"He'll come for me. I am loyal and he will come for me. He will come. Soon. I am loyal. He will come. I am loyal. He will come..." -Whispered mutterings of Rodolphus Lestrange, Azkaban Prison, January 1997
The jets of light that made Harry's spells were as varied as any skilled duelist. There were lots of common blends of reds, yellows, and whites, but then a sneaky blue appeared. Sometimes closer to purple. Even the occasional silver or copper. His spell knowledge was extensive for the average wizard, and respectable for the talented. He spent so much time cramming his head with options, practicing until he could cast anything with the ease of a Lumos. And yet…
Every spell was an unmistakable shade of green.
Mutely, Sirius kept to his godson's back, protecting him from a potential flank. Unnecessary however, when the Death Eaters seemed eager to meet their end face to face. It was only after Harry stepped past the hall leading to the exit, continuing his circuit of the top floor of the base, that Sirius saw this for what it truly was.
"There's something wrong with me."
It was so easy, so right, to disagree. To reassure Harry that he was fine, that all the important parts were there. To stop him from thinking that any piece of him had been torn away by that Dementor. That the teen's soul was far too good for it to be influenced by a torn fragment of Voldemort's. That he was stronger.
Sirius could no longer lie to himself that everything was the way it used to be. No matter what had caused it, things had changed.
"Looks like that's all of them."
The emotionless voice broke the sudden silence that had fallen with the final Death Eater. Harry glanced back to Sirius and removed the mask. They stared at one another in silence for a long time.
"You-" Sirius' voice was hoarse, causing him to clear his throat before beginning again. "You saved a lot of lives tonight, Harry."
It was clear the words caught the teen off guard. Perhaps the last thing he'd ever expected in the situation was some kind of praise.
"And avenged just as many," Sirius added softly.
To this Harry just laughed. It was a hollow sound.
"Don't sugar coat it, Sirius. Removing hazards like this from the world is the least I can do before I go."
Silence fell over them once more as they finally exited the manor. The sky was dark, but little more than an hour had passed since they'd arrived. One of the Order's Healers was waiting for them back at Grimmauld Place, but they still moved slowly as they crossed the grounds. It was Sirius who found his voice first.
"I don't know," Harry said shorty, looking down at his hands. "Maybe a month? I don't think much more. It hurts, Sirius."
He turned back, meeting his godfather's eyes. They almost seemed to glow in the darkness.
"Master, you called for me?"
Bellatrix Lestrange knelt before Voldemort as she entered the room. It wasn't frequently that Milly found herself in the presence of the Dark Lord, but those times were more frequent recently as she successfully returned from strike after strike, her own secret count of Death Eaters rising to match the Muggle ones of her fellows. It was unnerving how veteran she was compared to most of the Death Eaters in general, given their extremely variable life expectancies. And yet even there, among a large group of her fellows, she felt the ticking clock upon her arm as it rested, coiled up to near the top of her shoulder.
Voldemort turned fully to face the room at large and her thoughts were instantly extinguished.
"I have. I wanted to make an announcement to my more competent followers," he said slowly. His voice made many in the crowd shudder. Some from fear, others from excitement. "The base at Lestrange Manor has been wiped out… by Harry Potter."
Whatever unrest that the initial declaration had caused was nothing to the outright whispers that ripples through the group. Milly herself was stunned. Bellatrix summed up their thoughts in a single word.
"Indeed," Voldemort nodded. Then he smiled. "He told me himself."
"But My Lord, how-"
The woman closed her mouth and lowered her head immediately.
"Harry Potter," Voldemort continued, still smiling, "has finally declared war with me. Little though the base mattered, the principle is still the same. Soon we will strike back tenfold. Azkaban will crumble and the Dementors will join our cause. With the fall of the British Ministry to our control we will push east, and begin our movement in earnest."
There was a good deal of cheering through the room at this. The promise of another fight to gain control and power was one the Death Eaters fed off of.
"Additionally, if you so happen to encounter the boy at all in the future, above all else kill him." Voldemort's final statement rang out, silencing the group. "Now go and continue to bring the purity of blood and magic victory!"
Milly moved slowly as the group shuffled out of the room, straining her ears to hear what followed.
"You are absolutely forbidden from fighting the boy."
"Wha-? No! Master, why-"
She cut off at once, eyes finding her feet immediately.
"In the past you would have struck yourself down for such a lack of faith. Now we must plan for the return of the inner circle. Our actions will require swiftness."
Milly shuffled out of the room quickly, not wanting to be noticed for loitering. Why was Voldemort encouraging the Death Eaters to kill Harry, but forbidding Bellatrix? Did he really want the teen dead or was there something else? And Bellatrix was questioning Voldemort? What could be causing such a thing?
She shook her head to clear it. No matter what was going on with that, there was no doubt that her own motives were progressing well. She was getting closer, step by step. No longer a dreg of the terrorist organization.
And when the time came?
The leaders would die. Voldemort would remain stranded. He would be defeated.
And Harry would live in peace.
Harry was lost in thought, something that happened frequently when he wasn't exactly sure what to do at the moment.
He was currently walking through the crowded London streets, quietly observing the life around him. It seemed as if the random attacks across the country had very little effect on the day to day of the average citizen. In fact the only one he ever heard anyone mention in the random conversations he passed was the one from the previous year's Halloween. It just went to show how much larger of a scale the non-magical world existed in. They just kept moving along… oblivious to it all.
So he walked along, his mind wandering like his feet. The raid on the Lestrange Manor had been nearly two weeks back, and yet the lack of response was discomforting. Voldemort was not the type to allow himself to step back. On their end, the Order and DMLE was prepared as best they could be for any attack, but that simply meant they had to wait for it to happen. There was no action they could take without compromising their own position.
He turned right.
Absently he dug out Hermione's most recent letter, reading through it for the third time. Usually they were general things, asking about his health and giving him advice, but sometimes they included funny stories of what his friends had gotten up to recently. He was incredibly grateful of them, as the separation had been wearing at him recently. February was nearly over now.
Another right, followed by a left.
Most of his days blended together in a mesh of dueling practice, providing support for any Order member who needed it, and discussing Death Eater movements with Sirius. Usually he made it back to his trunk apartment for an end of day meal and a brief interaction with Narcissa. He'd become so used to them that even through everything else he felt needed to be done, he didn't want to sacrifice those times. They were small snapshots of peace from his personal war.
