Dear readers, I'm sorry it took me so long to update! This is probably one of the hardest chapters I've ever had to write, emerging during a busy time in my life. I hope it is sufficient enough. x


77 – The Chosen One

"There's one last thing I should mention. We've got a message here – for the Dark Lord himself."

Crabbe's tone was prideful in an attempt to express the importance of what he was about to say, but Harry didn't respond immediately. He didn't even look up. A trickle of blood, crimson and smooth, wove its way across the floor and threatened to collide with the hem of his robes. He stepped back from a nearby body, feeling Crabbe's piggy eyes on him.

"Who says I'm visiting the Dark Lord tonight?" Harry asked quietly.

He wasn't sure why he said it. He took childish enjoyment in the way Crabbe shifted where he stood, far more unsettled now than he had ever been by the corpses at their feet. He avoided Harry's question.

"I reckon the Dark Lord should hear this sooner rather than later," he grunted. "It's a direct message from Lestrange."

Harry knew Crabbe didn't mean Raphael, Rabastan, or Rodolphus. The only 'Lestrange' who left messages lately was Bellatrix. She was amongst the only followers who knew about the Prophecy and her early knowledge of it had motivated her to become a leader amongst Death Eaters. She was searching for defiant enemies of Lord Voldemort.

"What did she say?"

"She wasn't making sense," Crabbe explained. "I decided not to ask questions, though. All she said was to tell the Dark Lord something about births in the McKinnon family."

Harry thought this over, twisting the Elder Wand in his hand distractedly. He knew the McKinnons were inevitably going to end up a large target for the Death Eaters to hunt in search of families connected to the Prophecy, but he had never imagined they would be tracked so soon.

"Why doesn't Bellatrix tell him that herself?" he asked.

"Well, you can see the work she did here tonight. She probably wasn't thinking right."

"Where did she go, do you know?"

"No idea. I don't see why it was so important in the first place."

Harry glanced again at wizard who lay slumped and crumpled before him. This man had clearly been interrogated shortly before his death, but instead of telling her Lord about it directly, Bellatrix had chosen to leave in a hurry. Harry couldn't imagine why. Any information she had uncovered on the McKinnons was already invaluable and it would give her tremendous praise. To calm his nerves, Harry chose to rule out the possibility of Bellatrix finding the McKinnons tonight. It was too early...

"So, can you tell the Dark Lord for us?" asked Crabbe.

Harry didn't want to, in honesty. This was the first time he had left the Chimera Hideout in days and he had no intention of going back there to initiate what would inevitably lead to months of Tom obsession over the McKinnons. He straightened up where he stood, shaking his head once.

"You'll gain praise if you speak to the Dark Lord about this," he said. "These murders won't anger him. I've other things to do..."

"You're – you're sure?"

Crabbe's eyes were wide with possibility. Behind him, Goyle and Dolohov Jr were alert for the first time.

Harry stepped back, his expression blank. "Take the credit."

Crabbe's thick lips curled into a wide smile. "Brilliant!"

Harry nodded stiffly, barely paying attention. There was a scramble of footsteps as the Death Eaters grouped together, discussing how best to present tonight's events. Now they knew this information was important to the Dark Lord, they were excited and eager to be a part of it. Harry was repulsed by their greed; he turned away, trying hard to ignore it as they stepped through pools of blood and knocked stray limbs aside upon passing by. He focused his attention on the nearest corpse.

It struck him as unsettling that Bellatrix had left her victims so scarred. Drying blood smeared the faces of these men, spreading out across the floorboards. The Cruciatus Curse would have worked well enough for interrogations, but Bellatrix hadn't used it, despite the havoc that violence caused and the infuriating Tom felt when his Death Eaters murdered too often. Harry wondered what gave her such confidence and what could be keeping her on a hunt for information when she'd already found valuable leads on the McKinnons. Her actions had grown unpredictable, lately.

Although Bellatrix was a leader amongst Death Eaters, she often didn't care when others got carried away with their work. It was a flaw that Tom refused to blame her for; most of the Death Eaters she controlled had virtually no idea what everyone was looking for, so they began vicious attacks on innocent people in a desperate, clumsy search for traitors and foes, torturing whoever got in their way, killing whoever else resisted. What was strange now was Harry knew Bellatrix had killed these men herself. The thought bothered him so deeply that it was a moment before he realised he was alone.

In the dead silence the Death Eaters left behind, Harry became conscious that this was a crime scene. This realisation was heightened when the room suddenly erupted in blinding emerald light. He withdrew his wand in alarm, but this wasn't the light of a Killing Curse; in the deafening silence, no soul had uttered a word. The emerald light surrounding him filtered into the room through the windows nearby. It illuminated the bodies at his feet in a pale, ghostly way, warning him that the Dark Mark had been sent up. The Ministry would be sending Aurors this way.

Harry started walking. From his pocket, he withdrew the Invisibility Cloak, draping it over his shoulders. He didn't look back when he reached the hallway, nor the front door of the house. The world outside was lit up in tones of green and black, the fresh snow glowing in an unnatural radiance. There might have been people screaming from houses nearby, panicking, but if there were, Harry didn't notice. He walked out the front gate, raising his wand... but he hesitated. Where was he meant to go from here?

Running footsteps and one deafening 'crack' after another told Harry the Aurors had arrived. Obscured by hedges and fences, they were transfixed to the looming Dark Mark and the eerily peaceful house standing below it. They drew closer to the house, bursting through the front door and checking inside for signs of evidence. Harry kept walking calmly. He knew his footsteps were being imprinted into the snow, but wizards rarely paid attention to such details when magic was in use. The Aurors wanted to find a murderer and Bellatrix Lestrange had fled the scene long ago.

Harry thought very briefly of returning to the headquarters, but he was reluctant to. It felt like a very bad idea, suddenly, to leave Bellatrix alone on the McKinnons' trail. Assuming he had an excuse ready, Harry thought he might have enough time to send out a warning; Crabbe would doubtlessly pass on the idea that he was doing unsaid business if Tom asked. Harry decided he needed to speak to Dumbledore, to stop the McKinnons from being tracked. When the decision was made, he span on the spot, Disapparating in an instant.

He appeared in the heart of a large town, where Witches and Wizards bustled along a busy street. The change of scene made him feel dizzy – far more than the act of Apparition itself.

"Excuse me!"

A few people bumped into Harry, unable to see him under the Invisibility Cloak. Some of them nearly toppled over, looking around hastily for who or what they had crashed into. Harry ripped the Cloak off, folding it up and apologising in a low voice. All around him, people were unfazed by the snow that twirled down from the heavens and the sun that had set hours ago.

Harry hadn't seen a crowd of such happy people in years. Shops and stalls selling winter clothes, food, and presents were alight with candles and magical light, keeping this town strangely oblivious to the wizarding war going on. Nobody could imagine that low in the basement of a nearby residence, the Order of the Phoenix had gathered together to discuss their thoughts and theories on recent fights.

Harry started walking; he was catching people's attention by standing in the middle of a busy road, staring at everything around him. Nobody liked to see strange visitors observing their surroundings curiously these days, even here. He kept his head low and headed through the crowd, until he arrived at the Order headquarters.

A crimson door at the base of a staircase marked the entrance. It was protected under a Fidelius Charm, so only Harry could see it out of hundreds of people walking the streets. He headed down, intent upon leaving the cold, and knocked.

It was only a minute before someone answered.

"...telling you, you'll believe it when you see it, Prongs!"

Sirius answered the door. He attention was focused on the hallway behind him, where James was shouting something back at him. His familiar smile broadened. There was vibrant youth in energy in the way he stood, the way he held himself proudly and laughed openly. Harry could have stayed in this moment for hours. When Sirius turned, finally, to see who was at the door, his smile faltered. There was startled surprise in the way he stared.

"Ah, hello!" he greeted. "Come in. You're in luck – Dumbledore's just arrived."

Sirius acted cheery enough, but Harry couldn't stand that uneasy, burning interest in his eyes. Even as he beckoned Harry inside, he kept a distance from him, as if fearful.

"What brings you here tonight?" Sirius asked bravely upon closing the door.

They must be unaware about the Prophecy, Harry realised. No way would Sirius and James be so happy if they knew. Harry neared the end of the hall, where James stood with one hand on the door to the meeting room, staring. Harry dropped his eyes as he approached.

"I have news," he answered quietly.

"Oh?" Sirius pressed.

The door opened wider. James stepped into the room, glancing towards Lupin and Pettigrew as if in warning. Sirius passed Harry and wandered towards the Marauders too. Harry stood in the doorway, glancing at the ten or so people gathered here. Dumbledore sat at the head of the long table, studying him.

"Good evening, Jonathan," he greeted pleasantly. "Do you have news?"

Harry didn't answer immediately. He could tell by the calm, curious expressions on faces of the people nearby that not a single witch or wizard here knew about the Prophecy besides Dumbledore and himself. It unsettled Harry. This wasn't what he had expected.

"Is something wrong?" Dumbledore asked.

Harry couldn't take it. In a moment of impulsive indignation, he spoke the truth.

"Death Eaters found McKinnon's trail. They know she's a part of the Order now, so I think they're going to go after her family. You have to protect them."

Silence fell. Ten stricken faces glanced from Harry to Dumbledore and back again.

"What do you mean?" asked James at once. "Why would they go after her family?"

Harry didn't answer. He kept his eyes on Dumbledore, dissatisfied by the tranquil expression that remained on his face.

"It could be for any number of reasons," Lupin murmured. "The McKinnons are an especially close and especially large family, after all..."

Dumbledore stood up, putting an immediate end to the questions James was clearly burning to ask. He blinked a few times, standing straight.

"Thank you for this information, Jonathan," he said calmly, "but I rather think we should discuss this in further privacy."

Harry nodded curtly, hoping his bluntness might make Dumbledore admit the truth to his fighters. As he strode past, several eyes followed Dumbledore, who indicated to Harry that they should head back down the hall. They left the Order meeting without a single explanation of what was happening.

Harry entered a deserted room with Dumbledore. Although there were chairs nearby, neither of them took a seat. It was only upon closing the door that Harry caught the expression he was looking for; Dumbledore's face was grave and appeared older than ever in a moment of mistaken solitude. It didn't make Harry happy.

"You haven't told them about the Prophecy, have you?" Harry asked, cutting to the point now they were alone. "They have no idea."

Dumbledore cast Harry a steady, serious look.

"No," he agreed calmly, "I have not told them, but I rather wish to keep it that way."

Harry swallowed an urge to act upon his agitated, animated state of mind. "You should tell them."

Dumbledore remained impassive. "For what reason?"

"So they can fight."

This amused Dumbledore for the first time. The wrinkles by his mouth and eyes crinkled.

"Is that what you advise? You believe I should send out all of these men and women to fight Death Eaters while I decide the importance of the Prophecy? Should I inform them of a threat in the hope that they'll react kindly?"

"Well, yes."

"What will that achieve, Jonathan? How may that benefit our cause? You forget that there is not a more crucial time than this moment to remain calm and to inspire calmness in every fighter, for the sake of Order's protection. Voldemort, I believe, shares my logic."

"Well, Voldemort isn't exactly fighting himself, is he?"

"He is keeping his own fighters calm, if I'm correct in assuming so. Nott, for one, appears to have no idea about the existence of a Prophecy."

Harry had forgotten about this. Only five Death Eaters knew about the potential downfall of the Dark Lord, but that hardly made things better. "That's different."

"Is it?"

Harry clenched his jaw shut, glancing at an ugly dresser across the room. A yellowish lace cloth lay on top of an overly-polished wooden surface, threatening to slip away. "I don't want his fighters to be prepared..."

He thought Dumbledore would understand, but his response was swift and unfazed.

"Preparation comes in many forms, Jonathan. In this case, it is best to prepare our fighters by allowing them happiness for a short while longer. Even if you advised Voldemort to tell his Death Eaters about the Prophecy, I highly doubt he would consider the suggestion more than I am now."

Harry wasn't sure if this was meant to be an insult. "So, what, you're just going to follow the same tactics as the Dark Lord?"

Dumbledore smiled for the second time, only annoying Harry further.

"Do not judge me for coincidentally following his tactics, Jonathan. It is with a great deal of practical thinking that Tom made it so far at all. Do not underestimate the importance of assessing truth when sudden threat arises."

There was nothing Harry could say. He didn't think keeping followers in the dark was the right approach – not if either side wanted to build trust and stay vigilant. Tom was not calmed by his own caution, anyway; almost every night, he was shaken by the stress of his potential downfall. The only way he got through Death Eater meetings was by denial and suppression. For a fleeting moment, Harry wondered if Dumbledore felt the same.

"Why have Death Eaters chosen to pursue the McKinnons?" Dumbledore asked gently, his mind reverting back to the point of this conversation. "What do they believe they will find?"

Harry was reluctant to answer, but he knew he must. Feeling he had acted enough like a child, he gave the best explanation he could shortly.

"Some of the Death Eaters are searching for families that might produce a threat," he said. "Most of them hunt in packs, unsure what they're actually looking for, but they have leaders who know about the Prophecy. Tom's looking for signs of an equal..."

