Author: Tree Wishes
Genres: Angst and Romance
Rating: G (but there's slash, really, I swear!)
Warnings: See Snarry Games post for warnings.
Word Count: 21,000 +/-
A/N: adbaculum, dementordelta, and rubyrosered for beta reading, lightgetsin for nagging and plot suggestions, insptr_penguin for help with Latin, and loupgarou1750, venivincere, and bethbethbeth for emergency TEAM WARTIME support.
Soundtrack: "Not a Virgin",
Disclaimer: If I were king, this would all be Creative Commons.
Summary: Harry and his posse are hunting Horcruxes, and snarks fly when Harry finds Snape on the same trail.
The one born with the power to vanquish the Dark Lord approaches ...
Born to those who have thrice defied him, born as the seventh month dies ...
And the Dark Lord will mark him as his equal, but he will have power the Dark Lord knows not ...
And either must die at the hand of the other for neither can live while the other survives.
-- Sybill Trelawney
You only live twice:
Once when you're born,
And once when you look death in the face
-- Ian Fleming
Ron said, tossing the Sunday Observer aside, "are very
strange." He reached for a magazine from the stack on the floor, then sank
back into his chair and began flipping pages.
"Just keep your eye out for anything unusual," Hermione told him, copying her notes onto a rapidly-growing stack of record cards.
"The whole bloody Muggle world is unusual," he said, holding up a picture that Harry thought looked like a woman inside a banana peel. "We're searching for the phoenix feather in the goose down. And we don't know the difference." He snapped another few pages before looking up again, frowning. "I don't even know what I don't know."
"That," Hermione assured him, "is why I am writing all of this down." She held up a stack of white record cards. "The cards are spelled green when we know something for certain, yellow for very good guesses, and red for unknowns." She fixed a yellow card to the wall with a Sticking Charm.
She had turned the entire wall into a notice board with cards and pictures and coloured strings between them. The cards contained all Harry could remember from Dumbledore's lessons and all the times Voldemort had tried to kill him, and Hermione had filled in what she learned from her research. Ron had contributed the essential glue -- rumours, traditions, and all kinds of things every wizard knew that were never written down. It was part of what she called their 'War Room', which was really just a magical addition that only they could see on the back of the Weasleys' garden shed. As soon as Harry had stayed long enough at the Dursleys' to ensure the blood protection, they had set up their home base here.
They'd transfigured some of the collected junk in the shed -- Ron had assured them his dad wouldn't notice -- into three squashy chairs and a large, low table. Hermione had filled several bookshelves with every sort of the research material -- wizard and Muggle -- she could find. Now the three of them were sorting through it all, hoping to add to their 'very good guesses'.
"What are the blue cards?" Ron tossed the magazine back to the pile, and picked up a Guardian from the other side of his chair.
"Categories," she replied. As Hermione began describing the categories she was using -- people, places, Horcruxes -- Harry turned back to the issue of Fine Spellcasting laid open across his legs. Listening to them chatter, the normality of it all, made him feel better somehow. He didn't know how he would have made it through the morning without them, let alone the last few weeks.
"Hey, is this --" Ron held up a picture of a smiling man. "It's the other Minister, Tony Blair, he's with the Labour Party?"
Hermione beamed. "Yes, that's right."
Ron grinned and went back to his reading. Hermione had set him to reading Muggle magazines and current events, even fairy tales, and had given him a hands-on course in Muggle interactions, telephones, and electricity. It was paying off, too. Both Harry and Hermione had growing confidence that Ron could operate and gather information across the Muggle world. Of course Ron had protested at first, but he and Harry had let Hermione organize their lives for so long that it was easy to accept now. Harry had his own assignments. She had set meditation exercises for him, and he had made real progress on clearing his mind, not only when things were quiet but also when they were noisy. She called it a relaxation response. He just knew it worked.
Harry had been determined to set off right after Dumbledore's funeral, but it hadn't taken long for him to appreciate the benefit of hiding away from the battle to come and storing up his energy for a few weeks, of taking some time to prepare. They alternated reading, analyzing, and practicing their magic, working through all the spells they thought would be needed, and inventing ones they couldn't find. And now, at the beginning of August, they were better prepared.
Somewhere along the way, they had turned into a well-oiled machine. He mentally replayed their visit that morning to Godric's Hollow. Hermione had determined the coordinates and documented what they found. Harry had searched the ruins for any possible clues. Ron had set a secure perimeter and kept his eyes on both of them.
It wasn't as though he had expected to find a missing Horcrux today, but it had been stressful on all of them climb through and pick over the ruins of a house where one might have been created. Where he had been once, alive in the rubble, crying for his mum.
"What could have torn a house apart like that?" he asked, knowing they would realise which house he meant.
Ron closed his magazine and propped his legs on the table. "I'd say it was blown apart from the inside," he mused. "There were bits of glass and wood spread out all outside the walls. Or where the walls used to be."
Hermione nodded, scribbling on a yellow card. "Like a gas explosion?"
"Yeah," Harry nodded, "except it was a wizarding house, so no gas. And there were no burned bits, so no fire."
"Right," Ron said. "So something else happened in the house that caused a lot of pressure."
"Red card," Hermione said, and Harry nodded, turning back to his research.
The late afternoon sun filled the room by the time Hermione had covered the wall with cards. "There," she said, sticking the last one up and turning it green with a touch of her wand. "All right, then, let's go over what we know." Harry gratefully folded his newspaper and leaned forward.. "We think that Riddle made his first Horcrux while he was at Hogwarts, here," she tapped a green card. "when he told Professor Slughorn that he thought seven pieces of his soul would be the ideal number."
"And he put one into the bloody diary," Ron said, his voice dark. She nodded.
"Soon after that, he made one from his family's ring," Hermione continued, "and hid it in the Riddle house in Little Hangleton," she added, moving the card a few millimetres to the left and attaching a green string between the two.
"Right," Ron said. "That's the ring Dumbledore was wearing last year."
"Wait," Harry said. "It was on his left hand, not his wand hand. Do you have that on the card?"
Harry looked at Ron; they both looked at Hermione. She tapped her quill on a blank card and asked, "Do you think he tried to destroy it with his wand?"
"Good question," Ron replied. "And what do you think he did to it? His hand, I mean?" Ron asked.
"I don't think we know," Hermione said, frowning.
"He was taking a potion to keep whatever it was from spreading to the rest of him," Harry remembered. He had a quick flash of anger, remembering Dumbledore's frailty and his dependence on a potion to keep him alive. There was something he was missing... but there were so many things that Dumbledore hadn't told him before he was killed.
"Something happens to your hand when you try to kill a Horcrux?" Ron asked.
"If you don't have a basilisk fang handy," Harry put in.
"Right," Hermione nodded. "We know that basilisk fangs are very powerful... or perhaps it's easier to destroy a Horcrux that's made of paper? Or was it because Riddle didn't protect it as well as the ring?"
"Well, someone had moved it, before Malfoy put it in with Ginny's books," Ron offered.
"Right," Harry said, "So it wasn't as well hidden as the locket, then."
Hermione frowned, picking the card off the wall and hesitating before sticking it back where it was. "We simply don't know," she said finally.
Harry nodded his silent agreement. Dumbledore had left them precious little information, yet he knew they had to try to finish what he had started. More than try, they had to succeed. Harry knew there were answers here, if they could start to turn more of the red cards yellow or green.
Hermione turned back to the wall. "Now, we think that he made two more -- the locket and the cup, based on what Harry saw in the pensieve," she went on. "Still, that's only four." She tapped a yellow card. "We think there should be two more, one associated with Ravenclaw and one with Gryffindor."
"Because the locket was Slytherin's and the cup was Hufflepuff's," Ron said, and Hermione nodded again.
"Collect the full set," Harry muttered.
Hermione gave him a sad smile. "Yes, that seems to be what he was going for." Then she looked thoughtful. "He really was a collector, wasn't he? You told us he had a box of trinkets back at the orphanage, is that right?"
Harry nodded. "Dumbledore thought he'd stolen them from the other kids." He reached into his pocket and felt the cold chain of the locket that he and Dumbledore had retrieved from the cave. Even though it wasn't a Horcrux, he'd been carrying it for weeks now. Was he becoming a collector, too?
"It could be a habit he continued," she said, reaching for another red card. "I wonder where he kept his new trinket box. It would be a real find." Red was rapidly becoming the predominant colour on the wall.
"Hey, wait a mo-" Ron said, rummaging through the magazines on his lap. "There was an article about a new display at the British Museum."
He flipped pages rapidly, and held up a picture. "Lost Artefacts from the Sutton Hoo," he proclaimed. "The article says that they think the pieces were stolen, but they've recently been recovered. And look at this one here! Says it's a wolf, but it's a badger if you ask me."
Harry felt his blood rising. "That's it," he croaked. "That's the Hufflepuff cup."
Ron stood up to hand the magazine to Hermione. She carefully tore the pages out. "Finally," she said, and pulled out her wand to stick it to the wall. She labelled it with a yellow card.
"Good find, there," Harry said. Ron grinned and took a bow.
"It says it goes on display on Monday," Hermione said, reading the small print. "Unless something happened to it since this was published."
"That would assume that Voldemort reads the New Scientist," Ron said. "Not bloody likely."
"Or could he know when pieces of his soul move around?" Harry asked.
"I don't think so," Hermione said thoughtfully. "Magically, there's no basis for it. But then again, Horcruxes are not well documented." She smiled, grimly. "We'll know more if the cup is what it looks to be."
"Right," Harry agreed.
"Well, then," she said, surveying the entire wall, covered with hundreds of cards, pictures, and clippings. Almost at random, she pulled three of the green cards from the top row. "I think these are the most promising leads."
"Right then, let's get to it," Ron said, sitting on the corner of his chair.
"What does your Mum have planned for you tomorrow?" she asked.
Ron grimaced, then glanced at Harry. "Not sure. Do you remember?"
"We promised her we'd help put up the tents, I think? Shouldn't be too bad."
"Harry, there will be at least twenty of them! Those magical tents take hundreds of spells to erect. Won't it take all day?"
Ron shook his head. "No, no, we're not doing all of them. A lot of the guests aren't arriving for days. Charlie will be around to help, too. I'd say we can be done after lunch."
"All right, then," she looked determined. "Harry, you're off to the Museum tomorrow to have a look at the cup. We'll need a full report of where it is, and whether it's really the cup you remember."
Harry nodded. "I'll bring a notebook, maybe make a sketch."
"Good idea, you could look like a history student," Ron added.
"And please be careful. No wand magic in the museum, either. I'm certain they'll monitor that."
"Sounds like you'll need your cloak," Ron said, and Harry nodded. It was a habit now to carry it with him wherever he went.
"Not even Lumos," she cautioned again, and then turned to Ron. "You are on the trail of Mundungus Fletcher," she said, pointing to the blue card marked 'Locket'. "I suggest you enlist your brothers. Find out whatever you can."
"Aye aye," Ron replied, grinning. "And what about you?"
She smiled. "I'm going to visit the Public Record Office and the Family Records Centre. The Order may not have a need for Muggle records, but I can see a number of questions here that might be answered there. For one, I want to know about the orphanage where Riddle lived. Is the building still standing? I'd like to know what might be hidden inside." She turned back to the wall, eyes darting from one card to the next.
Then, putting away her spare parchment and cards, she shooed them off. "Look at the time, I have to be at Aunt Gwen's by seven. If I'm late, they'll call Mum and Dad and you know what that means, it will be the middle of the night for them with the time difference." She stood up and pulled her rucksack over her shoulder, an odd juxtaposition of field marshal and girl in a paisley sundress.
"What time does your mum expect you for dinner?" Hermione asked as they exited the shed.
Ron shook his head. "Not sure she does. She is so busy with the wedding that she barely notices who's there to take orders, just that things get done."
"And she's more than pleased we're revising with you," Harry added. She nodded, assured them she would be back on Tuesday, and was gone with a crack.
As soon as they entered the kitchen, Mrs Weasley put them to work. They barely had time to grab leftovers from the sideboard before she sent them out with a basket of fairy lights for the garden.
"And don't forget the ones on the west fence," she called after them into the gathering gloom. Hungrily stuffing bread, ham, and pickle in their mouths, they were careful not to complain until they were out of range of the back door.
Harry was working his way along the split rail fencing on the south end when he caught a glimpse of a large black shape bounding toward them out of the shadows. He turned, wand out, automatically shifting into a dueling stance. He found his centre easily, pushing his surprise aside just as he had practiced.
