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Lord Voldemort stepped back from the ritual circle with a small smile and sneered down at the cooling body on the floor. Narcissa had outlived her usefulness. But she had served well for the creation of his final Horcrux.
Nagini stirred slowly back to life from the stasis, her tongue darting out. No one had ever made a living Horcrux before, as far as Lord Voldemort knew, and in this as well as in everything else, he had pushed the far frontiers of magical exploration. Nagini glanced at him, and for a moment, her eyes shone as red as his own.
But only for a moment. Then she asked, "Voldemort?"
"Yes, dearest?" Lord Voldemort extended a hand, and Nagini slithered over and slid her head gracefully beneath his touch.
"You carry a piece of my soul within you now," Lord Voldemort explained, and caressed her. "No one can ever separate us. You are immortal, as I am. We will spend all of time hunting and destroying our enemies."
Nagini reared her body a little further up from the floor to look him in the eye, and her tongue darted out as if to taste the truth of his suggestion. She was the only one that Lord Voldemort would have accepted such a gesture of doubt from.
"That is the best reason to be immortal that I have ever heard," she said. "You were very foolish sometimes in the past, wanting to live for other reasons."
Lord Voldemort touched her scales and did not speak. He would not tolerate disrespect from anyone other than the holder of his soul, either.
"We will begin our hunt with finding what the true prophecy that bound me in enmity to Harry Potter says," he told her, "so that we may know exactly how much of an enemy he is."
"I will not house him."
"Mother," Blaise Zabini murmured, his eyes on the floor but argument and rebellion rising in his throat. "His mother's been murdered. His father died years ago. Could you please simply give him housing for the summer?"
"From what you say," Giulia Zabini responded, her nails clenching on the skirt of her robe, "the Dark Lord is the one who killed his mother. Perhaps his father, too. Do you think I wish to bring such an enemy down on us?"
She broke into English on the last words, making Blaise wince. He knew he wouldn't convince her when she had gone that far. He drew in a deep breath.
"But he can stay tonight?"
"Tonight only, Blaise," his mother said, and then turned and swished away towards the marble staircase.
Blaise stood where he was, gathering his thoughts and his courage. He had assumed that his mother wouldn't mind housing Draco when his fellow Slytherin had fled, hoarse and screaming, to Blaise's house through the Floo. They were distant from the British war, and the Dark Lord had never approached any of Blaise's family for money or service. Surely Draco would be safe in a different country, and so would Blaise and his mother.
But if she thought they wouldn't…
Blaise hesitated and glanced up the staircase in the direction of his own rooms, where Draco was sleeping at the moment. He wouldn't stand up to his mother, and he couldn't stand up to the Dark Lord. But he still wanted to do something to protect Draco.
He had never cared that much for his yearmate. He would have called him a companion, not a friend. Draco was so invested in things that didn't matter, like the power of his name, when magical power mattered so much more.
But seeing Draco's white face had silenced the laughter that Blaise felt always echoing inside him. He felt, obscurely, that if the Dark Lord won, there would be no more laughter ever again.
Which was a stupid thing to feel, really, when Blaise himself used Dark Arts, and he lived in Italy during the summers and other holidays, far away from Britain's nonsense. But he wanted to protect Draco, if only to keep himself from having to face up to all the other things that it seemed Draco's flight announced.
That meant he had to find someone who could either stand up to the Dark Lord or was distant enough from him that they wouldn't be caught up in his actions.
Blaise's eyes widened as the obvious answer came to him. Theodore had told him about it earlier that year, and Blaise had laughed, while studying for OWLS. He didn't have Theodore's mania for following people, although he did admire Potter's magical power.
Potter wasn't really on Dumbledore's side, no matter what Draco thought. Theodore never would have chosen him if he was.
Blaise made his way to the fire and gripped a handful of Floo powder. He supposed he could owl Potter, but he had no idea when the response would get back. And he had no idea of the Floo name for Potter's home with his godfather, either, although he knew the name of the Black house. He would contact Theodore and ask him to contact Potter.
And then Draco would live, and he would owe Blaise a little favor later.
Blaise smiled, sure that everything would work out for the best, and cast the powder into the flames with a cry of, "Nott's Nest!"
Remus let his nostrils flare a little as Sirius escorted Draco Malfoy into the drawing room. The boy smelled—weary, furious, frightened. And of Dark Arts, but at this point, Remus almost expected it.
The smell hung around the house at every turn, and around Harry, of course.
"Did Harry explain the rules to you, Malfoy?" Sirius was frowning at the boy, but Remus could see the way that his lips kept tightening in a way that had nothing to do with anger or mistrust. Sirius had to be seeing a lot of his past self in Draco Malfoy at the moment, although the home he'd fled hadn't been empty.
"Yes," Draco whispered, and sat down on a chair behind him as if he was simply exhausted.
Sirius listed the rules anyway, as Remus had known he would do. Sirius seemed to think that way, there was more excuse for maiming Draco if he stepped out of line or something. "You're not to bother Harry. You can't read any books from the library unless I say you can, or unless they're just the sort you'll need for summer homework. You can't call either of the house-elves, if you need something call Harry or me. You're not to practice Dark Arts here…"
Remus interrupted as he saw Draco's eyes glazing. "Sirius, save it. He won't remember it right now," he added, when Sirius turned towards him with his mouth open in outrage.
Sirius glanced at Draco, and sighed aloud when he saw the boy had tipped his head back to stare at the ceiling. "We'll give you your own room," he muttered. "But don't expect it to be as grand as the wing you had at home or anything."
