The Sugar Quill
Author: Ponderous (Professors' Bookshelf)  Story: The Crux of the Matter  Chapter: Chapter 2: The New Lead
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crux of the matter2

Thanks to all the readers who left such very thoughtful reviews! You made me blush.


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Chapter 2: The New Lead


Christmas was a quiet affair. Mostly everyone just sat by the fire and discussed the war. Charlie Flooed home, bringing with him a Romanian brandy so strong that one sip was enough for Harry to feel his skin tingling. Even Percy dropped by, and while his presence only seemed to make Mr. Weasley tense and tightlipped, the rest of the family was happy to see Percy. They had been on better terms ever since he had come to the wedding, and with danger lurking just outside the door, it was hard not to feel happy to have the entire Weasley family reunited. The only missing person was Hermione, who was still asleep, and though Bill kept insisting she was going to make it through, Harry couldn’t help but worry. She was cold to the touch, her breathing so slow and slight that if you weren’t looking for it you might think...

Harry navigated the conflicting tensions in the house as best he could, but never before had he endured such intense pressure to tell everyone what was really going on. He tried to be polite and friendly with the adults, and to make it all seem like a big joke when he talked to the twins or Ginny, but it was becoming a strain just to be around them. When Hermione finally woke up three days after Christmas, Harry was relieved to have another friend on his side, even if said friend was slightly loopy from the antidote.

“Shame we didn’t have a white Christmas,” she whispered, cuddling the purring orange pillow that was Crookshanks. “I’ve always wanted to see The Burrow in the snow. Oh well. It is nice to be back.”

“You wouldn’t say that if you had Fred and George sneaking Exploding Dust Bunnies into your pillow every night,” said Ron, patting her hand.

“Oh, Ron, are they bothering you?” asked Hermione fondly. “I’ll see to them if you like.” She raised one boxing fist up threateningly and Ron howled with laughter.

“Yes, that’ll show them,” nodded Harry. “I’m sure they’ll never mess with Ron again if his girlfriend defends his honor.”

Hermione smiled and laid her head down on the pillow. “Then I shall see to it shortly. As soon as I’ve had a sleep.”

“Sounds like a plan,” said Ron, stroking her hair.

“I wish we could stay here like this,” Hermione drawled sleepily. “But I know we’ll have to leave soon. As soon as we can come up with something on that Horcrux. Have you found anything, Harry?”

“Where am I supposed to be looking? In my Christmas stocking?”

Hermione rolled her eyes. “In my Portable Library. You two, honestly. Where would you be without me?”

“Lost and terminally confused,” said Ron, his eyes strangely bright.

Hermione’s Portable Library was a very handy present from Professor McGonagall, given to Hermione when the Headmistress had learned she wasn’t coming back to Hogwarts. It looked like an ordinary book, leather-bound and dog-eared, but its pages were blank. Hermione had only to speak aloud to it, requesting a book title or subject, and the text she wanted would write itself across the Portable Library’s pages before her eyes. Harry, Ron, and Hermione had been constantly on the move all year, a feat they probably would not have been able to accomplish without being able to reference the Portable Library.

And while Hermione’s suggestion of continuing Horcrux research was good advice, several problems immediately emerged. The most annoying was that staying at The Burrow meant it was completely impossible to discuss Horcruxes and their hypothetical locations without being overheard by at least six people. Harry and Ron found themselves often looking for strange excuses to go out to the broom shed so that they could be ensured a private conversation. And even these could be compromised. One afternoon Harry and Ron were examining the idea of looking up places in London where Voldemort’s mother and father might have stayed during their brief marriage when an Extendable Ear snaked its way through the wooden slats on the door.

“Take it as a compliment, gentlemen,” said the eavesdroppers when they were apprehended. “You’re the only people in this house worth spying on.”

After that Harry and Ron began putting Imperturbable Charms on all the closed doors they planned to talk Horcruxes behind. But unfortunately, there wasn’t much to say.

“I think we’re just going to have to admit to ourselves that we’ve hit a dead end, mate,” said Ron one day.

He and Harry were in the broom shed again, which they had expanded so that it could fit Sirius’s motorbike under its roof. There still had not been any snow, but Harry didn’t want to risk his godfather’s most precious possession if there was a sudden blizzard.

Harry was perched on the bike, with the notion that he might be able to recharm the transmission, but enchanted motorbikes just didn’t make the same kind of sense to him as a broomstick. So he contented himself with affectionately patting the handle grips as he said, “There’s got to be something. If Dumbledore was right, then we’ve still got two Horcruxes left: Voldemort’s snake Nagini and an artifact that may have belonged to either Gryffindor or Ravenclaw.”

