Chapter 41: Morning After


Sunday, 25th June 1995.

Hermione drifted slowly through the shallow depths of rest as her brain began to notice things around her once more.

The dull light through the curtains. The soft and distant cries of the animals that had been brought into this bubble gave it life beyond just the Potter family. But as she floated through that state one thing immediately woke her properly as she felt the absence of warmth around her, both physical and magical.

Opening her eyes, she saw the figure stepping through the doorway, treading quietly out into the hallway beyond. She sat up and rubbed away the last of the sleep, tucking the loose strands of her wild hair back over her ears and out of her face.

Why was Harry creeping around the house?

She climbed out of his bed and followed him quietly, the boy making his usual path to the library where they soon learned what happened to the rest of the family the night before. Every seat was filled with their family, human and elf, and they were all fast asleep.

Even the people in the picture frame were slumbering, most having found a comfortable chair or surface to rest on. Harry softly stepped past the sleeping people and stood before the large frame containing his extended family.

His left hand stretched out and realization settled over Hermione as she moved closer.

She knew that he could sense her there, but she remained quiet as his fingers ran over the surface of his painted father's sleeping face. Even from her position behind him, she could feel the shift in his emotion and the tears that accompanied it. Harry was crying for his loss once more. Hermione felt pain, shared through their bond once more, but this time it wasn't agony, it was grief.

For so long now, the two of them had understood that the figures in the painting weren't truly Harry's parents' souls. That was not how the magic of portraits worked. Some errant sliver of the soul might touch the paint as it crossed the threshold, but after last night, Harry now knew for certain that these two people were not his parents, and he was heartbroken at the loss.

He had been too young when they had originally been taken away. One moment they were playing, the next, they were raising him from inside a painting. But after last night, he finally truly understood the absence and, for the first time in his life, Harry was finally mourning for his parents.

Hermione's arms wrapped around Harry as he pressed his fingers harder into the paint and sobbed physically, though still remaining quiet enough to not wake those behind them.

"I'm sorry, Harry," Hermione whispered into his ear, pressing a gentle kiss to his damp cheek.

Harry simply nodded and pulled his hand away as the pair noticed that James had woken under Harry's touch.

"Harry?" The man asked quietly, his movement enough to wake the woman resting on his chest as well.

The images of the two Potters rubbed their eyes as they sat forward and looked at their son staring at them, tears filling his eyes.

"What's the matter?" Lily asked, and Hermione could see how much the woman wished she could reach out of the paint and touch her child.

"You really aren't them, are you?" Harry finally said, grief filling his voice.

Hermione gripped her boyfriend tighter as his body began to heave with heavier sobs, and both the figures in the painting seemed to sag somewhat in response.

"No, Harry." His father said softly. "We are but a memory of them. Though by the sounds of it, you got to meet the real deal last night."

Harry nodded in reply, his fingers reaching out again but pausing part of the way to the picture.

"We are as close as one can get to the real thing in this world after death. But while we aren't the true souls of them, we are still your parents, Harry." Lily said, smiling softly at him.

Harry looked up and Hermione felt the confusion in him at the statement. But she understood the comment.

"Harry," she said, drawing his attention, "who raised you?"

Harry's eyes flicked to the painting for a moment before he glanced over his shoulder at the sleeping elves.

"They did." He said, indicating both the picture and elves.

"Exactly." She said with a knowing smirk.

"Harry," Lily said, drawing his eye back to the two Potters in the painting. "We might not be the ones that physically gave birth to you, but we did raise you."

"Surely you can think of us as your adoptive parents at the very least?" James said, kneeling so that he was looking up at Harry's downcast face. "We both love you dearly, and we've given you everything we could. Hoped that we raised you right."

"From what the others told us about yesterday, we certainly succeeded there," Lily added.

"They're right. They are still your mum and dad, Harry." Hermione reassured him and Harry sniffled a few times, the sharper noise echoing in the space as he wiped away the tears that stained his cheeks.

Harry nodded again before he stepped out of Hermione's arms and right up to the surface of the painting, hugging the canvas and the figures within.

Hermione tried to hold back her own tears. She knew Harry longed to touch his parents, and last night he had been given that chance after so long, but now he was back here in the real world, and they were once more beyond his reach.

She wanted to do something, anything to lessen the pain Harry was feeling.

