Twenty-Sixth Movement: Vastness and Sorrow
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April 5, 1993
The morning sun had just begun its ascent over the lip of the horizon, vibrant rays igniting pools of molten fire on the surface of the restless Mediterranean. Waves crashed against the bottom of the cliffs below, throwing up sheets of white surf.
A hundred feet above the water, the stone windowsill beneath him was warm. Harry dangled his feet over its edge, trying not to think of anything in particular. Without looking at his watch, he assumed that it was close to six in the morning.
Another endless day was primed to begin.
Warm, soothing fire had cocooned Harry, before he found himself back at the hidden manor off the southern coast of France. Smooth tail-feathers beneath his hand, Fawkes had let out a single, warbling note, before disappearing in another flash of flames, leaving Harry behind.
Both Nicolas and Perenelle had offered no judgment, a surprise he had been grateful for. It wouldn't have been surprising, considering how much he had lied to them about his second year at Hogwarts, but their eyes had been kind, as had been their embraces.
Between his fingers a letter rested, far heavier than its physical weight could account for. With resignation, he turned his eyes back towards the yellow parchment, to the words writ in green ink.
Dear Mister Potter
As per the Headmaster's request, I write to inform you that young Miss Davis is on the road to recovery, and capable of receiving guests for short periods of time. While her wounds will heal with time, it is her state of mind that proves most worrisome. The company of friends would do her well.
There was more, but Harry glanced away, guilt pulling at his heart, as it had constantly over the past three days. He had led them all down there.
Millicent. Flint. Regina.
It was his fault they were dead. But how guilty could he really be if he slept like a baby at night?
Harry shook his head, not wanting to address the question, but helpless against it. The nightmares, the memories of the horror down in the Chamber of Secrets should have kept him awake, tossing and turning through the night.
Or so he thought. Slumber had been easy to come by, his sleep deep, dreamless.
What sort of person slept without issue after seeing one of his closest friends murdered? Was he heartless? Or was the trauma of his past so damaging that a tragedy of this magnitude wasn't a big deal?
Either way, he needed to be sure. The second half of the year had proved too stressful to continue the excursions into his mind, but with summer here, he needed to go through all the doors, and discover once and for all what really lurked within.
The sun rising higher, he took one last look at the crashing waves, before turning his body, swinging his legs back into this bedroom. As calming at it sometimes was to watch the tide crashing against the rocks, there were matters that he had to attend to.
Things he couldn't run from any longer.
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A gentle breeze wafted through the open windows, setting the light curtains tied back on both sides aflutter. The wind brought with it the subtle tang of the warm sea.
Harry's bare feet pattered softly on the plush carpeting as he exited the corridor and walked down the curving staircase. His thoughts were occupied by the task set before him.
For five days he had stayed at Flamel Manor, going through the motions of life, but doing nothing was a luxury he could ill afford anymore. He had work ahead of him, and it all started at Hogwarts.
"Good morning," greeted Nicolas as he entered the kitchen. The wizened alchemist, the latest issue of The Quibbler spread before him, a glass filled with dark red juice beside him, folded the tabloid together at once.
Harry returned the greeting, before his gaze drifted to the half-full glass.
"I guess muggle juice isn't that bad after all."
Nicolas picked up the glass in question, swirling the liquid within a single time.
"Cranberry, pomegranates and apples. I would never have even considered mixing the three."
"A bit more exciting than pumpkin juice, yeah?" asked Harry, wearing a slight smirk as he moved towards the icebox. Nicolas promptly took a large drink, finishing the glass off.
"I believe so," he conceded.
Curious to see what other types of juice the muggle world offered, Nicolas had gotten into the habit of ordering juices from all around the globe, to see how the Wizarding world's selection held up.
To date, the muggles were running away with the competition.
"Maybe you can start making your own," suggested Perenelle from the cooking area. Clad in a blue terrycloth robe, long silver hair tied back into a ponytail, she leaned against the granite countertop, a steaming mug of coffee clasped between her hands. "Alchemy of a different sort."
"The muggles kind of do the same thing," offered Harry as he reached into the icebox, withdrawing a cold jug of orange juice. Say what you wanted about wizards and their lack of modern amenities, but what they could do with magic rivaled the best freezer that technology could offer, and all without using electricity.
"I did not think the muggles had any luck with alchemy," Perenelle mused, before taking a demure sip of coffee.
"No, but they did a lot better with chemistry," explained Harry as he poured himself a glass of juice. "I read somewhere that they were able to artificially replicate every single fruit taste in the world in a chemistry lab."
"Seems an awful lot of trouble to create something which already exists," observed Nicolas, his paper forgotten.
"Yeah, I guess so," said Harry, before taking a long swallow of juice. Though the Wizarding world didn't have as much variety in available juices, the food was generally of a much higher quality. The muggle world, having to feed billions, had to mass produce food to keep everyone fed, where the Wizarding world, with its tiny population, was able to use good ingredients.
Or, at least that's what Harry figured the case was.
"Kippers and eggs?" Perenelle asked as he took his glass back to the table.
"Please," he replied, before settling himself into a chair. Perenelle hummed to herself as she worked, cracking eggshells against a wooden bowl. Nicolas picked up the paper again and began to shuffle through, allowing the kitchen to lapse into quiet.
Before long Harry began to fidget, not knowing how to start off. What he needed to say was clear, but broaching the subject was proving far more difficult.
Since he arrived back at Flamel Manor, his hosts had been patient and understanding, but despite their acceptance, Harry couldn't help but feel that he had let them down. His return to Hogwarts for his second year had been conditional upon things going smoothly, and from day one they had not.
Convinced that he wouldn't be safe at Hogwarts, the Flamels' suspicion had proven to be more than simple paranoia. Despite the best efforts of Dumbledore, the Dark Lord had once again infiltrated the school, and it was only the grace of good luck which saved Harry's life.
His other friends had not been as fortunate.
"I…I got a letter last night," said Harry, breaking the quiet calm. Nicolas and Perenelle looked up from their respective tasks, exchanging glances. They spoke without words for the briefest of moments, before turning towards Harry.
"From whom?" Perenelle asked, turning away from the mixing bowl.
"From the Hogwarts Infirmary. She…they say Tracey's going to be okay."
"Quel soulagement!" breathed the older woman.
"But she is kinda lonely in there, as she can't leave the Infirmary yet, so I was hoping…"
"Yes, of course," answered Nicolas. "I shall send the Headmaster a letter informing him of such after breakfast."
Harry let out a deep breath, unaware that he had been holding it. He had a long way to go, but at least the first steps had been taken.
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A quiet pop echoed through the air as the three wizards arrived at the Hogsmeade Apparation point. The pounding of rain beat down upon the thin roof, filling the small building with sound.
"Keep it moving!" barked a crimson-robed figure from the open end of the room. Though a hood obscured his features, not even the thick robes could hide the rounded protrusion of his large belly.
Perenelle shot the large Auror a contemptuous glare, but stepped down from the stone platform, trailing slightly behind Harry and Nicolas. It did not escape Harry's notice that Nicolas tried to walk so that he blocked his wife's line of sight to the guard.
As bright as the morning sunshine had been off the southern coast of France, Britain was dark. A heavy rain fell from the sky, pattering against the worn cobblestones. Each breath of the chilly atmosphere yielded a plume of vapor.
"I think I like the Mediterranean weather more," said Harry with a frown. His comment drew a chuckle from the two Flamels.