“Uh huh,” said Ron, who had heard this many times before.

“Voldemort keeps the snake close, so there’s no sense going after it until we’re ready to go after him. That means we’ve only got one other Horcrux to track down.”

“Yeah,” said Ron, kicking at some loose hay on the floor, “problem is we’ve got no clue what that Horcrux could be or where You-Know-Who might have hidden it.”

“Maybe we should go and talk to Aberforth again,” Harry suggested.

Ron shrugged. “Unless he’s managed to buy the snake on the black market, I don’t see what he’s going to be able to do for us.”

“Well,” said Harry, “then we’re just going to have to go out and start looking up places Voldemort’s been. Maybe something will jump out at me, like it did in the vault.”

Harry thought he must be developing Dumbledore’s sense for magical concealment. In the Gringotts vault, he had found the Horcrux’s hiding spot without using a single spell. He had just known, looking at a blank stretch of wall, that this was the place.

Ron frowned. “Hermione’s not going to like that. Just going from place to place, out in the open? If anyone was following us, they’d see the pattern in what we were doing. They’d figure it out.”

Harry sighed. “Yeah, it’s pretty risky. But we’re running out of leads.”

Ron echoed Harry’s sigh and hoisted himself on to the motorbike to join him. “Maybe we should just...take a break, Harry. Let Hermione get stronger. Think things over a little bit before we run off again.”

“That’s dangerous too, Ron. Voldemort knows about The Burrow.”

Ron shuddered at this and said with difficulty , “I know.” But a moment later, the hopeful expression once again stole its way onto his face. “But there’s always someone from the Order here and we’ve got plenty of wards up. It’s nice to be back, don’t you think? I mean, we’ve been on the run for months now. It makes a nice change to sleep in my own bed and have Mum do my laundry. And it’s Christmas and everything.”

Harry stared at the wall, feeling very far away. Ron was home. He was not.

“Harry, just think about it, okay? You like it here. You know you do.”

“Yeah,” Harry sighed. “’Course I do. Beats staying at the orphanage, doesn’t it?”

“The orphanage?” Ron asked, half-smiling. “Is that what we’re calling Privet Drive now?”

“Privet Drive?” Harry repeated. The words didn’t mean anything to him. Ron must be having a joke.

“Yeah,” laughed Ron, “Privet Drive. Those horrible Dursley people who hated you. Forgotten them already?”

Harry frowned. It was those other kids at the orphanage who hated him, those kids who whispered about him to Mrs. Cole, made out like he was crazy behind his back.

“Harry?” The smile was slowly dropping off Ron’s face.

But he wasn’t crazy. He’d show them all. He’d be showing them all a few new tricks now that he went to Hogwarts...

But he didn’t go to Hogwarts anymore. He had dropped out...

Harry forced himself off the motorbike, his trembling knees barely holding him up. The scar on his forehead was beginning to burn.

“Ron,” he began, “Ron, my scar --”

But then he didn’t have a scar anymore. He was on a ship, his gloved hands clutching the railing, watching the small houses on the shoreline recede as a horn sounded...He was in his room at the orphanage, putting Francis Morgan’s stupid mouth organ in a cardboard box...He was in the mountains, adjusting the scarf wrapped around his face to better protect himself against the snow-laden wind. He was looking up at the face of a cliff, a spectacular palace entrance carved into the rock...He had found it at last, Volshebnik, just the man who knew...

“Horcruxes,” muttered Harry under his breath, and he tasted hay. But it didn’t concern him, because he was walking up the drive to number seven, Godric Lane, and he could see the house because the secret was out...the Potters would be caught unaware as Wormtail had promised, and then he really would be immortal and unstoppable...as soon as that Potter brat died...

Not brat, said a voice in his head, Me!

And then he was gasping for breath, face down on the broom shed floor, and there was hay in his mouth. He could hear Ron distantly shouting something, but the pain in his head seemed to be shutting out the world. He had seen, he had heard...that had been his parents’ house...right before...

Ron rolled him over and slapped his face.

“Ouch! Ron!”

“Oh, you’re awake! Harry, are you okay?” Ron pulled him into a sitting position, and Harry with some difficulty focused his eyes on Ron’s frightened, wide-eyed face. “Were you...in his head?”

Harry said nothing. He was still trying to process the strange deluge of images he had just experienced. It would all be much easier to sort out if his scar would just stop pounding.

“Are you going to be sick?” asked Ron, backing away.

