(Author's Note. The remainder of this story will take place just after the Ministry has fallen in Harry Potter and the Deadly Hollows. Harry, Ron and Hermione have made it back Number 12 Grimmauld Place, and have just learned of Kreacher's tale. We're around Chapter 11. Lupin has visited, but well, you'll see...
I still need a beta. Anybody out there?
Any relief Harry might have felt in seeing Remus yet again had quickly fallen away when he learned exactly what was happening. The Death Eaters had searched every Order-connected house in the country, Harry was being set up as the murderer of Dumbledore. The Ministry was being run by Voldemort's puppet, and Hogwarts had fallen under his thumb. Defeating the Dark Lord had never seemed more impossible than at that moment.
Considering what Remus had no doubt risked to make it here, it broke Harry's heart a little to not be able to reveal what mission the Headmaster had led them on, or even that one of the Horcruxes might be there at any time.
"I was afraid of that," Lupin took a deep breath. "Then I must be completely honest. I have an idea what that mission may be."
For a moment, another heavy layer of doubt in Dumbledore appeared in Harry's mind. Was his beloved headmaster really as manipulative as everyone seemed to think he was.
"The last time I saw Albus was about three days before--- he was murdered," Remus plunged ahead. "He told me that while the Ministry had made many grievous errors in trying to fight this war, there might still be one weapon available to us. He also said that if something were to happen to him, he would need to entrust it to the three of you. That only you could bring it about."
"What was it?" Harry asked.
"He said, you needed to go to America. California, to be specific."
Now Harry was at a genuine loss. Hermione however, as was often the case, had worked it out. "What good is the Slayer going to be against Voldemort?" Hermione seemed nearly as cold about this idea as she had learning about it the first place.
"Voldemort may have control over the Ministry and Hogwarts, but even he is bounded by the limitations of wizards," Lupin replied. "To completely consolidate his power will take months, maybe even a year. And he'll be so focused on what's going on here that he won't be able to turn his attention to America for that long. There is a window to get to her, but it's very short."
Harry was not completely surprised. His knowledge of what the magical world was like in American was very spotty, but he knew that just as the American Revolution had separated North America from England's rule, the wizarding community in America was vastly different. While some students in Hogwarts were American, the majority of them were trained at one of three magical settlements (aside from New England, he couldn't remember off the top of his head where the others were). The late Minister Scrimgeour had been castigated on a lot of fronts, but none more devastating than the inability to convince America to join in the fighting, saying they needed to stand together. The American wizards, who had not been friendly with London in either of the past major conflicts, had greeted the pleas with what seemed to be indifference.
(Harry, who knew a bit about Muggle history, knew that getting America to mobilize for any European conflict took a major effort. In this case, it might take the Death Eater's showing up in Washington, D.C. before they got their act together.)
"What have the Americans been doing?" he asked Remus.
"Intelligence is sketchy, but from whatever the Order was able to learn over the past few months, they've been trying to close the borders to anyone from the Wizarding Community. They've been shutting off all portkey that would grant Voldemort immediate access, Wizards have been securing the borders, and the American field office of the Daily Prophet closed up a month ago." Remus paused. "There's been no intelligence coming from anywhere for weeks, and even Voldemort isn't pressing his luck there."
Ron seemed confused. "Why shouldn't he? He has the Ministry in his pocket."
"It's more complicated, mainly because of the Hellmouths." Remus must have understood the looks of confusion on everyone's face. "Throughout the planet, there are what can be described as pockets of magical energy. Some of the times that energy, as you would find it in Salisbury Plains or Uluru Rock in Australia is magic that can be harbored for good. But there are also concentrations of far darker magic, and, for one reason or another there are four in America---- New England, an area near Ohio, a concentration in the Southwest, and one of the darkest of all, Sunnydale, California."
"If there's so much magic, why hasn't he sent people there already?" Harry replied
"Because controlling that darkness is such a significant project, even Voldemort must move carefully if he wants to contain it, never mind control it." Remus replied. "That darkness is one of the main reasons we don't recruit more wizards from America--- the dark energy overpowers almost any normal magical signature. The Americans have only managed to work around it over a couple of centuries."
