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Stories begun in 2006 (post-HBP)

Author Notes:

This is the final, edited, complete version of Harry Potter and the Last Horcrux.  Chapters 1 through 14 were completely written prior to publication of Deathly Hallows in 2008; chapters 15 through 19 and the alternate ending were in draft or outline form by that time. 

ONE
Making the Last Move

July 3, 1998     South Shields, Northumbria, England


Harry Potter spent two minutes and thirty seconds inside the Royal Mail delivery office.  There were perhaps a few dozen people in the north of England who might recognise him, and none would sully themselves with a half-shuttered High Street in a dying Northumbrian town unless they were Muggle hunting for pleasure.  It was relatively simple to hide from the wizards who remained in Britain.  It was their house-elves that he worried about, but he hadn’t encountered any for months.  Still, there was no sense tempting the fates.  He slung his knapsack over his left shoulder, climbed onto an old motorbike and went on his way in thoroughly mundane fashion.

The motorbike shuddered to a stop at a boarding house on a shabby, half-forgotten lane.  Like the bike, the boarding house was a tattered affair.  Harry slowly climbed the side stairs.  He moved with a wary posture that made him seem far older than he appeared. 

There was only one room in the garret; it was long and narrow and low, with a single bed, worn furnishings, and light from a single exposed bulb that dangled from the ceiling.  Meals were taken on metal chairs at a folding table from a questionable hot plate.  Hermione Granger lay atop the bed; she was curled tight in restless sleep, her long hair strewn every which way.  He sat at the folding table and opened the envelope as quietly as he could manage.  Inside was a single sheet of coarse brown paper covered on both sides with crisply inked text.

He had finished reading one side of it when Hermione stirred.  “What does Remus have to say?” she croaked.

He set down the paper, walked to the sink, and drew a glass of cool water for her.  “They’re restless – tired of waiting for us to come up with the last one,” he said.

She sipped at the water and cleared her throat.  “Understandable,” she said.  “Any news of Ron?”

He returned to the table and resumed reading.  “A little better each day,” he said.

Her face was like a mask with a painted-on smile.  “Remus says that every week,” she said.

“They’ve moved again,” he said.

She sighed, “I think they’re moving almost as often as we do.  Surely they don’t give a location?”

“Not one that Voldemort’s men would understand,” he said.  He set the opened envelope beside her and gave an off-handed wave toward the cancellation. It had been mailed from the Orkneys.

“They’re coming closer: Iceland, then Norway, and now… well, they’re very nearly home, aren’t they?” she said. 

Iceland had been the first to come through for them; it was the only place outside of Britain that Voldemort had ravaged during the First War, and the Icelandic mages had long and bitter memories.  The rest of Europe had closed their eyes to two wars now, but Iceland and the Scandinavian countries chose to support the resistance against Voldemort and his puppet Ministry.  Collectively they had taken in thousands of refugees.  Harry had left his quest twice to visit Iceland and Norway so he could personally show his appreciation, and that had paid unexpected dividends.  Dawlish, the British Minister-in-Exile, had begrudgingly admitted that Harry raised hundreds of thousands of Galleons with little more than a few handshakes.

A note of determination entered his voice.  “They won’t be moving again, not until we finish it.”

“You’re ready to talk, then?  Are you ready to be straight with me?” she asked.

She was using that tone, the one that made him instantly wary.  “What do you mean?” he returned.

“There’s nothing left to find.  It’s not Nagini.  It’s you, Harry; I know that you’re the last one,” she said.  She sounded resigned to the idea, almost matter of fact about it, but the words cut through the room like a sword.  He wished he were lying down. He could have feigned sleep then.  It wasn’t something he had ever planned to discuss. He’d simply planned to do something about it; he just didn’t know what that should be. 

“How long have you known?” he asked; “Was it after we took the Cup?”