In fact Harry’s body was sorely tempted to turn itself inside out, but he tried to stop it, taking deep breaths. The motorbike glinted at him, looming oddly from this angle on the floor.

“Mate? Harry, say something!”

“I’m okay,” gasped Harry. “I’m okay, Ron, really.”

“What happened?”

“I... I was in Voldemort’s head, I think. It was...odd though. I was...he was...”

Harry could not get his tongue around the words. His eyes were stinging right along with the scar. He had been in Voldemort’s mind. The strange connection they shared had been active again.

Ron pulled Harry to his feet. “Was someone attacked?”

“Don’t...think...so.”

Ron was looking at him with enormous concern. “Let’s go back to the house.”

In the kitchen they found Mr. Weasley discussing giant migration with Lupin and Tonks. The three of them looked up, alarmed, as Ron helped Harry into a seat.

“Harry?” asked Lupin, half-standing.

“S’okay, Professor,” said Harry, folding his arms on the table and letting his heavy head fall into them. “I’m fine.”

“His scar hurt him,” said Ron tightly. “Just now in the shed. He sort of...erm...collapsed.”

Harry gave him the best annoyed look he could muster, for Ron had just guaranteed him no end of fussing from every adult in the house.

“Oh my,” said Mr. Weasley, his eyes wide. “What does that mean? You saw someone get hurt?”

Harry awkwardly shook his head against his crossed arms.

“Can I get you something, Harry?” asked Tonks. “Some water?”

“No...thanks,” said Harry, but she conjured a glass for him anyway.

“I thought this wasn’t happening to you anymore, Harry,” said Lupin. “I thought Voldemort was using Occlumency against you.”

“He was,” said Harry. “Maybe he still is, I dunno. I’ve been getting...flashes of things recently, but nothing major. Those felt almost...accidental, like his grip just slipped for a moment.”

“Is that what it felt like this time?” asked Mr. Weasley, watching him closely.

Harry slowly raised his head from the table, thinking hard. He remembered house number seven, looking so peaceful at the end of that lane. “No,” he said, “I don’t know what this was. I wasn’t seeing the present, I was seeing...other things.”

“What do you mean?” Lupin asked.

“Like his memories,” said Harry, and his voice sounded strange in his ears. “Things he’d done in the past.”

Lupin was regarding him with a strange, arrested look. Ron looked between both of them, bewildered. “I don’t get it,” he said.

“I was -- I mean, he was in Godric’s Hollow...in front of my Mum and Dad’s house...” Harry looked down at the table, and to give himself something to do, he began drinking the glass of water.

Tonks reached out and patted his arm, but she seemed to be the only one present who had retained the ability to move. Lupin stared at Harry, not blinking or even breathing by the looks of him. Mr. Weasley had also frozen, his almost comically stunned expression mirroring his son’s.

“That’s sick,” Ron finally said. “He didn’t...he didn’t let you see that on purpose?”

“I dunno,” said Harry. “but if I had to guess...yeah, I think he might have done.”

“Harry...” muttered Lupin, staring not at Harry, but at the ever-remarkable burn mark on the table.

“It’s okay,” said Harry, willing his voice to sound completely normal. “I mean, I’m okay. It may not have even been on purpose. There was a whole string of memories, and the rest of them didn’t mean a thing to me. It could have just been another slip.”

Lupin looked completely unconvinced. In fact, Harry could not remember ever having seen him look this worried. “You know what this could mean,” Lupin finally said. “If he’s sending you thoughts and images again, he could do more. He might try to use you for information, like Dumbledore always feared he would. He can find out where you’ve been these last few months and what you’ve been doing.”

Harry shook his head. He couldn’t bear to even consider this possibility.

“You know he can, Harry. You’ve never been able to block him out.”

Harry felt a wave of anger hit him. He slammed his hands down on the table, growling, “What do you want me to do? I can’t learn Occlumency now, and who’d teach me anyway? Shall I look up Snape, see if he’s willing?”

Lupin’s face remained utterly calm. “I am just warning you that it may not be safe to continue doing whatever it is you’re doing. You’ve always said that secrecy in this is of the utmost importance, Harry. Well, if you go on, you may be revealing everything you find out to Voldemort. Everything, do you understand me?”

“I can’t stop!” shouted Harry, leaping to his feet, the pain in his head forgotten. “I’m the only one who can do this! Don’t you dare ask me!”

Lupin rubbed the bridge of his nose with one hand. “Harry, I don’t think you should be alone on this anymore. I don’t think it wise.”

“You never did,” said Harry. “But it’s the only way I can do it, so you’re out of luck.”

