A/N: This is the prequel (yes, I know I'm odd, writing the story and sequel before the beginning, but go figure) to 'Recovery', but being said prequel it can be read alone. Though you might want to read 'Recovery' and the sequel, 'Home' so you can find out what the heck happens. :)
Harry Potter had had enough. Shutting the dusty, massive tomb he had just been perusing with a loud bang, Harry jumped up, his chair making a horrible screeching noise against the wooden floor of their – the trio's – safehouse. "This isn't helping," he spat.
"Harry, said Hermione Granger, rubbing her eyes tiredly, "how else to you suggest we find out where the Horcruxes are? Rush madly into a Death Eater camp and demand Voldemort's most trusted lackeys tell us all they know?"
"No, but we haven't gotten anywhere in our research, either. Two bloody weeks since we came out here with that pile of books and we still haven't found anything useful regarding an object Voldemort might use for a Horcrux," Harry said impatiently, throwing an irritated glance at Ron Weasley as he cringed, "We're not doing a damn thing."
Hermione opened her mouth, looking highly affronted, but Harry wheeled around sharply, crossed over to the other side of the huge barn, and flung himself onto his camp bed, feeling his anger and frustration slowly fading away into alternating apathy and restlessness. He could practically hear Hermione rolling her eyes, and he could definitely hear his two best mates whispering, most likely about himself. Listless and exhausted, Harry could not muster up the strength to care. Focus on the Horcruxes, he told himself fiercely. The cup, the snake, something of Gryffindor's or Ravenclaw's…Repeating the mantra in his head, Harry shifted restlessly, wondering where each Horcrux was and why Voldemort would put them there.
Picking himself up off of his bed, Harry paced around the barn, stopping his train of thought only when he nearly walked straight into the wall. Twice.
Agitated, Harry passed the rest of the afternoon either wearing a hole in the floorboards with his pacing, on his camp bed, or going for random walks outside, the hot afternoon sun burning his nose and cheeks a light pink color. He had narrowed down his list: the diary, the Gaunt ring, and Slytherin's locket – that one, the first one the trio had obliterated, had been particularly easy to destroy, maybe too easy – had already been taken care of. That left Lord Voldemort's pet snake, Nagini, the object of either Gryffindor's or Ravenclaw's, and Helga Hufflepuff's golden engraved cup. They were not ready to get close enough to Voldemort to kill Nagini, and they were no closer to finding out what the sixth Horcrux was than they had been in August, when they had finally started out on the hunt. His thoughts on the young Tom Riddle and a small decorative cup, Harry did not even register Hermione asking him what he wanted to eat for dinner as he went out on another walk outside in the icy February snow.
He had been wandering around the snow-covered countryside for quite awhile when all of a sudden the location of one of the Horcruxes hit him like a pile of bricks: the Riddle House. He knew that one of the remaining Horcruxes was there with a certainty he could not explain. But why was one of the Horcruxes there? A rather Hermione-ish sounding voice asked. In his mind, Harry saw the young Tom Riddle at Hepzibah Smith's mansion, gazing hungrily at the shiny golden cup, saw a slightly older, partially disfigured Riddle glaring angrily at Albus Dumbledore as the headmaster declined to hire him as a professor… surely he had not just wanted to gain followers by teaching at Hogwarts… he had to have had an ulterior motive… Harry could remember Dumbledore telling him only a year ago, 'Hogwarts was where he had been happiest; the first and only place he had felt at home'…
Heart beating fast, Harry stopped walking and gazed into the inky black darkness that surrounded him, the sun having set and the night moonless. Lord Voldemort had wanted to place one of the Horcruxes at Hogwarts, but he could not. Thwarted, he had had to turn to his second choice – the house in which he had murdered his grandparents and the father he had never known…
A Horcrux was somewhere in the Riddle House.
Harry began running back toward the safehouse as fast as he could, throwing Vanishing Charms over his shoulder to erase his footprints from the icy snow.
He burst through the door. Both Ron and Hermione jumped. They had been researching at the table again. Not stopping to apologize, Harry slammed the door shut. "The Riddle House! We have to go to Little Hangleton! One of the Horcruxes – Voldemort could've been desperate --" a new thought occurred to him, "—left it there when Wormtail and him were there fourth year --"
"Harry," Hermione interrupted, speaking slowly and placatingly as though he was a three year old having a temper tantrum, "Voldemort wouldn't leave a Horcrux in the Riddle House, mere blocks from the Gaunt's place, where he had put the ring. He's not that stupid."
