"Shut up, Ron! The book says… Dementors are classified by the British Ministry of Magic as Non-Beings. Although the normal threat-assertion nomenclature is only meant to reach out to five Xs, for "known wizard killer", Dementors' threat level is XXXXXX, as their soul-destroying ability are even worse than certain death." -Hermione Granger to her friends, Gryffindor Common Room, Fall 1993.

~ Chapter 27: The Beginning of the End ~

The wave descended with a howl.

The Patronus pulsed a white energy, forcing most of the Dementors to fall back, but some kept going against whatever primal instinct told them to retreat. And Harry cut through them with ferocity.

He stepped back before lunging forward, taking three down in his attack. They screamed in mortal agony with flaming white scars across their faces, their fellows shrieking rage at their deaths.

Harry charged with the next pulse, his legs carrying him with unfathomable strength as he leapt into the cloud of darkness, cleaving through the group in a streak of white. The Dementors recoiled back only to split into two and strike at his sides. Deathly hands found their way to his body as he was forced to the ground with a slam that cracked the stone beneath him. Yet he only shook off the blow as he rolled to his feet.

"RRAAAAHHHH!"

Again he advanced, swinging the sword at everything that came even remotely close to him. Waves of white flames were left in the sword's wake, sending more Dementors to join their fellows on the floor. And once again they overwhelmed and grabbed him, dragging him forwards and sending him into a stone pillar where he fell to the ground. However, the couple of Dementors that pressed their advantage moved too soon and subsequently died for it, being bisected by the rising Harry, his grip still tight on the sword. The Patronus crashed through those that still remained close, its brightness never wavering.

Undeterred, the creatures still pushed forward, uncaring of the danger as they demanded Harry's life. He stabbed one right through the face only to be thrown back as more than ten recklessly tackled him. In that moment he knew things had turned for the worse.

The sword remained stuck in the Dementor's head.

Harry felt the surge of unending power cut out like a snuffed candle. The sudden weight of the Dementors crashed upon him like an ocean of icy water. He couldn't breathe. He couldn't move. All he could do was tense for what could only be his final moment.

Light suddenly shone through the pile of darkness, Dementors thrown bodily as they were dislodged from their foe. Suddenly he could breathe, gasping as his eyes opened once more. Harry's Patronus stood protectively over him, waves of hope pulsing steadily, keeping the Dementors back as they waited for another opening. It looked at him in silence before lowering its head. Harry grabbed one of the ethereal looking antlers and was pulled to his feet.

"Thanks… Prongs."

His hand extended to the sword, which twitched for a moment before returning to him with a rush. The flames of the blade that had dimmed to almost nothing flared up once more, brighter than anything that had been wielded yet. The sword was held behind the teen as he prepared for what he knew may be his final attack. He couldn't risk losing it again.

"Disgusting shadows," Harry growled in challenge, the mass of despair floating in a semi-circle as they pressed closer inch by inch. Despite their losses, it didn't seem like the number of Dementors had truly lessened. It was like fighting an endless wave of darkness. The doors were at his back, as was his Patronus. "You've been kept in this world for far too long."

His grip tightened as his will hardened. Once more he felt the power of all that he held dear fill him with an unlimited strength. Out of his line of sight, the Patronus began to lose form, shifting into the sword as they resonated, bringing forth a radiance none could properly describe.

"It's time you left it."

The Dementors charged as one. Harry closed his eyes.

And swung.

From all around the island, witches and wizards were drawn to a spectacle of light that burst through every crack of the Azkaban Prison. They felt the surge of energy in their bones as it passed through them, continuing into the water beyond, pushing it away from the rocks in a wave. Incredible light shone through the chips in the walls, the doors, and few windows the building possessed, all of which were blown out in a spray of shattered glass and wood. The dozens of Dementors that were still fighting the Ministry let out a wail and fled higher into the sky, escape their only concern. Then there was silence, filled only by the gentle rush of waves on rock.

It only took a minute later for everyone to discover the remaining wards on the island had been destroyed as well.

Back inside the prison, Harry fell to one knee, the world swimming before his eyes. A cold wind shifted the ash that seemed to cover every surface in the large room. Weakly he looked to the thing he'd managed to hold onto until the end. The hilt of the Sword of Gryffindor.

The blade was completely gone.

He somehow made his way to the nearest wall, slumping against it in exhaustion. They were gone. The hilt dropped to the stone floor with an oddly loud clang.

Sudden rapid footsteps made him turn his head just in time to be struck forcefully by something heavy causing him to topple to his side, barely clinging to consciousness. A voice he knew he should recognize spoke.

"Of course you'd be here. That's perfect."

Blackness took him.

Xx~xX

Harry groaned as he regained consciousness. He was lying on the floor, bound tightly, though he still had all of his possessions, including his wand. He also felt like absolute shit. How long had he been out? It couldn't have been that long.

"Get up, Potter," came a voice he immediately recognized. "I heard you groan."

"Malfoy?"

Harry opened his eyes and found himself in a room he didn't recognize. There were no windows, and a number of magical artifacts that surrounded them on shelves. The floor was a cold stone, like a basement.

He rolled to his side before pushing himself to his knees. Sure enough, Draco Malfoy stood before him in his Death Eater finest.

"Hello, Potter."