"What the--" he heard from Ron, just as the figure resolved into George on a broom to his right and Fred on his left, long black cloaks trailing behind them.
Harry grimaced. It wasn't so long ago that he would have been angry with the twins. Just a few months ago, he might have pointed his wand and screamed a curse without really thinking.
Today, he stopped, focused his magic, heard a word in his head, and --
He was entirely satisfied to hear twin groans from two black heaps on the ground.
"Hey," George complained, sitting up painfully, "We were just out having an innocent practice flight, no need to get nasty."
"Brilliant," Ron said, coming up beside him, watching as Fred tried vainly to stand.
"What were you thinking?" Ron asked George.
"Definitely not sneaking up on you two again," George muttered, stalking off.
Fred got to his feet, leaning hard on his broom. "He'll get over it," he shrugged, "Always does. You two about done out here?"
Harry looked at the large basket of fairies yet to tie up. "You go on," he said, giving Ron a meaningful look. "Don't you have something to ask your brothers?"
"Oh, right," he said, stuffing his gloves in his pocket. "Back in at bit."
Harry had just started the last row when Ron returned. "Here, I'll finish those," Ron said, taking the basket.
"Any news?" Harry asked, taking a seat on the fence. He enjoyed watching Ron wrestle with the last of the fairies.
"Yeah, could be," Ron shrugged. "I'm meeting them tomorrow at the shop, and we'll see."
"Sounds good." Harry leaned back and looked up at the stars, glittering brightly above the glow of the fairy lights. He felt they were a few steps closer to finding what they sought.
He knew that in a few weeks, Hermione would be going back to Hogwarts, and Ron would go with her. Harry would take all the help he could get from them during the summer break, but he knew it was only the start of a long journey. He was in it for the long haul.
"Boys!" Mrs Weasley's voice pierced Harry's dreams, almost welcome despite the sharp tone. Harry's sleep had been dark and broken, with him searching the skies in vain for a small flying Horcrux, and he blinked hard to dispel it. Her voice came up the stairs again, jerking his head off the pillow. "Breakfast!"
Harry rolled onto his back, feeling Ron's groan as much as he heard it. The day was too bright, and he knew this wasn't the first time Mrs Weasley had called for them. Last summer, he thought, Ginny might have come up to wake them. But the whole household knew that there had been something between them, something that wasn't there now. Nothing was spoken aloud, but somehow Harry and Ron always ended up on a separate work detail from everyone else. Which was fine, he thought, wrenching his body out of bed and pulling his trousers off the bedpost. He poked Ron in the side as he wandered off to the loo, satisfied by his friend's renewed mutterings.
They weren't expecting the first real guests for two more days, but Mrs Weasley had a schedule, and no one dared to argue. She had exclaimed "Six days! Six!" every time Harry had seen her that morning. He and Ron erected their share of tents with magic and teamwork. They managed to make their excuses after lunch and quickly exited via the Floo. They had told Mrs Weasley they needed to do research in London, which wasn't wholly untrue. Besides, six days seemed like plenty of time, but he was careful not to say that to Mrs Weasley.
Ron and Harry took their leave in the Leaky Cauldron. Ron headed into Diagon Alley to his brothers' new shop, Harry to the British Museum in Muggle London. "Take care," Ron cautioned with a grin. "Those Muggles can be wily creatures."
Harry grinned back, but there was a serious undertone to their banter. "Look, if it looks like it is, er, one of those things we're looking for, I'm going to stick around and see what the security is like after hours. I have my cloak."
"Yeah, sounds good. I hope I'll be back tonight, but who knows with the twins." Ron paused, and then, "See you back home tomorrow, no matter what."
"No matter what," and Harry gave him a firm nod before heading out.
Harry woke with a start, grasping his wand and sucking in a breath before he was fully awake. He checked to make sure he was still under the cloak, peering through the gauzy folds to the dim light of Room 41. He heard the Muggle guard clanking in the corridor and checked his watch. The green numbers told him it was just after midnight.
He looked up and his eyes widened as the light from the corridor outlined a figure standing in front of the display. It was the display that Harry knew contained the cup. The Horcrux, he corrected himself. The piece of Voldemort's soul.
As the Muggle guard passed the doorway, the figure quickly slid behind a freestanding display case. By the time the plodding steps and jangling keys faded into echoes in the high-ceilinged room, Harry had left his cloak in the corner of the room and was between the man and the Horcrux.
It could be a Muggle, he told himself. If a Muggle tried to steal the cup, Harry only needed to set off the alarms, break some glass, make a noise. The guard would be back. But if it was a wizard....
He slid his wand into his hand. The man in black emerged from the shadows, and Harry gasped.
It was Snape. Snape!
It could have been Voldemort himself and Harry would not have been more shocked. He felt his face grow hot and then forced it away. He could not afford anger, could not show any weakness. He had learned to keep his mouth shut and he took a second to focus and ensure that his mind was closed.
Harry shifted, setting his feet wide apart for stability. His trainers squeaked against the marble floor, and Snape stopped. He looked straight at Harry.
"Potter," Snape rasped, raising his wand. Harry did not drop his.
"I know what you're doing here," Harry whispered fiercely, aware that the Muggle guard was just down the corridor.
"Then you have the advantage, as I have no idea of your purpose," Snape said in a low voice, his face hard. Harry did not respond, and Snape went on, "I trust you know better than to use that in here," he indicated Harry's wand, "I would hate to destroy any of our national treasures."
Harry set his teeth. Snape was an accomplished duellist, and Harry knew it would be a nasty fight as soon as one of them threw the first curse. While Harry didn't have a care for most thousand-year-old artefacts, there was one relic in the room that did matter. He glared at Snape, one spell after another lurking just behind his tongue. If he dared to use one, what would Snape do? More importantly, could he get away before the Ministry arrived?
"Come on, Potter," Snape drawled, almost bored, and his wand dropped just a centimetre.
Harry exploded into action, unable to hold back another second. Legilimens, he thought, thrusting his wand forward. He thrilled at the split second of surprise in Snape's eyes.
His elation was short-lived, however, as the spell died. He could feel it wither in the air and all down his wand arm. Harry's heart sank as Snape very deliberately aimed his own wand at Harry.
But he felt no curse. Harry looked at his wand, then at Snape's, and finally up into Snape's face. Then, with silent accord, they both turned to look at the cup, then back at each other.
"We appear to be," Snape said, "at an impasse." He lowered his wand, but Harry couldn't let it go that easily. He cast Expelliarmus once, then Impedimenta. Nothing. He lowered his wand, his mind racing. Something was stopping his magic; it was either Snape or the cup. Given Snape's reaction, the cup was the likely culprit.
Ignoring Harry now, Snape leaned over the display, peering at the cup. He raised his wand again, extending it toward the glass case. It stopped before touching it. "Interesting," he said, and reached out with his hand, intent on the puzzle he'd found.
Harry also reached out and found an invisible barrier that started a foot away from the glass wall and grew stronger the closer he got to the cup. "What is it?" Harry asked, without meaning to.
Snape did not look at him, but he did answer after a moment. "I don't know," he said shortly. He then lowered his wand and turned to consider Harry. Snape wasn't wearing his teaching robes, but was all in black and, when he crossed his arms and peered down his nose, the effect was the same.
Harry tilted his chin up and stared right back. It seemed the cup was just as valuable as Harry had thought. More, given that Snape wanted it, too.
Eyes locked with Snape’s as they stood on either side of the glass, Harry considered his options. There was no way that he could take Snape physically; while they were both fit, Snape had several inches and at least a two stone advantage. Harry thought he might have a chance in a wizard's duel given all of his progress over the last couple of months, but that wouldn't help him in a Muggle brawl. For now, Snape seemed disinclined to do physical battle. Harry resolved to take advantage of the respite and draw out as much information as he could.
A voiced sounded in the corridor again and they both turned toward the door, hearing a loud buzzing noise and disembodied conversation. Harry listened closely, but there was no urgency in the Muggle's tone. Still, he slid behind the corner of the free-standing case opposite the cup, out of the line of sight of the door. He tried Lumos again with no result. After a moment, Snape began to move from case to case, and Harry also took the opportunity to walk the perimeter, staying on the opposite side from Snape as they worked their way around the room. It was magically dead to him, even in the corners.
He suppressed the urge he felt to kick the wall. With the intensity of magic he'd done since leaving Hogwarts, this was accountably frustrating. It was one thing to voluntarily stop using magic, and it was very much another to have such a thing imposed on him. He was lucky, he supposed, that his magic hadn't worked. Otherwise, he'd be running from the Ministry, according to Hermione. He shook his head as he stuffed his cloak back into his pocket. Apparently, the cloak had not protected him as much as just sitting quietly in a corner had done.
He looked over to see Snape studying the cup. Harry returned to his vantage point on the far side of the glass from the door, observing Snape as he examined the barrier, placing his hands on different parts of the glass, the wood, the walls, even the floor. Eventually, Snape retreated to the other side of the glass panel and leaned against the wall, looking straight at Harry.
Silence seemed to fill the room. Harry kept his eyes on everything but Snape, not wanting to be caught staring. He wasn't afraid of him, not in this room. Harry knew he only needed to wait until morning; his cloak would work as soon as he left Room 41. Waiting seemed like an odd thing to do when his worst enemy was standing not two metres away, but wait he would. He took a deep breath and resolved not to fidget.
He shifted again, noting that Snape hadn't moved a muscle in ages. He wondered if Snape was asleep on his feet. Then he wondered if Snape had nightmares, dreaming about all the horrid things he'd done in his life. Finally, Harry took a deep breath, found his core, and cleared his mind. None of that mattered.
The guard walked by again. It was just after one in the morning. He wondered again what Snape had learned about the cup with no magic available to him. Harry was tempted to apply his own senses to the barrier, but he had no idea what he was looking for.
Harry finally could stand it no longer. "What is it? The barrier, I mean."
Snape was obviously not asleep. "It is difficult to tell," he said thoughtfully. "It doesn't feel like a curse, more like a badly cast charm. Beyond that, I cannot say."
"But you think it bears watching."
A small nod was his only reply. Well, if Snape was staying, Harry certainly wasn't going to leave him here with the cup. He wasn't going to let Snape take the cup back to Voldemort. He'd fight tooth and nail.
"You try to take it, Snape, I'm here to stop you," he spoke the words to himself, and then realised that Snape could hear him, his voice echoing against the hard contours of the room.
Snape looked straight at Harry, and seemed to be weighing his options. "You realise what that is, am I correct? How much did Albus tell you?"
"Don't-- how could y--" Harry sputtered, Snape had killed the man, and now he was just casually referring to, to-- then he stopped himself. "You killed him," he said, low and steady, wand twitching in his hand.
"So it was meant to appear, Mr Potter," he replied, so steadily that Harry suddenly wondered what Snape was hiding underneath that false calm. "But appearances are not always truth, as you would know had you been paying attention to what was right in front of your eyes. His heart was failing."
"NO!" Harry almost shouted, and then clamped his lips together and gripped his wand tightly. He hissed, "He was fine. He had just flown in from Hogsmeade by broom! You're lying! His heart was not-- not failing."
"Believe what you will, Potter," Snape said, after a moment. "But as he apparently shared some knowledge of just what was contained in that cup with you as he did with me, we will either need to cooperate or kill one another." He looked away and spoke more softly. "I, for one, have had enough of killing."
Harry inhaled sharply. Then he let out his breath slowly, and narrowed his eyes. Snape had never been one to confide in anyone, least of all him. He could almost believe that Snape did feel bad about something -- it could have been about killing Dumbledore, or about betraying the trust of the Order, or so many other things.
Which was not bloody likely, he reminded himself. Harry would never believe a word that slipped through those crooked little teeth. But of course, there could be advantages in playing along for now.
He steeled himself, and made his offer. "What do you mean, cooperate?"
Snape rolled his eyes. "What one generally means by the word."
"Well, I'm not helping you take that," he said, almost spitting the word, "to Voldemort, if that's what you're saying."
"Potter," Snape's tone was at its most withering. "If I meant to deliver that to the Dark Lord, would I not simply leave here now and tell him where it is?"
"I can't begin to guess at why you do anything," he snapped back. "How do I know you don't already have the ones that are left?"
Snape opened his mouth to say something, and then closed it again. Harry stared him down, daring him to say something, anything, worth hearing.
Finally, Snape spoke. "It appears we both have some knowledge to share. That vessel," he continued, "is very valuable in the right circles. It seems we are both interested in keeping it from its owner, as well as the others like it."
