crux of the matter1
Authors Note: A big thanks to my SQ beta PirateQueen and to my pre-beta/partner-in-crime Frivolous Pink.
The Crux of the Matter
Chapter 1: The Bank Robbers Homecoming
It was Christmas Eve, and the highways out of London were clogged with cars. For three exhausted teenagers desperate for a homecoming, the traffic might have been an obstacle, but these particular three were lucky. They had a flying motorbike.
It was a hulking beast of a motorbike, big enough for three people to sit astride it very comfortably, and despite its bulk it cut through the night air swiftly and soundlessly. Harry had only just remembered to put a Silencing Charm on the bike before they set off, but his nerves had been so frazzled that he hadnt remembered to Disillusion it until they were a thousand feet above London.
They sat in their usual places: Harry in front, hunched up over the handlebars, with Hermione swaying behind him. She usually gripped his shoulders very tightly, but now her hands hung limply by her sides. Ron came last, on the very back of the bike, his arms wrapped tightly around the girl in front of him.
Harry cringed under the enormous pressure of the icy wind. He let it deafen him, tried with all his might to focus upon its roar, anything to mask for even half a moment the anguished sounds Hermione was making directly behind him. No...no, you dont understand...I didnt do it on purpose, Ron, it was for Harrys own good...Please...Oh, let go of me...
Harry chanced a glance at her, and with a raw jolt of panic saw that Hermiones face was as ghostly pale as the moon against the black sky, and her eyes had an odd glassy look. Her sickly face twisted into a plea, but she wasnt looking at Harry. I told you that broom could be cursed...who would just send a thirteen-year-old boy an international standard broom like that, its absurd, honestly... Ohhh...
Ron struggled with her, trying to tighten his hold, but she was fighting him with a rampant feverishness that was incredibly dangerous this high in the air.
Have you got her? Harry shouted over the wind at Ron, whose jaw was clenched painfully, his lips tight and bloodless.
Ive got her, Ron yelled back. Ive got her! Just go faster, will you?
Ohhh...you know Sirius Black could have sent it, it could be covered with all sorts of hexes and things...McGonagall thinks so too, so why wont you forgive me...why...?
Hermione began to cry. Ron scooted even closer to her along the bike, and pressed his chin into her shoulder. Hermiones bushy hair flew backwards into Rons mouth, but he didnt seem to notice. That was third year, Hermione, and we were all idiots then, remember? Ive forgiven you now, calm down.
I just want you to like me! Hermione hiccupped in-between sobs. But you never will...You never will...
Harry and Ron stared, each momentarily stunned by the others evident panic.
Im going to land! shouted Harry. I can contact Lupin! Hell -- hell find her some help.
No! Turn around, watch the sky, and put on some bloody speed! cried Ron. Shes going to be okay!
Harry performed the annoyingly complex process of switching gears, and the lights of the traffic jam beneath them zipped by with dizzying speed. If the engine hadnt been Silenced, it would be roaring. We should have taken the cup and gone, said Harry. We could have hopped back on that cart and been out of there, destroyed the Horcrux later. What was I thinking, standing around?
Rons voice sounded very angry. You did the right thing! You destroyed another piece of You-Know-Whos soul! Nobodys going to blame you for that! Just get us back to Mum and Dad and theyll sort her out, Harry!
Harry felt a rush of gratitude towards Ron, but immediately hated himself for it. Ron shouldnt have been there at all, and neither should Hermione. Why had they agreed to come with him, on a quest that had so far proved to be nothing but a continuous parade of dangerous situations and near-fatal misses? There was no denying they had helped him destroy two more of Voldemorts Horcruxes; more than half of Voldemorts soul was now scattered into the ether. But it wasnt worth it, not for them, not if it meant watching Hermione lose her mind to feverish delirium, sitting on a frozen motorbike when she could be safely stowed away in front of a fireplace somewhere, having a happy Christmas.
Harry thought of the Head Girl badge, pinned to the satchel that Hermione towed with her where ever she went, and felt a horrible pang. Being Head Girl at Hogwarts was all she had ever wanted, and she had given it up for him. In Harrys mind he saw over and over that dark underground vault at Gringotts, where Voldemort had tricked the goblins into hiding Hufflepuffs cup. It was an eerie place, the vault, as all the resting places for fragments of Voldemorts soul tended to be. Hermione had been so focused upon reading the runes inscribed along the vaults wall that she had set off a goblin-wrought gas trap by mistake, and the venomously red vapor shed set loose had seeped into her lungs. Harry didnt know very much about gas traps, but he knew about goblins all right; he knew they had no qualms about murdering trespassers in their vaults.