Dumbledore nodded slowly as if this all made sense. He didn't divulge what the news meant to him, however. Harry felt a moment of annoyance, swiftly followed by the realisation that nobody but him had any idea what was going to happen next. It was grave news that families were being watched. Harry understood it would only get more dangerous from this point on.

"Tom isn't going to give up searching until he has proof that the Prophecy exists," he warned Dumbledore, hoping to make him understand. "He hunt down any families connected to the Order in fear of them being linked to the Prophecy. It's nine months until July, Dumbledore..."

There was no trace of fear on Dumbledore's face, but all signs of lighthearted tranquillity faded. He was interested. He might even be worried.

"Whoever the parents might be," Harry carried on, "they're already pregnant with the Dark Lord's equal. You can't keep the Prophecy a secret if it risks information spreading. People will talk about pregnancies, they rejoice in them."

"Spreading information on the Prophecy will increase chances of betrayal," Dumbledore reasoned quietly.

"You don't trust your own people?"

"It is not a matter of trust, Jonathan. We must take the appropriate precautions."

"Do you know who's expecting a child, at least?"

Dumbledore's brow furrowed. "Jonathan, I do not believe this is something to be discussed. It is crucial that Voldemort remains as disconnected as possible from news of the Prophecy."

"You think I'd tell him?"

Dumbledore didn't waste time answering. They both knew there were easier ways for Voldemort to gain information out of someone.

"We will not know who Voldemort's equal is until Voldemort figures it out for himself," Dumbledore explained. "To give away information would be to influence Voldemort's choice."

"I understand," Harry responded impatiently, "but –"

He stopped. He understood what Dumbledore was saying, (the Chosen One was quite literally chosen), but something startled him. Here Dumbledore was, openly informing him that he was waiting to see who Voldemort chose as his equal. While Tom was tracing trails on families linked the the Order of the Phoenix, the Longbottoms and the Potters were unknowingly carrying two children at risk of being targeted, and Dumbledore must have known it. He was openly withholding information on the Prophecy and waiting, perhaps, for Voldemort to hear that two families fit the criteria.

Harry wanted to believe that Dumbledore was nervous at the prospect of two pregnant families, but he had a nagging suspicion that it was curiosity rather than caution that influenced his actions. If Dumbledore wanted to keep everybody safe, he could tell the Order about the Prophecy and put the Longbottoms and the Potters into immediate hiding, so no Death Eater would know about their pregnancies, but Dumbledore had other plans. It was almost as if he was baiting Voldemort, ensuring that he'd find out exactly who the Chosen One is, no matter what it risked.

"What is it, Jonathan?"

Harry blinked a few times, forgetting where he was. He felt sickened. His mind was in a muddle and he couldn't stop seeing the sudden grey in Dumbledore. Protecting the Chosen One, preparing the Order, and writing out plans should be Dumbledore's top priority, but he appeared reckless, suddenly, and foolish. He was treating the possibility of defeating Voldemort with such forceful caution that he wasn't at all prepared. Harry had visited this cold town in the hope of gaining good news in the Chosen One's defence, but all he saw here was a prideful old man who cared more about curiosity than human lives.

"I suppose you're right," Harry lied expressionlessly. There was no other way out of this.

He wasn't sure if Dumbledore believed him. A strained moment passed, in which time Harry wondered if Dumbledore regretted informing him that Voldemort had to choose the Chosen One. He didn't suppose the detail looked obvious from this point in time. Harry decided to act bothered.

"I still think you should prepare the Order. You don't know what the Death Eaters are like now..."

Dumbledore nodded wisely, calmly. "When the time is right."

– X –

Darkness obscured Harry's vision, aided by the falling of heavy snow. There was nothing in the range of the Elder Wand's light to indicate where the secret entrance to the Chimera Hideout was; layers of faint white flakes against black was all Harry could see. He pulled the Invisibility Cloak in close with one hand, squinting through it. Although he saw safe for the moment and he was free to stay away from Tom's headquarters for as much as a few hours, all he wanted right now was to find somewhere safe to be, away from the Order of the Phoenix.

Dumbledore had inspired with him a sense of chilling despair and confusion for the future that had followed him all the way from the Order hideout. He couldn't shake the unsettling suspicion that the lack of caution put into the Order's protection would lead to death and destruction. Dumbledore had become reckless in private, unable to accurately judge what the Prophecy meant. The thought bothered Harry so much that even when he – miraculously – found the passageway into the Chimera Hideout, he was lost in thought. He passed guards without trouble, slipping into the entrance hall after removing his Cloak.

There were Death Eaters scattered across the hall, some of them speaking in small groups on their way out of the hideout, others awaiting a meeting with their Lord impatiently. Crabbe, Goyle, and Dolohov Jr were still speaking to Tom with a few others – the Lestranges, Wilkes, Rosier – which told Harry that the discussion about the McKinnons wasn't over yet. The Death Eaters were so focused on talking that they didn't notice Harry pass. He caught Tom's attention alone. Despite everything that had happened, the untroubled look in Tom's eyes calmed Harry more than anything else had.

He gave Tom a look to mean he'd be waiting downstairs; he had no desire to get involved with Death Eater meetings tonight. They would speak about it at length in private later on, as Tom so often enjoyed doing, in a room deeper in the hideout. Harry headed there now. Solitude comforted him as he slipped from the entrance hall, clearing his head and making him feel safe. He wandered through other parts of the building, accepting the disconnection that the hideout cast from the world high above. When he arrived at the room he was looking for, his ears strained against the weight of heavy silence.

Everything was deathly quiet down here. Harry stood staring at the large couches, high bookshelves, and tall windows across the room. He didn't feel like sitting down, so he wandered instead, mulling over the possibility of Dumbledore losing touch with the Light Arts. It was only a minute before he heard a door open behind him, followed by calm footsteps. Tom had arrived. Harry wondered what made him leave the Death Eaters so early; he noticed a dark shadow over his eyes. Despite appearing cool and unfazed earlier, Tom was stressed.

"Is there news?" Harry asked.

"None more important than that which you sent me," Tom answered. "Where did you go tonight?"

Harry produced a lie to stifle any chance of doubt. "I tried to track down Bellatrix Lestrange for more information on the McKinnons. I thought she might have been following a trail, but if she was, I couldn't pick it up."

Tom bought it. He gave no signs of approval or disapproval, he merely moved further into the room, brooding. He seemed to find news on the McKinnons both inspiring and worrisome. Harry kept his eyes on him.

"The information Bellatrix has given us thus far is invaluable," Tom said. "We shall begin sending out Death Eaters to investigate. We shall gather information on all families connected to the Order and observe them well..."

Harry said nothing, but turned away slightly. He knew the Order would stop them. There would be no struggle, no confusion; as soon as any Death Eaters approached a family involved in the Order, a threat would show up and they would back off. They'd tell Tom about the Order's caution and new tactics would be made, new plans put in place...

"Yet this is merely the beginning, I believe," Tom carried on, oblivious to Harry's serious expression. "There will be more families with connections to those who have defied me, more witches and wizards with the potential of birthing a threat."

Harry didn't know what to say. He turned to stare out across a rainy landscape of forests and distant mountains through a high window. He was trying to distract himself, but the view before his eyes made him feel uneasy. It reminded him of the view from Hogwarts Castle – a fact that can't have been wholly incidental. Tom had spent hours enchanting fake windows in all his hideouts, perfecting all of them. None discomfited Harry quite as much as this particular one. Rain splattered thickly against the window's thin glass, but it was silent. Tom forgot to finish off his enchantments.

"Do you object to my plans?" asked Tom.

"No," Harry answered honestly.

"Then what is troubling you?"

He was annoyed. Harry tore his eyes from the window to meet Tom's burning gaze. Since the Prophecy had been discovered, his temper was short; he worked nonstop to secure his own fighters and hideouts, determined to remain protected from the Order and Dumbledore. Although Tom remained as handsome as ever in Harry's eyes and although he stood proud and confident amongst Death Eaters, the Prophecy was changing him.

"I'm worried about the Death Eaters," Harry admitted. "I'm not sure they understand the changes happening around here."

This was not wholly a lie, but Harry only said it to avoid suspicion. It seemed to work. Tom stopped facing him so directly and drew in a deep breath, his hand rising to push back his dark hair. He then began to pace.

"It is their duty to bring me information in sworn secrecy," he said, his anger dissolving as quickly as it had arose. "If our followers are so prying as to make inquiries about my plans, they will face the usual punishments..."

Harry wondered darkly how Dumbledore might reword the same idea. "And if punishment isn't enough to stop their curiosity?"

Tom considered the question only briefly before answering. "Then we shall punish them more until they obey."

He continued to pace, troubled and distracted. It was upon watching the billowing of his black cloak that Harry realised Tom dressed well to leave a good impression for the Death Eaters, but he was unable to pay caution to the condition of his hair, which became messy the more he ran his pale fingers through it. This, alongside his temper, was the only clear indication to the others of his state of mind.

Tom took a seat on an nearby couch, as if to stop himself from walking and thinking in circles. Harry's mind wandered to thoughts of the Prophecy and the Death Eater's curiosity about it. It was in that moment that inspiration struck him. He realised what if he could get Tom to tell the Death Eaters about the Prophecy, maybe the Order would start to realise they had become personal targets to the Dark Lord...

Harry remembered the doubt Dumbledore had expressed at the idea of him convincing Tom to warn the Death Eaters about the Prophecy. He felt suddenly spiteful of Dumbledore and determined to implement a change to prove him wrong. He stepped forwards, casting a spell over his shoulder to fold over the drooping curtains of the enchanted window. In the torchlight, he headed for Tom slowly.

"The Death Eaters sense a change," he said. "You must have seen it in their minds. Despite your orders, despite how much you punish them for their brutality, they're still burning to know why you favourite certain people. They know something's happened."

Tom held his gaze, intrigued in a momentarily questioning way. "Why does this bother you?"

"You saw what a mess the Death Eaters made of their murders tonight," Harry explained, determined to influence a change of strategy. "You wouldn't have sent me out there to investigate if it weren't so bad."

Tom thought it over in interest, but it lowered his spirits. They had discussed the Death Eaters bad behaviour for weeks, unable to solve it.

"I admit," said Tom slowly, "that their work is clumsy in ignorance. They've grown brutal and careless, determined to gain credit... yet I rather think this is the result of dedication over disloyalty."

"It is," Harry agreed quickly, "but that won't stop them from noticing something's changed. They're attacking everyone in dedication to you, waiting to strike gold. I think it's getting out of hand."

Tom wasn't pleased to hear it, but he thought it over, looking away.

"Well," he said, "perhaps we could lessen their arrogance... It seems cruel to snatch Bellatrix Lestrange's crown so soon, but it may be wise for us to inform more Death Eater of the threat Dumbledore has brought to our attention."

"You mean, we should tell them about the Prophecy?"

"Precisely."

Harry held his breath, trying hard not to smile. This was exactly what he wanted.

"What our followers are searching for is praise," Tom carried on, "yet they're graceless in their attempts to discover what is considered valuable information to us. If they are all informed about the Prophecy, we shall have hundreds of Death Eaters individually searching for defiant enemies, knowingly sorting through information. They shall each bring information to me separately, they will each be able to blackmail, torture, and kill our enemies for information..."

Harry could tell Tom was excited at the prospect. A smile spread across his sharp features, his eyes alight with possibility. Harry advanced, taking a seat on the couch besides him.

"Do you really think this will work?"

Tom nodded and ran pale fingers through his dark hair. The prospect of organising an army and sending out hundreds of Death Eaters to search for the Chosen One thrilled him.

"This will be brilliant," he hissed.

Harry smiled back, but he found he couldn't relish completely in Tom's happiness. He hadn't expected him to be quite so enthralled. He realised, gradually, what a risk it was to show him a more powerful approach to dealing with the Prophecy. If sudden Death Eater attacks didn't prompt Dumbledore into rightfully warning the Order of the Phoenix, they might be at risk for no reason.

To calm his nerves, Harry chose to believe this was for the best of everyone. All he needed to do was warn the Order about an increase in Death Eater attacks. If Nott knew about the Prophecy – as he undoubtedly would soon – he could pass on information concerning any future raids that were planned. It would be a tremendous relief for Harry; warning the Order of the Phoenix about attacks would protect them whilst still leading them towards discovering a Prophecy had been made. For the sake of making sure everything went smoothly, Harry realised he needed to visit Nott as soon as possible.

The only problem was, there wasn't any time in which Harry could slip out of the Chimera Hideout undetected. Tom had grown protective and paranoid of his security recently. He took extra precautions to separate and isolate his followers, to watch out for spies, and to keep his many hideouts secure. The only time Harry was able to leave without drawing unwanted attention was during private missions Tom sent him off on to check on mistakes the Death Eaters had made. He was sent to inspire fear and order in the others.

Fortunately for Harry, it wasn't too long before one of these missions appeared. Late one September evening, Death Eaters summoned their Lord through their Dark Marks, requesting that he attend an urgent gathering. Tom, who had been summoned too often lately, was not pleased to be disturbed. He was in the middle of studying some very important information on the Bones family, information that could lead to the discovery of the Chosen One. It was the perfect opportunity for Harry to offer his help.

