Disclaimer in Chapter 1.

Chapter XXI: Dust and Ashes

When Harry opened his eyes, the world had shifted again.

This time the scene before him was straight out of a dream: Twisting ebon spires embedded with countless thousands of brilliant white pinpricks of light, without a single door or window in sight. Not a single point of reference to judge how long or wide or tall this place was. The only thing he could measure was the distance between him and the three people standing at the far end of the room, who were so well illuminated by the strange white lights that he could make out their faces even from this distance.

It gave the room a warped, distorted feel; he couldn't even tell where the floor ended and the walls began. No shoes had been provided, but the incredibly hard floor was almost precisely the same temperature as his feet. It was disconcerting.

Walking steadily towards the man he'd met once at the Blackholme Institute, he stopped perhaps twenty yards away and surveyed him.

Lucas Winters was dressed identically to him, in Roman fashion—a white linen tunic and a belt of wide, intricately tooled leather, with thick leather bracers on each forearm. A golden _ (wreath of leaves, circlet) was twisted around his head. Like Harry, he was barefoot.

Dr. Winters, whose hands were visibly trembling now, spoke into the expanse, "Forgive my love of pageantry, but—as this is perhaps the most important day of my entire life—I've indulged my theatrical whim. I am glad you have followed my instructions precisely; you look every bit a warrior of legend."

"What have you done to Ginny?" Harry asked, feeling the pressure build behind his temples. Despite the panic he felt at seeing her sitting so still, looking so blank and lifeless, he had to remain calm: the success of his mission depended on it.

"I have merely disconnected her afferent mechanisms from her memory centers. She is still cognizant and easily returnable to her previous condition. Do not worry for her safety, it is your own that you must focus on."

"And if I don't?" Harry asked quietly. "What if I just took her and left?"

Lucas Winters's face hardened as his fists clenched. "You can't leave. The only way out is through my portal balls. You cannot apparate or portkey. Even assuming you could get out of here, it wouldn't do you any good. She is mine now, she will do as I say. If I told her to leap to her death, she'd do it happily. The moment you relaxed, the moment you closed your eyes to sleep, I'd have her try to kill you. You will stay, and you will fight me. To the death."

"Are you that eager to die, Lucas?" Harry's words rang like steel in the hollow chamber.

A feral smile split Dr. Winters's face. "That's the spirit, Harry. Right now, standing across from you, I am not alone in this world anymore. You are the only wizard worthy of my respect, the only wizard who can cause me fear. You can fill this hollow ache in my chest and make me come alive. That is why you will fight me—because I have not yet lived."

Harry's brow wrinkled in thought. The way Dr. Winters spoke of being alone sounded so much like his own aching loneliness; that empty space in his chest that came not from being unloved, but unrivaled in the world. This was what Lucas Winters required to fill the ragged hole in his chest.

But why? Why was this man so willing to cut away his humanity? In the few months that Harry had been at Hogwarts, he'd learned so many things that had nothing to do with combat; things that were as intrinsic as breathing.

"Isn't there any other way? We don't have to do this, Lucas."

Lucas's face twisted—his dark eyes were vicious and inhuman with rage, "You will fight me with every last inch of yourself! If you don't, I will find every single person you've ever met and burn them alive, I will destroy your school until no stone rests on top of another. I will torture your godfather for an entire decade before I allow him the respite of death. If you won't fight me, I will take from you everything that you hold dear! I will have my challenge! Do you hear me, Harry Potter?"

Harry let shock wash over him as Dr. Winters's words registered. "Very well. Will Ginny be released if I kill you?"

Lucas nodded, his smile once again pleasant and supportive. The change from his rage was instantaneous, like flicking off a switch. It was unnerving. "I've set custody of both of my bonds to transfer to you if I die, to do with as you please. Release them or kill them, it will not matter so long as you give me my challenge."

Draco shot an incredulous glare at his Master, feeling a sharp sting of betrayal. After everything he'd done for Dr. Winters, he was still nothing more than a tool to be broken and thrown away. He'd known that he was a tool, but he had thought himself irreplaceable—made for a thousand years. So hearing his Master say that his most faithful servant's life was worthless, that the only thing that mattered was this fight... It cut him deeply, for reasons he didn't fully understand.

The Boy who Lived drew his wand, nodding at his enemy as he raised the Deathstick skyward in salute. "You will have your challenge, Lucas." Inhaling deeply through his nostrils, he held his breath for a six-count and exhaled sharply. The world snapped into focus as icewater flooded his veins once more.

Lucas grinned widely, raising his arms out and shouting, "I will erect a statue here to honor your memory, Harry Potter! You will never be forgotten; I will look back on this memory every single day with regret, because nothing on earth will challenge me as you will! So come to me, Harry! Come and die!"

