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Chapter Twenty-Seven

It's Always the Darkest

Harry reclined atop a low rock outcropping, weak and gasping for breath. He thankfully hadn't splinched himself Apparating, but the numbness in his left ankle had spread to his knee, and his wrist felt acid-drenched.

He squinted against the falling sun and surveyed his surroundings. The Muggle English government had set aside the lake and mountains beyond the island on which he lay. Anyone could see why: blue water kissed secluded, virgin beaches ending at the tree line of an old island forest. Secluded understated reality, unlike the graveyard. Twice, someone almost spotted him despite Concealment Charms, and he didn't fancy fighting in his current condition.

Harry took in his surroundings until exhaustion overtook him and he faded into an uneasy sleep. But he welcomed it as he dreamed of Fleur, her soothing presence pushing against the Dark Arts' claim. How ironic—in divesting Voldemort's Horcrux, he sealed his fate using the blackest of magic.

X ~ X ~ X ~ X

Fleur's bottom lip trembled. Her sister—gone, stolen for a fate worse than death. Gabrielle's only hope lay in the Death Eater admitting where they held her.

She watched Neville float him into their safe house and toss him into a sparse ground floor room.

"Strip him from the waste up," he said to Cho and Susan as they followed. "Then bind him against the wall and wake him. I need something from upstairs."

Cho raised an eyebrow, but she and Susan prepared the Death Eater. "Get his mask, I'll start on the robes."

But as Susan removed the mask, her hands shook.

"Uh . . . Cho?"

"What?"

"Look."

Cho gasped. "Neville won't like this."

"Oh, I think he will," Susan said. "Too much."

"He won't like what?" Fleur asked. She'd followed them in and perched herself against the door frame.

"That," Susan said, her lip forming an ugly curl, "is Rabastan Lestrange, Bellatrix's brother-in-law. One of The Four."

"The four what?"

"Death Eaters who tortured Neville's parents," Cho clarified.

Fleur's heart thumped. "Merde."

"Exactly," Cho agreed. "Let's finish and leave before Neville returns. I don't particularly want to see this."

They banished his cloak and jumper, then pasted him with Sticking Charms and levitated him to the wall. Susan, however, hesitated before casting the Rennervate Spell. She turned to Fleur.

"Are you sure you want to be here?"

"Where else would I be?" Fleur pushed herself vertical and approached. A swish of her wand woke the Death Eater, then she waited as he blinked hard against the neon light.

"Who are you?" he asked.

"Where's my sister?" Fleur countered.

The Death Eater pulled at the charms restraining his arms. Stymied, he blinked a few more times. "I don't give a toss. Let me go, now!"

She repressed surging anger. "Tell me where she is and we'll talk about it."

His eyesight cleared and he stared straight at her. "Ah, you're one of those Veela Bitches, aren't you? Let me down, bint, or I'll guarantee you'll both be entertainment for the whole lot of us—"

"Entertain this, you bastard!" Her right foot scissored up, toe punching him in the crotch.

Knees buckled and shoulders curled, but the Sticking Charm held the Death Eater in place. A moment later, his stomach revolted and he retched.

"Where's my sister?" she asked again.

He spat the leftover vomit at her. "Bent over a table taking it up her arse."

Fleur's foot connected a second time and the Death Eater's eyes rolled up into his head.

Her wand came level. "Rennervate!"

Rabastan Lestrange struggled to focus through his agony.

"Tell me!"

"I just did."

Her leg came up a third time, then stopped. She was Veela, wasn't she? Fleur thrust her magic out to dominate his mind, but anger broke through, causing her magic to flutter away.

"What's wrong, little girl? First time trying to seduce a man?"

A dozen choice retributions scampered through her head, but before she could settle on one, a firm hand hooked her elbow. She spun, coming face-to-face with Neville. But she didn't recognize this version.

The Neville she knew disappeared, and in his place stood Tiamat—the ancient Chaos Monster who wrought havoc across civilizations of old. His glare beheld malice and hate, all directed at Rabastan.

"Go," he commanded.

Susan and Cho left in a rush, but Fleur stayed. A small part of her mind marveled at the authority in his voice, the rest demanded answers from the Death Eater.

"You need not blacken your soul tonight," Neville said to Fleur. The bright, gleaming edge of a wicked knife flashed, twitching in his hand and hungering for its first cut. Next to it sat a bowl he brought with him.

She knew little about torture, but guessed its contents, and what he was planning.

"What about yours?" she asked.

"It doesn't matter."

Fleur opened her mouth to argue, then stopped. If he didn't do this, Gabrielle would suffer unspeakable horrors; but how could she trade Neville's soul for her sister's life? Was it right? Was it fair? Indecision paralyzed her until the blade twisted in Neville's hand.

The phrase she'd repeated to Harry too often slipped her lips. "Don't lose yourself."

"It's the least of my worries," he promised. "But, every second we waste . . . "

Tears pricked her eyes. She pushed past him and into the hall, ignoring the Death Eater's laughter.

"You find that funny? Neville asked. The door closed, silencing Rabastan's answer.

She leaned against it, her head buried in her hands.

"He'll get what we need."

Fleur looked up to find Jaycinda standing against the other wall with her arms crossed and her eyes rimmed red. Gabrielle's disappearance wasn't their only loss tonight.

"How's Adrian?"

"Not good," she answered. "Susan and Cho went up to sit with him."

"And you?"

Jaycinda took a deep breath. "Surviving—I needed a moment alone before I could be any help to Adrian." A slight defensiveness crept into her voice, then disappeared. "Anyway, I heard about Gabby. Don't worry, she's tough, and like I said, Neville will find her."

And lose himself in the process—

A scream interrupted her thoughts, followed by Neville's voice, a deep, menacing growl with psychotic mirth bubbling at the edges. "You pissed your pants? That's funny!"

Inside the room, blood dripped from his blade after slicing the Death Eater from nipple to nipple. "Tell me where they took her, or you'll learn a new appreciation for the way Muggles cause pain. And be quick about it, I don't have all day."

