A/N. Boo! Surprise!

It has been so long, I know. Believe it or not I have been working on this on and off as evidenced by the 200 or so versions of this chapter on my computer :). Sadly, that number is not an exaggeration. It was a tough one to get right. And I still don't know if I did.

Thank you to those who never gave up. Your constant reminder and encouragement keep me writing.

Here you go. Lots to read - don't blink, you might miss something

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Chapter 71 – The Path To Destiny

"That's settled then. You're stuck with me," Harry replied, grinning.

Hermione laughed. He gazed deeply into her eyes. A younger version of her looked back at him with complete happiness and peace. He would give anything to have her feel like this forever.

He leaned in and kissed her gently, drawing her body against his. Her ardous response was unhurried but a reflection of the same intense longing he had. It emptied his thoughts and filled it with a heady sensation.

After some time he felt her reluctantly move away. He opened his eyes. A bright cone of white light encased Hermione in some sort of a force field. Hermione reached out the same time he did and their palms touched lightly across a thin barrier.

It was a portal, and it was taking her back to reality. She was torn between staying and going.

"Harry, I have to let it take me," she said apologetically.

"It's okay," Harry tried to reassure her, "I'll be on the next one, I promise. You're stuck with me, remember?"

That earned Harry a faint smile, the last thing he saw of Hermione before she disappeared.

XXXXXXXXXX

A heartbeat.

Hugo pulled back. He didn't know how long he had been crying but there was no mistake. His father was still alive. Hugo not only heard a heartbeat, he felt it thump against his father's chest.

A steady slow burn coursed through his entire body. He quickly examined his hands. They were infernal hot and as he looked at them in bewilderment, in the background, he noticed changes to his father's mangled arm; the bone fragments reorganized and the skin edges crept over the wound.

He blinked, touched it to confirm. It had without a doubt healed on its own. Barely able to process the sight, a warning came to him in his thoughts from out of the blue.

Watch out!

Someone was behind him!

Survival instincts nudged Hugo into action. He pulled his wand out of his back pants pocket and swung around. A strong, firm hand grabbed his wrist before he could discharge his weapon, yanking him up forcibly from his crouched position. He was unable to hang onto the wand and it fell by the wayside.

Fighting through blinding pain in his limb as he was dragged up to his feet, Hugo's free hand searched the ground desperately for something to hang onto or anything he could use to defend himself.

Small rocks, dirt, dried leaves…there had to be something! Out of the corner of his eye, in his father's better hand, was a distinct, ancient looking wand! The Deathstick! He reached out, stretching as far as he could but it was just beyond his finger tips!

"Arghh!"

He screamed as he was jerked farther away from the only thing that could save his life. Then another hand came up around his throat, crushing it, making it impossible for him to breathe. His body fought and struggled, his arms and legs flailing against his attacker.

"Look at me. I want to see you die."

It was a command. The voice was unmistakably Warren's. Cold grey eyes filled with amusement stared back at him. Warren's eyes, Warren's body, but Hugo knew it was Malvado.

The squeezing around his throat tightened some more as Malvado sneered, his wand was now in the wizard's other hand.

He had to do something!

In near desperation he held on to Malvado's wrist to support himself and tried to pry the fingers off his neck to ease the choking sensation but there was no budging out of the predicament he was in.

"Stop squirming," Malvado advised, "Death will come easier."

It would be quicker if Malvado cursed him but it was clear that was not the death the Dark wizard had in mind. He couldn't breathe, his head felt like it would explode and, even though he wanted to fight, his strength was slipping away. His arms felt like lead and he couldn't even lift them to strike back.

"That's it," the voice encouraged, sounding more distant now than it did earlier, "Let it go."

He could not give up…not now…

For a split second the emotional and physical chaos of his fight for survival silenced and a sweet thrumming serenaded him from somewhere behind. He reached out and summoned it. Willing and eager, it came. He clasped the piece of old wood tightly.

A powerful hum surged from his fingers to his chest as he claimed the Elder wand and wielded its magic. He barely noticed the curse that came from its tip until Malvado let him go.

Hugo gasped for much needed air as he fell to the ground. The force of the Stunner threw Malvado some distance away, giving Hugo some time to recover. That reprieve wasn't going to last long.

He was on his feet as quickly as Malvado was.

"Protego!"

That was just in time to repel an incoming spell. The hex deflected into a nearby boulder, pulverizing it. Malvado followed him as he retreated, back pedaling, scanning his surroundings, searching for ideas, frantic for inspiration. Cliff, rocks, crater...all he could think of was drawing Malvado as far away from his father as he could.

"Give me the wand!" Malvado commanded with a menacing tone.

"What? This old thing?"

Bombarda.

He flicked the spell silently in the dark wizard's direction. Out of habit, Malvado didn't bother dodging or defending against the hex and paid for it. It winged the dark wizard and blew off his right shoulder, taking his arm with it.

With shock, they both looked at the dismembered limb still clutching Hugo's wand on the ground and then at the strange sight of the missing piece from Warren's body. It wasn't growing back, at least definitely not as quickly as Hugo had witnessed Malvado heal before. Odd…reassuringly odd…it was definitely the Elder wand.