No matter how assured Dr. Winters was of his own superiority, he knew that he could not afford to treat this duel with anything less than his full attention and lethality. His opponent was the Boy who Lived, who had beaten Voldemort one-on-one. And now it was his turn to test himself against the greatest monster that the world had ever known.

His hands, which had been shaking from restraining his magic from lashing out in his excitement, flexed into tight fists. He had no need for such a mundane weapon as a wand; his father designed his limbs to act as magical foci all on their own, without the need for a proxy. His entire body, from toes to fingertips to forehead, was a conduit for his magic.

So he gathered it. All of it. Every scrap of his magic flooded through his veins, expanding hotly. He let out a jubilant hiss as he filled to overflowing and the excess began radiating off of his body in waves with his heartbeat.

Harry's face tightened as he followed suit, gathering his magic around him, and Dr. Winters knew that his plan had succeeded—Harry Potter had never been more powerful. It was magnificent to behold.

Draco felt his heartbeat struggling against his ribs, trying vainly to get anywhere else. There was nothing to do but stand aside and let his master's work be done, but standing here suddenly seemed a terrible idea. He'd been so sure of his master's inevitable victory, since he'd seen first-hand the awesome power that he commanded, but this...

He thought he'd seen the full measure of the Boy who Lived—he'd beaten to the last inch of his life, for Merlin's sake—but nothing that day, nor ever, had prepared him for the wizard before him today.

He felt the magic in the air, of course, but who could've guessed that Potter's power was every bit as terrifying as his master's? If anything it seemed even more dominant, and that shook Draco to his soul.

His mind was filled with thoughts, spinning so fast that he could barely keep hold of them. His master could lose this fight. His master didn't seem invincible anymore. His master would give him up to die just for the chance to fight this boy.

But overlaid beyond every thought—So this is Harry Potter.

For the first time since his master called to him in that dank, disgusting cell at Azkaban, Draco Malfoy felt a very real pinch of fear.

The Boy who Lived was emanating magic in the visible spectrum of light now, causing motes of magic to swirl and pulse dimly in the strangely bright room; the air around him crackled and sparked with quiet intensity. His eyes were cold, hard and furious.

He was a living hurricane, a tightly focused force of nature. And that focus was entirely upon Dr. Lucas Winters, who, at long last, felt an electric thrill arcing up his spine. It stiffened his joints and tensed his muscles involuntarily. He felt his body flush with heat as his senses expanded further.

This was fear, Dr. Winters realized. This was what everyone else took for granted.

It was exhilarating.

Harry slapped his free hand to the ground, launching Dr. Winters upward with a square of marble and sending huge chunks of the floor flying after him.

Lucas easily deflected every piece of marble except the last, which he grabbed. The blow knocked him back over his own feet, and when he'd spun full circle he banished the heavy stone at tremendous speed back toward Harry as he descended. He transfigured his cloak into a pair of huge white wings, flapped them twice as he neared the ground and landed deftly on his feet.

He was grinning ear to ear as he caught sight of the Boy who Lived, who had dodged the meteoric projectile and most of the resultant shrapnel from its impact. He had never been so excited. His heart was hammering at his ribcage; he could feel the effects of it. His fine motor control was nearly useless; he had to expend an incredible amount of effort to smooth his twitchy motions.

His mind was aching to go faster. Much faster.

So he let it. Lucas's mind raced along with his heartbeat now, his consciousness had sped up beyond anything he'd ever known before. It was as if the entire world had slowed down around him, just so he could enjoy this moment that much longer. He let out a triumphant shout as he dashed away from a thick wave of stone.

This was it. This was what he'd been waiting his entire life for. He had finally come alive in this cold, lonely world. Everything was so incredibly sharp and clear... And it was all thanks to the Boy who Lived.

He dodged a pair of stunners so powerful that they glowed like twin sunsets in the cavernous room, and he could clearly track the red beams as they tore through the air.

Slow. Too slow.

Harry's eyes widened as Lucas dodged his stunners like he'd thrown them in slow motion. Every second that elapsed, Dr. Winters seemed to grow faster. He could barely keep his eyes on his opponent in the strange, vertigo-inducing room. After shooting another pair of stunners, he reasoned that the man's reflexes must be inhumanly fast. Too fast for a direct attack.

The Boy who Lived gripped the Elder wand more firmly, his mouth tightening into a thin line. Fortunately for him, he had been well-trained. Legilimens!

