Author's Notes: JKR owns the Harry Potter universe, I just play with alternate ones.

- Given the previous chapter (as well as playing a whole lot of Portal) I've always wondered how much momentum is conserved during apparition. Now, within the book series, just about everything takes place within the UK. The difference in the curvature of the Earth within the British Isles is pretty negligible, so it wouldn't really have been an issue. Also, no range limits were given on apparition, but I'm guessing it would be limited by a wizard's power. If a wizard apparated to the opposite side of the planet, what would happen? Near the equator, the ground is moving at around 1600 km/h. Teleport to the opposite side of the planet... and if momentum is conserved... you'd suddenly be moving 3200 km/h in the wrong direction. Uh oh.

Chapter 68: Exclusion

"But what about the other horcruxes?" Hermione whispered to Harry as they rode in the back of the third deck of the Knight Bus, protected by silencing charms and an eavesdropping ward. The vehicle was empty other than them and the driver, Stan, but it didn't hurt to be a little paranoid regarding Voldemort when he wasn't quite dead.

"We still have weekends. Heck, we could have the horcruxes all destroyed before September ends. We can take it easier now, Hermione." Harry had to admit that watching Voldemort (mostly) die again was pretty cathartic, even if the monstrous wizard wasn't totally eliminated from the world. He finally felt he could relax a little and enjoy his life, with a little recreational horcrux-hunting on the side. It might take Voldemort another thirteen years to gain a body again- or longer, since most of the freed Death Eaters were now dead. Harry finally had time to enjoy life. Or Hogwarts. Or stress-free games of Quidditch. Or his girlfriend…

"You're right! Cramming in those NEWT studies between helping you with the tournament and keeping track of the cursebreakers… it had me stressed out. Now we can properly apply ourselves to our classes!" Hermione gave Harry a kiss, and before he could react, she already had her head propped on his shoulder and held a textbook open in her lap.

Or that, thought Harry. He reached around with his left arm and pulled Hermione in a little closer. I guess this isn't bad either. For nearly the entirety of the last loop, they'd been working so hard trying to survive, it felt more like they were comrades than a couple. It didn't get much more peaceful than reading a textbook on- Harry had to scan the text a little - theoretical lost Germanic runes while leaning against each other.

Until the Knight Bus suddenly pulled to a stop, that is.

"Burrow, Ottery St. Catchpole!" Stan bellowed from the driver's seat, loud enough to be heard throughout the bus.

As soon as the two of them stepped off, the bus disappeared with a crack of magic, speeding off to roads unknown. Even with the long approach to the house, Harry could tell that it was busy inside. Well, between the Quidditch World Cup and getting ready for school, they would have been surprised if it wasn't. Harry felt like it was heading home again, and his heart swelled. He wrapped his arm around Hermione's waist as they walked towards the oddly-shaped home of the Weasleys. Hermione did likewise. They were ready to be surrounded by a swath of red hair.

Except that when one of the windows opened up, blonde hair came streaming through.

"Oh! Hullo, Hermione! Hullo, Harry! The no-bodies told me you would be coming, but the people in the house wouldn't believe me. Could you leave your wrackspurts at the door? We seem to be having a particularly nasty infestation at the moment." It was unmistakably Luna, but what was she doing here?

Ginny popped her head out as well- apparently, that was her room the blonde girl was occupying. She looked down at Harry for a second and stared. Harry waved at her amusingly. She gave a weak wave back and ducked into her room again, pulling Luna with her.

"Huh. I thought she'd be over it by now," Harry said. "The last time we spent the summer with the Weasleys, she was fine."

"Um… I think she might be reacting to this,"Hermione said, unwrapping her arm from Harry's waist. "It might get a little awkward if I have to share a room with Ginny for the next few days."

