"You know," Ron said as the three of them entered the tent, "Slytherin's birthplace really needs to work on its marketing technique. There aren't any souvenir stands, no postcards, not even a tearoom with horribly overpriced stale sandwiches. Anyone would think it didn't want to be found."
"Ha ha," Hermione said flatly as she flopped into a chair and groaned. "At least we did find it."
"Yeah," Harry agreed. "The memorial plaque was a bit much, though."
"And only visible to witches and wizards, of course," Ron said, joining Harry on the couch. "I'm sure if he'd found a way to make it work only for purebloods, he would have."
"Except that the concept of pure-bloods is rooted almost entirely in myth," Hermione said. "Hagrid was quite right. There isn't a wizarding family today that isn't half-blood or less regardless of what they say, so the spell would be based on a completely made-up idea."
"Even the Malfoys?" Ron asked, looking uncertain.
"Even the Malfoys," Hermione agreed. "Old Lucius probably has a great-grandfather who was a candlestick maker in Suffolk or something that he hides assiduously."
"Or that he killed to get him out of the way neatly," Ron said.
"I wouldn't put it past him," Hermione said, slipping her shoes off and rubbing her feet. "It wasn't much of a spot, was it?"
"Not by half," Harry said. "One old, crumbling stone wall, the plaque, and a dead tree."
Ron assumed a mock-pious tone and recited, including all the extra letters, "'Herein was borne that moste famouse of wizards, one Salazar Slytherin, greatest of the Hogwarts Four, and powerfull beyond e'en the moste mightee. Bow, ye of lowlier gifts, and thank the stars for the boone of visiting the place of his beginnings!' Rotten spelling, on top of it all."
"Spelling as we know it today didn't exist until less than two centuries ago, so I can't fault them on that," Hermione said, her expression one of pained relief as feeling returned to her feet.
"Really?" Ron asked, looking pleased.
"Really," Hermione said. "As long as the word could potentially be sounded out from the combination of letters, practically anything worked. Writers would even change the spelling of the same word randomly in the same work without it being regarded as wrong. And Shakespeare spelled his name at least three different ways."
"So Roonil Wazleb would have been a viable option for you after all," Harry said, and he was hit with a couch pillow that came so fast he wasn't sure whether Ron or Hermione had pitched it at him.
"Not really, as it isn't close to the true pronunciation," Hermione said, not changing her tone at all, though Harry still suspected the pillow originated from her. "A more realistic example would be adding an h after the o in Ronald."
"So, theoretically, I could have spelled my name, say, R-O-H-N-O-L-D-E W-E-E-Z-L-E-E-Y?" Ron asked.
Hermione screwed up her face and seemed to be picturing the given letters before nodding and saying, "Yes, that would be entirely acceptable."
"But it looks like old Sally stayed with one spelling," Ron said.
"Sally?" Harry asked.
"Salazar Slytherin. I'm calling him Sally from here out," Ron said.
"Sally?" Hermione said slowly, giving him a look that mixed exasperation and amusement.
"We've been tracking his life history for so long that I feel I know the bloke now, and Salazar seems too formal," Ron said with a firm nod.
"So you're calling him Sally?" she said.
"I said I knew him, not that I liked him," Ron said.
"Wonderful. One of the Hogwarts founders will forevermore carry the image in my head of Charlie Brown's little sister," Hermione muttered, but Harry noticed a smile pulling at the corner of her lips.
"Who?" Ron asked.
"Oh, it's an American Muggle comic strip," Hermione said.
"Like The Adventures of Marvin Miggs the Mad Muggle?" Ron asked, perking up. "I used to love those."
"A bit, though they didn't move. Well, no, actually, that's not true. They did sometimes since they made some TV specials and movies and things where they animated them," Hermione said. "The main characters are Charlie Brown, who's a little boy and a terrible baseball pitcher and seems to have some sort of mild depression, and his dog Snoopy, who thinks he's a World War I flying ace and flies his Sopwith Camel, otherwise known as his doghouse, to fight the Red Baron and loves root beer."
Harry looked at Ron's face, which appeared about as bewildered as if Hermione had been speaking Mermish. After a solid two seconds of sitting in complete confusion, he plastered on a smile, nodded briskly, and said, "Right!"
"I suppose it does sound mad. Maybe you just have to grow up with it to get it," Hermione said with an apologetic shrug. "Though I never did understand why an American dog would be flying a British biplane. Regardless, there wasn't anything at Sally's, ehm, I mean Slytherin's birthplace, so we're back to figuring out our next plan."
"True, but on a positive note, we do have a rather good dinner for once," Harry said, unfolding the paper bag he had been guarding as precious cargo under his robes. "Who would have thought there would be a place selling sushi just down the road from where we've camped?"
"I still don't understand the idea of this," Ron said, eyeing with suspicion the boxes Harry was producing from the bag. "I mean, I know it's fish. I've lived with a Muggle-born and an as-good-as-Muggle-born long enough to know that much at this point."
"Hence the depressed goldfish comment when we were discussing 'The Musicians of Bremen,'" Hermione said.