"I could go for you," he said. "I'm not doing anything at the moment. You've been working for hours."

Tom was surprised. He didn't, however, object to the idea. "Would you?"

"I'd be happy to. I haven't left the headquarters in weeks, anyway."

Tom nodded slowly, his tired eyes on Harry. "I would be grateful for it."

Harry rose to his feet, trying to avoid sounding too enthusiastic. "Where are they?"

"They've gathered in the Dementor Hideout."

Harry nodded once in understanding. He left a book he was reading on a table nearby, heading towards a dresser for his Invisibility Cloak.

"You must remember to gather full information," Tom added, turning back to his notes. A drop of ink had fallen on parchment and he carefully removed it by magic. "I do not wish to speak to anyone else but you tonight..."

"I understand."

Tom often enjoyed discussed the war alone with Harry, especially at this time of day. Harry fastened a travelling cloak around his neck and slipped the Invisibility Cloak into the pocket of his robes. He left the bedroom after a short goodbye and walked all the way up the hideout, meeting the guards on duty near the main entrance. Excitement and relief built within him as he exited the huge doors of the headquarters, stepped into the cool night air. He Apparated to the Dementor Hideout at once.

He intended to speak to the Death Eaters as quickly as possible so he could slip away and visit Nott's home without detection tonight, but when he entered the Dementor Hideout, he discovered a much darker scene than he had anticipated. Rosier and Lestrange greeted him at the door and asked no questions about where Tom was. They led him inside hastily, bringing him to the main room, where six Death Eaters sat and stood around the corpse of Cygnus Black.

Harry couldn't believe it at first sight. He stood in the doorway, frozen, staring. Cygnus was a Knight and one of the best fighters amongst Death Eaters. He lay pale and peaceful, his eyes closed and his breathing ceased.

"What happened?" Harry asked at once.

"Aurors," Avery murmured. "We got ambushed while chasing Bones."

"Were any others hurt?"

"Yes," Rosier answered. "Two others, but we've got the regular healers on them. There's no serious damage."

"One faced a pretty bad Cruciatus Curse, though," Avery mentioned. "I've never seen someone pass out after one round."

"What happened to Black?" Harry asked. "Why is he here?"

"I thought we could save him," a Death Eater murmured shakily. It was a young recruit, someone Harry didn't know. "We brought him here, but it was too late..."

"There was no chance," said Lestrange flatly. "He was hit by a Killing Curse."

Despite this, everyone here seemed to be in a state of disbelief. Death Eaters glanced at Cygnus as if they expected him to wake up at any moment, to carry on leading groups and fighting enemies. His lips were cold and blue.

"He was the strongest fighter amongst us," said Avery. "If this is what happens to someone like him, what's going to happen to the rest of us?"

Nobody answered. The room fell into a slow state of mourning – even Rosier and Lestrange refrained from commenting their opinions. They may have thought Avery was right. Harry forced himself to stop staring at Black, suddenly remembering why he was here. The Death Eaters needed to be told what to do next. They were discouraged and distraught.

"It's good you brought him here," Harry said to all of them. "We can arrange a private funeral, a proper burial for a Knight. We'll honour Black's death by saving his name and we'll make sure he's never identified as a traitor to the Ministry..."

This, hopefully, meant Cygnus's body would never end up in The Cave, where most deceased witches and wizards were stored as Inferi. A burial for a fallen Knight was an important thing amongst Death Eaters – Tom was sure to treat it as such. Harry glanced at the grave faces of the wizards around him, who were only slightly encouraged by his words. This wasn't going to be an easy death for anyone to accept.

"When's the funeral?" asked Avery suddenly.

"Tomorrow," Harry answered, guessing Tom would agree. "We'll meet at headquarters. Rosier, Lestrange, I expect you'll be in charge of Cygnus's body?"

The two Knights nodded.

"We'll bring him somewhere safe," Rosier swore.

"The rest of you, spread the word privately amongst Death Eaters, but no further. We'll leave it to the Black family to decide who else is told."

"Yes, my Lord."

Harry wasn't sure which Death Eater said it. It seemed to slip from them, an unquestioned show of respect.

"Bellatrix Lestrange won't be pleased about this," murmured Avery.

Nobody else seemed to have considered this. The group grew tense. Harry felt momentarily guilty for taking her father's funeral into his own hands, but he knew there was no other way.

"I have to return to the Dark Lord," he said in a low voice, intent upon leaving swiftly. "He needs to know what's happened."

There was no objections. Lestrange and Rosier began to move and took it into their own hands to take the body of their friend, their fellow Knight, to a safe location. Other Death Eaters were left to decide who should be told the news. When Harry left for Nott's house, he wasn't sure what to think. It felt wrong to organise communication to the Order of the Phoenix so soon after organizing Cygnus's funeral.

Nott was thankfully home when Harry knocked. He beckoned him inside and lead him to his living room, but Harry didn't take the seat that was offered to him.

"I can't stay for long," he said.

"Oh, of course," Nott agreed. Something like a smile found him. "Old habits."

Harry nodded politely, suddenly nostalgic for the days when he could visit Nott whenever he needed to. The comfort of his living room drew him in with its crimson furniture and the warmth of a burning fire. He wondered how many more times he'd visit this house before the war was done.

"Evadne is returning home soon, anyway," Nott added. "What brings you here tonight?"

Between the relief of leaving Tom's headquarters and the shock of Cygnus Black's death, Harry hadn't considered how he might ask Nott that he needed to bring more warnings to the Order of the Phoenix from this point on. At the mention of Evadne, Harry's heart sank.

He had forgotten that Christopher and Evadne were expecting a child. In less than two months, Theodore Nott would be born and Christopher would finally have a proper family. Harry realised he couldn't ask him to take on more work, because it would be difficult enough for him to be both a Death Eater and spy for the Order with a child and Lycanthropy to think about. Harry wasn't willing to risk Nott's life and the happiness of his unborn child for this, so he did the only thing he could do to avoid the problem. He shared some more important news with Nott.

"Something happened tonight," he said. "With the latest raid. Some of the Death Eaters were attacked, chased by Aurors. We lost Cygnus."

"Cygnus?" Nott repeated. "Cygnus Black?"

Harry nodded.

Nott didn't believe it. His eyes shone blue and wide. "What happened?"

"He got hit by a Killing Curse."

"You saw the body?"

"Yes."

"He was definitely dead?"

"It was a Killing Curse, Christopher."

Nott didn't want to believe it. He turned away slightly, shaking his head.

"The Knights are falling fast..."

Harry didn't need to voice his agreement. Only three Knights of Walpurgis remained now: Rosier, Lestrange, and Nott.

"Ever since the Ministry changed its rules, this war has grown unjust. Since the Prophecy was discovered too, I suppose..."

"You heard about it?" Harry asked, interested.

"Only this week."

At least this meant there was some progress, Harry mused.

"Do you believe in it?" Nott asked curiously. "This Prophecy?"

Harry hesitated. Honesty wasn't an option. "It's best to be cautious."

A strained look passed Nott's expression. It was difficult for him to accept that Voldemort's hunt for the Chosen One had become a necessity, especially when it meant he had to be involved in tracking and attacking his Order friends. What hurt him most of all in that moment, however, was the realisation that either the Order of the Phoenix would fall or Harry would be left alone in this world.

"There's a lot counting on this Prophecy, if it truly exists," he said. "It's changing people."

Harry said nothing. He wondered what theories Nott had on the course of this war. He wondered whether the Death Eaters feared it would be decades before a conclusion to his havoc was met – or whether Nott, knowing about Horcruxes, thought Tom's rule might last forever.

"They're both scared, I think," Harry said in a moment of honesty. "Tom and Dumbledore. There's no way to guess how much of the Prophecy is guesswork, how much holds power, and how much of it might come true. The only thing they can do is prepare for the worst."

"Which means more death," said Nott. "The Dark Lord's caution, as well as Dumbledore's, has cost the lives and safety of too many people."

So Nott agreed. Harry felt relieved to hear it.

"All I can think," Nott carried on faintly, "after everything that's happened, is this isn't the kind of world I want my children to grow up in..."

Harry watched Nott carefully, remaining silent. He knew Theodore was going to be safe, but he couldn't imagine what the stress was like for new parents. He tried his best to be comforting.

"Let's just hope the Death Eaters discover who the child of the Prophecy is before anyone else is killed."

"Yes," Nott agreed. "Then the world might change..."

Harry didn't doubt it. He fixed the travelling cloak around his shoulders, saying, "I have to return to the Dark Lord to bring him the news."

"So soon?"

"I can't stay long."

Nott nodded slowly. "Well, thank you for informing me of Cygnus's death."

Harry rather wished he could have spared him the news, in honesty. At the thought, he remembered why he had come here initially and how his plans were flawed. His mind became cluttered with thoughts on what he was supposed to do now neither Nott nor he could warn the Order about future Death Eater movements. He decided he couldn't leave without saying last thing.

"Since more people know about the Prophecy, there's going to be an increase in attacks... I need you to mention that to Dumbledore. He'll need to be on full alert."

"I know," Nott assured him. "I'll give the usual warnings and reports."

Harry hoped this would be enough. He couldn't bring himself to tell Nott that he couldn't contribute much help; he would try to find a way to slip out of Tom's headquarters without detection in the near future, to send out warnings himself in times when he wouldn't be missed. For good measure, he'd visit Dumbledore soon to discuss it too. This way, maybe Dumbledore would see his logic...

– X –

Harry returned to the headquarters swiftly from Nott's house, hoping he hadn't been gone for too long. When he arrived, the inner building was empty expect for guards, which was unsurprising for this hour. Tom remained where he had been when Harry left: poring over notes and official papers on the Bones family, alone. When Harry entered the room, Tom paused his writing, but didn't do more than turn an ear his way.

"What have our followers failed at this time?" he asked.

Harry didn't answer at once. He grew uncomfortable upon realising the weight of the news he carried. He unclasped his travelling cloak, stepping into the room, stalling for time.

"Well?"

"There – there was a fight," Harry explained. "With a few Aurors. The group you sent after Bones was ambushed."

There was no telling how Tom felt about this, except the grip on his quill tightened. "How many were hurt?"

"Two. They both survived and they're being looked after."

"Then why ever was I summoned?"

Harry couldn't begin an explanation. He had never delivered a death report concerning a Knight before. He wasn't sure how to deal with it himself.

"There – there was a death," he stammered.

"Has Avery finally met his greatest punishment?" Tom joked.

"It was Cygnus, Tom. Cygnus Black."

Tom froze where he sat, his breath halted, his expression shielded. Harry couldn't take that strained, stunned moment in which he remained perfectly still, his thoughts unknown, his reaction unpredictable. In an instant, there was the screech of a chair and Tom dropped his quill, standing up. He faced Harry with a furious expression, stressed in ways he was too used to.

"How could a group," he began in a hiss, "containing three of my strongest Death Eaters, my Knights, fail to foresee an ambush and fail to succeed in a fight?"

"You know what the Aurors are like, Tom. The Ministry is angry."

"Not as angry as they'll be," Tom promised scathingly.

Harry hadn't expected such a strong reaction. Tom was shaking where he stood, his teeth bared and his voice closer now than ever to the threatening whisper of his future self. It was only the safety of their solitude that allowed him to react so openly.

"What spells were used?" he demanded. "Who battled Cygnus and duelled him towards death?"

"I don't know. They would have told me if they knew. He was hit by a Killing Curse."

Tom's eyes seemed to gleam red. "The Ministry is still fond of its interest in the Dark Arts, I see..."

It seemed to amaze Tom as much as anyone. Harry wished it weren't so. "At least we know we've broken the Ministry in some way."

"A feat that is hardly worth the life of a Knight..."

Harry couldn't argue with that.

"Who contacted the Ministry?" Tom demanded swiftly. "Who summoned the Aurors? With all of this, I ask myself: has Dumbledore now influenced the Ministry's new change? Could Dumbledore have set a trap, warning Aurors, warning Bones? I wonder..."

Harry said nothing. He knew Dumbledore had contact with Aurors like Moody and the Longbottoms, but he also knew this was unrelated to the changes Barty Crouch Senior had implemented in the Department of Magical Law Enforcement. Unforgivable Curses were being used in desperation, not as a part of any plans. He wished he could tell Tom.

"If Dumbledore trusted the Aurors, I don't think he'd have an Order," he mentioned gently. "He knows we've infiltrated the Ministry. The Aurors are on their own."

"What if they knew about the Prophecy?"

"How could they know?"

"Prophecies are kept within the Ministry," Tom reminded him, "I've inquired into the matter with Rookwood. Although he has seen no signs of other Unspeakables being aware of anything, this does not rule out the possibility of Aurors being warned..."

"It's unlikely," Harry reasoned. "The Aurors fight dark wizards, they don't protect children of Prophecies."

Tom didn't agree or disagree; he clearly couldn't shake off his paranoia. Harry stepped further into the room, closing the distance, hoping to calm Tom's nerves. His expression was serious, in what he hoped was a calm, comforting way.

"There will always be death in war, Tom," he said. "That doesn't mean you've lost."