"Oh," Harry said. "Ohhh," he repeated, when he realized how strong her crush was the entire time. Her shyness must have been the only thing keeping her at bay before. Ginny was fine when she thought she had a chance. Had she been trying to chat him up all those times before? He'd never really noticed. Well, it was too late to break it to her gently. But there was someone else who might take it badly as well. "How are we going to tell Ron?"

"You mean if the whole family hasn't already heard about it before we reach the front door?" Hermione asked wryly.

Sure enough, the front door burst open well before they reached the house. Long locks of blonde hair greeted them, which was quickly replaced by red as Ginny pulled her friend Luna out of the way. "Sorry… I… um… Hi Harry! And Hermione!" she said as she tried to comb her hair down with her fingers to make herself presentable as possible, despite rushing down several flights of stairs to get to the door so quickly. "I… um… how are you? I mean, uh, come on in!" she stammered out.

"Hi, Ginny. Hey, Luna," Harry waved at both of them casually.

Ginny managed to stop being shy for a second in order to express her surprise. "You know Luna? Well, she goes to Hogwarts, but she's not in Gryffindor… I didn't think the two of you had met before."

Harry was about to wave it off and tell Ginny about how they'd met, just before he caught himself. It hadn't happened yet. And technically they still hadn't met in this timeline, but here she was, being as friendly – and weird – as she usually was around them. He glanced suspiciously at Luna, who was counting the curls in Hermione's hair. Hermione was watching Luna inquisitively. Luna turned to Harry. Harry turned to Hermione. Hermione looked at Ginny and shrugged. "We ran into each other before," she said.

"Tell me about your vacation!" Luna requested cheerfully. "Did you see any strange creatures?"

"Err… no. The most I saw was a snake," Harry answered. Unless the Voldemort-homonculus counted as a strange creature. He didn't want to talk about that.

"I saw an osprey," Hermione answered, giving Harry an amused glance.

"Oh, pooey. I was hoping you could tell me about the flynocerous," Luna sighed, before Ginny started pulling her away.

"Don't mind Luna… she just likes strange animals," she said nervously. It was a little odd how embarrassed she looked. Then again, if she was trying to make a good impression on the great Harry Potter, and the Great Harry Potter was a more standard celebrity like Gilderoy Lockhart, she would have been right to do so. Luna was an oddity, but Harry liked her that way.

"Oh, we know," Hermione answered with a smile. "Where's everyone else?"

"Oh! They're playing Quidditch behind the house! I forgot to tell you!"

As it turned out, the Weasleys also had another guest- Lee Jordan. Apparently he and Luna were Harry and Hermione's substitutes for the World Cup trip. Ron was, understandably, upset that they'd both turned down his invitations. At least the World Cup itself had kept him in high spirits. The arrival of Harry and Hermione, together, left him staring. The gears in his head were working hard to crank out an explanation for turning down the greatest wizarding sporting event of a lifetime.

"Have you two been… sno-" Ron was interrupted by a quaffle smacking him in the head.

"Oi, Ronnie-boy! Pay attention!" One of the twins said.

"You're still dad's keeper, Ronniekins!" shouted the other.

"Hi Harry."

"Hey, Hermione!"

Having nothing more to say, they turned back to the game against their father, Ron… and, amazingly, Bill. The oldest Weasley son was back in Britain, looking lively as ever. It reminded Harry exactly why he would be willing to relive these years over and over to get it right. As he was staring up in awe, Bill and Ron both flew down, ending the game prematurely.

"Harry Potter? Ron's told me all about you. And you must be Hermione! William Weasley. Call me Bill." He shook each of their hands.

"What brings you back home, Bill? Last we heard you were working in Egypt," Hermione asked, with his answer in her head already.

"Well, my company got an odd request for a job here in Britain, oddly enough. Good money, even though they didn't need the whole team. We finished up in Egypt, and my boss let me take the time off since I haven't been home for years." Bill stretched his arms out and took in a deep breath, followed by a loud whoop. "It's good to be back."

