A/N: I recognize that the many months of silence has probably put this story perilously close to losing a lot of people's interest. For that I apologize. I'm truly working on finding the time (and energy) to write it with far less pauses in between.
To reiterate—I'm not going to abandon this, or any of my other works-in-progress. If not for the people who love it (which is incentive enough), but also for myself. I've invested years (yes, years) into my FFN account and I'm bloody well going to make sure I keep it up-to-date.
Finally, I've beta'd this myself, as it is almost 4AM and I'm hardly likely to find a beta at this time of night. Hopefully, you all won't take me to task for it. If you do, I hope you have only constructive things to say. Otherwise, bugger off.
Chapter 42 – A Pearl of Understanding
"And then the koala leapt out of my arms and landed precisely on that surfboard next to the kangaroo. I must say, the kangaroo seem to handle it well, what with a dingo and a koala balancing on a surfboard with it. Even out guide was a little impressed. Personally, I don't think hang-gliding is nearly as fun as riding a broomstick but everyone said those harbour tours were worth it so I figured, 'when in Rome' and all that."
"But hang-gliding from the Sydney Opera House was nothing compared to the zip line out to the Great Barrier Reef. We all told Ron that wearing Speedos would be uncomfortable, but you know him. He never listens."
Hermione wasn't exactly sure which of the ridiculous anecdotes drew her from her introspective fog, and back to the conversation, but the moment she actually processed the words, she knew she had been caught out. She flushed in spite of herself, wondering when it was that her companion realized she wasn't paying attention anymore. She had to give him credit for his imagination. Even if the wizarding world had managed to set up a covert hang-gliding tour from the Sydney Opera House or an imperceptible, 100 mile long zip line from the mainland all the way out to the Great Barrier Reef, it was the idea that a koala could jump from a hang glider onto a surfboard with a dingo and an apathetic kangaroo in Sydney Harbour that pushed the improbable to the absolutely ludicrous.
This, she supposed, had probably been Harry's point.
She chanced a glance to her best friend to find him watching her with barely restrained resentment. His cheeks were pink with anger and his green eyes bored into her angrily. Hermione sighed, knowing she should have been more conscious of herself. She had known that morning, when she arrived at the Potter's newly-settled Godric's Hollow home that her occasionally short-tempered friend was in a particularly foul mood. But having had very little sleep the night before and so many unanswered questions rolling about in her head, it was all the brunette could do to focus enough energy to greet her friends properly, let alone hold a coherent conversation.
Not to say, of course, that she hadn't tried. Chalking his behaviour up to whatever the floo-based equivalent of jet lag was, she had dutifully apparated them to the Welsh coast before politely asking how his honeymoon had gone.
Which had apparently been her downfall.
By her own reckoning, she had probably managed ten minutes of full attention, nodding and tsking empathetically as he launched into diatribe after diatribe against the inconvenience of intercontinental floo travel, the incompetence of customs officers, the unbearable summer heat, and the constant, oppressive presence of their Auror bodyguards. Those ten minutes, however, seemed like hours as complaint after complaint was levied against a country she had never considered to be anything but utterly pleasant.
As he reached the fifteen minute mark with no discernable end in sight, Hermione came to realize that Harry hadn't mentioned Ginny's name once. Nor Ron or Luna's. There was an occasional 'she' or an obligatory 'they', but in the span of a quarter of an hour, Harry had managed to turn a three-week honeymoon into an epic personal tragedy. It wasn't like him at all. Though prone to moments of aggravating self-pity, his incidents of martyrdom were fleeting and rarely about anything as trivial as the inconveniences experienced during international travel.
This realization, coupled with a desperate desire to remove herself from the conversation, reminded Hermione of Sirius's warning the evening before—though that conversation seemed like a lifetime ago considering all that had happened after. The reminder, however, had her thinking about all the interactions she'd had with Harry in the past few months. Finding herself analyzing and reassessing every word and gesture, she came to the unsurprising conclusion that the mysteries she and her husband had been so heavily entrenched within were irreversibly correlated with the one man to whom most mysteries were tied.
