Wilt thou speak now, O guarded youth? Thy lips dost bloom with tongues and truth. Cast loose the ripened, press the wine lest thy words wither on the vine.
—Susanna B. Aether, Still Lost, Constantia (Verse VIII: lines 23 - 26)
Harry took another bite of his sandwich, resting his elbows on the table and looking at nothing in particular. "So the Trace is kind of like the Taboo."
"Sort of," Scott said. "The Taboo isn't a constant connection; it just seems to be able to find you, somehow, like owls do. Did Hermione ever tell you about the time she came to find me on top of the Astronomy Tower?"
"I don't think so."
"Dumbledore helped her. He sent this weird floating blue orb to find me. At the time, I thought it made a connection and followed the thread, which is how I think the owls work. I thought it just happened really fast. But now… Now I think it was following a strand that was already there. I think Hogwarts tracks everyone within the walls, all the time. And I think your map taps into that."
It made sense. The Map itself was complicated, but didn't seem to be especially powerful. Harry wondered how his father and the other Marauders had managed to unravel that particular Hogwarts secret. "But the Trace is different because it's always there."
Scott dropped the bit of crust he had been gnawing on back onto his plate. "Right. I can't break the Taboo because it doesn't exist until the moment of broadcast. Except, that doesn't make sense. In order for you to broadcast in the first place you need a medium, you don't have a carrier. Unless it's omnidirectional, and amplified at the receiving end… Which would really be something else, that's verging on Kharadjai tech…"
"But is the Trace really fast like the Taboo?"
"It's fast, but not as fast. Still fast, though, yes."
"So how did you catch it that day on the playground?"
"You know I would love to claim it was by virtue of my tremendous talent. I can't, though, it was sheer luck. I had already been examining your threads very closely when Tonks opened up on me, and when the Trace pulsed I was knocking out magical connections to you in case they were a form of attack."
Harry rolled his eyes. "So you just stopped the Trace by accident. And probably my curse-link with it. Again."
"You know, I might have at that," Scott said agreeably.
"Obviously, Riddle never had a chance of reaching me with you around."
"You say that like it's a bad thing."
The two of them were lingering over a late lunch after a productive training session with the others. Scott had been teaching them how to divide themselves for suppression and flanking, which was a bit difficult in the limited space they had. But they had made progress. It was encouraging to see how much better everyone moved and fought as a team with just a little proper instruction. They had learned a lot at Hogwarts, but small unit tactics and coherency hadn't been on the curriculum.
Scott's attempts to teach them standard Third Army hand signals had been less successful. The basics weren't all that difficult to remember, but once Scott started getting into the distinctions between command and subordinate gestures, as well as what seemed like a million different motions for unique enemy signatures and weapons (most of which didn't even exist in Harry's world), confusion set in. There was theoretically a difference between the gesture for a stationary sentry and a mobile one, but Harry couldn't remember what it was.
Harry had also taken Scott's words outside of the Timous Manor to heart, and had been trying to increase the number of spells he could cast nonverbally. It was much more difficult than he had hoped, though he supposed he should have expected that after his poor results during Snape's lesson. Harry didn't know if he was just naturally bad at nonverbal casting or if it took the kind of time to learn that he didn't have. He made a mental note to ask Remus in their next letter.
Thus far he had managed to nonverbally cast the Severing Charm consistently, and made fair progress with the Banishing Charm. He had been disappointed to note that the spells he did manage to cast without speaking had all been considerably weaker than their shouted variant, with the sole exception of his Expelliarmus. That spell, at least, produced equivalent results.
He drew his wand underneath the table and tried a Summoning Charm on Scott.
Scott's eyebrows shot up and he glanced down at his left armpit as the handgun beneath his button-up flannel shirt protruded against the fabric, vibrating wildly. "What is it, little guy? Is it feeding time?"
"Not much fun when you've got it all strapped in there," Harry said, disappointed that the weapon hadn't flown towards him.
"That was a good one, though. Last time you Accio'd my shit I barely felt it."
"There's a bit of a knack."
"And what's that?" Scott said somewhat disinterestedly.
Harry held his wand up to the light. "I don't know… Sometimes I just do better…"
"Well, that makes one of us." Scott pushed away from the table. "At least I don't have Flitwick riding me any more."
"Where's your wand, anyway?" Harry asked.
Scott reached up into his sleeve and yanked his wand out with an odd 'click', as if it had been fastened to something. Harry noted that it had not been well taken care of. "Just in case."
"Where'd you get it? Maybe they made a mistake and it's not right for you." Harry had never heard of anything like that happening, but surely it was a possibility.
Scott shrugged. "I stole it."
"From the shop."
Harry stared at him. "Are you daft? Don't you know anything about wandlore?"
"Yeah, sure, because we built the Republic by waving sticks at each other, Harry. The only wood in the army is the erection Halsey gets when he orders you dusted from orbit!"
"Try doing some belt mining, maybe, all this wood and stone was a great look a couple centuries ago. You might discover a few things, like alloys and high-contact ceramics and superconductors—"
"Yes, you hate the wizarding world, I get it!"
"'Hate' is a strong word, Harry."
"How do you spend a year at Hogwarts without knowing you should have gone to a wandmaker? Honestly…"
"I went to Ollivander's! He's supposed to be the best, right, that's all I fucking heard at school, Ollivander, Ollivander, Ollivander, everyone has wands from fucking Ollivander!"
"Yeah, because he's popular around here, but all those people actually had him find the proper wand! The wand chooses the wizard, mate. It could be a big part of your problems."
