Chapter 23: Plans and Possibilities (Year 6)
Ginny sighed, shutting her Transfiguration textbook with a bang. "I give up," she said. "How does anybody remember all these rules, and all their exceptions? Unless they've got a perfect memory like you," she added to Hermione, who was perched in her usual spot up the Hogwarts Den's reading tree, her own book nestled into the holder the trunk had obligingly sprouted. "Maybe I should just change forms in front of the examiners. That should get me a pass, don't you think?"
"What it would get you is arrested." Hermione turned her page. "Or maybe not you, you're still underage, but Moony and Padfoot and Letha, for teaching you."
"That's only if they found out who taught me." Ginny flopped down on one of the ottomans and sighed. "Don't mind me, I'm just brain-blasted from too much studying. I need to do something else for a while, clean my mind out, and then I can get back to it." She glanced up. "What are you reading?"
"One of the Horcrux books." Drawing her wand, Hermione Summoned the bag of pretzels she'd left on a lower branch and took a handful, then shook it in Ginny's direction. Ginny drew her own wand and Summoned it in her turn. "Looking for an answer to something that puzzled me."
"Like what?" Bag in hand, Ginny clambered up a branch or two on the reading tree and settled herself into a spot where she could see Hermione clearly.
"Like how accidental Horcruxes are even possible, if it takes so many spells, and such awful ones, to make the more usual sort." Hermione shuddered. "If there were ever things I wish I didn't remember clearly…"
"You're not joking." Ginny nibbled the salt off the curve of one of her pretzels. "Have you found anything?"
"I think so. It's to do with the ways the souls are torn, and what that means about the people who've torn them."
Ginny held up her free hand, halting Hermione. "Let me see if I can get it?" she requested, and went on at Hermione's nod. "A usual Horcrux, like Voldemort's, is made with a soul-bit torn off by murder. Which is one of the cruelest things you can do to another person, or to yourself. So that soul-bit would be…" She frowned, searching for the word. "Repellent. Pushing everything away, because of how it was made. Which means it wouldn't want to be bound to whatever's going to serve as the Horcrux, and that's why all the nasty spells are needed."
Hermione laughed. "That's it exactly! And here you were just complaining about not being able to remember things…"
"Rote memorization." Ginny held out one hand. "Figuring things out, piecing them together like a mystery." The other hand, with the bag of pretzels resting on its palm. "I like one a lot better than the other. So then an accidental Horcrux would be possible because the soul-bit involved there was torn off with guilt and grief over a death. It wants to go home, but it can't, not until the person whose soul is torn can forgive herself. Or himself."
"And a lot of people find that very hard." Hermione nodded. "So instead it sticks itself to whatever is in that person's mind a lot, whatever that person is thinking about and obsessing over. Or, if they haven't got anything like that, it tags along with them until either they do have something, or they forgive themselves and heal, or…"
"Or they die," Ginny finished. "With their souls still hurt, still torn apart. Would they be able to go on like that, do you think? Or do you have to be healed to make that journey?"
"I don't know." Hermione shut her book. "And quite honestly, I hope I don't have to find out. Not on a personal level." Her face darkened. "Though if there were ever a death I was going to blame myself for…" She sighed. "No. I can't think like that. Not and be at my best for what we're doing in a few weeks."
"I'm jealous," said Ginny frankly. "I wish I could go with you. It's never been done, you know, not successfully—you hear about the unsuccessful ones and how far they got in History of Magic, or at least you do since Professor Jones took over, Professor Binns never did anything nearly that interesting—"
"No, it was all about goblin rebellions of this or that or the other year." Swinging her leg over her branch, Hermione started to climb down, the tree politely lowering her book-holder to keep pace with her. "Which, now that we know how goblins think about their work, don't seem as stupid as they used to. I'd like to think we'd rebel pretty regularly ourselves if there were people holding bits of our ancestors' souls prisoner."
"Something to work on, once we're the authorities," Ginny said lightly. "Or we have some pull with them. Which, the way Percy's working his way through the Ministry, might be any day now." She giggled. "They're looking for the Red Shepherds almost as hard as they are for the Death Eaters, did you know? Because they're 'dangerous vigilantes' who're 'wantonly destroying property'?"