Dr. Winters suddenly saw a huge boulder falling from the sky, and he instantly dove out of the way into another pair of powerful stunners, which he dodged. But when he prepared to dodge the shrapnel from the boulder, it had vanished. A smirk slid onto his lips as he straightened. "Impressive, Harry Potter. A very clever tactic. Show me more!"

Harry implanted memory after memory of attacks, one after another or several at once, forcing them into his opponent's head as he shot a series of spells at him, trying to make him dodge into one of his stunners so he could finish him off.

He implanted a pitch black screen, which should have blinded his adversary for a moment while his brain decided which memory was from his senses and which one was fake.

It barely slowed Dr. Winters down. Every single one of his spells failed to connect.

The Boy who Lived implanted gruesome, traumatic memories of his past battles. Broken limbs and eviscerations and death cries. Pressing for an advantage as he forced the memories through his opponent's head faster and faster.

With a sharp sweep of Harry's wand the ground behind Dr. Winters erupted skyward, spreading out in a semicircular wall as tall as he was. The surface hardened instantly into a mirror-like surface. The Boy who Lived began sending stunners from every angle, deflecting them off of the mirrors behind and around the back of Dr. Winters.

"More, Harry!" Lucas shouted, weaving about in an area so saturated with stunners that it seemed like a brilliant, flashing neon spiderweb. To an impartial observer, it would look like nothing more than an intricate, energetic dance. There was no rush or haste in his motions, just a measured, fluid grace and an ever-present smirk. Only occasionally did he reach out and bat a stunner away with a small mirrored buckler he'd conjured on his left arm.

Keeping up the steady stream of stunners, Harry transfigured bits of shrapnel into tiny creatures made entirely of razor edges, banishing them by the dozens toward his opponent. Wherever they landed, they crawled quickly toward Lucas.

"Come on!" shouted Dr. Winters. With a stomp of his foot, the tiny black monstrosities sank into the floor without a trace.

Taking a deep breath and holding it, Harry conjured a thick gas that sat about him like fog. Breathing this in would paralyze a man for perhaps half an hour, depending on their constitution, and it was highly flammable. He waved the mist towards Dr. Winters, banishing even more of the spindly black creatures with it as he swept the Elder Wand toward the barrier, causing shatteringly loud explosions to erupt from every part of the curved surface.

The thick gas caught fire in a tremendous whoosh, which detonated so violently that it shook the twisting spires that supported the ceiling. Harry raised a wall to protect himself from the blast and crouched behind it, feeling the entire structure quake and roll with the combined force of his efforts.

A hand of stone shot out from the wall he was crouched behind, grasping for him. He jumped out of the way, but it caught his left arm and squeezed. What?

Harry brought the Elder wand down on the marble appendage and severed it, tearing it away from his arm before it could crush his bones. He dashed away from the wall, dodging several more arms that rose from the ground to snatch at his legs. Finally one tripped him up, causing him to tumble across the unforgiving marble.

More marble arms rose to capture him, and he found himself lifted bodily off the ground and placed on his feet once more, his arms outstretched. Another stone hand tore the Elder wand out of his grasp and sent it skittering across the floor, and Harry felt his heart plummet at the sudden sense of loss. He arched and kicked and struggled against the stone arms that wrapped around his wrists, legs and throat, but they didn't give in the slightest.

Lucas Winters's head slipped up through the ground in front of him, a wide smile on his face. His entire body rose out of the floor and he stepped toward Harry purposefully.

Harry's mind clicked instantly. So that's how the bastard survived. He'd gone underground during the blast, following him through the ground. What a feat, to transmute the marble in front of him out of the way and propel himself forward with the marble behind him, all while in complete darkness.

"Surely you can do better than this, Harry Potter..." Dr. Winters said, a flushed scowl marring his face. "I expected so much more from you, but all I've seen so far are parlor tricks. Does the wand truly make the wizard? Face me the way nature intended! Show me your power!"

To answer his enemy's question, Harry stomped his bare foot against the ground, sending a sharp spike upward from underneath Dr. Winters's right foot.

Lucas's scream ripped through the air as the stone lance tore upward through the bottom of his foot, angling towards his thigh and femoral artery.

With a pulse of magic so thick that it crashed against the Boy who Lived like a wave, Dr. Winters pushed the spike back through his foot and into the ground once more. He gasped in pain as his teeth, and then felt his rage building. Harry Potter wasn't playing by his rules!

"Die!" he shouted, gathering his magic around him.

Harry felt his marble restraints tighten painfully, and he shoved his own magic into them as hard as he could. No more time for wands—it was a battle of wills now. He pushed more and more magic into the marble surrounding him, struggling to gain control over the stone.