"So why sit here and watch it, then? It seems well protected."
"For myself, I should like to defeat the magic surrounding it. That requires understanding that magic, which is what I am attempting to do, however, if I cannot, I should like to be here when the Dark Lord's minions arrive to take it."
"And that means you aren't one of them?" Harry bit out the words. "Because it seemed like it the last time I saw you -- when you killed --"
"Dumbledore was a dead man walking from the moment he vanquished what was contained in the gold ring." Snape folded his arms across his chest. "He decided that he was more powerful dead, you see. And so he chose to destroy the ring."
"So he knew? He knew it would --" Harry was shocked that Dumbledore -- anyone, really -- might choose to die.
Snape shook his head. "He had accepted it. I could never determine the curse that was released when the ring was destroyed, but with luck I devised a potion that could keep him alive." He paused. "Until the end. I think he felt he could cheat the system, perhaps vanquish two of these."
Snape sounded genuinely sorry. Harry was, too. He could picture Dumbledore in the cave, now, drinking the poison. Perhaps he knew he was already dying; perhaps he knew that this poison would cause his heart to fail.
If only what they had done had really given them the right locket. Harry thought of the false Horcrux in his pocket, his guilty reminder of his role in the disaster at the cave. "Was there no other way? I don't -- why would he want to -- be more powerful dead?"
"The reasons that make Horcruxes unspeakable are complex," Snape replied, finally. "Both their creation and their destruction may require a death."
"Wait," Harry remembered. "I destroyed one, once. Voldemort's diary, in the Chamber of Secrets."
"Yes," Snape replied, looking down his nose again. Harry shook off his memories of that accusing glare, no longer a wide-eyed twelve year old. Snape went on, "Albus speculated that the death of the basilisk satisfied the curse."
Harry hadn't considered that. The basilisk had been so unbelievably big and so utterly noxious, he hadn't thought of it as a being that had died, only that killing it was the way to save Ginny and himself. And Hogwarts, for that matter.
Snape was looking toward the door, away from Harry. "Albus used his death to put me at the Dark Lord's right hand. It was a way to make his sacrifice worthwhile."
Harry sucked in a breath. He had staged the entire thing? He couldn't have. Harry couldn't believe it, except -- he did remember one niggling fact. Dumbledore had told Harry to fetch Snape once they'd reached the tower. Once he had realised what was happening at Hogwarts that night.
"Dumbledore told me that Voldemort has no friends, that he trusts no one," Harry said. "You're telling me he trusts you?"
"As much as he trusts anyone," Snape said. "Albus understood him."
"He trusts you because you brought him the prophecy," Harry said hotly. "The one about me, the one that you heard--"
"Yes, I did," Snape replied, his tone cold as ice. "I'm not going to apologize for that. You weren't there. You couldn't understand."
"You're right, I couldn't," Harry replied, and then bit his tongue. He would never understand how someone could do that and live with himself.
He felt the anger constricting his chest. Harry suddenly realised his mind was wide open, that he had dropped all of his defences. That there was no magic in this room was no reason not to maintain constant vigilance. He closed his eyes for a moment, seeking the calm that he needed.
He looked up in time to see Snape settling himself cross-legged on the floor. He was sitting down, nice as you please, trusting that Harry wasn't going to just run right over there and kick him.
Which, he realised, he had no intention of doing. Snape hadn't attacked him, and so he found he didn't need to counter anything. Feeling strange yet calm, Harry sat down on the other side of the display. They both had their backs to the cup, and both faced the door, though they were mostly hidden from view by cases in between. After a moment, he leaned back against the wall, letting some of the strain he'd harboured for the last hour drain out of him.
Harry caught some movement to his left, and saw Snape lift his right arm out to his side, and then his left.
"You're studying the magic?" Harry asked, then tried the same thing.
Snape didn't answer. Harry realised the answer was obvious, and then he was a little embarrassed to have asked. He wished he sounded a little more intelligent.
His right arm felt normal, but his left arm -- it was odd. It was like a half-cast spell, maybe that was what Snape had meant. The first word in an incantation spoken, and time standing still waiting for the rest.
"It feels -- charged," he said, "like it's full of static electricity, and as soon as it's grounded, it will discharge."
He turned to glance at Snape as they both brought their arms down. Snape nodded.
It was a start, Harry thought.
Another hour, another passing of the guard in the corridor, and Snape broke the silence. "You might be interested to know," he said, "a certain party is still paying for what you did. For destroying the diary. The Dark Lord was not happy to find out that one of his," he paused and smiled, "faithful followers took his treasure from safekeeping and loosed it at Hogwarts."
Harry almost smiled at that, too; he hoped Malfoy would pay for his actions for a very, very long time. And someday Snape would pay for all of this, too. For now, Harry would see what else he could learn.
"Which brings us to wonder how this piece managed to make its way to public display," Snape said, carefully. "I admit I wasn't expecting to find the real thing."
"I wasn't either," Harry agreed.
"It is puzzling," he said, "Muggles must have been able to move the cup to this place. However, I suspect they would have difficulty moving it again. It appears to have woven its own protection once placed."
They both turned back to look at the doorway. Harry watched Snape out of the corner of his eye, and thought long and hard about what he had learned tonight. Unsettling as it was to realise it, Snape was a real person underneath his robes after all.
"It was definitely the cup. It looked exactly the same, and it had a strange, I don't know, zone around it. You couldn't get close to it. And no magic in the entire room, not even Lumos."
"That's odd," Hermione said. "And you kept watch on it all night?"
"Actually, I fell asleep under the cloak," he said, looking down. He had practiced this, but lying to Hermione was never easy. He had almost opened his mouth to tell her, but he wasn't ready yet to talk about Snape to her or to Ron.
He felt as though Snape had trusted him with something valuable and he wanted to think about it more before letting Ron yell at him and Hermione question his motives; he had to work it through in his own head first. He still didn't know if he believed what Snape had told him, but at least some of it seemed to fit.
"Sounds just as thrilling as my day," Ron said, turning away from the wall of knowledge. "I had to wait on customers in the shop in exchange for help from my favourite brothers. And then all we could find out is that Dung left the country," he said, sitting on the arm of Hermione's chair.
Harry thought that sounded better than running into Snape. "What about your day?" he asked Hermione, and she filled them in on her search. He wasn't surprised that she couldn't prove her theory that Godric's Hollow was settled by Godric Gryffindor.
He listened with half an ear, thinking again of Snape. Who hadn't even tried to kill him. They'd parted this morning, blending into the crowds. He was almost certain that Snape would be back there tonight.
"And there it was," Hermione said, holding up a piece of paper.
"There what was?" Harry asked, but Hermione was already jotting notes on new cards.
"It was from the 1930s," she went on, laying them out on the table. "A list of outings for the children. For a traditional orphanage, they were really quite progressive."
And then she handed Harry a picture photocopied out of a book. It said 'Caves of the Mendip Hills' across the bottom. Harry blinked.
"That's it," he whispered. It was the cave he'd visited with Dumbledore.
"Oh, good, I thought it was," she said, pleased. "The children took summer outings there for years."
Harry could only stare. The memories of that night, going deeper and deeper into the cave, came flooding back.
"Oh! I forgot to tell you the most interesting part," Hermione said, and Harry tore his gaze from the picture. "After the incident when the children were hurt, they took their summer trip to Kew Gardens for several years."
Another location from Riddle's childhood. "He would have gone there, during the summers when he was at Hogwarts, then," Harry said.
"So do you think --" Ron began.
"I think it's a green card," she said, beaming at them. "Let's go tomorrow morning."
Ron draped an arm over Hermione's shoulder and leaned over to press a kiss to her hair. "That's my girl."
"Have either of you been?" Hermione asked. Ron shook his head.
Harry hadn't been either. "I've seen pictures, though," he said, and thought for a moment. "Loads of plants, right?" He remembered a magazine article showing sunny lawns and manicured flowerbeds.
"Of course," Hermione said, emphatically. "Acres of them, as well as greenhouses and formal gardens. They do all sorts of botanical research there."
"Er," Ron said, "Do we just look for a big patch of dead flowers?"
"I expect it will be more complicated than that," Harry said. "Look, I think we need Neville. No offence, but if there are magical plants there, he'll know all about them."
"All right," Hermione agreed. "But do we want to tell him about, well, about everything?" She waved in the general direction of the wall.
"Neville's all right," Ron said. "I mean, it's been just the three of us up until now, maybe we could use a new wand in the mix."
"We can trust him," Harry said. "I can send him an owl, see if he can come down tomorrow on the train."
Hermione gave a firm nod, and it was agreed. She leaned over to get one of her many reference books and Ron took advantage to stroke her waist and up her side. She blushed, pushing his hand down. He responded with a squeeze.
Harry cleared his throat. "I'll just go," he stammered. "I'll just find Hedwig, shall I?"
"Sure, Harry," Ron said, absently. "See you later."
Harry was happy to leave before his friends started their 'revising' in earnest. Besides, he thought, going now would give him a chance to sneak up to his room and have a kip before Mrs Weasley noticed.
It felt good to get out of the War Room, he mused on his way back to the house. And he should get used to being alone. Ron and Hermione were together now, and they would be going back to Hogwarts without him.
There was no way he would do anything else until he'd found every sliver of Voldemort's black soul.
"I know you're here, Potter," Snape said as he entered the room. "You might as well come out."
Harry scrambled to his feet, emerging from his shadowed corner. "Back for more?"
Snape smiled, but it was not a happy look. "Yes, more of this stimulating culture. I find I'm fascinated with ancient British history."
Harry chuckled, too surprised not to laugh. His dour old professor had actually made a joke.
Snape gave him a sharp look before turning to stalk around the room. Harry watched him go, wondering why this felt so normal. He had spent most of the morning trying to figure out why Snape hadn't killed him the night before. The more he thought about it, the more he realised Snape had never actually tried to kill him. It seemed more likely that Snape was, in his weird way, trying to keep him alive.
Then he spent the afternoon trying to figure out what he would do about it.
Snape finished his circuit, confirming what Harry had already found -- it was still a magical dead zone. After peering into every case and poking his wand into every corner, Snape settled into the same place he'd been the previous night. Harry noticed that he carried a rolled up mat that he laid out before sitting down. He looked up at Harry, who was caught staring.
"No cushioning charm," he said, shortly. Harry was sorry he hadn't thought to bring something similar as he sat on the hard floor.
They sat in silence, and Harry wondered what Snape had been doing all day while he, Hermione, and Ron were putting out feelers for Mundungus Fletcher, looking at pictures of Riddle's history, and planning trips to Kew Gardens.
Was Snape doing the same thing, searching for the other Horcruxes? Had he found any? Or was he spending his days doing Voldemort's bidding? It was strange, sitting here next to the man, wondering if he'd killed anyone today.
"Um." He decided to offer something, something that no longer mattered. "We went to Godric's Hollow yesterday. Didn't find anything."
Snape looked thoughtful. "I'm not surprised. I can't imagine he would have hidden anything there. Though I must say I'm sceptical you could find the house. It was under--" he said, and then stopped. "Ah, it must have shown up on maps again."
What did he mean by that? He couldn't be saying-- then Harry realised he must mean that something, or more likely someone, had been keeping it Unplottable.
Could he mean Pettigrew? That he was finally dead? That all of his latent magic was cancelled? Harry remembered being freed from the body-bind curse the night that Dumbledore died, and wondered if this was the same thing.
After another long silence, Harry finally had to ask. "Does that mean Pettigrew is dead?"
Snape inclined his head, "I would ask if you studied the Fidelius Charm at Hogwarts, but what would be the point?" Harry could hear the familiar sneer in Snape's voice. Harry kept his eyes on Snape, trying not to feel like a first year.
"Pettigrew's charm was cancelled," Snape continued, "when you were taken from the house many years ago. I believe if you were to return, you would still be under the charm."
"I might agree with you," Harry said, "but the house isn't standing."
Snape raised an eyebrow. "Interesting," he said thoughtfully.
Harry knew that killing Pettigrew when he had first been discovered, years ago at the Shrieking Shack, would have solved so many problems. But true as that was, Harry still thought he would do the same things again. He wasn't entirely sure why, but it centred around not knowing what had happened sixteen years ago. He wondered if Snape knew more.
"Besides, I wouldn't take protection from that rat if he came back on bended rat knee. I still don't know why my parents trusted him."
There was another long pause. Harry leaned his head against the stone wall behind him. He thought it might take them all night to have five minutes of normal conversation.