The Death Eater hesitated, gathering his courage before answering. "Bugger off, Baby Longbottom."

Neville shrugged. "If that's how you want it." His knife centered on the original cut and with a forceful tug, he split soft tissue bone deep to the solar plexus. Oxygen-rich blood gushed bright red, his chest heaving in time with his screams.

"Louder!" Neville cried. "Scream like my mother the night you tortured her!" A third cut paralleled the first, creating a massive capital I.

"Scream for me!" he repeated.

Rabastan passed out instead. Neville dumped a Pepper-up Potion down the Death Eater's mouth, holding it closed until Palatal reflexes forced him to swallow. An Antinausea Spell made sure it stayed down.

Neville exchanged the knife for his wand and cast a Sticking Charm on his right hand when Rabastan woke up, then pressed the hand against Rabastan's ribs.

"Welcome back. Where's Gabrielle?"

"Piss off."

Neville yanked.

Inhuman screams accompanied the wet sound of flesh tearing from underlying muscle. The unbroken shrieking grew worse than his parents' under the Cruciatus curse.

"Scream!" he shouted six inches from Rabastan's face. "That's right! Scream for me!"

The Putrid smell of emptied bowels violated his nostrils, but Neville ignored it, waiting until Rabastan quieted, then skinned the right half of his chest. It took another potion to wake the Death Eater from his latest blackout.

"Let's try this again." He dipped a finger into the bowl. "Where's Gabrielle?"

"I, I can't!"

A salt-laden fingertip pressed against flayed chest muscles and the next round of shrieks pitched even higher.

"Yes, you can."

Rabastan didn't answer, so Neville cast another Sticking Charm on his hand and reached for the wizard's other side.

"Where's Gabrielle?"

"If I tell you, I'm dead."

Neville leaned in close. "You're already dead. The question is how much pain will you endure before it's over." With a mighty jerk he ripped a layer of flesh from Rabastan's body.

Blood and shreds of tissue misted, covering Neville's face, neck, and robes. Remnants flooded his mouth with the taste of iron and bitter pork. He ignored it, and the new round of shrieking, and pushed his entire palm into the salt bowl.

"I'll skin your back, legs, and arms, then move to every ounce of flesh on your body," he warned once the Death Eater grew quiet. Holding the hand close to the man's chest, he asked, "Where is Gabrielle?"

The wizard fell limp, his self-will fleeing his tortured body. In the end, Rabastan Lestrange was an information cornucopia.

"They took Gabrielle to an old building in Liverpool," Neville announced twenty minutes later. He closed the door behind him and stepped into silence. Every eye watched him cross the room, dripping blood and ripped flesh. He stopped at the hallway entrance.

"Adrian, can we still get the old Death Eater robes from Marcus's father?"

Jaycinda glared at him from her spot on a transfigured couch, her arm draped around Adrian's shoulder and her other hand holding both of his.

Neville grunted. "We don't have time—"

"I know," she interrupted, "but at least show tact and ask me privately! You don't think I'd know?"

Turning to Adrian, she leaned and whispered into his ear.

He answered with a faint nod, then turned to Neville. "How long before you need them?"

"Let me clean up and change," he answered. "I'll be out in five minutes; we're leaving in seven."

"Ten," Adrian corrected. "If I'm Apparating to Marcus's old safe house and back, I'll have to rest before Apparating again."

"No," Neville said. "Sit this one out. We'll grab—"

Adrian shot off the couch. "Bugger that! Either stun me now or I'm coming with you."

"Can you keep your head after tonight?"

"Can you?" Adrian shot back.

Tension crackled between them.

"I don't like what I did, but I'm not leaving Gabrielle in the hands of Death Eaters."

"And your parents had nothing to do with the screams we all heard?"

Neville's jaw set. "They had everything to do with it! I know what Death Eaters are capable of, that's why I want her back, no matter what I have to do to make it happen! We're wasting time. Are you, or are you not able to keep your head when we rescue her?"

Somewhere in the building, a second hand ticked seven times before Adrian answered. "We've lost one of ours tonight, we won't lose another; not to Death Eaters, nor to me not keeping it together. That I promise."

When no one else dared speak their thoughts, Neville turned on his heel and marched into the hall, his words echoing behind him. "Ten minutes."

~ . ~ . ~

Gabrielle floated back into consciousness. Her head pounded and her stomach flipped as if she were about to . . .

Blee-aak!

By god did she hate the taste of puke! Worse, it did nothing to clear her fuzzy head. She tried to move her feet, but discovered them immobile. Someone had bound her wrists overhead as well, and her hyperextended elbows already ached. Slivers of fear penetrated her body.

Okay, think! she commanded herself, then opened her eyes. A semi-dark room held two chairs in the far corner. Above and below her, someone drove eyebolts deep into wooden beams, then suspended her with chains binding her wrists and ankles.

Gabrielle knew enough stories of young women disappearing throughout Europe, and that was before she met Professor Sirko or heard what Death Eaters like to do with captured witches. Adrenalin surged. She yanked hard, rattling her chains against the eyebolts with a sharp, metallic ring.

In the far corner, a door creaked open. Light spilled across the floor. Two black-robed but unmasked Death Eaters entered, the second one illuminating the room with a spell directed at a hanging lamp.

Gabrielle cringed against the light, dropping her eyes to look straight down . . . and noticed someone stripped her to knickers and a bra. Dried blood from superficial wounds had streaked the white satin.

More inspection revealed deeper wounds, but nothing too bad. How did she get them?

Eyebrows scrunched as she thought, and then her head cleared.

They arrived from the battle by Portkey, with Gabrielle still four feet off the ground and the Death Eater holding her ankle. A twist broke her loose, and she landed rear first on the hard floor. Sore, but without hesitation, she came up firing spells at her Death Eater. A second and third wizard reached for her, but Veela magic dropped them. Another spell shattered windowpanes and Gabrielle leaped forward, transformed. Her wings propelled her through the empty frame.