Normally, thinking about Harry while walking with Harry should have brought her attention back to Harry. Her mind, however, decided to take a detour. Though most of her life had been irrevocably linked to her bespectacled brother-in-all-but-blood, the night before had introduced a dangerous possibility. With all the madness that surrounded her life as Harry Potter's friend, there was one thing—one, not-inconsequential enigma—that was solely hers. Well, perhaps not solely hers, as her husband had tactfully reminded her, but definitely a brain-bending paradox that had nothing to do with her trouble-magnet of a best friend.
"Am I boring you, Hermione?" Harry finally asked as they crested a frost-covered hill.
"Of course not, Harry," she replied, trying to keep her own frustration in check. The lack of sleep had done a number on her tolerance level, but even through her fatigue she recognized that keeping a level head would stop matters from getting worse between them. So she added what she hoped was a very sincere, "I'm sorry."
"You asked, you know," he said, voice ripe with accusation. "It's not like I just volunteered to tell you all the terrible details of that stupid trip."
"I know, Harry, and I'm—"
"I didn't even want to go!" he railed, oblivious to her cajoling responses. "Waste of bloody time, if you ask me, and the fact that you lot made us stay away for an extra week definitely didn't help matters."
Hermione paused, watching him carefully as she asked, "Did Ginny feel the same way?"
He paused as well, frowning. "What?"
"Did Ginny feel it was a waste of time?"
He stalked over to her. "Believe it or not, unlike you and Sirius, I don't feel the need to exchange opinions with every person I come across."
She met his defiant glare with one of her own. "I would think you'd want to share your opinions about the trip with Ginny."
"And why would you think that?"
She arched an eyebrow. "Because, Harry," she said calmly. "Ginny's your wife and you love her. Or, at least, you did before you left London."
He huffed, crossing his arms and rolling his eyes. "Hardly seems relevant."
Hermione wasn't exactly sure what she had expected, but it wasn't the cold, spiteful monster of a man in front of her. In fact, she had only seen this side of him once before, years ago, but the memory of it terrified her to her very core.
Taking a tentative step toward him, she waited for him to turn away. When he didn't, she took another step, looking into his eyes. What she saw there made her gasp with a mixture of recollection and fear. His eyes weren't the warm, friendly emerald she had come to know and love. They were hard, compassionless, black, and almost completely devoid of emotion.
They were the eyes, she realized with startling clarity, of Selena Selwyn.
"Stupefy!" she shouted, wincing slightly as he flew backwards, dropping onto a grassy knoll. She hurried to him, frantically searching his travelling cloak. Her fingers closed around something small; something easily overlooked in the deep pockets of the outer garment. Pulling it out, she backed away from her friend and looked at it.
It was a black pearl.
And it wasn't just any black pearl, either. She had scoured every inch of that painting with the thoroughness she was known for. Alexandra—the Alexandra in the painting, known to them now as Selena—had been wearing a string of them the night the Potters died. She had no doubt whatsoever that the Selena of their present had managed to plant the tiny sphere on Harry at some point I the past few months. She couldn't guess when, but she would have bet her entire library on the fact that it had probably been the first time he'd ever met Alexandra.
Which meant that Selena had known about the paintings, and understood exactly what had happened the night Lily Evans Potter had been killed.
Hermione carefully put the pearl into an empty vial she had with her as Harry started to come to. She flinched as he bellowed, "Fucking hell, Hermione! Why the fuck did you stun me?"
"How do you feel, Harry?" she asked warily, palming the vial so he wouldn't immediately see what she was holding.
"How do you think I feel?!" he asked, eyes wide with incredulity.
"I think you're angry with me for what I did, but I also think you feel lighter and decidedly less angry than you did before I stunned you."
"And how did you come to that conclusion, may I ask?"
"Because your eyes are back to normal."
"My eyes are…what?"
