A/N: Thanks to my betas, Luna305 and Melenka, and to the lovely TimeTurnerForSale (a.k.a. Anastasia) who keeps a certain Boggart in its cabinet.
(Taps wand on computer...) I solemnly swear that the overarching plan for this story is complete, has been subjected to extensive analysis, and is sealed in a private vault. (... taps wand again.)
Prologue: Not Your Brightest Idea
Hermione Granger and Ron Weasley stood flanking Harry Potter in the Dursleys' kitchen.
"Thanks for… well..." Harry shrugged, and with those words, he left Number 4, Privet Drive, and his hidebound Muggle relatives forever. Hermione and Ron remained behind, glaring at the Dursleys.
"Good riddance," Uncle Vernon spat.
Ron and Hermione exchanged a glance and whipped their wands out. "Gluteus Porcus!" they yelled. The Dursleys' hands flew to their backsides, and Hermione and Ron Disapparated.
A moment later they rejoined Harry in the garden at the Burrow.
"Oh, Harry, you should have seen their faces!" Hermione hugged him, laughing.
"How long do you think it'll take them to figure out it wasn't a real spell?" Ron grinned, slapping Harry on the shoulder. "Happy Birthday, mate."
"It'll take Dudley a week to stop running. Thanks, guys." Harry smiled, his first real smile in ages. He was free, and he was home.
The Weasleys had been only too pleased to have Harry move in with them. He had refused to consider Grimmauld Place; it held too many memories, too much guilt. The house Harry had inherited was theoretically safe enough – strangely, it had been Mad-Eye Moody who had reassured them on that score, informing them flatly that Secrets do not die with their Keepers. Everyone – even Moody – accepted Kreacher's obedience to Harry as sufficient evidence of his ownership.
Although Harry wanted to forget the house existed, it was too strategic an asset to abandon completely. If nothing else, it provided a bolt-hole. Moody and Kingsley Shacklebolt had consequently spent a tense week at Grimmauld Place, placing a permanent Locking Charm on the door – "Unsafe to risk exposure even for a few minutes outside," Moody had grumbled – and adjusting the existing wards to allow Apparition only by Order members. That particular enchantment had required Harry's presence, not because he owned the house, but because his wand contained one of Fawkes' tail feathers. Hermione had been especially curious about how they'd managed to key the wards without a Dark blood ritual – she assumed it had to do with Fawkes' being the Order's symbol in more than just name – but the one time she had ventured a question, Harry had looked so stricken that she had dropped the subject, cursing herself for insensitivity. Tactless, Granger, she had admonished herself. Reminding him of Professor Dumbledore and Sirius in one breath, all because of your fascination with magical theory. All of our lives depend on a sane, strong Harry.
The Order had also done everything in its power to make the Burrow a safe haven: making it Unplottable and sequestering its existence within Minerva McGonagall's mind as an officially Kept Secret. And from this evening on, when the blood legacy of his mother's sacrifice had expired, Harry would have a round-the-clock guard. From where the trio stood in the garden, they could see Mad-Eye and Tonks through the kitchen window. Tonks, at least, was clearly enjoying Mrs. Weasley's cooking; Mad-Eye seemed, even at this distance, to be scrutinizing the food with equal parts hunger and suspicion.
"Fancy some dinner?" Ron asked, heading for the house without waiting for an answer.
Harry and Hermione exchanged a smile, and she said, "You go on ahead. There's something I want to check first."
Harry ruffled her hair affectionately. "Let me guess. Er… wait, it's coming to me… A book?" He grinned.
She rolled her eyes at him. "There are one or two references I need to track down."
"So you're off to Hogwarts?" He laughed. "We won't wait up. See you in the morning, then." Glad, whatever faced him, to have finally seen the last of Privet Drive, he turned and followed Ron into the Burrow.
Hermione bit her lower lip. She hadn't lied, exactly. No, you let Harry do it for you. Well, it was for Harry that she was going, anyway. He hated Grimmauld Place, and if she could spare him any pain, she would. It wouldn't take her very long to Apparate in and check Kreacher's nest for Slytherin's locket. If it was there, she would bring it straight to Professor McGonagall. If not, well, there were a few books there that she needed, Dark Arithmantic texts that she would not find even in the Restricted Section at Hogwarts.
Since leaving Hogwarts after the funeral, she had spent every free moment analyzing everything Harry had told her and Ron about his lessons with the headmaster the previous year. Researching the Horcrux problem, surrounded by books, covering rolls of parchment with formulae and equations, she had obsessively focused her formidable logic and Arithmantic skills on the questions of how to find them and how to destroy them. But in the moments between waking and sleeping, her mind would substitute two different, unbidden questions, questions that no one else seemed to be asking: Why had he done it, and where had he gone?
