Review offering insight to the story:
"Your update couldn't have come at a better time. The pending tensions of a future conflict between Harry and Voldemort were executed beautifully. I deeply felt Hermione's selfless courage yet selfish want of rescue. Her combating emotions made it all the more belivable, as if she was a real person going through both physical and emotional torture. I should also mention how right the lay out of the whole story feels. The change in perspective every so often allows the reader an array of opinions and views to sample. All character insights and details don't feel forced and connect seamlessly." - cucu4cocopuffs of FanFiction net.
Thank you to the following reviewers: Nymous, Ranger Dragen, Jester08, SexiAnglo, disneyrulz23, Slyumi, Renevatio, hero6, kazfeist, misssweetsweet, spedclass, Aswen, Katia Dashwood, kubas89, Jevanminx, Annie, Elasandra1, wolfwhispers, RoxasIsReal13, PrincessofHeartsNYP, lorelover, Luckylily, RoxyRBD2290, norg, Rob-girl, Iwannaknow, luv-icecream-hyper, Winds of Autumn, cucu4cocopuffs, kitsune55, Simply Lily, Hudly, nonentity, samanderson, halla, emily02, Lucas and especially lvswtht, bethygirl94 and Dri Almighty.
"You have to understand the rules of the game. And then you have to play better than anyone else." - Albert Einstein
Harry stared hard at the two-story house ahead of him, the outside clearly unkempt after so many years of being abandoned. Thick, gnarled trees surrounded it, while vines and bushes overgrew the front yard. The white picket fence surrounding it was old and falling apart, some of the boards were missing or lay broken. His jaw tigthened as he stared, noticing that there were no lights filtering out of the window, not even that of a faint candle. His heart clenched, hope dwindling quickly. The Muggle village down a short ways was still alive, lights and people in the distance. He felt Ron's hand on his shoulder, but he ignored it and walked forward. His mind was on one thing only and he wasn't about to let human emotion get the best of him. His feet sounded heavy as he hurriedly made his way up the walk and towards the peeling door. His hand reached out, shaking before him, but he frowned and grasped the doorknob tightly, turning it and throwing the door open. The hinges creaked eerily, reminding him that it'd been over sixteen years since anybody had been there, alive and well. A family just starting.
His brow furrowed as he walked inside, his wand coming out. "Lumos," he said, noticing that his voice was hoarse and croaky. He put that notion to the back of his mind and stomped inside the house, his eyes quickly running over the dust covered surfaces of tables, walls, pictures, and furniture. It was completely dark, the only light besides his wand that of the moonlight filtering through the broken window and past the torn, moth-eaten curtains. Finding the living room empty, he made his way toward the kitchen, eyes scanning over the dishes laying in the dirty sink, water long evaporated. Webbing created an elaborate show crossing between the cupboards on either side of the window showing the sideyard, sitting quaintly above the sink. He walked through the kitchen, his shoulders tightening quickly. It wasn't so long ago that he thought he'd need Hermione to even think of setting foot in the front yard of his childhood home. He could hear the twins and Ron's footsteps following him dutifully, their wands illuminating to join his.
"Spread out," he told them, nodding back to them. He heard their feet stumble slightly and then exit the room behind him. He didn't want them nearby, he didn't want to know that they were watching him with pitying expressions or feel their hands on his shoulder or patting his back. This wasn't the time. There were more important things than his hurt feelings and stomach eating sadness. He found a stairway in the back and batted away a spiderweb without a second thought, briefly wondering as he climbed up the creaky stairs if it would become a problem for Ron that there were obviously a number of spiders inhabiting the house. Dusty family photos sat on the walls, against pale wall paper that peeled and sat in mockery of what likely used to be a quite cheerful display. As he entered the top floor, he heard a crash downstairs and then the twins calling out.
"No worries... Ron just spotted a spider and fell over."
"Hope you didn't want that ugly cabinet in the living room."
