(A/N: Warning for the occasional squicky image and a Great Big Cliffhanger at the end of the chapter. Bring cuddle buddies, and possibly pillows with which to muffle screams.)
Chapter 54: There All Along
"She married him?" said Ron with an expression of horror. "She actually married him?"
"That's what it said." Harry flattened his palms, and letters of fire rose from them to hover in the air. "Neenie and I both sat in on the meeting. Plus Snape sent a Patronus confirming it, in case we had any doubts."
Ron flopped over backwards onto the cushions of the den room, making a noise which could best have been described as a strangled howl. Hermione, beside him, glanced over at Meghan with a wide-eyed expression of concern. "Is he…" she whispered with exaggerated care.
"It's an attack of bad mental images," Meghan decided after several seconds of looking intently at Ron, who had rolled onto his stomach and was holding a pillow over his head, groaning and thrashing as though he were trying to smother himself. "Like being around dementors for too long, only it's seeing instead of hearing."
"So he needs chocolate." Ginny started to stand up, but was forestalled by Neville, who produced a wrapped bar from one of his pockets and tossed it neatly to her. "Thanks, Captain," she said, handing it over to Hermione. "Is there anything you don't carry around with you?"
"DA grenades." Neville pantomimed something shattering to pieces. "You know, those balls made of spell-glass the artillery fill with some of the same potions we use in our pieces? I sat down on a pink one a month or two ago without realizing, and…" His face flushed slightly. "Well. It's a good thing it was just Pearl and me up in the shooting gallery."
"Thank you for sharing." Harry avoided Meghan's eye, which was difficult as she was grinning at him, and cleared his throat. "So. Voldemort wants to live forever, doesn't think he'll need heirs, isn't interested in women, men, or little furry animals as far as we know. But still, he married Bellatrix. Thoughts?"
"It's the prophecy," said Hermione immediately. "It has to be. The serpent's child taking a consort. Voldemort thinks he's the only possible Heir of Slytherin—he doesn't know what we know, about Alex's line, about Amanda's amulets—so he thinks the 'triumph' in the prophecy has to be his, and all he needs to achieve it is take a consort, which he's done, and make the lion's son fall. Which he wants to do."
"But it didn't just say he had to take a consort. It said he had to bring a consort home." Ginny frowned. "Where would Voldemort think of as home? I didn't think he lived anywhere in particular."
"If he's still thinking in terms of being Slytherin's Heir, there's only one place he'd consider home." Harry circled his hands in the air, and the fiery letters writhed into the outline of a familiar, multi-turreted shape. "Hogwarts."
"Of course." Ginny nodded. "And the rest of it fits right into his ideas. Kill you, take over the castle, and bring Bellatrix into it like some kind of conquering queen. He'd love that. They both would."
"And it fits what we heard about the cornerstone, too, Harry." Hermione waved her wand, and the same picture that Professors Jones and Kettleburn had conjured up some months previous appeared in the center of the Pride's small circle, rotating slowly. "With Heirs, Consorts, and Champions. Only he doesn't think any of the other Houses matter." A backwards flick of the wand, and the contingents of Gryffindor, Hufflepuff, and Ravenclaw vanished, leaving only Salazar Slytherin, with his wife Therese on one side and the faintly smiling form of Emrys his Champion on the other. "This is what he wants. All he wants. Forever. Except…" She paused in the midst of swirling her wand about the portrait, changing Slytherin's smug face to that of Voldemort and Therese's haughtiness to Bellatrix's. "Who would his Champion be?"
"Who do you think?" Ron sat up, chocolate in hand, and scowled at the tiny figures floating in midair before him. "Almost have to be Malfoy, wouldn't it, after everything he's done for His Dark Lordliness? Bet you he's got plans for us, too. Same sort of thing he did to Luna, and keep us around the Manor to play with. His own little human menagerie."
"Terribly sorry to disappoint him," said Ginny in a lofty society tone, lifting her nose in the air. "But my plans for the future are rather different."
"You and me both." Harry swiped his own wand through Hermione's picture, dissipating it. "Besides, how's he going to use the Imprimatus Potion on us when Tonks nailed Alecto Carrow with Draco's dagger, and then brought it home and gave it back to us? I know, I know, he could always make the potion for himself," he added before Hermione could object. "Or have Snape do it for him. But he won't have enough time. Halloween's not that far away."
"That's if we win," said Meghan quietly. "If we don't, he'll have all the time in the world."
"Hey." Neville slid an arm around her shoulders. "You know better than that. They're not going to win."