And he was out the door, feet crunching noisily on frozen dirt as he put as much distance as possible between himself and Lupin. He heard someone follow him out the door, and recognized the footsteps and the breathing as Ron’s. They made it to the front gate before Harry found his voice. “What does he expect me to do? Be led around in a blindfold so Voldemort can’t see a thing?”

“I dunno,” said Ron.

“How can he be like this? It’s completely unreasonable!”

“He’s worried,” said Ron simply.

Harry kicked the fence.

“I don’t get why you hold it against everyone for being worried about you,” said Ron, watching him. “They’ll let you go anyway. They’ll have to.”

Harry swiped his glasses off and rubbed at his stinging eyes, already feeling like a fool for getting so worked up. Mostly he was angry because he knew Lupin was at least partially right. Voldemort’s presence in his mind could ruin everything. But he couldn’t think about it, he couldn’t let the very risk of exposure stop him from continuing his search. This strange psychic connection was certainly a drawback, but to worry about it too much would achieve nothing but drive him mad before his eighteenth birthday.

“Harry,” started Ron, who was clearly pegging Harry’s thoughts with some accuracy, “about what Lupin said...”

“Yeah?”

“Well, when he said that You-Know-Who might try to get information out of you-- ”

“You don’t need to recount it for me, Ron, I heard him.”

“Yeah, well, I heard you say something in the shed. When you were in that trance or whatever it was, you muttered something...something about Horcruxes.” Ron stared at Harry, looking very nervous indeed.

Harry thought himself back, trying to remember. Yes, he had been thinking about Horcruxes, but that was because--

The image of a snowy mountain rebloomed in Harry’s mind. “One of the memories, it was of this place in the mountains. A big palace inside a cliff, carved right into the stone. Voldemort was going there, because... because there was someone there who could help him. Someone who knew about Horcruxes.”

Ron’s mouth was hanging open. “Are you sure?”

Harry nodded.

“Do you think he showed you that on purpose?”

“Why would he? He doesn’t know I know about his Horcruxes, and he wouldn’t want to reveal them to me, just like that.”

Ron’s face was slowly breaking into a grin. “Then you know what we’ve got, mate?”

“What?”

“A lead!”

******************************************

“Hmmm...” Hermione chewed absentmindedly at the end of a deluxe sugar quill Ron had purchased for her, sitting more alertly in her bed. “A Dark wizard who lives in a mountain.”

“Ever read about anything like that, Hermione?” asked Ron.

“I’m not sure,” said Hermione. “Dark wizards often have hideaways in odd places like that. Are you sure you didn’t notice any little details about the mountain range, Harry? Anything to help me locate it?”

Harry shrugged. “Just the great stone palace. Is that really not enough?”

“Well,” Hermione said, setting the Portable Library open on her knees, “let’s see.” She leaned over the book and spoke in a clear voice. “Spectacular Wizarding Residences. Hmmm. ‘Mountain Palaces.’ Okay.” She quickly thumbed through the book’s pages, making an odd but very familiar humming noise as she skimmed.

“Is this it, Harry?” she asked, holding up a picture of a stone-spired dwelling jutting out of a tall mountain peak.

Harry shook his head. “No, it wasn’t quite that extravagant. Just...a doorway in a cliff. And there was a lot of snow.”

Hermione sighed and replaced the book on her lap. “All right, I’ll keep looking.”

“But only if you’re up to it,” Ron piped in.

Hermione’s lips quirked. “It’s helping me feel loads better, actually. Dark Wizards of the Twentieth Century. Hmmm.”

Harry leaned back in his chair by the window, watching Hermione work. He scratched idly at his forehead but froze in the act when he saw Ron looking at him. “What?”

“Your scar isn’t hurting again, is it?”

Hermione looked up, her eyes narrowed.

Harry shook his head. “Nope. I’d tell you if it was.”

“Harry,” Hermione began tentatively, “maybe you should think about what Lupin said. If Voldemort can spy on you, he can find out you’ve destroyed his Horcruxes--”

“Hermione, I really understand that. But there’s nothing to be done about it. I’ve got to keep going.”

Hermione sighed, turning pages sulkily. “I think it may be time to start...letting Lupin in on some things. He’s a great resource, and he wants to help. Shutting him out, it’s only making matters worse.”

“I’ll think about it,” snapped Harry. He didn’t want to be short with Hermione, not after having just witnessed her in so much distress, but this was a very sore subject at the moment. He had not apologized to Lupin for his outburst, and it had made matters at The Burrow even more tense than before.

“You really should, Harry,” said Hermione earnestly. “And while we’re talking, I think you should also stop ignoring Ginny.”

