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Author Notes:

Exciting news in bottom author's note, so please be sure to read!

The crash was what woke him. The associated sounds, such as the small tinkling noise made by a shower of glass shards hitting the floor, the guilty whisper of "Uh-oh", and the three sets of pattering feet, one significantly larger than the other two, moving hastily away from the scene of the crime made an impression on him only after the fact.

The Unholy Trinity strikes again. Remus opened his eyes, administering a mental caress to Danger as she stirred beside him, her mind beginning its usual slow climb towards the light (which would, he was sure, have been a great deal faster had she not already registered that he was awake and dealing with whatever had just been knocked down, fallen through, run over, or otherwise destroyed). I'll have to ask Sirius if house-elflets are usually this much trouble…

Though, on second thoughts, perhaps he didn't have to bother. House-elflets, after all, would usually have been raised in strict seclusion, trained in the duties they had been born to perform by the parents they would one day succeed, and taught from birth that the mark of a good house-elf was never to be seen by the humans of the household unless a master or mistress had an order to give.

Whereas these two… Remus swung his legs out of bed, lighting the logs which had been laid in his and Danger's fireplace with an absent flick of his fingers. Well, I can't fault the way Echo is taking to her work. Never happy unless she's got something to do, that one. And since Cissus's only duty at the moment is to companion Bernie, he's actually doing what we've asked of him quite well. The only problem is, Echo may be growing up faster than they are, but she's still only the equivalent of a human nine-year-old. Not quite to the age where she can rein them in, and young enough to want to play with them as soon as all their chores are done. Which means…

Pulling on his dressing gown, he opened the door.

The source of the crash was immediately apparent. What had been a glass-fronted curio cabinet, set into a nook halfway down the third floor corridor of number twelve, Grimmauld Place, was now a leaning pile of bent and twisted wood, shattered glass, and fragments of knickknack. Remus regarded the wreckage for a moment, then returned to the bedside to find his slippers. Stepping barefoot on small sharp objects was not his idea of a pleasant start to the day.

Mmm, Danger said sleepily, the inaudible sound carrying with it a freight of feelings and images, conveying her own notion of what might constitute a more enjoyable morning activity.

Will this do? Remus asked, leaning down to lay a light kiss on her lips.

For now. One slender arm reached up and rested a hand against his wrist for a moment as he straightened, before its owner burrowed back down into the bedclothes so far that only a tangle of brown curls betrayed her location. Stifling a chuckle, Remus returned to the door, leaning against the frame and looking out at the tiny disaster area.

"Good heavens, what a mess," he said lightly. "Still, nothing a little magical help couldn't put right. If someone were to ask for that help, of course."

For a moment, he thought he had misread the scents drifting along the corridor, but then a small hiss of whispering voices from Arthur and Molly's empty bedroom brought a smile to his lips. I knew I hadn't lost my touch that far…

Farther down the hall, another door opened, and Voni Pritchard, sleep-tousled, stepped out, her face a study in tried maternal patience. Somewhere downstairs, Remus was sure, Winky was or shortly would be wearing an identical expression.

In the way of early mornings, a random association of ideas caught his mind and presented him with an image of the fountain in the Atrium at the Ministry of Magic, and he found himself wondering how centaur and goblin mothers dealt with rambunctious offspring. Were centaur children—or would that be foals?—ever enthusiastic and overflowing with energy, or were they born with the grave demeanor which generally characterized their race? And what did one call goblin children, anyway? He doubted the guardians of the wizarding world's money supply would take kindly to his mind's irreverent suggestion of "goblets".

Or was that my mind, hmm?

What makes you think I'd have anything to do with a pun that awful? Danger inquired from the depths of her nest. Other than experience, I mean. And if you're really so curious, write to Amy. I'm sure she'll know.

So she would, and so I may. But in the meantime… Remus emerged from his brown study to discover a trio of sheepish-looking children, one human and two house-elf, all standing in the doorway of the bedroom in which they'd taken refuge and intently studying the pattern on the hallway carpet. I think I'll defer this one to the actual parent involved.