"Then where did all the first-years get their wands?"
"I don't know… I got mine at Ollivander's."
Scott threw his head back and sighed. "Ollivander was gone, I needed a wand, I took one. It didn't work well, but it worked sometimes and now who cares?"
Harry didn't think that was a wise attitude. "All this training you've been doing with us for fighting without magic, and you ask me that? If we might have to survive without a wand, what makes you think you'll always have a gun?"
"The fact that I'd be better off sharpening this thing to a point and putting it through someone's eye. It takes me too long to put a spell together to bother with it, and that was in a classroom setting."
"But having a good wand could make it a lot easier. You won't know until you try it."
"Again, there's this little problem of supply…"
"Ask Kylie where she got hers," Harry suggested.
"Maybe I'll look into it. Hell, I guess I could write Trevor if Kylie can't help me." Scott leaned forward in his chair, bringing the front legs back down with a loud clack on the stone floor. "Which reminds me: do you have any more of those owl treats? Hedwig was looking to me earlier and they were all gone."
"I'll check my trunk. Or you can ask Hermione if she has any in her handbag."
After leaving the kitchen they ran into Ginny on the ground floor as she was coming from the upper storeys. Her hair swung heavily, weighted downwards with damp, and it was obvious she had just finished with the shower.
"Ginnaaaayyyy," Scott said by way of greeting. "Was struck by a thought — do you ever reflect on the irony inherent in you dumping Dean because he was too condescending and overprotective, but fighting tooth and nail to stay with Harry even though he tried to leave you for reasons both condescending and overprotective?"
"Yeah, constantly. I spend all my free time reflecting on the irony," Ginny said without missing a beat.
"There's something about him, obviously," Scott mused. "Something that made you persevere through behaviour you wouldn't begin to tolerate from anyone else."
"She tolerates that from me? This is news," Harry said dryly.
"Shut it, you big blond pillock," Ginny told Scott. "Harry, are you going to the training room? I'd like another go with your gun."
"Is that what the kids are calling it these days?" Scott wondered.
"Maybe later. I'm about to go sort out my trunk, I've been putting it off," Harry explained.
Scott couldn't take a hint. "And then are you going to sort out her trunk?"
"What does that even mean?"
"I don't know. Something to do with anal, I guess…?"
"Why don't you go sort out your innuendo? Come on, Gin," Harry said, taking her hand and leading her back up the steps.
"What if I don't want to help sort your rubbish?" she complained.
"Yeah, you do. It'll be fun, somehow."
The light up in their room had never been very good, so Harry set his lit wand on top of the trunk lid once it was open. He surveyed the piles inside with great reluctance; Ginny's description of it being 'rubbish' hadn't been far from the truth. The last time he'd taken a good look into his trunk had been sometime before the wedding, he couldn't remember exactly when. The night they had crept back into The Burrow he hadn't done much more than push everything aside in search of the suitcase.
He started digging into the right side of the trunk while Ginny picked through the left with a more delicate touch. The first thing he set aside was the mokeskin pouch gifted by Hagrid — dead useful, from the sound of it. It wasn't as big internally as Hermione's handbag, but as only he could take anything out once it was placed inside, he needed to start using it for certain valuables.
On top of the pile was a package of Chocolate Cauldrons — he checked the wrapping and noted they were quite old, so he tossed them into the bin. His Quidditch robes had somehow become jumbled up with a bunch of the jumpers from Mrs. Weasley and his dress robes, no doubt during transit. He spent a moment trying to separate them before giving up and placing the tangled ball on the floor, along with several pairs of socks that he hoped were clean (the odds weren't good).
It looked like most of the school books were on Ginny's side. No owl treats so far… He found the handle of the ruined penknife Sirius had given him. After a moment's sad contemplation, he placed it back. Below a stack of Transfiguration homework (with average marks at best, he noted with chagrin) was the shiny new cover concealing the old contents of the half-blood prince's Potions book. He held it in his hands, considering it. It was another unsolved mystery in a school full of them. But it had been surpassingly useful — perhaps Hermione might make use of its secrets.
Several boxes of Chocolate Frogs well past their expiration. A piece of parchment he didn't recognise until he flipped it over and saw Scott's mid-DADA work of art, an inked drawing of Ron and Hermione K-I-S-S-I-N-G in a tree (according to the messy caption). Harry had no idea how he'd come into possession of it, but it was highly amusing. He'd have to tack it to a wall somewhere. A scrap of paper with his name on it, spat out by the Goblet of Fire (he remembered Fred giving it to him, who knew where the twins had found it). Still no owl treats.
Spello-tape, the miniature model of a Hungarian Horntail (no longer moving), a Grow-Your-Own-Warts kit. Various correspondence, including some of the notes Dumbledore had sent the previous year. His old Sneakoscope, calmingly silent. An Exploding Snap deck. A load of mementos and just plain rubbish had sifted to the bottom, a layer of messy detritus. Mostly Chocolate Frog cards, loose threads, and dust.
He was distracted from delving into the bottom layer when Ginny spoke. "Found some owl treats," she said, tossing the package to him. "Where'd you get this Firebolt model? That's really detailed."
"Tonks gave that to me for Christmas fifth year. I was missing my real one."
"At least you still have it. The real one, I mean. I still can't believe that mad bitch banned you for life like that."
Harry shrugged, no longer particularly bitter about it. The scars on his hand led to far worse memories of Umbridge. "It got you on the team, didn't it? I'd say that's a silver lining if there ever was one."
"I suppose… I prefer playing with you, though." She lifted up a thick stack of books. "Oof. Why didn't you resell these? That's what Mum always… Hang on, what's this?"