Harry had thought that Dumbledore might have been, in one last smothering act of protection, trying keep him out of the reach of the Dark Lord. Instead, it sounded like going to America would only put him into greater, not less, danger. "I still don't understand. What does any of this have to do with the Slayer?" he asked.
"For starters, for the past two years, that Hellmouth in Sunnydale has been under the protection of the Slayer."
"Wonderful," Hermione replied acidly. "Bad enough they send a girl to face the forces of darkness, now she's at the epicenter of the mouth of hell. Getting her out of America might actually keep her safer."
"Details of what exactly she's been doing have been sketchy the last few months. Albus was reluctant to ask the Council for assistance, considering how important her charge is." Remus said. "Then about a week before he killed, he changed his mind, and made a trip to California
"Why?" Harry asked.
Remus shook his head. "Dumbledore said he had an idea that there might be some key to defeating the Dark Lord. He said something about there being a weapon there powerful enough to shift the balance of power back in our favor."
In all the years that Harry had been a student at Hogwarts, he had never known Dumbledore to use hyperbole in a positive way like this. For a moment, he wondered if Lupin was talking about the Horcruxes. "What kind of weapon?"
"He never got the chance to tell anybody," Lupin shook his head. "At least, not directly. But it turns out Dumbledore left you something in addition to what in his will."
"The Ministry didn't try and take it from you?" Hermione asked.
"The Ministry didn't know what it was for. To be perfectly honest, neither do I." Lupin reached into his cloak, and very carefully brought it out. "All I know that he entrusted it to me."
Harry had been in the wizarding world for so long that it took him a few seconds to fully realize what he was seeing. It was a key, but not one anything magical. This was a key for a safety deposit box in a muggle bank ---- Harry had seen the Dursleys use it a couple of times while he had existed under their roof. Clearly, whatever Dumbledore had been doing had involved what most people would call the normal world. In a bizarre way, there was a genius to it ----- had this fallen into the hands of Death Eaters, they would be at a loss to know what to do with it, and even if they reasoned it out, there were so many muggle banks in the country, if not the world that they'd never figure out what it would open. Of course, this cut both ways. "I don't suppose he told you what this unlocks?" he asked Remus.
Remus shook his head. "Only another cryptic message. He said that when Harry crossed the peaceful waters, a man with horns would show mercy on you, and reveal the truth."
"I'm so bloody tired of getting cryptic messages with no real answers," Ron snapped. "How does this help us fight Voldemort?"
"America," Hermione said slowly. "It would definitely involve an ocean voyage to get there from here. Maybe part of our--- mission relies on searching there."
"Which raises a different problem," Harry pointed out. "How exactly would be get to California? If Voldemort has the Ministry under his control, he's probably got his flunkies guarding every available portkey. For that matter," he gestured towards the windows where he could tell people were watching, "getting out of this bloody house is going to be a challenge."
"Getting to Sunnydale would be a chore even if we lived in a time of peace," Remus replied. "The magical energy around a Hellmouth is so dark that any magical energy that approaches is easily corrupted. Consequently, there has been no safe way of passage there, or for that matter any other Hellmouth in centuries. You'd have to take a portkey to one of the neighboring cities, such as Los Angeles, and even that's a hundred miles away. "
"What about apparating?" Hermione asked.
"Same principle applies. Even if you had a license, there's just as much chance that you'd end up embedded in solid rock than near land. Harry's right, it's going to be a huge problem for you."
'Long voyage to a foreign land, no idea what we'd be looking for, and no guarantee that if we get there, the Council would let the Slayer help us in the first place," Ron said bitterly. "Any more helpful ideas?"
"The Council has taken action of a sorts," Remus had a certain measure of bitterness as well. "They've gone on holiday and left London for parts unknown. However, Albus was clear on one thing. You would be asking the Slayer herself."
"I'm surprised that you're acknowledging she has a choice in the matter," All of Hermione's own animosity about the Slayer seemed to have returned tenfold. "It's bad enough that a lot of wizards are going to die fighting in this war. You want us to sacrifice this girl as well?"
"Her name is Buffy Summers," Remus argued. "And by the time she was your age, she had already stopped the world from ending twice. You may be angry at what her job is, Hermione, but make no mistake, she does it well."
This finally managed to snap both Ron and Hermione out of the dull anger they had barely kept in ever since the word 'Slayer' had been mentioned. "She what?!" Ron demanded.