A hand on her shoulder drew her attention and Hermione noticed her own mother standing beside her. Natalie smiled at her, a sliver of pain keeping the gesture from being its usual comfort as she knelt behind Harry and tapped his shoulder. The boy turned and when Natalie opened her arms to him, he fell into them and began sobbing softly once more.

Several more figures in the painting seemed to have awoken at the sounds. James and Lily held each other tightly as they watched their child taking comfort in the arms of another mother. Neither begrudged Natalie the fact that she could hold their child when they couldn't. They were both immensely grateful that Harry had the Grangers. And that they'd been a part of his life for so long now.

Sounds of movement behind her indicated to Hermione that the others had risen at the sounds as well, and were now watching Harry unload some more of his pain from the events of the day before.

Hermione stepped over and wrapped Harry between herself and her mother, knowing that their embrace was not the same as what he had experienced the night before, but it was the best they could provide.

His sobs slowed as they held him and eventually, his breathing returned to normal. She could feel the pain lessen in his heart, but it did not vanish altogether. She was sure it would be there until the day Harry finally crossed over for good. But until that day, she would be there for him, beside him.

"I love you, Harry." She whispered into his ear and she felt the smile that drew from him.

"Evidently. So much that you're stuck with me forever now." He said sarcastically as he pulled out of the embrace.

"I'll admit, that little tidbit was a surprise," Natalie said, gently wiping some of the renewed tears from Harry's face. "But you've been a part of our family for so long now, I don't think it changes anything, do you?"

"No," Harry replied as he stepped back and noticed everyone was now awake and looking at him. "Sorry."

"Harry, do not apologize for your tears," Ted said firmly. "You went through so much yesterday, I think a little crying is allowed. It would be even if nothing occurred. Emotions are your right as a human being, do not squash them down and hide when you hurt."

"You're handling all of this a whole lot better than I think I would," Sirius said from his position slowly sliding off Harry and Hermione's usual chair.

"Maybe it just hasn't really sunk in yet?" Harry said, looking at his godfather before his eyes drifted over the others. "I suppose, now everyone is here and awake, that we all want to discuss what happened yesterday a little more," Harry said quietly.

Sirius, who was almost falling out of the chair already, transformed into his animal form and quickly jogged over to the longer couch on which Moony was now sitting, having shifted up from where he had been draped over the full length of the seat.

Harry nodded to his godfather and he and Hermione quickly took their usual seat, facing the family.

"You don't have to if you don't want to," Nym said, sitting in the only other single-seater chair. "But we're here for you if you need us." She reassured Harry.

Hermione slipped her arm behind Harry and tucked the pair of them closer together. She could feel the difference in Harry here compared to the office the night before. Then he had been holding back, trying to keep his guard up around those he still did not fully trust. But here, he was opening up properly and she could feel the roiling surface of his emotions swaying from one feeling to the next.

She tried to use her own feelings pressing into him to help settle his nerves and she felt the thanks returned from him.

"I have a question," Sirius said, drawing the room's attention. "What the hell were you two thinking?" He said, directing his attention to the painting. "Giving Snivellous another chance?"

Hermione felt Harry chuckle at the statement, Sirius still seeming to accept the painting as the real deal.

"Don't look at me." James defended.

"I have a feeling, for Dad, it was a bit of a prank from beyond the grave," Harry explained. "Being the magnanimous one letting go of the grudge. I suppose being dead realigns one's priorities. It was the very last thing they asked of me. As though it wasn't terribly important, but seems as how they had the time…"

"I can't speak for the dead," Lily said, her eyes on Harry who smiled back at her, though there was still some obvious pain he was suppressing. "But I don't think I can ever forgive him for what he's done. I've not been able to hold my son in thirteen years thanks to him. Maybe the afterlife provides some level of perspective we lack. If he even thinks of crossing you, send him on. Do not take a chance with him."

"Well, we don't really need to go back to Hogwarts at all now exams are over," Hermione noted. "And even if we did, we don't take his classes regardless. We've no reason to be alone with him. Given the quality of his teaching, I don't see any reason why we would interact with him at all."

"He definitely has the Mark. I could feel it when I delivered the message. It reeks of Riddle." Harry said.

"Speaking of Riddle, just how much damage do you think you did to him last night?" Sirius asked excitedly.

"Well, he's certainly missing a big chunk of his arm," Hermione said with a vindictive smirk. "It was quite the sight to see him looking down at it in disbelief before he ran away with his tail between his legs."

