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4. AN UNLIKELY PARTNERSHIP
Thanks to JForias for the kind review. It reminded me fondly of his contributions to Hermione's Inferno as well. You all ought to read some of them. He was--and is--really good at getting into peoples' minds and feelings--in a 1000 words or less--no mean feat. In hopes of learning a little from him, I went back over this chapter--which, like the last one, was a bit of an info dump--and tried to capture the changing relationship between S & H. So I dedicate it to JForias--master of characterization that he is. And to the fact that we're both still writing for SQ. Yay!
Hermione's thoughts were a swirl of confusion. There was something very flattering about the supercilious, blasé Sirius Black, asking for her help. When he was alive, he had never seemed to trust her or Ron's or even Harry's judgment. But he was asking the impossible. Anyone could see that. She tried to explain, "Sirius—I'm not--I couldn't--"
But he obviously wasn't going to accept a 'no' answer. Believe me, Hermione, there is no one better suited for this task.
"There must be someone else who can--"
Think, Hermione. You said it yourself: the list shows that Dumbledore cast a wide net--far beyond our Magicosm--in his efforts to shield people from the Dark Lord. And besides him--and Harry--you're the only person I know who has such an intimate knowledge of both the Muggle and magical worlds.
"That's true but I…I just don't know…"
You've a quick mind, and your spell work is off the charts. Hermione, you are the best—-the only person for the job."
This final blast of fulsome praise shattered the barriers of reason. "All right. I'll do it. For Dumbledore." Maybe I could ask Ron...or Ginny to help...at least for a bit.
That's great. And with my help, I just know you'll succeed.
"What do you mean--with your help?"Oh dear God, please, say it isn't so.
But Sirius was on a roll. Do you think I'd just leave you to fend for yourself? I do still have some male pride, you know…and some abilities, though they are limited. At the very least, I can be a companion to you, someone you can bounce ideas off of.
Reason roused itself and warred with reluctance. I really couldn't do this all by myself, and it would unfair to ask Ron...But Sirius? Oh, honestly! "Oh...well...all right.
I can understand your reluctance to work with me.
"What do you mean?"
I know we haven't always gotten along.
"Oh, that. Well, sometimes you have been rather...stand-offish." And brooding and unsympathetuc, petulant, uncooperative, self-centered, out of control... She forced a note of cheeriness into her voice. "Never mind. We have the same goal here. I'm sure we'll work together just fine. But...there is one other thing."
She told him about Scrimgeour's new Educational Decree.
Frankly, I'm not surprised. You're not going to let it stop you, are you?
"I--I don't know, Sirius. Anyway, if you can do the spellwork yourself, it would help a lot."
I'll see what I can negotiate with Lord Death.
"And we'll have to act fast. I'm to meet Harry and Ron at Bill's wedding at the end of August. We were going to start off to look for the Horcruxes right after that."
Without using spellwork?
"Nothing the Ministry can do will stop Harry--or Ron. And everyone knows that Voldemort has to be defeated so I don't think the Wisengamot will hold a bit of lawbreaking against The Boy Who Lived--especially if he does destroy the Horcruxes and kills him. But with the Headmaster...well...there's no real proof that he's being held captive, is there?"
Except the word of a corpse-cuddling skeleton and the not-quite-ghost of a convicted murderer. He sighed. We have to finish this by August, you say? That gives us almost three months. And there is another reason why it's important that the work be completed quickly.
I'm afraid of what the Inferis' torments can ultimately do to Dumbledore's soul. If it's anything like the Dementors…well, it's got to be even worse than with them.
"What do you mean?"
At least while I was in Azkaban, Hermione, I could hear other prisoners nearby. Oh, they were mostly just muttering to themselves, moaning, crying-- screaming sometimes—-but in a way all that noise was comforting because it reminded me that I wasn't alone. There were real people all around me in the same boat as I was. And I could see the sky through the grate in the ceiling…hear the rain, and the seabirds calling. And there was the occasional outsider--always there to visit someone else of course--but it helped keep me going too, just knowing the door swung both ways and that there was a real world on the other side of it, far away from those soul-sucking fiends. It gave me hope, you see.
