CHAPTER NINE: Purge

Part 1

Although his relationship with the House of Black had suffered severely in his youth, Sirius came to appreciate it more with each passing day. Its location in muggle London was a form of protection in of itself – not even Voldemort would risk upsetting the Statute of Secrecy – and the other defences it boasted weren't of no consequence either. The Fidelius Charm had been broken the moment Sirius formally evicted the Order of the Phoenix, but that spell was never a perfect form of protection. The Fidelius had concealed the location of the Order, but anyone looking for the House of Black instead would have ignored the spell altogether.

In hindsight, Kreacher hadn't done the worst job with the upkeep of the place. After all, everything worked just fine, though the house had fallen into squalor. Standing in the threshold of the vast chamber that housed the Ministry's forgotten records, Sirius sighed in an expression of tightly controlled frustration. The old archives could use a couple of Kreachers. Filthy beyond comprehension, and on top of that nothing worked. He had thought Crouch had been joking when he said that no one had done maintenance on the Ministry's ancient records since old Bagnold left office. The task seemed more insurmountable with each new layer of dust, so they had just let it be, a relic of times past, obsolete and cast into obscurity. It was baffling, considering the weight wizardkind usually ascribed to old things, but these archives had been replaced by a separate, more efficient storage facility while this one was closed and left to crumble for a hundred years. Nowadays, even Unspeakables were rare visitors here.

Sirius' resolve to pursue his new undertaking shook, but he cast the doubts aside, determined to see it through. He could surely borrow a few people here and there to help. Obliviators weren't terribly busy these days, were they?

He walked among through the carcass of the first Ministry, overgrown with the detritus of history. Somewhere in here was a document he needed to realise his next great plan. In truth, he could simply go the route of the Order and form his own vigilante group, but that model was precisely not what he wanted. Having a semblance of legal authority would make things much easier in the long term.

Resigned, he braced himself for the ungodly amount of reading awaiting him, grabbed a wooden chest from a nearby pile, and set it down on the large, long table running through the aisle between two roughly shaped rows of shelves, piled up scrolls, boxes, chests, stacks of string-bound books, and other various records.

With several sweeps of his wand he removed decades' worth of dust from the immediate area and enkindled a light in the wooden chandelier that hung on a long rope from the high ceiling supported by rectangular pillars.

Once he found a rythym of work, he could go through the chest's contents quickly. Anything that didn't bear some kind of seal or was only a single page went back in the chest. Anything that looked remotely relevant to his search, he put away to await a more thorouh examination. In a half hour he was finished and had three crumbling documents that might help him determine what section the chest had come from. He got up to grab another and at once, the encouragement of initial achievement vanished like air escaping a ruptured balloon.

At this rate, he might find what he was looking for in a decade or two. He didn't have years to waste in here. Where could he begin recruitment? Hmm... How many people did Plateau have doing math? Er, no, probably better not to mess with finances. After running through a list of all Departments, Sirius was coming to the realisation that he might, in fact, need to hire a workforce of his own, when his musings were interrupted.

"Ehmm... Sirius?"

He glared imperiously over his shoulder, doing his best to look like a man absorbed by a task of profound importance.

"Yes?"

Before him stood Tonks and Grayson's son, recently reinstated to active duty (already as a full-fledged Auror) after completing his reconvalescence at St. Mungo's.

"Well..." Tonks began, biting down on her lip. "We're here because, um..."

Thankfully, Dell Grayson was less clumsy with words.

"About your... declaration to the Order, sir. We-"

"Sir?" Tonks squinted at Grayson sideways. "He's nor a sir, he's Sirius. Don't be silly, Dell."

Sirius narrowed his eyes. "That's 'Advisor Black' for you, Auror Tonks," he said, though his straight face was imperfect, the twitch of the lip betraying amusement.

"You're full of shit, Sirius," Tonks retorted. "We're not here to fool around." She paused, at a loss for words, then elbowed Grayson in the ribs. "Go ahead, tell him."

"If there must be three sides in this war, we want to join you, sir- Advisor."

Sirius almost replied with a joke, but caught himself. Though perhaps their presentation lacked gravity, he believed the sincerity of their decision. It wouldn't hurt to swell his ranks. Right now it was just him, Remus, and Harry. Sirius could never see himself trusting anyone as far as he did them, but fighting a war was a bit much for just three wizards, no matter how skilled.

"I will only ask this once, so think hard before you answer," Sirius said, arms crossed. "If you join me, I will not tolerate you working with Dumbledore anymore, unless I order it. One of his top people is your boss. If Shacklebolt calls on you to choose, I will not look kindly on allegiances you may value above myself. I need grown goddamn people. And don't even try saying anything about Harry, cousin. He has proved himself beyond his years."

They both nodded, their faces serious.

"We understand," said Tonks.

"Tonks is my family," Sirius said, turning to Dellan. "But your father works for Dumbledore. I won't make you choose between me and your family... I must ask you to make that choice for yourself."