Harry looked at her and gave her a soft smile, but the blush on his cheeks indicated he was a little embarrassed by the praise. "Come on, Harry. If you can't be proud of that, what can you be proud of?"

"I guess. Just wish that I had aimed it better. This might all be over if I had."

"Don't do that to yourself, Harry," Andromeda said. "You performed admirably last night under the worst circumstances imaginable. Both of you came back to us alive and intact. That is the most important factor."

"Not to mention those stupid soul containers he has mean he wouldn't be gone even if you had. I can't believe there is one in the bloody school." Remus muttered angrily.

"Two," Harry said darkly.

"I can't believe Albus had one just tucked away in a drawer," Charlus said from the painting, indicating how much the adults had discussed matters after they had disappeared to bed.

"I want to go back there and rip it to pieces. But what if we can use one to find the others?" Harry asked the family.

"Very little is known of soul containers these days." An ancient Potter Hermione didn't know the name of said, not moving from their seat in the far back of the painting. "There are various ways to make one, but not many would have any knowledge of the ways. Riddle was schooled in England during the early forties. I would say the most likely form of container he'd try and forge would be a Horcrux, given that timeline and locale."

"There are different types of that horrible thing?" Natalie asked in disgust.

"Surely you've heard some of the stories of the ancient pharaohs and their obsession with immortality?" Dorea said. "It was antithetical to their culture's general beliefs, given they believed that the gods would ensure they were reborn if they followed certain paths in life. But a pharaoh was the ultimate power on earth at that time. So their slaves would do whatever the mighty rulers commanded of them."

"From there," Rosalie Potter continued. "Roman and Greek invasions and explorations of Egypt would have certainly led to the spread of such concepts. And there are many such myths that come from the East as well. Attempting to evade death is a tale as old as time. And magicals have put far more research into that topic than almost any other."

Charlus nodded before continuing. "The only case I know of where someone officially and legitimately succeeded without innumerable amounts of death was Flamel and his Philosopher's Stone. He'd be, what, somewhere in his late six hundreds by now?" He finished, the question addressed to the rest of the painted family.

"It was one of the ancient Greeks," Andromeda continued, "Herpo the Foul, who figured out Horcruxes specifically. And he shares many similarities with Salazar Slytherin, whom we know Riddle considers himself a descendant of. He was also the lunatic who figured out how to birth a basilisk."

"Ironic, really," Sirius said. "Given that it was that very basilisk's venom that was used to destroy his Horcrux. One of the few known ways to destroy one."

Remus looked at his friend oddly, having never heard him discuss such foul magic before. "Don't look at me like that Moony. You've seen the home I grew up in. You can't even imagine some of the books my family has on such topics."

"Perhaps it is time for a trip down memory lane then. Some of those books might come in handy." Ted added, watching the Marauder closely.

Sirius sighed heavily and Hermione knew he was considering the pros and cons of a trip back to the home in which he had grown up.

Before Dorea and Charlus had accepted Sirius into their home, he had lived in London, in a horrible place where his family relished in their darker leanings. And made his life miserable for simply being a decent human being in a family of scoundrels.

"I'd really rather not, but if mum is truly dead, odds are high only someone of the blood could even hope to open the front door right now. I'd hate to think of what would happen if any of the Grangers were to touch it. She was off her rocker long before I ran away. Even you'd probably be at risk trying, Andi. And who knows what Kreacher is like without her bossing him about just as he likes."

"We can come along and help with Kreacher," Hermione said, finally pitching back into the conversation.

"No!" Sirius said firmly. "Neither of you have ever dealt with insanity of the like my family deals in. It is far too dangerous."

"What do you mean you can help with Kreacher?" Ted asked. "Surely Sirius would be the one to command him now, as Head of the Black family. The elf cannot disobey orders given by his master."

Hermione glanced at Harry and he gave her a nod. "We've been thinking about Dobby." She said, noticing the newest elf in their midst sit up at the mention of his name. "Long before Harry broke his bond with the Malfoys last night, he countermanded orders 'rightly' given by Dobby's master. And Dobby obeyed them."

The family all turned to look at the wee elf, who immediately shrank down under the intense scrutiny. "It's alright, Dobby. You won't come to any harm here. You know that." Harry said, smiling in his direction.

"Do you know why you were able to ignore commands from your master?" Sirius asked, curious now.

"Master Harry gave me instructions not to," Dobby said.

"But at the time, Harry was not your master?" Charlus asked.