Their voices were void of the usual humor and barely registered in Harry's mind.
There were four doors to pick from, though each were wide open. One was a bathroom and he walked there first not only because it was the nearest but because he figured somehow a bathroom was one of those places privacy reigned. If she had been there, seeing her parents die and just barely escaping, she'd probably want to be alone, wouldn't she? He didn't ponder it much and opened the door to find it empty. It was eerie the way the dust settled over things that still sat in their usual places, make-up and toothbrushes, hair brushes and a shaver, all sitting in wait for a family that would never return to use them. He pushed open the door nearest the bathroom to find his parents room and felt a shiver run down his spine, he wasn't quite sure he was ready to enter something that was so completely theirs.
"H-Hermione?" he called out, his voice thin and shaky.
When there was no reply, he forced his feet to move forward, hating that they shook and faltered. Taking a deep breath, he surged forward, walking past the long dark dresser and toward the half-open closet. The beam of his wand fell across the room, painting it in a soft glow that eccentuated how dark and unused it was. The closet was filled with clothes, a trunk, and some shoes, but no crouching Hermione. He waved his wand around, checking the corners of the furniture and rectangular room but found her nowhere. Finally, he crouched low on the floor and pulled up the old burgundy blanket covering the bed. There was nothing but darkness beneath it and he angled his wand a little better to see, but soon found himself giving a startled shout and flying back to slam into the bedside table, knocking a lamp off and hearing it crash.
Two beady eyes had been staring back at him from beneath a mass of scruffy dark hair.
"Harry?" he heard the shout of Ron from downstairs. Heavy footsteps were coming upstairs and he wasn't sure how to respond.
The twins and Ron appeared in the door, looking at him with curious and worried expressions. "Did... Is she here then?"
Harry shook his head, taking a deep breath and rolling his eyes at his absurd reaction. A cat crawled out from beneath the bed, crouched low and hissing. It's matted fur was trying to stand up but not doing a very good job. It appeared to be quite old, with suspicious silver eyes and long claws already out and waiting. Upon closer inspection, he could see silver swirls in its fur and sat forward. He made a clicking noise with his tongue, as if calling it closer, and thought briefly of Crookshanks. While Hermione's cat was half-kneazle, with an ugly flat face, this was quite obviously a simple muggle cat. He wondered why it was in the house at all and how it got in and couldn't help but think it might've been his parents. It would be incredibly old if it was though.
The cat stared at him a moment, lifting it's head slightly as if to mock him for his actions, but then moved a little closer. It sniffed him slowly, starting at his shoes and making its way up toward his hand. Its fur slowly returned to just being awfully dirty and messy and it stepped closer, purring all of a sudden and nuzzling his hand. Harry wondered if perhaps there was a spell to get him a little less matted, but didn't ask the twins or Ron, simply petting the now-friendly cat. It stepped up and curled itself into a purring ball on his stomach and Harry wondered how he managed to get so distracted from his original mission. He looked up at the three boys, taking in their shocked and confused expressions.
Clearing his throat, he stood up, keeping a grip on the cat that adjusted itself to lay in the crook of his wandless arm. "There are two rooms that haven't been checked but I don't think she's here," he said gravely. "Did you find anything downstairs? Footprints in the dust, anything moved, something to tell us anybody's been here in the last fifteen or sixteen years?"
They shook their heads. "There's paw prints. Cat and dog," Ron told him, wincing slightly. "But other than that, nothing."
Harry nodded abruptly, walking out of the room and pausing in front of the door across from his parents, taking in the crib, rocking chair, and small dresser. "She'd have come out by now," he said quietly, shaking his head.
"With him," Harry said, his voice taking on a decidedly harsh texture. "But that doesn't prove anything. He could be using her as bait or simply letting her suffer. I don't..." A shiver ran through him, bile rising in his throat. He didn't want to think about what could be happening to her. "We'll get her back." He hated that his vow cracked at the end.
