A/N - As an apology for my tardiness, I present what I believe is the third-longest chapter I have written so far.
Also, I am going to be combining the prologue with chapter 1 soon, just so the first chapter on here isn't so cryptic and so more people might actually read to chapter 2. That will change the numbering of the chapters, but nothing will be deleted.
Chapter 20 – Reunions
After the Ministry had fallen into Voldemort's hands, people had been afraid of what would happen to St. Mungo's or Gringott's, or any of the other significant wizarding landmarks in Great Britain. Everyone expected Voldemort to seize the money to fund his plans and transform the hospital into some twisted combination of laboratory and prison. Much to the country's surprise, he had done no such thing. "A mark of good will and mercy," he'd called it, leaving these two structures largely untouched and unchanged. After all, he was going to create a new world, and people would have to live in it. Yes, money was carefully watched, and half of the staff had been replaced with those loyal to the "New World," but as long as people kept their heads down and were well behaved, they could continue to come and go as they pleased. The hospital had been somewhat reorganized, and there was now a wing dedicated to treating those who went against the Dark Lord's plan, but most people believed that was there primarily as a warning of what would happen if someone did oppose him. The injuries were severe, and the healers who worked in that wing were cold and had terrible bedside manners.
The fact that the fourth floor long-term residents ward had been completely ignored in the remodel was something that had many people nearly crying with relief. Here, loved family members suffered with mental illnesses and the debilitating effects of spell damage, and even with the introduction of a new medical hierarchy that required every room to be supervised by one of Voldemort's hand-picked lackeys, families in this ward were able to visit in peace without interruption or fear. It was for this reason that there were so many employment applications sent to this ward every day. Every healer wanted to work there, if only to be out from under the Dark Lord's thumb for a little while.
Maeve Selwin was one of the lucky healers who had been granted a position on the closed ward, and she loved her job. She was only part-time, and mostly worked evenings and nights, but she cared for her patients and took great pride in the quality of her work. She went out of her way to make sure that every patient's needs were met, and that every quirk and peculiarity was taken into account, even such small things as Mr. Gault needing his milk warmed up to precisely 82 degrees before he would drink it, or Carly Billthauser believing there was a tabby cat that lived in the drawer of her bedside table who needed to be fed a marshmallow every day to keep it happy. But by far Maeve's favorite patient was Alice Longbottom. The woman's story was very sad, of course, and had only become sadder as the years went by. About three years ago, her husband Frank, who had been admitted to the hospital with her for severe spell damage, had eaten a portion of another patient's potted plant, choked, and died. It was a pathetic way to die, and Alice had been absolutely heartbroken. Even in her lessened mental state, although she may not have understood that he died, she knew he was no longer there, and would stare at his empty bed for hours on end. One day, the orderlies had removed the bed since it was no longer in use, and she had screamed and cried and beaten the walls until it had been returned.
Alice had a son, a tall boy with large teeth and haunted eyes, who visited her every week like clockwork, and listened to her garbled nonsense with great attentiveness. His love for her was apparent in every movement of his hands, his eyes, every quirk of his lips and nod of his head. Maeve didn't know where Neville was when he wasn't at the hospital, but sometimes he was accompanied by a young woman with brightly colored hair, whose eyes were also haunted by grief and pain. Still, she always had a bright smile for Alice. Maeve wondered if she was Neville's girlfriend at first, but it soon became apparent that there was nothing romantic between the two of them. She was just a supportive friend.
Maeve liked Neville. She always greeted him warmly when he arrived, and he always smiled back and asked her how she was. It was partly for Neville's sake that Maeve made sure to make an extra stop by Alice's room on her rounds to make sure the woman was happy. Alice had a fondness for Drooble's Best Blowing Gum, and so Maeve made sure there was always a packet of it in her drawer. But beyond that, Maeve would sit with her, comb her hair, and read her stories. She kept a careful eye on the cocktail of medications that Alice took every day to make sure they were truly the most beneficial combination. If anybody noticed that Maeve always administered the pills herself, or that she insisted on being the one to carry the medicines from the dispensary to Alice's room, nobody said anything. There were other things to worry about in the hospital. It seemed to Maeve that the more time she spent with her favorite patient, the brighter Alice's eyes got, and the more lucid her conversation. Neville had begun to notice as well, and although he didn't understand why, he seemed to sense that the change had something to do with his mother's night nurse, and he began leaving clips of beautiful rare plants at the desk for her when he visited.