"Yeah, but the fish is raw?" Ron asked, looking a little appalled.
"Some of it, yes," Hermione said. "But some of it's vegetarian."
"Uh-huh," Ron said, squinting at one of the rolls. "Not that I can tell which is which, but fine. So why do we eat it with little wands?"
"They're not wands. They're called chopsticks," Hermione said. "They're just what people use in Japan when they eat it. You don't really have to if you don't want to."
"Right," Ron said, still staring at a plate of kappamaki. "Does it come with chips?"
"Not usually," Harry said. "There's some soup in there, though."
"Oh," Ron said, brightening up. "What kind?"
"Miso," Hermione said.
"Fish soup," Hermione said.
"Right," Ron said again, looking crestfallen. "I'm just not overly fond of seafood, I guess. Particularly what with it being raw."
"To be honest, I've only had it a one or two times myself," Harry said. "The Dursleys didn't like it since it was foreign."
Ron poked at one of the rolls tentatively and shrugged.
"Well, your rotten family hating it is a point in its favor, and it's food at any rate. Better than chewing my own tongue, isn't it?" he said, then awkwardly shoved the whole thing in his mouth with his fingers. His cheeks were ballooned out so far Harry couldn't even see his ears, but he could tell his jaw was working.
"Whasa blaksuf?" he said around a mouthful of sushi, bits of rice now decorating his shirt.
"If that question was 'What's the black stuff?' it's nori, a kind of seaweed," Hermione said as she primly picked up a spicy tuna roll and popped it delicately into her mouth, using her chopsticks as if she'd been born in Kyoto. "This is really good, Harry. My parents used to get sushi sometimes, particularly over the summer hols. Ooo, dragon rolls!"
"Is the dragon raw too?" Ron asked, looking horrified.
"It's not really dragon," Hermione said. "That's just the name."
"Good, because I'm not eating nori-wrapped Norbert," Ron said, adding another roll to the one that was still partially in his mouth, chewing it thoughtfully, and then finally swallowing it. "S'not bad, though. It's a mite fishy, but I suppose you've got to expect that what with it being fish."
"That one's cucumber," Hermione said. "There's no fish in it."
Ron frowned. "Oh. Is the cucumber raw?"
"I assume so," Hermione said, looking at Harry with a pleading expression that suggested if he didn't intervene, she was going to go into fits, though he wasn't sure if they would be of unstoppable laughter or the prelude to an aneurysm.
"Here," Harry said, handing Ron a container of rice and a plastic spoon. "That should be familiar enough, and it's even cooked through."
Ron shrugged but looked a bit happier as he shoveled something he could identify into his mouth for dinner.
"Slytherin's birthplace unfortunately didn't hold the key to another Horcrux," Hermione said, stirring her chopsticks through her miso soup before sipping it delicately. "I admit, I'm starting to run out of viable options that aren't utterly stupid."
"So be utterly stupid," Ron said between spoonfuls of rice. "Why not? Like you said, we've tried everything else, right?"
Hermione pursed her lips in thought as though trying to figure out how to go about being utterly stupid. Harry realized it wasn't her usual mode of thinking by a long mile.
"Alright," she said slowly. "If I were You-Know-Who, and I were being completely dunderheaded about where to hide my soul, where would I put it?"
"Hand it off to someone untrustworthy?" Harry suggested.
"Maybe," Hermione said, considering. "A poor choice of guardian wouldn't be impossible for him."
"Honestly, I think that's already been done," Ron said. "Lucius."
"Fair point," Hermione said, sighing before sipping her miso again. "He handed the diary right to us and it wound up destroyed. Really, he did us a favor with that."
"I'm sure he didn't know what it was," Harry said. "Dumbledore was certain of it."
"But think! He trusted Lucius enough to give him a piece of his soul for safekeeping but didn't trust him enough to tell him what it was! It's deeply stupid," Hermione said.
"True enough," Ron said. "But look at the other ones. Hiding a ring in his mum's old house wasn't exactly hard to figure out, and the necklace is fighting us about destroying it, but he kept going with pieces from the Gaunt Grotesque Jewelry Collection. Y'know, when you think it over, he really isn't being very clever."
"No, he's really not," Hermione agreed. "Okay, so, stupid places to hide one's soul. Suggestions?"
"A melting ice cube?" Harry suggested, pretending to be serious.
"I don't know," Hermione said, and to Harry's surprise she was obviously giving it honest consideration. "It's possible that when the water passed from a solid to a liquid state the Horcrux might remain attached to the molecules, maybe even evaporating and then going through the process of condensation and then becoming precipitation."
"Forgive me, but does that translate to it raining Horcruxes?" Ron said, looking a bit sick. "The average brolly isn't going to do much against that I don't think."
"Theoretically, yes, but then would he really be foolish enough to send off part of his soul somewhere he couldn't track it? It would be impossible to find," Hermione said.
"Which is a point in its favor," Harry said.
"But wouldn't that also eventually destroy it?" Ron asked. "It would get pulled apart, wouldn't it?"
"Very possibly," Hermione said, sighing. "No, I don't think he'd attach it to something that would be beyond anyone's ability to track, including his own, not that he'd admit there was something he couldn't do."