She mentally listed the rest of the Order members and their current assignments. Although the books she wanted were not technically illegal, they would probably earn her an official inquiry were she caught with them, so she definitely did not want an audience. The Weasleys, recovering from wedding chaos, were all at home save Mr. Weasley, who was probably still at the Ministry with Shacklebolt. Lupin had returned to the werewolves, and Hagrid was still working with Grawp toward some end only he knew. She had no idea where Mundungus Fletcher might be, but was willing to bet that he wouldn't return to Grimmauld Place after Harry had caught him with the Black family heirlooms. If it's not where I think it is, we'll have to track him down.
There was another name, of course, one that had become blasphemous in the Order. Once the initial shock had worn off, even the mention of his name was a flashpoint. In the weeks since the funeral, she had endured Harry's rages that, although spectacular, she privately found less alarming than the sullen silence that had followed Sirius' death the previous year. Ron's inarticulate but intense moods were nothing new to her. Tonks' universe, apart from her Auror and guard duties, appeared to have shrunk to include nothing but Lupin, and the Weasleys seemed more sad than angry. Mr. Weasley looked more drawn, more tired than usual, but she supposed that was true of all of them these days, especially the older Order members, who could remember the last war.
She drew a shuddering breath. She did not want to think what Professor McGonagall was feeling.
It was easier not to mention his name at all, although her increasingly stubborn inner voice insisted that this was the very impulse that gave rise to calling Voldemort "He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named." What will they come up with for Severus Snape? "He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Mentioned"? She laughed mirthlessly – a new habit for her – but once again found her thoughts inevitably returning to the dark shape in her mind, the shape of the man who had killed Professor Dumbledore. It was like a black hole, drawing in all of the energy around it, silently, deadening, returning nothing. Like my Potions essays, returned with an O and nothing else...
She snorted. You're talking about murder here, Granger, and comparing it to your schoolwork? Some soldier for the Light you are. "Lord Voldemort, could you give me tips on improving my hexes? I've found a variant reading in a footnote." She snorted again. I'm going mental. And I'm procrastinating. Better get moving before someone sees me, someone who will ask more questions than Harry.
She decided to walk down the lane that led toward Ottery St. Catchpole to clear her head before Apparating. No sense splinching myself.
Distraction, detonation, detention… And once again she slipped into memory, back to the Potions classroom, hearing that voice, the voice that seemed to defy the laws of acoustics, bypassing distance, achieving tangible resonance only when it found its home somewhere in her mind. You should have to have a license to have a voice like that. It can't be legal. It certainly shouldn't be allowed.
Too lost in thought to pay attention to the uneven ground, she stumbled. Stop it, Granger. Professor Dumbledore is dead. Severus Snape murdered him. The Order is still reeling from loss, from betrayal; his name is anathema, and your breaking an ankle won't teach them that silence is the enemy.
Yet despite herself, she heard the voice of the former Potions master, saying, "I can teach you how to brew fame, bottle glory, even put a stopper in death…"
She stopped walking.
A look of renewed determination appeared on her face – the look that always made Harry and Ron exchange a resigned shrug. They knew well what that look meant; it meant, "I'm going to the Library." It meant missed meals, monosyllabic responses to questions, and "Don't wait up" – until she had proven her latest flash of insight, and refined it to her satisfaction.
Resuming her walk, she smiled to herself. It wasn't a particularly nice smile; it was the smile of someone who, if she didn't know the answer, knew that she had it anyway because she had found the right question. It would not have been out of place on a Gringotts goblin, and, on the youthful face of Hermione Granger, it deeply disturbed everyone who'd ever seen it.
She had been certain that the questions of "Why" and "Where" were related. Now, thanks to her memory of that softly dangerous voice, she had a suspicion as to what the answers were.
She reached the end of the lane. A few seconds later, still smiling her equally dangerous smile, she appeared in the kitchen at Number 12, Grimmauld Place.
A few seconds after that, she was pinned against the kitchen wall, a wand to her throat, its end glowing with a barely restrained curse.
Not your brightest idea ever, Granger.
Black eyes boring into her own, demanding an account. A reason. Something. Something she wasn't sure she possessed.
Her wand arm held to the wall with a grip like iron, her wand pointing feebly toward the ceiling, where her eyes darted briefly. I could bring the ceiling down. Or not.
His grip tightened on her wrist, cutting off the blood flow. His hand squeezing, ruthlessly, feeling seeping out of her hand until, finally, her wand clattered to the ground.
"Looking for something?" he murmured.
She could not speak.
His wand forced her chin higher, straining her neck.
Those eyes drew closer, reflecting the wand glow from the spell he held in check, a split-second from release. Deafened by her own heartbeat, she finally managed a hoarse whisper. "You."
His eyes hardened. He released her wrist and, not taking his eyes from hers nor dropping his wand, closed his hand gently, relentlessly around her throat.
The edges of her vision started to blur. Unable to breathe, desperate, panicking, she gripped his forearm and tried with all her strength to force his hand away. Her vision went dark, darker…
He leaned in closer. "Definitely not your brightest idea ever, Miss Granger."
The last thing she saw before everything went black was her own face, an agonized mask of terror, of betrayal, of pain, reflected in those relentless eyes.