Malvado was miffed at his delayed regeneration. He summoned Hugo's wand to his functional hand.

Crap…

Hugo put up his shield just as the barrage of curses came. He deflected the first three and dove behind a huge tree to avoid getting hit by the fourth. He heard a pop behind him and ducked out of the incoming beam from the just appeared Malvado, the curse missing his head by no more than an inch.

Crash!

It hit. He put his arms up to protect his head and face. Wood splinters flew in all directions and he yelped involuntarily as several broken projectiles stabbed him in his left shoulder and arm.

Hugo took a big breath in and in one motion magically pulled out the three larger stakes that had pierced him at once, noticing the wounds healing as soon as he did. He barely registered how that was a good thing. He got up and squared himself for Malvado's next salvo.

Pulse pounding against his chest, Hugo defended himself as Malvado relentlessly cursed. His parries were crisp and decisive, better than ones that he'd conjured against Warren in practice. Certainly it was because of the Elder Wand but also because Malvado's curses were more real than real. Unlike Warren during his training, the dark wizard wasn't holding back. Each spell he blocked reverberated though his core and the avulsion to injury was very motivating. Although he just saw his wounds heal he wasn't going to deliberately test if he could self heal again.

If Malvado was frustrated he showed no signs of it. His limb had regrown and he had regained functionality of his wand arm.

"No one is coming to help you," Malvado pissed all over his one remaining hope.

Hugo needed a plan, quick, preferably one that went beyond hoping for someone to rescue him.

"Where will you go? You can't run away from me forever," Malvado taunted while hexing him.

Hugo dodged and blocked the curses. Malvado was right. Running was not an option. Malvado would get him sooner or later and he wasn't about to leave his father alone with the dark wizard.

There was really no choice; he had to fight back.

No witch or wizard has defeated Malvado in over a hundred years.

None of them had the Elder wand.

Some crazy voice that sounded very much like Warren interjected. Common sense put things in perspective. He was taught to defend, not to fight. The Elder wand, like any weapon, was only as good as its wielder. He was not his father. He could see himself losing to Malvado, not only his life but also the Elder wand. If that happened Malvado would even be more difficult to stop. It was obvious what he had to do.

Without the Elder wand and the other Hallows someone else would at least have a fighting chance against Malvado. With grim determination, Hugo went on a rare offensive.

"Stupefy! Stupefy! Stupefy!"

The Deathstick had a definite preference to being on the attack. Hugo had never used a wand so eager to cause pain and seemingly keen to please him. Caught unaware, the third Stunner hit Malvado and gave Hugo the precious seconds he needed. Quickly, Hugo reached into the pouch around his neck, grabbed his Mum's book.

Malvado went for the kill.

Hugo was all thumbs as he opened the tome. Like the last time it began flipping through the pages. He looked up as his peripheral vision caught something bright and fast approaching.

"Protego!"

Hugo rushed it and misfired. The green spell was almost upon him. Unless he came up with a more decisive defensive spell he was going to get hit.

The sound of flipping paper suddenly stopped. The book found the tale it was looking for. Not a split second later, a whirlwind picked him off an inch from the ground and spun him around. It sped up so fast that he couldn't conjure another protective counter. There was nothing Hugo could do anymore. He braced himself for impact.

It didn't come. The sight of the incoming killing curse blurred and was replaced by his very irate half brother.

XXXXXXXXXX

Harry stopped, stooped down and examined the footprint on the moss covered ground. He sighed away his growing frustration. Just as he suspected, he had been walking around in a circle for a while. After Hermione left, Harry patiently waited for another portal to come for him but it was taking forever and he could no longer sit and wait. He went off to find Rasputin, or someone who could direct him to the Healer. He figured the Rasputin could point him to the location of the nearest portal.

As he searched for the Mad Monk Harry thought about Hermione and the Asphyxiatus. Had Ron found her? Had Padma and Jessie made any headway into finding an antidote? Admittedly, the antidote was a long shot. It would be a near miracle to create one when no one had succeeded in decades.

But it was the less complicated of the two solutions he had come up with at the time. The other required the POTH's blessing to release the stone from the snitch and to reunite the Hallows. And there was one other thing about that particular option. Even if her POTH vows would allow it, it was hard to imagine Hermione choosing to become Mistress of Death again just so she could live.

Clearly the latter was less possible now that Harry had lost consciousness and, possibly, mastery of the wand. Hopefully the sticking charm he conjured worked, that Warren was wrong in his assumptions about the Elder wand's loyalty and that Malvado didn't get it. All in all it was a lot of hoping. Creating an elusive antidote was more likely.

There was that and there was Malvado. Harry was eager for another go at the prick. Seeing Hermione going through the portal alone reminded him of Rasputin's lecture on inter-realm connections. Who would have guessed that the ramblings of the immortal lunatic would gave him an idea about how to end Malvado once and for all. But first he had to get back, find a portal and get Malvado into one.

Hermione's life then Malvado's death. Where was his portal?

Helplessness gnawed at him. He hated feeling absolutely powerless.

Harry looked up beyond the tree cover. Dusk was approaching fast. The passage of time only added to his frustration. He had to keep moving if only to distract himself.