And he kicked Harry viciously in the side of the head, dropping the Gryffindor to the floor.

"So good to see you after all this time."

Malfoy's voice was a mix of sarcasm, cheer, and deep, deep rage.

"I was honestly just coming to find you when, what do you know, you showed up right in front of me. I should really thank you."

"Ugh…" Harry took a few steadying breaths before attempting to right himself. There was only one possible reason that Malfoy had been in Azkaban. "Guess you've heard then. Sorry, you really are an orphan now. Welcome to the cl-"

Harry had braced for it, but it still didn't make getting blasted into the far wall any less painful. He lost consciousness again but Malfoy hit him with an Ennervate, making sure he was awake for his pain.

"I'm going to enjoy this so much, Potter," Malfoy spat. "Crucio!"

Harry screamed as the pain spell overwhelmed his mind. His back arched as he writhed around on the floor, clawing for some end. Finally it came.

"Ready to die yet, Potter?"

"Not… quite."

"Guess not. Crucio!"

His screams filled the room once more.

"Why did you... drag me here just to kill me," Harry said through gritted teeth, after the spell was finally released. His body twitched from the aftershocks.

"Oh I'm not going to just kill you," Malfoy said with a smile. "I'm going to make it so that you never existed in the first place. Scream for me."

As pain overwhelmed his senses, Harry dimly noted how strong the teen was. When had he even been this capable at any spellwork, let alone an Unforgivable. It was almost like Voldemort himself held him under the spell. And what nonsense was he saying?

"You have one, don't you," Harry said raggedly once the spell was lifted, trying and failing to right himself. Everything hurt so much. He wouldn't be fast enough to do anything with Malfoy's wand still pointed right at him. The building was covered in a strong set of anti-teleportation wards. There was nothing he could do to escape.

"I do," Malfoy confirmed, knowing precisely what Harry was talking about. "Want to see?"

And with a flick of his wand his robe and shirt had vanished, leaving him topless. A snake tattoo that wrapped around his body. It was by far the largest one Harry had ever seen, with the head sitting comfortably over the left side of his chest.

"You're probably wondering why I didn't disarm you," Malfoy added, flicking his wand at Harry and causing his whole body to lock up. "It's because I didn't want anything of you to be left around. Not your wand. Not whatever you like to carry in your pockets. Nothing. Now come here and get erased."

There was nothing Harry could do as he was dragged across the floor back to where he started. Now though, having been away from the spot, he recognized the two large runes that had been carved into the floor.

Time and Void. Nothingness.

Hell if he knew how to pronounce them, but that's what they had to do with. Being around Hermione for years was more than enough to pick up a couple things from her Ancient Runes class.

"Malfoy, you're going to get us both killed." His breath hitched as his head bumped the floor but he pushed on. "You can't possibly even know what you're doing! This is insane!"

"No, I'll definitely live," he said with a sneer. "With this mark I can do anything. You on the other hand are out of luck. This is one of Father's safehouses. No one knows you're here but me. No friends to help, no Dumbledore to bail you out. You're gone. They'll have to take away that nice nickname you've got too. Can't be the Boy-Who-Lived if you're dead. Or never even lived in the first place."

He went to a shelf and came back with several small objects Harry recognized as time turners. But instead of using them in some way, Malfoy actually opened them, carefully pouring the sand in line on the edge of the array. He then grabbed a black knife and made a deep cut in his hand letting the blood drop into the runes, causing them to glow a bright gold as it spread. Other runes, smaller and more delicate lit up as well as the room filled with a low hum.

The sand almost seemed to vibrate.

"Maybe if you never existed, Father would still be alive. Yes, that does sound like the proper outcome, doesn't it? No one would even know who you are. A world without Harry Potter..." He paused as he seemed to truly consider the magnitude of such a reality. "I love it."

Malfoy had given himself to his obsession turned madness. Even wandlessly hitting him with something would likely do nothing, and if Harry was knocked out again he probably wouldn't ever wake up. Yet he simply couldn't move any part of his body below his head, and that meant his animagus wouldn't do him any good either. He was stuck.

"Give me more power. I need more to make this work! Yes! Yes!"

Harry glanced back at Malfoy and watched the snake continue to shift. Its body grew thicker and its fangs longer. The runes shone brighter in response, now making the sand glow a dim gold. After a minute of this, the snake's eyes flashed with an uncanny light. Then the entire tattoo vanished, like it was submerging itself in skin colored water.

Suddenly Malfoy choked, clutching at his chest. Harry watched in horror as his skin rippled as if something was beneath it, moving about endlessly. The Slytherin suddenly let out a guttural scream as his chest burst open in a spray of blood, a snake's head protruding from it as it continued to force its way out of the exit it had made. The snake turned back to face Malfoy and struck once at his exposed neck, silencing the scream with a crunch.

He fell, directly onto the charged runic array, his blood soaking into the time sand which kicked up into the air like there had been a strong blast of wind.

And everything…

...stopped.

Xx~xX

Two weeks.

It had been two weeks since the Ministry fell to Voldemort's takeover. Two weeks since Hogwarts had shifted to become the safe haven of any openly anti-Voldemort witches and wizards in Britain. Two weeks since Azkaban became an empty building on an equally deserted island.

And two weeks since anyone had last seen Harry Potter.

