came first.
"Fine," he relented. "We'll see how it looks. But if there's a single Death Eater inside, we're never going back."
"How does this open?"
Hermione watched with trepidation as Harry reached forward and brought his wand close to the door. "Magically," he said. "Are you ready?"
"Okay." Scott raised his shotgun. "Give me three seconds before you follow. Keep your wands up and check corners. Staircase is forward, correct?"
"Straight down the hall," Harry confirmed. "The stairs down to the kitchen are there, too. First door on the right is the dining hall."
Scott shifted his stance, leaning forward slightly. His face went blank, only his eyes reflecting the intensity of his posture. "Open it."
Harry opened the door.
Scott leapt forward, pressing his shoulder to the side of the door frame, crouching as he did so. He swung his weapon in both directions, covering the angles of the doorway. Hermione released the breath she had been holding when his finger remained still on the trigger. The entry hall must have been clear.
He moved inside, and, after a short pause, the rest of the group followed him.
The entry hall was dark and dirty, much filthier than the last time Hermione had passed through it. The dust was settled thickly on the floor, almost unnaturally so. A gust blew through the open doorway and stirred it, raising a cloud to sift through the air. Or, at least, that's what Hermione assumed. When the dust did not settle, and instead began to move and create an unmistakably human shape, she realised something else was happening.
When the face formed, Hermione clapped her hands to her mouth and recoiled in horror. The dust wraith was the ghastly, wavering doppelgänger of Albus Dumbledore. Its arms outstretched menacingly as it approached them.
Scott levelled his shotgun at the apparition's head, unmoved. "If you're alive in some way, then stand down. I will kill you. Again."
The dust wraith exploded violently into a choking cloud, leaving all of them coughing and batting futilely at the thick air.
Scott appeared taken aback. "…I didn't expect that," he said after a moment. "Did it die?"
"It was a terror spell, not properly alive," Hermione told him. "It must have been looking for Snape."
"Ah. It was more subtle than the other spells, I didn't catch it. Sorry about that."
"What others?" Ron asked, shaking dust from his trousers.
"There was a spell that hit me when I stepped in, and something is pinging from those curtains." Scott pointed at the portrait of Mrs Black, still blessedly concealed.
"Keep stopping that one," Harry said quickly.
"We must be alone if those spells hadn't already gone off, right?" Ginny supposed. She started to cautiously approach the door to the dining hall.
"Most likely, but don't run off!" Hermione cautioned. "We need to check every room."
"Behind me. Spread out, don't hug the walls. Harry, watch the back," Scott said, raising his gun once again and moving forward down the darkened hall.
"Let's just split up, I think we can handle it," Harry said, visibly impatient with Scott's methodical approach. "I'll take Ginny and check downstairs, you go with up with Ron and Hermione."
Scott stopped his advance. "…No," he said. "You take everyone down, I'll go up alone."
"Take Hermione then," Harry countered.
"Fine." Scott gestured to Hermione. "Come on, let's go."
felt like she was some sort of prize at auction after Harry and Scott's impromptu compromise, but she was willing enough to follow the plan. Harry, Ron and Ginny would be capable of handling a great deal between the three of them. Scott was highly lethal, but that lethality was of a largely Muggle variety. Pairing him with Hermione neatly compensated for his lack of wizarding knowledge. Hermione approved of the team structure; it was the most efficient variant.
She voiced the thought to Scott as they ascended the staircase. "These are the best teams, I think, if we're required to separate again. Obviously, it's best that we're all together, but I'm sure that won't always be possible." She sent Scott a curious glance. "I must admit, I'm surprised you let three of your Primes go into danger without you."
"This way nobody can slip out and tell anyone we've entered. And I didn't think there would be an overwhelming Death Eater force all jammed into a kitchen." Scott poked the barrel of his shotgun into the cheek of one of the mounted house elf heads. He left it when that provoked no response. "Besides, there's no one here."
Hermione looked at him in surprise. "How do you know that?"