Hermione looked at Harry with a knowing smile. Harry smiled back and chuckled quietly. "Nice to meet you, Bill! Maybe you could show me a few tricks to cursebreaking?"

Ron's imagination had been working overtime while Bill was talking, but when his two friends looked at each other, his brain ground to a halt. It didn't stop his mouth, though. "You two've been snogging each other, haven't you?" he blurted out. "That's why you didn't go to the World Cup with us!"

Hermione rolled her eyes. Sure, they managed to sneak in a few cuddling sessions and maybe a date or two over the summer, but they'd been spending nearly every hour preparing for a showdown against Voldemort. Making out had been the least of their priorities for the past several months. "No, Ron, we were actually…"

She was cut off very quickly by Harry, who stopped her lips with his own. He held her tightly behind the neck, running his fingers through her hair and held her there until she got over the surprise, and responded in kind. "Well, there goes my excuse. What were you thinking?" she whispered as they pulled apart.

"Well, I figured shock value would actually freeze Ron's brain for a while. And this is the easiest cover story we've got. I've been too busy snogging you to have been anywhere near Riddle Manor…" Harry whispered back.

Hermione cleared her throat. "Ahem. As I was saying. We were actually… uh… just getting to know each other better…"

"Looks like it," George said. "Say, Harry, if we stuck a paintbrush to your tongue, how well do you think you could draw the inside of Hermione's mouth?"

"How about you, Hermione?" Fred grinned. "Marble bust of Harry, life-size, blindfolded. Are you up to the challenge?"

"Aw, lay off, you two," Bill laughed. "Just don't let mum catch you two sneaking out of the bedrooms at midnight," he added with a wink.

Ron, at least, was left gaping and speechless.

Harry groaned. Maybe it would have been easier to admit he killed Voldemort again.

The Burrow was oddly quiet until September 1st. With Lee staying over, Harry was afraid that the pranks would cause the house to collapse. Oddly enough, the pranking pair's brother-in-arms seemed to actually tone things down, possibly because of his fear for Molly Weasley. There were no shortage of pranks, but they were all of the minor variety.

Ginny was still shy about Harry, trying to show her best face despite her dejected mood. At least there weren't any elbows in butter dishes this time. She spent most of her time trying to keep Luna's oddity in check, and every time Harry reassured her that he was fine with it, she seemed even more embarrassed.

Ron was understandably upset at the news that Harry and Hermione were a couple, even if he did a good job holding it in. Part of it was the fact that he'd been one of the last in the household to know about it. Luna acted as if she'd known for months. He already knew Harry could get any woman he wanted, but the only girls that paid him any mind were his mother, and Hermione. He half-suspected his mother liked having Harry in the house more than himself, and now he knew for certain Hermione preferred the famous Boy-Who-Lived as well. Then again, Harry had to wonder when Ron actually figured out that there were girls worth fancying.

The one thing that seemed to be able to keep the peace around the Burrow was Bill. Ron and Ginny both obviously looked up to him. In fact, he could have been diverting some of Ginny's hero-worship away from Harry. And why not? He was rugged, adventurous, successful, and magically powerful. Nearly everything that the legends of the Boy-Who-Lived was supposed to be. He was also the ideal role model for Ron. Harry remembered what Ron saw in the Mirror of Erised, and Bill may as well have been what stepped out of that mirror. Perhaps his own jovial attitude helped Ron keep a level head over Harry and Hermione. Several times, it looked like he wanted to say something to the couple, but held back. The Burrow wasn't a place for privacy, after all.

They had to wait until they were finally aboard the Hogwarts Express to get their own cabin, sure that the twins were busy pranking the Slytherin students instead of them, before they could find out what was really on Ron's mind.

"How long have you fancied her, Harry?" Ron finally asked.