After a while, Maeve started asking him if there were certain types of plants he could procure for her, and he would bring them in little vials or pots, wrapped carefully and concealed under his jacket. Soon the requests for plants became requests for other things, and Neville began to realize that he was supplying potion ingredients to this kind, mysterious healer. Some of the ingredients were carefully regulated, or even dangerous, but his mother was calling him by name now, and asking him how his day had been, and laughing, and so Neville swore he would bring whatever Maeve asked him for. All Neville's life, Alice had given him bubble gum wrappers when he visited, but now she would collect them and fold them into intricate shapes before handing them back over to him. Sometimes she would draw a little lopsided heart inside them, and sometimes she would press them into his hand and curl her fingers over his before pressing a kiss to his knuckles. On those days, Neville would leave the ward with his hand cradled reverently against his chest, and after one day, when Alice had actually embraced him, he came up to Maeve and wrapped his arms around her, whispering "Thank you. Thank you so much. If you ever need anything at all, just let me know, and I'll help you." And she whispered back, "The same to you. Anything you need."
It wasn't long after that that Neville stopped coming for a little while. Alice was agitated, and kept pacing the floor of her room, folding bubble gum wrappers into little tulips and cranes and looking at the clock. Maeve did her best to reassure her, but she was worried as well. It was almost two weeks before Neville visited again, and he was heavily favoring his left foot and his right hand was bandaged. But he was smiling. Something good must have happened, because there was a lightness to his step, despite the limp, that Maeve had never seen before. He drew up a chair next to his mother's bedside and took her hand in his. She ran her fingers worriedly over the bandage and searched his eyes for answers.
"I'm fine, Mum," he said. "I had… a bit of an accident. You know I've always been clumsy."
"Like me," Alice whispered.
Neville beamed. "Yeah, like you were when you were my age."
Alice shook her head. "Not an accident," she said, tapping his hand.
Neville sighed. "It's, it's not important right now Mum."
Alice made a frustrated noise and flicked Neville in the forehead. "Important," she insisted.
"Mum, there's something else more important."
Alice stilled and cocked her head to the side. She had picked up on the tone in his voice, just as Maeve had. A tone of carefully masked hope, and a little bit of fear.
"They're saying, Mum, they're saying that maybe, maybe he's come back."
"Who?" Alice asked.
Neville lowered his voice. "Harry."
Maeve drew in a breath from her place by the window where she'd been watering Neville's latest gift to his mother – a pot of lovely yellow daffodils. It struck her that Neville must trust her very much if he was having this conversation with her in the room. Still, she quickly moved to the door and shut it. Even if Voldemort didn't have his lackeys stationed here, it didn't mean this couldn't be overheard by the wrong people.
She turned and looked back towards Neville, and saw the young man eyeing her with a touch of surprise. She wondered if it was because she'd shut the door, or because he'd forgotten she was there. Either way, he nodded a quick thanks with a rueful smile that said "I should have thought of that."
"Harry… Harry Potter?" Alice asked.
"Yeah. We just got word that You-Know-Who sent some Death Eaters out to find him, that he showed up somewhere outside London."
Maeve tensed. From what she'd gathered from storeroom gossip, then Harry Potter had been tortured until he had no magic left before he died, which would leave him defenseless if he had somehow survived.
"But we sent some people too. We're going to find him and bring him home, Mum. I'll have my friend back, and he can finally tell me what the heck he wanted all that stuff for. You remember I told you he kept wanting to borrow books from me, and asked all these questions about herbology that he'd never been interested in before, and then it just stopped, and he was gone, but I think he's really back now."
Alice smiled softly. "You're a good friend," she said.
Neville grasped her hand. "So is he," he said, "and I think if he's back, then we'll be able to fight again, because wherever he was, he'll have come up with something. That's just the way he is."