"The house is linked to everyone in it. Probably because of the charm you guys had to let me in on. From in here, I can see the threads that I couldn't from the outside, all the people that are part of the magic. There's nobody here but us." Scott opened the door to the drawing room and peered curiously inside.
Hermione was struck by a thought. "Can you see everyone attached to the Fidelius Charm, or just those that are present now?"
"I can see the threads for people who aren't currently here, but I have no way of knowing if that's all of them," Scott said logically.
"But can you identify those people?" she asked intently.
"A lot of them I don't know, or I'm not reading them right. There's 'distance' on some of them. There's not any actual spatial arrangement in the shape, of course, not in a conventional sense. See, travel and communication through the shape have the exact same latency regardless of the distance involved, so we know it's coterminous with the entirety of the physical universe, and–"
Hermione reluctantly broke in. "I really don't want to interrupt you and please promise me you'll finish your explanation later, but this is very important: can you find the thread to Snape?"
Scott leaned against the grimy wall and his eyes became unfocussed. "…Yeah. He's fairly clear. So is Mrs Weasley, for some reason." He blinked and shrugged at Hermione. "Coincidence. The shape can be like that, it doesn't imply a connection. The shape is… stirring. Complex. You find yourself, uh…"
Hermione placed a hand on his shoulder, trying to focus him before the shape took him off on another tangent. "If you can see Snape's thread, does that mean you can break it?"
"I'd need a little time to isolate it, but, yeah, probably. As long as you think it won't cascade and break the charm."
That brought Hermione up short. Scott was prepared to defer to her on the matter, and the truth was she hadn't the slightest idea if the cascade he proposed was possible. "Well…"
"Table it? But we're already discussing – oh, you must mean to – yes, for now," Hermione agreed. "I may have to do some research." That would give her more time to consider the matter, anyway, as she highly doubted that she would be able to find any pertinent information in her books. Scott's manipulation of raw magical energy had no precedent that she'd ever encountered.
Scott had already moved on and was pushing open the door to the room that had been Hermione and Ginny's during their last stay. "This one looks inhabited," he said.
"It was mine. I suppose it is again, unless Ginny would prefer it. There are more rooms upstairs," Hermione said. She watched as Scott walked a bit further down the hall and swiftly stepped through the door to the loo, gun at the ready. "I thought you said there was no one here but us?"
"No one connected to the charm," Scott corrected. He exited the toilet and moved towards the staircase to the next landing, his eyes and weapon constantly seeking targets. "There could be other things – the dust man proved that. Besides, complacency is a good way to end up dead."
"We've made enough noise that anything up there already knows we're here," Hermione said, even as she lowered her voice.
"Let's find out," Scott suggested, not pausing in his ascent.
Hermione didn't much care for the idea of running into another terror construct. The sight of Dumbledore rising from the dust had given her quite a fright. Which was the point, of course, but she didn't have to like it. She wasn't entirely certain why the spell had ended itself; perhaps it had only been meant for Snape.
"Can you detect any more spells around here?" she asked as they went up. She made a note of his stance: he held himself in a state of taut readiness, walking in rapid, smooth steps as he swung his shotgun in different directions, his eyes never ceasing in their assessment of every shadow, every doorway. It was clear he still believed a threat was possible.
"Vaguely," Scott quietly replied. "There's a general ambient energy here, sort of like there was in Hogwarts. Probably a lot of spells tied to objects."
"Be careful about interrupting anything," Hermione warned. "Some tethered spells might be necessary for the wards."
Scott pressed the barrel of his gun against the nearest door. "What's this?"
"Harry and Ron's room. The next door over is the loo, and the third is just storage – mostly dust, at this point," Hermione said without concern, until she remembered what had happened with dust not long before.
Scott shoved the door open, revealing nothing but darkness. "Empty," he said after a moment.
Hermione relaxed; then, something else occurred to her. "What about the portrait?"
"Well, there's a painting hanging on the wall. If you want a critique, I'll have to look at it in something other than the infrared spectrum," Scott said with a hint of sarcasm.