“What?” cried Harry, blind-sided. “I’m not ignoring her! I see her all the time!”

“Yes, but she says that as soon as she enters a room, you leave it. Isn’t that right, Ron?”

“Errr...yeah,” said Ron, who looked supremely reluctant to enter the conversation.

Hermione was not so easily cowed. “It’s hurting her feelings, Harry. It’s one thing if you don’t want to go out with her anymore, but to just start pretending she doesn’t exist, that’s really not very nice of you.”

Harry wanted to get angry, but he couldn’t bring himself to. Thinking about Ginny just made him feel very sad. “She really said that? That I’m hurting her feelings?”

“Well, ‘that prat keeps running away from me like I’ve got fangs or something’ were her exact words, but yes,” Hermione nodded, “you are hurting her feelings.” She gave him a look of deep disappointment and then returned to her reading.

Ron, for his part, was watching Harry very nervously. Something about his expression made Harry sure it must be time to ask the big question which had been tormenting him. “Has Ginny mentioned anything to you about...about any blokes...at Hogwarts?”

Ron looked alarmed. “Well, she talks about Neville a lot. But I can’t believe, I mean, I don’t think Ginny...and Neville are...you know.” At a look from Hermione, the superior smile on Ron’s face disappeared. “They’re just friends,” he finished lamely.

“She doesn’t have a boyfriend,” said Hermione, frowning at the Portable Library. “But if you’re so interested in Ginny’s personal life, you really ought to ask her about it yourself.”

A wave of relief warmed Harry up from toes to nose, but he immediately felt bad about it. Ginny could carry on even if he was away; he shouldn’t be celebrating the fact that she had put her life on hold for him. And now he was ignoring her, for purely selfish reasons, too.

“You don’t want Ginny hacked off with you, mate,” said Ron, nodding sagely. “That Bat-Bogey Hex is serious stuff.”

Hermione ruffled his hair. “Ah, Ron, always doing things for the right reasons.”

“Come on, Hermione, get some perspective. I’ve got to save this poor man from suffering a terrible fate. Ginny perfected that Hex on me, you know. I’ve never been the same.”

“I’m sure you’re all the better for it,” Hermione archly replied, and then she heaved a massive sigh. “Nothing about any cave-dwellers in Dark Wizards of the Twentieth Century. I could just leaf through some general histories, I suppose...”

Harry had a sudden thought. “What about Dark Wizards of the Nineteenth Century?”

Hermione raised her eyebrows.

Ron frowned. “Do the maths, Harry. All the people in there would have been long dead before You-Know-Who could have visited them.”

“Not if they made a Horcrux,” said Harry, looking at Hermione, who was beaming at him.

Dark Wizards of the Nineteenth Century!” she announced to the Portable Library. She began to furiously rifle through the pages, her nose in danger of being swatted by them, so close was she leaning into the book. Suddenly she emitted a cry of delight. “Svargas Volshebnik!”

“Blimey, that’s a mouthful,” said Ron.

“Read it,” said Harry. He felt a thrill of recognition at the sound of the name.

“Listen,” said Hermione, sitting up very straight. “‘Volshebnik was a talented wizard of Russian descent who often applied his sharp intellect to performing experiments which redrew the boundaries of magical knowledge. In addition to his private experimenting, Volshebnik concerned himself with academics for many years, privately tutoring only those students he felt were particularly deserving of his attention. In 1815, he joined the staff at Durmstrang Academy, where his areas of expertise were curses and curse-breaking. After serving as a teacher there for forty-three years, he unexpectedly quit his post.’”

“Why?” asked Harry, who was imagining a juicy scandal of some kind.

“It doesn’t say,” said Hermione, who continued reading. “‘Up to that point, he had been highly regarded by the Wizarding public for his scholarly writings, but after he left Durmstrang his disappearance was complete.’”

Harry sat forward on his seat. This was getting good.

“‘Rumors began in the late 1870’s that Volshebnik had retired to the Ukraine and become obsessed with the Dark Arts. There was speculation that his experiments had become the stuff of nightmares, that he was practicing necromancy and other banned forms of magic, all in the name of pushing the limits of his magical powers as far as they could go. The Russian Ministry sent a team of Aurors to investigate, but...’”

“Yeah?”

“‘But none of them ever returned to Moscow. They were found in the Carpathian Mountains, with their eyes and tongues cut out. Volshebnik was suspected of the crime, but never apprehended. He is believed to have died anonymous and alone, somewhere in the icy caves of the Carpathians. Modern wizardry mourns the loss of one of its greatest and most fearless minds.’” Hermione looked up from the book, her face alight. “What do you think, Harry? Does that sound right?”