Harry peered down with mild curiosity, only to freeze when he saw the object of her attention. He knew exactly what it was and he'd completely forgotten he had it.
"Harry… Is this…" She lifted out a faded card, pressed thin from the weight of the tomes. It cracked a bit when she opened it, stuck together, but otherwise it was in good condition.
Harry could already feel his cheeks burning. The singing get-well card she had given him in third year was at least blessedly silent. He wasn't quite sure why he was embarrassed — at the vivid remembrance of what had been a painfully awkward moment, or at the sentimentality implied in his possession of the card? Perhaps both.
"Why do you have this?" she said quietly, not looking at him.
"Because you gave it to me," he said honestly.
At that point in his life, and even years later, he hadn't received so many cards or so many anythings that he just tossed them aside. As difficult as it had been for his thirteen-year-old self to accept a shrilly singing card from a blushing, infatuated girl, the fact was that she had come to the hospital wing to give it to him. The idea that someone cared felt new to him, then. Sometimes it still did.
She looked at him, eyes soft. "You didn't have to be so kind to me, when I was silly."
Harry wanted to shrug it off but he was utterly caught in her gaze. "I… You weren't silly, you were… You were you, you were…" He was struggling to find the phrasing. "You were there for me, and… I wasn't ready. I'm sorry."
She pressed her fingertips to his lips and rolled her eyes. "Harry, are you really apologising for not falling in love with me when you were thirteen?"
"…No? Yes? I mean, I could have at least handled it better…"
"How?" she scoffed. "By pretending? Even back then I would have resented it, eventually. Besides, even if you'd just kissed me on the cheek, I wouldn't have been able to be in the same room with you for a month."
Harry had been a bit slower to notice girls than some of his other friends, and, given his history with the opposite sex, he had to admit it was unlikely his third-year self could have done better. But the actions of the past were always difficult to correlate to present knowledge, and he was still troubled by the thought that if he had done something, given her even a fraction more of the attention she'd craved, the Chamber might have been avoided.
"…I don't know," he muttered. "It was what you wanted. I should have at least tried to give you that."
"What I wanted was to close-mouthed kiss Harry Potter, marry him, and then what happened after that was a bit vague," she said with a half-smile.
"Well, we got the first part taken care of," he said, returning her grin.
"And a bit extra," she said, eyeing his mouth. "But we already talked about this, remember? I regret all sorts of things about it, I wish I had done so much differently, I wish… God, I wish I had just asked you to the Yule Ball. Before that I couldn't even talk to you, so… That's the point where things could have been different if I'd just used some of that Weasley courage."
"Or if I'd not had my head up my arse."
"Up Cho Chang's arse, anyway, that bint," Ginny laughed, though there was a definite edge to it.
Harry made a mental note to avoid bringing up Cho in conversation even more fervently than he had been. Obviously, rivalries — even one-sided rivalries — formed that early didn't easily fade away.
"Are you going to keep it, or put it back?" Harry said, nodding towards the card.
"I'm not going to take it! It's your gift, after all," Ginny said sweetly, and she placed it back where she had found it.
Back to the rubbish. Harry picked up something that looked a lot like one of Crookshanks' hairballs and swiftly deposited it in the bin. There were a few stray Every Flavour Beans that needed to go, as well. He picked at one with his fingernail; it was hard as a rock. He was lifting up another bundled, dusty jumper when a flash of light caught his eye. There, against the back of the trunk, was a reflective surface.
His heart constricted as he gently took the hand mirror from where it had slid down between his belongings and the back wall. He hadn't thought of the mirror Sirius had given him in some time. He didn't even know where the other one was.
A wild, uncontrollable thought surged through him: what if Sirius had the other mirror still with him? What if he had taken it through the Veil? What would that mean? If Harry used it, and received an answer…
Harry held up the mirror in slightly shaking hands. "…Hello?" he said, his breath fogging the glass. "Is anyone there? Hello?"
Nothing. He waited a few more seconds, peripherally aware of Ginny watching him with open concern. But Sirius did not answer. He really was gone.
Irrational anger came over Harry like a sudden storm. He had been, if not accepting, then at least resigned to Sirius' death. And then he'd stumbled across this stupid, worthless mirror and been sucked into the inevitable disappointment that came with his insane burst of hope. Furious, he lifted the mirror over his head, intent on smashing it the way it had just smashed him.
A man's voice. Harry went stock-still for a moment until his brain caught up and realised it wasn't Sirius' voice. He lowered the mirror and looked over his shoulder towards the door. "What, Scott?!" he barked, still angry.
Scott wasn't there. "Harry? I heard you from this thing. Harry, come back."
Harry looked down into the mirror to see Scott's sharp grey eyes gazing back at him. "Scott?"
"There you are," Scott said. He moved his head around, apparently studying the mirror's frame, and giving Harry a rather unfortunate view up his nostrils. "So, I don't know why you didn't tell me you had a mirror communication system, but this is exactly the kind of magic junk I need to hear about."
"I forgot I even had this. Where are you?"
"The Motorcycle Room." The image shifted as Scott lifted the mirror from wherever it had been sitting. "Can you still see when I'm moving?"
"Yeah. Works fine."
"No latency that I can tell, though that might not hold up over real distance. We need to give these to Hermione."
Harry didn't want to part with his mirror (despite having been ready to smash it moments before). "Why bother, your radio works just as well, and we don't have to hold it."
"But it won't work everywhere. Maybe this won't, either, but it's nice to have options. Let's at least see what she can tell us."