That did make sense, but she wasn't going to give him the satisfaction of admitting it. Hermione waved her wand and illuminated the room. The portrait was empty, just as she had hoped. With another wave, she put out the lights and swiftly shut the door.
"That's the portrait of Phineas Black; there's another one in the Headmaster's office at Hogwarts. As I understand it, all of the former Headmasters are bound to assist the current one, but with the Ministry having fallen, and us not knowing who's in charge at Hogwarts now, I think we should be prudent."
"His loyalties are suspect?" Scott asked.
"He was a Slytherin and a pure-blood Black, first and foremost. I'll put an Imperturbable Charm on this door. The boys will have to stay in a different room."
"It's better that he not know anyone is here, especially with the sterling qualities you listed." Scott glanced at the stairs. "How many more floors?"
"Two, not counting the attic."
The next floor was where a great deal of the Weasley family had stayed during fifth year. There were multiple bedrooms to check, but all of them proved empty. Hermione was glad at the lack of opposition, and also suspicious. Why hadn't Snape led anyone to Grimmauld Place? It was an unlikely oversight. Hermione had initially assumed that Snape may have entered alone, and the traps left for him had been effective to the point that he was unable to relate his knowledge of the hidden structure to any of his cohorts. However, there had been no clues of any activity, not even at the entrance.
The top floor had only two bedrooms, formerly belonging to Sirius and his brother. Both were empty. With those cleared, the only thing left was the small, crooked stairway leading up to the attic. Hermione had never been in the attic before, and wasn't looking forward to it. It was certain to be filthy.
The musty smells emanating from the small door at the top of the narrow stairs were not pleasant. The door itself had once been painted white, though most of the paint had since stripped away. Scott reached down and tested the doorknob.
"Not locked, looks like," he said.
Hermione held her wand closer to Scott, illuminating the dark space as he tried the door in earnest. If any unseen dangers did lurk within (and had somehow managed to ignore the racket created by the two of them walking up the rickety steps), such foes would be alerted by the door. It dragged against the floor, having apparently sunk a bit since its earlier days. Hermione winced and covered her ears as Scott forced it open with a protracted series of kicks against its base.
The light of her wand revealed nothing but more dust and the lumpy, shrouded forms of furniture and boxes covered in sheets. That was more than enough to satisfy Hermione's curiosity, but Scott stepped inside for a closer inspection.
"No footprints," Scott noted, examining the thick layer of dust on the floor. "Nobody's been up here for… I'd say at least ten, fifteen years."
"Well, then I suppose we can go back," Hermione said with relief, trying not to touch anything.
"Hold up your light first, I want to check this." Scott was distracted from leaving by some sort of standing cabinet that had caught his attention.
Hermione didn't know what was so fascinating about a dusty old bit of décor, but she wasn't happy at having her exit forestalled. Her expression reflected this, but Scott was too busy trying to pry the cabinet open to see that. Since her glowering was wasted on his back, Hermione glanced around the attic with forced curiosity.
There were probably any number of things she might find interesting beneath the drapes of heavy cloth, but, for the time being, she was much more concerned with how Ron, Harry and Ginny were faring downstairs.
"Junk, junk," Scott was muttering to himself as he pawed through the dust-ridden contents. "Textbooks, boxes. Not what I was expecting. What was I expecting? What the… Porn? Hmmm, these are pretty old. December seventy-seven of Playboy, and American, too, which is weird… Interview with John Denver, who cares… Short story by Bernard Malamud, that could be good…"
Hermione could feel her face burning scarlet. "Put that back!"
"I'm not done with it. There's a do-it-yourself folding paper spaceship, which… is gone. I guess someone already used it. Damn. Still, those are some nice tits. Not a total loss."
"Accio magazine!" Hermione hissed, ripping the periodical from Scott's grasp. She caught it and dropped it onto a nearby table, making sure it was face down. "And here I thought you were above such things!"