There was a long pause, everybody deep in thought. "How?" Ron finally asked, his voice choked and worried.
Harry didn't answer him, instead turning and leaving the room. He walked down the stairs he'd come up, frowning at how unstable they felt beneath him. He ducked beneath a cobweb and kept going, his hand instinctively petting the cats head. He made his way through the house and out to the front quickly, disliking the empty feeling it left him with. His feet took him back to the bags that sat waiting for them out front and he heard the door slam behind them as the three Weasley boys followed him out. He picked up his bag, throwing it over his shoulder and waited for them to join him.
"Where to now?" Ron wondered, grabbing his own bag and casting an odd glance down at the cat.
"Grimmauld," Harry said simply, before popping out of their sights and reappearing in the ground floor of number 12 Grimmauld place. It looked just as he remembered it and a pained feeling ran through him, remembering Sirius and the last moments spent with him in the dark house around him. The peeling wallpaper reminded him of the house he'd just left and he quickly looked away, walking across the threadbare carpet and scowling at the moldy curtain covering the always awful Mrs. Black. The twins and Ron followed behind him, arriving just a few seconds after him.
Harry made his way toward the dining room, where the Order often held their meetings. The twins pulled out chairs, sitting down and dropping their bags on the table top. Ron followed suit, looking up at Harry expectantly. Harry let the cat down onto the table and watched it look back up at him; he swore that if cats could have expressions, this one was frowning. "There should be a bowl of food in the kitchen," Harry told it, pointing off to a door. "Crookshanks wouldn't mind, I don't think." He felt foolish talking to it and shifted on his feet in discomfort.
The cat stared at him a moment before running off down the table and hopping down to the floor, somehow managing to understand him. Harry shrugged it off and turned back to the Weasley boys who weren't all that surprised by the knowledgable animal; they were magical folk, after all.
Taking a deep breath, Harry crossed his arms and stared at Fred and George. "Do either of you know what a Horcrux is?"
"Harry," Ron said abruptly, his expression showing his shock that he was willing to share the information with the infamous pranksters before him.
Harry shook his head at Ron to shut him up and then turned back to the twins who were looking at each other with confused expressions. "An easy explanation is that they are pieces of a person's soul, placed in an object of some kind. It can be alive or inanimate, it doesn't matter. To put it simply, Voldemort had six Horcruxes made, and there should still be four out there, waiting to be destroyed. If not all of them are taken care of, then he cannot truly be killed," Harry told them, his expression tight and grim.
"What happened to the other two?" the twins wondered curiously.
"Dumbledore destroyed a ring, Marvolo Gaunt's to be exact. And I destroyed Riddle's journal, the one that possessed Ginny in her first year," Harry told them, shrugging slightly. "We know of two others, Slytherin's Locket and Hufflepuff's cup, but there are still two others. We also don't know where these four Horcruxes are." Opening his bag, he pulled out the shrunken rolls of parchment and books that he'd taken from Hermione's trunk. "This is all of Hermione's research on the subject so far. What she believes could be Horcruxes, places she thinks they could be kept, and simply all of her conjecture on the matter." He bit the inside of his cheek for a moment. "The three of you are going to take on the journey that we were going to. You'll find the Horcruxes and destroy them all while I go in search of Hermione."
"Harry, that's madness," Ron shouted, standing up from his chair so quickly it through it back and made it clatter against the floor. "You can't go alone and you can't expect us to find them without you or Hermione. We should all go after Hermione and then find the Horcruxes."
"Not possible," Harry said, shaking his head decidedly. "The moment Voldemort has me in front of him, he's not going to care whether or not we're ready for it. My death is at the top of his list and I can't risk killing him only to have him come back later. I need those Horcruxes found as quickly as possible, so that when I do find Hermione, I can end all of this," he said passionately, his jaw hardening.