When they approached Hermione, she looked a bit put out that her research had been interrupted, but quickly became immersed in the magic of the mirrors. She placed them side by side on her bed and tapped them in turn with her wand, watching as the action was broadcast. It was disorienting to see the two mirrors reflecting the vantage of their opposite.
"I believe this may be a variation on the Protean Charm," Hermione said. "It's a very malleable bit of magic, you can do all sorts of things with it. This is more complex than anything I've seen so far…"
"Modification, duplication; is that feasible?" Scott said.
"Feasible, yes. Guaranteed, no. Our DA coins were attuned to a master, a 'server', if you will, which filtered down to the rest. These mirrors are working in tandem, neither controlling the other, reflecting changes made to one and then in turn… Quite impressive that they're sensitive enough to copy light and sound, that's a much greater breadth of information than numbers on a coin."
"You're almost talking about this in telecommunications terms, fidelity and bandwidth," Scott noted.
"Same concept, different methods… It's often said by wizards that Muggles use their technology to compensate for their lack of magic and accomplish the same things."
"And typically failing to comprehend just how far they've been surpassed in so many of those things."
"Yes, we're all aware you're a techno-supremacist," Hermione said tartly. "I'll work on these and see what I can do. Sophie might speed things along, if she's available."
"I think she's cleaning the bathrooms again. I'm a little worried she's becoming obsessive."
"There's nothing wrong with promoting cleanliness."
"And it saves us the trouble," Ron added.
Scott went off to find Sophie and, before Hermione could become completely absorbed in her work, Harry made sure to mention the meeting he had planned. "Everyone be around for supper tonight?"
"Where else would we be?" Ron said.
"You know what I mean. We need to talk Horcruxes. We've been stuck too long."
Ron looked around the room with aversion. "Yeah. Getting a bit sick of it, really. Like that summer all over again."
"I know you two are eager to do something, but let's not be too hasty," Hermione cautioned. "Our circumstances, while dull, are still a sight better than dodging curses."
Harry shifted impatiently. "We can't keep sitting here, this is taking too long—"
"I'm doing my best!" Hermione cried.
"I wasn't blaming you! I… I just want us to talk about it."
"All right, we will," Hermione said stiffly, obviously wounded by the implication that she had failed to provide the next step.
Harry sighed. "Okay, I'll see you at supper."
When Harry left to return downstairs, Ron went with him. Harry made sure to shut the door behind them on the way out; Hermione tended to become annoyed with footsteps in the hallway when she was working, much like she had in the library. At least at Grimmauld Place she didn't have Pince to provide additional noise suppression. Harry grinned when he thought of Scott's clashes with the Hogwarts librarian — his intense dislike of the woman had been entirely mutual.
"What's so funny?" Ron asked.
"Thinking about Pince and Scott."
Ron immediately wore an answering smile. "Hey, remember when he took out those big bloody books with the letters on them?"
Harry remembered very well. Scott had removed several reference books from their proper places and relocated them to an empty shelf used for temporary sorting. The volumes were arranged according to the alphabet, and he had set them so that the spines spelled 'P-E-N-I-S'. When Ron had critically suggested that 'bollocks' would have been more apropos, considering the medium, Scott had defended himself by pointing out the limitation of one unique book per letter.
They had left before the fruits of Scott's labour were discovered, but by all accounts Pince had been on the warpath for about a week.
At the bottom of the staircase there were noises emanating from the kitchen that sounded a lot like dishes being organised. Harry and Ron wisely decided on the training room as their destination, not wanting to get conscripted into Sophie's latest home improvement project. Inside the dusty, spell-scarred interior, Scott was throwing lightning punches at a dummy made primarily of pillows. He was standing back too far for his hits to really connect, likely a measure to preserve the slapdash construct, which was not built to withstand punishment from a Primare.
"You look like Dudley," Harry remarked as he watched Scott perform the same kind of boxing moves he had seen his cousin practice. The comparison was not quite accurate, as Dudley had performed the same motions at about a fifth of the speed and with none of the grace.
"Who?" Scott said, not pausing.
"Dudley. My cousin, the bloke you decked for no reason."
Ron looked delighted. "Aw, and I missed it!"
"Oh, that guy." Scott hopped away from the crude mannequin and pivoted at the waist, stretching. "Fuckin' chav."
"You what?" Harry said, taken aback. "What do you know about chavs?"
"You act like I've never been in jolly ol' England before. I know a chav when I see one." Scott kicked out, getting a decent puff of feathers for his effort. "The chain and the track pants were an especially nice touch."
"Yeah, well, Dudders' sense of style took a bad turn once Aunt Petunia stopped dressing him. Which, you would think was impossible…"
Ron sighed. "I wish I knew what you were on about, because it sounds fantastic."
"It sort of was," Harry agreed.
"I'll say this for the kid — he can take a punch. He was up and walking way sooner than I expected," Scott said.
"That's good for him, since he's so punchable. He might get more out of life."
"Really, really lost," Ron reiterated.
Scott dropped his hands and assessed the dummy. "I gotta stop using this thing. It's the only one we have. So — what did Hermione say about the meeting?"
Harry didn't know why Scott was asking — it wasn't like anyone had better places to be. "She'll be there."
"Not sure where she is, actually…" Harry assumed she was spending some time alone, a rare commodity at Grimmauld. But since he hadn't actually seen her in a fair amount of time, distant klaxons began blaring in the back of his mind. "I'd better go see if I can find her."
"She hasn't left the building," Scott said. From anyone else it would have sounded like bland reassurance, but he likely knew for certain.
