Prologue: The Contingency Plan
The sky roiled, black thunderheads forming and twisting, sending shocks of distant thunder across the land. Harry watched it for a few minutes, waiting for an impossible glimmer of sunlight. This scorched, turbulent sky was one of Voldemort's contingency plans, according to their best theory. Harry wondered if magic this powerful had ever been considered before. Most wizards would probably think twice about ruining the sky itself, even the Dark ones.
It was on this basis that he had agreed with Hermione's theory: that Voldemort, with his obsession with immortality, would never truly consider dying, even to spite his enemies. The contingency plans were more likely just there to ensure nobody would try to kill him. But why then, would he tell nobody about them? That was a question that he and Hermione were no closer to answering.
After all, the Dark Lord couldn't tell them anymore.
Harry remembered the relief after their final confrontation. After so many losses, so much destruction, his soul had been worn and battered. But he had persisted, and the Dark Lord had fallen in the Great Hall, surrounded by people who stood tall despite it all. People whose very existence was an insult to Voldemort's power. It was over.
The first contingency spell came into effect six months later. Such magic takes time to reach its full effect; time that they could have used to stop it if they had known. Poisoned water may not stop many wizards, who could purify their drinks with a flick of their wands, but Muggles had no way to stop it. The Ministry worked tirelessly to break the heavy series of curses that had suddenly appeared in Muggle water reservoirs. Harry himself had proposed the idea that this was the work of many different anti-Muggle agents working across the country. Much later, Hermione had said that she didn't blame him for clinging to that explanation, even as evidence piled up that the coordination was too perfect to be a group of people. It was easier than considering there existed magic that could affect an entire country.
The firestorms began a year and half later, two years after the death of Tom Riddle. Such a powerful and far-reaching piece of magic had taken a while to build up. Once again, had they known about it, they might have been able to stop it. As it was, the country went into a frenzy. There was no hiding this form of magic from the Muggles, not when entire neighbourhoods were burned away in a single day. The firestorms were fought when they were small enough. Notices were sent out that every witch and wizard living near a current firestorm were now legally obligated to fight it. With enough people working together, the storms could be broken, and a region would become less susceptible to further storms.
Harry remembered standing outside the Burrow along with Hermione and every member of the Weasley family, as well as the Lovegoods. More would have come, but there hadn't been time. Ottery St. Catchpole was already lost, and the storm was drifting towards the Burrow. They had raised their wands, shoulder to shoulder against the terrifying wave coming towards them, and brought it down.
Ron had left them that day. Most of the Weasleys had returned to the Burrow to protect each other, and he was no different. Hermione had tried as hard as she could to convince him to come, but he was adamant. They may have only lost one family member in the war, but each and every Weasley was determined not to lose another. In the end, Harry had set off with Hermione to do their own investigation into the storms.
It was another three months before they realised the poisoned water and the firestorms were linked. They were both studying as they travelled, sinking deeper and deeper into the older principles of magic in an attempt to understand these strange phenomena. Their research took them to the wasteland that once was a peaceful Scottish village, one of the more recent firestorm focus points. Hermione had conducted a Base ritual, drawing on ancient lines of magic that criss-crossed the land, and found something there she hadn't expected. The lines were frayed and wavering, having been knotted and then released too quickly. Only a protracted effort could safely unknot them, and Voldemort's death had been instantaneous.
At one of the water facilities, now closed down and warded by Ministry officials, Harry had been the one to see beyond the obvious. While curse-breakers had worked tirelessly to cleanse the water, the original problem remained. Another Base ritual revealed a thin, worn line that had been forcibly moved to pass beneath the facility. They had reeled at the discovery; such an act should be utterly impossible. They spent a few weeks tracing the line, marking it on a map, and soon discovered the truth. The line hadn't been moved, only bent, and the same went for thousands of other lines.
These strange currents of force beneath the land shifted naturally away from knotted lines, making them bend and warp. Through their continued study, Harry and Hermione realised that, through careful, mathematical precision, Tom Riddle must have created an unimaginable and terrible pattern beneath the country, placing knots where firestorms would one day develop in order to bend other lines until they passed through Muggle water reservoirs. It was like a great tapestry, and it had possibly been bound to Tom Riddle's life. Once he had died, all the threads starting coming loose.
The revelation had shocked them. Not only the depth of Voldemort's power, but the sheer scope of the plan. The United Kingdom was one big trap because of him. But the thing that kept Harry awake at night was that nobody knew it was there. In all the memories he and Dumbledore had explored, there had been no sign that Tom Riddle was creating plans like this. The Horcruxes were supposed to be his magnum opus; his greatest work of Dark magic. Why would he make contingency plans if he was convinced he was immortal?
Harry had begun learning Occlumency in private. He was self-taught, so it was difficult, but he needed more control over his mind. Hermione could focus on studying and researching ancient magic with no problems, but he had trouble concentrating as he worried about his friends. Closing off his emotions was going to be a necessity soon if they were going to keep working like this. It took several months, but they had a lot of time as they followed the lines and did their best to unknot them and shift them back into place. Hermione eventually found out, but rather than the scolding he expected, she joined him without hesitation. Harry supposed it was a bit insensitive to think she wasn't worrying about their friends as much as he was.