She did it! She was free. And then, her body stopped midair, crashing to the sidewalk.

"Stupid girl," a Death Eater cackled, and then Gabrielle blacked out.

"You have much more to worry about than a few scrapes and bruises," the same wizard now said. Gabrielle concentrated on the voice. Hard, middle-aged, and most importantly, male!

She closed her eyes and pushed her magic at him, curbing it enough to ensnare his passions, hoping he'd obey her command to release her.

Instead, her body jerked and fire ripped through every nerve. Steel shackles chewed her wrists and ankles, and her back bent under the Cruciatus Curse racing through her body.

"I wouldn't try that, if I were you," an unhinged feminine voice answered as the curse ended.

Gabrielle gasped for breath and glared at the woman.

"You're full of piss and vinegar, eh?" The woman cackled. "The Dark Lord will have fun breaking you when he gets back."

Gabrielle's stomach twisted and her flesh crawled at the woman's words. They left little doubt to her future. Limited in choices, she struck out again, trying to force the woman's Pecking Order submission and prayed it worked on witches.

The female Death Eater rocked under Gabrielle's magic, then righted herself and smiled. "It's almost a shame. I'm liking the spirit in this one."

"Crucio!"

Gabrielle's back again arched against her restraints.

~ . ~ . ~

Fleur stood in the doorway of Neville's room, watching him strip to his waist and banishing the remnants of his work downstairs. The young female part of Fleur admired his thick chest and workman arms—a typical biological response. She pushed it—and her embarrassment—from her mind.

"How are we getting Gabby?"

He glanced over his shoulder. "A three-group smash and dash."

"I'm going," she said.

Neville conjured a towel and wiped his face, then gave up cleaning himself and reached for a new shirt. "I never doubted it."

"Good." Fleur stepped into the room. "Come here. You're hopeless with Household Spells, aren't you?"

"I guess." He shrugged. "It hasn't been a priority."

"Can't say I blame you. I've had only one priority since I returned . . . well, two now, I guess."

"We're getting her back," he said as she passed her wand over his chest.

Fleur's lip trembled again, and instead of responding, she moved to his back.

When she finished, Neville pulled a shirt on and faced her. "I swear to every god I know, and even those I don't. We will get her back before they touch her."

"If they haven't, already."

Strong hands grabbed her shoulders. "Lestrange said they always bring targeted prisoners to Voldemort before anything's done to them, and he's not due back until tomorrow evening. Before he returns, she'll be here, safe with us."

His emotions crashed against her empathy and her magic grew unsettled by a gestating darkness, and a deep sadness overtook her.

Neville had opened himself to the Dark Arts, and he did it for Gabby. He was so much like Harry.

A nest of emotions stirred within, but she had no time. So instead, Fleur refocused on the task. "Anything I need to know about Liverpool—wait, targeted prisoners?"

"It seems you two have built a reputation for yourselves along with the rest of us."

A snort from the doorway caught her attention and she turned to find Oliver leaning against the frame. "I'd say. Rumors are they've put bounties on you two, so welcome to the club. I think that makes all of us but Jaycinda.

"Oh, and to answer your question, Liverpool's a wonderful place: murder, assault, rape, and Muggle gang wars over their version of illicit Potions, it's all part of the nightly scene. Puddlemere United banned us from visiting the city before the war broke out."

Neville slid his wand into a pocket and motioned for them to leave. "Perfect Death Eater territory."

"That too," Oliver agreed. "I sent word to Charlie. He's gathering his people and should be here in three minutes."

"How many?"

"Dunno, five, maybe, plus us, Adrian, Cho, and Susan. Oh, and Adrian's back. He has the robes."

~ . ~ . ~

The shadow-pain of fiery needles slicing through Gabrielle's muscles ebbed, but she made no sound or movement. How long had the pain lasted after her tormentors finished cursing her?

"It has to be two in the morning," the wizard complained, his chair balancing on two legs.

"Bellatrix left a half an hour ago," his new female counterpart answered, "so, more like two-thirty. Don't tell me you're not enjoying the view."

"Not everyone's a debauched crotch-maggot."

Gabrielle disagreed, but she kept silent, not wanting to draw their attention—and curses. How Harry could function after the Cruciatus Curse, she would never understand. Unfortunately, her facial expression radiated her thoughts.

The wizard's chair thunked to the floor. "Just to be clear, I don't give a shit what they do to you." His face hardened. "Of all the witches and Muggles they've taken, you deserve it the most."

She raised her eyebrows in question, and his lip curled with disgust. "I was there the night you swung your little ass around a pole, helping your sister capture my friend. Had that other son of a bitch and his two witches not been there, I would have killed you both. I also know what you did in Diagon Alley. Tomorrow night, a dozen or more Death Eaters will pound the desire to ever do that again right out of your body."

Gabby's spine tingled with newfound fear, silently begging Neville and Fleur to rescue her.

"And if you ever try to cocktease me again, I'll butcher you into a thousand pieces and feed you to a hippogriff. And I'll enjoy it more than fantasizing about banging the shit out of you, trust me."

A derisive growl escaped the witch's throat. "Damn Americans and your uppity morality."

He turned to her. "Why? Because I don't want to ass-ram a child?"

"You think we're raping everything that moves out of pure enjoyment? It gains us power and domination over strong magical families who refuse to side with us. And now, we're doing it in the Muggle world, sending messages to the leaders through their wives and daughters, hell, even their sons."

"So nobody's doing it for the sheer enjoyment?" he asked.

"A few might. They enjoy breaking witches like Her Prettiness."

Gabrielle's pulse quickened, her breath coming in gulps as the reality of her future overwhelmed her.

"I need to get something upstairs," the witch announced before facing Gabrielle. "If I come back and find you using your magical cock-control again, I'll make sure every Death Eater on this island gets a turn at you. Do you understand?"

Without another choice, Gabby agreed. She sagged against the clamps holding her wrists and fought cresting tears. Susan's words echoed in her ears, warning her about using her magic. Perhaps she deserved what was coming to her.