"That, at least, was the last bit of intelligence we had, before it became to dangerous to have sources in America," Remus replied. "I realize that I'm asking a lot of you; I also realize that this may take away from whatever other mission Dumbledore sent you on. That being said, even if there is no weapon there, this young woman, all but single handedly, thwarted an apocalypse. And that is what we are facing, and that right soon."
Harry wasn't unimpressed by this Slayer's accomplishment, either, but it left out one crucial detail that he, Ron, and Hermione knew, but no one else could--- no matter how strong or fast this Buffy was, she could not kill Voldemort. Sending her against the Dark Lord would be tantamount to suicide, and he didn't want another death on his conscience.
The thing was Dumbledore had to have known this as well, so if he had made a trip to California, maybe there was something there could actually help. At the very least maybe Voldemort had hid one of his Horcruxes there, and that was what he had been looking for.
"Assuming you're right, and that's a hell of a big assumption, how we even begin to pull it off?" Harry asked.
"It would be extremely dangerous, but there might be a way to pull it off," Remus replied. "Unfortunately, there's only one place where you could find a Portkey that gets you anywhere close to where you need to be: the Ministry itself."
"Half the wizarding world is looking for us --- the evil half. for that matter ---- and you think that we can get into the lion's den without anyone noticing?" Ron replied.
Hermione looked at Harry. "You're not actually considering this, Harry?"
"I don't like getting anyone else mixed up in this war, either," Harry countered. "But Dumbledore didn't do anything without a reason. We may not know what the things he left us are for, but this" he held up the key, "has a purpose to it, and it has to have something to do with what this Slayer--- Buffy--- is doing. And right now, I don't think that we have to find a way to get there."
"Dumbledore was a great wizard, Harry, but as you can see, he was wrong about the house elves." Hermione clearly wanted to argue the point. "Besides, what about----" She clearly didn't want to reveal any more of their mission to Remus then they had to.
"I still don't see how we get in the Ministry," Ron replied. "Without that, this is all just talk."
"There might be a way," Remus told them. "It would we very dangerous for everybody involved, but there may be a way. But it'll take some time before everything can be in place."
"A week at least. Maybe ten days.. And there's no way to cut it."
"That's not what's worrying me. " It did, but there were so many other problems even involved with this whole approach that Harry figured mentioning it would be petty. "We don't know how long this place will be safe, and our mission will at least partially take place here." This was pure balderdash on Harry's part; for all they knew, Voldemort had scattered the remainder of his Horcruxes across the globe. Perhaps Mundungus Fletcher, when Kreacher came back with him, would reveal he'd hid the one Horcrux they did know about in the South Pole.
"You'll have to find a way to work this," Remus argued. "In any case, I should leave. Tonks will be worried, and the Order does need to make their plans accordingly." He looked away for a moment. "You understand, there's only so much help I can give you."
Remus had sounded grim through the entire conversation. This was the first time that he actually sounded sorrowful.
"You have to protect the people you love," Hermione replied just as mournfully. Harry knew who she was thinking about.
Remus utter a bark of laughter. "Safe. At this point, I don't know if Nymphadora would be safer with or without me. Or how much any of us can be safe considering where we are now."
It was so odd looking at his former professor. Lupin had always looked much older than his age. Now he looked even older than Dumbledore had been. Was this the real cost of their war they were fighting? Harry wondered how old he would look when this finished--- assuming he even survived.
Lupin had been gone for more than an hour, and Harry was beginning to wonder just how awful he could feel. The three of them were still in disagreement whether or not to try and go after the Slayer, and the excerpt of Rita Skeeter's biography made him feel as if he had hardly knew Dumbledore. He was in the process of lowering the paper to ask his friend's opinions, when a deafening crack echoed round the kitchen.
The news of the last few hours had made Harry almost completely forget Kreacher, so it took him a moment to fully realize that the mass of struggling limbs included Mundungus Fletcher. Kreacher disentangled himself, and before he could finish his announcement, Mundungus was scrambling for his wand.
Fletcher's wand soared into the air, and Hermione caught it. When he dove for the stairs, Ron tackled him, and Mundungus hit the stone floor with a crunch.