"I know." Meghan laid her head against Neville's side. "But I don't like the second line in that prophecy. And how come it's different than all the ones Danger's had?" she asked, sitting upright again, though still accommodating her posture to Neville's embrace. "Danger's are always in couplets, two rhyming lines, then two more, then two more. This one has every other line rhyming instead. And the meter's different. Back and forth, instead of every line the same."
"Maybe different people put things differently?" Ron offered. "Trelawney's prophecy was just a bunch of jumbled-up sentences, not rhyming at all."
"Makes sense." Harry nodded. "And don't worry too much about me, Pearl. There's lots of different ways to 'fall'. We're checking out that mountaintop where the Horcrux is hidden the next few days, aren't we? There's probably some trap-spell there that's going to knock me off my broom, and somebody'll have to dive down and save me. You'll see, that's all it's going to turn out to mean in the end."
"I hope so." Meghan shivered a little, then shook her head. "But what about those last four lines? Don't they mean we can't win if all twelve of us, Pack and Pride, aren't here? And we aren't." Her eyes welled up, and her voice quivered once. "We never will be again."
"No." Hermione's voice was calm, perhaps a bit too calm, Harry thought uneasily. She was sitting quite still, and a strange little smile was quivering on her lips. "That's not what it says. It only says that we may lose if some of us aren't there, not that we definitely will. It's the other way around that we get a guarantee. If all twelve of us are there, and we've all stayed true to our oaths, then Voldemort can't possibly win."
"But there's no way we could all be there," Ginny objected. "Unless…" She glanced upward, almost involuntarily. "Do you think…"
"Could be." Harry laid the palm of his hand against his pendants, feeling the slide of metal on metal under his robes. "Fox never went back on a promise in his life. If anything, he's been the most faithful of us. And Halloween's the time, if any, when someone could cross over. So—" He shrugged. "Maybe?"
"Maybe's better than no." Ron brushed his fingers against Hermione's hand, and kissed the top of her head when she leaned against him. "But how about we talk Horcrux-hunting for a while. We've got to get in there and kill off that brooch before Halloween, or killing the Dark Snarker once and for all won't take."
"Don't forget the snake," Ginny began, then laughed. "What am I talking about? We've got friends in Dark places. If we have some way for them to get out afterwards, they could kill the snake."
"And that's doable, so long as we could get them one of these." Harry pulled his Zippophone from his pocket. "One that Moony or Danger or I had worked on beforehand, anyway. Ron, remember those experiments we did on these a while back?"
"Experiments—oh, right!" Ron's face cleared of its momentary confusion. "When we were checking to make sure I was right about it hooking directly into whatever fire you call with it. Which I was," he added to the rest of the Pride. "Anyway, we did everything short of actually trying it out—going through with it would destroy the Zippo, and we haven't got enough of them for that—but we're just about certain that if Harry, or Mr. Moony or Mrs. Danger, told it to, one of those things could blow itself up into a one-time Floo fireplace. Big enough for people."
"How—oh, no, never mind, I get it." Neville shaped a small sphere with his hands, then swiftly expanded it, making a soft whoosh with his mouth. "When it explodes, that scatters the fire and the Floo powder, but the person with the fire powers is controlling the explosion, so it surrounds you like it would in a fireplace that's hooked up to the Floo Network. And since the Zippo is hooked up to the Floo Network…"
"You'd spin through the fire and come out the other end just like always," Meghan finished. "That's brilliant!"
"As long as it works," said Ginny doubtfully, looking at the Zippo in Harry's hand. "What if it doesn't?"
"You'd burn to death, or vanish into smoke, or get impossibly splinched. Something along those lines." Ron shrugged his shoulders. "I'll take my chances with that against facing an angry horde of Death Eaters any day."
"It'd be better than what they'd do to you. Faster, and cleaner." Hermione looked away, into the distance. From the shift in her scent Harry was sure she was seeing again the desolation in the corridor under Hogwarts, the formless pile of ashes which was all Lucius Malfoy had left the Pack to bury. "Will you set mine up like that, Harry? Give it those commands, and a code word that I can use to trigger it?"
"Sure. And yes, Pearl, yours too," Harry said before Meghan could do more than open her mouth. "Set them for here, or Hogwarts, do you think?"
"Hogwarts kitchens," Hermione decided after a moment's thought. "Even if the castle was taken over, the house-elves would help us, and we could get to the Den from there."
"Got it." Harry nodded briskly. "Remind me of that later, Neville?"
"I will." Neville pulled quill and parchment from another pocket and made a note. "But weren't we just talking about something else? Having one of the spies inside the Death Eaters kill the snake, after we take care of the brooch?"