Straight. No, back.
Harry nearly fell as he changed directions on a dime, walking directly into a random person who hadn't expected him to simply turn around.
"Sorry," he said distractedly, moving out of the way of the flow of people. He'd become aware of the fact that he was actually rather close to someone he'd never expected to simply come across in the street. She was less than a block away… had he been following her?
On an impulse he took off at a brisk pace, snaking his way through three groups of people and crossing the street. He turned left at the next corner and came to a full stop, the person he'd been tracking also stopping with a surprised blink.
"Hey, Bella…" Harry scratched his cheek as the awkwardness of the encounter settled over them both. People grumbled loudly as they were forced to detour around them. "Uhh… Fancy a cup of tea?"
This is odd.
The thought idly floated through the mind of Bellatrix Black. She was drinking tea in a Muggle cafe. More than that she was essentially relaxing in public. People came and went, giving her as much attention as a pretty picture on the wall. They didn't know who she was, nor did they care. No looks of fear. No one trying to arrest her or kill her. Yes, it was quite odd.
Though not nearly as absurd as what was in front of her.
"How is it? The tea?"
What was honestly happening these days anymore?
Which was bizarre in itself, given how particular she was with how she took her drinks.
Potter let out a satisfied nod before giving his head a quick shake and busying himself with his own.
"I've been ordered to leave you untouched," Bellatrix said after a second, making eye contact with the teen over the rim of her cup. "That is the only reason you're still alive."
The boy was to come to the Dark Lord of his own accord and she was not to interfere with that. Specifically her, a fact which annoyed her in more ways than one. Particularly with the way that the Dark Lord was encouraging the other Death Eaters to seek him out, as if any of them would be skilled enough to take the teen down. But currently he wasn't trying to attack her in the slightest, and so she let it lie. He'd seemed rather intent on buying her a drink after all. She wasn't exactly sure what had driven her to accept, but she did without much hesitation. There were a number of mysteries about him that she wanted answers to if she could get them.
"He told me the other day. We've been in contact a bit more than usual."
"So I've noticed."
At precisely one minute and fifty-six seconds into their sitting, it was almost unnerving how distracted the boy seemed. Considering all of the history they had, the fact that he wasn't more concerned by the current situation was more than strange. Also…
"Are you well?"
Why in Merlin's name was he making small talk!?
"Fine, how about you?" she returned robotically.
"Been better to be honest."
Another sip. Another stare.
"I know he said it, but you really won't duel me at all?"
She almost smiled. Almost. The poorly veiled disappointment in his voice brought a touch of warmth to her demeanor. Yes, she wanted him dead to please her Master, but he also commanded an incredible amount of dueling skill for his age and had no apparent fear facing her, be it on the battlefield or in a cafe. On the contrary he seemed to enjoy it like she did. The fact that he was in her top five preferred people to duel was saying something.
"I am not called My Lord's most loyal follower for nothing. Though if you were to attack me..." she left the sentence unfinished. She would retreat almost immediately, of course. Her Master's words were law. But she would not let the attack go unpunished.
"No, this is fine. I'm surprised you were walking around this part of London. Any part, really."
She understood immediately what he was referring to.
"They are a disease and risk to our way of life, but they are not contagious," Bellatrix scoffed. "Do not confuse me with one of those mindless minions you seem to enjoy killing. Can't imagine people are pleased with that recent shift in their hero." A thought struck her and the more she considered it the more it felt right. "But they don't know, do they? Oh dear…"
Potter frowned, but whatever retort he had he buried it quickly in an impressive display of control. Instead he said, "Do you mind if I ask you a question?"
The woman sipped her tea with no response, but he took this as encouragement.
"Do you love Voldemort?"
Potter blinked in surprise at her blunt response.
"Oh." He seemed to search around for something else to say before adding, "Even though he hurts you?"
"I don't expect you to understand."
"I want to though."
Bellatrix's expression shifted to one of confusion as words no witch or wizard would ever expect spilled from her lips.
"Are you insane?"
Potter blinked before laughing.
Bellatrix took another glance at the clock on the wall. Three minutes and thirteen seconds. It felt like ten times that.
"I'll want something in return for that answer. You're close to Dumbledore, so I'm sure you know things you shouldn't." Internally she smiled. Whatever was going on with him, she was definitely not below taking advantage of it. "Where is Narcissa?"
It was incredible the response her sister's name drew out of the boy. The air around him changed from harmless to outright hostile.
"Looking for a life to end, cousin?" Potter ground out.
"Looking for a traitor, cousin," Bellatrix returned in a hiss.
"You're the traitor here, if you can really choose Voldemort over your sister." Potter full on sneered at her. "She didn't run to spill his secrets. She ran because he wouldn't stop torturing her! We can't all enjoy it like you are."
"Then where is she?" Bellatrix shot, holding back her own snarl at the dig. "What has Dumbledore done to keep her from the Dark Lord's followers?"
"Nothing. She's under my protection."
That brought her up short. Potter's protection? Him?
"I've hidden her from everyone, Voldemort and Dumbledore," he continued. "She's safe and no one will ever find her. Least of all her incredibly concerned sister," he added with sarcasm.
"But why?" she said incredulously. He had literally no connection with her sister beyond their distant relation. There was no reason for him to take that risk. From what she'd heard it was more than certain to be the opposite!
"Because everyone else in her family seemed fine with her being disposable," Potter said coldly. "Now I've answered your question, so answer mine? Why love the thing that tortured you and your family? Why love someone that will never return any of it? You aren't mindless, so why? Why do so many horrible things for him?"
In one shot Bellatrix drained the remainder of her tea. Their time together was up. Four minutes, twenty-four seconds and not a damned moment longer.
"Because he asked."
She set her cup down with more than a little force, cracking the saucer.
"And I said yes."
The light clink of dishes being cleaned was all that filled the small flat Narcissa lived in. She sat with a book open in her lap as she often did, but equally as frequently she barely saw the words on the pages. Instead her thoughts surrounded the worsening state of the teen that lived with her. A teen that was currently holed up in his closet-turned-bedroom.
She remembered vividly when he'd first taken her in just how upbeat he seemed. Sure he had his moments, but the majority of the time they were together he moved about with a… spark of something. Hope? Confidence? She couldn't really say, but she knew it had been there.