He ambled towards the sound of running water on his left and found a stream past the tree line. Bodies of water don't usually flow in circles. He decided to follow it to its origin, get to somewhere different from where he was now and possibly run into Rasputin. Accomplishing a goal, even one potentially pointless, was better than sitting around waiting.

Harry walked for a while, lost in random notions, losing track of time. He thought about what his family's future would look like. Ideally he'd want all of them happy, or not unhappy at the very least, but maybe that too was hoping for too much. He tried focusing on the positive but every now and then, he entertained the gloomy idea that he was not going to make it back in time to make a difference in the outcome. Maybe he was dead and he was not going back at all.

As darkness fell so did his mood but he kept on with his task. There was no moon or stars to illuminate his path. Thankfully, the stream bed appeared luminous and provided him a guided path. At one point the waters forked to the right. As he rounded the corner, he came upon a clearing. There was a pond there and something else. By the bank of the stream stood an ornate mirror, one he had seen before.

He approached it with hesitation. His reluctance to look into it surprised him. He never imagined he would need a moment to decide if he really wanted to see his reflection in the Mirror of Erised.

What are you afraid of? Harry asked himself.

He quickly figured it out. He knew what his deepest desire was but what if the Mirror showed him something else?

The reason for his hesitation was somewhat embarrassing. Time and experience had diminished his self trust and he longed for the simplicity of his eleven year old self.

Feeling braver, Harry stepped in front of the mirror and regarded his reflection. The images of important people in his life joined him. Hugo was there with his brothers and sisters. Both he and Lily were all smiles; Hermione radiant, happiness and contentment glinting from her eyes beside him; and Ginny in the background, pleased for him. Reassured that his heart and mind were on the same page, his apprehensions settled down. He closed his eyes for a moment, committing the imagery to memory, drawing from it the powerful positivity of its possibility.

"You did it again," someone interrupted.

That voice, so familiar, in a uniquely irritating way.

When he opened his eyes the Mirror of Erised was gone and in its place stood the Hag.

XXXXXXXXXX

Al appeared and dropped from out of thin air with a thud.

He shook the cobwebs off his head hoping the dizziness would go away. His brothers were here already.

"Get your hands off me!" Hugo threatened in a voice that sent goose bumps up Al's spine.

"Not until you apologize, you little bastard!" James replied in an equally menacing tone.

Al picked himself up and headed towards the pair. James had Hugo by the scruffs of his collar as they both glared at each other. Whatever this was about it was serious.

"Let go or I swear, I'll curse you!"

"Just try, bastard!" James dared. Al noticed Hugo's jaw tighten as James called him the name again, "I'm waiting for my apology!"

Hugo growled icily, "Didn't you know? Bastards never apologize. I'm not going to ask you a third time."

This was getting out of hand. Al stepped in between his brothers, pushing James away from Hugo before Hugo did what he said he would do.

"Enough!" Al scolded them both.

"He Petrified me!" James pointed an accusing finger at Hugo, quickly getting Al on his side.

"I had to!" Hugo yelled back, "You were going to stop me from leaving the Ministry!"

"You should have stayed!"

"If I did your father would be dead!"

James was stunned; that shut him up. Al was shocked too. He sized up his younger brother. Hugo was battered, bruised and exhausted; talking about this was bringing him very close to tears. An intense sinking feeling came over him. Al found his voice before he completely lost the nerve to ask.

"Is Dad okay?"

"He um..., he's hurt badly but he's alive," Hugo was obviously trying to choose his words to lessen their worry but couldn't lie.

"What happened?" James, now calmer, inquired.

"I'm not sure. Malvado did something to his arm, he lost consciousness," Hugo explained, then asked Al, worried, "Have you seen my Mum?"

"At Malvado's camp. She just blasted her way out of the underground prison," Al recounted, "I saw Uncle Ron and several others making their way towards her to help her out."

That didn't really alleviate Hugo's anxiety either and Al didn't have the heart to tell Hugo about the Dementors.

"You're in the camp too," Hugo stated; Al nodded.

James was as worried, "You okay?"

"I'm safe," Al dispelled their concern and said to Hugo, "I was Polyjuiced to look like you to unite Malvado's enemies, those who believe that you're the one."

"I'm sorry," Hugo apologized.

"Right now looking like you is actually a good thing. They're a scary lot but they like you enough. They think I'm you so they're protecting me. And it wasn't your fault. Gates did this."

"I dragged you and Rosie to Gates. Technically it is my fault."

James interrupted, "I thought bastards never apologized."

Their older brother was no longer angry and his statement clearly wasn't another demand for an apology. James and Hugo looked each other. In the silence that followed Al kept his stance firmly between the two, unsure where it would go.

"I'm sorry I called you a bastard," James broke the impasse, acknowledging his mistake, "I don't think of you that way. I was just pissed."

James held out his hand, offering truce. Hugo shook it.

"Well, it is the truth. I should get used to it," Hugo shrugged; James blushed, embarrassed, and at a loss about how to respond. Al didn't know either. Hugo fixed the awkward situation with the apology James had been asking for, "I'm sorry I hexed you."

"Forget it," James accepted, then bluntly pointed out,"What happened to you? You look like shit."