Don't be so stupid! Her grandmother's voice—the sound of her conscience for years. Pull your head out of your cute little ass, keep alert, and look for an opening!

She forced her breathing to slow and calmed her racing heart. Fear, so often an ally, was her greatest enemy now. If she succumbed to it, never would she escape. She had to think, process her surroundings. But, how . . .

Empathic senses?

Gabrielle eased them out, hoping to find something that might help.

The wizard before her wasn't as uninterested as he let on, she first noticed. She pushed past him. Excitement emanated from two wizards in the next room as they salivated over the following evening's events. Gabrielle jerked back, then focused in a different direction, and found a few wizards and witches scattered among the upper and lower floors.

Back on what she now realized was the third floor—or the second floor as the silly Brits reckoned it—Gabby reached beyond the wall to her left. Faint hints of depression, sadness, and even joy passed by her. But those people felt different, lacking the zing from their magic.

They were Vulgaire! An outside wall! If she got free and found her wand . . .

Hope plummeted. Yeah, a big if.

An overwhelming wave of defeat rolled over her, but she fought it and reached again into the main room and beyond; how deep was this building? If only a few people were here, perhaps she'd trick them into releasing her. Then, she'd—

Wait—

She focused harder.

It couldn't be . . .

Gabrielle needed every ounce of self-control to contain her surprise as a familiar magic resonated with hers.

~ . ~ . ~

Fleur cared not who wore the robes and mask, she hated them, thrice almost cursing the wizard underneath on principle. Cho's hand resting on her arm reminded her of their ploy—and kept Neville safe.

With a concerted effort, Fleur pushed the thoughts away and focused on the concrete five-story building before them. If Gabby were in there, her Veela magic might connect. Fleur released the part of her Veela magic intended on causing other Veela to submit, but only enough to notice another Veela in the area—and gasped.

"She's there, about two floors up."

"Are you sure?" asked Neville.

"Positive."

"Then let's get her." He shouldered past them out of their abandoned office building and crossed the street.

They'd already cast the proper Identity Spells to slip through the Protection Charms. And, to make sure the Death Eater back in the safe house hadn't lied, Neville had Moody keep his good eye on the prisoner until they returned, promising even more pain if they'd failed. Another round of fecal evacuation had assured Neville the wizard was being honest.

Fleur noticed street lamps reflecting light off discarded needles and broken bottles—more examples of broken humanity she never knew existed, and in hindsight, never wanted to know. Yet, here she stood, ready to save her sister from an even more intimate knowledge of human savagery.

It was her last stray thought before Neville entered the building.

~ . ~ . ~

Two more wizards descended the stairs to make conversation with the two outside Gabrielle's door. She needed to do something, and fast, or her sister and whoever else was with her wouldn't live.

But she had limited choices, only able to move her jaw . . .

Gabrielle dredged her courage and bit down hard against her tongue, filling her mouth with blood. Eyes watered from the pain, but it'd help sell the whole act. Then, after taking a deep breath, she screamed, hitting the whistle register and beyond while spasming against her chains. Blood and spittle flew with each exhaled breath, remnants dribbling down her chin and onto her chest.

But she hadn't expected to bite so deep. Blood flowed free, traveling backwards until gravity drew it down her throat. Gabrielle's screams choked off, and more red spittle flew as her skin tinted rose from a lack of oxygen.

"I need help in here!" the wizard guarding her yelled.

Two of the four outside Death Eaters answered his call. "Bloody hell!" the first one swore. "Is she seizing?"

"Do I look like a vet? How should I know?" her original captor answered.

A third Death Eater entered and pushed through the others. "Get her face down on the floor so she doesn't choke to death! Her magic might be attacking her—I've seen it once before."

They made it halfway across the room when Gabrielle pushed out every last ounce of Veela magic she had, just as shouting erupted from downstairs.

~ . ~ . ~

Fleur pressed herself against the brick wall as Neville threw the main door open and entered, black robes swishing behind him. "What the hell are you doing?" he raged behind his mask at a similarly dressed wizard reclining on a couch.

The wizard jumped to his feet and brandished his wand. "Who are you?"

"If you don't know who I am, you're in for a bloody painful night," Neville blustered. "Why are you sitting on your arse, waiting for your little Veela bint to attack you from behind? You damn well know you can't trust them!"

The epithet almost sent Fleur blasting curses at Neville for the vehemence and disgust with which he spat it. Calm yourself! she thought. He's playing a role!

Inside, the shocked wizard stammered. "She, she's on the third floor with four others! And, and one of them is female, just like they ordered us!"

"We'll see about that!"

The code phrase delivered, Fleur breached from the right, cursing the Death Eater. Charlie, Adrian, Tonks, and Shacklebolt followed. They spread out, clearing the first floor. Fleur settled for nothing less than Bone Breakers, mixing in a couple Killing Curses when she had a clear shot. Oliver and Cho entered last. Without hesitation, they sprinted through the room to the stairs, ignoring Death Eaters falling in mid-cast, and intent in their Bounding Overwatch role.

"Side's clear!" Tonks yelled in unison with Charlie.

"This side, too," Adrian answered.

Fleur turned on her heel toward the staircase.

They raced up, leaving Shacklebolt with Susan to stand guard, and joined the battle on the second floor. Cho's wizard had retreated, creating a bubble for them to exit the stairs. A black jet of crackling light erupted from her wand, dropping the wizard, and a moment later, Oliver killed his.

"Clear!" they both yelled.

Fleur caught the fight in her periphery vision, but ignored it and hit the stairs. Neville joined and they leapfrogged to the next floor.

A witch appeared in the middle of the stairwell, her first spell splitting Fleur and Neville. They leaped to the side, bouncing off opposite walls. Then, their wands spat spells even as a grunt announced the Death Eater's Bone Crusher found a target below them. Fleur's rush of pure offensive Veela magic, shining blue with white streaks, drilled the Death Eater's chest, and Neville's Killing Curse finished her.

