Harsh Reality - Part II
Chapter 11 - EM-E - Harsh Reality - Part II
Headmaster Dumbledore sat at the head of the table, with Harry on his one side and Severus on the other. He was openly observing the energy between the two, which was still fairly benign, and this was entirely due to Severus' conscious recollection of Remus Lupin's words about how sensitive Harry was to criticism. He was biting his tongue about the banishing of the portrait, a stern reprimand and a dire warning to not repeat such an action being stifled entirely because of the way Harry's pallor had grown pale and his eyes had reddened. They would need to discuss this of course, but later, in private.
Harry's eyes were on the table, his agitation at an all time high because he was convinced he'd just blown his credibility with these adults, all the while Madam Chase could be in the hands of a very nasty and evil witch. "We really, really need to check on Madam Chase," he said, finally looking up at Severus and then Dumbledore. "And after that, we really, really need to go back to Hogwarts and destroy the locket and the diadem. We'll have to find the diadem first, though."
"Madam Chase is unharmed, Harry," Dumbledore informed him gently, adding before Harry could request it, "I paid her a visit late this afternoon. I offered to ward her office and home for just such an event. We'd left her office at half four. I was just leaving her home when Severus sent the message."
"Why did you go to her, sir?" Harry asked suspiciously.
"Yes, Albus," Severus added, a glare surfacing as he too jumped to immediate conclusions.
Dumbledore held up his hands and raised his eyebrows. "Now, now gentlemen, I simply sought her out to inquire about what she knew of the Dursleys. I was hoping that a conversation with her would inspire… a means to achieve an appropriate consequence for their abominable behavior that would not require your involvement, Harry."
"If you look at Uncle Vernon's secret files at his work, you'll find he's been embezzling. Aunt Petunia has a gambling addiction. She participates in an illegal club. Dudley could be brought up on charges for the violent beatings he's given to… kids who are smaller than he is. The neighbors in the area would be willing to press charges now if they could be certain he'll be taken away," Harry informed the Headmaster quietly.
"I see," Dumbledore replied. He folded his hands on the table. There was no twinkle in his eye, and it was a clear sign of defeat that he didn't make any sort of acknowledgement of his failures to Harry. "I now know what my tasks will entail over the weekend. In the meantime, Harry, I agree with you that we need to take steps to minimize the danger of the horcruxes getting into the wrong hands."
Remus chimed in at that point. "Perhaps we could assume that the ones at Hogwarts are untouched for the moment? Harry, you'd said something about an additional one in an old house?"
"That would be the wiser choice over attempting to confiscate the one that my sister-in-law retains," Lucius added.
Harry glanced around at Remus and Lucius, then at Severus while he struggled to remember what Nagini had told him in the bowels of Gringotts. She'd claimed to have eaten.... "It's a ring," Harry announced. "It's an heirloom of Tom Riddle's mother's family."
"I had suspected something similar, and have located an address to the last known home to be inhabited by a Merope Gaunt," Albus said, producing a slip of paper with the address in Little Hangleton. "If you gentlemen would make the trip to retrieve the ring, I would like to call a meeting of select members of the Order in the meantime. We have to anticipate Minister Fudge's next moves." He looked at Lucius. "Have you had any feedback from the Ministry?"
"Deputy Minister Thickeness questioned me without much enthusiasm this morning when I stopped by to make my report. He is normally a nitwit, but today especially he behaved in a distracted manner that could mean trouble. I have nothing more to go on in the meantime. He was less than forthcoming about Minister Fudge's intentions. For some reason, the urgency to patrol Hogwarts has decreased, although I have been directed to continue my post. Oh, and Harry," he paused to remove something from a pocket in the short, jacket-style robe he wore. "I managed to procure a duplicate locket for you from Borgin and Burkes," he said as he slid the item over to Harry.
Harry managed a smile of thanks. "Brilliant. Thank you, sir." He stood up. "Kreacher?" The elf wandered into the open area where Harry now stood, having apparently been monitoring their meeting from behind a cabinet. Harry frowned at him. "What were you doing there?" he asked the elf, but he dropped down to his knees as he spoke and gestured for Kreacher to come closer.
"Kreacher was wanting to see if his new master would keep the promise," Kreacher said defensively, slowly moving closer to Harry.
"I told you I would, didn't I?" Harry asked. He held the locket out to the curmudgeonly creature.
"Kreacher is surprised," the elf said in open shock as he took the gift. "Kreacher is grateful."