"Bernie," Voni said gently, bringing her daughter's head up to look at her. "What happened?"

"It was an accident," Bernie blurted all in a rush. "We were trying to see how fast we could go and still be quiet and not wake anybody up and I went too fast and bumped it with my shoulder and—" A shamefaced wave of her hand indicated the resulting damage. "It's my fault, not theirs, please don't get angry at them!"

"We were running too," said Echo quickly, over Cissus's vehement "I bumped it first!"

Sirius, who had emerged silently from his bedroom next to Remus and Danger's own during this exchange, glanced over his dressing-gown-clad shoulder at Remus, raising an eyebrow. Takes you back a bit, doesn't it? Remus translated. Only we had four of them, and they were all human…

"No permanent harm done," Voni was saying now, several graceful waves of her wand having restored the cabinet to its original position and condition, the knickknacks flying back together as she spoke. "But this is why we don't run indoors, isn't it? Especially not when people are trying to sleep. Now, if you all have that much energy to spare, why don't you take it down to the kitchen and see if there isn't something you can do to help with getting breakfast ready. And then, later this morning, I have some errands to run in Diagon Alley and I'll need helpers to carry bags…"

The woman who had once been named Evanie Meade curled herself into the round sill of her tower room's window and watched the sun come up.

It's like being Rapunzel, only without the hair. She cast a glance behind her to the wide, comfortable bed where her husband, shifting fitfully, slept on without her. And I don't suppose Peter would be anybody's idea of a prince but mine. Still, he is mine and I intend to keep him. Her chin rose, defiantly, in the general direction of the main body of the manor house. No matter what his so-called Master may have to say on the subject.

The longer she was married to the man most of his acquaintances still called Wormtail, the more Evanie was certain that her first impression of him had been correct. He had no predilection for evil or cruelty, as so many of the Death Eaters did, and had certainly never intended to betray his friends or join the other side of the magical war from theirs. But once he had succumbed to bribes, threats, or persuasions (she wasn't sure which, but suspected a combination of the latter two from some of the nightmares she'd coaxed him out of) from the Dark side, he had thereafter been caught in a downward slide, unable to back away from that single fatal step.

None of which excuses him from what he did, but he isn't asking to be excused. Evanie's eyes softened as she watched Peter toss restlessly on his pillow. He regrets it every day, and especially every night, of his life. And if he ever saw a way to escape from here, a way that wasn't just a trap waiting to happen, one that would truly leave us free and not looking over our shoulders forever…

But then, Evanie reminded herself, freedom could take many forms. Peter had offered her the literal sort once, had in fact ordered her to return to the Muggle world from which she'd been taken by the Death Eaters, and she had refused.

Because I knew he wouldn't be there, and I wasn't about to go away from the only person who had ever looked at me and seen more than a nuisance or a convenience. Who looked at me and saw me, Evanie, and wanted me. Needed me. Just like I needed him, and wanted him, in a world where that hadn't been true for him for a very long time.

Hopping down from the windowsill, she slipped back under the covers, allowing her feet a moment to warm up, then slid into the center of the bed, catching Peter's flesh-and-blood hand in her own and planting a kiss over his wedding band. He stilled immediately, whatever dream had been tormenting him chased off by her presence.

We are one another's freedom, now. And no escape would be complete, or true, unless both of us were able to take it. So until one comes along, we'll keep our heads down and stay out of the way. She smiled, allowing him to pull her close, fitting her body against his and accepting his sleepy nuzzle into her hair. And who knows? Maybe by the time we find that escape, "both of us" may have become "all of us"…

Aletha Black shut her office door behind her, shook it slightly to be sure the lock had engaged, and started for the stairs, her mind setting aside consideration of the essay she was planning to assign the third-year Gryffindors and Slytherins today to ponder the far more interesting question of what might be available in the Great Hall for breakfast.

