A/N: Ǥ"TEXT"Ǥ represents speech in Goblin. ~"TEXT"~ represents speech in Parseltongue.

"I don't see why I shouldn't," Harry said petulantly, arms crossed as if in an infantile huff.

"I didn't say you shouldn't; don't put words in my mouth," Tonks responded hotly. I said you can't. As in, literally, you cannot."

"Of course I can."

"Harry, you realize that not even Dumbledore was able to do what you're talking about attempting, right?"

"I don't care, Tonks," the black-haired teen responded. "Nothing worth doing is ever easy, and damnit this is a worthy cause."

Hermione just sat in her chair at the kitchen table in Grimmauld Place, unsure if she should be chuckling in amusement or groaning in frustration at the argument that had consumed the last ten minutes of her life. The issue was that morning's Daily Prophet; more specifically, the large photo on the front page. In it, a spittle-slinging Dolores Umbridge could be seen brandishing her wand at Harry's back before the Seeker's impressive reflexes saw him turn and fire a Stunner at the Senior Undersecretary. Harry's, combined with the eight others that had struck her, saw the woman's eyes nearly shoot out of their sockets before rolling into the back of her head as her tongue lolled out of her instantly slackened jaw and her entire body ended up a human puddle on the floor in the Atrium of the Ministry of Magic. The image then reset, allowing for repeated viewing pleasure.

When Harry had seen the photo he instantly regarded it as iconic; perhaps not as profound or earth-shattering as those of Alfred Eisenstaedt or Yousuf Karsh, but certainly worthy of a place of honor at least within his own house. Which had led to the current debate between Harry and Tonks. Harry was dead set on getting a print of the photo from the Prophet photographer, enlarging and framing it, and hanging it where Walburga Black's portrait currently resided; he considered it a far more worthy piece of art to be hanging in the foyer than that crazy old bitch. Tonks was trying to explain that numerous people had tried over the last two years to figure out how to bring the painting down, including the Headmaster and Alastor Moody, yet none had succeeded. Harry, though, was a man on a mission, and he was not going to be denied displaying the trophy signifying his victory over that toad.

Hermione just wanted the Headmaster to finally get there so that they could destroy the Horcrux and get on with their day, a day that included spending some time with her parents like they had during the weekend after Ron's funeral, though this time the sightseeing locale was London. Her parents insisted on driving though, quite happy to live the rest of their lives not knowing what 'being squeezed through a garden hose' felt like. So it would be the better part of 2 hours before they arrived, more than enough time to destroy the locket provided Dumbledore ever showed up.

As if thinking his name was a summons, the elder wizard entered the kitchen from the main part of the house. "Good morning, everyone," he said cheerily.

"Good morning Professor," the three at the table responded automatically and in unison, and the response put a smile on Dumbledore's face.

"Ah, rote response is such an interesting phenomenon," Albus commented with a shaking head. "But alas, not the topic we are gathered to discuss. I take it from this morning's Prophet that you were successful in obtaining the locket from Madam Umbridge?"

"We were," Hermione responded first, before the other two could get back on the subject of Umbridge and the photo. "It's back up in the cabinet in the drawing room. Kreacher is keeping an eye on it, and Remus is keeping an eye on Kreacher."

"Very well," Dumbledore said with a nod. "No time like the present, as they say." With that, he turned and headed for the stairs, the other three following along behind. They reached the room without conversation or incident, and Albus greeted Lupin as they entered. "Good morning, Remus."

"Albus," Remus replied simply from the chair near the corner. He nodded his chin toward the far side of the room, and Dumbledore turned to see Kreacher standing protectively in front of the cabinet that once again held the locket his Master Regulus had died to acquire. The elf, for the first time in he wasn't sure how long clean and in a fresh loincloth, appeared ready to do battle with a dragon to protect the item.

Harry entered the room and spoke to Kreacher. He knew that this event was of supreme importance to Kreacher, who had lived for many long years with the shame of what he perceived to be his failure. As such, he decided to bring slightly more pomp and circumstance to the event than was really necessary. "It's time, Kreacher. Time for us to complete Regulus's last command. Time for the Noble and Most Ancient House of Black to take its next bit of revenge on those who have wronged it."

"Harry," Dumbledore began. "I'm not comfortable with such talk of vengeance. It leads down a dangerous path."

Harry turned toward the Headmaster and tilted his head in to speak quietly. "I understand your concern sir, and at the same time I don't really care." He continued before the older wizard could interrupt. "Kreacher has lived for almost 20 years believing he had betrayed his house and his favorite master because he could not do what was asked of him. He is an elf of the Black family through and through, and so if this is what is necessary to keep him on-side, then that's what I'll do.