"Trust you to pull us back into formation." Ginny blew a kiss across to Neville, and stuck out her tongue at Meghan's growl. "So as long as the Zippo-Floo works, they could get away, but we'd have to get them something to do the killing with, unless they were good enough with their wands to control Fiendfyre."
"Right." Harry frowned. "Only there's something else we'll have to take into account. Nagini's a Horcrux, yeah, but she's an Inferius too. That might mean we have to treat her differently. Neenie, would you see if there's anything in the books about that?"
"On it." Hermione squeezed Ron's hand once, then scooted back a few feet and selected a single book unerringly from the center of a fat stack. The rest of the Pride disposed themselves to listen as Ron cast a map of the mountaintop, with its shimmering shield, in front of them. They were entering the final days of the war, and success or failure would likely hang on details.
And it's going to be success. I won't stand for anything else. Harry laid his fingertips lightly against his pendants once more. I owe too many people too much for that.
Even if Meghan's right about what it means that I'm going to 'fall'.
"…so the colony in the waterfall cave is progressing very well," Brian Li wrapped up his report, glancing once more at the colorless witch who sat to Remus Lupin's right, murmuring words to an equally colorless DictaQuill. He was positive he'd seen her somewhere before, but even her scent was eluding recognition. "And most of the other colonies with whom we've been in active contact are maintaining the status quo, keeping the Death Eaters believing that the werewolves will fight for them, when in actuality they'll come to our side when we need them."
"Even the Muggles among them are ready to fight," Corona added, stroking her engagement ring in the little mannerism which made Brian smile every time he noticed it. "The potion pieces work even better for them than for ordinary Muggles, because werewolves are by nature magical creatures, and werewolves who feel themselves to be in control of their lives also gain a certain amount of control over the magic which infuses them."
"Fascinating." Remus leaned over to say something quiet to the witch, who nodded and moved her DictaQuill from one scroll to another. "Not an area I thought would ever be explored, not in our lifetimes, anyway. But then, Muggles who become werewolves have historically died quickly, from one cause or another." His eyes, blue with only the faintest trace of brown today, went momentarily bleak. "Once the war is over, perhaps we can put some effort into solving that problem. Was there anything else?" His smile banished any trace of sadness from his expression. "Other than my congratulations, of course?"
"I thought you might notice that." Brian smiled, and squeezed Corona's hand before reaching out to shake the one Remus was offering him. "No, nothing else terribly important. Except that I'm hoping there's nothing urgent enough to send us back out into the field right away. We're both very tired."
"I can gratify that hope, as it happens." Remus pressed Corona's hand in turn. "All is quiet on the western, and eastern, fronts at the moment. Miss Ropes, if you could get those notes to the proper places right away, please?"
The colorless witch nodded and got to her feet, mumbling a few words as she passed Brian and Corona which were probably intended for a well-wish. Brian frowned and followed her passage with his eyes, trying to track down that indefinable sense that he ought to know her…
"So," said Remus briskly, bringing Brian's attention back to him with a start. "You're officially off duty for the next three days. Possibly longer, if nothing comes up. What are you going to do next?"
"Eat something I didn't have to cook beforehand, and won't have to do the dishes after." Brian shook his head, dismissing his suspicions with the gesture. If he hadn't recognized Miss Ropes, he probably wasn't meant to. "Love, what about you?"
"I think I'll go and lie down, if you don't mind." Corona smiled, her eyes absent and a little dreamy. "As you said, love. Very tired."
"Of course." Brian leaned over to kiss her cheek and watched her out of the room, then turned back to Remus. "I'm worried about her," he confided to the older man. "She's been falling asleep in the middle of the day, or going off into these abstracted fits. Never when we're in the field—it's always in the safe houses, or in transit somewhere—but still, I can't help wondering…"
"I'll ask Aletha to check on her as soon as there's time," Remus promised. "But I wouldn't worry too much. It's probably just fatigue, and accumulated stress. She didn't grow up intending to live this kind of life."
"I hate asking it of her." Brian sighed. "All I want is for us both to come out of it alive. We'll get married, find a cottage somewhere, settle down. Grow a garden, watch the stars at night. Help those Muggles who become werewolves, yes, and witches and wizards too. We could change things, Remus. Wipe out those filthy camps forever and give those people their lives back. If we just get the chance!" He realized only when his abused hands registered their protest that he was clenching his fists so tightly his fingernails were cutting into his palms. "I don't care what I have to do, what I have to endure, so long as we get our chance!"