"I'd heard a little about it." Hermione stepped down onto the floor, collected her book, and started for the door, Ginny behind her. "And as funny as it is, it's also worrying."
"I know." Ginny shook her head, her good mood dissipating. "Because if they're this confused about who their enemies are now, what's going to happen when Voldemort gets a few people, either secret Death Eaters or Imperiused officials, into the upper levels himself?"
"An attack." Setting her book on the stack of similar ones on a small shelf near the library door, Hermione tapped her wand twice against it. The shelf spun around three times and vanished, to stay hidden until the next time a member of the Pride should call for it. "One the Ministry will claim was beaten off, though at great loss of life. Tragically including the Minister himself. But we must go on, we must reorganize, and since we're clearly at war, a Minister must be chosen immediately, no time for that silly thing called democracy…"
"And the new Minister will be whoever Voldemort's got highest up." Ginny scowled. "Because the attack won't have been beaten off at all, it'll have succeeded, but nobody's supposed to know that. It's just supposed to look like a harmless transfer of power. Except everything will suddenly start changing—well, sometimes it does when you get in a new Minister, he wants to fix everything he thought was wrong with the last one or two or three…"
"Only this time it won't be fixing." Hermione bared her teeth as her cat-form might. "This time it will be tearing down, destroying, ruining. And using good people to do it, people who think they're just doing their jobs, answering to lawful authority, business as usual."
"I wish I could say Ministry officials wouldn't be that stupid." Ginny arched her back. "But I've known too many Ministry officials. Though we do have a secret weapon or two. We have Dad, and we have Percy. People know Dad, they respect him, and they're coming to know and respect Percy. So if they both say there's a problem at the Ministry…"
Hermione looked over her shoulder at Ginny. "Have you been listening in on the Order meetings?" she asked suspiciously.
"Why would you think that?" Ginny batted her eyelashes innocently. Hermione made a rude noise, and both girls went into a gale of giggles.
"Actually, I haven't been," said Ginny when they both had their breath back. "What are they thinking about?"
"Setting up an underground Ministry if, or maybe I should say when, the real one falls." Hermione tightened her hands around one another. "Small, compact, but staffed with people we know we can trust. Possibly even run out of Sanctuary, or somewhere else that can be safeguarded. And they're thinking…" She glanced upwards, as though looking through the floors of the castle to the object on her mind. "They're thinking they'll try and reactivate the enchantment on Gryffindor's sword, the one that made it the Silver Sword. The Sword of Decision, which chooses the best possible leader for the wizarding world in moments of crisis."
Ginny stopped where she was. "That," she said after several seconds, "is either the worst or the best idea I've ever heard."
"What does it depend on?" Hermione inquired, starting for the red bedroom.
"Whether or not it works."
"True." Opening the door, Hermione glanced back. "But then, you could say that about everything we're doing."
"This is a little more all-encompassing, though." Ginny followed her friend into the bedroom. "If it fails, we lose our credibility completely, people will go back to the puppet Ministry or set up to fight on their own or leave the country altogether—"
"But if it succeeds, we'll have a leader nobody can question," finished Hermione. "One who'll bring some of the undecided people in on our side, and worry the ones who're sticking with the puppet Ministry because they think it's proper. So isn't it worth the gamble?"
"Not my decision." Ginny blew out her breath, climbing up on the bed. "And am I horrible to be glad it's not?"
"No. You have enough to think about, with O.W.L.s and the first of May both coming up."
"Don't remind me!" Clutching her hair, Ginny groaned theatrically. "I still haven't finished working on my robes, I know I'm going to fail the Potions practical, and then there's the music to choose, and all my studying for Care of Magical Creatures yet, and the personal bit of the vows to write, and if I don't choke on the Transfiguration written it'll be a miracle—at least I should be all right on Herbology, and Neville's handling the flowers for us, and I'm sure I'll pass Charms, and Maya said she'd spearhead the reception since we did hers—" She broke off and looked down at Hermione. "Remind me why we're doing this again?"
"So we can win the war sooner and Draco can stand as Harry's best man?"