"Right. I was just saying."
Scott turned away to inspect the mattresses and Ron leaned in closer to Harry. "All right, mate?" he said, looking at Harry a bit askance.
Harry forced himself to relax. "Yeah. Overreacting."
"Stuff it. Scott, you told Sophie that Hermione wants to see her, right?"
Scott waved him off. "Yeah, yeah. She's going up once she's done with whatever she's doing. Something with plates, I don't know."
"She'll have to let me borrow one, because I'm starving," Ron declared. He turned to Harry. "Coming?"
"Nah, I'm not hungry. You go ahead."
"Suit yourself. Just don't go shouting at me when all the crisps are gone — you had your chance," Ron said, walking out of the room.
"You don't have to eat all of them!" Harry yelled after him.
He loitered around the training room after Ron left, sort of hoping Scott would start practising again. Just watching didn't teach much, especially when Scott did everything so quickly it was hard to see the specifics. But it was always interesting and even a bit inspiring. Wands weren't the only way to survive. Harry wanted to remember that.
Unfortunately, Scott seemed to be doing nothing but stretches, which was boring. Harry started thinking about getting down to the kitchen before all the crisps really were gone. Hungry or not, he still wanted his share.
"You've been spending a lot of time with Ginny," Scott said suddenly, as if that was somehow a meaningful observation. Harry had a very short list of available people to spend time with, and Ginny was at the top of that list.
"Is this jealousy? Should I try to be sensitive?"
"Oh, don't spare my feelings."
Harry sighed. "It's great, you know? With her I feel like… I just forget. I don't have to think about things, I can imagine a future, going places with her… or whatever. Then something else happens and I wake up. And I remember it doesn't matter what I want, because I have to fight a Dark Lord and I'm not going to live long enough to really be with Gin the way I want to."
"Agree to disagree. Even so, you can still get laid before that."
Harry didn't have a response for that, mostly because he really wished it was true. "I hope you have some ideas about Horcruxes for tonight. Because I don't."
"Really." Scott sounded unconvinced. "All this time and you haven't thought of a single thing."
Harry inclined his head in acknowledgement; he'd been exaggerating. "The snake. It already came after us once. Maybe we can find it again."
"The problem with the snake is that it's a pet. Riddle will miss it."
"I know!" Harry nearly shouted, instantly exasperated. He caught himself and said, more evenly, "I know, yeah. But it's got to be luck that he hasn't noticed already, right? I mean, how long can we expect to go before he checks on at least one of them?"
"We can't do anything about that. If it happens, it happens, but it doesn't seem like he watches his Horcruxes very closely. Between all the traps and the fact that the damn things do a pretty good job of protecting themselves, I guess he figures he doesn't have to."
"Cross your fingers, then," Harry said. There wasn't much else to do but pray. That, and try to finish the war before Riddle found the time to check on his things.
To that end, the entire group convened that night in the kitchen. The meal was a fairly boisterous affair, which was heartening. It always made Harry feel better when everyone could escape the pressure and the gloom long enough to enjoy themselves. Scott entertained Hermione and Kylie with a predictably outrageous (and quite possibly fabricated) tale from his past, while Sophie looked on in amusement. Harry, Ron and Ginny had an in-depth Quidditch conversation for the first time in what felt like ages. Harry even managed to speculate on their seventh-year team composition and strategy without succumbing to regret.
It was all over too soon. With the remains of their repast still littering the table, Harry took it upon himself to turn the discourse towards the most pressing issue.
He stood, gaining everyone's attention. "That was brilliant; thanks for popping out to get it, Sophie, we all owe you a few quid," he said. "All right… I've been thinking, and we can't keep sitting around here hoping something will just turn up. We're down to the Cup, the snake, and something of Ravenclaw's. So let's go with that. We need a place to start looking."
Hermione was rigid in her seat; chin raised and face pale, she began, "I would like to apologise for my failure to—"
"What? Failure?" Ron broke in, face incredulous. "Bloody hell, woman, you've been working your arse off over this!"
She flushed. "My efforts don't mean much when I haven't been able to—"
"This is not an inquisition," Scott said evenly, cutting her off once again. "This is not a pity party. We tried the books we have, and if you couldn't find anything then the rest of us sure as shit aren't going to. It's probably not there to find."
"So we move on," Harry said.
"Very well," Hermione said, subdued. Harry couldn't tell if she was convinced that the limits of her research had been reached, or if she still felt crushed by the perception that she had failed her friends in the same way her books had failed her.
"Now, we know about the snake. But even if we can find the damn thing again, Riddle is going to miss it once it's gone. So the snake probably has to be last." Harry frowned. "That leaves us with the Cup and a Ravenclaw object."
"Can you fill me in on this Cup again?" Scott requested. "What did Dumbledore say about it?"
Harry quickly ran through what little he knew of the Cup, how it had been owned by Hepzibah Smith and then stolen by Riddle after he murdered her. "That's all we know. It could be anywhere."
"It won't be, though, just anywhere," Hermione said. "He's consistently chosen hiding places that are important to him."
Scott ran his fingers over his short stubble, staring off into space. "He's compulsive. Narcissistic and compulsive, he could have used anything to make a Horcrux, right? He could have used anything and left it anywhere. Use a rock and bury it a hundred feet down in a random field. There'd be a friggin' strip mall over it by now, we wouldn't be able to find it even if he told us where to look."
Harry was very glad that Scott hadn't been offering Voldemort any advice. "So he's arrogant, that's good for us."
"Absolutely. I'm just trying to understand him."