"But trust him they did," Snape said, finally. "And when the Dark Lord threatened his family, Pettigrew cracked like a dried dragon bone." After another long pause, he added, "It's not their fault your parents were decent to him."
Harry hastily swallowed against the pressure in his throat. He waited until he had taken several long slow breaths to speak again. "And when he was a Death Eater, was he your friend, then?" he asked, unable to keep the bitterness from his voice.
"Pettigrew has always been an opportunistic sycophant, Potter," Snape said. "He was never anyone's friend.
"Friends," Snape went on, his voice flat, "are a luxury." He turned away from Harry and looked toward the door. "The times were different back then. I was different. We were all different."
All this shared information made Harry feel reckless. It was the longest conversation he had ever had with Snape. And suddenly, a question he'd wanted to know for a year was poised on his lips. "I know you were different then. You were the Half-blood Prince."
Snape looked startled.
"Your book was how I passed Potions."
He could feel more than see Snape relax. "Yes, I'd guessed that was part of it," he replied. "Slughorn is a buffoon."
"He was your teacher; he must have been good at teaching once."
"Any teacher can be successful if a student seeks to learn."
Snape snorted. "Yes, with that exception."
"Yes," Snape said quietly, and the conversation slowed to a stop again.
Harry remembered Trelawney as she'd been when Umbridge had sacked her, and then how she looked as a young witch, foretelling his life.
"You heard her prophecy," Harry said. "Trelawney's. About me."
"Dumbledore told you that?"
Harry nodded, his eyes trained on Snape, wondering what he would say. Snape looked away again.
"Do they know you're here?" Harry asked.
Snape shook his head. "I am here without the knowledge of my... current associates. And I assume you are here without the knowledge of the Order," Snape stated more than asked.
Harry didn't answer. It was pretty obvious, after all. He was tempted to tell Snape that they were on the trail of another Horcrux, but it was such a wild guess, he didn't think it was worth mentioning. Maybe he would see Snape again tomorrow; he might tell him then.
He fell asleep sometime later, his head wedged into the corner of the wall and cabinet. He woke, wand at the ready, but the room was silent. Snape was in the same exact position he'd been in earlier. Harry was surprised to find he could sleep with Snape only a few feet away from him.
It was an odd sort of trust.
"Here," Hermione said, handing out sketching paper books, strolling maps, and admission tickets. "We are working on a biology project for next term."
"We're doing biology this year? I haven't got my books yet." Neville said, sounding a bit lost. Harry felt a pang of guilt. They had whisked Neville off his train that morning and he hadn't quite caught up.
"We're not," Harry said firmly. "It's a cover. This thing we're looking for --" He looked over at Hermione.
"It can be held in your hand, we think. But that's not for certain." She distributed pencils to all of them. "Neville, what we're really looking for is something out of the ordinary. So if you see anything--"
"Anything that's not just another interesting plant," Ron put in, "please let us know."
"But that's what's here. It's full of interesting plants," Neville said, trailing after them.
"We know," Ron replied. "Trust me, we know."
Harry told him, "Just give it a try, all right? It's kind of a treasure hunt, only it's not a game, it's quite serious."
Neville nodded. "Okay, Harry."
They set off around the Palm House Pond. Ron was pulling Neville away from a bush with tiny yellow flowers when Hermione stopped to study the statue of a man wrestling a snake. "Interesting." She tapped her pencil on her book. "It's made of bronze, you see. And I don't know if we're looking for bronze. The ring, the cup, and the locket are all gold.
Ron and Harry looked at each other and shrugged. "Of course not," Ron said carefully, and Hermione nodded, scribbling a note. Harry grinned at Ron, who shrugged. They both knew that she would figure it out.
They were halfway to the greenhouses when Neville stopped, staring at his map. "Wait a minute," he said, turning it this way and that, and looking up at the nearest copse of trees. "Do you see it?" he said, excitedly. "The pattern! And the layout of the plantings! It's just like the gardens at Hogwarts." He turned around, and then back. "Only, on a vastly different scale!"
"Wha--?" Ron said, squinting at his own map.
"Look, if you say that," Neville pointed back the way they had come, "is the Great Hall, then this is the middle of the courtyard. Right here, I mean."
Hermione peered at his map, and said "Yes, I do see. I wonder if --" She looked off to her right. "Look, Neville, where the clock tower ought to be, there's a round hedge."
Harry could see where she was pointing; it was tall and wide and thorny and looked wholly uninviting. He took a step toward it and could feel the slightest prickle of magic. "I think it doesn't like us," he said. "Can you feel that?"
Hermione took two steps forward and nodded.
Ron took a deep breath and nodded. "Looks like we've found something unusual."
"Looks like firethorn, don't you think," Neville said, nattering about 'crenulata' and 'rogersiana' as they started toward it across the grass. When he reached it, he didn't stop, but plunged right into the foliage. Harry gave Ron and Hermione a worried look, and they followed quickly. They could hear Neville calling something, and it helped to follow his voice, brambles pricking at their clothing.
They emerged to find Neville in the centre of the towering hedge. In the middle of the enclosure was a stone basin, perhaps six or seven metres in diameter surrounded by a wide stone wall. The rim was covered with vines that hung into and out of the water on all sides.
"Isn't this pretty," Hermione said, looking around. The water in the pool was clear and blue, and a small fountain bubbled out of the centre.
"Odd, though," Ron observed. "I bet not too many people try to come through that." He picked a thorn from his trousers.
Harry looked up. The sun, bright and yellow on the other side of the hedge, barely slanted in over the tops of the leaves. "It's a magical hedge," he said, "Remember the maze, the one in the Tri-Wizard Tournament? This is -- it's the same."
"Okay, right," Hermione said slowly, "It might be here."
"The fountain isn't much like the one at Hogwarts, is it," Neville observed, looking down into the water. He was pointing to the source of the bubbling water in the centre of the pool.
"What is it?" Ron asked, joining him at the other side of the pool.
"Well, it's bronze," Hermione said, doubtfully. "It's a pixie, do you think?"
Harry could sort of see where she was pointing, but as the statue was fully underwater, it was hard to tell. "Is it holding a wand?" he asked, trying to see.
Neville leaned over the rim on the other side of the pool for a closer look. "Hang on," he said, slipping off his shoes. He turned and dropped into the pool, immediately immersed up to mid-chest. "Neville, no!" Hermione cried. "What are you doing?"
Neville flashed them a grin; he ploughed through the water dragging vines behind him. "It's all right," he called across to them. "A bit cold, though."
"But we don't have a plan yet!" she shouted back, wringing her hands.
"I don't think it can be a Horcrux," Harry told her. "There would be more defences and protective spells, like there were for the locket and the cup."
All eyes were on Neville as he waded straight to the centre. He was reaching to touch the pixie -- when everything seemed to move all at once. The water began to churn alarmingly, splitting the quiet into a thousand pieces. Harry leapt back as the rushing water tugged the vines under his hands into the fountain.
Hermione cried out, holding up her hands to ward off the spray. Green stems were now spiking out of the water, twining into spirals, then snapping as they dove back under the surface.
"Neville!" Ron shouted from the other side, "Over here!" He leaned over the basin and reached out his hand as far as he could.
The bubbling water and snapping vines were now so loud Harry could barely hear anything. Neville was gamely trying to claw his way past the vines back to Ron, but losing. Right then, he slipped and disappeared below the water. Without a second thought, Harry jumped in from the other side of the pool, pushing his way through the cold water and pulling the writhing vines apart with growing panic. They were stinging his arms and twining around his legs, spurring him faster. As he rounded the statue and neared the centre of the knot of vines, he could see Neville's outstretched hand, now clutching what looked to be a wand, reach through the leaves. Green whips were waving up in the air far above their heads, snapping with their long green stingers.
Harry snatched the wand out of Neville's hand, threw it out of the pool and onto the grass with his left hand, and grasped Neville's with his right. He was thrown off balance as the water immediately stopped its motion, thundering in sudden silence.
Hermione yelled, "Neville isn't coming up," and Harry immediately tightened his grip, tugging hard, reaching about for anything else to grab onto. "Neville!" Harry shouted, "Neville!" He sloshed his hand through the cold water, trying to find Neville's head among the mass of vines and leaves.
"There he is!" Ron pointed, and Harry could see a patch of Neville's dark hair.
"Help me pull him out," he shouted, and Ron stretched his hand out further. Hermione shrieked as Ron began to fall into the water. She threw her arms around Ron's waist, leaning back with all her might.
Finally, Harry got a hand around Neville's belt. He shouted, "Got him!" and reached up for Ron's hand. With Hermione clutching Ron's legs, the three of them pulled Neville up and got his head above water. They kept pulling until both Harry and Neville were at the side of the pool. Finally, Ron grasped Neville under his arms, pulling up, and Harry helped push him up and over the rim. Neville flopped face down in the grass, spitting water, wrapped in lengths of vine and looking nearly drowned.
Harry took Ron's hand and got his leg over the edge of the basin. Hermione gave them both grateful looks as she bent to help Neville.
Finally out of the chilly water, Harry bent over catching his breath. He had vines wrapped around both legs and another bunch hanging over his shoulder. He untangled himself, and looked back at the fountain. The magic seemed to have gone out of it. All of the vines had been pulled from the rim, now in a great green clump that filled one side of the pool. The pixie statue looked a bit forlorn in the centre, no water bubbling out the top and no wand in its outstretched hand.
"What in bloody hell is this stuff?" Ron asked, unwrapping a vine from his arm.
"No idea," Harry said, touching one of the stings he'd received gingerly. He hadn't felt it at the time. "I think I'm allergic to plants that want to kill me."
"You'd think Neville would have known better," Ron grinned. "Isn't he supposed to recognize man-eating plants?"
"We must not pay him enough," Harry said, and the two of them went to help Hermione pull Neville up off the grass.
"Neville," Hermione said, peeling back a thick green rope. "Are you all right?" Harry could hear the worry in her tone.
"I think so," he replied, sitting up. Harry thought his voice sounded waterlogged. Neville pushed his dripping hair out of his face and looked up at them.
"Neville?" Hermione said, startled.
"What's wrong?" Harry asked, and then he looked at Neville. He couldn't tell what was different at first, then he realised it was several things. His face was more round -- and his teeth were smaller? And then he realised that Neville's wet shirt was stretched over a very feminine set of --
"You have tits!" Ron said in a shocked voice.
"Ron!" Hermione admonished him. "Honestly, can you be a bit more sensitive?"
Neville looked down. "I guess I do," he said, slowly, touching one warily. Just then, a stricken look came over his face and his hand dropped to his groin. He grabbed handfuls of wet denim, but not, clearly, what he was hoping to find.
"It's gone!" Scrambling to his knees, he undid his jeans and reached in one hand, then two. He looked up in horror.
"Wait, what's going on?" Harry asked. And then he realised. "It's gone?" Harry, Ron, and Neville shared a look of manly pain.
"All right, all of you." Hermione said firmly. "What happened, exactly? I want everything you can remember."
"I remember getting into the water," Neville said slowly. He pulled his hands from inside his jeans, but couldn't seem to decide what to do with them now.
"Everything started moving and spraying water when you took the wand," Harry said. "That's when I jumped in."
"The vines were vicious," Ron added, "Look," he said, pointing out several red welts on his arms. Harry had plenty of those, too.
When Neville held up his arms, however, there was not a mark on them. And they weren't his arms, were they -- they were different now, a girl's arms, all soft skin and pale hair.
"Looks like the plant had a different effect on you?" Ron hazarded a guess.
"It's a magical plant, that's obvious," Hermione said, carefully picking up a length of the thick stalk. "Neville, what do you think?"
He plucked off one of the leaves. His shirt was still stretched tightly across his chest, and Harry wished he'd brought a jacket to lend. He tried hard not to look at what was clearly a womanly bosom through the drying cloth. "Stinging Manta, I'd say," he guessed, turning it over and handing it back to Hermione. "With some sort of charm on it that kept it from stinging, until--"
"Until the wand was moved." She finished his sentence.
Harry went to see where he'd thrown it. "I guess it had a few defences after all," he said, handing it to Hermione.
She took it carefully. "Bronze," she confirmed. "Are you sure you should have picked this up?"
Ron looked up then, his eyes wide.
"Not sure at all," Harry said, and reached down to grip his package. "Still there," he grinned.
They all laughed, a bit less nervous now.
"Is it what you were looking for?" Neville asked.
"Possibly," she said, chewing her lip. "It's obviously different than the others. I wonder --"
"What," Ron asked.