"But I also need this to be more than simply doing what is necessary. This bastard took my parents away from me. Took Sirius. Took Ron. I cannot pretend that this is purely altruism or for some vague idea of goodness and right." Harry's gaze went far away as he continued. "I told Hermione the night Ron died that I wasn't sure if what I wanted was justice or vengeance or some combination of both for all the deaths that could be laid at Voldemort's feet. But this," he said, pointing at the locket, "while I understand necessary for his ultimate defeat, is also a pound of flesh for Regulus and Sirius and everyone else. And I will not apologize for believing that. Kreacher, are you ready to see Regulus's final wish fulfilled?"

"I am, Half-blood Master," the elf replied as he stood a bit straighter at Harry's words. He turned and pulled the locket from the cabinet before walking over to Harry, who had moved to a table set up in the middle of the room specifically for this purpose, and laid the Horcrux upon it.

"Bring me the sword please, Kreacher."

"At once, Half-blood Master," Kreacher answered, moving over to the corner of the room and carefully carrying the sword back.

Harry took it from him before turning to Hermione. "You want a shot at it, love?" Hermione balked for a moment so Harry continued. "I've got two, and we'll call the one from my head halves each," he said. "I would have thought you'd be dying to even the score."

"I'm more than happy to let you keep the lead in Horcruxes destroyed and Killing Curses survived, Harry," she answered. "But given how much I hate this bastard, I think I'll take you up on your offer." She carefully took the sword from Harry and everyone gathered near the table to witness the destruction of another piece of Voldemort's soul.

"I'm going to speak Parseltongue to it to get it to open," Harry stated from the opposite side of the table as Hermione. "You know as well as I do how much of a fight these things can put up. Don't hesitate."

Hermione took a deep breath to steady herself and took the sword in both hands before raising it above her head, ready to strike down at a moment's notice. She nodded to Harry, who focused on the snake engraved on the front of the locket and spoke. ~"Open."~

The artifact snapped open to reveal 2 dark eyes, which quickly surveyed the room and focused on the woman with the sword poised to attack. It attacked first. "I have seen your heart, and it is mine."(1) The company of people sans Hermione was knocked to the floor by an unseen force as a dark grey fog poured from the opened Horcrux. It took it a second to coalesce, but when it did the entire room was shocked to see a spectre of Ron standing there on the table. It turned to Hermione with an evil grin that had no right being on the face of their best friend and spoke.

"Didn't even wait a day before jumping into bed with Potter. How could you do that to me? You know how I felt. I was going to give you everything, and you spread your legs for Potter before my body was even cold. Mudblood whore. Our friendship meant nothing to you, did it? Did you even care for me at all?"

Tears sprang from Hermione's eyes and her grip on the sword slackened. Harry saw and knew he needed to take action. "Oi, prick! Leave her alone!" he yelled to get the Horcrux's attention.

The apparition turned. "She's only with you because I'm dead, you know," Horcrux-Ron said with an evil smirk. "And she'll leave you when she realizes you're not the one she really wants. That I'm only dead because of you. That everything is your fault. You'll live the rest of your life alone and unloved, just like you have since Voldemort murdered your parents. Just the scared little boy living in the cupboard under the stairs. Weak. Pathetic. Worthless. FREAK!"

"SHUT THE FUCK UP ALREADY!" screamed Hermione as she rallied, bringing the sword down so hard upon the locket that she not only cut straight through it but embedded the Sword of Gryffindor several inches into the wood of the table. The figure of Ron shattered as the fog cleared, and an eardrum-piercing scream filled the room as the soul piece faded into nothing. Hermione, breathing hard, ran to Harry who was still knelt on the floor where he'd been knocked down. She skidded down in front of him, wrapping her arms around him tightly as she began to cry in earnest. Harry held her just as tightly, knowing that both of them needed affirmation and comfort.

Dumbledore approached them both after a moment and placed a hand on each of their shoulders as they sat there. "Voldemort is a master of knowing exactly how to hit people where it will hurt the most. He plays on their fears, their insecurities. His Horcruxes appear to have inherited that trait. I implore you both, do not fall prey to its lies."

Hermione looked up at the headmaster, eyes and cheeks red. "We know that, professor. Intellectually, at least. But sometimes it takes a moment for the heart to catch up with the head." Harry nodded before taking Hermione's face in both of his hands and touching their foreheads together, reinforcing the bond that had only strengthened in the last weeks since they'd professed their feelings for one another.

Dumbledore nodded before returning to his full height. "Now I don't know about the rest of you but I could do with some tea, preferably with a large splash of brandy in it. Shall we repair to the kitchen?"

