I have tried hard not to let this become a canon-bashing story, or a crack-fic, but some bits have slipped through! Thanks again to all of the reviewers, referers, and the guys at AFC. All of your comments and suggestions have helped shape this story. I hope you like it enough to leave me feedback now that it is completed.
Faced with the escape plan devised by supposedly the foremost anti-Voldemort organisation there was, Harry did the only thing he could; he started laughing.
"This is not a laughing matter, Potter," growled Mad-eye. "Now give us some hair and we will all be on our way."
Harry fought down his mirth, ignoring the strange looks the others were giving him.
"Okay, okay," said Harry. "Just give me a second to go over this again. You think the best way to get me out of here is to have a half a dozen copies of me zooming about on Thestrals, brooms, and a flying motorbike, as decoys?"
"Harry, it's the only way we can get you away without alerting the Ministry or the Death Eaters," said Hermione. "If we use any other magic, like Apparition, the Trace will record it, and they have made it an imprisonable offence to connect this house to the Floo Network, place a Portkey here, or Apparate in or out."
"You'll be going to Tonks's parents," said Remus. "Once you're within the boundaries of the protective enchantments we've put on their house you'll be able to use a Portkey to the Burrow."
"Hang on," said Harry, putting a hint of sarcasm in his words. "Here's an idea: I have an invisibility cloak, and Hagrid has a motorcycle with a sidecar…"
Some time later, the ever-nosey residents of Privet drive were gifted with the extraordinary sight of a very large man inexpertly riding an equally huge motorcycle down the street. The scandal and excitement caused by the appearance of such a hooligan, in the normally quiet suburb, took weeks to die down, despite the absence of the top gossipmonger, Petunia Dursley.
Floating high overhead, the Death Eaters paid no attention to the Muggle contraptions zooming along the narrow streets below, knowing there was no way an important person like Harry Potter would be risking his life in such a dangerous contraption.
Thanks to Mrs. Weasley's ministrations, George's wound was neat and clean, but Harry was not yet used to the dark hole in the side of his head, despite the twins many jokes about it. The fact Snape managed to ambush Lupin and George, after they Apparated to their first stage safe house, still made Harry's blood boil. The unnatural sight of the missing ear served to remind him of the traitor.
"George," he said suddenly. "Have you seriously considered sticking on a fake ear?"
"Yeah," said George, "We even made up a few, but quite frankly, I like the idea of shocking people with it like it is."
Harry nodded, already suspecting as much.
"That's cool, but have you thought about what you could do with a replacement?"
George's eyes lit up. "You mean, like a prank ear? One that spins or moves or changes shape and colour or something?"
"Actually, I was thinking more along the lines of a modified extendable ear," said Harry, "Like Moody's eye that sees through walls and such. Imagine what you could do with a magical ear…"
Gorges eyes almost glowed as the possibilities sank in.
"Tell me, Minister," said Harry icily. "Do you really think that if Dumbledore had any idea how to stop Voldemort, he would have left it for the three of us to do?"
"Dumbledore must have taught thousands of students," Scrimgeour persevered. "Yet the only ones he remembered in his will are you three. Why is that?
"Because I was quite close to him, obviously," said Harry in his best 'you are a moron' tone. "He knew me well, and through me, my friends. He probably knew Ron was thinking about being an Enchanter, Hermione loves books, and that Snitch was one my Dad used to play with all the time, so he left us all something special to remember him by."
"I think you are a liar, Mr Potter," said asked Scrimgeour. "Your unreliability is somewhat renowned."
Hermione and Ron leapt to their feet shouting objections, but Harry just laughed as he stood up. Too many people with much better verbal ammunition had tested Harry's patience over the years. Too many times he had been denied fair justice or reasonable attitudes. The ridiculous man in front of him playing petty games of power was less than nothing in comparison.
"Feel free to leave at any time, Minister, since you've made it perfectly clear that you make a lousy delivery owl, but what else can anybody expect from the Ministry of Incompetence?"
Scrimgeour raised his wand and took a step closer to Harry, but before he could say anything, he suddenly found a colourful Muggle gun almost resting between his eyes.
"You are not in school anymore--" he began, trying to sound threatening, but his eyes never left the strange looking weapon.
"And as of today I am no longer a minor, so get your hairy arse out of my friend's house, Sir."
"I . . . regret your attitude," he said, lowing his wand and taking a step backwards. "You seem to think that the Ministry does not desire what you and Dumbledore desired. We ought to be working together."
"It's your job to fight this war, Minister, not mine. Why don't you try doing what you are being paid for, for a change, and I'll just get on with living my life. Quit trying to find your answers in secrets and lies and do something constructive like arresting actual Death Eaters."
The Minister grunted and walked away, leaving Harry and his friends with their new possessions.
"So, what are we meant to do with this stuff?" asked Ron.
"Really Ronald, don't you recall what Professor Dumbledore's portrait told us, once Harry, er, encouraged it?"
"You mean threatened it with paint remover—"
"Yes, yes, the point is the Professor said it may come in handy while we are looking for the Horcruxes. At least that's what I understood him to mean, unlike the silly, meaningless clues he gave me about this book."
"Well I'm not planning on taking up smoking," said Ron. "But at least I don't have to get out of bed to turn the lights on and off anymore."
"What's in the pistol anyway?" he asked Harry, knowing many of the various concoctions Harry had loaded the toys with previously.
