"You'll be home soon, Father. I'll teach everyone to respect the Malfoy name. I'll take care of everything." -Draco Malfoy, in the fires of Leeds, Christmas 1996

Chapter 25~

"Ah, sorry about that. Excuse me."

Tracey quickly slid the door shut on what felt like the hundredth compartment on the Hogwarts Express. Actually considering that she was now at the very back of the train that probably wasn't far from the truth. Fortunately, process of elimination told her that even though she'd spent the better part of ten minutes intruding on the entirety of the Hogwarts student body, her search was finally over. A knock on the final carriage door later and she was looking in at a familiar head of bushy brown hair. Honestly, she should have just started at the back.

"Hey, Hermione, how was your… Where's Harry?" Her words derailed sharply as she noticed the teen's absence.

The Gryffindor exchanged quick looks with the others in the compartment before returning to their guest.

"He's not with you?"

The reply was not only rapid but filled with anxiety. A quick glance around showed that everyone else in the compartment shared some level of the sentiment. Of course it only took a moment for the implication to register before she colored.

"With- no, of course he isn't," she said at once, unable to prevent a glare from poking through at the girl. "Honestly, Hermione."

Never mind the fact she'd just searched the whole train to say hi to him and… be around him?

Ugh, I'm so embarrassing! Stalker! Loiterer!

"I know, I know, but I'd just thought- I hoped-"

"We haven't seen Harry since before the holiday," Ron explained thickly through a chocolate frog. Swallowing he continued, "Thing is, it's not just us. No one's seen him. He wasn't around last few days of the term, on the Express back to London, or anywhere else. We always see him during the holiday."

"We asked the professors but they said they didn't know," Hermione added, now fidgeting with the material of her skirt. "Professor Dumbledore must know something, but we weren't able to talk to him before we left."

"Well then we can just ask at school tonight," said Tracey easily, squeezing next to the bushy haired girl to put an arm around her back. She was usually so in control of her emotions it was hard to see her like this. "It's fine, Hermione, you know Harry can, um, you know he…"

Hermione just laughed thinly, not a spec of humor in the act.

"You can't even end that sentence, you know it's not true," she mumbled.

"He'll be fine, Hermione," said Ron patiently. Worried as he was, the confidence in his voice was genuine. "He probably did something with Dumbledore at the end of term. Too bad though," he added with a shrug. "Missed Christmas completely and Dad even brought back something cool from a raid I wanted to show him."

"At least it isn't another car battery or something…" Ginny responded absently. "You just liked it because it was gold."

"And you said the rat on it was cute. Guess we both aren't perfect."

"You're so annoying, I told you-"

Tracey pulled her mind away from the random nonsense they were talking about and turned to Hermione.

"Walk with me? We can check the compartments, I might have missed him."

Though they both knew how unlikely that really was.

"Okay, it'll give me something to do," she agreed, standing up. "I'll be back a little later."

"Don't be gone too long," said Ginny, waving them off, still waist deep in an argument with her brother. "You'll miss the trolley otherwise."

Tracey was very glad that Hermione closed the compartment door at that moment.

"Don't they care?" she said finally, more than a little upset. "What if something really happened to him? He has real killers after him."

"To be honest, most people treat Harry like this," Hermione explained softly, leading the way down the carriage hall and into the next. "Even I did for a long time. It's not that they don't care, it's just that to most Harry is someone who can't be beat. Literally the Boy-Who-Lived. He's always gotten through terrible situations. So it's really easy for Ginny and the rest to think he'll be okay, whatever is going on. He's Harry after all."

"Feels like the opposite to me," Tracey said glumly, scuffing her shoe on the carpeted floor. "Every time I turn around he's in trouble."

"It just means the next time we see him we'll have to tie him down." Hermione's joke was weak, but it did make Tracey smile at the thought. They might actually have to do that.

It was at this moment that an unignorable voice drifted out of a nearby compartment that hadn't been closed properly. Her own fault probably, given how she'd opened all of them earlier. Both the Slytherin and Gryffindor cut off as a familiar name left the lips of an unfamiliar girl.

"...haven't seen Harry yet but I'm not worried. I wouldn't be surprised if he's looking for me right now."

"Yeah right, Romilda, keep dreaming," said another girl, the roll of her eyes evident through her tone.

"Well, maybe if things were normal," the now identified Romilda Vane continued with confidence. "But I sent him a very special batch of chocolates for Christmas that will have him thinking about me non-stop. You could even say-"

Unfortunately for her that was as far as she got before her compartment was visited by two incredibly incensed teenage girls.

"Did you…" Hermione began in a low, dangerous voice, "send my best friend chocolates spiked with a love potion? Look me in the eye and answer very carefully, Romilda."

Said girl was having difficulty following said command as said girl was switching her attention between Hermione's eyes and the wand pointed right at her head. Maybe Hermione had picked up a bit more from her protective friend than she'd like to admit. The other two girls in the compartment were just doing their best to remain as small as possible.

"H-Hermione, it was a joke!" Romilda stammered, backing up as far as she could without physically jumping out of the window. She looked as if Voldemort himself had just walked into her compartment.

"Using magic to influence how someone thinks or acts is not a joke! It's a crime!" Hermione snapped. "Tell me one good reason why I shouldn't take you straight to… straight… uh, Tracey?"

Her voice trailed off as the as of yet quiet Slytherin stepped forward slowly, eyes locked on the little scheming Lion in front of her.

"Let me make something extremely clear to you, Fifth Year." Tracey's voice was a venomous hiss that filled the silent compartment completely. "Harry Potter isn't someone you can play around with. Stop dreaming about making him yours. He doesn't belong to you, or anyone else for that matter."

She paused to take a breath.

"He's mine! Got it!?"

The blatantly hippocrytical declaration left them all gobsmacked.

"Y-Yours?"

The innocent query came from one of the girls who had been trying and failing to apparate to safety. Apparently it had slipped out, as she immediately clapped both her hands over her mouth as if to prevent any other attention grabbing words from leaving.

Viciously cold eyes were leveled at the quivering ones.

"Mine."

Hers.

Apparently satisfied, Tracey walked back into the corridor, Hermione bemusedly following. The love potion chocolates really just seemed moot at this point.

"Wait, you're Harry Potter's girlfriend?!" Romilda exclaimed in utter shock. Her brain had finally rebooted, allowing her to fully respond to what had just happened.

Unfortunately for her she never got an answer as Tracey had already slammed the door shut.

"Stupid girls think they can just treat him like that because he's such a celebrity! I'll bet they were calling him crazy last year too while taking about some other boy instead. I swear I'll hex the next one who tries something! I-"

Tracey's ranting continued in for some time before eventually fading away into silence. For a moment they both stood there, a heavily breathing Tracey and a still shocked Hermione. Slowly they both shifted, the Gryffindor relaxing bit by bit while the Slytherin grew redder and redder. Eventually neither could remain still any longer.

"Wait, Tracey!"

Without looking back, the girl speed walked through two full carriages, barging into the fourth compartment of the next, and disrupting the Sixth Years within.

"Daphne! I did something stupid!"

Unfortunately, muffled as she was by having her face pressed into Daphne's lap, it came out less than clear.

"Wafwe wywibwomwinwuwib!"

"Tracey what are you doing?" Daphne said impatiently, looking down at the girl who had thrown herself at her. "What did you do?"

"Wuwib wuwib wuwib…"

"She's not crying, is she?" Pansy asked flatly, watching the crazy girl. "Granger what happened?"

