Disclaimer: Not mine, as if you lived under a rock and thought it was.


PART I: The End of the Beginning

Chapter 1: Accomplishments and Distractions

The snake was dead.

Harry lowered his trembling hand, holding his wand, down to his side, and met the gazes of his two best friends with serious intensity. Hermione's eyes were wide and brown, knowing the gravity of the situation, looking unflinchingly at Harry, the same way that she had always looked unflinchingly at life. Ron glanced at him too, a shadow of pain lurking behind his blue eyes.

The snake was dead.

Harry did not want to look at the charred corpse, now barely recognizable for what it had once been. The snake – Nagini – something hissed inside him unwillingly – had been more than just a snake. It had taken the best efforts of all three of them to finally vanquish it. If Harry had had any doubts about the authenticity of Dumbledore's speculation, they were laid to rest, as the snake emitted red smoke and a chilling high-pitched scream rose on the air with the vapor and dissipated into nothingness.

The snake was a horcrux. And now it was dead. Not just any horcrux…but the fifth horcrux. The next to last horcrux. Harry's mind seemed caught in a loop, cycling stupidly back and forth through the obvious.

One horcrux left to destroy, and then the only piece of soul remaining to Voldemort would reside inside that sick, twisted body itself.

And the three of them stood there motionless, staring at the dead reptile. Ron cradled his arm to his side; it was broken from where he had fallen, stumbling back from an unexpected spring by Nagini. Harry looked lost, bewildered, overwhelmed, as if he'd just realized that he was that much closer to accomplishing what he'd set out to accomplish…and what that meant would come next.

Hermione just watched Harry. Watched him like he was an extension of herself. She felt her soul cry out the echo of Lily Potter's dying scream…Not Harry! Not Harry! Take me instead!

The blackened, twisted remains of the snake lay there, unmoving. Dead.

Harry finally seemed to snap back to life, with a shuddering intake of breath. His eyes darted quickly from Hermione to Ron. "We should go," was all he said.

"Yeah," Ron muttered, a little breathlessly. Hermione watched Harry. His face was so tired, worn, older than his years. When had he started looking so tired?

She glanced back at the snake, a little unwillingly. It was dead. She pursed her lips tightly together, and looked at Harry as she nodded, a quick, jerky, solitary nod.

Harry turned, as if he would leave, but then turned back, his eyes pulled with inexorable force toward the corpse of the snake. Something hissed within him again, and he wondered if it was the knowledge of Parseltongue or Voldemort's past forays into his head that was causing this.

He held his wand up again.

"We should – we should get rid of it…in case – so he – he won't…" He shook his head, swearing under his breath. This had happened each time they had destroyed a horcrux. It fatigued him, made him weak and dizzy and nauseated. None of them could figure out why. Hermione's best guess was that it occurred because of the connection that he had to Voldemort. Harry had then pointed out that Voldemort himself did not appear to be aware that they had been systematically destroying the horcruxes; if they were connected, how would she explain that? She had no answer.

"Harry, you couldn't vanish a flobberworm right now," Hermione said, her tone brusk and businesslike, but her eyes disarmingly tender. With a quick "Reducto", she had blown the snake to atoms.

Harry's knees wobbled, and a pain from his scar pulsed through his head. The image of his two best mates anxiously watching him blurred, then doubled. He shook his head. There was a dull roaring…the sound of a thousand snakes speaking… thrumming through his ears.

"I can't – " he tried to say, but could barely make out his own voice.

"Harry?" he heard Hermione cry out in anxiety, but her voice was tinny and far away, as if perceived over a bad telephone connection. Blackness began to creep in around the edges of his vision. He tasted dirt in his mouth, and dimly realized that he must have fallen down. He heard a distant grunt of pain…his own? No, Ron was trying to help him to his feet.

"I've got him," he heard Hermione say. Why was she so far away? "Can you Apparate?" Ron murmured something; it must have been affirmative, for Hermione replied. "Good, I'll side-along him. I'll meet you back…there."

Harry reached out blindly with his hand…towards…something. Oh that was right, he thought dimly…the snake was dead.

The snake was dead.