It wasn't until Neville was leaving a little while later that Maeve realized he hadn't seemed surprised at this turn of events, and certainly hadn't responded as if he had just learned his friend had come back from the dead. In fact, the way he phrased it, it sounded as though he had known that Harry hadn't been dead in the first place, that he had expected him to return. She watched Neville shuffle back down the hallway and wondered, not for the first time, just what he did with his time. Clearly he had contacts that could supply him with rare potion ingredients with very little notice, and he was privy to information that most people had no idea about. There was no doubt about it; this boy was part of the resistance. Maeve looked at Alice, who was staring into the corridor through which her son had disappeared moments before.
"He's a good boy," the woman murmured softly, "but, not an accident." Alice gestured to her own hand, mimicking wrapping it in bandages the way Neville's had been. "Not an accident," she said again, and she looked at Maeve with the most serious expression Maeve had ever seen on her face. "He fights. He fights for us all." And then she wandered back to her bed and began to hum to herself.
Maeve pondered for a moment before seeming to come to a decision, and she walked back over to Alice's bed and sat down. "Alice, would you like to leave this place?" she asked.
Alice looked up at her, surprise written over her thin features. "Leave?" she whispered.
"You're doing so much better now. I don't think you need to be here anymore. Would you like to go somewhere else, and have your own room without healers poking at you every day?"
The question seemed to give Alice a little trouble. She furrowed her brow and rocked from side to side. "Neville says safer here," she mumbled.
"What if I told you there was somewhere safer?
"Safer than here?" asked Alice.
Maeve nodded. "And I'd be able to help you more. If you were with me, I could make your potions faster, and you could get better more quickly."
"Neville?" Alice queried, looking up at Maeve with wide eyes.
"You could still see him. Maybe you'd even see him more."
This made Alice think a little. "Why?" she asked at last.
Maeve bit her lip. How to say it? "Because you're… you're special to me. I feel like we're friends, and I want to help you. And I want to help Neville."
Alice stared at her with her eyes narrowed, and then raised a hand and touched Maeve's forehead right between her eyes. "Why did you change your eyes?" she asked. "They shouldn't be brown."
Maeve jerked back in shock. "What do you mean? They've always been this color."
Alice shook her head and smiled. "Sssh," she whispered, with a finger pressed to her lips. "I know."
The pale woman just stared at the healer knowingly, and after a pause, Maeve huffed a little laugh. "Of course you do. I could never keep a secret from you for long." The two women looked at each other for a long moment. "Well then, you have no excuse, do you?" Maeve said at last. "You have to come with me now. I can't just leave you here, especially since I probably won't be coming back either."
Alice grasped her hand and her smile widened. "For Neville," she said, "I will fight too, yes?"
"Yes, Alice. We're going to get you better, and then you'll fight, too. For Neville."
In a cozy sitting room with a warm fire there was a large, cushy armchair, upholstered in green and brown faux leather, and in it reclined a young man in casual clothes, an unlit pipe clenched in his teeth and a large book propped up on his stomach. He was muttering quietly to himself as he read, fully immersed in the words on the page, and clearly not paying any attention to the room at large. The room was still but for the repetitive ticking of an ugly old grandfather clock and the occasional spitting, hissing noise from the fireplace. It was entirely peaceful and serene, even idyllic.
And so, when the two doors on opposite ends of the room suddenly burst open, and on one side a red-headed healer from St. Mungo's walked in supporting a thin woman with stringy brown hair, and on the other side a man carrying two unconscious bound Death Eaters over his shoulder and levitating two more before him, accompanied by a tall man with red hair, a slightly shorter blond one, and a third with a tired expression, the man in the chair jumped about three feet and gave a great shout of surprise, sending the book falling to the ground and causing the armchair to snap back into its upright position with a loud and unearthly shrieking noise.
After a moment of shocked silence, in which several jaws dropped to the floor, somebody actually fell over, and somewhere in the house a portrait started screaming about filthy blood traitors, the blond youth opened his mouth and said in a voice tinted with forced calm, "Potter, what the HELL did you DO?"