Surprised at being addressed, Hermione, who had stopped at the door, answered immediately.

"She just aggressively told a compartment of fifth year girls that Harry Potter belonged to her."

Que a great deal of utterly dumbfounded expressions.

"She did what?!" Daphne's voice rose several octaves in half a beat. "Merlin! Tracey, you didn't!"

"I did…!" The blonde moaned, finally removing herself from her friend's lap but still covering her face as she sat on the floor. If there was a fatal level of embarrassment that could be felt, this was probably it. "But she sent him love potion chocolates and I started thinking and I really started thinking and got a bit carried away- You know how girls are about him!" she added defensively at the looks she was getting.

"Harry- the boy you've been daydreaming about, the one we've all been wondering about for the past year was Harry Potter?!" Pansy was unable to resist glaring at her dorm mate. "How can you call yourself a Slytherin mooning over a Dumbledore kiss-ass like that?"

Tracey was on her feet in a heartbeat, eying Pansy with a vicious glare that had her flinching back instinctively.

"Don't you dare talk bad about him! Harry's a thousand times that asshole you've been following about for years! And for what?"

"That's got nothing to do with it!" Pansy flared back, upset at the mention of Malfoy. To say that he had become a different person recently would be a gross understatement.

"Could have fooled me. At least Harry isn't openly boasting about hunting Muggles."

"This isn't about me!" Pansy snapped, ignoring Hermione's gasp. "You want to be Harry Potter's girlfriend? You're going to get yourself killed! You'd paint a target on your back the size of a Quidditch goal! Could you be any more idiotic?"

It would have been no effort to hit the girl at that moment. She had such a detestable look in her face. Tracey took a deep breath before letting go of her anger in one long huff.

"You shouldn't be afraid to love someone, Pansy," she said finally.

The seated girl just scoffed, rolling her eyes.

"Love someone… Who told you that? Your boyfriend?"

"No, you did."

And she had, nearly three years ago to justify something she now wished had never happened.

"Ugh, you really do fit well," Pansy said eventually, looking back out the window. The words left them all puzzled. Certainly no one had expected her to say that. "A perfect match for a do-gooder like him."

And she completed the scene with a small retching motion.

Meanwhile, a few feet to the side of the spectacle taking place in the train compartment, Hermione was leaning against the door frame while letting everything sink in. This was real, wasn't it? She hadn't just dreamed this up in an attempt to escape the stifling compartment earlier, had she?

"Is it true?"

"Potter's dating a Slytherin?"

"What? That's impossible!"

"It fits to me, he's a Parselmouth after all."

"I forgot about that!"

"I think it's romantic, like Romeo and Juliet!"

"Are you an idiot?"

"Hey!"

"I forgot what she looks like, honesty."

"She's blonde, you can see her there."

"We don't even know if it's true!"

"Hermione will know for sure, she's right there."

"Hey, is Harry really dating Tracey Davis?"

The chatter went on and on outside of the compartment's open door. As expected, word had spread rapidly, drawing a crowd that made it almost impossible to move through the carriage as people cycled around the open door. Many craned their necks to catch a glimpse of Harry's supposed 'girlfriend.' All of them looked to the Gryffindor girl for an answer. After all, who better to know the truth about Harry Potter than Hermione Granger?

"Well, Granger, is it true?"

In a moment of clarity, Hermione saw that she was being presented with a rare chance that they usually never had. A chance to correct any misunderstandings and make sure the truth was spoken above anything else, preventing rumor from ruling the students thoughts. No one would question her word in the slightest regarding her closest friend.

Much to Tracey's horror, she spoke just two words.

"It's true."

And so, that was how everyone at Hogwarts found out that Harry Potter had a Slytherin girlfriend named Tracey Davis.

...Except Harry.

x~x

"Something wrong?"

Harry glanced back over his shoulder for a moment before returning his gaze out the frosted window.

"Feels a bit weird not to be on the Express I suppose," he said with a shrug. "Or back at the school. I know it's silly, but I keep thinking I'll miss something important."

"Don't let it get to you that much." Sirius walked over to give him a reassuring clap on the shoulder. "You're on a vacation of sorts so we'll be sure to make the most."

Truthfully, Harry's grin was only slightly forced. As over the top positive as his godfather was being recently, it didn't change the fact that spending time with him was always a blast of some sort, literally or not.

Sirius… hadn't taken news of his time limit well.

But things were different. Maybe the Sirius from two years ago would have spiraled into depression, distancing himself from another soon to be lost connection to his best friend. Now though he was determined to 'ride shotgun' as he put it.

"Looking for Voldemort's Horcruxes and raiding Death Eater bases is what you call making the most of it?" Harry said in amusement.

"Better than skulking around this dump," Sirius pointed out.

"You know the house is perfectly normal now," Harry argued. After all, when you took away the Dark items, creepy House Elf heads, annoying bigoted portraits, and hippogriff in the attic, it was really just a normal big house.

"You can change how a place looks as much as you want, it doesn't take away your memories or feelings."

"Ugh, who have you been hanging around too much to make you say something like that?" Harry said in mock disgust. "That was positively emotional."

Sirius just laughed as he pulled the teen in for a headlock.

"Losing my touch, you think?" he said lightly, knuckling down on the boy's head. "Well then how about we kick this vacation off with a little scuff." He freed Harry who quickly took a couple steps back, rubbing his head. "Gotta make sure you've still got your edge after all. Especially with how things are now."

Harry just smirked.

"I could be saying the same thing to you. Loser does dinner?" Considering the House Elf was dead, the bet actually had some meaning these days.

"You're on."

Xx~xX

In a round office filled with odd looking devices, many of them moving occasionally or letting out small puffs of steam or colored smoke, a lone man sat at his desk, stroking his long white beard. He sat in deep thought, as he often did these days, unable to resist reflecting on his decisions and if they were the right ones. Had he made good choices? At the right times? Could he have done better? How many more problems had he simply caused by trying to fix ones that already existed?

Fawkes let out a soft trill, making the Headmaster smile gratefully as his shoulders seemed to relax.

"Thank you, my friend. These days have been most terrible."

"Headmaster."

Dumbledore turned his attention to the portrait placed directly next to the door of his office.

"Yes, what is it?"

"You have a student requesting to see you. Sixth or seventh year Gryffindor girl," he informed dutifully.

"Let her in, please."

Of course, there was no chance a single night would go by with things as they were.

"Good evening, Miss Granger," Dumbledore greeted his guest as she crossed the threshold.

"Professor Dumbledore, where's Harry?" Hermione demanded, walking directly up to the head of his desk. "No one knows where he is but you must know. Please tell me where he is, I've been so worried."

The Headmaster was not surprised by the visit. Indeed he'd been anticipating this very thing happening from the moment Harry had been sent to Flamel. Surprisingly, or perhaps not so much, he'd been reluctant to lead the girl astray. He was tired of the secrets and the lone road to the future he'd been pacing out for decades upon decades. That wasn't to say full disclosure, but he could certainly allow some measure, if only to reassure the girl.

"I'm sorry to say, but Harry will likely not be returning to Hogwarts in the near future," he said finally.

"But… but why?" Hermione had finally sunk into the char he'd conjured for her. "What is he doing that he can't be here? Where is he even staying? There's no place safer than Hogwarts. Not from anything, especially Him!"

"Do you really think so?"