He reached into his pocket, unable to see, but feeling the rough cloth beneath his fingers. Relief surged through him, as his questing fingertips met textured metal. He let go of his consciousness…

And, distantly, behind and underneath the dull roar in his ears, he heard a shriek of dismay, followed by maniacal laughter.

When Harry awakened, he was lying in Hermione's room at Godric's Hollow. The soft halo of lamplight cast a yellow glow around the room. It was already past dusk. Hermione was sitting in a chair in the corner, perched on the edge of it, as alert as a cat, waiting for the slightest movement from him. He licked his dry lips, and wished that his head didn't hurt so badly.

"What happened?" he asked hoarsely, even though he already knew the answer.

"The same thing that always happens. Only," her eyes were dark and luminous, her face pale with anxiety, "only this time it was worse."

"We – we killed the snake?" he said, testing his fuzzy memory. He watched Hermione's brow wrinkle in concern.

"Yes, Harry," she said emphatically, as if to a small child that constantly needed reminding, "we killed the snake."

Nagini…the voice inside him hissed… her name was Nagini.

"He knows," Harry told her, his green eyes looked large and fearful in glow from the lamp.

"What do you mean, Harry?" Hermione asked calmly, betraying none of the fear that licked through her at those two simple, ominous words. "He knows we've destroyed horcruxes, or he knows we killed the snake. Does he know we were involved at all?"

Harry closed his eyes. It was so difficult to think. A shriek…and then laughter…. "I'm – I'm not sure. I – I heard him – I heard – he was laughing." He knit his brow, not understanding. "If – if the snake (Nagini) was his – his – his… why would he be laughing?"

Hermione's eyes shone with sympathy. She stood slowly, and came to sit on the edge of the bed. "I don't know, Harry," she said, softly, hating, even now, especially now, the admission that she didn't have the answers. Her eyes flitted down to his clenched fist, and he followed her gaze, slowly opening his fingers.

Nestled in his palm was his grandmother's brooch. Hermione looked at him with warm compassion. He hunched his shoulders, a little embarrassed for it to be found out that he carried the ornate pin around with him now. He had found it in the ivy-bedecked ruins of his parents' house on the opposite end of Godric's Hollow. Remus had come to examine it, as Harry turned it over in his fingers. "Your grandmother's name was Rose," Lupin had told him, while Harry ran his fingertips over the raised Old English "R". It was tarnished and old, the filigreed edges blurred by years and exposure, but Harry found it oddly comforting. He rubbed his thumbs over the piece of jewelry absently.

"It's going to be soon," Harry's face was grim; he turned it away from her, to gaze out the window where the inky-blue sky was beginning to blacken. They both knew, even though they could not see them from this vantage point, that two shiny marble tombstones stood side by side not far from where they were. "He'll come for me. He'll come…maybe here." He jerked his gaze back to her, his eyes stabbing her with their blazing intensity. "Where's Ron?" he asked, but continued, roughly, before she could answer him. "You should both leave. You shouldn't be here when…"

"He's in the kitchen talking to Remus," Hermione said. "And you know we're not leaving you. Not now…not when we're this close."

Harry felt his eyes begin to close, and he struggled to keep his heavy lids open. "How can I defeat him…when destroying the horcruxes….does this to me? And there's still one left."

He felt her hand rest on his momentarily, and it was cool and calming against his clammy skin. "Rest, Harry," was all she said, and he felt the draft waft against his face, as she opened the door, then closed it behind her.

He listened to her soft footfalls tread down the corridor, and heard a barely perceptible murmur of voices from the kitchen. The house that they were living in was tiny, made of white clapboard that had yellowed and peeled with age. Ron and Harry shared one room that barely had enough room for two army cots and a rickety table with a lamp perched precariously atop it. Hermione had the only actual bed in the house, with a sad sagging mattress. Her room doubled as the "office", and most of the space in the room was taken up with a gigantic desk, piled with old books, ink-splotched scraps of parchment, and quills scattered hither and yon. Above the desk was tacked a yellowed map of England, with various parchment notes affixed, and different colored pins attached.

When Remus visited, he slept on the ramshackle sofa in the living room, which opened into a dingy little kitchenette that barely had enough room for more than one person to move around in. There was a card table and three folding chairs in the space between the kitchen and living room, but more often than not, they ate on the sofa, perched over the coffee table.