His gaze had turned from frustrated to confused, but his eyes were indeed back to their normal emerald hue. She gave a sigh of relief. That had been far too bloody close. Pocketing the vial, she patted it absently, hoping that whatever residual magic the pearl carried, it wouldn't affect her. She was nearly certain it wouldn't, but judging from the months she had spent with the man, travelling all over kingdom come with a bewitched necklace the year that should have been their final year at Hogwarts, she knew she wouldn't take the risk. The horcrux had nearly destroyed him—them all, really. She didn't want to chance her best friend's admittedly-tenuous hold on his sanity.
"You knew something was affecting me," he finally said, running a hand through his hair as he exhaled deeply. "What was it?"
"A pearl. From the necklace Alexandra—Selena—was wearing the night Voldemort killed your mum."
His gaze darkened, but it was more from morbid humour than something more sinister as he said "Don't tell me. It's another bloody horcrux."
Hermione shook her head. "I'm really not sure. But I'm going to err on the side of caution until I am."
He shook his head, a faint smile on his face. "It's always something, isn't it?"
She gave him a dry look. "At this point, do you even have to ask?"
He allowed himself a small chuckle before he sighed once more. "God, I've got some apologizing to do, don't I?"
"I suspect so," she replied with a curt nod.
She rolled her eyes. "Not me, silly. To be honest, I stopped paying attention after you started bitching about the lack of adequately-sized bath towel at the five-star luxury hotel you insisted was less charming than the Leaky Cauldron."
His lip twitched. "I'm surprised you lasted that long, if I'm honest."
"If I'm honest, so am I. But then again, I am married to Sirius Black. I suppose a higher tolerance to mindless prattle is one of those little perks that just come with the territory."
They fell into step once more and he shook his head, pulling his cloak tighter around him. "God I was such a prat to everyone."
"I'm sure they'll understand once you tell them why. Especially Ron. He remembers how terrible the horcrux made you feel. And after what he did…well…he's hardly one to judge."
Harry shook his head. "It's different, though, 'Mione. Sure, I feel better…loads, really…but I'm still so angry. And for stupid reasons. All those little things on our honeymoon…they ate away at me. Like…like an annoying…buzzing…that pushes and needles until you're at your wit's end." Then he stopped dead, looking stricken. "Fucking hell…what Ginny must think."
"I'm sure it's nothing that flowers, chocolate, and a little abject grovelling won't fix."
His eyes flashed black once more. "I will not grovel."
She gave him a wary look, hand immediately going to her wand. "Harry…"
He shook himself, like a bird trying to rid itself of water droplets. "Sorry. Don't know why I said that."
She looked at him, frown creasing her brow. "I think…I think I might."
"Naturally," he drawled, though another wary glance at him told her the wry comment was less sarcastic and more begrudging acknowledgement that—as per usual—she was ahead of the curve.
"You…missed a lot. While you were away," she said tentatively.
"That much I gathered."
"It's partially why we had you stay another week."
"To keep me out of trouble, I assume?"
"Well," she said with a light laugh. "It seems you're not the only one with a penchant for attracting it."
"I'm starting to think it's a particular characteristic that forms the cornerstone of our friendship," he replied dryly. Then he sighed once more. "Alright. What have I missed?"
Bit by bit, she caught him up on everything that had happened in the three weeks he had been away. Well, almost everything. She kept it as germane to the present situation as possible. The potential problems with the Dissolution of Marriage Act and the possibility of her pregnancy she kept to herself. He'd have enough to worry about without needing to concern himself with the domestic drama that insisted on creeping into her life.
Fifteen minutes later, as they reached the protective wards around the cottage, Harry was deep in thought.
"So…Alexandra and Selena switched bodies?"
"It's…a bit more complicated than that, I'm afraid," she replied.
"I'd be terrified if it wasn't," he said, this time wholly sarcastic.
