A Muggle A-Z, enlivened by magical highlighting to pick out ‘Spinner's End’, was spread out on the kitchen table at 12, Grimmauld Place, headquarters of the Order of the Phoenix. Remus Lupin was leaning over it, with Tonks at his side. On the other side of the table, Harry and Hermione were also intent on it. Ron was leaning back in his chair, watching Hermione rather dreamily. At the head of the table, Ginny was looking from Remus to Harry, as Remus explained the plan and Harry nodded or grunted assent to it. Without changing his tone or the rhythm of his speech, Remus started addressing his remarks to Ron.
"So we all understand the plan, and Ron, if you should see any suspicious movement, let alone Snape or a Death Eater, what will you do?"
Ron took a while to recognise that he had been asked a question, and then seemed to have trouble answering it. He looked pleadingly at Hermione, but that was a mistake.
"Ron!" she said impatiently. "This isn't History of Magic! Not listening could get you killed!"
"Or, at least cause us all a lot of trouble." Put in Remus more gently. "But it isn't a hard question."
"Oh," said Ron, "just like Godric's Hollow, or Bill and Fleur's wedding. Use my Portkey to get out quickly and call in the Magical Law Enforcement Squad."
"That's right," said Lupin, "but be sure to do it at the first sign of trouble. That's the one thing that everybody has to remember. I'd have liked to surround you with Aurors, but we don't have official recognition, so the best we've been able to do is to work with friends like Tonks, and get backup arranged."
"Going in like this is a mug's game," said Tonks. "Normally, we'd stay hidden and watch, or go in mob-handed, not mess around like this. But this is pretty much our last lead on Snape or Voldemort, so it's either risk this, kiss up to Scrimgeour, or get out of the game."
"And I can't get out of the game," said Harry, "but, do you really think they'll be there?”
The lack of any overt sign of interference, or even hostility, at the wedding had been surprising but mostly welcome. They had found no Death Eaters at Godric's Hollow, but no clues either. Malfoy Manor had been thoroughly searched by the Ministry. Indeed, Narcissa now seemed to welcome further search parties as indications of Ministry desperation, and a complete waste of time for the Aurors involved. What Ginny had irreverently christened Snape's ’summer house’. at Spinner's End seemed to be their last chance to find a lead, at least, before the start of the new school year.
"We have to assume that they'll be waiting for us there," said Remus, "and in strength. Rather a hundred let-downs, even embarrassing let-downs, than one time when we sleepwalk into a Curse." Now he was looking directly at Ron. "How do you warm up for Quidditch? It's the same principle."
"I'm usually sick before a big match," said Ron.
"Oh," said Remus. "James used to have a cup of tea, hex Severus if he was lurking around suspiciously, and then check his broom over. At least he did that ever since the match with Slytherin, when it turned out to have a hurling hex on it. Don't worry too much; just remember to keep your eyes open and duck out at the first sign of trouble."
As dawn broke behind the old factories, Ron and Hermione walked towards the house from the railings. "Starlings in the tree," said Ron. He had been giving a running commentary to prove that he was paying attention this time.
"Be quiet," said Hermione, "we're getting too close for that."
As they got nearer to the house they could pick out Remus and Tonks, then Harry and Ginny. Each pair waved to the others to signal the all clear, so nobody had seen anything suspicious. When they got nearer they went right round the house. It appeared deserted, but there seemed to be a faint haze coming from the chimney, barely visible at best.
"As agreed," said Remus emphatically, "Ginny and I will guard the back door and act as a reserve. Tonks will lead Harry, Ron, and Hermione inside." This had taken a good deal of argument, but it made best use of Tonks's skills as an Auror, kept Ginny relatively safe but still useful, and allowed Harry, Ron, and Hermione to investigate freely.
Without a word, Tonks led the rest of her team to the front door, raised her wand, and said "Alohomora!" Nothing happened. Puzzled, she put her hand to the front door, only to have it move back at the first touch; it was already unlocked. As they went in, Hermione pushed the door closed behind them.
The narrow streets kept the house in shade. Rather than searching for light switches, Tonks said "Lumos!" softly, hoping not to alert anybody waiting upstairs. As she led them into the living room, she walked into a coffee table bearing a pile of books, with an envelope on top. The books, envelope, and Tonks went flying, fortunately without too much of a racket. Tonks ended her fall with what was, for her, a surprisingly graceful roll. When that distraction had subsided, they looked around them. Apart from the coffee table, and a few empty fitted bookcases, the room was completely bare.
Ron looked puzzled, then sniffed slightly. "Smell anything, Harry?" he said. "It reminds me a bit of divination. You don't suppose..."
Hermione interrupted. "No, Ron," she said, "you're wrong. That's a potion. Probably the Draught of Living Death."
"What!" yelled Harry.
"I think so," said Hermione, "I can certainly smell wormwood, and..." But, she was faltering as she spoke. In the background, Tonks had managed to stumble over nothing, and was getting up rather slowly. Harry immediately performed the Bubble-Head Charm, a fraction ahead of Ron.
Harry helped Tonks get up and headed back to the front door, only to find it stuck shut. "Reducto! Reducto!" he shouted, but the door absorbed the bolts from the spell without apparent effect.