They pushed past the body and onto the third floor, expecting a heap of opposition, but found the main room empty. "Gabrielle, êtes-vous ici?" Fleur cried.

"Oui!" a faint voice answered.

Neville pointed at Tonks and Charlie, and they leaped up the next set of stairs. To their immediate right, another Death Eater emerged from a side room. Fleur flung her Veela magic at him, driving him to his knees long enough to get a wand on him.

"I got it," Cho said. "Find your sister!"

Fleur moved into the next room, her wand raised, only to see four wizards convulsing on the floor. She made quick work of them, their ecstatic visage now their death masks.

Then, a weak cough caught her attention.

"Gabrielle?" Fleur fought tears and crossed the room in four large steps. She banished the chains binding her sister's feet, then reached for the ones holding her hands.

"Wait!" Neville said. "She won't be able to stand on her own." He wrapped both arms around Gabrielle's thighs and lifted, his off-shoulder bearing her weight. "Got her!"

Fleur banished the chain and Gabrielle fell over Neville's shoulder.

"We got company!" a hard-breathing Susan yelled as she pounded up the stairs with Shacklebolt hard on her heels.

Fleur nudged Neville out of the room, hitting Gabrielle with a Featherlight Charm as they exited.

Adrian's voice met them from above. "This floor's clear!"

"Rear guard!" Charlie shouted a few feet away through clenched teeth. His boneless right arm waived like a windsock.

Fleur took position behind Neville to protect him and Gabrielle, then glanced over his left shoulder. A wand rested on a bookshelf. "Accio Gabrielle's wand!"

The wand quivered, then jumped. But Gabrielle raised a hand and the wand shifted midcourse as Neville hit the first stair.

Death Eaters flowed into the third floor main room as they left, but their rear-guard protection held. Half provided guarded positions as the other half retreated until they all entered the stairwell and slammed the door shut. Shacklebolt's bright red curse melted it into the frame.

They raced through the fourth floor main room and another dead Death Eater, then a fifth floor main room coated in undisturbed dust. At the top of the stairwell, Adrian's Blasting Curse sheered a door from its hinges and sent it skidding across the flat tar roof.

They exited the stairwell and Tonks, in the rear-guard position, spun and dropped the stairs to the floor below with a Concussive Spell. Dust billowed through the broken doorframe.

"Keep moving, straight ahead!" Neville yelled.

They raced to the edge of the building, but before they could reach it, a whooshing sound struck Fleur's ears.

"Portkeys!" Gabrielle cried. "They're here!"

The surprise painted on a half-dozen unmasked faces mitigated the sudden appearance of the Death Eaters—except for one.

"Where's Baby Neville going with Auntie Bellatrix's toy?"

Fleur dared not look. The building's edge—and safety—lay a few feet away. Then, she noticed Gabrielle, who had braced herself with a hand against Neville's back and yelled at him to keep running before her wand emitted a garish curse that ripped across the rooftop.

A very un-Gabrielle-like word followed as she raised her wand again, and the star-lit night glowed as she repeatedly painted it green. Fleur's stomach clamped. Sweet Gabrielle had seen enough, experienced enough, that her Killing Curse equaled any wizard on tonight's mission.

And then, they reached the edge. Return spells and curses chipped concrete and mortar, and more than one found their mark as she heard the soft sounds of magic connecting against flesh.

Without stopping, Fleur launched from her left foot, landed on the parapet with her right and crouched as her momentum carried her over. She, along with all her friends, pushed off again and cleared the Apparition wards, freefalling two stories in the Liverpool night before twisting in the air. The concussive shockwave produced by the mass Apparition shattered the windows in the surrounding buildings.

X ~ X ~ X ~ X

The moon had long chased the sun from the sky, casting its own silver light across the small island when something woke Harry. He felt for his wand, rough stone biting his fingers.

Whatever presence jerked him awake grew stronger. Harry raised up on an elbow to search the shoreline, and found a feminine figure slipping along the water's edge, fainted light bathing her surreal form.

He blinked once, twice, trying to see through the moonlight's playful trick. But, as she passed through a tree-cast shadow, the light never dimmed.

Wand raised, he readied himself. But the Horcrux ritual, the Apparition, his injuries, and his internal fight for sanity, they had drained his strength. Betrayed by his own body, the wand slipped through weakened fingers and fell to the sand below.

The ethereal vision closed the distance, emanating power that reminded him of Dumbledore, but wholly other, alien. It felt like Fleur's Flock Leader, if a stagnant cistern was comparable to a primeval life-bearing ocean.

She stopped twenty feet away. Gray robes draped her shoulders, swaying inches above the sand in a light breeze. Eyes fell on him, not Veela-blue, but swirling with emotion, his emotion, reflecting all he'd endured, all he bore.

The grace, the power—a Valkyrie? He'd endured so much. Was this beautiful intermediary of death coming to bear him to Valhalla? He reached for her, for passage beyond. Every piece of his broken soul ached for the journey.

Pity thinned Cupid lips as words, quiet but powerful, washed over him. "I am not your escape."

The last of his strength disappeared and Harry slumped to the rock bed. "Then, be my Reaper."

Another step. "Is that what you want, Suflețel?"

"It's all that's left."

"Is it?" A new magic flooded the air. This one tentative, careful, but still alien, then it faded as she knelt before the stone bed. "I do not believe you."

So close, her delicate perfection made his body ache like a moth flying too close to the fire.

"Who are you?" he asked.

"My people are called Zâne. And you, suflețel . . ." She laid a hand atop his chest. "You're close to death. I don't have to be a Reaper to see it."

Her words held no threat and her fingers, no amatory touch. A new surge of magic encompassed him, making him fain for her presence.

"There's a blackness in you, vast and hungry," she continued. "But I sense no hate, no greed, no selfishness beyond the normal human impulse. Not what I would expect for someone so deep in the Dark Arts. Impossible though it may be, the myths are true."

She chewed her lip for a moment.

"They were right about you, Harry Potter."