And if the Pride isn't at this meal, I'm speaking to Minerva. Whatever it is Albus has had them running and finding out for him over these last two weeks, it shouldn't be allowed to interfere with their normal schedule. At their time of life—especially my Pearl, young as she is, but all of them are still in that transitional stage—they need to eat and sleep on as regular a timetable as possible.

Besides, even if they're getting special attention from the house-elves, their friends are going to start noticing when they keep skipping meals and free periods. I even heard one of the Gryffindor Beaters complaining the other day that Harry and Ginny had missed a practice! She shook her head, smiling. If there were any better way to tell the world that you're Up To Something, boy-cub, I can't think of it. Not with as Quidditch-mad as the entire school knows you are.

Something prickled at the edge of her consciousness, something she ought to be aware of. She frowned, stopping in the middle of the corridor, trying to track it down. Was it a thought? A way of thinking? A shift in viewpoint, something that her thoughts had implied? Or was it—

What it is, is gone. And rightfully so, if I'm going to pursue it so vigorously that I frighten it away. Aletha sighed and resumed her purposeful progress. I'm sure it will come back when I'm more ready to let it appear in its own time.

Checking both ways to be sure she was unobserved, she ducked behind a tapestry to which she'd been introduced four years before, one which hid a most useful secret passage. Not only did it give her two floors' head start in getting from her office and quarters to the Great Hall, it had a gently curving nook off its entrance (or exit, if one were using it in the opposite direction) which was just the right size to hold two consenting adults…

All right, Mrs. Black, that will do. Under her breath, she chuckled. Just because you've been thinking lately about how chilly and empty your bed is feeling is no reason to call up the sorts of memories which will get you awkward questions—or worse than that, knowing looks—from the other teachers at the breakfast table!

Whatever her fleeting thought had been, she noted, it must have been a good one. She hadn't been this cheerful in the morning in…

Well. Quite a long time.

Humming the Paradox Trio under her breath, Aletha continued on her way.

Harry perched on the edge of the crow's nest on the pirate ship the Hogwarts Den had obligingly supplied upon Draco's whimsical comment that the introduction of Horcruxes into their lives meant they were off on a hunt for buried treasure, reading over the letter Professor Dumbledore had "strongly suggested" he write to his Aunt Amy. He was, for once, alone in the Den, the rest of the Pride being down in Sanctuary supervising the small army of house-elves which was setting up a picnic lunch for the yearmates.

I wonder if they're related? House-elves and goblins, that is…

He leaned back against the mast, yawning. It was nice to know that Dumbledore considered him and the Pride old enough not to be sheltered from ugly truths, but some of the reading about Horcruxes had left him staring sleepless at his bed's canopy for hours at a time or waking in the middle of the night, mercifully without screaming, from some of the worst non-Voldemort-induced dreams of his life.

Though I suppose these are Voldemort-induced, really. Just not as directly as some of mine have been.

Shaking off this line of thought as unproductive, he returned his attention to the letter.

Dear Aunt Amy,

How are things between the three rivers? Has it snowed there yet? We've had a few sprinkles here, but nothing that stuck so far. The lake is starting to get bits of ice on it in the mornings, though, and we haven't seen the giant squid in a week.

I'm into my sixth year at Hogwarts now, and I thought it might be easier since we aren't rushing towards O.W.L.s, but I was wrong. Everything is a big step up from what we were doing last year, but I've kept up with it so far. Now I just have to find time to breathe!

In any case, the reason I'm writing is that I need to learn a few things about goblins, and someone suggested to me that I might want to ask you. Can you tell me why it is that goblins and wizards don't seem to trust each other, or define certain words the same way?

If you want to write back, that would be fine, but that same someone was also suggesting that Christmas is coming, and it's been a while since you came to visit us. I think Letha would like to see you again. I know Meghan and I would, and Neenie and Draco.

I hope to hear from you soon.

Your favorite nephew,


As literary efforts went, Harry knew he'd done better, but it got his point across.

