Disclaimer – It's not my Harry Potter Universe, it belongs to JKR.
Voldemort leaned back against the silk – covered headboard, stifling some cruel snickers while Madame Zabini scurried out of the room, hastily pulling her robes on while she fled. Her muffled whimpers floated back to him, amusing him further. He'd have lost interest in her long ago if she had stopped resisting and just 'lay back and thought of England' so to speak.
She still loved her first husband. It was all there in her eyes when he touched her, thoughts of Blaise's father at the forefront of her thoughts. It was why all the husbands after him had not lasted long, he could see. She simply couldn't bear to have any other touch her. It was all just too amusing for him, watching her struggle to suppress her aversion to sex with him, no matter what she stood to gain.
Only fear of him harming Blaise kept her in the ranks these days. Even her disdain for muggleborns, hatred for any non-pureblood occupying a high position and her animosity toward Lucius and anyone he was friends with was no longer enough to have kept her in Britain if she wouldn't have feared his wrath at yet another desertion.
Voldemort sipped on a cognac and chuckled. He supposed even Zabini's emotional pain would become less amusing, especially if Blaise was back at school. It was almost as much fun to watch Madame Zabini struggling to hide her pain and fear from the boy. He often listened in on their conversations when she would try to reassure him that all was well, that having the Dark Lord as a lover was quite a coup for her and that she was pleased that it was gaining Blaise prominence among the Death Eaters even at his very young age of fifteen.
Eventually he would tire of her and look to new amusements. Passing Madame Zabini on to another would create a scene that would be fun to watch for a while, even more so if she was passed to Fenrir or some other dark creature. A vampire would be very amusing since she was already called a vampiress at times, although 'black widow' was still the most popular epitaph.
He would need to wait on that for now. Blaise Zabini was still the most obvious spy to be sending information on Harry Potter to him. In spite of Nott's assertions of his son Ted's loyalty, Voldemort had a few doubts about him.
Voldemort had discovered a link between himself and Harry Potter. He'd found it curious that Potter seemed to feel pain when around him when he'd possessed Quirrell. There had been few times after that to look into the phenomenon – really just in the graveyard. He'd seen that being near him had caused pain to Potter.
He wasn't sure what created the link, though he expected it had something to do with his botched murder attempt when Potter was an infant. He did wish he knew exactly what old earth magic Lily Potter had used for protection. Obviously something had backfired for her as well for there to be this link between he and Saint Lily's son.
He had slowly explored the link, well aware that it could so easily be used against him. This summer he had dared to go a bit further, hoping Potter would be distracted by the whole issue of Severus and Lucius' disappearance into the ministry's holding cells. It had been delightful that it had turned out the pair had been in Azkaban after all. Voldemort had laughed himself sick when he had heard about it all.
Still, even with the distraction, he needed to be subtle. The boy had some shields up around his mind. Severus' doing, Voldemort thought with some resentment. However, the shielding could not block the link completely. It did make it necessary to go slowly or Potter would be immediately aware of outside influence.
Voldemort smiled a bit more, smugly planning for chaos soon to come. He hoped to stir a little more controversy over whether it was some other Dark Lord that had risen or if it was indeed Lord Voldemort that was returned. Unfortunate that the Ministry continued to mostly support Potter, even if they didn't quite admit Voldemort's return.
Neville re-read the past few weeks Daily Prophets repeatedly, trying to make sense of what had been happening since Malfoy and Snape's arrests. He'd been gleeful when they had been taken into custody and simply hoped that he'd been instrumental in it with what he'd said to Rufus.
Watching the way the Minister, Dumbledore and Auror Savage had leapt to their defense had been annoying and had dropped his respect for them even further. Not that he had had much left for the Minister in the first place.
He'd expected the general public to turn on them. They both had the Dark Mark, after all. There had been articles questioning their guilt or innocence. Most articles leaned toward their innocence. Some dragged out the issue of dark marks and Lucius and Severus' dark past, but all of them demanded an immediate trial to find the truth.
Then there was the agonizing over the poor, beleaguered death eater's 'terrible ordeal' in the holding cells of Azkaban. Neville's lip curled. They had deserved every second of it, he felt. He sobered very briefly when he looked at the picture of Malfoy and Snape when they had first arrived to the Reserve after their rescue.
He'd been shocked at their condition the first time he had seen the photo. His resolve had faltered for a few minutes, remembering his own nightmarish encounter with dementors on the Hogwarts express on the way to school in third year. He still shuddered when he thought of them. Eventually he persuaded his increasingly quiet conscience that Snape and Malfoy had evaded any sort of punishment in the past and they had finally gotten at least part of the retribution he felt they so richly deserved.