The general consensus was that he was dead. He had been last seen by the Azkaban outer guards, charging into the building with his beacon of a Patronus. Then the explosion of light; the collapse of the wards. He did not return. A search of the building later revealed nothing but odd scorch marks, clear signs of a battle. The horde of Dementors that still hadn't left the building were nowhere to be seen. Something must have happened. But it made no difference in the end. With Dumbledore and his allies cornered in Hogwarts, most saw the conflict as already decided and just did what they could to protect themselves and their families.

At least that's how it felt, moving about Diagon Alley.

Narcissa was disguised, moving about with the same cautious posture that the few others who dared brave the streets had. A handful of Death Eaters were scattered around the main street, not even attempting to conceal themselves. Many shops were closed, or had been simply reopened under new management. A nearby old Daily Prophet from a week past wrapped up the situation nicely.

WRONGFULLY ACCUSED DEATH EATERS EXONERATED AFTER 15 YEARS!

AMOS DIGGORY ABANDONS HIS POSITION!

PIUS THICKNESSE RAISED TO MINISTER OF MAGIC!

The status quo wasn't quite what it used to be. She also knew Yaxley had taken the position of Head of the Department of Magical Law Enforcement. Minister Diggory and Madame Bones had been forced to retreat to Hogwarts, along with any other workers who weren't willing to surrender. Those who resisted had been ultimately killed. None were willing to face Voldemort himself.

The Prophet fell just as quickly. Now the paper frequently featured pieces about how the most haunting names from the past two decades were not in fact bad, and instead the Ministry was far more corrupt than it ever seemed, lying to the public at every opportunity. Not that anyone had enough of a death wish to object. Most people just wanted to keep any amount of normality with their lives and their families safe.

Within one week, radical changes to the law were in place that put heavy sanctions on Muggleborns. It took almost no time for Azkaban to begin seeing use once more, and even some Dementors returned, but they operated under a different set of rules now, and no one who was moved to that island had hope of leaving alive.

A young woman who'd just come out of a nearby shop turned her way, only to immediately go back inside when she caught a look at her face.

Death Eater masks had that kind of effect on most people.

"What's the word?" Narcissa asked in a low voice, finally reaching the couple of loitering Death Eaters. They had watched her approach, but didn't make any motions to greet her.

"Nothing yet, it seems," the first said in a bored voice. "Dunno how I feel about My Lord making the move he did to be honest."

"Your funeral," the other said nonchalantly.

"Come on, Bates, we used to have fun before. Now we have to sit around mostly."

"Never mind then," Narcissa said in parting, and moved on, leaving the two to argue in low voices as they ignored her. She continued the walk through the Alley until she reached the path that led to the side entrance of the twin's shop. They had also closed up and moved to Hogwarts for safety, but she hadn't seen the need to move. The store had strong enough wards to keep undesirables out.

Moving through the kitchen, she continued upstairs until reaching the trunk. It was closed and locked like she'd left it. Then she was shrinking, her body becoming thin and pale, coiling on the floor as her animagus transformation completed. She smiled to herself as she spoke the password.

"Home."

It was simple, but the fact that Harry gave it in Parseltongue made it virtually unbreakable. Fortunately for her, parseltongue was something she could handle.

Only after Narcissa was back in the main room of the flat did she remove the mask, placing it on a side table. She already knew she had plenty of food which would last her a while. A number of books to read when she liked. Even a couple of charm projects she had taken up in her free time.

And yet it couldn't have felt more empty.

"Welcome back, Narcissa."

"Hello, Salazar."

She took her usual seat, eyes finally resting on her four roommates. They all regarded her with a sadness she recognized quite well.

"No luck then, I take it." Godric's words were subdued.

"Dear, you can't keep doing this," Helga said with a frown. "Every time you go out you risk getting captured. Killed."

"I can't hide here like nothing has happened!" Narcissa snapped. "I need to do something!"

It wasn't lost on her that this conversation, which happened almost every day now, sounded quite familiar to another argument she used to have with a teenaged boy not too long ago.

"You know that if he were able to he'd come back here, not wander about the streets," Rowena said pointedly. She was never one for impassioned speech.

"It has been two weeks… and the news hasn't been favorable. Maybe-"

"Do not finish that sentence."

Narcissa gave Helga an icy glare.

"That boy has spit in Death's face more times than I can count. I will believe he is dead when I am holding his body in my arms."

With that she stood, gathering her cloak once again. She couldn't just sit here. She could still look. Still listen for something from the Death Eaters...

"Though your desire to find Harry is strong, your methods are absurd." Salazar's voice stopped her just short of the door.

"What would you have me do?" she returned, barely keeping her voice from fluctuating. "This is all I can do."

The Founders just regarded her impassively.

"Then perhaps it is time to think beyond the scope of just you."

Xx~xX

Albus Dumbledore felt old.

It happened occasionally, where he truly felt his age. Oftentimes those instances were when he made grave errors from thinking similarly to how he had in years past. When he'd made poor judgments of character, and particularly the times when someone was left hurt or dead as a result of his action or inaction.

But this was a different kind of old. This was the kind of old when he had gotten barely any sleep over the last couple weeks. He was simply exhausted from everything that had been dropped on his shoulders. Who could have possibly foreseen Voldemort so aggressively seizing control like he had? He'd played his cards as he needed to keep possibly the only real obstacle out of his way and then practically strolled right through.