"We keep thinking small," Ron said, "but what if it were something big? Like, I don't know, a whole building or a mountain or summat."
Harry and Hermione both thought about it for a while.
"If he's stuck his soul in Parliament, it might explain rather a lot," Hermione said.
"I'm not sure if that's possible," Harry said. "Dumbledore seemed to think whatever they were, they should be portable. Otherwise, with the size of Vol—um, his ego, he probably would have made Mount Everest one."
"It would be a bit hard to destroy a whole mountain," Hermione said, shuddering. "I hope you're right, Harry."
"Fine, so nothing huge and monumental, but what if he went the other way?" Ron asked. "What if he attached his soul to something ridiculously twee?"
"Like what?" Harry said.
"I don't know. A fluffy little kitten?" Ron suggested.
"It's bad enough suspecting Nagini might be one. I don't like the idea of killing a pet, even a nasty one, but a kitten?" Hermione said, grimacing. "I can't do that. He's just going to have to go on living forever if that's the case."
"Attaching a soul to a living thing is risky anyway," Harry said. "Dumbledore was adamant about that, so I don't think he'd do it twice."
"Maybe something else oddly cute, then?" Ron said. "Did You-Know-Who have a teddy bear?"
"He seems more the toy soldier type to me," Harry said. "More specifically the type who'd blow them up."
"Memories of Dudley's childhood?" Ron guessed.
"Got it in one," Harry said.
Hermione had a familiar far-off look in her eyes, and then snapped back to attention.
"Wait, you don't really think he turned a toy soldier into a Horcrux, do you?" Ron asked, looking worried.
"No, no, I doubt if even as a child You-Know-Who loved anything at all. He seems incapable of it," Hermione said. "Sorry, I was just thinking of a story."
Ron grinned delightedly at Harry.
"About?" he asked.
"A toy soldier, of course," Hermione said.
"Is it barmy?" Ron asked seriously.
"A bit. It's one of Andersen's again," Hermione explained.
"Oh, good," Ron said, leaning back on his chair and putting another spoon of rice in his mouth. "I like him. He's mental."
"He was not… all right, well, possibly he was a bit," Hermione said on further consideration. "Anyway, once—"
"Upon a time," Ron said, tapping his spoon on the cardboard take-away box in time with the words.
"Yes, Ronald," Hermione said with a heavy sigh, "there were twenty-five toy soldiers who had all been made from the same tin spoon."
"A spoon?" Ron asked, looking confused.
"Yes, the toymaker melted down a large metal spoon, in this case tin, into a mold, and the result was twenty-five nearly identical twin soldiers," Hermione said.
"Twenty-five tin soldiers out of just one spoon?" Ron asked.
"Maybe it was something the size Hagrid would use?" Harry suggested.
"Even so, that's a lot of soldiers from one spoon," Ron said.
"That's why I said they were nearly identical. The tin from the spoon wasn't quite big enough to fill the mold the last time, so the last of the brothers got short-changed," Hermione said.
"Yeah, I know the feeling, though this fellow's got even more brothers than I do," Ron said. "The last one going is always the one who gets the short end of the stick."
"But you're not the last one," Hermione pointed out. "That's Ginny."
Ron chuckled, shaking his head before adding, "She's the first girl Weasley in I don't even know how many generations. Believe me, if anyone was going to get skipped over, it wasn't her. True, she got the odd hand-me-down from time to time, but it's not like Bill and Charlie had a whole wardrobe of dresses to stick her with for holidays and such."
"Bill and Charlie's bias against haute couture gowns aside," Hermione said, "I'd say your mum still noticed your existence, Ron."
Ron looked uncomfortable and shrugged, saying, "It's not her fault. She wanted a girl, y'know, and I was the sixth boy in a row. I think she was a bit miffed at me, really, until Gin came along."
Harry stared at Ron, then hit him over the head with a cushion.
"Oi! What's that for?" Ron said, rubbing his head where Harry had successfully knocked him nearly silly.
"For your mum," Harry said firmly. "She's got faults like anyone, but not paying attention to you because you're a bloke isn't one of them."
Harry was extremely fond of Mrs. Weasley, and it made him more than a little angry to hear Ron criticizing her so openly in front of him, nearly as much so as if his own mother's maternal feelings were being called into question.
"Harry, somewhere in the Burrow there is literally a baby picture of me at about one year old wearing a pink dress with bows and daisies," Ron said, rubbing his head. "Course, that was Fred and George's doing, but she had the dress lying about, waiting, and you'll notice she didn't get rid of the snapshot, either."
Harry rolled his eyes, but he noticed Hermione very subtly shaking her head at him, as though to suggest Harry stop pursuing the situation.
"Anyway, how did the spoon soldier get short changed?" Harry asked, redirecting the topic back to the story.
"He was missing a leg," Hermione said.
"A whole leg?" Ron said, raising his eyebrows. "Blimey, Hermione, but Andersen's foot thing is getting worse! It's moving up!"
Hermione was about to open her mouth to say something to contradict him—Harry knew the look well—but then she stopped, considering.