Perhaps it was the tiredness in his voice that gave her pause, but Hermione seemed to lose momentum as she watched the Headmaster's face.

"The philosophers stone, riddle's diary and the chamber of secrets, Death Eaters in the school and Lord Voldemort's revival at the end of the Tri-Wizard Tournament which was an affair unto itself. All of these things exclusively happened here. Secretly sending him abroad likely would have been the true safest way to keep him uninvolved."

"Why didn't you then?" Hermione's question was one of quiet uncertainty.

Dumbledore paused, unable to hold back a small sigh before responding.

"I could never force him away from the last connections remaining to his family's past. From the future he was certain to be involved in, no matter where he went."

"I… I guess I never thought about it that way," Hermione admitted. "I just want him to be safe, Professor."

"Hermione," the girl sat up a little straighter at this, "I don't know if I've said this to you before, but Harry is truly blessed to have a friend like you. For him, I thank you very, very deeply." He finished with his head bowed slightly.

"O-of course, Professor Dumbledore. That's very kind of you to say."

"Harry is staying with Sirius as they do work for the Order," he continued. "He is well protected but we cannot ignore such a skilled wand in the given circumstances. Particularly when the conflict surrounds him as it does. We both decided that it was in his and the other students' best interest if he were elsewhere at this time."

Hermione's eyes fell to her lap in sadness. Dumbledore knew how bright she was. Though she was missing the context of Harry's situation, she'd no doubt pieced together something. Enough to understand that there was much more than met the eye. Enough that as devoted as she was to seeing her friend safe, she didn't fight what he'd told her.

"Please tell Harry to expect an owl from me."

Idly Dumbledore wondered if Hermione knew the charm to make a howler.

"Of course, I'll make sure he gets the message," he returned cheerfully. "Have a good night, Miss Granger."

Xx~xX

No matter how many times he did it, using the key the twins had given him to their shop and home just fell a bit odd. Not like it bothered them. Apparently they liked having a walking safety hazard as a long term guest.

"Who are we to deny Britain's Chosen Hero a secret base?"

Then again, the pair had gone ahead with their "You-No-Poo" campaign, so who knew how long they'd have lived anyway?

"Look, George, he's done it again!"

"Used the key, bless him he's just a jewel to watch."

"Yeah, yeah, you guys are a riot." Harry rolled his eyes as he closed the door to the alleyway behind him and stepped fully into the lounge the room served as. The subtle sounds of an extreme amount of locking mechanisms shifted behind him, making him feel a tad better. "How was work?"

"Booming as usual," said Fred without hesitation. He was busying himself with a roll of parchment that listed receipts. "Holiday seasons do so much for our humble little bank accounts.

"The shop never looks too busy though," Harry observed, glancing over at the hall that lead to the store front. He poked his head in once in a while, unable to resist a look at the twins in their element.

"No denying we do our biggest sales through owl order," George said, holding one hand much higher than the other to show the comparison. "But I'm glad we get the traffic we do during the day. We've shifted some of our stock around so younger kids have more to look at. They're not in school so…"

"Makes sense," Harry agreed. "Any mail?"

"You mean are there any howlers?" Fred corrected with a grin. Harry just threw him a dirty look.

"Not today, just the usual," George chuckled, grabbing a small white envelope off the table and handing it over.

Harry glanced down at his name, penned in Hermione's immaculate handwriting, before putting it into a pocket.

"Anything else?"

"Actually, we caught a mouse in the cellar earlier," said George, pointing to a jar Harry hadn't noticed. "Wanted to know if you'd like it for that snake of yours?"

Grinning in amusement Harry picked up the jar and watched the rodent scramble around.

"Thanks, I'll see if she's hungry. Night then."

"Goodnight."

Harry headed up the stairs to the twins' apartment. It was actually quite large with rooms enough that he could get his own. Of course, he'd set up his trunk within the guest room so that the moment he'd closed the door he was down the spiral stairs and back into the familiar space he'd spent the summer in.

"I was wondering when you'd be getting back," Narcissa said from the couch, looking up from a book. She put it to the side and walked over to greet him properly. "And why are you carrying a mouse?"

"Sirius took his time today while we were training," Harry shrugged, holding out the jar. "And this is from George. He thought you'd like it."

Immediately Narcissa's expression flattened, a flick of her wand sending the jar and its occupant into nonbeing.

"I still think it was a mistake letting them see me," she said with more than a little of her old pureblood snootiness.

"And I'm still glad that I did," Harry returned. "At least this way I don't need to hide you when we go out together. Besides, I'm a Parselmouth. It makes sense that I'd own a snake."

"Yes but-"

"And it also covers if you do anything out of the ordinary for a snake too. Me being a Parselmouth I mean."

"Did you have to tell them my name was Palescale?" the woman griped, dropping all pretenses.

"No I suppose I didn't," Harry conceded with a nod. It wasn't like he was about to take it back though.

"Insolent child," Narcissa muttered, her voice softened with an annoyed fondness. Automatically she reached out to fuss with his hair for a moment which was its usual untamed mess. Perhaps one day… "How is cousin Sirius?"

"He's… okay." Harry sank into a nearby seat, absently noting that the Founders were all having a drink together in Helga's portrait. "He's been a bit more energetic now that he's got someone around more. We looked over some notes about that new Mark today."

"From what you have told me it is a frightening thing." Narcissa's voice was troubled. "No doubt it would have been forced on me if I'd remained at the Manor."

"I don't know," Harry said with a frown, thinking back to what Sirius had told him. "It looks like the people who have it are Voldemort's foot soldiers."

"You believe my relation to Lucius would prevent me from being disposable to the Dark Lord." Narcissa's voice was a mix of amusement and discomfort. "It is nice that you haven't become completely jaded by this conflict, though it does expose your childish ignorance at times. Had I stayed my fate would have been the same."

"Don't talk like that," Harry said, rubbing his head. "You sound like a poorly written villain from one of those books you like."

"And what do you know of literature?"

"Not a thing."

They fell into an awkward silence, only broken by the Founders in the background who went unnoticed to the two. Not once through the lull did they break eye contact.

"I still think you should be at school," Narcissa said with a frown. "Your education is important. And I don't care what Dumbledore says, Hogwarts is safer than a joke shop at the very least."

"I'm not hiding, Narcissa, no matter how many times you bring it up."

Harry's gaze was resolute.

"Not from your sister, not from Voldemort, not from his mindless followers, and not from this war."

Not from my death.

"You're going to die."

As if she'd read his mind the words were spoken, verbally striking him across the face as she turned away.

"Not before he does."

The room fell silent, Harry staring at Narcissa's back. Once more they found themselves here. A wall both found insurmountable.

After a few breaths she spoke, her voice bitter.

"You asked me why I dislike Dumbledore so much. This is why." She turned to face him, eyes filled with anger. "Because of the self-sacrificing, Merlin be damned dogma he champions as the leader of the "Light". He never needed to tell you how to act because you were raised in it like all the other fools that follow him! "

"That's not true!"

"My niece," she said with a brutal coldness. "Your parents. Just a couple casualties in a long line of the greater good. Swept into something they couldn't have ever possibly been ready for."

"There's nothing wrong with wanting to help the people you care about," Harry growled.

"Of course not," Narcissa scoffed. "When you can save someone just to saddle them with years and years of heartbreak and misery instead, why hesitate to throw it all away?"

"What gives you the right-" Harry broke off as his temper flared wildly, nails digging into his palms. Coldly he continued, "My parents weren't like that."