Lucas gritted his teeth, feeling the pressure of Harry's magic against the marble arms around him. The excruciating pain in his foot had been an effective and agonizing distraction, but he could fight through it. He would fight through it. Tightening his jaw, he focused all his efforts on crushing the life out of the Boy who Lived.

With a hoarse grunt, Harry forced the marble hands to release him. He fell to his knees instantly and slapped his hands against the smooth black floor, feeling his arms growing hot from the tremendous amount of magic flowing into them. He bowed his head, screwed his eyes shut and pushed his magic into the ground as hard as he could.

Lucas struggled against the Boy who Lived and his sudden all-out assault, feeling their magics sparking against each other in the air between them; fighting for control of the marble hands behind Harry and the smooth ground beneath them. Every inch of his body was trembling from the strain; he'd never pushed so hard against anything in his life. The pressure...

It was this tight, intense force at the back of his head—a panic that stirred such fear in him...he'd never known such an overwhelming sensation; he was trapped in his own surging ocean, being swept away by the pace of Harry Potter's magic...

Unbelievably, he watched the Boy who Lived raise his head and stare at him. His eyes were as hard as the marble beneath him, the center of the storm. He could feel the sharp pain in his foot distracting him, the boy's fury burning against him, heating his body as he fought for power over his domain.

He found himself caught up in the pace, the panic, the maddening fight for control—this was what he had been missing, what every other person in the world took for granted!

The Boy who Lived screamed, the skin on his hands blistering and cracking from the heat of his magic. The veins in his arms expanded painfully, drawing blood in from the rest of his body to buffer the blazing magic racing through him. He felt like his whole body would light on fire from the effort. It was excruciating, but he fought to keep his focus. His control over the marble around him expanded, reaching to the twisting spires and climbing to the ceiling.

Dr. Winters felt his heart leap in shock as the very spires that supported the castle he'd created broke from the ceiling and plunged toward him, their tips compressed to razor points. His attention split, he could feel his power diffusing as he pushed against the intense weight of his enemy's influence.

Harry forced the sharpened spires towards his foe, straining his blistered hands against the floor as he expelled every scrap of magic he could keep hold of. He watched Dr. Winters clench his fists desperately, his magic pulsing in ever-weaker tides as he struggled to keep his own house from destroying him.

Ever so slowly, the Boy who Lived saw an exultant smile stretching across his enemy's face. And in the next moment, Lucas Winters's magic vanished.

With nothing left to restrain them, the black spires crashed tip-first into Dr. Winters, tearing through soft tissue and bone brutally as the ground rose up around him in a seething mass. He disappeared from view as the smooth, black marble crashed against him from all sides, crushing him instantly.

Harry stared out over the surreal image of the spires, now bent into tight arches, buried in the formless black mass of stone before him. He was dazed by the suddenness of his enemy's loss.

At the other end of the hall, Draco and Ginny fell to the ground in agony. Their keening wails drew Harry's attention away from the strange, silent grave of Dr. Winters.

Did he lie to me... Did I just kill Ginny? Harry thought frantically, rushing to her side and checking for a pulse with his blistered fingers. She felt icy to his scorched skin.

Her strong, steady heartbeat sent a ripple of relief down his back as he withdrew his cracked hands. Whatever was happening to her, she wasn't dead yet. And if she wasn't dead, then Dr. Winters really was telling him the truth.

Suddenly, an electric shock stole through the Boy who Lived like a lightning bolt. His world turned inside out for one twisting, terrible moment, and his mind folded in on itself—he squeezed his eyes shut as his body locked up from the pain. After one interminable instant, it was over.

As his vision stretched back into focus, he could feel two small pockets in the back of his mind. There was no other way to describe it.

Harry? Is that really Harry? he heard Ginny say in the back of his mind. She was still disconnected, unable to move or speak. How in the hell did I get here? Where is here?

I'm going to die... I'm really going to die this time... he heard from Draco seconds later. He could feel the sympathetic wonder in his voice. He really beat Lucas...

Harry suddenly understood what Dr. Winters had meant when he'd set the bonds to transfer upon his death. Although he hadn't fully realized what Lucas Winters meant by 'bonds', he felt them clearly now.

It was like being inside their skin, inside their heads. If he concentrated, he could see what they saw. He could feel what they felt, hear what they thought. Their minds were bare to him; no secret could be concealed from his sight.

"I suppose I should thank Dr. Winters for this much, at least; can't feel fear or apprehension about being bonded to you," Draco said without malice. "Get it over with already, Potter. If you're going to kill me, it won't take anything more than a strong thought."

Harry's eyes followed as the blonde sighed and sat down next to Ginny. When Draco spoke there had been a strange echo; his thoughts had been heard instantly, and then the words met his ears a split-second later. It was incredibly strange.