Harry looked at Hermione, then back at Ron. "I don't rightly know," he answered. "But I feel like every moment I thought of her as 'just a friend' has been a waste. Maybe it was second year? When she got petrified?" The memory made Harry rub his hand against Hermione's soft, un-stonelike skin just to be sure. "There were other times that Hermione was just there for me, and… you weren't around." Harry was thinking of the Goblet of Fire, but obviously he couldn't mention that to Ron.

"How about you, Hermione?" Ron asked.

"I don't really know either," Hermione answered after a bit of thought. "I first learned about Harry through the books. And, well, I have to admit I had a little crush on him. But that wasn't him, it was the Boy-Who-Lived. After that, there was the troll…"

"I was a part of that too…" Ron muttered.

"Yes, but I was really mad at you at the time, and that just brought you back up to 'likeable.' And in any case, I wasn't in love with Harry then. It just opened up a possibility, you know? Like all those fairy tales I read. Handsome prince comes to rescue the damsel in distress. Except being a damsel wasn't fun, the prince was a little scrawny –" Harry made a face at that. "- and I was only twelve. I think… for me… it was after we helped Sirius escape. It was odd, really. The danger had already passed, Sirius was free, but I still felt like Harry was protecting me when we were riding Buckbeak. It was just… reassuring to hold on to him." She let her arm slide behind Harry to grasp him a little tighter.

"Is that what it's supposed to feel like?" Ron asked. "I can't imagine thinking about that while snogging someone."

Hermione let out an exasperated sigh. "It's not about the snogging, Ron. That just means you haven't fallen in love with anyone yet."

"Yeah, yeah… fine. Just as long as you don't do it around me," Ron said, crossing his arms and leaning onto the window. He gazed at the passing countryside silently for a while. "Say… Harry. If you had to choose between me or Hermione…"

Harry closed his eyes. He was worried about this question. Naturally, he'd choose Hermione in a heartbeat… if this was the same Ron that ditched him during the Triwizard Tournament. But he wanted to give this Ron a fair chance, and forget about the jerk from timelines past. "Don't make me choose, Ron, and it won't ever be an issue."

"Yeah, but…"

"Don't make me choose," Harry repeated firmly. "We're friends. We should stick together."

The welcoming feast brought many surprises to the table, even after having experienced it multiple times. First, the shepherd's pie was made with ham instead of lamb. An odd, but tasty choice. Secondly, there was clearly far more going on this year than just the Triwizard Tournament.

"Now that you've all filled your stomachs enough that they won't be louder than I am, I should begin the announcements," Dumbledore announced to a sea of uninterested students. "And I shall finish before you're all so full that the food starts coming out of your ears."

"First, I'd like to announce two new staff members." He gestured to his right, and the most average man in the world stood up beside him. "First, as you may have expected, we have found a new Professor for Defense Against the Dark Arts. Professor Edward Hewer has been recommended to us by the Ministry of Magic." There was the tiniest hint of disappointment in Dumbledore's voice when he was saying recommended. Harry wondered what he really meant.

When the new professor stood up, generic was description Harry could come up with the man. It was difficult to go into much more detail than that. His slim build and clean-shaven face could have belonged to someone as young as twenty or as old as fifty. His tanned skin could have meant he was a Briton who spent a lot of time in the sun, or an Indian who stayed indoors. There were no particular facial features worth noting, either. He seemed almost impossibly average. The more Harry stared at him, the less he seemed to know about him. In fact, the more he concentrated on the man, the more the feeling of incredible boredom crept up in the back of his mind.

He was, in a sense, the polar opposite of Professor Lockhart. Where that man had thrown himself into the spotlight, it seemed like he repelled attention. He could have walked through the Quidditch pitch during the middle of the World Cup and nobody would notice. When he spoke, almost nobody listened.

"You may call me Professor Hewer. I have been sent from the Ministry of Magic to ensure the security of Hogwarts Castle. In the meantime, I will also teach you Defense of the Dark Arts." There really wasn't any point in lengthening his speech, as all the students were busy wolfing down their food. Even half the staff members seemed to be in a daze. Dumbledore was the only one who began to clap after Professor Hewer sat down. The rest of the hall began to clap on the headmaster's cue, not even realizing what they were clapping for. Hewer ignored the delayed applause.