Lost in his thoughts, he had allowed the bike to drift downwards, and now a telephone line had swung out of the darkness right at their heads. Harry dragged at the handlebars, and everyone awkwardly lurched left, narrowly avoiding decapitation. Harry had to jam his knees against the gas tank to keep from slipping off. Ron swore.
Sorry, said Harry, letting the bike climb its way back into the sky.
I keep saying you dont know how to fly this thing! shouted Ron. You should let Hagrid show you --
He only flew it once, snapped Harry. That hardly makes him an expert. Its Sirius who knew how to handle the bike, and we cant very well ask him.
Barn! Ron replied, and Harry swerved to avoid it. Hermione whimpered.
Ron hugged her awkwardly and twisted in his seat, his eyes on the building they had just passed. Wait, I know that barn. Its on a farm not far from the Diggorys! Harry, were nearly there! Hang a left!
Harry did as he was told and sure enough, a clump of trees dissolved into wide open country and there was the Burrow, as warmly welcoming as any darkened building could be jutting haphazardly out of frozen ground. Harry landed the bike as steadily as he could so as not to aggravate Hermione, and then he and Ron dismounted and began to ease Hermione off the seat. Her protests were now very feeble.
I know...Ive failed...everything... she whispered.
Harry tried to grab one of her arms, but Ron shook his head. Instead he heaved Hermione into his arms -- his ears glowed red -- and he carried her across the icy lawn, kicking aside the odd stray boot and surly gnome on his way to the house. Harry ran out in front of them and hammered on the door.
He heard a hard thud from inside, then some scrambling, a breathy exclamation of Heavens! and finally a voice. Yes, who is it?
Mr. Weasley! Harry shouted. Its us! Hermiones sick!
Mr. Weasleys voice sounded extremely grave. Harry, what happened to you the very first time we took you to Diagon Alley?
Harry had never hated the security question more than he did at that moment. I -- I got lost. I Flooed to the wrong grate down Knockturn Alley. He grabbed at the doorknob but found it still barred.
You have to ask me a question now, Harry.
Ill ask you a question when its clear Hermiones not dying! shouted Harry. Open the door!
He heard the scrape of the lock and the chain being unbolted, and then the door had opened and Mr. Weasley was there in his worn dressing gown, helping Ron maneuver Hermione across the threshold. Harry shut the door behind them, shuddering as the almost oppressive warmth of the kitchen stole over him.
They had interrupted what looked like a very cozy midnight gathering. Half-drunk cups of eggnog steamed on the table, but they were forgotten now. A whole host of people -- Mrs. Weasley, Bill, Fleur, Lupin and Tonks -- were out of their seats and rushing towards Hermione.
Youre home! cried Mrs. Weasley, clapping her hands, I was so hoping -- but my word -- Hermione!
Hermione looked worse than ever, her whole body was trembling and her eyes now had a bloody cast to them. No! I dont want to go there... she wheezed, weakly beating half-furled fists against Mr. Weasleys chest.
Whats happened to her? asked Tonks, putting her hands up to her mouth in horror and in the process knocking over a kitchen stool.
Long story, muttered Harry.
Mr. Weasley held the back of his hand to Hermiones forehead. Shes burning up!
Ill make a Cooling Potion, said Mrs. Weasley, and she immediately began pulling herbs and tonics out of a cabinet. Fleur drifted after her, trilling I will help, Molly!
Lets get her upstairs, ordered Bill, moving chairs aside so that Ron could carry Hermione across the room unimpeded.
Harry watched them mount the stairs and made to follow, but then he felt Lupins hand on his arm. Are you and Ron all right, Harry?
Yeah, were okay.
You look frozen through, Harry! Lets get your coat off, said Tonks, and she began tugging at his sleeves.
Its okay, Ive got it, said Harry, slipping out of the coat himself.
Was she cursed, Harry? asked Lupin, the crease between his eyebrows very prominent. Were you attacked?
Mrs. Weasley let out a shrill noise and nearly dropped the pestle with which she was grinding mint leaves.
No, said Harry. Poisoned, I think. But by accident.
By accident? repeated Lupin, the crease deepening.
Completely by accident, said Harry, very firmly, No Death Eater involvement. Really.