Another pulse of magic enveloped him, this one soothing, caring, like returning to a mother's womb. Still entranced, he pushed himself from the stone bed one last time and, without thought, fell against her chest.

She wrapped caring arms around him and gently twisted to the ground, landing first to cradle him in her lap.

Slender fingers traced his eyebrow. "You need rest."

"No." He fought heavy eyelids. "To exposed . . . not safe."

"I will stay with you."

He tried to protest, but lost the battle as she traced his eyebrow once more, then placed her palm over his eyes and spoke one last time.

"Sleep."

X ~ X ~ X ~ X

The night's events replayed in Gabrielle's mind: Marcus's death, her capture, the threats, the curses. Where they her fault? Did she deserve what happened, what might have happened, after pushing her magic at others?

Susan and Cho agreed with Fleur it wasn't. And Jaycinda threatened to punch her again if she continued thinking that way, but she couldn't help it. Senses felt like sandpaper, hyperaware of every movement. They hadn't even touched her like that. How much worse would it have been if she hadn't been rescued? A chill clawed Gabrielle's spine. She tucked her covers under her chin and welcomed Fleur's warmth against her back.

The time had come to grow up, Gabrielle realized. She might play a sprite at home, but not here, not fighting a war.

A swirl of emotion flicked her attention. Disgust. Self-loathing. It unsettled her Veela magic. Dark Arts? Who among them . . .

Earlier, Fleur had glossed over the specifics of finding Gabrielle, but Gabby had seen the result of Neville's work. Or, at least, she saw the bloodstained room as she walked past. Mad-Eye Moody was bundling a dripping mass of something in bedsheets.

Neville had been silent ever since they returned, slipping from the upstairs apartment to help Moody a few minutes before Fleur and Gabrielle went to bed an hour ago.

Somehow, she knew it was him now.

Gabrielle got up and plodded along the floor, wand held loosely at her side.

In the open kitchen, he leaned over the sink, water running, and talked to himself under his breath.

"Neville?"

No answer.

She came up behind him and rested a hand against his bicep. "Neville, what's wrong?"

Still nothing, but his swirl of emotion was morphing into a torrent.

Worry bubbled in her chest, making her voice crack. "Please, talk to me."

His arms stilled. "I can't get them clean."

Skin crinkled on the bridge of her nose as her eyebrows pulled together. Gabrielle went up on her toes and peered over his shoulder, and her breath caught.

Neville held a wire brush, lathered red. His blood coated the sink.

"It doesn't matter how hard I try; I can't clean them."

She reached around and plucked the brush away, then shut off the water.

"Sit," she ordered, then conjured a towel and wrapped his hands. "What are you doing to yourself?"

Neville closed his eyes. "I want them clean again. But no matter what I do . . . I can't trust them anymore."

The crinkle between her eyebrows reappeared. "I don't understand."

"What they did tonight—it was the only way to find you. But they did things I never thought possible."

"Your hands?" she clarified.

He nodded.

Try as she might, Neville made no sense. So she focused on something she knew she could fix, and unwrapped his hand, laying it in her lap. A pass of her wand and a dusting of pushed Veela magic filled valleys of torn flesh with bright pink tissue. Another spell cleared the dried blood, leaving his hand tender, but clean, soft, and warm against her fingers as she checked her work.

Satisfied, Gabrielle set her wand on the table. "I'm sorry you had to do what you did, but you saved my life. Not your hands, but you . . ."

For some reason, he reminded her of Fleur and Harry when they first came to France. It amazed her how they'd project feelings and insecurities onto each other, as though they could separate themselves from something causing them so much pain.

And then, she realized why. Neville was dissociating himself, blaming his hands for acts too dark for his conscience to sort.

She altered course. "Before the war, what else were your hands good at?"

"Nothing much, except playing in the dirt."

"The dirt?"

A wistful grin appeared. "Herbology. I was horrid at most other subjects, but I enjoyed playing in the dirt."

"So now, your hands are good at two things, Herbology and saving my life." She lifted a hand to her lips and held it there for a moment before releasing it and lifting the unhealed one against her cheek. "Without these, without you, Death Eaters would have broken me by torture and rape."

"I wasn't about to let that happen."

The steel undergirding his words made her feel safe. "I know."

She healed his other hand, then banished the towel and hit the sink with a Cleaning Spell. When she turned back to Neville, his eyes had lit afire.

"I don't care how far I have to fall, I'll never let that happen to you."

"Because of Su?"

"No," he answered, his gaze burning into her. "Because of Gabrielle."

Amid the self-loathing that still sluiced from him, Gabrielle sensed something else. Something that twenty-four hours ago, would have made her giggle and prance before him like a sprite. But not now, not after what she suffered. Instead, she gently squeezed his hand, then let go and went to bed.

X ~ X ~ X ~ X

Pink eastern streaks of light violated purple skies over a sleeping Harry. The Zână, wide-awake and still cradling him, watched eleven falling stars split into two groups. Six encircled the island and landed out of sight. Five others fell to the shoreline fifty feet away, their light muted. Feminine figures grew visible as they approached.

The Zână touched a finger to her lips, commanding them to stay quiet. She cast a Silencing Spell over Harry, and another Sleep Spell.

"This is an interesting scene," the first visitor said once the Zână finished.

"Rather motherly," a second agreed.

The Zână traced her finger across his eyebrow again. "He was almost dead when I found him."

"Has he spoken yet?" the first asked.

"Last night. He was lucid, but suffering."

"And?" she pressed. "I sense darkness within."

The Zână's wings fluttered with annoyance, raising eyebrows on all five of her sisters. "Look beyond the irritation in your magic. What do you find?"

"I barely have any more strength to fly, let alone search the boy's emotions." She pulled her long, platinum hair behind her shoulders and sat on the rock. "Have mercy and just tell me, please?"

"And include how you ended up like that," a third visitor added. "Although, I wouldn't blame you if you revealed yourself and then took him into your arms—speaking of which, how did you explain yourself?"