"No, but they almost were," she said evenly. "There were many times when I'd hear how they'd barely escaped the Dark Lord himself. Doing their best to stop him like the rest of Dumbledore's doomed child army. Why do you think this generation of Hogwarts students is so much smaller than previous ones?"

"I already knew that…" Harry admitted with a frown. "What's your point?"

"My point-?" Harry instinctively shrank back slightly as he knew he'd toed a line rather dangerously there. "My point, Harry James Potter, is that throwing your life away for a good ending isn't worth anything if you aren't there to experience it with the people you care about and who care about you."

Narcissa let out a long breath as she took a seat opposite him.

"No plan is a good plan of it doesn't keep you alive the when it's over. Promise me you won't forget this."

An almost physical pain lanced through him to his core as he opened his mouth to say what he needed. To say the thing he'd only been able to tell Sirius even after all his bravado at not letting his condition affect his decisions. She should know. She deserved to know.

"I…" He closed his eyes in shame. "I promise."

Xx~xX

Bellatrix was on edge. This perhaps wasn't so uncommon, all things considered, but the source of her discomfort was certainly a new one.

Her Lord's followers of all things.

They were… not right. It was expected to have a tendency towards violence in a group of terrorists. She was a perfect example of one such individual. But she tempered herself with a certain amount of reason and sense that most of the fold seemed to now lack. Even her nephew, who had grown immensely over the time he served her Lord, could now be frequently found wandering about the manor, talking to himself under his breath. He'd refused to return to Hogwarts for the second term, seemingly obsessed over whatever occupied his attention.

Frankly she didn't want to be around any of them.

If only her sister had not betrayed her Lord and fled to Dumbledore for safety. Where else could she have gone and remained so well hidden? Draco likely wouldn't have done anything differently but at least she'd be able to spend time with Narcissa. She could use the company, especially considering-

The floor beyond the door she guarded creaked, causing her to instantly bring up her wand. Shuffling footsteps betrayed the presence of someone on the other side. Draco, no doubt. Pettigrew would never willingly come this far into the manor. The footsteps became louder as they got closer, and Bellatrix readied herself. The lethal spell was on her lips, ready to send another to eternity.

The doorknob twitched.

"..."

And did not turn. The footsteps retreated steadily into the distance until there was no sign anyone had been there in the first place.

Bellatrix slowly lowered her wand, glancing back over her shoulder at her Lord. He sat in a high backed armchair, eyes closed and wand held in his lap. A small smile played upon his lips.

The first time he had ordered her to guard the door of this room and kill any who entered, she had been more than concerned. Her Lord was never the sort to put himself into a vulnerable position, and he'd willingly entered a trance of sorts, unaware of anything around him. He'd only stayed like this for ten minutes at most, but it still worried her and he'd declined her request for an explanation. That was nearly a year ago.

And here they found themselves again.

This time however, her Lord had been in the trance for over half an hour. Should she check on him? Make sure nothing was wrong?

"No."

The word slipped out before she knew she'd even said it. As much as she wanted to make sure he was okay, she feared his wrath at the interruption. Perhaps she'd end up ruining whatever he was doing, and who was to say what he wouldn't do to her? Her Lord's closest servant she undoubtedly was. It meant more than anything that he trusted her alone to watch over him when he was unable to defend himself.

But no one had been punished in the ways she had. Not even close.

"There!"

Bellatrix jumped as the soft voice of her master filled the room, his smile widening as it bled malice.

"There you are, Harry Potter."

x~x

Harry's eyes snapped open.

He was standing in a familiar darkened room, one that he hadn't seen for many months. A soft glow came from the crackling fireplace to his right. A decanter of some unknown liquid sat on a table to his left. Lord Voldemort stood by the window, an uncanny glint in his red eyes as he regarded the teen who just let out a rough sigh.

"Great, together again."

Voldemort merely smirked.

"Your flippancy betrays your discomfort, Harry. Please, relax, there's no need for either."

"The day I'll feel comfortable around you will be the day you're dead," Harry scowled, snapping his wand into his hand. The bright green spell that left it almost instantly disappeared into air, seeming to fold on itself into obliteration. A "tsk" shortly followed it.

"Right for the kill," Voldemort observed with a pleased expression. "How wonderful to see your growth since we last spoke. And your mental fortitude… for you to resist our meeting for so long is outstanding. After simply experiencing it one time your resistance is extraordinary. I even waited until you likely would have been asleep."

"What do you want, Voldemort?" Harry asked, letting his wand slip back into the holster. "You know what I want, but not the other way around. Tell me."

"But of course you know," Voldemort said evenly. "The prophesy-"

"You didn't have to do anything." Harry's voice was rough. "You could have ignored it and none of this would have happened. You might have won for all we know. And I would have had some kind of a life instead of the disappointment it actually was."

"Do not underestimate the depth of magic, Harry Potter." Voldemort's eyes were filled with an intensity that was hard to describe. "Is it simply more than any could possibly fathom. Yet we as a race hide and squander it while our very existence declines as well. What do you think about this?" he suddenly asked, gesturing to Harry. "In the face of this problem, what would you have our kind do?"

"I-" Harry didn't really know what to say. He'd never thought about the bigger picture of the world he lived in. Simply how he fit into it all. "Not kill Muggles for a start. That doesn't help anyone."

"No it does not," Voldemort conceded. "There are far too many Muggles for such a tactic to make any kind of difference."

"Then why are you making your followers kill so many?" Harry countered in anger. "There are attacks all the time. If it makes no difference then stop them!"

"You misunderstand, Harry. I have never ordered my followers to do such a thing. They organize the strikes themselves. I simply do not stop them. After all, everyone needs an enemy," Voldemort said with a smile.

"If they keep this up you'll expose wizarding kind!" Harry argued. "You'll be putting every witch and wizard in danger."

"War is inevitable," Voldemort said dismissively. "As is our victory. We have the gift of higher beings. Something that puts us above all other life."

"Try saying that to the barrel of a gun."

"You forget that I am less ignorant of Muggle methods of violence than most," Voldemort said coldly. "Muggles certainly have as many ways to kill their own kind as wizards do, but there is little they can do in the face of the manipulations of magic. You know as well as I do who would win the war. I can see it in your eyes."

Harry looked away, unwilling to admit anything.

"Did that orphanage really make you hate them that much?"

"I do not hate Muggles. I no more hate them than I do fish in the ocean. It took me time to understand this of myself. The orphanage taught me the true Order of the world. That I belonged to a race that simply existed above all others. They have no place in our future, Harry."

Silence stretched between them.

"You still haven't said why you dragged me here," Harry said flatly, but Voldemort didn't seem to be paying his words much thought. Instead he just stared intensely at the boy.

"A reminder… You would have made an excellent apprentice."

"What?"

Harry was more than a little caught off guard.

"I have encountered few individuals with potential like yours. Lucius isn't remarkably powerful, but quite resourceful. Bellatrix is the exact opposite, having talent the likes of which few in a century possess, yet lacking in many other places. Thus they serve to be tools for one such as myself. Incredibly potent, but needing a hand to guide them and never destined to move beyond their station.

But to have both and at such a young age… along with all of your other qualities… it truly is a shame that fate placed you in my path, instead of on it."

"Something tells me it wouldn't have worked out," Harry said sarcastically.

"Don't be so quick to dismiss it. I know your upbringing. I have seen your past, Harry, through your eyes. I know Dumbledore has told you much of my own. You cannot deny how similar we truly are; where we came from. Have you truly never felt the rage that I have? At the cruelties laid upon us? How far were you truly from becoming a Dark Lord like myself?"