"And what if you get to Hermione before we get to the Horcruxes," Ron asked, shaking his head and glaring at him.
"You're going to have to make sure that doesn't happen, mate," Harry told him, lifting a brow. "We're on a time limit, obviously. We need everything found and done as quickly as possible. Not that we weren't already going to try and have it all done fast, but now we have someone hanging in the balance." He sighed, his expression falling from anger and hardness to tired and sad. "I trust you three to get this done. I'm relying on you to make the journey that Dumbledore believed we could make."
"That was when he thought it was us three though," Ron said, shaking his head and frowning.
Harry's mouth curled slightly. "Have you ever known Dumbledore not to know things ahead of time? I wouldn't be surprised if he somehow knew this was going to happen." He shook his head, his shoulders falling slightly. "I believe you three can find and destroy them. You're the strategist, Ron, you'll do fine."
Ron shook his head, his expression taught with anxiety. "But Hermione has the booksmarts and you have the cunning. I..."
"Look at who you're working with," Harry said, his eyes widening as he motioned to the twins. "You have two of the most brilliant wizards I've ever met with you. Even Hermione praises them, Ron. What does that tell you?"
"She praises us?" the twins asked, their brows lifting.
"Despite her love for rules and order, she does recognize the genius that goes into your tricks and pranks," Harry said, nodding. He turned back to Ron. "You want to find her just as much as I do. Trust that I will get her back, just as I'll trust that you three will get this done while I'm away."
Ron shook his head. "There will be nobody there to watch your back," he reminded, his voice faltering.
Before Harry could reply, the unknown cat hopped up onto the table once more, licking its mouth contentedly and walking over to lay at the edge in front of Harry. Harry couldn't help but think that not only did he not have a name for the cat that he found an inexplicable connection to, but he had no idea what gender it was either. "What d'you think I should call it?" he asked aloud.
Ron huffed, sounding quite annoyed that Harry was focusing on something so trivial.
"Scruffy?" the twins said, lifting their brows and half-smiling.
The cat turned and hissed at them, its tail lifting to wag warningly.
Harry reached down, scratching it behind its ears. "No... Something... dignified, I suppose. Is it a boy or girl, d'you think?"
"Under all that fur it looks like there's a collar," one of the twins told him, pointing.
Harry bent down lower, moving all the matted black and silver fur out of the way. "Do either of you know a spell that could--"
A bright pink light blinded him a moment before his hands were touching clean, short, soft black fur with silver swirls that seemed to shimmer in the glow of the candles around them. Turning the collar around to see it better, he rubbed away the dirt that still marred the grey adornment. Slowly, black writing became visible. 'Curator "Ray" Potter,' stared up at him, to which he decided the cat was indeed male. On the back, in small writing, it read, "Good with children and canines, bad with rats." He thought that canines must also refer to werewolves and contemplated how Ray must have been with his family, long before it and the friendships it entailed were destroyed.
"His name's Ray," he told them all, a decidedly fond tinge to his voice as he continued to pet a cat he couldn't remember but felt close to somehow.
"Harry," Ron said, his tone warning.
"I've made my decision," he replied firmly. "You, Fred and George will take on the mission we previously had. You'll find the Horcruxes and destroy them at all costs. While you're busy with that, I'll be searching for Hermione. My hope is that you'll have completed your half before I have. Whether or not you have though, I'm going to have to do something drastic. We can send word back and forth so I know whether you're close or not."
"But how will you find her?" Ron wondered.
"There are maps here, filled with possible safehouses for Death Eaters," one of the twins, he thought it might be Fred, suggested.
"And lists of known and suspected Death Eaters. You can interrogate them," the other twin added.
"Find out where they're keeping 'Mione."
"Will you bring us in if we find the Horcruxes before you find her?" Ron asked, his voice almost accusing, as if he knew Harry wouldn't.
"It all depends on where you are and how close I am," he admitted with a sigh. "Where are the maps and lists?" he asked the twins.