"Not to worry," assured Perenelle, reaching into the inside of her cloak. She withdrew an umbrella, which upon being folded, provided enough cover to protect an entire village.
"Do you always carry around one of those?" asked Harry.
"When I travel to Britain? Always," she answered with a teasing smile.
"Though the Space Enlargement Charms don't hurt," Nicolas adds. "One of the finer discoveries of the fourteenth century."
Harry couldn't help but think of the women he saw at the orphanage sometimes, carrying purses large enough to pack an apartment. They would probably kill for the extra space a simple Space Enlargement Charm could offer.
Passing by the fat Auror, the trio emerged from the Apparation Point, out onto the main road. The intensity of the rain picked up as they walked down the street, but the umbrella absorbed the weather's fury.
The soaked cobblestone streets were scantly populated. Isolated witches and wizards wrapped in heavy cloaks walked briskly, purchases clutched tightly to their chests, heads down.
"Not exactly a good day for shopping," observed Harry as they trudged down the road, taking care to avoid the larger puddles.
The further he walked, the more Aurors Harry noticed. At every street corner they stood beneath the eaves of the nearest building, watchful eyes scanning every movement. On a good day, the crimson-robed figures may have blended into the crowd, but on this dreary day, they stood out like a fire at night.
"Why does the Ministry have Aurors stationed here?" asked Harry.
"People are scared," Nicolas explained. "There has been much confusion surrounding what happened at Hogwarts."
"But I told Dumbledore what happened."
"And I am sure the Headmaster has tried to get the correct story out, but the very idea that Voldemort still be alive is a frightening concept, one that people are reluctant to face, none more so than the Ministry."
As Nicolas talked, they approached another Auror standing guard. He said nothing, content to track their progress with watchful eyes.
"So, what, the Aurors are here to make sure that Voldemort doesn't strike?" asked Harry once out of earshot of the crimson-robed figure.
"Despite the official announcements of the Ministry, people whisper of the return of the Dark Lord. The Minister, afraid of civil unrest, has increased security around the entirety of Wizarding Britain."
During Perenelle's statement, the last of the businesses began to thin, leaving nothing but open road between them and the gates of Hogwarts.
"So everywhere in Britain is this closely watched?"
"At Diagon Alley you probably couldn't walk three steps without running into an Auror."
"Which is a problem unto itself," Nicolas added. "The Aurors are a law enforcement agency, not a large-scale security force. The Ministry has been forced to recruit heavily to account for the added demand."
"The 'Auror' watching the Hogsmeade Apparation point really put my mind at ease," said Perenelle in darkened tones. "With untrained, unmannered brutes watching over Britain, it will not be long before one of the new recruits gets overzealous, and an innocent bystander pays the price."
The rain began to peter out as they went further down the road, allowing Perenelle to lower the umbrella. Through the veil of fog Harry spied the wide gate. Twenty feet high, the ornamental black iron had been forged into a giant crest split into four partitions, bearing Gryffindor's lion, Hufflepuff's badger, Ravenclaw's eagle and Slytherin's serpent.
Two Aurors, who both looked soaked to the bone, flanked the gate. Harry stared at them for a moment, before his gaze drifted to a spot of ground several feet in front of the gate.
Though the small area held nothing more sinister than a shallow, muddy puddle, with crystal clarity he saw the packed earth upon which Lucius Malfoy had drawn his final breath, his heart's final beats still pumping sluggish streams of blood through the ragged gash in his throat.
A chill independent of the weather worked its way down his spine, though he felt no guilt, nor sadness. Lucius' death was the closest thing to judgment which had been served that day.
The Malfoy patriarch would never kill again, nor help the Dark Lord in doing so.
"Are you okay?" Perenelle asked, placing a light hand upon his arm.
"Yeah, I'm fine," replied Harry, now aware that he had stopped walking to stare at the patch of ground. He shook his head before resuming his walk towards the gate. He could almost feel the exchanged glance behind his back between the two Flamels, eyes full of questions, but tongues held.
At his approach the Auror on the left, a thin, reedy man with a miserable demeanor held his hand out, palm first, halting their progress.
"Hogwarts is under lockdown. Only authorized personnel are allowed in and out."
"Of course," answered Nicolas, reaching into his pocket and withdrawing a sheaf of parchment bearing Dumbledore's flowery scrawl. "I think you'll find that we have the proper authorization."
The Auror's expression soured, but he took the piece of parchment and unrolled it. His lips moved as his eyes scanned the parchment, scrutinizing every letter.
"Just let them in, Lem," said the second Auror, a younger woman with a fair complexion. "You know they're on the Headmaster's list."
'Lem' shot his partner an annoyed glare, but stepped aside.
"What's the point of protocol if it's ignored?" he grumbled, swinging the left side of the gate open.
"Thank you, mademoiselle," said Perenelle, inclining her head in the female Auror's direction. The young returned the nod, sending a small smile in Harry's direction. It struck Harry how different the two reactions had been. Was the divide this equal across the entire Ministry?
The steel clanging shut behind them, the three wizards walked down the road. The clouds were finally beginning to break, enough to let the occasional peek of sunshine escape the heavens.
Grounds which would have normally teemed with students, enjoying the transition from spring to summer, all eager to spend time in the cool grass after being cooped up in the castle all winter, were empty and barren.
"How are you holding up, Harry?" asked Perenelle, placing a hand upon his shoulder.
"Okay, I guess," Harry answered as they passed by the Quidditch Pitch, where the thousands of empty seats would remain unfilled until next year. Unexpectedly, thoughts of the Quidditch Cup entered his mind. Two straight years Slytherin should have had it, but still there was nothing to show for it.
And what did it bloody matter anyway? Millicent and Regina were dead, and all he was thinking about was the Quidditch Cup.
Rebellious thoughts forming in his mind, Harry suppressed the traitorous voices, banishing them to a deep, dark corner of his mind, where they wouldn't scream as loudly. It hurt, it hurt so fucking much to think of what had happened.
If he thought about it too deeply, he'd never find the strength to do what was necessary today.
The muddy road turned ahead, giving them a glimpse of Hogwarts. Like a silent sentinel the sprawling castle stood, looking out over the waters of the Great Lake. Encouraged by the lull in the rain, several crimson-robed figures had ventured outside, enjoying the reprieve.
All conversation died away at their approach. Multiple pairs of eyes carefully watched their approach to the entrance. In their gazes Harry saw mistrust, wariness and curiosity.
At the top of the stone steps, still damp from the rain, two Aurors wordlessly opened the door for them, ushering them within.
The wide lobby was a flurry of activity, though far removed from the normal bustle of a school day. Aurors, Ministry officials and witches and wizards in lime-green robes entered and exited the room through countless doors, all seemingly in a hurry.
Doing their best to avoid being run down, the trio made their way over to the large staircase. The crowd thinned the higher they ascended, leaving Harry with more room to breathe.
Before he knew it, they had reached the entrance to the Infirmary. To his surprise, there were no Aurors posted outside.
"We will be waiting for you out here," declared Nicolas, not making any motion to follow him further.
"Take all the time you need," added Perenelle, flashing him a smile of encouragement. Harry thanked them, before turning and pushing open the doors.
He closed the door behind him, as softly as he could. Despite the care he took, the door to the Infirmary Office opened at once, revealing the Hogwarts matron. Her hardened glare faded at once as she approached.
"I'm glad to see you received my letter," the matron said, standing before him. "How are you holding up?"