"What?" he bellowed, writhing as he tried to free himself. "What've I done? Setting a bleedin' 'ouse-elf on me, what are you playing at, lemme go---"
"You're in no position to be threatening us," Harry said, as he threw aside the newspaper, strode purposely across the kitchen, and dropped to his knees beside Mundungus who stopped struggling, and looked terrified. Ron got up, panting,, and watched as Harry pointed his wand at Fletcher's nose. Mundungus stank of stale sweat and old tobacco, his hair matted and his robe stained.
"Kreacher apologizes for the delay in bringing the thief," the elf croaked. "Fletcher knows how to avoid capture, has many hidey--holes and accomplices. Nevertheless, Kreacher cornered him in the end."
"You have done very well," Harry replied, watching th elf bow, before turning his attention to the pathetic fool lying beneath him.
"I panicked, okay," Mundungus started. "I never wanted to come along, no offense, but I never volunteered to die for you, and bloody You-Know-Who come flying at me---"
"For your information, none of us Disapparated," Hermione replied.
"Well, aren't you the bleedin' 'eroes then, aren't you, but I never pretended I was up for killing meself---"
"I don't give a damn why you ran out on Mad-Eye," Harry's voice actually lowered as he moved his wand a little closer to this weakling's baggy, bloodshot eyes. "We already knew you were an unreliable bit of scum."
"Well, why the 'ell am I being 'unted down by 'ouse elves? I ain't got none of 'em goblets left, or you could 'ave em?"
"You're getting warmer, but you're not wasting anymore time," Harry replied. "Now shut up and listen."
It felt wonderful to have something to do, someone he could demand some small fragment of truth. Was it wrong that some part of him was actually enjoying this?
"When you cleaned out this house of anything valuable," Harry began, but was interrupted.
"Sirius never cared about any of the junk---"
Mundungus should not have demeaned the property of the Black house. Immediately, there was a blaze of copper, an echoing clang, and a shriek of agony; Kreacher seemed well determined to beat him with a saucepan.
"'Call 'im off, call 'im off!"
Harry was tempted to say Kreacher had never listened to him before, but instead indicated no.
"Perhaps just one more, Master Harry, for luck?" Kreacher replied.
Ron actually managed a bitter laugh at this.
"We need him conscious, Kreacher. Feel free to step in again should he fail to cooperate."
Kreacher bowed, retreated a short distance, and fixed his great pale eyes on Mundungus with loathing.
"When you stripped this house of all it's valuables," Harry began again, "you took a bunch of stuff from the kitchen cupboard. There was a locket there." Harry's mouth was suddenly dry, and he could sense Ron and Hermione's excitement as well. "What did you do with it?"
"Why?" asked Mundungus. "Is it valuable?"
"You've still got it!" cried Hermione.
"No he hasn't," Ron countered. "He's wondering whether he should have asked more money for it.
"More?" Mundungus forgot where he was and hocked up a loogie. "That would've been fucking difficult--- bleeding gave it away, didn't I? No choice."
"What do you mean?"
"I was selling in Diagon Alley, and she comes up to me, and asks if I've got a license for trading in magical artifacts, lousy snoop. Was gonna fine me, but she took a fancy to the locket an' told me she'd take, and let me off this time, and to count me blessings."
"Who was she?" Harry demanded.
"I dunno, some Ministry hag." After a little more thought, he remembered: "Little woman. Bow on the top of 'er head. Looked like a toad."
Harry lost his grip on his wand. It hit Mundungus on the nose, and shot sparks into his eyebrows, which ignited. He barely heard Hermione's spell to put the fire out, or Mundungus' splutters and chokes. The shock on his face was visible in Ron and Hermione's. Of all the enemies, they thought that they would end up facing again, the last one that any of them had given much thought to was Dolores Umbridge.
"Well," Ron remarked quietly. "Looks like we have to go into the Ministry after all."
They had find the Locket that had once belonged to Regulus Black; that much they were all agreed upon. What was causing the disagreement was whether they took this opportunity, and followed up on whatever plan Remus had for getting them on the portkey that led to California.