Moving around the room, they started searching the dining room cabinets and such, taking off concealment charms and the like. Before long, Harry had a table full of help and he nodded in gratitude. His shoulders were a little less stiff now that he knew he wasn't just going to be searching the world, high and low, desperately hoping that a clue would just jump up and smack him in the face. "Seems we've come to an understanding then," he said, his voice heavy with finality.
"Seems so," the twins said, nodding gravely. Suddenly their hands were held out before him. "Good luck, Harry."
Shaking each of their proffered hands, he nodded. "Good luck to you, too."
Seeming to understand that Ron and Harry needed a moment to talk alone, they rose from their seats, taking Hermione's research with them and made their way into the kitchen. Ron stared down at the table ahead of him, putting all of his focus on a chip in the wood and glowering down at it. "Was dad right?" he asked after a long pause.
Harry frowned, his brow furrowing. "About what?"
"Hermione. Dad said he thought you might... That you have... That you like her," Ron stumbled, shifting in his seat, his eyes still firmly downward.
"Of course I like her, she's one of my best mates," he replied stiffly, turning his gaze away to stare at the wall.
"You know what I mean, Harry," Ron said, his voice suddenly hard. "Look, I'm not mad at your or anything like that. You and I both know that me and her would've been... well... a disaster waiting to happen." He chuckled lightly, shaking his head. "She's... And I'm..." He sighed, and Harry heard the shake of the noise. He turned back to see that Ron was showing more emotion than usual. "She's my best mate too, Harry. We're not as close as you and her are. But..." Sighing, he sniffled quickly and cleared his throat to rid himself of such an emotional display. "You'll find her. I know you will. I don't know if this is all going to end how we want," he admitted, shaking his head. "Guess we have to keep our hopes high. It is Hermione after all. If anybody could survive, it's her. I just..." He bit his lip, his eyes closing for a moment.
"What?" Harry asked, staring at Ron as he gathered his thoughts.
"Y'know I think Voldemort," he shuddered, "went after for a- a reason." Lifting his chin, he stared directly at Harry, his expression serious. "She may be your best friend and she may be the brains but... She's a lot more than that, y'know? She's... She's Hermione," he said, shrugging as a half-smile appeared. "I can understand why you'd, you know, care about her. I thought I did. I even gave it a try. She wasn't for me. But... But then I wasn't you, was I?" He wrinkled his forehead.
"What are you saying?" Harry asked, frowning. He lifted a brow, not entirely sure what Ron was trying to imply. He has his suspicions, but he didn't want to voice them if he was wrong.
"Just... Just remember that I wouldn't be upset if you and Hermione became... more. I would be a little left out, maybe even awkward, but..." He shrugged, looking uncomfortable with the direction the conversation had gone. "I guess I always suspected between you two, but I always sort of thought that I'd... Blimey, this is hard," he muttered, shutting his eyes tight. "Okay, Harry, maybe you haven't figured it out and maybe it's gonna take awhile, but I just want you to know that I would support you if you one day realized that your feelings for Hermione weren't that of a friend or brotherly in nature." He sighed, a certain relief coming to his face.
Harry scowled, shaking his head. "This has nothing to do with that. Hermione's my friend. She's been my best friend since I was eleven. All those things the Order said, about how they weren't going to go out of their way because I had a girlfriend or a fancy, that junk is all ridiculous. We both know that Hermione and I have and always will be just friends. I... I love her, but not... I don't..." He stumbled and he wasn't sure why. "Whatever feelings you're implying I have, I don't. I want to find her, I need to find her, but it's only because she's been by my side all this time. She's a good person and she doesn't deserve whatever Voldemort is doing..." He trailed off, his throat tightening. "I can't... I won't..."
"I know, Harry," Ron said quietly, his expression understanding. Clearing his throat, he changed the subject. "So when are you leaving?"