"You know, it does look that way, doesn't it?" she admitted. "Anyway, the soldier, in spite of his single leg, stood proudly at attention, his uniform in as good order and his manner as fierce as that of any of his brothers."
"I like this chap," Ron said. "He's got spirit."
"Yes, that's why the story is called 'The Steadfast Tin Soldier,'" Hermione said.
"No actual name for him then, I take it," Ron ventured.
"No, he hasn't got a name," Hermione said.
"For pity's sake, no leg and no name. That's a bit much," Ron said, looking genuinely appalled.
"If it makes you feel any better, no one in this story has one," Hermione
"I suppose," Ron said, obviously still not satisfied. "Go on, then. What happens to the fellow?"
"Well, there were several other toys in the children's playroom. One of them was a paper doll ballerina with a great shining spangle on her sash. She was balancing on one leg with the other so far behind her that it couldn't be seen behind the skirts of her tutu, and the soldier thought that she, like himself, had only one leg," Hermione said. "Immediately, he fell in love with her."
"I don't see that ending well for him," Ron said. "She's probably a posh little snob."
"And why, precisely, do you make that assumption?" Hermione said, folding her hands in her lap and fixing him with a gaze that made Harry wonder briefly whether the first piece of accidental magic she had performed as a child had involved murder.
"Ballerinas usually are," Ron said.
"I took eight years of ballet prior to Hogwarts and still take the occasional class during the hols," Hermione said, and Harry wondered if Ron had any self-preservation instincts at all.
"Oh," Ron said, turning pink. "Well, you're not wearing a spangled sash and a tutu at the moment, so I couldn't be expected to know."
"No, but dancers are trained athletes as much as any Quidditch team, and we work hard at what we do," Hermione said. "The difference is Quidditch players are practically worshiped for tossing a ball around while dancers have their funding cut and are accused of either innate stupidity or being, as you so charmingly put it, 'posh little snobs.'"
"So… the paper ballerina isn't one, then?" Ron asked.
"No," Hermione said. "Unfortunately, Andersen doesn't really give her a personality at all. She never speaks or moves, so we don't know what she's thinking."
"So she could be a snob," Ron said firmly.
"That's only your stereotype of her! She could also be kind-hearted, or a brilliant neuroscientist, or a fantastic race car driver, or enjoy fingerpainting with yogurt on wax paper, or all of those together!" Hermione said angrily.
"Fingerpainting with yogurt on wax paper?" Ron asked slowly, giving her a look that suggested she'd gone mad.
"Fine, I admit that was a little random, but you've no more proof of your statement about her character than any of the other things I mentioned, and it's no more likely," Hermione said.
"Also no less likely," Ron said.
"Ron, give it a rest, yeah?" Harry said quietly.
"Am I doing it again?"
"What, being a prat? Yes," Harry said.
"Right," Ron said. "Okay, so, what happened next?"
"For quite a while, nothing. The soldier was too nervous to speak to her, so he kept his distance and gazed on her from afar, which is a bit stalker-ish, but as this was written in the early to mid-1800s, the context makes it a little less disturbing," Hermione said.
"As opposed to the mermaid girl stalking the prince?" Ron asked.
"To be fair, there's a bit of a difference between stealing a quick look at someone who's in the same room with you and secretly staring into someone's bedroom window each night then snogging a statue of him in your back garden," Hermione said.
"When you put it that way, yes, yes there is," Ron said.
"More disturbing still is that the tin soldier wasn't the only one looking about. In the evenings, the toys would come to life and play, doing all sorts of things for amusement, like throwing parties or playing games," Hermione said.
"They sound like a fun group," Ron said. "Bit like the common room in the old days."
"Yes, rather," Hermione said. "But in the midst of all the fun, two figures stood still: the tin soldier and the paper ballerina."
"So, Neville and you, then, if we're going off of what usually happened in the common room," Ron said. "Only the ballerina would need a tall stack of books she was reading while water balloons whizzed over her head and Fred and George took bets on whether you would stop to go to the loo or not."
"Your brothers made bets concerning the strength of my bladder?" Hermione said, looking a bit repulsed.
"Yeah, but don't take it personally," Ron said with a dismissive wave of his hand. "They made bets about everything: who'd get what grade on O.W.L.s, whether Malfoy would part his hair on the left or the right each morning, if Dumbledore would ever lose it and punch Umbridge in the nose, what barmy creature Hagrid was going to terrify us with next, that sort of thing."
Hermione raised an eyebrow but continued on.
"Suddenly a bogey popped out of a snuffbox in the room and accosted the tin soldier verbally, telling him to keep his eyes to himself or he would be sorry," Hermione said.
Ron and Harry looked at one another.
"I have several questions about that sentence?" he said, his voice rising almost apologetically to make it into a query.
"Go on, then," Hermione said, leaning back in her seat. "I expected as much."
"Yes, alright, so, first, what's a talking bogey doing in a snuffbox?" Ron asked. "Did someone sneeze in it and then enchant the results into having unpleasant conversations with anyone nearby?"
