Harry saw no sign of the stranger from what he could see of the hall through the blasted remains of the doorway, but then he'd only gotten as far as the middle of the room to where Bella was crouched, sobbing uncontrollably with her face hidden behind her knees.
"Bella? BELLA!" Harry shook Bella roughly by the shoulders until she slowly, she lifted her puffy eyed and tear stained face up at him.
"Bella, get up, you can't stay there! You have to move!"
Bella didn't move, instead she flinched at his shouts and hid her face behind her hands
Exasperated, Harry attempted to pull her upright as best he could. It was like trying to manoeuvre a heavy shop mannequin, only this one came with realistic human baby sound effects. All the while Harry struggled, the floor boards beneath his feet heaved and groaned.
Harry hadn't gotten far, when Hermione whispered suddenly
"I can hear something moving outside!"
Harry dropped Bella, who slumped to her knees and buried her face in her hands again.
Harry could hear it too; the sound of shifting rubble was unmistakable, but he knew he was terribly exposed where her was and he couldn't leave Bella in such a vulnerable position.
All three of them flexed their wands.
"You're not getting in here without a fight!" Ron shouted suddenly. "Give up now before the Aurors get here!"
Aurors? Harry mouthed at Ron who shrugged and raised his eyebrows before returning his attention to the doorway and avoiding Hermione's dubious gaze.
For all it was optimistic bravado intended to deter the stranger from entering, it resulted in the exact opposite effect. A spell shot without warning through the broken doorway and hit Hermione in the stomach before she was able to react. With a small gasp she doubled over and fell, unmoving on the floor. Ron bellowed her name but was similarly struck by another spell from the stranger's wand as its owner burst into the room barrelling at full sprint towards Harry and Bella.
"EXPELIARMUS!" Harry shouted instinctively
A second later the stranger rammed into him, wandless or not Harry couldn't tell, and they tumbled over the foetal Bella who squealed. As the two hit the floor the broken boards buckled and with a crash of splintering wood the floor finally gave way. Harry twisted desperately, fearful that he'd be crushed under the strangers' enormous weight. He landed in a heap on something soft and surprisingly springy. Harry had just landed in an old armchair, but the man's bulking momentum carried him right over the back of it.
Harry was still shielding himself against the tumbling debris a large hand grasped the old chair and yanked it backwards. Harry jumped out instinctively and landed ungracefully on a picture frame lying on the floor which cracked under his trainers.
By the time Harry looked up there was a cloud of dust blanketing the room which bounced up from the floor as it poured from the crumbling ceiling. For a few moments Harry was almost completely blinded by it, but he could still hear the sounds of the stranger as he grunted and growled from somewhere in front of him. Then, as Harry strained his stinging eyes towards the sound, a pair of shoulders rose out of the settling dust like a mountain through clouds.
The stranger didn't seem interested in Harry, instead his attention was fixed on a pair of legs that were scuffling desperately against the sloping floorboards on the edges of the hole in the ceiling. Bella had not fallen through completely and she was struggling to get herself clear as more of the ceiling threatened to collapse around her.
The stranger lunged for her, only just missing her flailing ankles and catching a face full of debris instead.
"Leave her alone!" Harry yelled, but the stranger ignored him.
Harry shook his wand arm and pointed it forwards.
"STUPIFY!" he shouted, but he was forced to duck quickly as the spell ricocheted off the back of the man's large coat and rebounded in Harry's direction. Harry felt it brush past his hair as it sailed over his head.
The stranger carried on reaching for Bella as though nothing had happened, and Bella continued to scramble desperately away, squealing and kicking her legs wildly, always just centimetres away from the strangers grasp.
Harry tried the spell again, this time prepared for the rebound but hoping none the less that the spell would stay true. Just as before the curse ricocheted harmlessly away. Undeterred he aimed for the mans' head and the spell hit, however Harry might as well have thrown a pea for all the harm it caused.