"Kreacher is going to be angry with me for removing his former mistress' portrait," Harry said carefully.
"Kreacher has a new master," the elf contradicted, much to the surprise of all present. "Kreacher honors Master Harry's decisions about this house."
"That's great," Harry said, standing up and flashing a triumphant grin at Remus, who was shaking his head. "I'd appreciate it if you'd make this place a little bit nicer over the coming months. Alright?"
Kreacher bowed. "Yes, Master Harry." He disappeared from sight with an ungainly POP!
Severus rolled his eyes at the sentiment. He stood as he said with familiar snark, "Do let us adjourn, if we have concluded the heartfelt moments?" To Albus, he added, "We will reconvene at Hogwarts, unless we hear differently from you." When they began to head out through the back exit off of the kitchen, he put a hand on Harry's shoulder. "You will stay close to me, understood?" he said in a firm tone. He was pleased that the boy nodded without argument.
Crack! Crack! Crack-Crack!
The three adult wizards and Harry arrived in the ratty and unkempt front garden of a ramshackle structure that apparently had at one time been a solidly built cottage-style home. Severus kept Harry at his side, wand drawn.
"You should have your wand out," Severus advised Harry.
"No thanks," Harry said. "I have no desire to get charged with misuse of underaged magic again." But then he realized he'd likely come across as defiant. "I can shield myself without it, sir."
Severus frowned in disbelief, but said nothing further, simply draping his arm around Harry and pinning him to his side as the four of them worked their way closer to the wide front porch. They cast disillusioning spells upon themselves and spread out to make a slow approach in a wide arc. Severus sensed a magical field, and held up a hand to warn the others to halt…
…just as six separate blasts of unfriendly magic zipped toward them from behind.
The three master duelists each managed to deflect the curses in time to prevent grievous injury upon themselves and Harry, but by extension, were forced to spin around to face their attackers and to step backward, triggering a warded alert that cast a pulse of powerful magic into each of their backs, propelling them high into the air. Harry and Severus became separated, and Harry's attempt to shield his guardian along with himself failed. He did manage to cushion the blow of his hard landing at the feet of a Death Eater he recognized from the old memories he'd seen last year in Dumbledore's pensieve. Selwyn.
"Looking for something, Potter?" the imposingly tall Death Eater asked him smugly as the zips and smacks of fierce wand battle ensued around them.
Harry kept his shield intact as he looked wildly around and spotted the newly reassembled and very capable dream team in action. There was so much frantic activity in progress he could do no more than register that all three of the older wizards were still on their feet. Briefly refueled by that familiar hero worship, Harry responded with far more of a flip tone of voice than he should, "I think you're the one who's looking for something. Your Dark Lord, perhaps?"
"What do you know?"
Selwyn apparently didn't intend to listen to the answer because he slashed his wand downward, sending a brutal limb pulverizing hex at Harry, who was still on his knees from his landing. Harry's instincts kicked in before he truly registered what he was doing, and his shield deflected the curse, sending it right back at Selwyn, who went down with a series of crunches that were audible above the other noises. Selwyn did not get back up.
"Harry!" Severus yelled in concern.
Harry snapped his head around to search through the haze of smoke and crackling magical energy that still flailed through the air. He was unable to spot his guardian, but he shouted, "I'm alright!" He stood then, and made his way slowly around the parameter of the melée, anxiety driving him to get into that house.
Remus had managed to pair himself with Lucius and the two of them were facing off with four of the remaining assailants: Gibbon, Rowle, Yaxley, and Alecto Carrow. He had lost visual track of Harry and Severus, but he did hear Harry's call that he was fine. Remus used the resulting surge of relief to fuel a particularly precise series of hexes, crisscrossing them with Lucius' similar casting, in a sequence that kept their attackers on the defensive. Lucius followed that with pulse of magic that shattered Rowle's kneecaps, just as Remus sent a curse at Alecto Carrow.
Severus slashed his wand to invert a blast of yellow flame that had shot at him from Amycus Carrow, directing it at the dark wizard's sister, Alecto, and grimacing as it hit her simultaneously with Lupin's slashing curse. The resulting wail of pain and rage, and heavy collapse of her bulky body was rather loud, and very satisfying. It was followed by the rapid cracks! of apparation, revealing the arrival of Order members Shacklebolt, Dawlish, Tonks, and Albus. Wondering how they'd been alerted, Severus hurled a slashing hex at Amycus, successfully getting past the male Carrow's shield and hitting his achilles tendon, which was immediately hit by the blast of a punching hex from Lupin that knocked Amycus down, where he was next bound in ropes by Tonks.