The Zână stroked his eyebrow once more. "I was honest. Most wizards outside Romania won't know the language."

The second visitor rolled her eyes. "Honest? Not if you called yourself a Zână, again."

The comment earned the second visitor a glare.

She snorted. "Zâne are virgin fairies, and you lost your virginity in Rome on your sixteenth birthday—I was there, remember?"

"And your point?"

"Just wondering why you insist on Zână, since Iele is the Romanian term for Veela. I don't even speak the language and I know that!"

"Perhaps," the Veela named Petra said, unamused by her friend. "Iele was too close. He might have made the connection, and since the Zekānōt stipulated we not reveal ourselves, I thought it better. Anyway, he's never met me, and Apolline, Médée, and Jaleena all agree he's never seen Zekānōt warriors or their full magic. So he has no idea who I am, and I intend to keep it that way until the time comes."

"Until the time comes?" the second Veela hesitated. "So, you've decided . . ."

"You were right, Sorina," Petra confirmed. "I should have listened. Did you find the Delacour sisters?"

"No," Samrawit, the third Veela, answered. "Thousands of years we've existed, yet we can't track our own."

"Be thankful," Sorina said. "Remember the Mating Wars. There's a reason it takes a vote of the full Zekānōt to release the magic associated with tracking a wizard, not to mention twelve of us to do it. It's the same reason we don't track each other. Hell, this is what, the third time in the last five hundred years we've used it to track a marked mate?"

"History aside," the first visitor—Stacia—interrupted before the conversation fell any further off track. "I'd still like to hear what he said."

Petra stared at the young man sleeping in her arms. "He wants no part of the Dark Arts."

"He told you that?"

"Not in so many words, but I felt it. He thought I was a Valkyrie coming to take him away."

"How does that—"

"Because he wanted to escape the Arts' call."

Stacia stared at Petra before retreating to the water's edge. Time past before she continued, speaking over her shoulder. "Do you trust him? Dark Arts practitioners can trick emotion."

"He was fighting the Arts, not embracing them."

"I see. How long will you stay with him?"

"Until his body has healed and the fractures in his soul begin mending. It won't save him, but at least it'll give him a fighting chance against the Arts' draw."

"Then we shall stay, too," Samrawit announced.

Without another word, the five Flock Leaders took to the air, relaying their decision to the others standing guard.

X ~ X ~ X ~ X

Seriously?

Gabrielle tossed her covers off and trudged to the bathroom, squinting as early morning sunlight peaked through the windows. She had lain awake for hours after helping Neville. Couldn't her bladder have told her then, rather than waiting until she fell asleep a couple of hours?

Sleep, she repeated, and closed her eyes. Fade back . . . long . . . 'till noon . . . Gabrielle's torso fell forward and she slid off the toilet.

I did not just do that! Annoyed, Gabrielle cleaned herself with a spell and trudged the back toward her bedroom, but a voice stopped her in front of Neville's door. She cocked her head. Neville was pleading with someone to accept his justifications, talking just loud enough for his voice to cross the wooden barrier.

Nightmares.

When Neville quieted, she reached to him with her senses, hoping the peace of deeper sleep had fallen over him. Instead, a rush of emotions slammed through her—harsher than earlier when she'd helped him, and it froze her where she stood. She stayed fixed to her spot until another cry escaped, more pitiful than she thought possible.

"Neville?" she whispered after pushing his door open.

He remained asleep, twisted in his covers and his shirt soaked with sweat.

She crossed the floor.

"Neville, wake up, you're having a nightmare."

He didn't wake up, so she touched his chest.

"Neville."

Before she could even process the blur of motion, Neville threw her to the bed and drew his wand with his left hand, his right cocked back, waiting to hammer her at any moment. Somehow, he was already on his feet.

She threw both hands forward, palms out. "NEVILLE! No! It's me, Gabby!"

Fist and wand lowered.

"Gabrielle?"

"I—I was walking back from the bathroom—you were having a nightmare."

His nostrils flared. "Never, ever, do that again."

She stood, dumbfounded.

Neville must have noticed, because he quickly added. "I mean, throw something at me instead, or tap me on the side of my shoulder in quick succession until I wake up."

She nodded, not trusting her voice, and his expression shifted, shame falling over his features. "Everything you've been through, and I almost . . ."

"Don't," she ordered. "I came in to help you, not the other way around. What happened? Do you always wake up that way?"

He plopped down on the bed. "I do now. A few months after the war started and I'd proven myself to the others, some Aurors invited me on missions with them. We had our Protective Charms breached half a dozen times, no matter how well we set them, or watched our camp."

"And you learned to wake up, fighting for your life?"

"One of the Aurors almost died waking up another after a particularly nasty battle. So we set wake-up signals."

Gabby climbed on the bed and rested against the wall. "It must have been terrible. Is that what you were dreaming about?"

His jaw clenched. "No."

"And you don't want to talk about it?"

He shook his head, but the tough, battle-tested Neville disappeared, replaced by a lost little boy.

She wondered if he resembled the Neville who enjoyed playing in the dirt.

"Do you think you could go back to sleep?"

"I don't know." He pulled at his shirt. "Damn. I have nothing clean, and if I start casting Cleaning Charms, I might as well stay up. Of course, if I stay up, I won't see . . . that again."

Gabrielle knew she could help, but dare she? Could she after what had happened? She searched her emotions and found, well, yeah, she could. Neville was many things, but was also safe—at least for her.

"If, if you want, I'll stay with you and make sure they won't come back." Pink hues blossomed across Gabrielle's angelic features. "I promise I'll only use enough magic to keep them away, and nothing more."

"Why?" he asked, his own dumbfounded look replacing everything else.

She pushed herself across the bed to sit next to him. "Because, you're Neville."

Four hours later, Gabby heard the door creak open. She peered over Neville's chest at her sister, standing alongside Cho and Susan. "Nightmares," she mouthed, then gestured towards Neville.