The pieces were beginning to move. Slowly, surely, steadily, the resistance had been passing around the little hopeful whispers of he's back, have you heard? He's back at last! Gradually, all across Great Britain, and seeping into Europe over private floo connections, the word spread, and heads were raised a little higher, eyes shone a little brighter. "But he was dead, wasn't he?" people whispered to each other. "It's not the first time he's come back from the dead, is it?" came the excited response. And it was true. Harry Potter had conquered death before, and so the news of his possible return became that much more probable, and wizards and witches who had fled into hiding began to consider coming back, to help in whatever way they could. Others continued to lay low, crossing their fingers and sending up prayers to whoever would listen to keep the Boy Who Lived safe and for Merlin's sake, help him to win. Because until this moment, there had not been a single person who had believed there was a way to stop this war. The Dark Lord's plan had succeeded, and as far as anyone could see, it was impossible to get around it. But then, perhaps, just perhaps, Harry Potter could do it.
Or at the very least, he would have an idea. And even that was more than they'd had to hope for in a very long time.
Minerva McGonagall coughed into her handkerchief and sighed. This illness had been eating away at her for several years now, since a particularly disastrous raid, and the cold of the dilapidated castle was not helping matters. But she could no longer afford to stay in bed. As the de facto leader of the remaining Order of the Phoenix, and the one organizing the dorms and Great Hall for the large numbers of refugees taking residence there, she had work to do. Filius Flitwick and young Ginevra Weasley had been doing an excellent job, and Hagrid had continued to work the grounds as best he could, but there were so many people to care for, and even the house elves struggled to keep them all fed when the Death Eaters kept such careful watch on food stores. Minerva shuffled across the room to the floo and thoughtfully regarded the flames. It had only been a few hours since the Order had convened, however briefly, to discuss Severus's news, but she was sure that the news had already spread far and wide. The channels of the resistance were strong, even if they were rarely used. Communication would be quick and seamless. With Bill and Fleur in France, where floos were not yet so strictly monitored, word would have spread much faster, and their allies in Bulgaria, Romania, Germany, and even down into Egypt would probably have heard by now. Minerva allowed herself a shadow of a smile. That Potter. He caused trouble wherever he went. But this time, more than ever before, that trouble was most welcome.
The door opened softly, and Ginny's face peered around it. "Professor, Madame Pomfrey has requested a floo connection. Betsy just told me."
"Thank you, Ginevra," Minerva said. "I shall attend to it." The youngest Weasley nodded and whisked away. Minerva tossed a pinch of floo powder into the fire and a moment later the familiar, age-lined face of the medi-witch appeared in the fire.
"Minerva, I shall come straight to the point," Poppy said briskly. "There may be another problem."
Minerva sighed. "There is always another problem, Poppy. What is it now?"
"Alice Longbottom has disappeared."
Minerva froze, the words clicking around in her mind. "Disappeared? Whatever do you mean, Poppy?"
"I mean, only an hour after we hear that young Harry may have returned from death's door again, Alice and her night-nurse apparated straight out of her hospital room to an untraceable location."
"But, why?" Minerva held a hand to her chest. "Do we know who was responsible?"
Poppy huffed. "I would assume the nurse. I heard from Longbottom a few months ago, and he said the young healer there was particularly attentive to his mother, and that under her care, Alice had regained much of her awareness. Apparently, Neville has been supplying the young lady with various potion ingredients that he has obtained through a black market source. He said he trusted the healer, Maeve I believe her name is, and that he believed she was sympathetic to the resistance."
"Does he have any proof of that?"
"Other than the fact that she seemed to be healing his mother after no strides have been made in that area for well over a decade? No."
Minerva sighed. "I suppose all we can do is to hope that someone will contact us soon, then. If it is the Mongrels doing, they may merely want the black market source to find these ingredients themselves. If it is a plan from the Death Eaters, it may be in direct response to hearing about Harry's return. In either case, we must be vigilant."
"And if she's an ally?" Poppy suggested.
"Then, I suppose we must be grateful that Alice is on the mend, and hope that she is taken somewhere to continue healing. She will undoubtedly contact Neville as soon as she is able. We must trust that he will keep us informed." Minerva coughed gently. "Thank you for letting me know, Poppy. If you hear anything else, please contact me immediately."