"I have given this a lot of thought," Dellan said, nodding. "I know what this means."

Sirius let them squirm for a moment longer and then clapped his hands, beaming. "Great! In that case, you can get started with this." He pointed over his shoulder at the vastness of the archives.

Tonks' face fell once Sirius explained their new assignment in detail, while Dellan took a deep breath, steeled himself, and lively collected an armful of boxes. Sirius gave an appreciative nod. Here was a man not afraid of hard work.

"I won't keep you here forever, I just need to get this moving until I can hire some people," he said, alleviating Tonks' fears. Reassured, she joined Dellan at the table. "I'll be back in an hour."

Sirius left the archives and made his way to Crouch's domain, secretely enjoying how people hurried to make way for him. He wasn't just a part of the system now, he occupied the very top of the pyramid, among few others. James would have been horrified.

Crouch's office was as angular and void of personality as its occupant. Barty Crouch had plenty of character, but Sirius couldn't think of a single quirk he'd seen the man display beyond the peculiar movements of his mustache. There wasn't a single painting, cerificate or diploma on the walls, not a single framed photograph on the desk, and even the shelves, while full of books and folders, were so neat that they seemed untouched, merely there for decoration. It was all terribly stiff. There was a fully-stocked liquor cabinet in the corner, however – perhaps the only indicator that Crouch was, in fact, human, and not just an inferious that cleaned up well in dress robes.

When Sirius barged inside, employing a fast-walk to blow by Crouch's assistant, the Director had been in a meeting with Dirk Cresswell and Marcus Plateau. You wouldn't have been able to tell from his face that he was bored – Crouch was much too professional to look any less than politely engaged at all times.

"...so I think you can see why the goblin Chief would be disagreeable, quite rightly, in my opinion..."

Plateau's mouth was hanging half-open, his head tilted, when Cresswell was busy lecturing Crouch, a sign of exasperation. Crouch must have seen Plateau's reaction, but if there was a spark of laughter in him, he doused it without mercy. He held up a hand.

"I appreciate your enthusiasm, Dirk," Crouch said. "Our fresh agreement with Chief Rakeharlaw is well-served by your... engagement, but I regret to have to cut this short. It seems our meeting has ran past the hour."

Cresswell and Plateau looked over their shoulders at Sirius, who greeted both men with a nod, and left it up to Crouch to get rid of them.

"Let's set something up for later this afternoon," Crouch was saying as he led the two men to the door, his hand on Cresswell's shoulder, ever so gently prompting them to leave. "I'll have my office contact your offices and we'll... coordinate."

Once the door closed behind Plateau and Cresswell, Sirius was sure Crouch would roll his eyes, but the Director merely returned to his seat.

"Black."

"Crouch."

"Whiskey?"

"Bit early in the day for me."

Crouch saluted Sirius with the bottle of Ogden's and sunk deeper into his swivel chair with a full glass. For a fleeting moment they regarded each other, their stares nonetheless lined with guarded mutual respect. Sirius had long given up contemplating how the man who had unlawfully imprisoned him had become his greatest ally in the Ministry.

"So, Advisor..." Crouch leaned back, his chair creaking quietly. "Still not going to tell me what you're looking for in the old archives?"

Sirius smiled coolly. "I want it to be a surprise."

"Fair enough," Crouch replied, shrugging. He tipped the glass over to his lips, then set it down on the desk. "To business, then."

"To business," Sirius agreed. "How'd Scrimgeour do with the Wizengamot?"

Crouch's mustache twitched, a sign of disdain for their former co-conspirator. "They loved him, of course. He won the vote in a landslide. In fact, Dumbledore's faction was his main opposition."

Sirius muttered something unflattering under his breath. "How did Selwyn take it?"

"There was a great deal of yelling and comparing the warlocks to a range of farm animals. I didn't pay it much attention."

"So... Chief Warlock Scrimgeour." Sirius scowled. "I've changed my mind about that drink."

Once Sirius was also nursing a glass of amber, Crouch continued.

"He's angling for the top job after Fudge goes."

"We knew that already."

"I trust our agreement is still in place, yes?"

Sirius prolonged Crouch's agony, unhurriedly drinking his whiskey. He looked the Director in the eye. "I don't stab people in the back without good cause. Don't give me one and yes, you will be Minister." But you won't enjoy it.

Sirius meant what he'd said – he had precious few allies to afford indulging in vengeance just yet, so he would be Crouch's friend... for now. Twelve years in Azkaban would not be forgotten or forgiven. He had great plans for Barty Crouch.

"Scrimgeour doesn't have the clout to occupy two powerful positions at once," Crouch said. "His resignation as Director of DMLE is only formality, but he will take his time, to assure that he can control the succession. My guess is he will try to appoint Robards."

"We're not going to let that happen," said Sirius, tapping the rim of his glass. "I have a much better candidate in mind."

Crouch's mustache moved from one side of his face to the other before returning under his nose. "Someone sympathetic to our interests?"