The door closed and she lay down again, draping her arm over his chest as he slept on his back. Her hand rested right above his heart, and it amazed her how small it looked against his bare chest.

Not that Neville crawled into bed half-naked. He started off in his drenched pajama tops, but they were too uncomfortable. After tossing and turning for the umpteenth time, Gabrielle, with his permission and a wave of her wand, banished them. Five minutes later, he'd fallen asleep.

Three and a half solid hours of sleep, she thought, without one nightmare. But the volume of magic she had to push to clear his mind bothered her on a personal level—last night still frightened her—but also for Neville. What had he done to himself? What demons had he set loose so he could find her? Whatever they were, she decided, she'd help him fight them back if he'd let her.

And, she had to admit to herself, she owed it to him. Not for finding her, but because she felt better lying next him than anyone else, including her sister. Not just safer, but better.

X ~ X ~ X ~ X

Harry woke just before noon from his best sleep in months. Chilly March air wrapped his body, sending a shiver through him. Where was the Zână? he wondered.

As if in response, a glowing specter appeared from behind and sat next to him, holding a steaming bowl.

"Eat."

"What is it?" He looked around. "And where did you get it?"

The Zână handed it over, her lips downturned. "Typical human wizard. Your lot think nothing of sleeping with a beautiful female creature, but distrust acts of kindness from the same. Why is that?"

Harry shrugged. "Half the island's trying to kill me."

Silence descended as he ate his broth, fast filling his stomach.

"Thank you," he said when he finished.

She took the bowl from him. "When was your last meal?"

"I don't know, two days ago? Three?"

A rebuking cluck of her tongue followed, but she said nothing else.

Harry stretched, and only then, realized he was missing the aches, pains, and numbness from his body.

"How are you feeling?" she asked.

"Much better. Is that . . . Did you do something?"

"As I said last night, you were close to death. I am not sure, but I think an infection got into your blood. It took three spells to clean it."

Doubt reared its head. "Why are you doing this?" He'd read too many stories as a child about wicked witches offering their help.

"Your Dark Lord casts a shadow over all beings, not just humans. This might be the only role I get to play in his defeat, but if it is, I will make sure it's done right."

He didn't know if it were a trick of magic or reality, but her voice ringed with sincerity. And, he rationalized, if she intended harm, she had all night to inflict it, rather than healing him.

"Thank you," he replied.

"You're more than welcomed, suflețel."

"You called me that yesterday. What does it mean?"

"It's a term of endearment in my native language, but don't change the subject. You were very sick, still are, to be honest. I'll conjure a bed for you so you're more comfortable, and I don't want to see you up and around for at least another day."

He opened his mouth to protest, then wisely shut it.

Three days later, he was feeling much better, sitting on the rock and staring into the lake surrounding the island. His arm and wrist had healed. His soul, well, that wasn't so good. It was mending, and the disparate voices had ceased, but one remained. One that had accompanied him throughout most of his journey—his own conscience, though heavily influenced by the Dark Arts.

"It is time," the Zână announced, approaching him from the forest. She never told him her name, even though he asked. "You need to return to the Forbidden Forest. My sisters have seen Death Eaters testing the school's defenses. If your information is correct, the time to face Voldemort may come soon."

"Will you be there?"

"I cannot say."

After the time they spent together, Harry couldn't help feeling hurt. What he shared with her, the devotion he felt for all she'd done, it bothered him to hear they'd part, and he might never see her again.

She knelt before him. "I will not make promises I cannot keep, and I am bound with responsibility to my people. But think it not a betrayal, suflețel. It is no more than your Veela girlfriend obeying the laws of her people."

Harry chuckled. "That's not a good example, but I understand."

The Zână rose and spread her wings, her eyes dancing with mischief. "Perhaps I'll meet her someday and see for myself what kind of example she is."

Her wings beat once, lifting her off the ground. Sunlight caught the Zână just right, and for a moment, he noticed her eyes were crystal blue, her hair, rivers of blond. If the circumstances had been different, he'd thought she was a Veela. Her magic flared again and, he realized, she looked nothing like them. Only Fleur caused a similar ache in his chest to what he now felt, and that was for very different reasons.

Harry pulled his eyes away from the spot in the sky where she'd disappeared, then palmed his wand. It was time, he agreed. Time to end this damn war.


A/N1: Timetable for Posting It's been a while since I've posted. Sorry about that, especially on such a cliff hanger as Gabrielle having been taken hostage. Nevertheless, real life is just that, real life. I can't promise any timetable for the next chapters, but I will promise (as I've said numerous times), this fic won't be abandoned.

As for length, there's two more chapters in Part 3. Part 4 begins the resolution, and I have 2-3 chapters and a epilogue planned for it. So, we are coming to the end.


A/N2: Torture. This and the last chapter are the darkest of the story. Also, for those who grew squeamish, this chapter also held the torture scene. In some ways, I enjoyed writing them as it explored the very depths of both characters, but in others ways, I didn't. The depths to which humanity can fall is scary, and exploring it is not always the most enjoyable task.

****So, where did I come up with the story of Neville's torture? Sadly, it was a story related to me by a war veteran of an enemy captured and tortured for information. Whether it is true, I have no way to validate, nor is it necessary for this story. I took dramatic license to make it fit and intensify the scene, but as it was related to me, the prisoner's chest was only partially skinned when he broke. And, he broke so bad the only way to get him to shut up was to kill him. As I said, the depths that humanity may sink to is befuddling.


A/N3: Taking Umbridge. Yes, I know, I tease, I hint, I promise. In truth, I have two chapters left to right, but am waiting until I complete my first (and second) beta read of the story. I'm about half way through it now. I'm doing it this way so I can pick up loose strings and fix plot inconsistencies after moving a few scenes around. When I do start posting it, I am planning on posting one chapter a week for 15 weeks. (Yes, that means 15 chapters, give or take a conclusion).


A/N4: Thank you to everyone who has spent the time reviewing the story. To break 1000 reviews for a story this dark and this angst-filled without any bashing, well, it's very much appreciated.