Hermione acknowledged that, personal grudges with the Watchers Council notwithstanding, Buffy Summers could probably be a huge help. She wasn't at all sure whether or not this weapon actually existed, she was more inclined to say that Dumbledore may have been trying, just as Harry had been with the Horcruxes, to keep whatever knowledge about his mission to himself. She couldn't figure out whether the key was of any meaning itself. (She had run a couple of magical tests on just case it had been a Horcrux, but as far as she could tell, there was nothing magical about it.) That said, she was inclined to believe that Voldemort, for all his evil, probably would make sure that the Horcruxes were never completely out of his reach. Hiding one in America, right next to one of the highest traffic areas for magical energy, seemed to be a risk that she didn't think the Dark Lord would take. More important, since almost all of the wizarding community in the States was considered half-blooded at best, she thought that his own prejudices might stop him from going there for any reason.
Ron acknowledged that Hermione had some good points (a rarity for him) but pointed out that, if they were go into the Ministry to find Umbridge, it made absolutely no sense to make a second trip back. He pointed that no matter how skilled their efforts would be in getting inside, once it was found out that they had infiltrated, security would be drawn up even tighter then it already was. Furthermore, even if there were no Horcruxes or magical weapons in Sunnydale (a point Ron was still not willing to yield), the Vampire Slayer was someone that could truly help. Also, no matter how long it took for Voldemort to consolidate his power, he'd probably send a battalion of Death Eaters to take out the Slayer regardless --- the last thing he'd want is a potential wild card, considering how quickly he was strengthening the Magical forces within the country.
"Even allowing for this, how would we manage to get back into England?" Hermione countered. "He'll be damn sure to be guarding every portkey in Europe."
"We could just fly back," Harry knew where their minds were going, and pre-empted them. "I seriously doubt he's watching all of the airports, and it would be a lot easier to get through the muggle system of protection than anything the wizarding world puts up. "
Hermione argued the point if that was the case, there was no need to use the Ministry at all---- just leave the country from Heathrow as soon as possible. She didn't argue this point that hard, however, because she knew it didn't hold much water.
"At the very least, this Buffy deserves to know what's coming, " Ron argued. "If these Watchers are anywhere near as incompetent as we boned up on them, they might not even have told her about this war at all. And you know they don't give much of a damn about protecting their Slayer."
Hermione wasn't putting up her strongest arguments, so Harry thought that she was trying very hard to come around to Ron's point of view. He also knew his friend well enough to realize that there was probably more to her argument then she was letting on, but he knew two things, one, that she would reveal it at the most strategic time, and two, she needed to know where Harry, who'd been quiet about this all through the discussion, was on all this.'
In actuality what Harry wanted to do was to try and persuade one or both of his friends to go off to California and liberate the Slayer, while did his damnedest to find the remainder of the Horcruxes by himself. He also knew that this was never going to happen ---- all for one and one for all was going to be their motto, probably to the bitter end. He also knew they'd go along with whatever his decision was, no matter how much they disputed it.
"Guess what it comes down to, Harry, is does it have to be us?" Hermione asked slowly. "Kingsley or Remus would probably be willing to get to the Slayer a lot quicker than we could."
Finally, Harry came to the decision that had been going through his head since they had started this discussion. "Dumbledore left me that key just like he left us everything else in the will," he said slowly. "Which means there's probably something very important in Sunnydale. Something that only we can find, even if we don't know what it means yet. For all we know, it's a way to destroy the Horcruxes once and for all---- after all, we still don't know how destroy the locket even if we get it from Umbridge. "
"Hell, maybe the American wizards have some way to figure out how to detect these Horcruxes locations," Ron replied hopefully. "Dad did tell me that a lot of their wizards had gotten better at merging Muggle technology with magic."
Harry doubted that --- if they had, Voldemort would have made tackling America his first priority, not his last--- but they needed some hope in this adventure they were undertaking. "Any thing's possible," he allowed reluctantly. "In any case, Sunnydale is the first solid lead we've had on anything. And I think that we have to play it out, before Voldemort gets a chance to shift his forces elsewhere. We have to figure it out now."
Ron didn't need much more convincing, and neither did Hermione, though Harry had to admit he was a little suspicious of her motives. "Which just leaves us the not inconsiderable problem of gaining access to the most secure Wizarding facility in the world," she finally allowed.
"Don't tell me that you haven't figured out some way of getting around that?" Ron replied, with a trace of his old Weasley gusto.
"As a matter of fact..."