"It was clearly a trap," she held up the wand. "But what if this is something else, not what we're looking for at all?"
"So you're saying there could be odd magical traps that turn people into girls all over London," Ron grinned. "Look, I'm not complaining! We could use more girls," he added. It wasn't funny, but Neville and Harry grinned anyway.
Hermione turned pink. "No. And stop that, this is serious. I mean, I'm sure it's only temporary, Neville," she assured him. "Let me," she said, raising her wand and waving a wordless spell.
Neville looked at her, with hope, then doubt. "I don't feel any different," he said.
Hermione frowned. "You try, Harry."
He took out his wand and focused. "Finite Incantatum," he enunciated, just in case.
Neville looked down, then up. "Nothing changed," he said.
"Oi, mate, that's rough," Ron said. "Even if it's only for a couple of --" he looked at Hermione. "Hours? Days?"
"How could I know?" She snapped at him. "It might reverse itself, or we'll just have to find the counterspell, won't we?" She picked up the bronze wand and put it carefully in her rucksack. "Look, Neville, if it doesn't reverse right away, we might have to wait until we can get into the Restricted Section at school."
"That won't be for weeks," Neville said, bewildered.
Hermione put her bag over her other shoulder. "Well, if it's anything like a hair-colour charm, it will wear off quite soon."
"It is a bit more of a change than that," Neville said, in a soft voice. Harry forgot for a moment that Neville wasn't really Neville. It was just the same Neville for a moment, but then he turned his head in just that way, and Harry was struck again by her femininity. It was very disturbing!
"Yes, you're right," Hermione said. "Of course, you're right. I suppose you might want to borrow some knickers, then?"
Neville stopped dead, and gulped audibly. "What will I tell my Gran?"
They exchanged startled looks, "Well, let's hope it's only a few days," Hermione said. "You won't see her until the wedding on Saturday."
"Depends how good her eyes are," Harry put in, "You don't look all that different, really. You're the same height."
"I think she'll notice," Ron stated the obvious, ogling Neville's chest until Hermione smacked him on the arm.
"She'll be glad you're okay, Neville," Hermione said.
Harry agreed. "Look, she's right. This could have been much worse. But we know what we're doing is dangerous, and I'm sorry we didn't tell you just how dangerous before we got into this."
That sobered them all up. "Glad you're all right, mate," Ron said, clapping Neville on the back. "Even if you aren't quite a mate right at this minute."
"Let's get back to the Burrow," Hermione said. "We need to show Neville the War Room." As they set off, she linked arms with Neville, and Harry and Ron pretended not to hear them talking about girl things.
They tumbled from the Floo to find Mrs Weasley in the kitchen, humming as she watched over several bubbling pots on the range. "Hello, Hermione, boys," she said without turning, "So glad you're back. Dinner won't be ready for a few hours, but there are some cakes on the table." Ron and Harry were usually all over any food they were offered, especially in this kitchen, but just now they were afraid to break their human shield that kept Neville from Mrs Weasley's all-knowing mother's eyes. When none of them moved, however, she turned around to see what was wrong.
"It's right over there, boys, please, help yourselves," she said, wiping her hand on a towel and levitating a tray of apples onto the table. "And who's this?" she asked, tipping the fruit onto a sheet of newsprint, and simultaneously causing Harry's heart to lodge in his throat.
Hermione was the first to recover. "Mrs Weasley, this is Nev -- Neva." She took a breath and bravely went on. "Neva, this is Mrs Weasley, Ron's mum. Neva is going to study with us this afternoon."
"Oh, hello, Neva, it's lovely to meet you. And you're a Longbottom, aren't you?" she said, absently waving her wand toward the range, the sink, and then back to the table, where the apples began to line up in rows by size and colour. "I'd heard that Neville had a sister years ago, and I always wondered where she'd got to. Not a squib, are you, dear? Not that there's anything wrong with that. How is your brother?"
They stared at her, then at each other.
Ron cleared his throat. "We didn't know Neville had a sister, Mum."
"That's right," Hermione said, "We were really surprised when we ran into... Neva... when we were studying our Herbology this morning."
"Oh, it's not surprising at all," she said, setting a paring knife to peel the apples. "You're twins, am I right? So soon after Fred and George, I remember thinking. And the boy a squib, such a shame. But it must have been the girl," she smiled and put a hand on Neva's arm. "I'm so glad that didn't turn out to be true, my dear. But you know, things were so strange back then, what with your parents -- well. I'm not surprised your grandmother decided to send you away and not mention it afterwards." She paused, and rows of potatoes began to form across from the apples.
"That's the way it is in families like ours," she went on, her wand flashing. Harry was dizzy with all the stirring and sorting going on in the small room. "We were lucky, so many healthy children, but so many families weren't, especially back then. There was all sorts of confusion, you know. People going into hiding, not announcing things like births or weddings in the newspaper... Oh, that reminds me, I wonder if Arthur put the announcement in the Prophet..." She turned and went into the front room. They could hear her calling her husband's name sharply into the fireplace.
"Let's go," Hermione said, "I think we have a lot to talk about."
Ron and Harry stuffed as many apples as they could into their pockets, and followed Hermione and Neva to the War Room.
The third time Harry arrived at Room 41, Snape was already there.
"Hullo," he said.
"Good evening." Snape was sitting in a bit further away from the wall this time, facing the cup with his back to the door.
"This is rather strange, isn't it," Harry said, as he checked the barrier around the cup. It was the same as last night. He looked around; the light was the same, the cup was the same.
But he felt different. More alone, perhaps? When he had left the Weasleys, Ron and Hermione had barely noticed. Neville was off talking to Ginny.
Finally he turned back to Snape, noticing for the first time how solitary he looked, too.
He shifted from one foot to the other, cursing himself for not bringing a mat to sit on.
"Potter," Snape said, and Harry stood still. "Will you stop fidgeting and sit down?" He gestured to the other half of his mat. "You're welcome to share my humble accommodations."
"I should transfigure one," he began, and then realised he would have to go out to the corridor.
"Not in the museum," Snape told him, abruptly. "Sit or don't."
And so they continued, the same as previous nights. They talked quietly, from time to time, of different observations they made about the magic, or lack of it, around the cup. Then they discussed the possibility that someone from either the Order or the Death Eaters would figure out that the cup had some significance to wizards. Harry felt it was only a matter of time before someone else tried to take it. Snape disagreed.
"Waiting here makes sense," Harry argued. "We should let the next person to find the cup get killed in the spells around it. That would be the death it requires. Then we'll be here to pick up the pieces." He was certainly willing to have a few random Death Eaters die in the cause of removing the cup from the tangle of spells. He wondered, though, if Snape would care whether or not whomever finally cracked it was friend or foe.
Then again, Snape had said he had no friends. Did that mean he had no foes? Or was everyone a foe?
"Did Dumbledore tell you about the others?" Harry asked, realizing that he really wasn't sure what Snape knew and didn't know.
"He told me there were six, and about the ring and the diary, yes. And that he was going after a locket. That was all he knew of, though I have guesses on the rest."
"Um. We might have found another one."
"Do tell." Snape sounded sceptical.
"We went to Kew Gardens. Hermione--" he stopped; he hadn't meant to tell Snape about his friends. "Well, you probably know I'm working with Hermione on this. Anyway, she figured out that Riddle visited there summers when he was at Hogwarts."
Snape leaned forward. "And you found something?"
"Well, we don't know. We found a magical fountain inside a round hedge. There was a pixie in the middle; that is, a statue of a pixie. Holding a wand."
"Ah." Harry could almost hear the pieces go snick-snick-snick in Snape's head.
"But we don't know if it's one or not. First of all, there was no barrier like this," he pointed to the cup. "We just went right into the water and took it out of the pixie's hand. It was protected by these wicked magical vines after that, though."
"Vines? Could you identify the plant?"
"I think so -- it had thick ropy stalks, large heart shaped leaves, and the stingers are a nasty piece of work," Harry said, and pulled up his sleeve to display his arm.
"Did it have twining petioles and a white spathe?" Snape asked, pulling at the welt with his thumbs.
Harry laughed. "It had nasty stingers, and wrapped itself around just about every part of my body."
Snape inhaled sharply and dropped his arm as though it burned him. Harry peered at his arm, hoping it wasn't going to get worse.
"I'd hazard it was a Stinging Manta," Snape offered.
That was just what Neville had said. "We thought so, too. Er, do you know if that plant has any other special effects to its stings? The, er, the person who took the wand seems to have--" He stopped, wondering if he was giving too much away, then decided that Snape's knowledge was worth trusting him with this. "He seems to have turned into a girl."
"This person was not Miss Tonks, then?"
What? "Oh -- no, definitely not a Metamorphmagus."
"And there was no Polyjuice potion in evidence?"
"No -- no potions. It was just clear water in a basin, and these huge masses of killer plant," Harry replied. "And he's been a she for at least half a day now. Finite Incantatem didn't work."
"Then someone is playing an elaborate prank. Changing a person's gender is much more complicated," Snape said definitively.
He opened his mouth to argue, "But --" then stopped. Snape wasn't the type to debate such things. And truthfully, Harry hadn't looked directly at Neville's bits, though Hermione had confirmed they were normal girl-type bits. But something had obviously happened to Neville in the water that morning.
"Perhaps you are mistaking the effect of injuries from Manta stings? Certain swellings, for example. Or large bites of flesh?"
Harry shuddered "Er, no, I don't think --" He shook his head. "First, she didn't have any stings that I saw. And it's more than just some physical changes. She really is a girl, down deep." That was true. Neville had fallen right into the role, as though he'd -- that was strange, it was as though he'd been a girl living in a boy's body up until now.
"Again, I say someone is playing a prank. The plant has a nasty sting underwater, and the wounds can be deep. They are notoriously hard to treat. You say she had no stings on her person, then she could not have been in the water."
"Perhaps... what if when she transformed, she also healed?" Harry hazarded. He was finding his pronouns very confusing.
"Now we have a gender switching plant that also heals. May I offer that this violates several laws of magic?" Snape scoffed. "Ah, no, you have not taken your seventh year of coursework, Mr Potter, so I don't expect you to understand."
"Well, it is very odd," Harry defended himself. It clearly wasn't any sort of prank, though he had no idea how to prove it to Snape
Snape sniffed, but then ran a finger down his cheek, deep in thought. "I will admit, it is interesting," he mused.
They definitely agreed on that point: it was interesting. They were quiet, then, for a long time. Harry let himself relax a bit, feeling Snape's presence beside him, finally reaching that place they'd been the past two nights, comfortable with each other in the dimly lit space.
It was good to have some time to think, after he had been blindsided all afternoon by Neville's presence. Neville was still himself; or rather herself, right down to the way he held his wand, the way her hair curled. And Harry had noticed a lot more about her. He felt odd, with all these girl-feelings toward Neville, who was a boy and his dorm-mate in his mind.
And odder yet. Harry had grown up with the firm notion that feelings like this were only for girls -- and then something like this happened and it made him wonder what was so special about boy bits and girl bits. When Neville turned back into a boy, would Harry still notice how his hair curled?
Odder and oddest, that was definitely the word for it. Neville was a girl for the moment, but it didn't mean that he wasn't Neville any longer. Harry wondered suddenly how he would feel if he turned into a girl, or -- what if Ginny were turned into a boy? Would he still feel the same way about her? Would she kiss the same way?
Whenever he thought of Ginny, he felt all protective; he wanted more than anything to keep her safe. Would he feel the same way if she -- were a he? When it came down to it, he began to wonder whether a person's bits mattered all that much. Ginny was more than capable of defending herself, Harry knew that. He suddenly pictured her with a boyish haircut, with a lean torso like Ron's, casting hexes with the skill he knew she had.
It was suddenly very hot in the room. That was some image.
"It's interesting, isn't it," he mused, "when something can change your world view, out of the blue? One day, you're attracted to girls, and the next day, you find you're attracted to blokes."
Snape, who had been right next to Harry on the mat, was suddenly sliding away to face him.
"This is neither the time nor the place for such blather," he spat the words.
"What?" Harry gaped.
Snape looked ready to curse the world. "While I may be attracted to blokes, as you say," he sputtered, "I have no interest in bedding a wizard half my age."
He was on his knees now, and Harry blinked up at him. Snape glared down. "And I'm certainly not interested in keeping you amused while you insist on sharing my vigil. I'm well able to deal with--"
"Wait," Harry said, putting his arm up to stop the words. "You thought that I--"
Snape raised an eyebrow.
Harry crossed his arms, as if to put a barrier between himself and Snape. "I wasn't talking about you."