Tom turned, his eyes flicking between Harry's as if he expected something within them. He was tense, but not in anger, which confused Harry at first. The longer he examined Tom, the clearer it became to him from the way he winced and breathed harshly that he was scared. Harry was stunned.

Tom clenched and unclenched a fist as if he wished there were someone around to Curse. He was ready to fight the Ministry, to avenge Black's death. He seemed to be struggling with a thought and Harry waited.

"No matter how daring Dumbledore is in his attempts to kill my followers and weaken my defence," Tom said in a furious whisper, "he shan't defeat you and I. He shan't know our secrets. He cannot separate us, not in life, not in death..."

Harry was transfixed, rooted to the spot in an addling mix of dread, love, and dawning realisation. It was in this moment, as he stood across from Tom, listening to him speak, that he realised Tom's only comfort was the belief that they were in this together. He planned to fight this war protecting Harry and – supposedly – being protected by him. It was in this moment that Harry felt an overwhelming wave of grief for the pain he was inflicting through choice and through fate...

– X –

Tom's anger at the loss of Cygnus Black didn't fade that night, nor during the weeks that followed. He remained furious and determined in his attacks against the Ministry, sending out packs of Death Eaters, who were affected by Black's death in a similar way to the discovery of the Prophecy; some were angry and vengeful, while others were scared and doubtful. The anguish Bellatrix Lestrange alone felt at the news was unnerving. To avenge her father's death, she had grown violent and unstable, but there wasn't a single person who dared to question her commands.

It was during these weeks of havoc and shock, in a time when things were changing for the worse, that Theodore Nott was born. One November day, the news travelled from one Death Eater to the next, spoken merrily, for they were proud that another amongst them had produced a healthy, pure-blooded boy. Due to being stuck in headquarters, Harry was unable to see Theodore for weeks, but he listened to stories of the child with interest. When he eventually took an opportunity to visit Nott and Evadne, it was to find that Theodore had eyes as bright and blue as his father's. He had never seen such happy parents in a time of such destruction.

Harry passed on messages to the Order of the Phoenix alone during Nott's absence over the next few weeks, but he wasn't pleased to do it. He spoke openly to Dumbledore about being unable to visit the Order often and they concluded that this wouldn't be a problem, assuming Harry continued to send out warnings about major Death Eater movements. Guilt, as well as an inability to leave the headquarters often, stalled Harry's progress in almost every warning and report. After Dumbledore's refusal to be open to his own followers, he found it hard to put any trust in him at all.

Due almost entirely to Harry's spying, the Order of the Phoenix remained one step ahead of the Death Eaters in their hunt for the Chosen One. What Harry hated most about this was he found it unbearably easy to gain and pass on information. More Death Eaters had been informed about the Prophecy, thus there was less at risk of him being a suspect when raids and attacks were ruined. The Death Eaters inability to make any progress angered many, but it was nothing compared to how deranged it made Tom. Harry wished more than anything that he could stop this betrayal, now he knew this was Tom's greatest fear, but it was impossible to leave the Order without risking several lives.

As the Death Eaters faced further bad luck, Tom devised more elaborate plans and dedicated more time to writing lists and drawing maps on who was connected to his enemies, who had defied him, and who was most likely to produce a child by eight months' time. He focused his attention on the biggest wizarding families connected to the Order – the McKinnons, Bones, Prewetts, and Blacks – and began obsessing over them. If he couldn't reach them directly, he told Harry darkly on many occasions, he would send his Death Eaters to attack any relatives who weren't under Dumbledore's protection. To his dismay, however, he still made no progress.

"Did I not increase our chance of catching a threat by warning our followers?" Tom asked in exasperation one day. "Did I not set the Order of the Phoenix at a disadvantage by sending my Death Eaters on organized hunts while Dumbledore is doubtlessly keeping the identity of the unborn child a secret?"

Harry gave no answer, but he watched Tom in the dim, unnatural light of a library. He had been up all night and it showed in his drained expression, in the stress displayed in his clawed fingers, in the way he grew agitated at every little detail. This war was taking everything he had, but Harry didn't do a thing to help him.

"I sense betrayal," Tom muttered in an afterthought.

"Betrayal?" Harry repeated.

"Yes. If informing Death Eaters about the Prophecy did not strengthen my advantage, there must be a rat amongst my group... Who dares to betray me so? Who, moreover, has reason to give their loyalty to Dumbledore?"

If this wasn't enough to worry Harry, Tom decided that week to start sending specific Death Eaters on hunts to find any rats amongst his group. Nott, ironically, was chosen amongst others to sort through information and interrogate various followers. When Tom found no evidence of betrayal, he allowed his paranoia to subside for a while, but Harry knew this was far from the end. Tom's calmed himself by making sure the Death Eaters kept watch for traitors at all times.

Driven by paranoia, it wasn't long before Tom decided to begin hiding his Horcruxes. He did this more in fear than anything; it was the only way he could calm himself about the Prophecy and about Dumbledore's determination to defeat him. He spoke to Harry about it in length, concluding that he wished to hide his Locket Horcrux far away. Since The Cave had had been filled over the years with the bodies of their enemies and victims, he decided this was the best place to start. The only thing he needed was a creature to sacrifice to the Inferi.

Tom had planned to use their old House-Elf, Tweaky, in hiding a Horcrux within The Cave, Harry realised, but he had murdered him in a moment of rage, so he was in search of a new, living House-Elf. Every enchantment, protective spell, curse, and potion was ready within the Cave. Since Tom had a conveniently large following of pure-blooded witches and wizards, he decided to seek their help. During a small meeting in his main headquarters, he addressed his followers.

"Before we begin plotting against the Order tonight, I have a special request for one of you."

He had caught the attention of his followers, who were always eager to take private request in hope of obtaining praise. Tom scanned the faces of the nearest Death Eaters.

"Who amongst you," he began delicately, "has blood pure enough to bestow a House-Elf upon our cause?"

Nobody responded. Harry recognised many of the Death Eaters here as Purebloods, but they were reluctant to give up their family servants. Many of them surely realised this would be a permanent trade. Snape, who sat across from Harry, leant back in his hair, a shadow falling across his face.

"A House-Elf?" Crabbe repeated. "Why do you need one, my Lord?"

Tom turned a cruel, warning gaze on Crabbe. He fell silent immediately, his curiosity ceased.

"Any offers?" Tom pressed.

Still, nobody spoke. Harry saw Lestrange breath in heavily, shifting where he sat. Avery scratched behind his ear and Rosier averted his eyes.

"What about you, Black?"

At the question, Regulus Black turned to his Lord. The others stared at him.

"Do you not own a House-Elf?" Tom asked softly. "Will you not offer it to our cause?"

It was evident from his tone that Tom had planned this from the start. Regulus was a young Death Eater who was yet to prove himself. What surprised Harry, however, was the indifference he saw in Regulus's expression. There's no fear, no eagerness. He's a quiet Death Eater, an opposite to his cousin Bellatrix.

"It would be an honour, my Lord," he said.

He seemed to be holding something back in the way he spoke, something somber. Perhaps he, too, realised the risk of giving Kreacher up to Lord Voldemort.

Tom didn't notice anything strange about Regulus's behaviour. He was too satisfied with the idea that his Locket Horcrux would presumably be safe soon. As the meeting carried on and Tom said no more about his House-Elf request, Harry kept an eye on Regulus out of interest. Throughout plans discussed and events mentioned, he contributed nothing. He seemed, if anything, disinterested. This made Harry wonder if he was already on the path to questioning the Dark Lord. At Cygnus's Death, Regulus undoubtedly changed, but it may have had something to do with the Prophecy too. The more Harry thought about it, the more he felt that Regulus had faith in the Chosen One.

Harry didn't see Regulus again after that night and nor did he expect to. He avoided it when Kreature was brought to the headquarters and he declined an offer to join Tom in his endeavour to hide a Horcrux. He had no desire to watch Tom bring Kreacher The Cave, force a cured potion upon him, and leave him to the Inferi with the intention of never seeing him again. Regulus must have been cautious about the Dark Lord's request for a House-elf, because he was sly about summoning Kreacher home without detection and he was never seen by Death Eaters again.

The only thing that kept Tom from noticing Regulus Black's disappearance was a death that occurred soon after it. While Regulus's corpse was surely at the bottom of the lake, fights between Death Eaters and the Order were growing fierce. Tom's followers normally fought together, giving them an advantage against their enemies, but when Rosier decided to stalk and spy on members of the Order alone one day, he was met by violence from those who discovered his presence. His death shocked many and left his son Evan Rosier distraught.

Tom was deeply shaken by the news of another fallen Knight, but Harry watched him keep his composure flawlessly in front of the Death Eaters, who sought his advice. There was no funeral for Rosier, like there had been for Black, but Death Eaters gathered nonetheless in Tom's headquarters.

"Today we have faced yet another grave loss for our cause," Tom said quietly. "We have faced an unjust murder not of a Death Eater alone, but of a leader, a Knight amongst us. Let us mark this day as a reminder of the ferocity of our enemies and let us not forget the injustice we have seen. Let us not forget why we are fighting this war..."

Harry found himself affected by Rosier's death. It wasn't like Black's death, which had alarmed him due to seeing the corpse and the faces of the Death Eaters around him. Rosier's death shook him because he couldn't understand why the Order would kill a Death Eater so bluntly. He had a deep desire to slip away from the headquarters after Tom's speech, to visit the Order and ask about it, but he knew he couldn't. The Death Eaters filed out of the building and Tom headed deeper into the headquarters, giving an indication that he wanted to speak with Harry alone.

Harry followed him, ignoring thoughts of the open headquarters and the Invisibility Cloak in his pocket. Tom headed all the way to their library, where he paced the room and barely seemed to notice anything around him. Rosier's death was too much for him to take. He ran a clawed hand through his hair.

"What do we do now?" Harry asked, deciding he had to start from somewhere.

Tom didn't seem to hear him for a moment. He closed his eyes, his teeth gritted, his breath slow and harsh. "We kill whoever dares to associate themselves with the Order of the Phoenix..."

Harry walked slowly into the room, thinking. He had seen Death Eaters, Knights, Order members, and Aurors all die at the hands of the others, often for the wrong reasons, or for no reason at all. He had seen members of the Order commit crimes they'd never get away with if the Aurors didn't trust them and if the Death Eaters weren't so powerful. He'd seen good men turn bad while the line between wrong and right was smeared with the blood of fallen fighters. Though all that had happened, he realised it wasn't what you killed for that mattered to people, but who.

"The Knights are falling fast," Harry remarked. "I've never seen a war so dark..."

He could tell Tom was overwhelmed. He continued to pace without stopping, unable to think, unable to answer. Harry wondered what Rosier might think if he could have seen such pain in his Lord.

It scared Harry that so many people were dying so quickly and that a boy he had known since the age of eighteen was lost to him now, but it wasn't this which left so many people distressed. Rosier's death signified a change in all sides of this war, a new brutality from the Order of the Phoenix. The death he met was unjust, even if Rosier had committed as many crimes as any Death Eater during the course of his life. Harry wasn't sure what to think when fighters from all sides of this war did terrible things for their leaders. There was no light or dark side, only grey.

"Barely a day passes in which our followers are not clutched by the eager grasp of death," Tom muttered irritably. "We're losing Death Eaters and our plans are failing systematically... What detail am I missing from all of this? What could I have overlooked?"

Harry said nothing. His mind wandered to the faceless Death Eaters who came and went in masses, barely having an affect on his day even as they died for Tom's cause.

"Perhaps there is betrayal amongst our rank... Perhaps our followers have grown defiant, encouraged wrongly by the Prophecy to support Dumbledore..."

Still, Harry remained silent. He didn't know what to think about the Death Eaters and the Order anymore. He wasn't sure where he was supposed to be when he didn't believe in either of their causes. It came as a surprise to him when Tom stopped dead, turning to him.

"What are you thinking about?" he demanded.

Harry was mildly startled, but otherwise unfazed by Tom's forceful tone. It was only expected that he would react so strongly to minor annoyances after the death of another Knight. He thought momentarily of creating a lie to satisfy Tom's burning curiosity, but he decided against it. In a quiet, sure voice, he spoke the thoughts on his mind.

"War wasn't built for wise men. Even as immortal beings, I don't see why you spare this war the time..."

A stunned moment passed. Tom didn't move, but winced and stared in disbelief. He understood the scathing insult in Harry's words: this war had killed too many important people. It had slowed Tom's research to a standstill, interrupting the experiments he was working on, preventing his studies on the Arts. This war had become his life, an elaborate game he was addicted to. In this stunned, paused moment, Tom realised just how much Harry disapproved of it.

It may have been dangerous for Harry to speak his opinions so honestly, but he felt no fear. He didn't care how brutally honest he had to be to get his point across. Tom was searching for something in Harry's face, some answer to an internal question he couldn't bring himself to ask. He seemed panicked for the first time, wary of Harry's intentions. Harry allowed him to think what he may. He stood and left the room without another word.

Tom didn't do a thing. He stood very still, staring off into space.