"I knew there was a reason." Ginny stretched her arms behind her, then jumped, once, twice. "Thank you, Godric," she said on the third jump, and shot upwards into the ceiling, which opened to receive her and closed again behind her.
"I'd almost say I'm going to miss the war when it's over," Hermione murmured to herself, the back corner of her mind tracing Ginny's journey upward through the slide towards the common room. "But I'm not, not really. I'm going to miss the feeling of working together to bring about something terribly important, and the strength, the camaraderie, that gives us. I'm not going to miss the killing and the dying and the pain. Not a bit."
Her hand rested briefly on her dagger, sheathed, as always, at her side, and her mind provided a vivid memory of how it had felt, how it had looked and sounded and smelled, to use its blade to kill a person, another human being.
Because Fenrir Greyback may not have thought of himself as human, but he still was one.
It was nothing she ever wanted to repeat. Occasionally, it still woke her in the night, though she'd learned to tame the nightmares enough that she only woke sweating and weeping, not howling or screaming. The werewolf curse she'd taken on that night, too, still had its moments when it took control of her, when it made her snap angrily at an innocuous remark or bristle up at one of her brothers' pranks that would usually have made her laugh, but the love and care of her Pack and Pride had eased it to a point where it was a nasty little nuisance, nothing more.
Maybe someday, that's all lycanthropy will be. An unpleasant nuisance, an annoying condition, but bearable. Treatable. Not the end of the road, just an unexpected detour.
Climbing onto the bed herself, she jumped three times, speaking the password at the top of her third jump.
Like it has been for Moony. For Maya. For Brian.
I wonder how he and Corona are doing, out on the road?
Corona Gamp regarded the small potion vial nestled in the palm of her hand. Such a small thing, and yet it would have such a large impact on her life, on Brian's, on, she hoped, the werewolves they went out to contact.
The potion, once conceived of, had proved to be surprisingly easy to brew. It required only a day and a night of simmering, with no incredibly expensive or rare ingredients, and although it boiled down to quite a small amount in the final rendering, this even smaller amount would be sufficient to disguise her scent for the next two months. Aletha and her twins had come up with four doses after their original brewing, and had sent along two, with full enough instructions on the process that Corona was sure either she or Brian could manage.
The other two doses, she knew, had returned with Professor Black to Hogwarts. There, one of them would be available to the N.E.W.T. class for sampling as they attempted to discover the potion's purpose, while the other would serve as a visual aid for what it should look like when they finished reproducing it on their own. With a chuckle, Corona wondered how many of them would succeed. Her own recollections of seventh year Potions were neither pleasant nor productive.
But then, I was studying under Severus Snape. He makes no secret of his refusal to suffer fools gladly. Perhaps he would do well teaching only advanced classes, where a challenge is what the students most need, with Aletha to guide the younger children through the worries and fears of beginning anything new…
And while she was standing here woolgathering, Corona reminded herself, she was not drinking this potion which would make it possible for her to share in Brian's work as he already shared in hers. Removing the top from the vial, she swallowed its contents in one gulp.
A brief blast of cold shot through her body, followed by one of heat. She shivered and rubbed her free hand along her arm, settling the fine hairs back into place. Strange, but not impossibly unpleasant. If there are no worse side effects than that, I would call this venture entirely successful—
She blinked. She was sitting at the rickety desk in the small bedroom she'd claimed in this particular Order safe house, a quill in her hand, dripping ink onto the desk surface. When she tried to rise, her head spun, forcing her back into the chair.
Perhaps I spoke too soon. She pulled out a small scroll of parchment and noted down the reaction, breathing deeply as she did so, and slowly the lightheadedness passed off. Still, as long as that does not recur, I believe I can deal with it.
Tucking the scroll into the drawer she used for completed reports, Corona got to her feet again, pleased that this time the room stayed in its proper orientation. She would go downstairs and tell Brian about what had happened—
Only I see no reason to worry him by telling him about my little…episode. He will be glad to know that the potion does not harm me, he will be able to tell me if it works, and if so, we will have dinner to celebrate. Why should I encroach upon that with my own silly weaknesses?
By the time she reached the top of the stairs, she had successfully put the moment out of her mind herself.
"Brian!" she called out, beginning to descend. "Good news!"