"And that," said Remus with a slight smile, "is why we will win. Because I find it hard to imagine a Death Eater with that kind of dedication to anything but his own selfish interests." He got to his feet, nodding to the door. "Join me for lunch? I happen to know Danger's got some beef hidden in the back of the icebox that barely had a chance to get acquainted with the roasting pan…"
"So remind me." Tonks spread her arms and turned in place, regarding her highly boring self at every possible angle in the three-paneled mirror she'd conjured up. "Where'd you get 'Miss Ropes' from again?"
"You'll laugh." Danger chuckled herself as she filed scrolls in their proper pigeonholes in the War Room. "Harry and Hermione came up with it. Because when you said you might as well go by 'Dorene' for a first name, since hardly anybody would think to put that together with 'Nymphadora', that made them think of Theodore Nott, and from there we played word association football…"
"To get Nott, knotted, ropes." Tonks snorted in disgust. "Do I really have to be named after that rabbit-faced little brat?"
"It's only for a little while." Danger finished her job and waved her wand at the desk, encasing it in a thin shield of flame. "But whoever's on our side among the Death Eaters—and I wonder sometimes if there isn't more of Luna left in Starwing than Lucius knows about—in any case, our nameless friend warned us that there's a spy here among us that even they don't know, and asked us to keep it dark to everyone except family that you and Echo had escaped."
"Yes, but Brian and Corona?" Tonks shook her head, her muddy brown eyes troubled. "I've worked with them, Danger. Fought with them. If they wanted me out of the picture, they've had half a dozen chances at me. And no one would ever have known it was anything but bad luck or an accident."
"In which case, you'll reveal yourself once we get this war over with, and we'll all have a good laugh about how unnecessary it all was. But right now?" Danger tilted her head, regarding Tonks from the top of her mouse-brown head to the soles of her thick, practical shoes. "Right now, you're Miss Dorene Ropes to everyone except your dad, the Pack, the Pride, and the Weasleys. Better safe than sorry."
"Says the woman who's not wearing the ugliest set of robes in the history of creation," muttered Tonks.
"I will point out you chose your own wardrobe for the role."
"Oh, sure, bring logic into it."
Severus had been strolling through the gardens of Malfoy Manor (significantly less overgrown than they had been once, but still pleasantly wild) for almost an hour before the sound of singing caught his ear. The wordless, wandering melody led him to a more open bit of garden than most, where Starwing perched on the edge of a fountain, crooning to herself, her inevitable sewing in her hands.
"Hello!" she chirped when she saw him, spreading out the cloth in her lap as though to show it off. "Come, see! Almost finished!"
"Is it really." Humoring the girl, Severus seated himself across from her, angling his head to catch the faint glints of sunshine reflecting off the black ribbon with which the black cloak was decorated. "And what will it be, when it is finished?"
Starwing held out a small, imperious hand, and seized Severus's when he extended his own tentatively. "Feel," she commanded, and drew his fingers along the edges of the ribbons, outlining the amorphous shapes for him. "Pretty witches," she informed him, tracing two slender figures at the bottom of the cloak. "And rawr!" She formed her free hand into claws and bared her teeth in what might have been meant as a roar, while the hand holding Severus's stroked its way around a broad shape with a wide head, sewn on the middle of the cloak. "And then…" She beamed, and led Severus's fingers along a sinuous piece of stitchery along the border, not quite finished, judging by the needle sticking in the cloth nearby. "Best part," she said firmly.
"Of course it is." Severus reclaimed his hand and sat back, watching Starwing as she resumed her work, humming under her breath once more.
Two witches, a lion, and a serpent. It could be indicative of the Hogwarts Houses, if she could not find models for an eagle and a badger. The one is certainly an item in heraldry, but it is usually complicated and would be difficult to reproduce in ribbon, while the other is rare enough that a pair of female figures might have served as a compromise…
A rustle in the bushes nearby warned him an instant before Lucius stepped through, bringing a burble of happiness to Starwing's lips. "Look, look!" she urged him, springing to her feet to spread the cloak as wide as her arms would go. "So close now!"
"I see it, my dear." Lucius came to Starwing's side and ran his fingers across the cloth, nodding sagely. "And I do remember my promise. When your stitchery is done, then you will have your reward."
"Yessss," Starwing hissed, the sound trailing off into a breathy sigh as she wriggled all over with glee, then sat down again with a fluff of skirts, snatching eagerly at her needle. Lucius shook his head and took a seat on a nearby bench.