"But I didn't," Harry returned instantly. "And I never will."

"Then you are as much a problem as the cancer that exists in our society. How many more Lord Voldemorts and Harry Potters must be created for something to change? I say no more."

"You'll never get the chance," Harry growled. "I'll stop you."

But Voldemort just laughed.

"I am immortal, Harry Potter. You cannot stop me. You cannot kill me. Even Merlin himself would bow to the power I have attained. The world will bend to my will and I will usher in a golden age for wizards across the world. There will be no place for the weak. I will cull them all."

"You're…"

You are so concerned with your own soul, burdened as it is…

The nearly forgotten words of an alchemist, given in passing, suddenly jumped to the fore of his mind.

That you think little for the one nearly depleted.

"You're crazy," he said finally. "I can't let you live. I will kill you."

"Ah, but Harry, it goes both ways. Come face me and die! Face your one true end! Prove to all that I'm right to rule this world! Prove that Fate has chosen me!"

x~x

Narcissa awoke to a heavy thump. She quickly moved from her bed, opening the door to the bedroom a crack and peering out. Harry stood with his back to her, leaning against the wall with a clenched fist. The door to his expanded closet bedroom was thrown wide. He slammed the side of his fist into the wall a second time.

"He needs to die."

Harry hissed the words to the darkness.

"He needs to die."

Xx~xX

It was to an odd sight that Dumbledore entered the kitchen of 12 Grimmauld Place. Both Harry and Sirius were there like he'd expected, bent over something that held their attention on the table at the center of the room. Then there was the fact that a large number of odds and ends were orbiting them at a wide radius though not too far out of reach. This was apparent when Harry absently held out a hand and a bottled butterbeer left the belt of things to its liquid doom.

"No trouble getting away from work?" Sirius asked in greeting as he looked up from what the Headmaster now recognized as a map.

"All things considered the school weighs the least on my thoughts these days," Dumbledore replied. He turned to Harry with a somewhat strained smile. "And you, Harry?"

"It helps," he said shortly, casting his gaze to the personal display of wandless magic before returning back. The objects parted to allow the Headmaster through. Joining them at the table, Dumbledore took the opportunity to give the teen a critical once over. A month since the incident and Harry would look no different to anyone who didn't know him well. But the Headmaster could see the subtle shifts he made in discomfort, the way his eyes weren't as attentive as they usually might be. Now however they just blankly fixed on his.

Ruthlessly Dumbledore crushed his current line of thoughts. He respected the boy too much to allow it to continue.

"Let's get to it then, shall we?"

Sirius broke the staring contest Dumbledore and Harry had unknowingly started, folding up the map before returning it to Harry.

"What were you both looking at?" the Headmaster asked as he removed a pouch from his robes, setting it on the table.

"Map of the castle," Harry explained, stowing it away. "We were considering ways Death Eaters might get in if they ever attacked. We know it's probably the safest building around, but still..."

"Though I once may have dismissed the idea, Death Eater movements have never been so destructive as they are now," Dumbledore admitted with a frown. "Particularly with their focus on Muggles. It is almost as if Voldemort has nothing to do with them-"

"He doesn't."

Dumbledore broke off in surprise at the interruption.

"He told me."

Harry's simple explanation said far more than it didn't.

"Your minds have touched again?" Dumbledore asked in surprise. It had been so long that he'd believed Voldemort was avoiding the contact entirely.

"Recently, yeah," Harry confirmed. "He might try to do it again if enough time passes, but I think I'll be able to keep him out next time."

"This is most concerning. We will have to discuss this later, if you are willing. Regardless," the Headmaster added as Sirius made to comment, "tonight we have more pressing matters."

Dumbledore upended the pouch on the table, creating a pile of sand. He caught the shadow of a smirk on Harry's face before prodding the granules with his wand, a whisper of magic moving throughout the pile. Within seconds a miniature manor had constructed itself with a surrounding landscape.

"Unfortunately this is the best we can do from here," he began, stowing his wand. "The inside of the home is not easily scouted and the risk too great to try. The elements of stealth and surprise will get you the furthest here, and even then only so far."

"I know we've talked about this before, but haven't the Ministry been through there already?" Harry asked, moving his gaze along the right side of the building and grounds.

"The Lestrange family has always valued their privacy, and their home is built with such in mind," Dumbledore said. "Like with the Malfoys, there are no neighbors to account for anything, rumor or otherwise. The land is large, and the wards cover a respectable distance."

"The wards won't be a problem with the cloak," Harry dismissed. "It'll be much harder using it with both of us inside though."

"Still can't help but wish you were coming with us, Albus," Sirius said with a sigh. "No telling what we'll run into there."

They had long ago decided that Dumbledore needed to remain at Hogwarts for any serious operation. Given the inherent risks, if Voldemort ever discovered what they were doing or wanted to take advantage of the situation and counterattack, they needed Dumbledore at the castle to ensure its safety, along with everyone inside it.

"Well, we won't know until we go," Harry said shortly. "I still think our odds are pretty good. If anyone other than Lucius got one it would have been her."

"There's always the chance it's in Gringotts," Sirius reminded them. "There's plenty of stuff the Blacks stuffed in their vault for safekeeping and the Lestranges would be no different. Most wizards would consider Gringotts to be the safest place outright."

"And it will be our next target if we cannot find the horcrux tonight," Dumbledore said with a nod. "Are you prepared?"

"As ready as we're going to get," Sirius confirmed.

"Then I wish you luck. Remember, your safety comes before acquiring the horcrux. Without it merely sets us back some time. Without you I fear what we may need to resort to in order to win this conflict."

Xx~xX

"We're here."

Harry and Sirius came to a stop at a seemingly random place. The manor was still some distance away and trees dominated the darkened landscape. Yet they moved no further, the younger closing his eyes momentarily.

"You sure?" asked Sirius.

"I'm better with people, but this is pretty simple to read," Harry returned, pulling out the invisibility cloak. "We'll go under this from here."

"Still kinda hard to believe James had it all this time," Sirius mused as he took the magical cloak. "Does explain how we got away with so much back in school. You sure about this?"

"We don't have time to figure something else out," Harry said, shaking his head. "Just remember I can't tell what's around me when I'm under the cloak. Let's go."

With that his body rapidly shrank until he had been replaced by a small black cat with bright green eyes. Carefully, Sirius placed the cloak over both of them before picking Harry up and setting off once more toward the manor. They would move much more efficiently this way, and really it was the only way they both fit properly.

They crossed the ward border with no issue, making slow progress on the approach to the manor. No patrols were anywhere to be found, even when they finally reached the building, but considering the Death Eaters were trying to keep a low profile in their hideouts it made sense.

Then again, if the ministry report was to be believed, the house was deserted. There were no lights coming from within at the very least.

"You know it's not easy seeing detail through this thing," Sirius muttered in annoyance as he tried to locate a place for them to enter. A paw on his hand got his attention before pointing higher up. Sure enough, there was a slightly open window on the third floor.

"Of course," Sirius grumbled at the obnoxious entry point. "Nice eyes."

Harry's ears flicked twice but he made no sounds.

"You realize I can't climb to that while wearing the cloak," Sirius continued. "I can levitate you up there and you can sneak back down here to let me in. Think you can manage that?"