– X –

A change happened in Tom after that night. Harry expected him to be angry about the bold, harsh things he said, but Tom never mentioned it. He never said a word. He remained furious almost all of the time and paranoid for the rest of it, but this was because of the lack of success in Death Eater work and in the difficulty of this war. He never expressed the quiet, unsaid feelings that built up inside of him in relation to the realisation that Harry didn't believe in war. It was enough to make anyone nervous.

Another change took place over the next few month that worried Harry equally as much as Tom's silence. The Death Eaters were being treated with a notable increase of brutality from Tom; a fact that appeared, at first, to be nothing more than necessary force. When Harry fell across a pile of notes scattered over Tom's desk one night, giving lengthy details about the whereabouts and movements of every Death Eater imaginable, he began to realise that Tom was scared of a rat being far closer to him than he first supposed...

The only thing Harry could do upon finding this information was stay watchful. It was difficult for him to gauge who Tom was keeping an eye on at what time, but he made an effort to divert his attention from Nott, who was already struggling as a new father. Harry was tremendously scared that Tom's obsessing would lead him to send spies on Nott during Order work, but he found that this was never the case. It was an unexpected and altogether quite random event that made him pay attention to Nott's strange behaviour for the first time.

During a discussion about Werewolves at the end of a Death Eater meeting, Dolohov Jr decided to voice his opinions about the great beasts that served Tom under the light of the full moon. With Death Eaters gathered around, he spoke his thoughts boldly.

"I'd happy kill 'em myself, if they weren't any use to us," he slurred. "Any creature that drinks Muggle blood ought to be considered a Mudblood themselves, I reckon."

Many of the Death Eaters laughed, not only at his conceited confidence, but in agreement to his words. The only person who did not smile was Nott, who tensed upon hearing it. The fact would have gone unnoticed, had Tom not been observing his followers closely, tracking their behaviour. To Harry's dismay, Tom's eyes lit up and lingered on Nott in a way that told him realisation had struck.

Only a day later, when Harry was talking to a few Death Eaters in the entrance hall, he saw Nott enter the building. He didn't stop to talk with people like he normally would, but headed instead for the inner corridors of the headquarters. Harry knew this could only mean one thing: Nott had been summoned by Tom. Doing the only thing he could think of in that moment, Harry apologised shortly to the wizards around him and followed Nott at a fast pace.

The inner headquarters was dark, but Harry knew which way Nott had gone. He followed a large corridor that lead to the heart of the hideout, ending up outside a small room holding nothing more than an old radio, a few chairs, and books. Through a door, which was left slightly ajar, Harry heard voices.

"My Lord, I do not understand –"

"The matter is simple, Nott. Your absence has formed a pattern around the waning and waxing of moons. Through careful study, I have observed and discovered your secret..."

Nott gave no opinion. Harry thought he heard the subtle sound of shifting feet, but nothing more.

"Do you deny it?" Tom asked.

"No, my Lord," Nott answered faintly. "I do not..."

Harry couldn't take the stress of standing outside, blind to Tom's expressions. He pushed the door open and walked into the room, scanning the situation. Neither Nott nor Tom were disturbed by his presence. They carried on talking in the hope that he'd understanding without explanation. Tom, to his relief, didn't look angry. If anything, he seemed proud of his own discovery and satisfied by Nott's timidity.

"How did this happen?" Tom asked, his eyes never leaving Nott. "How could you obtain Lycanthropy?"

"He's a Werewolf?" Harry asked, deciding it was best to feign surprise.

"It would appear so..."

"It was through our own kind, my Lord," Nott explained shakily. "I became infected whilst accompanying Werewolves with the others. I didn't believe Lycanthropy could affect me – it was a small area of infection – but..."

This was partially a lie. Harry hoped Tom wouldn't ask to see where the Werewolf's bite scarred Nott's arm, overlapping the skull and snake of his Dark Mark.

"How have you kept this information from me for so long, Nott?"

"I thought it imprudent to discuss the matter openly, my Lord... Illnesses like these aren't approved of by many. Werewolves don't often remember their transformations, so nobody knew I was harmed at all."

"Who bit you?" Harry asked. "Do you know?"

Nott barely looked at him. "I – I think it was Fenrir Greyback... It was difficult to tell, at the time."

Harry's question caused the reaction he had hoped; Tom straightened up slowly. Fenrir often got carried away and almost always failed to follow any directions given to him. Having Fenrir as the one behind this would distract Tom from asking why Nott had interrupted a Werewolf attack enough to get bit in the first place.

"Well," said Tom softly, "since you have proven yourself able to contain your condition without even my knowledge, Nott, I do not suppose it will be detected by the others. You remain a worthy, able Knight..."

Relief washed over Nott. He looked at Voldemort properly for the first time. "Thank you, my Lord. Of course, I shall continue to keep it a secret most earnestly."

He looked eager to leave and Harry hoped he would. The moment he made a move, however, Tom spoke. His voice was delicate, but his eyes bore into Nott's with curiosity.

"Have you truly kept this a secret from everyone, Nott?"

With a fearful expression, Nott froze. He didn't say a word.

"Your wife is surely curious," Tom carried on. "Unless... she supports all of this?"

Harry's stomach dropped.

Nott continued hesitating. He opened his mouth a few times, unable to compose a lie. "No, she... she knows, my Lord."

Tom was deadly silent. Harry's pulse escalated.

"She loves me," Nott carried on in a rush. "She... she understands."

Harry had to remain calm. He stood very still, telling himself again and again that signs of panic were too dangerous right now. He was tremendously grateful to be in this room.

"I see..."

Tom said no more than this. Harry hoped he had expected this reaction from Nott, who grew pale and looked ill by this point. Harry tried to warn him that he'd protect him now, that he'd be safe, but Nott never dared to meet his eyes. He tried to explain himself to Voldemort instead.

"There's – there's a cure now, my Lord. A temporary cure."

Tom's eyes narrowed. "A cure?"

"Yes. It's a recent discovery, a breakthrough for all Werewolves."

This, miraculously, seemed to be the right thing to say. Tom was interested. He was distracted, even, from the possibility of Evadne Nott being unlike usual Purebloods. Harry realised, with a huge sense of relief, that Tom would take news of a cure as a sign that Nott was ashamed on his condition. His reluctance to punish Nott for his secret was already a good sign.

"You may leave," Tom stated curtly, to Harry's surprise. "Carry on shielding this information..."

"T-thank you, my Lord..."

Without daring to look up, Nott turned away. If he was shaking, Harry didn't notice; he was out the door in seconds, leaving no room for further conversation. When they were alone, Harry turned to Tom.

"How did you find out he's a Werewolf?"

"Every full moon, Nott has been absent," Tom answered shortly. "Eventually, a pattern formed."

Harry let out a breath of humourless laughter, feigning disbelief. Nott's absence was a relatively minor detail amongst a huge amount of information on the Death Eaters. He worried what other information Tom could gain from observing everyone's habits. He was looking for another traitor with unstoppable determination.

"Why aren't you angry at him?" he asked, genuinely curious.

Tom did not answer at once. A shadow reached his face, fuelled by whatever was going on in his head. Harry thought, for a moment, that he wasn't so sure himself.

"We are running out of Knights," he responded eventually. "Rosier, Black, and Adelmar Dorn are dead. What am I to do, punish one of two remaining Knights? Nott is strong and intelligent enough to avoid conflict amongst our followers..."

Harry was bemused. "You don't agree with the Death Eaters, then? You don't think that makes Nott less of a wizard?"

He knew he was pushing his luck, but couldn't help it. Tom shook his head once, staring off into space.

"Despite our Death Eaters' distaste for Werewolves, I know better than to assume blood as pure as Nott's could be changed by illness. Lesser wizards have achieved as much with greater setbacks..."

Harry was astounded. He couldn't tell whether Tom was being serious or whether desperation changed his views on blood-purity, but he his hopes were rising. Before he could say another word, however, Tom turned away. Harry reached out a hand to stop him.

"Wait–"

Tom stopped. "What is it?"

His tone was scathing. He was glaring.

Harry stared, momentarily confused. "Where are you going?"

If his abrupt departure wasn't confusing enough, Tom's eyes did not soften, but turned instead to slits. His voice was a hiss. "You dare to question me?"

Harry let go of his arm – not in fear, but in bewilderment. He sought an explanation, but found nothing in Tom's eyes but cold disregard and something like recognition of his own harshness. Tom turned away before he could process what had happened. As the hem of his cloak disappeared around the doorway, Harry realised something had gone very, very wrong.

– X –

No opportunities arose even in the following weeks for Harry to ask Tom why he was so angry; whenever he came close to bringing it up, Tom was always much too busy or acted as if nothing had happened. In the times when Tom was normal again, Harry decided it was better to leave the matter alone, but it played on his mind and haunted him in private. It ate away at him and caused him to worry that something had changed. That is, until a far more unsettling problem arose, pushing the matter from his mind.

Harry thought things would go back to normal at least until July, but he found that as April approached, the Death Eaters were already making tremendous progress in identifying the Chosen One. Ministry spies often brought Tom information on the Aurors, but no reports had ever interested him as much as when news of two Aurors expecting a child became known to the Death Eaters.

"Who are the parents?" Tom demanded, addressing Lestrange and Malfoy.

"Frank and Alice Longbottom, my Lord," answered Lestrange, who was unable to adequately hide his grin. "Two Aurors suspected of having ties to the Order of the Phoenix."

"You're sure the child will be born in July?"

"There's a high chance of it, my Lord."

"Then we shall wait..."

Encouraged and calmed by the news, Tom made plans to keep a close watch on the Longbottoms from that point on. He sent Death Eaters within the Ministry to spy on them at work, seeking full reports of their whereabouts to ensure that if Dumbledore decided to hide them, he'd know. The only problem was, the Longbottoms' schedule never changed. Even as weeks passed, they did their usual work at the Ministry under the eyes of the Death Eaters, Alice remaining in the Auror Office due to her pregnancy.

Harry's fear of the Longbottoms being harmed by Death Eaters was swiftly being replaced by a fear of Dumbledore ignoring his responsibilities. When May approached and the Potters and Longbottoms still remained out in the open, Harry knew he had to do something. So, choosing a time when he knew Dumbledore would be available, he headed for the Order headquarters one cold night. Barely anyone was around when he arrived. He asked to speak in private and Dumbledore saw no reason to object.

They met in the same small room as before, with its dark wooden furniture and ugly, over-polished little dresser. As soon as they were alone, Harry jumped straight to the point.

"Death Eaters at the Ministry are interested in the Longbottoms," he said. "They know Alice is pregnant and they suspect she'll have a son by July."

"Yes," Dumbledore agreed pleasantly. "Nott informed of about their suspicion a month ago."

Harry was unsurprised. He nodded curtly. "So, what's your plan for them?"

"I'm sorry?"

"The Longbottoms. When do we start hiding them?"

Dumbledore surveyed Harry over his half-moon spectacles, frowning. "There is no knowing yet who the Prophecy spoke of, Jonathan."

Harry stared at him blankly.

"The Longbottoms fit every requirement," he reminded Dumbledore. "They've defied Voldemort three times, they're enemies to him, they're pregnant with a child who'll be born by July –"

"We do not yet know whether the Longbottoms will have a son or daughter, nor whether the child will be born in July at all."

"But you know it's a possibility," said Harry forcibly. "What's the harm in protecting them?"

"If we were to put the Longbottoms into hiding, as I see you are suggesting, it would only give the Death Eaters more reason to suspect they're a threat, Jonathan."

Harry understood Dumbledore's logic, but he suspected it was a diversion. The Longbottoms had been pregnant since October – there was no way Dumbledore could have feared attracting Death Eater attention back then. He could have hid them months ago. Harry didn't understand why he was being like this. He grew angry at the idea.

He felt Dumbledore was baiting Voldemort. The more he thought about it, the more the theory seemed to fit; Dumbledore had frozen in virtually all aspects, waiting. Despite Harry's efforts, the Order still didn't know about the Prophecy and as far as he could see, they wouldn't know a thing about it until at least July. He wondered what Dumbledore's plan was, until he thought he found the answer.

"You knew the Longbottoms fitted the Prophecy's requirements months ago, didn't you?" he asked quietly. "You knew they were pregnant, that they defied Voldemort three times, that their son would be born nine months from October. Only, you never hid them. Because they weren't the only parents who fitted the Prophecy's requirements, were they, Dumbledore?"

The question inspired exactly what he intended it to; he had caught Dumbledore off guard. He stared with a cold, knowing glare, glad when Dumbledore froze up.

"If having one pregnant couple involved with the Order wasn't bad enough, a second couple, Lily and James Potter, only made things worse, didn't they? Because they're also expecting a son..."

Dumbledore's piercing eyes were wide, his skin turning pale. He suddenly looked as old as Harry had ever seen him. "How could you possibly –?"

"You know Voldemort is writing a lists, Dumbledore. He knows who's betrayed him and how many times. If he catches onto this, he won't stop at anything to kill each and every person who tries to hide the child of the Prophecy from him."

Dumbledore had never looked so stricken with fear. It was then that Harry realised what it must have been like to know that a man who stayed so close to Lord Voldemort was so aware of what was going on. Harry had seen past Dumbledore's fake, calm demeanour. When Dumbledore spoke again, his voice was unlike his usual tone. It was weak, desperate.