"Imitative to a fault," he remarked, watching Starwing's busy fingers move. "She hears the Dark Lord speak to the snakes, so naturally she believes she can do the same." His eyes moved to Severus's face, and held there. "Often, in the evenings before bed, she mimics the movements of someone brewing potions. Very quick, efficient little darts of the hands, with no wasted time or effort."
"Do you disapprove?" Severus asked bluntly, fighting to mask his cold fury at the careless mention of one of the uses Lucius made of this girl.
"Disapprove—not in the least." The pale lips curved slowly upwards in a smirk. "You, unlike so many of our compatriots, would never think of offering harm to someone so impressionable as my Starwing. She is always cheerful when she returns from her sojourns with you. I could hope for nothing better."
"Why did you kill Peter Pettigrew?" Severus tossed the question into the momentary silence, bringing Starwing's eyes up from her work with a little sound of surprise.
"Was it not enough that he had proved himself a traitor twice over, and destroyed work which took me months to complete?" Lucius massaged his right hand with his left, regarding his fingernails carefully. "Not to mention that the Dark Lord wished him destroyed, and surely the first task of all Death Eaters must be to obey the Dark Lord's wishes."
"Where is your house-elf, and Nymphadora Tonks?" Severus pressed on. "And how did Alecto Carrow just happen to be struck down with the same potion you used to subdue Luna Lovegood to your wishes?"
"Why, Severus." Lucius leaned back on his bench, silver eyes gleaming. "I begin to think you suspect me of something. The house-elf, little Echo—yes, I admit a bit of a blunder there, I did not recall in time the other half of her heritage, the mother taken in by the Weasleys, and as foolishly devoted to them as the father was to my dear, departed Draco. So pretty Nymphadora was able first to subvert her to the point of providing a weapon, and later to steal her away from me altogether, though I have no desire for that to be known too widely." Long fingers tapped idly on the back of the bench. "I could, if I wished, ask how you learned of it, but I refrain. If the Dark Lord does not know by now where your loyalties lie, on his own head be it."
Severus chose a simple nod as the best answer to this, mostly because he feared that if he opened his mouth he would be unable to control himself any longer.
"I am surprised sometimes by how much pleasure I take from the simple fact of my returning to the Manor," Lucius mused, looking around him lazily. "The satisfactory conclusion of the war cannot come soon enough for me. Not that I grudge the Dark Lord houseroom, of course, but some of his followers are rather a mixed blessing to host." The pale eyebrows arched, inviting Severus to share the joke. "To see the Heir of Slytherin take that place which is proper and deserved will be the greatest joy I can imagine. And then to return here, to a quiet life with my darling girl…" He smiled at Starwing, who giggled and blushed as she wiggled her fingers in a return wave. "I think we will be very happy. Very happy indeed."
"Only your two selves?" Severus asked, surprised by the levelness of his voice. "Or will you invite others to keep you company?"
"Far be it from me to condemn my dear lady to loneliness." Lucius got to his feet, as Starwing tied off her thread and tucked her needle into its pouch at her waist. "I shall bring as many of her friends of the Pride here to join her as can be…persuaded to come." He chuckled under his breath. "The young ladies, certainly. Quite aside from the fact that one of them is my legal heir, variety is the spice of life."
Gripping the edge of the fountain where he sat, Severus watched the pair walk away. He had seldom felt so strong an urge to introduce one of his fellow Death Eaters to a cauldron filled with boiling acid.
I can only hope the house-elves' summation of his fate was a true one, and that it takes place as soon as they seem to think it will.
If it does not, I may politely request the loan of some of that interesting substance Percy Weasley's mad band stockpile in such quantities…
Silence reigned in the den room at number twelve, Grimmauld Place, where six Warriors lay facedown on their broomsticks, hovering above an enormous map. Wand in hand, eyes closed in concentration, Hermione was tracing the line of connection between the mountaintop where Voldemort's last Horcrux was hidden and the doorway into the wizardspace spell guarding it.
Headed for London. Again. Harry crossed his fingers behind his back, hoping. Twice before they'd reached this stage of the spell, only to have it break apart into fragments before they could home it in sufficiently. Come on, Neenie, you can do it—we can't search the entire city, just hang onto it for a little longer—
Hermione's wand jumped in her hand. She yelped and dropped it, and the line of light she'd been drawing vanished. "It happened again," she said tiredly, leaning down to pick up her wand. "Like running into a brick wall. I'm done." A snap of her wrist reduced the map to its original size, small enough to fit on the top of a table, and she slid off her broomstick and sat down limply on the floor. "Finished. No more."
Harry blinked, feeling a bit like the world had just swung through a dizzying arc of movement. The rest of the Pride, he noted in a sidelong glance, seemed to share his bewilderment. "What?" he said after a long second when no one else seemed interested in speaking.