"Harry," Hermione whispered, using the muffling charm for a bit of privacy, "Do you feel that?"

"Feel what?" Harry asked.

"Just… something in the back of my mind. It's like a muggle-repelling charm, except I'm not a muggle."

"I did!" Harry suddenly perked up. "Like I should have ignored… something…"

"Exactly! I can't remember what I was supposed to be ignoring, though."

They both turned their attention back to the headmaster, who was introducing another new professor. "You may not remember him, but a few of your parents might. Professor Horace Slughorn has graciously agreed to return to Hogwarts as our Potions professor while Professor Snape takes an indefinite leave of absence."

Way to break the news, Dumbledore, Harry thought.

Dumbledore continued. "He will be taking on all of Professor Snape's former duties, not only teaching Potions classes but also the duties as Head of Slytherin House. Professor Slughorn, if you will?"

Harry couldn't help but gape. This man was going to be the head of Slytherin? He was the exact opposite of Snape already. Snape was easily one of the youngest professors of Hogwarts; Slughorn was rivalling McGonagall in age. Snape had a permanent scowl hidden by a mop of greasy hair; Slughorn was cheerfully smiling as the light reflected off his bald head. Lastly, while Snape never gave up a chance to sneer at Harry, Slughorn's grin grew wider when his eyes found Harry at the Gryffindor table.

"I'd like to start off by saying how wonderful it is being at Hogwarts again! I've enjoyed my retirement, but just as soon as my days started to get a little repetitive, Professor Dumbledore comes by and tells me I should teach again! With so many bright, talented young faces here, how could I say no? Now, mind you, I'm a big fan of parties- so if you do well enough in your classes, you just might get invited to the Slug Club!" There was a shocked silence after his short speech before anyone remembered to clap. Then the clapping grew louder and louder.

This was when Harry learned that the Weasley twins could sing. Not very well, mind you, but at least they tried. When the concept of living Snape-free finally sank in (and making sure they weren't dreaming), they immediately conjured streamers, confetti, and a banner with the image of professor Snape wearing Neville's grandmother's outfit, and followed up by belting out a horrible rendition of Ding Dong the Wizard's Dead!

They only managed to get a few lines in before the professors dispelled the banner and silenced the twins, but the damage had been done. Three-quarters of the school were whooping and cheering along with the twins, who were being carted off to detention already.

"I thank misters Fred and George Weasley for supplying us with tonight's entertainment! Now I can save the pixies for next year," Dumbledore joked. "Now, for those of you who have read the Daily Prophet last month, you may have heard the rumours. The rumours are true- the Triwizard Tournament will be revived this year, and Hogwarts will be the hosting school!"

The entire hall exploded with more chatter while Dumbledore finished explaining the rules, events, and prizes. Ron turned to Harry and Hermione, excitement beaming from his eyes. "Guys, this is amazing! Snape is gone and Slughorn seems to be a decent bloke, Percy's finally left Hogwarts, and the Triwizard's happening right at our school! A thousand galleon prize! This is going to be the best year ever!"

"…and due to the usage of the Quidditch stadium for multiple events within the tournament, all Quidditch has been cancelled this year," Dumbledore finished.

Ron's smile instantly disappeared. "NOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO!"

"Wait, where are you going, Harry?" Ron asked. It was only the first week of school, and there was almost no homework to do. He was hoping to catch up on some chess, or exploding snaps, or even just trading chocolate frog cards with his best friend.

"Err… Professor Slughorn called for a meeting. He gave me an invitation to the 'Slug Club' and wouldn't take 'no' for an answer," Harry replied.