"I…I'm okay, I guess," mumbled Harry, dropping his gaze to the floor. Pomfrey, appearing to understand, didn't deign to press the issue. "How's Tracey?"
"Miss Davis has been through a lot, but she will make a complete recovery."
"Oh, good," said Harry, relieved. It was one thing to read it in the paper, but hearing it directly from Madam Pomfrey made it seem more real. "Where is she?"
"Third bed on the right," she answered, pointing towards the row of beds. "I'll leave you two to catch up. If you need anything, I'll be in my office."
At his word of thanks, the matron walked away, soft soles barely making a sound upon the tiled floor. She turned before entering her office, sparing him an encouraging smile, before closing the door behind her.
Taking a deep breath, Harry walked towards the other end of the Infirmary. A white curtain hung from an aluminum runner spanned the perimeter of the bed, providing a modicum of privacy.
He parted the veil carefully, stepping into the area.
Tracey Davis sat upright in bed, a book propped atop her knees. She didn't look up at his entry, willfully ignoring the intrusion. A lance of pain stabbed through his heart at the sight of her.
The top of her head and the entire left side of her face hid beneath a thick bandage. A smaller bandage ran wrapped the crook of her right elbow, where Voldemort's curse had severed it the lower part of her arm from her body. Purple and blue bruising ran up her entire arm, disappearing beneath the sleeve of her white gown.
"Just because there's no door, it doesn't mean you don't have to knock," snapped the teen, without looking up.
"Hi Tracey," he said quietly. At his greeting, her head shot up. For a single moment her face was lit up by joy, a rare unguarded moment.
"Harry," she whispered, holding out her arms. He obliged her, bending over the bed. She leaned into the embrace, wrapping her arms tightly around him.
In her arms, images from within the Chamber of Secrets rose in his mind: The curse which clove off her arm; the flames racing over her body as she collapsed into the pile of burning oil and snakeskin; the smell of burning hair as her blonde tresses caught fire.
"I'm so glad you're okay," Harry whispered into her ear, earning a weary laugh.
"Me too," she replied, pulling away. She leaned back against a tower of stacked pillows, regarding him with bright blue eyes.
"How are they treating you here?"
"Fine, I guess," she said with a dismissive shrug. "The potions suck, but at least the food's good. Muggle hospitals are famous for having terrible food."
"I've never been," admitted Harry.
"Neither have I."
After exchanging a few words with his friend, he noted that the fire normally present in her eyes had dimmed slightly. Her words, even the curses, were less inflammatory than before, more resigned.
"The worst part is the boredom," continued Tracey.
"How much longer are they keeping you here?"
"A few days. By then, my hair should be back," she answered, before indictating towards her head. "Good thing, because I don't think the Sinead O'Connor look works for me."
"Nevermind," said Tracey with a sigh. "Fucking wizards. Oh, hey, did you see Flint on the way in?"
"No, how is he?"
"He's in bad shape," she answered, shaking her head. "He hasn't woken up yet, and they don't know if he's ever going to."
"He…I don't even know how he's still alive," Harry said quietly, thinking of the curse which had shredded through Flint's midsection in a rain of blood and innards.
"I think he's going to make it though."
"I think you're right. He's had the chance at the Quidditch Cup the last two years; there's no way he's giving up the chance to finally bring it home."
Tracey let out a small smile at his statement.
"Do you know what they did with the Gryffindors?" asked Harry, changing the subject.
"Did you see the blokes in those lime-green robes?"
"Yeah, who are they? They're all over the ground floor."
"Healers from St. Mungo's," answered Tracey. "All the Gryffindors are being kept in the Great Hall."
"They're still here?" he asked, surprised. He would have expected the affected students to be at St. Mungo's if further care was necessary.
"Well, yeah. Nearly half of the entire House was poisoned with the Mindslave Potion."
"Hmm, I thought maybe with Voldemort gone they'd be back to normal. How bad off are they?"
Tracey was quiet for a moment. She started to speak, before reconsidering her words.
"…You…you should see it for yourself," she said, before letting out a long yawn.
"Good," she said, her eyes slipping closed. For a moment her head tilted forward, before she jerked back awake. "It's something you need to see."
"That's quite enough for today," interrupted Madam Pomfrey, pulling aside the curtain. "Miss Davis is in need of rest."
"I'll see you soon," promised Harry, reaching down to give Tracey's hand a squeeze. She returned it, the small girl doing her best to fight against the exhaustion tugging at her.
"I'm holding you to that."
He wanted to stay further, but Tracey's eyes closed again, and her breathing slowed.
"Keep fighting, Tracey," he whispered, before gently undoing his fingers from her grasp. Harry inclined his head towards the Hogwarts matron, before taking his leave of the Infirmary.
"How was she?" Perenelle asked as soon as he closed the door behind him.
"She…she's going to be okay," answered Harry. Her physical wounds would heal, but he was concerned about her mental state.
"So, to the Headmaster's Office?" asked Nicolas, breaking the short silence.
Harry shook his head.
"Can we stop by the Great Hall first?"
The hesitation in the eyes of both of the Flamels was clear.
"Are you sure, Harry?" asked Nicolas. "I must warn you, the after effects of the Mindslave Potion are…unpleasant, to say the least."
"I know, but it's something Tracey wanted me to see."
Harry was silent for a moment. He had not spoken of his plans to anyone, not his friends, not the Flamels…but had Tracey known anyway?
"I'm not exactly sure," he answered.
Dissatisfaction was clear in both Nicolas and Perenelle's faces, but they had made no attempt to disparage him.
"Lead the way, then," Perenelle implored.
"Thanks," Harry said, before leading them down to the Great Hall.
Troubled thoughts swirled within his mind as he walked. After what had happened down in the Chamber of Secrets, he had no desire to return to Hogwarts. The question of his friends had been pondered for hours, leading to the decision that his presence at Hogwarts attracted the wrong type of attention. Voldemort had killed five people during Harry's two years at Hogwarts, and each murder could be tied directly back to his enrollment at the school.
Wouldn't it be better off without him?
The question plagued him as he pushed open the double doors leading into the Great Hall.
A cacophony of screams erupted from the room as he entered, causing him to go for his wand, but his hand froze halfway as he beheld the sight before him.
The House tables were all gone, replaced by row upon row of wide beds. Upon each was a screaming, thrashing student bound by thick leather straps. Spittle flew from their mouths, adding to the damp state of their Infirmary gowns. Scores of Healers ran between every bed, tightening straps as they loosened, forcing potions down throats.
"Je ne le crois pas," whispered Perenelle, but both Harry and Nicolas were silent, unable to fully articulate their horror.
There must have been close to a hundred students within the Great Hall. He recognized a good deal of them, including all of the students, save Ron, who participated in the attack within Myrtle's bathroom.
Lavender, who spent more time on her long, golden tresses than any girl in the school, had a blonde rat nest atop her head, all thoughts of vanity forgotten.
Parvati, whose clear, smooth complexion was the envy of other girls, bore deep, long scratches on each side of her face, as if she had tried to claw it off.
Dean, whom he thought had double-crossed him, had three sets of straps lashed across his body.
The Weasley twins. Seamus. Katie. The list stretched on.
Harry backed out of the room, speechless.
"C'est horrible!" exclaimed Perenelle, her body trembling.
"They…they were like fiends."
Nicolas nodded at Harry's summation.
"The Mindslave Potion requires the proximity of the controlling wizard to function. When the connection is severed, the mind is left lost, not knowing how to cope."