Remus had been amazed at the dilapidation when he first came over. If Harry got fed up with Ron after tripping over him, while cooking, for the thirty-seventh time, they sometimes expanded the kitchen. But when Remus asked about it, the Trio waved their hands in a gesture of dismissal. We can't be bothered with that right now. Any magic expended on the house went to wards and charms, and it was one of the most protected buildings in Britain, probably. What did it matter if the rooms were small and the lighting was bad?

Harry groped for his glasses, which had been placed on the small bedside table. He tried to sit up, after he put them on, but felt his head swim. He finally managed to make it into a sitting position, albeit one where he was propped against the headboard. He let his mind wander back to the destruction of the other horcruxes

They had found the locket in Mundungus's case, along with several other items filched from Grimmauld Place. After damn near blowing up the Order's headquarters, they had finally tried, on Hermione's suggestion, submerging it in some kind of acid…which had dissolved it into powder. Steam bubbled and frothed from the beaker, along with a thin trail of red smoke. Trails of the viscous substance actually ate into the kitchen table. Hermione had sealed up the remaining contents of the beaker and used "scourgify" on it six times. Harry had thrown up on the kitchen floor, something that Ron still occasionally needled him about, in rare light moments.

He and Ron had found Helga Hufflepuff's cup on a shelf in Borgin and Burkes. They had placed a glamour charm on each other, altering their appearance, and had simply walked into the shop and attempted to buy the cup. When that didn't work (the proprietor had explained toothily that he was "holding" it for a very important client), they went back under the cover of night and the invisibility cloak, and took it.

Hermione had been furious when they arrived back at Grimmauld Place, looking somewhat sheepish and triumphant at the same time, Ron's hand scorched from where he had unwisely attempted to grab the cup before Harry had deactivated the wards around it. Knockturn Alley had been in an uproar when they left, after a shrunken head perched near the cup had begun wailing a deafening siren call in alarm. Somehow, he and Ron had managed to evade a squad of hooded and cloaked people looking for the thieves, and make it back to their hideaway.

After examining it carefully, she sat the cup on the much maligned kitchen table, and raised her wand.

"Hermione!" Harry had started to shout in concern.

"Reducto!" she called, and the cup was easily blasted apart. There was no collateral destruction. There was no red smoke.

"That was not Hufflepuff's cup. You could have been killed for nothing." she said. Harry winced, as it paralleled Dumbledore's demise too closely for comfort. That was the last thing that either of them heard from her for three days.

Going by the information received from Dumbledore's pensieve last year, the Trio next visited the orphanage where young Tom Riddle had spent his early days. The dilapidated building had been abandoned and condemned. Foreboding signs were posted in both front windows, and the house had creaked and groaned ominously as they ignored those signs, and went inside anyway.

Harry clenched his eyes shut, hoping to force away those unwelcome memories, but the flood continued, and he knew it was futility to fight it.

When the Trio had arrived on the second floor of the orphanage, they saw rows of rusted bedsteads where forlorn children had once slept. The floor was thick with dust, and the air was heavy. He had felt Ron make an involuntary movement beside him, and his own eyes widened with horror.

Entwined sinuously, blackening the floor of the room they were facing, writhed dozens, hundreds, of venomous snakes. Hermione had breathed, in a disbelieving tone,

"Those are not even native to Britain." Harry had noticed almost immediately that the snakes did not ever pass the threshold to the room to come near where they were still standing in the corridor.

"The horcrux is here," he said, his voice a low rasp in his chest. He spoke to the snakes, "Brothers, please move aside. You will not come to harm." Hermione and Ron heard only a series of sibilant hisses. The snakes had moved aside, leaving a path that led directly to a precariously leaning wardrobe. Harry's hand reached out, almost of its own volition to touch the grimy knob, but froze suddenly, just shy of its goal.

"Alohamora," Hermione had said, in a whisper. He glanced behind him in alarm, having been unaware that she had followed him into the room. Her face was pale, and she shook her head rapidly. "Don't use your wand," she said. "You spoke Parseltongue, so the room thinks you're one of the snakes." Her spell had had no effect. "Open," Harry commanded in Parseltongue. The wardrobe had wobbled slightly, and the latch had clicked.

On each shelf had lain rows and rows of small mouth organs, of the cheap variety that unskilled children used to make noise.