"We may not know as much as Dumbledore but, thanks to Harry, we know quite a bit," Hermione continued. "It's a question of choosing some areas of interest."
"Hogwarts!" Ginny supplied. "He went there, same as us. Tom would have liked to get one over on Dumbledore, too."
"Borgin and Burkes, since he worked there," Harry said. "Um… His father's house, maybe. Where he got his body back. And maybe somewhere in Albania…"
"Your cottage in the Hollow, Harry," Ron said. "Though I guess you didn't see anything when you were there."
"No, nothing," Harry said, although he never had reached into that still water in the baby's cot… But anyone could have run into a Horcrux there.
Hermione pursed her lips. "I don't know if he would want to commemorate a defeat in that way. Albania worries me — I'd rather us not have to take such a trip. Do you know if he spent time there before he lost his corporeal form?"
"I have no idea," Harry admitted. "He went back there again after first year, though, didn't he? There must be something about the place…"
"He's not Albanian, that's the thing. The placement of the other Horcruxes suggests he likes to keep them closer to home than that." Hermione worried at her lower lip. "Oh, I wish we could be more certain. I would hate for us to waste time going all the way over there for nothing…"
Scott was still deep in thought, his voice slow and a bit vague. "I don't get these Horcrux things. They seem like a real Hail Mary. I mean, he spends a decade floating around down there, and the only reason he comes back is because someone went looking for him. He wasn't self-sufficient; he was just really, really lucky. Think about those percentages. Those are not friendly odds. There could be a thousand other Dark wizards with Horcruxes haunting every forest from here to Tibet, waiting for someone to remember they exist, for decades, centuries, maybe longer."
"Still better than snuffing it for real, I guess…?" Ron said, not sounding convinced of that.
"I don't see how. Anywhere else? Just get all the ideas out there, who cares if it's daft," Harry said.
"Well…" Ginny said slowly, "Tom gave his Diary to Lucius Malfoy… I don't know if he'd repeat it, since it was lost and all, but it's something to think about."
"That's a good point," Harry said. Not an encouraging one, but still a good point. "He could give a Horcrux to someone else, to keep it for him, he did it before."
"Didn't work out," Ginny said with an attempt at a self-deprecating smile that only rose halfway before it faltered.
Harry would have taken her hand if she hadn't been on the other side of the table. He hated the anguish the Diary could still stir in her, even as he understood completely. "Doesn't mean he wouldn't try it again," he said, wanting her to know her contribution was appreciated.
Hermione was peering intently at nothing in particular, a sure sign her brain was firing on all cylinders. Scott was sitting directly across from her, the same expression stamped on his features; they looked as if they had been imported from an entirely different tableau. Harry had to suppress a sudden grin as he imagined the two of them had just left some international economic think tank, Apparating into Grimmauld Place in mid-thought.
Ron had caught that. "What's funny?"
"Nothing," Harry said quietly to him. "It's… Just those two, in their own world."
Ron gave Hermione and Scott an appraising look. "I think their worlds are two very different places, mate."
"…It's a valid concern, Ginny," Hermione said eventually. "Unfortunately, we don't have any real information on what's happening in Riddle's inner circle."
"We could have," Harry said pointedly.
Hermione shot him a scathing glance. "Let it go, Harry. You should know you're through with that. And as I was saying… Riddle would never use the word 'Horcrux', even amongst his closest followers — in fact, I doubt he'd offer any explanation at all, whoever was entrusted with the object would be expected to take it without question… But as to whether he's given any items of importance to anyone he considers loyal, we just don't know."
"I do," Kylie said.
The silence that followed her unexpected statement was profound. For a moment, Harry wasn't even certain that she'd actually said anything. It was the dark red blush staining her cheeks, and the way she began to hunch her shoulders, which confirmed the reality of her interjection.
Harry started to speak, but Scott beat him to it. "You know something about this?" Scott said. He flicked his eyes towards Harry, who gave him a quick nod of understanding. When it came to Kylie, it was best to let Scott handle it.
Kylie stared at the floor for a moment. And, then — although her posture remained defensive — she raised her eyes and looked at all of them, almost defiantly. "Yes."
"Something my parents said. Mother mentioned it, and F-Father…"
"They were talking about an important object? From Riddle, You-Know-Who?"
"The-e-ey were f-fighting ab-bout i-it," she said quaveringly. Her hands were shaking and her eyes were glassy, darting from person to person over cheeks that were burning so brightly it looked painful.
In the seconds between her statement and Scott's forthcoming reply, the tremors in her limbs became increasingly violent. Every second she spent with the full attention of the room seemed to worsen her condition. Sweat appeared on her forehead and the cloth of her shirt was visibly vibrating with the thumping of her rapid heartbeat. It was when her mouth dropped open to emit ragged gasps that Harry realised he was watching the girl crumble into a full-blown panic attack.
Scott reached out and caught her by the arms as she bent at the waist. He lowered her to the floor and put his palm on her cheek, placing her head against his shoulder. "Breathe, Kylie," he said levelly. Sophie crouched behind them, stroking Kylie's hair. "Nice and slow. There you go. Can you breathe through your nose? Here, take my arm. Squeeze as hard as you want, it won't hurt me. There you go. Just breathe."
For a moment they all stood there and listened to Kylie struggle for breath. Harry felt terrible just for being present, and from the painfully awkward way everyone else didn't seem to know where to put their eyes, they probably felt the same way.
"So, there's this bloke who walks into a pub," Ron said abruptly.
Harry just looked at him, before he realised what Ron was doing. "Yeah?"