"Malvado has a way of doing that to you," Hugo replied dryly.

"You're fighting him?"

"Not really. He's doing all the fighting."

There was something more to what Hugo just said that he was not telling them. Al figured Hugo brought them here because he needed a break. But surely Hugo knew they would return to the exact moment they left. Al hoped he had a plan.

He asked, "What are you going to do when you get back?"

"Much of the same," Hugo countered seriously and didn't dwell on it.

Then there it was again, that strange look that Al couldn't quite read. Fear? acceptance? Determination? Did Hugo come to accept the logical conclusion that he wouldn't survive his present Malvado encounter?

James' patented insensitivity came out, "So, why are we here again?"

"We can stay as long as you need to regroup," Al tried to save Hugo the difficulty of having to explain himself.

Hugo quickly corrected his erroneous assumption, "Actually, I brought us back here to try and even the playing field a bit."

"You're not hiding out to take a break from the cursing?"

The unfiltered surprised remark came out before Al could stop himself. The younger Potter shook his head. Something was seriously wrong with their kid brother.

"Good. You're taking up Death's offer then," James concluded.

Like Hugo the last time, Al believed that acquiring more gifts from Death was a definite bad idea. Now, knowing what Hugo was up against, Al could see the merits of accepting Death's offers and could understand the change of heart. Maybe Hugo had not given up hope after all.

"No."

So, Hugo had not changed his mind either. Where was he going with this?

James asked again, with a hint of impatience, "Then why are we here?'

"To return the Hallows."

Al's eyes widened with disbelief, "You found them?"

"The POTH showed um, him, where they were," Hugo answered uncomfortably.

Al helped Hugo sort out his uncertainty, "The sooner you call him 'Dad' the sooner you'll feel less awkward about it. He grimaces when he's called 'Father' and never call him 'Harry'. He'll go mental."

Hugo did not appreciate his attempt to help and steered them back to topic, "Let's just do this."

"Why return them?" James sure was full of questions today, "I thought the Elder wand was the perfect weapon against Malvado."

"Yes, but he's still invincible. Returning the Hallows to Death will make Malvado mortal."

Al took Hugo's word for it. This was his show and Al trusted him implicitly. James, however, still had doubts and his questions were becoming annoying.

"Are you sure about this?"

"My Mum told your Dad," was Hugo's defensive response, his voice tense and a pitch higher, "Malvado's invincibility stone won't protect him once the Hallows are removed from our realm. That's why he wanted to kill the POTH, so the Hallows would never be destroyed."

"Calm down," James finally sensed Hugo's sensitivity.

Hugo seemed to know what James was thinking, immediately shooting down the latter's idea, "We are leaving the Hallows here! We are not taking them back!"

"Hold on a sec," James explained his reluctance with Hugo's plan, "How do we know that's not just Malvado propaganda? Maybe he knows the Elder wand and the Hallows can hurt him."

James had a good point; it was a possibility.

"There's really no time to argue!" Hugo grew impatient, "This was the plan!"

"Aunt Hermione's?"

"No! Your Dad's!"

"You mean our Dad's," Al couldn't resist anymore and corrected. Why was it so difficult for Hugo to call him that?

"It doesn't matter whose plan it was! The absence of the Hallows will make Malvado mortal! Others can wound him, maim him, kill him! But Death said we have to agree to do this!" Hugo said with both urgency and frustration, pleading with him and James, "All three of us!"

Hugo was determined and clearly on a mission. His younger brother turned to him for back up. As supportive as he was of Hugo, he wasn't sure he could fully support Hugo's plan.

Al put things in perspective, "He's going to kill you. The Hallows can save your life."

"I know that," Hugo replied evenly, "But this isn't just about me. I'm not good enough to unite the Hallows, much less keep them together. And this is our one chance. I barely got here in one piece."

Al put himself in Hugo's shoes. He wouldn't have the confidence either and, faced with the choice of momentarily staying alive versus giving someone else a chance to kill Malvado he would do the same. Al was annoyed that Hugo made sense and that there was no forcing him to do something that didn't feel right. it was a no-brainer after realizing that.

"I'm in," he backed Hugo up, looked over to James and pointed out, "He brought us here. He knows what he's doing. And besides, we're not the ones about to face Malvado again."

James withdrew his objection, maybe temporarily, as it seemed he was still not completely convinced this was the right thing to do. In the meantime Hugo had taken out an old worn out snitch from the pouch around his neck and served it up to Al.

"We'll need this open. The Resurrection Stone is in it. I don't think Death will take it as is."

For a moment Al didn't understand why Hugo was handing him the snitch. Then he remembered how his Dad's old professor hid the same stone in the snitch his father caught during his first Quidditch match, and how that snitch opened for the older Potter.

"You have gone mad!" Al looked at him like he had two heads, "I have nothing to do with the stone or the Hallows or the POTH. And I haven't played Quidditch since the last bad fall I had three years ago."

"The snitch is older. I think it will open for you," Hugo was quite serious.

He thinks?

James chimed in, "What makes you think this is one Al has caught before?"

"A hunch," Hugo was trying to evade answering the question.