Ultimately, it had been impossible not to get the attention of Professor Slughorn. If Harry and Hermione wanted to actually learn something new this year at Hogwarts, they had to prove they could handle NEWT courses. And naturally, breezing through every mock OWL exam (other than Divination or Care of Magical Creatures) caught the attention of many professors- all of whom insisted they join Professor Slughorn's "Slug Club." Professor Sinistra had apparently been a member herself, years ago. She practically made her NEWT lessons conditional on attending at least one with Slughorn.

"Right, then," Ron said, his voice laced with disappointment. "I suppose if you got invited, Hermione's going too?"

"Yes, I am. Sorry, Ron. It runs pretty late, so don't wait up for us," Hermione said as she descended the stairs from the girls' dorms.

"Well, I guess we'll have some time after divination tomorrow to bum around."

"Err… about that…" Harry started, but Hermione pulled him away.

"I think you should break that to him slowly… maybe while he's eating so he'll be a little distracted," she suggested.

Harry nodded in agreement. "I'll tell you about it tomorrow morning, Ron."

Deep down in the bowels of Hogwarts, Slughorn had managed to decorate one of the dungeons quite nicely. It was bright, cheerful, and inviting- it felt more like an earthly Hufflepuff chamber than a dank Slytherin dungeon. Thankfully, not too many Slytherins were even present. In his year, he only recognized Blaise Zabini. Neither Draco nor any of his goonies had made the cut, thankfully. There were an assortment of Quidditch players, including both Cedric and Cho Chang.

There was an easy common element to everyone there: they were destined for success. Not guaranteed success, of course, but certainly on course for it. Everyone present was near the top of their year in grades, came from influential families, or was good enough at Quidditch to have a shot at the professional leagues. It was the perfect event for social climbers- even though only the few Slytherins present would have given it much thought at that point in their lives.

Harry Potter, who showed signs of all three, seemed to be the main attraction for the night. He was guaranteed to be a success whether he liked it or not, so everyone's job was to cozy up to him. He was forced to meet and greet everyone, reaffirming his distaste for fame. At the same time, everyone else who had figured out the purpose of the meetings felt completely overshadowed by Harry.

Seeing the enthusiasm die down made Slughorn dig a little deeper for motivation. He pulled out several pictures of old Slug Club portraits.

"Anyone recognize her? Yes, Gwenog Jones, captain of the Harpies! We still keep in touch from time to time," Slughorn explained. "I get free tickets to their games on occasion."

"Oh, and here's Florence Perry! Former Ministry Head of Magical Transportation. Of course, I helped Gwenog get in touch with her, pulled a few strings, and now Gwenog's got herself a special license to fly high-speed brooms. It's a win-win for everybody if we all help each other out."

While everyone agreed with the premise logically, it was still difficult to feel motivated. Or move past the awkward first impressions. Slughorn continued.

"Now that we're hosting the Triwizard Tournament this year, you all have an opportunity that few other Slug Clubs in the past had. International students! Not only that, but you will be meeting the best and the brightest from each of the schools. I have no doubt that one of you could easily be this year's champion. Don't get caught up in cheering for your own champion, though- make sure you talk to the other students. Who knows, you might be meeting the future French Minister for Magic! Now, let's all practice a few greetings in French and Bulgarian…"

Sufficed to say, neither Harry nor Hermione were keen on going to the next Slug Club meeting. It was scheduled for the first Hogsmeade weekend of the year, so they used that as an excuse. After all, what new couple could resist a visit to Madam Puddifoot's?

In reality, they were going to sneak away from the crowds to go horcrux-hunting. But nobody needed to know about that.

"Harry! You've got permission to go to Hogsmeade this year, right? And you said you were skipping out on the Slug Club thing…" Ron asked excitedly. He'd taken the news that Harry would drop divination pretty well, and like his friends, he decided to drop the class himself. Since he definitely didn't want arithmancy or ancient runes, he switched over to muggle studies at Hermione's insistence. Harry wasn't sure how he would handle being told that he would no longer share any classes by the next week.