"Then what, pray tell, were you going on about?"
"About, er, me," he replied, and Snape's eyebrow went even higher.
"No, no," he said, and then held his hands up to shield his face. "That came out really wrong. I was only thinking --"
"Your first mistake, Potter."
Harry soldiered on, needing to fix this horrible misunderstanding. He dropped his hands and sat up straight. "I was thinking about how someone in general might feel about girls and blokes. Not specifically. Definitely not specifically."
Snape gave him a withering look, and Harry realised he was sitting on Snape's mat. He quickly scrambled up, walking the few steps to his old spot. After a moment, Snape sat back down in his previous spot.
"As long as we're clear," Snape said, finally.
Harry nodded. They were definitely clear.
Harry had never seen anyone move that fast. And he knew Snape. Snape who notoriously jumped to conclusions, true.
But what a conclusion this was!
"Er, Neva," Ron said, setting down the heavy tray. "Milk or lemon?"
"Ron!" Hermione gave him a mock smack on the leg. "There's no need to tease Neville, just because of what your Mum said."
"No, I sort of like it," Neville said, "I don't mind at all. And I'd like milk, I think," he added. "I've always had lemon, but I feel like a change." He laughed, and Harry wondered if Neville had always laughed like a girl, or if something more fundamental had changed. It seemed every time he looked at his friend, he saw something different. Sometime it was a girl, sometimes it was just Neville.
"Don't you think it will be odd when you change back?" Harry asked.
"I wish I knew!" he said. "I can't say it hasn't been strange being a girl, and all, but --"
"It would be strange for me," Ron grinned, "Good on you, Nev, you've held up all right. I don't think I'd come out of the loo until it wore off."
"That's it, really," she said. "It doesn't feel strange at all. Different, yes, but that's all."
"Well, Mum was very happy to have another pair of hands to work on the decorations," Ron said.
"I'm happy to help, of course," Neva said. Then she asked, more seriously, "Do you really think there were twins?"
"No," Ron said.
Harry shook his head. "It's possible, given all that was happening back then."
"Well, I can't believe anything she said," Hermione put in. "First of all, Neville, you are definitely not a squib. You were one of the best students in the DA."
"Wait," Harry said, "That's it. There's a way to make sure it's really you. Cast your Patronus."
"That's a great idea," Ron said. "Can you cast one, Neville?"
"Sure, I think so," he said. She extended her wand and concentrated. A silver shape began to form, and resolved softly into a Peregrine Falcon.
Ron said, "There, that proves it. She's Neville. Only with, you know--"
"Tits," Neva said, looking down. "Not bad, are they?" She grinned.
Hermione frowned at both of them. "Well, that's it then -- Fred and George and Padma and Parvati's are different."
"Right, theirs are totally different," Harry agreed, and then-- "Wait, I knew there was something strange. You did that left handed, did you realise?"
Neville looked at the wand in his hand. Moved it to his other hand. "No," he said, and moved it back again.
Ron said, "Curiouser and curiouser."
Harry had to agree.
Their conversation turned to revising and exams, as it usually did with Hermione in the room. Within a half hour, however, Ron and Hermione were sitting in the same chair, nearly in each others' laps. Harry caught Neva's eye, and they slipped out to the main part of the shed.
Harry found two old crates and cast a cushioning charm.
"Are they always like that?" she asked, sitting down.
"Yeah, pretty much," he replied.
"So these," she stumbled, "Horcruxes. Scary, aren't they?"
"And you still think the wand we found might be one of them?"
"There's no way to know. Probably not, it was too easy to pick up."
Neville looked pointedly down, then smirked up at Harry.
"Okay, not that easy," Harry said wryly.
He looked over and saw Hermione's bag hanging on the door latch, and found the wand still in it. He sat down and held it up between them.
He and Neville studied it for a moment. "That could have a piece of You-Know-Who's soul in it?" Neva whispered. "Can he hear us, do you think?"
Harry shook his head. "Feels like a chunk of metal," he said, handing it over to her.
There was a bright blue flash as she touched it.
"What was that?" Harry exclaimed, taking it back from her. "What did you do?"
"I just... I don't know! It didn't feel like a curse, more like a badly cast charm. Doesn't that sound mad?" She took the wand back, and looked at it thoughtfully.
Harry remembered listening to Snape saying those same words in the dark, just a couple of nights ago.
"Listen, can you come with me right now? I'm going to the British Museum. I'd like you to take a look at the cup."
"Sure, Harry," she replied, "but it's closed now, don't you think we should go in the morning?"
"Er, no. Actually, I've spent the last three nights there."
"What? Does Hermione know this?"
He shrugged. "I may have forgotten to mention it," he said. "I'll explain it on the way, all right?"
Neither of them cared to disturb Ron and Hermione in the other room, so Harry wrote a hasty note and they walked outside into the cool night air.
"Do you think you could Apparate?" Harry asked. It was a crisp, starry night, and he was suddenly impatient to be gone.
"I -- " She stopped. "Would it be all right if we took the Floo? It's not that I don't think I can, but it's pretty far. I don't think I'd know what bits were left behind."
Harry grinned. "Sure, I understand that."
They tiptoed through the dark kitchen and the sitting room, and took the Floo to Diagon Alley. As they walked to the Underground, Harry told Neva about the cup and how he'd come to watch it for the last week.
When they reached the Museum, Harry pointed to the spot where he usually hid to put on the Invisibility Cloak. As they arranged themselves under it, carefully not pressing too closely together, it suddenly struck him that this was Neville. He'd been thinking of her as Neva all evening. And there was a good chance that Snape would be upstairs.
"Nev -- Neville, wait," he whispered, and she turned slightly to look at him. He could barely see her eyes in the dim light.
"I can't believe I forgot this, but," Harry swallowed, but persevered, "there's another person who has also been watching the cup with me, these last three nights."
"Okay," Neva replied uncertainly. "It is okay, isn't it?"
"Well, yeah, it's fine. But listen, it's someone -- well, it's Snape."
"Snape?" She blinked at him, incredulous.
"Wait, I know how it sounds," he said quickly, holding up a hand. "But he... see, it turns out he's doing the same thing we are, trying to figure out how to find and destroy these things, the Horcruxes. Look, I know how you feel about him, but he's different now. He doesn't have to be mean to Gryffindors anymore."
"Are you mad?" she said, stepping away from him, her eyes flashing. "He killed Dumbledore, or don't you remember?"
"Yes," he replied, equally intense. "Yes. But now I know it was more complicated than that. Look, you're going to have to trust me on this."
She stared at him, and he was struck again that this was not the old Neville looking at him, but a new person who saw things with a different perspective.
"I do trust you," she said, seriously. "And there's no magic in the room. What's the worse that can happen, right?"
"You could turn into a chicken next?" Harry said, and they both laughed. "He might not even be there."
"No, it's all right. He probably won't know who I am, anyway."
Harry had gone in before closing time the first time he'd visited, but since then had learned which doors the cleaning staff used. They waited until two of the cleaners opened the door to roll a large rubbish bin out of the building, and then slipped inside and up the stairs, heading to Room 41.
Snape scrambled to his feet, wand drawn, as Harry and Neva entered. They met in the middle of the room, Snape pointing his wand, and Harry trying to stay calm and focused. He could see Neva's curiosity next to him, but interestingly, no fear showed on her face.
"It's okay," he said, "She's a friend." He was afraid that Snape would run out, but he stood his ground.
"Neva, this is --" Harry stopped. He'd finally got comfortable calling her Neva, and now he had no idea what to call Snape.
"Severus," Snape offered, nodding his head.
"Right," Harry said, and he couldn't help grinning. "Severus," he said just to savour the feel in his mouth. "I have a, er, a hunch. Well, it's a hope, really, but I thought I'd see if Neva here-- well, I thought she could take a look at the displays here."
Snape gave him a speaking look, but did not object.
Harry gave a small bow, and gestured across the breadth of the room, "Madam, I invite you to view some historical artefacts. They are very interesting and beautiful, are they not?"
"Oh, yes," Neva answered. She walked slowly around the room and stopped at the cup. Harry deliberately hadn't shown her which one it was, but she walked directly to it. And then -- he heard Snape's gasp, as sharp as his own -- she put her hand through the barrier, and through the glass! Harry clenched his fists. She picked up the cup, and yes! there was a familiar blue flash.
She turned to them, held it in her hand and smiled.
"What happened?" Harry asked, and he and Snape came over to look. "Is it --"
Harry reached out and she handed him the cup. It was heavier than it looked, he thought, turning it over in his hand. It was definitely the cup he had seen in the pensieve, very old, but very well preserved.
"I'll take that."
Harry whirled. A man was outlined against the well-lit corridor. A man who was aiming his wand directly at them.
"But first," the man continued, "you're going to tell me all about what the girl just did."
He walked a few paces closer, and as Harry's eyes adjusted, he could finally make out the man's face. It was Peter Pettigrew!
He froze, then forced himself to focus. Pettigrew had his wand aimed at Snape. He probably would underestimate Harry and Neva. Harry had to be ready for his chance.
He glanced at Neva then at Snape. Neva was staring, wide-eyed.
Snape was glaring. "Pettigrew. I should have known."
Pettigrew laughed, a high giggle. "How could you have, Snape? I've been trailing you here for the past two nights and you never knew a thing. If you hadn't put that spell on the room that kept me out, I would have been right up your nose and you wouldn't have noticed. But I had to sit just outside the door, and I couldn't hear what you were saying at all."
He jabbed his wand at Neva. "Then she did something, didn't she? Took down the barrier, somehow. I'll bet that polished your brass, didn't it, Snape?"
The barrier was down? That must mean that the cup in his hand was --
"Here, take it," he shouted, and tossed the cup straight at Pettigrew. Snape's wand was out in a flash, throwing a large red hex. Harry heard the cup clank along the stone floor as he fumbled for his wand. He grasped it and without hesitation, he pointed it at the floor and shouted, "Animagum Gelo!"
Snape's curse missed, as Pettigrew shrunk down to rat size, just as Harry knew he would. Which was why Harry's curse did not miss.
He walked over to the stunned rat and picked it up.
"Animagum Gelo??" Snape looked doubtful, eyebrow raised.
Harry held up the rat by the tail.
Snape almost smiled, then nodded his approval. "Point taken."
Harry grinned. "Are you all right?" he asked Neva.
"I think so," she replied, clearly shaken. "That's Peter Pettigrew?"
"Oh, yes," Harry said. "We knew we'd need a special spell when we met him again. Hermione and Ron came up with it."
"Yes, very inventive," Snape said. "Points can be awarded later. And now, we need to move swiftly."
Harry agreed. It was almost time for the guard to come by, and the room was in a state that even he might notice. And if Hermione was right, there would be Aurors as well.
Neva found the cup on the floor and looked at it thoughtfully. "That," Snape said, taking it from her, "is no longer a Horcrux." He walked back to the case, using Dissoluo to place it back through the glass. Harry cast a quick Reparo on the case that had caught the brunt of Snape's hex. It was clearly a nasty one.
Snape came back, approved of the repairs, and pulled an empty vial from his pocket. He quickly enlarged it, and then held it out for Harry to deposit the rat.
Snape attached the lid, and cast a quick spell to make a few air holes. Only then did Harry cast Finite. Snape then shrunk it and moved to put it in his pocket. Harry stopped him with a hand on his arm. "I'd like to take him."
Snape stopped, and considered. Harry continued, "It's not as though you can take him to the Ministry. Or deliver him to the Death Eaters."
"No," Snape admitted. "But he knows too much. Neither can you."
"Then I have the perfect spot picked out for him. We have a place to hide him until this is over. He'll be right at home."
Snape looked pained, but handed the small vial to Harry. "He is your prisoner."
Harry tucked him away, feeling odd to have a grown man in his pocket. He took Neva by the elbow, and the three of them went to the door. Harry and Snape looked both ways before walking quickly and quietly down the corridor to the nearest stairwell.
As they exited to the street, Snape looked back up at the top floor.
Harry looked up at Snape. "Come with us, will you? We have to go back and tell Ron and Hermione -- and we have plans to make. We could really use you."
When Snape didn't reply, he continued, "Look, where else do you have to be right now? And you owe me, you know. Pettigrew would be spilling his guts to Voldemort if I hadn't been there."
"All right," Snape said, finally. "Lead on, Potter,"
"Yes, Severus," he said, grinning. "I'll send my Patronus when we get back, and you can follow it to Apparate. Will that work?"