Al supposed he could just try to open the snitch to get it over with but he was curious as hell why Hugo thought he could. And it was information Hugo would less likely share once the stone was out, if he was even right.

Al pressed on, "A hunch based on what?"

Hugo hesitated, looking at James then at him. Al felt his distrust, not that they had done anything to make him feel otherwise.

"We trust you. You can trust us," Al reassured him.

Pressured by time Hugo relented, "The Resurrection Stone belonged to the second Peverell and you're the second born Potter brother. I think someone meant for you to have it to look after at some point in the future, maybe when you came of age, just as the Peverell Cloak was meant for me to take care of. The cloak was charmed to stay with me."

"Your Mum?"

"Maybe, I don't know for sure," Hugo was honest; he was just guessing.

"And the Elder wand, was it meant for me to look after too?" James couldn't resist.

"I think so," Hugo replied almost dismissively, then asked Al, "Please, just give it a try."

Once again, Hugo held out the faded snitch in the palm of his hand and waited.

Taking the snitch from Hugo, Al held it in one hand first and then the other. As he rolled the snitch between his fingertips and thumb he felt it give. Two halves of the snitch moved in opposite directions and split open, revealing a dark, cracked object within the compartment. The Resurrection Stone.

The three of them breathed a sigh of relief. Hugo's hunch was right. Why his snitch and what it meant were questions that would have to wait. Al emptied the cracked pebble onto his other hand.

Upon skin contact an eerie image instantly flashed before his eyes. He was looking at a thirty year old version of him with eyes as sad and as lonely as how he suddenly felt. Surrounding him were strangers; Potters and Weasleys from the looks of it but strangers to Al nonetheless, flitting in and out of the picture in fast forward.

An old man's quivering voice spoke three whispered words through the mist, "When you're ready."

He shivered. The picture went away as quickly as it came.

Al looked at Hugo and asked, "Did you see that?"

"See what?"

Hugo didn't; Al dismissed it, "Must be my imagination."

Whatever it was it still creeped him out. He was now as eager as Hugo to get this over with. Al handed him the Stone and the three of them conjured the bridge across the river.

As they reached the other side, Death was waiting.

It mocked their return, "Back so soon?"

"Yes," Hugo answered readily, ignoring the insult, "We're here to give you back the Hallows."

"Really," It replied with a slight tone of disbelief, "And you are all in agreement?"

If Death had eyes Al swore It would be looking intently at James. His older brother was fidgeting but James answered in the affirmative just as he and Hugo did.

They waited, unsure of what was supposed to happen next. After what seemed like an eternity, It asked an unexpected question.

"All four?"

Four? Al glanced over to Hugo; Hugo was just as perplexed as he was. They turned to James. Whatever this was about James had a hand in it. He looked very guilty about something.

Hugo figured it out a split second sooner than Al did and was absolutely livid.

He accused their older brother, furious, "You took the wand!"

The wand of wands.

The taller James stood his ground as Hugo confronted him, defending himself, "I'd have to have been mental to pass it up! It's the most powerful wand ever created, more powerful than the Elder wand!"

Of all the times to be selfish James sure picked the worst moment. This was a big deal, the difference between an invincible Malvado versus a mortal one. James should give it back but, so far, he wasn't volunteering. Maybe he needed to be told. Al uncharacteristically did just that.

"Give it up, James!"

"I don't have it!" James yelled back.

"Where is it?" Hugo grilled him further, the urgency in his voice unmistakable.

James looked at their brother, confused.

"You don't know?" the older brother took out a wand from his pocket and showed it to Hugo, "I have yours! You took the wand by mistake back at the Ministry! You Petrified me with it!"

James had his eyes on Hugo who was now paler than pale. His younger brother looked like he was going to throw up.

Al asked the question, "Where is it, Hugo? Where's the wand?"

"Malvado has it," was his barely audible reply.

Hugo appeared absolutely defeated as he took his wand from James. He turned and walked away from them, and then sat at the bank of the river. He put his head between his knees to hide the fact that he was crying.

XXXXXXXXXX

"I'm sorry?" Harry replied, not understanding what the Hag meant.

"You did it again," the Hag repeated her accusation, complete with chastising tone, finger wagging and all, "You wasted your life to save her when you didn't have to. Jumping into a smouldering volcano, seriously? And I thought I taught you better than that."

Harry didn't know what other instance she was referring to but she did manage to make him feel more stupid than he already felt for leaping into the crater after the Biomorph. Still, he didn't have a choice. He defended his ill-advised decision to rescue who he thought was Hermione.

"It could have been her."

"But it wasn't."

"I had to be certain."

"You should have been prepared and established her identity through different means. Let's do a debrief," the Hag went on and there was no stopping her, "You came here with no back up."

"This was personal."

"Still, you could have drawn from the many personal favours you've accumulated over the years," she dismissed his excuse and then came the expected, "Boy! I didn't want to say it but you've certainly become less sharp with age. This must come from years of being married to the red head. I hope for your sake that the damage isn't permanent and that divorce will reverse it."

He drew a sharp breath in and released it slowly, summoning all his willpower to remain in control. This was the Hag, reacting adversely to the insult would only encourage her.

The Hag didn't miss a beat, "You thought you could rely on pure luck and skill to survive this."