"Yeah. He walks into the pub, right, and goes up to the tap. And he's getting his first pint, and over by the door there's this dog who's licking his balls. The bloke looks at the bartender, points at the dog and says, 'I wish I could do that'. And the bartender says, 'You should probably pet him, first'."
Ginny snorted with laughter at the same time Hermione said, "Oh, God."
They gathered close to the stairs and talked more quietly after that, making sure to keep their eyes off Kylie. Presumably she would recover better without all the focus on her, or at least Harry hoped so. Really, he wondered what she had been thinking. It was clear that anxiety and panic attacks resulting from being the centre of attention were nothing new to her. No doubt her predisposition for such things had only been worsened by the recent upheaval of her life. And yet, she had still spoken in front of all of them, knowing that whatever she would have to say on the subject of Horcruxes would be of extreme interest, knowing that her information could give them the clue they needed or send their quest crashing to another standstill. Not a small amount of pressure for anyone, but an extreme amount for her.
…Well, she had been Sorted into Gryffindor.
Kylie had been still for a few minutes when they reconvened around the table. Harry could see his own uncertainty reflected in the others; should they leave? Would Kylie have another episode if they focussed on her again? He thought that perhaps he should go upstairs, and let Scott relay whatever information Kylie had later.
But Kylie had staggered back to her feet. Steadying herself on Scott's arm, she took an uneven breath. "Th-the Dark Lord had a precious th-thing he wanted kept safe. My p-parents said they would do it… b-but he chose the mad witch instead. F-Father was really angry… He said some awful things about th-that witch and Mother was frightened she would f-find out," she stuttered, her voice rasping and difficult to hear.
"Do you know what kind of thing it was?" Scott asked.
Kylie shook her head; several tendrils of her strawberry-blonde hair remained motionless, plastered to her forehead. "Mother said F-Father shouldn't have wanted it, even for the Dark Lord's f-favour. It was Huf-f-flepuff rubbish."
"The Cup!" Hermione gasped.
"Where did he want it kept safe?" Scott said intently.
"She put it in Gringotts," Kylie said.
Harry heard Ron swear under his breath and felt like joining him. Anything but Gringotts…
"And he gave it to a crazy woman?" Scott asked. "What's her name?"
"I don't know," Kylie almost whispered. "She has l-long dark hair and calls me l-little mouse."
"Bellatrix," Harry growled.
Scott looked over at him. "It fits."
"Kylie, this witch — does she have sort of large eyes, heavy-lidded? Like she's always a bit sleepy?" Hermione said.
"There's one way to be sure," Harry said.
Beckoning to Scott and Kylie, he led the way upstairs to the Black family tree tapestry. The stairwell rattled with the sound of so many simultaneous footsteps. Kylie was still shaky and weak; Scott was ostensibly helping her by offering an arm to lean on, but by the halfway point he was basically carrying her.
Harry lit the drawing room and approached the tapestry, searching through the names. He pointed at Bellatrix's image, next to her sister Andromeda's scorch mark. "That's her?"
"Yes," Kylie confirmed, and with that one simple word things had become even more complicated. "She's quite mad."
"Yeah, she is," Harry said grimly.
Harry heard the couch springs squeak behind him as he stared at Bellatrix's tiny, cloth visage. Everyone was settling into the drawing room rather than returning to the kitchen; a shadow passed over the tapestry as Scott leaned on the wall next to the window. Harry didn't really want to turn around because that would imply he had something to say. What could he say? He was staggered by one of the worst scenarios they had imagined: a Horcrux in Gringotts.
"Scott, tell me honestly," he said, studying each dark thread in Bellatrix's eyes. "Can you get us into Gringotts?"
"Anyone can get in to a bank, Harry. It's the getting out where things start to go wrong," Scott said.
Harry frowned. "What do you mean?"
"What I said. Bank robberies are easy if all you want is to get your hands on some money. Any idiot can bust in the front with an automatic and fill a bag. It's when you look at the success rates for escaping that the numbers aren't so good."
"Have you ever been to Gringotts?"
"No. Lila has, though."
"Well, it's not like a Muggle bank. The 'getting in' part won't be easy, either."
"What can you tell me?"
Harry turned around, pausing to give someone else a chance to add their knowledge. But his friends were all looking to him, which he supposed made sense. Out of everyone in the room, he was the only one with a personal vault. He'd been to it a few times out of necessity, while Ron and Ginny usually didn't go to the bank with their parents. And as far as Harry knew, Hermione didn't have a vault at all, only going to exchange Muggle money.
"The front entrance is this huge marble hallway with all these counters and doors on the sides. There's got to be a hundred goblins in there at any one time, maybe more. The vaults are all below, in the tunnels. I heard they go down for miles. You use really fast mine carts to get around. Everything is protected by wards and traps, and even magical creatures. It's like a maze."
"That doesn't sound easy," Scott admitted. "Hermione, do you have any books on this place?"
"No. But I'll check my catalogue, I may be able to order some from Flourish and Blotts," she said.
"Some blueprints would probably be too much to hope for," Scott said.
"The goblins keep their secrets close, I'm afraid."
"Bill could help," Ginny said. "He's worked there for years now, he'd have to know a few things. You want me to write to him?"
"It has to just be him, not the Order," Harry insisted. "I don't want anyone else to know we're looking at Gringotts."
Ron was pale. "Bloody hell. If you'd told me we'd be thinking about stealing from Gringotts… It's supposed to be impossible!"
"That's what I've always heard," Ginny concurred.
"Every bank wants you to think that," Scott said.
"Yeah? And how many Muggle banks guard their vaults with dragons?" Ron said.