"Water," said Harry. "It's new and I was testing it - I hadn't gotten around to putting anything else in it, yet."
"Good bluff," said Ron.
"Thanks. Now, let's go to your dad's shed then, shall we? I reckon he'll have a hammer and chisel, or maybe a saw," said Harry tossing the snitch up and catching again as it fluttered its wings weakly. "I don't know about you, but I want to find out what's inside this thing."
Mrs Weasley's efforts to stop the trio from spending time together planning were becoming rather annoying.
It was futile of course, especially when they could simply use the Muffliato spell to avoid anybody overhearing once they were in bed, but not much planning remained anyway.
Harry had no idea what she thought they had been doing for the weeks before he left Privet Drive, but she somehow got it into her head that stopping them from being alone now would prevent them from eventually leaving.
All it achieved was to make them all short tempered.
Harry listened, outraged as Elphias and Muriel argued about Dumbledore. While he thought he had squeezed a lot out of the surly portrait at Hogwarts, it only now occurred to him how woefully under-informed he really was.
So it used to be common practice to ship Squibs off to the Muggle world, or possibly lock them up in a basement and pretend they didn't exist.
Harry's time at the Dursley's suddenly took a completely new, and quite disturbing, aspect. He himself had witnessed the headmaster's less than respectful attitude towards Muggles, but at the time, he dismissed it because it was just the Dursleys. Now it suddenly looked a lot more sinister.
When Kinglsey's warning and the inevitable attack finally came, it was almost a relief for Harry to have something to distract him from thoughts of Dumbledore's duplicity or the possibility of murdering Ron's slanderous Aunt Muriel with a half full Champagne bottle.
"What are we going to do with them?" Ron whispered to Harry quietly. "Kill them?"
Hermione shuddered and took a step backward away from the unconscious duo. Dolohov and Rowle lay unconscious on the floor of the Muggle café from the blast caused by Harry's Crossbow bolt.
He really wanted to question them; to find out how they had located him so quickly, and anything else they might know about the Dark Lord's plans, but there was no time. More Death Eaters might follow close behind.
"No," he said in response to Ron's very valid suggestion. "Maybe we can modify their memories and put them off the scent.
"Hermione, you done some fine work on your parents, can you fix this pair up so they go gallivanting half way across the country supposedly chasing us? Ideally I want them to keep thinking they are seeing us in different places, but just sending them elsewhere will do fine."
Hermione looked worried. "I knew my parents rather well, and they agreed to let me. I am not sure if it will work with people I don't know, or who resist me."
"Right keep it simple then. Lose the fight and put in a memory of hearing us talking about going to Hogsmeade and then Hogwarts before Apparating away. We'll fix this place up, get under the cloak and then wake them up. With luck, they'll either go after us immediately or go report back to their boss."
Hermione nodded and began preparing herself for the task. Ron started repairing the damage, somewhat inexpertly, but well enough to pass a casual inspection. With nothing else to do, Harry did the only other thing he thought might help.
He stole their wallets.
"Oh, don't start that again!" sighed Hermione. "I thought we'd settled this."
"It's one thing hanging around the Ministry entrances under the Cloak, but this is different, Hermione." Ron jabbed a finger at a copy of the Daily Prophet dated a week previously. "You're on the list of Muggle-borns who didn't present themselves for interrogation!"
"And you're supposed to be dying of Spattergroit at the Burrow, and Harry's got a ten-thousand-Galleon price on his head. There are several wizarding genealogy books in the Black library here - it can't be too hard to make up a foolproof family tree for me, for all of us actually. "
Harry suddenly went silent, plans of invading the Ministry and tracking down Delores Umbridge and Slytherin's locket dissolving as the answer presented itself literally in front of him.
"Harry? Are you okay?" asked Hermione.
"You're not going. None of us are going," he said.
"That's right - What?" said Ron, a bit loudly as he was still fired up from the aborted argument.
"I said were not going," repeated Harry, turning to look at them. "We've been going about this the wrong way – storming the Ministry to steal the locket from Umbtich – that's just suicidal. What we need to do is find where she lives."
"How can we do that?" asked Hermione. "She is one of the senior Ministry members, and has a Floo connection to her home."
"Yeah, but there has to be records. Isn't every witch and wizard's residence recorded?"
"Well yeah," said Ron. "In the Ministry..."
"So we just need to get the record of where she lives and get her there. No way will it be as protected, and nobody will be expecting it. I bet she still has a bottle of Veritaserum in her purse too."
"But that still means going into the Ministry," said Hermione, obviously confused and unable to follow Harry's logic.
"We, don't," said Harry, his eyes returning to the answer and a smile appearing on his face.
Both Harry's friends turned to see what he was looking at.
The transformed Kreacher, in his immaculate white fluffy tea towel, seemed to feel the three sets of eyes on him and turned from the sink where he was doing the dishes.
"Yes, Master?" he asked, looking slightly self-conscious at the attention he was getting.
"Okay, we've got the locket, now what do we do with Umbitch?" asked Ron. "Are we going to modify her memory and send her back, like we did with those two at the café, or give her to Kreacher to punish for stealing Regulus's locket?"
"No," said Harry, the finality in his tone caused the gagged and bound woman to start shaking in fear.
"Harry," said Hermione worriedly. "You can't just murder her in cold blood. It's not right."
"Be doing the world a favour," said Ron. "You heard what she's been doing to Muggleborns at the Ministry. What do you reckon she would have done to you if you had shown up like you were meant to?"