Sirius tilted his head. "Someone we can control."

Crouch raised a curious eyebrow. Sirius drank the last of his whiskey.

"I'll let you know, Barty. I'd rather keep this under wraps for now. Oh, and I was thinking... Do you suppose I should get myself an office?"

Crouch shrugged, almost managing to hide the irritation at being left in the dark under a mask of indifference. Almost.

"It's not the worst idea. With the influence you have, it might be beneficial to for people to see you more grounded, as it were. A part of the Ministry."

Sirius smiled and stood up. "Yes, that's what I thought too. Ah, before I forget – how go the preparations for... the other thing?"

Crouch's eyes clouded for a moment. "Everything will be in place on my end. The chain of command is secured, my people are set to begin at a moment's notice. You?"

Sirius nodded with appreciation. "Splendid. I've ensured the cooperation of the Auror Office. We'll spring the trap at the last moment – the element of surprise will do half the job for us."

"Does your part involve this new Director we'll supposedly be able to control?"

"Yes." Sirius placed his empty glass on the table with a loud thunk. "Don't scowl, Barty. Your mustache might get stuck like that."

~~oOo~~

Malfoy Manor was a sad sight to behold – a half-standing ruin of blackened stone, crushed walls, and gutted towers. The ancient dwelling had finally given up after suffering the goblin bombardment, Curse-breakers' spellwork, and three violent duels played out within its walls, although Harry had to admit, his battle with Draco might seem insignificant to the devastation Remus had wrought fighting Walden Macnair. The silver axe had left scars that cleaved through the ancient magic permeating the walls, such that the upper floors collapsed soon after. Several goblins had been buried under the debris, but Chief Rakeharlaw seemed to take the deaths in stride. Harry frankly felt more than a little repulsed watching the goblins excavate the Manor's treasure with perhaps more zeal than their dead. Now, weeks later, the Malfoys of Britain were no more, and as April banished the last remnants of winter, the Manor's ruins had become an entirely different place.

Several large tents surrounded the ruin, guarded by a compliment of the Ministry's best Aurors, a contingent of goblin warriors, clad from head to toe in spell-resistant steel, and the same blind dragon that had helped bring the Manor down in the first place. The Malfoys had valued privacy, and the Manor's remote location allowed the Ministry to erect defences and an array of muggle-repelling enchantments to let the excavation to continue uninterrupted.

Goblins carefully removed the debris stone by stone, taking possession of anything valuable that the Ministry relinquished. A unit of Unspeakables were hard at work cataloguing Lucius' vast collection of cursed objects, which had apparently been scattered all around the Manor, much of it hidden in plain sight. Captain Anton Robards had been tasked with security, while a pair of senior Unspeakables supervised everything else. To Harry's surprise, Arthur Weasley was a frequent guest at the site, offering insight on this or that, as the wizard with, apparently, the best information on the Malfoys that the Ministry had available. Harry had suggested to Sirius that they should bring in Auror Yaxley as a consultant, but Sirius claimed he had Voldemort's spy exactly where he wanted him. Harry wondered if Sirius was planning something – these days, his godfather seemed to merely move from one scheme to the next.

Once the excavation reached the ground floor proper, the Unspeakables lowered the area's danger rating and Harry convinced Sirius to grant him permission to visit the site. Quite honestly, it wasn't just curiosity. Harry had a specific goal in mind.

Today, the Unspeakables would begin exploring the Manor's dungeons, which were thought to have survived the destruction unscathed.

Remus had agreed to be his personal guard, though Harry had filed a protest at the notion of needing a guardian at all, seriously doubting that Voldemort would assault a fortified position with a dragon nearby. Nevertheless, Remus trailed behind him as Harry walked among the ruins, now cleared and easily traversible.

They entered the perimeter of what had once been the Manor's great salon. The remnants of a huge fireplace dominated the west wall, while the north one boasted the frames of three enormous windows.

Harry approached the north-west corner, where the enchanted wooden tiles – untouched save for smudging from the smoke – broke the pattern that spanned the rest of the floor. The abberration was unonbtrusive enough that Harry would have missed it if he hadn't known to look for it – spotting it while the room had been whole, furnished and decorated would likely have been nigh impossible, unless one possessed unnaturally canny eyes. Moody might have seen it, but otherwise it was as perfect a concealment as could be created without magic.

Remus was perched on top of the opposite wall, where all that remained of it was a short, stumpy stack of bricks, overlooking the ruins. Taking advantage of his distraction, Harry reached inside his pocket for the key he had prepared.

A single drop of blood was suspended in the vial, kept afloat by a Levitation Charm he had infused into a basic rune etched into the glass. Holding the vial between two fingers, he vanished it, letting the blood fall.

He had been expecting some deep rumble, perhaps the grinding of stones and gears scraping against each other, but the tiles moved with barely a hiss, folding away to reveal a narrow staircase winding beneath the floor.

Harry had no delusions that Remus wouldn't notice him suddenly disappearing if he went down alone, and he had no intention of sending the man into a frenzied panic, so he called, "Hey, Remus – look what I found."