"You heard me." Hermione thrust her wand into her pocket and stared fixedly at the floor. "I'm finished. I'm not playing this game anymore. Why did we ever think we could fight a war? We're going to lose, and we're going to die, and I'm tired of pretending we're not."
"Come on, Hermione, don't be like this." Harry swung his leg over his Firebolt's handle to dismount. "It's not that big a deal if you're losing the trace. We can pick it up again."
"No, Harry, we can't." Every word was sharp-edged and bitter, slicing into Harry's ears like a poisoned knife. "I can't, and I'm not going to keep trying. This is too much for us. If you want to go on playing shining warrior of the light, the magnificent Chosen One who fights evil, you do that, but I'm through. Do you understand me?"
"I understand you're tired and frustrated." Harry battled his rising temper, clinging to it by fingernails and teeth. Getting angry back, he reminded himself desperately, wouldn't solve anything. "The spell isn't working right, hasn't been for a while, and that's rough. We can stop for an hour or two if you need a rest—"
"A rest?" Hermione shot to her feet, her face contorted, her lips peeled back from her teeth. "You think I need a rest? I think you need to wake up and face the facts! It was all very well to play soldier when we didn't have a real enemy out there, but now we do, and he kills people, Harry. He kills people as easily as we would swat a fly. He's older than we are, he's smarter than we are, he knows more magic than we do, and we're not going to beat him. And I'm tired of pretending we are!"
"So you're just going to give it all up because it's a little bit too hard for you?" Harry shouted back as his control shattered. "Oh no, my spell didn't work, better pack it in and run away? What kind of Gryffindor are you?"
"The kind who probably shouldn't have been. Who only was because she didn't want to disappoint you." Hermione's hands curled into fists. "I wish I'd never met you, Harry Potter! What are you good for, anyway, except getting people killed who care about you?"
"Takes one to know one," Harry shot back. "Who was the reason we got tracked down in Hogsmeade? It wasn't me! No, it was you, you and—"
"Don't finish that sentence," snapped Ron, stepping in front of Hermione to glare at Harry. "Not unless you want to eat it."
"Go right ahead." Harry rose onto the balls of his feet. "Take a shot. I'll wipe the floor with you, just like always."
Ron cocked his arm, preparing to shake his wand free of its arm holster. "In your dreams, hero-boy—"
"Knock it off!"
Harry jumped as Ginny materialized between him and Ron, wand out and ready. Behind her, facing Ron, stood Neville with potion piece in hand, a slight hum warning it was armed. Meghan, glancing worriedly towards the rest of the room, was murmuring to Hermione, who had sunk to the floor, arms over her head.
"I am the alpha female of this Pride and I am not putting up with any more of this—and don't you even start with me, Harry Potter," Ginny snarled as Harry took a breath. "Your authority ends at the point when you start behaving like an idiot, and that threshold's about a mile behind us right now. We are finished here, and everyone is going to break it up and go to our separate corners and cool down for a while. Is that understood?"
"Understood," Harry ground out after several false starts, his throat as dry as sandpaper. Behind Ginny, he could see Ron's grudging nod to Neville, and Hermione, on the floor, allowing Meghan to hand her a tissue. "I'm using the bedroom."
"Fine by me." Ginny stood back, her wand's tip now pointing downwards, but Harry had no doubt it would come back up and onto target fast enough if necessary. He turned and strode towards the door, clenching his teeth so hard his head ached from it.
Though maybe that's from Hermione crying like a baby. One final glance over his shoulder showed him his Pack-sisters now huddled together in the far corner of the den room, Hermione sobbing onto the shoulder of Meghan's robes, disjointed words audible here and there. Harry growled under his breath as he made out the sense of what she was saying, and channeled his anger into mounting the steps to the next story of the house two at a time.
"Wants to climb inside her snow globe, huh?" he muttered savagely, storming into his and Ginny's bedroom and slamming the door, then kicking the chest of drawers for lack of a better target. "Wants to snap her fingers and go back in time to when life was easy. Sorry, doesn't work like that." Pacing back and forth across the floor, he flexed his fingers, wishing for something to tear into shreds. "Does she think she's the only one who's sick of this damned war? Does she think she's the only one who's tired of it all? Who doesn't want to keep fighting, keep hiding, keep wondering every second of every day who's going to bleed or die next? I wish I could stuff her in that snow globe—she'd be more use in there than she is out here!"