Draco spoke into the air, not looking at the Boy who Lived, "Just my luck. Every time I picked a side, you just had to pick the other one. And of course, you never bothered much with that 'losing' business. It's damned inconsiderate of you. All I wanted was to be known and feared throughout the world...was that really so much to ask?"

"Yes," Harry answered.

Malfoy shook his head, smiling despite himself, "That wasn't a question, Potter. Anyway, before you kill me, I feel like I should tell you that Dr. Winters wanted to thank you. Right before you killed him, fully aware that he was about to die, he felt the most amazing sense of gratitude. He was grateful to you, just because you existed; because you were there to end his life. Barking mad, wasn't he?"

The Boy who Lived nearly agreed with Draco, but after everything he'd been through...it didn't sound that crazy anymore. Lucas Winters had a void in his life, and he'd been desperate to fill it—enough to risk his life.

To find something that made life worth the pain—wasn't that what everyone was looking for?

"You might want to free your little girlfriend, Potter," Draco sneered. "She can't ask you for freedom herself; can't even think about it, you know. I imagine she's had quite enough for one day."

Harry agreed well enough with that. "How do I...?"

"Do I look like an instructional pamphlet? Just think it, Potter. Wish it or something. Wiggle your fingers at her, if you think it'll help. You're the boss, remember?"

He pictured Ginny's pocket in his mind, opening it. The pocket was vibrant, full of grassy fields and steaming plates of food, of sunlight and that sweet, flowery smell that followed her everywhere. If he just wished it enough, then she would be released.

Against his best intentions, he wondered whether this was the right course of action. The battle was over—the day was saved—so now what? Was he supposed to go back to the barracks? Was he supposed to be alone again?

He didn't have to be alone. Even though he knew clearly that Ginny had been controlled when she said all those painful things, there was no guarantee that she wouldn't come to those conclusions on her own in time. And if that time came, he'd get hurt again.

From a tactical perspective, the best course of action was the easiest to execute, gave the full desired result, the fastest to complete, and with the least amount of risk. Whatever got you to your goal, faster and for less, was the best course of action: More money from a robbery for a thief, more hostages rescued from a kidnapper for a police officer, more fear from the general populace for a terrorist—it applied to nearly every situation. It was basic math to Harry Potter, taught from a very young age and reinforced throughout his entire life.

Since nobody outside of this room knew about these 'bonds', nobody would suspect anything. He wouldn't have to expend any effort—he would just have to let things be. He could kill Draco or order him to never speak of it, and he could go back to Hogwarts and Ginny would love him again.

If he kept his bond to Ginny, then she would love him forever. He would be guaranteed victory—he would never have to feel that terrible pain of betrayal again.

The gain was he would have his best mate back, and he would have it today. Eventually, he might want a wife—he would know her answer before he ever asked for her hand. It would be a blissful relationship; they would never be angry with each other, never hurt each other. There would be no miscommunication.

His victory would be instantaneous and absolute, with zero risk of failure involved. He would finally understand everything about her, he would treat her incomparably well, and they would never fight or be cross with each other. They would have a life of uninterrupted happiness, with no doubts of fidelity and no worries about losing interest. They would be perfect.

So—tactically—the best course of action for him would be to stay bonded to Ginny forever, and never tell a soul about it.

The only cost would be her free will.

So much of this noncom lifestyle was new and surprising—the sharp sting that cut deep into his chest was no exception. The thought of forcing her to love him, even though it was the fastest, easiest and least painful way to have a relationship...it felt so painfully wrong.

It didn't feel like cheating, and he'd cheated much in his short life. Often the best way to achieve victory was by circumventing your enemy's rules, like in a duel where you're supposed to draw on three. Victory was infinitely easier if you drew on one and he never made it to his wand at all. In tactical situations, cheating was all but assured. The last thing you ever wanted to give your enemy was a fair fight.

This just felt unacceptable. It felt like an atrocity on the scale of endangering civilians to achieve the goal. For reasons Harry didn't fully understand, he simply couldn't allow his bond with Ginny to continue existing. It made no tactical sense, but the Boy who Lived had become much more comfortable with illogical things in the last few months.

There weren't a lot of things in this noncom lifestyle that were logical, after all.

I want Ginny Weasley to be free. I want Ginny Weasley to be released from our bond. I want Ginny Weasley to—

He heard Ginny gasp sharply, and his eyes widened as the small pocket that contained the redhead disappeared from his mind. A brief pinch of pain, and then Draco's pocket was alone.