Remus was at his side in a moment, wearing a stern expression. "How did you know this was here?"

Harry quickly weighed his options. Remus wouldn't buy any half-baked lie, but on the other hand, Harry was sure telling the whole truth was an even worse idea. "I'm not going to tell you, Remus, and you have to accept that. But Sirius knows."

"Harry..."

"I'm not discussing this. Sirius knows, and he trusts me. Now, are we going to see what's down there or not?"

"Let's get the Unspeakables."

"No. I want a first look, before they get their hands on everything and Croaker informs Dumbledore."

Harry expected to have to fight Remus on this, but apparently mentioning Dumbledore was enough.

"I'll go first." Remus called up his wandlight and descended the stairs. Harry followed closely, and once they were both below floor level, the tiles closed above them. Only their wandlights warded off complete darnkness.

They quickly assessed that the dungeons were vast, spanned several levels, and were full of traps. It was like they had entered an entirely alien world and Harry couldn't help but feel unnerved. Remus moved with far more confidence.

"I've spent some time in the sewers below London," Remus explained. "Vampires are the masters there. I doubt Lucius kept anything half as dangerous down here."

Harry couldn't say he felt reassured, but they ploughed on, the alternative being summoning the Unspeakables, which would amount to inviting Dumbledore along – the betrayal was still a sore wound. They went on, lighting the torches, marking off rooms they'd explored, and those they passed over for now. After braving the network of narrow passages and low ceilings for a good hour, they reached a door that bore what appeared to be the Malfoy crest at first glance. Having seen dozens of its representations in many other rooms in the dungeons, Harry spotted the difference immediately – the sleeping dragon perched on the top rim of the shield.

"Draco..."

"Harry, be careful."

Harry caught himself with his hand halfway to the doorknob, silently cursing his carelessness. He had to do better than that. Last time he'd underestimated Draco Malfoy, he was blown up. Dutifully performing several handy Curse-breaker's spells, he determined the door to be free of enchantments or any mechanical trap, unless they were concealed in a way he couldn't detect. Remus confirmed Harry's conclusion.

Ascertained that Draco's private dwelling was relatively safe to enter, Harry pressed down on the doorknob, and the door opened with no resistance.

Inside was more bare stone and a large table laid with potioneering equipment. The fire had gone out under a head-sized platinum cauldron, but it was still full. The liquid inside was as clear as water, but when Harry experimentally stirred it, it turned a milky white. Eyes widening, he held his breath for a fraction of a moment, reflexes too slow to catch up with the realisation. There was no explosion.

"The Unspeakables will have to look at this first, before anything else," Harry said, backing away from the potion. "I think this is the stuff Draco used for his bombs."

Remus leaned over the cauldron with apparent interest, while Harry turned his wandlight away, to explore the back of the room. The light fell on a heavy curtain of grey leather. Harry approached slowly – his magical sense gave no warning of a curse laying in wait for trespassers, merely the indication of an Air-Freshening Charm. Indeed, as he approached the curtain, the dungeon's stale air took on a pleasant, breezy smell. Standing at arm's length, he poked the curtain with his wand. The moment it was disturbed, a horrible stench almost made him stumble back into the platinum cauldron.

"Oh, Merlin..." Remus gasped the last word and went into a coughing fit.

Harry covered his face and, his eyes watering, conjured Bubble-head Charms for himself and Remus, then flicked his wand, and the curtain was yanked aside.

Whatever lay on the metal table, it was definitely dead.

The wandlight travelled alongside the body, revealing dozens of varied, nasty wounds, the apparent effects of Draco Malfoy's experimentation. The body was naked and fastened securely with thick straps. The buckles were made of silver.

There wasn't an inch of flesh that hadn't been subjected to some kind of abuse and Harry couldn't be sure if the vomit coming up to his mouth was because of the putrid smell lingering at the back of his throat, or the realisation how depraved Draco Malfoy had become.

When he recognised the body as female, Harry thought this couldn't possibly get any worse, until the wandlight reached the face – the only part of her that was completely untouched – emaciated, a sickly green colour, and stuck in an expression of unspeakable pain, but still bearing a shade of its former beauty.

Sally-Anne Perks.

Harry fell to his knees as his stomach violently emptied itself and he kept retching, now kneeling in his own vomit, until he had nothing left to throw up but phlegm and spit.

Remus closed the curtain and dragged him outside the laboratory, where Harry was able to clean himself up. After the sudden bout of sickness he felt weak as a kitten.

"Let's get you out of here," Remus said, pulling him up to his feet.

The first person informed about the gruesome discovery was Sirius, who wasted no time in declaring Draco's laboratory off-limits to all investigators until further notice, over Robards' and Croaker's vehement objections – well, as vehement as the Chief Unspeakable could muster. Harry wondered if he and the peculiar Auror Ribs weren't related. The ban wasn't lifted until Sally's body had been transported to the morgue in St. Mungo's.