Dobby seemed unable to say why, so Hermione stepped in for him. "Harry and I think that it is because we possess elf magic. It must give his instructions some additional power that the normal bond lacks."

"You mean to say you believe that you could countermand instructions given by any master to their elf?" Lily asked, looking fascinated at the possibility that her son might be able to single-handedly free those poor enslaved elves practically, if not entirely magically. While it was true that the Potter family owned their fair share of house-elves, a lot of those were rescues from other horrid families that they had taken in over the years. And they never mistreated them. Especially not for their own sick pleasure. But many other families were not so kind.

Harry glanced at Hermione for a moment and she shrugged. "We've only ever done so with Dobby. The only other house-elves we have even met are those that serve at Hogwarts, and they are required to follow student instruction when it isn't against the rules." he paused. "It's not something I'd bet my life on, but we can certainly see if it's an option."

"I won't bring that mad elf here," Sirius said plainly. "If you want to, we can find somewhere safe out in the world to test your theories, but so long as he has never been here, he cannot sneak others in. I do not trust him."

Hermione had only ever garnered snippets of what Sirius's life had been like at his former home, but it seemed that his mother had delighted in using her elf to deliver mistreatment to her son whenever he displeased her. Hitting him herself would have been too much like a muggle, but having it delivered by magical proxy made it okay.

"A matter for another time then," Ted suggested, clearly sensing Sirius's discomfort at the topic and changing it accordingly. "Perhaps we might talk about this fascinating ability your patronuses seem to wield. I've never seen one so solid that it could hold a man down before."

Harry and Hermione blushed heavily at this. Ted might not have realized, but due to the nature of the patronus charm, the question had an intensely personal answer.

"What?" Sirius asked, with a wicked smirk spreading over his face upon noticing their cheeks.

"Down boy," Remus said, gently grabbing Sirius by the shoulder and pulling him back onto the couch, while offering a pitying look at the two teens. Having been the one to teach them the charm, he understood how it worked, and how the pair had come to understand its depths further than most. Like with all their studies, it wasn't enough to simply learn a spell. They always needed to dissect it and figure out how it worked. Which allowed them to do some of the insane things they did with magic. Twisting the purposes of a spell to their own ends in the casting.

"It's alright Remus," Hermione said, looking at Harry. His sigh was all the confirmation she needed. "We think it's due to the source we use. Most people use a powerful memory to fuel the charm. We don't."

The adults looked confused, none so much as the Grangers and Remus seemed to notice.

"The Patronus charm is a powerful form of defensive magic that uses a caster's innate joy in life to produce a shield of sorts against negative emotion and magic." He explained to the muggles. "The more powerful and pleasant the memories and emotions driving it, the more resistant the resultant shield becomes. With sufficiently powerful sources, the charm changes from a shield to a corporeal form. Kitty and Dawn are those corporeal forms for Harry and Hermione. My own is a wolf."

"While the shield form can hold dark creatures at bay," Harry noted, "a corporeal form can actually attack the Dementor, or other negative sources directly, instead of just being defensive. But usually, that simply drives the source back. In the case of Dementors, it seems to cause them pain to be that close to such pleasant thoughts given how they feed on such negative ones."

"What do you mean?" Andromeda said, surprised. "Everyone knows that Dementors feed on happy memories."

Hermione smiled. "Everyone knew that Sirius was guilty, that Harry died with his parents. Not everything that everyone knows is always right. Especially not if Sirius is correct."

Everyone turned to face the former inmate, who gave her a nasty look in return. "You'll pay for this."

"I know it hurts to think about, but It's important they know, Sirius." Harry defended, and Hermione didn't need to look at him to feel the glare he was giving his godfather in defence of her.

"Fine. After Bones's first interview, she stirred up all kinds of things that I'd forgotten. Many happy memories I'd not seen in years. But every single one of them was as crisp and clear as the day it had happened. If the Dementors had been feeding on those memories, they ought to have been damaged."

The adults looked stunned at the statement, but Sirius continued. "Once they put me back in the cell though, the bad ones returned. And the good turned sour." He paused, panting at having to remember his time in that prison, but Hermione knew last night's exposure had finally solidified his belief that he was free. "The Dementors must be feeding on how we feel when dark emotions rise to the surface. Their very presence brings them out in us. It would be a terribly inefficient method for them to feed on happiness if their presence alone suppresses it in their prey."

