Snape was in a rage. He had just escaped Bellatrix Lestrange's clutches using Dumbledore's Portkey to the Room of Requirement, only to be astonished by the sight of the young man before him. "What are you doing here?!"
"We were waiting for you, Professor Snape," a female voice responded behind him, causing the former Death Eater, still edgy from his recent fight, to whirl around instinctively, bringing his wand up to a ready position.
The speaker, a pale-eyed blonde who he'd never seen before, smiled at him serenely, apparently unperturbed by the wand pointed at her face. "I'm ever so glad to see you alive again, Professor," she continued. "Snake bites can be such nasty things. Did you know that Harry was once bitten by a Basilisk, but Fawkes—?"
"Luna!" interrupted the young man he'd, at first, mistaken for Potter. The resemblance was uncanny, but one look at Lily's brilliant green eyes staring back at him dispelled any notion that the person before him might be James Potter. The girl had called him Harry—but surely he was too old to be Lily's boy. What was going on here?
Severus cast a questioning glance at Dumbledore, who he'd spotted sitting in an obviously conjured chair in the corner of the bare stone chamber he'd arrived in but, considering how close the headmaster liked to play his cards, he wasn’t surprised that he got no response.
He turned back to the couple, hoping to get an answer there, but they had their backs turned to him and were busy arguing about, of all things, him, as if he couldn’t hear them. What little he could make out of what they were saying didn't make much sense, as far as he could tell, but the boy, whose tone kept rising, was starting to sound quite frustrated. As for the girl—Luna—she just seemed perplexed, "You mean we're not going to tell him how he got bitten and killed by Nagini?"
Severus frowned, even more confused than before. Who or what was Nagini? And how could he have been killed by this Nagini? He was still alive. Granted, he could probably do with some medical attention—a few of Bellatrix's non-lethal curses had hit him—but he was far from dead.
He tried to ask, but the young couple continued to squabble, completely ignoring him, and he couldn't quite summon the energy to raise his voice and demand a response. He needed to get to the hospital wing, soon. He glanced at the headmaster once more, but the older man just stared back at him, his eyes twinkling, and refused to say a word. Maybe he should leave and come back when he was feeling better, let them fight it out…
The sound of yelling broke the Potions Master out of his reverie. He looked up to see the messy-haired wizard throw his hands up in frustration, "If we keep telling people things, we'll end up in a locked room in the Department of Mysteries!"
Luna frowned. The whole argument had started with her just wanting to be honest with Professor Snape. They’d told Dumbledore, and Harry’s parents, and Remus, and Sirius everything and anything they wanted to know, including plenty that they probably shouldn’t know—Remus certainly didn’t need to know that he was going to be naming his first-born “Teddy…” So, she really couldn’t understand why Harry was being so stubborn about Professor Snape… Was it because they’d never gotten along? Or was something more going on here?
Harry was making it sound like they couldn’t tell anyone. Surely, that wasn’t what he meant.
They hadn’t really talked about it much, but she’d always thought that, once they were done hunting down and destroying pieces of Voldemort, she’s get to see her parents. She missed them so much—both of them.
Ever since they'd come through the Ring, she'd been thinking about her mother even more than her father, about the warmth of her hugs, the fragrant aroma of her soft hair, the melodious tone of her sweet voice… She was still alive now; they could save her!
With that thought in mind, her voice warbled a bit, as she spoke next, "So we can't tell anyone else?"
Harry had no way of knowing that Luna was thinking of her parents and not Professor Snape. He wasn’t privy to her train of thought, and his mind was on the argument at hand. It was silly and childish, but he didn’t want to tell Snape the truth. A tiny part of him still resented his former professor for the way he’d treated him for years, for the leering, and taunting, and derision. That tiny selfish part of him liked having the upper hand, for a change, and wasn’t inclined to give up his advantage, which is why he responded with a categorical, "No!"
By the time he noticed the tears beginning to pool in her eyes, it was too late to take the words back. "What's wrong, Luna?" he asked quietly, laying a hand gently on her shoulder, all his anger melted away.
Luna didn't answer. Shrugging his hand away, she wiped her tears with her sleeve, and squaring her shoulders, turned to address Snape, a defiant look on her face, "I'm sorry, Professor, I'm not supposed to tell you anything, but I don't care! We're from the future. And I think that you're a hero and deserve to know it."
Had he not been exhausted from his recent wand-fight, Severus might have managed a modicum of self-control. However, as it was, his jaw dropped at her revelation, and he found himself gaping, unable to formulate a response. He shot another questioning look at the headmaster, who graced him with what was probably supposed to be a reassuring nod. But Severus wasn't feeling reassured; he just had more questions. How did they get here? Why did they come? Who are they!?