Scott's eyebrows shot up. "Dragons?"
"Big scaly blighters with spikes."
"All right, so they're very dedicated to the narrative of them being impregnable."
"Very," Harry said, thinking of what he'd seen in Gringotts.
"But it's a well-defended building, is what it comes down to, speculatory or not. And a wizarding bank is still a bank and they do the same kind of things." Scott gave Harry a serious look. "So with that in mind, I'm pretty sure I can get us in. But unless Bill can give us access to some perfect back door, I don't think we can keep from ending up on the front page."
That made a lot of sense. Breaking into Gringotts would already require a miracle: doing it with complete stealth was more than they could ever hope for. "So we have to do it last. But we also have to do the snake last…" Harry rubbed at his eyes, feeling a headache coming on that was not scar-related.
"We'll need time to plan anyway, the more the better. So it's not so bad," Hermione said in an encouraging tone. "I'll put together everything I can find on Gringotts."
"I'll write to Bill tonight," Ginny said.
Harry sighed. "All right. Scott, I want you to look it all over before the rest of us. Give us an opinion and some options."
Scott nodded. "Yep."
"I know this seems like bad news, but at least we have confirmation," Hermione was saying. "That's far better than being in the dark, and now we can—"
"Yeah, it's nice to know," Harry interrupted her, unable to tolerate her optimistic platitudes. "But what do we do in the mean time?"
"I think we should go to Hogwarts," Ron said. When everyone looked at him, he shrugged. "Like I told Harry, school's starting soon. If we're going to look around there, now's our chance before it's full of people."
"That's an excellent point, Ron," Hermione said with a proud smile. The tips of Ron's ears turned red and he looked away from her.
"He's right," Scott said.
Harry agreed; if they were going to Hogwarts there wouldn't be a better time. "If the Cup is in Gringotts then we're looking for something of Ravenclaw's. I know where their tower is, but I don't know how to get in…"
"According to Hogwarts: A History, the common rooms are accessible year round," Hermione said. "So we should be able to go into the Ravenclaw Tower."
"Let's not make things harder for ourselves. We're looking for a Ravenclaw artefact in the Ravenclaw part of Hogwarts, so let's get a Ravenclaw," Scott said.
"Luna?" Harry surmised.
Harry had been very careful about giving away anything related to the Horcruxes, but he felt he could trust Luna implicitly. And she didn't have to know exactly what they were looking for to help them. "No, I think she'll be good to have."
Hermione nodded easily, obviously having her own level of trust in Luna. "It's not a bad idea."
"I'll work this out with Lil. Meanwhile, think about how we want to do this," Scott said. "I doubt the school will be completely empty."
There are other chapters in the story from a singular point of view, but I can't remember any that don't have scene breaks with the exception of the very first one, Nothing Important Happened Today. Wait, I guess The Most Final Equality was the same way, too. Well, never mind. I don't know what I'm talking about.
That extends to the rest of this author's note, because, per usual, once it come time to write it I find I have little to say. Oh, I'll have a million ideas when I'm reading reviews and formulating complicated answers that don't necessarily fit the question, but put the blank page in front of me and my mind mirrors the same emptiness.
The thing is, people seem to like these, or at least expect them. I've tacked short author's notes onto the end of a variety of chapters just because it seems to be a thing I'm supposed to do, and invariably those chapters don't get much in the way of reviews. It's like, I have to challenge you with a question or an exploration of narrative technique or even something philosophical. That seems to spur people into reviewing, to speak on the topics posed in their own manner. But then I get a lot of reviews that concern nothing relating to the chapter itself. So, sometimes, I'm reluctant to ask you guys a question. I'll get my answers, but that's all. No actual 'reviews', in the standard sense of the term.
But does that matter? I should be grateful to receive any response at all, regardless of form. All of us authors love the long-form review, of course, and I do my best to respond to all of them, but even shorter notes of encouragement are a driving force, and a gift. There's no commerce at work, here, no relationship of trade. I write the story for no compensation, and you write reviews for no compensation. And, ultimately, perhaps that's why you seem to want author's notes from me. Nobody wants to toss their words into a void. I don't — I want reviews. And, in a sense, by using the reply system and writing author's notes, I'm reciprocating. I'm reviewing your reviews, providing feedback and answers, proving there's a person on the other end.
A story creates a community. Some more than others, yes — I'm not like Harry Potter and the Nightmares of Futures Past, or Methods of Rationality.I don't have a forum, or a Yahoo Group. I don't have a TV Tropes page. We have FFnet and PhoenixSong and whatever communications we choose to write to each other. And if my replies give you a reason to keep reviewing, I understand. Fanfiction gives us a level of reciprocity that standard publishing has yet to replicate. I imagine someday it may reach that point, and some authors are more in touch with their fans than others, but I'm not exactly remote, here. If you talk, I hear it (even if you aren't necessarily talking to me; yes, I Google my own name sometimes). And I speak back, because I should, it's polite, it's what's right, it's a component of how I do this and it's the best thanks I can give.
In summary, I'll be sure to comment even if you open the review box and mash your palm against the keyboard, gifting me with a long string of indecipherable consonants. I value your input highly, of course, and I myself would never be so lazy as to vb dcvbnvfvfbnmcvxbnhjggvcxdecvbnjhgfvbngfvdgbhngfdgknijbgfvbhnjmhbgvfdbjn,mnjfvxdrnbjkm
Beta/Admin Note: Um... that type of "review" won't work on PS.net. We have filters that prevent it – just thought you might want to know! LOL!! ;-)