"What happens now?" Harry asked the next day, when he, Remus, and Sirius had gathered in Sirius' new office – a former storage room, adjacent to the old archives. While the room lacked the upperclass decor that dominated much of the Ministry, it was more spacious. Sirius had already furnished that space with a desk, a conference table, a sofa and armchair set, a stocked liquor cabinet and several tall shelves being filled up with items of interest that Sirius' growing army of researchers dug up for his perusal.

Sirius was clearly determined to carry on with his search regardless of circumstances, because he didn't even bother looking up from the latest batch of documents in front of him. "Healers will need a few days to examine the body, to make sure it's not contagious in any way. Then a funeral, I suppose, though I'm not sure how we're going to do that."

"We should try to find her family," Remus said.

Harry felt a heatwave explode in his gut. "Family," he spat. "The same family that pulled her out of Hogwarts? Parents who thought she was a freak?"

"I understand that you may feel that way, considering—"

"Spare me, Remus," Harry interrupted, tossing the man a cross look. "This has nothing to do with the Dursleys. I said no more than what we'd heard from her."

Referring to Sally in this impersonal way felt just shy of disrespect, but he dared not speak her name, as if it would conjure the angry spirit here to blame him for letting Malfoy take her.

Sirius put down the old parchments, interlocked his fingers, elbows on the table, and looked up. "Whatever happened, they're the girl's parents. They deserve to bury their daughter."

Harry turned away, arms crossed on his chest. "What if they ask questions?" he asked over his shoulder.

"I'll send Obliviators if I have to. Let's hope it doesn't come to that."

"I'll find the parents," Remus offered. "This... requires some care. I wouldn't trust the Ministry with this."

Sirius nodded. "Agreed. Thanks, Remus. That's at least one less headache."

None of them brought up the fact that the search would require consulting the Hogwarts records, and thus visiting the castle. Harry was quietly grateful that Remus took that burden upon himself.

The whole affair – like everything else that came out of Draco's laboratory – became another of many secrets that the people of Wizarding Britain would never know. That was the last time Harry wanted to think about Sally, but he knew that her face, how he'd seen it that day in the ring, would come back to haunt him for many nights. First Cedric, now her – another of his failures, another life ended too soon that deserved to go on.

He didn't want to go back to Grimmauld Place Twelve yet. He had come to appreciate the tranquil gloom of the house – it resonated well with the Dark Touch, plucking the strings of his being – but it also tended to worsen his rotten moods, so he avoided it whenever he felt like brooding. Remus left right away to carry out his new task, but Harry lingered in Sirius' office, not really knowing what to do.

Were he at Hogwarts, he would probably be studying for the exams – or ignoring Hermione's insisting that he should be studying. Recently his days had been, for the most part, terribly empty. Oh, he found ways to keep busy – he had to brew fresh batches of his potion (it spoiled quickly, so there was no point in preparing more than a week's worth at once) and he'd even tried his hand at Wolfsbane for Remus, though his attempts so far had turned out too toxic to be of use. The library, too, held a wealth of knowledge he was free to peruse at his leisure. But despite it all, he simply felt lonely. There was no Hermione to nag him about homework (although recently their time together had gravitated towards spell creation), no Ron to joke with, no Ginny to badger him about quidditch practice. Regardless of filling up the hours, life felt lacking without his friends. For a while after the trials he had entertained the notion of trying to find Sturgis, but he couldn't even apparate. Sirius had promised to teach him over the summer – or whenever he found the time, really – and even encouraged him to study as he would at Hogwarts.

"You're not the first to be kicked out of Hogwarts and you won't be the last."

Hogwarts, yes. For the first few weeks, the reality of not being a student there had kept Harry up at night, but with time, the discomfort settled down into cool acceptance. He still missed it, of course, but now, at least, he thought he could see a future for himself without a Hogwarts diploma. Whatever Sirus was planning in the long term, he seemed intent on making himself indispensible to the Ministry and Harry could help with that.

He had become a frequent visitor, and he took the plentiful opportunities to present himself in contrast to the public image that Rita Skeeter had forged of him. Percy – the last person Harry would ever imagine as an ally – had been a great guide through some of the more confusing aspects of the inner workings of the government. Harry had no real power – right now he was simply a curiosity, a confidant of the ascending Advisor Black, though that still seemed to be more than some others had. All of Fudge's staffers knew him at a glance, while he continued to struggle with their names and faces.

Harry glanced at the papers Sirius was looking over – his eyes veered quickly from right to left as he scanned the document and discarded it, chucking it onto a growing stack at the edge of his desk. He grabbed another document and dismissed it almost immediately.

"Old English," Sirius muttered, "this probably predates the Warlocks' Council..."

"Why exactly are you digging through all this stuff?"

Sirius barely spared him a glance, absorbed by his work. "Right now I'm looking for any documents that mention Mordanis Black."

That piqued Harry's interest. "The Black Knight Mordanis? The one who built the house at Grimmauld Place?"