And I suppose you were just sitting around a campfire pulling Christmas crackers together when Hermione was accidentally poisoned? said Mrs. Weasley, hammering at the mint. Not doing anything dangerous at all?
Theres a Dark Wizard out there who wants to kill me, Mrs. Weasley. At this point, me breathing is dangerous.
Molly, eez ze mint supposed to be ground to powder? asked Fleur.
Mrs. Weasley gave a loud sniff. It cant hurt.
Lupin gave Molly a sympathetic look and turned back to Harry. Im going to alert the Order about Hermione. If we cant do anything for her here, maybe we can bring her elsewhere for treatment. If this really was completely accidental, I dont see any reason why we cant trust the staff at St. Mungos --
No St. Mungos, interjected Harry.
Lupin didnt even blink. He had become entirely accustomed, far more than anyone else in the house, to Harrys strict policy against questions. All right, the Hogwarts infirmary then. With Order Headquarters officially moved to the school, Madam Pomfrey has already patched up a few of us, so -- Lupin faltered at the look on Harrys face. You dont want to go back there, I know.
Ill go back there if Hermiones in the hospital wing, said Harry grudgingly. Id just...rather not.
Harry wasnt sure why he was so insistent on this point. Prior to the change in Headquarters, it had never occurred to him that returning to Hogwarts was even an option, let alone a problem. But when Lupin had contacted Harry and told him the news, that Hogwarts was still the safest place in the world for him, and now the center of the war effort too, Harry had felt his insides freeze over. He couldnt go back to Hogwarts; it would be unendurable torture, seeing Ginny and the others attending classes and playing Quidditch while Harry was in self-imposed exile. His resolve couldnt take it. He would never be able to leave.
Harry? Lupins concerned voice broke in upon his thoughts. Youre exhausted. Theres an empty bed in Percys old room if you want to get some sleep.
No. Harry shook his head to clear it. Im going up to Hermione. When Lupin still looked unconvinced, Harry said, Im really okay, Professor. Thanks for worrying. Tell the Order I say hello.
He turned towards the stairs so that he wouldnt have to see Lupins hurt look.
And if they ask any questions about you? Tonks called after him.
Harry didnt bother turning around. The Order knows better than to ask any questions about me. He pretended not to hear the deep sighs that issued from all the adults downstairs and went up to see Hermione.
Was it any surprise that this was the response he met whenever he returned to the Burrow? Mrs. Weasley could barely restrain herself from the furious scolding she had been raring to deliver ever since Harry had announced his intention to drop out of Hogwarts in order to pursue...well, the adults did not know precisely what the objects of Harrys pursuit were, because Harry had never told them.
At Bill and Fleurs wedding, McGonagall had made a happy announcement designed to raise everybodys already rather buoyant spirits: despite the summers nasty rumors, Hogwarts would reopen for classes in the fall. In order to ensure the schools safety, the Headmistress had taken care to appoint as Head Boy and Girl two seventh years with a long and colorful history of protecting the school against Voldemort and his Death Eaters.
With some measure of disappointment and guilt, Harry and Hermione had turned her down on the spot, and Harry had told the room at large as much as he felt necessary to divulge about his plans. He had told them about the private lessons with Dumbledore, in which the Headmaster had imparted information of a highly important and secretive nature, information that had led both of them to undertake a journey the night of Dumbledores death. He told them that the secret information from those lessons was exactly what was driving Harry now, and that he planned to undertake a journey of his own that was absolutely essential to the Order of the Phoenixs ultimate goal: to see Voldemort permanently vanquished. He even forced himself to make a vague stab at the prophecy, hinting that the Daily Prophet might not have been so far off the mark the previous summer. If throwing around that horrible nickname The Chosen One was what would buy Harry the liberty to seek out the Horcruxes no questions asked, then he would use it, even if it made his cheeks burn to say it in front of Ginny.
Of course they hadnt liked it then and they didnt like it now. Of course they wanted to know what was going on, but he wasnt a child anymore, and they knew it. The fewer people who knew about Horcruxes the better. And with his name being in the top spot on Voldemorts death list, it was probably safer for everyone if they had no idea where he was or what he was doing. On some level, Harry insisted to himself, they must know it was all for their own good.
He could hear Hermiones moans even though the bedroom door was shut. He opened it and found the room surprisingly full. Fred and George both looked almost unrecognizably grim. Mr. Weasley and Bill were perched at Hermiones bedside. Mr. Weasley had his fingers pressed down over her eyelids while Bill shined his lit wandtip into her pupils. Ron stood in the corner, his arms folded across his chest. He hadnt even taken off his coat.