Hermione’s knapsack sat in the corner of the room; Helga Hufflepuff’s Cup made a notable bulge in one side.  Voldemort had nested the true cup amidst a score of others, each filled with dark potions.  The cups were cursed; once raised, the holder was compelled to drink from it.  It was reminiscent of Voldemort's trap for the faux locket, or Snape's trial to reach the Philosopher's Stone. Hermione had thought to analyse the potions by sampling their vapours, and the two of them had painstakingly identified each.  Unlike Snape’s trial, there was no safe alternative; all twenty-one cups had been filled with deadly poison.  However, one had a unique property that made it useful for assassins: it was deadly only for the first drinker.  Harry had decided that this particular poison was surely placed in the true Cup, because it required the ultimate act of sacrifice – or disloyalty – for the Cup to be retrieved.

She had offered to drink first and he had immediately and steadfastly refused her.  Knowing what he was – or what he believed he was, at any rate – he was prepared to down the poison.  In the end, he had been saved and the Cup retrieved by an artful dodge: as he lifted the cup, she had jostled his arms to spill some of the poison and had then spat into the cup.  It was the first drinker’s saliva and the agitation of the cup that neutralised the poison, and the solution had been there for the taking in Snape’s accursed Potions textbook.  He remembered spewing up for three days and he still became sweat-soaked with little effort, but he survived.  She still wouldn’t acknowledge that she’d needed help from the Half-Blood Prince to save him.  He enjoyed the irony but it didn’t dampen his desire to roast sodding Snape on a skewer, not in the least.

“I’d already guessed it by then, but I didn’t know that you knew – not for certain,” Hermione said.  “When you were so ready to drink from the Cup… well, I suppose I had my answer.”

She was calm when she wouldn’t ordinarily be calm and it began to make him uncomfortable. “Why didn’t you say something straight away?” Harry asked.

“There wasn’t time to feel,” she said, and he hadn’t the slightest idea what to say in return.

After a long uncomfortable silence he wondered aloud, “Was it after the Grimoire, then?”

“Yes, after that,” she said quietly.  He knew she didn’t like to allow thoughts of the Grimoire of Rowena Ravenclaw for a host of reasons.  It sat tightly bound inside one of his bags, warded against temptation a dozen different ways.  In a cave at the centre of a maze of rough-hewn tunnels, Voldemort had laid a diabolical trap.  It was based on a traditional wizarding game that was unfamiliar to Harry and unfathomable to Hermione; thankfully Ron had understood how the game was played.  Thirty minutes later, they had discovered that Ron was more skilled at games than Voldemort. 

Five minutes after that, they had also learned that Voldemort was the ultimate cheat.  Apparently the Grimoire was supposed to be his last beachhead of protection against death.  Hermione figured out too late that winning the game wasn't enough.  No one, not even Voldemort himself, could ever take the horcrux from its lectern without triggering a deadly trap.  Apparently he thought that making one horcrux unrecoverable, even though it could not be used to produce a body for him, would assure his bid for immortality.

They were suddenly surrounded by a set of wards unlike anything they had ever seen; Hermione had later described them as 'alien'.  Each movement they made toward the tunnels set off a different rune set, and eventually all but one tunnel collapsed.  When one of the rune sets began to draw the air out of the cave, they had no choice but to run for it. 

Ron insisted on going first.  A rock slide crushed one of his feet, and a rune-triggered spell nearly tore him in half.  Harry freed Ron and and draped him over his shoulder.  With Hermione casting shields so powerful that they radiated heat, they raced through the seemingly endless tunnel as it caved in around them. In the end, the three of them barely escaped with their lives.  As it was, Ron only survived because Harry had pulled both of his friends into a  double side-along apparation.  Somehow, all three of them made it from the tunnel's mouth on the Isle of Skye to the living room of the resistance's safe-house in the Shetland Islands – nearly three hundred miles – without splinching so much as a toenail. 

When Ron had been so badly wounded, Harry had expected that Hermione would stand down.  She had never shown any inclination to remain behind; in fact, she had left Ron behind more easily than Harry had let go of Ginny.  Harry was shocked at the time, but he had known that he wasn’t ready to go forward alone.