Before he could blink, she was scrabbling to her feet and throwing herself at the Boy who Lived. He caught her gratefully, relaxing into the comfort of warm arms that he thought he'd never feel again.

"Harry, I'm so sorry! It wasn't me, and I didn't mean it, and I never would've said such horrible things to you no matter what, and I can't believe he made me say that—" Ginny said all of this very fast, but Harry was just relieved that he wasn't hearing an echo inside of his head anymore.

"It's okay, Ginny," he insisted, interrupting her with a smile, "I know it wasn't you. I know he made you say what you did. And honestly, I'm thankful that he did."

Ginny's brown eyes snapped to his, disbelieving, "But I was so awful..."

"And it made me stronger. I was able to win today because of what Dr. Winters made you do."

Her face soured, "That's a terrible justification, but I won't argue the point. Can I at least try to make it up to you?" Her expression turned hopeful.

"Sorry to butt in," Draco drawled, still reclining on the floor, "but could you figure out what to do with me now, and snog later? The suspense is killing me..."

Ginny took a deep breath and glanced at Malfoy appraisingly, "Look Harry, I know you've got every right to be cross with me, I know I don't have the right to ask you this, but I've got to ask anyway: can you make Draco teach me everything that Dr. Winters taught him?"

"Everything that the Winters family touches turns to dust and ashes. I've learned enough to know that."

She shook her head insistently, "His father's work, and his work, Harry...they studied memories—specifically, modifying them. I got caught by a ring, and so did Draco. That's what those rings did, mostly; they let Dr. Winters remotely modify the memory centers of our brains. I know you don't want to hear this, but no matter how the knowledge was gained...this research can save lives. Thousands of lives. So please...trust me with this?"

Her eyes were pleading, and Harry found he couldn't say no to her; not after everything she'd just gone through for him. He just hoped she knew what she was doing. "Malfoy," he said, looking down at the blonde boy.

Draco sighed, standing and dusting off his trousers. "Everything, everything? Or just everything that she knows about?" His gray eyes were resigned.

Harry narrowed his eyes, "All of it."

Malfoy shrugged, stepped over to Ginny and lifted his hands to touch her temples. "Relax, Weasley—this won't hurt a bit. Although, I hope my stellar performance will help persuade your boyfriend not to kill me just yet. You know, because I'm cooperating so thoroughly. Just a thought."

And then her mind began to flash with a thousand memories that she'd never made.

She didn't know how long she had been trapped in her brain, but she knew that it had been long enough to grow terrified of the quiet darkness and the steady, burning pain. Then she'd accepted that terror, then grown tired of it, then forgotten it. She'd been captive so long that she'd forgotten how to be afraid of the dark.

How could you be afraid of something, when you knew nothing else?

The first thing she felt was like an icy tendril creeping into her brain, soothing the pain with its numbing grasp. She'd been surrounded by the pain, encased in darkness for so long that she held no fear of this strange tendril that had invaded her mind—it couldn't hurt worse than what she was already going through.

The tendril split into tiny fingers, and the pale light that emanated from those cold fingers lit the strange, tangled web inside her mind. She couldn't make sense of what she was seeing, but the fingers seemed to know what they were searching for. Every so often a finger would curl around a long, thick strand and tug at it delicately, separating it from rest of the huge web effortlessly. She watched the fingers work with the detached curiosity that stemmed from an endless imprisonment with no offer of parole.

The fingers withdrew, and she slipped into the darkness once more.

When she awoke, her eyes were itchy with sleep. She rubbed at them hesitantly and blinked.

Two blurry figures were standing to the right of her bed, smiling down at her. She nodded to the stranger in greeting, "Good morning, child."

When the redheaded stranger simply smiled at her silently, she looked to her husband, who was standing beside her. Even to her blurry eyes, he looked like he'd taken a strong aging potion. "Where are we? Did you finally blow up the house with those mad experiments of yours?"

She heard a gasp from the other side of her bed. Turning her head, she saw a black-haired boy with a familiar nose and chin. "Oh, hello—I didn't see you there. You look familiar, dear, are you one of my cousin's boys, perhaps?" She peered curiously at him, inspecting his face.

The boy's eyes misted up, and he threw his arms tightly around her as he burst into tears. She startled at the sudden attack, but found she couldn't turn away from this boy's pain. She rubbed small, soothing circles on his back and whispered, "Shh, it'll be alright, dear. There's no need to cry..."

The redheaded stranger left, unnoticed by the three. On the way out, she tossed the medical files titled "Longbottom, Frank" and "Longbottom, Alice" in the bin, where they belonged. Checking the time on her watch, she let out a muted curse and tore down the hallway toward the fireplace in the employee's lounge.