"W-will they ever recover?"
Nicolas answered in the affirmative.
"Thought it will take time before they are themselves," he added. "Mental wounds heal far less quickly than physical ones."
Feeling faint, Harry leaned against a nearby wall, savoring the cold of the stone wall. He had known it was going to be bad, but was unprepared for how extensive the damage was. Each of the hundred screaming Gryffindors had been locked within their own personal hell.
And it was all because of him.
Not that he was arrogant enough to take responsibility, but Voldemort had poisoned them all to use as pawns, as means to an end. To draw him to the Dark Lord's side.
A hand began to rub itself in circles upon Harry's back, lending comfort.
"Are you okay?" Perenelle asked.
"Yeah, yeah," assured Harry. "I…I just needed a minute. It was too much."
"I should have warned you," Nicolas lamented, but Harry only shook his head.
"Nothing could have prepared me for that."
"Do you want to leave," she asked, continuing to rub his back. "We can always come back another day."
He really did, more than anything else in the world, but couldn't do so in good conscience. He had a responsibility to see the Headmaster before making his decision official, one that he couldn't run from.
"No," answered Harry after a short silence. "I still have to see Dumbledore."
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The gargoyle slid aside at Harry's approach with a low grind, allowing access to the Headmaster's Office. At the threshold he hesitated, apprehensive about the impending conversation.
Perenelle placed a hand upon his shoulder, squeezing down. Harry thanked her, appreciating the show of support. It couldn't have been easy for the Flamels either, having to treat with Dumbledore after his assurances had proven hollow.
Ready for this entire ordeal to be over with, he took a deep breath, before stepping onto the stone staircase. The steps came to life beneath him, ferrying the trio upwards. In what seemed like the blink of an eye, they reached the upper landing.
The Headmaster stood at the window, staring out over the Hogwarts grounds. He turned at their arrival, hands clasped before him.
"Good morning, Harry, Nicolas, Perenelle," he greeted, inclining his head.
"G-good morning, sir," sputtered Harry, taken back by the Headmaster's appearance. Despite his bright, jocular turquoise and purple robes, the wizard looked as if he had aged ten years over the past week. The lines in his face had deepened, while heavy black bags hung beneath his bloodshot, haunted gaze, bereft of twinkle.
"Let me be the first to apologize for this year," spoke Dumbledore, his eyes turned to the two Flamels. "I promised that I would keep Hogwarts safe, and was unable to keep my word."
At his apology, the chilly atmosphere thawed by several degrees. The Flamels still did not look pleased, but had the good grace to accept his words, and the sincerity behind them.
"I trust you saw Miss Davis," said Dumbledore, filling the awkward silence.
"I did," he replied. "I'm…I didn't think she was going to be okay."
"Miss Davis' recovery has been quite remarkable."
"She…she asked me to take a look in the Great Hall before I saw you," he said."
The Headmaster shook his head.
"A tragedy on every conceivable level."
"I…I had no idea the after effects of the Mindslave Potion would be that severe," admitted Harry.
Dumbledore nodded gravely.
"The potion is employed so rarely that few do. If not for the quick response from St. Mungo's, the situation could have been far more dire."
"Do you think they'll remember what they did?" Harry asked, being no stranger to possession. He had no idea what the Horcrux might have done while in control of his body during his time at the orphanage.
"I doubt they will, though that will matter little to the rest of the student populace."
It was unfair, but Harry understood the situation. From the outside looking in, Ron Weasley and the rest of the Gryffindors seemed little more than fanatics. Speaking of which…
"What's going to happen to Ron? They can't punish him for being possessed, can they?"
"I do not believe so. The skill necessary to produce the Mindslave Potion is far above what a second-year student could achieve, particularly one with Ron's…struggles with Potions. There would be little benefit of moving forward with a trial."
"So they're going to release him?"
Dumbledore sighed deeply, before taking a moment to re-adjust his half-moon spectacles.
"I suspect they may hold him for another few weeks, if for no other reason than to draw you out."
"Does your Ministry really believe that we will just let them have Harry?" asked Perenelle, her eyes blazing.
"No, but I believe they will call Harry to testify before the Wizengamot before releasing Mister Weasley," explained Dumbledore.
"And I believe that Harry will not be entering the Ministry of Magic without an armed escort," she shot back. "That is, if he goes at all."
At Perenelle's declaration, Harry turned towards the older woman.
"I'm not leaving Ron to rot away in some cell. If he hadn't stepped in, it would have been me trapped in the Ministry."
"And we would have leveled the building to get you out," assured Nicolas, in a tone that suggested he was serious. With six-hundred years of experience, Harry certainly wouldn't bet against the alchemist.
"Wait, why is it so important to have me there?" he asked, not seeing the point. It had been less than a week since his final chaotic night at Hogwarts. The Ministry had plenty of time to mount an investigation, and come up with a suitable story.
"Recent events have placed the Ministry in a perilous situation. As much as they want to deny that Voldemort has returned, an unexpected development has caused them to reconsider how they handle the press."
Dumbledore shook his head.
"I cannot say, but rest assured, it will be a matter of public record within the week. Just know that the Ministry will want you to make a public statement."
"And why should he do anything that they want?" challenged Perenelle. "They dragged his name through the mud, and the Minister even cornered him at Diagon Alley. Are these the people you would have him work with?"
"I would have him do nothing, as ultimately it is his decision," Dumbledore answered.
"And what would you do if you were me?" asked Harry.
"The reach of the Ministry is far. They have amassed a large power base, which extends to every corner of Britain. That being said, they are not completely incompetent. In exchange for your cooperation, they will be prepared to offer you a significant reward. I cannot claim to know what it would be, but I am confident they would make it worth your while."
"So you would have me work with them?" asked Harry, surprised by the Headmaster's answer.
"I would not," he answered, shaking his head. "Voldemort has returned, and people have the right to be aware of this fact, to be prepared. A claim contrary to their official story may invite a form of reprisal, however."
"What do you think they would do?"
"To start with, they could make life difficult for you here at Hogwarts."
"Not if I never come back," said Harry at once. And there it was, the heart of the matter lain bare.
It was not something that he ever wanted to say, least of all to the man he owed for freeing him from the influence of the Horcrux, but what further good could he do here at Hogwarts? Hadn't his presence caused enough misery?
From behind, he felt Perenelle place a supporting hand on his shoulder. The Flamels had made it clear that they would prefer him to attend Beauxbatons, where he'd theoretically have less obstacles to fight against.
Dumbledore steepled his fingers, carefully considering his choice of words. After a few moment's pause, he spoke.
"While I understand your rationale, I would urge you to reconsider."
"Why?" questioned Nicolas.
"Doubtless, if Harry were to return here, he would face more challenges than ever before. In light of recent events, the Ministry's hold on Hogwarts will tighten considerably. I have little doubt that you would be an object of fierce scrutiny by their agents. But, nonetheless, if you leave, you leave Hogwarts perhaps irreparably damaged, unless you re-unite them."
"Yes, you, Harry. I believe that your presence and influence could unite a school fractured by Voldemort."
"That is a large and unfair burden to heap upon him," pointed out Nicolas.
"Unquestionably so. Even I concede that it may be a better decision to pursue an education elsewhere. All I ask of you, Harry, is that you carefully weigh your options before ultimately coming to a decision."
"I will," he answered reflexively. At the Headmaster's words, his thoughts had turned to Parvati, and the long claw marks raked across her face. To control Harry, Voldemort had enslaved her, and forced her to do horrible things. Would the rest of the school hold that against her?