She had very nearly opened the Grimoire afterward, hoping to drown her sorrow in knowledge, before he reminded her of what it had become.  Voldemort had wickedly perverted the Ravenclaw ideal: to destroy him, Harry had to destroy the grimoire of the brightest of the Founders.  The priceless tome was no more useful now than a back copy of the traitorous Daily Prophet.

Hermione launched into an elaborate explanation of why Voldemort’s giant snake Nagini couldn’t be a horcrux. It made no sense to voluntarily choose a living creature to serve as a vessel, on account of the prospects for injury or death or free will or any manner of other unpredictable events.  She went on about how Harry had likely become an accidental horcrux, piling on detail after detail about the collision between Harry’s protections and Voldemort’s curse and how advanced arithmancy could be used to predict the intersecting effects and half a dozen other things that he barely understood.  She didn't realise that he was smiling at her at first, but then came to an abrupt stop and snapped, “This is nothing to smile about!  Don’t tell me you’re going ‘round the twist now?”

“I’ve known since Dumbledore explained the horcruxes to me, I think,” he said, “so I’ve had time for it to sink in.”  He suppressed a snort and added, “Your idea’s great – honestly it is – but… erm… I just figured that Dumbledore had the number of horcruxes wrong.”

She blinked hard and for a moment took on a look of surprise worthy of Luna Lovegood.  “There is that, I suppose,” she said uncertainly, then added, “and the proper plural is horcruces, Harry, not horcruxes… honestly!”  Harry started to laugh.

Hermione crossed her arms and pouted, “Fine!  See if I help you anymore!” which only made him laugh harder and louder.  She cracked a smile at last, and eventually joined in the laughter. She was still laughing when he put his arm around her to steady himself.  He didn’t hear the hollowness in it until he took in her face.  She looked so tired. 

“Hermione…” he began.

“W-we need to talk it through,” she cut in.  “We can get around this - there has to be a way – but I don’t think it can wait much longer…”

Harry realised that she’d been thinking on the problem for nearly five months and she had nothing, which meant that they had nothing.  “I’ve been over it again and again.  I can’t see how it’s supposed to work out,” he conceded.  “All of them have to be destroyed before he can be killed.  Do you think that’s what ‘at the hand of the other’ means, then?  Do I make it possible for someone else to kill him…?”

He trailed off as she paled.  “Please tell me you haven’t given up?” she asked.

Harry couldn’t look at her anymore.  “No, no… but no matter what happens, we still need to know how to completely destroy a horcrux, and how Voldemort’s to be killed if I’m… you know… gone,” he said.

Hermione seized his hands.  She was too thin now, hardened by a year on the road – a good part of it on the run – but her grip was unexpectedly strong.  “We need to know how to expel a piece of Voldemort without killing you, Harry – that’s what we need to know!” she insisted.

“Dumbledore smashed the ring, and it nearly killed him!  Sometimes I wonder if he wanted to die, all right?  Do you think that maybe the pain was so bad that he welcomed it?” Harry shot back.  “What we need is a way to destroy the rest of them –”

“No!” Hermione shouted. 

Harry clapped his hand over her mouth, and hoped that there wouldn’t be a knock at the door.  “– and then we settle the rest,” he ploughed on even as she began to struggle.  “I don’t even know what sort of fight we can muster.  It’s time to meet with Remus and Mr. Weasley –”  Hermione nipped at his fingers and he made a show of pulling his hand away. 

“Only if they come to us,” she insisted.

“They’d have to move too many people,” Harry pointed out.  “Do you think all of them could all pass as Muggles long enough to reach us?  Moody doesn’t exactly blend, you know?”

“It’s time they learn, then,” she snapped.

“What’s this about?” he asked her.

Her voice was growing shrill.  “We’re not ready yet!  We need to talk it through – starting today, Harry – and have the options in hand before... before you go telling anyone else that… that…” 

Months of restless nights welled up in her eyes, and he wished he could take away the pain but he didn’t know how.  “Look… it’s nice that you want to, you know, protect me but I’m ready to stop pretending,” he said quietly.  “I just needed a little time before –”

Her eyebrows rose even as the rest of her face fell.  “No!  Oh, Harry, I wasn’t implying… they owe you as much time as you want to take – they owe you that, we all do!”