He slammed another kick into the chest of drawers, which creaked in protest, its top drawer sliding open. With an exasperated sigh, Harry started to close it, when a glint of curved glass caught his eye. Slowly, he reached inside and pulled out the snow globe Meghan had discovered in the Room of Hidden Things at Hogwarts, with its jagged mountain peak inside.
But not just any mountain. Harry turned the globe in his hands, feeling his breath start to come fast. A little more—a little—there!
Setting the globe on the top of the chest of drawers, he backed away, narrowing his eyes to shut out the setting of his bedroom. More mountains in the background, air so cold it burns to breathe, a couple tiny Warriors on broomsticks—
"Yes," he whispered, as anger fled to be replaced by a wild exultation, and his pendants heated in response. "Yes!" Shooting his arms into the air like a Quidditch referee signaling a successful goal, he spun in place, barely stopping himself from jumping up and down. "That's it, that's it, that's it! We've got it, we found it, we're going to win this war after all—"
"Harry!" Ginny shoved the door open, Ron behind her, both with their wands out and ready. "What's wrong? We felt the pendants go—"
"Nothing's wrong." Harry waved them both into the room, and shut the door behind Ron with his own wand. "Something's right. Something's absolutely, perfectly right. Look at it. Look at it!"
"It's a snow globe, Harry," said Ginny worriedly, frowning at him. "I've seen it before."
"Not like this you haven't." Harry beckoned for her to stand where he'd been standing. "Squint a little. Pretend you're on your broom, you're outdoors."
"Why would I—" Ginny began in doubtful tones.
"Merlin's bloody broomstick!" Ron burst out, staring at the globe. "That's why Neenie kept losing the link!"
"Right?" Harry gestured broadly around himself. "Because we were using a map, and you can't trace something on a map into a place that's been made Unplottable—"
"Like Headquarters." Ginny looked around at them, her eyes bright with wonder. "And the doorway's here in Headquarters. It has been all the time!"
"Dad's car!" Ron snapped his fingers, half-laughing through his words. "When we first looked at that damn thing, when we were trying to figure out if it was a Horcrux or not, I said the only magic I could see on it reminded me of Dad's car—"
"Because they're both doorways into wizardspace," Harry finished. "Undetectable Expansion Charms. Only there's got to be another spell on this one, no one could possibly climb inside that thing the way it is."
"Let's have a look." Ginny plucked the globe off the chest of drawers and ran her hands over the glass. "Nothing here, but what about…"
She flipped it over and reached for the smooth wooden bottom of the stand.
Her fingers passed through apparently solid wood like so much smoke.
Harry jolted. Faint but unmistakable, his scar had twinged with pain.
"Was that—" Ron began, his wand tracking around towards Harry.
Ginny spat a single syllable and jerked her hand back. "It was, wasn't it?" she said, fear and anger mingling in her eyes. "Some kind of watchdog spell, to tell Voldemort if someone's playing in his toy box. And I set it off."
"How were you supposed to know that?" Harry shut his eyes for just long enough to take a deep breath and let it out again. "But we've just run out of time to mess about. We've got to get in there and grab the Horcrux before Voldemort realizes who's got hold of it, or we're through. Ron, would you grab the brooms?"
"On it." Ron turned in place and Disapparated.
"Gin, we'll need you to be backup." Harry held out his hands for the globe, and ran his wand along the inside edge of its missing bottom when Ginny had surrendered it, concentrating on a two-word charm Moony had taught him the previous year. A moment later, without fanfare, the globe began to grow, and Harry bent down and set it on the floor before it got too big for him to hold. "Stay here and keep track of us, and call for help if we need it."
"Isn't that what these are for?" Ginny asked, dangling her pendants in midair.
"Usually, yes. But not this time." Harry cupped his own pendants in his palm and concentrated on what he wanted, feeling the metal warm, then cool, then settle back to body temperature. "I'm shutting mine down, and I'm asking Ron to do the same thing."
"Excuse me?" Ginny's voice went icy. "What right do you have—"
"The right of somebody who saw Hermione getting into one of her moods a little while ago, and made her worse instead of better." Harry tapped his wand against the globe, stopping its growth just in time, as it was now taller than he was. "She'd be the first one coming in after us, and as off-balance as she is, she'd more than likely get herself killed. I'm not doing that to her, or to Ron."
Ginny grimaced, but nodded. "Tune yours to mine," she said, holding her chain out. "I'll know if you're all right or if you need help, but it won't go out as a general broadcast."
"Sounds good." Harry wrapped his chain around Ginny's and gave this command mentally, as Ron Apparated back into the bedroom, his own and Ginny's brooms under one arm, Harry's Firebolt under the other. "We'll go in, grab the brooch, and shoot straight back," he said, accepting his broomstick and hanging it in midair. "Nobody's going to have time to stop us. Pendants off, Ron."