"And the Patronus should be a smorgasbord of those feelings for them to gorge themselves on," Hermione added. "Instead, it drives them away. Happiness hurts them, and a patronus is the most concentrated form of that which a magical can conjure. That's why it hurts them."

"I thought they were meant to be teaching you," Nym said with a broad smirk.

"They did. We just don't stop questioning once someone gives us an answer." Harry admitted. "There is always more to learn."

"How has no one ever realized that before?" Andromeda asked in disbelief.

Hermione shrugged as she replied. "Because no one in the magical world ever cared to ask those with the most experience." She nodded towards the former prisoner. "They found an explanation that fit the evidence they saw and went with it. Why research further when doing so involves exposing yourself to Dementors if you already have a viable defence? Sirius didn't understand it either until we asked him more questions about them."

"That's my girl," Richard said proudly and Hermione beamed at the praise. Her parents had always encouraged her intelligence, and meeting Harry and his family had only increased her desire to learn.

"We think..." Harry offered slowly, glancing at Hermione for her assent, which she gave. "Our patronuses are the way that they are because we don't use happy 'memories' to power them. We use the way that we feel for one another to do it."

Realization dawned on the adult faces at why the pair might have been reluctant to share their secret now. Given how immensely personal the driving energy must be. To admit it aloud, even to family, would be tremendously embarrassing.

"I thought you didn't know you felt that way until Hermione's birthday," Nym smirked, never one to miss an opportunity to tease the couple.

Hermione flushed brightly, but Harry only tightened his grip around her. "No, that's when we admitted it aloud."

"Regardless," Remus said, coming to their aid once more. "Such a powerful source of blatantly pure emotion… If happiness causes them pain, imagine how much damage pure love can achieve."

The defence left the teen couple even brighter red in embarrassment and Hermione hoped the chair might swallow them both. If she had been any less secure in her feelings about Harry, she might have popped away to avoid any further embarrassment.

"Ignore them. I love you and I'm proud to say it." Harry whispered in her ear and Hermione felt the anxiety of their relationship being the topic of discussion lessening. "Until last night, we've never had the opportunity to test them against a real Dementor. Honestly, when I encountered one in the maze, I was glad I managed to cast it at all."

Hermione snuggled tighter against him, recalling the feeling of panic from Harry before he drew comfort from her presence. And the feeling of thanks and love he'd returned to her afterwards.

"Do you think you'd be able to kill the rest?" One of Harry's ancestors asked from the family painting.

"Sorry, Archer, not by ourselves," Harry replied, and Hermione wondered what this one's story had been, as the man seemed especially disgusted by Dementors. "Maybe if a large enough group came to help."

"But none of us can do that," Nym said.

"Not to kill them," Hermione said. "If last night is any guide, it's not instant. Kitty and Dawn need to physically attack them, one by one. There is no way that the Dementors would simply stay put and wait for us to slaughter them all one at a time. They would surely rush to attack us directly while our girls destroy them. It would take a massive force of other patronuses to keep them contained. And it would be incredibly draining."

"I don't think I could stand to be that close to them ever again," Sirius admitted.

"Not exactly surprising," Richard said. "I couldn't see them, but I felt awful last night. I wouldn't want to seek that out again either."

"And you suffered in their 'care' for seven and a half years," Natalie added.

"I doubt that the Ministry would let us right now, even if we could," Harry said, and Hermione recalled Fudge's reticence to remove them the night before.

The family fell quiet.

Hermione wondered what else they could do to ensure the safety of their friends and family. She wasn't eager to fight these monsters, but last night had certainly proven that she and Harry could if they needed to. And she didn't feel right sitting back and doing nothing.

"I really don't want us to have anything to do with it, Hermione," Harry muttered from beside her and she knew he had figured out her thoughts.

"Can we not though? As they pointed out, we can kill Dementors. We can certainly take a few Death Eaters. We both felt the awful magic and soul in that book, and you can feel the tendrils it gives off. At the very least, we need to help."

"I don't want either of you going anywhere near this shit," Sirius said, sitting forward protectively.

"You were right last night. You should leave the adults to sort it all out." Remus agreed.

Hermione felt slightly chastised. It wasn't often that Sirius and Remus played the voice of reason in the family.

"And if we do nothing and people die when we could have helped?" She asked. "How do we live with ourselves afterwards?"

"Better remorseful and alive, than heroic and dead," Andromeda said quietly, showing a rare glimmer of the upbringing that sent her to Slytherin.