Four years had passed since the final death of Tom Riddle when the sky broke. Sunlight was no longer visible at any time of the day, though the constant, fast-moving clouds made it seem as though the sun was just a few seconds away. Hermione had cried when she realised the mistake they had made. The currents of magic are not only underground, but in the air as well, surrounding the planet like a net. Only when they flew as high as they could on broomsticks could they sense the upper layer, which had far fewer knots than the ground, yet still more than enough to cause such turmoil.
The problem was that the Base ritual they had been using to cleanse the United Kingdom of its ailments was very difficult to perform in the sky. It required several hours and complicated runes to be present during the casting. In the end, Harry had remembered his encounter with Tom Riddle in the Chamber of Secrets, and simply drew the runes in the air. The thoroughly embarrassed look on Hermione's face gave him his first chuckle in quite some time.
But as Harry looked up at the sky, remembering their first few rituals among the clouds, he felt as though despite their efforts, they weren't making any difference. Many of the ground knots were beneath places that had already been destroyed by firestorms, and the poisoned water required than the entire line be straightened before all of the negative effects ceased. It was much the same in the sky, where hundreds more knots kept the storm clouds functioning without any visible reduction in strength.
Harry had noticed over the past month that Hermione was retreating into herself more and more frequently. His first thought was loneliness; they hadn't been able to visit the Weasleys in almost two years, though thankfully they had heard the Burrow was still okay. But whenever he tried to suggest that they pay Ron a visit, she shook her head, claiming they had bigger problems to worry about. Eventually, he got frustrated enough with her level of inaction that she was forced to stun him to make him stop shouting.
"I'm sorry I did that, Harry, but you weren't even intelligible anymore."
Harry sat up on the floor of the tent. Staying in hotels and inns was possible, but they might lose their place on the line and have to retrace it, so it was better to camp nearby. The line they were currently following would lead them somewhat near the Burrow. He had chosen it in the hopes it would get her perked up and active again. "Alright, I'm calm," he said through gritted teeth. She gave him a dubious look and turned back to her book. "But Hermione, we really do need to talk."
Suddenly, she snapped the book shut and turned to him, looking more intent than she had in days. "Yes, we do."
Harry was a little put-off by her sudden shift in behaviour. "Well… you've not exactly been working as hard as usual lately," he began, throwing caution to the wind and deciding to lay all his worries out there. "I thought you might be missing Ron, but you don't want to go see him. So can you just tell me what the problem is? Our work here is insanely important, and it's not like the Ministry is in a state to help us do it." He felt his voice getting a little forceful by the end, so he took a deep breath and looked her in the eyes pleadingly. "Hermione, we're the only ones who can stop this destruction."
"Yes, we are," she said matter-of-factly.
Harry blinked. "So… why are you slowing down? The sooner we unknot all of the lines, the more people we will save."
It was Hermione's turn to take a deep breath. "Harry," she said gently, "It's too late."
"What?" Harry was outraged. "You're just giving up?"
She raised her wand warningly. "Are you going to start shouting again?"
"I will if you don't have a bloody good explanation!"
"Of course I do," she replied calmly, patting a pile of notebooks on the couch beside her. "Harry, I've done some calculations. Based on our estimates for how many knots remain on the land and how long it has taken us to remove the ones we've found, there will be many more firestorms regardless of our actions. Eventually, one will strike the Ministry, and we will lose our centre of government. Remember, fighting the firestorms does stop them for a while, but as long as the knot remains, they will always return. The poisoned water will return as well, no matter how many times the curse-breakers cleanse the sources."
"What are you saying, then? That we should stop trying? Just curl up and die?" Harry struggled to keep his voice level.
"No. I'm saying we need more time. If we had gone to work immediately after Voldemort died, I still don't think we would have gotten them all in time to prevent this."
Harry sat up straight. "A Time-Turner! We could remove all of the knots within a single day!"
Hermione shook her head, but a little smile graced her lips. "Time-Turners have limits, Harry. They aren't designed for that kind of repetitive use. Not to mention, the Ministry's entire stock of Time-Turners was destroyed in our fifth year."
Feeling deflated, Harry shrugged. "How else can we get more time, then?"
A hint of wild excitement entered Hermione's eyes as she leaned forward. "I think I have a way," she said quietly.
Harry couldn't help the surge of hope in his chest. It made him realise he wasn't exactly expecting a happy ending after all of this. There was just too much damage already. "Let's hear it."
"We've spent the last couple of years immersed in Deep Magic, studying things that most people aren't even remotely aware of. The secret currents in the ground and sky aren't the only things down there." Her voice was hushed, and she was clearly restraining herself from blurting it out.
"You don't need to be dramatic. Just tell me," said Harry impatiently.
"Time, Harry. I found Time. The current we can never understand, the direction we will never comprehend." She looked a little manic now.
Harry motioned with his hands calmingly. "Alright, easy. Just tell me what your idea is."
She struggled within herself for a good thirty seconds. "You're not going to like it."
"Will it end up saving more lives than if we didn't do it?"
"It could." She bit her lip. "If we are very clever about it."
"I think you've got the clever part covered," Harry said dryly.
Hermione gave a small smile, but she still looked nervous. "It… it would involve bringing Voldemort and his followers back to life."