"Jonathan, it is crucial that we remain wary... We cannot act until we know Voldemort's choice."

Harry shook his head in disbelief. He had no faith in Dumbledore's plan and he didn't care about showing it. He couldn't bring himself to believe anyone was safe here. If Dumbledore was going to plead for him to agree, to act rational, he wasn't going to follow those commands happily.

"You're risking all of their lives, Dumbledore..."

That was all he needed to say. Dumbledore couldn't begin to imagine the weight of its truth. They didn't discuss the matter any more that night; Harry was too annoyed to stick around much longer.

Even as he left the Order headquarters, he spotted James talking with Sirius and Lupin in the meeting room, sounding calm and carefree. Nott stood nearby. Harry wondered what he thought about Dumbledore's choices on the Prophecy, but he didn't stop to speak about it. He left quickly to avoid the Marauders. Nott's bright eyes followed him on his way out.

– X –

Harry couldn't shake the grey he had seen in Dumbledore. Even as July approached and the Death Eaters awaited news of births from their enemies, the Potters and the Longbottoms weren't being hidden. The only detail that saved them from being attacked just yet was how quickly the month was passing with neither family giving birth. Voldemort grew agitated as no news of the child of the Prophecy surfaced. He greeted every new day with cruel impatience, punishing Death Eaters for their incompetence. He became cold and distant even from Harry, sharing his thoughts with no one.

For hours each day, Tom locked himself away, obsessing over everything to do with the Prophecy. Harry saw this, at first, as a perfect cover for him to disappear, but when his Order missions were complete, he was left to deal with Tom's growing deterioration. He barely ate anymore, rarely slept, and throughout the month grew ill and thin. They rarely saw each other for long anymore and when Tom spoke to him, he was too irritated and stressed to hold a conversation. That's why it came as a surprise to Harry when he awoke one night to find a candle burning softly in their bedroom.

It emitted gentle light over the walls and ceiling, illuminating the closest furniture. Shadows and contours outlined the shape of everything nearby, showing Harry that he wasn't alone. Tom sat on the edge of their bed, head in his hands, breathing slowly. It was a sight Harry was too used to by now. Despite how Tom exhausted himself over work, he could rarely ever bring himself to sleep anymore. In a few minutes, he would have to decide whether to come back to bed for twenty minutes or to begin obsessing over work for several more hours.

In his dazed, tired state, Harry felt a stab of sorrow he couldn't quickly make sense of. It was something in the way Tom's torso rose in fell in a vain attempt to calm his nerves. In the dim, cold light, Tom thought he was alone enough. Harry lay watching him for a moment, unsure whether to disturb his thinking. The fact that Tom remained here and not elsewhere made him wonder whether he wanted to be close to someone. Most of the time, he was too angry to stay near anybody. July was almost up and Tom couldn't identify his equal.

Harry sat up slowly. Tom didn't move, which he took as a good sign. Breathing out heavily and rubbing his face with one hand, Harry tried to decide what he should do.

"What's wrong?" he asked groggily.

Tom removed his hands from his hair slowly, raising his head. He stared at the ground, exasperated. "The month is almost up..."

It worried Harry equally as much, but not in the same way.

"Our Death Eaters are searching still, but they aren't doing enough," Tom explained. "Dumbledore and his Order are defiant. They're too prepared. I don't understand it..."

Harry rather thought Tom was giving multiple answers to hide the real one. He didn't want to think what the real problem might be. He reached out a hand from where he sat, taking Tom's.

"Come back to bed, won't you?"

Tom gave no response. Harry decided to convince him further by moving closer. He sat behind Tom and slid his hands instead around his waist. He kissed his shoulder, then his neck, gently holding him. The gesture seemed to surprise Tom; his breathing slowed and his eyes closed. He learnt into his touch. Harry decided to coax him back to bed properly. He moved around him, gently urging him back. From above him, when he finally lay down, he found Tom's lips and kissed him slowly.

He could feel Tom's pulse quicken as his lips and fingertips caressed his skin. His touch calmed him down and comforted him in love, but Harry wondered for a moment whether Tom's responses came more out of enjoyment or sorrow. Harry pulled away from a kiss to watch Tom, examining the cut of his handsome face, the contours and shadows of his neck and collar bone. There was something in the way he reacted to Harry's touch that was unusual. His eyes remained closed, his senses alert. He listened for Harry's movements, breathing deeply.

Harry kissed Tom once more, harder this time. Tom responded the same, but he didn't react in his usual amused, pleased way. He was somber. He relaxed only when Harry was closest to him. Harry slid a hand up his chest, gliding his fingertips over skin, until his palm was above Tom's heart. His beating ribcage reminded Harry inexplicably of the pulsating creature he had seen at King's Cross station a lifetime ago. Tom stirred and Harry looked down at him.

It appeared, at first glance, that he hadn't opened his eyes, but the flutter of his eyelashes under his furrowed brow told Harry otherwise. His eyes were locked to the hand on his chest. Harry thought he sensed a moment of conflict in Tom. When he looked up, it was to meet Harry's curious, awaiting gaze.

Tom's face did not soften. His brow didn't lift up in a casual, loving, humoured movement upon finding he was being watched. He was thinking deeply. Without reason, Harry thought he knew exactly what was on his mind. Tom searched for something in his eyes, some answer that might settle the anguish of realisation, truth, and acceptance. His reddened eyes darkened in something like defeat. When he spoke, it was but a whisper that Harry's ears kindly searched for.

"It seems rather fitting," he said, "that my heart is now where it belongs: at your fingertips..."

Harry became very still. He made to remove his hand, but Tom was too prepared: his long, white fingers wove around his hand and held it into place.

"I ask only this," Tom carried on in a desperate whisper that was so unlike his usual voice. "If I have been a fool and if my heart is clearly in your possession... do I have yours still?"

Harry stared into his eyes. There was nothing he could do to pull away or hide the sudden anguish he felt. He thought Tom knew the answer to his own question. He could hear it in his tone, in the soft pressure of his cold hands. Harry felt numbed; he was unable to calm his beating heart and in that moment, he was relieved Tom hadn't reached for it. Tom's suspicions had grown strong. For a moment, Harry had no idea how to deal with it.

He thought back to what Tom had said months ago about the two of them staying together throughout this war. He wished he could explain the torment he felt every time he did work for the Order. He wished he could explain that his view on war had changed into a bleak disapproval and an inability to see what made one side different to the other. More than this, he wished he could ask why Tom was not angry at him, why he waited for Harry's answer in what looked like patience, despite the pain in his eyes.

Harry did the only thing he could do in that moment; he spoke the truth:

"No war could change my heart..."

– X –

Harry awoke on the day of his birth feeling lost. Death Eaters swarmed the upper floor of the headquarters, many of them revisiting several times an hour in a desperate attempt to pass on information and identify the Chosen One themselves. The month was nearly over and many Death Eaters believed the Chosen One had been born in secrecy. Some of them pored over old information, others looked for people to interrogate, those within the Ministry studied lists of births and listened surreptitiously to private conversations, and those who remained at St Mungo's Hospital had lost all hope That is, until those most patient got lucky.

Frank and Alice Longbottom were surely delighted on this blazing summer's day to find that their newborn son, Neville Longbottom, was a healthy, strong boy, but their quiet rejoicing influenced an echo of celebration that carried from St Mungo's hospital to a network of awaiting Death Eaters. The Longbottoms now fit every requirement the Prophecy called for, suggesting that the search for Voldemort's biggest threat was over. Many grew excited at the prospect of tracking the Longbottoms from this point onwards and killing Neville Longbottom as soon as possible.

Tom was enraptured to hear the news. He rewarded his followers generously for their success, his sudden jubilance catching onto everyone who witnessed it. Harry hadn't seen him so elated in months, so animated in cruel triumph, but he knew it wouldn't last long. Only hours after Neville Longbottom's birth, news of another, equally as likely child of the Prophecy arrived. Tom's Ministry spies had spotted a magical document writing up the birth of Lily and Jame's Potter's son, who was born in a private location.

Tom did not take the change well. He froze in his celebrating, reluctant to make any further plans. Both the Potters and the Longbottoms had defied him thrice and he knew it well. There was no way for him to conceal the fury this news inspired within him.

"Has Dumbledore, perhaps, decided to confuse me?" Tom asked Harry in exasperation. "Has fate itself meddled my ability to identify a threat?"

There was nothing Tom would do to make further progress except to send his Death Eaters out to gather more information. He believed there must be some vital detail on the Potters or Longbottoms that he had so far overlooked. Having time to react didn't soften his anxiety, but made him furious and withdrawn. While he took his time to decide which boy was a threat, Harry found the Death Eaters had quite a few opinion on the matter themselves. They discussed it openly on occasion, driven by an eagerness to protect their side of the war.

"My Lord, if I may be so bold, I believe the Longbottoms will supply a more powerful son," said Lucius Malfoy one night, speaking an opinion that many of the Death Eaters shared. "They come from a long line of Purebloods, Aurors... The Potters don't have the same training, nor even equal blood purity. Their son would not inherit the same unique strengths."

"Yet the Potters show equal persistence," Tom remarked. "They have not been trained as Aurors, yet they possess a power as great as the Longbottoms. Does this not show strength?"

"Their blood is not pure, my L–"

"Potter comes from a long line of Purebloods. It would be foolish to suppose that such purity could not transpire to his son."

"But my Lord, Evans is a Mudblood. No matter how pure-blooded Potter is, she will have spoilt their son."

"If the Mudblood is weak, as you suggest, then it shan't be a challenge to track her and her son. I have taken your opinions into consideration, Lucius. Until I am given more information, however, I shan't decide which child it is..."

Malfoy opened and closed his mouth a few times, unable to understand. Harry watched some of the Death Eaters exchange looks and shifted nervously. They breathed out clouds of misty breath in the cold air of the entrance hall.

"How could a child have strength to rival you, my Lord?" asked Bellatrix, driven by unsaid thoughts. "Forgetting the parents, be them Mudbloods or Purebloods. How is a child to rival your power?"

Harry found himself unsettled by the question, but he wasn't sure why. Many of the Death Eaters grew curious. Tom considered Bellatrix's question slowly.

"The boy will have to acquire adequate training. It may take several decades and a teacher strong enough; I'm unwilling to allow so much time to pass. If Dumbledore desires to be a teacher for the boy, we will soon know. There are no equals to the Dark Lord..."

This small speech was meant to encourage the Death Eaters, but although almost everyone looked calm, Nott's attention flickered to Harry surreptitiously. There was a strange look in his eyes. Harry ignored it and soon forgot about it. He felt lost, not only in this meeting, but in every gathered that happened in the following months between Death Eaters or the Order.

Harry found himself staying away from the Order as much as possible. Since the Death Eaters were no longer chasing large families in search of information on births, he didn't need to give as many warnings on possible attacks. The Order's top priority was to keep watch over the Potters and the Longbottoms, even if Dumbledore still refused, inexplicably, to put them under full protection. In the few times Harry visited the Order lately, he felt a noticeable change in the atmosphere. People were scared.

Harry thought he was safe while Tom remained indecisive about the Chosen One. The Death Eaters continued to do their usual work with their minds – but not their actions – on the Prophecy. It was only when Wilkes approached him alone one day, saying Nott requested they speak urgently, that he knew something was wrong. He left the headquarters without hesitation, choosing not to tell Tom where he was going.

Nott was waiting for him in a disused house outside of London. It was an old Order property, a place Dumbledore had donated for use under the full moon, which gave Harry a warning; Nott wanting to make sure no Death Eater or Order member could overhear their conversation. Harry felt nervous approaching the empty house, scared he might find something gruesome within it, but all that remained there was faintly decorated rooms. Nott was in the living room, waiting. He was standing up and he seemed nervous.

"What's the problem?" Harry asked, looking around as if he expected to see evidence of a recent fight. Nott was clean and unharmed.

"I wanted to speak to you," Nott answered softly.

"You could have visited me," Harry remarked. "It's safe to pass on information at the headquarters, assuming no one's around. It's safer than sending Wilkes to bring me here, anyway."

"I know that, but I needed to speak to you properly. In sure privacy."

Harry tried to understand it. He fought the urge to sit down, transfixed to Nott's expression. He looked pale and ill.

"If the Dark Lord finds out about this and asks why I requested you," Nott continued, "tell him we've lost track of Karkaroff. Some of the others suspect the Aurors got him. There will be several reports, but I have news on it: Moody was the Auror responsible. The Dark Lord will want to hear it, so he won't suspect we've spoken."

It was a smart coverup. Harry would pretend Nott was nervous about Karkaroff's trustworthiness and Tom would overlook the fact that he was gone for however much time. Only one question remained.

"Why did you really ask me here, then?"

Nott hesitated. He swallowed a few times, searching for the right words. "We need to talk..."

"About what?"

He couldn't seem to keep himself steady. His voice shook when he spoke. "I... I met with the Potters, recently. I met their son. I thought you might like to know..."

Harry froze. He wasn't sure why Nott was telling him this.