Outside, an owl flapped its way through the darkening sky, a letter in its talons.
Are you sure you should be seen at Gringotts the day the Lestrange vault is burgled? Neenie asked worriedly through Harry's pendant chain as Harry, with the twins beside him under a strong Disillusionment, walked unhurriedly up Diagon Alley towards the towering marble building in the fading light of early evening. Voldemort's not stupid, you know.
No, he's not, but what's he going to do about it? Decide he hates me more than he already does? Harry shrugged. He wants me, the Pack, the Pride, and everyone else I know either dead or enslaved to him forever. I don't think we can go too much beyond that.
And we're already here, so it's a moot point anyway. Harry couldn't clearly see Draco, but a fresh whiff of Neenie's cat-scent made him sure his brother had rubbed his fingers against her furred jaw where she lay around his shoulders, mimicking the motion the cubs had used so many years ago to create the scent-touch. Besides, how's Voldemort going to connect Harry to the Lestrange vault? Harry's going down to his own vault and back up again, he'll be with one of the goblins the whole time, and then he's going to sit out at Florian Fortescue's eating ice cream and reading a book until we catch him up. The worst thing he could personally be accused of is sneaking out of school, and he's not even missing any classes.
Only because I said I wouldn't go if we did! Neenie sighed mentally. I still don't know how you two talked me into doing this, on a Wednesday no less…
Possibly because we're not sure if it will work without both halves of the blood-bond present, Draco suggested. Since as we've already covered, it's not exactly the same type of bond the Gringotts goblins have.
It must be close enough to pass, or Kunora wouldn't have brought it up, Harry interjected. But the more careful we can be, the better. This is most likely the only try we'll get at this. Though if you run into anything you can't handle down there, you two…
Abort, head for the exit, and we'll try again next month, Draco recited. Covered that already, haven't had a chance to forget about it quite yet. Though I'm trying.
A soft smack and a muffled curse made Harry grin. The twins were in fine form today.
Which usually bodes ill for anyone or anything which tries to get in their way.
That cup's as good as ours.
You know, it's even possible that they'll never find out, said Hermione mentally, sitting behind Draco on Harry's Firebolt with her arms around his waist. They'd flown out of the cart, Hermione still in cat form, before Harry and his guiding goblin had rounded their second bend, and getting back to the start of the cart-tracks, then following Kunora's directions from that point, had been simple. Once they'd left the area where carts were plentiful, Hermione had changed back to human, and Draco had removed the Disillusionments so they could see one another clearly. The Lestranges, I mean, and Voldemort. If we get in and out cleanly, and finish the war fairly soon, before any of them have a reason to come here…
True enough, and yet another reason to get this right. As if we didn't have plenty already. Draco pulled the broom to a halt as they rounded a corner and saw a waterfall ahead of them. That's that Thief's Downfall thing, right? Washes away disguises, derails carts, and so on and so forth? Might even take the enchantment off the broomstick if we aren't careful?
Hermione rotated her right hand, bringing her wand into it. It might. But that's only if it ever gets a chance to touch us.
Three neat wand-waves and one murmured "Scindere aquae" produced a broomstick-sized hole in the curtain of water, through which Draco shot the Firebolt without delay. Great Merlin, but this thing moves, he said affectionately, patting the side of the shaft as they continued along the tunnel. Wish I'd had one. Not that my old Nimbus is all that shabby—they're still selling the 2001s, did you know? One of the best resale values on the market. He cast a laughing glance over his shoulder. And I could be speaking in Farsi right now for all you're listening to me.
I'm sorry, did you say something? Hermione inquired loftily, winning a true laugh from her twin. Go slow, now. I smell predator.
Draco sniffed the air twice. I smell it too. But recently fed predator, just like Kunora said. Still, no reason to take chances. Start looking for a place to set down, you think?
What about over there? Hermione pointed. A small ledge jutted out from the wall near the corner around which the cart-track ran, leading to the corridor from which the scent of a large, reptilian, meat-eating creature was wafting. We may have to take it one at a time, but that shouldn't be too hard.