"Yes, Cousin Sirius."
Harry walked through the doorway from the kitchen then, with that baffling silence that Remus could never anticipate beforehand. He looked at Harry with a little smile, wondering if this was the time that Harry might include him in the secrets he obviously had with Sirius, but Harry's attention was on Draco.
Who turned around and looked at Harry right away, before he said a word, eyes wide and scent filling with terror.
Remus sat up and opened his mouth. He held his tongue a lot around Harry and Sirius and some of the things they seemed to be joking about, because, well, he had abandoned Harry for as long as Sirius had, and he hadn't had the excuse of being in prison. But tormenting a houseguest went too far for him.
"I'll tell you all about him," Draco blurted before Remus could say anything. "I promise. Just—bring him down. Kill him."
Harry paused and gave Draco a blank look that, for once, didn't strike Remus as some kind of mask to hide what he was thinking and feeling. He was simply surprised. "Well," he said slowly. "All right. Some of the questions I'll have to ask won't make much sense to you. Can you still handle them?"
"All right. Come on."
And Draco, for all that he had been too exhausted to listen to Sirius recite a list of simple rules, stood up and followed Harry out of the room, his scent altering again. Now it seemed as if he might have found some new kind of energy.
Remus looked at Sirius. "Do you think it's the best thing to let Harry question him this closely?"
Sirius shrugged, his smile lopsided. "More to the point, do you think we could stop him?"
Remus sighed, because they both knew that answer.
Rabastan Lestrange held out his hands to the fire. The house they were hiding in and had taken over from a pair of blood traitors actually had a huge fireplace, and one that it was easy to fill with crackling flames, given the magic laid on it.
But after so long in Azkaban, it often seemed to Rabastan that he would never be warm again.
He glanced at his brother, who nodded at him. That meant that the owl he'd just received had indeed been from Bella, and she would give them the instructions they needed. Rabastan stretched out on the hearth with a sense of delicious warmth coming from inside him as well as from outside. "Well? Let's hear it."
Rodolphus spread out the letter slowly, tauntingly. Rabastan made a grab for it, but his brother held it out of reach, laughing. Merlin, but it felt good to hear him laugh.
"Let's see." Rodolphus lowered his head, and Rabastan said nothing as his brother adjusted the parchment so that it was a little more within the sphere of the firelight. Their spirits hadn't been the only things to suffer damage in Azakban. "Ah. First, she wants us to contact more of the Inner Circle. She'll contact the others on the outer fringes."
"We're to talk to Yaxley, I assume?"
Rodolphus nodded. "Lucius's death makes Yaxley the obvious choice. And Avery. I wonder about Rookwood, but she doesn't mention him specifically, and I don't want to go against his—her word without a very good reason."
Rabastan caught his brother's eyes for a moment. Rodolphus nodded again. They both suspected that Bellatrix was possessed by the spirit of their Lord, but it was the way she would have wanted to go, so it wasn't as if there was anything to mourn in that fact.
"Oh, wait, she does want us to contact Rookwood." Rodolphus squinted some more. "He works in the Department of Mysteries, and our Lord is very interested in a prophecy being held there. The prophecy that little Severus Snape heard about and gave him, the one that sent him after the Potter brat."
"Does he say anything about the Longbottoms?" Rabastan asked hopefully. He hated leaving a job undone.
"Not specifically," said Rodolphus, and then smiled. "But our Lord has promised that if we do well on these first missions, we can choose our prize."
Rabastan nodded. Yes, Frank and Alice Longbottom had paid for their defiance of his Lord with insanity, but Rabastan suspected enough time had passed now that the edges of that wound had begun to dull for their surviving family.
And that wouldn't do. That wouldn't do at all.
Rodolphus gave a little chuckle. Rabastan looked up at him, wondering what was funny, and then realized it hadn't been a chuckle. His brother was curled up, clawing with both hands at his throat. The letter dropped to the floor.
"Rodolphus!" Rabastan forced himself to his knees.
A cold wind shattered the high window behind them, and the massive fire blew out.
There was something else in the room with them. Rabastan knew that as surely as he knew that it was dark. But he was far more concerned with his brother, who was still clutching at his throat.
A footstep sounded near them, and a second later, a distinctive silvery-blue glow lit the room, making Rabastan jerk back in shock. No one who could find them should have known how to cast a Patronus.
Particularly not the massive jaguar crouched there, staring at them through eyes that appeared to shine with distant flames of rage.
Rabastan turned back to Rodolphus in time to see a slender figure in a dark cloak stoop over him. Rabastan shouted and groped for the wand that Bella had found and sent him, but reflexes and muscles still weary from Azkaban betrayed him. He toppled over, spasming for a moment on the floor as the wand rolled out of his grasp.
When he managed to get upright, or semi-upright, again, the hole in his brother's chest was the first thing he saw. The beating heart in the stranger's hand was the second.
"You—" Rabastan stared at the stranger, whose face was still shrouded by that heavy hood. There were no words for what he wanted to say, to curse the wizard who had taken his brother away from him after they had survived Azkaban together and finally been back on the road to freedom and vengeance and serving their Lord.
"Don't worry," the stranger said, his voice ringing like a harsh, distant bell. "You won't be separated for long. I need two hearts for this ritual."
Rabastan lunged, wand in hand, and the Patronus leaped on him and held him down with one paw that shouldn't have been so heavy and so warm. Then again, Rabastan had only known one person who could cast a corporeal Patronus, and Severus wasn't here.