Harry nodded. He had known of course, as soon as she had said the name, Volshebnik, that this was the man Voldemort had been seeking in the memory.

“He definitely sounds like the type who’d know something about Horcruxes,” said Ron, tapping his chin thoughtfully.

“I wish it went into more detail as to what precisely all these experiments were about, though,” said Hermione, looking through the book again. “That way we might have some idea of what it was Voldemort wanted to ask him.”

Harry nodded. His heart was racing. Volshebnik had answers for him, he knew it with a deep conviction that he could not explain. They had been living in a drought of information for too long. It was time to find the rain.

*****************************************

The new year dawned and with it a plan was beginning to form in Harry’s mind. Volshebnik tutored wizards he felt were particularly deserving of his attention. And what better way of attracting his attention than to scale the unscale-able mountain peak which, rumor had it, he called home? That was probably what the young Voldemort had hoped to accomplish, trekking up the side of that cliff all those years ago. If Volshebnik was still alive, what was stopping Harry from doing the same? He was a young wizard in need of guidance; he could pretend to be interested in the Dark Arts for a day or two and use that time with Volshebnik to ask him questions about Voldemort.

Hermione and Ron were predictably aghast when he explained this plan.

“I’d like to keep my eyes and tongue, thanks,” said Ron. “I’m rather attached to them.”

“I’m attached to them too,” said Hermione, which earned a snort from Ron.

They had helped Hermione down three flights of stairs, and had installed her on the living room couch in front of the blazing fireplace. She and Ron were both wrapped in the same afghan, and Harry was just beginning to feel like he might be intruding.

“More hot chocolate, dears?” asked Mrs. Weasley, poking her head into the room.

“Yes, please!” said Ron, and carefully accepted one, trying not to spill any foam on Hermione. Mrs. Weasley regarded the two of them with an affectionate, rather misty-eyed expression, then hurried away.

Harry waited for her to leave, then continued, “I don’t see why he’d want to attack us. We’re not Aurors. We’re just...interested third parties.”

“Third parties interested in destroying one of his former students, you mean,” said Hermione, smirking. “Harry, I really don’t see any Dark wizard, even if he isn’t Lord Voldemort, inviting you in for tea just like that. It’s an incredible risk.”

“Lower your voice,” Ron whispered in her ear, his eyes on the doorway into the kitchen.

“What if he thinks I’m a Dark wizard too?” Harry asked.

Hermione and Ron exchanged a look.

“Hear me out,” Harry continued, “if Voldemort could do it, why can’t I? If he asks for proofs, I’ll speak a little Parseltongue or something.”

“He’s got a point, Hermione,” Ron said. “People have mistaken Harry for being a Dark wizard before. Maybe we can use that to our advantage.”

Hermione bit her lip. “Well, I think it’s a bad plan. What if he’s heard of you, Harry? Have you thought of that? What if he sees your scar and knows exactly who you are and what you’re after?”

“Hermione, everyone thinks this man is dead. He lives way up in the mountains. How’s he going to have heard of me?”

Hermione tilted her head at him in such a way as to suggest he was the biggest fool she’d ever laid eyes on. “He could still be in touch with Voldemort. It’s completely possible. And it wouldn’t even have to be Voldemort. If Volshebnik is in contact with anyone in the wizarding world, he has probably heard of you.”

“All right, all right,” said Harry, annoyed at the inconvenience of fame, “I’ll give him a false name and we’ll brew more Dissimulata.”

Ron shuddered at this, or perhaps it was Hermione. They were sitting so close together it was hard to tell. But it was certainly Hermione who finally spoke up in a small and unhappy voice. “I hate that potion.”

“So do I,” agreed Harry, “but it hides my scar well enough, so I can’t complain.”

Hermione sighed. “Harry, I don’t like this,” she said matter-of-factly. “It’s not a good plan and you know it. And besides, this man -- Volshebnik -- sounds very, very dangerous. We’ll be in over our heads with him.”

Harry raised his eyebrows. “Because we’re never in over our heads otherwise,” he said.

Hermione bit her lip.

“We’ve got no other leads,” Ron said, looking at her very seriously. “We haven’t got a choice, Hermione.”

Hermione slowly nodded, and Harry smiled gratefully at Ron. “I know we haven’t,” Hermione assented quietly, “but that doesn’t mean I have to like it. I hope you know what you’re doing, Harry, because I certainly don’t.”