"No, though you really ought to give that idea to Fred and George. It would probably sell well at their shop," Hermione said. "Andersen uses the term bogey here in another sense, as a synonym for a sort of goblin."
"Muggles call goblins bogeys?" Ron asked.
"Where Andersen lived, apparently yes," Hermione said.
"So do they think their noses are possessed by goblins and that's why they say 'bless you' when they sneeze?" Ron asked excitedly, obviously proud of his conclusion.
"I…" Hermione stopped, and Harry saw that she was realizing how happy he was to have come up with the idea. "Possibly?"
"Ha!" he said, clapping his hands together and rubbing them in satisfaction.
"But of course that isn't that case here. He's just a goblin who lives in a snuffbox," Hermione said.
"Fine, though I now understand why goblins don't like humans much. My next question is this: what's a snuffbox doing in a children's playroom?" Ron asked.
Hermione frowned and admitted, "I have absolutely no idea."
Ron nodded at Harry, grinning all the while.
"Fine. At least we all agree that's odd. Children don't usually play with snuff," Ron said.
"No, but an empty snuffbox could be quite pretty, really," Hermione said. "Snuffboxes did tend to be very ornamental, and perhaps one might amuse a child in the same way an empty candy box or jewelry box might."
"Still weird, but I suppose the bogey has to live somewhere, which brings up my next question. Why is he living in a snuff box?" Ron asked.
"Because he wants to?" Hermione said. "He takes the form of a Jack in the Box in the story."
"So he's a goblin in a snuff ox pretending to be a Jack in the Box," Ron said slowly. "Why not just be a goblin in a Jack in the Box-box?"
"I don't know," Hermione said. "Maybe he liked snuff? Maybe the connotations of a snuff box are more sinister?"
"Most Jack in the Boxes are fairly traumatizing on their own, though," Harry threw in. "The way they lie in wait, with that weird song about the weasel going around the cobbler's bench, and then just when you don't expect it, POP!"
Both Ron and Hermione jumped at the yelled word.
"Okay, so now I'm calling the bogey-goblin Jack so at least someone has a name," Ron said, trying to sound unfazed. "Finally, my last question for this bonkers bit of the story, why is he threatening the tin soldier?"
"Because the bogey was in love with the paper ballerina himself," Hermione said.
"The oddness of that sentence cannot be overstated," Ron said. "Fine, I'll just take it on faith that's what happened: a love triangle between a fraction of a tin spoon, a paper doll, and a goblin-slash-Jack-in-the-box-slash-snuffbox-enthusiast. Was Andersen taking drugs, by any chance?"
"Not that I know of, but a good many perfectly legal medicines and tonics from the time had a variety of currently illegal substances in them," Hermione said.
"It would explain a lot," Ron said, then suddenly added, "Oh! One more! Does the goblin have feet?"
"It's never mentioned, but in general I've never seen a Jack in the Box with feet," Hermione said.
"Or a Jack in the Snuffbox," Ron said.
"Through?" Hermione asked.
"I think so," Ron said, "for now."
"Then going back to the story, we find that the tin soldier paid the goblin no heed, and neither did the ballerina, both remaining silent and motionless, which enraged the goblin. 'You will regret this tomorrow!' he said and disappeared back into his snuffbox with a loud clatter and a puff of smoke," Hermione said, giving the goblin a squeaky voice that set the hair on Harry's arms on end like nails on a chalkboard.
"So what happened the next day?" Ron asked.
"The tin soldier fell out a window," Hermione said.
"Okay, that was not what I was expecting," Ron said. "The goblin defenestrated him?"
"I—wait, how did you know that word?" Hermione said, looking impressed.
"Again, I live with Fred and George," Ron said. "When your brothers have thrown you out a window countless times by the age of five for the fun of watching you bounce, you eventually learn to put a word to the process."
"Didn't Neville's family do that to him, too?" Harry asked.
"Yeah, now you mention it. I think it was his uncle who dropped him? Probably on accident, just trying to scare him into showing he was magic, but yeah, I guess he lost his grip and thankfully Nev was magic enough not to get hurt," Ron said.
"He really has had a horrid life when you think about it," Hermione said.
"Not as horrid as if he hadn't bounced, though," Ron said.
"I suppose," Hermione said, but she looked deeply uncomfortable.
Harry felt much the same way. When he thought of some of the things Neville had been through, he honestly felt bad for him. He wondered what Neville was doing now, if he and the others were all right, and what might be happening at Hogwarts.
"As it turns out, the tin soldier and Neville had a few other similarities," Hermione said.
"The tin soldier was fantastic at Herbology?" Ron asked, confused.
"Neville is?" Harry asked, looking surprised.
"Of course," Hermione said, glaring at him. "Don't you remember when he gave you Gillyweed for the second task in the Triwizard Tournament?"
"Hang on, wait a mo," Ron said. "I thought that was Dobby."
"No, definitely Neville," Hermione said. "Harry, wasn't it?"
"It was someone," Harry said. "Whoever, I knew Neville was good at Herbology, but not that great."
"Oh, he really is," Hermione said, beaming. "Much better than I am. We did a few study sessions in fourth year and he was brilliant."