Sirius' lips peeled back, revealing teeth in a grin that might have unnerved someone who didn't know him. "The Black Knight, indeed. That's actually exactly what I'm looking for."

For a fleeting moment before he bit his tongue, Harry considered offering his help. He had been inside the archives proper earlier, where half a dozen of Sirius' new hires were doing their monotonous, though well-paid work. Beside them worked a number of assistants and interns from five different Departments, whom Sirius had drafted into his team. Apparently, he had periodically been making rounds throughout the day, poaching people he spotted not doing anything. There was already a rumour going around that the Unspeakables had managed to appease Sirius by preemptively offering up one of their own, a fellow named MacKree, who was now trying to devise an arithmantic formula that would revitalise the old archival enchantments.

"Right," said Harry. "Good luck with that. I'll just... go bother Percy, or something."

"You have the portkey?" Sirius asked.

"Yeah."

"Fine. Then get out."

~~oOo~~

The spacious living room of Grimmauld Place Twelve had become a recent fauvorite haunt of Harry's. He had moved rooms to a more accommodating suite, but he felt too walled-off there, too removed from the rest of the house. The kitchen really only shone in good company, and he had grown to resent the library somewhat, after repeated failures in his research of horcruxes. The decision to stop searching had been made with a topping of guilt – the horcruxes were obviously important – but ultimately, perhaps he was just looking in the wrong place. Voldemort may have found out about horcruxes at Hogwarts, but he had apparently learned about them from Grindelwald. Logically then, Harry should be looking... at Durmstrang.

Although he had briefly entertained a wild plan to make his way to Germany and somehow find the secretive school of magic, he quickly discarded that fantasy. He wouldn't have the first idea where or how to start. And presupposing he could get there – where in Durmstrang should he be looking? Which people to talk to? Was there even anything there to be found? Grindelwald had used the school as his headqurters during the war, but that didn't guarantee he had left behind anything of interest. In short, Harry was stuck in a dead end he had no prospect of escaping at present.

Regardless of those difficulties, the scope of such a journey overwhelmed him when he gave it a bit of thought. This was a mission for a grown, trained wizard. He wasn't at school anymore, but he wasn't feeling anything like an adult. He had heard others saying that he'd had to 'grow up quickly'. What did that mean? Could he consider himself an adult wizard? He hadn't graduated, he'd been expelled, half at his own wish. Furious as he had been when he attacked Dumbledore, he had known what he was doing when he prepared his trap. Would he feel any different when he turned seventeen? His expulsion had robbed him of that future defining moment when he would have known that yes, he was an adult, ready to step out into the world. Without being able to rely on Hogwarts to anchor him to some order of things, he felt weightless, suspended in uncertainty.

That was why he liked the living room so much. There was a comforting quality to the atmosphere of a lazy evening by the fire that grounded him when he needed it, washing away the anxiety that sometimes sprung up. In those moments he would sit up, eyes wide, struck with a sudden realisation that this was all real, he was out of his depth, and didn't really know how to live a life outside of the microcosm of Hogwarts, where problems were on a scale he could wrap his head around. The threat of Voldemort seemed much more real here, when he wasn't separated from the Dark Lord by the impassable obstacle that was Albus Dumbledore.

Determined to reforge that creeping fear into productivity, he had taken to reviewing his collection of every memory of Voldemort's that he had torn from the malevolent mind. There weren't many of them, and most seemed to contain no particularly useful information, but he committed every mundane detail to memory. His peculiar connection to Voldemort made it all easier – thank Merlin for small graces. While Sirius toiled away on his project, increasingly worming his way into the Ministry's power structure, Harry spent much of April memorising Voldemort's mannerisms – the ease of his wand movements and their gradual degradation as he moved forward in his mastery of magic, how Voldemort spoke when alone, how he talked to other people, how he walked – and trying to extrapolate that onto the periods of Voldemort's life he knew nothing about, those years from which he hadn't managed to nick a single memory.

The barrier Voldemort had placed between their minds remained almost as sturdy as in the moment of its creation, and Harry still had no hope of truly invading Voldemort's mind again, not after his spectacular possession, but cracks did appear from time to time. When they did, Harry then drew on those cracks, all but placing his mouth on them and sucking for all he was worth, not unlike a dementor, trying to summon even the most meagre bits he could snatch and add to his pensieve. The barrier between two minds was imperfect, degrading over time, and though Harry was absently concerned with what would happen once it was damaged enough for Voldemort to notice, he still took every opportunity presented to him.

His persistence was rewarded eventually. Most of the new material were but single flashes, rarely more than a clouded moment, not nearly enough to reconstruct an entire memory from it. There came a day, however, when a large enough imperfection in the barrier appeared for Harry to snatch a floating page with frayed edges, torn from an imaginary book, before the gap almost closed around his spectral arm, damn near snapping it off at the elbow.