"It's astounding how much Harry looks like James," Nott remarked quietly. "Except for the eyes. He has Lily's eyes..."

Blood drained from Harry's face before he could calm his nerves. Nott's worn, torch-lit face was all he could see in the darkness. His tired blue eyes told him he had guessed something impossible. Anxiety gripped Harry, rooting him to the spot.

"I noticed you never visit when the Potters are around," Nott explained carefully. "I know the Potters affected the Horcrux you made. If that wasn't enough, I've known you long enough to realise there's an uncanny likeness between you and James Potter. Between your eyes and Lily's. It would be a wonder to me if Dumbledore didn't see it too..."

There was nothing Harry could do to hide how he felt. His expression and his lack of words gave away the truth, confirming Nott's theories. He looked pained.

"If you think – if you think the Dark Lord won't notice..."

Harry couldn't stand this. His mouth was dry, but he managed to speak. "He hasn't noticed so far."

"He's never seen James. He's never seen Lily's eyes."

Harry looked away hastily, clenching his jaw shut. He hadn't thought of that...

"If you think the Dark Lord won't remember how you looked at James' age, you're making a mistake. If you think he hasn't remembered how you were, every detail of your face –"

Harry didn't want to hear it. He hated how obvious and accurate Nott's warning was. He was running out of time, but he soon realised this wasn't his biggest problem.

"The Dark Lord says no child could defeat him," Nott told him in nothing more than a whisper. "He says that no one could ever hope to rival him without decades of training from the best teacher imaginable... but you were trained personally by him. You alone know all of his secrets."

Harry didn't understand. His mind raced to work out what Nott was suggesting, but he couldn't bring himself to believe it. "What's that got to do with anything?"

He didn't get a quick answer. Nott watched him closely in the dim light, his brow furrowing in confusion for a second, his eyes alight. "The Prophecy spoke of you directly."

"Yeah, but I'm not – I'm –"

He couldn't get his words straight, never mind his thoughts. He realised, suddenly, that Nott expected him to step up as the Chosen One. From the way Nott watched him, with a point of view that was clear from the freshness of his discovery, Nott saw no difference between James and Lily's son and the broken man that stood before him.

"Have you forgotten who you are?" Nott asked in stunned curiosity. "Have you forgotten that after all this time, you still remain Harry Potter?"

Harry's heart beat painfully in his ribcage, stressed with the anxiety and emotion of what Nott was suggesting. He couldn't bear to hear his own name.

"You have to do something about this," Nott told him, unable to remain quiet. "Does anyone else know about this?"

Harry barely managed to utter a word. "No..."

"Not even Dumbledore?"

Harry hesitated. He had never considered it. "I – I don't know."

Nott waited for an answer. Harry thought about Dumbledore's recent actions, how he had shown surprise upon hearing Harry knew the Potters were pregnant, how he had chosen to protect the Potters privately instead of allowing a birth at St Mungo's. Did Dumbledore suspect Harry was linked to the Potters? Had he left the Longbottoms openly visible to the Death Eaters in hope of distracting them?

"I don't know what Dumbledore's plans are," he admitted. "I didn't know the Order would be like this. I – I thought they'd be stronger. I thought Dumbledore had a plan... It was stupid of me to trust him again..."

It felt strange to admit these things. Nott watched him in interest, his lips slightly parted. In nervousness or better judgement, he refrained from asking more.

"There's no better side here," Harry mentioned in a low voice. "I thought I'd be able to help this war, to pick a side and stick to it, but nothing here is what I thought it'd be. If I'm honest, I... I don't know what I'm doing, anymore."

They had discussed a dissatisfaction for this war in the past, so Harry knew they had reached some of the same conclusions, but he wasn't sure what Nott thought of him now. He felt sudden remorse and had to explain himself.

"I'm not doing this just because I love Tom. If the Order made sense, I'd know what needed to be done. I'd know what to do... but no matter how hard I try, I can't bring myself to betray him fully for a cause I don't believe in..."

They had both witnessed how the Order changed, how it bowed down under the weight of this war. When Nott spoke, his voice was quiet.

"What are you going to do when the Dark Lord finds out about this?"

Harry had no answer. He was disoriented by what Nott had brought to his attention, so he gave a weak response. "I guess I'll just have to see what happens..."

Nott wasn't assured. Harry felt numbed and barely knew where he was supposed to go from here, what he was supposed to do. If Nott was right and if the Prophecy spoke not of his infant self, but of him right now, he wasn't sure what he could do to escape the power of fate.

Harry didn't know what to do to settle Nott's nerves. He remembered that he shouldn't be here at all and that every moment passing put him and Nott at risk of being recognised as spies. Overwhelmed by the pressure of this war, he had only one piece of advice.

"When things get too dangerous, you should leave the Order... It's not safe, now the Dark Lord knows you're a Werewolf. Back out of this war, take Theodore, and never look back..."

Nott nodded once, barely daring to blink. "I know. I will..."

Harry held his gaze for a long time, hoping Nott would understand that no matter what happened, he'd be there for him. There was nothing else he could say. No words could express the overwhelming need he felt to make sure things turned out alright.

He knew Nott wanted him to end this war, to stand against Tom. Nott honestly believed that the Prophecy spoke directly to Harry and that every choice had made to stay by Tom's side, to dabble in the Dark Arts, and to end up in the Order had been nothing short of fate. All of his mistakes, his reluctance, his yearning for the light arts, and his connections to Tom had turned him into the person he was today: the only living human on earth who stood a chance against Lord Voldemort.

In marking Harry as worthy of his trust, Tom had let him into his heart years ago, giving him precise information on how to destroy him. This, paired with his knowledge of the future and his reluctance to accept the Dark Arts, made Harry the closest thing to the Dark Lord's equal. No matter what Harry did, his actions were affected by inevitability of fate. A phrase from the Prophecy, cruel and taunting, replayed itself in his mind, causing him to believe for the first time that there was a reason for him being here:

...and the Dark Lord will mark him as his equal, but he will have power the Dark Lord knows not...

– X –

Harry would like to say he felt secure enough to let a few more months pass without trouble. He would like to say that the Death Eaters' favouritism of the Longbottoms might make Tom reluctant to choose which family to attack. He would like to say that since there was a year left until Lily and James Potter would be murdered in their own home, he might be able to stick by Tom's side until then, safe, protected, and undiscovered, but he knew it wouldn't be the case. Tom was too smart for that. The Chosen One was a closer threat to him than he had first feared and he sensed it now.

Perhaps because of the power of fate, Tom had become suspicious of Harry. He denied his own feelings in disbelief, fuelling that frustration towards war or else punishing the Death Eaters needlessly in stress. Tom had been paranoid about this for months. Even when Harry returned to the headquarters from his conversation with Nott, an event occurred that convinced him, once and for all, of the power of fate and made him realise why Tom had been acting so cold and strange.

Harry returned to the headquarters in haste, slipping past the guards undetected. He was glad to get away from that dismayed look in Nott's eyes and the weight of his accurate theories. He felt dizzy with the night's events and he wanted nothing more than to return to his normal life, to act as if nothing had happened for a while so he could think. He entered his bedroom ripped off the Invisibility Cloak, stressed and distracted. It was a moment before he realised he wasn't alone.

"Have the latest reports arrived already?"

Harry stopped dead, a cold shiver running up his spine. Tom was sitting at a desk across the room, absorbed in the notes and documents in his hands. When a heavy silence fell, he glanced over. He was calm when he looked at Harry, but his eyes soon dropped to scan the Cloak he clutched in one hand, the Wand in the other.

"You were out?"

The words frightened Harry more than he expected. He didn't know how to gather his thoughts, nor where to start lying.

"I – I fancied a break," he stammered.

"A break?"

"Yeah, I..."

He should have used Nott's excuse, but he felt too protective and reluctant to risk him being involved in this. No matter how well his lie was, it wouldn't account for his stricken expression and the nauseated, overwhelmed state of mind he was in.

"Where have you been?" Tom asked delicately, his full attention on Harry now.

When Harry didn't answer, Tom stood up. The movement was abrupt; the feet of his chair screeching against the stone floor gratingly. Harry thought he was angry, but when he looked over, Tom's eyes were wide with caution. His movements were reluctant, slowed. Harry saw nothing but a wary child trapped in the orphanage again, reluctant to lend trust to anyone. The room seemed to drop several degrees.

"Where have you been?" Tom asked again.

He liked to know where each and every one of his followers were at all times. The security of all of his headquarters had tightened so nobody could slip in or out without him knowing, but Harry had found a few ways around it. Realising that Harry had left without warning and without an excuse shook Tom more horrifically than he could deal with.

Having no choice, Harry gave his only excuse.

"I was summoned by Nott," he said hastily. "Wilkes delivered an urgent message, you can ask him. I left in a hurry – I didn't think you'd notice and I didn't want to waste time with the guards. Nott has news of Karkaroff's capture. Alastor Moody is the Auror who caught him."

"You were gone for a long time," Tom stated, ignoring the news. "Who else did you speak to?"

Harry wanted desperately to shake Tom's distrust off as if it meant nothing, but he had seen that alert look turned upon the Death Eaters countless times before and he knew what it meant.

"I didn't speak to anyone else," he answered.

"No," Tom hissed. "You're lying to me..."

"I'm not lying."

Tom didn't believe him. His expression was wild, his mind ticking. Harry turned towards the only thing he had left.

"Look, you're paranoid," he said flatly. "You're over-worked."

Tom didn't respond. He was too aware that something was wrong.

"I know you have to stay vigilant to keep on top of this war," Harry carried on, "but you're being too paranoid. What's important is that we're close to finding out who's connected to the Prophecy. Once we have that figured out, nothing else will matter. Nothing can stop us from eliminating a threat."

Tom remained as unconvinced as ever. If anything, Harry's words made him worse. After assessing the situation further, however, he seemed to decide he needed more time to think. It was a strangely hopeful desperation that filled Harry with guilt. The idea was a painful thought, too painful for him to willingly consider.

"Yes," Tom lied quietly, "I believe I'll find the answer soon..."

Harry didn't push is luck after that. He allowed the problem to subside that night, even when Tom avoided him and left the matter unresolved. Harry knew he had done irreplaceable damage by even allowing this minor inconsistency to happen. It was a confirmation to Tom that he was involved in a plot against him. As a suspect already, Harry was running a huge risk any time he left the headquarters. He decided to stay by Tom's side for the next few weeks, to ensure safety.

The only problem was, Harry wanted desperately to speak with Dumbledore, to let him know that there had been a change in his situation. Although he stayed in the headquarters and made no contact with Nott, he planned a time to slip away. In fear, he always kept the Invisibility Cloak, Elder Wand, and Mask Horcrux on him. When enough time passed for him to feel safe visiting Dumbledore, he picked a moment he felt was right and left for the Order headquarters.

To his dismay, he ran out of luck. Dumbledore was up at Hogwarts and he wouldn't be able to visit the Order for at least another week. A few people inquired into what Harry needed and why he seemed so stressed, but Harry gave them no information. He explained that he had something urgent to discuss with Dumbledore and that he'd be back in a week for him. What discomforted Harry most about that visit was the cheery, calm atmosphere of the Order hideout. Nothing had changed for them.

When Harry returned to Tom's headquarters yet again in a rush, he avoided the guards and faced no trouble. He removed the Invisibility Cloak when he knew he was alone, folding it up and placing it in his pocked calmly. It was only upon heading down a few corridors and through the entrance hall that he realised how quiet everything seemed. Normally the hall was packed at this time of day, swarming with Death Eaters in a rush to speak with their Lord. Harry had planned to blend in with them, to avoid suspicion.

The lower floors were equally as empty as Harry wandered through them, but this came as no surprise. He checked the library, meeting rooms, and his bedroom, but Tom was nowhere around. Harry was nervous by this point; he worried something bad had happened to summon Tom away. There were a lot of rooms in the headquarters, none of which Tom normally studied in, but Harry attempted to search them anyway. It was upon marching through more corridors that he stumbled across something he had never seen here before.

A group of Death Eaters were gathered at the end of a corridor, their voices hushed and serious. Thinking they might have an answer for their Lord's whereabouts, Harry approached them without a second thought.

"What are you all doing down here?" he asked.

He didn't get a quick answer, despite the seven faces that turned towards him. They all became tense. Harry realised, then, that something was wrong.

Lestrange was the first to speak. Covering up his nerves hastily, he gave Harry a strange, forced smile.

"We were asked here," he explained.

"By the Dark Lord?"

There was a low hissing sound. Bellatrix was quick to show her disapproval. It made the rest of the Death Eaters anxious. Lestrange didn't even answer him. They seemed to be trying to cover up their tension.

"Is the Dark Lord still here?" Harry asked, trying to get an answer.

"Yes," Lestrange answered.

"He summoned you here?"

"Yes."

"Are the latest reports in?"

This is where Lestrange hesitated. It wasn't for long, but it was too long to go unnoticed.

"Yes..."

In an attempt to understand what was going on, Harry scanned the faces of the group for someone he could read the mind of, but he found something interesting about the seven Death Eaters before him. They were all Occlumens.