True enough. Draco edged the Firebolt into position beside the ledge, and Hermione dismounted, leaning into the wall to maintain her balance and being careful to look only at Draco's half-frightened, half-worried face or the opposite wall of the tunnel rather than into the vast depths below her. She wasn't afraid of heights, exactly…
No, just afraid of falling from them. Or rather, of hitting the ground afterwards!
Still, she was down now, and Draco had set the broomstick to hover and was swinging his leg up to balance standing on the spot where shaft and twigs met. "Call it," he said softly, flexing his knees.
"On three." Hermione braced herself and brought her hands up to catching position. "One, two, three—"
The Firebolt floated untenanted before her, and her arms were full of Snow Fox. He chittered momentarily at her, then laid his muzzle against her collarbone. Well, that worked.
"Don't jinx it now." Hermione crouched to set him on the ledge beside her. "On three again, I go cat, you go human. One, two, three—"
The world did its familiar growing-and-warping act around her, and then she stood on feline paws, watching the human Draco reach out to snag the Firebolt, work a Shrinking Charm on it, and tuck it into his pocket. A moment later, Fox dropped his jaw at her in a vulpine smile. You ready for this? he asked, pressing his paw against hers.
As ready as I ever will be. Neenie nipped the tip of his ear lightly. Go ahead, I'm right behind you.
Fox nodded and slipped past her, around the corner. Neenie took one deep breath to settle herself, then followed.
The dragon raised its scarred head, snuffling curiously, as the new scents entering its domain made themselves known. We don't taste good, Neenie thought in its direction, trotting quickly behind Fox towards the door of the vault. We don't taste good, and we're too small in any case. You don't want to bother with us, we're neither threat nor food, just leave us alone…
With a windy, brimstone-smelling sigh, the dragon lowered its head once more and was still.
So far so good.
Neenie leapt up to the low step of the vault and looked at Fox. He raised his left paw, she raised her right, and together they laid them against the wooden door. This, Neenie knew, was the make-or-break moment—if their twin-bond were too dissimilar to that which the Gringotts goblins used to distinguish themselves from the rest of the world, a dragon might be the least of their worries—
She almost fell forward as the door quietly evaporated.
Fox goggled, open-mouthed, an expression at which Neenie had to stifle a laugh. It was so unlike her level-headed twin to allow himself to be surprised by anything.
Were you not expecting it to work? she asked, nuzzling the side of his face, then leaping past him into the few square feet of clear space on the floor of the immense, crowded vault.
An exasperated snort was her only audible answer as Fox joined her inside. I don't know what I was expecting, he said, tilting his head to watch the door recoalesce behind them. But I guess this is the way it was supposed to go. Human again?
Human again. Neenie re-transformed, being careful to keep clear of the piles of gold and jewels all around her. "Like the Cave of Wonders," she said, drawing her wand. "Only it's not a lamp we're after, it's a cup. Do you see it anywhere?"
"No—wait, I lied, yes." Draco pointed. "Over there, top shelf, next to the helmet with the emeralds."
"Right." Hermione fixed the spot in her mind, then looked around for an item on which to run the diagnostic spell Moony had taught her. "Not exactly hurting for money, are they?" she said absently, noting the immense piles of gold Galleons, the precious stones which studded the bits of sculpture and the gleaming weapons, the intricately wrought chains and coronets which covered the shelves lining the walls and had spilled out onto most of the floor as well.
"I think they'll be able to pay the bills for a while yet," agreed Draco. "Looking for something like this?" He tapped one of his feet on the floor, where Hermione could now see a single Galleon had slid clear of its pile and sat on a flagstone by itself.
"Yes, I am. Step back." The incantation for the diagnostic spell had amused everyone intensely, being only two syllables different from something they'd all had good occasion to use. "Specto patrona!"
"I still say that sounds weird," Draco muttered as tiny, runic symbols floated upward from the surface of the Galleon.
"Don't knock it, it works," said Hermione absently, going to one knee to study the symbols. "All right, this isn't so bad, we can handle this. It looks like the standard Gringotts mix for part of it, nothing can be Summoned or Banished anywhere within the vaults, but here's the spell of duplication we'd heard about. The Gemino Curse. Laid on strong, too."