Scurrying back into reality, he emerged in the darkened living room, where the dying fire provided just enough light to see by. The silver memories in the pensive glowed stronger, casting a pale gleam on the ceiling. The hand that had grabbed the page was empty, but the memory clung to his fingers like a ghostly membrane, stretched across his palm. As always after a successful hunt, Harry grinned, adding the new memory to the pensieve.

He dipped his fingers into the basin, stirring the not-liquid, and the swirling made the silver light grow brighter. Harry drew out the new memory to the forefront and dove in.

~~oOo~~

The large room was tastefully decorated with a well-matched symphony of dark wood, goblin-made quartz crystal, stone, and black iron. Enchanted candelabras had been dimmed, and the alternating spots of light and shadow lent the room a raw, severe quality. The room had been expertly crafted, but materials in themselves were inexpensive. One might say, such a room belonged in the home of someone who wished to artificially elevate themselves, while unable to match the opulent wealth of a true aristocrat. Voldemort knew better.

The witch who lived in this house revelled in manipulating her enemies and friends alike to underestimate her, leaving only enough room for doubt to draw pleasure from their subsequent realisation that they'd been played by someone far out of their league. Voldemort wasn't easily manipulated – he had dedicated his life to achieving mastery in this art, like the many that preceeded it. He had almost fallen for the witch's tricks, years ago. He had been young and naive. He had grown, while she remained static, assured in her position, because no had dared to challenge her.

Voldemort had dared, he had bested her, and now she was at his mercy.

"Kick and scream to your heart's content," he said, his tone flat, almost lifeless, like the chains binding the witch – just as cold and emotionless. Unrelenting. Foretelling inevitability. Try as she might, there was nothing she could do to change her fate now.

She didn't seem agreeable to inevitability.

She trashed and wriggled in her bonds, all for naught, yet she persisted. The chains rattled, assaulting Voldemort's ears with a metallic cacophony that made his teeth vibrate. He did not move to stun or calm her. He wanted her to fight till her last breath, to be fully aware of her own helplessness.

She was in his power, just as he had been when she used to all but torture him, supposedly at Grindelwald's command, to stregthen his body before Grindelwald could strengthen his soul. He had never questioned her, though the abuse had stretched his patience to the absolute limit. Later, it turned out that while she had drawn every bit of perverse pleasure she could have from his pain, she had been telling the truth. Ultimately, Voldemort had her to thank, in part, for his success with the horcruxes. If she hadn't done all she had to him, he perhaps would never have been able to surpass her dark master. Really, she'd done him a favour.

It didn't mean Voldemort's hadn't hated her. While he wasn't particularly adept at acknowledging things such as friendship or sympathy, he knew how to inspire fear and loyalty. He was the master of pain in all forms, and above all, he knew the universal truth of hatred. The chasm Caroline had wedged herself into in his heart was as bottomless as the universe was wide. He had waited years to repay her for the effort she'd put into his preparation for the highest of alchemical arts, and he intended to return Caroline's kindness.

The formula ingrained perfectly in his mind, he worked on the... He'd never quite found the right name for it. Alchemy was a different sort of magic. It seemed inappropriate to call it a mere spell and neither was it a potion, or even an amalgamation of these. Something else entirely, escaping the boundaries of human language. And perhaps that was the correct state of things. Death was similarly unfathomable, and yet he was about to ensure his freedom from it the fifth time over.

The diadem, the famed Silverfeather Crown, rested just left of him, within reach, reflected in the polished surface of Caroline's dinner table, awaiting the ascendance that would remake it into something – unimaginably – far greater than a Founder's relic. Voldemort glanced at the crown. The thousand-year-old circlet of purest silver seemed to absorb light instead of reflecting it – an artifact of initial spellwork he'd already placed on it in preparation for the final stage of the process.

"When I shed these chains, I will make your pain into a monument to Death itself," Caroline growled, though her voice became a seductive purr as she spoke, unable to help herself flirting even as she was about to die, to provide Voldemort with the necessary sacrifice.

"I have no doubt that you could," Voldemort said, putting the last touches on his work. "You are a breathtakingly skilled witch. But I'm afraid that your legend ends here."

Voldemort looked up at Caroline. It had been twenty years, but she was still as beautiful as he remembered her. Even among witchfolk, she was uncommonly blessed, escaping the clutches of time to retain her deceptive allure. A pitiful irony, that Grindelwald's most dedicated follower had never made a horcrux, deeming herself unworthy. The other four of the five had tried, but this magic was inaccessible to but a few. To Voldemort's knowledge, only Vergir had succeeded. Naturally, he had made hunting Vergir down a priority once he felt up to the task.

Caroline's strange grimace was more amusing than threatening – she glared, but ran her tongue along her lips, torn between threats and flirting. She stirred as Voldemort approached, bearing the Silverfeather Crown on both palms. He didn't know if it was fear or pleasure moving her just then. She went rigid still when he reached up to place the diadem on her head, remaining so utterly motionless that even the chains keeping her suspended in the air ceased their noisy clinking.