Besides, Meghan's writing to her too, and Aunt Amy's a smart witch. Both of us together asking her to come for Christmas won't tip anyone else off—just in case somebody happens to be reading her mail—but it ought to clue her in right away that something's up. And those questions about goblins look like they could be for a school project… except they're not.

Letting the letter roll back up into its loose tube, Harry stretched, aware as never before of the dagger at his hip. He'd known it was an excellent weapon and a dangerous one, but he'd never realized that Ginny, plunging it into Sangre's face in the Chamber of Secrets, must have hit one of the basilisk's venom sacs with the blade.

Because I used it to kill the diary afterwards, and it wouldn't have done that on its own. But goblin-wrought silver, or really any metal they've worked, absorbs whatever will make it stronger or more potent—and basilisk venom definitely counts!

I wonder if goblin-wrought weapons take masters the way wands do? He drew the dagger, careful to hold it properly, and laid it flat on his palm, squinting across its blade. Or if there's some other way it can know what I want, even if I don't know it myself? Because I've used it for things basilisk venom would ruin—cutting strings or ropes when I do Muggle magic with Ginny, crushing or chopping ingredients in Potions… His grades, under the doubly beneficent influence of the Half-Blood Prince and Professor Black, continued at a level which gave him hope for the eventual O at the N.E.W.T. level he knew he would need to be accepted as an Auror apprentice. Even when Moony and I made the blood-bond locket, we used it for that, and it didn't kill us.

The thought of blood brought up another memory—the first day he had ever seen his dagger, seated around the Christmas tree with the rest of the Pack, and the first thing he'd managed to do with it, attempting to imitate Moony, who'd been holding Draco's blade on a single fingertip to show off its balance—

"Well, that would make sense." Harry sheathed his dagger and willed it back to its place under his robes, a weight so familiar he forgot half the time it was there. "I got my blood on it. Probably the first blood it ever felt, unless one of the goblins who made it was careless. And then Ginny girded me with it." He had to snicker at the memory of the long-ago awkwardness of that Christmas afternoon, of his own fervent desire to keep Ginny from thinking there was anything other than friendship behind his request. "Could be either of those, or some of both. More likely to be the blood, though." He stroked the chain of his Pack-pendants, but then his smile faded as he glanced down at the crook of his left elbow, where a tiny scar lay hidden by the sleeve of his robes.

Voldemort used my blood to come back to life. Or no, not come back, he was still more or less alive—because of his Horcruxes, finally it makes some sense that he didn't die when the Killing Curse bounced off me and hit him instead—but to get back a body, one that wasn't patched together out of unicorn blood and snake venom. He couldn't resist a smile, wobbly but real. Just out of his dad's bones, Wormtail's hand, and my blood. None of which has anything to do with Salazar Slytherin…

"But I suppose Hermione would tell me that doesn't matter," he said, scooping up the letter and starting down from the crow's nest one-handed. "That the three elements of the ritual are just points of similarity, ways for the magic to know who this person is and what their original body was like, so it can build them a new body exactly like the old one." He paused halfway down the mast. "And that was really scary, how I knew all that straight off. I'd better not be turning into Hermione, one swot in the Pride is enough…"

In any case, it doesn't matter where he came from. What matters is beating him, and doing it soon. We've already started, what with the diary and the ring, and finding the locket, even if we can't get rid of it yet. Knowing what the other ones are doesn't hurt either—weird how he accidentally gave away the last one to Letha, showing her that memory about killing her dad and taking her mum's brooch. But I guess he thought she'd never work out what it meant, or get a chance to tell anyone if she did. Harry grinned, Wolf-like. Too bad for him he was wrong.

Jumping the rest of the way to the floor, which obligingly softened at his landing spot, he headed for the Den's library, which let out inside the hospital wing, the closest approach (this week) to Sanctuary's entrance behind the mirror on the fourth floor.

Which I could also now use to sneak out to Hogsmeade, if I were feeling rule-breaking. Which… He pretended to feel his forehead, as if checking for a fever. Eh, not today. Too much to do right here, especially with den tonight.