Hermione started arguing, but Harry wasn't listening. Up to this point in time, he had convinced himself he could kill somebody who deserved it, and there was no doubt the vile woman in front of him did. The things she had described while under the influence of her own Veritaserum made Harry want to strangle her with his bare hands, but now he faced having to actually do the deed, and found it, disturbing.
"There are worse things than death," he said, playing with the locket they had taken from their prisoner.
"What?" asked Ron. "What did you say?"
"Something Dumbledore said to the Dark Lord – There are worse things than death," explained Harry. "Hermione, how good are you at human transfiguration? Didn't you study it last year?"
"Yes," she said hesitantly. "We only got as far as changing things like hair colour, but it was all very simple. I know the theory…"
"Reckon you can turn her into an animal, like Moody did with Malfoy?"
Ron started laughing and even Hermione smiled.
"I think I can manage that," she said. "It's not like I can't have several tries at it until I get it right. Do I need to ask what kind of animal?"
"I think that would be fairly obvious," said Harry. "There's a rather lovely pond not too far from my old home that's pretty secluded. Hell, I'll even have a word with a few of the local snakes to make sure she doesn't try to leave.
"I do hope they can tell one toad apart from another."
On the ground, Umbridge started shaking even harder.
"We have to leave," said Hermione, starting to grab everything in sight to jam into her small bag. "Grimauld place, we have to go. As soon as possible."
"What? Why?" asked Harry.
"Snape," she said, nodding towards the paper proclaiming the change of staffing at Hogwarts.
She finished packing everything off the table and was stuffing what, for a second, looked like the troll's leg umbrella stand into her purse.
"I don't get it. Didn't Moody curse him so that he couldn't tell anybody and wouldn't be able to return?" asked Ron.
"Yes, but now Snape is in charge of the school. How long do you think it will be before somebody comes up with the idea of forcing one of the others to tell them the secret or bring them here?" said Hermione emptying a draw of cutlery into her tiny bag.
"What, you mean McGonagall or someone?' huffed Ron. "Fat chance they got of forcing anything out of her."
"Ginny," said Harry, his heart constricting. "They might try Ginny."
Ron's face paled.
"We'll have to get a note to somebody to tell them we aren't here," said Harry. "That way there will be no reason to try and resist."
"We can ask Kreacher to take a note to Remus explaining everything," said Hermione, not slowing down in her packing.
"Where are we going to go?" asked Ron.
"I was thinking of the forest where the world cup was. It is secluded, enclosed and undercover. I have a tent so we can camp."
"Not bad, Hermione," said Harry, "but why don't we just go a bit further and stay at the Muggle camping ground there instead?"
Sometimes, the logic of wizards infected even the best of them.
"It's the Horcrux," said Hermione. "It's affecting whoever is carrying it."
Harry nodded, understanding now why he had been feeling increasingly morbid until removing the locket from around his neck. The vague Voldemort visions had become increasingly clear too, bringing with them more mysteries and questions with no answers.
"Maybe we should take it in turns," suggested Ron. "You know, share it round so it doesn't get too much for one person."
"Nah," said Harry, opening the bag Hagrid had given him that still hang around his neck. I'll keep it in here, and if it still affects me, we'll try moving it into Hermione's purse.
"Last thing we need is to get possessed or something."
"We are running short on food," said Ron despondently, as they sat in the tent on a riverbank in Wales eating some poorly cooked fish.
Their Muggle cash was running low, and they had no way to exchange galleons for more without risking capture. The supplies taken from Grimmauld place were not lasting very long.
Harry knew what real hunger felt like. If he tried, he could recall the pangs that plagued him when he went for days without enough food at the Dursleys'. He would do everything he could to make sure his friends never experienced those pains.
"Mum can make good food appear out of thin air," said Ron wistfully.
"It's impossible to make good food out of nothing!" snapped Hermione, once again in a rather irritable mood.
It was her turn to cook, and didn't appreciate the implied criticism of her efforts.
"You can Summon it if you know where it is, you can transform it, you can increase the quantity if you've already got some –"
"What?" interrupted Harry. "What did you say?"
"I said you can't make food out of thin air-"
"No after that. What did you say about increasing the quantity?"
"I said you can increase the quantity if you already have some – oh, of course," she said, suddenly looking a bit sheepish.
"Engorgio!" she said waving her wand over an apple.
Obediently, the fruit swelled to about three times its normal size.
"Now that's more like it," said Ron, eagerly pushing away the remains of his dinner to grab the enormous apple.
"How often can we do that to one thing?" asked Harry, watching Ron chomp into oversized fruit.
"Not indefintely," said Hermione. "But more than enough to keep us well fed for several months, even without buying anything else."
"Good," said Harry, looking at the stream. "I never did learn how to fish, and using Accio feels like cheating.
"Mr Black," said Harry, addressing the obstinate portrait. "Unless you begin to cooperate, you are a waste of space to us."
"Impertinent child!" yelled the blindfolded painting.
"Yes," agreed Harry. "And very disrespectful, not to mention I am sure you know what it was we did to your grand daughter's painting when she wouldn't do as we asked."
The painting was suddenly silent.
"That's better," said Harry. "Now, we have some questions to ask Dumbledore's portrait, not when Snape or anybody else can hear mind you, and you had better be honest or I'll find the most disgusting sewer imaginable and leave you there with a binding spell to lock you into this frame."
"You wouldn't dare!" snapped the outraged painting. "Besides, you do not have the ability."