"Hear me out!" Hermione raised her wand again.
"No, Hermione! What the hell are you thinking? Why would–"
"Silencio!" Hermione said forcefully, and the strength of the spell sent Harry stumbling backwards in complete silence. "You will listen to me, Harry James Potter. Because I am going to do this with or without you, and I would very much prefer it to be 'with'."
Harry wanted badly to draw his own wand, but she had the jump on him and he wasn't about to start a duel with his best friend, no matter how ridiculous she was being. Instead he threw himself into an armchair and gestured at her.
"I'll pretend that was sign-language for 'please continue'." Hermione stood up and began to pace. "I know your patience is short with me right now, so I'll just say it. I think I have found a way for us to return to our first year at Hogwarts, but retain the knowledge we have now." She hesitated, then removed her spell.
"Why our first year? Why not the final year?" Harry realised he hadn't questioned whether it was even possible. Hermione was clever enough that he didn't insult her by asking.
"Because I think it can only be done by two people who have been together almost constantly for several years. For this to work, we would need to merge our souls with the time-stream."
"If you think I know what that means, you're sorely mistaken," Harry replied flatly, still a little annoyed at being silenced before.
"It means we would send our souls, everything that we are, into a place where our knowledge of the world fails. From there, we would navigate to the only landmark visible to us: the moment we first met." Hermione was patient, but her hands were fidgeting with her shirt.
"You're using general terms, Hermione. I need an actual explanation. 'Send our souls'? How do you send a soul anywhere?"
Hermione sighed. "Entering the time-stream will destroy our physical forms. We're third-dimensional beings, Harry. We can't traverse the fourth. But our souls can, and they will recognise each other and search for the earliest moment they were together."
"How can you know that? Why wouldn't they go to the latest moment they were together?"
Smiling, Hermione showed him the book she had been reading, The Metaphysical Constant: An examination of evidence supporting the force of Love. "Because our souls want to spend as long as they can together. Oh, don't cringe like that, Harry, I'm being serious. I think Dumbledore knew a little about this, which is why he kept talking about Love being more powerful than anything else. Our souls crave companionship. Wherever they go after we die, you can bet that they won't be alone."
Harry found that rather comforting, though he already believed something of the sort. "How can we access the time-stream?"
"I've been working on that, but it'll go a lot faster once you're helping me. The equations are so abstract I can't concentrate on anything else." She scratched her neck sheepishly. "That's why I've been slowing you down, lately."
It was Harry's turn to get up and pace. He was silent for a time, and Hermione politely didn't interrupt. Finally, he stopped and turned to face her. "What about Ron?"
"Adding a third soul would mean I'd have to scrap everything I've done so far, and I think we're running out of time. There may be yet another trap waiting to spring, even more powerful than the broken sky."
Harry was surprised, and a little angry. "He's your boyfriend! I thought you loved him!"
"I thought I did too," she replied in a small voice. Harry didn't know what to say. It had taken seven years for them to admit they liked each other, he couldn't believe it was going to just vanish. She noticed his expression and looked down at the floor, avoiding his eyes. "I haven't seen him in two years, Harry. You can't expect everything to still be okay." When he didn't reply, her face became flushed and she glared at him. "I don't need you looking down on me! And – and you know what? I don't care!" She scrubbed at her eyes angrily. "It'll just make it easier to go through with this plan."
"You can't just cut off your loved ones, Hermione." Harry shook his head, sitting back in the armchair and putting his head in his hands.
"Yes, I can. I sent my parents away so they wouldn't get hurt when we started hunting Horcruxes. This is almost the same thing." She was making an effort to keep her voice down, but it was shaking regardless.
"It really isn't. You just want to justify leaving him behind." Harry's voice was low and dangerous. "Ron is the most loyal friend either of us have ever known. You want to badmouth him? You can go alone."
Hermione had a pained expression. "He left us during the hunt…"
"He came back," Harry replied simply. "And I hope you realise how he would feel if he heard you say that."
She looked even worse now, sinking to her knees. "We talked privately, two years ago. I asked him to come with us, told him we were going to find a way to stop the firestorms and fix it all. I told him I had ideas, that there were ways of finding answers. He looked at me like I was a different person. He told me, 'my entire family was almost killed, and you want to run off camping again?'" She sobbed as she spoke. "He said we were caught up trying to relive the glory of the Horcrux hunt, and that we were missing the big picture." She trailed off into quiet sniffles.
Harry felt his mouth moving, but no words came out. This was the first he'd heard of a recent argument between his friends. He had thought Ron decided to stay and Hermione eventually accepted his decision. A faint trickle of anger remained, mostly focused around the idea that Ron considered the Horcrux hunt in any way glorious, but he quashed it, bringing up his Occlumency shields and tucking away his capacity for emotional thought. Ron had said some things in an emotional argument; he probably didn't feel that way. There was no need to blame him.
Hermione looked up, and he knew she could sense his shields. She had gone above and beyond Occlumency alone, of course, and had ventured into Legilimency as well. Harry had refused, remembering how Snape had once violated his mental privacy repeatedly on orders from Dumbledore. He at least knew that method was terrible at teaching Occlumency, and found the self-taught way far more conducive to not freaking out.