To the yearmates' satisfaction, they had indeed been able to excavate the cave-in which had originally scratched the mirror's tunnel off the list of secret ways in and out of Hogwarts. Still, clearing it had been the easy part, Harry admitted. Making sure it wouldn't happen again had been more difficult, and was only solved now thanks to Ravenclaw planning, Hufflepuff tenacity, and Slytherin ingenuity. Specifically, the Ravenclaws had worked out the proper angles at which the walls of the tunnel would stably support one another, the Hufflepuffs had done the extra-strength bracing spells which held the dirt in the right place, and the Slytherins had sprayed on a potion concocted from two common classroom brews which fused that dirt into stone.

All of which was done last month, and we're halfway finished with the dormitories already. I even know some people who're planning to use them tonight…

The thought of the second Pride, as always, gave Harry a brief chill. His own Pride had come together when they were too young to really know what they were getting into, to understand the full repercussions of the promise they were making. So far, they'd been lucky enough or strong enough to hold up to it, but they were going into a war, and at least one of them had already been Seen switching sides.

What is the Founders' Oath going to do to Luna when her vision comes true? And what about the others, Lee and Maya's Pride? How far are they planning to take this—and are they going to be the only ones? They used a modified oath, so it probably won't "give them no rest in life or in death" if they break it, but promises matter in magic, just like blood…

Sliding to a halt inside the tunnel which exited near the hospital wing's fireplace, Harry flattened his hand against its curved wall, focusing on the smooth, cool texture of the stone against his skin, using it to calm his mind and slow his racing thoughts. Nothing I can do about any of that now, he reminded himself. Nothing I'm supposed to do about most of it. My problem right now is Horcruxes, and ways to kill them, and places where they might be hidden.

Which is why I'll need to stop at the Owlery before afternoon classes. He patted the pocket where he'd tucked away the letter to his aunt. Because the best place in the wizarding world to hide anything is still Gringotts, and the only way into Gringotts is with the help of the goblins…

"Welcome to the Pepper Pot! What can I get you to drink today?"

Percy Weasley, on his lunch break from the Ministry at the newest eat-in spot on Diagon Alley, toyed with his mug and watched Crystal Huley at work. The blonde Muggle girl wore a white apron and a broad smile, stepping briskly from table to table, order pad in her hand and pencil behind her ear when it wasn't moving across the page.

"Does the 'bit of fluff waitress without a brain in her head' pretty well, doesn't she?" George remarked, strolling up to Percy's table and depositing a plate in front of his brother. "Here you are, ham and cheese on rye with fresh-made crisps on the side. A refill on the hot spiced pumpkin juice?"

"Yes, please." Absently, Percy pushed his mug towards George, his eyes still on Crystal. "And all the while, she has her eyes and ears wide open, and her fully functional brain engaged."

"Sure does." Summoning a heated pitcher from the far side of the restaurant, George topped off Percy's mug and handed it back. "And our enemies are awfully likely to assume the waitstaff are deaf and dumb, because what've they got doing the chores around their houses, most of them?"

"House-elves." Percy smiled, blowing on his beverage. "Which might as well be deaf and dumb, if ordered not to tell their masters' secrets. And the vast majority of purebloods do not learn new habits easily."

"So they'll yammer away all day long about whatever comes into their heads, and never bother to realize what's happening right under their noses." George grinned. "I can't wait to see their faces after the war at their trials, when Crystal steps up to testify and produces a load of order slips as evidence, and they realize this little Muggle waitress is the reason they were all caught…"

"That will be enjoyable," Percy agreed, concealing his small spike of dismay at the thought and the guilt which quickly followed the dismay. He wanted the war to be over, so that innocent people could stop dying, so that his father would stop looking haggard and the ghosts would leave his mother's eyes, so that he could stop running himself ragged trying to keep up with his Ministry job and the various functions of the Red Shepherds. There was no reason, no reason in the world, that he should want the fighting to continue.