"Kreacher will prepare tea for vengeful Master and his guests," the old elf said as he verily skipped out of the room. The witches and wizards present could only blink in shock as they saw the surliest house elf any of them had ever met do a heel click a la Fred Astaire as he exited the room on his way downstairs.


Even having grown up with the 'normal'-loving Dursleys, Harry Potter had probably never had a more normal weekend in his life than the one he experienced after the destruction of the Locket Horcrux. He'd spent it with Hermione and her parents touring London, eating Chinese takeaway, and generally living as any sixteen-year-old boy on Easter break with his girlfriend and her family would live. It was a refreshing change of pace.

But now it was Monday, and with that came the return of things that Harry really didn't want to deal with but knew he had to. Today he was bound for Gringotts with two purposes. First was the trip with the Weasleys down to the Lestrange vault which would see the family's financial position improve dramatically, though if he asked any of the people attending he was sure they would have gladly remained living as they had if they could have Ron back. He didn't disagree with that sentiment one bit; he would give every piece of treasure in his own vault to talk to the redhead again. But Ron had been taken from them, so they would have to settle for dramatically reducing Voldemort's war chest.

The second reason he was in Gringotts was currently sitting behind him in the cart down to the lower levels. His meeting with Krek was scheduled right after they were done at the vaults, and the manager had taken the opportunity to be one of the Gringotts representatives overseeing the transfer of valuables. They actually had quite the congregation making their way into the deepest levels of the bank. In addition to Krek there were two other managers (if their impeccable dress was any indication) and five additional goblins who were probably just there for manual labor. Of course the entire Weasley family was in attendance plus Hermione, who Molly insisted was just as much family as Harry and deserved to be there. Dumbledore and a man named Gareth Greengrass, who Harry assumed was related to his yearmate Daphne, were representing the Wizengamot and the Ministry, respectively.

Harry couldn't shake the bad feeling that had been following him ever since he woke up that morning. He had the sinking sensation that if the Horcrux had still been in his head it would be causing him quite a bit of pain, and that was never a good sign. With that at the forefront of his mind Harry would have loved to have Remus, Tonks, Neville, and Luna there as well but the two adults were working and he couldn't think of a reason that wasn't 'in case we get into a fight' that would have convinced either the teens' guardians or the Weasleys to allow their presence.

The ride down to the Lestrange vault was uneventful, if you can call careening along at a ridiculous rate of speed in a glorified mining cart following tracks that wouldn't be out of place on the world's wildest and most unsafe roller coaster uneventful. Nonetheless they arrived without incident and gathered together before proceeding deeper into the underground. Krek and his compatriots each grabbed a strange-looking device out of a bag one of them was carrying. Coming out into a large open area each non-goblin member of the group held their breath in anxious anticipation at the sight of the enormous dragon that now barred their path. Before any other action could be taken, however, the goblins began shaking the instruments they had picked up, and the din of the objects clanking back and forth had the great beast backing away and cowering in fear.

Harry wasn't sure he liked the goblins anymore. To be fair, he wasn't sure he liked them before, but understanding what must have been done to the dragon to get it to react the way it had did not endear them any more to his heart. If he didn't think he needed them, he probably would have turned around and left right then, emptying his vault on the way out. As it was he didn't have much of a choice, and so followed the others into the wide corridor on the far side of the clearing which held five large doors. Krek and the other two managers approached the second one on the left before turning toward Greengrass. "Say your words, wizard," the surly goblin said to the Ministry official.

Gareth approached the door and turned to the group before pulling a small parchment from his robes and reading from it. "The Ministry of Magic, acting under the authority of the Wizengamot, hereby declare that the House of Lestrange has been found guilty of violation of the pact of Dies Ultima. As punishment for breaking this sacred law the House of Lestrange forfeits one half of their worldly goods to the aggrieved, the House of Weasley. Per the 1753 Treaty of Leicester between the Ministry and Gringotts, the latter is charged with overseeing the fair dispensation of assets as an impartial third party. Signed this Nineteenth day of March in the year 1997 by common reckoning, Rufus Scrimgeour, Minister of Magic. Countersigned Albus Dumbledore, Chief Warlock of the Wizengamot." He returned the paper with its anachronistic wording to his robes and stepped to the side as the three senior goblins all placed their left hands on the door to the vault. A shimmer expanded from their hands and encompassed the door before it slowly opened, permitting the eight goblins to enter the vault first.

Harry, however, had barely heard or seen any of what was going on, his face going completely blank as the door to the vault opened. As soon as the goblins were ahead and out of sight Harry moved quickly to Dumbledore's side and tugged on the elder wizard's sleeve. "Professor," he whispered as both leaned in. "There's one in there," he continued, tilting his chin toward the vault.