Harry waved his arms about as though brushing her words aside. "Not if one of his planned locations hadn't worked out. Look, Voldemort – stop wincing, Ron – had wanted to teach at Hogwarts, right? But both Dippet and Dumbledore had rejected him, and Hogwarts was the place where he learned he was special – the place he called home – not to mention his obsession with the founders, so naturally he would want to keep a Horcrux there, but he couldn't ensure it would be safe there without being there to keep students away – so after Wormtail found him and they created a temporary body for him, he told Wormtail – someone – where he had kept it before, and they brought it to him, where he could make certain it would be okay – or maybe it had already been there, I don't know," said Harry, practically shouting in his excitement, ignoring Hermione's interjections.
"No, Hermione, I know this – this isn't like fifth year. I can't explain it, but I know one of them is there, a Horcrux," Harry plunged on, "We have to go there, now."
"What?" Ron and Hermione both jumped to their feet.
"Now?" Hermione asked, as though she could not believe what she was hearing, "Harry, it's pitch black outside – the moon's not even out – and it probably minus twelve degrees outside. Besides, what if someone's already out there? You've been to Little Hangleton; you know that even in daylight it would be hard to protect ourselves – no trees, hardly any buildings on the edge of town. Harry, Voldemort tortured you in that graveyard in front of a crowd of Death Eaters. Maybe he had set up wards or Muggle-Repelling Charms, but Harry, if they couldn't hear you then, they won't now."
"This is perfect timing – no one's going to be around – not that they would be anyway – and if anyone's there guarding the place, then we could take them by surprise," Harry said dismissively, choosing not to consider anything Hermione had said about his ordeal in the Little Hangleton cemetery. He looked over at Ron for his response.
Ron cleared his throat. "I – I reckon we should just go ahead and check it out. Maybe V-V-Voldemort left a Horcrux there, maybe he didn't. It won't hurt to make sure."
Harry nearly sighed with relief. Ron trusted him. Harry looked over at Hermione. She was biting her lip, her eyes darting back and forth between Harry and Ron. Finally she stood up. "I suppose we should get this over with as soon as possible, then."
It was as if her words had started a race. Harry, Ron, and Hermione were suddenly dashing about the vast safehouse, grabbing first aid supplies and heavy winter clothing; Hermione kept running over to random books and flipping through them like a madwoman before hurrying back over to her knapsack. Harry smirked despite himself as Ron threw a few cans of food into his own bag for good measure.
Ready, the trio stood in the middle of the dark room, having doused all of the lights. Harry's mouth was suddenly dry.
"We should probably get a move on," said Ron, holding his arm out to Harry so that they could Side-Apparate. Ron and Harry always went first when they had to Side-Apparate somewhere; normally the somewhat feminist Hermione put up a fight, but tonight she did not say a word.
Steeling himself, Harry envisioned the Little Hangleton cemetery and Apparated along with Ron to the graveyard.
They were there. In the graveyard. Harry sucked in a sharp breath as he surveyed the dreary, gravestone-littered landscape. "I – I'm going to go get Hermione," he whispered hoarsely. He could not see Ron's face in the suffocating darkness surrounding them.
Back in the safehouse, Harry found Hermione flipping hurriedly through another book. "Ready?" he asked shortly, holding out his arm for her to take.
Closing her book slowly, she sighed. "I've already been there."
"What?" Harry asked, nonplussed.
"I've already been there," Hermione said quietly, not meeting his eyes.
"Wha- Why? When?" asked Harry incredulously.
Hermione stood up. She still would not look at him. "On the ride home from Hogwarts, the summer after our fourth year. I saw an exit sign for it on the motorway… I was curious."
In spite of the serious situation, Harry smiled wanly. "Only you would be that inquisitive, Hermione."
"You're not upset?" she asked nervously.
Harry shook his head. "Let's go." Anxiety was bubbling up in his stomach: what if he was wrong, what if a Horcrux wasn't in the Riddle House? But even more nerve-wracking – what if it was? He would not have repeat episode of what happened in the cave with Dumbledore.