Tonks winked at Remus as she spun to join the others.
Remus stifled a smile as he glanced over at Selwyn, and saw that he was conscious and struggling to heal himself wandlessly after Harry's attack. Remus sent a silent incarcerus at him and petrified him.
Meanwhile Severus ran across the barren garden and up the stairs to where Harry was hovering near the front door. The boy had a field of protective magic around himself, along with a frown on his face, as he struggled to sense the presence of a horcrux, and all the while keep a watchful eye on the battle still underway.
"I don't think it's here," Harry said. "I have a bad feeling, sir." He remembered the portable peekhole charm from his handbook and imagined a magically transparent barrier where the wall should be. In an instant, they could see into the small interior, although it was dark and heavily shadowed.
"We need to enter to be certain there's nothing there," Severus said grimly.
There was another series of cracks! of apparation and suddenly they were incredibly outnumbered by the arrival of additional assailants. The ensuing explosion of magical energy caused a flash of brilliant light that blinded them both.
Harry's heart was in his throat as he searched for the others in the middle of the mayhem. At some point Severus had dragged him close and was standing so that he could shield them both as needed. Severus cast several hexes over the following moments, targeting the new arrivals. When the light faded enough to make the scene visible, Harry saw that Remus was down and being targeted by several hostile wizards at once. Severus reflexively pulled Harry back against his chest, and when Severus' arm stretched out in front of them both, Harry imagined his magic pushing through his guardian's wand. The retaliatory spell that Severus cast at the three Death Eaters attacking Remus had terrific force, enough so that all three were blasted away and out of sight, presumably across the road and into the shambles of a neighboring house.
A sudden heaviness settled upon them. A jolt of pain hit Harry's scar. He gasped and looked frantically around to see where it came from and his stomach plunged when he saw Pius Thickeness, strolling towards them, arm linked with Dolores Umbridge.
His knees started to buckle from the heaviness pushing down on him. He could feel Severus struggling as well.
Pius held his hand up and wiggled his fingers. "Looking for this, Mr. Potter?" he taunted while Umbridge laughingly squeaked her infuriating hemm, hmmmm!
Blech! Harry couldn't help but think, recalling how Tonks had told him previously that these two were presumed to be a couple. Pius was acting like the ring was a symbol of their love. The ongoing heaviness caused Harry to collapse to his knees under the powerful magical weight, the pain in his scar becoming nearly blinding as the two evil Voldemort sycophants made their way closer. He looked frantically around to see who else was being impacted. The others were somehow being forced out of the bubble-like field of magic surrounding the happy couple, all while it hovered over Harry and Severus. Where was Dumbledore? Harry looked further back and saw that the Order members had encircled the remaining assailants, who were now captured and incapacitated. Dumbledore stood with them. His eyes were on Harry. It as clear he was waiting for his moment to act. Harry sat back on his heels and expanded his shield to cover Severus.
"They've linked their power," he whispered to his guardian.
"Indeed," Severus growled under his breath. He'd dropped to a kneel as well, still behind Harry, pulling him backward to lean into his chest with a strong arm that wrapped around Harry's shoulders. "Two can play at that game."
"We are curious to know how you came to be here, Harry," Pius informed them as he and Dolores strolled tauntingly towards them.
Harry couldn't stop the grunt of pain that burst through his scar as the creepy couple came closer. Severus squeezed him, pressing his cheek to the side of Harry's head as he whispered, "Can we cast while within this field?"
"Dunno," Harry whispered back, he was struggling to stay upright now, what with the pain and the heavy weight.
Severus extended his arm in front of them. In their peripheral view, they could see that their allies were all attempting to break through the barrier by casting various curses and hexes at the base of the transparent field. Unfortunately, this was having no impact.
"I asked you a question, young man," Pius said in a threatening tone, he was raising his wand.
"Perhaps I can induce Mr. Potter to speak," Umbridge said. "We have had some experience, he and I, with him learning obedience."
Try it, Harry seethed inwardly. He shot a focused glare at the ugly toad-faced witch with her stupid pink sweater robe and its matching bow in her girlish hair. "I could have sworn you had a crush on Fudge, Dolores," Harry rasped. "The way you kept his photo on your desk at school, and even called him Cornelius when you talked about him." He shook his head, albeit with difficulty. "Could have sworn it."