"One what, Harry?" In response to that, Harry just tapped his much-less-noticeable scar, and Dumbledore's eyes went wide for an instant. "Are you sure, Harry?" Albus asked.

"Very sure, sir," Harry replied.

Dumbledore wasn't sure how Harry knew, just as he wasn't sure how they had found the Diadem those weeks earlier, but decided that it didn't matter at the moment. He nodded before leading Harry up toward the door. Everyone else had kept a respectful distance from a tearful Molly and Arthur, the only others to approach the vault. As Harry came up to them he could hear what she was whispering against Arthur's chest. "I don't want it. I don't want any of it. I want my boy back."

"Arthur, Molly," Dumbledore began, "I'm sorry, but there is something that Harry and I must take action on before we proceed." At the inquisitive look from Arthur, Albus continued. "It should only take a few moments." At the Weasley patriarch's nod, the pair proceeded into the vault. Vast amounts of gold and other valuables filled the room; there was probably enough wealth for any reasonable person to live a score of lifetimes in lavish comfort. "Quickly, Harry."

The teen nodded before closing his eyes and taking a deep breath. He ignored everything else as he tried to focus; Molly's continued entreaties, Krek's curt comments, the sounds of hushed conversation from the rest of the group. He focused all his attention on the sensation that he'd felt several times before; the feeling of a Horcrux close by. He turned on the spot as his mind searched, almost as if he were a human radar dish and the Horcrux was an enemy aircraft. At last he stopped and his eyes opened, his left hand coming up and pointing. "There."

Albus turned to where Harry was directing, and there on a high shelf he saw it; the gold goblet with the badger emblazoned upon it. The Hufflepuff Cup. "Well done, Harry." Albus turned toward Krek. "Manager, we'd like to retrieve that object there first. I understand you must, of course, assess its value to confirm a fair distribution, but I ask that you make all haste."

"Do not presume to direct me, Dumbledore," Krek answered. "You are not the aggrieved party, hence you have no say in what is and is not distributed by –"

"Do it," Molly interrupted, none of them noticing that she and Arthur had entered the vault. Her eyes were red and her cheeks tear-stained, but there was no mistaking the solidness in her tone. "You say you need an 'aggrieved party' to say something? Well I'm most certainly aggrieved, so do what they ask."

Krek looked for a moment like he wanted to say something, but after taking the measure of Molly Weasley and coming to the conclusion that there was no give in the witch he gave a short nod of his head and barked out an order to one of the other goblins. As soon as the subordinate started to slide a suit of armor out of the way to better get to the shelf, it suddenly duplicated several times as he yelped in pain. "The vault's contents are cursed!" Krek growled. In an instant Dumbledore's wand was in his hand, and a long swipe of it across the expanse of the vault had the armor replicants disappearing.

"That should take care of it," he said jovially as he put his wand away.

"We didn't need your help, wizard," Krek growled before putting his people back to work. The injured goblin completed his task, needing a ladder to reach the shelf that the goblet rested on. Once pulled down he handed it to Krek who examined the object, turning it this way and that in his inspection. "Chalice. Gold. No maker's stamp. There's an emblem of a badger embossed upon the front." The goblin turned a shrewd eye at Dumbledore. "This object is appraised at 3,975 Galleons."

Albus knew that any normal object described as Krek had would not have anything near that value. He also knew that Krek was getting some payback for Albus's clearing of the curses a moment ago; goblins didn't like being reminded how much easier things were when a magic user had a wand. Albus also knew that, if the object was what Harry claimed, that it was worth an infinitely higher sum than Krek had stated. He would even go so far as to say it was nearly priceless, as without it they couldn't hope to defeat Voldemort for good. A series of nods and agreements saw the Cup find its way into a deep pocket of Albus's robes; destroying it here would lead to too many questions, so they'd have to wait until they were back at Grimmauld Place. Two of the senior goblins then left along with Gareth Greengrass as Krek and his remaining compatriots then started the division of the coins in the chamber while the humans, truly uninterested in the process, stood mingling in the passageway outside the vault.

The goblins moved very efficiently, over the course of the next hour moving wheelbarrows of gold, silver, and bronze out of the Lestrange vault, past the dragon, and onto carts to take it up to the Weasley vault. Harry was leaning up against a wall talking to Bill and Charlie, starting to believe that he had just been being overly paranoid about today.

In hindsight, he should have known better.


~"Do you understand, my sweet?"~ asked the sibilant voice in Parseltongue. ~"You must see this done."~

~"I will not fail you, my love,"~ came the hissed reply from the giant snake wrapped around Voldemort's shoulders. Nagini's forked tongue lashed out several times against the man's face; if she were still able to be human one would have thought them short, sweet kisses.