Not true.

"You had no well thought out plan."

He did. She read his mind.

"'Winging it' is not a plan."

He blurted out without meaning to, "You taught me to trust my instincts."

"I was referring to your mental instincts not your penile ones."

Harry flushed; he just walked into that. Best not to interrupt until she was done. He wondered how much longer he'd have to put up with her barbs.

"You obviously did not learn your lesson from the Gaunt case. She charmed your little head into letting her meet with Gaunt even though your gut told you otherwise. So you ended up getting AK'd to save her, which you didn't need to do in the first place because the Elder wand was loyal to her then and would have never hurt her. I know, I know, you didn't know that, but if you hadn't been hit by the Killing Curse then you wouldn't have lost your memory and the two of you wouldnt be in this personal mess."

The Hag continued, "Oh Heartbreak, you'll be the last to see this so I will spell it out for you. You're great at this saving people thing except when it comes to her. With her you always seem to end up dead or near dead.

"Thank goodness you two didn't work on more cases and she quit being an Auror. Can you imagine how many more times she would have gotten you killed? The next time she needs saving, don't. Let someone else do it."

"Don't save Hermione's life. I'll try to remember that."

"Are you mocking me?"

"I know better than to do that," he countered then threw her a bone she would hopefully chew on, "I need to return to real life. I need a portal. I don't have much time."

"On the contrary, you have plenty," the Hag disagreed, "You're maimed badly in your realm. Even if you regain consciousness, you're bound to be more of a liability. And besides, Malvado is Heartbreak Jr.'s fight to fight."

Harry sighed. She was going to go on and on until she got her point across, whatever that was.

"Okay. Why are you here?" he asked politely, "Aside from pitching insults at me."

"You mean 'why are you here'."

"Hag!" his turn to chastise.

His ire nudged the Hag in full Hagspeak mode.

"They say the truth will set us free. I'm here to help set you and Waterloo free."

She paused, measuring him. Harry had no idea what the Hag was talking about and she was dead serious. This wasn't one of her games. She had his full attention which led to more Hagspeak.

"Fate has brought your paths to cross each others' once again and there is an impetus to stay on one course. My knowing eye sees that you have both decided but it also sees that it will end badly again, even if she survives the Asphyxiatus. What you saw in the mirror will never come true. Spare everyone the grief and reconsider. This is the truth."

Reconsider? This was her big message? Every part of Harry refused to believe but thought better than to contradict.

"Thank you for the warning. We'll take our chances."

The Hag wasn't finished, "You seek redemption. This is why you want to come back into her life."

"That's not true," he denied.

"Not entirely maybe but how are you going to convince her otherwise?" she challenged, "How long do you think before she starts feeling like a charity case?"

He opened his mouth to answer but no thoughts formed and he couldn't put a reasonable reply together.

The Hag went on, "And if that doesn't make her turn all 'Waterloo' on you and leave you, her guilt for your guilt will. Waterloo does not compromise when it comes to happiness. It's all or nothing for her. There were times in her past when she tried but she can only go against her nature for so long. That's why she didn't marry the Chameleon Lover and why she gave up on her marriage to Comic Relief Sidekick. She will never be completely happy with you."

"I made a promise."

"That you would love her unconditionally for the rest of her life? She knows; she doesn't need proof," the Hag said to him. "She understands that the hurtful choices you make are not a reflection of how you feel about her. And you give her the absolute same deal even though she's done horrible things to you. She lied to you many times, kept Heartbreak Jr. from you for years, and yet you're so quick to understand and forgive. In spite of all that, it hasn't diminished the way you care about her, and in my opinion, she did worse things to you than you did her. You are living up to your promise. You love her unconditionally. Why torture yourselves and your families just to prove something that requires no validation?"

"I forgot about her," did he have to point it out?

"Your defective memory wasn't your fault."

Hermione told him the same thing. It was incomprehensible how they could easily absolve him for forgetting. He lost it.

"I told her I loved her, got her pregnant, asked her to marry me and then married someone else! How is that not my fault?!"

His frustration silenced the Hag. She looked at him with understanding and sympathy, and waited until he calmed down.

When he finally stopped vibrating the Hag spoke, "Listen to me. It clearly wasn't your fault because it was hers. She knows it. And I'm not talking about the fact that it was her who insisted on going ahead with the plan to arrest Gaunt or that she was the weak link that night that caused all those deaths or that it was her you sacrificed your life for. She did something more idiotic than that, something she wants to tell you but can't."

"She'll tell me when she's ready," Harry defended Hermione.

"She won't because the truth will kill you and Death will not allow you back if I do. It is this secret and your unsatiable desire to make it up to her that will expunge whatever hopes you have of making each other happy."

Harry, perplexed, demanded clarity, "What are you talking about?"

"Death will not allow..."

"I don't care," he was fed up, "I will find another way back if I have to."

The Hag sighed and frowned,"I always knew your impulsivity will be the death of you. Are certain about this, Heartbreak?"

"Absolutely," Harry replied without hesitation.

"Then so be it. Perhaps your decision will lead to serendipity," the Hag gave another puzzling remark, "However, I would rather not be the cause of your inability to go back. It is best that you acquire this truth straight from the horse's mouth. You need to meet with Death before your return."