Lily gave them a soft look as she spoke. "Please promise us you won't do anything rash, without discussing it first."

Suddenly both Harry and Hermione were shaking their heads resolutely.

"Uh-uh. No. Not again." Hermione growled.

"Exactly. I learned my lesson after the Second Task. I'm never promising anything like that ever again."

"Why not?" James asked from the painting.

"You don't know what I saw in that lake. I will not give up any weapon in my arsenal in order to make people feel better." Harry said, resolute in his defiance.

Hermione just held to him firmly, trying to reassure him that the image from his nightmares would never repeat itself.

"Harry's right," Nym said. "My sense of fair play could have gotten him killed last night. If this really is going to be a war, we'd be fools to promise not to use all in our power to ensure we all survive."

Ted was ever the mediator, leaning forward as several of the others looked ready to rebut.

"Alright, let's all simmer down. None of us wants the kids involved. But if they should happen to become involved, can any of you say they'd be better off being hamstrung? You all remember Harry's face that morning."

Hermione had been told about Harry's trip to locate her, but she didn't know the specific details of the entire trip. Harry had only ever summarized it for her due to the pain of the memory.

"Point is, in this case, it doesn't matter," Hermione said defiantly, recalling a similar event that had occurred in this very room many years before. "Fact of the matter is, unless we choose to, there is no way you can stop us. Best to help us prepare than to simply forbid and hope we obey."

Natalie stood and walked over to the teens, kneeling in front of them. "Are you saying you'd disobey us if we asked you to promise that?"

"We're saying don't ask, and we won't have to lie," Harry said simply.

"I made a more important promise already," Hermione said to her mother. "To be with Harry no matter what. As much as we think it's all nonsense. Dumbledore and Riddle believe in the prophecy, and the prophecy says Harry will be involved. If he's involved, I'm involved."

Natalie's face was inscrutable, but Hermione held her nerve, not looking away.

"I'm very proud of you sweetie," Natalie said. "Perhaps, one day you'll understand what it's like to see your child warning you that you can't keep them from danger. But maybe, if we all work together to solve this, we can all make sure you never have to."

"James and Lily suggested that perhaps you both help with finding Riddle's soul. Surely that would be safer for now than sending you out to fight battles." Remus said, trying to find a way to please both sides of the argument.

He had been dealing with the children longer than any of the other living human magicals, and he understood just how impossible it was to stop them when they set their minds to something. Even though he had missed Hermione's big moment by a few days.

Natalie bowed her head, still perched in front of the teens and Hermione lifted her mother's face. "Neither of us wants to rush into danger, Mum. But we won't swear not to if it comes to it. I will not sit safely by while you or Dad are in trouble."

"Alright then," Natalie replied, standing up and hesitating for a moment before she sat on the arm of their chair and left her arm wrapped around Hermione, resting on Harry's shoulder. "How do we find these monstrous things?"

Hermione noticed that with her mother's decision to acquiesce, her father too seemed to accept she would not be kept from matters either. "I assume Natalie and I won't be of much help. I only felt the desire to write in that stupid book."

"Really? I didn't feel anything but Riddle's soul and the tendrils." Harry noted and Hermione nodded that she too had felt no such compunction.

"It was incredibly strong," Andromeda said. "If not for everything else going on, I might have been tempted."

Hermione turned to Harry with concern in her eyes. "You don't think he has…"

She knew Harry understood her question and his face fell slightly. But after a moment, his surety returned. "No. There was no taint on his magic but his own."

"Who?" Sirius asked.

"Dumbledore. He's had that diary for four years." Hermione explained.

"You know what is weird," Harry said. "He's had that diary just as long as he had my letter. I think we can all agree he'd have stored them close together. Whoever entered me into the Tournament had to have broken into Dumbledore's desk, but they left behind an actual piece of Riddle's soul?"

"Perhaps they didn't know what it was?" Lily offered from the painting.

"It has his name stamped on the back," Hermione said, "but perhaps his followers do not know his true name."

"Harry," Ted said, drawing the boy's eye. "You said you thought you might be able to use one to find the others. Can you explain that for those of us less observant than you?" The man finished with a wry smile.

Harry glanced at Hermione before he spoke. "I can feel Riddle's soul on anything it has touched. I never knew what it was all these years, but having it inside of me for so long means I can practically taste his magic now, whenever it is near me." Harry said, his voice full of disgust and Hermione pulled him closer, willing her warmth into him. "I could feel actual tendrils of it extending away from the diary. One very thick one, which I assume leads back to Riddle. The others I have to assume lead to more containers."