Still, he was increasingly nervous about the coming year. He met every weekend with Blaise and their friends in Diagon Alley for ice cream and to talk. Blaise was also looking more and more stressed. The other boys smirked a little whenever Neville asked after Blaise's mother, as to do so was only polite. Blaise usually mumbled a little and would glare, so Neville finally stopped asking.
The only bright spot was the news that the new Dark Lord had planted a follower in Hogwarts as the new Defense teacher. That greatly cheered Neville. He hoped the teacher made Potter and Malfoy's life miserable.
Ted Tonks drove the rather large car down the dirt driveway of the 'Sunnydale Pony Place'. Even with the somewhat wizardspaced inside of the car it was nearly crowded. Ted and Andy, Lucius and Petunia, Severus, Harry, Beth and Tori along with Dudley and Sirius crowded into the car together.
Rosmerta, Draco, Tom and Dora had wisely decided they were needed to help clean up after the large wedding of Heather and Oliver.
The wedding had been well attended. The Woods were giving up a son to help renew an Ancient and Noble House. It was considered a very honorable act and most of the other noble houses had sent a representative to attend and give approval.
There had been only a few remarks that as the Woods were rather prolific and Oliver had five brothers and innumerable cousins, it wasn't like they couldn't afford to relinquish a son or two to aid and dying house.
Listening to the endless chatter about the seemingly infinite list of pony breeds he'd never imagined existing, Severus was beginning to regret not staying and helping to banish the confetti, wilting flowers and discarded champagne glasses. Still, Beth had been eager to help Tori find 'just the right pony' and was determined to have her dad along on the hunt.
Still, mostly they were all happy to have an outing before the new school year started. Especially since it took them off the Reserve for a trip to Exmoor, where Ted's relatives had suggested looking for 'just the right pony for Tori'.
The owner of the pony farm seemed surprised at the sheer number of people who had come to view the ponies, but Lucius made it clear the Ted was 'in charge' of selecting the pony with Tori and Beth's input. Ted was the only one in the group with any real equine knowledge and Lucius had no intention of showing his utter ignorance regarding ponies.
It only took looking over two or three of the crafty little beasts to have some of the group ask if they could hike over the hills and moors in the area while the girls and Ted made a decision. Lucius, Severus, Sirius, Dudley and Harry soon were wandering off out of sight and then Sirius came up with 'an idea'.
"Severus, Lucius told me you were researching your animagus form and had started practicing, along with Dudley." Sirius beamed happily at the pair.
Lucius looked pained, but he and Harry had literally begged Severus and Dudley to learn the art. Neither of them could bear to see Severus endure further torture from dementors and Lucius was determined that no child in his care would ever be vulnerable to dementors if he had any say in it.
Severus nodded in response and Dudley shrugged with a certain amount of indifference.
"Here is a perfect spot – we're in a secluded hollow and there quite a bit of mist around. No one can see us practicing." Harry was enthusiastic at being his father's instructor at anything.
Dudley sighed and let Lucius guide him in the meditation and visualizing the came with learning the art. Severus had been studying a bit harder that Dudley, as he had a bit more motivation after the stay in Azkaban, so he let Sirius hector him into trying 'one more time'.
Severus felt a sudden wash of heat and a sense of the space around him changing. Harry's yelp of delight told him he'd finally achieved his goal.
Severus opened his eyes to see the four wizards smiling and applauding. He looked down to see some rather impressive black paws. He was a black leopard. What a relief – what if he'd been a doe, like his patronus?
"Now you need to change back, Severus." Lucius said, satisfied that Severus would not be at the dementor's mercy after this.
"AH, let him play a bit, first." Sirius laughed, popping into a grim and barking at Severus.
Lucius and Harry frowned for a moment; Severus needed to learn changing back. However they did not have the heart to discourage them.
Severus had little experience with play, he had mostly watched Harry with Dudley and Draco in their rough and tumble sports, but having Beth and Tori around had lightened him up a little.
Padfoot barked and crouched eager for a chase, making the dark leopard hiss and swat at him playfully. Severus turned and loped up the hillside, curious as to the big cat's abilities. Padfoot scrambled behind him, excited at the thought of a run. Lucius, Harry and Dudley jogged behind them, admiring the cat's graceful movements.
Harry watched the leopard moving through the mist, making a breathtaking scene. He quickly pulled out the camera he'd brought to commemorate Tori acquiring a pony and snapped a shot of Severus moving carefully through the mist and flowering bushes.
The dog barked and frisked around the misty field, the black leopard leaped and swatted at branches and occasionally at Padfoot, though he was careful never to connect. The claws on the leopard were rather fearsome.