"Was that when he asked you to the Yule Ball?" Ron said, and Harry rolled his eyes at the undercurrent of tension in Ron's voice.
"As a matter of fact, it was," Hermione said primly. "Viktor had asked me the day before, though."
"Quite the little debutante, weren't you?" Ron said, and Harry thought he'd better intervene before things got nasty.
"I'm guessing the tin soldier's parallels with Neville didn't involve plants," Harry said.
"What?" Hermione said, jarring back to herself as though she'd only just remembered she was telling the story. "Oh, right. No, the tin soldier wasn't harmed from falling out the window and instead bounced down the path."
"Like Neville," Ron said. "Okay, I see the connection."
"The soldier ended up sticking between two paving stones, his bayonet in the ground and his single leg up in the air. The children and the servants went down to look for him, but in spite of nearly stepping on him, they simply didn't see him and assumed he was gone forever," Hermione said.
"Okay, so they're either all in need of specs or the bogey-goblin thing cast some sort of spell on him to keep him hidden," Ron said.
"Or they just didn't see what was right in front of their noses, which can happen," Hermione said, and Harry thought he heard her mumble something about "four years to realize I'm a girl."
"So what happened to the tin soldier?" Harry asked in yet another move to avoid conflict.
"A pair of boys walking along the street saw him in the ground and pulled him out," Hermione said.
"I'm guessing they didn't knock politely on the door and return him," Ron said.
"Precisely," Hermione said. "Instead, they took a piece of newspaper and folded it into a boat, put the tin soldier in it, and set it in the gutter to sail away."
"Well, I'll give them points for being a little creative," Ron said. "Your lot make paper boats?"
"I learned how to do it in Girl Guides," Hermione said, then began rummaging through her beaded bag and pulled out an old copy of The Daily Prophet. In less a minute, she'd managed to fold it into neat little boat.
"And that actually floats?" Ron said, picking it up and looking impressed.
"Until it gets saturated with water, yes," Hermione said. "Aluminum foil is a little more resistant to sinking."
"Can you make a life size one?" Ron asked.
"Ehm, no," Hermione said. "It wouldn't be structurally sound."
"Probably would be with magic," Ron said, "even the paper ones."
Hermione considered this for a moment, tilting her head.
"You know, with the proper spells, I think you might be right," she said slowly. "Oh, what a lovely idea! Floating across a pond in a paper boat on a summer day! I think you might have something there, Ron!"
"Maybe Fred and George can do something with it," Ron said.
"Especially if they make it so it can shrink down to fit in someone's pocket when it's not in use," Harry suggested.
"Yeah, that'd be dead useful," Ron said, looking excited. "I think we've got a million Galleon idea here!"
Hermione looked thoughtful, then shrugged and said, "I'm in. I've got a little money tucked away. After this is all over, maybe we can bring in Fred and George for distribution and go on from there."
"What'll we call it, though?" Ron asked.
"Folding Paper Boat?" Harry suggested. "It's not very creative, but it's accurate."
"Nah, needs some more drama," Ron said. "What about Foldable Floatables?"
"Oh, or Skidbladnir!" Hermione said excitedly.
Harry and Ron very slowly swiveled their necks to face her, staring. There was a long, uncomfortable silence.
"So, no," Hermione said, turning red before she muttered under her breath. "When am I going to learn not to reference obscure mythology and make myself look like a giant nerd of an idiot five times a day?er"
"Nah, it's not that," Ron said dismissively. "It's just that'd be way too complex of a word for it for the average person to say. You're right, though; it is a little like Loki's folding boat from the Poetic Edda."
"Who are you and what have you done with Ronald Weasley?" he asked, not even entirely sure he was joking.
"What? Fred and George read those stories when they were may seven years old. They loved all of Loki's tricks," Ron said.
Harry glanced over at Hermione and caught her with her mouth hanging open.
"That does make sense for them, I guess," Harry said. "It's be right around their center of interest."
"You've read the eddas?" Hermione said, but it was the way she said it.
Harry was seriously considering fleeing the tent because she looked more smitten in that moment than Lavender ever had. In fact, she seemed in real peril of throwing herself into Ron's arms.
"No, Fred and George just told me some of them," Ron said, blushing.
"Close enough," Hermione said, bestowing a particularly warm smile on Ron that intensified his blush to the point his freckles were invisible. "Where was I?"
"Foldable Floatables," Harry said quickly. "Easier to pronounce than Skid Bladder Near."
"Yes, yes, it is," Hermione said. "Also, Merlin, that really would be a bad name for a boat. What was I thinking?"
"Bit hard to spell," Ron agreed. "Anyway, the tin soldier is in the boat."
"Uh, right," Hermione said. "So he was sent rushing along in the gutter water, which was very full and running fast since there had been a storm, and the two boys went running after it, clapping and laughing as they ran."
"Okay, stop, because I do have an issue here," Ron said. He turned to Harry, "Have you ever, at any point in your life, run while clapping?"
"I suppose when we've won in Quidditch I've cheered and run onto the field with the team," he said. "I don't know as I clapped, though."