The hysterical, scrabbling thoughts in his head slid to an abrupt stop as the stranger knelt next to him and drew out a blood-caked knife. Rabastan's gaze darted to his brother's heart, and saw it was still beating. His gorge rose.
"I'm doing a ritual to alter the laws of magic so a particular thing is no longer possible," the wizard told him, as the air around Rabastan turned tight and cold. "I need hearts that go on into the future."
Rabastan cursed and cried and struggled, but the jaguar held him still. And the knife dug deep with no hint of pain, perhaps because the stranger had used magic to soften the blow under the idea that he could be merciful.
He died with his brother's name on his lips, or would have if he could have got the breath to say it.
Amelia Bones lifted her chin as she stood with her back to her home, facing the five Death Eaters that had been sent to kill her. One would die of his injuries before the evening was out, she judged, and another within a day or two. She had done as well as could be expected.
She was still going to die. Her chest ached for Susan, who would be alone, but she couldn't get out of this trap. It was best to face reality. At least she knew she had left everything to Susan in her will, properly, and her niece would never want for anything.
Except her aunt who loves her.
One of the Death Eaters opened his mouth behind the white mask to taunt her, and then stopped abruptly. A second swallowed loudly, and the one who was the most injured fumbled and dropped his wand.
Amelia tensed and looked over her shoulder, having no idea of what she would see. What could possibly scare hardened Death Eaters?
A slender figure in a grey cloak, it appeared. Amelia almost called out to the wizard she thought must be an Unspeakable, but caught herself. It didn't look like the cloaks the Unspeakables wore. And for all she knew, this could be a higher-ranking Death Eater who had come to make sure the kill was finished.
Or so she thought until the figure reached up and drew back the hood. Amelia still couldn't see the face, but she felt the magic that burst out from the wizard—witch?—cold and all-encompassing, like rain made of iron filling the air.
A Death Eater she'd only scratched lost her nerve and cast suddenly. A bolt of lightning zipped towards the figure, only to sputter and die like a poorly-cast Incendio before getting anywhere near it. The sheer power around them, Amelia guessed, had removed the power from the spell.
"We'll go away," the nervous Death Eater babbled in the ensuing silence.
"What are you talking about?" snapped the leader, whom Amelia was sure was Walden Macnair. "We serve the Dark Lord! We accomplish the missions he gives us! In his name!" And four of the five threw up their wands and cast.
The figure had pointed its own wand in the meanwhile. Amelia was standing too far away, and the light from the moon and her own tattered wards was too low, to make out what kind of wood it was.
The multiple spells died in the same way the single bolt of lightning had, and Amelia saw the stranger hadn't even bothered with a shield. The voice sounded as if it had a manic smile in it when it said, "Sectumsempra rapax."
Amelia had no idea what the incantation meant, and neither did the Death Eaters from the shields they tried to raise against it. All of which were useless.
Amelia jumped despite herself when an invisible blade sliced Macnair right through the middle of the chest, parting the two halves of his body. A force sliced the air, too, no longer invisible but touched at the edges with flying blood. Amelia thought it looked like nothing so much as a pair of whirling swords joined at the hilt.
It turned and came back, slicing through and killing the Death Eater who had flung the bolt of lightning, and reversed again—close enough to Amelia that she could feel its passing ruffle her robes—and killed the Death Eater Amelia had thought would die of his injuries first, and then the second-most-injured one, and then the last. All of them screamed horribly as they perished.
None of them had a chance.
Amelia stared at the motionless bodies on the ground, and swallowed at the amount of blood and viscera spilling out of them. She turned and stared at the figure.
"Who are you?" she whispered.
"You could call me a friend of a friend," said the figure, its voice muffled and calm. Now that was something that did sound like an Unspeakable, the voice charmed to give no hint of the gender or cadence.
"I couldn't," Amelia snapped. "None of my friends would kill like that."
The figure laughed. "I didn't say what kind of friend it was."
And it vanished. Amelia heard no sound of Apparating, but between one moment and the next, the wizard was—not there.
Amelia closed her eyes and pressed a bloodied hand to her forehead. Then she staggered over to her wand and went to unlock her door, which she'd been meaning to do when the Death Eaters had caught her, and Floo the Ministry.
Theodore had hesitated a long time before he sent the owl, because he wasn't a fool. But in the end, his longing to know was stronger than his fear of how Potter might react.
The owl had carried only a single piece of parchment with the words scribed on it, Were you involved in what happened to my second cousin Edward the other night?
The owl came back faster than Theodore had thought it would. Then again, he wasn't actually sure that Potter lived in London the way the papers claimed he did. Or he might have been somewhere else when the bird found him.
Theodore looked at it for a long moment. Of course he wasn't surprised that Potter had answered him. Theodore had sworn an oath not to betray Potter's secrets or him, and even if he hadn't, it wasn't like he could go to the Aurors and complain about someone killing his cousin while Edward was involved in illegal Death Eater activities.
But still, the single word on the paper made Theodore be quiet for a long time.
"That is enough. I want to know what's going on."
Normally, Remus would have done everything he could to keep the hint of a growl out of his voice, but he truly couldn't stand it a moment longer. He had smelled enough Dark Arts around the house for the last few days to know that someone was dabbling in them, and while his original suspicion had been Sirius, and then Draco, neither of them smelled like it when he got close enough to them at meals.
Harry did, though.