Scott gave her a look that indicated a poor opinion of her sanity. "What would make you think that?"
"You're an adult, now! Act your age!"
"You first, Miss 'I'm-Seventeen-Years-Old-But-Still-Blush -At-The-First-Hint-Of-Sexuality'," Scott smoothly riposted.
He had a point, damn him, but that wasn't going to stop her. "We aren't talking about me, we're talking about your immaturity–"
Scott was already back to rummaging through the cabinet and ignoring her. "Look at this, it's a whole shoebox full of darts. Who would keep these?"
Hermione had a few suspicions that had been solidified by Scott's pornographic discovery. "These are most likely some of Sirius' things."
"That would seem to fit, based on what little I know of him." Scott reached into the very back, his face lighting up. "Hello…"
"What is it?"
"Oh. Oh my." Scott was reverently unwrapping something that had been bundled in several blankets. "Purdey. I'm guessing nineteen-fifties. Twelve gauge bore, over under shotgun – look at that engraving. That's nice."
Hermione took a half step backwards. "It's not loaded, I assume…"
"It doesn't feel loaded…" Scott said, bouncing the weapon in his hands. When Hermione leaned away, he snapped it open and glanced into the chambers. "Nope, not loaded. And also not very clean. I'll have to teach Harry how to take care of that."
"You aren't going to give that to him, are you?" Hermione said in alarm. Harry had no experience with firearms.
"Well, yes. It is his, isn't it?"
That gave her pause. Technically the gun was, in fact, Harry's. And it had once belonged to his godfather, which made the prospect of not telling him highly uncomfortable. Harry had spent the last six years of his life in the study of magic, and Hermione wasn't convinced that giving him a Muggle weapon was a good (or safe) idea, but… The weapon wasn't hers to withhold.
The parallels between that line of thought and the Ministry's recent actions were not lost on her. Really, the problem wasn't that she thought Scott didn't know what he was doing with firearms. She just had less faith in his ability to impart that knowledge. Regardless, Harry had a right to know.
"Just, please be careful with it," Hermione cautioned.
"Obviously." Scott looked around the attic; nothing else seemed to grab his interest. "Might want to poke around up here later. Come on, let's see if they found anything."
Scott took the stairs down two at a time, leaving Hermione breathing hard in her attempts to keep up. She hoped Harry and Ron weren't particularly attached to their old room. Well, just Ron. She doubted that Harry was particularly attached to anything about Grimmauld Place.
When they reached the ground floor, Hermione could see that the lights were on downstairs. She followed Scott, not bothering to rush in order to match his pace. The house was clear, and she didn't feel as apprehensive about being left alone close to the light as she did in the dark upper reaches.
Harry, Ron and Ginny were gathered around the large table in the kitchen. Harry held a letter in his hand, and his expression was troubled. Hermione felt a flash of fear – had something happened to the Weasleys? A quick glance at Ron relaxed her somewhat, as he didn't appear to be panicked. Still, his and Ginny's countenances were grim enough to set Hermione on edge.
Scott spread his arms in question when no one said anything right away. "What? Did you find something?"
"There wasn't anyone here, obviously," Ron said. "But, an owl came in, and… Well, here."
Ron took the scrap of paper from Harry and handed it to Scott. As Scott read, his expression turned dark. Wordlessly, he gave the paper to Hermione once he was finished.
The letter had been written in cramped, curly handwriting that rigidly adhered to straight lines across the faint blue of the paper. Only the occasionally shaky forms of the capitals and the blotted spots of what must have been tears indicated the anguished state of the writer.
It was from Kylie.
Mr Harry Potter,
I am sorry to write you. I tried to write Scott but my owl could not find him. If you could give this letter to him I would be very grateful. Death Eaters came to my house and took my parents away. I do not know what to do and I need help please. I wrote my address on the back of this letter, if Scott can help.