Harry felt a feather-light pressure on his shields, like a hand resting softly against a chest plate. Hermione met his eyes worriedly as she wiped the tear tracks from her cheeks. She knew he didn't retreat behind his shields unless he was trying to calm down. He could keep them up forever, but he didn't like how cold he could be while doing it. "Harry?"
"I'm fine. The most important thing is that your plan will give us many years to unravel the knots safely, as well as possibly subvert Voldemort's plans and save the people we've lost."
"Y-yes… that was my opinion too." She went quiet, and he realised he was staring at her without blinking. Tentatively, he lowered his shields. Feeling returned to him, and he let out a long sigh. Hermione's gentle Legilimency was now no longer pressed against a barrier, and it slipped into his mind. She withdrew quickly, but not before she caught a glimpse of his thoughts. "Oh, Harry, you'll see Ginny again. It'll just take some time for her to become the woman you love again."
He nodded, not wanting to talk about it. "If we're really going through with this, why don't you tell me what you have so far?"
Months passed, each one packed to the brim with inaction. The wireless radio from the Horcrux hunt was still in the tent, but neither of them turned it on. After a few weeks where Hermione slowly introduced him to the problem and taught him what she had already figured out, he realised he was committed to his choice. They didn't move the camp around anymore, remaining above the line they had been following. Hermione charmed a nearby tree to watch for approaching danger and warn them of it, just in case a firestorm swept their way. Harry suggested leaving the United Kingdom entirely, since it was the only place affected by knots, but Hermione disagreed. Her plan involved taking advantage of the weakness in the currents of magic beneath the land.
"Voldemort used them as a final attack on anyone who managed to beat him, so now we'll use them to neuter the attack before it ever begins. By knotting them, he has frayed the boundaries between what is possible and what is not, and even though we don't know why he kept it secret or when he did it, we can still use them to our advantage." Harry could hear Hermione muttering to herself as she wrote in her journal.
"You can't take that with you," he said, looking up from the roll of parchment littered with equations and runes. She gave him a blank look, and he gestured at the journal.
"Oh, this." She set her quill aside and scratched her nose, leaving a little ink on there. "I've been practicing with a memory palace." At his raised eyebrow, she elaborated. "It's a sort of mnemonic device that lets me remember things with a high amount of precision. Obviously I can't take my journal with me, but I can remember the words on each page."
"Really? That's brilliant. Is it easier to learn than Occlumency?"
Hermione laughed softly. "Much. It's not magic, it's just thinking."
"Who says that's easy?" Harry certainly didn't enjoy thinking lately. He'd had to retreat behind his Occlumency shields just to keep himself from apparating to Ginny several times now. He knew if he saw her face again, he would be unable to follow through with the plan. Hermione seemed to realise this, because she kept a constant stream of work coming his way.
She was still clearly the most adept at the work, but Harry knew how to apply himself to a cause, and he was able to take care of the less complicated calculations. It helped that Arithmancy wasn't needed as much as he expected. Deep Magic was based on the innate rules of reality, which, while complex, came more naturally to him than simple numbers. Hermione had commented that they were a cross between simple non-magical physics and more abstract magical metaphysics, which did little to ease their burden.
The longer they worked, the more focused they became. It was an unspoken rule that they would not talk about the Burrow, or the people they loved. They would not look for news or devote any attention to fantasies of everything working out. The plan was the only way. Harry found himself in a rhythm, and days began to bleed into each other. He worked until he was too tired to concentrate, then slept until he wasn't. He ate mechanically, forcing stolen food into his mouth, not even tasting it.
Two years passed like this. It had been six and a half years since the death of Tom Riddle. Harry spent most of his days behind his Occlumency shields now. He couldn't deal with the pain anymore. Hermione coaxed him out at least once a week for a chat, but they both knew he was slipping. Hermione wasn't exactly in top form herself. She had cut her hair up to her ears so it wouldn't block her vision while working. Her eyes had bags under them, though Harry couldn't remember when they appeared. Her few makeup supplies sat forgotten under one of the beds. She now cooked food with nutrients in mind, rather than flavour.
Every month, they would check each other over with medical spells. Other than muscle atrophy and eye strain, they managed to remain in decent health. Physically, at least. Hermione was better at pretending to be okay, but Harry had spent enough time with her to know the signs. If they didn't complete their work soon, they would waste away. Or descend into madness.
Hermione occasionally asked to see into his mind. He allowed it, of course; there were no secrets between them. He wanted to know if he was going insane, or if he just thought he was. She would reach inside, and he would watch her expression, waiting for the day she said 'enough.' But she never commented on what she saw in there, and Harry found that he eventually stopped caring. All that mattered was the work.
It was the middle of September when the tree started screaming.
Harry knocked over his ink bottle with a curse and drew his wand. Hermione did the same and they stumbled out of the tent, using legs that weren't used to walking anymore. In the dim light, Harry noticed how gaunt Hermione was. He was glad there were no mirrors in the tent. He expected to see the orange horizon that usually preceded a firestorm. Instead he saw a sight he never wanted to see again.