Because right now it certainly was not.
His drive was still there, perhaps even more so than ever. He moved with a purpose and conviction. Yet those innocent moments he'd have were all but gone, and Narcissa found herself deeply troubled by it all.
Narcissa looked up to see Helga sitting in the closed portrait, body turned toward the single hall. The other three Founders were fast asleep.
"I know I've been around him the least, but Harry's not acting right," she continued softly. "He looks like he's dealing with something all alone and it's pushing down on his shoulders."
Narcissa wilted slightly at the words, the bubbles of anxiety making themselves known in the pit of her stomach.
"It's okay to care, you know?"
Narcissa sat up as she was addressed. Perhaps last summer she'd have been defensive but here in the night her vulnerabilities freely came to the surface.
"It's not that I care," she said slowly. Her eyes once again found the base of the fourth finger of her left hand. She'd discarded the ring for fear of somehow being found by it, but it was so much harder to detach herself from everything that had come from it. From everyone.
Where did she truly belong?
"What is it then?"
"I care too much." Narcissa's words were simple but held so much in them. "I don't know what to do. How do I help him?"
Helga said nothing, opting for tossing back a shot of whatever she'd picked this time. It wasn't like she had good advise about this stuff. She'd been a fairly terrible mother herself, what with all the drinking.
A door suddenly clicked open as the object of their thoughts exited his room.
"Is everything okay?" Narcissa asked him as he entered the main room. Harry was looking around as though he were missing something, but it quickly passed.
"I'm going back to Hogwarts."
"You're- going back to Hogwarts?" Narcissa repeated, surprised at the sudden declaration.
"I need to speak to Dumbledore there," he elaborated, irritation creeping into his voice. "He doesn't want to leave the school at the moment and I'm pretty sure he's being like this so I'll go visit my friends. It's just going to make things worse though…" he added.
"You've been keeping in touch with Hermione," Narcissa said. "It's not as if you've completely disconnected from them." Her tone made her opinion of that course of action perfectly clear as well.
"And if they see someone different?" Harry said with a frown, his eyes moving to a shelf for a moment. Narcissa's followed the movements to the Death Eater mask that sat there.
"Defending yourself does not make you a different person," she said firmly.
"You know I don't defend myself when I wear that." And he actually smirked. Faintly, but it was there all the same.
"Don't argue semantics with me young man," Narcissa said flatly. A smile crept onto her face and she continued softly, "Have some faith, Harry. You haven't run me off so I doubt you'll affect your friends."
Harry let out a small grunt as he hoisted himself out of the back of the crone's hump. He slid to the floor with barely a sound, though he wasn't concerned about being spotted. The Map had told him all he needed before exiting into the castle and now he was here once more. He'd intentionally come in the early hours of the day, hoping to miss the entirety of student body. Saturdays were late days for most students no matter what year. However, Dumbledore had probably anticipated this.
"Ice mice? Chocolate frogs? Come off it you obnoxious statue, let me in!"
Either Dumbledore had neglected to mention that his office password had changed, or he didn't want Harry to go straight to their meeting. More than likely both, in all honesty.
So now Harry just found himself wandering.
It was a decidedly odd feeling he had as he walked through the empty corridors. Like he'd been gone for far longer than just a couple months. Yet at the same time, it felt nice to be back under the weight of the castle's wards. No matter how much they messed with his senses.
And just like that he was staring at blank stretch of wall across the tapestry of Barnabas the Barmy.
So many months ago he had faced this wall feeling trapped. Caged by a fate forced upon him. Angry at how little control he had over his life. Distraught from the frankly irrational and downright impulsive decisions that ruled his actions. It had been a special kind of low, that moment. Now though, staring at the wall he found he had the same desire. The very same statement floating through his mind.
I need help.
The door formed with barely a whisper and gave way to what he knew was waiting. Who he knew was waiting.
She was wearing a very reserved dress, as per the usual. Her ageless features were as striking as ever, though there was a light to her eyes that he remembered not seeing on that day they first met.
"I gave life to a dead castle."
"I made her endless, it is as simple as that."
Harry gestured to the two armchairs that faced one another, set by the faintly glowing hearth. It was an intimate space for a conversation that had been weighing in the back of his mind for some time now.
"I need to talk to you about something."
"So, you say I am…"
"Actually not the castle, no," Harry said solemnly. "Well, not originally," he amended.
"And my… soul… was tethered to the heart of the castle by the wizard Merlin?" Stella continued slowly, still wrapping her mind about the idea.
"It's…" Harry didn't really know how to put it gently, and just ended up sighing. "He killed you. Made you something else, yes, but took away who you were. Being reborn as the castle, as you are now… it's a miracle, honestly."
"If it is as you say, then should I not be happy?" Stella asked, still looking at her hands in contemplation. "I am not dissatisfied with my current existence, after all."
"What about if I could free you?" Harry said quickly. He couldn't, obviously, and Flamel hadn't given a solution either. But the thought of potentially getting Stella away from him was-
"I wouldn't want that."
Harry incredulous expression was met with a somewhat confused one.
"I enjoy my existence as Hogwarts," Stella said simply. "As you no doubt have surmised, as long as the castle stands, I stand. Where would you have me exist to 'escape' my apparent prison?" She tilted her head to one side. "A human body?"
"Forgive me, Harry, but it seems foolish to wish to exchange my pseudo immortality for anything else."
"But he treats you like he owns you!" Harry argued, angered by the thought of Merlin's smug expression. "It's not right!"
"Your objection does not make sense. Such individual beliefs are beneath me, nor are they of any consequence," she dismissed. "If an echo of the past thinks himself my owner then he may do so all he desires."
"You aren't an object!"
Harry's shout surprised them both. While Stella wasn't used to him losing hold of his emotions, the Gryffindor was simply angry with himself for getting so worked up. Why was he so bothered by this, when even Stella couldn't care less? She was happy with how her life was.
"You aren't an object," he repeated, his voice soft. His eyes found her feet and remained there as he spoke his thoughts. "No one should be treated like that."
"...Forgive me for saying, but I am a castle. You are free to consider me as you would, but that doesn't make that fact any less true."
They sat in silence for a while until Harry broke it once more.
"This will be the last time I come back to the castle."
Stella's expression did not really change, but her posture seemed to droop slightly.