They had known each other for nearly 40 years at this point, having met during the 10 years that Voldemort had vanished to the continent after the murder of Hepzibah Smith. They'd met in France, after Nagini had already made her final transformation and was no longer capable of turning back into a human. She'd actually been stalking the same Muggle that Voldemort had chosen as his sacrifice to make the Locket Horcrux; vagrants always made the easiest meals for the large predator. Nagini had angrily hissed her displeasure at being denied her meal, only to discover the one person in the world that could understand her speaking. To a woman who had been denied human contact for years the simple act of being able to converse with someone was like the headiest of drugs.

Tom Riddle was charming and handsome, and he had promised that once he ruled Britain he would put the full resources of the Department of Mysteries, along with his own prodigious intellect, into curing her curse and returning her to her human state so that they could at last be together. After that, she was inexorably his. She had easily fallen in love with the man and promised to remain with him no matter the cost. It was she who had recovered his wand from Godric's Hollow after the disaster with the Potters, knowing that he would again have use for it one day; Tom had always kept his promises to her. When the time had come she readily agreed to provide her own venom for the creation and care of his proto-body prior to his full resurrection 2 years prior. And when he'd whispered honied words in her ear about housing a piece of his soul she had felt a sense of ecstasy like she'd never known in this form, and the action only endeared the man more to her heart.

She had no idea that those feelings of love and devotion were not returned, and never had been; Voldemort, after all, was incapable of feeling love but was a master of manipulating beings and getting them to do exactly what he wanted by promising them exactly what they wanted. All Voldemort truly felt for Nagini was recognition of a strong and useful ally, and had no problem whatsoever faking emotional interest to keep the Maledictus at his side. She was strong, resilient, and utterly ruthless when she needed to be, all in service to her master. Creating her as a Horcrux had been an act of necessity, not an act of emotion; she was the most powerful item at his disposal when he needed to ensure his immortality, so it only made sense to use her.

He did not want to place Nagini in danger. Not because of any sense of caring, but because she was a Horcrux. In this case, though, she was uniquely suited to the task at hand. The truth of it was he needed to get another of his precious Horcruxes back. As soon as Bella has tragically met her end, Voldemort had tasked Rudolphus with discovering where his late wife had hidden the treasure and retrieving it. As the weeks had passed and the Dark Lord's temper had intensified, Rudolphus had finally been forced to admit that the only logical place left for it to be was in their vault at Gringotts. A vault that the ancient and obscure law Potter had pulled out of the ether had made closed to them. A vault which the feeble minds at the Ministry and in the Wizengamot had given half of to those blood traitor Weasleys.

Voldemort had flown into a rage at that; how could Bella have been so thoughtless as to place such a treasure outside of easy reach? How could she have entrusted its safety to anyone but herself? In his anger, though, he had been hasty and had acted without thinking; as a result Rudolphus had not survived his master's displeasure. At present Voldemort was the only person who knew this; as far as the other Death Eaters were concerned the man was still out doing his lord's bidding. If it should get out that Rudolphus was dead before Voldemort had a chance to gain access to the Lestrange vault and get the Horcrux, there was no telling what might happen.

Killing Rudolphus also presented additional technical issues, primarily how to get into the vault at all. Those vaults, the ones deep under Gringotts, were too well secured to attack in the same manner he'd undertaken six years ago when he, while possessing Quirrell, tried to steal the Philosopher's Stone. That vault had been relatively easy to access all things considered, being up in the more populous area of the bank.

No, the only option available to him was to send Nagini to sneak in when he knew the vault would already be open. That was today, when those wretched goblins would drain its riches and give them away to those penniless red-headed mongrels. It was possible, however unlikely, that they or the goblins would sense the difference in the Cup compared to other magical items. And with the family so close to Dumbledore it was almost a foregone conclusion that they would approach him to investigate it. That must not come to pass. If Dumbledore found the Cup and deciphered what it truly was everything he had worked toward since he was a teenager might be placed in jeopardy.

He had to get into that vault and get the Horcrux back. The others, at least those that remained after that idiot Malfoy had let his diary get destroyed, were secure enough, hidden away in places only he knew of. The Cup was the only one not someplace that he had deigned appropriate, and the potential disaster stemming from that fact could not be underestimated. Nagini should be able to stealth her way into Gringotts similarly to how she had snuck into the Ministry the previous year; defenses and traps designed for humanoids would not impede her. Being, in essence, a magical creature also gave her abilities and resistances a normal snake would never have. Possessing a human intelligence would allow for independent thought and judgement while still progressing toward her assigned goal. And anyone she encountered could be silenced with a few quick bites, her venom more than potent enough to see the job done.