Dumbledore's old came from suddenly managing more than a five hundred assorted citizens who fled for their lives in addition to all the students and staff of the castle. To suddenly needing rotations for meals as well as lodging. He'd refused to compromise the House dormitories, and so the people were placed in classrooms turned barracks. Not for the first time he thanked the simple existence of magic.

Then there was the organization of additional spaces for people to work in. Rooms set up for lounging and bathing. An entire corridor dedicated to the displaced Ministry workers. And meetings…

Meetings after meetings after meetings. With the Order, with the Professors, with the Ministry, with the students...

There was so much to plan, too much to discuss, and far, far too little time to do it. He'd even used his time turner once or twice.

But he was Albus Dumbledore after all, so he would surely be fine and lead them all to a safe victory. How convenient for everyone who wasn't named Albus Dumbledore.

Why was he supposed to be responsible for all the people of this country? For the world beyond? The other European Ministries could collectively crush any revolution Voldemort led, and yet they would never do so, simply because in the world of international politics, it was always 'me first' and never the opposite. Defense before offense. Ninety-nine percent of the time that was the proper way to act, yet in the one percent when it wasn't?

Well, then it was up to him, wasn't it?

So in the moment, Dumbledore was ignoring all of it and checking up on someone who had stubbornly refused to move an inch from his home in favor of the obvious safety Hogwarts provided.

"How many times do I have to tell you to stop bothering me, Albus," Aberforth said in annoyance, casting the head in his fire a sour look. "As if I care what happens outside my door."

"Apparently a great deal, as I've never quite listened to everything you say in the first place," the bodiless Dumbledore said blandly. "I can't imagine that you've been left to yourself recently. Surely someone remembers we are related."

"I leave them in a pile by the door so no one really gets any funny ideas," Aberforth said with an uncaring shrug. "No different from any other day in the pub."

"No, I suppose it wouldn't." The Headmaster cast his gaze around the deserted room before returning to his brother. "How has business been?"

"Shit. What do you want, you old goat?"

"Nothing, I just wanted to check in on my only remaining family."

"Oh please," Aberforth groaned. "I think I hear another Death Eater at the door who needs directions. Let me go check." And with that he walked out of the room, only adding a, "Stop calling me, Albus!" over his shoulder before the door snapped shut.

Dumbledore sighed, still content that his brother was in good health, and retreated back into his office fully, brushing soot from his beard. His office looked no different than it normally did, despite the chaos that had settled over the castle. Apart from the few extra chairs that now made a home in front of his desk, he'd barely done anything to it in the past decade.

His personal chambers however…

A tap of his wand granted him access to what used to just be his bedroom. He still did sleep there, but the room was now twice as big, with only the far corner devoted to its past uses. Now the room far more resembled a command center.

The center of the room featured a scale model of the castle and grounds, down to the very people who inhabited it. Little animated figures moved about within, many just visible through windows. There were two students on the astronomy tower, likely looking for some alone time. It didn't show their actions, merely their location. But that very thing was valuable enough in itself, and it was all thanks to the large map that was resting against the nearby wall.

The Marauder's Map was, to Dumbledore, the single most valuable tool in the defense of the castle. He had spent entire days analyzing the bizarre concoction of spells and enchantments that had been cast on it in order to not only potentially replicate it, but enhance it. The Map on the wall made the one Harry had handed to him look like a dinner napkin in comparison.

His Map not only gave names, but a great deal of other information, due to his more directly tying it into the Hogwarts warding scheme. As the Headmaster he had a certain amount of influence over the castle, and here there was no better place to use it. The dots on the Map were colored based on the House the student was in. Additionally, the Map would give locations of anywhere the castle had been damaged, would show if the outer or inner wards were ever being attacked, and most importantly, highlighted anyone who was just entering the area.

Like that very moment.

A flashing dot on the map drew his attention to one of the secret passages that led into the castle from Hogsmeade. The name made him blink in surprise.

Narcissa Black.

Dumbledore had been curious of her whereabouts since fleeing Voldemort, but it had been low on the list of priorities. The fact that she remained unfound, according to Severus, was interesting but unimportant. She was clearly not working with Voldemort.

And then Sirius told him he suspected Harry was involved. Curious indeed.

And so he made no move to hinder her, instead turning to the castle at the center of the room and waving his hand through it. The top half of the building dissolved into grains of sand, exposing the floor that Narcissa finally exited on. Then, curiously, he watched her navigate the halls unimpeded, passing many people who would have reacted to her presence in some way or another, but they seemed unaware of her even being there. Was she invisible? Where was she going? What was her purpose?

Apparently it was him.

He waited until she was ascending the spiral stairs before moving back into his office to receive her. There was silence, and then three short knocks.

"Enter."

And sure enough, Narcissa Black was there.

"Headmaster," she said stiffly from the doorway.

"Do come in, Narcissa," Dumbledore said with a smile. "It has been quite a while since we last spoke."

Tentatively, the woman made her way to the desk and sat, almost as if she were expecting to be bound the moment she stopped moving. But she seemed to relax slightly as nothing happened, and instead she fixed him with a penetrating gaze.

"Where is he?"

At once, the smile on the Headmaster's face fell.