Being in close proximity with Cr—with Miss Huley, he self-corrected meticulously, is enjoyable, yes, but battles are not necessary to bring that about. I will see her often even after the war ends. After she and George are married. He sipped his pumpkin juice, grimacing as he swallowed. It was still a bit too hot for comfort. They may choose to remain at the Burrow for a time or establish their own household immediately, but whatever they decide, I am sure I will be in contact with them frequently. It would occasion comment, were I to do anything else.

And that, Percy told himself, was that, and took a bite of his sandwich to punctuate it.

"Lee, here!" Dean called, dodging around Selena. "I'm open!"

A lean, dark wolf with a ropy thatch of fur covering the top of his head barked once in response and swatted the round ball across Sanctuary's lawns with his snout. Before Dean could receive it, though, a slightly smaller wolf, with a golden pelt and a tufted tail, galloped across its path and knocked it away with her front paws, bounding towards the goal which had been set up near the main entrance.

"Foul, Maya!" shouted Graham, as Natalie, Selena, and Lindz cheered. "You're not allowed to touch it with your hands!"

Maya stopped and gave her cousin a long, level look. Then, very deliberately, she turned around and kicked the ball into the goal with one of her back feet.

"To be fair," said Roger in a tone of devil's advocate over the girls' second spate of cheering, "the rules don't say anything about paws. Do they, Dean?"

Dean shook his head, surveying the whole scene. "I don't think the people who invented football quite had this in mind," he said. "But no, they don't."

"It's nice to have a game we can all play together, though," said Selena, retrieving the ball. "Even when some of us can't fly. All right, that ties us at two-all—shall we call this game point, and then move on to stories and hot chocolate by the fire in the dorm?"

Corona Gamp sat sidesaddle on her broom, laughing as she leaned into the wind, urging her inanimate steed faster. Beneath her, Brian Li, his fur the color of aged parchment, bounded across the snow-dusted hills outside Hogsmeade, keeping pace seemingly without effort. The full moon high above cast her shadow across him every few moments, when the clouds moved aside enough to let its light through.

It is very nearly a perfect night. Corona blew a kiss to Brian, who snapped it out of the air and returned her a wag of his tufted tail and a quiet, admiring howl. I would, of course, prefer that my love not be forced to transform, especially since it causes him so much pain to do so, but the Wolfsbane Potion means I need never fear him. More, it means he need never fear himself, which allows him to accept my love, and give me the same in return…

She spent a few moments considering the life she had once expected ("looked forward to" was a misnomer, as she had done nothing of the sort). That Corona Gamp would likely already have been married, and have known her bridegroom only because the circle of available purebloods was small enough that if one spent more than three seasons in society, one could not help but meet them all. An evening like this one would have been spent either entertaining guests at her husband's showplace of a home, attending others' entertainments at their showplaces, or attempting to amuse herself without contravening the complex web of tradition, custom, and unwritten law which stated what a pureblood witch might and might not do. She would never have known hunger or cold, but boredom and frustration would have been her daily companions.

Instead, no two days of my life are the same. I can never be sure in which town, to say nothing of which bed, I shall sleep on any given night, and I have known need, though only in the course of my duties. She smiled faintly. Another word to which that other me would have been a stranger, except as it pertained to her husband. Whereas this me has chosen her side of the fight, made up her own mind what she will and will not do, and her skills—as strange as it still seems to me sometimes—are prized.

The death of Rubeus Hagrid nearly a year ago had been a tragedy to the Order of the Phoenix, not only for its own sake but because of Hagrid's near-mystical skill in handling any and all magical creatures the Order members might encounter in the course of their work. When Corona had timidly offered her own services in this capacity, her colleagues had seized upon her with collective delight, and she now carried one of the Order's precious American-made Zippophones with her at all times, in case there should be a call while she was in the field with Brian.

Yes, Brian. From whom the old me would have fled in horror, and to whom the new me turns at the start of every day, as naturally as breathing. She guided her broomstick higher into the air, taking advantage of a prolonged patch of moonlight to play shadow-tag with her beloved. I wonder sometimes what he is waiting for, to ask me to marry him—or if by chance he is not yet sure what the answer will be…

She would have to consult with the married witches of the Order, Corona decided, to see if they could offer any advice about dropping delicate hints in that direction.