***************************************

The three of them began to engage in the now very familiar pre-departure practice of pumping the surrounding adults for information in as subtle a way as possible.

“So, Charlie, ever been to the Carpathian Mountains?” asked Ron in the middle of dinner.

Charlie froze with his glass of mulled cider halfway to his lips, looking politely bewildered. “Sure,” he said. “Can’t throw a stone in some parts of the Carpathians without hitting a dragon. Just last month I tracked some Ukrainian Ironbellies that were living in the caves there, attacking farmers.”

“Really?” asked Harry, forgetting all about his pork chops. “Caves? What were they like?”

All the adults at the table were now looking at him with vague suspicion. Lupin’s expression was particularly keen.

Charlie, for his part, seemed rather touched by the sudden interest in his field of work. “They’re the largest caves in the world,” he enthused. “All sorts of interesting creatures live there. Gets a bit dangerous in the winter, avalanches you know, but they’re some of the most dramatic things I’ve ever seen.” He paused and regarded the three listeners who were hanging on his every word, and he seemed to finally cotton on. “Why are you so interested?” he asked, frowning.

“You know kids these days, Charlie,” said Lupin with a twisted smile. “They can’t get enough of those Carpathian Mountains.”

“Or bank robbing apparently,” said Ginny, toasting them.

“And I’m still unclear why you were so curious about Sirius’s dead brother last autumn,” said Tonks.

“Or why you felt the overwhelming need to burn down number twelve, Grimmauld Place,” added Lupin. “Though on further thought, maybe it’s understandable.”

“We’re just, you know, interested,” said Harry, uncomfortable under Lupin’s stare.

************************************

They began gathering supplies. Mrs. Weasley, having overheard their Carpathian line of questioning at dinner, knitted all three of them extra-warm hats, scarves, and gloves. Ginny had quite a laugh at this, because her mother had taken it upon herself to knit little Puffskeins into the design.

“Very dashing,” she said, playing with one of the fringed ends of Hermione’s new scarf. “Maybe you should call yourselves ‘The Puffskein Plunderers’ on your next heist.”

“It’s kind of catchy,” Harry agreed stiffly, and she laughed. The sound of it made Harry’s belly warm up faster than if he had just drunk one of Mrs. Weasley’s hot chocolates, but he didn’t laugh along with her. He had restrained himself from leaving the room when she had entered, but whenever he tried to have a normal conversation with her, he felt terribly awkward.

**************************************

The twins dropped by with a crate of their Defense line of products, restocking Harry’s collection of Decoy Detonators and Instant Darkness Powder. Harry packed these in his bag, along with all the many other things he had found indispensable over the last few months of traveling: the magical mirror with which he could communicate with Lupin (if he needed it; at the moment he wasn’t especially tempted to communicate with Lupin at all), his father’s Invisibility Cloak, his Sneakoscope, a potions kit, a set of thick cloth bandages charmed to quickly heal minor wounds, an enchanted container from Mrs. Weasley in which he could keep food that would never spoil, his favorite book Flying with the Cannons, and a bezoar, just in case.

The day before he planned to leave, Harry was sitting on his camp bed in Ron’s attic bedroom recharming his cloak so that it would stay warm, when he heard a knock on the door.

“Yeah, come in,” Harry called.

The door opened and Ginny came into the room. Harry was shocked to see that her face had that hard blazing look he knew so well.

“I’m leaving now,” she said.

Harry stared. He had been so focused on his own imminent departure that he had forgotten that the Hogwarts term was about to begin. “Oh. How’re you getting back?”

“A one-off Floo connection, same as last year,” said Ginny, shrugging. “I just wanted to say goodbye, wish you well.”

“Oh,” said Harry again, and now he set his cloak aside. “Same to you. Say hi to everyone at Hogwarts for me. Especially Neville and Luna. Tell them I’m thinking of them.”

Ginny nodded, but she didn’t leave. The blazing look was beginning to dazzle Harry. He was suddenly painfully aware of the fact that he was alone in the room with her, alone for probably the first time in many months.

“Ginny,” he started, “I’m really sorry about all this.”

She frowned at him. “Don’t apologize, Harry. I’m not angry with you. What you said to me last summer, I know it still holds. And you know I’m fine with it.”

“Yeah,” said Harry, who wasn’t fine with it at all.

“I just...” Ginny trailed off, clearly gathering her words. Harry rarely saw her this ruffled. It was a little unnerving. “I’d be happier with it if I saw that you were happy, and you’re not, Harry, I can see it so plainly on your face. You’ve been shutting everyone except Ron and Hermione out of your life and I honestly can’t understand why.”