"I'm afraid I do not know," he said. "Young mister Malfoy did not return after the Christmas holidays and-"

"That's not…" Narcissa bit out before reigning herself back in. More calmly she continued, "That is not who I meant."

It had been a while since he'd been this confused by something.

"Where is Harry?"

Dumbledore gave himself a mental shake before replying, "You were hidden by Harry?"

"Yes, I've been staying with him."

This was certainly news. It fit, but could not have been more unexpected.

"I find it hard to believe he trusted you so easily given the circumstances."

"I gave an Oath. Freely," she added. "To do him no harm."

"I see…" Now he had even more questions. Why had she gone to him for protection? Why had Harry not told anyone? Where was she staying? How much did she know? And perhaps most of all, why had she revealed herself to him now of all times?

"Headmaster Dumbledore, please answer my question. Where is he?"

"Truly… I do not know."

Narcissa sagged in her seat as her eyes closed. Marks of stress and anxiety made themselves known on her features.

"Tell me you at least know he's alive…" Her voice came almost as a plea.

"That, I can say with certainty, is true."

Instantly the woman was sitting up at full attention.

"How?"

Dumbledore pointed to an object on the corner of his desk. It was a small silver cube with an upright disc directly on top. It was only after watching it for a few moments that she realized it was spinning very slowly.

"This is something simple I set up on the night Harry was separated from his family," Dumbledore explained. "It works much in the same way family clocks do."

"So if he'd died it would have broken?"

"Indeed. Normally it spins quite quickly, I'm at a loss for what it could mean. I do know that it still functions though, so I will take it at the very least that he lives."

The woman sagged in relief, covering her face for a moment with her hands before straightening once more.

"I've been trying to find him, but to no success. On my own I…"

She seemed to struggle with something for a moment before continuing. "I want to stay here until he's been found. Then I will be on my way. We can share information easily this way."

"As you wish," Dumbledore said with a nod, happy to have another ally, as unexpected as it may have been. "Though it will be tricky with so many in the castle. I imagine you'd intended to keep a low profile."

"That won't be a problem. When is a good time for me to visit here?"

Deciding it wasn't worth pursuing, Dumbledore replied, "I am consistently back in my office by the late evening, but it may be safest to visit after curfew."

"Very well. I will return tomorrow."

And with that she departed. The Headmaster stared at the door for a minute before moving back to his chamber, watching the dot labeled Narcissa Black move along the corridors. It wasn't until she was in the middle of the seventh floor when she turned around, then doubled back once more only to move into the final addition that Dumbledore had made to the Map.

The mysterious hidden room on the seventh floor.

Xx~xX

Harry gasped as he felt the world suddenly come back into focus, feeling as though he'd finally broken free from being under water. Malfoy's eyes were wide and empty, face still in a permanent shock and pain. The hole in his chest where his heart should have been continued to leak blood into the floor as the snake moved about and through his corpse, now focusing on Harry with intensity.

"Don't come near me."

Harry hissed the words automatically, revolted at the scene in front of him. The runic array beneath them was dark, both with blood and a lack of magical power. Had it somehow failed? The sand was all over the floor of the room as well. It had been glowing so brightly only moments ago…

He wrenched his eyes away from the dead teen and pushed himself to his feet, no longer held by the Slytherin's magic. He limped to the only door of the room and pushed it open, crisp cold air hitting him as it swung wide and revealed a wooded landscape. Where precisely was this?

A few minutes later Harry sat on a large stone, watching the small building he'd just exited burn brightly from the fire he'd started. It was perhaps not the best idea, considering what surrounded it, but he couldn't just leave the building standing, nor what had been born within.

He wanted nothing more than to get back to the twin's shop and rest in his home, but he wasn't ready to face Narcissa yet. He needed a little more time to process what had happened before returning to tell her that her only son was now dead.

Another way that he had torn her family asunder. First her husband. Now her son. It was like he existed to bring her grief.

So he hid from her as he considered his current condition. He was considerably banged up. Not only had he just been through some type of failed ritual, but Malfoy had put him through some torture before hand, and that wasn't even getting started with the entire fight against the Dementors in Azkaban.

Still the idea of visiting Poppy at the moment was slightly terrifying, considering how upset she'd be with him, so his mind settled for the next best and safest person he knew when it came to healing.

Molly Weasley.

If ever there was a place to get badly needed TLC, there it was.

So with barely a whisper, Harry apparated to the Burrow.

Xx~xX

With a yawn turned wince, Harry knocked twice on the back door and waved at the familiar face that suddenly appeared from behind a drawn kitchen curtain. From then he only needed to wait seven seconds before it was flung open with a shriek.

"Harry!"

The force of the hug that hit him was enough to have his spine make more than a few popping sounds, but he barely had time to respond before he was dragged inside and the door slammed shut. He most certainly did not miss the sound of locks clicking into place behind him.

"Oh Merlin, you're alive!" she said tearfully, cupping his face in her hands before crushing him with another hug. "You wouldn't believe how horrible it's been since that day. And the news…"

Molly broke off as she finally forced herself to let go of him, inspecting his face for who knew what. "We just had no idea… and I've been wanting to add you to the clock for ages, but we just haven't had the chance and-"

She rambled on as her wand came out and began to work on his condition. Cuts were mended, bruises faded, his throbbing headache was soothed, and his appetite began to return. A potion came out, further making him feel more like a human and less like a wet rag that had been wrung out one too many times. Finally, when she'd begun repeating herself for the fourth time Harry felt well enough to finally stop her and get some information.