The stranger was becoming more and more frustrated by his lack of progress, and he grunted angrily before smashing his fists hard against the cracked floorboards. The force caused the ceiling to collapse even more and Bella slid backwards.
Harry had a sudden idea
"WINGARDRIUM LEVIOSA!" he yelled pointing his wand at Bella who began to float otherworldly up and away from the strangers reach.
Bella struggled against the spell, clearly unaware that it was taking her away from the danger, and Harry was concentrating so much that he didn't notice when the stranger turned his attention towards him. Harry realised too late and had time to give one last flick of his wrist which threw Bella clear of the hole when the stranger was upon him.
A huge hand wrapped around Harry's throat and another gripped the wrist of his wand hand, pointing it away from them.
Harry tried frantically with his free hand to loosen the strangers' grip on his neck. White spots began to appear in his vision as he struggled to breathe, then he felt his feet lift off the ground.
In desperation he kicked his legs up hard. The stranger smiled cruelly at the first attempt until a lucky kick struck his ribs somewhere beneath his coat. The stranger dropped Harry's wand arm and reached reflexively towards a growing patch of deep red on his side.
Harry wasted no time. He pointed his wand at the man and thought hard about the spell he needed. Red light blasted from his wand and hit the stranger in the chest before rebounding onto Harry. It wasn't quite what his oxygen starved brain had hoped for, but the resulting impact sent Harry flying backwards and out of the strangers grasp. Harry hit the wall behind him and slid down onto unsteady feet. As the air rushed back into his lungs and his vision returned he saw the hulking form of the stranger coming towards him again.
"LOCOMOTOR CHAIR!" Harry choked
The old armchair that had earlier cushioned Harry's fall lifted into the air and on Harry's command it flew towards the stranger, knocking the man sideways and sending him sprawling into a pile of rubble and broken bricks.
Harry took a moment to catch his breath as the chair rolled off the stranger with a thud. Clearly very badly injured the man struggled to get to his feet. When he looked up at Harry he had the exact same look in his eyes as the man from the tunnel, the same defiance that Harry knew would last right up to the point of victory or death.
Harry cast the spell again, this time on an old lamp shade rose obediently into the air between them.
"I can do this all day!" Harry panted, already compiling a list of similar projectiles from the broken furniture.
The stranger stopped, glanced at the lamp and then scowled back at Harry.
Then the stranger shook his head and with a gurgling yell that raised the hairs on Harry's neck, he charged again.
The stranger managed to knock the lamp away but he didn't see the table coming. It hit the man's head with a sickening crunch and he fell back on his side. This time he did not get up.
Harry already had his next projectile ready and the large chunk of rubble from the ceiling floated beside him. Harry watched the shape of the man on the ground, his ashen face framed by a steady trickle of blood from the oozing gash in his head.
Something inside Harry froze. As his adrenaline ebbed, he couldn't help but feel horrified at the possibility that the man was dead. But when Harry noticed that the man was still breathing, Harry did not feel the relief he might have expected.
Harry eyed the man warily until the sounds of movement from upstairs pulled him from his thoughts. He released his floating projectile and carefully moved across the room towards the hole in the ceiling.
Ron opened his heavy eyelids and frowned as he stared at a vaguely familiar looking woman as she rose slowly in the air in front of him. The woman squealed, and then was thrown across the room where she scurried into the far corner. As the woman cried, Ron caught sight of another girl staring back at him and a name drifted into his treacle like brain. Hermione... Ron's confused mind suddenly began to fill with disjointed images and memories. Hermione was already getting to her feet gingerly as Ron, who had been lying on his side, sat up and shook his head.
"Ron? Ron, are you okay?"
"Yeah… I think so…" He said, his memories still returning "What happened? Where are we?"
"Ron, try to remember, where's Harry?"
Like the final piece in the jigsaw, Ron's memory finally pieced itself together.
"Harry! He was over there…" Ron pointed towards the middle of the floor, where there was now a huge hole in the floorboards. Crashes and brief shouts could be heard from below and given the terrified look on Bella's face as she cowered as far from the hole as possible, it was not hard for Ron and Hermione to figure out what had happened.