Brian sprang back from her approaching shadow, his lolling tongue and flagged tail indicators of delight as clear to her now as any human smile or laugh, and Corona set aside her thoughts to give herself wholly to the game. Schemes, clues, and even the war itself could wait until the morning. This was a night for play.

"Oh, this is fascinating," Hermione murmured, her nose buried in one of the thick, musty books Professor Dumbledore had lent the Pride, with strict injunctions that they were not to be taken farther than his office or the Hogwarts Den. "I never would have guessed that…"

"Something new about Horcruxes?" said Draco, lying on his back on the padded floor, Luna braiding a bit of his hair just above his ear. "Their being practically indestructible and able to possess people who hang onto them for too long isn't enough?"

"No—I mean, yes, it's something new about Horcruxes, but it's not bad. At least, not all bad." Hermione marked her place with a finger and laid the book in her lap. "Apparently it's possible to make one by accident."

Ron swallowed a mouthful of cocoa just in time. "By accident?" he repeated incredulously. "How d'you accidentally shut up a bit of your soul in something?"

"That's what I thought at first too, but if you listen, it makes sense." Hermione reopened the book as the rest of the Pride gathered around, drawn by the topic of conversation which had dominated all their thoughts since the night Professor Dumbledore had taken them into his confidence. "It starts with the sort of person who would never make an ordinary Horcrux." She grimaced. "If you could ever call such a Dark thing 'ordinary'."

"The kind we know most about, call it." Harry filched a biscuit from Ginny's plate when she wasn't looking. "So a person who could make an accidental Horcrux is likely to be decent, not a murderer. How does their soul get split, then?"

"Guilt." Hermione located her place and began to read. "'Through endless musing on a death to which they were in some way connected, whether they believe that they bear partial responsibility for its occurrence or simply loved the deceased most dearly, an otherwise innocent witch or wizard may tear his or her soul almost as completely as any murderer. Four outcomes are then possible, though one is a matter only of legend, with no documented case occurring in the course of wizarding history. The first, and simplest, is that the soul heals itself, not through remorse as would be the case for a torn soul inflicted by a killing but through self-forgiveness, acceptance, and moving on.'"

"Simplest in some ways," said Neville quietly. "Not in others."

Meghan laid her arm briefly against his, then frowned, as though hearing again something Hermione had said. "Almost as completely?" she asked. "Does that mean the person's soul is still partly held together?"

"That part's coming next, Pearl." Hermione returned to her place and continued. "'The next two outcomes are those which lead to the so-called accidental Horcrux, though in neither case is the survival of the soul guaranteed as it is to the witch or wizard who summons the necessary fortitude to create a true Horcrux.'" She paused for a moment to shudder before going on. "'The fragment of soul which has been partially detached may, if its owner has some item on which he or she sets great value, embed itself into this item, much in the nature of the true Horcrux. If the aforementioned self-forgiveness should then take place, the fragment of soul embedded in the item will lose its grip on the majority of the soul, leaving only an item containing a very vague sense of personality, too tenuous to be called a ghost.'"

"Well, that wouldn't be too scary." Ginny slapped Harry's hand away as he reached for a second biscuit. "No worse than inheriting things that belonged to one person for so long that they still 'feel' like that person. Maybe a little stronger than that, but it doesn't sound like that would be dangerous at all. What happens if the person doesn't forgive themselves, though?"

"I'd get to that faster if I didn't keep getting interrupted," Hermione said mock-huffily, and continued reading over several sets of snickers. "'If, however, the wizard or witch is unable to complete such a reconciliation, the item containing the fragment of soul acts much as a true Horcrux, binding its owner to the earth past his or her own bodily death. The soul thus held is classified…'" She looked up to grin at Ron. "'…as a revenant, resembling the "ghost with unfinished business" so popular in Muggle folklore. It may seek to possess the living in pursuit of its own affairs, especially if a living wizard or witch takes up the item which binds it to the world, but will more often restrain itself to requesting help. In general it should not be considered excessively dangerous.'"