Black robed figures were crossing the field towards them. Hermione flicked her wand, and the tree went silent. As the people drew closer, he was able to make out their hoods, which held masks with snake-like eye slits. Harry's curse left his wand before he even realised he had aimed it. The Death Eaters scattered, one of them crumpling to the ground. A few spells shot wildly in the direction of the tent, but they were poorly aimed and didn't come close.
Hermione joined in a second later, catching another Death Eater in the legs with a stunning spell. Jets of green light shot towards them, and Harry threw himself to the side. Without thinking, he raised his Occlumency shields, finding peace in the lack of emotion. Rising to a crouch, he swiped his wand through the air. Diffindo! Two of the Death Eaters ran several more steps before their torsos fell to the ground.
Harry felt Hermione's shocked gaze on him. "It was supposed to be over," he said calmly.
After a few moments, Hermione thrust her wand towards a tree where a Death Eater was taking cover, and watched it explode, spraying the area around it with foot-long splinters. The Death Eater did not get up.
Distantly, as they fought, Harry wondered if Hermione had sunk into her own Occlumency in order to kill. Would there be a locked, bloodstained door in her memory palace somewhere after this? As a curse passed inches above his head, he didn't waste any more thought on the subject. He tried to perform some of the dodging techniques he had learned in his six months of Auror training after defeating Voldemort, but his body was weak and uncoordinated, and he barely escaped a Blasting Curse that showered stones everywhere. Only his spells were still good, and it looked as though the same went for Hermione as well. She sent an arc of electricity through two Death Eaters, and nailed a third by making the ground beneath his feet crumble into a pit. She was the most creative duellist Harry had ever known.
Only two Death Eaters remained, and they were being very careful. Harry knew he could get one with a well-placed Killing Curse, but no matter how far behind his shields he went, he couldn't do it. It was the one spell that would forever be beyond him. Instead, he waited for a clear shot and thought Imperio! The Death Eater froze mid-step, then spun and sent his remaining companion down in a spray of blood.
"We can interrogate that one," Hermione said, not an ounce of worry or horror in her voice. Definitely Occlumency.
Harry agreed, and brought his pet Death Eater over to the tent. The man snapped his own wand and threw the pieces on the ground before removing his mask. He had a weak chin and fat cheeks, and looked no older than seventeen. "He'll answer you truthfully."
"Who are you?" asked Hermione.
"Why did you attack us?"
"You attacked us."
"Were you planning to attack us?"
"Yes." He looked as though the word was dragged from his lips.
"Your master is dead and gone," Harry interrupted. "What do you gain from serving him?"
Russell jerked a little, fighting the curse, but Harry's will wasn't about to be broken by some lacklustre Death Eater wannabe. "We… don't really… serve anyone."
Harry inspected the mask properly and found it was an imitation, and poorly made at that. No wonder they were killed so easily, they couldn't even see properly. "You're pretending to be Death Eaters?"
"World has… gone to shit… might as well h-have some fun."
Disgust registered somewhere beyond Harry's shields. He ignored it. "Are there more of you?"
"This is disturbing," Hermione said evenly. "Do you all dress like Death Eaters?"
"Some. People just give you what you want if they think you're for real."
"So you are just looters and bandits?"
"Have you ever killed someone?" Harry asked reasonably, once again compelling him to tell the truth.
"Do you have a family?"
"Dead in big fire from the sky."
"Are you well-trained? Are you good at any magic?"
"Got pulled out of school in year 3. Never really cared about learning."
"Well," Harry said, exchanging looks with Hermione. "Why don't you go dig graves for all of your friends there, and then yourself. If you see anyone else approaching, come and warn us." He didn't need to say the instructions out loud, but he did for Hermione's sake. The chubby Death Eater turned on the spot and marched back across the field towards the bodies.
Harry and Hermione returned to the tent after charming the tree once more. Harry returned to work, cleaning the spilled ink away with a flick of his wand. Hermione stood in the middle of the tent, her breathing becoming ragged. He waited quietly, watching her out of the corner of his eye as he worked. She looked over at him, and her expression made it clear she was no longer using Occlumency.
"Harry," she said shakily.
He raised his head. "Yes, Hermione?"
"Stop it, please."
"Occlumency! Stop it, Harry! You have to feel!"
Against his sense of cold logic, Harry let his shields fade, letting the rush of emotion flow back into his mind. Anger, horror, and revulsion all shared a place in his mind. He swallowed and let his quill drop onto the parchment. He hated it, he hated the way the feelings crashed into him and made his hands shake.
Suddenly, he felt something press into his mind, and as he met Hermione's eyes, it grew sharper, probing deeper. He didn't say anything, letting her see whatever she wanted to see. She finally withdrew and sunk to the floor. He moved to join her, but stumbled on his trembling legs and fell at her feet. He sat up and wordlessly pulled her into a hug.
"I'm sorry, Harry," she sobbed. "I h-had to m-make sure…" She didn't elaborate on what she was making sure of, and he didn't want her to. His stomach was tied in more knots than the last revenge of Lord Voldemort.
Harry didn't reply. What could he say?
Their location must have been passed around, because more neo-Death Eaters came their way every few days, even with the protective spells they had placed around the area. Harry didn't use Occlumency at all in the next few fights. Both he and Hermione began every skirmish with Stunning Spells and Body-Bind Curses, but by the end they were using everything in their arsenal to stop them.