And now Remus had broken through the door that Harry and Sirius had set up a Potions lab behind. He hadn't even cared if they were in the middle of a complicated ritual or brewing right at the moment. The magic on the door hadn't been able to stand up to his werewolf strength, and that was all that mattered.
Sirius stared at him. He was sitting in a chair not far from a table that was covered in parchment, which in turn was covered with what looked like hundreds of circles. Remus tensed his muscles against the impulse to go investigate them. No. He was going to make Harry and Sirius listen to him.
"Remus. Was there something you wanted?"
Harry's voice was so calm and cold that Remus felt as if someone had struck him. He stared at Harry. Harry stood behind the table with his hand resting on the parchment and a quill. He looked impatient, slightly bored.
And he smelled as though he had cast all three Unforgiveables at once.
"I know that you're corrupting yourself," Remus snapped. "Probably in the name of saving the world or whatever. You have to stop, Harry. Nothing is worth this level of staining your soul."
"Even to serve the greater good?"
Remus jumped, a little. He hadn't been aware that Harry was close enough to Albus to know about his favorite phrase. "What? No. Not even that. Why are you casting Dark Arts, Harry?"
"It's necessary to combat Voldemort," Harry said patiently. "We know he's risen again. That's the information Draco brought me. And—"
"Then someone else can fight him!" Remus shouted. Sirius rocked back in his chair and whistled beneath his breath, but Harry didn't flinch, just kept watching him with eyes that seemed to have taken on a slight, eerie, wolf-like glow. "Leave it up to Albus! Or the Order of the Phoenix. He can get them back together, as soon as he knows that You-Know-Who is back. Just because he came after you when you were a baby doesn't mean that you need to turn yourself into some kind of Death Eater trying to fight him, Harry."
Remus knew he was pleading as he ended, but he didn't know what else to say. And Harry continued to watch him instead of dismissing him right away, which was honestly better than the reception Remus had expected to get.
"Some kind of Death Eater," Harry repeated, softly.
Sirius abruptly stood and grabbed Remus's arm. "We're going to leave now," he said, his grin false and exaggerated, and Remus was so stupefied that he let Sirius hustle him out of the room before he could even think of fighting back.
When they were on the other side of the door, Remus whirled around, intending to get back through it. But a haze of silvery mist seemed to cover the knob, and when he reached out, a shock flashed up his hand from his arm and hurt him.
"You don't mind this?" Remus snapped, whirling on his best friend. "You don't care if he corrupts himself in his pursuit of vengeance?"
"He's not going to," Sirius said. "And it would take someone stronger than you or me to stop him."
"Using Dark Arts leads to corruption, Sirius. Always."
"Then why do you still associate with Alastor, when he cast Unforgivables during the war?" Sirius snapped, unexpectedly, and stepped so close to Remus that Remus had to retreat or be driven into the wall. "Why do you still look up to Albus, when you know that some of those charms he attached to Death Eaters' clothing that killed them later were Dark? Why do you think Harry is safe around a werewolf? Or Snivellus is safe teaching children?"
Remus clenched his hands. "They were—we're all adults," he said hoarsely. "We can make our own choices, including how to stop the corruption. Harry is just a child. He won't know better."
He stumbled to a halt again, this time because of the very weird look Sirius was giving him. "What are you staring at me for?" he demanded.
"How can you have stayed with us so often in the last few years and not have figured out that Harry is anything but a child?"
"He's fifteen, Sirius."
"Sixteen in a few weeks—but that's not the point." Sirius ran a shaking hand through his hair. "Remus, I promise you, I would back Harry in a fight against trained Aurors. He knows what he's doing."
"Why do you keep saying that?"
"I can't tell you. I swore an oath to him."
"This is—this is going too far, Sirius." Remus felt shaky, as though someone had shocked him or slapped him minutes ago and he was still feeling the effects. "It's one thing to trust Harry, to love him and take care of him, but you shouldn't just be giving him oaths willy-nilly!"
"I considered it carefully. As in, he wouldn't have let me in at all, and then no one would know what he was doing, if I hadn't given him that oath."
Remus closed his eyes. He had a headache, and he had no idea what to do next, now that his best idea of convincing Sirius had failed. "But you have to see that no sacrifice can be worth Harry using Dark Arts to this extent."
"What about getting rid of Voldemort and all the Death Eaters?"
Remus opened his eyes with a frown. "There isn't a way to do that."
"There is," Sirius said, and then wouldn't say any more about it, no matter how many times Remus prodded him.
Remus finally fell back on, "You know I have to tell Albus about Harry using Dark Arts."
"If you do that, Harry will never speak to you again, and neither will I."
Remus opened his mouth, then closed it. He wished he could believe that Sirius was exaggerating or joking, but the look on his face was too reminiscent of the closed, warded door in front of them for Remus to do so.
He stared at the closed door for a long moment, wondering who Harry Potter really was. Then he turned and walked away, because he knew none of the answers would make sense in any case.
Lord Voldemort had long since descended into the middle of deep and quiet rage.
Someone was killing his Death Eaters. Someone had slaughtered Rabastan and Rodolphus in such a way that it suggested their hearts had been taken for ritual sacrifice. Who it could have been, Lord Voldemort could not imagine. There were no other Dark wizards as powerful as he was in these islands, and a foreign wizard would likely have announced his or her presence by now. Albus and his bleating little followers would never have practiced such Dark Arts.
And he still did not have the prophecy or know the exact wording.