Harry nodded, touching himself on the head a couple times before Sirius got the message. A quick silence and disillusion later, and Harry was slowly floating up to the open window. The only evidence anything odd was even happening was the centimeter of wand seemingly poking out of nowhere.

Harry looked around quickly as he dropped to the floor. The manor may have been dark for human eyes, but it may as well have been noon for all the trouble that gave him. The room he'd entered was a bedroom. One of the guest bedrooms, no doubt. It certainly didn't look anything like the one he shared with Bella.

Harry quickly shook his head. It had been a while since he'd gotten a mixed up thought like that. Considering the amount of time that had passed, he'd thought Rodolphus's memories had finally been detangled from his own.

Maybe I can use this… first to let Sirius in though.

Harry reverted back in order to open the door, but right after he was back in cat form, moving deftly through the manor halls with his destination firmly in mind. Sirius was waiting outside one of the library windows. All the while he used every sense he could to try and find people. It was odd because it smelled like people had been around, but he wasn't really sure how to make sense of that. For all he knew the sents were quite old.

"Looks like the Ministry was right for once," Harry mused as he shifted back once more to human. There really wasn't anyone about.

He quickly located a window and opened it, stepping back to allow a silent, invisible form enter. A few moments later and Harry was staring back at his Godfather.

"Empty?" he asked after cancelling the silencing spell.

"Nothing living I can feel," Harry said with a short nod. "I guess they haven't been using this place for anything."

"That certainly makes things easier for us. Regardless, if people have been here recently I'll know."

With that Sirius became the grim like dog, putting his nose to the floor. They were currently located in one of the two libraries the building had. Cautiously they moved through the room and back into the hall, Sirius leading them in a meandering path from side room to room as he sorted through the accumulated scents of who knew what. Suddenly he perked up, looking back at Harry before jerking his head forwards.

Unsurprisingly he led them through to the back of the manor where they were able to access the large cellar below. Harry noted a number of things in storage that he'd seen in Grimmauld Place's basement before being cleared out, but otherwise it looked like a typical storage space. Sirius changed back to his human form before pulling his wand.

"There are a handful of different scents that aren't the freshest, but way more recent than anything else in here. If there really is some kind of hidden area then they've probably got a better way of getting in."

"I thought we were looking for a hidden room," Harry said quickly, not liking the implication of what Sirius had said.

"Well unless Lestrange regularly let people get in and out of his belongings, I can't think why people would even come here. They must know the manor is under the Ministry's watch, however infrequent."

"Well cast the spell then and let's find out."

Harry stood back while Sirius moved his wand in an odd sort of wiggle, muttering some words. In preparation for an operation like this, Sirius had gotten Arthur to teach him the spell he used when he performed raids on an older building. The idea behind the spell was actually based on a scientific technique using some kind of invisible waves that Muggles had developed years ago. To be honest-

"Shit."

Harry was pulled out of his thoughts as Sirius cursed shortly.

"What's wrong?"

"There's more than a hidden room under the Manor." He turned to give the teen a grim look. "Way more."

x~x

It was a base.

There was no other way to describe the place. The halls were long and well lit, Death Eaters walked about without their masks, both Marks visible for all to see, discussing their previous missions and their accomplishments. Rooms were dedicated to eating, relaxing, sleeping, and training. Barely a few seconds ever went by where they weren't in the presence of a Death Eater.

Sirius was actually doing an incredible job managing to weave around people while still staying perfectly hidden. The grip he had on Harry's cat body was probably tighter than it needed to be, but better safe than dead. And they probably would be if they were discovered. None of the serpent marked Death Eaters had displayed any reasonable sense of self preservation in the face of a goal, particularly when that goal was at the other end of their wand. They were fanatical compared to the way the previous generation of Death Eaters were, and unfortunately the newer ones were way stronger as well.

It wasn't to say they hadn't found exactly what they were looking for in the first place. Glass cases and pedestals lines the corridor walls, displaying objects that made Harry's skin crawl just by looking at them. Masks set in silent screams, books that whispered whenever someone passed, blades that were stained in a blackish murk along their edges… on and on and on. A gallery of death for all to see.

The Lestranges were far Darker than they'd ever let on.

It was probably luck that they found an empty room. It was filled with boxes of who knew what, but the lack of Death Eaters made it better than anything they'd found so far. Sirius made sure the coast was clear before closing the door and pulling off the cloak. Harry quickly reverted back to human form.

"Thank god," he muttered, letting his senses breathe again. The cloak was incredible, but the way it closed him off to the world could get stifling.

"Anything?" Sirius asked immediately.

"No, just people and wards and stuff," he replied, sorting through the magic he was exposed to. "My range is pretty small with so much going on. It feels like this place is pretty big though. I wonder how long it took to build."

"Probably not long," Sirius reasoned. "But it's definitely been here for a while." He sat down on a box, still keeping his wand pointed toward the door. "So what do you need to make sure it isn't here?"

"Just walk around," Harry said simply. "I just can't be under the cloak when I check, but I don't need more than a second really. We'll have to hope for another room like this one."

"Or just stun some of em," Sirius added.

"We should avoid that kind of clock if we can avoid it," Harry said dryly, "but we'll deal with it as it comes, let's just keep- cloak!"

Sirius instantly reacted, rolling back off the box and covering himself in an instant, barely a ripple of air indicating anything had been there previously. Harry simply dove behind a stack of boxes, shifting to cat form mid jump. Seconds later the door burst open to admit a masked Death Eater, wand out and looking around wildly. He moved slowly through the room, checking behind boxes as Harry kept carefully out of his line of sight.

"Homenum Revelio!"

Internally Harry smirked at how useless that spell was in that moment. It was a feeling still greatly overshadowed by how rapidly his heart was beating against his chest.

"Well what do ya know," another Death Eater said as he walked into the room. "No one here. You done wasting my time, Hars?"

"No names!" the named Hars hissed, eyes darting between his companion and the seemingly empty room. The first Death Eater just rolled his eyes.

"Merlin's tits, Mr. Paranoia, are you done?"

"I told you, someone used the back entrance!"

"And somehow got past the boundary ward without anyone noticing, and everyone else walking around, and the couple of people we stick to patrolling anyway because why not, and AHA!" The Death Eater suddenly shouted while pointing directly where Sirius had gone, making Harry's heart practically stop. "Air! I knew it was you all along!"

"Fuck you, Pollac. If someone snuck in, they'll be here. It's the only unused room in the whole place."

"Unless you're McLovin' and his band of whores."

Hars suddenly backed toward the door and gave the room a somewhat disgusted look.

"Even if someone did somehow sneak in, they're dead the moment anyone sees them. Nothing can stand up to this."

Harry managed to get a glimpse of the man named Pollac as he said this, holding his right arm aloft. The serpent mark covered his entire arm in a coil, disappearing into his shirt.

"Anyway have fun sitting guard outside a room with potions ingredients. Maybe you can grab one of those books from the shelf in the hall for a read while you're at it."

Pollac laughed as he left, causing the suspicious one to look from him to the empty room multiple times before leaving as well, closing the door behind himself.

Harry didn't move, and though he couldn't tell, Sirius probably hadn't either. The second man who had just left was still standing just outside the door. Finally, after what seemed like ages, he walked off and didn't not return.

The teen returned to human form and said in a flat voice, "Well that's great."

"They're already onto us, we don't have the kind of time we used to," Sirius frowned. "You said it'll only take you a second to know, right?" Harry nodded to which the man continued, "Good. Transform and I'll hit you with a disillusion."