At that moment, Fawkes, perched upon his roost, let out a low, warbling cry.
"Ah, yes, thank you for the reminder, Fawkes. Once I heard that you would be paying a visit to Hogwarts, I arranged for a visitor, one that has wanted to meet you for a long time."
"You never mentioned this to us," Perenelle said sharply, clearly disapproving of the unexpected guest.
"His arrival was a rather…late development," admitted Dumbledore. "And I assure you, he will pose no harm to Harry. In fact, this person owes a great deal to young Mister Potter."
At the grinding of the stone steps, Harry turned, wondering what the Headmaster had planned.
"Professor!" he exclaimed as his former Defense Against the Dark Arts teacher stepped into the office.
Quirnius Quirrell let out a small chuckle at Harry's exclamation. He was dressed in muggle attire, wearing a white button-up shirt tucked into black trousers. The right sleeve was missing, leaving only a flat, unbroken stretch of fabric.
"I never had the chance to do much teaching," he stated, before turning towards the Flamels. It was barely noticeably, but there was a slight limp in his walk from the prosthetic leg he wore.
Harry took the time to introduce the thin man to the Flamels. Perenelle was wary of the man who had been possessed by Voldemort for an entire year, but stayed polite. The proper courtesies observed, Quirrell turned back to Harry.
"I just wanted to thank you again," he said, his gaze solemn. "I don't know if there are many people in this world who would have gone as far as you did to save me."
Harry's gaze found the ground, embarrassed by the praise.
"It was nothing," he muttered. The words rang false, even to his ears, but he didn't know how to respond. "So, what's with the muggle clothes?"
"Different, aren't they?" Quirrell said, rubbing the smooth material of his shirt between two fingers. "This is the last stop before I set out across Europe."
"More work than pleasure, unfortunately," answered Dumbledore, drawing Harry's attention. The Headmaster turned towards the Flamels, as if seeking permission.
"I see no harm in him knowing," Nicolas said after a moment of consideration. Perenelle flung a sharp frown at her husband. She started to object, before deciding to let the issue slide, for which Harry was grateful. He understood that his guardian didn't want him dragged any further into anything potentially dangerous, but recognized that he had a right to be in the loop.
"After Voldemort was destroyed at Godric's Hollow, in his weakened state, he fled. We did not know where he went, but as the years passed, stories of disturbing incidents began to trickle out from Eastern Europe. The muggle papers reports large amounts of disappearances, far beyond what mere statistical anomalies would account for. Inexplicable lights in the sky, widespread damage to electronic devices. Things that taken alone, suggested nothing, but as the irregularities began to mount, a picture emerged."
"And what does it say?"
"Even during Voldemort's rise to power, he would often leave Britain behind, disappearing for weeks, sometimes months at a time. From information gleaned from contacts throughout Europe, it was believed that Voldemort was returning to the Balkan Peninsula."
The significance of the Dark Lord's travels were not lost upon Harry.
"What was important enough to make Voldemort leave the country while in the middle of a war?"
"That is the question I hope to answer," stated Quirrell.
"Indeed," Dumbledore confirmed. "We destroyed his one Horcrux, leaving Voldemort in a vulnerable state. Failing to recruit you, I suspect that he will flee back to Eastern Europe, and gather his strength."
"That's why I'm going to find him first," the former Defense instructor added. "The Headmaster convinced a retired Auror to join me, to stop that madman before he does any more damage."
"You're going to finally destroy him," breathed Harry.
Dumbledore steepled his fingers, peering over the rims of his wire-framed glasses.
"We are going to try. For too long I have taken the defensive in the fight against Voldemort, but no longer. If ever a killing blow is to be delivered, now is the time."
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Narrow slants of sunshine wafted through the frosted planes of glass overhead, illuminating the menagerie of plant life. In the cool soil Harry knelt, packing the earth into a narrow fissure ringing a thick green stalk.
"So I guess this one isn't dangerous," he surmised, rising to his feet. Directly in front of him was an immense yellow flower, wide as a dinner plate. It bobbed back and forth with an uncanny rhythm, as if listening to music only it could hear.
"Indeed, it is not," Perenelle confirmed. While outside of the greenhouse her dress was impeccable, within a simple flower-pattern kerchief wrapped around her head, tying back her white hair. Smudges of dirt freckled her cheeks, like heathen war paint.
"Does it hear something we don't?"
Perenelle let out a low chuckle.
"It probably just likes the sunlight. If there is any higher mystery to the matter, it is hidden to me."
"That's a relief. Good to know it's not going to spit acid at me or anything."
She shook her head, wearing a wry grin.
"I would be a bit hesitant to have you work of anything like that…did they introduce anything as dangerous at Hogwarts?"
"Well…yeah, we did work with Mandrakes."
Perenelle frowned at the mention of the plant. It was dangerous, as the cry of an adult Mandrake was capable of killing, but then again…
"Professor Sprout always made sure we were safe. Whenever we worked with Mandrakes, she made sure we all had earmuffs on before starting. Besides, if it wasn't for them, Ernie and Colin would never wake up…"
"Those poor boys," said Perenelle, shaking her head. At once resentment rose within Harry.
"At least they'll wake up," he snapped, regretting the words as soon as they left his mouth. "I'm sorry."
"It is quite alright," Perenelle reassured, flashing him a motherly smile. "I should have been more careful with my words."
Harry shook his head in disagreement.
"I can't tiptoe around this stuff forever. I have to face it sometime."
The smile left Perenelle's face at once, to be replaced with a weary frown.
"Dark days are upon us when the young are forced to bear such heavy burdens. I am so sorry, Harry. At least things will be better for you next year…"
She trailed off, but the two unsaid words hung in the air, almost as clearly as if spoken.
"Yeah, hopefully," replied Harry after a short pause, before making a show of feeling his stomach. "I'm feeling kinda hungry. I'll be back later."
"Oh, okay," she said in a small, forlorn voice. Harry didn't turn back, making his way to the exit. The air was thick with humidity, suffocating him. He passed the last row of plants, wet with beads of moisture, and pushed his way out the glass door.
Warm sunshine greeted him as he exited the greenhouse. The gentle rays felt pleasant upon his face, so unlike stifling atmosphere within the glass structure. A cool breeze buffeted his shirt as he walked across a wide expanse of green lawn. On the other side sat a low wall formed from white carved stone. Reaching it, he rested his elbows upon the top, staring out over the sea.
The calm water was a delicate shade of green, one that spoke of warmth, of serenity. The very thing furthest from his state of mind.
Harry knew it had been childish to storm out of the greenhouse like that, but Perenelle's assumption bothered him in a way he couldn't quite articulate. Sure, logic maintained that transferring to Beauxbatons was a good decision, especially in light of Dumbledore's warnings about Ministry interference in the future, but nonetheless…
Aside from the obvious fact that he'd be leaving his friends behind, the Headmaster's words stuck in his mind more than anything else, like an annoying song, playing itself over and over.
Whether or not he had been to blame, the events of his last day at Hogwarts had torn the school apart. Two students dead, a School Governor dead, countless wounded or poisoned.
Could he really leave all of it behind?
"What difference would it make?" he asked himself, unaware that he had spoken aloud. If he did go back, did he really have the power to change anything? It was a given that Slytherin might be looking to take revenge upon the Gryffindors. He held sway in his House, but enough to hold back an oceanic tide of malice?
