"I hate being unplugged for so long, you know? I mean, don't get me wrong, school's wicked great, even this year, because it's sort of powered up, and we've totally got it, but if I don't get to play Dark Forces II within about ten seconds of getting through that door, I'm going mental. You can have the Nintendo first if you want it, though." Dennis was chattering eagerly, but Colin barely heard him, his pulse speeding as he scanned the almost-empty platform for the hundredth time, hoping that he had please, please been stupid and paranoid, that they'd just been held up in traffic, that they were just late.

The crowd had thinned dangerously, though, and if they stayed much longer, they'd be alone and still on the magical side of the platform, away from the safety of strangers, and that would be worse than just going for it. He grabbed Dennis' sleeve, jerking his head towards the exit. "C'mon, D, let's go."

His little brother didn't hesitate to follow, dragging his trunk along behind, but his face was deeply lined in reproachful confusion. "Colin, we're supposed to wait here. Mum and Dad aren't -"

"They said they might be late today," he lied brusquely. "We've waited an hour like they wanted us to, and now we're going to have a cab home."

The younger boy's eyes widened, impressed. "They gave you money for that? It's bloody expensive all the way out past Ealing, why don't we take the tube?"

They were being followed, was why. The bloke was in plain clothes, not black robes, but Colin recognized him from the platform, and not in the good way. They were being followed, and while the station was safer than the lonely platform, a cab all to themselves was a lot safer than a tight-packed, jostling underground where people got attacked sometimes in just the normal go of things. He didn't say it, though. The last thing he needed when he was already stressing this much was for Dennis to go spaz. "Because they don't want us fucking about with our trunks," he snapped instead. "But we've got to hurry or all the blacks'll be gone."

Actually, they were far from scarce, though the cabbie reacted much the same a Dennis had when he gave his address, and he had to pull a wad of notes from the pocket of his robes to show before the skeptical arse would even budge away from the pavement. Their tail stayed in the station, making no effort to follow in another cab, and despite a twinge of disappointment that there wasn't going to be a chase, he was actually very glad there wasn't going to be a chase. He looked over at Dennis, who was frowning at him in concern. "Colin, are you okay? You look off."

"I'm fi -" he stopped, catching the eye-roll at his blatant lie before it was even out and grinning fondly, reaching out to ruffle Dennis' hair. "Ok, I'm not fine, but I'll be okay. Got a bit of a headache, think it's from the stuff on the train maybe. Or what Neville said about the stakes being higher while everyone's on holiday."

Dennis nodded solemnly, squeezing his hand in genuine support. "It's gotta be killer for you, ain't it? The stress of it, being the S.K. If there's anything I can do to help, you know you've just needs ask, right? Anything. Like if you want on the computer first to unwind a bit, check out what Harry Knowles's got on the prequels…"

The generosity touched him more deeply than he expected, and Colin had to swallow hard. "Anyone ever told you little brothers are supposed to be pests?"

His answer was a cheeky little shrug and a stuck-out tongue. Colin laughed quietly, shaking his head then leaning it back to rest against the seat. "Really, though, you're right that it's a little like trying to run about with a tauntaun in your pocket. Useful in a pinch, but it weighs you down a bit. Mind if I doze a bit 'til we get home?"

"'Course. I'll wake you."

He didn't sleep at all, actually, not had he expected to. It had just meant that he didn't have to answer anything without hurting Dennis' feelings by ignoring him, and he needed to think. Oh, God, he needed to think. Why couldn't they live farther away?

There was a part of him that was trying to race ahead, come up with a thousand contingency plans for what if this and do you think that, but he forced them down. One step at a time. This was not the time for guns blazing, not when backup might not even come, the cops were questionable, and he had Dennis to think of. Sure, he was fourteen, no baby, and could take care of himself in a fight, but it would be worse than irresponsible to get him into one, particularly if it involved Death Eaters. If Harry, Ron, Hermione, Ginny, Luna, and the Commander together had gotten their butts handed to them, he had no illusions about just the Creevey brothers.

One step at a time, and step one was to check the house. Keep the cab waiting, definitely. It'd cost more, but it would be worth it to have a getaway vehicle and not be stuck trying to run for it down a suburban street if there was someone waiting for him that wasn't of the parental variety.

Alone or with Dennis? This one was trickier. On the one hand, he didn't want to separate, that was too obviously a Very Bad Idea. On the other, he had absolutely no idea what might be in the house. It might just be their parents who had gotten the date wrong or forgotten or gotten wrapped up in something with the 'zine, but he put that at about the same odds as Voyager going for fifteen seasons. Even with the fit new Borg.