"You said one of them was close," Natalie said, and Harry glanced up at her, nodding. "How close?"

"It is definitely within the school."

Hermione felt a niggling thought tickle the back of her mind, but it was proving hard to catch. She allowed the discussion to filter away and tried to focus on locking it down. Rapid flashes of memory came to her mind, snippets of the conversations had last night and this morning.

Tracked it as far as the seventh floor, but could never actually locate the damned thing.

And a feeling from six months beforehand. When the pair had popped back to the school in preparation for their holiday trip, passing through the enchantments that protect the ancient building, there was something far newer in there as well. A powerful ward.

One she had felt again on her many returns to inspect the mysterious room.

She opened her eyes and found the others looking at her. "What's wrong?" Harry asked, likely having felt her epiphany and fallen silent.

"I think I know how to break the curse." She said with a smirk, before she grasped Harry's hand tightly and the pair popped out of the room to the startled shouts of the adults.

ϟ

Alastor Moody groaned as he sat heavily in his chair.

The morning so far had been quiet, just the way he preferred it. Being a weekend after the exams, and a few days before the end of term, he had no more classes to teach this year, and was just preparing to consider changes to his curriculum for the next one when a loud pop startled him out of his chair, wand up.

A red stunner was already hurtling his way and he battered it aside before he noticed where the shot had come from, seeing two figures standing there, both with their wands pointed in his direction, though not held on him directly. The cheeky smirk on the boy's face indicated just where the spell had come from.

"Wakey wakey, professor." The boy said, and Moody tried not to let a smile show on his face.

"Potter. Granger. Wanna explain attacking me in my office."

"You weren't attacked, sir. Just making sure we came to the right person. Wouldn't want you to be unable to handle it. But we still don't react well to being threatened by a wand." Granger said, staring at his own raised wand.

A war raged inside of him for a moment before the ex-Auror did something he'd never done before. He lowered his wand while others held theirs against him.

"What do you want? It's a Sunday. No classes today." He asked, noting that the pair had mirrored his lowered defence, though he doubted any of them were any less prepared for a fight if needed.

"Hermione figured something out," Potter said, glancing at his girlfriend.

"Is that so? Out with it girly."

Hermione smiled. "How would you like to remove that Defence Against The Dark Arts curse?"

This surprised Alastor even more than their sudden arrival. He was already well aware of their ability to come and go from the school at will, no matter the wards that should prevent such a thing from being possible. But he'd spent every single summer since taking this position searching for that damned anchor.

"Aye, I'd like that a lot."

"Then follow us," Granger said, turning away from him in a way that had Potter raise his wand slightly once more, watching Alastor closely.

The number of people in this world that Alastor trusted could be counted on one hand. But given what these two had accomplished this year, and the fact that Albus seemed utterly sure that both would be vital to the defeat of Voldemort, he considered perhaps it might be time to add the second hand.

One finger on it at least.

He tucked his wand into his robes and nodded at the boy, following Granger as she ducked from the room. As Potter fell into step beside him, Moody noticed his wand was once again absent, and he sorely wanted to know how the boy did it. Being able to perfectly conceal a wand was a hell of a boon in a fight.

Granger led them on a rapid path through the school, ducking into secret passages that, without his eye, Moody wouldn't have even known existed. Yet these two had discovered them in only a few months in the school. His impression of them grew with each encounter.

Before he knew it, they were on the seventh floor, staring at a blank wall opposite a tapestry of a moron and some trolls. A quick assessment showed him that they were nearby to where he had lost the trail and erected his ward to weaken the curse.

That had taken a lot out of him, even with Albus, Filius and Minerva's help.

"Well?" Alastor asked the pair, and Potter just smirked proudly at his girl.

Granger stepped up to the wall and pressed her hand against it. Closing her eyes, Alastor once again had to suppress his reaction as a door appeared in the wall under her hand. It was a big, two-sided thing with large brass banding. Almost as impressive as those on the front entrance of the castle.

He glanced at Potter, being careful to slowly pull his wand and keep it from pointing at the girl. He cast the spell he had found the most success with when tracking that damnable curse and immediately got the strongest response he'd ever received. Whatever it was tied to, was in that room.

"I think you and me need to have a bit of a chat." He said, staring at the grinning teenagers.