“Every day someone else dies,” Harry said.

She didn’t have anything to counter that, he knew.  He could tell she was thinking intently about what to say next.  “I suppose we’ll get to see Ron,” she said at last; “That’s good, isn’t it?”

Harry summoned a smile.  “Yes, that’s good,” he agreed.

“And Ginny,” Hermione went on, “you’ll get to see her as well.”

“I suppose I will,” Harry said.  He didn’t know how to feel about that, in truth.  He’d seen her four times in the last year.  Each time she seemed younger to him – or perhaps he felt older – and each time there was a little less of whatever he’d felt for her in Dumbledore’s waning days. 

Hermione drew herself up and began, “Did you know that the Orkneys are farther north than parts of Norway?  It can be right cold there even in July.  I don’t think either of us is kitted for a cold sea breeze, especially on the bike.  We need to do something about the right-side saddlebag, by the way – it has a tear along one of the seams. I suspect it could be flooded by a heavy downpour…” She positively babbled on, and Harry let her do it; she needed to talk herself into silence, he knew.

She went on incessantly even as she moved from chair to bed.  She sat and he sat beside her.  He put his arm around her and she leaned into him until she wore herself out.  Her eyes were heavy; she was just conscious enough to respond when he nudged.  She dragged her legs over the edge of the mattress, and then rolled onto her side.  He arranged her hair away from her face, though he knew it would find its way back.  She started to thrash as soon as he pulled away so he kicked off his trainers and remained on the bed.

He pulled a bit of stretchy, squishy something-or-another from one of the pockets of his denims – sometimes it was best not to know the materials involved in a Weasley Wizard Wheezes creation.  The twins had made the Sleepy-Time Wand Holder expressly for Harry, Ron and Hermione.  Properly wrapped around wrist and fingers, it kept a sleeper’s wand in the ready position.  Harry lay down on his back with his head elevated, feet pointed at the door and wand arm angled toward the shuttered window. 

Hermione settled against his left side after a bit more rolling and turning, with her face against his collarbone and her hair strewn everywhere.  She hadn’t slept for more than a half hour without him since they had set off in search of Hufflepuff’s Cup, and she needed to sleep before they could even think of setting out on the motorbike toward the Orkneys.  He knew it was his best chance for rest as well, but someone had to keep watch.

 

July 8, 1998     John O’ Groats, Caithness, Scotland

“Harry, this must have cost a fortune to let!” Hermione whispered urgently.

“It’s £1000 for a week,” Harry reassured her, “and I’ve only let it for two weeks with option on a third.”

“A thousand per week?  Have you –?” she snapped.  He motioned for her to be quiet; thankfully, the owner’s agent didn’t hear her.  She continued quietly but with just as much indignation.  “Have you lost your senses?  We’re supposed to be inconspicuous!”

He motioned out the large windows that overlooked Pentland Firth; the nearest of the Orkneys was visible on the horizon.  “Look around you,” he said.  “This place is littered with cottages and rooms.  We’re not exactly strolling starkers down the lane, right?”

“But Harry… two thousand pounds…?” she began.

Harry waved her off.  “We've earned a little comfort, right? We’ll not run short, I can promise you,” he said.

“We had fifteen thousand at the start of the year…” Hermione did some mental calculations, and concluded, “We can’t possibly have more than three thousand remaining.”

Harry hesitated for a moment.  He didn’t like to discuss his finances, even with his best friend, but he supposed it was inevitable.  “My parents left me in good stead,” he said slowly.  “I took along fifteen thousand in case we couldn’t come out of hiding.  Hermione… er… that was pocket money, really.  I had Remus exchange the lot, you see?  Even with an extra commission to the goblins…”

Hermione’s eyes widened, but she quickly said, “You don’t have to tell me.  I don’t need to know any more.”

“When this is all over, you’ll never want for anything, nor will the Weasleys – that much I can promise,” Harry assured her.

“Stop saying things like that, Harry,” Hermione said in a tone that brooked no argument.  “We’re not finished yet.”