"I do," said Hermione, sounding rather vicious.
The painting somehow paled.
"You are Potter?" whispered Bathilda Bagshot, sounding very faint and far away.
Harry opened his mouth to reply, but a sharp indrawn gasp sounded from behind him, then the red light of a stunning spell leapt out of nowhere to hit the woman. As hastily planned when Bathilda indicated she wanted to lead Harry off alone, Hermione had followed them up under the invisibility cloak – again watching Harry's back for him.
Instead of slumping to the floor unconscious from Hermione's spell, Bathilda practically exploded, and a huge snake unwound from the place she had been standing.
Nagini hissed angrily and threw herself at Harry, knocking his half-drawn crossbow aside as she sank her fangs into his arm. Harry screamed and tried to pull the snake's head off him, but it held on too tight.
In the back of his mind, he felt a foreign surge of excitement, and suddenly knew Voldemort was on his way.
Hermione cast another spell, hitting the thrashing snake in one of its massive coils. Blood spurted out of the wound and the huge jaws opened to hiss in agony, inadvertently freeing Harry. He wrapped his hands around its neck, forcing the gaping maw away from him with all of his strength.
"Kill it!" Harry screamed at Hermione. "Quickly, while we have the chance."
"I'm trying!" she shouted back, casting another spell that scored the snake's back deeply, but missed severing its head due to the constant movement. "Hold still!"
"What? How the bloody hell do you think I can hold still?" yelled Harry, finally managing to get his legs under him as the snake wrapped its coils tighter.
With a mighty heave, he managed to lurch upwards, but overbalanced and crashed into Hermione.
"Get us out of here, now!" said Harry as the tangled trio staggered and started to fall. "Voldemort is coming."
Hermione, arms wrapped around both Harry and the snake, twisted as they fell and Apparated them away just as the window and a large portion of the surrounding wall exploded inwards to allow the Dark Lord entry.
All Voldemort found in the wrecked room was a substantial length of his familiar's splinched corpse and an odd, broken crossbow.
Miles away Harry felt his rage, and smiled.
Harry stood at the mouth of the tent gripping his spare crossbow and waited for the source of the white light to show itself. A silver-white doe, moon-bright and dazzling, picked her way over the ground, still silent, and leaving no hoofprints in the fine powdering of snow.
She stepped toward him, her beautiful head with its wide, long-lashed eyes held high. Harry stared at the creature, filled with wonder, not at her strangeness, but at her inexplicable familiarity. He felt that he had been waiting for her to come, but that he had forgotten, until that moment, that they had arranged to meet. She turned and loped off into the trees, almost beckoning him to follow.
"Pig's foot," said Harry, shaking off the strange feeling.
Nobody was so gullible that they would run off into the trees and away from the hidden camp because a glowing deer felt friendly, especially not Harry. The only thing stupider would be choosing to go for a solo dip in one of the ice-covered forest pools without even a warming charm.
Settling back down, Harry knew they would have to leave as soon as the others woke up. Somebody knew their general location, and that meant a change of tactics was again required.
Idly, Harry wondered if Hermione's memory charms were up to the task of getting them into a nice Muggle hotel - one that served breakfast.
"We need to know what's going on in the magical world," said Ron. "I can't stand not having any idea what's happening out there. The last bit of real news we got was from The Toad."
Hermione nodded reluctantly.
"All of my contacts are out," said Harry. "Same with anybody we know, they'll be watched for sure, and I wouldn't trust Kreacher enough to call him too often, despite how he was acting before we left."
"Maybe I can just duck into the Leaky for a while," said Ron. "I can pick up a paper and a bit of gossip – you know how people talk when they are having a drink or two.
"No, the Leaky is too obvious, Ron," said Hermione. "Any popular spot will definitely have people keeping an eye on them. Everybody who goes in is probably checked."
"So let's go to a less known place, somewhere a bit smaller, like Tinworth or, Upper Flagley. Bill's got a place at Tinworth I think. Shell cottage or something he called it."
"All right," said Harry. "We need news, so let's go get some papers and other stuff too, like maybe a wireless. You never know, they might actually tell us something worthwhile. We'll need to use Polyjuice again, or maybe it'd be better to transfigure our hair and things, just to be sure, but I reckon only one of us needs to be under the cloak keeping a watch for the other two."
Both he and Ron turned to look expectedly at Hermione.
"You both just want to go for a pint, don't you?" she asked, narrowing her eyes at them.
Neither of them tried to deny it.
"So you-know-who's name is taboo, eh? Just saying it gets a bunch of snatchers on your case immediately. That's lucky," said Harry.
"I reckon," agreed Ron. "All this time I've been telling you not to say it, and I was right - You don't get much luckier than that!"
Hermione snorted in disgust.
"No," said Harry. "I meant it's lucky we have a sure-fire way to lure a bunch of snatchers into a trap."
Both of his friends looked at him as if he had spoken in Parsletongue.
"Well we do need some real information, and who else is going to know what's really going on if not some of the bad guys?" explained Harry.
They did not look reassured.
"Voldemort," said Harry, before running as fast as he could away from the rude hut they had constructed in the small clearing.
He was barely in his designated place when the loud crack of multiple apparition signalled the arrival of six wizards, and surprisingly, a couple of prisoners.
Immediately the snatchers spread out in a half circle around the hut, wands out and ready to use.
"Come out of there with your hands up!" called one. "We know you're in there! You've got half a dozen wands pointing at you and we don't care who we curse!"