"Alright," Harry agreed, doing just that. While Sirius was an expert with his transformation, Harry was still comparatively an amateur and almost always failed to maintain the stealth spell during a transformation.

"Try not to move too quick or catch anyone's attention," Sirius added unnecessarily, standing back up and pulling the cloak over his shoulders. Instantly Harry was hit with a sense of dread.

He wasn't really…

"Be as quick as you can while I cause some distractions."

"Sirius!" Harry's angry meow did nothing as the man vanished completely. The door opened then pulled itself closed with just enough room for a small animal to squeeze by.

Damn him, always making deductions without saying something first!

Unwilling to waste any time, Harry poked his disillusioned head out the door and quickly set off. Not being under the cloak was refreshing and instantly enabled him to tell if he was close to a horcrux. He moved in rapid bursts, going from a dead sprint to stock still whenever he reached a corner or a Death Eater came out of a room. The closed doors meant nothing to his senses. If a horcrux was behind one he would know.

It was after the fourth consecutive left turn he took that he realized he'd gone in a large loop. The halls were easily as lengthy as the corridors in Hogwarts, but there was no mistaking the objects he was passing for the second time.

He took a right into a short hall that, according to his mental map of the place, was completely opposite the way they'd come in. Sure enough, a tight winding staircase was against the far wall, descending out of sight. He'd not been looking properly, so focused on sensing the feeling of a horcrux.

Half way down the stairs he was met with the sounds of multiple footfalls from further ahead, rapid as they drew closer.

"I don't know, just move it!" came a rough bark, causing the steps to redouble. Harry immediately about faced, dashing back up the stairs and hiding in the corner. Barely a moment later four masked Death eaters made the clearing, nearly running down the hall and turning the corner.

Do they not have an apparition point? Wait is it Sirius?

Even moving around as he had, Harry didn't have the slightest idea what his Godfather was up to. With luck he wouldn't find out until they both left this place.

The lower level was larger, but only in the number of rooms it had. A handful of Death Eaters walked about freely without a care of the deadly artifacts they were inches from. The collection was perhaps even more extensive down here than above. Harry had a few heart stopping moments where someone looked directly at him, but he was long gone before they could look again. Now resting beside a slightly quivering bookshelf, Harry closed his eyes he tried to focus once more.

He wanted to stay hidden. Complete the entire operation without being seen. Come and go like a ghost. But his magic begged to be used. The part of his soul that had once belonged to Voldemort called on and unending wave of pressure that built up until he felt like he was going to collapse. Using magic was all that kept him sane.

Suddenly his eyes snapped open. There was a gap in what he could feel. Perhaps it was the absence of everything that made it stand out so much, but there it was.

Within seconds he was before the door, inspecting it critically. There wasn't any difference between it and the others, but this room clearly had some kind of extra warding on it. He couldn't let himself leave without checking in this specific room. The issue?

It was closed.

One minute passed. Two minutes passed. Five minutes passed. Harry's anxiety grew with each passing second as he gambled on the chance someone would either enter or, however unlikely, exit the room. He couldn't afford to continue to wait for a miracle. Both he and Sirius couldn't stay here any longer than absolutely necessary.

Gritting his teeth, Harry made absolute sure he was alone before returning to human form, hitting the door and himself with his best silencing and disillusionment charm before moving to the door. His sense of exposure peaked, Harry turned the knob, found it unlocked, and barged into the room, wand up, slamming the door noiselessly as he took in his surroundings.

Three thoughts instantly crossed Harry's mind as he automatically moved to the right corner of the room, still completely distracted by what he'd stumbled upon.

The first was that there was no horcrux here. Unless it was buried somewhere behind some kind of magic, their final and only hope was the Lestrange vault in Gringotts.

The second was that there was a massive bed in front of him.

The third was that it was occupied.

"You've got to be kidding me," Harry scowled, breaking his stealth to hit the Death Eater with a stunner, followed by another three for the trio of women who were sharing it with him. "McLovin' I presume."

Moving back to the middle of the room, Harry paused in front of it as he considered his position, staring at the door like it was a map of the entire structure.

The wards were old and solid, nothing like the ones at the Three Broomsticks which he had pushed through without too much effort in the end. The only way he'd be escaping the manor was by leaving on foot. Or paw. He could certainly move faster as a cat, and once he was outside there was no chance of them tracking him in the surrounding grounds. But that wasn't an option anymore with all the people he had to protect now.

Come on, Sirius, answer the call!

Harry just stared at the compact in his hand, as if by glaring at the thing it would provoke a response. Sirius was no doubt receiving the notice that Harry wanted to talk to him, but the fact that he hadn't immediately answered was more than a little ominous. There were only so many reasons he wouldn't be answering, and they all went from bad to worse.

Frustrated he put the compact back in his pocket and turned to face the room only to be instantly greeted by the sight of a glowing wand being held by a Death Eater who was supposed to be unconscious.

Harry's instinctive shield was shattered as a massive force crashed into him, sending him and the old door to shatter against the hall wall without a single sound. Barely clinging to consciousness, Harry groaned as the world swam around him, the taste of blood strong in his mouth. Though his silencing spells had still held on the shattered door, it did nothing to block the word bellowed through the halls.

"INTRUDER!"

Doors banged open at varying distances, giving way to even more sound. Shouts blurred together in a mesh of confusion and anger. Harry managed to roll himself to his side for a full hazy view of the naked Death Eater who had somehow resisted his stunner. A Death Eater who had a snake tattoo that started on his arm, went across both shoulders, down and around his left side, and finally coiling back up his right where the massive head rested on his chest, fangs exposed.

"Little shit thought he could put me down?"

The man stepped into the hall only to be hit in the side by a spell that left a bleeding gash in its wake.

"Watch where you're aiming or I'll kill you too!" He roared, stepping back into the room to avoid another three spells that passed through his previous space in both directions. Once more his wand pointed at Harry, who was still somehow being ignored by the other Death Eaters in favor of whatever they were all now casting at. But Harry had regained enough of his senses to flick his wand with the hand that still seemed to work.

The Death Eater was blasted backwards into the bed, cracking the wooden frame as he let out a shout of pain. His spell went wide in return, impacting the wall to the right, nearby collapsing it. Numbing his nonfunctional left arm, Harry rolled out of the Death Eater's line of sight and jabbed his wand at the debris from the door, causing it all to rocket into the room where it caused a series of sickening sounds, coupled with a garbled scream.

There was no time to think about the Death Eater's fate however, as Harry's movement had finally drawn the attention of the other Death Eaters. He half crawled, half dragged himself to the open door, blindly shielding against anything coming his way. A bright green spell missed his back by inches as a sickly orange one caught his left leg.

Though his mouth made no sound, Harry reactively began to shout as his entire body began to burn. It took him a second to stick his wand in his side and cast an equally lethal spell, the only countercurse for the one that was making his blood begin to boil.

Now he just needed to remain conscious until it went away or die a horrible death.

A quick Reparo returned the door and wall to their former state, followed by an unbreakable charm and locking spell. It wouldn't hold for long, but at the very least he'd bought himself a minute. With painful difficulty he dug into his left pocket for a galleon sized pack that automatically resized the moment it cleared his person. The wallet looking leather was lined with a number of corked vials, all of which Harry downed as fast as he possibly could. Blood replenisher, bone knitting, pain relieving, and energy boosting. The mix was enough to bring sharp clarity to his head and strength to his body. Snape was one hell of a brewer.