Ron reached for his wand and hurried with Hermione just as the crashes from below stopped
When they looked down into the living room they saw Harry climbing over the debris to reach them. Tufts of jet black hair poked through a fresh coating of dust, and as he moved into the sunlit area of the living room, Hermione could see that his movements were stiff and delicate.
"Harry! Are you alright? Is the other man down there with you?"
Harry managed a brief smile and nodded, pointing vaguely to a spot just out of view behind him
"He's over there. It's alright for now though, I had to knock him out with a table."
Ron looked at his best friend in awe and then tried to lean further into the hole to get a glipse of their conquered foe, until an ominous crack from the floorboards stopped him.
Hermione stood back and appraised the scene critically
"Well, I've seen the state of the stairs in the passage so I don't think we can get to you safely if we go that way" She said vaguely to the group
"You can't get in here through the door anyway, when that fell down it blocked it completely." Harry gestured at the ceiling
"I suppose I could try and make a rudimentary staircase through this hole? What do you think Ron?"
"Um... yeah, I guess that could work." He said, having no idea where to even start but assuming Hermione would deal with the technicalities.
Hermione seemed to sense his lack of enthusiasm and she rolled her eyes at him.
"Okay then, I'll do that while YOU convince Bella that it's safe to come down."
Ron opened his mouth to protest, but saw no argument out of it.
"Fine." he said grudgingly.
Within a few short minutes, Hermione had constructed her staircase out of some of the larger bits of plaster and furniture from both rooms while Harry kept an eye on the unconcious stranger and Ron coaxed the still distraught Bella out of the corner.
If Harry hadn't been so tired, he would have laughed when he saw a red faced Ron half carrying, half dragging Bella as she cried into his arm and refused to look around at the carnage around her. She barely looked where she was being forced to step and more than once Ron had to manoeuvre her around gaps in the improvised staircase or steer her clumsily around larger pieces of broken furniture. Instead, Harry rubbed his forehead, more out of habit than anything, but the movement made him realise that at some point during his fight with the stranger his scar had stopped burning. He was about to suggest that despite their orders to remain in the house, that they instead look for Dumbledore outside. But there was no need. Before he was able to voice his thoughts the man himself appeared at the crack in the wall that served as the only way into the living room, so long as you didn't mind stepping over the meter wide chasm that created it. Albus Dumbledore swept the room with a steely gaze which rested briefly on the unconscious figure in the corner.
"I trust he was not too much of a handful for you all?"
At Dumbledore's proud smile Harry began to feel himself relax considerably and he laughed. His adrenaline spent, he felt his legs begin to give way and he sat on what was left of and old rocking chair, hoping to disguise his severe fatigue as general weariness.
Bella raised her head from Ron's arm and darted suddenly towards Dumbledore, ringing her hands frantically
"Professor Dumbledore sir, is... I'm sorry but, is my father... where is my father?"
Dumbledore looked at Bella with his piercing gaze and then smiled warmly
"He is waiting for you outside, you've nothing to fear." He said softly "In actual fact he has a proposition for you, a choice he has found almost impossible to give you in a long time but he believes, as I do, that you are both ready for it. He will need all your help now. Are you ready?"
Bella nodded, tears welling in her already swollen eyes, and she ran through the crack in the wall and out of sight.
"Oh, right, well... don't thank us for saving your life or anything!" Ron shouted after her
Harry sniggered and thought that although he would certainly have preferred an apology he was just grateful that this was finally over.
"Sir, what shall we do about him?" Harry gestured towards the unconscious stranger behind him
"Oh, I am sure that when the Aurors get here they will have some very interesting questions for him. He is no longer your concern"
"But how did he even get in the house?" Ron thought aloud "You said that no one could get in so long as Mr Baronte didn't want them to come in... Besides us anyway."