She may have been an apprentice Medi-Witch at St. Mungo's, but she still had to get back to Hogwarts before Flitwick took attendance. She couldn't afford to skip Charms again—her OWLs were coming up, and even though Harry usually helped her study, he was a lot busier than she was these days.

In the long-term care ward of the Walton Centre for Neurology in Liverpool, Draco Malfoy was finishing up with treatment on a former Hogwarts student named Bertram Aubrey, who'd been in a coma for the past nine years due to an unfortunate splinching accident where she'd arrived at her destination missing the entire right half of her brain. They'd put her back together, and theoretically she was fine, but the mind was still largely a mystery to the medical community.

It wasn't much of a mystery to Draco Malfoy.

Despite his crimes, he knew he would be remembered. He'd taught Ginny how to permanently implant, modify and remove memories. He taught her how to heal and destroy the mind—the legacy of the Winters family.

Since he couldn't go back to Hogwarts, and since Harry Potter himself had vouched for his change of heart and willingness to put things right, he'd been given a job instead: He was paid a pittance by the Ministry to treat permanent basket cases, such as this one, and as soon as she woke up he could get back to his pathetic little flat in London and wait around for his next assignment.

It wasn't much of a life, considering how ambitious his earlier designs had been, but it was infinitely better than dying so young and dashingly handsome. He couldn't make his army and he couldn't conquer the world, since Harry had expressly forbid him to create any connections to his patients. He still monitored his thoughts and controlled his bond, so he couldn't get away with even the slightest trick.

It didn't matter as much as he thought it would.

The Malfoy name wouldn't fade into obscurity, Draco wouldn't be forgotten. In the end, that was all he wanted, and he was grateful for it. He had a new name now, and a new lease on life.

What's worse, he caught himself enjoying parts of his new life far more than his old one.

After the patient reawakened, the average reintegration specialist would insist that only calm, soothing words be spoken until a thorough evaluation has been processed and reintegration can begin. They would assert that the patient's comfort and wellbeing was critical to proper reintegration.

Draco Malfoy, or Robert Cornwell, as he was known these days, was not your average reintegration specialist.

Bertram Aubrey's eyes tightened, then relaxed and creaked opened for the first time in nine years. She was confused and scared, and when she looked up she saw a blonde angel smiling down at her.

She tried to ask him if she was in heaven, but her voice didn't want to work. So she just smiled, instantly at ease with this beautiful man hovering over her.

"Welcome back to reality," he drawled, patting her incredibly bushy hair.

She blushed, but leaned into his touch surreptitiously.

"You know," Draco mused, patting down her hair a bit more vigorously, "you may have been taking that whole 'vegetable' metaphor a bit too seriously—you look a bit like a piece of broccoli right now. Even in a coma, I'd take better care of my hair than this."

For the first time in nine years, Bertram Aubrey burst into tears.

Harry Potter stood before a group of two dozen men and women in dark gray BDUs, who mostly gaped at him with varying levels of terror and awe written across their faces. He walked slowly along the ranks, inspecting each person for the slightest breach in grooming and dress code regulations. Since three-quarters of the recruits were pulled from active duty military service, they were all generally squared away.

The recruits before him were the first class to be assigned to Sirius's new "Clandestine Services" division at the Ministry, and he was rightly nervous; he was the head instructor of Class #1. It had been his idea, his project and his proposals. The product of countless hours of paperwork, recruitment decisions, TO&E, courses of instruction, Ministry certification of services...

Even with all the effort he'd poured into this, it never felt real until this moment.

Harry had prepared a speech for this historic occasion, one which would hopefully set the pace for the duration.

Taking a deep, steadying breath, he barked, "Greetings, recruits! Over the next six months you will be tested in ways that may not seem natural. It will not ever be easy, and it will not ever be simple, but rest assured—it will be possible for most of you to complete this training without permanent, debilitating injuries.

"You have all been given the same uniforms, with no names or insignias, to denote that you are all equally worthless to this division, and to me. You will refer to yourselves as 'this recruit'. You have no rights whatsoever, and you will not have anything until you deserve it. You will have to fight hard to earn your name tapes, and even harder to earn privileges such as weekend liberty and apparating passes. You will not earn the honor of wearing the flag on your shoulder until graduation day. If you graduate. Make no mistake—from this moment on, you are nameless, faceless recruits with no real importance at all."

Staring at each of the recruits, and noticing with satisfaction that several of them had begun sweating, he continued marching along the rows and shouting his introductory speech, "Some of you will find that you are not cut out for this line of work, or this lifestyle. Some of you will be asked to leave. Others of you will be forced to leave. I don't care where you went to school, I don't care who your daddy is—your survival in this course of instruction will depend on your strength, fortitude and determination, and on your ability to exist within the team structure necessary to this line of work.