She was the perfect tool for the job.


No one was watching the back wall of the passageway as Nagini slithered out of an air shaft; the humans were all gathered closer to the front conversing amongst themselves, and the goblins were too busy counting treasure to take notice as she entered the vault. Her love had told her what she should look for, but even after an hour of sneaking throughout the entire vault she hadn't found it. She was fairly sure the goblins hadn't removed it yet; they had spent the entire time she'd been in there counting coins, not the other treasure. There was nowhere else to look for it, and Tom was depending on her to bring the Horcrux back to him; she could not fail him.

Being nearly one hundred years old she had picked up a few languages, and as she still possessed the mental faculties of her human form she could still understand them, even if this form could not speak them. As such, as she was making one last desperate circuit of the vault she understood the conversation the goblins were having amongst themselves, and the one line in particular that provided the information she was looking for.

Ǥ"Can you believe that old fool Dumbledore? Almost four thousand galleons for that shoddy cup. I swear, that old wizard gets madder with every passing year."Ǥ

No. Dumbledore has my love's artifact? If that is true, he must have divined what it is. I must retrieve it! All thought of caution gone, she quickly made her way out of the open vault door and turned her head to regard the humans a short distance away. He saw the hated Harry Potter leaning against the wall as if he had not a care in the world while conversing animatedly with two of the mongrel spawn. Two young, delicious looking girls were a little closer than that, heads tilted together as they appeared to be whispering conspiratorially. And there, with his back turned to her, was Dumbledore; in her haste to see Tom's bidding done she had completely missed his presence when she'd first entered. The old man had been a thorn in her love's side the entire time she had known him. Dumbledore had kept Tom from his well-deserved greatness, first denying him a job at Hogwarts where he could recruit young minds to his cause and then standing against him as he tried to bring Britain to heel under his great intellect. If she could acquire the Cup and remove this obstacle from Tom's path she knew he would move Heaven and Earth to see her human again so they could be together.

With the speed and stealth her kind was known for, she launched herself at her prey.


The first indication anything was wrong was when Dumbledore yelled out painfully and his legs gave out from under him. The entire room turned at the sound, seeing the green scaled body that had bitten Albus in the calf and then tripped him to the ground. She reared up and sank her fangs into his shoulder before wrapping herself around his neck and squeezing. Albus instinctively reached his hands up toward the snake's body to try and find some leverage but all that happened was Nagini squeezed tighter, causing the man to stop moving entirely as he now struggled for breath.

"No!" Harry yelled, drawing his wand as he moved toward them. Behind the creature, the goblins had heard the shout and came to the door to the vault to investigate. Nagini hissed and pulled her fangs from Dumbledore's shoulder, snapping out at Hermione and Ginny who wisely jumped backward and away from the attacking creature. She then turned and gave the goblins the same treatment. The potent 'stop where you are' signal was understood by all.

~"It is said that you understand our language, Harry Potter. Is that so?"~ Nagini hissed in Parseltongue.

Harry stared with murderous intent at the great snake from only a few feet away. ~"It is"~ he replied.

~"Good. Dumbledore stole something of my love's from this vault. What did he do with it?"~ Her tongue flicked in and out several times before she continued. ~"I smell one that I've already tasted, and yet there he stands. Give me the Cup quickly, child, and you may even be able to save the old fool's life as you saved that blood traitor behind you."~

"Harry?" Hermione prompted, unable to understand the conversation.

"She wants the Cup," he answered simply. "She'll kill Dumbledore if we don't give it to her."

"Well, give it to her!" a nearly hysterical Molly said. "It's just a cup. I don't understand why it's even a question!"

"No . . . Harry . . ." came Dumbledore's gasping statement. "Cannot . . . give . . ."

"I'm sorry, sir, I have no choice," Harry said simply. "Hermione, hand me your bag so I can get the Cup."

"But Harry, the –"

"Hermione, please. Just . . . give me the bag." Brow furrowed, she surrendered the beaded handbag to Harry's outstretched arm. ~"You'll have to give me a second. The bag as an Undetectable Extension Charm on it, so I have to find the Cup inside it."~

~"I have plenty of time, child. This one,"~ she coiled her body tighter around Dumbledore, and he grunted weakly as her head swayed above him, ~"not so much."~

~"Okay, okay, I think I've got it,"~ Harry said, and indeed his hand closed around the object he sought.