Harry remained silent under his cloak, hoping they would take the bait and enter the building. His wish was granted a moment later when one of them suddenly strode forward and yanked the door open impatiently.
The second the door opened, it fired the modified trigger on the bottom of one of his fireworks. A dozen rockets exploded, obliterating the shack in a thunderclap of noise and a burning white light brighter than the sun.
Harry felt the heat of the light wash over him, and saw white spots even with his face buried in his hands and his eyes closed tightly. The shockwave passed less than a second later, almost knocking him over despite his cover.
He leapt to his feet, ready to fire sleep potion coated bolts as fast as his finger could pull the trigger, but it wasn't needed. All of the attackers were down, either unconscious or thrashing on the ground clutching their faces.
To either side of the hut, red flashes of stunning spells shot out, putting the incapacitated wizards out of their misery and making sure the others would not wake up anytime soon.
"Way to go, Harry!" called Dean Thomas weakly from his position with the other prisoner. "I was hoping I'd catch up with you eventually."
"Look, Harry," said Ron. "I know you've got a saving people thing, but there is no way we can get into Malfoy Manor, let alone rescue the prisoners there.
"It's bad enough we have Dean and Griphook to take care of now."
Hermione was silent, torn between wanting to help save Luna, and the realities of the situation. It was the only intelligence of note gained from the captured snatchers, but it was woefully incomplete.
"They'll kill her, now that they've locked up her dad," said Harry. "And it's our fault. If we hadn't gone to his house-"
"He brought it on himself by trying to hand you over!" yelled Ron, clearly getting frustrated. "I don't even know where the manor is, and I'll be buggered if I am going to try to grab some more snatchers hoping one of them knows."
"Dobby," said Harry suddenly. "Dobby knows where it is, and I bet he can get in and out too. He used to be their house elf!"
"How are you going to get in contact with Dobby?" said Hermione. "You can't just call him – he's not your elf."
"You can send a Patronus message to the Hogwarts kitchens," said Harry. "Even if he is not there, they'll get in contact with him for sure."
"Even if he dose get the message, I doubt very much if Dobby can carry a single person with him, let alone a few," added Ron. "There's bound to be more than one person there you know."
"We'll give Dobby some Portkeys," said Harry.
"The manor will be heavily warded against that sort of thing," said Hermione. "It will have protection spells and things on it."
"Have you forgotten? Anybody inside can take all of them down with a single word," said Harry smiling.
"The Taboo," said Hermione.
"The Taboo," Harry confirmed.
"Brilliant," said Ron.
Visions of Voldemort flying suddenly became clearer to Harry, as if the creature's mounting excitement made the connection stronger. Harry knew the destination, and the likely prize, but he could not go to Hogwarts himself and expect to survive.
"Mr. Ollivander, I'm sorry to disturb you," Harry said.
"My dear boy," Ollivander's voice was feeble. "You rescued us, I thought we would die in that place, I can never thank you enough."
Harry's scar throbbed constantly, and fleeting visions flickered in his vision. He knew, he was certain, that there was hardly any time left in which to beat Voldemort to his goal, or else to attempt to thwart him. He felt a flutter of panic, but stuck to his decision.
"Sir, I need some help, please."
"Anything," said the wandmaker weakly.
"Tell me exactly how the wand chooses the wizard, and tell me everything you know about the Elder Wand, and why you-know-who wants it."
Hermione had the nerve to look annoyed and embarrassed by Harry's question, until the old man started talking, that was.
"Dumbledore had the Elder Wand?" said Ron. "But then where is it now?"
"At Hogwarts," said Harry.
"But then, let's go!" said Ron urgently. "Harry, let's go and get it before he
"It's too late for that," said Harry. "He knows where it is. He's there now."
"Harry!" Ron said furiously. "How long have you known? Why have we been wasting time? Why did you talk to Ollivander first? We could have gone, we could still go."
"No," said Harry, and he sat down on the grass. "Hermione's right. Dumbledore didn't want me to have it. He didn't want me to take it. He wanted me to get the Horcruxes, probably because he didn't think the Elder Wand would accept me as its master."
"So you are just going to let you-know-who have it?" Ron screamed. "Are you insane?"
"No, Ron," said Harry calmly. "I'm not."
Suddenly there was a loud crack, and the slightly dishevelled form of Kreacher stood before Harry, a crooked stick clutched to his chest.
"He is what you be wanting, Master Harry," Kreacher said shakily, holding the wand out reluctantly. "Kreacher is taking it from the grave, as you told him, and is leaving behind the stick you be giving him. Nobody be seeing Kreacher."
"Thank you, Kreacher," Harry said, smiling and took the wand from Kreacher's hand. "You have done very well. Regulus would be proud."
As his hand closed over it, a single, pure white spark, brighter than an evening star, fluttered from the end to waft away in the gentle breeze.
In the back of his head, he felt Voldemort's uncontrolled rage as the wand he took from his defeated enemy's tomb suddenly gave a squawk and turned into a rubber chicken.
Harry's smile grew larger.
"Harry Potter," said Griphook. "I have some information for you that may or may not be useful, but will go someway towards paying off the debt I owe to you for freeing me.
"Bellatrix LeStrange has a vault at Gringotts. There are special instructions and procedures to be followed should anybody wish to enter that vault, an unusual situation, I can assure you."
"Didn't she put the sword she thought was Gryffindor's in there?" asked Harry.