Ron remembered to tear open a brown paper bag holding his emergency Portkey (an apple core) and grasped it firmly. Nothing happened. Leaving Hermione propped up against the wall, he went back into the living room, lifted up the coffee table by two of its legs, and ran full speed towards the window. The glass gave way, and Ron was only jarred when the sides of the coffee table jammed against the frame. Having seen that the windows weren't invulnerable, he used the Reducto curse to clear the way more thoroughly, taking care over the shards of glass at the bottom, then went back to the entrance hall.
"Come on Harry!" he said, sounding a bit odd through the Bubble-Head Charm, "you can get out through the window."
Hermione and Tonks had slumped to the floor. Harry and Ron looked puzzled, then Ron grabbed Hermione by the shoulders and Harry took her feet. As they lifted her up they heard some rather muffled bangs coming from beyond the living room. No doubt Remus and Ginny were finding out that the back door was as hard to get through as the front door now was. But, by the time Harry and Ron got to the window with Hermione, Remus had appeared round the front and was about to step through it.
"Let me," he said, gesturing with his wand. Ron and Harry let Hermione be lifted out of their hands as Remus said, "Mobilicorpus!" Once he got her through the windows he took a hint from Ron and Harry's bubbles and performed the Bubble-Head Charm on himself, before clambering through to rescue Tonks. Ron and Harry moved Hermione to the other side of the street, and dropped the Bubble-Head Charm. With Ginny's enthusiastic assistance, they used the Reducto Curse to break every window in the house. At the sound of all this breaking glass, curtains started twitching at an upper window of one of the few other houses not boarded up, but nobody tried to stop them. Remus reappeared with Tonks, who was lying in mid-air as if supported by an invisible trolley, and steered her over to join the others.
"Keep your wands out," he said, "but stay here until I get help." He ran to the street corner, paused, and then ran out of sight. Shortly afterwards, he returned with the Magical Law Enforcement Squad trailing behind him. As he came nearer, half of them ran straight for the house, and the rest slowed down to walk towards Harry, Ron, and their patients. What had appeared to be a surprisingly dumpy Auror turned out to be a Healer.
"We think they inhaled the Draught of Living Death," said Ron anxiously. The Healer looked up and smiled.
"It's so much easier when someone's wide awake enough to know what's gone wrong," she said, "yes, I think you're right there. Well spotted." She pulled a small phial from her robes, put it on the ground, and then pointed her wand at it and muttered under her breath. The liquid inside turned a rather sickly yellow colour, but this seemed to be what she wanted, as she opened it and waved it under Hermione's nose, before doing the same to Tonks.
"Actually," said Ron, pointing at Hermione. "She spotted it."
"Well done then, Miss," said the Healer to the recovering Hermione. Hermione looked at her, then Ron, before obviously deciding that she wasn't going to risk asking why she was apparently being congratulated for passing out.
Some of the Aurors started moving towards the occupied houses, Obliviators no doubt. Harry nudged Ron, and said "Wands out, remember," before walking a few paces from the rest and turning away from them, looking up the street. Ron wrenched his gaze away from Hermione and walked in the opposite direction. Ginny positioned herself at right angles to them at first, staring straight at the nearest house, and then turned again to stare at the opposite house, before giving up on that idea completely and moving beside Harry to share his vigil. Ron tried to keep alert by scanning the windows and doors of the houses along the street, watching as the Aurors moved from house to house. Eventually Lupin came out of Snape's house with one of the Aurors, holding the pile of books and the envelope. "We've had a good look at these," he said, "and we don't think they're cursed. Also, that potion could have been much worse." He passed the envelope to Harry, who saw that it was addressed simply to ‘Potter’. Hermione reached for, and received, the books. She put them carefully on the ground, before looking at the titles, and then opening the thickest one, starting to read at the preface. Harry opened his envelope and read aloud.
"Too many years of experience with the supreme arrogance of the boy who lived have convinced me of the futility of attempting to dissuade him from playing, unqualified, at waging war on the Dark Lord, the most powerful wizard alive today. I have therefore limited myself to providing sources of information that I believe could be of help to him, should he deign to admit that he might be better prepared than he is now." It was signed ‘Professor Severus Snape’. Harry lifted his head in surprise and delight and looked at Hermione.
"What has he given us, then?"
Without comment, Hermione read the titles of the books from their spines. "Every Duellist's Book of Remedies." At this, Harry looked puzzled, but hopeful, but on hearing "What to Do While you Wait for the Healer", his face fell. The thick book Hermione had started reading turned out to be "After Being Cursed: Dark Effects For General Healers".
"Likes to look on the bright side, doesn't he?" said Ron.
"We'll let the Aurors clean up," said Lupin. "There’s a Portkey waiting for us just out of sight of the locals. We'll talk after lunch." They followed him with few backward looks. Hermione was still leaning on Ron, who was working hard restraining himself from commenting on her choice of analysis over action, at least until she was back to full strength. Tonks brushed Lupin off when he tried to help her, but couldn't stop herself from yawning every now and then.
Thanks to my pre-Beta Tinnidawg for both detailed comments and advice.