"I will." The whoosh of the floo and the dimming of the flame were the only sound or movement in the little room for some time.
When Ginny returned half an hour later, she found Minerva sitting hunched in a chair, shivering, her breathing raspy and labored. Ginny sighed and gently placed a hand on the older woman's back. "Professor, you really need to go to the hospital wing. Your cough is getting worse."
Minerva shook her head. "No, we need those beds for the refugees, and there's no secure floo up there." Minerva had been the de facto leader for some years now, and had remained stubbornly near a floo all that time. As a result, communication between Order members had always been swift, as they had the magical equivalent of a switchboard operator available at all hours.
Ginny shook her head. "No, the beds in the infirmary are for the sick, and you, Professor, certainly fit that category."
"But the floo…" Minerva peered at the fire as if she couldn't quite bring it into focus, and coughed again. It was times like this that Ginny was reminded of the woman's age. Although she rarely seemed like it, Minerva McGonagall was over a hundred years old, and she had recently begun to show her age. This illness was only the most recent sign of her failing overall health.
However, it was also true that the floo in the dungeons was the one with the most secure connection, and Flitwick, the only other senior member of the Order living in the castle at the time, had been injured in a raid over a year ago, and his frail body was no longer capable of the long trip through the rubble to get there. Okay, come on, Ginny thought to herself. You knew you'd have to step up one of these days. You can do this. She squared her shoulders. "Professor, I'm sorry, but you're going to the hospital wing. I'm relieving you."
Minerva looked up, surprised and affronted. "Ginevra, you do not have the authority-"
"Yes, I do. You agreed yourself last year, that if two or more members of the Order determined that one member was unable to properly complete their duties without causing detriment to herself or another person, then that person could be relieved. Professor Flitwick has also agreed, and since he can't come down here himself, that leaves me. And I'm sorry Professor, I really am, but you're sick, and you need medical care." Minerva looked as if she were about to protest, but Ginny soldiered on. She had practiced this several times, and she needed to get the whole thing out before she was interrupted. "And before you say that I'm too young, or too inexperienced, let me remind you that I have been an active member of the resistance since I was fourteen years old, that I have faced Death Eaters in battle on numerous occasions, that I was the youngest person ever to be allowed membership into the Order of the Phoenix – a decision, I might add, that was almost unanimous, and that you, yourself, said that I would be an asset – that my family has been in the middle of the conflict since as long as this war has started, and that I have on many occasions proved myself a reliable communicator." She paused to breathe. Minerva did not try to interrupt. "Also, professor, I spend most of my time down here anyway, watching the floo and listening to all the communications that come through it. I know all the location codes, I know who is at which location, and I can keep my head in an urgent situation. I can do this." She looked at her old Professor and smiled fondly. "You said it yourself, didn't you? It's time for the younger generation to step up. Well, that's what I'm doing. So please, go to the infirmary and get better. You can trust me with this. I promise."
Minerva looked at her. Blinked. Smiled. "Very well then, Miss Weasley. But I'm afraid you won't get to add helping an old woman up the stairs to your impressive list of qualifications. I'm not so much of an invalid that I can't make the trip myself."
Alice was settled comfortably in a bedroom on the first floor after being assured that her son would be contacted soon. Lily removed the spell that changed her eye color and blinked at herself in the cracked mirror in the first floor bathroom, running a hand over her features thoughtfully. I really don't look any different, she thought to herself. It's not surprising Alice figured it out. She hadn't felt the need to alter her appearance very much when she went to work at St. Mungo's. Her eyes and her hair were her most distinct features, but her hair would generally be up and hidden under the uniform hat, so her eyes were the only thing she had felt compelled to actually change. The position at the hospital had been more of a way to keep from dying of boredom than anything else. As much as she loved Sirius and James, she could only spend so many hours a day cooped up with just the two of them, and there were only so many rooms that needed to be cleaned an painted. Working kept her busy, kept her mind active, and gave her the opportunity to keep abreast of the news. Of course, it had also offered her the chance to take on a pet project, and that had been an overwhelming success. Now that Alice was here at Grimmauld Place, it would be even easier to treat her.