"Easy there, Mrs. Weasley, I'm fine now I promise," Harry tried placating her. "I mean something did happen, but it's over so that's not really important. How was the rest of the battle? Is Hogwarts okay? Sirius told me Voldemort attacked the gate and I haven't heard anything since."

"The battle?" Molly said in confusion, unable to suppress a wince at Voldemort's name. "Do you mean the takeover? There's been so many battles since..."

"Takeover?" Harry repeated, even more confused than she was. "What got taken over? I just went to help fight the Dementors at Azkaban last night."

Molly gave him an odd look and said slowly, "Harry, dear, Azkaban fell nearly eight months ago."

"Eight…" Harry actually took a step back. He had…? "What day is it?"

"October 30th."

"October…"

Harry's brain seemed to short out for a second before it resumed regular operation. Eight months?! Had he been… stuck in time for that long? What other explanation was there? He'd barely realized anything had happened, and from his perspective the attack had only just happened.

Suddenly he was hit with anxiety. Was everyone alright? What had happened since that day? What about Voldemort? What about Narcissa?

"Mrs. Weasley, I know this might seem weird, but can you tell me what's happened since I went missing?"

"O-of course, dear," she agreed immediately, motioning to the kitchen table for him to take a seat. "Arthur and Percy should be back soon from Hogwarts as well, so they can escort you back to Albus. I know you can get there yourself," she added with some apology, "but I'd feel better if someone went with you."

"That's fine," Harry said with a final nod. No harm in the extra protection, as much as he didn't think he needed it.

The months that he'd missed were shocking, to say the least. Voldemort controlled the ministry like a puppet on strings. Hogwarts had fully locked down as an actual stronghold. They were honestly hanging by a thread. The people had lost hope when he'd been announced dead, many rallying behind Dumbledore at Hogwarts, while others simply did their best to keep their heads down and their families safe. So Britain existed in this dangerously fragile status quo.

One that he would end up shattering.

"But why are you here?" Harry asked, the thought having crossed his mind earlier. "Wouldn't it be safer at Hogwarts? I mean the Weasleys are pretty well known…"

"That's true, but…" Molly let out a tired sigh. "Arthur was completely against it. We've not argued about much of anything before, but leaving home really wasn't something we'd ever expected. I was terrified for a while, but it turns out he was right. The Burrow is very strongly protected thanks to the Order."

"I guess…"

"We have been attacked here, but each time the wards kept them out. I am glad now that we stayed," she added with a smile, looking around the room. "I don't think I'd feel comfortable anywhere else."

She shook her head slowly, as if to clear it of a silly thought.

"Anyway, Harry, why don't you relax in the sitting room and I'll get dinner going. Arthur should have been back by now too, so we'll eat right away."

"Alright."

Harry let himself be guided into the room, frowning the moment Molly closed the door behind him. He wasn't sure how he felt about the Weasleys being at the Burrow after what he'd just been told had happened in the time he'd been missing. Honesty he would have thought Molly would be the one to try to stay home, and Arthur the more reasonable one. The home must have meant a great deal to him to want to stay even with things as they were. Well, as long as they were safe that was what mattered.

Pushing those thoughts away, he cast his eyes around the room in fondness. He'd not spent much time there, but all his memories were good ones in the Burrow. Showing up here the first time after being rescued from Privet Drive was like stepping into a crazy dream. It was all just so different while at the same time having all the things he'd never seen at the place he'd then called home.

Dimly he recognized the sounds of Arthur returning home, though it sounded like he had company. Percy maybe?

Harry moved to the fireplace, looking at a large photo on the left corner of the mantel. It was the one from when the family had gone to Egypt, which meant everyone was there. Even Wormtail, disguised as Ron's pet.

Wormtail.

Harry hadn't seen, nor heard of the traitorish rat in over a year. It seemed that Voldemort kept him extremely busy, and always out of sight. He was supposed to be dead after all. But he knew better than to come anywhere close to the son of his once friend.

The mantelpiece was full of memorabilia, mostly pictures. Good memories from better times. There were even some random items there as well. A small trophy and an elaborate birthday card with most of its magical energy having dissipated. The center of it all was a small golden goblet with two handles, designs of grass springing up from the middle with a… badger…

"Harry!"

The door behind him opened with energy, a jovial voice filling the room. Harry head snapped up and back to the source. Arthur Weasley stood in the doorway with his arms wide, clear cheer at seeing the teen all over his face. He could see Molly and Percy still behind him in the kitchen.

"I'm so relieved you made it! You-"

Everything stopped as he took in what Harry held in his hands. At the horrified expression on his face.

"No…"

Never had Harry Potter been known to make such a sound.

"Arthur? What's wrong?" But Molly barely got the words out before the voices of two others overwhelmed hers as they shouted simultaneously.

"Crucio!"

"Avada Kedavra!"

The spells collided, causing a wave of repulsive magical energy to wash over them all. Time seemed to slow as Hufflepuff's Cup fell forgotten through the air, Harry repositioning himself automatically, Arthur's deadly follow up reducing the far window to dust while he too had moved out of the way of Harry's counter, blasting a hole in the kitchen wall above the stove.