He had called to Severus, sending such pain through the Dark Mark as he expected to kill the man if he did not come crawling back. But there had been no response. And if Severus was not dead now, he was surely behind the strongest wards Albus could raise. That way of finding something out was closed to him. His Inner Circle was dead or in full retreat. Augustus Rookwood had never responded to the owl Lord Voldemort had sent him.
The only option remaining to him was Divination, which might be enough to compel the full prophecy to manifest in front of him, or even summon the prophecy orb from the Department of Mysteries. To that end, Lord Voldemort had hunted and captured a unicorn, and staked it out, still living, on the ritual stone he had raised in the Malfoys' garden. It belled with terror as he bent to read its entrails.
He recoiled sharply, stumbling so that Bella's long hair whipped around him. Every piece of the unicorn's viscera was crisscrossed with the same dark, slashing message.
Death. Death. Death. Run. Run, Run.
How could he have death coming for him? He was Lord Voldemort. He had his Horcruxes, and Nagini at last completed the set of six he had been working towards. A masterful wizard with seven shards of soul anchoring him to the material plane? It was preposterous.
Perhaps he did not remember enough of Divination to get an accurate reading? That seemed far more plausible.
A sharp sound rippled across the air, and Lord Voldemort lifted his head as the wards around the Manor fell. He gripped his wand and said nothing. Perhaps allowing young Draco to escape had been a mistake.
"Speaking to Draco was worth it just for the key to the wards."
The voice that spoke wasn't one Lord Voldemort recognized, although it had a hint of familiarity. Perhaps someone he had known before his years as a wraith, or an Auror who had followed Dumbledore.
Then the person walked towards him and stopped on the other side of the ritual stone from where he had the unicorn staked, raising the hood of the simple cloak that covered his face.
Or not, Lord Voldemort thought, before the fathomless black star of rage in his chest ignited.
"Harry Potter," he said, and ignored that Bellatrix's voice didn't sound the way his would have at the moment, the way he would have wanted his to sound. "You are most welcome. I will use your heart in a sacrificial ritual of my own design." It would give him back his own body, but there was no need to tell Potter that.
"Oh, well, I hate to make you feel like a copycat, but," Potter said, and slung a bag from over his shoulder. When he turned it upside-down, two glittering crystal balls almost like those used in Divination classes rolled out and over to the right and left of Potter. The crystal faded like mist, and Lord Voldemort saw that each contained a heart.
Which was beating.
Lord Voldemort stared at them, and then snapped his eyes up to Potter. Potter had already removed his cloak and was taking his wand out of his holster. He swung his arms back and forth as if warming up for some Muggle exercise routine.
"Who are you?" Lord Voldemort whispered. He knew what appearances said, and now the memory of the voice he had heard from the back of Quirrell's head was coming to him. But this man could not be Potter, no matter what outer appearances proclaimed, no matter his Slytherin Sorting. Potter would never do anything like this.
"Your worst nightmare," Potter said, and smiled. The smile was like a slash down his face, like the slash of the answer across the unicorn's intestines.
Death. Death. Death. Run. Run. Run.
But Lord Voldemort would not believe that. He could not believe that. He had Nagini, and he had the other Horcruxes. No matter what kind of force or demon this was wearing Potter's face, and using two beating hearts, there was no possible way—
Potter flicked his wand abruptly to the side, and Fiendfyre tore out of it, baleful, glittering. It swept around Nagini as she slithered up behind Potter, and she shrieked as it wrapped and consumed her. Lord Voldemort shrieked at the same time, because Fiendfyre was one of the few ways known that would destroy a Horcrux.
The flames thinned and vanished, and Lord Voldemort dared to hope for a moment that they were not Fiendfyre, because he had never seen someone have such control of the spell. But then he saw the mutilated husk of Nagini's body, and the beating heart rising out of it, and landing in front of Potter so as to form the third point of a triangle.
Potter's green eyes looked at him, harsh, unforgiving as the Cruciatus, while the pockets of his robes stirred and two objects floated out of them. One, a small stone that also sang of familiarity to a distant part of Lord Voldemort's memory, landed next to the heart on the left. The next, obviously an invisibility cloak from the way it made part of the grass disappear, draped itself over the heart on the right.
Lord Voldemort's mind was braying with fear, and he dared not look down at the unicorn's entrails and what they would say to him now. But he reminded himself that now was not the time to panic. He had five other Horcruxes.
Besides, this ritual, if Potter truly meant to invoke the shadow of the Deathly Hallows, would not work with only two of them, or rather, the inferior imitations that Potter had managed to buy or beg or borrow somewhere.
"You do not have the wand, Potter," he said. "The Elder Wand. The ritual would not be complete without it."
Potter laughed aloud, and held the wand in his hand over the heart in front of him, Nagini's beating heart. Lord Voldemort stared at it, and saw the carvings of berries there, and the elder wood it was made of.
"No," he breathed. "It is impossible."
"I'm afraid not," Potter said, and his voice was deep and joyous and seemed to extend above the sky and below the earth. "I do have the Deathly Hallows. The Elder Wand that Grindelwald and Albus Dumbledore once possessed. The Invisibility Cloak that has been passed down in my family for generations, from the Peverell line. The Resurrection Stone that came from the ring that once belonged to a family called the Gaunts."
Lord Voldemort had not been struck in the face since his distant Muggle childhood. This was like that, but worse. This was a flash of icy cold fear that consumed him for the first time since that Halloween night when he had—
Faced this same boy.