Snape gave him an appraising look, but nodded.
Harry couldn't stop glancing over at Neva as they walked through the deserted London streets and found a Floo back to the Burrow. They asked each other all sorts of questions. What did she think of all this? What did he think? Were they really Horcruxes? Could they trust Snape? And what did the blue flash really do?
They found Ron and Hermione in the War Room, looking decidedly dishevelled. The bronze wand lay on the table.
"Harry! Where have you two been?"
Neva gave them a sad smile. "The museum," she said. "We went to look at the cup."
"The cup?" Ron asked. "The Hufflepuff cup?"
Harry nodded. "Yes. And there have been some developments. For one thing, it's no longer a Horcrux." He reached over and picked up the wand. "And neither," he said, "is this."
Ron looked from Harry to Neva and back again. "How did you do it?"
"I don't know, really," Neva began, "Harry and Professor Snape think that--"
"Snape!" Ron exclaimed. "You've seen him?"
Neva looked at Harry, who realised it was time to confess. "Yes, I've seen him. Look, I'm sorry I didn't tell you this, but he was there on Monday when I first went to look at the cup."
"And you lived?" Ron was incredulous. "And he lived?"
Hermione was immediately concerned. "You didn't duel with him, did you?"
Harry shook his head.
"You could have punched him," Ron said.
Harry ignored that comment. "No, we talked, actually. There was no magic in the room, so we would have had to leave in order to have a duel. Turns out he didn't kill Dumbledore."
"I thought you saw him do it," Neva said.
"I know I did. But Dumbledore was already dying. From the potion in the cave. I guess I was trying to forget that, but it's true."
"Still could have punched him," Ron grumbled.
"I could have, but I didn't," Harry said firmly. "And I sort of trust him now. Dumbledore told him all about the Horcruxes. He's stuck, just like we are, not able to trust the Ministry or the Order. He can't even trust the Death Eaters."
"Oh," Hermione said, standing up. "I never thought about it that way."
"And," Harry added. "I invited him to come here. He'll be here as soon as I send the okay to him." It felt good to finally share with his friends that he trusted Snape to come.
"You what?" Ron yelled.
"You did?" Hermione exclaimed.
"I think we'll need tea," Neva said, conjuring a tray with cups, saucers, and a steaming pot of tea.
"And I expect you to be civil to him," Harry said. Ron glared; Hermione looked surprised, but neither said a word. He stepped outside and cast his Patronus, sending it to Snape. Within a minute, Snape Apparated next to him.
"Oh," Harry said, suddenly more than aware of Snape's body next to his. It was a chilly night, and Snape seemed to be radiating heat.
"You're sure about this, Potter?" Snape said quietly.
He looked up and met Snape's eyes. "I feel as though we're very close to figuring it out. I keep seeing the answer just out of the corner of my eye. Hermione's brilliant, even you have to admit that, but I need your help."
Snape gave him a long, appraising look, and then nodded. "Cooperation," he said.
"Right," Harry said. "Let's go in," he said, and led Snape through the shed to the camouflaged door.
Snape stepped in and Harry followed him. They stopped just inside the door. Neva was pouring tea, Hermione looked determined, and Ron was studying the tops of his shoes. Harry just hoped the awkward silence would end soon. "And there is just about everything we know," he said, indicating the wall to Snape.
Snape grunted, and took two long steps to the wall. He began reading the cards, starting at the upper left. Harry took a cup of tea from Neva, and waited.
"You don't mention the Tarot theory, Miss Granger," he said, pointing to three of the blue cards.
"Tarot?" she asked, standing to join him at the wall.
"Yes, do you see -- the wand, the disc, and the cup," he listed them on his fingers. "All that is missing is the sword."
"You're right," she said, "I can't believe I didn't see it." She immediately began scribbling on several new cards. They stuck them on the wall, and discussed moving several others. Harry relaxed somewhat; he knew they needed another brain on Hermione's level to really get that wall in order.
Finally, Hermione and Severus turned away from the wall. He held up a card with Neva's name on it. "We seem to disagree on where to put this card in the matrix. We don't know who she is."
"What do you mean?" Ron challenged. "She's Neville, even though -- well, not today, she's not."
"What I mean, Mr Weasley, is that she appears to have the power to vanquish the Dark Lord."
Harry sank back into his chair, stunned. Snape was exactly right; she could vanquish the Dark Lord. "She's the Chosen One, isn't she?" he said.
"Wait, Ron said, puzzled. "You and Snape think that Neville can actually kill those pieces of Voldemort?"
"She could. And she did, I think." He told them about the blue light that he'd seen each time.
Neva blushed. "I don't know what I did, really."
"Neville, that's amazing. And I think it means that Professor Dumbledore was wrong," Hermione said, searching for a card on the wall. She picked off a yellow one and held it up. "That means Riddle went after the wrong boy. Neville is the Chosen One in the prophecy, not Harry."
"Perhaps," Severus said, "It is possible that she is not --"
"That she is not Neville," Harry cut in, looking at Snape. Her turned to Hermione, "He told us there's no spell that could work that way, to change someone's gender so completely."
"That he knows," Ron said under his breath.
"Look, it wasn't a potion, and she's not a Metamorphmagus," Harry said.
"Well, that doesn't make any sense," Hermione stood up. "How does she have all of Neville's memories?"
"There are many ways to access a person's memories," Snape offered. "Both actively and passively."
That stumped her. "All right, then. If she isn't Neville, then who else could she be?"
Snape looked at Neva critically. "I believe we have a conundrum. This person is either Neville or not Neville. If she is not Neville, then the salient question is: What happened to the boy? Could he have disappeared? Could he have Apparated away?"
"That's impossible," Ron said. "We would have seen --" but Harry cut him off.
"He could still be at Kew," he said slowly, "in the fountain."
It was a cold journey back to Kew the next morning.
"I don't know what I'm more afraid of," Neva said, "Finding something or..."
The fountain was quiet, as they had left it on Wednesday. Hermione, prepared this time, was ready to subdue the plant with a charm. "Whether we need it or not," she said.
She and Neva stood ready with their wands as Harry and Ron slipped into the water. It seemed even colder today than it had been two days ago. Nothing happened as they waded over to the mass of vines and leaves and began pulling it apart.
Harry's heart sank as he saw an arm, then a sleeve, and realised it was Neville's shirt. He pushed down his horror as he heard Hermione's sob. He and Ron pulled him from the knot of vines and pushed the body to the side of the pool.
Getting the body out of the water was dreadful. It was definitely Neville. They were all silent as they laid out his body on the grass. Ron turned out to be the practical one around dead bodies. He rolled up his jacket and placed it under Neville's head. It looked as though he was sleeping.
Neva pushed his hair back from his face. "It's not as though I knew him; I was him." Neva said, shivering. They were all in shock.
They carefully prised the vines from her brother's hands, gently loosening his fingers. She closed her eyes for a moment, then waved her wand, clearing the vines that had bound her brother. She reached down and held his hand. Harry searched for words that would fill the void he'd left in their lives.
He had several sting wounds; Neva discovered one just over his heart. Harry turned to Hermione, "Oh," she said, her voice catching. "Yes, that could be what killed him. These stings are painful, and I don't think I've read anything about them being fatal. But that..." her voice trailed off.
Ron shook his head, "One shot in a million."
She put her arm around Neva's shoulder. "I'm so sorry, Neva."
"Thanks," she said quietly. Finally, she looked up. "What should we do with his body, do you think? I'd hate to ruin the wedding tomorrow with news of a funeral."
"Oh, Neva, don't worry about that," Hermione shushed her. "This is much more important than a wedding."
"No," she said, "it's not. But what is really more important is what we're doing with the Horcruxes. I feel as though we're making real progress, and if this all comes out, I don't know how we'll explain it. What could have happened? He died," she threatened to start crying in earnest, and Harry felt tears prickle behind his own eyes. "He died, and somehow I lived. What does that mean?" She put her face in her hands.
Harry looked down at his friend. "I don't know," he said. "But this is is all tied up together, somehow."
"I want to be part of solving the mystery," Neva said, "And I won't be if we report this now." She wiped away her tears. "Will your mother be too upset if Neville decides to start cross-dressing?" She asked Ron, smiling crookedly.
Ron laughed. "Nothing she hasn't seen before," he grinned. "We have all sorts in the family."
"Well, that's good," she said. "It will be interesting explaining that to Gran, I think."
Harry stood to cast his Patronus, sending it to Snape to let him know he was needed. He hoped that Severus would be able to come. It wasn't that Snape would know what do to any more than they did, but Harry needed him to confirm the theory that was coming together in his head. Those idle chats they had shared at the Museum on those long nights, about Horcruxes and death and survival, were now far less idle.
He was on the other side of fountain when Snape Apparated in a few minutes later. Harry quickly explained what had happened. "It's what we thought, isn't it?"
Snape nodded. "It is possible. I need to go speak with Neva," he said, and Harry let him go.
Ron and Hermione came over to Harry's side of the fountain. "I still don't understand," Ron said slowly.
"I think I do," Harry said quietly. "Neva is the Chosen One in the prophecy. She has the power to vanquish the Dark Lord."
"I still don't get that," Ron said, looking back and forth between Harry and Neva.
Hermione said, "Harry, I know Neville's birthday, and-- and Neva's birthday is the day before yours, but the prophecy is about a boy, born as the seventh month dies."
"Yes," Harry said, "But you can read it another way. It says the one -- the One -- born with the power to vanquish the Dark Lord approaches, born to those who have thrice defied him, born as the seventh month dies. That could be Neva."
"Yes, but the next part--" Hermione said.
"The prophecy could be about two people, twins. I think Voldemort planned to kill Neva in order to make Neville -- a squib -- into his Horcrux. He marked him as his equal by giving him a piece of his soul."
"And neither could live while the other survived," Hermione's voice broke. "Oh, Neville," she sobbed and pressed her hand to her mouth. They walked back to where Severus and Neva were sitting.
Harry continued. "And then things went wrong. Voldemort killed Neva."
"And we believe that as she died," Snape put in. "As as Voldemort was using her death to tear off a seventh of his soul, she vanquished that bit of him."
"Good on you, Neva," Ron said.
Neva gave him a weak smile, "I really don't remember it."
"Then comes the interesting part," Harry continued. "Voldemort thought the spell had failed, so we think that's when he went screaming off after me. I suppose he figured he'd miscalculated, that I must be the one in the prophecy. That he must have got it wrong. And he left behind--"
"And he left the boy twin as an unfilled Horcrux," Hermione said.
"That's right," Snape said, "And he also left a dead soul right next to him; that was Neva."
"Oh," Hermione said to Neva, putting a hand on her arm. "He was your Horcrux. All these years."
Neva nodded, "I think so. It's the only thing that makes sense." Hermione slid over the grass and put her arm around Neva's shoulders as they both looked down at Neville.
"Whoa," Ron said, and Harry nodded grimly.
"And so Neville had power the Dark Lord knew not. He might have been a squib, but he never gave up. And it turned out he had Neva to help him," Harry continued.
Severus nodded. "It was a wholly unpredictable set of circumstances. Two people existing in one body."
"It's a wonder he could even function," Hermione said. "Was that why he was clumsy sometimes? And forgetful?"
"It could explain much about his apparent shortcomings." Severus turned directly to Neva. "I am very sorry for the pain I caused him. He was a far stronger soul than I knew."
Harry nodded. "And then the prophecy says neither can live while the other survives, and given how it turned out, I think that bit means the twins. It was the part Voldemort didn't hear."
"It's so strange," Neva said. "I was Neville for 17 years. I lived through all of his frustration, and happiness, and pain. But he never knew about me." Tears leaked down her cheeks.
"I think he missed you," Ron added, sitting next to Harry, "I mean, I think Fred would miss George even if he didn't know about him. I think twins are like that."
Neva nodded, wiping tears with the back of her hand.
Harry dropped to his knees on the other side of Neville. "You're using his wand," he said. "How does it feel?"
She looked down at it. "Like my own," she said, "I learned magic through his hands, through his eyes," she added, laying a hand on Neville's face.
"He would be so happy to know you're okay," Hermione said. "I know he would be so proud that you're such a strong witch."
They sat quietly for a few minutes, and then Ron looked up at Harry, "So then he tried to--"
"Kill me and make another Horcrux," Harry continued. "He tried but he couldn't -- he was out of soul."
Snape cut in, "Not completely. He still had a seventh remaining in him."
"Yes, that's right," Hermione said. "Professor, what if making a seventh Horcrux meant that he became soul-less?"