Not bloody likely.
Still having no idea what to do, he let out a deep, clearing sigh. His gaze trailing back towards the sea, he heard the distant flapping of wings. Scanning the horizon, he saw an approaching owl flapping towards him.
Harry's interest was immediately piqued. Few people owned owls authorized to bypass the wards surrounding the tiny island.
Clutched within the tawny owl's talons was a rolled-up piece of paper. The avian let out a tired hoot before dropping the package into Harry's arms.
"There's a bath over there," he offered, pointing to the other side of the greenhouse. The owl let out a grateful hoot, before taking flight again.
Harry turned back to the package, which was wrapped in brown paper, and tied with a length of twine. He cut through the line with a simple Cutting Curse, before unwrapping it.
Within was a short note, written in Neville's narrow scrawl, placed atop a thick newspaper. The parchment was covered dots and splotches, as if his friend had been writing in the rain.
Guilt pervaded Harry at the sight. Aside from seeing Tracey at Hogwarts, he hadn't exchanged any letters with either Neville or Hermione, both of whom were probably just as devastated by Millicent's death as he was. Vowing to write them as next opportunity, he began to read the letter.
How are you? I feel bad that I haven't written you before this, but I just couldn't write. Even thinking about what happened now, it's almost too much. Sorry.
I know you don't get the Daily Prophet, so I thought you should see this. I hope to hear from you soon.
Feeling even worse about secluded himself from everyone, Harry turned to the newspaper. It indeed was a copy of a recent Daily Prophet, the tabloid open to a page near the back.
A black and white version of his departed friend, Millicent Bulstrode, stared up from the pages. On what was clearly a sunny day, she stood in front of a crumbling Roman column. Her dark hair was tasseled by the wind as she stood, a carefree smile upon her face.
His eyes beginning to grow misty, he read the caption.
Millicent Bulstrode, on vacation with her family in Athens.
Millicent Harriet Bulstrode (b. October 27, 1980) unexpectedly passed away last Wednesday night, the details of which are still under investigation. She is survived by her father, Gregory Bulstrode, mother, Alfrida Bulstrode, and two siblings, Mildred and Millard. Friends and family are invited to a memorial in her honor…
There was more, but Harry found that his vision had blurred too much to continue. As the first tear-drop fell onto the paper, it occurred to him that the blotches on Neville's note had not come from a rainstorm.
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Despite the advent of calendar summer, the day of Millicent's funeral dawned cold and dreary. Twin rows of white wooden chairs with an aisle in the middle let to a slightly raised dais, upon which a large grey casket sat.
Scores of people dressed in black, cloaks turned upwards against the persistent mist, filled the seats. Most of the faces were unfamiliar, but scattered among them Harry saw a few faces from around the Slytherin Common Room.
As discretely as possible he took a seat at one of the back rows. Tracey, tucking her black dress beneath her legs, sat to his left. A heavy black shawl draped her shoulders, providing relief from the cold, and hiding the large bandage wound around her upper right arm.
Hermione took a seat to his right, closely followed by Neville. The portly boy looked almost regal in black dress robes, while the muggleborn witch had opted for more traditional funeral attire, as well as generous quantities of Sleakeazy Potion to tame her wild, bushy hair into a manageable shape.
All four friends sat in shocked silence. Harry had seen the Killing Curse strike home, robbing Millicent of her life, and still couldn't believe that he was sitting at her funeral.
This wasn't how it was supposed to be.
At the front of the assembly, a tall, thick-set witch climbed onto a small podium aside the casket. At once the scattered whispers died away, leaving behind only the light patter of rain upon the ground.
She opened her mouth to speak, but the words faded to a blur as memories overwhelmed him.
Millicent, out of breath, bursting into Myrtle's bathroom, to tell them that all the roosters had already been killed. The steel in her voice when she refused to leave Hermione down in the Chamber of Secrets, and stood fully behind Harry as he planned their suicide mission.
He thought of the quiet girl in his First-Year who had the bravery to engage him in conversation, to prove that unlike the rest of Slytherin, she harbored him no ill will.
Despite his best efforts, small shudders began to wrack his frame, tears forming in his eyes. Sudden pressure filled his hand, and he looked down to see fingers entwined within his own. Hermione let out a single, anguished sob, giving his hand a hard squeeze, before she relented. She openly wept, liquid flowing from her honey-colored eyes.
"I'm so sorry," he whispered, hoping that somehow, somewhere, Millicent heard his plea, and knew that he never wanted any of this, and would have turned back had they any hint of the depths of horror the Chamber housed.
Before he realized what was happening, all the seated people began to rise like a cresting wave. Harry followed suit, still gripping Hermione's hand. As they rose, Hermione let go, as if his hand was on fire. She mumbled an apology, her gaze drifting to the damp ground, crimson filling her delicate features. Without hesitation he draped an arm over her shoulder. Hermione stiffened for a moment, before leaning into him, resting her head upon his shoulder.
Row-by-row the seats began to empty. The lines of wizards made their way forward, past the casket, to the grieving family standing beside it. Too quickly the procession moved, bringing Harry closer and closer to the front, his dread increasing with every inch gained.
What do you say to someone who just lost their daughter? How much did they know? Did they blame him for what happened?
Despite the chill of the early afternoon, he began to sweat. Gently removing his arm from Hermione's shoulder, he wiped an arm across his brow. What the fuck was he doing? How could he look Millicent's family in the eye after what happened?
Harry nearly jumped out of his robes as a small hand clamped down on his wrist. Spinning his head around, he saw that Tracey had taken a hold with her good hand.
"Harry, snap out of it!" the diminutive girl hissed. "You're working yourself up for nothing."
At her words, an instinctual retort began to form, but she cut him off first with a furious whisper.
"You were her best friend, Harry! Do you think her parents didn't know that?"
Tracey may have said more, but chose instead to stay respectfully silent as they approached the casket. She instead gave his hand a single squeeze, while shooting a meaningful glance in his direction, as if ordering him to get things under control.
Stepping forward, Harry did the best he could.
Millicent Bulstrode, one of his first friends at Hogwarts, looked like she could have been sleeping, with eyes closed, hands folded over her midsection. She was clothed in black dress robes trimmed with green. The satin upon which she lay was dark, giving the impression of a porcelain doll floating in a black void.
"I'm…I'm sorry, Millie," he whispered, barely able to see from his leaking eyes. "G-g-goodbye."
After choking his final farewell, he walked to his right, to where a large mountain of a man stood. Though his facial features were rough, as if hewn from stone, and heavy with sorrow, he nonetheless stuck out a mammoth hand.
"Thank you for coming, Mr. Potter," he said, his voice choked, gravelly.
"I…we all loved Millicent," replied Harry as his hand was swallowed by Mr. Bulstrode's grip.
"As did all who took the time to know her. Thank you for giving her a chance."
He relinquished his gentle grip as he spoke, ushering Harry onto the woman standing beside him. Tiny, middle-aged with streaks of grey threading her dark tresses, she stepped forward at his approach, reaching her arms around him and embracing him.
Surprised, he reached his own arms around her. Mrs. Bulstrode was barely taller than he was, and did not need to lean down to place her lips close to his ear.
"Thank you, Harry," she sobbed quietly.
Of all the things he had expected to hear from Millicent's parents, gratitude was the last.
"She always talked about you, Harry. S-s-she…"
The woman's body quaked as tears completely overtook her. She disentangled herself from his arms and sought her husband.