But Dumbledore's all closed in, in that tomb, Hermione. He's all alone in there, hopeless and helpless, with all these feelings of guilt, of insufficiency, knowing that there are people up here he was not able to help, people he promised something to…
"Well, not exactly alone. But, as you say, the Inferi are like Dementors..."
Something like. They're hungry, yes, but for revenge, not happy feelings. I think the Inferi must be so jealous of the living. They'd love to turn even one of us into a twisted bit of ectoplasmic swill like themselves.
"How can you know that?"
I think I understand a little of how they feel. My last year, I had to sit in Grimmauld Place doing nothing, feeling bitter and envious of the rest of you out there--free--and fighting. I wanted you all to know how I felt. I wanted to punish every last one of you--oh Merlin--Harry especially--for the sorry situation I'd got myself into. The Dead are like that, I'm sure, at least the ones who have made a lot of lives miserable with their lies and cheating. They can't ever go back to fix their mistakes.
She felt a very unrational lump in her throat. "Sirius--"
Hermione. I don't know anything about necromancy or psychology or whatever else the great minds of magic and Muggledom use to explain these things. I just have a feeling in my non-existent gut that we have to wrap this up soon, before they damage Dumbledore's soul beyond repair.
He's changed, she thought. But I can't let this get to me. We have a job to do. "Well, there's no sense dwelling on that," she said briskly, waving away the fumes of discouragement. "I just have a few things to wrap up with the Headmistress, and then we can go. But how will you travel? I can't carry this mirror around with me."
"Oh, I know. While I was in the Head's office, your great, great grandfather told me that you can inhabit bodies when you're not traipsing through mirrors and such."
Ah, dear Phineas Nigellus! He sends his love, I'm sure. Yes, over the last year Lord Death provided all sorts of 'containers' for my spirit. He made a face. But I won't inhabit just any old body. Some of the corpses he offered were foul--from old cemeteries and battlefields.
"And I heard you've been cats and dogs and—um—lesser beings."
If you're referring to that flobberworm I was forced to inhabit—well, I was desperate. How was I to know you'd stopped taking Creature Care?
"Why did you do it?"
I—uh—felt I had to keep an eye on you all.
Yes, I was also one of those owls that brought your test results that day at the Weasleys—the one with the hole in his chest. You didn't notice; you were so wrapped up in your OWL results. And later I took possession of a dead garden gnome in the midden out back of Molly's kitchen. Choked on too many potato peelings, the greasy little git. I don't ever want to be inside of one of those again. The smell and the diet was bloody awful…not to mention their mating habits…
Hermione stared at him, horrified.
Oops--sorry about that.Then I heard you all were going to Diagon Alley—not the safest of trips these days, so I borrowed the corpse of a seedy amulet merchant who'd been garrotted in Knockturn Alley and set up shop.
And—oh yes—later on the train to Hogwarts, your friend Luna Lovegood mistook me in my spirit form for a Wrackspurt. I couldn't stop Malfoy from beating up on Harry, but I was able to put a bug in Tonks's ear about it out on the platform so she could get on the train and rescue him. And I spent a good bit of time inhabiting various not too decayed bits of Buckbeak's snacks…
"But you never communicated with us—not even once." Sneaking around like that, spying on us all, when Harry was hurting so badly after your death. I wonder if you'll ever grow up.
Well, when I'm inhabiting an animal, I can't use telepathy. Something about the ectoplasmic vibrations being trapped within the confines of earthly clay…I don't know… I never paid much attention to that stuff in Trelawney's classes.
She rolled her eyes. Trelawney. Right. "Tell me about it. But you could've left clues—hints—spelled your name out in rat pellets or something. It would have been so helpful to Harry. You…you don't know how many times he wished he could talk to you."
I'm sorry, Hermione. Believe me, I felt his pain. But my silence was a condition of my freedom. The Grim Reaper let me go out in the world and watch over you all, but he made me promise not to reveal myself to any of you. He gets a little touchy about the boundary between Life and Death. It's his baby after all. He can't stand mediums and séances and such.
Oh. "So how come you're allowed to talk—erm--communicate with me now?"
The Pale Prince wants Dumbledore freed as much as we do. He's beside himself about the way Voldemort has been usurping his power.