"No," he whispered again, with his throat tighter this time. "No."
"The ring, Tom," Potter said, his lips lifting in a wolf's smile of triumph. "The diadem. The locket. The cup. The diary. All of them taken and destroyed with Fiendfyre or basilisk venom." He lowered his head and watched Lord Voldemort. "And now Nagini. How does it feel to be made mortal?"
Lord Voldemort took a step back, and his gaze full unwillingly on the staked unicorn. The beast had died, when he did not know, but the entrails still spoke their message.
Not what he faced. Who.
A soft glow was building around the beating hearts and the Deathly Hallows. The cloak had edges of silver, the stone of black. The Elder Wand shone a brilliant red, brighter than Fiendfyre, brighter than blood, brighter than the end of the world.
"This need not be so," Lord Voldemort said, and kept his balance, kept his voice as calm as he could. "I could use a partner, obviously, someone who could watch out for foolish mistakes I might have ignored and guard my back. What do you say, Harry Potter? Will you be my equal, as I seem to have marked you that night without meaning to?"
For some reason, the last words made Potter laugh with what seemed like genuine amusement. But he stopped soon enough, and shook his head. "Oh, no, Tom, sorry. I'm far too busy. And I have something to give back to you."
"You will not find me so easy to kill," Lord Voldemort hissed, falling into Parseltongue. It had been long and long since he had used that language to power his magic—Bellatrix's body would degrade more quickly with it, and with Quirrell it had not been possible—but he could feel the deep, mad desire coming back to him now. Better to lose his body and wander a wraith again than to die here.
"I know that, Tom," Harry Potter hissed back.
"How?" This last revelation blew open the doors in Lord Voldemort's soul, and he found himself raging and hissing as he had not since the last time he had been in his own body. "How? There is no one else alive who is Slytherin's Heir, the descendant of Gaunt and Salazar! Tell me!"
"I was your last Horcrux, Tom. Your soul was so fragile a piece broke off that night and lodged in me." Potter smiled again, and the silver fire and the black and the red surged up and covered him in a multi-layered, constantly shifting, cloak of color. "I'm here to return it to you." He took a deep breath, and the next words he spoke were in Latin. "Reverto animam consceleratam!"
The air and ground shook, and private thunder consumed Lord Voldemort. He saw something bladed and tumbling fly out of Potter and spin and speed towards him, shining black and gold and sickly green.
And Potter roared another spell, one Lord Voldemort did not recognize, while the Horcrux was in flight.
"Destruo ollam animae, et nunc et in perpetuum!"
The world whipped around, and for a moment, Lord Voldemort thought he was wrapped in the coils of a giant snake that was writhing in agony, pierced by a sharp blade, a blade that had turned and was sawing sideways and down and through him, and—
And there was nothing, now and forever.
Sirius sat in Grimmauld Place and stared at the circles that had been scratched on the parchments. Remus was unhappy, and had made himself such a nuisance that Sirius had finally barked at him to get out. He wanted to sit and stew in unhappy silence that Harry hadn't allowed Sirius to come with him.
And he still hadn't told Sirius exactly what he was working on, with all his equations and his circles.
On the other hand, Sirius was just as capable of reading the tomes of Divination that the Black family library had as Harry was, and Harry seemed to have walked out with copies of half the Hogwarts library at some point. He'd devoured three books while Harry worked, and now, as Sirius sat and looked at the circles, an idea unfolded in his mind, as limpid as clear water.
Suppose that you were obsessed with the threat of Horcruxes. You wanted to make sure their widespread use never happened again. You might do your best to confiscate and destroy all the books that mentioned Horcruxes, kill people who had the advanced knowledge to make them, and spend the rest of your life vigilantly watching out for them.
Now, imagine that you were not obsessed. You were fucking consumed with the threat of them. Destroying books and people and watching out for the rest of your life wouldn't be enough.
You would make it…
Sirius's breathing sped up, and the equations writhed and changed on the parchments as he watched. Suddenly the numbers added up to the right answers. The circles spread out and no longer overlapped.
The equations were changing right in front of Sirius's eyes.
He shrank back on the chair, panting, his own fear and awe thundering in his ears.
You would make it impossible for anyone to ever construct a Horcrux again. You would alter magical law if you had to.
You would change the future to make it impossible.
As Sirius watched, the equations went on writhing, and new numbers appeared, and he didn't know them, and he didn't know the processes they were speeding through, and he couldn't understand how the circles danced and wove around each other. For a moment, a blinding fire seemed to ignite in his brain, and Sirius cried out and covered his eyes.
The pain faded. Sirius opened his eyes and blinked at the equations and circles, which were once again impossible to understand.
You would make—
You would make what impossible?
Sirius couldn't remember. He couldn't remember what Harry had been working to tackle. He couldn't remember what Voldemort had done to become immortal, couldn't remember what Harry had been hunting and so obsessed with preventing. He clearly remembered the oath Harry had made him swear not to tell Remus, the weight of his wand in his hand, but not the content. The words simply gaped apart in his memory.
And then they sealed. Sirius shook his head slowly. He hadn't lost his memory. He knew he hadn't. Harry had asked him to vow not to tell Remus about the Dark Arts he would use to confront Voldemort, and Sirius had sworn he wouldn't. He frowned a little. What an odd thing to think he had forgotten.
The door to the library opened.
Sirius surged to his feet and ran over to him. Harry was limping, had burns all over his arms and hands, and had a long gash deep in his right palm that looked as if his wand had exploded there. But he was smiling.