"When the spell—the Cruciatem Transdictum spell—rebounded, it shattered the mind, body, and soul of everyone in the room. I think…I think they all kind of…mixed together. The most mixed up bits…the bits that had a little bit of everyone…well, I think they went into the people who were most vulnerable. Alexandra—the Alexandra we know today—got a little bit of everyone's soul. Selena…well, I think she got a little bit of everyone's body. Alexandra had already taken most of the soul, so it stood to reason that the physical switch happened because she was vulnerable to that too. But Selena has Lily's hair and eyes."
"And the mind? Did Voldemort get a little bit of everyone's mind?" He paled. "Does he have a part of my mother's mind?"
"No. No, I…I don't think so. I think at that point, he was already so torn himself that he only got bits and pieces of everything. But bits of him definitely transferred."
"Then who…" He trailed off, his muscles tensing in realization. "Me. I was a baby. My mind was at its most vulnerable."
She let out the rush of breath she had been holding. "Yes. Yes…I-I think so."
"But that still doesn't explain the pearl."
"I think it does. I think it's the bit of Voldemort that went to Selena."
"Selena and Alexandra can't really stand to be in the same room as the other. I think it's because…unlike the horcruxes…the little parts of Voldemort repel each other. As if they're still unstable and a small thing can set them flying again. I think…there are things that each of you carried of him from that night that affect the other. Your scar, for instance. I don't think it's by sheer coincidence that it's on your head."
Understanding started to dawn on him. "Because my mind was what got altered."
"And if Selena got bits of everyone's body, it stands to reason that the part of Voldemort was imbued in what she was wearing at the time."
"But…Alexandra." He frowned. "I didn't like her, but I didn't feel…repelled by her. I mean…not any more than I'd be repelled by any other foul human being."
Hermione took a deep breath and plunged into the thought that she had been mulling over. "I think that's because Alexandra found a way to transfer the worst of it to something else."
There was a moment of silence as she waited for Harry to work it out. Then his eyes widened. "The painting."
"Art is personal. It comes from bone deep, or at least, that's the theory I'm going with. Alexandra created those paintings almost immediately after the event. Things hadn't stabilized yet. That little bit of Voldemort's soul that she had latched on to something familiar—the act that caused the split in the first place. The painting."
Harry stared at her for a minute, mouth gaped in wonder. "You're brilliant, you are."
No matter how many times she heard the words from him—or Ron, Sirius, Remus, or anyone else, for that matter—Hermione still flushed a deep crimson.
"Hardly. Just obsessively caught up with minute detail."
He shook his head with a slight smile. "After everything, you're still so modest."
She flushed again, then waved her hand dismissively. "Anyway, that's what I think happened. I'm not sure I'm right."
"I'd wager my best broomstick you are," he said, the familiar fierceness of loyal conviction back in his voice. Then he frowned. "But why now? Why after twenty years?"
"I think the painting is the key."
"It's the first time the painting's been in the country. The painting, the pearl, and you."
"So…what'll happen when I see it?"
"I don't know. But I'm curious to find out, so let's not dawdle. Draco?"
For a moment there was nothing, and Hermione was suddenly worried her owl hadn't arrived to inform the blond pureblood of their visit. A second later, however, the wards shuddered and Draco appeared. The arm of his blazer was pinned to his chest, making him the very picture of Admiral Nelson—though she was certain the good admiral hadn't ever held a wand aloft in suspicious appraisal.
Hermione could see Harry's hand twitch as he reigned control over his ingrained reflex to draw his own wand on his former nemesis, and she loved him for that control.
"Password?" Draco drawled, though even she knew his voice sounded more hollow and withdrawn than it had been the last time she'd seen him.
"Nunquam sanctimonia vincit," she said with a sympathetic smile, adding, "How are you, Draco?" while he stowed his wand.
He shrugged in response, merely replying a terse, "Fine," before leading the pair silently through the wards and down the narrow path toward the cottage.
"What's got his scales in a twist?" Harry mumbled quietly, but Hermione flinched as she saw Draco's shoulders tense. Clearly, the former Death Eater had heard him.