“Soon, though,” Harry said.

Mrs. McLaren, the owner’s agent, sat on one of the stool at the kitchen counter.  She tended to rattle on at a great rate in a soft singsong lilt – it was the voice of someone who felt no need to hurry along, of someone who told stories.  “Will yeh be havin’ the funds, Mr. Black?” she asked.

Harry took a seat beside her.  “Right here, yes.”

“I’ll be on the veranda, if that’s all right?  It’s been a pleasure, Mrs. McLaren,” Hermione said; she walked slowly and unsteadily toward the door and Harry forced himself to remain seated.

“Be seeing you, dearie,” Mrs. McLaren called out.  When the door closed behind Hermione, she cleared her throat.  “It’s not that I’m the pryin’ sort, but… er… there’s no doubtin’ yeh’ve been through an ordeal…”

Harry withdrew a cashier’s cheque from within his anorak.  “War does that to people,” he said flatly.

“The War…” Mrs. McLaren trailed off, and then her eyes widened.  “The Balkans... or have you been down ta London way?” she asked. 

Harry gave a curt nod and said, “Both.  We were given a month's leave,” sticking to the cover story he and Hermione had used for the last three months.

“A month, you say?  In the thick of it yeh were, then. Yeh said 'we'...‘twas the both of yeh...?” she asked quietly. 

There was something of Molly Weasley’s gossiping nature about the woman, so Harry thought to keep his answers brief.  “She was a heal… erm… a medic.  We're in the same unit.  She’s seen most of what I have.”

“That’s so?” Mrs. McLaren said.

Something in the way she looked at him left him on edge, but he also saw something protective there and decided to go after it.  “We’re just looking for quiet, ma'am,” he said.  “We don’t sleep all that well anymore and we don’t do with crowds and such.  We’ll have few visitors, if any, and you’ll get back the cottage just as it is now –”

The woman’s eyebrows rocketed upward.  “Och, lad!  I wasn’t meaning to have yeh think…” She patted his hands with hers in the way that Molly would, and then took hold.  She said, “My brother, he served in the Falklands… he were on the Argent,” and then her eyes took on the misty quality that Harry had seen on Order members when they talked about the First War; “Took him five years fer going back to sea, works the ferries now.  Never quite the same, yeh know?”

Harry wasn’t fond of being touched by a stranger, but she held his hands fast well after he told her, “I’m sorry to hear that.”

Mrs. McLaren sat still for a moment and then let out a deep breath.  “Well … sign here, here, here and here, and scratch yer initials there,” she said, and she clipped the cashier’s cheque to the lease.  “Two keys… number to the office, for questions or just for chattin’… number to the caretaker… I pinned up some scribbles next to the cold cabinet for most things that come up.  I’ll be stopping in at three o’clock on the twenty-second, eh?” 

Harry nodded, pocketed the keys and walked her to the front entry.  She stopped in the open threshold and looked to the sky.  “It’s greyin’ up,” she said.  “Wait ‘til it rimes a bit afore yeh walk the beach, see?”  She reached out to shake his hand and add gravely, “Yeh’ll not be bothered here, my word to yeh.  Best yeh go look after the young lady now.  If… if she’s wanting to do somethin’ with tha' hair – spot of colour, mayhaps – yeh give a shout.”

“Erm… thank you,” Harry managed; he wasn’t quite certain what the woman was getting at, but it was obvious that she meant well.

“Yer amongst friends here. We take care of those what be deservin’ it, lad,” she said and left him standing there, confused and oddly pleased all at once.

Hermione sat in one of the two rocking chairs on the veranda, slowly moving back and forth and back again.  Her hair cascaded over the back of the chair and Harry now understood what Mrs. McLaren had been trying to say.  He couldn’t imagine how he could possibly have missed it, in fact.

“She seems quite nice and very nosy,” Hermione said.  “Did you charm her?”

“I would never do that, especially to a Muggle!” Harry protested.