"Right." Ron pressed the heel of his hand to his chest. "Ginny's our backup?"
"It's like you read my mind."
"Be careful out there." Ginny claimed her broom, and a quick kiss on the cheek, from Ron, before pulling Harry into a brief, tight embrace. "I love you."
"I know." Harry winked at her, then mounted the Firebolt and kicked off. Leaning forward on the handle, hearing Ron take up wingman position behind him, he shot through the brown wall that was the false bottom of the snow globe. The cold beyond almost staggered him, but he summoned a shell of invisible fire, surrounding first himself, then Ron, as they flew towards the slopes of the mountain peak.
"How're we going to find it?" Ron called over the rushing wind of their flight. "It could be anywhere out here."
"Got that covered." Harry drew his pendants out again, concentrated for a moment on what he wanted from them, then half-turned to show them to Ron. One of the red jewels gleamed with an eager light. "Remember how you found Ginny our second year?"
"Just like playing Hot and Cold." Ron grinned. "Let's go ice a Horcrux."
Remus had just finished marking an essay on the subject of "The Unforgivable Curses: Is the Name Warranted?" when an amorphous silver cloud shot through the wall of his Hogwarts quarters.
"Harry is vulnerable," it breathed in a harsh, unidentifiable whisper. "Voldemort will go himself. Unless he can be stopped…"
Who in the world— Danger began as the Patronus dissolved.
I don't know. But I doubt it's a lie. A lie would be more specific. Remus drew out his pendants and pressed a fingertip to the carving of the young wolf. Nothing. Which means he's told his set not to respond.
Which means he is off doing something dangerous and stupid, Danger grumbled, coming in from the other room. Can't trust that boy for a second… She stopped, looking more closely at Remus. What is it?
"Voldemort has to be stopped." Remus spoke aloud, using the words as a way to shield his mind. He had understood, in one flashing second, what was to be asked of him, and could only count himself lucky that Danger had not been following his thoughts as closely as she sometimes did. "If he kills Harry, we have no way to win this war. Which means there is quite literally no price too high to pay for Harry's survival."
"What are you—" Danger paled, and Remus thought that even without the link between them he would have been able to feel her shock, her horror, her absolute rejection. "Remus, no. No!"
"You know better than that, love." Remus got to his feet, absently tucking his quill into its holder. "It's the chance we've always taken. The price we swore in our own blood to pay, if it were needed."
Oh, God. Danger was beside him, in his arms, so abruptly she might as well have Apparated there. I know, I know that, but somehow I never thought…
Who would? Remus drew her close and pressed his face into her hair, breathing deep of the scent of her, the one woman he had ever loved, the one with whom his soul was joined. Talk to Letha. She and Meghan may be able to find some way to undo the symbiosis. Promise me, love. Pulling back, he looked into her eyes, knowing their whirls of brown and blue would mirror his own precisely. Do what you can to live.
I will. Danger stretched up to press her lips to his, a tear burning from hot to cool where it touched his cheek. "Go," she whispered aloud when the kiss was finished. "Quickly, before it's too late."
Stepping into the center of the room, Remus took hold of his Pack-pendants and closed his eyes. One red jewel, years ago, had led him to the Shrieking Shack, where Lucius Malfoy and Peter Pettigrew had hidden his cubs. Two red jewels, here and now, would take him to the Master of those men, to save one of those selfsame cubs.
Fire, he commanded the jewels, and fire there was, burning hot and strong around him, roaring like his Animagus form as it burned away all obstacles in his path. Then it ebbed and died, and he opened his eyes and allowed himself a small smile. He was standing in the entrance hall of Malfoy Manor, with a pair of passing Death Eaters gaping at him open-mouthed.
"My name is Remus Lupin," he said. "I believe your Master wants to see me."
(A/N: Welcome to Cliffhanger World! My name is Anne, and I'll be your guide for the next, oh, ten chapters or so…
But really, O readers, did you expect anything else? This is the Big Ending, after all. So it stands to reason that the cliffhangers, and the surprises, will also be Big with a capital B. They won't last too terribly long—once I come back from my trip (departing tomorrow, returning the second Monday in July), chapters should be going up about once a week until the story's over—but still, be prepared for thrills, chills, spills, and all sorts of things you may or may not have expected.
Stay safe, keep those theories coming, don't forget to tell me about them in reviews or at my other online homes such as my Facebook page and my website, and I'll see you next time!)