"Yeah, but… I wanted to spend the day with Hermione. Sorry, Ron."

"Together? But you've got broom closets for that any day of the week!"

Hermione let out another one of her exasperated sighs reserved for Ron. "Broom closets are not a foundation for a healthy relationship," she stated flatly.

"Come on, Harry. We're best mates, right? We can find something at Zonko's and Honeyduke's for an hour before the two of you do… whatever."

"Sorry, Ron… we've already got the whole day planned out. Maybe next time," Harry answered. They didn't actually need the entire day, but for their plan to work, they had to get to Hogsmeade early for several reasons. They didn't want anyone to see them sneak off, nor hear the distinct crack of apparition. They also wore their basilisk armour underneath their robes; somebody with a keen eye would notice. Lastly, it was rather dangerous to be walking around in a crowded area with a basilisk fang loaded up with venom, no matter how well-wrapped it was.

So while most of the others were still taking a lazy stroll down to the small town, Harry and Hermione rushed down there like lovebirds eager to share a tea and cupcakes together. They then proceeded to disillusion themselves and apparate to the most unromantic place in Britain.

The memory that Harry had acquired from Voldemort already told him it was it was a messy, mossy, shack covered in overgrown foliage, hidden behind prickly briars and crooked branches. That memory, however, was still decades out of date. The last time Voldemort ever visited his grandfather's home was around Grindelwald's reign of terror to hide the horcrux here. Now, it was certainly messy and overgrown, but rotting leaves and branches hid the shack from sight while mold and mildew hid the path leading up to it.

From the cursebreakers' notes they'd memorized, there were plenty of traps to be found. Trees would restrain intruders, vines would choke them to death, while the inferi bodies of Morfin and Marvolo Gaunt would consume the evidence. A cursed pathway directed visitors to their doom, and the interior of the shack was filled with a poisonous miasma. This was even before they could find the horcrux itself. What the notes didn't detail was how difficult it was to find the triggering runes and the binding stones for the curses.

The shack was quite close to the Riddle Manor, but the two of them apparated far away to approach from the opposite side through the forest to avoid being seen. Over the past few weeks the location had been scoured by aurors; even now there was still the risk of somebody else looking into the deaths of multiple prominent purebloods. A half-hour hike through the thick brush brought them to the first of many traps protecting the shack.

"Found an anchor stone," Hermione piped up. "I think it might be based on a triquetra pattern. Can you find the other two while I work on decomposing this one?" It only took five minutes to disable that trap.

The next one nearly caught them off-guard, and it was mostly a stroke of luck that caught it. Hermione thought she had completely deactivated a simple trap, but Harry caught the sound of a very quiet hissing and recognized it as parseltongue. Within seconds, a dozen artificial snakes formed from the wood and vines and surrounded them. Harry ordered all of them to disperse without incident.

Trap after trap, they proceeded carefully and disarmed. Other than the parseltongue trap, there really wasn't anything particularly special about them. It seemed like almost all the traps, as carefully crafted as they were, could have been done by a single very smart seventh-year Hogwarts student- in essence, someone at Hermione's level. Nothing that required, blood sacrifices, rare gemstones from Australia, or seventeen simultaneous enchantments to perform- all just basic curses, runes, and smart application of arithmancy. The sheer number of protections was the only thing slowing their progress.

It took them until noon to actually get past the doorway. Bubble-head charms took care of the toxic air and two powerful blasting charms destroyed the re-animated remains of Morfin and Marvolo Gaunt. The inside of the home wasn't much better than the outside- even without the poison and inferi, it was infested with all sorts of insects, reeked of decomposition. The two of them tore apart the floorboards to find a small, locked box layered with plenty more protections. Even through the container, Harry could feel the influence of the horcrux.