"Usurping--? You mean making the Horcruxes?"
Yes, they kept him alive all those times he should've died. His Ghastliness still resents Voldie, I can tell. He wanders around mumbling, "Why couldn't he just kick off on schedule like a good fellow?"
Voldemort refused to die when it was his turn.
"When was that?"
Voldemort was actually scheduled to die in 1981 on Halloween Night.
"That's when Harry—as a baby--was able to resist his Killing Curse, and it rebounded back on him."
Yes, Death told me that was the true meaning of the prophecy—'neither can live while the other survives.'
"But the prophecy also says: 'The Dark Lord will mark him as his equal.' Harry didn't get the mark on his forehead until that night. But if You-Know-Who was meant to die that same night, it doesn't make sense."
Excellent point, Hermione. I asked something like that same question, and Skull Face just said that some words can have more than one meaning. I don't know what he meant by that. I mean, a mark's a mark, right?
"No, 'mark' can mean lots of other things, not just a sign or a scar. It can mean 'recognize' too." She had a sudden epiphany, which gave her a jolt of confidence. Epiphanies always did that for Hermione, especially when they came out of her own swotting, and the effect was doubled when she could show her revelation off to someone she felt had never really appreciated the value of scholarship, like Sirius--or Ron. "And the Dark Lord did just that, when he heard the first part of the prophecy. He perceived that Harry would be a formidable enemy. That's when he 'marked' him or 'recognized' him as his equal. That's why he felt he had to hunt him down. "
Then the scar may have had nothing to do with the prophecy. It makes sense--as much as the other anyway. So Voldie cheated Death—literally. And it made Death mad. But Voldie couldn't leave bad enough alone. He had to keep interfering in Death's affairs. The old Scythe-swinger told me all about it in one of his rants: how Voldie's spirit inhabited Professor Quirrell, and then he tried to steal the Philosopher's Stone, and then he killed a unicorn to keep himself alive, and he made that restoration concoction with Harry's blood, and then he conjured the Inferi, yada, yada, yada…
"Well, I guess I can understand how—erm—how Death feels…"
And that's not the worst of it, Hermione. Since Voldemort didn't die when he was supposed to, anyone he's killed himself since then is also a person who wasn't scheduled to die yet. And since there's nowhere else for them to go, they end up on Death's estate—just like me.
"Who has he killed since 1981?"
Only three that we know of: an old Muggle geezer named Frank Bryce. Well, his time did finally run out last week—he was that old—so he passed over at last. I kind of miss him. He was a decent snooker player. And Bertha Jorkins. Sirius said this last with a look of pain on his face.
"Isn't she that scatty witch who went missing during the Quidditch World Cup?"
Yes, though 'scatty' isn't the word I'd use. More like brainless and weepy and terminally annoying. Death thinks so too. She's a non-stop talker. He'd do anything to get her off the grounds, but she's not scheduled to go for another fifty years.
And then there's Karkarov.
"Igor Karkarov, Viktor's headmaster? The one who was a Death Eater?"
No, actually it's his brother, Sergei. And this is the one funny thing in this whole mess. Voldemort was itching to get Karkarov after he turned tail and ran out on the Death Eaters last year. He heard a rumor about where he was and went after him himself. Just couldn't wait on his minions, he was that mad. But it turns out, it was Karkarov's older brother, who looks a lot like him. So he killed the wrong bloke.
"Does he know he made a mistake?"
No one does yet, not even the Ministry. But if Voldie doesn't, I'm sure he'll find out soon enough. Wherever the real Igor is hiding, his spies are sure to get wind of it.
"Do you think Lord Death, angry as he is, would help us take Voldemort down?"
You betcha. The Master of the Moribund can't interfere directly—it's against some rule or other--but he can give us information. It was Death who told me about Dumbledore's situation in the first place. I had to wheedle most of the story out of him though. He's not the most forthcoming of informants.
"You say you live with him?"
Yes, he has this house and grounds—a garden and such. He doesn't much like my being there. He's still mad at me for coming through that Veil. I'm a trespasser who's upset his nice, neat little universe. And, as I say, I can't leave until my time.
He doesn't…torture you or anything, does he?"