"That is an excellent question Mr Weasley!" Said Dumbledore "Alas, the charm only works on those who are not invited, Bellatrix on her own was not able to gain entry, however in the company of those invited before; our friend over there and his brother, they were able to bypass the barriers."
After speaking Dumbledore frowned and tapped his long fingers against his bottom lip
"Hmmm." He said, "I daresay you are all looking a little worse for wear which is, of course, understandable given your ordeal however, Mrs Weasley may never forgive me if i send you home in such a state. Let me see..."
Dumbledore swept his wand over their heads and ended his flourish with a little flick over each of their heads. Immediately the dust that had clung to them leapt off them in a mass cloud and then fell to the floor in three small heaps, Harry's of course being the larger of the three. At the same time the tears in their clothing began to magically repair themselves and in a few short moments Hermione and Ron looked the same as they did before they left the house, save a few bruises and scratches. Harry's clothes took the longest to repair, and although they looked clean now, they didn't hide the weariness in his face or the large bleeding wound on his arm and shoulder. He did however feel a little better and he supposed it was something to do with the charm Dumbledore had just used.
Dumbledore smiled at his work
"There now! Much better! Harry, I'm sorry but I shall leave the medical attention you deserve to more capable hands. Molly will no doubt see to you when you arrive at the Burrow! That is if Remus can't get to you first! Now then. Home!"
Dumbledore quickly scanned the room
"... Ah! Yes, that will do nicely! Miss Granger, would you be so kind as to hand me that door handle over in that pile of rubble behind you? Very good, thank you Miss Granger. Now then, if you would all please place your hands on this doorhandle, it will take you back to the burrow where Molly will be expecting you all."
"Wait, aren't you coming with us?" Asked Harry
"Alas, my attention is required elsewhere, for now at least." He added "I promise I shall return to see you at the earliest oportunity."
A little disapointed, Harry said nothing and instead placed his hand on the door knob next to Ron and Hermiones. Suddenly the room spun out of view. Harry closed his eyes against the unpleasant sensation until he felt his feet hit solid ground. They stubled into one another, and as Harry opened his eyes he felt his heart jump at the sight of The Burrow glowing in the mid afternoon sun before him. The three friends looked at each other began to laugh, the sound brought the ocupants out of the house and Harry was soon bustled inside. All his aches and pains where almost forgotten in the furore, and the promise of food from the delicous smelling kitchen brought more smiles and laughter. Both Molly and Remus handled his wounds, and within a few whirlwind hours he was feeling more like himself again. He'd reapeated his account of the last few days over and over as more members of the Weasly family and the Order joined in their celebration. After a while though Harry began to feel his fatigue grow again, and on catching his failed attempt at stiffling his third yawn in as many minutes, Mrs Weasly reluctantly pulled out a port key, which turned out to be the Dursley's spare front door key, left for him by Dumbledore for him to use when it was time to return to Privett Drive.
After saying his goodbyes Harry finally took the key and when he arrived with a jolt right outside the front gate of number 4 Privett Drive he sighed. In the corner of his eye he noticed a very subdued Mrs Figg standing under a lamppost half way down the street with her shopping bags around her feet.
Harry waved briefly at her and walked quickly up the garden path towards the front door.
"It's only me." Harry announced half-heartedly as he entered his aunt and uncles house and locked the door behind him. Above the noise of the TV he heard the familiar grunt of acknowledgement, then:
"Where've you been? This isn't a hotel, boy!"
Though clearly irritated at Harry's impromptu return, Uncle Vernon did little to enforce the point other than glower at his nephew as Harry made his way past the living room door on his way up the stairs.
"I'm fine by the way, no fatal injuries or anything." Harry retorted cynically.
Hedwig at least appeared pleased to see him as he entered his untidy bedroom. She nibbled affectionately on his finger as he greeted her before soaring into the night to hunt. Then with a sigh he began to clear away some of the more disgusting symptoms of prolonged Owl habitation before preparing for bed, completely unaware that the best news he was about to receive all summer was at that very moment winging its way towards him from the pen of Albus Dumbledore himself.