It could be just abandoned, an eerie Marie Celeste movie set of their lives. Or ransacked, had at by whatever tossers had figured out there was no one to object to the liberation of the computer or the television or the gaming consoles. It was also possible - maybe even more likely, if he was brutally honest with himself - that he was going home to something a little more Hellraiser than Twilight Zone, and he shuddered inadvertently as he though of some of the things he'd heard about his aunt's favorite games.

Dennis would be staying in the cab. The cabbie would still be there, so he wouldn't be alone, and if someone was going to find Mum and Dad like that, it sure as hell didn't need to be anyone but him.

"Colin? Colin wake up, we're here." He opened his eyes, blinking in a moment's disorientation before he recognized the familiar surroundings of his neighborhood. It seemed like it hadn't been long enough, but maybe he had dozed off a little, or maybe time was just weird right now, relative like Einstein had said. Something about a minute with a beautiful woman or a minute on hot coals…or thinking about finding your parents' dismembered corpses artistically arranged around the living room.

Dennis was already getting out, but Colin grabbed the back of his robes, yanking him down. "Stay here."

"But -"

"STAY. HERE." He had never used that tone with his brother - with anyone - before, and normally the look of hurt and shock would have made him feel guilty, but he was too carefully not feeling anything right now, too carefully not panicking at the state of the front lawn, at the lack of tire tracks in the mud in front of the garage. Colin pulled out his wallet, snatching out another twenty and tossing it onto the front seat. "Wait for me."

If the cabbie said anything, he didn't notice, already shutting the door behind him. He took a deep breath, closing his eyes for a moment to center himself. Their lives depended on an absolutely Vulcan state of rationality right now. Don't panic. The familiar, droll instructions made the slightest bit of a smile come to his mouth, and he opened his eyes, squaring his shoulders. No bulldozers, at least. Could be worse. You can do this.

The door was locked, of course, and no one answered either the doorbell nor knocking, but the spare key was still under the Tardis in the front garden, and it still fit the lock. Which meant, at least, that it hadn't been so long that the bank had gotten the house and changed the locks, but it also meant that whatever he was going to find had probably not been disturbed since it had happened. Feeling Dennis' eyes on him from the waiting cab like a physical burn in the back of his shoulders, he opened the door and stepped inside.

The smell. Oh, God, the smell.

Colin fell to his knees before the door had even shut behind him, gagging desperately. It was like being punched in the face, this horrible, unholy reek, and he panted through his mouth, trying not to choke on it, trying not to smell it, but it was thick enough to taste, filling his lungs, his entire body, and he barely managed to grab the bucket they used for umbrellas before he lost the fight with his stomach. He had never vomited so hard in his life; deep, heaving waves that clenched his gut and burned his throat long after it was empty, leaving him shaking, eyes watering, trying not to cry at the loss of one control that was so precariously close to taking all the others with it.

But the clock was running, and not just the one on the meter outside. He didn't know if entering the house would have alerted anyone, and he forced himself to his feet. The dry heaves were still making him walk doubled-over like an old man, one sleeve clutched over his face as much to catch anything that might still be coming up as to pretend anything could ward off the stink that was now mixed even more terribly with the sour bite of sick.

Vulcan, he had to be Vulcan about this, but it was strangely easier than he'd thought as he made his way down the front hall and into the living room. Part of him knew it was shock, but he wasn't going to nitpick right now, because anything that made this all unfold around him from this kind of strange distance was a welcome friend indeed.

No scene of carnage in the living room, but the noise he had assumed at first to be an appliance left running or static on the television was nothing mechanical at all. It was flies, tens of thousands of them, covering every surface and rising like a plague to swirl through the air when he disturbed them by entering the room. The mold-covered, fallen-apart remains of what had once been Chinese take-away on the table. The lights on the VCR were out. He tested the switch. No power. More than thirty days, then, but less than ninety.

The kitchen was worse. The loss of power had meant all the food in the fridge had spoiled, and though he didn't dare open the door, a thick brown sludge of rotted stuff had oozed out the bottom, and it was writhing white with maggots that would soon turn into more of the fat, iridescent bastard cousins that were all over the counters, the dishes crusted in the bracken water of the sink, the white-haired bowl of used to be bananas.