No, it's more like intermittent carping and whining about 'the good old days'. That's not so bad, really. Reminds me of my mum. It's when he gives me the silent treatment that I start to go crazy.
"Does he do it a lot?"
Oh yes, it's his favorite way of getting back at me. But then, he's away a lot too—finishing people off. There's a brisk business in dying, especially nowadays. He looked glum at this.
"But it's a good thing for him to be away, isn't it? I mean the ranting and all sounds awful."
No, it's not. I hate to say it, but I miss him when he's gone. It's like solitary confinement. Lonely and very, very boring, except when Bertha or Sergei come wandering in—which might actually be worse, when I come to think of it. She's very silly, and he's very quarrelsome, but since he doesn't speak English, I can never tell what he's mad about.
"It must be frustrating."
And monotonous. Death's house is all shades of black and gray, and, as I say, apart from visits from those two, there's no sound, none at all, except for the ticking of that one big clock in the hall and all that eerie tinkling and whooshing.
Oh, didn't I tell you? He has shelves lining every single goddamned room, with all these hourglasses on them—
I guess it's okay to tell you about them. There's one for every living creature on earth, from the tallest giant right down to the teeniest pissy ant—or so he says. So all this sand is whoshing through all the necks of all these hourglasses and there's this tiny tinkling sound when a stray particle hits the sides.
"And when the sand in your glass runs out, your time is up."
Death showed me mine once. It'll empty out at the end of July of this year—only another month or so--but it started him off on one of his rants. My non-existent ears were ringing for days afterwards.
"Wait. What happens when you do pass over? I mean—will you still be able to help me?"
Oops, I forgot about that. I'll have to ask old Bag of Bones about it. He seemed really eager to get Dumbledore on his way to the Beyond, so I'm sure he'll come up with something... But, it's true. When ya gotta go, ya gotta go. He brightened. But then I'll get to—well--
"You really want to pass over and be with James and Lily, don't you?
The image in the mirror just sighed.
"You've been through a lot since you--died."
All in a most excellent cause though. It's ironic, isn't it, that I may be able to help more in the fight against Voldemort dead than I did alive.
"You mean by rescuing the Headmaster's soul."
Yes, but also it looks to me as if some of these promises on Dumbledore's list involve Death Eater activities. So we'll be gutting two vampires with one stake, as they say: fighting Voldie at the same time we're saving Dumbledore.
"All right, let's say we try to do this together. Will you be traveling as a spirit or what? I mean, if you're inhabiting an animal, it will be hard to understand you. I mean—my French is pretty good, but I don't speak Kneazle."
That's true, but there's a potion you can take to allow you to understand us dumb brutes.
Mmm-hmm. There's some in Dumbledore's—McGonagall's office: Dr. Doolittle's Veterinariserum.
"I remember that bottle. I packed it up. It's going to his brother Aberforth."
Can you get it back? It will come in real handy. That Doolittle was quite a gifted vet—Muggle fellow, you know.
"How did he come to be able to make a magical potion?"
That's something I'll have to ask him after I get into the Afterlife myself.
"I have another question—about how this whole thing started. The Styx water, how did it get into that bowl in the cave in the first place?"
Voldemort, of course. He, of all, people, would have a detailed knowledge of necromancy and would have figured out how to Summon it…
"But, Sirius, Harry told us that the locket at the bottom of the bowl wasn't the real Horcrux. It had a note inside—a message for the Dark Lord. Someone had found the real Horcrux, stolen it, and left the locket in its place. So there's someone out there who was able to get by the water in the bowl, remove the Horcrux, and replace it with an innocent replica."
A Death Eater, I'd guess. Who else would have a clue what Voldemort was doing?
"But who else would have that kind of power?"
Necromancy is a very specialized field of study. I only ever knew one person who had that kind of interest. He was rather brilliant—if misguided—in that way. It made him quite valuable to the Dark Lord for a time.
"The signature on the note was just initials: R.A.B."
Sirius looked startled, and was silent a moment. It fits, he murmured. Then: I have an idea who it is, but I won't know for sure until I have myself passed over.
"Then the person is already dead. Can you tell me who--"
No! He bowed his head. But--if I'm right--yes, he's dead.