"Harry, how – ?" Hermione had wondered, lifting her hand to sort through the array of mouth organs.

"Don't touch them!" Harry had snapped. He looked carefully. "It's – it's this one," he said, taking a deep breath, as he reached for a small mouth organ near the back, it was filthy, the silver finish was chipping, and dust clogged the small holes. He closed his hand around it carefully; nothing happened.

"How did you know?" Hermione had finally asked, as they closed the wardrobe door.

"The others were clean, new. Tom Riddle would never have sullied himself by touching, even cleaning, the instrument of a Muggle." Harry's voice was low and grim and full of loathing. "He stole it only because he could, not because he had any desire to actually use it."

"A gesture of power," Hermione had said, and Harry had nodded.

"Exactly." He stopped, in the process of putting the mouth organ in his pocket, as something rattled and fell from one of the holes of the mouth organ. It bounced into the midst of the snakes, and Harry once again requested them to kindly move aside.

The tiny object in between his thumb and forefinger was a miniature golden cup.

"A decoy!" Hermione said, sounding almost delighted by the cleverness of the scheme. "Engorgio!" She said before Harry could stop her. The cup swelled to its original size.

There was a low rumble, and the house trembled slightly. The trio looked at each other with wide, worried eyes. The building shuddered again, and the closet door opened and clattered shut noisily, several times. There was a low groan, and Harry thought he saw an arm, hung loosely with decaying flaky flesh. Inferi.

"We've got to get out of here, now!" he said urgently, nearly shoving Hermione down the stairs in front of him.

"The spell?" she shouted in distress, her feet a blur, as she hit the bottom of the stairs and careened around the corner.

"The room must have been keyed to respond to that charm!" he cried, feeling Ron hard on his heels. The house quaked violently, and dust began to sift down on their heads. "Since the cup was shrunken, 'engorgio' would be a natural thing to do." Hermione jerked her chin to the right and down, in a gesture of frustration. She had lectured them on their foolhardiness in Knockturn Alley, and here she had made a similarly foolish, ill-thought-out choice. They flung themselves out of the house, and crouched panting in the garden. Somewhere inside the house, glass shattered.

"Harry, I'm sorry," Hermione gasped. "I should have known. I should have thought."

Harry waved away the apology, as the orphanage shook, and they heard the whine of nails being ripped from their resting places. It sounded as if some unearthly being was trying to rise again.

"D'you mind if we continue this discussion elsewhere?" Ron asked.

They exited through the creaking garden gate, and left swiftly, looking furtively over their shoulders, as the building collapsed in on itself. The three exchanged a quick, wordless, meaningful glance and apparated back to Grimmauld Place.

Three weeks later, Grimmauld Place had been compromised and abandoned.

Harry jerked violently awake, with a start as Hermione softly re-entered the room. She was carrying a still steaming cup of tea, and a plate of toast. "Do you think you could eat something?" she asked. Harry raised his glasses, and knuckled one eye.

"Yeah…" he eyed the plate doubtfully, as his stomach churned a little bit. "Maybe just the tea." He sipped some of the nearly scalding brew, and felt its warmth all the way down to his belly. She was watching him anxiously, as he pensively regarded the cup.

"Are you feeling any better?" she asked.

"Just really tired," he replied. "And … and worried. This is wrong. Something's wrong."

"What's wrong?" Hermione put the plate of toast down on the desk, and sat on the edge of the bed. "What do you feel, Harry?" Harry was getting visibly agitated. He set the cup down on the bedside table, and his trembling hand caused tea to slosh over the side.

"It's the wrong order. We've done it in the wrong order. The snake was supposed to be last….the closest to Voldemort." He ran one hand raggedly through his disheveled hair.

"You mean, because now Voldemort knows and we've still one horcrux left to find?"

"I don't know!" Harry said, desperation cracking his voice. "I don't know what he knows. But he knows something… he – he – we don't even know what the last horcrux is… and if he comes before it's destroyed, then…"

"He won't die," Hermione said dully, her words dropping heavily into silence. "Harry, Ron and I were talking downstairs. You know…term started yesterday at Hogwart's….and I – " She watched Harry's eyes darken and his face shutter closed.

"I'm not going back there. I've already told you that, Hermione." Annoyance laced his tone.