Kylie Elizabeth Timous
Hermione lowered the letter, her face pale. Her heart went out to the young girl, who, with no one else to turn to, had sent a cry for help to one of the only friends she had. The war against Voldemort would have casualties, Hermione knew that and had always known that. But Kylie's desperate plea had hammered home the terror, the plight, of the wizarding nation in a way that was immediate and personal.
Scott's expression had lapsed from its initial coldness into something more unreadable. He set Sirius' gun, once again wrapped in blankets, down on the table. "I'll take care of this. Get the Horcrux research going, I'm sure Hermione has a few ideas."
Harry laughed, though there was no humour in it. "Yeah, right. Come on, let's find a way to get to Kylie's."
"Floo is out. That's going to make things tricky," Ron said.
Hermione flipped the letter over and looked at the address. "This is out in the country," she said, examining it closely. "Holbeach in Lincolnshire."
"Let's just take our brooms, there's a reason we packed them," Ginny said, leaning back from the table. She looked eager at the prospect of taking action.
Hermione didn't quite share the same avidity, but she wasn't willing to leave Kylie in such a terrible situation. "That may be an option. We'll have to consult a map, first."
Scott crossed his arms. "If you're all done discussing the trip that you won't be taking…" he said loudly. "…Then we can move on. You're Primes. You got more important things to do right now. I said I'll take care of it."
"You're integrated with us – or did you forget?" Harry wondered sarcastically. "Going to run off and leave all your Primes to their own devices? To save a non-Prime's family? You're a true professional."
That seemed to get under Scott's skin in a way Hermione hadn't often seen. "Yeah, sure, Harry. Maybe I should ignore a direct quest for help from a terrified girl and sit around with my Primes, who, being of age and all, should probably be able to hide in an invisible house without me to hold their fucking hands!"
"Or maybe we'd rather not hide when someone needs our help!" Harry shot back, and although he'd said 'we', it was clear that he blamed himself for the situation. "Why don't you stay here and think about Horcruxes?"
Hermione looked beseechingly to Ron and Ginny, hoping for some assistance in ending Scott and Harry's escalating argument before it grew completely out of hand. But the Weasleys had already distanced themselves from the two verbal combatants, and it was obvious that Hermione would have to intercede.
"Stop it, both of you!" she commanded in as piercing a tone as she could muster. "This isn't helping in the slightest! Harry, you know that Scott only wants to help Kylie; he's her friend! And Scott, even though Harry and the rest of us weren't as close to her as you, we still want to help! We know it's dangerous, and we accept that. And as you yourself pointed out earlier, we need to get out there." She tried to think of a way to appeal to Scott's military sensibilities. "This is… This is our first mission. It's a test of us, of our effectiveness. How can we improve as a, um, fighting unit, if we don't fight?"
Scott narrowed his eyes at her. "When did you get to be so manipulative?"
"I had a brilliant example," she shot back. "So are we going, or not?"
Scott sighed, rubbing at his face as his shoulders slouched. "…I guess we've all been expecting something like this," he said after a moment. "Harry, let's look at the map. Ron, Ginny, help Hermione unload our stuff from her handbag. Looks like we're going to need it."
"We'll leave most of it in here, for now," Hermione said to Ron as he moved to assist her. "Careful with that black rucksack, it's Scott's and it may be explosive. Scott, here's the Muggle map."
Scott took the map from her and unfolded it on the table. He and Harry leaned over it, tracing the North-East coastline. "Here's Holbeach," Scott said.
"Little over a hundred miles. That doable by broom?"
"Yeah. I'd say two and a half hours, at most," Harry confirmed.
"Okay. Now, the first thing you want to look at when preparing a ground operation are major roadways. Their patterns define points of population and provide clear landmarks."
Hermione busily sorted through her handbag, trying to remain occupied and not let her growing nervousness overwhelm her. It was one thing to talk about mounting a rescue mission, and something else entirely to do it. A similar outing in the fifth year had not gone well. At least this time, Harry wasn't acting on falsified visions and impulse.
Which didn't necessarily raise the chances of success, all things considered.