Lily smiled. It had been an unexpected blessing to get to interact with Alice's son, Neville. She would have to make a point of talking to him again and revealing her true identity. Neville was clearly not only trustworthy, but also a friend to Harry, which is how she and Alice had always imagined it as children. Alice had no siblings, and Lily didn't have much of one, so early on in their first year, the girls had made a pact to be sisters. They had begun looking up ancient bonding and adoption rites, but thankfully one of the professors had put a stop to that before they started blood-letting. Still, as far as she was concerned, Neville was her nephew.
A knock on the bathroom door startled her out of her thoughts. "Lils?" came James's voice, "Is everything all right?"
"Yes, I'm coming out." Lily opened the door and stepped into the hallway. James was eyeing her critically.
"You were in there a while," he said.
"Just thinking. I mean, it's all come full circle, just about, hasn't it?"
James nodded. "Yeah. Now the real work starts."
Lily huffed. "For you, maybe. I've been working this whole time."
James raised an eyebrow and smirked. "Indeed."
"Oy!" Sirius poked his head around the corner. "You two coming back? Our guests are just about to tear Harry's head off because he won't start talking until we're all in there."
"Can't have that," said James airily. "No murdering my son, if you please," he called out.
"No promises!" returned George.
Within a few minutes, the whole crew had assembled. James was reclined in the same chair he was in when everyone arrived, Lily was perched on the arm of the chair opposite, which Harry was now occupying. Sirius was lying on his back on the floor, poking the bricks on the fireplace with his foot. Draco and George were sitting on opposite ends of a sagging sofa, looking irritated and eager, respectively.
"So, are you going to explain what the hell is going on?" asked Draco.
"Language, Daniel," said George. Draco gave him the finger.
"Now now, boys," said James, "none of that, if you please. Let's all play nice and not forget who the real enemy is." He gestured at the pile of sleeping Death Eater recruits in the corner.
Sirius snorted. "You're one to talk."
"I have grown up, Sirius. I am incredibly thoughtful and mature now."
At this, Lily laughed outright, and James stuck his tongue out at her. "Traitor."
"Now now, none of that," teased Sirius. "Let's not forget who the real enemy is." James kicked him in the head. "Ow! Case in point!"
George leaned over and nudged Draco's arm. "Pretty weird, seeing three dead people having a conversation, isn't it?" Draco glared at him. "Ah, the wonders of life. Brings tears to my eyes."
"I'll bring tears to your eyes," Draco muttered.
"Okay, let's get focused here," said Lily. "I know this is a lot to take in, but we don't have an awful lot of time to reminisce. I guess I'll begin. Long story short – and I'm sure Harry can tell you the long story sometime later – Harry traveled back in time in order to contact myself and James and work out a possible way to counteract Riddle's complete world takeover. This involved concocting a plan to keep myself and James alive long enough to revive us in your time. And yes, there is a reason for that, but we'll get there. James and I were buried while in a deep magical hibernation, and revived almost six years ago. Since then, we've been living here and working on projects and research under the radar. Sirius joined us, as he was saved in the Ministry, and the three of us have been successfully refraining from killing each other this whole time. I began work at St. Mungo's and have been treating Alice Longbottom, who suffered incredible damage from prolonged exposure to the Cruciatus curse. Now that Harry is back, I've left that job, and these two jackanapes are going to have to get off their butts and do some real work."
"Fine, do more real work."
George looked a little dizzy. "Okay, so bypassing the fact that all four of you are essentially back from the dead, which is actually kind of a big deal, so I can't believe I just said to bypass it, let's look at the big picture for a moment." He looked at Harry. "Why was this necessary? I mean, I want to know all the details of how on earth it was possible, because I'm sure there's a ton of incredible illegal stuff going on, but I also get the feeling that your end of the story is going to be the most important right now."
Harry nodded. "I suppose it is. I know I've been gone a long time, and without any communication, and I am sorry for that."
"The whole world has practically given up. You were our last hope."