"No, just listen to me, Harry," Hermione said. "Please." At his slow nod, she continued, "The last horcrux is the one Dumbledore thought would be the item belonging to Gryffindor or Ravenclaw. Think about the places we've found them so far. Dumbledore found the ring at his mother's home, and the locket was in that cave where he…" she trailed off. The horrors that had occurred in that cave remained mercifully undefined. "The fake cup was at his old workplace, and the mouth organ and real cup were at the orphanage. We found Nagini at that abandoned Death Eater camp near Little Hangleton, where his father lived." Harry nodded again, impatiently. They knew all this already. "The only place that was important to Tom Riddle that isn't represented here is Hogwart's. The last horcrux has got to be at Hogwart's."

"But the diary – " Harry began hoarsely.

"The diary was destroyed at Hogwart's, but Lucius Malfoy had it originally. Who knows where it came from?" Hermione interrupted. Harry squinted at her.

"Right," he said stupidly. He was so tired.

"We should leave for Hogwart's tomorrow," Hermione said decisively. "We can speak with McGonagall…concentrate on locating that horcrux. If Voldemort thinks we've returned to school, and haven't been hunting for pieces of his soul, so much the better."

"I s'pose you're right," he answered. "So much hinges on when he comes. But Hogwart's and Godric's Hollow are the two other places he'd look, especially after Grimmauld Place and – and Little Whinging…" A pained look crossed both their faces. Harry had barely escaped Little Whinging with his life. "I don't want to put the other students in danger."

"I'm not sure you have much choice," Hermione pointed out, looking at him with compassion. "What kind of danger will everyone face if we don't find that horcrux… if Voldemort is not defeated?" Harry was grateful that she hadn't said "if you don't kill him". He could always count on Hermione's tact.

He sighed and looked away, his gaze straying to the window that overlooked the village square, and the small churchyard just beyond, dotted with white tombstones…two in particular…

He wished that someone would tell him what to do. Hermione and Ron always gave advice or offered opinions, but so far, they had left the final decision up to him, and had gone along with his choice, without a murmur of dissent. He wished Dumbledore were here to tell him what needed to be done, to tell him whether or not returning to Hogwart's was too much of a risk, or one that simply had to be taken.

Hermione walked slowly back into the kitchen, where Remus and Ron were seated at a card table. They eyed her carefully, but her expression, other than being glum, gave nothing away. She sat slowly in the other chair, her gaze far away and almost vacant.

"How is he?" Ron asked, clearing his throat.

"He's awake. He's…having some tea," Hermione said, inanely. "I think he was still feeling sick." Ron leaned back in his chair, still moving gingerly with his newly-healed arm.

"He'll be fine by tomorrow. He always is," he said, trying to muster up some confidence. Hermione clamped her lips together, as if trying to refrain from speaking, but her words came bursting out anyway.

"Ron, do you not see what is happening? Do you not realize that with every horcrux we destroy, Harry gets worse?" She said, before her eyes darted toward the hallway, and she lowered her voice. Her chin trembled. "He's up there right now afraid that he won't be able to defeat Voldemort at the rate the bloody horcruxes are having a go at him!" Ron looked at her with mild surprise. Hermione rarely swore.

"I reckon if – if Vold...emort," Ron said his name hesitantly, "showed up right now, he could take Harry out right easy, but – Hermione, I said 'if'." At his words, Hermione had jerked her head up, glaring at him as her eyes filled up with angry tears. "And that's my point. Voldemort doesn't know what we're doing. He doesn't realize the state Harry's in. He – " .

"Harry said Voldemort knows," Hermione interrupted, dully. Ron paled visibly, and Remus, who had been watching their exchange in silence so far, straightened in his chair.

"What does he know?" Their former Defense teacher asked, his voice intense and serious. Hermione slumped in her chair, and there was a hint of despair in her eyes.

"Harry isn't even sure!" she said, her forehead creased with anxiety. "He said he heard Voldemort laughing. Harry said that he could realize we're after the horcruxes, or just realize that we've killed his pet snake, or…it mayn't have anything to do with us at all."

Ron watched her sympathetically, and reached across the table, laying his hand gently across hers. She looked at him for a moment, with an unreadable expression.