The savaged corpse of the naked Death Eater was ignored in favor of quickly checking the women who were still stunned on the bed. Though they also bore Death Eater marks, none were so pronounced as the man's had been. He stunned them once more each for good measure and bound them before moving back to the door, a grim expression set on his face.

The alarm had been sounded. Hiding was useless.

It was time to make himself an exit.

x~x

Sirius felt a surge of relief when he saw the shattered door fix itself half way down the hall. He'd witnessed Harry come crashing out of the room initially, and was quick to support by misdirecting the emerging Death Eaters into fighting each other, too far down the hall from one another and too quick to jump to deadly action in order to realize they were being played.

The immediate downside of his plan though was that he was unable to reach where Harry was without walking directly through a narrow space being filled with spells flung back and forth. Seeing Harry make it into the room after being hit and still repair the door meant he was healing up as best he could before mounting a defense.

Sirius himself hadn't been idle while Harry had been searching for the horcrux. The grim animagus had moved from door to door on the upper level, placing charms so passing sound would be reduced to almost nothing. It was why no one had come to reinforce the shout beyond the floor they were on. Still, there were many Death Eaters moving around, some of which were trying to approach Harry's position.

He would need to make another distraction. Something to pull them away from the room, but not expose his invisibility. It was without a doubt the biggest advantage he held over the Death Eaters.

But then the door opened.

And all his plans went out the window.

x~x

Harry's offense was quite simple. He was a very easy target and had no real cover from either side of the spells that would surely be quick to follow his appearance. He also wasn't very sturdy, even after dosing himself so heavily with emergency potions. So he went for his tried and true Plan B.

Snakes.

Lots of snakes.

He was unable to see the faces of the Death Eaters in the hall, but he imagined it wasn't happy as hundreds of conjured and transfigured snakes of all kinds surged from the room. They weren't difficult to make and he had so much energy to burn it bordered on ludicrous. His ability as a Parselmouth turned the snakes from minor nuisances into lethal threats.

The screams though. Those were pretty clear.

Harry leaned out of the room's cover and aimed a penetrating curse at the chest of a Death Eater down the hall. He managed to get out of the way on reflex but his companion caught it in the shoulder, dropping instantly. The Death Eaters on the other end of the hall were completely focused on the snakes, blasting waves of fire down the hall to incinerate the slithering wave of fangs. That only lasted for a few seconds though before it suddenly cut out. The snakes were gone, but it seemed that the Death Eaters were down as well.

"Stop hiding and fight!"

The shout came from the Death Eater who had dodged his initial spell. He had also stopped the snake threat, but he was also the last of his allies standing. Slowly, Harry emerged from the room, wand at his side.

"That's better. Think you're something to take on the Dark Lord's followers, don't ya?"

"Why do you follow him?" Harry found himself asking.

"The Dark Lord rewards his faithful followers with absolute power," the Death Eater said with a smile, pulling at his collar to expose a snake's head. "Power to do whatever I want."

Power to control others.

"At what cost?"

Harry's wand was up now, ready to fight. The Death Eater did the same.

"Does it matter?"

Their first spells flew at exactly the same time, passing one another by a hair. Harry swatted his away while the Death Eater moved to the side, following up with two more. Harry shifted to the defensive, but pressed forward, closing the distance as he continued to deflect spells into the wall. The Death Eater seemed to take this as a idirect challenge, mirroring his movement forward.

"Bombarda!"

The shouted spell was as much a warning as the jab, Harry reflexively ducking under the spell with a roll, shielding as he went. Deflecting that one wasn't an option in such a confined space. He returned with his own silent Bombarda, which the Death Eater fully shielded against with a Protego.

More spells were exchanged in quick succession. They were no more than a few dozen feet from each other, where the slightest waste of movement would spell their ends. Eventually one faltered.

Tasting victory, the Death Eater went for an easy finisher, a Killing Curse aimed right for the center of Harry's chest. His expression morphed to one of shock when the spell simply dissipated just as it seemed to hit the teen. Then he fell to a curse hitting him in the forehead.

Harry let out a long breath, vanishing the glass he'd conjured while pretending to stumble. The man had been a good duelist, but goaded far too easily.

"Harry Potter?"

Harry turned, wand raised, to find one of the Death Eaters he'd downed earlier pushing himself up slightly. It was likely difficult, and painful, with the small hole in his shoulder.

"It is you- wait! Please! Thank Merlin, I'm saved!" the man gasped, eyes flicking between his wand and eyes. "They've forced me to be here. To fight with them. I never thought I'd see my family again. You've got to help me escape!"

Passive Legilimency brushed the man's mind like a gentle breeze.

"Lies."

The word was cold.

"No! Potter- Harry, I swear-"

The more he spoke, the easier it was to see everything he'd done. The more he tried to hide, the more he drew attention to it.

"-you're a hero! The next Dumbledore! You wouldn't-"

"Avada Kedavra."

The rambling stopped. The hall became quiet once more. Lightly, Harry brushed a finger against the mark that ruled his life. As ever, it remained silent.

All at once Harry became aware of a frozen Sirius, staring at him from just down the hall, cloak in his arms. His expression said it all.

"Of all the choices I've had to make, that might just have been the easiest," Harry said after a moment. "Let's go."

Killing.

He stepped over a body, sweeping another to the side with gesture.

It was too easy.

The stairs came quickly. Sounds of alarm could be heard from above. It seemed the other Death Eaters were aware something was wrong. Harry's free hand reached out to grab the Death Eater mask that had floated up to meet it.

For something that submerged him in such complicated emotions, the act was simply casual; dismissing the lives of those who could only be described using the foulest words, the most repulsive images. For what they did, for what they would do if left alone, they truly didn't deserve to exist.

The mask fit easily over his face.

He would feed on that which ate Death.

XXXXX

CHAPTER Complete! Yay, not a full year to update (almost)! I'll say a couple things here and let you get back to more regularly updated stuff that doesn't treat you badly like my stuff does T_T

Firstly here are all of the funny Voldemort misspellings that happen when I type fast. Boldemort, Coldemort, Foldemort, Goldemort, Holdemort, and Oldemort. The Dark Lord of freshly laundered clothing, Lord Foldemort. Always good for a laugh when I'm writing. :D

Secondly, I think the controversial topic of the day here is who would win the war between Muggles and Wizards. I firmly believe that wizards would do so, but the reason for that is because I think magic here is actual magic. Not some kind of "science magic" which is regularly overcome by physics. Magic literally bends and outright breaks the scientific laws of nature. Sure plenty of wizards would die just from ignorance of what they're fighting against, but I think ultimately they would still win in the end. Please leave your stance on this in a review, I like to hear how people envision the HP setting.

Finally, I want to acknowledge that among the mistakes I've made to the story in retrospect, none is quite so bad as Dumbledore being involved in the Tonks infiltration deal. Initially I underestimated the grip *manip dumbles* has over a lot of readers (and ensuing anger), but also I didn't realize there were better ways of going about the whole thing. I'll take it as a sign of growth that I want to hit my head on a wall whenever I think about it, but I'm looking forward to finishing this so I can get back to editing for a polished final product.

Anyway, review, fave, follow, or just laugh with power as you choose none of the above. Guest reviews keep the trash talk flowing, and dedicated readers thanks for sticking it out with me for another chunk of your life. Here's hoping the next one comes out just a little sooner as we get one step closer to the end. Ciao