"It just seems awkward, unless it's choreographed or something, and that would look rather odd, these two boys running along the gutter in the street doing some sort of organized clapping dance routine," Ron said.
"Wonderful," Hermione said, lowering her forehead into her hand. "Now I've got an image of two Danish boys sending the tin soldier off with a rousing rendition of the Hustle."
"What's the Hustle?" Ron asked.
"Oh no! No, I have explained everything to you from the plot of Dirty Dancing to the concept of patriarchy, but I am not explaining disco!" Hermione said. "There is a line, and that's it!"
Ron looked at Harry, who shrugged.
"My old school PE instructor taught the class the Hustle when we were about eight," Harry said. "We looked like right idiots, but I'll show you later if you want."
Hermione looked doubtful at the suggestion, but went on.
"Anyway, eventually the little paper boat carrying the soldier sailed under a great plank of wood that had been put across the road as a bridge, and the boys assumed it sank as it didn't come out the other end right away, so they went home," Hermione said.
"Hustling all the way," Ron said with an overly innocent smile.
"Oh, for pity's sake, now I'm imagining them in leisure suits," Hermione grumbled to herself. "Anyway, what had really happened was a great water rat had taken hold of the of the boat and demanded the tin soldier pay a toll and show his passport."
"As he's made of tin, I assume he had neither money nor proper identification," Ron said.
"Quite right," Hermione said, "and while the tin soldier said nothing but kept his bayonet raised high, the rat threatened him, gnashing his teeth in the pitch darkness beneath the board, but it mattered not at all as the boat kept moving in the fast current."
"The current in the gutter was that fast?"
"Water can move fairly quickly in a gutter," Hermione said, "especially in comparison to a tin solider made of a bit less than one twenty-fifth of a single spoon."
"When you put it that way, I see your point," Ron said. "So where does he go?"
"He heard the horrible rushing sound of a great waterfall coming, and he closed his eyes and thought of the little ballerina, certain he was about to die," Hermione said.
"Given that it's happy old Andersen, he's probably right," Ron said. "Either that or he'll wind up as both seafoam and some sort of weird air spirit thing simultaneously."
"As it was, he went over a spillway and into a river with the rest of the gutter water, and the little paper boat came apart in pieces, leaving him being pulled this way and that through the churning waters," Hermione said.
"Wait, can a tin soldier even actually die?" Harry asked. "I mean, floating around, he might fall apart, but he can't drown, can he?"
"He wouldn't breathe, of course, so no, he couldn't technically drown," Hermione said, squinting. "You'll see what happens. Anyway, a great fish saw him and swallowed him whole."
"So the tin soldier's name is Jonah, then," Harry said, and Ron looked satisfied.
"Andersen probably did get that idea from the biblical story, so it's a fairly good name for him," Hermione agreed. "I take it the Dursleys weren't completely opposed to stories from the Bible?"
"They pointed out the bits that said it was fine to beat and/or stone your child if they disobeyed you fairly often," Harry said. "Also, looking back, I do remember them hitting Exodus 22:11 a few times, which struck me as odd at the time but really should have been a clue."
"What's that?" Ron asked.
"'Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live,'" Hermione quoted automatically. "Probably not the best translation, but the most common one."
"You really did have a rotten childhood, mate," Ron said, then glanced over at Hermione. "Course, that one seems a bit more leveled at you as the only witch present."
"Trust me, by the end of first year every non-pure-blood witch has had some daft Slytherin yell that at her," Hermione said tiredly. "You get used to it. Anyway, just like the other Jonah, the tin soldier survived being eaten, but the fish was caught by a local fisherman and sold in the town's market with him still inside it."
"This soldier's getting quite the wild ride," Ron said.
"That very evening, a cook baked the fish and put it on the dinner table for the family to eat, and when they cut into the fish, there was the steadfast tin soldier inside, who looked about him and realized he was back in the same house again," Hermione said.
"Shouldn't they have found him when they were gutting the fish?" Ron said.
"Fair point again," Hermione said. "I guess we're supposed to think that's just somehow possible because of the magical quality of the story."
"What are the odds on even on having that particular fish show up in that particular house?" Harry said.
"Small," Hermione said, "but still, it was a local fish, a local fisherman, and a local market, so it wouldn't be completely impossible. I wouldn't bet a Galleon on it happening, but it's not impossible."
"So what happened?" Ron asked.
"Oh, the little boy cried out, 'It's my tin soldier! Look, it's the one with the missing leg!' and the whole family was stunned," Hermione said.
"That really was a stroke of luck," Ron said. "I bet he's not letting that soldier out of his sight again, right?"
"Ehm, not exactly," Hermione said. "He grabbed the solider and ran upstairs with him and put him on the table with the other toys, including the paper ballerina. The soldier was overjoyed to see her again, still standing on her one leg, and as his heart filled with love…"
"Yeah?" Ron said when she paused.
"Well, the little boy picked him up and threw him in the nursery stove," Hermione said, shrugging.
"Wait, what?!" Ron yelled.
"Supposedly the bogey in the snuffbox put him up to it," Hermione said, "or maybe he just smelled really fishy, now I think of it."