In a haze of sorrow, he continued down the line to aunts, uncles, cousins, exchanging handshakes and tearful hugs. His mouth moved of its own accord, offering platitudes and condolences in equal amount. Later he would remember none of what he said, but in the heat of the moment, he said what needed to be.
Clearing the lines of relatives, he began to hurry away from the main gatherings of people, leaving his friend behind. He could barely breathe, and felt like if he didn't get more space, he'd explode. A voice called behind him, but he ignored it, leaving the throngs of people behind.
He hated himself as he fled, but allowed his legs to take him away from the main congregation, to the fringes of forest.
In solitude, he glanced into the dense trees, tears running freely down his face. He wept for Millicent, for all that she had been, and all that she could have been.
A better friend than anyone could ever hope for.
As he stood, he began to wipe at his eyes and sopping cheeks. He felt as if he had been hollowed out, the worst of his sorrow washed away, leaving him once again capable of thought. Perhaps he shouldn't have run off like that, but his friends understood.
Some things you just had to do on your own.
"A tragedy, is it not?" asked a voice from behind him. Harry spun around to see an older wizard standing behind him. Iron-gray hair, moistened by the rain, hung lank to either side of his pinched face. Piercing blue eyes blazed with a cold fury, suggesting barely-contained rage.
An unconscious urge to step backwards struck Harry, which he bested, holding his ground.
"Yes, sir," he replied, keeping his voice level. The more he saw of the older wizard, the more familiar he looked. Did he know him from somewhere?
Very quickly, Harry concluded it didn't matter.
"I need to get back," he said lamely, beginning to move away from the man. It wasn't even close to being true, but there was no way he was going to sit around and wait for the angry-looking wizard to curse him.
"Can I take a minute of your time first, Mister Potter?" the wizard asked.
Harry's eyes narrowed at the formal address. Had Fudge sent out a Ministry representative to talk to him, hoping to catch him away from Flamel Manor?
"Who's looking for it?" challenged Harry. The man let out a brief, rusty chuckle that didn't thaw his eyes in the slightest, before sticking out his hand. He hesitantly met the leathery grip, wondering if he should have just left.
"Yaxley. Reginald Yaxley."
Harry's return greeting froze upon his lips. Unable to speak, he could only watch as Yaxley's predatorial gaze hardened further.
"And you're Harry Potter," the wizard stated, contempt framing every word.
"I-I'm sorry about Regina," stuttered Harry. As the condolences were spoken, the older man tightened his grip. Pain burst through his hand as he was pulled forward. Teeth bared, Yaxley lowered his head, so that their faces were inches apart.
"Are you implying an implicit role in my daughter's death," he demanded, his voice level. An icy fury infused his words, as opposed to rage.
Harry's fear deepened. He wasn't dealing with an impulsive, easily-manipulated brute, but a cold, calculating killer in complete control.
"No!" he spat, trying to pull loose, but the crushing grip was unyielding.
"Liar," hissed Yaxley, wielding his stare like a weapon. "I can taste your guilt, Potter. What did you do to her?"
"Nothing! She tried to help me!" he claimed, before jerking his body backwards, pushing off with his feet. His body snapped backwards, but his hand didn't move an inch, as if encased in concrete.
Scrambling, Harry reached into his robes with his left hand, grasping the polished handle. He drew it out, only to have the wand ripped from his grasp by an invisible force. Without warning, the grip on his hand let go. Unprepared, Harry tumbled over backwards, just as Yaxley neatly caught the eleven inches of holly.
He tried to scuttle backward across the wet grass, but Yaxley jabbed his own wand downward. An overwhelming force slammed into Harry from above, flattening him against the ground, face-up.
"I could squash you like a bug, Potter," explained Yaxley, his wand pointed at Harry's heart. The pressure increased, pushing him more deeply into the ground. Cold groundwater seeped into his clothes, weighing him down further. "I will not ask you again: What happened to my daughter?"
"Voldemort killed her!" Harry spat, struggling to pull the words from the heavy air forcing him down.
Yaxley's eyes blazed with rage.
"You pollute his name by speaking it aloud. The Yaxleys have proudly served the Dark Lord since the beginning of his reign. We are his most faithful servants, and have no reason to fear him."
Through the haze of pain Harry realized that trying to convince Reginald was a lost cause. He'd never believe that Voldemort would casually murder his daughter just because she had become an annoyance.
With no other alternative, Harry opened his mouth to scream, praying that someone was listening, knowing full well that reasoning with Reginald had become a lost cause.
"By all means, scream away," Yaxley said with a smirk, as if reading his mind. "If you possessed a modicum of awareness, you would have felt the Privacy Charms snapping into place, or the Obscuration Ward going up."
Like an animal in a trap watching an approaching hunter, Harry saw Yaxley raise the borrowed, spare wand high into the air.
"I should snap this in two, as you are clearly unfit to wield it, as are all who share your sullied blood. Yet…it is not my decision to make."
The crushing pressure vanished without warning. Harry's head swam at the sudden change, his world spinning. Through the haze he saw Yaxley carelessly toss his wand into a patch of soggy ground.
"The Dark Lord will return, Potter, and rest assured, when he does, you will be held accountable for Regina's death. Enjoy the little time you have left."
As the words faded, Yaxley spun on his heel and began to walk away, exposing his back.
A snarl of rage escaped from Harry as he dove after the wand. Paying no heed to the cold water, he grasped his wand and spun it around, black thoughts consuming his mind.
Yaxley was gone, as if he had never been there in the first place. Silence reigned over the forest's edge, broken only by Harry's own ragged breathing and the gentle patter of drizzle falling upon leaves.
Shaking with rage he rose to his feet, sodden robes hanging limply from his frame. With an unsteady hand he began to cleanse the worst of the grass stains and mud from his robes.
Harry seethed as he worked, thinking of how easy it had been for Yaxley to disarm him. If the man had wanted, he could have easily killed him. He should have been more prepared than this. There was no excuse for such a lapse in judgment.
There was no sacred place, no hallowed ground that he could let his guard down. Hogwarts, Diagon Alley, even at the Flamel Manor he had been attacked.
"Never again," he whispered to himself, before making his way back to the main congregation.
Hermione, Neville and Tracey were huddled together in a small circle. Both of the Gryffindors were openly weeping, while Harry's housemate bore red, puffy eyes. The two girls made a spot for him between them.
"Alright, Harry?" whispered Tracey, her voice barely audible.
Harry nodded at her question.
"I…I just needed a moment. I-I'm sorry."
The lie rolled off his tongue smoothly. He was embarrassed by placing himself in such a vulnerable spot, and didn't want to reveal how close he had come to disaster.
"I wanted to do the same thing," she admitted, letting out a low chuckle devoid of humor. "It's…it's almost too much to handle."
Heads nodded in silent agreement at her statement. It had been too much to handle, but running away hadn't done anything but made a bad situation even worse.
Maybe it was time to finally stop running. To face his fears, to confront them head on. To stop hiding from his past.
One final year at Hogwarts to set things straight once and for all. To mend the rift Voldemort had torn in the school, to stand up to a corrupt Ministry.
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Heavy footsteps echoed through the night as Yaxley walked, breaking the constant chirping of the crickets. A full moon shone overhead, lighting the narrow lane. Wild brambles clustered to his left, while a high, neatly shaven hedge ran to his right, before curving out of sight.
He followed the turn, which led to a wide driveway. At its end sat a double wrought iron gate forged from shining black iron. Yaxley stopped before the gate, raising his left arm in a rough approximation of a salute.