"None of your bloody business, Potter," Draco spat over his shoulder before hurrying ahead. Hermione tried to ignore the fact that Draco's shoulders had slumped even more.
She knew that Draco's forlorn state of mind had everything to do with Enrico's departure to America a week earlier. Still not strong enough for international travel—especially when the Death Eaters were searching the country with a fine-tooth comb—Professor McGonagall had gently, though firmly, suggested Draco wait it out until things calmed down.
Predictably, the man had been less than pleased.
Harry, of course, was the last person Draco wanted pitying him, so Hermione merely said, "I'm afraid he's going a bit…stir-crazy. You remember how Sirius was fifth year, cooped up in Grimmauld Place with nothing to do? Same general concept."
Harry had the good grace not to comment.
Ducking into the kitchen, Hermione held back a gasp of surprise that threatened to escape. The house was filthy. She had just been there two days prior, and Sirius had been there only the day before. It hadn't been in nearly such a state. Dishes were piled up in the sink, crumbs and bits of food littered the cluttered table and floor, and the smell made her wonder what exactly was in the overflowing rubbish bin.
Harry, too, seemed to be suppressing the urge to gag but once again, he had the sense to remain silent.
Draco, now seated at the table, refused to meet their eyes.
"I'm…er…not much of a housekeeper in general but…it's a little harder…nowadays."
Hermione frowned. "What happened? It wasn't like this the last time I was here, and Sirius would have told me it was like this after he visited yesterday."
"She usually glamours the place."
"Alexandra. She usually throws up some glamours to make it look better."
Draco shook his head. "I don't know. She knew you were coming. But she's been in the back, staring at those stupid paintings all morning."
Thinking it best to get Harry in and out as quickly as possible—and making a mental note to stop by the Burrow to speak with Mrs. Weasley as soon as she was able—Hermione led Harry deeper into the cottage to show him what they were there to see.
The smell seemed to get worse as they approached.
Like Draco had said, Alexandra was sitting in a straight-back chair, staring as the paintings played their silent loop. She couldn't suppress her gasp as she took in the raven-haired woman. Alexandra looked like she hadn't bathed in weeks and as Hermione approached—leaving Harry to survey the paintings—it only took a few steps to realize the source of the stench.
Not only had it seemed that Alexandra hadn't bathed in days; a glance at her surroundings told her that Alexandra had definitively not moved in days.
"How did we miss this?" Hermione asked Draco, who had followed them in. "Surely Sirius would have twinged on something. His sense of smell is ridiculously keen."
"I told you. She put up glamours."
"But this?" Hermione said incredulously, motioning to Alexandra.
"She's very good at them," was all Draco replied with.
"Draco?" Alexandra suddenly said, her voice sounding strange and far-off. "Some tea, I think? For our guests?"
"I can get it, if you want," Hermione offered, suddenly feeling the need for fresher air.
Draco glared. "I'm not your bloody charity case, Granger," he hissed before turning on his heel and stalking out of the room.
"Such a nice boy," Alexandra said dreamily. "Takes such good care of us."
Hermione frowned, turning back to the older woman. "Us?"
"Yes. Me and the paintings."
Hermione looked at the paintings, then back to the other witch. "Alexandra—"
"You killed my parents."
Hermione jumped at the tone in Harry's voice as her friend spoke. His back was still toward them, but she could see the fury singing through his body. Ice slid through her as she noticed his wand clutched in white-knuckled fingers. When he turned to face them, Hermione realized how big of a mistake she had made. There, without need of the pearl, were Selena's eyes. They burned with deep, uninhibited rage.
In that moment, Hermione knew two things. The first was that she had been right about the paintings. The second was that she should have never, ever taken Harry to see them.
"You murdered my mother."
"Harry—" she started, but the glare he shot her was so venomous it rendered her speechless.
"You just stood there while he tortured her; killed her," he continued, voice cold and deadly calm. "And now you sit here. Watching. Surrounded by filth and darkness, you sit in this…this shrine…this temple to your cowardice."