The two of them looked around the safehouse once more, and finding nothing else they needed, they Disapparated.
Back in the cemetery, Harry bent down at the waist, trying to catch his breath, his ribs aching from the three almost simultaneous Apparitions.
"Is it okay to light our wands?" Hermione whispered from next to Harry.
"Yeah, I reckon so," Ron whispered rather loudly, "No one's bothered about what's outside, it's too damn cold."
Hermione lit her wand wordlessly. "Don't light yours, we still don't want to be conspicuous." She looked almost as nervous and scared as Harry felt in the dim wandlight.
Harry rose to his full height and found himself staring right at the gravestone that he had been bound to almost three years before. He couldn't draw breath; his mind was being inundated with memories from that horrible night, memories that he had tried to forget, memories that he could not forget…
"Harry," Hermione said quietly, breaking into his reverie, "we should probably get going."
Harry forced himself back to the present and the situation at hand, making up his mind. "No, you two aren't coming with me. I need to do this alone. Don't get too close to the house – I don't know what protections Voldemort's used here, and I don't want either of you getting hurt -"
"What about you, Harry?" interrupted Hermione, sounding furious.
Him? He didn't matter. His safety didn't matter. Theirs did. "- and if I'm not back in forty-five minutes, come looking for me. I'll send up red sparks if I need backup," Harry continued doggedly.
"What? You're not going to go alone, Harry! We told you at Dumbledore's funeral that we were going to stick with you, and we're not going to abandon you now," Hermione said fiercely.
"Well you're going to have to tonight," Harry snapped.
"The hell we're not!" Ron said loudly.
"Quiet down!" Hermione hissed. "Come on, we're all going up to the Riddle House."
The argument continued, Harry deflecting all of Ron and Hermione's points until Ron made him pause.
"What then? Why shouldn't we go? What, you think we couldn't handle ourselves? Are we just going to get in your way, you arrogant b-"
"No!" said Harry quickly, astonished that they still had not realized why he was trying to leave them behind. He didn't really want to explain his feelings, but he didn't want either of his best mates thinking that he, Harry, thought that they would just be in his way.
"Look," he said softly, looking down at his ragged trainers in the pale wandlight, "I – I know that you're – both of you – are up to this. But I won't let either one of you get hurt or k-killed. Dumbledore was… you don't want to know what Dumbledore was like after drinking that potion, and I won't – I can't see either of you go through that, okay?" he muttered, his voice cracking.
Ron and Hermione were silent for what felt like hours. Three clouds of breath rose and swirled like smoke in the light, cruel breeze. Finally, Hermione spoke up. "Go. Be careful." She reached over and hugged him tightly. Her eyes were glittering with tears.
Harry could feel Ron gripping his shoulder firmly. "If anything – anything – happens, you had damn better well send up red sparks right away. Anything," he repeated.
Harry nodded. "Yeah," he whispered faintly. He stood back from his two best friends. Both of them were staring at him. He could not express the powerful emotions that he felt towards them. "I – thank you," Harry said quietly. He turned around and walked away quickly. Fifteen feet away, he stopped and looked over his shoulder. He caught a glimpse of them holding hands before Hermione extinguished her wand. Yes, even though it pained him to leave them behind, he knew he had made the right choice.
Harry had no trouble trudging up to the old neglected mansion. He stood on the veranda, staring at the front door silently. He pushed on it slightly, listening intently. Nothing happened. He turned the doorknob. The door was unlocked. Harry opened the door slowly, cringing as the hinges screeched.
Lighting his wand nonverbally, Harry slowly closed the door behind him, breathing in the musty air and looking around cautiously. He could vaguely remember the floor plan from the dreams he had had of Voldemort in the Riddle House during fourth year; in fact, he could even see a faint pathway leading up the stairs that was less dustier than the rest of the old hardwood floors and once-plush carpets.
Harry stealthily moved past the dusty chandeliers and sheet-covered furniture and up the stairs, wincing as they creaked ominously. He was almost positive that the Horcrux would be upstairs; though it made sense that it would be hidden downstairs where the teenage Riddle had murdered his grandparents and father, Harry was thinking of the Lord Voldemort who did not depend on anyone, who only trusted himself. The Horcrux was somewhere in the upstairs room where he had stayed with Wormtail during his convalescence.