No time. No time. They obviously weren't here alive, so now it was just a matter of whether there were bodies or not, and to get anything he could salvage that might make it a little easier for them to survive. Food was obviously right out. Colin gave only a glance to the rec room, just enough to see that no corpses were sprawled in front of the computer or work table, then he headed upstairs, hurrying now, almost running.

Nothing in Dennis' room. Grab the Green Lantern bag from the bottom drawer of the dresser; it was biggest. His winter coat, a handful of underwear, two pairs of jeans, a hoodie, a couple tshirts, his autographed Wil Wheaton foil card in its frame off the side table, his stuffed monkey from when he was a baby. Nothing in his room. Grab some more clothes, all his autographs too, especially the Stan Lee Spiderman sketch. They were worth money. Money was going to be very important.

Nothing in the guest room. Nothing in the bathroom. Just more flies; flies everywhere, and he knew he should have checked Mum and Dad's room first, because it was the most logical place for them to be if not downstairs, except that he didn't trust that he'd have been able to turn back and get things they needed if it was very bad. His hand paused on the doorknob, his heart pounding. Maybe he didn't have to do this. It was obvious what had happened. Did he really need to see it? The horn of the cab blared, startling him, but it also set his decision. There was no way he was going to look Dennis in the eyes and say 'I don't know,' say he'd chickened out, deny his brother even what little closure and comfort he might salvage from all this. He pushed the door open, holding his breath against what he expected to be an entire new dimension of smell from the bodies that were going to be in there.

It was empty. Colin stopped, dumbfounded. The bed was empty, there weren't even hardly any flies in here, and it looked like they'd just gotten up from a nap and forgot to make it up. He walked closer as if in a dream, putting out a hand to touch the edge of the duvet and make sure it was all real. No bodies. His parents were just…gone.

Except now he could see that those weren't just the shadows of touseled sheets. Those were smears of something dark and dried, even if not much, and on the wallpaper above the bed, that wasn't a shadow either. It had faded, no longer glowing, just a charred remnant of what had been so boldly emblazoned to mark whatever awful thing had happened there, but there was still no questioning the skull and snake. They were dead, then. Really, really dead.

Someone turned away from the bed and went calmly to the fire box in the closet. Someone turned the dials to 1701 and got out the packet with their birth certificates, passports, and other vital papers and tucked them into the bag. Someone closed the door behind him and went downstairs, wondering vaguely if he should leave a note. Colin watched the someone - who seemed oddly to be using his body - do these things, but he was back on the platform not an hour ago, but months ago, feeling them warm and alive and hugging him goodbye for what was supposed to have been only until Christmas. He was back in the Great Hall watching the mail come and biting his lip against the growing suspicion. He was back in the common room telling Neville that this had happened with no real idea that it would mean this.

The someone got almost all the way out of the house before Colin saw it. Only a little bit of something orange and fuzzy was visible from behind the bucket he had puked in, and he shouldn't have looked. He thought he'd been prepared to find the bodies of his parents, and maybe he had, but this he hadn't expected. The maggots had finished their work, deflating the belly opened and emptied, gouging the eye sockets and stripping the flesh from the teeth that grinned at him through the half-mummified skull that still had too much tabby fur clinging too many places, the collar stained and sagged around the skeletal column of the neck.

Colin ran. Flinging the door open, halfway down the front walk before he remembered and it was the hardest thing he'd ever done to turn back, grab the Green Lantern bag, slam the door shut behind him, fuck locking it, fuck the key, he was never going back, he was yanking the cab door open and flinging himself down onto the seat and not, not not crying or screaming just keeping it together somehow, and thank sweet holy mother of Lucas the someone came through again. The voice was his, technically, but impossibly calm, at most a little annoyed as he leaned forward, barely breathing hard as he swept the fringe out of his face. "Our parents had to leave town unexpectedly, but they've left us a note with instructions for the night until our aunt and uncle get here tomorrow. Would you mind taking us to the nearest reasonably priced motel?"

Then the someone was gone, leaving him shaking, trying not to gag again, biting the inside of his mouth until it bled to not cry, to not scream, to not do or say anything at all as he fell back into his seat again, clinging to the bag like a life preserver. Dennis pulled at his sleeve, but he shook his head sharply, not opening his eyes, not wanting to see whatever look was on his brother's face because it was too likely to be too much. "Shut up, D. I'll tell you when we get there."

"But, Colin, you -"

"I said shut up."

Dennis, thankfully, shut up.

(to be continued)