"Soon," Harry admitted, his voice still strangled. "I have to look over the maps, see where a starting point is. I can't just walk out there and expect them to come to me."
Ron nodded. "Guess I'll be heading out too. Not really safe to hang 'round here, is it?"
"No." Harry ran a hand through his hair. "Listen, if... If anything should..." He wasn't quite sure how to say goodbye. It could be their last. He wanted to believe that he'd go and he'd get Hermione and destroy Voldemort, but it wasn't as easy as that. He was going off to face the darkest wizard of their time and hoping to walk away not only alive but with his best friend still in tact. It was hoping a lot and he'd learned long ago that things tended not to point in his favor.
Ron nodded. "Yeah, I know. Same here." He held his hand out and for both their sakes they pretended they didn't see it shaking. Taking it, Harry held on strong and told himself that he wasn't really saying goodbye. "Be safe, yeah?"
Harry nodded jerkily, his throat tightening. "You too."
"Guess I'll leave you to it," Ron said, shifting back. He looked away, his shoulders slumping. "Send us an owl when you get settled somewhere."
"I will," Harry promised. He bit his lip, not sure if he should tell him not to write anybody else. There were so many people who could find out. The owl could be found or the person could let it leak. There were just so many things that could go wrong, he needed to be sure that everyone was on alert and not being sloppy. "Keep this quiet, eh? Not even Luna can know." He noticed Ron's glower and quickly amended. "It's not that I don't trust her. It's that I don't trust the Order won't go to her. I doubt she'd burn your letters and they might find them. We need to keep them off our trail for as long as possible."
Ron nodded stiffly. "Right. Yeah. No writing anybody. I'll keep it quiet." After another minute of shifting around with indecision, Ron finally moved toward the door. "Don't... Don't lose yourself out there, eh Harry?" he said, looking back at him with something akin to fear.
"Lose myself?" he asked, furrowing his brows.
"You'll have to do things... Things that can't easily be forgotten, I bet. It's not... It won't be easy finding her or saving her. I just... Don't lose who you are out there," he explained, unable to make himself more clear.
Harry nodded jerkily. Would he have to kill? They wouldn't be easy to question. They were loyal to their Lord and if he let them go, they'd return to Voldemort to warn him. He'd have to keep them from letting Voldemort know any of what he would learn on the way. Shaking his head, he decided he'd have to make a sure fire plan. There could be no leaks. He didn't want to kill, but he might have to. Hermione was worth that, wasn't she? It wasn't as if he was completely innocent to begin with. She wouldn't agree that what little innocence he had left should be traded in for her, but he wasn't asking for her permission on the matter. "I'll try not to," he allowed, seeing Ron's expression but accepting his fate as it was.
"If she's already... I mean if he's... If she's... gone," Ron said hoarsely, his back tight and his head turned away. "Then you make sure he gets what's coming to him," he told him darkly.
He knew what he meant. Whatever happened, whatever Voldemort had done, whether Hermione was dead or alive, Harry would make sure that Voldemort paid for everything he'd done. For his parents murders, for Sirius' life and death, for the Grangers and all those lost to Riddle's cause. Harry wasn't going to sit down and allow the Order to fight this battle any longer. He was tired of being in the background, of having no part in something he was obviously a huge intricacy of. Voldemort had finally slipped. He'd made the worst mistake ever. If he thought he was finally breaking the Boy-Who-Lived, he was so very wrong. If anything, he'd finally given him the incentive to destroy him entirely. And he would.
Harry stared at his best mates back, his expression hardening. "I will."
A/N Sorry it took so long. I should be able to get my other chapters out soon! Yay! I'm getting my computer fixed! Bow down to my dad - praise him for FINALLY taking it in for me, lol! Anyway, I hope this will tide you over for now! I have a couple one-shots in with my beta, so they might be up soon too!
HAPPY NEW YEAR!
Thanks for reading! Please review, it's very appreciated!