He made his way down the hallway, his breath visible in the feeble light his wand was giving out. Listening carefully at the door of the room, he grabbed the doorknob and made to turn it. Harry shouted in surprise and pain; it felt like was being cut into a million pieces. Wrenching his hand away, cursing, Harry saw that it was bleeding. Looking closer, he realized that his very fingerprints were bleeding as the door swung open. Minuscule lines like paper cuts lined the tiny patterns of his left hand, just deep enough to bleed. There's your blood payment, Tom, Harry thought angrily. His hand was smarting like hell. Cursing Voldemort with every oath he knew, yet grateful that it had not been his wand hand, Harry stepped through the open doorway.
The room was as dark, silent, and cold as the rest of the expansive house. Harry stood in the middle of the room, staring into the darkness, daunted by the tremendous task before him. His stomach in knots, Harry drew the heavy velvet curtains around the window, coughing as dust found its way into his throat. He then located and lit a gas lamp with a tap of his wand. The room lit but not noticeable to anyone outside, Harry began to look around the room. He had a hunch about the fireplace, but he went ahead and searched the room, checking for loose floorboards and false walls, looking underneath and around the few pieces of furniture and ornaments around the room.
Finally making his way over to the fireplace, Harry shed his heavy coat, dropped to his hands and knees and examined the mantle and inside of the fireplace, finding nothing except for old clumps of soot and dust. Looking up into the flue, he spotted a brick that looked slightly loose and out of place. Lit wand in his mouth, Harry reached up for it. As soon as he touched it, overwhelming waves of nausea washed over him; his wand fell from his mouth onto the floor as he tried not to retch. Breathing heavily through his nose and clenching his teeth, Harry pried the brick loose. As the brick came out into his hand, two things happened: Harry lost the battle of wills over his stomach, bent down, and vomited; as he bent down, glass figurines situated on the edge of the crevice exploded, the jagged shards cutting through his thin shirt and cutting deeply into his skin.
Harry fell back and scrambled away from the fireplace; the pain in his hand was nothing compared to the pain radiating from the deep lacerations that covered his face, chest, and arms. Leaning against the opposite wall, gasping, Harry could feel one particularly painful abrasion across the bridge of his nose that certainly would have been across his neck had he been upright. He was also immensely glad for the first time in his life that he was forced to wear glasses.
The nausea faded away, but Harry's apprehension only increased. What was he getting himself into? He thought briefly about signaling for Ron and Hermione, but almost as quickly decided against it. Besides, he had obviously found where the Horcrux was. Voldemort had probably quickly and most definitely crudely hid this particular object; surely nothing much worse would happen. Steeling himself, Harry stood up and made his way back to the fireplace, the broken glass crunching beneath his trainers. Kneeling at the hearth once again, Harry got a closer look at the glass shards. A milky white fluid coated the razor-sharp edges; flummoxed and figuring that whatever the liquid was, it probably wasn't very important, Harry shook his head and turned his attention back to the brick-sized hole in the flue. Bracing himself for the anticipated nausea, Harry held his lit wand in his bloody hand up to the hole and reached into it with the other. His stomach roiling violently and his scar now burning faintly, Harry knew without a doubt that pure, unadulterated evil was what was making him feel this way.
His hand scrabbling around the filthy hole, Harry felt his fingers touch cold metal. Gingerly pulling the object out, his heart leapt as Helga Hufflepuff's golden, badger-engraved cup reflected the light in the room. He scrambled away from the fireplace and over towards the gas light, eagerly examining the cup in the lamplight to make sure that it was the cup. The Horcrux. He had done it, he had found it! Harry leaned against the wall, exhausted, as the pain from his abrasions continued to mount, contemplating the destruction of the cup.
Making up his mind, Harry set the cup in the middle of the room and hurried to the doorway. Shielding himself partially behind the wall, Harry aimed at the Horcrux. Who knew what other curses Voldemort had placed upon the small decorative cup.
Harry took a deep breath. "Diffindo!" he cried.
A deafening boom shook the house.
Then Harry knew nothing but the blackness he was falling into.