"Where do I find Death?"

"It will be far easier for Death to find you."

"How?"

And the Hag presented him with another challenge, "By proving that this truth is important to you."

A cone of warm light engulfed his entire being, drawing him inward. The Hag's fuzzy figure from just beyond the portal's borders spoke.

His two options were simple enough.

"Succumb to the call of reality and forget the truth. Refuse the portal and Death will come."

xxxxxxxxxx

Both Hugo and James wore grim expressions, silent. Al approached Death.

"We're going to need a moment," he told It.

"I am not a patient being," It warned before moving away from them.

Al didn't know exactly how much time they had but at least they were being given some. He and James joined Hugo and sat beside their brother on either side.

James apologized earnestly, "I'm sorry. I didn't know."

Hugo brushed off the tears from his cheeks with his sleeves. He was over his initial pissed off reaction and wasn't blaming James.

"Forget it. You had no way of knowing. I should have told you not to take it."

"So, what now?" Al asked the big question.

Hugo looked overwhelmed. He sounded it too.

"Malvado is very confident. He is not going to lose with that wand," Hugo didn't mince words.

"He might if you can shake his confidence," James said hopefully, trying to make up for his gaffe.

"For that you're going to need the Elder wand," Al carefully suggested, "Maybe the rest of the Hallows too."

Hugo had other ideas, "Or leave them here and hope for the best. We can't afford to lose any more Hallows to him. This way it will be just the one."

Al didn't agree, "One is all he needs. He already has it. We need to take it away from him."

He felt awful saying 'we' but 'you' would have sounded worse.

James chimed in, "Al is right. You'll have a better chance of shattering his confidence if you show up with the Hallows than just showing up as yourself."

Al added, "Not to mention a better chance of staying alive. If you unite the Hallows, you'll be Master of Death. You'll be immortal."

"I can't be Master of Death. I am not the Elder wand's master."

"How do you know that you're not? We can ask Death right now," Al suggested.

"Even if I were, I'd lose the wand soon enough," Hugo aired his main concern.

"Maybe you can hang on to it," James wasn't going to let Hugo give up, "You don't have a choice. When we leave this place you'll be seeing him again. He'll squash you like a bug if you don't use them."

"I can't win anyway. I won't be able to hold on to the wand. I'll just make things worse than they already are!" Hugo replied as they backed him to a corner.

Al, having been around Rosie all his life, was quite familiar with Hugo's stubbornness. He rarely won arguments over Rosie but drew upon how he won the few.

He suggested, poker-faced, "Fine, I'll do it. Just tell Malvado when you get back to stop cursing you and wait for me. I'm on my way."

His generous offer led to absolute silence, his stunned brothers looking at him, trying to decide if he was serious or mental or both. Then Hugo began to laugh and so did James. Al wasn't trying to be funny; okay, so maybe he was, just a little bit. He had a morbid sense of humour.

"What?" Al tried to keep things together, "You don't think Malvado will let you?"

That made Hugo and James laugh harder and at that point Al couldn't hold back anymore. He had this picture of a dumbfounded Malvado, his reaction to a proposal to wait.

The gales of laughter eventually died down and Hugo had the grim expression back on his face.

"If you really feel strongly against bringing the Hallows back, my offer is serious," Al said to him gravely, "But I'd rather you took them with you. For one, you're better at spells than I am. And I'd rather not lose my kid brother."

James added sincerely, "That goes the same for me."

Hugo's stance had softened, "You're both right. I have to do this. I can't let him kill me without a real fight."

"Well you can but we're glad you're choosing not to," James got up and gave Hugo a hand, pulling him up from where he was seated, adding words of encouragement, "Give him hell."

"We'll come with help as soon as we can," Al gave him a pat on the shoulder.

The three Potter brothers faced each other, ill at ease, uncomfortable about the knowledge that in spite their unconditional support and best wishes Hugo had his work cut out for him. Neither Al nor James knew what to say to him and Al figured they were the last people Hugo wanted to talk with about how scared he was to die.

"You'll get through this," Al heard himself say, a prayer really, "It would be so unfair if you don't. You're on the right side."

Hugo gave him a nod.

"And the right side always wins," James added firmly, "Believe."

Hugo acknowledged, the confident fire in his eyes burning a little bit brighter now. He fished out the ancient wand from the pouch around his neck and wrapped his fingers tightly around it. Al felt the unseen power of the Elder wand in Hugo's hands and it removed any doubts he had about Hugo being able to do this. He glanced to his left; James felt the same.

Al saw Hugo smile as he let go of all his anxiety in one big breath.

"Now, let's see if Death considers me Master," Hugo said to them, then muttered to himself, "Mum, forgive me."

Hugo summoned Death.

"Death, come."

Out of nowhere, Death, different from the one they were speaking with earlier, appeared.

"Master," It bowed to Hugo ceremoniously, "I am your humble servant. How may I be of assistance?"

Al wanted to listen in but Hugo and Death faded away. As he reappeared in the camp he charged forward to greet Malvado's men in the open field screaming a barbaric battle cry. His small army of crazed wizards, yearning for blood, soon overtook him. Raw ferocity clashed head on right before his eyes as forces of evil collided with forces of less evil. Multiple wand fights broke out in close quarters.