"He's worried about the order," Hermione said, after a long moment of silence. She slowly slid her hand out from under Ron's and put it in her lap.

"The Order?" Lupin said, looking worried. "Does he think Voldemort's coming after the Order?" The group had been more or less defunct since Dumbledore's death, but there was still the worry that the information that members of the group held, especially since Snape's apparent defection and betrayal, could put them in mortal peril, tortured by Death Eaters for the knowledge they possessed. It was part of the reason that Lupin was the only Order member to know the whereabouts of Harry, Ron, and Hermione. It was he who relayed messages back and forth from McGonagall and an anxious and worried Burrow of Weasleys.

"No, the order…the order of the horcruxes," Hermione corrected, waving her hand at him tiredly. Ron's brow furrowed in confusion.

"But, Hermione, we talked about that. We decided to go on and try to find the snake, since we weren't getting any further on the search for the item of Gryffindor's or Ravenclaw's."

"I know. But killing something so close to Voldemort…" Hermione's voice trailed off, as she saw the charred body of the snake in her mind's eye. She saw it springing at Ron, fangs wide. She saw Ron stumbling backward in abject terror, unable to even raise his wand in time. He slipped, fell, the bone in his arm cracked loudly. She was unable to suppress the slight tremor that shuddered through her.

"I think what Hermione means is that if Voldemort figures out the horcrux game before you've found the last horcrux, and he comes for Harry early, then, even if Harry does defeat him…"

"Voldemort won't die…" Ron said grimly, echoing Hermione's very words from her conversation with Harry. His eyes darted nervously toward the small window above the kitchen window, as if he expected the Dark Lord himself to be peering in at them. There was a rustling creak from behind them, and they all started.

Harry was standing there, weaving visibly on his feet, a weak grin on his face. "You lot are rather jumpy, aren't you?" He held his empty tea cup loosely in one hand, clad in clean jeans and a T-shirt. He was barefoot.

"Harry, why on earth are you out of bed?" Hermione chided him, getting up and helping him into her chair. He was very pale.

"You can't have secret conclaves without me," he said in mock protest. "What good am I doing anybody if I'm just lying around on my arse in bed?" Hermione looked as if she would like to protest, but said nothing.

"Have you decided what to do next, Harry?" Lupin asked.

"I think…" Harry began heavily, propping his forehead on one hand. "I think we're going to have to go to Hogwart's." Ron looked surprised at this reversal. "I really don't want to endanger the students, but Hermione – " he glanced at her, and his eyes twinkled with a trace of their old sparkle. "Hermione thinks the last horcrux may be there. It does make sense. We know how important Hogwart's was to Tom Riddle."

"You're not going to have a lot to worry about, regarding the welfare of the students, Harry," Lupin said, a little sadly. "Hogwart's is not like you remember it." The three teens looked at him questioningly. "Minerva owled me, after you two turned down your badges." Hermione and Ron looked down at their laps, shamefacedly. "There are less than fifty students enrolled this year. Almost all of them were in your D.A." Harry lifted his gaze from the table, and looked at Lupin wonderingly.

"Really?" he said, a ghost of a smile flickering across his face.

"Only fifty?" Hermione said, looking devastated. Remus nodded.

"Almost all sixth and seventh years. I think the youngest student is a fourth-year…Gryffindor, of course." He grinned at them then, looking a little wolfish. Harry, Hermione, and Ron looked upset at the thought of Hogwart's being but a shadow of its former self.

"Maybe our being there will help," Ron offered, trying to sound hopeful. "And Harry, you'll be able to see Ginny."

"So, your mum let Ginny go?" Hermione asked, interested. At Bill and Fleur's wedding, it had been a serious point of contention between Ginny and Mrs. Weasley. Ginny had been adamant that she was returning to Hogwart's. Her mother had just as furiously been against it, and the whole thing had culminated in a ferocious shrieking match the day before Harry, Ron, and Hermione left on the horcrux hunt. It had made Harry and Hermione both quite uncomfortable, being in the presence of such familial conflict.

"Oh, there was no letting involved," Ron said, grinning slightly. "I think Ginny basically told Mum that she was either going to Hogwart's or coming with us. She finally figured that Hogwart's was the lesser of two evils."