How is she? Harry asked tentatively.
No improvement, muttered Ron. Shes stopped talking now.
Harry stared at the pale and silent girl in the bed.
I dont suppose, Mr. Weasley began, his voice tight, you can tell us what it is exactly thats happened to her?
Well, said Harry, she breathed in some red gas--
Virulent Vapor -- from a goblin-wrought gas trap, maybe three or four centuries old, said Bill, tilting Hermiones chin up. You were in Gringotts, I take it.
Errr...yeah, said Harry, feeling it would be pointless to lie. He had momentarily forgotten how well Bill knew the workings of the wizarding bank. Their secret mission was not quite so secret after all, but no matter. Knowing where theyd been did not mean the Weasleys would ever figure out what theyd been doing.
Gringotts? asked Mr. Weasley. I dont understand. Why would Hermione be gassed there?
Probably because she was somewhere she wasnt supposed to be, said Bill. And the bank isnt open on Christmas Eve. If it was Id probably be working there.
Mr. Weasley turned and stared from Harry to Ron with a very arrested look. What on earth were you doing? he asked, his voice shaking.
You know we cant tell you anything, Dad, Ron said wearily from the corner.
Making a late-night withdrawal I suppose, George said.
What a dashing bank robber our little Ronniekins makes, said Fred, and he would have said more, but just then Hermione let out a low moan. Everyone froze, staring at her.
Shes going to be all right, said Bill, climbing to his feet. I think I know how to make an antidote for this. Well cool her down, get the poison out of her system, and shell be back on her feet in a week or so.
Thanks, Bill, said Harry, the relief making him feel almost lightheaded.
Youre lucky you got her here so quickly. Ive seen what those gas traps can do, and it isnt very pretty.
I think Hermiones still looking rather pretty though, wouldnt you say, Ron? asked George very innocently.
Shut up, said Ron, but his grumpiness was unconvincing. His face had lit up like a Wild-Fire Whiz-Bang when he heard Hermione was going to be okay.
Bill excused himself from the room so he could begin brewing the antidote, his scarred eyelid closing in a hasty wink at Ron, and as he passed Harry he offered him a sheepish grin. I wondered why you were asking me all those questions last month. Never figured you for being very interested in banking.
Only if it suits my purposes, said Harry, smiling.
But while Bill and the twins were impressed by what they had managed to surmise was Harry, Ron, and Hermiones latest caper, no one else in the house seemed quite so pleased with the idea of the three of them staging a bank heist. Mrs. Weasleys disapproval was palpable as she poured Harry and Ron their own large cups of eggnog in the kitchen.
Gringotts! she cried, slamming mugs down in front of them.
There were dark circles under all their eyes; the sky was rosy from the emerging sun and none of them had slept a wink. Having finally taken the Cooling Potion and Bills antidote, Hermione had drifted off in the upstairs bedroom, but Harry and Ron had never felt more widely awake.
Im not sure I even want to know! Mrs. Weasley continued, shaking her head.
Thats a fine arrangement for us, Mum, because were not telling you, said Ron, and Harry tried to conceal his grin by taking a sip of eggnog, but apparently he was unsuccessful.
Oh, dont you smile about this, Harry Potter! Mrs. Weasley fumed, If I had known when you dropped out of school that you were going to become a -- a -- a band of bank robbers, I never would have let you go through with it! How does this have anything to do with the war effort, thats what Id like to know!
It has everything to do with the war effort, Mrs. Weasley, I promise, said Harry, who would have found her anger more alarming if she wasnt taking care to cut him a piece of peppermint cake with extra icing.
Thats what you keep saying, but how do I know? said Mrs. Weasley, putting a piece of cake on the table for each of them. You used to tell me everything, Ron. When you were little, anytime one of your brothers put a finger to you, youd come running to me. And now -- now I have no idea where youve been or what youve been doing, and you look so peaky!
Mum, gerroff, said Ron, leaning out of her grasp.
Well, Im not letting you leave again, said Mrs. Weasley. After what happened to Hermione, Id be mad to let you out of my sight. There were three murders this past week alone... two of them during the full moon... simply horrible.
Harry laid down his cake fork and carefully looked Mrs. Weasley in the eye, saying, Its because of those murders that we have to go back out there.