And alive, alive, alive!
Sirius gathered Harry into his arms and swung him exuberantly around. Harry laughed and hugged him and even danced with him when Sirius put him down. He was there, he was real, he was warm, he was breathing.
James, Lily, I didn't fail after all.
"What happened to your hand?" Sirius asked, when he could finally stop hugging his godson enough to give Harry time to breathe.
"Oh," Harry said, and smiled a little sheepishly. "My wand did explode. I suppose I'll need to go to Ollivander's and get one after all." His smile widened a bit. "Funny, you know, I can almost see the one that's waiting for me."
Sirius didn't give a shit about Harry's odd phrasing and emphasis right now. He simply hugged him again.
Severus moved the robe away from his arm and stared down at the Mark that he had borne for nearly twenty years. It was nothing more now than a faint grey outline of a snake and a skull on his skin.
And as he watched, even that sifted into ash and rained down onto the stones.
Severus slumped back in his chair, eyes closed. He had no idea how or why it had happened, after the feral thing he had seen walking around beneath Potter's skin, but he was nevertheless sure that Potter had succeeded in destroying the Dark Lord.
And that meant…
Severus felt a nearly manic smile widen over his face, and he scrambled for ink and parchment.
He would need to go to Albus's office and tell him what had happened, but in the meantime, he might as well write his resignation letter, so he could take it with him.
Draco jerked out of sleep when his bedroom door opened. Potter stood there, watching him with quiet eyes, no sign of the power that he had wielded to make Draco listen to him months ago hovering around him now.
But the quietude meant Draco could ask a question. "You've destroyed him?"
"He's gone. Your mother's avenged."
Draco rolled over, and began to weep. He heard the door shut.
At least Potter has that much kindness, he thought dimly, before he lost himself to his tears, and his relief.
I can release you from your oath.
Theodore stared at the bottom of the letter, not understanding. Then he went back and read it from the top again.
Oh. That was what Potter meant. He had destroyed the Dark Lord. Therefore, he thought Theodore wouldn't want to follow him anymore, because he didn't need anyone's protection from a monster that didn't exist.
Theodore finished the letter again and sighed wearily, staring up at the ceiling of his bedroom.
Potter hadn't listened to the full explanation Theodore had given him, no matter how much it might have seemed that way. Yes, the Dark Lord had fallen—Theodore didn't doubt that for a second—but that only meant Theodore would be vulnerable to the next powerful wizard to come along if he didn't have Potter's protection.
In Theodore's case, that meant his father.
Theodore got out his own ink and parchment, and began his letter calmly. Potter, you idiot…
Luna lay on her back under the stars with her hands folded behind her head, humming to herself. The stars shone above her, and she waved to a shooting one as it went by, wondering what they felt when they looked down on the earth. Perhaps one of them was watching her back, although probably not with its hands behind its head.
Luna got distracted wondering what stars had instead of hands for a while, but then her thoughts wandered back home. They always did in the end.
She had felt as if an oppressive weight had disappeared from her mind when she woke this morning. She had made promises, she thought. She remembered the promise not to become a necromancer. But there had been something else, something heavier and darker. She knew there had been.
It had disappeared like a puff of smoke. She didn't know what it had been anymore.
Her father would have cautioned her, Luna knew. Memory loss was a known symptom of spending too much time around Blithering Humdingers. But in this case, she didn't think that was it. She just thought something good had happened, and the weight had disappeared because she no longer needed to bear it. She would never be picking it up again.
And that meant she could spend time around Harry, her first human friend.
Luna smiled and got up, skipping back home. If another shooting star came by, it would just have to look down on the earth by itself for a while.
Hermione stepped into the compartment with Ron and Harry and immediately exclaimed, "Fuck you!"
"Hermione!" Ron sounded scandalized.
And the bastard was laughing at her. Hermione stomped her foot. "You got rid of your secrets, Harry bloody Potter! I can see it in your eyes! You're smiling with your whole face now! You never even told me what all of them were!"
To her embarrassment, she almost wailed the last word. Ron winced. Harry's face took on a thoughtful cast, and he said, "Listen. The fact that I got rid of a lot of them means that I can tell you what they actually were, now. Wouldn't you prefer that? To know what they were, and have me share any other new ones I would have had to keep from you as they come up in the future, rather than have known them all at the time?"
Hermione stared at him, calculating the odds of getting Harry to cough up any other offer, and decided they weren't good. She sighed. "Fine. But it would have been nice to know them all at the time."
"I didn't know them all, either," Ron offered, like it was supposed to console her.
"You don't know how to walk and breathe half the time," Hermione snapped.
As they settled into a familiar fight, she saw Harry smiling at them. And yes, it was with his whole face.
I suppose that's a trade worth any amount of secrets, Hermione thought, reluctantly.
Harry glanced up from the homework in front of them with a bemused smile. "For what? I told you, Ron, I'm not going to write your essay for you."
"Not that." Ron leaned forwards and lowered his voice a little. "I overheard the twins complaining this summer."
"Oh? About what?"
Harry's eyes had got a bit hard, but he'd never once lashed out at Ron when he looked this way, so Ron ignored it and pushed on. "That you didn't give them anything to do after a certain point in July because you told them they should focus on their joke shop. Up until that point they had been spying on some people for you and inventing some things you used in battle."
"So you're thanking me for giving the twins steady employment?"