"You plan to never return?"
He could see the question and confusion in her gaze. She knew him well after all the time they'd spent together.
"Not by choice."
He stood, walking over to the door and resting his hand on the doorknob.
"Then why? I wish to know."
Harry didn't need to look to know that Stella was no longer in her seat. She was directly behind him, patiently waiting for his explanation.
"You know, I'm a bit jealous of you." Harry looked back to catch her gaze. "People are so fragile, it doesn't take much for them to break into pieces."
"Even a castle will crumble eventually," she returned softly. The teen just chuckled.
"You know, I really don't think you will." He smiled at her sincerely. "Thanks for everything, Stella. You've been a great help."
And to that the woman smiled.
"That is all I've ever wished."
"Mr. Potter, how nice of you to visit. Please join us, the eggs are simply marvelous today."
Dumbledore's pleasant voice was no louder than it normally was, but it cut to every corner of the Great Hall like a cannon blast. Not that it had much to compete with. The Hall had fallen nearly completely silent the moment the teen walked in.
He shot the Headmaster an agitated look before quickly locating a stunned group of sixth year Gryffindors and sitting in a space that almost magically appeared for him. The questions that flooded in were barely recognizable among one another, though one was repeated enough for him to make out.
"Where have you been?"
"Can't talk about that now, can I?" he responded smartly, staring at the breakfast he'd made for himself automatically. He had no appetite to speak of.
"But what have you been doing?" Neville asked in a hushed voice. "It can't be-" but he cut off as Ron hit him in the arm with a glare. Neville just gave a sheepish look of apology.
Instead of engaging, Harry turned to his closest friend, who was also sitting directly next to him.
"Hermione, why is everyone staring at me?"
"Come off it, you've been gone a while and…"
"That's not working at all, you know I'm not talking about me not being here." He lowered his voice and leaned in. "Girls are whispering and giggling..."
Hermione blushed lightly and cleared her throat.
"I don't think you can really argue that-"
"And now something tells me you're entirely responsible for this," Harry said flatly. She really would be, too.
Guilt flashing across his face, the teen looked, not to either side, but up to meet the blonde Slytherin's face. She had stopped right behind him.
There was a drawn out pause as they looked at one another. The students in the Hall seemed to be collectively holding their breaths, not that either noticed in the slightest.
She tentatively let her arms settle on his chest. He made no move to displace them.
And Harry leaned back against her. It was a soothing touch.
The whispers that followed were legendary.
"So, are you… back?" Ron asked after a second, asking the question they had all danced around since he sat down.
"I… No, sorry."
Tracey's arms tightened reflexively at the words as she leaned further into his back. As if her redoubled grip would make him stay.
"Why?" Her voice was low, but he heard it with her mouth so close to his ear.
"Unfinished business," he said simply. There was an apology there he couldn't say outright.
"Can I talk to you?" Tracey motioned to the doors. "Privately?"
"Uh, yeah," he agreed, looking around at his friends who were all giving him oddly encouraging nods. All but one.
Hermione had grabbed his sleeve as he got up.
"Don't go before I can talk to you again. Please."
"I won't, Hermione. I'll come and find you," he assured her, and with that he followed the Slytherin out the doors for what promised to be another difficult conversation.
Dumbledore glanced up from his work as his guest entered, but continued almost at once and spoke instead.
"I'm surprised you willingly saw them. You even let Miss Davis drag you off to places unknown. There is quite the news circulating about you both."
Harry scowled heavily, sinking into the empty chair by the desk.
"I heard. I also very much enjoyed lying to her that I would be okay once I left again," he said flatly. "I hope you can forgive me saying this, Professor, but sometimes I really do hate you."
"But it was good to see them," he added. "If only for a few minutes."
"This is not necessarily the end, Harry," Dumbledore said bracingly. "I have kept in touch with Nicholas and we are both still thinking of a way out for you. Though little progress has been made, that isn't to say we consider it hopeless."
"Fingers crossed," Harry retorted with no small amount of sarcasm. He almost immediately palmed his face with a groan. "I'm sorry, Professor, I'm just a bit worked up at the moment."
"Do not let it concern you," the Headmaster said in understanding. "You are here for more than emotional goodbyes after all. We have much to discuss, including things I'd like answers to, if you can provide."
"Fire away, we can talk about Gringotts whenever."
"Very well then." Dumbledore scratched his chin for a moment before he began. "How are you feeling?"
"Like I'm dying?"
"As you've been in such a situation multiple times throughout your life, a description of your symptoms would be helpful."
"Burning," Harry said immediately, rolling his eyes. He looked down at his chest. "It usually feels like burning. Like I've got a horrible fever. I've gotten used to it though."
"Anything more severe?" Dumbledore had actually set a quill to recording. He was taking notes?
"Sometimes it hurts a lot at once? I dunno, is that good enough?"
"Yes, thank you." Dumbledore pushed the parchment aside. "As I am to understand it, you've recently changed your approach to dealing with Death Eaters."
"Do you always have to talk like that?" Harry said irritably. "Speaking about things indirectly? Just say what you want to say."
"And what is it that I wish to say?" Dumbledore asked mildly.
"That you've got a problem with me killing Death Eaters. That they've got some good in them somewhere and we should be trying to see it."
"Of that I am undoubtedly sure," the aged man agreed. "You cannot wholly exterminate positive emotions and actions from a person's very being, no matter how depraved they are. The other though-"
"They aren't people who've made a couple mistakes," Harry bit out, horrible flashes of memories flicking through his mind. "You know what I'm talking about. They're barely people at all anymore."
"I am not judging you," Dumbledore said evenly, a hand up to placate Harry's anger. "Over the past few months Death Eaters have acted more like far gone drug addicts than anything. We can confidently point to the snake mark they all bear, though what Voldemort has done to manipulate them so is beyond anyone's understanding at present. Particularly with nothing to study."
"Well I'm not going to stop what I'm doing," Harry said bluntly.
"It is not my purpose to convince you otherwise," Dumbledore returned. "Our energies are better spent elsewhere. What have you been doing in your spare time? Do you still duel?"
"All the time," Harry nodded. "Usually with Sirius, whenever we're not out doing something. I won't bring him down if I'm not at my best."
"Have you been expanding your arsenal?"
"Yeah, the Black library has some pretty nasty stuff."