Mrs. Weasley held his gaze, and Harry felt very uncomfortable when her eyes began filling up with tears. This isnt what I wanted for you...any of you, she hiccupped, dabbing at her eyes with a napkin. An old burn mark on the table seemed to demand all of Rons attention, so Mrs. Weasley continued to direct her wetly accusatory eyes upon Harry. Especially for you, Harry. Youve had to endure so much since the very beginning, and I cant stand to see you doing this to yourself. You loved Hogwarts.
He still loves it, Mum. Thats not the issue. All of them quickly turned around to see Ginny standing on the bottom step of the staircase in a yellow plaid dressing gown.
What are you doing here? asked Harry, before he could stop and slap himself for being so obvious.
Ginny smirked. Things havent changed since your day, Harry. McGonagall still lets us come home for Christmas. She entered the kitchen and leaned on the table, surveying the spread. Cake for breakfast?
Breakfast! cried Mrs. Weasley in a thick voice, forcing herself upright. Oh, where has the time gone? Morning simply crept up on me... She went to the stove, kindled a flame with her wand, and began frying eggs with almost manic energy.
Ginny sat down in Mrs. Weasleys vacated seat and stole a bite of Rons cake. Thanks for not waking me up last night. I had to hear about Hermione from Fleur.
Sorry, said Harry, who now understood why Ron found that burn mark so very fascinating.
Oh, Im not complaining, said Ginny. Im sure you had enough people worrying over you last night. Didnt need me getting in your way.
Harry desperately wanted to touch her hand, which was sitting on the table only a foot in front of him, but it may as well have been resting in its own country. Ginny, youre never in the way.
Ginny raised an eyebrow at him and made a low, thoughtful noise.
Hows school? Ron piped in, his voice so appropriately diplomatic that Harry knew he was going to have to thank him later.
All right, said Ginny, now taking a sip of Rons eggnog. Its very empty, you know. Only about half my year even turned up. It gets a bit depressing sometimes. But Im Quidditch Captain, she added brightly. Were doing really well. We beat Slytherin 350 to 30.
Thats great! said Harry, his heart aching.
It had never really occurred to him that returning to the Burrow at Christmastime would guarantee that he would have to see Ginny again. He had never been so happy to see anyone, and yet he couldnt bear it, couldnt stand it. He wanted to ask her a thousand little questions about her life at Hogwarts, the very biggest of which he wasnt brave enough to ask: did she have a new boyfriend now that he was out of her life? She had always been popular, Harry reminded himself, it wouldnt surprise him in the least. But it would kill him if she did.
So? asked Ginny, looking at him seriously. I hear youre mad delinquent bank robbers now. Fred and George are jealous.
Ron looked highly pleased. Its all for the common good, he said, toasting Ginny with his mug.
The funny thing is thats not even half as crazy as the things people have been saying about you at Hogwarts, Ginny said. You should hear them. Simply mad. Theyve come up with all sorts of highly entertaining reasons for your absence.
Oh, yeah? Like what?
That youre stowed away in a safe house in the Alps, guarded by an army of security trolls. That youre playing Quidditch in Latvia under an assumed name. My personal favorite is that youre off training to be an Auror in some sort of underground hideaway and your ultimate plan is to run the Minister of Magic out of office.
Theyre on to me, said Harry, trying to smile. That last one sounds like something Luna might say.
Ginny laughed. You guessed it. She says hello, by the way. Neville too. They ask me about you all the time.
Harry imagined how hard that must be for Ginny, always being asked for information she did not possess. His hand twitched on the tabletop, moved by an overwhelming desire to reach out for her, but he restrained himself. Ginny was regarding him with a look that was too keen for Harry to directly return. She knew what he was going through, and this achingly personal understanding only made him feel worse.
There was an invisible wall now standing between him and Ginny, a wall that Harry himself had built, and he could not reach out for her, because if he did, his hand would only hit that wall, and he did not want to be reminded of its existence, of everything he had given up.
Think Ill go to bed, he said, faking a yawn.
Ginny looked unconvinced and Ron frowned, exclaiming, Breakfast! as if that were enough to convince him to stay. Harry shrugged and headed for the stairs before anyone could stop him.
His feet felt hopelessly heavy as he climbed up to Percys empty bedroom. Harrys sense of well-being, which had flowered ever so briefly with Hermiones hopeful prognosis, now withered to nothing in an instant. The Burrow had always been a haven for Harry, a place where he could escape from the bitterness of Privet Drive and the unbearable memories generated by Grimmauld Place and now even by Hogwarts. But like all remnants of Harrys childhood, the Burrows power was fading. He would find no peace here.