"No." Ron rolled his eyes. "I know you killed You-Know-Who. You must have." He breathed out slowly. "Seriously, Harry, thank you."
Harry looked as if he would protest for a second. Then he laughed lightly and said, "That assumes Voldemort was ever actually back, of course."
But he reached out and squeezed Ron's hand hard, for a second.
Ron just nodded and smiled and said, "Of course," and then went back to wrestling with NEWT Charms, which he had, all thanks to Harry and Hermione, actually earned an OWL in.
Remus sat with his hands folded, trembling, on the letter Harry had sent him. Remus had sent him a long one apologizing for assuming that Harry would succumb to the lure of Dark Arts, but also explaining how strongly it had smelled to a werewolf's nose, and trying to explain why he had thought it would be a good idea for Harry to let others handle problems in the future, that he had survived the confrontation with You-Know-Who this time but might not survive the consequences of going down the Dark Arts path…
He had babbled a lot in that letter, honestly. And Harry hadn't replied for five days. Remus had called at Grimmauld Place, but Harry had already left for Hogwarts, and Sirius had been cool at best.
Focus, coward, Remus scolded himself, in a voice that sounded a lot like James's. He finally tore the seal and opened the letter.
All is forgiven. Just please shut up about the Dark Arts, and please consider going to a Mind-Healer. You need to learn to love yourself, werewolf and all.
Come home. Sirius mopes when you're not there.
"You wanted to see me, sir?"
"Yes." Albus watched as Harry Potter stepped into his office for the first time. He glanced around once, and then smiled as Fawkes launched himself off his perch, flew over, landed on his shoulder, and almost fell off with how hard he was rubbing his crest against Harry's chin.
Albus managed to close his mouth after a moment, and then clear his throat. "I take it you're the friend I could never persuade Fawkes to tell me about?" Some things did come clear now.
Although others didn't. The Potters had never shown a trace of talent in Divination, and Lily never had, either. How Harry had known that the little Veela girl had a heart condition, or how to defeat Voldemort—if he had—was as much of a mystery as ever.
"Yes, sorry, sir." Harry looked unrepentant as he scratched Fawkes's head and sat down in the chair on the other side of Albus's desk. Fawkes promptly tilted his head so that his vulnerable neck feathers were exposed. Albus was pleased to see that Harry understood the gesture and what an honor it was, running his fingers through them with utmost gentleness. "I asked him not to."
"Why not?" Albus couldn't help feeling hurt, couldn't help showing it. "Did you not trust me, Harry?"
Harry petted the phoenix for a long time instead of answering. He looked up at last and met Albus's eyes, and the depth of understanding and sympathy there made Albus sit back.
"You were faced with temptation once, when you were young," Harry said softly. "You were tempted to rule the world with Gellert at your side. And you said no and turned away, but it cost you."
"How—how did you know—"
Albus couldn't get the words out, and anyway, Harry was going on. "And then you were faced with it again, when Gellert confronted you on that battlefield and offered to join you, or have you join him, instead of going to prison or dying. You turned away from it. But it was hard.
"You were tempted with the Minister's job. You were tempted with overstepping your bounds as Headmaster and Chief Warlock. You were tempted with the kinds of rewards and fame you could have had as a phoenix's companion, if you'd exploited his feathers and tears a bit more."
Fawkes gave a cheerful chirrup from Harry's shoulder. Albus couldn't look at him.
"You've faced temptation so many times, sir, and wrestled it down." Harry took in and released a long, heavy breath. "Forgive me if I wanted to protect you from having to face it again."
Albus looked long and deeply into Harry's eyes, not with Legilimency, but because it was what he needed to do. And he was sure, no matter how he had learned it, that the knowledge beaming back at him from Harry's face and words was sincere.
Harry shouldn't have had to protect him, being a child.
But then, Ariana shouldn't have died, or been attacked the way she was. Lily and James shouldn't have died that Halloween night. Sirius shouldn't have spent twelve wrongful years in prison.
It was much better to live with what was, Albus had long since learned, then waste your time wandering in regretful thoughts of what could have been.
"Thank you, my dear boy," he finally whispered. "And, I must ask—all trace of Voldemort is entirely gone?"
"All of it," Harry said, and his hand made a soft gesture towards the scar on his forehead, the scar that Albus had once thought was some kind of link to Voldemort that meant the boy might have to die. Funny, he couldn't quite remember why he had thought that.
But Harry had lived. He would continue to live.
And did Albus have to know every detail of his life, have to try and control it?
He did not.
Albus faced temptation again, and again turned away from it.
"Well," Albus said, and smiled as he watched Harry run his fingers through Fawkes's feathers once more. "What will you do with your life now, do you think?"
Harry grinned. "Something with Arithmancy or Runes or both, sir. They're fascinating. And I'll also try to make sure that my friends are happy. And Sirius says we can travel the world together. I'm really looking forward to that…"
Albus let him talk until he was no longer comfortable talking, and Harry stood to leave. Fawkes left his shoulder only reluctantly.
"Harry," Albus added, and the young man glanced over his shoulder. "You know that a wizard does not live forever. It would please me very much if you would consider providing a home for Fawkes when I am on my next great adventure."
Harry grinned. "He already asked, sir, and I already said yes."
After a moment, Albus laughed. Harry's grin widened, and he leaned across the desk to shake Albus's hand. Then he left.
Albus sat in contented silence in his office, filled with the pleasures of letting go of control.
After a moment, Fawkes began to sing. And in the glorious swell of that song, Albus got back to living, himself.