He opened his mouth to ask, but the male time-traveller—Harry, Harry Potter—cut him off, "Did you get the Cup?"
Snape frowned, at the unexpected change of topic, momentarily disoriented, "The cup?"
"Yes, Hufflepuff's Cup. I know you probably have questions, but now that Luna told you about us being from the future, we're going to have to spend hours explaining everything, so first, I need to know if you got it."
Snape nodded absently, his mind still trying to wrap itself around what titbits of information that he'd been given, "It's in the cauldron—what's left of it anyway. The potion exploded when I forced the Cup in, along with Bellatrix's hand; then it began to scream…" He frowned, some of his fury from earlier resurfacing, despite his fatigue, and he turned to the headmaster, "You might have considered warning me that the artefact was sentient and would sense that it was being attacked. The blasted thing warned Bellatrix of my treachery, long before she got anywhere near the cauldron. I barely escaped with the Cup alive and I was forced to leave the grimoire behind…. If it hadn't been for the Portkey…"
Dumbledore, undisturbed by the younger wizard's anger, stood and approached the cauldron, "Excellent." He cast a selective hovering charm, causing the cup, mangled beyond recognition, to rise out of the potion. "I believe we can pronounce it destroyed," he smiled, eyes twinkling. "I suppose we didn't need to hold this meeting in the Room of Requirements, after all."
Harry nodded his agreement, "Just one left then—"
"What grimoire?" Luna interrupted with a question he'd overlooked.
"Slytherin's priceless potions grimoire," Snape responded, "the one with the recipe for the Dark Lord's resurrection potion"
Harry's expression, initially puzzled, transformed abruptly, as his mind caught up with what Snape was saying. His eyebrows furrowed in shocked outrage, he rounded on the headmaster, "You gave her the actual recipe!?"
"Of course," Dumbledore nodded, entirely unapologetic, "it was far simpler than creating a believable fake. She would not be able to brew it, anyway."
"And if she finds someone who can!?" Harry exclaimed, struggling to restrain his anger, as suspicion began to dawn on him. "Now we have to take care of the last Horcrux right away—just in case—instead of taking time to properly prepare!"
Had that been Dumbledore's intention all along, to force his hand, by giving Voldemort's most loyal supporter the necessary recipe to resurrect him? No! Surely not! Harry cast the idea aside. Despite his faults, Dumbledore wasn't that foolish.
Regardless of the headmaster's intentions, however, they needed to get going. His gut was telling him that something was going to go wrong, that they hadn't any time to waste. So, taking a calming breath, he concentrated on asking the Room for a passageway into Hogsmeade.
Then, gesturing for the headmaster to precede him through the familiar tunnel to the Hog's Head, Harry paused to address Snape, "Sorry to take off like this. Luna will explain everything. Please don't go far, just in case. Last time that Headmaster Dumbledore tried this, he needed your help afterwards..."
The final Horcrux, Harry knew to be in Tom Riddle's grandfather's shack, and had to be approached with great caution. Rather than Apparate directly into the copse where the Gaunt hovel was located, and risk getting snared by defensive wards, Dumbledore and Harry landed a safe distance away, on the country lane between Great Hangleton and Little Hangleton, just beyond the wooden sign that Harry remembered from Bob Ogden's memories.
The sun had yet to rise, making it hard to see much beyond the high, tangled hedgerows that bordered the lane, and they were obliged to cast Lumos to light their way. Even so, they made slow progress in the dark, and it was several minutes before the lane curved to the left and fell away, sloping steeply down a hillside, and offering a sudden view of the twinkling lights that filled the valley below. The church and graveyard were vaguely visible in the glow, and Harry shivered unconsciously at the thought that Bellatrix might still be lurking nearby. He forced himself to continue walking, however; she was the reason that they were in such a hurry. The sooner they took care of the ring, the sooner the risk of Voldemort returning would be eliminated.
Eventually, the lane curved back to the right, and Harry signalled that they should shorten their strides, slowing to search for the gap in the hedge, which would open onto the narrow dirt track leading to the Gaunt hovel.
The path, when they found it, was crooked, rocky, potholed, and bordered by higher and wilder hedgerows than those they had left behind. Like the country lane, it sloped downhill until it came to an end at a copse of trees, bared of leaves by the cold November wind, prompting the two wizards to stop short.
The leafless old trees ahead cast deep, dark, shadows, and it was a few seconds before Harry's eyes discerned their destination, a building half-hidden amongst the tangle of trunks.
When he had first seen it, in Dumbledore's Pensieve, he had thought the hovel so run-down that it seemed uninhabited. Seeing it now, he was forced to re-evaluate his earlier assessment. The walls were not just mossy, they had been overtaken by the surrounding plant life, vines weaving in and out of gaps in the timber and stonework. Up above, there were barely any tiles still attached to the roof, and the rafters were fully visible. Of the dead snake nailed to the front door, only a crumbling skeleton remained, partially hidden behind the nettles that grew all around it, covering the doors and tiny windows, thick with grime.