Molly shrieked as the spell passed over her, Percy having pushed them both to the floor on instinct. Now though he surged to his feet with a roar, pulling his own wand as he entered the sitting room, fully prepared to defend his father.

But Arthur snapped his wand back almost too quickly to follow, sending Percy directly to the stairs where he was frozen by a spell of paralysis. Molly also froze as well, still on the floor, eyes wide and fearful, barely able to make a sound.

The cup bounced off the rug and time sped up once again.

In the claustrophobic space, the duel resumed at a blistering pace. Harry's body moved automatically, his eyes locked on his opponent's. He deflected a spell aimed at his chest and gave up on performing a counter attack for settling into a more defensive pose, almost dying twice more as he stumbled on the rug.

It was the stupidest err on his part, even for a second believing that Arthur Weasley's heavy interest in the non-magical would make him any less a wizard. Where normally Harry pressed forward, it was he who found himself being forced back, a barely missed spell destroying a nearby side table in a shower of wooden splinters. There was hardly enough room to maneuver to begin with and suddenly he was pressed up against the wall.

He ducked down as a fixture on the wall elongated into scythe-like arms and made to decapitate him. In the same move his quick spell at the carpet made pieces of it turn into spears that lanced up into the ceiling, forcing Arthur to retreat and give Harry space. For the first time the spells paused, and all that could be heard was Harry's heavy breathing.

"So…" Arthur's voice was low, unlike anything Harry had ever heard him use before. He vanished the metal spears and took a step to the side. "You know."

He could only be speaking about one thing.

"I do… Voldemort."

Though neither Percy or Molly could speak, their eyes could not have gone wider.

"How?"

The switch to Parseltongue seemed to seal it for the Weasleys. Percy's face contorted as he began to struggle and grunt. Molly's eyes were simply filled with tears.

Harry's breath evened out as he mirrored Voldemort's movements. Their eyes never left one another's.

"You were careless," Harry said quietly, unable to bring himself above what barely counted as more than a whisper. His whole foundation had been rocked by the turn of events.

"I was not," Voldemort hissed back. "How do you know?"

"You. Were. Careless," Harry repeated coldly.

And so had they been.

Nearly a year and a half ago Arthur Weasley killed Nagini at the entrance to the Department of Mysteries. And instead of being destroyed, the horcrux had attached itself to the nearest living being in order to sustain itself.

Harry felt ill as he imagined Arthur slowly losing the fight to the horcrux like Sirius had. And yet this soul fragment had gone a step further and hidden itself, pretending to be a loving husband and father. Going to Order meetings and working against the very thing that created him. Harry's gut dropped as he remembered they had been in the same room, planning the trap in the Department of Mysteries for the Death Eaters.

Another Voldemort had been born, a diary incident gone wrong, armed with the knowledge and hate of the one he already knew. A wild card in the war no one knew existed.

And then, against all odds, the horcrux had gone into Gringotts and done exactly what he'd tried to do. Stole and reassimilated the horcrux in the cup. The artifact was clearly not possessed anymore, and there was only one place it could have gone. Had he not felt strong enough? Stable enough?

Was Arthur even there after all this time?

They struck simultaneously once more, Voldemort going for the direct attack while Harry's hit the hearth directly beside where Voldemort was standing. The Gryffindor was thrown off his feet into the large sofa, toppling it backwards while the other side of the room exploded in heat and ash from Harry's spell, filling the room and concealing them all.

"Reckless child," the Dark wizard spat with a cough, unable to prevent himself from inhaling some of it. He pointed his wand at his throat only to quickly defend from a series of spells from Harry out of the cloud. He retaliated with a blackish spell that caused a hiss like acid, though what it actually hit was still obstructed. Suddenly he was brought to his knees as a piece of transfigured metal hit him in the back of the legs.

Coughing again, Voldemort raised a shield to prevent any spells from coming through before he waved his wand to clear the ash from the room. The visual interference was proving far more of an issue than he'd anticipated.

A wand poked him in the back, causing him to freeze.

The ash finally cleared to find Harry at Voldemort's back, holding him at wandpoint. His right arm was dripping blood slowly from under the sleeve but he ignored it. The room had frozen. Trapped in time as this tragedy reached its climax. Harry's mind raced with a multitude of thoughts, the feel of his friend's father helpless under his wand still so heavy on his shoulders.

"Drop your wand."

"No, I don't think I will."

"I said drop it," Harry repeated, generating a sharp spark of electricity at the end of his wand. Voldemort twitched involuntarily and the wand fell from his hand, zooming directly into Harry's outstretched empty one.

"...You've certainly come a long way from the baby you once were," Voldemort said after a few seconds, far more calm than Harry would have been in his position. "A grasp of strategy I was not prepared for, even after what I've heard about you. I am clearly still a weak existence. But I have an advantage here that you will never overcome."

"And what's that?" Harry asked, still keeping his wand pressed against the grandstanding wizard.

"I have a hostage," he said simply, motioning to himself. "The father of your best, blood traitor friend. You couldn't kill your friend's dad, could you? Harm, yes, but kill?" And he laughed, turning to face the teen. He didn't even react when Harry's wand moved to press the back of his head.