"Anywhere away from me is the lesser of two evils," Harry sighed. Hermione watched him curiously, wondering how he felt about seeing Ginny again. They had been stiff, uncomfortable, and awkward around each other in the days leading up to Bill's wedding, but then they had danced together at the reception…twice. Harry had gone up to Ginny's room the morning that they left for Grimmauld Place, and told Ginny good-bye privately. When she had come down to see them off, her face was pale and drawn, her eyes determinedly dry. She had shaken Harry's hand amiably, but the subtext of things unspoken was heavy in the room. Hermione had always wondered what they had said upstairs.

"Unless the choice is between you and Voldemort," Ron pointed out seriously. Harry grinned faintly at him.

"Right…" he said. "I think – " The others never found out what Harry was going to say. He let out a kind of strangled noise, and his hand shuddered suddenly, his fingers splayed and rigid. He fell, his right arm outstretched, sweeping his cup onto the floor, where it shattered. The crashing sound was overshadowed by Hermione's shriek.

She pushed her chair out of the way, and it skidded across the room and hit the opposite wall. She knelt down beside him, barely aware of the scuffling and shouting going on, as Ron and Lupin tried to get near Harry's fallen form.

"Harry! Harry!" she cried out, her hands touching his face, his shoulders, his hands. A tremor shuddered through his body, as his eyes rolled sightlessly back into his head, and his hands flopped clumsily up toward his scar, which was now trickling blood. "Harry, talk to me," she said, taking his face in her hands, and making him look at her. "Tell me what's wrong. Tell me what to do."

"Hermione, move!" Ron said, grabbing her firmly by the shoulders, and pulling her backwards. "Let Lupin have a look at him!" She glared at him, angry and bewildered, while Ron stared at her like he didn't know her at all. Lupin knelt down beside Harry, as the fit seemed to subside with a slight tremor. He handed Harry a handkerchief to clean up the blood dripping down his face, and helped him sit up.

"Harry, are you quite all right?" The werewolf asked with some concern. Harry pressed the piece of cloth over his eye, and shook his head in the negative.

"He –" he started to say, but froze, his eyes going above Ron and Hermione's heads to the front door. The others exchanged frightened, bewildered.

"Harry, what do you know?" Lupin pressed, his voice managing to stay calm and even. Harry shook his head again.

"Somebody's here."

Ron pushed Hermione down on the ground, shielding her with his body, as the window adjacent to the front door blew in with tremendous force. As they gingerly tried to right themselves, a menacing voice shouted, "Reducto!" and pieces of door joined the shattered glass on the floor. Harry heard Ron shout,

"Hermione!" Harry looked across to his two best friends, his heart in his throat. Hermione was slumped against Ron, her hands over her face. He saw blood trickling from between her fingers.

"I'm okay," he heard her voice faintly.

"How'd they get past the wards?" Harry whispered, his voice a desperate hiss. Lupin shook his head, and pulled his wand out of his pocket.

"Harry, where's your wand?" Harry looked at him, his green eyes wide with alarm.

"Upstairs…" Lupin's eyes were steely, but there was no reproof in them. He had been up there recovering after all.

"Go. Hurry." Remus said tersely. Harry Apparated to Hermione's bedroom, without another look or backward glance.

The intruder in the bedroom whirled around suddenly, as Harry appeared with a small pop. Harry dove across the small bed, grabbing his wand from the pocket of his dirty, tattered jeans, where they were draped over the back of a chair, before he hit the floor. He was almost instantly back on his feet, his face set like flint, his eyes icy cold.

"You," he said, his voice low and dangerous. Harry noticed quickly, with that part of his mind that was rapidly processing sensory input, that there were two scorch marks on the wall above the bed, where the intruder had evidently tried to hex him as he dove across for his wand. He also noticed where the intruder had been standing, in front of the desk, which was obviously rifled. Harry's face paled. That information could not get back to Voldemort.

Pain suddenly flashed through his wand hand, and his fingers involuntarily loosed their grip around his wand, which clattered to the floor. The Death Eater looked pleased with himself, and walked forward to pick up the fallen wand. Desperation surged up in Harry's chest. Everything would be lost if Voldemort found out what they were looking for, and Harry was suddenly certain that that was the object of this foray. The battle downstairs was a distraction, nothing more…and if Harry hadn't gone to retrieve his wand, their objective would have been achieved.