Harry shook his head. "No, I wasn't. Not once Tom figured out how to render himself essentially immortal. I was just as pinioned as everyone else. Even the prophecy left the possibility that I would die instead of him. It was never a guarantee that I would win, and he found a way to pretty much ensure that I wouldn't."
"But if that was the case, why didn't he just kill you directly?" asked Draco. "Instead, he let the Mongrels have you. I remember, back when that happened, Lucius mentioned that he – that Riddle – knew where you were, but he was just biding his time."
"Because the Mongrels were useful," said Harry. "And they were trying to get information from me that would be useful to Tom. It saved Tom the trouble of having to interrogate me himself."
"Wouldn't he want to do that?" said George.
At that, Harry cracked a small smile. "Well, he's never had the greatest self-control where I'm concerned. He was probably worried that he'd get too angry and kill me before he got what he wanted out of me."
Sirius tipped his head back and grinned at his godson. "You do have a tendency to rub him the wrong way."
Harry laughed. "Yeah, I guess I do." He let his eyes grow distant for a moment, then shook himself free of whatever memories had captured his attention, and turned back to the two men on the couch. "I guess the story has to go back quite a ways. Mom, Dad, and Sirius haven't heard this yet, either. I wanted to save myself from having to tell it more than once." He took a deep breath. "It started right after Dumbledore's funeral. Ron, Hermione, and I had decided to drop out of our seventh year to go hunting for horcruxes." He sighed. "It was a pretty naïve decision, I recognize that now, but at the time we didn't see any other option. And perhaps there wasn't any other option, I don't know. Still, we could have planned it better."
Sirius looked at him again. "Meaning, you could have planned it at all?"
"No, we had a plan. It was just too small, too uninformed. And we were unprepared."
"You were sixteen. You couldn't have been prepared," said Lily.
"We thought we were," said Harry. "We thought we had enough experience, that we'd done enough fighting. We figured we'd been in the thick of it enough times to be able to predict what was going to happen. But reality turned out to be much bigger and much more complicated than we anticipated."
"It always is," murmured James. Sirius reached over his head and petted his friend's foot.
"So, after Dumbledore's funeral. That was five years ago. We know you went off to hunt horcruxes, we know you ended up coming back after about a year because you realized it was foolhardy to do it on your own."
"But by then the Order was already starting to split up," said Harry. "They had to, because having too many in one place made them an easy target."
"Yeah, I remember. I think we had three locations then. We had Alpha, over at Hogwarts before the Death Eaters wrecked it; Delta, up in the Scottish highlands; and Silver, just outside of London. I think that was it." George counted on his fingers for a moment. "I think we were just thinking about starting up another location when the three of you got back."
"How many are there now?" asked Harry.
George counted again. "Ten, including Snape's house. We made sure he had a secure floo connection out of his kitchen once we figured out whose side he was on."
"Are they all in the UK?"
"No, We have one on the continent. Location Ocean. Bill heads that one up from France."
Harry nodded. "So the Order is split ten ways right now. That makes things a little complicated."
"No, actually, I don't think it does," interjected James. "It means that there are that many more possibilities of where people think you may be hiding, if they believe you're back, and will make it that much more difficult for anyone to find you."
"They found me pretty quickly this time," said Harry.
"That was supposed to happen," said Sirius. "We wanted you found at first. James and I set up a trace outside of the cave that would relay a hint of your position when you showed up again so we could get in touch with someone from the Order immediately."
Harry blinked. "Oh. I guess that makes sense. Except you also gave my location to Tom."
James shook his head. "He would have figured it out anyway because of that connection he has with you. Besides, this way we have some prisoners. That's always useful."
"I'm sure this was all very cleverly thought out," snapped Draco, "but could we get on with it? I'm sure the Order is getting antsy because neither of us," he gestured at George, "have checked in at all, so if we're going to hear what happened, we should do that so we can report back."
George slapped him on the back. "Well said, Daniel."
"Get off me!"
Harry leaned back in his chair. "He's right, though." He closed his eyes for a moment, deep in thought. At long last, he opened them again and began to speak. "I think it was April when we got back. We were all tired, of course, and frustrated because we'd only been hitting dead ends…"