"Very good," Dumbledore said approvingly. "I have a transfiguration book I would like you to read in your spare time I think you will find useful."
"Also if I recall correctly, you mentioned an object that would be critical in the defense of the castle? One you wanted to give?"
"That's right," Harry remembered, digging into a magically expanded pocket. Seconds later an old piece of blank parchment was on Dumbledore's desk.
"I solemnly swear I am up to no good," he said clearly, touching the parchment with his wand. Ink expanded from the point of contact, revealing the full glory of the Marauder's Map.
"The answer to a great deal of questions," Dumbledore finished, fascinated. He let his finger follow a name down the second floor corridor before bouncing to McGonagall in her office. "Your father's?"
"It is a wonder we ever caught them, with this and the cloak," Dumbledore mused in humor. "You will leave me with this?"
"You should have it in case anything happens," Harry said with a nod. "I don't know anything that can fool it, and it shows the secret passages in and out of the school that the Marauders found. You activate it by doing what I just did and turn it off by doing this. Mischief managed."
"Thank you, Harry, this will be invaluable in keeping the castle inhabitants safe."
They both paused, taking in the silence. Harry waited for another question but it never came. So he just sat there. The Headmaster himself was simply lost in thought, maybe thinking about all the ways to use the Map?
"What of Voldemort?" he asked suddenly.
"What about him?" Harry returned, almost defensively.
"How frequently are you in communication with him through your connection?"
"More than I'd like," Harry admitted. "It's always short, but he likes talking about how similar we are. And fate."
"Does he?" Dumbledore was more than interested.
"He acts…" Harry paused as he reflected on the feeling Voldemort always gave him, closing his eyes. The Dark Lord's smile was quick to enter his mind and he shuddered at how the man always seemed to be seeing something more whenever looking at him. "He acts like someone who's not all there."
Dumbledore broke off as Fawkes gave a soft trill.
"Shall we discuss Gringotts then?" he finally said, coming back out of his reverie. "It will be brief, but no less important."
"Right." Harry took a breath and started with what he knew was going to be the hardest sell. "I think I need to do this alone."
Harry was blindsided by the Headmaster's statement.
"Allow me to summarize my thoughts on the matter." Dumbledore cleared his throat for a second before continuing. "Alone you will have the ability to make full use of the invisibility cloak, which is easily our greatest asset. Alone you will be able to get through areas impassible by a larger group, even by one. You are resourceful enough to prevent from being captured if discovered, though I do not believe this will happen."
"I'd be hiding the entire time," Harry agreed.
"Not a totally unreasonable hope, but you should be planned for the unexpected. To continue, you will undoubtedly need to place a goblin under the Imperius Curse, particularly with high security vaults needing a goblin to open them personally. This is something I can ensure you can do before you trespass on foreign ground. Unless you are unwilling to do so."
"No that was actually part of my plan," Harry admitted. "I'm not planning on hurting any of them, but it's all I could think of with the security being so high. I actually wanted to ask for help with just getting in the front door. It's just too crowded."
"Not an issue, though I do not think getting to the vault will be the most difficult part of your quest." Dumbledore's eyes almost seemed to narrow without moving in the slightest. "It will be once you open it."
They had finally arrived at it. The reason Harry was sure Dumbledore would reject his desire to go alone.
"I can handle it."
"The same way you 'handled' the locket, yes?"
Harry at least had the decency to redden in embarrassment.
"You had quite the expression on your face that moment. Given what happened last time it would be well within reason to assume you would die as a result of touching another horcrux."
"I know what will happen if I touch it. I'll be prepared this time." He paused then asked, "You said you still agree so you know the risk I'm taking. Why are you still okay with it?"
Dumbledore sighed heavily, seeming to age many years as his body wilted.
"This is the final horcrux," he said simply. "If you assimilate it and subsequently die, this will still leave Voldemort mortal to any attack. If you do not absorb it but still obtain it the result is the same when we destroy it. It is, as they call it, a win-win. An empty win, on your behalf, but a win nonetheless."
"Exactly what you surmised, I take it?" Dumbledore finished, with a small chuckle. He sobered almost immediately. "You have always thought with the bigger picture in mind, Harry, as much as I may wish you were a little more selfish regarding your own life. I cannot help but give you the highest praise and my most severe disapproval all at once."
"Thanks, I guess," Harry responded after a few seconds, breaking apart what the man had said. "You wanted me to be more selfish? Even with all that stuff you've told me over the years?"
"You must remember that no matter how giving a person is, there is always something they want above all else," the Headmaster said softly.
He suddenly pulled his wand and waved it about the room. All of the portraits of previous headmasters were suddenly covered with sheets of darkness. I'm all their time together, discussing the most secretive and sensitive topics they could, the Headmaster had never done such a thing.
"To you, Harry, I admit freely that the majority of my life was spent researching for a way to return my sister from the grave, one which... I may have put her in myself. All of my achievements, no matter how grand and wide they spread to the good of others, were ultimately done in the pursuit of this singular goal."
"Did you ever get anywhere?" Harry asked in shock. "With…"
"Arianna," Dumbledore provided, tapping his desk a few times with his want to allow a drawer to pop open. From it he withdrew a very familiar ring. "Yes, I was able to speak to her before she... returned. Briefly. I will not try again."
"Once was enough, huh?" The words were distant as he held the ring aloft, observing it in the light. It was fairly heavy for how it looked.
"Yes." Dumbledore pushed himself to his feet. "I believe I will retire for some time. Feel free to leave whenever you are ready to, and we will speak later. Oh and Harry," he added, pausing at his chamber door. "A simple twist will do."
The door closed with a click.
The Gryffindor stared at the object in his hand, heart hammering. He'd said it before, there were times he really hated the Headmaster.
Harry slipped the ring on immediately and twisted it.
He looked around. He twisted the ring again.
The name was whispered with an odd sort of fear. Fear that it would work. Thrice that it would not.
But nothing happened.
No one came.
And there was no anger. Just a deep, murky sadness.
Harry sighed as he descended the spiral staircase from Dumbledore's office. He'd been at Hogwarts for a grand total of two-ish hours and already he was more emotionally drained than he had been in months. The ring was left on Dumbledore's desk with a promise that if he ever came out of this alive he'd return to try for his parents. One no-show was terrible enough, especially with it being her.