"That's the one that makes worthless copies of everything we touch, from everywhere we touch it, until we get crushed to death?" Draco was standing very still. "I've heard of swimming in gold, but that would be ridiculous."
"True enough, but we should be able to take it off again. It has a fairly simple counterspell, at least if you only want to unspell one or two objects. If you wanted to do more than that, unless you were the person who cast the spell in the first place…" Hermione shrugged. "I suppose it's like Letha with the Body-Bind. Except this spell has it built in, where she just does that one very well."
"How's that work?" Draco asked curiously. "I mean, only if you know, but it's you. You'd have looked it up, or asked Moony about it, or something."
"Personal resonance, the book called it." Hermione sat back on her heels. "It's strongest in a place like this, closed in, self-contained, and belonging to the person who's casting the spell—assuming one of the Lestranges did it, I can't imagine they'd let anyone else into their precious vault—but it's also the sort of spell that gets stronger the more things you put under it. Imagine a roomful of tuning forks, or bells, all tuned to the same pitch. Now imagine you strike one. Won't they all start humming?"
"They will. And if you had a spell which relied on having only one, or two, of them vibrating…" Draco shook his head. "You might manage it, but any more than that and you'd have them all sounding off. So we may be able to pry that particular curse off one or two testers, but we'd better not try for any more than that if we want to get it off the cup when it's time. What about that other one?"
"The Flagrante Curse?" Hermione smiled. "Oh, it's active. But I don't think we really need to worry about it. Not given who we came here with."
"I never thought having a brother who handles fire on a daily basis would be so useful." Draco hunkered down beside his twin. "All right, so it sounds like the Gemino is the only thing we really need to worry about. Think you can handle it?"
"Just don't distract me."
Draco mimed zipping his lips and rose to his feet again with his usual grace, strolling a few steps away and settling down in a comfortable stand to gaze around the vault.
How strange to think of what might have been. Hermione seated herself on the flagstones tailor-fashion, letting her mind ramble. She would do a better job of removing the charm if she got all her extraneous thoughts out of the way now. If there'd never been a Pack, if Draco had stayed a Malfoy, he might have come here with his dear Auntie Bella instead of with me, to pick out a reward for being such a good little Junior Death Eater…
But things were the way they were, and the task in front of her still remained to be done.
Narrowing her focus until nothing remained in her world but herself and the single Galleon she was attempting to disenchant, Hermione bent over her work.
Draco clasped his hands behind his back and swept his gaze slowly along one of the overstuffed shelves of the Lestrange family vault. He'd already spotted ten items, at least, that were so thoroughly ornamented as to tip into his personal definition of tacky, and he was barely getting warmed up.
A great many of my relations had far too little taste and much too much bloody money. Whatever else you may say about the Malfoys, at least their vault doesn't look like a rat's nest!
Of course, the Malfoy vault no longer looked like anything except an empty stone room.
I signed the order to transfer the gold over to Moony's vault myself, back before my third year. Stopped Lucius from getting away with more than one enormous withdrawal, and probably limited him in what damage he did. Though he still managed to do a good bit.
A shiver ran through Draco, as he had accepted it always would, at the thought of the cursed glass globe and what it had almost done to him.
And it isn't even the final spell that I'm thinking of. Though that was bad enough, while it lasted!
No, what wakes me up in the middle of the night is what came before that. The part I fought when I saw Luna, that triggered off that final spell. If she hadn't come in just then, if I'd still been scared and angry enough to accept what it was saying—or if it had been just a little stronger, if Lucius had been casting it himself, say, instead of having to embed it in the globe the way he did—
It was a truism of the Pack that part of real courage was knowing and facing what terrified one the most. Since that particular incident late in his third year, Draco had seldom had to think very hard.
I could have lost myself. Everything I love, everything I want, everything I fight for and stand for could have been wiped out in that one moment. My body would still be living, my soul might even still be here—though isn't "soul" just another word for "self"?
Whether it is or not, though, the person who would have come out of that encounter with the globe…well, he would have looked like me, he might even have sounded like me, but he wouldn't have been me. I would've been…I don't know, erased, maybe. Or pushed out of the way, if I was lucky, to make room for him.