~"Yes!"~ Nagini hissed, elongating the 'S'. ~"Give it to me now!"~

~"If you insist."~ Harry dropped the bag as he exploded into motion. Letting the bag go expedited the release of the Sword of Gryffindor, which swiped through the air sideways at the unsuspecting Nagini. Before even the great snake could react the blade cut deep, cleaving cleanly through and severing her head from her body. The fanged maw fell uselessly to the ground, the now control-less body stretching and coiling as nerves that were no longer receiving instructions fired.

Harry dropped the sword well away from everyone before kicking Nagini's head toward the end of the passageway. He noticed the dark fog start to rise out from it but gave it not a second thought; he was perfectly happy to let the Horcrux die unnoticed and unimportant in the dark corner. He quickly knelt next to Dumbledore, fighting the still thrashing green body trying to release the man. Hermione quickly came to assist him, the Weasleys only being able to stand helplessly and keep vigil.

It took several moments to get Dumbledore clear, and Hermione immediately began waving her wand in diagnostic spells as Harry pressed down on the profusely bleeding and already necrotizing wound on his shoulder. "He's been bitten twice. We need to get him to St. Mungo's." By the look on her face and the tone of her voice, Harry inferred she didn't think they'd make it there in time. And he was inferring correctly; she too remembered what it had taken to save Mr. Weasley from Nagini's venom the Christmas before last. Dumbledore was much older and she and Harry both knew he was already dying; that did not stack the deck in his favor.

Harry, however, remembered when he himself had been injected with a snake's venom, and how that particular problem had been solved. "Fawkes!" Harry screamed.

"Harry," Dumbledore said weakly.

"Don't worry, sir, you're going to be fine." Harry's statement seemed even more probable when the phoenix appeared in a ball of fire next to his long-time companion. "Fawkes, Dumbledore has been bitten by a venomous snake. You saved me when that happened, now we need you to save him."

A short squawk and Fawkes turned toward Dumbledore. Albus, however, seemed to gather his strength as he raised a hand and placed it on the bird's chest. "No, my friend. Save your tears for someone more worthy."

"But sir –"

"Harry, my end was already near. Fawkes's tears may give me two months, perhaps three, and then we'll still be where we are now: saying goodbye."

The finality of that statement caused Harry to tear up. "No. Sir, please. Even those few months could be the difference between winning and losing."

A small smile crossed Dumbledore's features. "We all have our time, Harry. Mine was coming whether we wanted it to or not. It just . . . snuck up on us when we weren't looking." Albus chuckled slightly at the double meaning of his words before wincing in pain. "Harry, you've been able to do more to combat Tom in the last year than I have in the decades I've been trying to stop him. You've already weakened his forces. His most trusted allies are dead or in Azkaban."

"And after today, Mr. Potter," Krek interjected, picking up the Sword of Gryffindor from where Harry had thrown it, "you shall have the Kaluresh to help you finish the job."

"See, Harry? The world doesn't need me anymore. They have you."

"You're the only person Voldemort has ever feared," Harry said desperately.

Albus's smiled widened. "Harry, you and I both know that's not true. He came for you when you were a baby and was defeated. You escaped him in the graveyard. Routed his forces at the Ministry. Stood tall and proud against him at Ronald's funeral." Dumbledore's head shook. "No, I daresay that even if there ever was truth to that idea, there is someone he fears infinitely more than myself. As he should." Albus looked around. "May I have a few words with Harry and Hermione alone?"

Molly was a wreck, buried in Arthur's arms. Ginny was similarly indisposed, holding onto Bill for dear life. Arthur nodded to the prone man. "Let's go over here, kids. Give them a minute." The goblins similarly retreated back to the vault, leaving just Harry, Hermione, and Albus on the cold stone floor.

Albus reached one shaky hand to the other and pulled an ugly ring from the finger of his diseased hand. He took Harry's hand in his and placed the ring in his palm. "I want you to have this Harry. The cost I paid to acquire it was great, but the power it holds cannot be overestimated. Ask your friend Miss Lovegood about the story of the Three Brothers and you will understand. Choose wisely." Harry had no idea what the dying man was talking about but nodded his head in assent regardless.

Dumbledore's breathing became increasingly labored and it wasn't hard to see the pain etched in his features. "Now that the moment is upon me, I find myself both excited and terrified to take this first step toward what comes next. But take it I will, as we all must one day." Dumbledore's hands, still held in Harry's, began to shake. Hermione, unable to speak through her sobs, reached over and joined her own with the two wizards. "Do not pity the dead, Harry. Pity the living, and, above all, those who live without love." (1)

Dumbledore's eyes closed and he took one more ragged breath before his chest stilled. Both teens noticed his arms go slack, and gently placed the man's hands on his chest. Albus Dumbledore, the great and greatly flawed man, had begun his voyage into the next great adventure.