The proper custom observed, he stepped forward. Rather than barring his progress, the iron bars were immaterial, allowing him to pass through like smoke.
Once through the gate, the buzzing of the nocturnal insect life faded away. The thick yew hedges absorbed the patters of his steps. A rustle in the hedgerow drew his attention for a moment, before the wraith-like form of a peacock materialized out of the gloom, strutting atop the hedge.
At the end of the driveway stood a large, sprawling manor. Candles flickered behind the diamond-paned windows, giving out a flickering yellow light. In the shadow of Malfoy Manor, the packed dirt beneath his feet gave way to crushed white stone, which crackled beneath his feet.
The front door swung inward at his approach, displaying a large entryway formed from stone blocks. Portraits hung in the shallow alcoves, displaying proud, aristocratic figures all bearing the signature platinum-blonde hair and grey eyes. Each painting tracked his progress as walked.
Yaxley stopped at the third door on his left. He depressed the brass handle and opened the heavy door, stepping into the gloom.
By the light of the inferno blazing within the ornate fireplace, Yaxley observed that the easy-chairs, desks and other furniture had been pushed against the wall. A long, polished table occupied the center of the room, around which were seated eight figures.
The last remaining servants of the Dark Lord.
Tension was thick in the air as Yaxley took a seat at the table. To his left sat Cynric Nott, the oldest of them all. Cold, hard eyes set into a long, weathered face regarded him unblinkingly, before he inclined his head a fraction of an inch.
"Good to see you could make it," greeted Alder Parkinson, to his right. His oily, self-satisfied voice had been the bane of the Department of Magical Law Enforcement for the past three decades, and the sharp cut of his dark robes proudly displayed the wealth of the finest lawyer in Wizarding Britain.
"So my attendance was in question?" Yaxley asked, staring straight into the portly man's beady eyes. "Or perhaps even my loyalty?"
"Of course not," he answered, waving a hand in the air. "Considering…recent development, I thought that perhaps you would-"
"You thought foolishly," he declared, cutting off the lawyer. A flash of annoyance crossed Parkinson's face, before it disappeared as quickly as it arrived.
"Perhaps," he conceded, inclining his head yet again. "But there are dangerous times, are they not? With the rumors swirling about the country, I do wonder if meeting like this is too bold of a statement."
"No one's writin' the Prophet 'bout it," grunted Walden Macnair from across the table, his heavy, drooping mustache nearly hiding his lips. "Sides, it's not like we're doin' anythin' against the law."
The twin boulders that were Crabbe and Goyle grunted in what was assumed to be agreement, but Gibbon interjected.
"Nonetheless, why are we here?" he asked, turning to Avery. "If the Dark Lord has truly returned…"
He trailed off beneath the steely gaze of Maurice Avery, the most favored of the Dark Lord's followers not currently rotting in Azkaban.
"Narcissa would not have gathered us here without reason," concluded the thin, greasy-haired man. As his words faded away, a door at the far end of the room opened, admitting two figures.
"Indeed, she did not," declared Narcissa Malfoy as she swept into the room. Strands of platinum-blonde hair trailed in her wake as she approached. The new widow's pale featured were a stone mask, though no glamour could hide the pain and misery lingering in her eyes.
Draco, the Malfoy heir, trailed slightly behind her. Though his hair was trimmed and recently-washed, his dark robes crisp and new, the still looked disheveled. Dark shadows lurked beneath bloodshot eyes that stared straight ahead, seeing nothing.
Several of the men, Yaxley included, began to rise at her presence. The rest followed suit as she took her place at the head of the table. Narcissa snapped her fingers, and gold goblets inlaid with jewels appeared before each person, filled to the brim with a blood-red liquid. She grasped her own, rising it into the air.
"To the Dark Lord."
The assembled wizards echoed her toast, even Draco, before drinking deeply of the dark red vintage. Narcissa seated herself, prompting the other to follow task. For a moment she sat, still, before reaching into her robes and withdrawing a large yellow envelope, which she placed delicately upon the table. Each set of eyes focused upon the envelope, the broken wax seal bearing the Malfoy family crest stamped upon the front.
"As you are all well aware, my husband is dead."
"And for that you have all of our condolences," spoke Parkinson, bowing his head.
"Thank you," she replied, "but the time for mourning has come and passed. Now we look towards the future."
She fell silent for a moment, her eyes wandering towards the letter. Draco, who looked even more miserable than ever, raised his head from his lap, catching his mother's eyes. Narcissa nodded a single time, before resuming.
"What you do not know, is that for the past year, Lucius was acting under the Dark Lord's orders."
Exclamations and sharp intakes of breath accompanied her statement.
"So the rumors are true," said Avery, leaning back in his chair, a wry smirk stretching across his sallow features. "The Dark Lord has returned."
"Why then is he not speaking to us directly?" demanded Parkinson, slapping the surface of the table with a meaty hand. "We who bore the brunt of the DMLE investigations, who fought to keep each other out of Azkaban, to maintain the infrastructure of his power. Are we expected-"
"Do you presume to question the Dark Lord's decisions?" demanded Avery with eyes narrowed. Red-faced, Parkinson looked ready to burst, before visibly calming himself with a few deep breaths.
"Of course not," he reasoned, slipping back into his cultured drawl. "Please, forgive my overzealous claims."
"That is for the Dark Lord to determine," spoke Avery in steely tones, before turning to Narcissa, inviting her to continue.
"He has spent the past year gathering intelligence on the Order of the Phoenix, with the aid of myself and Lucius."
The hitch in her breath as she spoke her deceased husband's name was gone almost instantaneously, hinting little at the depths of the pain lingering below the surface.
"The enemies of our Lord have grown weak, feeble."
"Now is the time to smash them!" Macnair declared, to which Narcissa shook her head.
"There is still much to do," she corrected. "The Dark Lord requires one more year of patience before we strike."
"If our enemies are weak, then why wait to attack?" questioned the brute.
"Because the Dark Lord wills it so," stated Avery. "For eleven years we have waited for his return. What is one more?"
Narcissa inclined her head at his reasoning.
"What is one more, indeed? One year to prepare for the glorious return of our Lord, to cleanse our society of the disease infecting it."
"To spread forth and carry the Dark Lord's banner," intoned Parkinson, raising his glass. Nott followed the example, raising his own.
"To bring suffering down upon his enemies."
"To make Potter accountable," said Yaxley, adding his own voice to the chorus.
The words were not loud, but were spoken with such surety to give the others pause as they turned towards the Malfoy heir. The blonde boy stood up, pale features contorted with rage.
"Potter is mine."
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And thus, Arc Four of Sitra Ahra is complete. I know it's been a long time, and for that I apologize, but finally Year Two is over. I've had this chapter outlined for ten months, but I just couldn't get the details right. I'm not happy with what I came up with, but it's been long enough already.
I'm still planning Arc Five of Sitra Ahra, Beneath the Serpent's Banner. It will be a few months before the next chapter is released, as I want to get the outline squared away for the entire year before I start writing out any individual chapters.
I said it late in the chapter, but to be clear, Year Three will be Harry's final year as a student at Hogwarts. As to what will happen after…the story shall tell.
Thanks for reading. Questions, comments, critiques and exclamations are both encouraged and appreciated. All signed reviews shall receive replies.
Thanks to Benny and Scary for help in the planning stages.
Thanks to T3t and Everwyld for their beta work.
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