Normally, Harry would have dismissed this as nothing more than coincidence, but he couldn't shake the feeling that something was wrong. When he spotted Nott standing at the back of the group, his suspicions were confirmed. From the unmoving, anxious look upon his face, Harry knew Nott held a warning. He watched him for a moment in an attempt to grasp the single thought that ran through his mind:

"He knows..."

Harry knew what he had to do. Tearing his eyes from Nott, his paid his attention instead to Lestrange, meeting his determined gaze with an air of fake haughtiness.

"Where's the Dark Lord?"

"He's still here," Bellatrix answered.

"We can show you," offered Lestrange, seemingly alerted.

Almost every Death Eater stepped closer to Harry.

"Show me, then..."

Lestrange lead the way, saying nothing more. They headed down a long corridor, the Death Eaters moving around Harry closely, practically circling him like wolves. He pretended not to notice. He could see the dark looks in their eyes, the astounded curiosity. When they reached the end of a hallway the lead to one door, Harry decided to get away from them.

"Here will be fine."

The Death Eaters fell behind, but they were close enough to block the entrance to the hall if they needed to. Harry brushed this, too, off as nothing worth worrying about. His heart was beating faster in his chest. Tom has set this trap. Saying nothing more to the Death Eaters, Harry headed for the single door. The Cloak in his pocket was on his mind when he entered the room.

He thought, at first, that this place was deserted. The room was huge and unnaturally dark, with walls that seemed to press in on everything, giving it an uncomfortably enclosed atmosphere. Thin pillars and high arches with delicate carvings etched in stone set deeper shadows on each layer of the room. Standing at the centre of an archway was Tom. He had his back to Harry and didn't turn around even when he heard footsteps.

"Why are you hiding down here?" Harry asked.

Tom straightened up, but he moved no more than this. He considered the question slowly.

"I rather thought I needed time to clear my head..."

Harry wanted to comment that this was a good thing, that Tom should be getting a break for once, but he felt it was too mocking. Only one thing could make Tom stop his work.

"There are Death Eaters inside, in the halls," Harry mentioned. "Is there a security problem?"

Tom tilted his head to the side slightly. Harry rather thought he had closed his eyes in concentration, pulling himself together. "Quite the opposite..."

Harry waited attentively, patiently.

"You may have guessed by now that I set up more security than usual..."

"Yeah?"

Harry didn't know why he was playing dumb. He knew where this was headed.

"Yes," Tom agreed softly. "An alarm was triggered, you see. In fact, I rather think you were the one who set it off..."

Harry wished he had foreseen this. It only made sense, with Tom's mistrust, that he would do something like this.

"So," Tom carried on quietly, "I find myself asking you again: Where have you been?"

There was no answer he could give. So, Harry gave up.

"I think we both know the answer to that, Tom..."

Tom became very still. He hadn't yet turned around. Harry wondered what his expression would tell him, what reaction he had inspired. Everything had been leading up to this moment, this unavoidable conclusion. It was so simple, so seamless to speak the truth, that Harry carried on talking calmly.

"I was looking for Dumbledore. I... I've been speaking to him, passing on information. Ever since Nobby Leach's death, really."

He awaited Tom's anger, every beat of his heart counting down the seconds, but it never came. Recklessly, almost disappointed, Harry carried on.

"He needed to know you were suspicious of me. If you hadn't caught me tonight, I could have left the Order for months without contact. I've been doing that for a while."

"Yes," Tom agreed delicately. "I suspected as much..."

Harry waited for an explanation.

"You've grown anxious and disinterested in the war," Tom said softly. "It was this which lead me to first suspect you were untrustworthy. I could not find evidence on a single rat amongst my Death Eaters, which was at first an irritating problem. Yet I kept searching. I knew I would outsmart my disloyal follower soon... When yet more time passed and still I could not identify a threat, I began to lose heart."

Harry allowed Tom to explain the story. It interested him, but for the first time, his nerves were building.

"At this point, I had noticed you were absent without explanation on occasion. I dismissed the problem as nothing more than natural, giving you your privacy, but more time passed and yet more Death Eaters were having trouble fighting the Order. Dumbledore's followers were being protected, being warned. I began to realise that Dumbledore's confidence could not be from arrogance alone. That is when I noticed how often you kept your Invisibility Cloak by your side..."

His voice carried through the tall room, an echoing whisper that surprised Harry in its lack of cruelty. It wasn't the same as when Tom addressed his Death Eaters, scorning them for their incompetence. There was something off.

"You aren't angry?" Harry asked.

"No."

"Why not?"

"Why should I be?"

"You've just discovered I'm a spy."

"You are surrounded by Death Eaters," Tom reminded him quietly. "You have been honest to me, for once. Should I truly waste my breath on anger? I know the truth now. Soon, you will be a long way away, in a place where the Order will not find you. From there, you will not be a threat..."

Harry didn't like the idea. He realised that Tom thought the problem was his spying alone. He thought that by cutting Harry off from the rest of the world, things might go back to normal. It was an emotional decision. Harry could have allowed him to carry on thinking this way, but it felt too cruel, too desperate. He wanted Tom to know the truth.

"You don't get it, do you? This isn't about being a spy, Tom. This isn't about war."

"Isn't it?"

Harry clenched his jaw for a moment, willing himself to explain the situation. "There are bigger problems than this war..."

Tom stood very still, waiting. He was trying to work it out, trying to guess what Harry was about to say, but there was no way he'd find the answer in such a short stretch of time. This was too wildly complicated for him to consider.

"Do you honestly believe a child could defeat you, Tom?" Harry asked quietly. "Do you really think you could be killed by a young boy, even if a Prophecy foretells it?"

Tom turned, slowly, to look at Harry. There was a cold look in his eyes as he considered the matter. He could not understand. He waited.

"Don't you think," Harry said in a quiet, careful voice, "that someone with the power to defeat you might have to know about your Horcruxes? Don't you think your rival would have to understand your secrets, your past, and your magic? They would have to be trained for years, for decades. And who would be a better teacher than you?"

Tom stared at him unblinkingly. "What are you suggesting?"

Harry didn't answer. Tom shook his head once, his own denial angering him.

"The Prophecy foretold that my rival would be born this July..."

"You think it's coincidence, then, that a boy named Harry, a boy with bright green eyes, could be born your rival?"

Tom did nothing but shake his head. "This is impossible..."

Harry didn't waste time explaining every detail. There was no time. The fast beating of his heart made him feel nauseous with cold anxiety.

"I've known about the Prophecy for years, Tom. This was always our fate."

"No magic is strong enough to warp time so powerfully!"

"Yet here I am."

"The Unspeakables study time profusely," Tom stated more forcibly. "They have never yet been able to change time more than mere hours on average – months at the most!"

"There's a lot of unexplored magic in this world, Tom."

For the first time, Tom moved. He brought a hand to his head, brushing back his hair. Harry watched him closely. Tom was too wise to overlook the structure of time, too intelligent to mistake the many coincidences and incidences that fell into place, whether that was Harry's mourning, his yearning for light, his desire to see his lost friends, his reluctance to make Horcruxes, or his inability to tell the truth.

"But I have you now," Tom murmured. "I know who you are... This game is over for you."

Harry watched the way his chest rose and fell. He wished it didn't have to be this way. "Unless I escape."

Tom laughed cruelly into his hands, which were shaking. "You believe you can escape me now?"

"I know all of your magic."

"Which I taught you."

Harry said nothing to this. Tom dropped his hands and turned around fully, a cold, cruel gaze meeting Harry. He was wary and paranoid, disbelieving. Immediate anger would have been a blessing.

"If it is your fate, why did you not leave when you could? Did you truly believe you could defeat me in secret?"

"I never wanted to defeat you, Tom."

Tom shook his head, unable to believe this either. "You play me for a fool..."

Maddened attentiveness played beyond his dark eyes. Harry had never been looked at like this before, like he was suddenly a stranger, a threat to be eliminated. Tom was in a state of shock.

"I never meant it to be this way," Harry managed. "Can't you understand that?"

"You're lying to me," Tom hissed, taking slow steps forwards, his eyes never leaving Harry's.

"I'm not lying."

"You've lied to me all my life..."

"Not about how I felt."

He was getting ever-closer. "You dare to deny it?"

"I didn't want to believe the Prophecy still applied to me. If I had a choice, Tom, I wouldn't be a part of this."

"Don't lie to me..."

"I'm not lying."

"Don't play me for a fool!"

"I'm not –"

"So tell the truth!"

In his final step forwards, Tom was an arm's length away. Harry was scared of the unforgiving hatred in his eyes, that maddened, irrational fury he couldn't reason with. Tom was shaking madly, watching Harry for any sign of movement, of change, of clarification. Harry became very conscious of the Elder Wand up his sleeve.

"I'm not lying to you anymore, Tom. I never wanted to defeat you – I would have done it years ago if that's what I wanted!"

Tom shook his head, barely listening. "You knew this would happen..."

There was a pained, hateful look in his eyes. In a moment of sentiment, Harry spoke.

"We don't have to believe the Prophecy. I still love you, Tom."

It was the wrong thing to say. Harry knew it the moment Tom froze, his breath ceased, his senses alert. What came next was unavoidable: Tom made a movement as if reaching for his wand. A cold hand clasped Harry's left wrist, pushing up the sleeve and rising to his forearm. Harry's arm felt like it had burst into flames.

The pain was unbearable. Harry flinched violently in fear that he had touched white-hot metal; Tom's fingertips ignited a pain more unbearable than any he had felt before, rivalled only by the sensation of the Cruciatus Curse. He staggered back, blinded, clutching at his his forearm and scar. He did everything in his power to not shout out, but his head felt like it might burst open at any second. With closed eyes, he knew he had been branded with the Dark Mark. Through it, the Death Eaters had been summoned.

He could hear hurried footsteps and shouts as he staggered, pulling himself desperately to the present. His ears rang and his head throbbed, but he saw people flooding into the hall, hidden by pillars, watching him with their wands drawn. The Death Eaters awaiting their Lord's instructions as Tom glowered down at Harry. If he spoke, his words were too muffled to detect. In Harry's stunned state of mind, all he was aware of was the Death Eaters that circled him and Nott standing at the entrance to the room. He knew what he must do.

He withdrew the Elder Wand.

There was no time to think, no time to process the thick pulses of his heart and the flashes of blinding light that lit up this small room. He could hear nothing but the roars of anger and crackling of spells like lighting and gunfire that missed him by inches. All he could remember was throwing spells back, matching Tom's wrath with equal determination in fear and terror. They were locked into a bizarre dance, creating a bond of equal power that neither were pleased to encounter for the first time.

The Death Eaters joined the fight in panic, causing havoc. Under a shield of smoke, falling rubble, and flashes of light, Harry managed to feel for the Invisibility Cloak. He was safe the moment he pulled it out and threw it over his shoulders, miraculously withdrawing from the centre of the room. Death Eaters sought his location in fury, but he headed straight for Nott, who feigned a search for him. He trembled and stumbled on his way out of the room, speeding through the lower corridors of the hideout, unable to comprehend his own escape. Time warped and unstable, broken by the strain of desperation in his mind. It life felt like a terrible dream, a deluded hallucination.

Before Harry could process what had happened, he slipped out of a secret exit of the hideout, breaking enchantments with the force of terrified will. Even when he ascended to the streets of London, he could hear shouts from the Death Eaters following close behind him. He was out of time, helped only marginally by his quick escape. He tore down streets, waiting for the moment he could Apparate. Death Eaters would be flooding the headquarters, following his trail, heading up into the streets of London too, and they wouldn't stop hunting until they found him.

An army would be on his trail within minutes, summoned from across the country. All Harry could do from this moment on was run. He had no chance of fighting, especially not in the dream-like terror that encompassed him completely, dizzying him under the Cloak. In the distance, lights were flaring up, flames growing in the heart of the city. Harry fled through more pathways, trying to distance himself as much as possible from any wizarding locations. The city is alight with wrath and death: Dark Marks were being shot up into the air and the cold chill of Dementors settled on Harry's skin.

He had to be far enough away now. His scar was burning, giving him an insight onto Tom's wrath, which he swiftly ignored. It was too much to take. He span on the spot.

The Disapparition worked. Harry appeared in the Forest of Dean. He staggered and panicked to find his balance, terrified Tom would find him here, despite never discussing this location before. The faint, feeble memory of Hermione's connection to the forest surprised Harry in its lasting existence. There was no time to think, no time to do anything more than act on instinct. Harry lifted his wand and began putting up protective spells. The act made the sleeve of his left arm slip down, revealing what Tom had done to him.

The Dark Mark burned red upon his flesh, sending a cold chill down his spine. He wished Tom had initiated a fair fight, because no amount of duelling could be as bad as this. As long as he had this mark, Harry would be chased by the Death Eaters. It was a dark kind of magic, a Curse to mark the wearer at all times. It was Tom's only way of making sure Harry couldn't disappear.

Harry trembled at the realisation that he'd never be safe now. All he could do was carry on putting up enchantments, shutting off his mind to thoughts of what had just happened. It was all over. The truth was known and Tom's actions from this point on would be unpredictable. For the first time in a long time, Harry was alone.