They even created some new spells to defend the tent more effectively. Harry, inspired by the memory of Dumbledore weaving a great ring of fire, decided to copy it, with a few changes. The ring was less defined; it was just a swirling rush of flames rather than a clear construct. It could also be directed in a certain direction, allowing him to scorch an entire group of trees to weed out the sneakier foes.
Hermione had created a spell that was meant to be non-lethal at first. It produced a quick succession of needle-thin red spikes that shot off towards their target. They were more-or-less stunners that could follow a moving enemy. But Harry had insisted on another version, just in case, that simply punched the spike through the target. Quick, relatively painless, and utterly effective.
Killing rapidly lost its mystique. Harry never felt good about it, but in the end, they had to put their own lives first, and a dead neo-Death Eater was one that wouldn't come back with reinforcements and get killed anyway. After the seventeenth raid, Hermione started agreeing with him. Most were just homeless looters trying to survive, and if a Death Eater costume got them a meal, all the better. But they didn't seem to understand the extreme effect their costumes had.
"You can't just dress like them, act like them, and expect to carry on with your life," said Harry as he siphoned the blood off his shirt. Things had gotten a little too close in the last fight. His fitness wasn't what it used to be. "When you put on those robes, you take everything that comes with it, including an early death." He jerked his finger towards Hermione. "Put that in your journal," he growled, and watched as she did as he asked.
The work had been slowed by the raids, but they were still making progress. Hermione estimated they were only six months away from completion. Her notebooks made several neat piles near the beds, and she had conjured a floating blackboard on which to write the main phases they would need to go through when the time came.
An owl arrived after a particularly nasty battle that had brought their defences down, making them plottable again by whatever guided the owls. It was Errol. They both looked at it for a full minute. It had a letter dangling from its talon. Hermione turned away. Harry gently picked Errol up, and took the owl outside. All that mattered was the work.
With three months to go, Harry felt excitement build in his chest. It was a strange, alien emotion these days, but it was electrifying to feel it again. He didn't need Hermione's estimates anymore, he could tell they were filling in the gaps. Soon they would need to relocate to one of the remaining knots. Only by using the frailty of the magic lines around those unnatural things could they have a hope of succeeding.
Hermione shared his desperate excitement. The knowledge that they may be able to undo their mistakes drove them to work harder and harder. Harry was good enough to help with the more complex equations now, and they tackled the final few problems with newfound alacrity. It seemed as though the reset button, the thing that would redeem them, was nearly a reality. Just like in their third year, when all hope was lost for Buckbeak and Sirius, only for Hermione to reveal a way out. He was close to her now, closer than he'd ever been, and she clearly felt the same. There was no romance or lust. There was no time for that nonsense. Their work, their great, unfathomable work, was nearly done.
"Harry, I think we should discuss what we are going to do immediately upon arrival," Hermione said suddenly, breaking the standard silence that existed between sleep and neo-Death Eater raids.
Harry sighed and put aside the book he was studying (Sumerian Magic: An objective assessment of ancient magical societies). "We already have a plan."
"No, we have several very broad objectives. But that doesn't matter, we can work that out once we're there. What I mean is what are we going to do immediately upon arrival."
Harry thought for a moment. "We first met at the Sorting, didn't we?"
"Earlier, actually." When Harry just shrugged, unable to remember the details of that day as clearly as he once did, Hermione's hollow cheeks filled with rare colour. "I remember it perfectly."
"You do? Did you have the memory palace back then, too?"
She huffed, and for a moment she looked like her bossy old self. "I don't need a memory palace to remember the day I met my best friend."
This time Harry was the one to feel his face burn. "I know – I didn't mean…"
Waving a hand dismissively, she cut through his apology. "I was helping Neville look for his toad, Tom."
"Trevor," Harry said automatically, and they were both a little surprised.
"Yes, that's right, Trevor. I remember coming to your compartment on the train…"
The memory returned swiftly and Harry sat up straighter with a smile. His facial muscles ached forming the unfamiliar expression. "Ron was trying to turn Scabbers yellow." His smile was replaced by a scowl. "Pettigrew."
"I was waiting for you to remember that." She made a calming motion with her hand. "But remember we have to be careful until we have time to plan. If you just grab Scabbers and wring his neck, Ron will think you've gone insane."
Harry grudgingly agreed. "Would be worth it," he grumbled.
"No, it wouldn't," said Hermione patiently. "Dead, Pettigrew can't exonerate Sirius."
Harry agreed a lot less grudgingly with that in mind. "So I'm in the compartment with Ron when you come by. That's it, then? That's the moment?"
"I believe so, unless we've met somewhere else before that without either of our knowledge." She chewed her lip. "What dentist did you go to, growing up?"
"The school one. As if my aunt and uncle would pay for a good one."
"We probably haven't met before, then. Anyway, it doesn't matter. If we appear anywhere other than the compartment, just bide your time until we get to that stage. For example, if we once passed by each other in some shopping centre at the age of six, don't jump the gun and start hunting Horcruxes. We need to keep the sequence of events as similar to the original timeline as possible."
"Why? Won't it be better if we got to work as soon as possible, rather than going through the motions of school and homework?"