"These instructions precede that incident, leading me to think she has much more than gold stored there," answered Griphook. "It has been said that Gringotts is-"
"The safest place in the world for anything you want to hide," finished Harry. "I've heard. Thank you, Griphook."
"Nobody has ever robbed Gringotts before," said Ron. "It's impossible."
"That's not true," said Harry. "Quirrell got into the vault where the Philosopher's stone was being held."
"Yeah, but that was you-know-who," countered Ron. "And the vault was empty. If there really is a Horcrux in Bellatrix's vault, you can be sure it takes a bit more than just a key to get in."
"Even getting to her vault will be almost impossible," said Hermione. "We can't exactly Polyjuice ourselves and just ask to go in, can we?"
"True, but Griphook told me her vault number, so we don't have to go to her vault," said Harry. "We give them my key, but then use the Imperius curse to get a Goblin to take us to the vault above Bellatrix's instead. Griphook refused to confirm it, but he didn't deny that the Goblins had a way to get into most vaults, if they need to. That's how Quirrell probably got in."
"Hang on," said Ron. "The vault above to Bella's? What are we going to do there?"
Unlike Dudley, Vernon's favourite television shows were surprisingly intellectual. The morbidly obese man and his horse-faced wife shared a mutual interest in a specific type of show: Heist movies. In particular, ones involving bank robberies.
Perhaps it was just the thought of accessing all that wealth without earning it that interested the Dursleys, but Harry had overheard enough of them to know a few tricks.
"Dig," said Harry. "We dig."
Ron and Hermione slowly lowered Harry through hole, stopping when he called out to them. The Goblin who brought them down was keeping guard outside the vault from which they were working, ready to turn aside anybody coming to investigate the noise, should their digging be heard. So far, everything was going to plan, thanks to Invisibility cloak covered Hermione's excellent Imperio and Confundus charms.
Suspended by a rope just below the ceiling of Bellatrix's vault, Harry shone a lamp around, and marvelled at the wealth beneath him.
Mountains of galleons, piles of armour, and treasures of every other description filled the enormous vault. There were even isles of shelves, filled with more priceless artefacts, stacked right up to where Harry hung.
And sitting on the top of one of the shelves, barely two feet away from Harry, was the small, golden cup of Helga Hufflepuff.
"Too easy," laughed Harry, stuffing the cup into a sack.
"It's at Hogwarts," said Harry. "You-know-who is rightly pissed, and he is going to check on the Horcruxes. The last one is at Hogwarts."
The visions had never been as clear, much to Harry's terror.
"How can we get in?" asked Ron. "All the passages will be guarded, probably by Dementors, and we can't just walk in, can we?"
"Don't need to," said Harry. "Kreacher!"
With a muffled pop, the house-elf appeared.
"You mean, we could have been here, in Hogwarts all along, using the room of requirement as our base, and none of us thought of it?" asked Ron incredulously.
"Well it's not like I thought of it on my own," explained Neville. "Harry showed us how the room worked and all. I was just looking for a good place to hide!"
"Hide," said Hermione thoughtfully. "A good place to hide – something."
"That's it!" yelled Harry excitedly. "He has hidden it in the Room of Requirement – that place where people have been hiding stuff for centuries!"
"Hidden what?" asked Neville.
"Good question," said Harry, his enthusiasm dropping slightly.
"Why don't we just torch the whole room," asked Ron, looking at the city of junk laid out before him. "We know it's here, so let's just burn the lot with that fire spell Hermione said would destroy the Horcrux; Fiendfyre."
"We really need to be sure," said Harry. "We can't risk being wrong."
"Then we need some help," said Ron. "We will never find it in here alone."
"Everybody is needed outside to keep Voldemort out," said Hermione. "A few people won't make a difference, and more than a few will weaken the defences."
"People?" asked Ron. "I was thinking of House-elves myself. They'll get through this lot quick-smart, and it'll keep the little fellows out of trouble outside."
The look on Hermione's face was priceless.
"What?" asked Ron. "It's not like I haven't had a good idea or two before you know!"
Harry took off the invisibility cloak and looked down upon the man he hated. Voldemort had struck Snape down, using the snake to murder the man he thought was the true master of the Elder wand.
A terrible rasping, gurgling noise issued from the dying man's throat.
"Take. . . it. . . . Take. . . it. . . . "
Something more than blood was leaking from Snape. Silvery blue, neither gas nor liquid, gushed from his mouth and his ears and his eyes, and Harry knew what it was; it was memories.
"No," said Harry.
Shock and then anger registered on Snape's face.
"Take it!" he rasped again, more forcefully.
"Forget it, Snivellus," said Harry coldly. "Whatever it is, I don't care. You have nothing I want to see, except possibly your last breath. Goodbye."
"No!" croaked Snape, but Harry had already stood up and stepped back a pace.
"Look at me," Snape croaked, sounding desperate.
"You hate Muggles," said Harry, "but let me share with you two pearls of wisdom they have: 'Revenge is a dish best served cold', and 'You reap what you sow'."
With that, Harry turned his back on the dying man and walked away.
Behind him, Hermione rushed forward to scoop up the memories with her wand before they disappeared, but Harry didn't care – he just hoped the loathsome man couldn't come back as a ghost.
A swarm of Dementors glided through the trees of the forest, making it impossible for Harry to pass undetected. Snape's memories and the knowledge of his own impending death did nothing to help Harry conjure even the faintest of Patronus mists.