Fawkes began trilling a song that all who heard it felt conveyed the great creature's sadness, grief, and loss. Those present circled around but no one spoke; no one knew what to say.

Harry felt the ring in his palm; Dumbledore's odd gift to him. He'd have to figure out what the man had been talking about, and why he had wasted precious moments at the end of his life to give it to Harry. But that was a task for another day. Right now, there was a task that took precedence. Harry rose and turned toward the goblins. "Manager Krek, before the Sword of Ragnuk the First returns home for good, I was hoping that it might perform one more great deed."

Krek's head tilted slightly in confusion, but he handed over the sword without issue. Harry then knelt back down and pulled Hufflepuff's Cup from Dumbledore's pocket. Without a word from anyone he went to an open space in the hallway before placing the relic on the ground. Rising to his full height, he took the sword in both hands, raising it high in preparation to stab the point of the weapon down into the Horcrux. He turned his head and looked at Dumbledore, the ancient wizard peaceful in death. Turning back toward the evil object he put all of his anger, pain, and fear into the downward motion that pierced the Sword of Gryffindor easily and cleanly through the badger etched into the cup.

Before anything indicating what the Cup actually was could happen, Harry quickly kicked it out into the open rotunda just outside the passageway. The clattering gold along the cold stone did as he hoped, attracting the attention of the guardian. With a roar the dragon hurled a blazing line of flame from its mouth. Dragonfire quickly consumed what was left of the relic, taking just a short few moments to reduce the ruined artifact to slag.

The task complete, he handed the sword back to Krek. He knew that the Cup was the last Horcrux, at least as far as they knew. Somewhere in his mind he knew the enormity of what had just happened. After over half a century Lord Voldemort was finally mortal once more. The protections that the Dark Lord had spent years creating, that protected him in Godric's Hollow the night he'd murdered Harry's parents, were no more. The next time that murdering bastard went down he was going to stay down. And Harry aimed to be the one to do it.

At the moment, however, all he could do was once again rail against what this war had cost him, had cost them all, and wonder if any of it was worth it. So many people dead because of one narcissistic psychopath. Dumbledore, however, had the potential to be the straw that broke the camel's back. He had been a symbol to the people of magical Britain for so long, a beacon of hope and light. Without him it would be very easy for people to lose faith, to believe that all was lost. Harry knew he couldn't let that happen; he had to make sure that those who fought against the dark wouldn't cower or waver because of fear or hopelessness. He had to take up the mantle Albus Dumbledore had left to him, to live up to the regard, faith, trust, and love that the man had held him in.

Harry walked back over and inserted himself into the circle of people that now surrounded the fallen hero. Tears and sobs were in no short supply amongst those gathered, but Harry had already shed all the tears for Albus that he was going to. He let his determination and his resolve override his heartache, reaffirming himself to the promises he'd made the night Ron died.

Fawkes, the dirge he sang for his dead companion complete, walked over to Harry and nudged the teen's hand with his head. Harry softly stroked the phoenix's head feathers as he finally spoke. "We'll finish what he started, Fawkes. We'll make sure that what Albus stood for, lived for, and died for won't be erased by the darkness." Fawkes again opened his beak, and this time the song he sung was bright and pure, filling those who heard it with that which they feared had been shattered, and now understood never would be as long as there were those willing to fight for the ideals Albus Dumbledore espoused.

Light. Hope. Love.

"We'll make him proud."

A/N: Alfred Eisenstaedt is credited with the photo of an American sailor kissing a woman in Times Square in celebration of the end of World War II. Yousuf Karsh took the famous 1941 portrait of Winston Churchill.

Harry knowing that he had to speak Parseltongue to get the Locket to open was just an instinctive thing according to the books, so I adopted that same thought here.

(1) indicates a quote from Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, J.K. Rowling (2007)

Gareth Greengrass is a Senior Unspeakable in the Wizards Unite ARG. In my head he's Daphne's father, though it's never explicitly said what their relationship is.

It's never stated how long Voldemort knew Nagini.

Remember back in Chapter 13 that Harry, Hermione, and Dumbledore went to the Chamber for basilisk venom. Given that, it's a fair bet that Harry still speaks Parseltongue. Implied canon is that he lost the ability after the Horcrux was gone, but since I already implied he still understood we're going to conveniently ignore that.

Nagini's end is unintentionally similar to her end in the canon. I only noticed it after I actually wrote it. Maybe it was Freudian. There is no mention of a scream or anything like that when Nagini was killed; maybe because no one noticed or maybe because there wasn't one for whatever reason.

Likewise, there is no mention in canon about the Cup doing anything when it was destroyed by Ron and Hermione.

Stay safe. As always, thank you for your follows, favorites, views, and reviews.

ZS 4/2021