"So confident when this time you're at my mercy," he spat. In the background his mind was still racing. He couldn't help but find what he said odd. Didn't Voldemort really have three hostages, despite the current situation? Unless… he didn't consider Molly and Percy expendable? Of course, he would still want them alive to maintain his facade as Arthur Weasley, else he would have disappeared long ago.

"Your mercy?" Voldemort scoffed. "Mercy indicates you're capable of carrying through on the threat. Can you even do that though? End a life? No, you are weak like Dumbledore. Weak like your parents were. Like everyone else who faces me."

Molly Weasley was unable to hold back a single gut wrenching sob. Harry knew without looking that Percy was still struggling to move his paralyzed body… still unable to rip his gaze from his father.

"You won't do it. You can't do it. I'll always win because of it, Harry."

It was so weird talking to a Voldemort who was just… so out of the loop. Could he really kill Ron's dad, helplessly possessed by a fragment of Voldemort's soul?

Yes. Yes he could.

But here he was considering something entirely different. What would happen if they touched? Would it work like the others? He did say that he was holding Arthur hostage. Did that mean he was still in there somewhere? Did it even matter?

This is the last horcrux. The snake and the cup, both of them together. Right in front of me.

It would be the beginning of the end.

"Always."

Harry smiled. A truly twisted smile that sparked a primal instinct the half-man long thought forgotten. It whispered in the furthest recess of his twisted mind.

Fear.

"You're right." Harry leaned closer, his wand pushing Voldemort's head forward slightly.

"We always do."

And Harry touched him.

x~x

Percy only became aware that he was shouting after he'd shot to his feet, prompting another realization that he could move once again. In a heartbeat his wand was out and pointed at his father. Was his father. But he was unable to do anything. No words came to his lips. No spell came to mind. He could not attack the man who raised him. All he could do was watch as the scene unfolded.

Harry was yelling a shout of pain and struggle, face contorted and muscles tight. Voldemort was… screaming. Like he was being eaten alive. Percy wished he could look away, that he could silence the room, but his father's face did not allow him even a moment of distraction.

Harry suddenly fell to one knee, but his hand never for a moment left the back of Voldemort's head. He gritted his teeth and let out a roar of pained defiance, balanced by an equally loud shout from Voldemort.

Silence crashed upon the room.

Percy could still hear his mother crying hysterically on the kitchen floor, likely not realizing she could move for her grief, but it was so distant to what was happening in front of him. He watched as his father's body went limp, and Harry went down on all fours.

"No! I can't…!"

Harry's voice was so incredibly strained. He slammed his fists on the floor as his back arched. Percy's attention was drawn to the snapping of wood as fissures made their way throughout the room, causing the entire building to groan under the stress.

"I- I have to!"

Harry was reaching for his wand, having dropped it during this shocking episode. With one final stretch he grabbed it, hissing all the while in pain.

And with a crack like a gunshot Harry vanished.

Xx~xX

Malfoy Manor was a quiet place for all that it was the headquarters of a Dark Lord. No one could tell how used the home actually was with how dark it always looked. Yet no one ever approached it. No animal ever came close. They knew death when they saw it.

A figure appeared with all the abruptness of a bolt of lightning.

Directly on the front path, the figure pushed himself to his feet and stumbled forward.

"VOLDEMORT!"

His roar echoed over the otherwise silent land.

He pressed on, harsh ripples of unrestrained magic in his wake demanding to be channeled. Somehow he was conscious. Somehow he was still alive. Yet he paid it no mind. He did not have the luxury of puzzling this newest confusion out. He merely clung to every moment he could, counting on the impending duel to sustain him long enough. Every second he drew closer to what used to be his nightmare. What was once his enemy.

What was now his purpose. His prey.

Through sheer will he would not die before seeing this through.

Oh, but how it burned.

The front doors were blasted off their hinges, as was much of the wall around them, granting access to the grand entrance hall of the building. The blue-white moonlight painted his silhouette against the grounds behind. Further back in the darkness a man watched patiently, hands folded behind his back.

"So you do live. I could feel you getting closer, but… well, you've been presumed dead for some time now. You can hardly blame me for being skeptical."

Magical lights ebbed into life, revealing the pale wizard at the top of the balcony on the second floor. He drew back his sleeve, exposing a Dark Mark that pulsed a greenish black.

"Dramatic though your entrance was, this is not the final battle, Harry Potter," Voldemort said with a gentle shake of his head, motioning to the room at large. "I refuse to face an unworthy foe."

Death Eaters emerged in black wisps of flourished apparation, almost immediately taking an offensive position when they noticed him, calling to their Lord for orders. Within moments he was vastly outnumbered. Harry's grip around his wand tightened.

Myriad whispers filled his mind.

"I do hope you've maintained your edge after all this time. Shall we find out?"

XXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXX

Author's Note: Chapter complete! Quick credit to the HP wikia for this chapter's quote, it fit nicely. There's no philosophical question here today, just a hope that you will share how you want the story to end. What do you think?

That aside, it's honestly weird being here. The End. I'll be putting my all into what I have left. I hope you've enjoyed and are ready for the final battle. I hope I'm ready for it. Leave a review, fave, follow as you please, you don't want to miss the climactic end of Harry's struggle for his future.