The five of them were enjoying the peace and tranquility when suddenly shouts were heard and Severus felt a bullet whiz by his ear. The leopard reacted instantly, leaping for cover with a loud snarl of anger. Padfoot barked and hustled after him, it suddenly did not seem so smart to not have taught Severus how to transform back.
Lucius, Harry and Dudley ran to where the two animagi had fled into the undergrowth, meeting a crowd of gun-waving muggles. A pack of hounds had been released, to their horror, and the baying of hounds on the scent could soon be heard.
"Did you see it?" Many voices asked.
"Yes – I got a picture, this time! Hope it's nice and clear!" One of the muggles answered.
"We'll have him at last." A grizzled old-timer gloated. "The Beast of Exmoor won't get away this time!"
Lucius and Harry were speechless. Dudley was almost speechless, but did manage to mutter "Oh, shit."
The group had luckily mistaken them for more 'witnesses' to the Beast's sighting. Dudley and Harry were in jeans and T-shirts, considering it was a trip to a pony farm. Lucius had been persuaded into jeans from his time as 'Jason the handyman'. He'd relented only because Petunia always gave him an appreciative once over when he wore them.
Lucius finally tore his anxious eyes from the forest of rifle barrels that had sprung out of seemingly nowhere. "Dudley, get back to the farm and grab Andromeda. We need Hugo or someone to help. I'd rather not have to confound and obliviate the entire bunch of muggles. I'm not even sure I could do it." It was a testament to how unnerved Lucius was that he willingly admitted that.
Dudley nodded and took off, glad that he and Draco had joined the local boys in jogging mornings while at Aunt Marge's. He'd needed to do something to keep the weight off with her 'deep fried cooking'. Now the exercise would hopefully get him back to the pony farm in record time.
Lucius and Harry trotted after the group, who were now following the hounds. "We have to stop them." Harry hissed at Lucius who nodded, but had no suggestions.
"I can't think of any spells to stop a group of muggles without them realizing it was magic. It would be alright, since we can obliviate them, but if I miss a couple they might shoot us while I try to stop them as well." Lucius fretted. The sounds of the hounds were getting closer.
Harry sighed in frustration. The main problem with talented and powerful wizards like Lucius was that they always thought too big, expecting to solve a problem with one spell.
"Just trip a few of them, make them sprain some ankles." Harry suggested. Soon there were three muggles on the ground, clutching at their ankles. Harry whispered more ideas and some rifles dropped to the ground and broke. Lucius even managed to make the mist become thicker and make following the hounds difficult.
To Lucius' relief the local police arrived and caught up with the 'Beast' hunters. He hoped they would make everyone leave. They listened with skeptical expressions, but also with resignation and to Lucius' disappointment they didn't disperse the crowd.
"Alright let's go see what the dogs have cornered." The officer in charge didn't look thrilled, but he headed toward the sound of baying hounds, which seemed to not have moved for a bit. The crowd had thinned as some of them had to get the injured back to their vehicles and a few didn't seem to want to hang about with police there.
Amelia Bones caught up with them at that point and listened to Lucius' whispered explanation. Wonderful, she hated situations requiring mass obliviations.
Severus ran as swiftly as possible with the unfamiliar terrain and heavy mist. Padfoot was right behind him, hoping for a miracle. The leopard was tiring fairly soon, though, not built for long distance running. Instinct took over and when he spotted a large tree, the black leopard scrambled up to a heavy branch and dug in his claws.
Padfoot popped back into Sirius and climbed up to a branch next to him. "Severus, you need to turn back before the muggles arrive." The leopard gave a growling whine, as the tree was soon surrounded by baying hounds. Sirius gave instructions desperately, hoping Severus could concentrate well enough to pop back into a human.
Severus clung to the tree and dragged up his Occlumency shields desperately. He focused on going back into his human form and managed to do so as the muggles crashed through the bushes. Without his claws to anchor him, though, Severus lost his grip and found himself dangling by one hand from his branch.
After a lot of shouting from the muggles and assistance from Sirius, Severus managed to get to the ground with only a few scrapes from the rough bark of the tree.
The hounds were leashed and the gun-waving muggles seemed disappointed that their treed a pair of hikers instead of 'the Beast'. The officers seemed amused and helped the five, or six including Amelia, back to the vicinity of the pony farm.
When they reached the farm, Severus was looking traumatized; his hair was as unruly at present as Harry's ever was. Lucius and Harry looked stressed but relieved. Amelia left them at the gates, after they promised to give a statement later.
To their relief Tori had decided on a pretty pony of welsh cob breeding, with red and white pinto markings and golden eyes. Tori was pleased that 'Max' was as striking in appearance as Jinxy. Like Jinxy, he was a plump pony with a wild mane and tail and a devil-may-care look in his eyes that made Lucius' "mischief radar" sound a warning.