Exiting into the corridor, he blinked as his eyes fell upon a person sitting on the floor, knees drawn up and head buried between arms. The hair however was unmistakable.
The girl gave a start as she looked up, quickly scrambling to her feet.
"Harry, thank goodness," she said in relief. "I thought you might have left."
"I did say I would."
"You did, I just…" Hermione let out a tired breath. "I don't know, Harry. I just don't know."
"Is everything alright?" He asked automatically, though internally he winced.
"Of course it isn't!" she snapped, grabbing him by his shirt. "You aren't safe! The whole country isn't safe! It's all mad with this conflict! What kind of a world…"
Hermione broke off as she leaned against him for support. Without much hesitation he gave her the best hug he could. Eventually she finished her thought.
"This isn't the magical world I wanted to be a part of."
"...Still better than the Dursley's house, to be honest."
Hermione gave a small snort of laughter as she pulled back from the hug, though not far enough to force his hands away. Her eyes sought his and held them as she seemed to search for something. A wide range of emotions crossed her face before settling into something almost satisfied.
"Don't take this the wrong way, Harry, but I really do think I love you."
"Not like that," she pouted, making a face at him. "I'm not interested in you. I just really feel like I couldn't live my life properly without you in there somewhere. If that's not love then I'm not quite sure what is."
"I… no one… there are way better people than me, Hermione," he said finally, feeling a bit lost. "I'm doing things that'll more than likely get me killed. It's… selfish."
"You do it for us," she returned strongly. "For your friends. For the people who care about you. It's just one of the things that makes you, you. And I love that about you, no matter how much it scares me right now."
Once more she drew him into a firm hug.
"Come back safe, Harry. To all of us."
And there, standing in that corridor directly outside Dumbledore's office, Harry's will hardened. His resolve firmed. He would find and survive the final horcrux. He would kill Voldemort. And he would return once more.
Failure was simply not an option.
It was a crisp March day that saw Albus Dumbledore walking into Gringotts Wizarding Bank. A man of his fame and unforgettable appearance was quickly noticed, and though some approached for a greeting, most drew back leaving him a great deal of space to maneuver in. There wasn't a soul who didn't see him as the figurehead of the anti-Voldemort side, and given current events there probably wasn't anyone who wanted to be publicly recognized as his ally.
He made his way to the teller directly at the center of the back of the large room, waiting patiently on line while humming a cheerful tune. Three minutes later he was face to face with a goblin who looked like he sucked happiness out of the air like a dementor did with souls.
"Welcome to Gringotts," was the most unwelcoming greeting. 'Please die,' fit the tone much more.
"Thank you, and good day," Dumbledore greeted brightly. "I was hoping to have some galleons exchanged into a number of Muggle currencies. Might I be able to do that here?"
"The currency exchange teller is near the front door to your right," the goblin drawled, clearly irritated with the waste of his time. "Will that be all?"
Dumbledore's eyes drifted past the goblin to one of the back doors which seemed to stay open for a moment longer than it should have. He smiled warmly at the goblin.
"Thank you, it is. A good day to you."
As he walked back to the exchange teller, Dumbledore silently wished for the best. With any luck, the night would end with them one step closer to finishing this war for good.
Harry carefully followed a goblin and witch as they made their way to the vault carts. There were a great deal of goblins moving about within the bank corridors, as well as witches and wizards on business, but it was manageable compared to the lobby which had people shoulder to shoulder in places. Without Dumbledore's help he never would have been able to get inside unnoticed.
Gringotts was one of the places in the Alley he probably visited the least. He'd only been there a handful of times since learning he was a wizard, just needing to go once in the summer to find his supplies and eventually Hogsmeade pocket money. We're it any other time, he would be more than interested with the various inner workings of the place, particularly with it being run by non-humans. Now though he just had a single thought running through his head: Find a goblin that's alone.
It was proving harder than he'd anticipated.
None of them ever seemed to stop moving. He himself was moving constantly just to avoid being trapped, looping back every now and then so he wouldn't get lost. He spent nearly twenty minutes like this, with more than a couple close calls from suddenly opening doors and stopping people, before he saw his chance. A goblin was getting into a nearby cart on his own.
Moving as quickly as the cloak allowed him, Harry managed to slip in just before the goblin began to operate the thing. He quickly sat in the far corner and used a sticking charm to keep himself there just as the cart went from still to breakneck speeds. They raced through a maze of tracks that overlapped and went in circles, making Harry hopelessly lost by the time they finally slowed to a crawl. He knew there hadn't been any chance of escaping the tunnels on his own, but now it really just hammered in the point.
The spell hit the goblin in the back, causing him to straighten up and stop operating the levers. There was a surge of resistance, but Harry stomped on it hard in his mind and all was quiet. The cart still moved at a very slow pace as they rolled along.
Act as if nothing happened and continue your work!
And then the goblin was bringing the cart to a halt, walking out and opening the vault they'd stopped next to. It appeared he was doing some kind of inventory.
Harry let out a relieved breath as the goblin worked, finally feeling safe enough to pull off the cloak and stow it in a pocket. The dominating Unforgivable was the one he had the least skill with, even after practicing with Dumbledore in preparation for the break in. He knew what the feelings were like; being in control, when he was being fought, and when it wasn't working at all. It was difficult at best.
But all things considered this had gone incredibly smoothly. He could only imagine what it would have been like if he hadn't had access to the cloak. He could have faked a withdrawal at his own vault, but that defeated the purpose of no one knowing who was actually sneaking about the bank. No, he certainly was not complaining.
Go the the Lestrange vault.
Though he moved without hesitation, bringing their cart back to an insane speed as they sped even deeper into the vault space, the goblin fought the control hard. Harry was caught off guard at the sudden ferocity of the mental fighting the goblin was doing in order to regain control, while earlier it seemed he had won the mental battle.
Go to the Lestrange vault now!
He repeated his instruction with more force, and the goblin shuddered as his desperate attempt to break free was crushed. They zoomed along in silence, ever downward. The lines of vaults that he was used to seeing were long gone. Instead they rushed through an immense cavern where the tracks seemed uncaring about whether there was any kind of ground beneath them or not. He spied far off lights when they passed through the enormous central chamber, but the haze of blueish darkness was too thick.
"Why is the vault so deep?" Harry asked over the rush of the carts wheels.