They all turned to Snape, who tapped his finger on his chin in thought.
"No soul," Harry said, darkly, "Like a Dementor."
"Yes," Snape said finally. "Yes, exactly. We know very little about Dementors. All we really know is that they are created beings, that they are not born."
"And--" Hermione stopped, thinking, "I think I understand why the house at Godric's Hollow was such a mess. I read that when the soul is torn from a body--"
"A large amount of energy is released," Snape finished her sentence. "The Dementors absorb that energy when they administer the Kiss."
"But if there were no Dementors there--" Harry said.
"It could be enough to blow apart a house," Ron concluded. "Whoa."
"Then what happened to that last bit of his soul? Did You-Know-Who make a Horcrux at Godric's Hollow? I mean, before it exploded?" Neva asked, and there was the question that had been at the back of Harry's mind for what felt like forever.
"It's possible. We've only found five of them." Hermione listed them on her fingers. "The diary, the ring, the cup, the wand, and you, Neva. And six, if we count the missing locket."
"Yes," Snape said, "It makes sense if he was making a tarot set; the cup, the wand, the disc. He needed a sword. That could be the seventh."
"Unless he thought that Neville was the heir of Gryffindor? Could he have stretched the metaphor that far? Treating the heir as the sword?" Hermione looked at Harry.
This was the moment he had been dreading. "It was me, wasn't it," he said flatly. "I'm the last Horcrux. I'm the Heir of Gryffindor."
"No!" Hermione cried.
"Yes," Harry said. "It has to be." He reached up and touched his scar. It felt hot for the first time in a year.
Neva looked thoughtful, and raised her hand to her own forehead. "Can I?" she said, a finger extended toward the same spot on Harry's face.
Harry nodded, unable to speak. This was it. She would touch him, and the bit of Voldemort's soul inside him would be vanquished.
All of their theories came crashing through his mind. What if his own soul was already forfeit, tied up too closely with Voldemort's through the last sixteen years? It was all there, on green record cards, stuck to a wall back in the War Room. His parseltongue, his visions, his scar. Even his very magical power. He stopped breathing as her hand came nearer. He could be a squib, just like Neville, all of his magic coming from the shredded soul inside him.
Without conscious thought, he reached out and clamped his hand on Neva's wrist. Then before he could go completely mad, he felt Snape's hand on his shoulder, steady and warm. "Okay," he said, letting her go. "It can't be worse than not knowing."
"You say that now," Snape muttered, and Harry turned to him, incredulous.
"Nutter," he said, with a wry grin. Glancing at Ron's stunned face, Harry knew that Ron would never understand that Snape's dark humour was exactly what he needed right now.
Neva just smiled, though. She placed her palm gently against his scar. She looked puzzled. "It's not--" she began.
"Not what?" Hermione asked, but Neva shook her head.
"It feels as though there was something there once, but it's not--" She moved her hand down his face, intent on whatever she was sensing.
She rested her hand on his neck, his chest, and then stopped, just below his heart. "It's here," she said, "inside him."
"Inside his body?" Snape asked.
"Inside me?" Harry looked down at his chest, and back up at Neva. "What, like an artificial heart?"
"I don't think so," Neva said.
"Lie back," Hermione said. "I'm guessing now, but I don't think you've ever had a Muggle X-ray, have you, Harry?"
Snape laid a hand on Harry's chest.
"Not that I can remember," he said. "You think there's something inside me?"
"Possibly," Snape said. He waved his wand over the spot Neva had indicated. He cast "Dissimulus Rem and Harry lurched as something churned inside him. Ron's steady hands on his shoulders kept him from leaping up.
When it was over, he swallowed, looked down, and saw--
"It's a locket!"
Snape picked it up and held it out for all of them to see. Harry sat up, rubbing his stomach. Snape handed it to him; it was eerily body temperature. "That's Slytherin's locket?" he asked.
"There's one way to find out for certain," Snape replied, and took it back and offered the item to Neva.
She sat up straight, and held out her hand. As soon as she held it, there was another flash of blue light.
"Well, I guess we can call off the hounds on Mundungus," Ron said.
"How could this have gotten inside you, Harry?" Hermione asked.
"I definitely don't remember it going in," he said. He put his hand over the spot where it had come out through his belly. He closed his eyes, and put his hand back on his scar. He wasn't a Horcrux. It was such a relief, he felt dizzy.
"I wonder." Snape said slowly. "Whomever stole this from the Dark Lord would have taken this to the Order. Could Dumbledore have decided to hide it with the Potters?"
"And then they decided to hide it-- inside of me?"
"I can't say. I don't think that anyone, even Albus, knew that Horcruxes existed at that point. All he would know is what was told to him, that this was something the Dark Lord valued highly."
"So if it was there, in the house," Harry said, "And Voldemort was knocking on the door --"
"It seems your mother might have decided to hide two treasures in one spot," Severus ventured.
"Before she laid down her life for me." Harry could still remember her screams. "And then Voldemort decided to make me a Horcrux."
"Perhaps he intended to," Snape said. "But his life energy was expended at the moment he discharged his soul. I suspect he used Ordina Vasum to prepare you to contain his soul. However, that may not have been adequate to hold it."
"That means his soul -- would have blown me apart? Like the house?"
"It looked like it did blow up the house," Ron said. Then he turned and squinted his eyes at Hermione. "What if he aimed it at Harry," Ron suggested, "but then he went kablooey and he pushed it right out of him?"
Snape nodded. "It could have done -- but perhaps it had help. Albus was certain that it was your mother's love that protected you. My guess is that her ghost pushed it out of you before it could destroy you."
"And would that leave a scar?" Neva asked, in a small voice.
Harry rubbed his forehead. "I've always wondered why it never healed," he said. "A bloody parade went through it."
Neva reached up and put her hand on it for a moment. She pulled it back, and they were all staring at him. "What? What did you do?" He felt his forehead, but he didn't feel any different.
"My scar? Gone?" Harry rubbed at it again. "No more scar," he said, stunned. "And I'm not the Chosen One."
Neva sighed. "I suppose that's one piece of good news today," she said. Harry agreed with her; it was good news, but was it worth losing Neville?
"Well," Hermione said. "That's it then. All seven."
"What does that mean for Voldemort now?" Harry asked.
"It means," Snape said, "that he is no longer immortal. He no longer has any soul left in this world. One theory holds that his magic will also be gone along with it. However," he added, "the rest of the Death Eaters won't know this."
"Can he hide it from them?" Hermione asked.
"Not for long, I shouldn't think."
Snape looked at the Mark on his arm.
"What do you see?"
Snape looked up, his eyes gleaming. "The slimmest chance that a lifetime of horror may be over." He showed them his forearm; the Dark Mark was fading, then surging.
"Does it hurt?" Harry asked.
"In ways you can't imagine," he answered. Snape stood abruptly and drew his wand.
"You're going back there," Harry said. "You're going to kill him, aren't you?"
Snape did not reply.
"How will we know if it worked?"
"Yes, what if there is more to do?" Hermione asked. "What if we didn't get them all?"
"I'll send word," he said to Harry. "If you don't hear from me tomorrow morning," he stopped. "There will be more work to do."
"I'm going with you," Harry said, getting to his feet.
"Harry," Hermione said, putting a hand on his leg. "You're not the Chosen One, anymore."
"No, I'm not. I'm just a normal bloke, trained within an inch of my life, and he killed my parents. And Dumbledore. And he took Neville!
"I said, I'm going," He stood toe to toe with Snape, daring him to leave without him.
"Harry, I--" and in that moment, Harry could see past the bluster, past the hard edges, and saw the desperation of a man with few options.
He stepped back and before Harry could follow, he held out his wand. "I'm not going to kill anyone," he said. "I told you that I've had enough of that. I am, however," he said flatly, "going to make sure some key personnel are aware of the Dark Lord's recently acquired... vulnerability."
"Good idea," Ron said, and Harry had to agree.
"You'll let us know?" Harry asked. Snape met his eyes and nodded once, and then Apparated away.
In his wake, they could hear a Muggle family walk past the garden, their voices carrying through the foliage.
"We should go," Harry said. "I can cast a Stasso charm."
"No, let me," Neva said. She leaned over and kissed her brother on the forehead. She waved her wand, and the whole world seemed to stand still for a moment.
Hermione reached out and plucked a long leaf from grass. She laid it on Neville's chest, right over his fatal wound. Without a tear, she transfigured it into a single dark red rose.
Harry put away his wand, and took a moment to appreciate the peace of this place after midnight. It was very different than when they were there during the day. Had it really been less than a week ago? Tonight he felt as though a great weight had been lifted from his soul.
A light breeze rustled through the trees. The moonlit night was kind to ruins like these.
He cast about, searching for traces of magic left in the structure. After a moment, he found the dark figure he sought, silent, in the back part of what was left of the house. He Apparated across the broken walls and rubble to stand beside him.
"Is it really over?"
"I think so."
"What happens now?" Harry asked. He had been so focused on the quest, he didn't know what to do now that it was over.
"Life goes on, I suppose."
"I'm can't imagine going back to school."
Snape snorted. "You will go back to school. Albus didn't make these kinds of sacrifices for you to spend your life as a barkeep, you imbecilic brat."
"Aww, you do care," Harry said. And then, blurted out, "Come to the wedding tomorrow."
Snape shook his head, but Harry continued, "As my date."
Snape stared at him, and Harry waited him out. "You are insane, Potter."
"Only a little," he joked. "I took Pettigrew to the Ministry this afternoon. They put him in a dungeon with a couple of Aurors Polyjuiced into Death Eaters. He told everyone all about how you were a traitor to Voldemort's cause. He had a lot of dirt on you, Severus, did you know that? And now it's all on record."
Harry sat down on a large stone, possibly a piece of the original hearth. He patted the spot next to him, and Snape sat down. Harry smiled as Snape noticed the cushioning charm.
"Oh, and I told them all about Professor Dumbledore and the cave. That he made me make him drink the poison," he said, "And it's Harry."
Snape scowled. "Harry."
They studied the landscape for a few minutes, and then Harry said, "I was thinking earlier about Quidditch."
Snape snorted, and Harry put a hand on his arm, for just a moment, trying to convey his seriousness.
"I've always played Seeker, you know. Always searching for this elusive thing, the snitch. And Ron, he's a natural born Keeper. He's rock solid, there to keep the bad things from happening." He sighed. "And then there's Ginny, who's a Chaser. I have this picture in my head of her chasing me and me running away.
"And in that Quidditch game in my head, I'm running toward you. I think you're my snitch."
"I am not a snitch, Potter."
"Harry." Severus said. "And I don't play Quidditch."
"No? I thought you were pretty good on a broom."
Snape sighed. "My game was speed. I used to race, back in school." Harry stopped himself from saying how snitch-like that was. He bit his tongue, hoping that what he'd seen in Snape's eyes, in bits and flashes over the last week, was real.
"So hypothetically," Harry began finally. "Say, if you were interested in bedding a wizard half your age..."
Snape looked up, his eyes blazing, and Harry knew he'd been right. Still, he knew there was any number of ways he could screw this up. But he had set the trap. Harry locked his gaze onto Snape's mouth.
"What would you do?" he finished, finally.
A fiery hunger burnt deep in Snape's eyes. Harry licked his lips, and Snape reached up and put his hands on Harry's shoulders. Those huge, warm hands held him and pulled him up, and then, suddenly, he was engulfed. Snape's arms came around him, and Snape's lips found his, kissing like there was no tomorrow. Harry opened his mouth and drank him in, over and over. He wanted to climb into Snape's robes, he thought, and started pulling at them wherever he could get a hand hold.
Snape pulled back and took Harry's hand in his own. His face was stark in the moonlight. Kind, kind moonlight. They kissed again, and Harry wanted to drown in the sweetness.
They were still there as dawn came creeping through the trees.
"I didn't expect to live through it," Snape said quietly.
"Neither did I."
"I-- don't know quite what to do with myself now."
"Well," Harry said, "There's this wedding today. I'm guessing there will be some talk of what a lot of people are doing next."
"I never expected to be back at Hogwarts this year," Harry said, stepping off the train with Neva.
"I don't know what I expected," she said, "but I never imagined I'd be sleeping in the girl's dorm."
"That's right," Harry grinned. "Sorry we won't be sharing a room any longer."
"Do you want to know the strangest thing?" she asked as they walked across the grassy lawn in the bright September sunshine. "Ginny still gives me that watery feeling inside."
Harry grinned at her. "It is the strangest thing, isn't it?"
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