Alexandra watched him, a mix of emotions playing over her face, but she said nothing.
"You watched him murder my father. You watched him as he tore my mother apart." His voice lowered as he raised his wand. "You deserve to die."
"Harry!" Hermione shouted, but the sound was lost in a roar of swirling green flames that issued from the fireplace. As if waiting for those words, Snape, wand outstretched, appeared, his eyes fixed on Alexandra with single-minded intent.
"Twenty years I've waited," he said coolly, his voice still the slow drawl Hermione remembered from her school days. Only his eyes gave away his true emotions, the pitiless onyx orbs clouded by grief and triumphant revenge.
"Severus," Alexandra whispered, her eyes clearing slightly at the appearance of the dark figure. "I didn't think they'd send you to kill me."
"I volunteered," he replied. "Now. Any last words?"
"Severus, no," Hermione said, starting to move in front of the still-seated woman. Snape batted her away with a sweep of his hand, sending her flying across the room. She only just braced herself before hitting the wall, all the wind knocking from her as flesh collided with stone.
"You've lived up to your end of the bargain in this particular instance, Miss Granger," Snap said, eyes never leaving Alexandra. "And for that I am grateful. But do not test me."
Hermione suppressed a groan of pain as she struggled to her feet, gripping the arm that a stunned Draco offered her. She hadn't even seen him run in.
"Professor," he said, his voice hesitant as he looked from Hermione to Snape, and then finally to Harry, who stood in solid, silent anger next to his former Potions professor. "Professor, you said no one would get hurt."
Hermione whipped around to face the blond. "You opened the floo to him? You knew he'd come?"
His brow furrowed as he grappled with the emotions inside him. "He said he'd get me out of the country. Said he'd help me get to New York. I thought…you said he's in the Order," he replied, eyes accusatory before repeating. "He said no one would get hurt."
"No, Draco, I did not," Snape said. "I said no one of significance would get hurt. And as Miss Granger has assured me that this bitch is no longer significant—"
"I said no such thing!" Hermione cried.
His eyes flashed daggers at her. "I inferred it."
"You inferred wrong," she said stoutly, taking a step toward them, only to stop as Snape's wand moved toward her. "She's the lynchpin, Severus. Do you understand? She painted those paintings. Her soul lives with those paintings. Hers and Voldemort's and Harry's and Selena's and Lily's—"
"Lily's dead!" Snape screamed, his voice finally giving way to his emotion. "And she killed her!"
"She wasn't alone, Severus," Hermione reminded him. "We need her. We need—"
"Not 'we', Miss Granger," Snape said darkly. "Not 'we'. You."
"No, Severus," Hermione insisted. "We. If you kill her and she's one of the keys to this, you're leaving the fate of the wizarding world to Voldemort. Selena knows about the paintings, and if she knows—"
"Enough!" he bellowed before affixing Hermione with a look so deadly she felt her entire body go numb. "She's had two weeks to tell you everything she knows. Two weeks to sit here and relive what she's done. If she hasn't told you by now, she either cannot help or lacked the proper incentive. I intend to give her the proper incentive."
"Severus, please," Hermione begged, but his attention had already turned back to the quiet witch in front of him.
"Alexandra Irons-Mulroney," he said. "I accuse you of the torture and ultimate murder of Lily Evans. I am your judge. I am your jury. Do you have anything left to say in your defence?"
For a long moment, Alexandra stared at him. Then her eyes turned to Harry, and softened. A small smile—barely visible—graced her lips.
Then she turned to Snape and said, very clearly, "Kill me, Severus."
Before Hermione could even scream in protest, Snape's wand sliced through the air and a jet of green light flew at Alexandra. The woman didn't scream. She didn't make a sound. She merely smiled and closed her eyes before slumping in the chair.
The room was very still for all of a second, but it was enough time for Hermione to see something spark in Harry's eyes before he, too, collapsed.
Hope you enjoyed it!
More to come soon(ish).