The nettles looked like they had been violently slashed with magic in places, and Harry found himself wondering if Bellatrix had beaten them to the ring. But, as they cautiously approached the hovel, he experienced the shivers of spine-deep coldness that he had come to associate, through multiple exposures, with Voldemort's magic. Whoever it was, they hadn't gotten in; the doors and windows were all still intact, still warded shut.
He hung back a few steps, keeping guard, and allowing Dumbledore to approach and check for magical traps. A minute passed before the headmaster determined that it was safe to use magic on the nettles hiding the door, and cleared what remained of them away with a series of rapid pruning charms. However, even then, he did not attempt to open the door, instead staring at it intently, as though there were something extremely interesting written upon it.
Though Harry recalled, and had shared, the information which future-Dumbledore had given him regarding the protections on the hovel, he stood back and waited, not interfering. There was no harm in being thorough. Still, by the time the headmaster, finally, stood back and reached into his cloak pocket, withdrawing a copy of the charmed microphone that Harry had used to open the Chamber of Secrets and Slytherin's locket, he had begun to grow impatient.
"So simple," Dumbledore murmured, "All that is required is a word of Parseltongue—perhaps the reason why the skeleton on the door was not disposed of. The word 'open' should do the trick," he paused to activate the device, "since you claim I came on my own last time. I doubt I had a more varied vocabulary than that at my disposal."
The door creaked open noisily, and Harry got his first look inside.
The Gaunt's house was now more even more indescribably filthy than it had been in Morfin's memories of the night he'd been framed for the murder of Voldemort's Muggle relations. A single burnt-out candle lay on grime-coated floor by the room's single armchair. Thick cobwebs covered the ceiling and walls, nearly hiding the two doors, which led off the main room.
However, there was no need to clear a path into either of the side rooms; the item they sought was clearly visible at the centre of the room they stood in. It had been placed on a glowing pedestal on the grubby kitchen table, between the remains of fifty-year-old mouldy and rotting food and a mass of crusted pots, and stood out as the only clean item in the filthy room.
Dumbledore moved to take a step towards the pedestal, but Harry stopped him with a firm hand on the aged wizard's shoulder, "Remember what I said."
"I will not touch it," he promised, "just examine the protections." Stopping in front of the table, he raised his wand and, waving it in complicated configurations over the pedestal, murmured quietly to himself. Finally, he pocketed his wand, and reached out with his right hand instead.
Harry darted forward and grabbed his hand before he could make contact, then growled, his tone accusatory, "You promised! No touching, Headmaster!"
"And I would not have touched it," Dumbledore insisted, "It is being protected by an impermeable barrier."
Unconvinced, the young wizard didn't loosen his grip. Rather, he continued to glare, prompting the older wizard to add, "Feel free to verify for yourself."
Reluctantly, Harry released the headmaster's wrist. Then reaching into his cloak pocket, he pulled out the charmed magical stasis evidence bag that he'd retrieved from Dumbledore's office after the fiasco with the diary.
Enclosing his hand in the charmed bag, he reached towards the ring. Sure enough, an inch away from touching it, he met with an invisible barrier. No matter how hard he pushed, his fingers encountered nothing but solid yet flexible air.
"The barrier cannot be penetrated physically, and any magical attempts will have disastrous consequences," Dumbledore explained, "No, unless I'm very much mistaken, the barrier requires something in payment, to permit us access to the ring, the goal being to force his enemy to weaken him—or her—self," Dumbledore responded.
"Blood you mean?" asked Harry. Dumbledore's portrait had claimed the same, but the time-traveller had been hoping for a different answer; the fact remained that the headmaster had failed to disable at least one of the ring's defences, the first time around.
"Yes, blood," the older wizard reached inside his robes and withdrew a short, sheathed dagger, "Voldemort has always had a penchant for the dramatic."
"No!" Harry interrupted before Dumbledore could use the dagger on himself, "I'll do it; you shouldn't get too close to the ring, just in case..."
"Very well," the headmaster agreed, slowly lowering the knife, and handing it to Harry, hilt first, he agreed, "probably best not to tempt faith so blatantly."
Bracing himself, the younger wizard cut a small slit on the palm of his hand and allowed the glistening drops of scarlet that emerged to drip onto the magical barrier. As it slowly became opaque before his eyes, he took a few hurried steps back.
There was no mistaking the exact moment it collapsed all together.
Entrancing images instantly bombarded both wizards. And then there was the voice, the irresistible voice, whispering at the back of their minds…
"Put on the ring, put on the ring, put on the ring..."