He supposed, in the final analysis, that was part of the reason he'd been able to come to terms with Luna's vision. Death, as terrifying as it might be, was not truly destruction but simply change. He would be separated from those he loved, yes, but only temporarily. Soon or late, he would see them all again.
But what Lucius wanted to do to me is different. He wanted to take away everything I am and replace it with everything he wants me to be. And I don't know, if he got the chance to try it again now, how long I could fight him.
A tiny smile whisked across his lips. He'd better hurry up if he still wants to give it a go, he's only got a bit over a month left…
"Got it!" Hermione's voice rang exultantly around the vault. "Come and see!"
Draco hurried to his twin's side. She planted her finger firmly on the Galleon, which, true to her word, remained a single Galleon and did not shower copies in all directions. "Excellent," he said, laying his own finger on it and feeling a rush of heat but no sensation of burning. Harry's anti-fire precautions on both of them were obviously working. "Now, can you do it at a distance?"
"I'd better be able to." Choking up on her wand, Hermione performed several slow-motion run-throughs of the movement she wanted, a combination thrust and twist. "All right, here goes. Stand by me?"
"As always." Draco helped Hermione to her feet and took up a position on her left, so as not to impede her wand arm. "Magic's here if you need it," he told her, closing his left hand around hers and supporting her back with his right arm. "Whenever you're ready."
"Finitum geminitum," Hermione murmured, her eyes half-closed, her wand loose in her hand. "Finitum geminitum."
Abruptly she came to attention, snapped her wand up into casting position, and twisted and thrust with it simultaneously, aiming it squarely at the cup of Helga Hufflepuff, sitting on its far shelf. "Finitum geminitum!"
Draco felt a small tug on his own magic as a yellow beam of light streaked through the air and impacted the cup dead center. It trembled once, then was still.
"That's what the Galleon did too," said Hermione, lowering her wand. "I have to believe that means I did it right."
"Well, if we're still going with our original plan, you're going to be the one to find out." Draco drew his own wand. "And now that we're in here, it's looking more and more like a good idea. I don't have anywhere near the dexterity I'd need to climb along those shelves without touching things along the way."
"If you're trying to flatter me, it's working." Hermione tried for a smile, but her lips were trembling. "Merlin's beard, Draco, what are we even doing here?"
"Winning the war, last time I checked." Draco squeezed her hand. "Come on, Neenie, don't fold up on me now. We're warriors, remember? We fight evil?"
"I thought we had to grow up first." Hermione looked down at herself, then across at Draco, and laughed shakily. "Though I suppose we have. All right, let me transform, then you can do the spell on my paws and I'll go. The sooner we finish, the better."
"Truer words were never spoken." Going to one knee, Draco held out his left hand, and Neenie the cat delicately laid each of her paws in it in turn, to be enchanted with a particular charm which would help her grip slippery surfaces. When all four had been so treated, she nipped gently at Draco's thumb by way of thanks, then turned and leapt nimbly onto one of the cornerposts of the nearest shelf, climbing it as easily as she might a tree.
Draco watched his sister's careful progress, his heart in his mouth, his wand ready to cast a Shield Charm around her if she slipped, but Neenie's steps, though slow, were steady. Eighty-eight seconds after she had left his side (he saw no shame in admitting he'd been counting under his breath), she closed her teeth carefully around one of the handles of Hufflepuff's cup, and one hundred and twelve seconds after that (extra time was needed to avoid hitting anything with her prize on the return trip), she made her final leap into Draco's arms, exploding into her human shape almost before she'd made contact.
"We did it," she gasped, catching the cup in her hand as it started to fall. "Draco, oh, Draco, we did it—I did it—"
"I know you did. I saw you." Draco hoped his beaming smile, the tight clutch of his hands on her shoulders, could say what his foolish, meaningless words could not. "You were perfect, Neenie. Absolutely perfect."
And I'll have to remember to ask her, or Harry, if there isn't some Arithmancy thing you can do with triangles and circles, when you have two of a thing that are enchanted alike and you want to find a third…
He stored the thought carefully away, to be examined further once they were safely back at school. "Let's go," he said, scooping up the disenchanted Galleon and pocketing it. "Spoils of war," he explained at Hermione's quizzical look. "Once Harry or Moony gets the fire charm off it, there'll be nothing to say it isn't just any old Galleon. But I'll know where it came from, and so will you."