Caroline drew in a deep breath and blinked rapidly, then looked down, meeting Voldemort's eyes. She wasn't fighting anymore.

He ran a pale finger from her cheek down to her neck, and toward the breast. "I'm glad you understand," he said, rewarding her with the ghost of a smile. Caroline's chest rose and fell as she breathed in and out through her nose, saying nothing. Voldemort raised his wand and the chains obeyed, drawing out Caroline's limbs so that, together with her head, they formed a five-pointed star. The porous metal then constricted around her ankles, wrists, and neck until skin split and yielded blood.

She hung suspended, bleeding, and he realised he was just standing there, and she was either dying or dead already...

"SIRIUS!" he yelled. "GET DOWN HERE!"

Harry paused.

No, that's not right. That had already happened, this was something different, Ginny was fine, she was at Hogwarts...

The dark room around him was at once familiar, his robes were pyjamas, the smooth yew under his fingers was the familiar, warm holly. Caroline Amsel was gone and in her place was Ginny, lashed to the wall by magic, her face stuck mid-scream.

Harry's heart pumped faster as he flashed back to that night, the events of which had been shrouded in permanent darkness, inaccessible, removed from his memory – only the truth was that the memory of what he'd done – what Voldemort had done! – to Ginny had always been there, locked away by his own silent order that he couldn't admit to having given, because he didn't want to remember doing this, possessed or not.

Time flowed in reverse and Harry was powerless to stop it, stuck in his body, but feeling out of place as he went through the motions backwards. The Memory Charm unstuck itself from Ginny. Her wounds closed, she floated down to the floor, and the spell keeping her silent leapt back toward his wand.

Ginny screamed, but Harry had taken care to place a Silencing Charm on the room beforehand, so the others wouldn't hear – her terror belonged to him and no one else.

He hated himself as seconds passed no faster than they would in the real world, and his face was forced into a smile. Despite himself, the memory of satisfaction he'd felt when Ginny begged and cried infected his thoughts, and he found himself in a strange in-between state, hating and enjoying the girl's pain, just like Caroline Amsel had both desired and feared what Voldemort was going to do to her.

Ginny's tears preceeded Harry's curses. Those were then followed by healing magic that opened wounds instead of closing them, then more pain, more curses, always more, and it went on for hours, back through time, the mirror image of the night he'd spent repeatedly breaking Ginny and putting her back together, while the rest of Grimmauld Place Twelve had slept, blissfully unaware of Ginny's horror. Harry wanted to scream and cry along with her, but he couldn't, instead made to enjoy the pain he wrought as seconds mercilessly crawled backwards.

At last, when it seemed the cursed night would never end – never begin – Harry found himself back in the bedroom he'd shared with Ron in the summer. The memory released its grip on him when he closed his eyes. He opened them to the blinding expanse of colourless nothing, the same non-place Voldemort had confronted him in his first night at Grimmauld Place Twelve. Harry swallowed dread – was he now going to relive that conversation with Voldemort in reverse? Would this ever stop? Or was it going to continue until the day of his birth, and beyond?

"No, I think that'll be enough for now."

Harry discovered he could finally move again, instead of being moved. Heart pounding, he spun to face Voldemort, who stared at him with the same blank expression of threat he had given Caroline. Before Harry could say anything, Voldemort spoke again.

"I warned you not to meddle in my head, Harry." The Dark Lord stood straight-backed, hands clasped behind him. Gone was the snakelike, grey-skinned monster Harry remembered from their last confrontation, replaced by a handsome, tall wizard, who couldn't be a day over thirty. He looked alien to Harry, but he knew all the same that this was unmistakably Voldemort.

He tried to speak, but what could he say after what he'd just seen, what he'd done?

Voldemort prolonged the silence until Harry's eyes started watering, because he dared not blink. Finally, he spoke, his tone coated in bared hostility. There was no mind game, no subtext, just a warning.

"Don't try to steal my memories again, or I'll make this a thousand times worse."

A flash, a splitting headache exploding in his skull, and Harry was back in the living room of Grimmauld Place Twelve. The fire had gone out and only reddish embers remained. Harry's knees buckled and he fell back into the armchair, wracked with a phantom recollection of the pain he'd inflicted on Ginny, shivering.

The pensieve, hovering in front of him, started vibrating so strongly that the metal heated up to white-hot within seconds. The memories inside, Voldemort's memories, stolen by Harry, meticulously collected for months, sizzled and evaporated, dissolving into an unreal cloud, which then vanished. The pensieve stopped vibrating and spinning, returning to its previous state, except it was empty. Somehow, by magic Harry hadn't ever conceived of, Voldemort had taken back what was his.

That didn't matter right now. The unlocked memory of the night Voldemort had possessed him kept playing out in Harry's thoughts. Eyes wide open, instead of the room he was in, he saw himself cast curse after curse. He lowered his head between his knees, fingernails digging into the back of his neck, and he screamed through gritted teeth, like Ginny had screamed, because he knew there was nothing he could do erase this from his mind.