Hermione laughed; it turned into a half-cough, which was happening far too often for his liking.  “I know you didn’t charm her, Harry – honestly!  Did you turn on the charm?  Did you bat your eyes and bring on the puppy-dog pout?”

“I haven’t got a puppy-dog pout,” Harry fumed.  “I scowl, and I’m quite good at it.”

“Just as long as you don’t sneer,” Hermione teased; the thought of a sneer made his world seem ever-so-slightly darker. 

“I wouldn’t dream of it,” Harry said adamantly.  He ran his hand slowly through the length of Hermione’s hair.  She tensed for an instant, eyes wide, but settled in by the time he reached the bottom. 

“I know I can be thick, but your hair wasn’t this colour before,” he said, and she went positively rigid.

He’d noticed white strands for months and had written it off to stress; he had a few himself, running out from the temples.  There were far more than a few strands in her hair now; there were enough to leave a faint grey tone throughout.  She was brushing her bangs differently, he realised.  He traced his fingers from one side to the other and unearthed a shock of white. 

“That wasn’t there a few weeks ago,” he said.

“A lot has changed,” she returned. 

She wouldn’t look at him.  She was too pale and too thin and too grey and far too tired, and he couldn’t keep his hands away from her hair.  He was so glad that he'd asked Remus to bring along a healer. 
“You look like you need a lie-down,” he said.

She closed her eyes and settled deep into the chair.  “All I do is sleep,” she said.  “You don’t have to do that… makes me feel like a cat…”

“Time for a rest,” Harry said.

“They might be here anytime now,” she said without opening her eyes.

“The next ferry doesn’t come until just before six,” Harry told her, “and if you’re still asleep, then they’ll be here when you wake.”  He scooped her up from the chair, and was startled by how light she was.  She would pitch a fit when Madam Pomfrey arrived with the rest, he knew, but he was willing to weather it.

“Ron coming?” she asked between yawns.

“Remus didn’t say,” he answered.  He carried her to the oversized bedroom that opened to the veranda and laid her atop the bedcovers.

“You take this one, put my things upstairs,” she managed.

“Not a chance, Hermione.  You’ll never sleep a wink,” he said.

Her eyes opened wide for a moment and she weakly protested,  “Can’t be serious… Molly… kittens… Ron… spare… Ginny…”

“It isn’t their concern - I’ll deal with them.  Just rest, would you?” he said.

“Glad you’re… feeling better at last,” she slurred.

“I am, actually,” he admitted as he spread a blanket over her.

Her eyes fluttered and she croaked, “Good… didn’t know… if…” At last her breathing evened and she relaxed. 

His eyes were drawn to the knapsacks on the floor next to the armoire, and he felt a familiar tug toward them.  It grew stronger each time they acquired another horcrux, and he began to ask himself questions that he’d tried hard to avoid: why is she always tired, and why does it seem to be getting worse instead of better, and what can fix it?  Three-sevenths of Voldemort is sitting there – are the horcruxes doing this to her? he wondered. 

Harry collected the knapsacks and took them to the cellar.  He thrust them as deeply as he could reach into a crawlspace, which left the horcruxes as far from Hermione as he could reasonably put them.  “All except one,” he said to himself.

He sat on the veranda for a good long time.  Mrs. McLaren had been right: the skies turned grey and the wind whipped from the northeast for a few minutes.  Then the sun came out almost as abruptly.  The weather at the top of Britain was raw and peculiar, and he felt quite at home for some reason that he couldn’t fathom.  He sat there until he heard stirring and then thrashing and he knew that he couldn’t stay away.  He found an old wind-up alarm clock in one of the cabinets; when he was satisfied that it kept time, he set it for five o’clock. 

His shoes were left at the bedside.  He carefully climbed into the bed, slid under the blanket, and then gave up all pretence.  He held her close, closer than he’d ever dared in any of the hundred-odd nights that they’d spent together.  Her eyes drifted open for a moment and he thought that she smiled before she buried her head against him.  He said a silent prayer to anyone inclined to listen in hopes that the one-seventh of Voldemort buried within him wasn’t killing Hermione, because Merlin help him, he couldn’t leave her behind.

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