"You will learn how to operate in three-, six- and twelve-man deployable teams. You will learn to conduct operations that are vital and necessary to the continued survival of our nation. You will learn to be silent, invisible and efficient; you will learn how to ignore your baser, weaker instincts. You will learn how to be a credit to your countrymen and your Queen! And if you can't learn, then you will not be allowed to graduate.

"I urge each of you to reflect on why you decided to try for a spot in this division. Keep that in the forefront of your mind, and get ready to push yourself harder than you've ever pushed yourself before.

"If you want to stand out, you'll have to be harder, faster and stronger than the people standing around you. And make no mistake; if you expect to graduate, then we expect you to stand out. Does any recruit have a question before we commence training?"

A thin-faced man at the end of the first row raised his hand.

Harry's eyebrows rose; he hadn't been expecting anyone to take that question seriously. He walked to the end of the row and stood face to face with the recruit, "Yes, recruit? Was I unclear about something?"

A grin slid onto the man's face as he stared over Harry's shoulder and shouted, "No, Sir! This recruit just wanted to inform you that he responds best to positive reinforcement, Sir!"

After the thin-faced man's sloppy salute and several seconds of awkward silence, the entire class erupted in laughter. The man bowed to his audience and straightened with an insolent smile.

The Boy who Lived narrowed his eyes. He'd been hoping to set the pace peacefully, but he'd also conducted extensive research on how drill instructors kept the attention of their charges. He had been wondering which method was more effective, and it was now becoming abundantly clear.

Well, that's convenient.

Harry tucked his hands into the pockets of his BDUs and smiled thinly at the man. He gathered magic into his forehead and tilted his head forward, projecting a condensed layer toward the recruit.

The man's smile disappeared abruptly as his head jerked backward from an invisible blow, and a moment later he crashed to the ground in a graceless flop. Blood gushed from his nose, leaking down each of his cheeks in thin rivulets, but he did not stir. The entire class went as quiet as a morgue.

"You must not recognize me, recruits!" the Boy who Lived snapped. "My name is Harry Potter."

That set off a flurry of questions that nobody dared to speak up to ask, which Harry picked out of their minds with ease. "To answer your questions: I am faster than you, I am stronger than you, and I have more magical ability than you. I don't like hitting women, but there are no men and women in this class—there are only pathetic, formless recruits! You will not earn a gender until you graduate!"

The recruits whose questions he'd answered flinched like they'd been struck. Harry continued grimly, "My country has given me a free pass to beat each and every one of you half to death if I deem it necessary, and it's seeming more necessary by the minute. I have been killing for my country since I was eight years old, and even then I possessed more discipline than this. I haven't yet been issued a sense of humor, because it is not a required item for this line of work."

Harry turned on his heel and walked to the front of the class, still shouting. "So the next one of you squishy bastards that disrupts my class will be shipped to St. Mungo's by floo, portkey and side-along apparition. All three, at the same time. Yes, I've done it before, and yes, I'm itching to demonstrate.

"Now, any other questions?" Harry asked, looking around at the ashen-faced, incredibly quiet recruits.

The four assistant instructors broke the class into groups of six for conditioning and agility training, and the Boy who Lived wondered if his girlfriend ever had this much fun at work.

Hi hi, Ben here.

Okay, I guess I lied. Somewhere in the dozens of surgical procedures I performed on this chapter, it grew a few extra appendages and now it'll be way too long and segmented. So yay, congratulations, you get an extra chapter after this one! Before the epilogue! I know, it's genius!

Or something like that. Truthfully, I'm still not happy with the fight scene. I'm still not happy with the wrap-up that immediately follows. But as many of my precious, ridiculously cool, amazing, intelligent and brilliant reviewers (like yourself) follow the "post now, fix later" school of thought, here it is. I'll not keep you waiting on my sense of literary decency.

Again, thank you all for your thoughts and words, your reviews and threatening emails, they've inspired me beyond words. Two chapters to go, one of which is already mostly written (I've never said that before, have I? What, I have? Crap.) and then we can all wash our hands of this crazy story. Look for an update within the next two months, and the epilogue is almost completed already. Updates should follow shortly after this one with my new stories, so if you haven't yet checked them out, please do. They are the next steps in my journey as a writer, and you've all played a part in helping to shape my style.

In the meantime, I'm gonna get back to writing. Somewhere in there, I'll try to figure out just where in the hell the last five years have gone. Did it really take me five years to get to this point in the story? Did I really start this story when I was 21? I feel so old right now...

What a long, strange trip it's been.