Ted assured Lucius that Max was a very child-safe pony and with a few spells would be even more so. Petunia made out the check as Lucius thought it was silly they had to write things out instead of just pressing a Gringotts key to a receipt written on enspelled parchment.
Ted arranged to have the pony delivered to his relatives; a house elf could apparate Max to Malfoy Manor from there.
On the way back Harry told the group about Severus' adventure as 'the Beast of Exmoor'. Severus was a bit disgruntled. "I could have flown down from the tree, but there were all those muggles around."
The train ride back to Hogwarts was rather enjoyable. Everyone congratulated Harry, Draco and Dudley on their father's rescue. The ones who were not happy about it at least avoided their compartment. The list of books they'd sent for had been mostly as expected. Severus had let Harry take his own fifth year potions book, telling him to not try any spells in the margin without asking him first.
The Defense book had been disappointing when they had looked it over. Extremely basic and dull, he hoped the instructor intended to elaborate a great deal, or had supplemental reading for them.
Severus had warned him a bit about the new Potions Instructor.
"He's a fairly good teacher, though he has somewhat lower standards that I do." Severus had said with a frown, making Harry snicker. "He does have a lot more patience than I have, so perhaps that balances it out. He does tend to 'collect' student he feels are important or will be important. He at least does not discriminate. He collects from all houses."
"Did he collect you, dad." Harry had asked.
"No." Severus had answered a bit flatly, old slights catching up with him a little. "He saw nothing important about me and foresaw nothing important in my future." Severus had then noticed Harry's darkening countenance and hesitated. He didn't need to get Harry angry with his new Potions instructor. Harry enjoyed potions and got top grades. "In his defense, Professor Slughorn was absolutely against anything Dark and he likely saw the direction I was taking."
Looking out the train's window, Harry thought that was still a bit of a lame excuse. Professor Slughorn had been Head of Slytherin at the time. Shouldn't he have tried to help Severus instead of abandoning him to his fate? Harry did know how stubborn Severus was. The Professor might not have been able to change Severus' mind but surely he should have tried?
Harry sighed and napped a little. The one bright spot since the debacle in Exmoor was that Cho Chang had triumphed. She'd found a Flaming Chinese Lantern plant in a very expensive and exclusive greenhouse in the Tibet area of China. The only sold to a rather elite clientele and saying she was buying for 'The Boy Who Lived' in Britain had not impressed them. Luckily Madame Lin DaWei had a bit more pull, but even she had to call in favors.
A plant was now in its way, though they had to pay for hand delivery all the way from China. They found a muggleborn Chinese student who was willing to take the plant by plane to Britain, though the plant was disillusioned and looked like a handbag. Portkeys would have killed the plant and going by floo would have been disastrous. The flames in the plant would have exploded in the floo and taken out a large section of the floo system, as the ministries knew from prior bad experience.
Still, Harry knew, the end was finally in sight in getting rid of the Horcrux in his scar.
Luna sat with him on the carriage ride to the castle and he even managed to get a few kisses before they got to the Great Hall. The sorting went swiftly and they were about to start the usual fantastic feast when the Headmaster introduced the new Professors. Harry applauded politely for Slughorn, deciding to give the man a chance before hating him on principle for snubbing his dad.
Then the new Defense teacher stood to be introduced, appalling both Harry and Draco. She had been on the other end of the teacher's table and they had not seen her.
Dudley whispered urgently. "It's Madame Umbridge. Can you believe it?"
Headmaster Dumbledore eyed Harry's rebellious face with trepidation. He'd known there would be trouble when Umbridge had arrived that morning. Thicknesse had said 'the Professor' would arrive that morning and Albus had simply not expected anyone to send Dolores, of all people. With all the other events over the summer, he had simply been happy that they would have any Professor available.
Dolores simply nodded to the students and sat. She'd thought about a speech and decided that she would tell the students class by class that they didn't need to learn to defend themselves, that the ministry would do their fighting for them. Voldemort didn't want more trained fighters out there resisting him, so she would ensure they only learned theory.
Pius would back her up, if need be. With any luck the students would be lazy and not want practicals. If they did, they would be taught innocuous spells like jelly-legs and the like.
Dolores looked out over the students. How terrible that the Houses were all mixed together, with the tables only separated by year. She would put an end to that when she got the chance. She caught Harry Potter's eyes and smiled benignly. She would have her chance at him. She faltered a bit as she caught the malevolence pouring out of his eyes.
She gripped the locket in her pocket, feeling stronger and surer of herself immediately. The Dark Lord had sent his instructions to her via Pius Thicknesse. She intended to carry them out.
A/N – Short, but I now have the outline of the rest of my tale. I intend to wrap up the story before the end of fifth year.