"And it will make us happy to think about it, every single time." Hermione tucked the cup carefully inside her robes, into the special pocket she'd sewn there for that precise purpose. "So out of here as Fox and Neenie to pass the dragon, around the corner and you'll turn human and enlarge the broom, I'll climb up and away we'll go?"
"Sounds like a plan. And possibly we can even stop for ice creams when we pick up Harry. I'm starving."
"Just like a boy, thinking with your stomach," Hermione mock-scolded, swatting his ear lightly. "We'll be back at Hogwarts soon enough, and the house-elves will be happy to bring you whatever you want."
"Not as soon as all that. We're taking the Red Roads back through Fred and George's two shops, remember, since we didn't think it would be a good idea to take even one of Voldemort's Horcruxes into Sanctuary? So we'll still have to get out of their Hogsmeade location, get into one of the secret passages, and walk all the way back along it to the castle…" Draco purposely loaded his tone with whining complaint, and won a laugh from Hermione.
Their mission, if he did say so himself, had been a resounding success.
Harry leaned forward into the rush of wind that always surrounded riders on the Red Roads, timing his steps carefully to match the pace at which the magic worked. As he pressed his hand against the solid lump under his robes which was the cup Horcrux, no longer hot since he'd deactivated the Flagrante Curse on both that and Draco's Galleon, he couldn't stop himself from grinning. They'd done it, they'd done what had been considered impossible throughout the whole of wizarding history—they'd stolen from the goblins and were getting away with it—
Of course, the goblins helped. But that was just because they didn't like what Voldemort did to their things any more than we do!
Though the wind was against him to pick up scents from his siblings, he could hear them behind him on the Road, Draco making some sort of comment, Hermione laughing aloud in answer, and contentment filled his heart. He'd taken another huge step towards defeating the evil wizard who wanted him dead, and tomorrow he would take another.
Two more, if you count the year, but we did all the work on that already, this will just make it official. No, I'm thinking more about the Astronomy Tower at sunrise, and the most beautiful witch in the world…
Before he could get too lost in such thoughts, a glowing archway appeared ahead of him, and the speed of the Road's movement under his feet began to slow. Harry followed its lead, letting it guide him like an air current in a Quidditch match, until he was stepping out of the wall in the dilapidated storage room of Fred and George's Hogsmeade branch (opened, with great ceremony, on their nineteenth birthday at the beginning of the month). Draco followed him, looking around as soon as he was clear of the red-painted boards. "Bit of a mess back here, isn't it?" he remarked.
"They've been busy with their Red Shepherd work," said Hermione as she emerged in her turn, "but they made sure the building was sound before they bought it. They'll get around to cleaning back here eventually—what was that?"
The last three words emerged in a breathless whisper, from flat on the floor, for which Harry couldn't blame his sister. He and Draco had also dropped to the ground at the sound of an angry shout and a distinctive hissing whistle from outside the shop.
"It sounded like—" Draco began, in the tone of someone hoping to be proven wrong, but was cut off by another, louder shout, followed closely by an explosion.
"It was," said Harry grimly. "Dueling spells. Battle spells. It's an attack, it's got to be."
"But on Hogsmeade? Tonight? Why?" Hermione looked baffled. "I don't—no, I do," she corrected herself mid-sentence, her face clearing as she sat up. "I know exactly why. It's for the same reason we started the year on May Day, the reason we're going to end it then. It's a day of good magic, light magic, driving back the darkness—"
"And the thirtieth of April is the exact opposite," Draco finished. "Walpurgis Night. When evil comes out to play." He glanced over at Harry. "And if evil finds us here, with that—"
"We're all dead," finished Harry in his turn, pulling the cup out of his robes, grateful beyond words that the storage room had no windows. "All right, anyone got a brilliant idea?"
Find out, next time, in Chapter 24 of Surpassing Danger: "The Battle of Hogsmeade"!
Yes, I'm evil. You knew this. Please don't forget to review and tell me how evil, precisely, I am. And if you think this scene looks familiar somehow, you're probably right…
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