"Because, Harry, if the sequence of events plays out too differently, we lose the advantage of foresight. Now, I can't reasonably expect us both to do the exact same things we did the first time, and we will be making changes for the better, but for the most part, we need to just be kids."
Harry was silent for a time. The thought of not being able to get to work straight away was a little discomforting. Sirius would spend a couple more years in Azkaban if they didn't do anything drastic, and that just didn't feel right. He remembered Professor Quirrell, and briefly entertained a fantasy of defeating Voldemort once and for all in his first year. But that was impossible. Even if he somehow escaped the Trace and ditched school, he would still need to find and destroy all of the Horcruxes and safely unravel every knot in the ground and sky, all within a single year.
With a heavy heart, he was forced to accept Hermione's logic. "Alright. So what are you going to do when you arrive at the compartment?"
"I'll ask to see that nonsense spell Ron was trying, and then go help look for Trevor." Hermione brushed her hair out of her eyes; it was growing back slowly. "I saw you both again a little later, if I recall correctly."
Harry nodded. "The Sorting."
Hermione reached across and swatted him on the head. "Still on the train, Harry! I remember seeing Malfoy running away with Crabbe and Goyle, so I came to investigate."
Smirking, Harry rubbed his head. "You were a bit nosy back then."
With the air of a dignified Queen ignoring the improper remarks of a peasant, Hermione continued. "I think I told you off… Oh! I went to speak with the driver before that! I remember now."
"Do you think hexing Malfoy would count as a drastic change?"
She rolled her eyes. "Try to resist the urge. How did you drive him away the first time?"
Harry scratched his chin. "I can't remember. I'll think of something." At her worried expression, Harry raised his hands in a peaceful gesture. "I'm not about to cut him and his friends to pieces. If wringing Pettigrew's neck would make Ron think I'm insane, killing three kids would make him think I'm bloody psychotic."
"You had better remember that. We both know what you're like when you get worked up."
Harry didn't appreciate the reminder. "What about Snape? He knows Legilimency. If he sees into either of our minds…"
"We're not killing Snape, Harry!" Hermione looked exasperated.
"I didn't say we should! I meant, what are we going to do about his Legilimency!" Harry felt his blood boiling. "Why do you think I just want to kill every problem that gets in our way? Death Eaters and Dark creatures, that's all I intend to kill, not just anyone who gets suspicious!"
"I – I didn't mean to imply that. I know you don't like killing, Harry, and neither do I. I just spoke without thinking." She bowed her head in apology, and Harry forgave her with an angry wave of his hand.
"What are we going to do about Snape, then?" he asked, as much to change the subject as to get an answer.
"Well, your passive Occlumency is good enough to sense an intrusion and provide basic protection, so if he or anyone else tries to get in, just raise your defences. We'll both pretend to not know we're doing it. I've read about cases where children develop natural Occlumency in response to things that happen in their childhood."
"What will our reasons be, then?"
Hermione pursed her lips, thinking. "Mine will be that I felt I never had any privacy in my house, and subconsciously developed a 'private area' in my head that I could defend against all intrusions. It gives me peace and quiet in noisy places, and lets me focus on my work easily."
Harry was impressed. "Will that really work?"
"There have been stranger cases. Now, as for your story… your aunt and uncle were very unkind to you, so it's natural you would retreat into your mind to avoid the reality of your situation. I don't think anyone will question that; it would make them feel awkward and impolite."
"Remind me how I ever survived this long without you planning my every move?"
She grinned wearily. "Dumb luck."
The time came for them to relocate. After discussing their possible options, they opted for the knot nearest to King's Cross Station. Their souls would be travelling across years to the point where they first met, and it seemed right that they chose the shortest distance away in physical space as well. As it happened, the knot sat beneath a city square. While firestorms had torn apart some of the city, this place was untouched, meaning the knot hadn't broken free on its own yet.
They moved purposefully, setting up their tent and casting wards around it to keep Muggles from interfering as well as curious wizards. In the space of two minutes, the tent was secure and completely unnoticed in the middle of the square. Inside the tent, Hermione used her wand to dig a hole in the ground about as large as a car and as deep as a swimming pool.
"Intersection point established," she said, smartly ticking off an item on the floating blackboard. A low rumble filled their ears. They exchanged worried glances, and Harry immediately went about examining the knot with a sensory spell Hermione had developed.
"It's still together, but it's fraying quickly. I think it's going to unravel on its own within the hour."
Hermione looked panicked. "An hour? That's cutting it awfully close. Should we abort and find a more stable knot?"
Harry chewed his lip. "No. The less stable it is, the more likely we'll succeed, right?"
She didn't answer, instead drawing her wand and carving runes into the ground around the hole. Harry rifled through some notes and drew his wand as well. "Wussuru anzillu… taru isten arammu.. wussuru anzillu…" he murmured. Some of the runes began to glow with black light.
Hermione drew as fast as she dared as the rumbling grew louder. A firestorm was brewing, and the period of time in which they could escape unharmed was shrinking rapidly. Apparition didn't always work properly around a firestorm due to the rampant magical energy. Something crackled in the pit, and it suddenly seemed a lot darker, though the light remained the same. Harry felt like he could see something rushing in the darkness below out of the corner of his eye.