"Not only are you impudent as always," Umbridge declared shrilly, "you are quite mistaken."
She flicked her wand to send a hex at Harry. He imagined her wrist snapping awkwardly towards herself, which pointed the wand at her instead of him. With a burst of gray smoke, she literally flew off her feet, effectively being pulled away from Pius. The unexpected action caught Thickeness off balance and he had to step back to recover himself. His wand arm swung wildly outward, spewing a random spell that actually hit Umbridge on the backside.
"Now!" Severus said. He cast spell after spell at Pius.
Harry imagined his own magic feeding into the curses that were hitting Thickeness as if he was being punched by a boxer, but he could tell that their combined power was far less than it would be if that bleeding barrier would just come down. The heaviness was lifting only slightly while Pius was distracted by the onslaught, but he would need to be injured to break it entirely.
"It's no good," Severus said. He redirected his curses at a singular spot, right on the bridge of the dumber wizard's nose, and fired with vicious precision.
Harry looked over at Umbridge and realized she'd regained her feet and was getting back into the action. "Hold that thought!" he said.
He briefly broke his magic away from Severus and rapidly imagined Umbridge's hair being pulled really hard, followed by the rough removal of her bow, followed by it being stuck over her mouth. Permanently. Her sharp yell of shock and pain, and then rage, reverberated around them as her bow was magically yanked off her head, only to have it shut her up entirely by sealing itself to her face. Priceless.
That got ol' Pius' attention, enough so that he dropped the shield and shouted, "My love!" dashing to her, but meeting empty space as she disapparated away. A very powerful wash of water sped through the scattered wizards, sweeping around Pius and containing him, curling into a ball around him. Harry had seen this magic from Dumbledore twice before, both at the Ministry of Magic, and on the grounds when they'd captured Thora Breckin with the diadem, and Nagini had raced into the scene.
Harry had a flash of thought that he should expect the snake to show up at any time, just as the encapsulated Deputy Minister of Magic seemed to have lost his grip on his magic. The magical field dropped and Lucius' raucous laughter surrounded them, as both Harry and Severus realized they could stand up again and moved down the stairs to gather with the others. Lucius bowed to Harry, saying, "That was worth the price of admission, Harry."
Harry struggled not to smile, suspecting, and correctly so, that Severus was traumatized by the extent of Harry's now revealed abilities. Dumbledore continued to spin the ball of water crazily around, while they all pondered next moves.
"Let -me go, damn- you, Dumble- dore!" Pius yelled. He'd already vomited repeatedly from the horrible motion sickness and was currently tumbling around like laundry in a dryer, along with that vomit.
"When you follow directions, Pius," Albus said for the umpteenth time, "I'll stop the rotations. Perhaps after a while, the spinning in your head will also cease." There was a hovering metal lockbox in the center of the ball that Thickeness tumbled within. He'd been instructed to remove the ring from his finger and put it into the box.
"What will- you do- with it?" Pius demanded between grunts of discomfort and gagging at the threat of another bout of sickup.
There was an unspoken pact among the five of them to not call the ring a horcrux in front of the Order members, who were still guarding the prisoners and entirely within earshot. "That's not your concern, Thickeness," Severus said coldly. "You should be more concerned about how you will survive in Azkaban."
Pius managed to laugh in spite of the need to wretch. "Might- I- remind you,- Severus,- that I am- in charge- of Azkaban?- why do- you think so- many showed up- tonight- to help here? It's- your little- ward- there,- who needs to- have that- concern."
Harry's stomach plunged. That's not happening, he thought to himself. He would hide out at headquarters and then leave Wizarding Britain when his Emancipation kicked in. No bloody way am I going to prison while these arseholes run around acting like this!
Severus squeezed his neck and they refrained from further comment with ol' Pius. But Harry couldn't help thinking that Thickeness was not acting nearly as strong as Thora had when she had the diadem on her head. Perhaps the idiot Death Eater didn't realize the power he had with that ring on? He stared at the dark wizard flopping around within his liquid cage. The ring was visible on his hand, Harry could see it clearly. Worth a try, he thought. He imagined it inside the lockbox.
"Ahhhhhhaahhhhh!" The agonized wail released by Thickeness was nearly as disturbing as his vomiting had been.
The ring was in the lockbox. Along with Pius' finger.