"Only the most reckless thieves would venture this far into Gringotts' depths," the goblin returned, giving Harry a sharp toothed grin over his shoulder. "And face our greatest defenses."
"We'll see about that," Harry said evenly, his voice swept away in the rushing wind.
"That's a dragon."
Harry blankly looked at the massive creature that sat at the center of the vault chamber. It was staring at him with milky, pink eyes, clearly unhappy that he initial wave of fire it had sent to roast them didn't work. The mostly blind dragon bore scars of clear torture by the goblins. Chains as thick as his arm kept it from escaping.
"We cannot get past it without the Clankers."
Not even bothering to ask what Clankers we're supposed to be, Harry told the goblin to stay close as he threw the invisibility cloak over them both. Slowly they moved around the edge of the room, being very careful not to make any sound. He'd silenced them both just to be safe, but that didn't mean they couldn't expose themselves by kicking a pebble or something similar. The dragon would blast them with flames first and never ask questions. Still, as they inched their way closer, one thought kept distracting him more and more.
What would he do if the horcrux was there?
If it wasn't then it made things rather simple, but it was… there was a good chance he'd pounce on it. What was to honestly prevent him from just undoing whatever precautions he'd take in the first place and touch it anyway. But if that happened and he died, then Voldemort would be mortal again.
Who knew what would happen to him if he died? Would it just end, or would Voldemort simply become the dominant soul in his body? Continue moving about and destroying everything he held dear.
No. The soul in my body is mine! I won't believe otherwise.
They had finally reached the vault. It was a massive door of wood and metal. The dragon was sweeping its gaze about as it continued to search, sniffing the air and occasionally sending a wave of fire across the area. Maybe they were actually safer than they thought back here.
Open the vault.
The goblin put his hand against the wood, causing the door to melt away, revealing a cavelike opening that was crammed with riches of all kinds. But as soon as Harry pulled his head out of the cloak, he froze as the sensation of magics around him told him everything he needed to know.
It wasn't there.
A blasting roar was all the warning he had before he grabbed the goblin and sprinted to the side, flames licking his heels as the dragon proceeded to reduce the entirety of the Lestrange vault into molten gold and silver.
"Get to the cart and wait for me!" Harry snapped as he cancelled the silencing spell. He disillusioned the goblin before pulling off the cloak completely as he raised his wand to the dragon. "Fulminis!"
Lightning snapped at the dragon's head, making it flinch back and allowing him to finally gain cover in the form of a wide pillar. He sent a couple more spells to keep the dragon's attention while he watched the silhouette of the goblin retreat. Then he sent a conjured padfoot to its doom as he dashed in the other direction. The dog was incinerated, but Harry wasn't quite so lucky to get away without notice. The dragon's tail swept across the side, destroying two pillars as it passed just above his now cat head. Still in his animagus he moved as fast as he could, clearing the area in less than two seconds flat and diving into the cart. A final wave of fire surged just above their heads.
To the surface!
Panting, Harry shifted out of his animagus. He broke the disillusionment charm on the goblin before resting his back against the wall of the cart, the roars of the dragon rapidly fading into nothing as they began their ascent. He gave himself a small shake before taking stock of the situation. Though in and out like he'd planned, it didn't change that they were back at square one.
"Harry!" The mirror response was instantaneous, making the teen jump. "Are you okay? Have you been caught?"
"No I'm on my way out-"
"Did you get it?" Sirius interrupted. "Please tell me at least one thing went right today."
"No it wasn't there, what do you mean? What's happening?"
Sirius swore before looking about distractedly.
"Everything went to hell just after you entered Gringotts," he explained. "They must have been waiting for Dumbledore to leave the castle, because Voldemort and a bunch of Death Eaters tried to breach the front gate. It held, barely, but the castle is on full lockdown right now. Dumbledore is there to protect the school. Death Eaters have been spotted around Hogsmeade as well."
"That's not even the half of it," Sirius continued, voice becoming haggard. "The Dementors have turned on the guards at Azkaban and that place became a death trap for everyone, even prisoners. The Ministry is just doing everything they can to keep them contained on the island, as futile as that is. I'm currently in Hogwarts. The Order is spread all over, especially at the coast."
"Where do you need the most help?" Harry asked immediately.
Sirius' face disappeared for a few seconds before returning. "Dumbledore wants you to support the Ministry at Azkaban. I don't like it but he's got a point, your Patronus is strong."
"Got it," Harry said with a nod. "I'll contact you later."
"Be careful kiddo."
Harry closed the compact and shoved it back into his pocket, drawing his wand once more and pointing it at the goblin's back. They were in far more familiar passageways, indicating they were fairly close to the surface. It was time to erase his presence from this place and get moving.
Voldemort grimaced as he finally stepped off the stairs leading to the lowest levels of Azkaban Prison. It smelled more than a little unpleasant. A wave of his wand sent a rush of fresh air through the space.
"This is it, Bellatrix?"
"Yes, My Lord." The woman stepped next to him, regarding the cell lines corridor with a mix of loathing and unsettled discomfort. "I would never forget this place."
"Why did we stop?" an impatient voice came from the stairs, causing the woman to look back. Her nephew stood there with an expression of intense focus. "My father is waiting for me!"
"Watch how you speak in your Lord's presence!"
"Heel, Bellatrix. Have patience Draco, we have arrived," Voldemort said calmly. His appearance at Hogwarts had done wonders to ensure Dumbledore remained well out of his hair, affording them plenty of time to take care of their more critical errands. "Secure the corridor."
Over a dozen Death eaters rushed forwards to take up positions along the stretch of stone and dirt, more still moving even further out of sight to fully protect their Lord. Bellatrix stayed faithfully at his side, willing to follow wherever he went. Draco on the other hand had already rushed forward.
"Do not be so harsh with him," the Dark Lord said. "I'm sure you've been missing your dear Rodolphus as well."
"You are the only one I care for, Master," she said, bowing her head.
To this Voldemort just smiled faintly.
"As it should be."
They walked down the corridor at a sedate pace, eventually coming upon the high security prisoners they had sought.
"He's here! He came for us!"
"Master, I never stopped believing!"
The reverence in their eyes was untainted. Perhaps influenced by their weakened states from prolonged exposure to Dementors, but nothing that was false. Of course, who else would come for his followers in such a horrible place but the benevolent Lord Voldemort?
"Where is he?"