Briefly he considered setting the forest on fire using some of the products still filling his well prepared pockets, but dismissed it when he realised it would only hasten Voldemort's attack on the castle and do little to thin their ranks.
Reaching into the pouch still hanging around his neck he took out the cracked Resurrection stone, forcibly extracted from the snitch all those months before at the Burrow.
Placing it in his hand, he turned it three times.
As with the times before when he had tried it, there came a flittering feeling that people he had once known and loved were standing around him, comforting and reassuring him.
"This had better work," he mumbled to himself, then pulled the invisibility cloak on and headed into the forest to confront Voldemort.
Around him, the Dementors didn't appear to notice him, but glided away as if guided by Harry's invisible guardians.
He was walking into a place to be struck by a killing curse cast by the evilest wizard alive, so that the creature could eventually be killed, but now he finally knew his purpose in life. He didn't need extraordinary magical power and skill, or even moderate ones. All he needed was a willingness to do what was needed, no matter what the cost to himself.
Just like with Apparition, there was no short cut, no clever use of his limited magical prowess that would remove the piece of Voldemort's soul accidentally imbedded in him. He couldn't even have a friend strike him down, since the prophecy required his death by Voldemort's hand.
Harry was finally doing something the Dursleys' frequently wished for; He was going to get himself killed, but at least it was to save his world, and not so that his 'family' didn't have to put up with his presence anymore.
It annoyed Harry immensely to know Vernon would likely be very happy with this outcome, but it was still the right thing to do.
Circling the camp of the Death Eaters took a lot longer than Harry had allowed for. Before he had made it all the way around, time was up.
"I thought he would come," said Voldemort in his high, clear voice, his eyes on the leaping flames. "I expected him to come."
Nobody spoke. They seemed as scared as Harry did. His hands were sweating as he pulled off the Invisibility Cloak and stuffed it into a hidden pocket with the Elder wand where they would both be safe from discovery.
"I'm here," said Harry, stepping out from the trees.
"Harry Potter," said Voldemort. "The Boy Who Lived."
None of the Death Eaters moved. They were waiting: Everything was waiting.
Voldemort raised his wand. There was a flash of green light, and everything went dark.
Harry accepted he had to die; it was the only way to destroy the final Horcrux inside of him. The prophecy made it clear that he had to be killed by Voldemort himself, but that didn't mean he was going to give up his life for only that one thing.
As his body fell to the ground, his hand opened, dropping a tightly held trigger.
All around the clearing, from a dozen head-height places where Harry carefully placed them, special packages ignited. Bombs, filled with the most potent blasting potions and bags of ball bearings, suddenly woke up the night, mowing down Voldemort's followers in a deadly hail of high velocity steel. The blasts were so powerful, many of the trees didn't survive, doubling the size of the clearing.
Harry knew Voldemort would still try to take Hogwarts; his ego and megalomania would allow no less, but at least now the defenders would have a much better chance.
While it was extremely unlikely, Harry hoped Voldemort himself might become a victim of this, his last trick.
The explosion shook the ground for miles and echoed all the way back to the castle, as did the screams of the Death Eaters and their allies caught up in the destruction.
Harry sat on the seat at a very ghostly platform nine and three quarters, swinging his legs happily, like a child waiting patiently for the train. Dying was always a possibility he faced, and he had spent many hours alone in his cupboard thinking about it.
Overall, it was not something he ever really feared, not after the many times he had wished for the release from his horrible childhood it represented.
Nearby, a small thing, looking roughly like a naked child, lay curled on the ground. Its skin was raw and rough, flayed-looking, and it lay shuddering under a seat, unwanted, stuffed out of sight, struggling for breath.
"Hello," Harry said cheerfully when Albus Dumbledore appeared in front of him.
"Hello, Harry," said the spectre of the dead headmaster, looking slightly surprised at Harry's happy demeanour.
"Is that meant to be Riddle?" Harry asked, nodding towards the wheezing abomination.
"In a manner of speaking," said Dumbledore.
Harry suddenly stood up and moved closer to it, bending over to scoop it up in his arms, despite his obvious distaste.
"You cannot help it," said Dumbledore sadly.
"Help it?" said Harry. "No, I'm putting it on the tracks.
"Any idea what time the next train arrives?"
Harry dropped his cloak, suddenly appearing in front of Voldemort, both surrounded by hundreds of people who came to fight the last battle inside of Hogwarts' great hall.
"You!" screamed Voldemort.
"Hello," called Harry cheerily, waving his hand like an excited child.
Cries of joy and surprise rose from the crowd. "He's alive! Harry's alive." Harry never took his eyes of Voldemort and the crowd suddenly went silent.
"Time to go, Tom," said Harry. "The gig's up."
Voldemort hissed like the snake he so represented.
"How will you slay me, Harry Potter? You are almost a Squib! Do you imagine Dumbledore's much vaulted 'Love' is somehow going to leap out of your hand and best me, the greatest wizard to have ever lived?"
"Look around you, Riddle," laughed Harry. "Every person is here because of love. None of them is forced to be here by fear or magic – they have all come because they love too much to let you win. Do you really think they are going to let you leave?"
"And the prophecy?" asked Voldemort sarcastically. "Am I not meant to die by your hand? How can you expect a pathetic wizard like you to overcome me?"
"Yeah, about that," said Harry. "I've just got three words to say.
"Ready!" called Harry loudly and raising his empty hand in the air, higher than his head.