"A lot of hedging in that sentence," Ron commented, deftly removing a biscuit from the plate Ginny was guarding against Harry. "'In general', 'excessively dangerous'. I'd rather it not be dangerous at all, thanks."

"What's the fourth way?" Neville asked. "We've heard about the person who forgives himself and heals all the way, the person who forgives himself but leaves a bit of soul behind, and the person who doesn't forgive himself and gets stuck. Aren't we missing one?"

"Yes, we are." Hermione found her place near the bottom of the page. "Here it is. 'Of all possible outcomes for such a scenario, however, the most curious must be that of the purely theoretical Horcrux Vivens, which requires not one but two people with torn souls, and postulates that if they were to—'" She broke off, shocked. "Oh, no!"

"What's wrong, Neenie?" Draco asked, looking over.

"The page!" Hermione turned the book around so that they could all see. "It's been torn out! How are we supposed to find out what a Horcrux Vivens is now?"

"I don't think we are," said Luna thoughtfully. "That page isn't missing by accident."

"Oh, wonderful." Harry ran a hand through his hair, not affecting its appearance in any material way. "More things we're not allowed to know. Could this get any more frustrating?"

Luna perked up. "Do you really want me to answer that?"

"What the hell." Harry waved two fingers in a circle, signaling her to continue. "It is den-night, after all."

"Well." Luna settled herself more comfortably on the padded floor. "In the first place, you're very lucky that Professor Dumbledore is allowing all of us to know about Voldemort and Horcruxes. He could have just told you and said that you shouldn't tell anyone, or that you should only tell one or two people. And then there's how quickly we got all the information—if he'd been busier, or more worried about people noticing that you were spending a long time with him, he might have had to tell you in little pieces over weeks or months or even a whole year. And it was just sheer dumb luck that Mrs. Letha remembered what Voldemort showed her about her mother's brooch. If she hadn't, we wouldn't have any idea at all what the last Horcrux was." She beamed. "Should I go on?"

"No, thanks, I think that'll do." Harry leaned over to Ginny. "Is it just me, or was that the politest way ever of telling me to quit whinging and be grateful for small favors?" he asked.

"You do need reminding from time to time." Ginny patted him on the head. "But don't worry, we'll take care of you."

Behind Ginny's back, Draco scooped the remaining three biscuits off her plate, stuck one into his own mouth, and handed the other two to Luna and Hermione simultaneously. Ron attempted to cover up a laugh by taking a hasty swig of cocoa, and Meghan grinned at Neville, who managed a small but genuine smile in return.

We really do have it very good. Hermione bit into the biscuit, savoring the sweetness and the flavor of the different spices with which the house elves had baked it. Still, we're not home free yet. The spell-breaking year's only halfway over, and we have three Horcruxes yet to find.

But with so many allies, I can't help thinking we're bound to win in the end.

She swallowed with a small grimace. I just wish we didn't have to lose people along the way…

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Author Notes:

But, as we all know, they do.

Great news, everyone! My 2012 Christmas special, Sing We Now of Christmas, is complete! It features three music-themed Christmas stories, including a flash fiction in the universe of the Chronicles of Glenscar, a completely new science fiction short whose characters will return in my personal anthology Cat Tales (coming this spring), and a traditional fantasy originalization of "The Point of No Return".

You can find Sing We Now of Christmas as an e-book on Amazon and Smashwords ($2.99), or as a paper book on Amazon's CreateSpace ($6.99 plus shipping) or through my Etsy shop ($5 plus shipping). Why not treat yourself, or someone you love who enjoys reading and music, this holiday season? And of course, as always, A Widow in Waiting is still available in all the places mentioned above.

More Surpassing Danger soon, I hope and plan. Let me know what you would like to see, what you hope not to see, and when you want to see them, and I'll do my best to oblige!

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