Draco was running about in near panic.
"He's not here. He's not here!"
Draco made a grabbing gesture at the nearest incarcerated Death Eater, Mulciber, who was pulled against his bars with a jarring force.
"Where is my father? Where have they taken him?"
"Wherever they take soulless shells, you little piece of shit! Let me go!"
The killing curse impacted on the back wall of the cell, Mulciber having been moved out of its way by a wave of Voldemort's wand. The man fell, unable to support himself after the rough treatment.
"Draco contain yourself. Explain, where is Lucius?"
"He was killed…"
Rookwood's low voice drew everyone's attention. A Death Eater helped him walk closer after being released from his cell.
"Dragged from his cell, thrown on the ground. They argued... He was fed to the Dementors, and they took his soul. Right there." He pointed to a nearby cell with bent bars.
Draco was frozen, staring at the cell. Voldemort was equally still, though for a different reason. Someone had robbed him of one of his greatest assets.
The freed Death Eaters exchanged looks before Rookwood continued.
The name drew various reaction from those who heard. Voldemort himself was quiet. Bellatrix was wide eyed with shock. Draco…
The name was hissed with fury. Draco clutched at his chest, face contorted in rage.
"I'll kill you! No, I'll erase you from history!"
No one made to stop him as he ran off.
Voldemort barely spared the boy a glance, before turning his full attention back to his recently imprisoned followers.
"They argued? Over what?"
"Narcissa, My Lord," McNair said quickly. "Lucius threatened to kill her and then Potter killed him."
"When was this?" Bellatrix snapped, impatient with the way they weren't giving all the details right away.
"Not long after we were put back in here."
They fell silent as Voldemort considered what he had been told. They had discovered something the Ministry had tried incredibly hard to keep secret. Did they even know that their teenaged hero wasn't above killing?
"Was there anything else that Potter did while he was here?"
"He talked to me," Lestrange said, shuffling forward. "Wanted to know about her."
Bellatrix regarded him with a raised eyebrow, partially for the tone, and more for what he had said.
"Did he?" Voldemort said in interest.
"I told him to bugger off, but he wouldn't take no for an answer. Used Legilimency on me. I don't remember anything after that."
Above all else, this shocked Voldemort the most. So Harry Potter was much more than any could perceive. He truly was becoming the apprentice he'd never trained. A glance at Bellatrix, however, made his gaze harden.
There was realization on her face.
"What is it?" he said sharply, causing her to give a minute start. What was she hiding?
"Nothing, My Lord… I've only considered something that-"
She cut off as his hand closed around her forearm, directly over her Dark Mark.
"Speak clearly, Bellatrix."
"Potter has been odd since last Halloween," she said in a rush, eyes still locked on his hand. "Distracted when he sees me, he speaks to me with familiarity that he should not have. He knows things about meee!"
Her voice rose to a pitch as pain overcame her entire body, causing her legs to give out and she collapsed to her knees, only held up by the grip Voldemort had on her arm.
"And you did not think this significant enough to share? Do not dare to hide things from Lord Voldemort!"
He let her fall as he faced the others.
"We will discuss this privately later. For now our deed is done. We are reunited, and strong. The Ministry and Order of the Phoenix cower in fear behind old castle walls. It is time to truly give them a reason to do so." Voldemort turned grandly, his robes flowing behind him as he made for the stairs once more. "Today, we seize control of the Ministry."
A man fighting to protect his family and failing.
A woman pleading for her son to be spared, only to be stepped over.
A woman who turned away. Who could never see him as family...
Harry's Patronus burst from his wand like a beacon against darkness. He'd cast the spell nearly a dozen times up until this point, pushing back the Dementors as best he could, but there was no ground to be gained against an enemy that was merely being held at bay.
So he'd advanced.
The Dementors simply could not be contained the way the Ministry wanted. Instead they played to safely evacuate the island before abandoning it completely. But to Harry this was unacceptable. Already many of the creatures had escaped into the grey that surrounded the island. Every Dementor that roamed free was a catastrophe waiting to happen. The only hope he saw now was to trap the ones remaining in the building. To push them into its depths and lock it up.
Oh how that had backfired.
For perhaps once in his life, Harry knew he'd bitten off more than he could chew. Sure, he'd fended off tens of Dementors in his third year. More than that. He did not fear the things in the slightest anymore, but how could he have ever expected so many? This was hundreds. They came from every crevice to snuff out the one that dared try to oppress them as they finally seized their freedom. Inside the large entrance hall of Azkaban, they surrounded him like a fish in a bowl, held back by his blindingly bright protector. Still they pressed closer and closer, taking every inch they could. There was something about this prey they could not ignore. Something they could not pass up.
"My happiness is not yours to take!" Harry snarled, clutching fiercely to the things that kept him sane in a sea of nightmares. Hermione's words. Ron's laugh. Sirius's smile. Narcissa's concern. Nym's memory. They could never steal that from him.
One dove in too close and Harry slashed at it with all his might.
There was a moment where all was frozen but for the Dementor that had just swooped in. A bright line of white fire had been drawn from its shoulder to hip, flaring as it consumed the writhing creature on the ground. The others seemed to watch in an entranced silence while Harry's eyes were instead locked on the thing he held in his hands.
The Sword of Gryffindor.
It's blade shone with that same white fire, the same white as his Patronus which now stood at his back, guarding it from any who would dare to approach. The blade felt weightless. He felt weightless. He felt unstoppable.
Harry redoubled his grip on the blade which seemed to respond to his will, flaring even brighter. His eyes burned with hatred. Prongs lowered his head threateningly.
"Come at me! I'll kill every last one of you!"
Chapter Complete! Aren't you surprised at that update speed?! This story is getting wings, baby! Make sure to drop a review if you want the next chapter just as fast! *cough cough, shameless self-promotion, cough* Also things are coming to climax rather quickly aren't they? I do hope you've enjoyed this chapter as much as I have.
Something that's been on my mind a lot lately is what would it take for the two societies to live together (full disclosure of magic). Is it even possible? In my opinion, I don't really think muggleborns and their families are a good representation of how things could be, but I do think it's possible. Just that it would take a long time.
Anyway, leave a review with what you think about the chapter or the question if you want. I'm curious what y'all have to say. Fave and follow as you please and I'll see you here next time. Who knows, I might have something for you before the New Year :D