The protections on the box were relatively simple. Flesh-eating charms activated by touch. Compulsion charms triggered by cracking open the lock. A standard set of unbreakable and everlasting charms to prevent the box itself from succumbing to the elements. The box itself took no more than ten minutes to neutralize. Hermione stood back as Harry opened the box.

As far as Harry was concerned, inside the box lay the most beautiful ring he'd ever seen.

Take me.

What could a ring do for him, though? It was just decoration. He had more than enough money.

Take her.

Hermione! By Merlin's beard, he loved her. He wanted to propose to her one day.


Now? Why not now? A bloody perfect ring sat in front of him, she was standing two steps away, and they were alone. This was the perfect time to propose…

Take me wear me hold me make me yours make her yours make the world yours

"Harry!" Harry felt himself being pulled across the room and dropped the box in surprise. Hermione grabbed him by the head and focused her eyes on his. "Harry? Harry… can you feel it? Can you focus? Get it out of your head!"

"Did I just do what I think I did?" Harry asked, shaking his head. The force of Hermione's spell as well as the distance from the box gave him a newfound clarity. He concentrated on his occlumency to purge his mind of foreign invaders. From here, another careful look at the ring revealed that it was possibly the most plain ring in existence. The gemstone on top of it wasn't even a gem; it was just some sort of rock. "That thing was more powerful than the diadem. I wasn't just hearing suggestions, I was hallucinating."

"I can even feel it tug at my mind from this distance," Hermione confirmed. "This is going to be a problem. It's protected from basic magic. That's why I had to summon you instead of banishing it."

"Thanks. Let's get this finished quick before my brain turns to mush," Harry said. "Stop me if I do anything stupid again." He put on thick dragonhide gloves and pulled out the basilisk fang from his pouch. He could feel the ring try to get into his mind again.

Wear me Hold me

"No, you stupid ring," Harry said, gritting his teeth. He held the ring down to the ground with two fingers and carefully tried to place the fang tip somewhere he could stab. Such a tiny object didn't provide a lot of stabbing area, and it was taking him longer than he thought he would.

Don't you love me, Harry? Why don't you prove it? Hermione appeared in front of him, holding out her ring finger expectantly.

"Harry! You're hesitating!" the real Hermione shouted from behind him. Harry looked back, cleared his mind again, and repositioned the fang. Finally, he managed to put the fang in a notch beneath the ring's stone and put his weight on it. The venom chewed through the ring's protections while the bony fang crushed the silver band, breaking the stone from the ring. It let out an inhuman screech and black, ethereal smoke seeped out.

"Well, that's taken care of," Harry said, wiping his brow. "Let's get out of here."

"Agreed. I think I've had enough of horcruxes… at least, until next Hogsmeade weekend," Hermione said. "Let's just get some food and relax in the Room of Requirement."

It had been a tiring day, and the suggestion sounded wonderful. He did, however, have an urge to stay in Hogsmeade for a little longer and browse the local jeweller's shop…

Author's Chapter End Notes:

- I've had to give a bit of thought as to how much of the 'canon' timeline that Harry actually experienced. Having a time machine really messes things up. Sufficed to say, for various reasons, this is actually the first time they've met Slughorn. Now, he was reluctant to come back to teach in canon without personally meeting Harry, but things are different for several reasons. No Death Eater attacks for one thing. And he's always wanted to know Harry on a personal level. Lastly- Triwizard tournament. What better time than that to meet up with the greatest wizards and witches of a generation from three countries, all under one roof? Even in canon, I think the 4th book would have actually been the ideal time for Slughorn to return to Hogwarts.

- Secondly, about Ron. I've realized I've come to a point in the story where I'd end up leaving out Ron, not because he's being a jackass like in canon, but simply because Harry and Hermione have now experienced so much without him that they can't consider him a close friend any more. Even if he smartens up and keeps his emotions in check, he still won't have much of a chance to turn this into a time-travelling trio. Of course, this also has the same implication for anyone else they would want to have as a close friend... gonna have to give this more thought.