The rumbling became a constant reminder that time was running out. There were no pauses anymore, just a constant, low roar. People were screaming outside the tent. The signs of an impending firestorm were most likely taught to the general population, though the Muggles probably called it something different. It sounded as though the wind and the earth were conspiring to crush everything between them.
Harry's wand shook as he incanted. The words weren't Latin like most spells; they were based on an even older language Harry hadn't heard of before this. Runes were lighting up as soon as Hermione drew them now, and she raced to complete the circle around the pit. Bright blue flickers of light now shot out of the pit every few seconds, and Harry was almost certain if he leaned over the edge he would see an underground river splashing against the rocks, though he knew that was not the case.
The noise reached a fever pitch as Hermione drew the final rune, and Harry knew they were living their final seconds in this world, one way or another. Hermione looked at him from the other side of the pit, which was now making more noise than the impending firestorm. The sound of rushing waves pounded against their eardrums. Harry stopped chanting and held up three fingers.
Hermione was crying, but she nodded, even as strange wind sent her hair flying about. Harry realised he was weeping as well. He now showed two fingers. Bright orange light shone through the tent walls, telling them the firestorm had begun. He dropped the final finger and stepped over the runes as Hermione did the same. The tent was ripped apart around them, burning pieces of fabric floating on the unceasing wind blasting out of the pit.
Hermione jumped, and Harry leapt to meet her. The black-and-blue waves of nothingness crashed against the walls of the pit beneath them, unable to splash out of it. But it didn't matter, because they were dropping, their arms around each other, screaming and crying as Time swallowed them whole.
Harry felt something against him, an immense, unfathomable pressure. He knew, distantly, that this feeling was just his brain's way of approximating what was happening, but he couldn't help but try and struggle against the crushing tide. He could see nothing but blackness, and knew there was no light for his cornea to refract.
Hermione was in his arms, a strange human-shaped shield against the buffeting winds that mixed and twisted along with the tide. She clung to him as well, and her face was against his. He could feel her mouth open in a silent scream, and knew there was no air through which sound waves could propagate.
He felt something on the soles of his feet. His skin was being pulled away by the wind and current. In his mind's eye, he could see chunks of flesh breaking away and disappearing into the darkness. The feeling crept up his legs, and he knew his feet were completely gone, even the bone. It may have taken a split second or a thousand years, but Harry had no way to know. The idea of 'seconds' and 'years' suddenly seemed alien and unnatural. It just was.
His body was ripped away from him, piece by piece, inch by inch. His legs were gone, along with his hips. There was no pain, and he knew there was no space through which his nervous system could send electric signals to his brain. He was frozen, clinging to Hermione as the last of his stomach was ripped free and sent into the roiling nothingness.
Harry was unable to think. The feeling had reached his head suddenly, and he somehow knew his arms were gone. His face was pressed against Hermione's, and he could feel her skin fracture and slip away along with his own. Piece by piece, their skulls and brains were deconstructed and scattered to the winds of Time.
He was standing in an endless, watery field of grey. He had no clothes on, but he was holding his wand. That seemed like he should find it odd, but Harry couldn't think why. Why shouldn't he have his wand? The water was up to his ankles, and it moved in a very strange way. There were many different currents, each going different speeds. Some would occasionally flow in the reverse direction, but they seemed pretty rare. Harry realised he was standing in quite a wide current, the widest he could see. It slowly flowed around his legs in the direction behind him. Ahead of him, his current narrowed as it stretched away. He wondered what was in that direction.
A woman suddenly stepped out of his body, slowly walking against the current. She had silvery skin, and her long, bushy hair wafted in the air on an invisible breeze. She had no clothes on, either, but that didn't seem strange. She had a wand too, so he knew she was like him. He noticed his hands were also pale and shiny, just like hers. The woman looked back at him and smiled. He returned it happily. When she gestured for him to follow, he obeyed without thinking.
The woman seemed so familiar, and he liked being close to her. When he caught up, he noticed they couldn't touch each other; they would occupy the same space while walking. That felt right; he wanted to be as close to this woman as possible, and it seemed she felt the same way. Having company made the slow walk against the current very enjoyable. Time was non-existent here, but he still enjoyed every non-second he spent with her.
They walked silently, peacefully, up the current. Harry wasn't surprised to see their destination in the distance ahead. He noticed a little bit of their current was going backwards, but it was very small, and they soon left it behind. Their destination approached. Every step towards it made Harry happy. Somehow, he knew their goal would result in he and the woman continuing to be together, and that was a good feeling.
The current became very narrow, to the point where if they hadn't been occupying the same space, they would have needed to begin doing so now. There was a cheerful pinprick of light ahead, where the current narrowed to a point. Harry was careful not to put a foot outside of their own current; he knew that wasn't right.
The pinprick looked so welcoming, and it grew brighter the closer they got. When they were standing over it, at the narrowest part of the current, Harry reached for it without thinking, and the woman did the same, their hands closing around it simultaneously. Harry felt overwhelming happiness that they had reached their goal together, and would spend a long time with each other as a result. As the light grew to blinding, and the current rose up to absorb them, he couldn't imagine anything he wanted more.
The work was done.
Here we go! Who doesn't like a good old do-over fic?