“You know why. I explained it to you...at the funeral.”

Ginny shook her head. She stood directly over him now, looking down at him on the bed. “That wasn’t your reason, that was your excuse. You said it was going to help you do what you needed to do and that it would protect me, and maybe it has protected me, but I know it hasn’t helped you.” She spoke very quickly, her voice higher than normal. “Tell me, Harry, and be honest; is it really easier for you...to go to the Carpathian Mountains or whatever it is you’re up to...without me?

“Yes,” said Harry, his heart pounding, glad she didn’t know Legilimency.

Ginny took a step backwards, nodding slowly. “Okay. Then I’m going to move on if that’s okay with you.”

Harry gaped at her.

Ginny kept her eyes focused directly on his, her hands balled into small bloodless fists. “I can’t just sit around and wait. I had to wait for you for years, and it made me miserable most of the time. And then finally I let myself stop as best I could and it was like waking up again after a long sleep. And now I’m not that girl. I won’t wait for you anymore.”

For a moment she just looked at him and he could say nothing at all. Then his eyes began to sting embarrassingly, and he desperately wanted her to leave. If this was how she felt, why was she still standing there? What did she want, his handwritten permission?

“Errr...” he said, his voice very strangled. “Who would you...be moving on with...exactly?”

Disappointment devastated Ginny’s face. “I don’t care,” she finally said, shrugging. “All I know is I don’t want a boyfriend who doesn’t want me around. It’s not fair to me or you. So I’m not going to wait for you anymore. Just wanted you to know.”

And then she turned, her lip trembling, and she slowly walked out the door. Harry clutched at the edge of the bed, his whole body shaking.

***********************************

Their departure was proving hectic as usual, but Harry was glad for it. That way he could lose himself in the details and try to distract his mind from calling up that awful image of Ginny walking away with her trembling lip. Hermione and Ron (Hermione mostly) could tell that something had happened, but they did not press him about it. And so the moment came, right after Harry’s Firebolt had been restrapped to the side of the motorbike, when the three travelers turned to each other and realized they were ready to depart.

“It would be so much faster if we just Apparated,” said Hermione, her hands on her hips as she surveyed the parked motorbike.

“It’ll be easier to get around the mountains with the bike,” said Harry. “Especially since we don’t know precisely where Volshebnik’s caves are.”

“And besides,” said Ron, who was looking at Hermione with not very well-veiled concern, “it’s much more comfortable this way. Easier on all of us.”

Hermione frowned but said nothing. Harry had watched Ron anxiously fawn over Hermione’s health with increasing frequency over the last few days, and if Hermione was as annoyed by it as he was, then at this moment she must be restraining herself from taking her hands to Ron’s throat and throttling him.

“Let’s go back and say goodbye,” Harry said to distract her.

Most of the family had already departed, Ginny to Hogwarts, Percy to the Ministry, Charlie back to Romania, Bill and Fleur to their shared flat in London, and the twins to Weasley’s Wizard Wheezes. Now only Mr. and Mrs. Weasley, Tonks, and Lupin remained, grouped around the kitchen table, a grim and silent group. Mrs. Weasley was dabbing at her eyes with a napkin again, and Mr. Weasley patted kindly at her back. Lupin combed through a stack of parchments for the Order, beating one knuckle rhythmically against the wooden table, and Tonks regarded him with a look equal parts worry and resignation.

Harry, Ron, and Hermione thanked everyone and wished them goodbye, accepting Mrs. Weasley’s vertebrae-popping embraces, shaking Mr. Weasley’s hand, and exchanging winks with Tonks. Lupin wished them luck, and Harry half-expected him to try to stop them again, but the moment passed, and then Lupin was hunched over the parchment again, the faint crease having returned to its home between his eyebrows.

Harry recognized this look, and realized he should have expected it. This was how Lupin had always done things; he swallowed his disapproval and hid it along with his nose in the pages of some book. He had done it whenever the Marauders had staged a prank he didn’t agree with, and he was doing it to Harry now.

Well, let him, thought Harry savagely, Suits me fine.

And then they were back on the frozen front lawn, straightening their hats and scarves. Harry Silenced the engine and Disillusioned the bike. The morning light was brilliantly clear and the clouds were very wispy, so Harry went right ahead and Disillusioned himself and the others for good measure. It was always odd to travel with companions who blended into the sky behind them, but avoiding detection was paramount.

They climbed on the bike, Harry tapped his wand on the gas tank, and they felt the familiar purr of the engine coming alive. They crunched across the lawn, skirting The Burrow in a wide arc, and then Harry let the tires tread the air.

//
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