He raised his wandless hand, the desperate urgency, the need to stop the intruder pumping through his veins with the rhythm of his pulse, and thought Petrificus Totalus! His opponent went rigid, and collapsed with an audible thump, a look of bewildered surprise on his face. Harry looked at his hand for a brief moment, a little amazed himself, but an instant later, he had grabbed his wand, and was dragging the rigid body across the hall to his and Ron's room. He shoved him none too gently up onto the cot, and covered him with the invisibility cloak, in case the Death Eaters took the house. After he placed several fairly complicated locking charms on the bedroom door, he Apparated back to the living area.

It was a shambles. Ron had cast "Reparo" on the front door, and was trying to fit it back on its hinges, but was having less than moderate success. Lupin had seated Hermione on a chair, and was working on her wound.

"Are they gone?" Harry asked, stepping carefully around the remains of their kitchen table. "Aguamenti," he said mechanically, carefully aiming the stream of water onto the smoldering sofa. Once the piece of furniture had been doused, he tucked his wand carefully into his back pocket.

"They must not have expected us to fight back," Ron was saying, somewhat cheerfully. "Hermione took two of them down, even while she was bleeding like a stuck pig. I've never seen such spell-casting." He looked over at her, his tone frankly admiring.

"Must you use such vulgar expressions, Ron?" Hermione said, snippily, although her voice was somewhat muffled under the damp dishtowel that was across her face. The large splotches of blood marring the towel's surface vaguely disquieted Harry.

"They weren't coming to fight," Harry said quietly, looking around for a place to sit, and finding none. The sofa was damp and faintly smoking, while Hermione sat in the only surviving chair. Ron turned to look incredulously at Harry, while the front door crashed back to the living room floor.

"Well, they were certainly giving a good imitation of it!" he said, looking at the recalcitrant door with disgust.

"One of them…was in Hermione's room…going through the desk." There was an audible gasp from Hermione, who straightened quickly, as the towel fell onto the floor, unheeded. Harry noticed that the laceration at her temple was glowing pink, and seemed to be shrinking under Lupin's healing charm. Dried blood still marred her ear and neck.

"Did they get anything, Harry?" she asked quickly, her voice low and intense.

"No, I got him…he's in our room, under a full body bind…and the invisibility cloak," Harry said. "But we don't have much time. When the Death Eaters get back to …wherever it is that they go…and he doesn't show up there too, they'll come back. Perhaps with even a larger force."

"Harry's right," Lupin said with determination. "Hermione, are you up to packing in a hurry?" Hermione nodded, though the dried blood stood in stark contrast to her pale face. Lupin searched her eyes, and evidently what he saw met with his approval. "Good." He looked over at the boys. "What we can't take with us, we destroy. You have three minutes."

Ron was still wrangling with the front door. "Ron, for crying out loud!" Harry said, with annoyance. He flicked his empty hand out and upward, in the approximation of a swish and flick gesture, and the door flew into place, settling on its hinges with a noticeable click. The other three looked at him, astonishment clearly written on their faces. "What?" Harry asked. "It was 'Wingardium Leviosa'. I've been trying to work on the non-verbal casting…"

"Harry, it might have been non-verbal, but it was also wandless," Hermione said softly. Harry looked at her, then down at his hand, comically, as if he'd forgotten that he wasn't actually holding his wand.

"We'll have to discuss this later," Lupin said, giving Harry a meaningful look that meant that the topic would not be forgotten.

"Where are we going to go?" Harry asked him, the fatigue in his voice and the pallor of his face reminding the other three that, no matter what Harry found himself capable of doing, he was still clearly not well. They exchanged a long glance, and Lupin found himself suddenly regretful of Harry's all-too-adult gaze. He'd had to grow up too quickly.

"We're going to Hogwart's," Lupin said, with resignation. "There's no other choice now."


AN: I have not forgotten about "Isle", but it is being quite difficult and stubborn. I am having the worst time with chapter 12. Anyway, I hope to have an update eventually. In the meantime, I am cheating on "Isle" with this story, and am quite pleased with the way it is going so far. I have what I hope is an interesting and somewhat unique plot in the works.

Hope you enjoy!