Before long he was in the thick of the fight. He dodged curses and disarmed foes with wands and firearms alike. Two Hugo loyalists flanked him on each side, they had his back. As he abandoned his fear for his safety it was replaced by the single-mindedness of quickly getting Hugo much needed help. He couldn't trust the army fighting for him so it was a good thing he had a choice.

Patronuses were chasing the Dementors away. Al headed for Uncle Ron.

XXXXXXXXX

Hugo faced Death, nervous and anxious. He didn't quite know how or where to start.

He asked the first question that came to mind, "Am I really your master?"

Its reply wasn't a cheerful one, "Yes. I wouldn't have come instantly if you weren't."

The unwelcome tone was the least of his worries. Questions filled him. The reality he was about to return to demanded truthful answers instantly.

"But the Elder wand," Hugo wondered out loud, "I thought one had to win it from someone to gain its allegiance."

"Actually, you did."

Somehow he understood, "James, when I Petrified him."

"His birthright as the Eldest of three," Death confirmed.

"I didn't know," he expressed regret, "I didn't mean to take it."

"Don't feel bad. Your brother all but completely relinquished it when he chose to accept the wand of wands," Death explained further, "And the Deathstick served your mother for a long time; your father twice. It recognizes the magical signatures of former masters in your blood. Its bond with you is exceptionally 've heard it before. The wand chooses the wizard. By saving your life it has clearly chosen you. Believe that you have its undivided loyalty. And because you have that and possess both the stone and my cloak, I am your servant."

"How does this work?"

"Master - slave," It pointed at him then at It. "You tell me what to do, I follow."

"My parents," Hugo replied. Their lives were at the top of his mental list, "I want them alive. Don't take them."

"I'm afraid that is not possible. As Master you used to but no longer have the right to amend Death's harvest list to suit your fancy," It answered, "The previous mistress gave up that right on behalf of all future masters and mistresses."

Hugo repeated with disbelief, "My Mum gave that up?"

"Yes. She said it was too much power for one person. She exchanged it for the right to influence processes and practices as it relates to intra-realm and inter-realm soul movement. Your mother is a very strange being."

That did sound like something his Mum would do.

"So, you can't cause Malvado's death either."

"You catch on quickly. You are correct. Notwithstanding your lack of authority to tell me who lives and who dies, I cannot rescind any Deathly deals without the affected being's approval. As per his Deathly contract the being you refer to as Malvado will exist in your realm until he willingly gives up his invincibility stone to someone who willingly accepts it and gives up bodily control."

Hugo tried to pick up ideas that would help him with what he was about to face but, so far, Death had given him nothing. His frustration spilled over.

"So what good are you to me if you can't do anything about the two things I would like you to do something about?"

"While my Master I will obey your every command except for the items already discussed. And you have immortality. I cannot take your life."

"Until I lose possession of one of the Hallows."

"You don't believe in your abilities?"

"I am realistic about what I can and cannot do."

"Very well. If you already think that your reign as Master of Death will be short perhaps we should end this conversation and not waste our time."

"Wait," Hugo honed in to Death's earlier statement, "You will obey my command?"

"Except for.."

"Yes, yes," Hugo cut him off, "The exceptions are clear to me. If I ask you a question can you lie to me?"

"Not directly. No."

"I need your help to defeat Malvado."

"You'll need to be more specific about how I can help you. I cannot physically intervene."

Death wasn't going to be as cooperative as Hugo had hoped. Hugo came up with a more direct question.

"Can you provide truthful and reliable information?" Hugo queried.

"Yes."

"Other than giving up his stone and giving you back all the Hallows, can I make Malvado mortal in our realm?"

"No."

Hugo didn't think so but he wanted to be certain nonetheless. He asked his next one.

"Are there ways for someone like me to get rid of him?"

"Temporarily, there are a few."

"And permanently?"

Death stilled, Its faceless mask grew even darker than it already was. After some time It spoke, Its message ominous in both content and delivery.

"Yes. There is one but it will require an extreme and exceptional sacrifice."

It would have been a surprise if it didn't. Hugo swallowed the lump in his throat. If this wasn't his destiny it may have well been. There was no avoiding it. It was time to accept and take charge.

Hugo gave out his next command, "Tell me how."

"As you wish, Master."

XXXXXXXXXX

A/N. Phew! There were so many different ways this Chapter could have love to hear how you found it.

I didnt think Hugo would decide to unite the Hallows but then again, they all have minds of their own.

Love Al (am sure I will regret giving him that vision). I tried my best but my inner Hag just wasn't cooperating :( I think she didnt want to detract attention from the Potter boys.

Am so excited to finally see light at the end of the tunnel. Last chapter coming up (seriously). And hopefully sooner than 6 months - keeping fingers crossed. Then an epilogue to tidy things up.

Malvado vs Hugo...Invincible vs Master of Death...Wand of wands vs Elder wand ...A battle that will change life and death as it is known...(I hear you Books and Cleverness) I am so way over my head with this lol! Wish me luck everyone!