"Are you telling me that he goes through all this and then some brat kid burns him because he needed a bath?" Ron said, outraged.
"It actually get a bit worse, for as the soldier is melting, the door of the stove opened and a gust of wind blows the paper ballerina into the flames as well, and she goes up at once in a puff of smoke, as one might expect, what with her being paper," Hermione said. "Then the tin soldier melted away."
"So the ballerina and the soldier both die?" Ron said.
"It seems so. The next morning when the maid came to clean out the ashes, she found that the tin soldier had melted into the shape of a heart, and in its center was the spangle from the ballerina's sash, burned black as coal," Hermione said.
The boys stared at her.
"And?" Ron said.
"That's the end," Hermione said.
"Wait, they don't turn into air spirits or something like the stalker mermaid or turn into swans whatever weird thing Andersen could have picked?" Ron said. "I mean, he survived being cooked inside the fish, which doesn't make much sense, so why would he melt now?"
"I hadn't really thought of that, but I'm afraid Andersen just leaves it there. I think we're meant to assume they're both really dead."
"Well, that's just plain cruel! And what's the point? He goes on this big epic journey and then gets thoughtlessly killed for no reason at all!" Ron said. "Don't these things usually have some kind of a moral?"
"Usually, but I can't really find one in this either, unless it's that somehow death united him with his love or perhaps it only means that regardless of the courage and bravery of one's journey, a happy ending is never promised," Hermione said.
The three of them looked at one another in silence for a while.
"Even if you go home," Ron said slowly, "it doesn't mean you get a happily ever after."
"Not always, no," Hermione said.
"This might be the saddest of these things that you've told us," Ron said. "Poor Jonah and Whatsherface."
Harry quietly agreed. The story was pretty grim, especially in their current situation. He didn't even have a home to go back to, but Ron had been pretty obvious in his desire to see the Burrow again soon, even if they hadn't found the other Horcruxes yet. But the words "home" and "safe" weren't synonyms anymore. In fact, they might be the opposite, for them and for Ron's family.
Ron stared at the remains of their sushi.
"Maybe they didn't bake the fish and had it raw," Ron said, still sounding rather sad, "and that's how he survived to get to the table."
"Possibly," Hermione said, her face showing concern.
"Yeah," Ron said, gazing morosely at the last of his rice.
"Do we know where we're off to tomorrow?" Harry asked, thinking a change of topic might be in order.
"I don't know," Hermione said. "Who's turn is it to pick? I'm the one who tried Derry, which turned out to be a useless fiasco, and before that was Ron I think? Didn't you choose Slughorn's house?"
"Yeah," Ron said, still sounding glum. "Harry, it's your pick, I think."
Harry sighed. He had no idea what to do next, no real pull to any specific place. He glanced at the Horcrux, which seemed to be glowing more intensely from the general feeling of pessimism.
"Aside from Slytherin, was there anyone else Tommy admired?" Harry asked.
Hermione and Ron both seemed to be searching their brains.
"I don't think so," Hermione finally said. "Unless…"
"Unless?" Harry asked.
"Well, it might be a stupid thought, and he didn't so much admire him as fear him, but what about Dumbledore?" Hermione asked. ermione said.
"And wouldn't that ugly git have a laugh if he hid his soul somewhere related to Dumbledore," Ron said. "You might be onto something there."
"But where?" Hermione asked. "His childhood home or somewhere he lived later or something else?"
Harry pressed his lips into a hard line, then said, "Let's try where he lived most recently when school was out. Any ideas where that would be, Hermione?"
"I'll have to check on the exact address, but yes," she said. "He generally lived in his rooms at Hogwarts, but over the summer hols he did have a small cottage in Yorkshire. It wasn't well known. He used it to get away from the constant barrage of owls the Ministry would send him at all hours."
"How did you know that?" Ron asked.
"Research," she said simply. "I checked on the summer residences of all the staff in case we ever needed to get in touch with them without going through Hogwarts. McGonagall has a place near Aberdeen, Sprout one in Devonshire. I think only Hagrid lived at Hogwarts all year. Is that where you want to try, Harry? Yorkshire?"
"It's better than nothing," Harry said.
"Okay, Yorkshire, then," Ron said. "Best turn in. It's getting late."
"Right," Hermione said, heading towards the small curtained off spot where she slept. "Good night, Harry. Night, Roonil Wazlib."
"Night, Hermione, spelled, H-E-R-R-M-Y-O-H-K-N-E-E," Ron said, grinning faintly.
"Yes, that actually would be accurate, more's the pity," she muttered to herself as she closed the curtain.
Harry lay awake for quite some time, wondering if Yorkshire would prove as fruitless as all the other places they had already tried. He thought of the steadfast tin soldier, tossed from place to place, forever brave, but ultimately never achieving his goal, and shuddered. That night he dreamed of Ginnie, dressed as a ballerina, pirouetting on my leg as the darkness whirled about her whispered, threatening him with the futility of his quest, that it would all come to nothing. He woke with a start in the black of night, the only light the sickly green of the waiting Horcrux.