"No," screamed Voldemort in rage, as a hundred wands appeared in the hands of the crowd. "I am Lord Voldemort! You do not dare attack me. I am immortal."
"Aim!" Harry said, pointing the Elder wand directly at Voldemort's heart.
Voldemort raised his own wand, his sneer dropping as he dedicated all of his concentration on Harry and the magical battle that was about to begin. His blood red eyes roamed uncontrollably and a foam of spittle formed in the corned of the madman's mouth.
"You will die first Potter. Then I will kill every one of your friends - One at a time," said the Dark Lord.
"Did I forget to mention we destroyed all your Horcruxes with a Basilisk fang, including Ravenclaw's diadem?" said Harry with fake contriteness. "Oops, sorry."
said Harry with fake contriteness. "Oops, sorry."
Voldemort's eyes widened in fear and surprise, but Harry didn't give him a chance to recover.
"Fire!" yelled Harry, dropping his raised hand to signal the others.
Voldemort managed to get the first syllable of the killing curse out before dozens of different spells slammed into him from the surrounding people. Lights of every colour, including many the sickly green of the killing curse, crashed into the Dark Lord from all sides, smashing and breaking him like a watermelon caught between immense hammers.
As the mutilated and unrecognisable remains of Tom Riddle hit the floor, and a huge cry leapt from the throats of the defenders, Harry looked at his empty hand, then back to Voldemort.
"Idiot," he mumbled disgustedly.
"What will you do with the Hallows?" asked the painting of Albus Dumbledore.
"I'm keeping the cloak," said Harry. "One day I'll pass it on to my son, like it has been for hundreds of years."
"Of course, my dear boy," said Dumbledore. "And the stone?"
"I reckon there are a few people downstairs that deserve a chance to say goodbye to their loved ones," said Harry. "I know not everybody is suited, and I'll have to be fairly discrete, but it will go a long way to helping people like the Weasleys get over their loss.
"And one day, Teddy Lupin is going to have the chance to meet his parents. That's the least I can do for my godson."
Behind him, Hermione tried to muffle a sob.
"A truly noble sentiment, but what of the Elder Wand?" asked Dumbledore.
"I reckon it's just a dirty great trouble magnet," said Harry. "So nobody is going to have to worry about it again."
Ron and Hermione let out anguished cries as an audible snap echoed through the headmaster's office. Some of the portraits cried out too.
"Harry, how could you do that?" yelled Hermione. "We could have learned so much from it."
"You ruddy great idiot," screamed Ron. "If you didn't want it, you should have given it to somebody else!"
"Who, Ron? You maybe?" Harry shook his head, stuffing the broken pieces back in his pocket and picking up his repaired phoenix wand. "You want to spend the rest of your life looking over your shoulder, waiting for the next person to sneak up and try to do you in so they can take it from you?
"And you, Hermione. Don't you think wizards are powerful enough without a new breed of 'super-wands'? Barely anybody uses their power properly now, so why do they deserve more? No this is the best way – trust me."
Both of his friends suddenly looked ashamed. They knew he was right, that he could, as usual, see more clearly than they could.
"Only joking," laughed Harry, taking the real Elder wand from his pocket. "You don't honestly believe I'd be stupid enough to get rid of the one thing that might make me as good as a normal wizard, do you?
"But that's not what we are going to tell everybody outside," he added meaningfully.
Epilogue: Nineteen and a bit years later.
"What if I'm in Slytherin?"
Harry crouched down so that the boy's face was slightly above his own. Alone out of Harry's three children, only his youngest son inherited Lily's eyes.
"Frederick Remus Albus Stan Jack Potter," Harry said quietly, so that nobody else could hear, "you were named for two of the greatest pranksters to ever enter Hogwarts, a former headmaster, the conductor of the knight bus, and a bloke I met on the street whose name I liked. Most were in Gryffindor, but it doesn't make any difference.
"You have been given a gift; you can do magic," said Harry, his wand lighting up between them to emphasis his words. "It is your responsibility and your privilege to learn how to use it properly, to squeeze every last bit out of it, no matter what house that mangy old hat drops you in."
"But just say—"
"—then Slytherin will have gained an excellent student, and you will have a chance to teach your new friends how to play the best pranks ever, won't you?"
Fred's eyes lit up as he suddenly realised the possibilities of belonging to a house renowned for its ambition and cunning, and not for its mischief making.
"But, if it really bothers you, tell Floppsy that you'll give him a bottle of leather cleaner for Christmas if he puts you in the house you want. I hear he's rather partial to the fumes.
"It's what I would have done, if I had known then what I know now."
As the train pulled away, an unexpected feeling of utter contentment flooded Harry. For nineteen years, he had lived a better life than he had ever dreamed of before discovering the magical world. He was wealthy and respected, had a loving family, good friends, and a great job working for Kwikspell helping others get by with less than stellar magical prowess.
He even had a fun hobby as a Muggle stage magician, using sleight-of-hand to entertain children of all ages (although Ministry bureaucrats investigating him for possible secrecy violations every six months was becoming rather annoying).
Overall, not bad, for somebody who was almost a Squib.
Final Author's Note (sort of an omake):
I was really tempted to add the final line: - Except for an occasional twinge in his scar...
Just to mess with you, and to keep JKR's promise of ending with the word scar... :)
Thanks to Nimbus 1944 for the tonic to the sorting hat idea.
Thanks again for taking the time to read my story.